The Umayyad Caliphate was on the brink of collapse during the reign of the caliph Yazid II up to the short-lived rule of Ibrahim. All four caliphs who ruled before Ibrahim died either from illness or violence, while Ibrahim himself was deposed by General Marwan bin Muhammad in 744 AD. Peace remained elusive for caliph Marwan as the Byzantine emperor, Constantine V, attacked the coast of Syria and defeated the Arab navy in 747 AD. The Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad later occurred around 850 AD according to the Bible Timeline with World History.
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The Umayyad rulers had been deeply unpopular for some time, and the naval defeat only added to Marwan’s demise. Two discontented factions rose in Khorasan and rebelled during the last years of Umayyad rule: the Shi’at Ali (Party of Ali) who believed that a descendant of Ali (Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin) was a more suitable replacement to Marwan and the Hashimites who were willing to appoint anyone from Muhammad’s clan, the Banu Hashim. The Hashimites voted one of the most prominent Banu Hashim clansmen, Abu al-Abbas, as their leader in 749 AD and assembled a large army to support him in ousting Marwan.
The conscripted army led by caliph Marwan and Abu al-Abbas’ rebel troops met in battle near the Tigris river in 750 AD. The battle resulted in the Umayyad recruits’ total defeat, and Marwan was forced to flee to several Middle Eastern cities until he finally reached Egypt. Abu al-Abbas’ assassins caught him hiding inside a Coptic church in Egypt and killed him; they later sent his decapitated head sent to al-Abbas in Kufa.
A massacre of the remaining members of the Umayyad family ensued after Marwan’s defeat. 20-year old Abd ar-Rahman survived after he hurriedly left Damascus with his brother and their Greek servant. They tried to flee into the Persian territory, but the assassins sent by Abu al-Abbas caught them near the banks of the Euphrates. The brothers and their servant jumped into the river to escape the assassins. His brother swam back to the bank after the assassins tricked him and was killed on the spot. The survivors continued their journey east but abruptly turned west toward Egypt and eventually to Ifriqiya. Back in Kufa, Abu al-Abbas invited all the remaining members of the Umayyad clan to a banquet as a sign of his goodwill and to offer amnesty. But the new ruler had all of his Umayyad guests killed as they feasted, and the festivities continued as before. The purge of Umayyads was finally complete. This cruelty earned Abu al-Abbas the title of al-Saffah or “the Slaughterer.”
Rise of the Abbasid Dynasty
Four years after his accession as caliph and the purge of the Umayyads, Abu al-Abbas died. This left the caliphate to his brother al-Mansur. The first Abbasid ruler governed from Kufa (modern-day Iraq), but al-Mansur moved the capital to Baghdad for one practical reason: it was the center of the trade route that crisscrossed the Euphrates and Tigris, as well as the caravan route from Syria and Egypt.
Meanwhile, ar-Rahman had arrived in the province of Al-Andalus (Spain) and declared himself the Emir (Prince) of Cordoba after he defeated Governor Al-Fihri. Ar-Rahman’s victory made Al-Andalus independent from the Abbasid caliphate in Kufa, and al-Mansur tried to reclaim the territory when news of ar-Rahman’s conquest reached him. He sent a sizable Abbasid army into the peninsula, but the new Emir of Cordoba and his troops defeated them in a battle in Seville.
The Abbasid caliph realized that Al-Andalus was not worth the trouble and focused instead on getting rid of enemies from within his empire. He ordered the massacre of prominent Shi’a leaders for their refusal to support his brother, the deceased al-Abbas, and those who dared rebel against his rule (as well as those suspected of dissent) were brutally punished. One good thing that he did was to take Baghdad out of the periphery and into the center stage of the Islamic world after he made it the capital of the Abbasid caliphate. Damascus reminded him too much of the Umayyads, and the city was too close for comfort to the Byzantines who had defeated the Arab navy less than forty years ago during the Second Siege of Constantinople. It was also too far from Persia where the Abbasid rulers had a strong power base and solid support from prominent Persian families.
It was said that the caliph traveled north to Mosul by following the banks of the Tigris in search of his new capital, but then ruled out the city because of the difficulty of transporting supplies. He chose the ancient city of Baghdad (then a Persian Hamlet) as his new capital in 762 AD for two reasons: the city was far from Kufa where Arab garrison troops and Shi’ites constantly rebelled, and during the eighth century, it was near the banks of Tigris which made the land very fertile. For Al-Mansur, it was perfect, and it was only second to the Byzantine capital in glory during the Medieval Period.
Al-Mansur had ordered his men to start the construction of the walls of the Round City of Baghdad (Madīnat as-Salām) when the descendants of Ali rebelled in Hijaz and Basra, but both were quickly quelled after the death of the Shi’ite leaders. As much as 100,000 men worked to build the walls of Madīnat as-Salām. B y 763 AD, the offices of Public Offices as well as the treasury were inside the new city instead of at Kufa. It took another three years before the construction of Madīnat as-Salām was finished.
