The High Caliphate

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The old and the “new”.

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Historians have generally referred to the reigns of the Umayyads and the Abbasids as the era of the high caliphate, a designation based on the scope of their rule; the unity they fostered among their subjects, albeit not always successfully; the magnificence of their capital cities; and, especially for the Abbasids, their patronage of the arts and the sciences. With the rise of the Abbasids came significant changes in the social and political life of the empire and, consequently, new challenges. With the caliphate’s encouragement, Baghdad became an important intellectual center, and the imperial court patronized many artistic and scientific endeavors. By the same token, differing religious opinions and trends, a relic of Umayyad rule, proliferated, and the differences among them deepened. As a dynasty heavily reliant on religion as its primary source of legitimacy, the Abbasids grew increasingly sensitive to such ongoing debates and found themselves having to take sides among the different theoreticians to protect their reign. As a general rule, the Abbasid caliphs went to great lengths to portray themselves as pious Muslims. The legendary caliph Harun al- Rashid once even walked from Medina to Mecca to earn divine merit. But the royal court also became infamous for its pursuit of worldly pleasures, including wine and women. Equally detrimental to the power and popularity of the Abbasids was the deliberate distance they cultivated between themselves and the populace. In many ways, the Abbasid caliph came to view himself in the same light as the old Persian kings: the King of Kings, or, alternatively, the Shadow of God on Earth. In either case, the Abbasids became distant, regal elites ruling over subject populations. The historian Von Grunebaum writes of them: “The court, the family of the caliph, his household servants, guards and administrators were the center of the empire; the standing with the ruler determines rank and influence. His favour raises the menial from nothing, his disfavour plunges him back into nothing.”

Before long, these developments had combined to weaken the Abbasids from within. As their rule was racked by rebellions and secessionist movements, as well as doctrinal and intellectual disputes, their power, prestige, and influence declined markedly after 945. First, the powerful Buyid family of northwestern Iran established itself as the “protector” of the Abbasid caliph from 945 to 1055, essentially turning the caliphal clan into mere figureheads. The Turkish Saljuqs similarly dominated Baghdad from 1055 until the middle of the twelfth century. The Abbasids, or what remained of them, were finally overrun in 1258 by the invading Mongols. By then, the Abbasid Empire had already started coming apart. Ruling clans within the different territories had begun to exercise considerable local autonomy. A revived Umayyad dynasty ruled Spain. Abbasid hegemony was also challenged in North Africa, where a Shi`ite group eventually conquered Egypt in 969, established the Fatimid dynasty, and built a new capital city called Cairo (al Qahirah, the conqueror) along the Nile. The conquerors of Egypt were soon caught up by what may be called the “Pharaoh syndrome,” which appears to have plagued many of Egypt’s rulers, both ancient and contemporary. Their court was replete with splendor and ritual, the center of a city victorious and grand.

Meanwhile, the first wave of Crusaders was sent from Europe to Jerusalem to protect the Christian Byzantine emperor in Constantinople from the menacing Muslims, further weakening the Abbasids and even the Fatimids. Here a Kurdish general by the name of Salah al-Din (Saladin) distinguished himself in bravery and eventually became the sultan of Egypt after the death of the last Fatimid caliph in 1171. Saladin’s control of Egypt was initially in the name of the Abbasid caliph. In 1175, Baghdad recognized his sultanate over Egypt, Yemen, Palestine, and Syria, areas where Saladin was already in de facto control. On October 2, 1178, he also occupied Jerusalem and wrested its control from the Crusaders. But the Ayyubid dynasty that he established did not last long, having to rely on ex-slave soldiers, called Mamluks, to defend itself against the invading Mongols. The Mongol conquest had started in earnest in Asia Minor in 1219, overrunning Iran and in turn establishing the Ilkhanid dynasty there from 1256 to 1336. The Mamluks, meanwhile, established a dynasty of their own in Egypt in 1250, not to be overthrown until the advent of the Ottomans in 1517.

The Mongol conquests simply facilitated the release throughout the Middle East of centrifugal forces that had made their presence felt as early as the middle of the tenth century. In fact, many of these tendencies had never quite disappeared but had simply been obscured as peoples rallied around the common banner of Islam. The Mongol invasion of Iran was intense, bloody, and devastating. When the Mongols captured the city of Marv, for example, they reportedly killed some seven hundred thousand inhabitants, laying farmlands and entire cities to waste and carrying off thousands of Muslim artisans to Mongolia as slaves. But in larger historical terms the invasion was relatively brief. Before long, the Mongols had established an increasingly Persianized dynasty of their own in Iran, the Ilkhanids, which tried to reverse some of the devastation of the earlier decades by encouraging public works and patronizing the arts. Under their patronage, painting and manuscript illustration, the recording of history, and the building of monuments, especially tombs, flourished. The Ilkhanids collapsed by 1336, and a succession of smaller states emerged in areas previously under their control. A similar fate had befallen the earlier Saljuqs, who in the middle of the eleventh century had taken control of most of Anatolia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, only to be broken up into smaller states soon afterward. Geographic circumstances and other administrative and bureaucratic limitations had forced both the Saljuqs and the Ilkhanids to rely on local, mostly landed elites to maintain their suzerainty. This very decentralization and diffusion of power would not only germinate their own collapse but also facilitate conditions for the rise of their eventual successors, the Ottomans in Anatolia and the Safavids in Iran.

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