Gaston Wiet. Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate.
Univ of Oklahoma
Press. Chpt. 5
THE GOLDEN AGE THE GOLDEN AGE OF ARAB AND ISLAMIC CULTURE
"Baghdad, at the confluence of two cultures, Aramaean and Greek, became, in the tenth
century, the intellectual center of the world."
As capital of the caliphate, Baghdad was also to become the cultural capital of the Islamic
Our purpose is to show, as briefly as possible, the role that this region played in the
transmission of the knowledge of antiquity, in the evolution of religious attitudes, and in the
flowering of Arabic literature. We shall not try to find out, any more than did the caliphs of the
period, whether the actors were Iranians, Arabs, Moslems, Christians, or Jews. Men of letters
and of science had gathered in this city either through cultural affinity or because they had been
summoned to the caliph's court for their worth or their competence.
An effort was made to keep the language and the religion at an indispensable cultural level.
In reality, there was but a single aim: It was necessary to study the structure and the rules of
the language of the Koran in order to have the language respected and understood. We shall
not spend too much time on the grammatical work, since we want to follow the more universal
tendencies, especially in their influence on medieval Europe. We shall mention only Khalil, the
inventor of Arabic prosody, the first author of a dictionary, and especially his pupil Sibawaih,
who has the distinction of having codified definitively all the problems of grammar. Later,
Mubarrad wrote a work which is not only didactic but a valuable collection of poetic quotations.
He also shares with his rival and contemporary, Tha'lab, the honor of having contributed to the
philological training of several poets.
Some authors wrote the biography of Mohammed in the broad sense, by including the
literature of the hadith, "The Conversations of the Prophet." The names of two of the first
authors in this category should be remembered: Muhammad ibn Ishaq and Ibn Hisham. Two
of the founders of the four schools of jurisprudence lived in Baghdad and exerted decisive
influence there for a long time. Abu Hanifa is already known to us because of his material
participation in the founding of the city. He had the merit of integrating into the formalism of the
law a living element, which consisted of both an analogical method and, when necessary,
personal common sense. His tomb is still venerated in Baghdad. Opposed to this type of
thought stands Ibn Hanbal, whose followers were talked about a great deal during the early
centuries of the Mesopotamian city. This austere traditionalist was perhaps the victim of his
own work, which is nothing more than a collection of hadith. Indeed, he came to consider
tradition, after the Koran, as the only source of law. A fierce enemy of all innovation, Ibn Hanbal
created a puritan school within Islam, which still in our day inspires the people of the Saudi
kingdom. His tomb was in Baghdad too, but it has disappeared.
The first commentaries on the Koran were written in Baghdad but we shall not spend much
time on them. Religious circles were affected by a contemplative movement begun by the
Mutazilites, etymologically "those who keep to themselves," as they did during the political
quarrels which divided the Moslems the century before. The Mutazilites, preaching essentially
that God was a Perfect Being took no attributes other than his unity into account. This
conviction led the believers to deny the eternity of God's word; thus, for them, the text of the
Koran became a creation of the Divinity. This doctrine, with its appeal to reason, is particularly
important because three caliphs imposed it officially upon the people in a particularly
The religious spirit, moreover, was to be undermined by Jahiz and, even more violently, by
Razi. It was during this time that the doctor of laws, Ash'ari, sprang up from the Mutazilite
ranks. He dominated and definitively unified all the future beliefs of Islam. He is mentioned now
because he lived during this period, but his influence will be seen in the discussion of the Seljuk
period when his ideas had official approval.
During the two hundred years after AD. 750, the intellectual ferment did not lessen for a single
moment. Even limited to the names of those scholars, writers, and poets who absolutely should
be known, the list is an impressive one.
