In January I read Hugh Kennedy’s book about the great Arab conquests, which burst rough-necked upon the world at the very moment when the heavyweight, overweight Sassanid and Byzantine empires were punch-drunk from 30 years of grueling mutual warfare, destroying the former and reducing the latter to a stunted rump, saved only by the chain drawn across the Golden Horn. That was a fantastic book, full of legends of the rough-and-ready mounted warriors who, to their own amazement as well as everyone else’s, came thundering out of the desert as the old world collapsed like a house of cards, its fat children put to the sword; heavily poignant with the sense of time passing, the world turning, the rise and fall, but also loaded with fascinating historiographical analysis.
This earlier volume has a more time-extended but geographically circumscribed remit: the Abbasid dynasty which, in a back-to-the-roots Islamic rush, toppled the unpopular Ummayads in 750, and their caliphs who ruled the empire in power and gorgeous splendour from Baghdad and Samarra until their authority was usurped by their underlings, in fact if not in name, in the late ninth century. The characters and their legends are clearly drawn, as is the milieu of their court: its artists, its thirsters after knowledge who ironically (more than the Irish) saved the continuity of western civilization from its classical roots through to the renaissance and added a good few discoveries of their own, its hedonists (incredible how much alcohol was consumed at a Muslim court) and its brutalisers. The chronology is also clear (except for the civil war as it unfolded for the six years after the murder of the caliph Amin). A peculiar sense emerges, in spite of the dependence of the empire on Persian and Turks, of the devotion to this single family, descendants not even of the Prophet himself but of his uncle, and how the Commander of the Faithful must always, in spite of the realities of power, be chosen from among its ranks.
What is missing, though, is a sense of what life was like for his ordinary subjects, be they Muslims, Christians, Jews, even the few holdout pagans, in the vast stretch of land from Tunisia through Yemen all the way through to the banks of the Oxus and beyond. What was the day-to-day quality of their existence? We learn that they pay different taxes – how did this affect their well-being and the relations among them? Also, a disappointment that, in spite of the demise in the caliphs’ real authority in the ninth century, there was nothing of the later centuries up to their fall at the hands of Hulagu Khan (grandson of Genghis), which is still considered, culturally at least, as part of the Abbasid golden age. Still, that would have made for a much bigger book, and the present one, if you are interested in tales of the notables, is fine as far as it goes.