The Abbasids and the Arab Eclipse

WITH THE OVERTHROW of the Umayyads, Palestine and Syria would never again be the centre of the Muslim world. The Abbasids settled in Mesopotamia and in 762 established their capital on the site of a small Christian village called Baghdad1 at a strategic location on the Tigris river, where it was linked by a navigable canal to the Euphrates, which curved close by. The place was a natural crossroads for caravans across the desert from Syria and Egypt, for Byzantine products carried down the Tigris, and for shipments from India and China brought upriver from the Persian Gulf. ‘This island between the Tigris in the East and the Euphrates in the West is a market place for the world’, said caliph Mansur, the founder of the city,2 and indeed within a generation the seat of the Abbasid caliphate had become the mercantile and cultural capital of Islam in the East. In contrast, ‘the Abbasids ground Damascus underheel.’3 Its walls were demolished, its population collapsed, and for a century the city disappeared from written records altogether. The whole of Palestine and Syria went into decline, and their populations fell; Muslims and dhimmis alike found themselves ‘oppressed by their new rulers and would more than once revolt against them’.4 The Umayyad caliphate had been a time of relative order for Palestine and Syria compared with what was to come, ‘the enervating process of repeated military movements, internal revolt, and political instability producing chronic anarchy and cultural decline’.5

In abandoning Damascus in favour of Baghdad, the Abbasids moved the Muslim empire into the orbit of Persian influence. The Umayyad caliphs had ruled in the patriarchal style of Arab chiefs, cajoling tribal leaders and sometimes enforcing their will upon them, but they were always approachable by their peers and consulted with them on significant matters. In contrast, the Abbasid caliphs increasingly adopted the manners and methods of Persia’s Sassanian kings, whom the Arabs had overthrown a century earlier. Whereas Umayyad caliphs styled themselves the Deputy of the Prophet of God, Abbasid caliphs bore the awesome title of Shadow of God on Earth. They derived their authority directly from Allah and ruled as absolute autocrats. Dispensing with the Arab tribal militia and discontinuing their pensions, the Abbasids exercised power through a regular army of Turkish slaves called Mamelukes. Also they created a salaried civil service staffed mostly by Persian converts.

At the time of the Arab conquest most Persians were Zoroastrians, towards whom Muslims had an ambivalent attitude. The Prophet Mohammed regarded the Jewish and Christian prophets as his precursors, but he did not count the Zoroastrians as a people with a revealed scripture.6 The Koran is explicit that Jews and Christians are People of the Book and therefore free to follow their own beliefs,7 but the position of the Zoroastrians depended on the interpretation of a Koranic passage in which the Magians, as Muslims called the Zoroastrians, are mentioned in the same breath as Jews and Christians but also pagans.8 While it came to be accepted that Zoroastrians should be accorded protected dhimmi status, their treatment at the hands of Muslims in the Umayyad period was ‘contemptuous and intolerable’,9 and under the Abbasids it was worse. The Abbasids proved deadly foes of Zoroastrianism, meting out harsh persecution on the one hand and lavishing patronage on converts with the other. The process began in the cities and towns where Arab garrisons were settled and where Zoroastrian fire temples were turned into mosques and populations forced to convert or flee. The work of mass conversion was extended to the countryside during the eighth century and was complete, except in pockets, a century later.10

But for those Persians who did convert to Islam there were rich rewards. Having gained the caliphate by relying largely on Persians who had already converted to Islam, the Abbasids continued to favour Persians in their regime. With the doors of advancement wide open to Persian converts, the disadvantages of remaining Zoroastrian were all too apparent. A new class of Persian merchants, landowners and government officials – people whose activities were fundamental to settled life – ousted the old Arab tribal aristocracy. The Abbasid caliphs might claim pure Arab descent (overlooking dilution in the female line) with its racial pretensions of natural superiority, but the Persians dominated the workings of the empire at every level, so that one caliph was reported to have said, ‘The Persians ruled for a thousand years and did not need us Arabs even for a day; we have been ruling for one or two centuries and cannot do without them for an hour.’11