Even before the founding of Baghdad, whose well-earned fame grew for at least four
centuries, the caliph Mansur sullied his own reputation by having Ibn Muqaffa', the creator of
secular Arabic prose, put to death for what were probably political reasons. The writer was only
thirty-six years old when he was executed in 757. The caliph thus did away with the reputed
translator of the Fables of Bidpai, known today under the title of Kalila and Dimna. It is a
masterpiece of Arabic prose, whose literary qualities have never been denied by Arab
Mamun was the caliph who was largely responsible for cultural expansion. An Arab
historian states the following: "He looked for knowledge where it was evident, and thanks to
the breadth of his conceptions and the power of his intelligence, he drew it from places where
it was hidden. He entered into relations with the emperors of Byzantium, gave them rich gifts,
and asked them to give him books of philosophy which they had in their possession. These
emperors sent him those works of Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, Euclid, and Ptolemy
which they had. Mamun then chose the most experienced translators and commissioned them
to translate these works to the best of their ability. After the translating was done as perfectly
as possible, the caliph urged his subjects to read the translations and encouraged tbem to
study them. Consequently, the scientific movement became stronger under this prince's reign.
Scholars held high rank, and the caliph surrounded himself with learned men, legal experts,
traditionalists, rationalist theologians, lexicographers, annalists, metricians, and genealogists.
He then ordered instruments to be manufactured."
Astronomical observation was begun in Baghdad in an observatory in the Shammasiya
section, on the left bank of the Tigris, east of Rusafa. The staff set to work measuring the
ecliptic angle and fixing the position of the stars. In addition, the caliph ordered that two
terrestrial degrees be calculated in order to determine the length of the solar year. (This work
was not to be taken up again for seven centuries.) The engineer Ibrahim Fazari, who helped
plan the founding of Baghdad, was the first in the Arab world to make astrolabes. (The
Bibliothque Nationale in Paris has perhaps the oldest instrument of this type, one dating from
the year 905. It was probably made in Baghdad, since it has on it the name of an heir apparent
to the caliphate, a son of the caliph Muktafi.).
People of the West should publicly express their gratitude to the scholars of the Abbasid
period, who were known and appreciated in Europe during the Middle Ages. There were the
astronomer al-Khwarizmi (850), from whose name comes the word "algorithm"; Farghani,
whom we call Alfraganus (about 850); the physician Yahya ibn Masawayh, called Mesua in the
West; the astronomer Abu Ma'shar, the Albumasar of the Europeans (about 996).
The caliph Mamun was responsible for the translation of Greek works into Arabic. He founded
in Baghdad the Academy of Wisdom, which took over from the Persian university of
Jundaisapur and soon became an active scientific center. The Academy's large library was
enriched by the translations that had been undertaken. Scholars of all races and religions were
invited to work there. They were concerned with preserving a universal heritage, which was not
specifically Moslem and was Arabic only in language. The sovereign had the best qualified
specialists of the time come to the capital from all parts of his empire. There was no lack of
talented men. The rush toward Baghdad was as impressive as the horsemen's sweep through
entire lands during the Arab conquest. The intellectuals of Baghdad eagerly set to work to
discover the thoughts of antiquity.
Harun al-Rashid, Mamun's father, was particularly interested in the physicians brought to his
capital. The physicians who had become justly famous under the first caliphs of Baghdad had
been students at the Persian school of Jundaisapur. The first representative of the famous
Bakhtyashu family came from this school, too. The family furnished physicians to the Abbasid
court for more than 250 years. The biography of one of them indicates that the examination of
urine was a common practice.
The Nestorian Christian, Yahya ibn Masawayh, wrote many works on fevers, hygiene, and
dietetics. His was the first treatise on ophthalmology, but he was soon surpassed in this field
by his famous pupil, Hunain ibn Ishaq. Their books are of special value since there is no Greek
treatise on the subject.
Particular mention should be made of the man to whom Arab science owes so much, the man
who could be called the father of Arab medicine, Hunain ibn Ishaq, also a Christian. In medieval
Latin translations he was known as Johannitius. For him the caliph Mutawakkil restored the
translation bureau, which had been originally established by Mamun. Not only did Hunain work
at translations, but he directed a team of scholars. His enthusiasm was responsible for great
progress. He can be credited with having greatly increased the scientific knowledge of the
Arabs. By inventing medical and philosophical terms, he was largely instrumental in forming a
scientific language. Thanks to him and his collaborators, Arab writers formed the cultural
avant-garde for a century or two. In the field of morals, this school was the first to translate the
Razi, the physician of genius known in medieval Europe as Rhazes, profited greatly from these
works. His own medical work was extensive. This fine clinician, who had universal interests,
had his differences with the Moslem religion because he was opposed to all dogmatism. For
this reason, extremely violent diatribes were directed against him.
