Sep 142019

This date in 786 CE is known as the Night of the Three Caliphs, because on this day Hārūn al-Rashid became the Abbasid caliph upon the death of his brother al-Hadi who had a short reign as caliph, and Hārūn’s son al-Ma’mun was born today, and he succeeded his father. For now I will focus on Hārūn, and give a video recipe for fried, salted fish from the Abbasid empire at the end.

Under Hārūn ar-Rashīd Baghdad flourished into the most splendid city of its period. Tribute paid by many rulers to the caliph funded architecture, the arts and court luxuries. In 796, Hārūn moved the entire court to Raqqa at the middle Euphrates, and spent 12 years, most of his reign, there. Subsequently, he visited Baghdad only once. Several reasons may have influenced the decision to move to Raqqa: its closeness to the Byzantine border; its communication lines via the Euphrates to Baghdad and via the Balikh river to the north and via Palmyra to Damascus were excellent; rich agriculture land; and strategic advantage from Raqqa over any rebellion in Syria and the middle Euphrates area. Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani pictures in his anthology of poems the splendid life in his court. In Raqqa the Barmekids, who had been original supporters of the Abbasids, managed the fate of the empire, and both heirs, al-Amin and al-Ma’mun, grew up there. At some point the royal court relocated again to Al-Rayy, the capital city of Khorasan, where the famous philologist and leader of the Kufan school, Al-Kisa’i, accompanied Hārūn with his entourage. When al-Kisa’i became ill, while in Al-Rayy, it is said that Hārūn visited him daily. It seems that the Hanafi jurist Muhammad al-Shaybani and al-Kisa’i both died there on the same day in 804. Hārūn is quoted as saying: “Today Law and Language have died.”

Hārūn made pilgrimages to Mecca several times: 793, 795, 797, 802 and last in 803. Tabari concludes his account of Hārūn’s reign with these words: “It has been said that when Hārūn ar-Rashid died, there were nine hundred million [silver] dirhams in the state treasury.”

Hārūn was influenced by the will of his incredibly powerful mother in the governance of the empire until her death in 789. His vizier Yahya the Barmakid, Yahya’s sons (especially Ja’far ibn Yahya), and other Barmakids generally controlled the administration. The position of Persians in the Abbasid caliphal court reached its peak during al-Rashid’s reign. The Barmakids were a Persian family (from Balkh) that dated back to the Barmak a hereditary Buddhist priest of Nava Vihara, who converted after the Islamic conquest of Balkh and became very powerful under al-Mahdi. Yahya had helped Hārūn in obtaining the caliphate, and he and his sons were in high favor until 798, when the caliph threw them in prison and confiscated their land. Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari dates this in 803 and lists various accounts for the cause: Yahya’s entering the Caliph’s presence without permission; Yahya’s opposition to Muhammad ibn al Layth, who later gained Hārūn’s favour; and Ja’far’s release of Yahya ibn Abdallah ibn Hasan, whom Hārūn had imprisoned.

Both Einhard and Notker the Stammerer refer to the envoys traveling between Hārūn’s and Charlemagne’s courts, amicable discussions concerning Christian access to the Holy Land and the exchange of gifts. Notker mentions Charlemagne sent Hārūn Spanish horses, colorful Frisian cloaks and impressive hunting dogs. In 802 Hārūn sent Charlemagne a present consisting of silks, brass candelabra, perfume, balsam, ivory chessmen, a colossal tent with many-colored curtains, an elephant named Abul-Abbas, and a water clock that marked the hours by dropping bronze balls into a bowl, as mechanical knights—one for each hour—emerged from little doors which shut behind them. The presents were unprecedented in Western Europe and may have influenced Carolingian art.

