baghdad and constantinople -- 10/31/23

Today's selection -- from The Map of Knowledge by Violet Moller. In the tenth century A.D., the rulers of Baghdad had a need to try and impress the ambassadors from Constantinople:

“It is Springtime, AD 917. A group of ambassadors arrive in Baghdad, sent by the Byzantine Empress Zoë, from her capital, Constantinople. They are here to negotiate the terms of a peace treaty--the Byzantine and Muslim empires having been fighting for centuries over their shared border, running east to west across the Anatolian peninsula. The ambassadors are installed in one of the city's many palaces, where they spend two months waiting for their hosts to prepare their reception. The Muslim ruler of Baghdad, al-Muqtadir (895-932), the eighteenth caliph of the Abbasid dynasty, orders the redecoration of the entire palace complex in their honour. Furniture is rearranged, hundreds of curtains are hung, beautiful woven rugs from across the empire are laid, saddles polished and gardens pruned. 

“The day of the reception finally arrives ... The first palace the ambassadors would have entered was the Khan al-Khayl (Khan of the Cavalry), with its magnificent marble columns. ‘On the right side of the court were five hundred horses girded with gold and silver saddles, but without saddlecloths, and to the left were five hundred horses with brocade saddlecloths and long blinders. Each horse was entrusted to a groom attired in beautiful garb.’ From here, it was on to the zoological garden, with its ‘herds of wild animals ... which drew near to the people, sniffing them, and eating from their hands.’ In the next courtyard were ‘four elephants adorned with brocade and cloth marked by figure work. Mounted on each elephant were eight men from Sind [in India] and fire hurlers.’ Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi (1002-1071), who recorded this description in his history of Baghdad, notes gravely that ‘this sight filled the Ambassadors with awe’--which was, of course, the aim of the enterprise. 

“Al-Khatib goes on to describe, in breathless detail, a courtyard containing a hundred lions, muzzled and held by their keepers, and gardens with a pond and a stream lined with polished lead, shining white like silver, four golden boats with brocade seats floating on it. The gardens around were full of exotic trees, including 400 palms, whose trunks were ringed with gilt copper. Hundreds of craftsmen must have been employed to create these wonders, showcasing the full glory of Arab metalwork and artistry for the Byzantines. Then came the most amazing sight of all: ‘The Tree Room where a tree stood in the centre of a large round pond of limpid water. The tree had eighteen boughs, each containing numerous twigs on which were perched gold and silver birds of many species. The boughs, most of which were made of silver, though some were of gold, swayed at given times, rustling their leaves of various colours, the way the wind rustles the leaves of trees; and each of the birds would whistle and sing.’ This must have been a truly magical vision--a combination of incredible craftsmanship and ingenious mechanics that displayed the achievements of Baghdadi culture to the full. 

“The next palace was less subtle in its message; its walls were hung with thousands of pieces of armour--golden breastplates, leather shields, ornamental quivers and bows--and its corridors were lined with a countless number of slaves of different races, handpicked to demonstrate the breadth of Muslim dominions. After an exhausting tour of no less than twenty-three palaces in the sweltering July heat, alleviated only by occasional drinks of sherbet and iced water, the ambassadors were finally led into the presence of the Caliph al-Muqtadir. They found him sitting on an ebony throne upholstered in cloth of gold, flanked by five of his sons. 

“This journey through the corridors of Islamic power was designed to show the Byzantine ambassadors that the Abbasid caliphate was still a force to be reckoned with, even though it had lost large chunks of its former territories--at its height, the Islamic Empire had stretched from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Himalayas. It could still conjure lions, elephants and fire breathers from India; it could still put on a show. And its capital city, Baghdad, was still an important centre of scholarship. 

“But it was in decline. Only a century earlier, Baghdad had been at the peak of its golden age, unrivalled anywhere in the world for its beauty and sophistication, scholarship and wonder. In the heady first century of Abbasid rule, the caliph, as God's deputy on earth, was an exceptionally splendid and powerful ruler. In this early period, three caliphs made a particular impact: Al-Mansur (714-775), the second ruler of the dynasty, who founded Baghdad and became an inspirational patron of scholarship; his grandson, Harun al-Rashid (763-809), most famous now for the entertaining yet largely fictional depiction of his adventures in the One Thousand and One Nights, who was a fearsome warrior and a global leader, but also a passionate supporter of scholarship; and finally, Harun's son, the Caliph al-Ma'mun (786-833), under whose aegis Baghdad attracted the greatest minds of the day, and who, through a combination of wealth, enlightenment, curiosity and ambition, propelled human knowledge forwards.”



Violet Moller


The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand-Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found




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