The way in which the caliph Mamun kindled the enthusiasm of others is admirable. Three
brothers, the sons of Musa ibn Shakir, sought to distinguish themselves by giving fabulous
sums of money to collect manuscripts and to bring translators together. The Banu Musa were
themselves scholars who made advances in mathematics and astronomy.
Kindi, who was to be known to posterity by the honorary title "philosopher of the Arabs," lived
in Baghdad in this richly intellectual milieu. Because of his Mutazilite convictions, he attained
the threefold position of translator, teacher, and astrologer. With him, "Arab intelligence rises
to the level of philosophy." Of the role he played, it is enough to say that he was the creator of
a doctrine that was to flourish in Arab philosophy, the idea of conciliation between the positions
of Aristotle and Plato.
Kindi's successor, Farabi, who lived in later years at the court of the Hamdanid princes in
Aleppo, had his early training in Baghdad. Without detracting from Kindi's merit, a pre-eminent
place must be given to Farabi, who, with his more scientific mind, was the true creator of Arab
peripateticism. This "second master," after Aristotle, continued along Kindi's path, too, in
affirming the similarity of Aristotle's and Plato's views. In addition, he adopted the platonic
theory of emanation. His Model City is an adapta-ion from Greek philosophy in which he
describes his conception of the perfect city. This scholar, who was also an ecellent music
theorist, contributed to the evolution of philosophical language. This master of logic also
created a harmonious system that was a credit to his merit, his rigor, and his knowledge.
In the meantime, the paper industry was born. After the battle of Talas in the Ili Valley at the
end of the Umayyad period, a Chinese prisoner of war had been brought to Samarkand. There
he began a paper industry using linen and hemp, imitating what he had seen in his own
country. In 795, mention is made of the creation of the first paper factory in Baghdad. For a
long time Samarkand remained the center of the industry, but, in addition to Baghdad, paper
was manufactured in Damascus, Tiberias, Tripoli in Syria, Yemen, the Maghreb, and Egypt.
The city of Jativa in Spain was famous for its thick, glazed paper.
After the appearance of paper, the number of manuscripts multiplied from one end of the
Moslem empire to the other. This prosperous period for the publishing and selling of books was
essential for cultural development. Paper was, therefore, of prime importance in the ninth
century. From then on the book business was established in the Orient. However, we do not
know whether the publishing was done by the author, a specialized merchant, or both at the
same time. Well-stocked bookshops were often set up around the main mosque. Scholars and
writers met in them, and copyists were hired there. In addition to the public libraries open to
everyone, Jean Sauvaget, quoting an Arab source, spoke of "reading rooms where anyone,
after paying a fee, could consult the work of his choice."
Readers squabbled over works copied by well-known calligraphers, whose names were
scrupulously recorded in the chronicles. The main libraries had their official copyists and their
appointed binders. Wealthy writers had teams of such people.
As is well known from monuments and manuscripts, calligraphy was an important art in
Moslem countries. The most famous of the calligraphers of the time was Ibn Muqla, who was
unfortunate enough to have been the vizier of three caliphs, an honor that earned him the cruel
punishment of having his right hand amputated. It is said that he attached a reed pen to his arm
and wrote so well that there was no difference between the way he wrote before and after he
lost his hand.
Baghdad had become an intellectual metropolis, an achievement which was to overshadow
the elorts made by its two rival cities, Kufa and Basra. The work of the en- thusiastic translators
was only the beginning; there was a very intimate rapport between the Arab writers and Greek
thought, and the attempted assimilation was often quite successful.
