empires OVER the two millennia that followed the establishment of empires in Mesopotamia, various attempts at empire-building took place across the region and in the area to the west and east of it. By the sixth century BCE, Iranians had established control over major parts of the Assyrian empire. Networks of trade developed overland, as well as along the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea. In the eastern Mediterranean, Greek cities and their colonies benefited from improvements in trade that were the result of these changes. They also benefited from close trade with nomadic people to the north of the Black Sea. In Greece, for the most part, city-states such as Athens and Sparta were the focus of civic life. From among the Greek states, in the late fourth century BCE, the ruler of the kingdom of Macedon, Alexander, undertook a series of military campaigns and conquered parts of North Africa, West Asia and Iran, reaching up to the Beas. Here, his soldiers refused to proceed further east. Alexander’s troops retreated, though many Greeks stayed behind. Throughout the area under Alexander’s control, ideals and cultural traditions were shared amongst the Greeks and the local population. The region on the whole became ‘Hellenised’ (the Greeks were called Hellenes), and Greek became a well-known language throughout. The political unity of Alexander’s empire disintegrated quickly after his death, but for almost three centuries after, Hellenistic culture remained important in the area. The period is often referred to as the ‘Hellenistic period’ in the history of the region, but this ignores the way in which other cultures (especially Iranian culture associated with the old empire of Iran) were as important as – if not often more important than – Hellenistic notions and ideas. This section deals with important aspects of what happened after this. Small but well-organised military forces of the central Italian city-state of Rome took advantage of the political discord that followed the disintegration of Alexander’s empire and established control over North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean from the second century BCE. At the time, Rome was a republic. Government was based on a complex system of election, but its political institutions gave some importance to birth and wealth and society benefited from slavery. The forces of Rome established a network for trade between the states that had once been part of Alexander’s empire. In the middle of the first century BCE, under Julius Caesar, a high-born military commander, this ‘Roman Empire’ was extended to present-day Britain and Germany. Latin (spoken in Rome) was the main language of the empire, though many in the east continued to use Greek, and the Romans had a great respect for Hellenic culture. There were changes in the political structure of the empire from the late first century BCE, and it was substantially Christianised after the emperor Constantine became a Christian in the fourth century ce. To make government easier, the Roman Empire was divided into eastern and western halves in the fourth century CE. But in the west, there was a breakdown of the arrangements that existed between Rome and the tribes in frontier areas (Goths, Visigoths, Vandals and others). These arrangements dealt with trade, military recruitment and Ruins at Greek city of Corinth. settlement, and the tribes increasingly attacked the Roman administration. Conflicts increased in scale, and coincided with internal dissensions in the empire, leading the collapse of the empire in the west by the fifth century CE. Tribes established their own kingdoms within the former empire, though, with the prompting of the Christian Church, a Holy Roman Empire was formed from some of these kingdoms from the ninth century CE. This claimed some continuity with the Roman Empire. Between the seventh century and the fifteenth century, almost all the lands of the eastern Roman Empire (centred on Constantinople) came to be taken over by the Arab empire – created by the followers of the Prophet Muhammad (who founded the faith of Islam in the seventh century) and centred on Damascus – or by its successors (who ruled from Baghdad initially). There was a close interaction between Greek and Islamic traditions in the region. The trading networks of the area and its prosperity attracted the attention of pastoral peoples to the north including various Turkic tribes, who often attacked the cities of the region and established control. The last of these peoples to attack the area and attempt to control it were the Mongols, under Genghis Khan and his successors, who moved into West Asia, Europe, Central Asia and China in the thirteenth century. All these attempts to make and maintain empires were driven by the search to control the resources of the trading networks that existed in the region as a whole, and to derive benefit from the links of the region with other areas such as India or China. All the empires evolved administrative systems to give stability to trade. They also evolved