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HISTORY OF THE CALIPHS
 
 


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The Abbasid caliphate: from750

Persia is the region in which resistance comes to a head against the caliphate of the Umayyads in Damascus. The uprising is partly a simple struggle between Arab factions, each of impeccable pedigree in relation to the pioneers of Islam. A revolt in Persia in 747 is headed by descendants of al-Abbas, an uncle of the prophet Muhammad. Their new caliphate, established in 750, will be known as Abbasid.

The involvement of Persia is also significant. The Umayyad caliphate in Damascus derives from the early days of Islam when all Muslims are Arabs. But many Muslims in the east are now Persian, and Persian sophistication is beginning to divert Muslim culture from its simple Arab origins.
 









Abbasid forces reach and capture Damascus in 750. Abul Abbas is proclaimed the first caliph of a new line. Male members of the Umayyad family are hunted down and killed (though one survives to establish a new Umayyad dynasty in Spain).

The centre of gravity of the Muslim world now moves east, from Syria to Mesopotamia. In 762 a new capital city, Baghdad, is founded on the Tigris. It is about twenty miles upstream from Ctesiphon, one of the leading cities of the preceding Persian dynasty, the Sassanians.
 






Baghdad: 8th century

In their new city of Baghdad the Abbasid caliphs adopt the administrative system of the long-established Persian empire. Persian Muslims are as much involved in the life of this thriving place as Arab Muslims. Here Islam outgrows its Arab roots and becomes an international religion. Here the Arabic and early Persian languages coalesce to become, from the 10th century, what is now known as Persian - combining words from both sources and using the Arabic script. Here Mesopotamia briefly recovers its ancient status at the centre of one of the world's largest empires.

At no time is this more evident than in the reign of the best-known of the Abbasid caliphs, Harun al-Rashid.
 









The luxury and delight of Harun al-Rashid's Baghdad, in the late 8th century, has been impressed on the western mind by one of the most famous works of Arabic literature - the Thousand and One Nights. Some of the stories are of a later date, but there are details in them which certainly relate to this period when for the first time a Muslim court has the leisure and prosperity to indulge in traditional oriental splendour.

The caliphate is now at its widest extent, with reasonable calm on most borders. The international fame of Harun himself can be judged by the emphasis of Charlemagne's biographers on the mutual esteem of these two contemporary potentates, who send each other Rich gifts.
 






An increasingly nominal caliphate: from the 9th c.

From the 9th century the rule of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad is often, in many parts of the Muslim world, more nominal than real. In Palestine and Syria there are uprisings from supporters of the previous Umayyad dynasty, whose base was Damascus. In the rich province of Egypt, governors are increasingly unruly (as many as twenty-four are appointed and then dismissed during the 23-year caliphate of Harun al-Rashid).

In the further extremes of the empire independence from the Abbasids is even more marked. Spain is ruled by Umayyads. North Africa has Berber dynasties from 790. And eastern Persia, by about 870, is in the hands of Persians hostile to Baghdad.
 









The weakness of the caliphs tempts them into a measure which makes the problem worse. They acquire slaves from the nomadic Turks of central Asia and use them in their armies. The slaves, who become known as Mamelukes (from the Arabic mamluk, 'owned'), are excellent fighters. They distinguish themselves in the service of the caliphate and are often given positions of military responsibility. Well placed to advance their own interests, they frequently take the opportunity.

One of the first Mamelukes to seize power is Ahmad ibn Tulun. In the early 870s he takes control of Egypt. By 877 he has conquered the Mediterranean coast through Palestine and up into Syria.
 







This half of the Fertile Crescent has been ruled from Egypt at many periods of history. Separated from Mesopotamia by a broad swathe of desert, it is easier to control from Cairo than from Baghdad.

Palestine and Syria remain under Egyptian dominance for most of the next two centuries. The Tulunid dynasty, founded by Ahmad ibn Tulun in the 870s, rules the region until 905. The Ikhshidids, another Turkish dynasty, control it from 935 to 969, when they in their turn are replaced by the Fatimids - masters of an even broader swathe of Mediterranean coastline.
 






Persian independence from Baghdad: 9th century

From about 866 the whole of eastern Persia, to Kabul in the north and Sind in the south, is gradually overrun by a Persian from a family of metal-workers; he is known as al-Saffar ('the coppersmith'), giving his short-lived dynasty the name of Saffarids. In 876 he is strong enough to march on Baghdad, though he is prevented from reaching it by the army of the caliph.

In 900 the Saffarids are defeated by another Persian dynasty, the Samanids. The new rulers are aristocrats, descended from a nobleman by the name of Saman Khudat. They preside over the first conscious revival of Persian culture since the Arab conquest.
 








The slow end of the Abbasids: 10th - 16th century

There are times in the 10th century when the caliphs have little power outside the confines of Baghdad itself, but from the 11th century their prestige is to some degree restored. This is thanks to the Seljuk Turks, who recover a large empire and rule it from Baghdad - accepting the subordinate title of sultan and deferring to the caliphs as the superior religious authority.

For a few brief spells the caliphs even recover some secular power, asserting themselves over their Seljuk sultans. But the final disaster is suffered in 1258, when Hulagu Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, arrives in Mesopotamia.
 









The caliph in Baghdad, al-Musta'sim, risks the impossible. In January 1258 he sends an army against the approaching Mongols. The Muslim army is routed by Hulagu, who orders the caliph to appear before him and to destroy the walls of the city. When the caliph declines, Hulagu besieges and sacks Baghdad.

It is said that 800,000 of the inhabitants are killed, including the caliph - who is executed by being kicked to death.
 








No Abbasid caliph ever again resides in Baghdad, the city associated for five centuries with the dynasty. But Abbasid caliphs continue to be selected, mainly in Egypt, until the last of them is taken to Istanbul by the Ottoman sultan Selim I after his conquest of Egypt in 1517.

In later centuries the Ottoman Turks sometimes call themselves caliph (implying the leadership of all Muslims), much as the Umayyad rulers of Spain and the Fatimids in Egypt have borrowed the title. But in the true meaning of the word, as 'successor' to Muhammad, the link is broken with the end of the Abbasid dynasty in the 16th century.
 







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