A little later, there also developed in Baghdad the famous quarrel between the partisans of
culture stemming from the text of the Koran and the pre-Islam poets and their adversaries, the
writers of Persian origin who controlled the administration of the caliphate. The writers' leader,
Sahl ibn Harun, was director of the Academy of Wisdom, which played a considerable role in
literature. The discussions, which were very violent at times, were favorable to the development
of Arab literature. The "Arab" party, if it can be called that, defended itself stubbornly and
glorified as well as it could its religious position which made of the Koran a revelation in the
Arabic language. It also exalted its ancient poems, which were not really under attack. Both
sides carried on the entire campaign in Arabic. Thus adversaries and partisans of Arab
intellectual life agreed in honoring Arabic.
In two of his letters, Ibn Muqaffa' freely used the Arabic word adab, a term which needs some
explanation since it covers a wide variety of ideas, such as to conform to the dictates of a strict
religious spirit, to adhere to the customs of polite society. The term is somewhat similar to the
ancient arete, with the omission of military courage. There are the same elements of practical
morals, the feeling for justice, strength of soul, and piety. Good manners and courtesy became
almost a technique and were, together with pure morality, the basis of Moslem education. But
under the influence of the desire for cultural attainment, the term acquired a figurative sense
which necessarily included the knowledge of Arab philosophy, of poetry and ancient stories,
and of stylistic elegance.
Under the Abbasids, there was also the social advancement of administrative secretaries,
which enabled them to succeed the poets of an earlier period, who had been the only ones to
earn their living in the field of letters. Thereafter the scholars, mathematicians, astronomers,
astrologers, and translators of the works of Greek antiquity were supported by the first caliphs
The political history of this period is rather bleak. If only the succession of events were to be
taken into consideration, we would have a false view of the cultural civilization under the
Moreover, the Iranization of the empire had an influence on the way of thinking, feeling, and
writing. The discovery of Sassanian antiquity and Hellenic thought at the same time added
fresh impetus. In the field of literature, there was a somewhat coordinated Iranophile movement
called shu'ubiya. It consisted of a reaction, not always calm or tender, against Arab domination,
both political and cultural. The promoter of this anti-Arab opposition was Sahl ibn Harun,
director of the Academy of Wisdom, but in all fairness it should be said that even before him
there were members of the fabulous Barmekid family who were prominent during Harun
al-Rashid's reign because of their omnipotence and their tragic fate. They realized that poets
played the same role as modern journalists. Poets should not, therefore, be led to oppose the
regime. These great ministers were also famous for their broad tolerance; that the underlying
motive was either coolness toward Islam or faithfulness to Iranian beliefs does not alter the
facts. We know, for example, that a number of famous disputants among Islamic theologians,
free-thinkers, and doctors of different sects met at the home of the educated and enlightened
Yahya, the grandson of Barmek.
Thus, in ninth-century Baghdad a fertile literary center was formed which lighted the way for
Arab letters. Poetry continued to be cultivated with the same care. The poets of the Abbasid
period were worthy of their great ancestors of pre-Islamic times and of the Umayyad court. A
list of the poets of genius would include: Bashshar ibn Burd, who died in 783, the
standard-bearer of the shu' ubiya and an erotic poet of great talent and robustness whose
capabilities were rather disturbing from a religious point of view; Muti' ibn Iyas, who died in 787
as famous for his debauchery as for his blasphemy, as skillful in praising as in attacking; Saiyid
Himyari, who died in 789 a more or less sincere panegyrist, who sought protection in the
traditional way, who is particularly praised by the critics for his simplicity of style, and, as far as
we are concerned, who escaped banality by his Shi'ite convictions, by the variety of his poetic
themes, and by his artistic qualities; Abbas ibn Ahnaf, who died in 808 who speaks of the
"power of love," always expressed his thoughts delicately and thus stands in opposition to the
licentious poets who surrounded him, which explains his success in Spain; Abu Nuwas, who
died in 8I3, the singer of the joy of living, the greatest Bacchic poet in the Arabic language, a
sensual, debauched devil who became a hermit toward the end of his life and left a number of
Muti' ibn Iyas and Abu Nuwas, two great Iyric poets, had a pronounced taste for scandal and
blasphemy. It would be an exaggeration to claim that they represented fairly accurately a
certain aspect of Baghdad society. Yet, the smutty tales of the Book of Songs prove that the
upper bourgeoisie was hardly overcome with moral scruples. Drunkenness was common, it
seems, and perhaps even more violent thrills were sought. These poems, however, should be
taken into account as a reflection of a part of society which was hungry for pleasure.
