Before searching out the men and the works that gave meaning and distinction to this civilization we must try to visualize the environment in which they lived. Civilization is rural in base but urban in form; men must gather in cities to provide for one another audiences and stimuli.

Moslem towns were nearly all of modest size, with 10,000 souls or less, cramped into a small and usually walled area for protection against raid or siege, with unlit streets of dust or mud, and little stucco houses hugging their privacy behind a forbidding continuum of external wall; all the glory of the town was concentrated in the mosque. But here and there rose the cities in which Moslem civilization touched its summits of beauty, learning, and happiness.

In Moslem sentiment both Mecca and Medina were holy cities, one as the seat of the ancient Arab shrine and the birthplace of the Prophet, the other as his refuge and home. Walid II rebuilt in splendor the modest mosque at Medina; at Walid’s urging, and for 80,000 dinars, the Byzantine emperor sent forty loads of mosaic stones, and eighty craftsmen from Egypt and Greece; the Moslems complained that their Prophet’s mosque was being built by Christian infidels. Despite the Kaaba and this mosque, the two cities took on under the Umayyads an aspect of worldly pleasure and luxury that would have shocked the earlier caliphs, and must have gladdened the triumphant Quraish. The spoils of conquest had flowed into Medina, and had been distributed chiefly to its citizens; pilgrims were coming to Mecca in greater number, and with richer offerings than ever before, enormously stimulating trade. The holy cities became centers of wealth, leisure, gaiety, and song; palaces and suburban villas housed an aristocracy surfeited with servants and slaves; concubines accumulated, forbidden wine flowed, singers strummed pleasantly sad melodies, and poets multiplied rhymes of war and love. At Medina the beautiful Suqainah, daughter of the martyred Husein, presided over a salon of poets, jurists, and statesmen. Her wit, charm, and good taste set a standard for all Islam; she could not count her successive husbands on her jeweled fingers; and in some instances she made it a condition of marriage that she should retain full freedom of action.79 The Umayyad spirit of joie de vivre had conquered the abstemious puritanism of Abu Bekr and Omar in the most sacred centers of Islam.

Jerusalem was also a holy city to Islam. Already in the eighth century the Arabs predominated in its population. The Caliph Abd-al-Malik, envying the splendor with which the church of the Holy Sepulcher had been restored after its destruction by Khosru Parvez, lavished the revenues of Egypt to surpass that shrine with a group of structures known to the Moslem world as Al-Haram al-Sharif (the venerable sanctuary). At the south end was built (691–4) Al-Masjid al-Aqsa—“The Farther Mosque”—so named after a passage in the Koran (xvii, 1). It was ruined by earthquake in 746, restored in 785, and often modified; but the nave goes back to Abd-al-Malik, and most of the columns to Justinian’s basilica in Jerusalem. Muqaddasi considered it more beautiful than the Great Mosque at Damascus. Somewhere in the sacred enclosure, it was said, Mohammed had met Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, and had prayed with them; near by he had seen the rock (reckoned by Israel to be the center of the world) where Abraham had thought to sacrifice Isaac, and Moses had received the Ark of the Covenant, and Solomon and Herod had built their temples; from that rock Mohammed had ascended into heaven; if one but had faith he could see in the rock the footprints of the Prophet. In 684, when the rebel Abdallah ibn Zobeir held Mecca and received the revenues of its pilgrims, Abd-al-Malik, anxious to attract some of this sacred revenue, decreed that thereafter this rock should replace the Kaaba as the object of pious pilgrimage. Over that historic stone his artisans (691) raised in Syrian-Byzantine style the famous “Dome of the Rock,” which soon ranked as the third of the “four wonders of the Moslem world” (the others were the mosques of Mecca, Medina, and Damascus). It was not a mosque, but a shrine to house the rock; the Crusaders erred twice in calling it the “Mosque of Omar.” Upon an octagonal building of squared stones, 528 feet in circuit, rises a dome, 112 feet high, made of wood externally covered with gilded brass. Four elegant portals—their lintels faced by splendidrepoussé bronze plates—lead into an interior divided into diminishing octagons by concentric colonnades of polished marbles; the magnificent columns were taken from Roman ruins, the capitals were Byzantine. The spandrels of the arches are distinguished by mosaics depicting trees with all the delicacy of a Courbet; even finer are the mosaics of the drum below the dome. Running around the cornice of the outer colonnade, in yellow letters on blue tiles, is an inscription in Kufic—the angular characters favored in Kufa; Saladin had it set up in 1187; it is a lovely example of this unique form of architectural decoration. Within the colonnade is the massive, shapeless rock, 200 feet around. “At dawn,” wrote Muqaddasi,

when the light of the sun first strikes on the cupola, and the drum reflects his rays, then is this edifice a marvelous sight to behold, and such that in all Islam I have never seen the equal; neither have I heard tell of aught built in pagan times that rivals in grace this Dome of the Rock.80

Abd-al-Malik’s plan to make this monument replace the Kaaba failed; had it succeeded, Jerusalem would have been the center of all the three faiths that competed for the soul of medieval man.

