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Baghdad's Golden Age and Its Legacy


A new book, When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty, takes readers back more than ten centuries to a very different time in the city's history -- when it was a place of magnificent palaces, intellectual innovation and far reaching political influence

Much has been written about historical figures like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. But Hugh Kennedy, who teaches history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, believes far less information is available to readers outside the Middle East about the Abbasid caliphate that once made Baghdad a global power. He says the dynasty was as pivotal to world history in the 8th and 9th centuries as the Roman Empire was in the 1st and 2nd.

"The Abbasids ruled over a very big area, basically from what is now Tunisia, right up to what is now Pakistan. It was also the most highly developed in terms of literacy and the functioning of government bureaucracy in the area at the time,” said Hugh Kennedy. “If we just think of the size of towns -- Baghdad probably had a population of between a quarter and half-a-million people, whereas Paris at this stage had perhaps 20,000. But it's also pivotal because what went on at the Abbasid court set the pattern for how Muslim rulers were to behave in all subsequent generations."

A Storytelling Culture

When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World is a history of palace intrigues, military conquests, and impressive accomplishments in art, architecture and scholarship recounted by Hugh Kennedy with the help of stories and poems from the period.

"Lots of history is written from archives, from administrative documents. We know all those things existed, but nothing really survives from that period apart from a few papyrae in Egypt,” said Hugh Kennedy. “But what we do have is a vast number of stories about what people did, what people said. Remember that this is the environment that the early stage of 'The Arabian Nights' was developed in. This is a very storytelling culture."

The Abbasids rose to power in an Islamic revolution and founded Baghdad in 762 A.D. Historian Hugh Kennedy says the city flourished at least in part because of its location -- just north of a rich agricultural region and near two major waterways.

"It's where the two great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, come closest together, so you can import grain from Syria and northern Iraq. You can import dates and fish from Basra in the South,” said Kennedy. “And early Baghdad was sort of like a medieval Venice. It was crisscrossed by canals and streams, and so on. And people came from all over the Middle East. Anyone who wanted to do business would come to Baghdad."

The Crossroads of East and West

According to Mr. Kennedy, Baghdad also became a place where the elite actively encouraged the arts and scholarship. How did that come about?

He said, “In the early days, it was the place where traditional Arab culture was most highly developed, particularly the cult of poetry and singing. But by the ninth century, partly because of the inspiration given by the caliph Ma'mun, it became fashionable among the rich and cultivated aristocrats of Baghdad to be interested in things like mathematics and astronomy. So they paid for scholars to come live in their houses. And it was at this time that lots of works of Greek science were translated into Arabic, and of course it's the Arabic version that is translated into Latin in the 12th and 13th centuries and is the abiding contribution of this period to Western European civilization."

Hugh Kennedy says growing financial problems -- linked to mounting political instability -- contributed to the demise of the Abbasid caliphate by the mid-tenth century. But he adds that the dynasty left behind compelling memories of a time when the Islamic world was united under a single ruler.

"The political thought of Osama Bin Laden stresses the need for a unified caliphate,” said Kennedy. “Educated people in the Middle East are very aware that they are the heirs to a great empire. And I think one of the problems that we're having at the moment is that people in the West aren't aware of this great tradition."

Baghdad’s Historical Legacy

David Mack was U.S. Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates in the late 1980s, and also served as a diplomat in Baghdad. Now Vice President of the Middle East Institute in Washington, he agrees that Baghdad's distinguished history continues to shape attitudes in the Middle East, including views of the Iraq War.

"Without Baghdad's role, Iraq itself wouldn't have the centrality that it does have in the minds of many Muslims and Arabs. It was one thing for the United States to play the role it played in the liberation of Kuwait (from Iraq),” said David Mack, “because Kuwait does not have that centrality in the thinking of Muslims and Arabs, but the U.S. role with regard to Iraq does affect the thinking of Muslims and Arabs everywhere."

Former Ambassador Mack also agrees with Hugh Kennedy's assertion that little physical evidence still exists of Baghdad's glorious history.

"There are a few buildings that remain and give you a sense of what the city as a whole might have been,” said David Mack. “But what was once the most important city in the world has very little to show for that period of time. Not only was it sacked by the Mongols, but it was also subject to periodic floods that wiped away a lot of the great buildings that adorned this as the capitol of the then Islamic empire."

Gone too, says author Hugh Kennedy, are the rich fabrics and painted decorations that made the city so elegant. But he adds that a proud achievement remains, and it's the one that shaped his narrative.

"This was a very literate, very verbal culture. It's the stories, it's the poems that live on in peoples' imaginations," says Kennedy.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.