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The Court of the Caliphs: The Rise and Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty by Hugh Kennedy

"In about the year 720, a wandering perfume seller was doing the rounds of the small villages in the semi-desert areas of southern Jordan" - and so with the very first line the reader is hooked into this epic roller-coaster of a historical narrative which takes you through the nail-biting adventures of ten desperate generations of Abbasid Caliphs.

However as the author warns us in his foreword by pungently quoting one of his 9th-century sources, this story is not for those "who are uneasy and embarrassed when cunt, cock and fucking are mentioned." For there are enough gruesome murders, bizarre executions, torture scenes and sexual adventurism to out-Malfi Webster, eclipse the crime-relishing Suetonius or with which to start your own porno website. The vigorous young ruler Hadi was possibly killed by one of his own slave girls sitting on his face until he suffocated; the love triangle between Harun, his sister Abbasa and his brilliant vizier only ended when the Caliph Harun screamed out to his eunuch guard, " Bring me Ja'far's head, mother-fucker!" while a later ruler, Mutawwakil, slept with all 4,000 of his concubines in the five thousand days (and nights) in which he reigned. These picaresque details are made all the more gripping by Hugh Kennedy's intimacy with the physical ruins of Abbasid Samarra and its surrounding steppeland, with the geographical layout of the lost glories of Abbasid Baghdad and its surrounding irrigation canals and date orchards, which perfume this history with an extraordinary vivacity. He even knows the exact layout of the farmhouse (the home of the Abbasid family with its surrounding orchard of some three hundred fruit trees) which was the real destination of that perfume seller all those 13 centuries ago.

The role of perfume seller was but a cover for one of the leading agents of a revolutionary movement determined to overthrow the existing regime and replace it with the true heirs of the Prophet. They had developed strong links to the political underground in the Iraqi city of Kufa but it would be the support of disaffected Œnew Muslims' in eastern Persia that provided this revolution with its military bite. The surprisingly decisive victory at the battle of Zab, in 750, which shattered Ummayad power also allowed the Abbasid clan (descended from a canny banking uncle of the Prophet Muhammad) to slip onto the throne and discreetly elbow their cousins, the real legitimate ŒAlid' descendants of the Prophet, aside. This historic swindle gave Abbasid rule a peculiar nervy, paranoid quality right from the start, for in effect they were the champions of Alid legitimacy who generation after generation quietly arranged for the internal exile and murder of their Alid cousins.

Those who have read their way through some of Hugh Kennedy's earlier works - such as The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates, The Early Abbasid Caliphate and The Armies of the Caliphs - will not be surprised by the detailed knowledge that under pins his telling of this rollicking tale. How the combined tax and rent revenues of the Empire (in its heyday) brought in the equivalent of 500 metric tons of silver every year in the handy shape of the 3 gram silver dirham based on the old Sassanid coins. How the Empire, despite the vast flow of slaves (especially Berber girls from the west and Turkic page-boys from the east) yet preferred to employ free men to labour on the vast new city building projects at a daily wage of a twelth of a dirham which sounds mean until you find out the enviable food-purchasing power of an Abbasid dirham. How the Empire could support a standing army of 100,000 (all paid a monthly salary) which more or less equalled that which Byzantium under Justinian could afford. However these knowledgeable readers will be mightily intrigued at how one of our most exacting scholars of medieval authority structures and military power (for Professor Hugh Kennedy of the University of St Andrews is a natural follower of Thucydides and Ibn Khaldoun if ever there was one) should suddenly swop over to the side of Herodotus and start telling Œsad stories of the death of Kings'. But as he clearly states in his foreword, "but in the concern to make the history of the Islamic Middle East scientific and academically respectable weŠthe small community of scholars who work on these subjects have done ourselves and our subject no favours. For people coming from outside our specialized world we have made our field difficult, problematic and yes, rather dull." And this self-serving aridity is indeed a grave failing, for the epic history of the Abbasids is a vital prism though which we can understand the tortured politics of today as well as the lost dreams and aspirations of many Arab nations.