But Jerusalem was not even the capital of the province of Palestine; that honor went to al-Ramlah. Many places that are now poor villages were in Moslem days flourishing towns. “Aqqa” (Acre) “is a large city, spaciously laid out,” wrote Muqaddasi in 985; “Sidon is a large city, surrounded by gardens and trees,” wrote Idrisi in 1154. “Tyre is a beautiful place,” wrote Yaqubi in 891, built on a rock jutting out into the Mediterranean; “its inns are five or six stories high,” wrote Nasir-i-Khosru in 1047, “and great is the quantity of wealth exposed in its clean bazaars.”81 Tripoli, to the north, had “a fine harbor, capable of holding a thousand ships.” Tiberias was famous for its hot springs and its jasmines. Of Nazareth the Moslem traveler Yaqut wrote in 1224: “Here was born the Messiah Isa, the son of Mariam—peace be upon him! … But the people of this place cast dishonor upon her, saying that from all time no virgin has ever borne a child.”82 Baalbek, said Yaqubi, “is one of the finest towns in Syria”; “prosperous and pleasant,” added Muqaddasi. Antioch was second only to Damascus among the cities of Syria; the Moslems held it from 635 to 964, the Byzantines then till 1084; the Mohammedan geographers admired its many beautiful Christian churches, its rising terraces of pretty homes, its lush gardens and parks, the running water in every house. Tarsus was a major city; Ibn Hawqal (978) reckoned its male adults at 100,000; the Greek Emperor Nicephorus recaptured it in 965, destroyed all the mosques, and burned all the Korans. Aleppo was enriched by the junction there of two caravan routes: the city “is populous and built of stone,” wrote Muqaddasi; “shady streets, with rows of shops, lead to each of the gates of the mosque”; in that shrine was a mihrab famous for the beauty of its carved ivory and wood, and a minbar “most exquisite to behold”; near by were five colleges, a hospital, and six Christian churches. Homs (the ancient Emesa) “is one of the largest cities in Syria,” wrote Yaqubi in 891; “nearly all its streets and markets are paved with stones,” wrote Istakhri in 950; “the women here,” said Muqaddasi, “are beautiful, and famous for their fine skin.”83

The eastward sweep of the Arab empire favored for its capital a site more central than either Mecca or Jerusalem; and the Umayyads wisely chose Damascus—already heavy with centuries when the Arabs came. Five converging streams made its hinterland the “Garden of the Earth,” fed a hundred public fountains, a hundred public baths, and 120,000 gardens,84 and flowed out westward into a “Valley of Violets” twelve miles long and three miles wide. “Damascus,” said Idrisi, “is the most delightful of all God’s cities.”85In the heart of the town, amid a population of some 140,000 souls, rose the palace of the caliphs, built by Muawiya I, gaudy with gold and marble, brilliant with mosaics in floors and walls, cool with ever-flowing fountains and cascades. On the north side stood the Great Mosque, one of 572 mosques in the city, and the sole surviving relic of Umayyad Damascus. In Roman days a temple of Jupiter had adorned the site; on its ruins Theodosius I had built (379) the cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Walid I, about 705, proposed to the Christians that the cathedral should be remodeled and form part of a new mosque, and promised to give them ground and materials for another cathedral anywhere else in the city. They protested, and warned him that “it is written in our books that he who destroys this church will choke to death”; but Walid began the destruction with his own hands. The whole land tax of the empire, we are told, was devoted for seven years to the construction of the mosque; in addition a large sum was given to the Christians to finance a new cathedral. Artists and artisans were brought in from India, Persia, Constantinople, Egypt, Libya, Tunis, and Algeria; all together 12,000 workmen were employed, and the task was completed in eight years. Moslem travelers unanimously describe it as the most magnificent structure in Islam; and the Abbasid caliphs al-Mahdi and al-Mamun—no lovers of the Umayyads or Damascus—ranked it above all other buildings on the earth. A great battlemented wall, with interior colonnades, enclosed a spacious marble-paved court. On the south side of this enclosure rose the mosque, built of squared stones and guarded by three minarets—one of which is the oldest in Islam. Ground plan and decoration were Byzantine, and were doubtless influenced by St. Sophia. The roof and dome—fifty feet in diameter—were covered with plates of lead. The interior, 429 feet long, was divided into nave and aisles by two tiers of white marble columns, from whose gold-plated Corinthian capitals sprang round or horseshoe arches, the first Moslem examples of this latter form.* The mosaic floor was covered with carpets; the walls were faced with colored marble mosaics and enameled tiles; six beautiful grilles of marble divided the interior; in one wall, facing Mecca, was a mihrab lined with gold, silver, and precious stones. Lighting was effected through seventy-four windows of colored glass, and 12,000 lamps. “If,” said a traveler, “a man were to sojourn here a hundred years, and pondered each day on what he saw, he would see something new every day.” A Greek ambassador, allowed to enter it, confessed to his associates: “I had told our Senate that the power of the Arabs would soon pass away; but now, seeing here how they have built, I know that of a surety their dominion will endure great length of days.”87