Our honors list also includes Muslim ibn Walid, who died in 823 author of love poems and
drinking songs; Abu Tammam (843) and Buhturi (897), famous for their original odes and their
anthologies of poetry; Di'bil (960), who lived in peril because he associated with robbers and
wrote satires in truculent and unpolished language; Ibn Rumi (896), whose verses include
philosophical ideas and a close look at reality and whose satires are fine and cruel without
being vulgar; Ibn Mu'tazz (908), who was caliph for one day and paid for it with his life, who,
as a poet of transition, painted the society around him, describing the caliph's palaces in a
rather delicate style, and who, in a moving poem, gave a glimpse of the future decadence of
the caliphate; Ibn Dawud (9I0), leader of the school of courtly love and early ancestor of our
troubadours; and, above all, the peerless Abul-Atahiya (825), the earliest Arab
philosopher-poet, who wrote of suffering in verses that proclaim the vanity of the joys of this
The anthologies of these poets were compiled perhaps to combat the Iranian spirit of the
shu'ubiya in an attempt to conserve the masterpieces of the pre-Islamic period.
Songs and music are perhaps more important in Baghdad than in other regions of the Moslem
world. There are great names in the field of theory, Farabi for example, and in composition, the
Mausilis, father and son, and Ibrahim ibn Mahdi, the ephemeral caliph. During the reigns of
several Abbasid caliphs, the Mausilis delighted the court of Baghdad. Ibrahim (804) had been
the favorite of the caliphs Mahdi, Hadi, and Harun al-Rashid; he was the hero of some rather
racy adventures. He led his musicians with a baton and was perhaps the first orchestra
conductor. The great historian Ibn Khaldun wrote, "The beautiful concerts given at Baghdad
have left memories that still last."
Several poets gave accounts of the lives of the gay blades and the tough characters who
frequented the cabarets of the capital. One small work, by Washsha, contains a sketch of the
worldly manners and customs of the refined class of Baghdad and is a veritable manual of the
life of the dandies of the period. It also gives minute details on dress, furniture, gold and silver
utensils, cushions, and curtains, with their appropriate inscnptions.
Another writer, Azdi, who is reminiscent of Villon, describes the society of debauched
party-goers. His poems are difficult to translate because of their truculence, their strong
language, and their defiance of decent morals.
We should not be too surprised at the contrast between the studious world of the translator and
the medical specialists and that of the writers of licentious poetry who sang, with some talent,
of pleasure and debauchery and bragged of overtly displayed corruption.
The Abbasid golden age gave rise to a capable and imposing group of translators, who tried
successfully to regain the heritage of antiquity. Men of letters took advantage of this substantial
contribution. They entered into passionate and fruitful discussions, which were dominated by
the astonishing personality of Jahiz (d.868). He is probably the greatest master of prose in all
Arab literature. He was a prolific writer with a vast field of interest. In addition, his Mutazilite
convictions made him a literary leader. In order to describe reality, he broke with a tradition
which was bound to the past. He laid the foundations of a humanism which was almost
exclusively Arab and hostile to Persian interference at the beginning, and which took on more
and more Greek coloration later on. His love of knowledge and his great intellectual honesty
are evident on every page of his works. Jahiz is outstanding because of his exceptional genius,
his qualities of originality, and his art in handling an often cruel and sometimes disillusioned
irony, in which he was more successful than any writer before him. Jahiz pushed sarcasm to
the point of mocking irreverence toward Divinity, more in the style of Lucian than of Voltaire.
It is due to the tremendous talent of this prodigious artist that Arabic prose became more
important than poetry.
