A Baghdad Chronicle
By Reuben Levy

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 279 pp. First edition 1929.

Reviewed by Nimrod Raphaeli

The Abbasid Caliphate: Some Brief Historical Background

With the establishment of the Abbasid Caliphate in 750 AD and its new capital Baghdad, the City of Peace (medinat as-salaam) in 762, the focal point of Islamic political and cultural life shifted eastward from Syria to Iraq.  The Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258) was the third Islamic Caliphate, its army defeating that of the second, the Umayyad Caliphate (650-750), in the Battle of the Zab.

Influential in the demise of the Umayyad Caliphate and the emergence of the Abbasid Caliphate stands Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib (hence, the Abbasid Caliphate) the youngest uncle of Prophet Muhammad and a descendant of the Hashemite clan of the Quraysh tribe in Mecca whose ancestral lineage generated the necessary clout for his grandson Abu al-Abbas as-Saffah to stake claim to the caliphate.  His violence earned him the moniker of Abbas al-Saffah' (the Shedder of Blood عباس السفاح ).  The Abbasids headed an Islamic empire that, at its height, extended from Tunisia through Egypt, Syria, Arabia, Persia and Uzbekistan.

In retrospect, the first three centuries of Abbasid rule are commonly referred to as a golden age, in which Baghdad became the cultural capital of the Islamic world. In a lecture on the BBC Melvin Bragg said:

As Vikings raided the shores of Britain, the Abbasids were developing sophisticated systems of government, administration, and court etiquette. Their era saw the flowering of the Arabic philosophy, mathematics and Persian Literature. The Abbasid were responsible for patronizing the translation of Classical Greek texts and transmitting them back to a Europe emerging from the Dark Ages.1

Upon his death in 754 Abbas was succeeded by his brother al-Mansur (the Victorious) who was singly responsible for the establishment of Baghdad as the capital of the empire. He was succeeded by numerous Caliphs, including Caliph Ibn Mu'taz (908) who was Caliph for one day and paid for it with his life.

With the encroachment of the Mongols in 1258, the last Caliph, al-Mu'tassim Billah, was wiped out along with his family and with the majority of the people of Baghdad and the Abbasid Caliphate met its end.

The Origins of Baghdad

Reuben Levy's A Baghdad Chronicle was first published in 1929 to provide an account of the building and status of Baghdad under the Abbasid Caliphate. The origin of the city of Baghdad was not previously well-known; however, Levy notes that its principal part was known in Aramaic as Karka (the city) which, he says, suggests that the site had been either Jewish or Christian, and thus existed before the Islamic times. 

Over the centuries confusion has characterized the names Baghdad and Babylon. The Rabbis of the Gaonic period often spoke of Baghdad as "Babel" (in Hebrew בבל ). Such a tendency suggests why the Babylonian Talmud was referred to as Talmud Babli and not Talmud Baghdadi. The Talmud, which was completed by the end of the fifth century, mentions Baghdad as the birthplace of a certain Rabbi Hona.  According to Levy, however, "[O]n the whole, tradition shows that the majority of the inhabitants were Christian."

As mentioned earlier, the foundations of the city were laid by the Caliph al-Mansur in the year 762 when "the astrologers had pronounced that the stars were favorable to the enterprise…". In a sense, the city was the first major urban center or metropolis in Islam attracting people from all over the Muslim world primarily Arab "men of the desert…" (Levy refers to them as Mohammadens, as would have been proper when the book was published).  Jewish traders, descendants of Jews exiled from Palestine by Nebuchadnezar, had also begun to move to the city.

The Golden Years of Harun al-Rashid

It was only with the ascendance to the throne in 786 of Harun al-Rashid "Aaron the Upright," the prince of the Thousands and One Nights that Baghdad was to become "a city of palaces and offices, hotels and pavilions, mosques and colleges…and of bazaars and markets." Islam's inhibitions notwithstanding Harun al-Rashid invited one of his court entourage to be his "drinking companion."  These were also times of great cultural vigor and Baghdad become a city of fun; indeed, long before 19th century Vienna, Baghdad under Harun al-Rashid was a city of wine, women and song. Not surprisingly, one of the qadis (religious jurists) of the time was to liken Baghdad to a "Quran lost in the house of an atheist."

One cannot conclude the discussion on the life in the court of Harun al-Rashid without mentioning the name of friend and companion, the great Arab poet and court jester, abu al-Nuwas, who is known in the Arabic literature as "the poet of the wine," and for his "contemptuous attitude" towards Islam and the morals it inculcated.  Levy refers to abu al-Nawas as the companion of the Caliph in his "nocturnal rambles." 