The Arabs had always been a small minority imposed on the conquered peoples, but with the move to Baghdad they ceased to be the ruling elite and became one element among many, with the Persian element dominant. The effect was not only political; both in religion and culture the Abbasid Empire became Persianised. Islam was no longer bound ‘solely to the Arabic language and Arab norms of behaviour’.12 To this day the golden age of the Abbasids, particularly the reign of the caliph Harun al-Rashid, is defined in the public imagination by the fabulous stories of A Thousand and One Nights, which, drawing on old Indian and Persian tales, began to take shape in Abbasid Baghdad. Although Harun al-Rashid appears in legendary form in several of the tales, significantly the main protagonists – King Shahryar and the storyteller herself, the vizier’s daughter Scheherazade – have Persian names. And even as the tales of A Thousand and One Nights were being translated into Arabic, the language of the Koran and of high culture at the court, the Persian language was being carried far beyond the borders of the old Sassanian kingdom by the armies of Islam and became the lingua franca of the Muslim East.13

Under the Abbasids the governors of Palestine and Syria and other important officials were at first members of the caliph’s own family. The Umayyads were calumnied as heretics and those who had served under them were treated as hated collaborators. Over time these western provinces were placed under the control of the central administration in Baghdad, staffed largely by Persian bureaucrats subject to the will of the caliph. The Arab tribes of Palestine and Syria, who were gradually deprived of their privileges and their role in political affairs, were heard from only when they rose in revolt. The first erupted in 754 and was met with a crushing defeat at the hands of an army under the command of the caliph’s uncle, which returned to its base in Egypt bearing as trophies three thousand severed heads. It was the beginning of a long period of insecurity and decline caused by warfare between Muslims that would see the destruction of agriculture and the depopulation of villages in Palestine. Civil war broke out among the Arab tribes in Palestine in 788, devastating Gaza and Ascalon, as well as towns in Judaea and Galilee; while outside Jerusalem the Mar Saba Greek Orthodox monastery was attacked. Tribal warfare broke out again in 792, particularly in the Jordan valley and around Jerusalem, and erupted once more in 796, when several towns in western Palestine were sacked. When the fighting turned into an uprising against the Abbasids, Harun al-Rashid, who was caliph at this time, despatched an imperial army under the command of the son of his Persian vizier, who ‘put down the rebels with an iron hand and much blood was spilled’.14

But the chief victims of this mayhem were the natives of the country, the townspeople and the farmers, who were overwhelmingly Christian.15 Dhimmis also suffered persecution by the Abbasid regime despite the Muslim obligation, in exchange for their submission and payment of the jizya, to protect their lives, their property and their holy places and their right to practise their own religion. In the 750s Christians were ordered to remove crosses from over their churches and were forbidden to teach the scriptures and hold midnight masses. In 772, when caliph Mansur visited Jerusalem, he ordered that Christians and Jews should have their hands stamped with a special mark, at which many Christians fled to Byzantine territory. Harun al-Rashid, who reigned as caliph from 786 to 809, decreed that all churches and synagogues built after the conquest be demolished; he also imposed prohibitions on Christian and Jewish dress, forcing both to wear yellow clothing, forbidding silk to women and obliging dhimmis visiting bath houses to have their bodies marked.16

When Harun al-Rashid died in 809, war broke out between two of his sons leading to anarchy and a collapse of security, so that ‘Palestine was the scene of violence, rape and murder’.17 Christians abandoned many of their monasteries and churches in and about Jerusalem, and as matters got worse they fled to Cyprus and Constantinople. When Mamun, Harun al-Rashid’s son by a Persian woman, established himself as unchallenged caliph in 813, a degree of stability returned, though at the price of fierce repressions. In 831 he launched a ‘murderous’18 expedition against a widespread revolt in Egypt, the twelfth since the Muslim conquest, breaking Christian resistance by massacres and deportations, killing all the men, plundering their belongings and selling their women and children into slavery – the standard response to insurrection as prescribed by sharia law.19 Mamun afterwards came to Jerusalem, where in hatred of the Umayyads he falsely claimed credit for building the Dome of the Rock by having Abd al-Malik’s name hacked out from the founder’s dedication and replaced with his own.

