Caliph Yazid and the Umayyad dynasties
Regional, History, 3/23/1998
Few world dynasties have produced so many idiosyncratic and agreeable people as Caliph Yazid and the Umayyad dynasties, who were at the same time effective. Mu'awia, the first Umayyad Caliph and brother in law to the prophet Muhammad, secured supreme power over the Arab empire with Damascus as his capital in 661 AD.
He showed his beaten opponents clemency, and ruled with a wise mixture of tact and strength, pliant when it was possible and strong when it was necessary. It was charistically Umayyad that he should have passed a third of his nights listening to the history of the Arabs.
His son, known as Yazid of Wines since he abandoned rose sherbet for the grape, an amiable and democratic prince, sportsman, musician, and poet, was for hundreds of years perhaps the most vilified ruler in history.
It was his misfortune to have sacked rebellious Medina (in what is now Saudi Arabia) and borne the responsibility for the Battle of Kerbala (in present-day Iraq) where Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad together with his followers, was defeated and killed. It was difficult to see how Yazid could have acted differently: in Arabia the rebellion was dangerous.
In spite of the opposition of the Shiites and Muslim orthodoxy, the Ummayads continued to prosper. Under the rule of Abdul Malik (685-705) and, subsequently, that of his four sons, the Empire reached its greatest extent and power. Of these sons, Walid I, an untiring builder, Suleiman, among other things was a famous gourmet, and the youngest, Hisham, were exceptional men. The foremost historian of the caliphate has called Walid. The greatest and in every respect the post powerful ruler amongst the so-called Commanders of the Faithful.
Yazid himself was an accomplished musician and poet and one of his verses which has survived runs as follows:
There is no true joy but lending ear to music Or wine that leaves one sunk in stupor dense
Hours in Paradise, I do not look for: Does any man of sense?
Given the wealth and power which policy and history suddenly showered upon them, it is surprising that the Umayyads did not fail sooner than they did. Their vitality must be ascribed primarily to the instinct which promoted them constantly to renew their vigor in the deserts. There they found the toughness and stamina to offset the delights of empire.
When Mu'awia, the first Caliph, sent the heir-apparent off into the deserts in the charge of his Christian-Bedouin mother to acquire an education in desert endurance and desert virtues, he set a precedent which subsequent caliphs followed.
The young Umayyads were bred in the strict and stimulating desert air. Their tutors were instructed to make them tough and, as the caliph Abdul Malik phrased it, "To accustom them to little sleep." Further, the caliphs themselves, prompted by a desire to avoid the summer heat in the dry and relatively cool atmosphere of the steppe and also wishing to avoid the plague which visited the cities in the hot season, often assumed a semi-nomadic life for certain months of the year.
The royal court first moved out in tents, though in due course those desert castles and palaces which are so remarkable appeared on the most favored camping grounds. Abdul Malik died in one of his country residences, and not only Walid II but the wise Hisham, for very different reasons, elected to spend most of their reigns in the desert.
The tolerant policies of the Umayyads and their cooperation with the native Christian populations enabled the latter to play an important role by handing on to the conquerors much of their Greco-Aramaic culture and civilization. What Greece had been to Rome, Syria was to the Arabs, saving and transmitting a great culture.
The five military areas into which the Umayyads divided the country corresponded closely to the earlier Byzantine districts, and the general survival of pre-Arab machinery is reflected in the names for coins, weights and measures, which the Arabs adopted.
Thus the "dinar" and the "dirham" -- though the former became a gold coin -- prolonged the memory of the "Denarius" and the "Drachma," and the "Oke" and "Rotl" (measures still in use today) reflected respectively the Greek word for an ounce and, by the inversion of "l" and "r", the Greek Litra.
The non-Muslims, enjoying autonomy under their own religion and their own legal system, showed their gratitude in whole-hearted cooperation with the government, supplying the administrative technique which the desert Arabs still lacked. The Umayyads had the good sense to accept the administration as it stood. Upon this Byzantine administration they simply imposed a ruling Arab caste.
The latter was a "Herrenvolk," but a Herrenvolk of peculiar attainments and vision. While enjoying the military superiority essential to such a caste, they did not persecute their inferiors, but set about acquiring the knowledge and attainments of which the latter were possessed, and in their new environment cultivated, with the happiest results, the nomad sense of poetry and style.
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