In 775, al-Mansur traveled to Mecca for a pilgrimage, but he fell from his horse before he entered the city and died immediately. Al-Mansur reigned as the Abbasid caliph for twenty-two years and succeeded by his son, Muhammad bin Mansur (nicknamed al-Mahdi). The elder al-Mansur’s reign was characterized as gloomy and harsh, while al-Mahdi’s was the exact opposite. He also traveled to Mecca and visited his father’s grave, but he first needed to suppress a new revolt led by an “Al Muqanna” or the Veiled One. It was almost immediately quelled, and Al Muqanna was forced to take poison after he was cornered by al-Mahdi’s troops.
Harun Rules from Baghdad
Al-Mahdi also led an attack against the Byzantines in 780 AD with the help of his younger son, Harun, who was supported by his loyal Barmakid tutor Yahya bin Khalid. Harun became al-Mahdi’s favorite and preparations were underway to proclaim him as caliph when his father died by poisoning in 785 AD. The role of caliph fell to the older son, Musa. He was immediately tested when Shi’ites once again rose to rebel. The revolt was quashed, and Musa was about to proclaim his son as the next caliph when his own ambitious mother had him smothered in his sleep by the servants. Harun, his younger brother, became the caliph in 786 AD and took the title ar-Rashid (the Righteous). The new caliph immediately appointed Yahya as the chief minister which was a smart move as the Barmakid tutor helped him quash rebellions from within and guided him to victory against the Byzantines. Under Harun and with the guidance of Yahya, the Abbasid caliphate became a mighty force in the Middle East.
The prosperity of the caliphate was Harun’s primary concern, so he moved the capital from Baghdad to Ar-Raqqa where Arab merchants could be nearer to and take advantage of the profitable trade with the Khazars and Scandinavians who had ventured south. He also established a good diplomatic relationship with the powerful Frankish king Charlemagne and Harun even gifted him with an Asian elephant which the king took with him on a campaign against the Scandinavians. Harun became one of the richest men of the land (if not the richest), and his legendary wealth and personality became the inspiration for the Arabian Nights.
When the Tibetans threatened the Abbasids’ eastern frontier, Harun acted immediately and ordered additional fortifications for the border. His troops also overpowered the Byzantines and forced Nikephoros I to send a hefty tribute for peace—a sizable annual sum that added to his legendary wealth. But all was not well within the caliphate after Harun saw that Yahya had become popular among the people. He had the chief minister thrown into prison and the rest of the Barmakids stripped of their positions and properties. Yahya died in prison in 805/6 and his family, as well as their followers, never regained their affluence.
Harun and his troops traveled to Khorasan in 809 AD to quash a rebellion in the area, but he never arrived at his destination. The caliph died at a town called Tus and left behind a fortune that made him one of the richest men on earth during the Medieval Period. But Harun’s death would herald the long decline of the Abbasids after his sons, al-Amin and al-Mamun, fought for the right to rule the caliphate. Harun’s confusing succession arrangement sparked the row between the two brothers and the conflict escalated into full-blown war in the same year. Al-Mamun besieged Baghdad until his brother was forced to flee from the city, but was caught and killed by assassins near the Tigris river. Al-Mamun was now free to rule as Caliph of Abbasid Baghdad, but his rule would be challenged by the other prominent dynasties of the Islamic world.
During the early years of the 10th century, the Abbasid caliphs became mere figureheads for Turkish kingmakers in Baghdad and Samarra, while patches of Islamic lands were ruled by different families. It included the Fatimid Dynasty of North Africa, the Shi’a Buyid Dynasty that held the real power in Baghdad, the Samanids in greater Persia, the Saffarids in the south, and the Hamdanids in Aleppo. The Abbasid Dynasty continued to rule as caliphs (this time, in name only) from Baghdad until the rise of the Seljuk Turks in the 11th century.
Picture By Ferdinand Keller – Sotheby’s London, 13.June 2006, lot 236 via ARCADJA auction results, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28397584
Al-Ṭabarī. “The History of Al-Ṭabarī.” Internet Archive. Accessed August 17, 2016. https://archive.org/stream/swordofislam030787mbp#page/n155/mode/1uphttp://kalamullah.com/Books/The History Of Tabari/Tabari_Volume_28.pdf.
Le Strange, Guy. “Baghdad during the Abbasid Caliphate from Contemporary Arabic and Persian Sources.” Internet Archive. Accessed August 17, 2016. https://archive.org/stream/BaghdadDuringTheAbbasidCaliphateFromContemporaryArabicAndPersian/LeStrange_Baghdad_Abbasid#page/n61/mode/1up.
Wollaston, Arthur N. “The Sword Of Islam.” The Sword Of Islam. Accessed August 17, 2016. https://archive.org/stream/swordofislam030787mbp#page/n155/mode/1up.
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