Another great writer, Ibn Qutaiba, ranks high, immedi- ately after Jahiz, whom he survived by
about twenty years (d.88g). He too had an intellectually curious mind which made him a
grammarian, a philologist, a lexicographer, a literary critic, a historian, and an essayist. In
literature, he is an advocate of conciliation, through conviction and not lassitude, and a partisan
of the golden mean. His Book Of Poetry, which shows him to be a creator of the art of poetry,
contains judgments of great value.
Ibn Duraid is worthy of mention because of the role re- cently attributed to him by an Arab critic
as creator of the Maqama, of the Seance, which will be discussed later. This philologist is one
of the last contestants in a battle which, during his lifetime, interested very few men of letters,
the battle against Iranophilia.
Mas'udi must certainly not be neglected, not only because he was born in Baghdad but
because this tireless traveler has left us a most interesting account of the history of the Abbasid
The writer of memoirs, Suli, is of interest because he speaks of events of which he was a sad
and, at times, indignant witness. His contemporary, Mas'udi, says, "He reports details which
have escaped others and things which he alone could have known."
The date of Tanukhi's death (994) places him in the Buyid period, as does his style, but in one
of his works he speaks especially of the upheaval during Muqtadir's reign. Although it was
meant to entertain, this book, written in a lively style, contains a good deal of solid judgment.
Another short work consists of a series of amusing, merry stories which, if taken too seriously,
might give a disturbing picture of the Baghdad bourgeoisie. It is dangerous to generalize, since
the book is probably about a circle of party-goers and unscrupulous revelers. In short, reading
Tanukhi is quite arnusing.
It is impossible to mention all the prose writers who added to the glory of the ninth century in
the Arabic language. Those who spent several years in Baghdad profited from the
extraordinarily feverish atmosphere of the place. We must not omit Ya'qubi, the geographer,
who left us exciting pages on the founding of Baghdad, and Ibn Hauqal who used Baghdad as
the point of departure for his voyages.
The object of this resume is to show the splendor of the literary milieu of the time. Profiting
from circumstances which revealed the secrets of Hellenism to them, the writers became the
"keepers of Greek wisdom" and humanists of a cultural scope to be envied by future
The cultured residents of Baghdad liked their pleasure. They gathered secretly in cabarets,
and some of them met in Christian monasteries on the outskirts of the city. The Book of
Convents by Shabushti is really a description of the city's taverns. Wine was certainly drunk in
these places. The Bacchic poets of the time were there to testify to that. Snow sherbets were
eaten. Concerts were given in rooms cooled by punkahs. Abu Nuwas exclaims, "In how many
taverns did I land during the night cloaked in pitch-like blacknessl The cabaret owner kept on
serving me as I kept on drinking with a beautiful white girl close to us." Gambling houses were
also popular. Chess, especially, was highly favored and backgammon was second in popularity.
It is probable that the shadow-theater was a form of entertainment also.
The privileged at the caliph's court were probably invited to play polo or go hunting. Horse
racing for the aristocratic public and cock-fights and ram-fights for a lower level of society were
Popular entertainment was offered in public places. First there were the preachers, who not
only delivered homilies. Perhaps they also told stories, such as the ones which were the origin
of The Thousand and One Nights. Mas'udi writes, "In Baghdad, there was a street storyteller
who amused the crowd with all sorts of tales and funny stories. His name was Ibn Maghazili.
He was very amusing and could not be seen or heard without provoking laughter. As he told
his stories, he added many jokes which would have made a mourning mother laugh and would
have amused a serious man." There were also street hawkers who ofered extraordinary
products to their gaping customers. There was even a man with diseased eyes who sold
passers-by a cure for ophthalmia.
We should have liked to gather archaeological evidence about the city's past. There would
have been a great deal of it; the remains of Samarra could have supplied information not very
long ago. We should have liked to learn about the quality of an artistic civilization that we know
only through comments in books.
Our enthusiasm is somewhat satisfied by the beautiful descriptive poems by Buhturi, but it is
risky to depend upon poetry to analyze a piece of architecture or even to enjoy its decorative
We have no authentic documents from the earlier periods on the art of the city of Baghdad
itself, but we do have several vague but enthusiastic descriptions by writers. They speak of
porticoes and cupolas; they go on at length about the luxuriously rich furniture in the various
palaces, as we have seen in the description of the Byzantine ambassador's reception. Mural
paintings are especially mentioned.