Harun al-Rashid’s oppressive decrees against the dhimmis were renewed in 850 by his grandson the caliph Mutawakkil, who as well as requiring that they identify themselves by wearing yellow – ‘unpleasantly reminiscent of the anti-Jewish legislation of Nazi Germany’20 – added new measures in 854, among them that any place of Christian or Jewish worship that had been renovated should be demolished or turned into a mosque, that the gravestones of Jews and Christians should be levelled so as not to stand higher than those of Muslims, that they ride only on donkeys or asses, that no testimony of a Jew or Christian was admissible in court, and that one in ten of their homes should be confiscated by Muslims. The purpose of these abuses was to proclaim the superiority of Islam and to humiliate and demoralise Christians and Jews, although the intent could be more sinister than that, as when Mutawakkil demanded that they attach wooden images of devils to the doors of their homes.21 These new decrees provoked an uprising in Homs, a predominantly Christian city in central Syria, which was brutally put down in 855, all its churches demolished except for that of St John, which was added to the Great Mosque, its leaders decapitated or flogged to death and then crucified at the city gate, and the entire Christian population driven from their homes.

These same persecuted Christians were responsible for creating the cultural golden age of Islam. Greek civilisation had flourished round the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean long before the advent of Alexander the Great; the origins of philosophy, science, mathematics, astronomy, geography and medicine can be traced back as far as the eighth century BC in the Greek islands of the Aegean and in the Greek cities of Ionia along the Aegean coast of Asia Minor. The empires of Alexander, the Romans and the Byzantines extended and perpetuated that culture throughout the Middle East; for several hundred years Alexandria in Egypt, founded by Alexander, was the capital of Western civilisation, its great Library a vast treasure house of knowledge.

The Christians of Syria, Palestine and Egypt were the heirs to this Greek culture. Until the reign of the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik at the end of the seventh century, Greek had been the language of administration and learning throughout the Middle East; now the Abbasids were keen to know those works of Greek learning that they thought would be useful to translate into Arabic; not poetry, drama or history, which they ignored, but mathematics, astronomy and medicine, and also the practical aspects of philosophy, especially logic.

The demand for Greek knowledge came from a very narrow base, essentially from the elite society surrounding the Abbasid court in Baghdad, for whom patronage of Christian translators became a fashionable cultural activity, stimulated by the caliph Mamun’s own enthusiasm for translations into Arabic. Wealthy families vied with one another to establish themselves as discerning patrons of translations in specific fields, and in some cases we know their names, such as the Banu Musa brothers, Persians whose father had been a highway robber, who had themselves probably made their fortune from the abusive practice of tax farming and whose patronage may have been part of a money-laundering operation.22 Their speciality was scientific and medical texts, and they paid vast sums to attract the best translators. Nor was translating a passive activity; Christian translators themselves, imbued with Greek culture, hunted for valuable works to render into Arabic, some travelling round the Byzantine Empire in search of manuscripts for their patrons. This period of intellectual curiosity and effervescence did not last, however, and was replaced in the eleventh century by madrasas, Islamic schools whose chief concern was with religious dogma. But the texts survived and found their way to southern Italy and Spain, where the Arabic was translated into Latin and the legacy of Greece was transmitted to a medieval Europe that was emerging from the disorder of the barbarian invasions.