As mentioned earlier, Jews and Christians had had a presence in the old village of Baghdad before it became a major capital city of an Islamic empire. Both minorities were allowed to continue practicing their religion.  However, in 807, "in a fit of zeal" al-Rashid ordered non-Muslim places of worship "to be razed to the ground." Levy points out that notwithstanding the Caliph's order, the Jewish Exilrach "maintained some show of authority and had certain privileges." Moreover, Jews were left free to practice in the fields of finance, medicine and the arts as well as to trade in the bazaars.  In these areas of endeavor the non-believers, Christians and Jews, "had the city to themselves."

The Caliphate in Decline

With the death of Harun al-Rashid conflict broke out between his successors. Baghdad came under siege and the golden age of medinat as-salaam began a course of conflicts and decline. By the middle of the ninth century, the Abbasid Caliphate was surrounded and infiltrated by Turkish troops brought as guards by Harun al-Rashid' s son, al-Mu'tasim. Fearing an uprising by his people al-Mu'tasim moved the seat of power from Baghdad to Samarra, sixty miles further up the Tigris. Eight Caliphs ruled in Samarra, most of them deposed, imprisoned or murdered.

Temporary Progress

After a succession of ineffective caliphs there came a new caliph, al-Ma'mun in 819. Under him, Baghdad was to undergo another period of construction, culture, scholarship and the arts. Ma'mum was open to men of all faiths and one of his favorites was the Jewish astrologer and philosopher, al-Kindi. He was also to spend two hours a day cleaning his teeth while poetry was read to him.

Non-Believers Treated Harshly

Three or four caliphs down the road, the situation changed dramatically for the worse with regard to "non-believers," i.e., non–Muslims. Caliph Wathiq, who introduced Islamic religious orthodoxy, forbade the hiring of non-believers in any government office where they would have authority over Muslims; furthermore, their children were not to be taught in Muslim schools, "nor was any Moslem to teach them…". The situation descended to new extremes when Christians were not allowed to carry the cross or the Jews to cry out their "Shema." The graves of the non-believers were to be level with the ground to differentiate them from Muslim graves.  When it came to medical treatment in hospitals, Muslims were to be treated first and only afterwards, might Jews and Christians—who, as 'People of the Book', were considered dhimmis (protected)—receive treatment.

Caliph Wathiq was eventually assassinated in a conspiracy hatched by his son and his demise was followed by twenty years of plague, flood and riots within.

After a period of turmoil a new caliph, Nasir, ascended to power. His reign (1080-1125) was the longest of any caliph during the Abbasid period and was characterized by a period of construction that meant first and foremost the construction of new palaces for the caliph and his entourage. But Caliph Nasir was also in the habit of fleecing his subjects "with a mania for lavish buildings that displayed itself in bursts of constructive activity." It was a practice followed a millennium later by Saddam Hussein. Of course, with no off-shore or secret bank accounts at the time, the rulers' most common form of corruption and abuse of power were the construction of palaces and the maintenance of an ostentatious living style to the total disregard of the well-being of their subjects.

During the long reign of Caliph Nasir a book on adab, or etiquette was introduced to govern the behavior of a gentleman.  In company, the book says, a polite man "does not stretch out his legs, or scratch himself, or touch his nose, or interlock his fingers, or sit in a sprawling fashion." A polite man may not drink in a wine shop but apparently he is not enjoined from drinking elsewhere. According to instructions, a gentleman's hair should not be long or "too abundant."

The caliph maintained law and order, often with the help of a group known as "repentants," ex-thieves who would know the perpetrators of burglaries but often "shared the proceeds of a robbery with the culprits themselves." At one time a caliph sold the office of "the chief justiceship" at Baghdad leaving to the buyer-judge to recoup himself from litigants or culprits who were brought before him.

Sunnis and Shi'a

The caliphs were mostly Sunni Muslims as were most of the rulers of Iraq up to the invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003. The Shi'a, Iraq's rulers today, were viewed by the Sunnis, then as now, as rawafed, meaning apostates.  The Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and most elements of the al-Qa'ida would justify their assassination without mercy. It is not usual for many extremist Sunni preachers to this day to place Shi'a below Jews in terms of order of inferiority.  Levy tells the story of a famous Iraqi chronicler and historian by the name of al-Tabari who, upon his death in 923, was buried by night at his home because the mob assembled outside his home treated him as Rafidi, or Shi'ite and would not allow a burial in a Muslim cemetery. To this day, Saudi Wahhabi preachers repeatedly call for the killing of the rawaffed (Shi'a).