When the Byzantine empress Irene was deposed in 802, Nikephoros I became emperor and refused to pay tribute to Hārūn, saying that Irene should have been receiving the tribute the whole time. News of this angered Hārūn, who wrote a message on the back of the Roman emperor’s letter and said “In the name of God the most merciful, From Amir al-Mu’minin Hārūn ar-Rashid, commander of the faithful, to Nikephoros, dog of the Romans. Thou shalt not hear, thou shalt behold my reply”. After campaigns in Asia Minor, Nikephoros was forced to conclude a treaty, with humiliating terms. Hārūn  established an alliance with the Chinese Tang dynasty after he sent embassies to China. He was called “A-lun” in the Chinese Tang Annals. The alliance was aimed against the Tibetans.

Because of his appearance as the protagonist in many tales in Thousand and One Nights, Hārūn ar-Rashid turned into a legendary figure obscuring his true historic personality. In fact, his reign initiated the political disintegration of the Abbasid caliphate. Syria was inhabited by tribes with Umayyad sympathies and remained the bitter enemy of the Abbasids, while Egypt witnessed uprisings against Abbasids due to maladministration and arbitrary taxation. The Umayyads had been established in Spain in 755, the Idrisids in Morocco in 788, and the Aghlabids in Ifriqiya (modern Tunisia) in 800. Besides, unrest flared up in Yemen, and the Kharijites rose in rebellion in Daylam, Kerman, Fars and Sistan. Revolts also broke out in Khorasan, and ar-Rashid waged many campaigns against the Byzantines.

Ar-Rashid appointed Ali bin Isa bin Mahan as the governor of Khorasan, who tried to bring to heel the princes and chieftains of the region, and to reimpose the full authority of the central government on them. This new policy met with fierce resistance and provoked numerous uprisings in the region. A major revolt led by Rafi ibn al-Layth was started in Samarqand which forced Hārūn al-Rashid to move to Khorasan. He first removed and arrested Ali bin Isa bin Mahan but the revolt continued unchecked. Hārūn al-Rashid became ill and died very soon after he reached Sanabad village in Tus and was buried in Dar al-Imarah, the summer palace of Humayd ibn Qahtaba, the Abbasid governor of Khorasan. Due to this historical event, the Dar al-Imarah was known as the Mausoleum of Hārūniyyeh. The location later became known as Mashhad (“The Place of Martyrdom”) because of the martyrdom of Imam ar-Ridha in 818.

Al-Rashid virtually dismembered the empire by apportioning it between his two sons al-Amin and al-Ma’mun (with his third son, al-Qasim, being belatedly added after them). Very soon it became clear that by dividing the empire, Rashid had actually helped to set the opposing parties against one another, and had provided them with sufficient resources to become independent of each other. After the death of Hārūn al-Rashid, civil war broke out in the empire between his two sons, al-Amin and al-Ma’mun, which spiraled into a prolonged period of turmoil and warfare throughout the Caliphate, ending only with Ma’mun’s final triumph in 827.

Here is a fish dish from an Abbasid cookbook.  The video is in Arabic, but there are English subtitles:

Jul 302016


According to well certified documents, the city of Baghdad was founded on this date in 762.  The founding of Baghdad was a milestone in the history of urban design and a landmark in cultural history. A city was born that would quickly become the cultural lodestar of the Old World. It horrifies me to think what the name Baghdad conjures up nowadays – war, famine, pestilence, horror. For me as a boy it was (and is still) the city of 1,001 Nights, of magic lamps and flying carpets. It was a center of learning that scholars gravitated towards. It was a great jewel that was much more magnificent than anything Westerners could conceive, let alone build. Yet now ignorant Westerners (which I hope is not the majority) look down on large swathes of the Middle East, cast aspersions on their culture, and drop bombs on their people. I’m not saying that living under a caliph in the 8th century was a picnic.  But would you rather live in Baghdad under a caliph, or in Europe under the warmongering, illiterate Charlemagne whose greatest educational triumph was being able to write a capital “C” (his initial) on his thumbnail when he was an old man?