On Christmas day 800 Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III in Rome. Charlemagne was the grandson of Charles Martel, victor over the Muslims at the battle of Poitiers, and by his coronation his Frankish kingdom was transformed into the successor state of the Roman Empire in the West, from which the Holy Roman Empire would evolve in the tenth century. Attending Charlemagne’s coronation were two monks from Jerusalem – one from the monastery of Mar Saba, the other from a monastery on the Mount of Olives – and with them they brought the blessings of the patriarch and the keys of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This had followed several exchanges of delegations between Charlemagne and Harun al-Rashid, the pre-eminent rulers in the West and East, who may have felt that they shared common rivals in the Byzantine Empire and the Umayyads of Spain. According to Eginhard, Charlemagne’s biographer who was writing about twenty years after these events, Harun had approved the gift of keys from Jerusalem, telling Charlemagne’s embassy that he ‘conceded that that sacred and saving place (meaning the Holy Sepulchre) should be assigned to his jurisdiction’.23 Harun’s concession would have been in response to protests made by Charlemagne’s embassy to Baghdad against the recent disorders and persecutions in Palestine and Syria, but although it is probably incorrect to interpret Harun’s gesture as conferring on Charlemagne a protectorate over the holy places in Jerusalem, the keys do indicate the granting of a real if limited power over the Holy Sepulchre.24 But behind all this, and initiating these exchanges, was the figure of the patriarch of Jerusalem, who on behalf of the indigenous Christians of Palestine was actively seeking the protection of the West.

The West had now become involved in Eastern events, and its influence and its resources were increasingly called on by Christians in need. In Palestine and Syria the Christians were unbowed by the persecutions they suffered at the hands of the Muslims. In theory they were a ‘protected people’ and were permitted to practice there own faith, but in reality the destruction of their churches and the restrictions on maintaining and rebuilding them, or on building new ones, was effectively aimed at destroying their culture and their faith. In the face of that, Christians made remarkable and persistent efforts to preserve and reconstruct their places of worship, raising money within their communities and seeking financial assistance from abroad. In one case, after the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre had been damaged during the disorders following the death of Harun al-Rashid, the Christians of Jerusalem were able to restore it with money received from a wealthy Egyptian Christian. They completed their work in 820, but seven years later Muslims complained that the dome had been enlarged, making it higher than the Dome of the Rock, and demanded that it be pulled down. The patriarch Thomas was jailed and threatened with flogging but managed to save himself and his church by paying a considerable bribe. The exorbitant costs of keeping churches in repair, including obtaining permission and paying bribes, put a severe strain on an already oppressed community, obliging the Christians of the East to look abroad for financial help, so that from the ninth century they won support not only from Constantinople but also from Rome, from bishops, princes and the nobility in the West, and even received large donations from as far away as England. Moreover the Abbasids encouraged the Latin Church of Rome, using it to reduce the influence of the Greek Church of the Byzantines; the Byzantines were close and a real threat, but the Latins and the Franks seemed very far away.

Bernard the Monk, who arrived as a pilgrim in Jerusalem in 870, was an eyewitness to the attentions bestowed on the city by Charlemagne and left an account of what he saw. But, like other pilgrims in the ninth century, he took his life in his hands to reach Jerusalem at all.25 His journey took him across Europe from Mont St Michel in northern France to Bari in the heel of Italy, which since 847 had been a Muslim emirate, captured from the Byzantines by the Aghlabids, an Arab dynasty that ruled North Africa nominally in the name of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad. As well as capturing parts of southern Italy, the Aghlabids had also begun the conquest of Sicily, from where in 846 an Arab fleet of seventy-three ships set out to attack Rome. At Ostia the fleet landed a force of eleven thousand men and five hundred cavalry, which marched up the Tiber, plundered the Vatican and St Peter’s basilica and desecrated all the holiest shrines. This was the first time Rome had been attacked since the barbarian invasions of the fifth century, ‘and they at least had respected shrines and churches’. All Europe was appalled by what was seen as ‘a calculated demonstration of Muslim contempt for Christianity’.26 The city’s defences were improved, and three years later, when the Arabs attacked again, they were driven off and Rome was never threatened by Muslims again. But Italy south of Naples was another matter.