However, when Baghdad came under Persian control in 1050-51 and Iraq had become an entirely Persian province, Shi'a and Sunni Muslim united in opposition to the Persians.  This union did not last long though and, in few years, doctrinal dissensions became violent.  Jews were to be victimized again.  The reigning caliph issued an edict that the Jews and Christians were to mark themselves by wearing a special garb. They were not to be employed by the government.  Many of them fled the city and others decided to convert to Islam. Still, when the Spanish Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela, Spain, visited the country in the twelfth century he counted twenty-eight synagogues   situated in the city itself or in al-Karkh, the other side of the Tigris. Benjamin's main concern was the status of the Jews. He found ten academies in the city whose head "The Chief of the Captivity," was recognized "as prince by all the Jews owing allegiance to the Baghdad Caliphate."

A Touch of Humor

The book offers a taste of the humor common during the Abbasid Caliphate. A visitor from Persia, known as Abu al-Haj al-Samin ("the fat") arrived in the city proceeded by a crowd of notables and cavalcades that escorted him to the city gates. Among the crowd of viewers was a potter whose attention was caught by the visitor's comical figure. The visitor was described as fat but Levy reminds us that obesity was common in a culture that regarded haste as an act of the devil [al 'ajala min al-shaitan]. Levy describes the visitor as someone with "a small head set on his broad shoulders and a huge paunch that covered the withers of the mule he was riding." The potter rushed to his alcove in the bazaar and by the time the visitor was passing. "A large pot caricaturing him was hanging up full in his view." The joke pleased and caught the fancy of the Baghdadis and for a time "abu al-Haj al-Samin" jars were found in every house.

The story is told about a well-known traveler and guide of pilgrims to Mecca by the name of Tashtigin ibn Abdullah (died in 1206). When he was past ninety years of age he took a three-hundred years' lease on a piece of land on the Tigris for the purpose of building a house. A professional storygteller went about the city "carrying the good tidings that the Angel of Death was dead."

Another interesting, if macabre, story of the era was a message sent by the winning general of the two feuding armies asking the caliph for permission to kill the losing general. He received a favorable reply "in the form of a shirt having no opening at the neck—implying 'it was suitable only for a headless man'."  And thus the loser was disposed of.

The Downfall of Baghdad

With the death of Caliph Nasir, the office of the Caliphate declined quickly and became prey to the hordes of Mongols under Chingiz Khan's grandson Hulago, who occupied the city in 1258 and engaged in unparalleled acts of slaughter, pillage, and destruction. The Mongols wiped out thousands of Baghdadis, including the caliph's entire family, and slaughtered babies like lambs. Jews, of course, were not spared; however Nissim Rejwan, a chronicler of the Jews of Iraq, notes that the Mongol Hulago was married to a Christian woman, that his successors subsequently employed members of a Jewish family as their physicians and ministers, and that a Jew by the name of Sa'ad al-Dawla was eventually named governor of Mesopotamia on their behalf. 2

The rule of the Mongols lasted into the middle of the fourteenth century, when bitter struggle between the Mongol chieftains and afterwards between Persia and Turkey wrought tremendous destruction upon the City of Peace [medinat al-salaam] and its inhabitants. It was not until 1920 when, following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the British colonial administration established the monarchy in Iraq, that Baghdad has again become a capital of Iraq.

Concluding Comments

A Baghdad Chronicle is a history of Baghdad as the capital of the Abbasid dynasty which ruled Iraq for three centuries. Through this period the country, and particularly Baghdad its most important city, went through periods of great cultural accomplishment and economic prosperity as well as periods of internecine war, and cultural and economic decline. A few caliphs, particularly al Monsour and  Harun al-Rashid, left their indelible mark on the history of the city; many others were disposed of by acts betrayal, revolt and often assassination and their mark on the city was negligible. A millennium later, Henry Kissinger was to quip that most Iraqi leaders did not die in bed. This was true during the Abbasid Caliphate but, of course, even more so under modern Iraq 1920-2003.

A Baghdad Chronicle earned the author an MS degree at Cambridge University and was first published in 1929. Its republication eighty-two years later, in 2011, is a tribute to the author's power of analysis, meticulous scholarship and methodical presentation of historical events using masterful command of the language, often with irony and humor. The book makes enjoyable reading and is recommended to anyone interested in the emergence of modern Iraq.

Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst Emeritus, Middle East Media Research Institute


1. www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p003hyfd (February 2, 2006).

2. Nissim Rejwan, The Jews of Iraq: 3000 years of History and Culture (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1985), p. 140.

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