The Great Mosque, Damascus, completed in 714. different types of military organisation. The achievements of one empire were often taken up by its successor. Over time, the area came to be marked by Persian, Greek, Latin and Arabic above many other languages that were spoken and written. The empires were not very stable. This was partly due to disputes and conflict over resources in various regions. It was also due to the crisis that developed in relations between empires and pastoral peoples to the north – from whom empires derived support both for their trade and to provide them with labour for production of manufactures and for their armies. It is worth noting that not all empires were city-centric. The Mongol empire of Genghis Khan and his successors is a good example of how an empire could be maintained by pastoral people for a long time and with success. Religions that appealed to peoples of different ethnic origins, who often spoke different languages, were important in the making of large empires. This was true in the case of Christianity (which originated in Palestine in the early first century CE) and Islam (which originated in the seventh century CE). Timeline ii This timeline focuses on kingdoms and empires. Some of these such as the Roman empire were very large, spreading across three continents. This was also the time when some of the major religious and cultural traditions developed. It was a time when institutions of intellectual activity emerged. Books were written and ideas travelled across continents. Some things that are now part of our everyday lives were used for the first time during this period. DATES 100-50 BCE AFRICA EUROPE Bananas introduced from Southeast Asia to East Africa through sea routes Spartacus leads revolt of about 100,000 slaves (73 BCE). 50-1 Cleopatra, queen of Egypt (51-30 BCE) Building of Colosseum in Rome 1-50 CE 50-100 100-150 Hero of Alexandria makes a machine that runs on steam Roman empire at is peak* 150-200 Ptolemy of Alexandria writes a work on geography. 200-250 250-300 300-350 Christianity introduced in Axum* (330) Constantine becomes emperor, establishes city of Constantinople 350-400 Roman empire divided into eastern and western halves 400-450 Vandals from Europe set up a kingdom in North Africa (429) Roman empire invaded by tribes from North and Central Europe 450-500 Conversion of Clovis of Gaul (France) to Christianity (496) 500-550 St Benedict establishes a monastery in Italy (526), St Augustine introduces Christianity in England (596), Gregory the Great (590) lays the foundations of the power of the Roman Catholic Church 550-600 600-650 Emigration (hijra) of some Muslims to Abyssinia (615) 650-700 Muslim Arabs sign treaty with Nubia, south of Egypt (652) Bede writes the History of the English Church and People 700-750 750-800 800-850 Rise of kingdom in Ghana Charlemagne, King of the Franks, crowned Holy Roman Emperor (800) 850-900 First Russian states founded at Kiev and Novgorod. 900-950 Viking raids across Western Europe 950-1000 1000-1050 Medical school set up in Salerno, Italy (1030) 1050-1100 Almoravid kingdom (1056-1147) extends from Ghana to southern Spain William of Normandy invades England and becomes king (1066). Proclamation of the first Crusade (1095) 1100-1150 Zimbabwe (1120-1450) emerges as a centre for the production of gold and copper artefacts, and of long-distance trade 1150-1200 Construction of the cathedral of Notre Dame begins (1163) 1200-1250 Christian churches established in Ethiopia (1200), kingdom of Mali in West Africa, with Timbuktu as a centre of learning St Francis of Assisi sets up a monastic order, emphasizing austerity and compassion (1209) Lords in England rebel against the king who signs the Magna Carta, accepting to rule according to law 1250-1300 Establishment of the Hapsburg dynasty that continued to rule Austria till 1918 DATES 100-50 BCE ASIA SOUTH ASIA Han empire in China, development of the Silk Route from Asia to Europe Bactrian Greeks and Shakas establish kingdoms in the northwest, the rise of the Satavahanas in the Deccan 50-1 Growing trade between South Asia, Southeast and East Asia, and Europe 1-50 CE Jesus Christ in Judaea, a province of the Roman empire, Roman invasion of Arabia (24) 50-100 The establishment of Kushana state in the north west and Central Asia 100-150 Paper invented in China (118), development of the first seismograph (132) 150-200 200-250 End of Han empire (221), Sasanid rule in Persia (226) 250-300 Tea at the royal court, China (262), use of the magnetic compass, China (270) 300-350 Chinese start using stirrups while riding horses* The establishment of the Gupta* dynasty (320) 350-400 Fa Xian travels from China to India (399) 400-450 450-500 Aryabhata, astronomer and mathematician 500-550 550-600 Buddhism introduced in Japan (594) Grand canal to transport grain built in China(584-618), by 5,000,000 workers over 34 years. Chalukya temples in Badami and Aihole 600-650 The Tang dynasty in China (618) Prophet Muhammad goes to Medina, the beginning of the Hijri era ( 622) Collapse of the