Haroun al-Rashid and the Golden Abbasid age
Regional, History, 3/31/1998
Most people think of the golden age as golden in the imagination of storytellers. But it heralded substantial achievements which have in fact put all of Western countries permanently in its debt.
The days numbered thousands, for they constituted years, five hundred of them, all together making up one single Arab dynasty, known in history as the Abbasid, extending from 750 to 1258 AD, and comprising thirty-eight rulers in all.
Prophet Muhammad had been dead for something over a century. The center of gravity had shifted from Mecca to Damascus where it remained for a little less than a hundred years under the Umayyads, more as a secular than as a religious state.
It was Abul Abbas, himself of Prophet Muhammad's blood, who in 750 AD, raised the standard of revolt against the Umayyads in Iraq and seated himself on the throne as caliph, wearing the prophet 's sacred mantle, evidence to all the world that time and eternity were represented in him. His capital was at Kufa on the Euphrates, but it was his brother and successor al-Mansour who founded and built the new capital at Baghdad. It took 100,000 men four years to complete the city.
With disdain for antiquity, the old Sassanian and Babylonian palaces were extensively plundered to provide building materials. Al-Mansour died at Mecca in 762 AD, and was buried in one of a hundred graves which had been dug to prevent the identification and possible desecration of his particular grave.
It was his grandson, Haroun, called al-Rashid the upright, who is of great importance. No mean student of "real politics," he anticipated the axis and indeed made it a much longer one, for he came to an understanding with no less a personage than Charlemagne himself. The benefits were mutual: Haroun was to stand off the Byzantine who were the thorn in Charlemagne's flesh, while Charlemagne engaged the attention of the rival Umayyad caliphs in Spain.
Among the presents which Haroun sent to his axis-partner were an elephant and a water-clock. The splendor of Haroun 's reign is a favorite topic with Arab historians. At the wedding of Mamoun, his son and successor, a hundred enormous pearls were showered on the couple as they sat on a gold carpet studded with jewels, and balls of musk -- each containing a ticket entitling the holder to a slave or an estate -- were distributed to the guests.
The presiding genius and the embodiment of vogue at the court was the caliph's cousin's wife Zubeidah who set the fashion of jeweled shoes. In her palace was a golden tree, on the branches of which golden birds chirped and sang by automatic devices.
At the wharves along the Tigris lay ships with cargoes of porcelain and silk from China, spices and metals from India, jewels from Turkey, ivory, gold-dust and black slaves from Africa, pearls and weapons from Arabia proper, furs, wax, and white slaves from Scandinavia and Russia. Gold coins of this period have been found even in Finland.
The state was organized for efficiency as well for luxury. A well trained police force functioned effectively and was responsible for manners as well as for morals, such as a police order forbidding grey-haired men from dying their hear and beard, a practice that was done in order to attract the attention of woman.
A postal service penetrated the farthest corners of the domain by animal relays, and was supplemented by a well-organized pigeon post. Among the postal
functions was a tourist bureau, and everywhere along the post-roads hostels were maintained for the benefit of travelers.
The nucleus of the army was the caliph's bodyguard, consisting of well-trained, well-equipped men, but the main fighting force consisted of levies from the tribes and provinces. Among the archers was always a section of flame throwers. Medical units accompanied every expedition.
The whole country was irrigated and the extensive canal system of the Babylonians was carefully kept up and extended so that revenues from the far-flung provinces flowed into the central treasury.
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