Striking northeast from Damascus across the desert, one came to Raqqa on the Euphrates, royal seat of Harun al-Rashid; and then through Hatra and across the Tigris to Mosul; farther northeast lay Tabriz, whose finest age was still to come; then, to the east, Tehran (as yet a minor town), Damghan, and—east of the Caspian—Gurgan. In the tenth century this was a provincial capital noted for its cultured princes; the greatest of them, Shams al-Maali Qabus, was a poet and scholar who sheltered Avicenna at his court, and left behind him, as his tomb, a gigantic tower 167 feet high, the Gunbad-i-Qabus, the only structure standing of a once populous and prosperous city. Along the northern route to the east lay Nishapur, still melodious in Omar Khayyam’s verse; Mashhad, the Mecca of Shia Moslems; Merv, capital of a once mighty province; and—usually beyond the reach of the caliph’s taxgatherers—Bokhara and Samarkand. Over the mountain ranges to the south lay Ghazni. Poets tell of Mahmud’s great palaces there, and of “tall towers that amazed the moon”; still stand the “Triumphal Tower” of Mahmud, and the more ornate tower of Masud II. Moving back westward, one could find in the eleventh century a dozen prosperous cities in Iran—Herat, Shiraz (with its famous gardens and lovely mosque), Yazd, Isfahan, Kashan, Qasvin, Qum, Hamadan, Kirmanshah, Samana; and in Iraq the populous cities of Basra and Kufa. Everywhere the traveler could see shining domes and sparkling minarets, colleges and libraries, palaces and gardens, hospitals and baths, and the dark and narrow alleys of the eternal poor. And at last Baghdad.

“Blessed be Baghdad!” cried the poet Anwari—

Blessed be the site of Baghdad, seat of learning and art;
None can point in the world to a city her equal;
Her suburbs vie in beauty with the blue vault of the sky;
Her climate rivals the life-giving breezes of heaven;
Her stones in their brightness rival diamonds and rubies; …
The banks of the Tigris with their lovely damsels surpass Kullakh;
The gardens filled with lovely nymphs equal Kashmir;
And thousands of gondolas on the water
Dance and sparkle like sunbeams in the air.89

It was an old Babylonian city, and not far from ancient Babylon; bricks bearing Nebuchadrezzar’s name were found in 1848 under the Tigris there. It throve under the Sasanian kings; after the Moslem conquest it became the seat of several Christian monasteries, mostly Nestorian. From these monks, we are told, the Caliph al-Mansur learned that the site was cool in summer, and free from the mosquitoes that harassed Kufa and Basra. Perhaps the Caliph thought it advisable to put some distance between himself and those unruly cities, already swelling with a revolutionary proletariat; and doubtless he saw strategic advantage in a site safely inland, yet in touch by water, through the Tigris and the major canals, with all the cities on the two rivers, and then through the Gulf with all the ports of the world. So in 762 he transferred his residence from Hashimiya, and the governmental offices from Kufa, to Baghdad, surrounded the site with a threefold circular wall and a moat, changed its official name from Baghdad (“Gift of God”) to Medinat-al-Salam (“City of Peace”), and employed 100,000 men to build in four years great brick palaces for himself, his relatives, and the bureaus of the government. At the center of this “Round City of al-Mansur” rose the caliphal palace, called the “Golden Gate” from its gilded entrance, or the “Green Dome” from its gleaming cupola. Outside the walls, and directly on the west bank of the Tigris, al-Mansur built a summer residence, the “Palace of Eternity”; here, for most of his years, Harun al-Rashid made his home. From the windows of these palaces one might see a hundred vessels unloading on the docks the wares of half the earth.