After the fall of the Umayyads, the first Muslim dynasty, the victorious Abbasid rulers wanted their own capital to rule from. Choosing a site north of the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon (and also just north of where ancient Babylon once stood), the caliph Al-Mansur commissioned the construction of Baghdad. Once Al-Mansur had chosen the site, he supervised the design. He had workers trace the plans of his round city on the ground in lines of cinders. The perfect circle was a tribute to the geometric teachings of Euclid, whom he had studied and admired. He then walked through this ground-level plan, indicated his approval and ordered cotton balls soaked in naphtha (liquid petroleum) to be placed along the outlines and set alight to mark the position of the massively fortified double outer walls.


On 30 July 762, after the royal astrologers had declared this the most auspicious date for building work to begin, Mansur offered up a prayer to Allah, laid the ceremonial first brick and ordered the assembled workers to get to work. The scale of this great urban project is one of the most distinctive aspects of the history of Baghdad. With a circumference of four miles, the massive brick walls rising up from the banks of the Tigris were the defining signature of Mansur’s Round City. According to 11th-century scholar Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi whose History of Baghdad is our chief source – each course consisted of 162,000 bricks for the first third of the wall’s height, 150,000 for the second third and 140,000 for the final section, bonded together with bundles of reeds. The outer wall was 80ft high, crowned with battlements and flanked by bastions. A deep moat ringed the outer wall perimeter.

The workforce itself was enormous. Thousands of architects and engineers, legal experts, surveyors and carpenters, blacksmiths, and laborers were recruited from across the Abbasid empire. First they surveyed, measured and excavated the foundations. Then, using the sun-baked and kiln-fired bricks that had always been the main building material on the river-flooded Mesopotamian plains in the absence of stone quarries (think the Tower of Babel), they raised the fortress-like city walls brick by brick. This was by far the greatest construction project in the Islamic world, with as many as 100,000 workers involved. The circular design was supposedly innovative (according to Al-Khatib), although there is archeological evidence of other, earlier circular cities. Four equidistant gates pierced the outer walls where straight roads led to the center of the city. The Kufa Gate to the south-west and the Basra Gate to the south-east both opened on to the Sarat canal – a key part of the network of waterways that drained the waters of the Euphrates into the Tigris and made this site so attractive.


The city’s growth was helped by its excellent location, based on at least two factors: it had control over strategic military and trading routes along the Tigris and had abundant water in a dry climate. There were water supplies on both the north and south ends of the city, allowing all households to have a plentiful supply: most uncommon for any city at this time.

Baghdad eclipsed Ctesiphon, the capital of the Persian Empire, which was located some 30 km (19 mi) to the southeast. Today, all that remains of Ctesiphon is the shrine town of Salman Pak, just to the south of Greater Baghdad. Ctesiphon itself had replaced and absorbed Seleucia, the first capital of the Seleucid Empire. Seleucia had earlier replaced the city of Babylon.

The bricks used to make the city were 18 inches (460 mm) on all four sides. Marble was also used to make buildings throughout the city, and marble steps led down to the river’s edge. The city consisted of two large semicircles about 19 km (12 mi) in diameter. The city was designed as a circle about 2 km (1.2 mi) in diameter, leading it to be known as the “Round City”. The original design shows as single ring of residential and commercial structures along the inside of the city walls, but the final construction added another ring inside the first. Within the city there were many parks, gardens, villas, and promenades. In the center of the city lay the mosque, as well as headquarters for guards. This style of urban planning contrasted with Ancient Greek and Roman urban planning, in which cities were designed as squares or rectangles with streets intersecting each other at right angles.


The four surrounding walls of Baghdad were named Kufa, Basra, Khurasan, and Syria; named because their gates pointed in the directions of these destinations. The distance between these gates was a little less than 2.4 km (1.5 mi). Each gate had double doors that were made of iron; the doors were so heavy it took several men to open and close them.  The walls were 30 m high, and included merlons, a solid part of an embattled parapet usually pierced by embrasures. In fact there was a double outer wall surrounded by a moat.

