The Abassid Caliphate

The Abbasid Caliphate at the height of its power
The Abbasid Caliphate at the height of its power

The Rise and Accomplishments of the Abbasid:

The Abbasids overthrew the Ummayad Caliphate in the year 750, massacring every member of the dynasty that the could not catch (although one prominent member escaped to the al-Andalus region of what is now Spain.) Diverse and disaffected populations benefited the Abbasid rise to power. The Abassid family used the resentment of the common people for the Ummayad's elitism, decadence, and nepotism, as well as the anger of the Shi'ites, to their advantage. The Shi'ites helped them come to power, even though the Abbasids turned out to Sunni in orientation.

The first caliph Abu I-Abbas ("the bloodthirsty") focused on first eliminating his enemies and gaining a strong foothold in what are now modern day Iraq and Iran. He proclaimed the family to have been chosen to rule by god. The second Caliph, al-Mansur, established the city of Baghdad as his capital. The period beginning with his reign and ending in the tenth century has been dubbed by many scholars the "golden age of Islam," where ideas and influences from other cultures flowed into the Islamic world and made for richer art, theology, literature, and technology. Unlike the Umayyad Dynasty, the Abbasids allowed non-Arabs to obtain prestigious positions within the empire, and the Abbasid Dynasty benefitted for several centuries from the vibrant exchange of ideas made possible by this tolerance.

Among this golden age’s many admirable achievements was its architecture. Baghdad, the power base of the Abbasid Caliphate built in 762, was constructed for the khalifah family on the west bank of the Tigris River. Unfortunately, much of Abbasid’s architecture has not survived to today, even though it was surrounded by high curved walls made of mud brick for easier defense. Samarra’s Great Mosque, made in 836 CE, was one of the largest masjid (mosques) ever built; measuring 240 meters by 156 meters, covering 37,000 meters and capable of holding up to 60,000 worshipers. This architecture survives to this day, adorning a minaret with a spiral design known to many as a “stairway to heaven.”

The Great Mosque of Samarra
The Great Mosque of Samarra

Art in the Abbasid Caliphate is relatively well-known, and includes items such as carpets, woven silks, and elaborate ceramics. These ceramics were of high enough quality to compete with the Chinese porcelain, and were painted with a green or cobalt blue glaze. These in turn were decorated with floral designs, stripes, and/or scenes from Arabic legends. This art form eventually expanded into intricate tiles as well.

Ceramic with floral motif
Ceramic with floral motif
Examples of Abbasid-era ceramics
Examples of Abbasid-era ceramics

Literature is quite possibly the most remarkable part of the Abbasid caliphate. Stories from this time were often amusing and involved animals with a moral. These were called “adabs” the most popular of which was Kalilah wa-Dimnah (Fables of Bidpai), written as an intro to society for a princess. Another form of Abbasid literature is Magamah, which involve dramatic anecdotes written with a rhyme scheme. One example of this writing form is Maqamat by Al-Hariri. It is sometimes proclaimed as the “most perfect structure of literary and dramatic expression in Arabic.” Most Abbasid literature had very ornate language. Possibly the best known Abassid-era work is Alf Laylah wa-Laylah better known as Thousand and One Nights which holds familiar tales such as "Sinbad the Sailor," "Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves," and “Aladdin.”

Decline of the Abbasid Caliphate:
By the early ninth century, many regions of the empire were practically independent, and the division became greater as time went on. The Abbasid Caliphate was still ruling, however it had begun to splinter, weakening its power. By 945, the area around the Caliphate’s power base in Baghdad was lost and a feudal-type governance system of
amirs took effect. Most leaders were, at least symbolically, loyal to the caliph as this was favorable in establishing legitimacy and gaining the approval of those who supported the caliphate. The exceptions to this were the Fatimid Caliphate and the remnants of the Umayyad Caliphate in al-Andalus . By the turn of the tenth century, the Abbasid had little more than symbolic power left. Even in the heart of the Abbasid dynasty, military leaders came by the 10th century to wield more power than the caliphs.

The splintering of the Abbasid into amirs
The splintering of the Abbasid into amirs

In 1258, neighboring Mongols invaded, utterly destroying Baghdad, and sentencing the caliph Al-Mutasim to death and executed him by wrapping him in a carpet and kicking and trampling him to death, as was the Mongol custom for executing high rank government officials. The Mongol invaders killed most members of the Abbasid in their traditional manner of killing royalty. The surviving members fled Baghdad to seek shelter in Egypt, where they continued to claim rule over religious matters until they turned power over to the Ottoman Empire in 1519. The Abbasid caliphate remains a powerful symbol of Islamic unity and the greatness that Islamic civilization may one day achieve again.

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