At Bari, Bernard obtained papers from the emir permitting him to travel to the East, then continued to Taranto, also at the time under Muslim occupation. The principal commercial activity of Bari and Taranto was raiding the coasts and countryside of Italy for Christian slaves. At the port of Taranto, Bernard saw nine thousand captives from the principality of Benevento, near Naples, who were put aboard ships bound for Tripoli and Egypt – some of the millions of men, women and children who throughout the centuries were captured by Muslim corsairs along the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of Europe, even in the English Channel, and were transported to a grim existence in North Africa and the Middle East, leaving depopulated and devastated homelands behind.27 Bernard boarded a ship packed with slaves bound for Egypt, and after thirty days he arrived at Alexandria. But no one in Egypt was impressed with his travel papers from Bari. The captain of his ship would not allow him to disembark without a bribe; the governor of Alexandria likewise demanded money before allowing Bernard to continue to Fustat, the capital founded by the Arabs near the future site of Cairo. There again Bernard showed his papers, both those from Bari and those from Alexandria, but was immediately clapped in jail until he paid the further sum of 13 dinars. This was apparently the jizya, for Bernard goes on to say that 13 dinars was the least a Christian had to pay ‘to have the right to live in freedom and security. [. . .] And any one who cannot pay the thirteen dinars, whether he is a native Christian or a stranger, is imprisoned either till such time as God in his love sends an angel to set him free, or else until some other good Christians pay for his freedom.’28 Even then, every time Bernard entered another city on his itinerary through Egypt and Palestine he had to pay a further dinar or two for permission to leave.

From Fustat, Bernard travelled through the Delta along an eastern branch of the Nile, arriving at Tanis, ‘where the Christians are very conscientious, welcoming and hospitable. Indeed there is nowhere in the district belonging to this city which lacks a church.’ After Tanis, Bernard went to Pelusium, at the eastern edge of the delta, where ‘at the place to which the angel told Joseph to flee with his son and the mother, is a church in honour of Blessed Mary’. Hiring a camel at Pelusium, Bernard rode for six days through the desert to Palestine and so to ‘the holy city of Jerusalem, where we stayed in the hospice of the Most Glorious Emperor Charles [Charlemagne]. All who come to Jerusalem for reasons of devotion and who speak the Roman language are given hospitality there.’ Bernard also mentions the Church of St Mary, with its ‘splendid library’ built with Charlemagne’s help, as was the church’s pious foundation of twelve dwellings with fields, vineyards and a grove in the Valley of Jehoshaphat (the Kidron valley) between the city and the Mount of Olives. These fruits of Charlemagne’s generosity, also the many monasteries he founded throughout Palestine and the great sums of money he sent to the Christians there, were widely recorded and long remembered not only in the East but throughout both the Latin and the Byzantine worlds.29

Given the difficulties, dangers and expense of travelling to the East, it is a wonder that Bernard and others like him should have gone on pilgrimage at all. But by the beginning of the tenth century the Byzantines and the Holy Roman Empire had driven the Muslims out of southern Italy, and soon they would be prised from their pirate lairs in southern France, while half-way through the century the Byzantines would recover Crete and their naval patrols would ensure the safety of travellers and trade in the Eastern Mediterranean. But although travelling by sea was more comfortable and cooler, it was cheaper to travel overland. Most pilgrims from the West first made their way to Constantinople, visited the great churches and famous relics there, and then continued through Asia Minor on the excellent Byzantine roads. But Western pilgrims were always the minority, a small stream compared to the great flow of travellers from the Byzantine Empire, from Egypt, from all over Palestine, Syria and beyond.30 Although much of the East was under Muslim domination, most of the millions who lived there were Christians inhabiting a Christian world.

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