Sasanian empire (642) Xuan Zang travels from China to India, Nalanda emerges as an important educational centre 650-700 The Umayyad caliphate (661-750) 700-750 A branch of the Umayyads conquers Spain, Tang dynasty established in China. Arabs conquer Sind (712) 750-800 Abbasid caliphate established and Baghdad becomes a major cultural and commercial centre 800-850 Khmer state founded in Cambodia (802) 850-900 The first printed book, China (868) 900-950 950-1000 Use of paper money in China 1000-1050 Ibn Sina, a Persian doctor, writes a medical text that is followed for centuries Mahmud of Ghazni raids the northwest, Alberuni travels to India, Rajarajesvara temple built at Thanjavur 1050-1100 Establishment of the Turkish empire by Alp Arslan (1075) 1100-1150 First recorded display of fireworks in China Kalhana writes the Rajatarangini 1150-1200 Angkor empire, Cambodia, at its height (1180), temple complex at Angkor Wat 1200-1250 Genghis Khan consolidates power (1206) Establishment of Delhi sultanate (1206) 1250-1300 Qubilai Khan, grandson of Genghis, becomes emperor of China Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) introduces new forms of poetry and music*, Sun temple at Konark DATES 100-50 BCE AMERICAS AUSTRALIA/PACIFIC ISLANDS 50-1 1-50 CE 50-100 100-150 150-200 200-250 250-300 ACTIVITY 300-350 City-state of Teotihuacan established in Mexico, with pyramid temples, Mayan ceremonial centres*, development of astronomy, pictorial script* Try and identify at least 5 events/ processes that would have involved the 350-400 movement of 400-450 peoples across regions/ 450-500 continents. What would have been 500-550 the significance 550-600 of these events/ processes? 600-650 650-700 700-750 750-800 800-850 850-900 900-950 950-1000 The first city is built in North America (c.990) Maori navigator from Polynesia ‘discovers’ New Zealand 1000-1050 1050-1100 Sweet potato (originally from South America), grown in the Polynesian islands 1100-1150 1150-1200 1200-1250 1250-1300 THEME 3 Papyrus scrolls. An Empire Across Three Continents THE Roman Empire covered a vast stretch of territory that included most of Europe as we know it today and a large part of the Fertile Crescent and North Africa. In this chapter we shall look at the way this empire was organised, the political forces that shaped its destiny, and the social groups into which people were divided. You will see that the empire embraced a wealth of local cultures and languages; that women had a stronger legal position then than they do in many countries today; but also that much of the economy was run on slave labour, denying freedom to substantial numbers of persons. From the fifth century on, the empire fell apart in the west but remained intact and exceptionally prosperous in its eastern half. The caliphate which you will read about in the next chapter built on this prosperity and inherited its urban and religious traditions. Roman historians have a rich collection of sources to go on, which we can broadly divide into three groups: (a) texts, (b) documents and (c) material remains. Textual sources include histories of the period written by contemporaries (these were usually called ‘Annals’, because the narrative was constructed on a year-by-year basis), letters, speeches, sermons, laws, and so on. Documentary sources include mainly inscriptions and papyri. Inscriptions were usually cut on stone, so a large number survive, in both Greek and Latin. The ‘papyrus’ was a reed-like plant that grew along the banks of the Nile in Egypt and was processed to produce a writing material that was very widely used in everyday life. Thousands of contracts, accounts, letters and official documents survive ‘on papyrus’ and have been published by scholars who are called ‘papyrologists’. Material remains include a very wide assortment of items that mainly archaeologists discover (for example, through excavation and field survey), for example, buildings, monuments and other kinds of structures, pottery, coins, mosaics, even entire landscapes (for example, through the use of aerial photography). Each of these sources can only tell us just so much about the past, and combining them can be a fruitful exercise, but how well this is done depends on the historian’s skill! Two powerful empires ruled over most of Europe,North Africa and the Middle East in the period between the birth of Christ and the early part of the seventh century, say, down to the 630s. The two empires were those of Rome and Iran. The Romans and Iranians were rivals and fought against each other for much of their history. Their empires lay next to each other, separated only by a narrow strip of land that ran along the river Euphrates. In this chapter we shall be looking at the Roman Empire, but we shall also refer, in passing, to Rome’s rival, Iran. If you look at the map, you will see that the continents of Europe and Africa are separated by a sea that stretches all the way from Spain in the west to Syria in the east. This sea is called the Mediterranean, and it was the heart of Rome’s empire. Rome dominated