In the middle of Baghdad, in the central square was the Golden Gate Palace. The Palace was the residence of the caliph and his family. In the central part of the building was a green dome that was 39 m high. Surrounding the palace was an esplanade, a waterside building, in which only the caliph could come riding on horseback. In addition, the palace was near other mansions and officers’ residences. Near the Gate of Syria a building served as the home for the guards. It was made of brick and marble. The palace governor lived in the back part of the building and the commander of the guards in the front.


Within a generation of its founding, Baghdad became a hub of learning and commerce. The House of Wisdom was an establishment dedicated to the translation of Greek, Middle Persian and Syriac works. Scholars headed to Baghdad from all over the Abbasid Caliphate, facilitating the introduction of Persian, Greek and Indian science into the Arabic and Islamic world at that time. Baghdad was likely the largest city in the world from shortly after its foundation until the 930s, when it was rivaled by Córdoba. Several estimates suggest that the city contained over a million inhabitants at its peak.


Among the notable features of Baghdad during this period were its exceptional libraries. Many of the Abbasid caliphs were patrons of learning and enjoyed collecting both ancient and contemporary literature. Although some of the princes of the previous Umayyad dynasty had begun to gather and translate Greek scientific literature, the Abbasids were the first to foster Greek learning on a large scale. Many of these libraries were private collections intended only for the use of the owners and their immediate friends, but the libraries of the caliphs and other officials soon took on a public or a semi-public character. Four great libraries were established in Baghdad during this period. The earliest was that of the famous Al Mamun, who was caliph from 813 to 833. Another was established by Sabur Ibn Ardashir in 991 or 993 for the scholars who frequented his academy. Unfortunately, this second library was plundered and burned by the Seljuks only seventy years after it was established. This was a good example of the sort of library built up out of the needs and interests of a literary society. The last two were examples of madrasa or theological college libraries. The Nizamiyah was founded by the Persian Nizam al Mulk, who was vizier of two early Seljuk sultans. It continued to operate even after the coming of the Mongols in 1258. The Mustansiriyah madrasa, which owned an exceedingly rich library, was founded by Al Mustansir, the second to last Abbasid caliph, who died in 1242. This would prove to be the last great library built by the caliphs of Baghdad.

The death struggle between the Islamic empires of the East and the Christian empires of the West waged on in earnest for several centuries, with the Jews caught in the middle. I wonder when the great cultures of the peoples of the books of Abraham will learn to live in harmony. Not in my lifetime, I fear.

Getting at what exactly Persians ate in the 8th century is next to impossible, although we can hazard a guess. Iranian food today has ancient roots, obviously, but it is an eclectic mix. Curiously, our old pal Apicius and his De re coquinaria might come to our aid. This is a 5th century Roman cookbook of course, but it does contain a few recipes which he calls “Parthian” – i.e. Persian. Here’s Parthian lamb:

Haedun sive agnum particum: Mittes in furnum. Teres piper, rutam, cepam, satureiam, damascena enucleata, laseris midicum, vinum, liquamen et oleum. Fervens collitur in disco, ex aceto sumitur. (Apicius 3.6.5)

True to form this is not much to go on, but it’s a start. Basically it tells you to put a whole lamb in an oven and make a sauce with pepper, rue, onion, savory, pitted prunes, asafetida, wine, liquamen, and oil.


I don’t have the ingredients to experiment with this recipe right now, nor the guests to serve it to – a whole roast lamb feeds a bunch. I’d more than likely use a leg of lamb anyway, but you’re still talking about 4 – 6. What’s more, it’s stinking hot and humid right now in Mantua, so I’m not about to roast anything. The sauce seems to be a classic Eastern blend of sour, sweet, bitter, spicy, and salty, so I will give it a try at some point. Getting the proportions right for modern taste buds is going to be a challenge.