At this point it is appropriate to add two quotations that contain a good deal of information. The
first is from the poet Bashshar ibn Burd, who was blind. He had ordered a vase from a Basra
potter and questioned the artisan about its decoration. The potter answered, "Flying birds." The
poet, thinking of the pouncing animal motif which was popular at the time, said, "You should
have put a predator above, ready to swoop down on them."
The great artist Abu Nuwas also clearly indicates the tastes of the time. "Wine flows among
us in an ornate goblet in which the Persians had carved all sorts of figures. Horse- men, at
Khosrau's side, aim at an antelope with their arrows."
Fortunately, the art of Samarra makes up in part for the gaps. This decoration on plaster is
bold, marked with holes, and is elegantly winding with deep, sinuous grooves. The paintings
of the palace of Samarra disappeared during World War I, and we know them only through the
publication by E. Herzfeld, who brought them to light. Some have remained famous and appear
in all the works dealing with Moslem frescoes. There are two women dancers who approach
each other and pour wine into a goblet. The flowers and the various animals recall the classic
art of the Hellenic east. But of particular interest is a solemn figure, draped in a robe decorated
with a wheel motif, whose shoulders are covered with a striped hood. This could very well
represent a monk. If so, it brings to mind the painting with which Mutawakkil, the inveterate
drunkard and persecutor of Shi'ites and non-Moslems, had his palace decorated. It was of an
assembly of monks in a church choir and was a copy of a fresco that he had admired in a
monastery in the suburbs of Baghdad.
In the third quarter of the tenth century, Mesopotamian painters were invited to Egypt to paint
frescoes. The story is told by Maqrizi, who refers to a History of Painters, which can be placed
in the eleventh century. The passage is reminiscent of Mesopotamia. The paintings of lapis
lazuli, vermilion, verdigris, and other colors were covered over with varnish. We are told that
the relief of these frescoes was remarkably executed in the style of the Basra painters.
Samarra sent for glassmakers and potters from Basra, and for more potters and color mixers
from Kufa. A Chinese text insists that Chinese artists taught painting in Akula (the Syriac name
for Kufa), in Lower Mesopotamia. The problem, which has not been solved, is an interesting
one since it concerns a region which later became famous for its book decorations.
Although we do not know exactly where these industries and crafts were located in the earlier
period, we know that Mesopotamia was much advanced in weaving and ceramic techniques
and in brick and wood sculpture.
Fortunately, an Arabic text tells of the quality of the ceramic mural tiles that were sent from the
Mesopotamian capital, along with other materials, to decorate the mihrab of the Great Mosque
of Qairawan: "These precious faence panels were imported for a reception room that the
Aghlabid emir wanted to build, and also beams of teakwood from which to make lutes. He had
the pulpit for the Great Mosque made of it. The mihrab was brought in the form of marble
panels from Iraq. He placed the faence tiles on the facade of the mihrab. A man from Baghdad
made tiles which he added to the first ones." And, indeed, Georges Mar,cais, who studied this
decoration carefully, wrote, "Two origins can be distinguished. One, with a more skillful and a
richer design using enamel of various colors, consisted of exotic pieces; the other, of simpler,
larger decorations in one color, consisted of locally manufactured pieces." We find "a very wide
decoration composed of very simple geometric com- binations interlaced with floral forms, as
in the linear groove decoration of columns and carved wood."
Many specimens of pieces of ceramic vessels were found in the Samarra excavations. These
too are of yellow and green glazed pottery. When the Arab historians describe the famous
Cupola of the Donkey, with its gently rising ramp, they speak also of the minaret with the spiral
ramp in the Samarra mosque.
All the briefly mentioned documents give evidence of a great unity of style, and Baghdad can
be credited with a floral decoration which, although already conventional, was not yet
Great admiration should be expressed for this civilization born in Baghdad. In this center of
universal culture were found polite manners, refinement, general education, and the
confrontation of religious and philosophical thought which made the Mesopotamian city the
queen of the world during that period.