In 768, to provide his son al-Mahdi with independent quarters, al-Mansur built a palace and a mosque on the eastern or Persian side of the river. Around these buildings a suburb grew, Rusafa, connected with the Round City by two bridges resting on boats. As most of the caliphs after Harun made their dwelling in this suburb, it soon outstripped the city of Mansur in size and wealth; after Harun “Baghdad” means Rusafa. From the royal centers, on either side of the Tigris, narrow crooked streets, designed to elude the sun, led out their chasms of noisy shops to the residential districts of the well-to-do. Each craft had its street or mart—perfumers, basket weavers, wire-pullers (in the literal sense), money-changers, silk weavers, booksellers…. Over the shops and beyond them were the homes of the people. Almost all dwellings but those of the rich were of unbaked brick, made for a lifetime, but not for much longer. We have no reliable statistics of the population; probably it reached 800,000; some authorities estimate it at 2,000,000;90in any case it was in the tenth century the largest city in the world, with the possible exception of Constantinople. There was a crowded Christian quarter, with churches, monasteries, and schools; Nestorians, Monophysites, and orthodox Christians had there their separate conventicles. Harun rebuilt and enlarged an early mosque of al-Mansur, and al-Mutadid rebuilt and enlarged this mosque of Harun. Doubtless several hundred additional mosques served the hopes of the people.

While the poor solaced life with heaven, the rich sought heaven on earth. In or near Baghdad they raised a thousand splendid mansions, villas, palaces-simple without, but “within, nothing but azure and gold.” We may imagine this domestic splendor from an incredible passage in Abulfeda, which assures us that the royal palace at Baghdad had on its floors 22,000 carpets, and on its walls 38,000 tapestries, 12,500 of silk.91 The residences of the caliph and his family, the vizier, and the governmental heads occupied a square mile of the eastern city. Jafar the Barmakid inaugurated an aristocratic migration by building in southeastern Baghdad a mansion whose splendor contributed to his death. He tried to evade Harun’s jealousy by presenting the palace to Mamun; Harun accepted it for his son, but Jafar continued to live and frolic in the “Qasr Jafari” till his fall. When the palaces of al-Mansur and Harun began to crumble, new palaces replaced them. Al-Mutadid spent 400,000 dinars ($1,900,000) on his “Palace of the Pleiades” (892); we may judge its extent from the 9000 horses, camels, and mules that were housed in its stables.92 Al-Muqtafi built next to this his “Palace of the Crown” (902), which, with its gardens, covered nine square miles. Al-Muqtadir raised in his turn the “Hall of the Tree,” so named because in its garden pond stood a tree of silver and gold; on the silver leaves and twigs perched silver birds, whose beaks piped mechanical lays. The Buwayhid sultans outspent them all by lavishing 13,000,000 dirhems upon the Muizziyah Palace. When Greek ambassadors were received by al-Muqtadir in 917, they were impressed by the twenty-three palaces of the Caliph and his government, the porticoes of marble columns, the number, size, and beauty of the rugs and tapestries that almost covered floors and walls, the thousand grooms in shining uniforms, the gold and silver saddles and brocaded saddlecloths of the emperor’s horses, the variety of tame or wild animals in the spacious parks, and the royal barges, themselves palaces, that rode on the Tigris, waiting the Caliph’s whim.

Amid these splendors the upper classes lived a life of luxury, sport, worry, and intrigue. They went to the Maydan or plaza to watch horse races or polo games; drank precious forbidden wine, and ate foods brought from the greatest possible distances at the greatest possible price; robed themselves and their ladies in gorgeous and colorful raiment of silk and gold brocade; perfumed their clothing, hair, and beards; breathed the aroma of burning ambergris or frankincense; and wore jewelry on their heads, ears, necks, wrists, and feminine ankles; “the clinking of thine anklets,” sang a poet to a lass, “has bereft me of reason.”93 Usually women were excluded from the social gatherings of the men; poets, musicians, and wits took their place, and doubtless sang or spoke of love; and willowy slave girls danced till the men were their slaves. Politer groups listened to poetic readings, or recitations of the Koran; some formed philosophical clubs like the Brethren of Purity. About 790 we hear of a club of ten members: an orthodox Sunni, a Shi’ite, a Kharijite, a Manichean, an erotic poet, a materialist, a Christian, a Jew, a Sabaean, and a Zoroastrian; their meetings, we are told, were marked by mutual tolerance, good humor, and courteous argument.94 In general Moslem society was one of excellent manners; from Cyrus to Li Hung Chang the East has surpassed the West in courtesy. It was an ennobling aspect of this Baghdad life that all the permitted arts and sciences found there a discriminating patronage, that schools and colleges were numerous, and the air resounded with poetry.

Of the life of the common people we are told little; we may only assume that they helped to uphold this edifice of grandeur with their services and their toil. While the rich played with literature and art, science and philosophy, the simpler folk listened to street singers, or strummed their own lutes and sang their own songs. Now and then a wedding procession redeemed the din and odor of the streets; and on festive holydays people visited one another, exchanged presents with careful calculation, and ate with keener relish than those who feasted from plates of gold. Even the poor man gloried in the majesty of the caliph and the splendor of the mosque; he shared some dirhems of the dinars that were taxed into Baghdad; he carried himself with the pride and dignity of a capital; and in his secret heart he numbered himself among the rulers of the world.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!