For standing in the background of Hugh Kennedy's The Court of the Caliphs there is also a portrait of the people of Mesopotamia, the farmers and petty traders of Iraq, seduced by their rulers, murdered by a steady stream of invaders and ultimately taxed out of existence by an ever more brutal soldiery. This sense of an eternal relevance between the events of the Abbasid empire and contemporary Iraq is like a slow-growing choral refrain. Its accumulated power threatens to eclipse the stars of this tale, the Caliphs surrounded by their black-robed courtiers and their elite khassa culture, by the ever enduring resilience of the commoners. The ubiquitous presence of the barid the Abbasid intelligence service who secretly reported on the actions of public officials, street prices and popular gossip - is revealed as a permanent feature of Iraqi politics. While the potent image of the Caliphs secret dungeon where the bodies of his dynastic rivals were laid out as a permanent mortuary each innocent victim of the family of Ali labelled with his exact geneaology stapled to his ear - has haunting echoes to today's state crimes.

But the first generation of Abbasid rulers for all their brutal handling of realpolitik were men so confident of their mission that they could preach in the public mosque, treat their wives as equals, double-check their building contractors estimates, educate their sons by sending them out into the world and compose their own poetry. They were also self possessed enough to fall in love with a woman who had previously been the slave girl of some rough old Yemeni mountaineer and feel no shame and physically tough enough to have ridden across the desert to Mecca on pilgrimage and then led an army against the hereditary Byzantine enemy all within the space of one year. But like Rome before it and the Ottoman Empire after it, decay creeps into the Abbasid power structure through the gradual suffocation of palace life: as strong-minded Arab noble women are replaced by compliant slave-concubines and as the young princes become entombed within the palatial courtyards, too incapacitated to attend to their own accounts or answer the petitions of the ruled let alone lead their warriors into battle or preach morality in the public mosques. The dynasty is inexorably dragged down into the political abyss that they have created, to become the tortured plaything of their regiments of Turkish slave guards, ever anxious for more pay and coronation donatives. If The Court of the Caliphs reaches a miserably depressing conclusion about the absolute corruption of power, the journey there is at least bewitchingly exciting. The domed and vaulted palaces that were built, the internal garden courtyards that were decorated with carved plaster, the halls that were hung with precious fabrics, the cities that rose up from the virgin desert, the neve-to-be-equalled state-weddings that were given, the banquets that were thrown, the scholarly schools of translation that were funded, the poets who were employed, those singing girls with their basic repertoire of 10,000 lines and the triumphant architecture of the surviving great mosques continue to inspire, enrich, encourage, entertain and haunt our imagination.

Over this journey the reader is likely to be befuddled by the number of Abbasid Caliphs whose names begin with the letter M (I resorted to ticking them off with black ink from the chart on page xv with a scribbled memory note as to the manner of their death; Œweak stools on the desert road to Mecca', Œprobably a poisoned pear', Œcrushed testicles', Œ the iron maiden' ) but will also be charmed by the side alleys of knowledge that Kennedy opens up. The construction of Queen Zubayda's munificent pilgrim road, the speculative property booms that underwrote the foundation of yet another brand-new capital city, the original character behind Beckford's Vathek, the three great cookery authors of Abbasid Baghdad, not to mention the assorted regalia of the Abbasid Court, the mantle of the Prophet and the spear of Solomon carried before him and the badana worn by their Queens an ancient sleeveless jacket of the Ummayad dynasty studded with a double row of rubies.

The authenticity of Hugh Kennedy's voice is never in doubt. For The Court of the Caliphs is securely grounded on the work of that brilliant 9th-century historian al-Tabari, a childless, independent and undeniably obsessive scholar whose encyclopaedic, multi-sourced History of the Prophets and Kings stretches across a bookshelf in just 38 volumes. Indeed The Court of the Caliphs may be said to end, not so much with the death of the last Abbasid (for they tottered on for almost another three centuries beyond the scope of this book) but with Tabari's own vivid eyewitness accounts. Tabari's multi-volume history is believed to but a condensed version of a much longer work, which Tabari reluctantly edited down due to the protestations of his students, declaring as he did it that "enthusiasm for learning is dead." Hugh Kennedy's The Court of the Caliphs will reignite enthusiasm for learning, complete with cocks, cunts and mournfully apposite poetic images drawn from a previous siege of Baghdad, "There a woman mourns a drowned man Here a beautiful, dark-eyed woman in a perfumed shift Flees from the fire into the looting While her father flees from the looting to the fireŠ

Here lies a stranger far from home
Headless in the middle of the road
He was caught in the middle of the fighting
And no one knows which side he was on.

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