the Mediterranean and all the regions around that sea in both directions, north as well as south. To the north, the boundaries of the empire were formed by two great rivers, the Rhine and the Danube; to the south, by the huge expanse of desert called the Sahara. This vast stretch of territory was the Roman Empire. Iran controlled the whole area south of the Caspian Sea down to eastern Arabia, and sometimes large parts of Afghanistan as well. These two superpowers had divided up most of the world that the Chinese called Ta Ch’in (‘greater Ch’in’, roughly the west). MAP 1: Europe and North Africa *The Republic was the name for a regime in which the reality of power lay with the Senate, a body dominated by a small group of wealthy families who formed the ‘nobility’. In practice, the Republic represented the government of the nobility, exercised through the body called the Senate. The Republic lasted from 509 BC to 27 BC, when it was overthrown by Octavian, the adopted son and heir of Julius Caesar, who later changed his name to Augustus. Membership of the Senate was for life, and wealth and office-holding counted for more than birth.**A conscripted army is one which is forcibly recruited; military service is compulsory for certain groups or categories of the population. 60• THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY The Early Empire The Roman Empire can broadly be divided into two phases, ‘early’ and ‘late’, divided by the third century as a sort of historical watershed between them. In other words, the whole period down to the main part of the third century can be called the ‘early empire’, and the period after that the ‘late empire’. A major difference between the two superpowers and their respective empires was that the Roman Empire was culturally much more diverse than that of Iran. The Parthians and later the Sasanians, the dynasties that ruled Iran in this period, ruled over a population that was largely Iranian. The Roman Empire, by contrast, was a mosaic of territories and cultures that were chiefly bound together by a common system of government. Many languages were spoken in the empire, but for the purposes of administration Latin and Greek were the most widely used, indeed the only languages. The upper classes of the east spoke and wrote in Greek, those of the west in Latin, and the boundary between these broad language areas ran somewhere across the middle of the Mediterranean, between the African provinces of Tripolitania (which was Latin speaking) and Cyrenaica (Greek-speaking). All those who lived in the empire were subjects of a single ruler, the emperor, regardless of where they lived and what language they spoke. The regime established by Augustus, the first emperor, in 27 BCE was called the ‘Principate’. Although Augustus was the sole ruler and the only real source of authority, the fiction was kept alive that he was actually only the ‘leading citizen’ (Princeps in Latin), not the absolute ruler. This was done out of respect for the Senate, the body which had controlled Rome earlier, in the days when it was a Republic.* The Senate had existed in Rome for centuries, and had been and remained a body representing the aristocracy, that is, the wealthiest families of Roman and, later, Italian descent, mainly landowners. Most of the Roman histories that survive in Greek and Latin were written by people from a senatorial background. From these it is clear that emperors were judged by how they behaved towards the Senate. The worst emperors were those who were hostile to the senatorial class, behaving with suspicion or brutality and violence. Many senators yearned to go back to the days of the Republic, but most must have realised that this was impossible. Next to the emperor and the Senate, the other key institution of imperial rule was the army. Unlike the army of its rival in the Persian empire, which was a conscripted** army, the Romans had a paid professional army where soldiers had to put in a minimum of 25 years of service. Indeed, the existence of a paid army was a distinctive feature of the Roman Empire. The army was the largest single organised body in the empire (600,000 by the fourth century) and it certainly had the power to determine the fate of emperors. The soldiers would constantly agitate for better wages and service conditions. These agitations often took the form of mutinies, if the soldiers felt let down by their generals or even the emperor. Again, our picture of the Roman army depends largely on the way they were portrayed by historians with senatorial sympathies. The Senate hated and feared the army, because it was a source of often-unpredictable violence, especially in the tense conditions of the third century when government was forced to tax more heavily to pay for its mounting military expenditures. To sum up, the emperor, the aristocracy and the army were the three main ‘players’ in the political history of the empire. The success of individual emperors depended on their control of the army, and when the armies were divided, the result usually was civil war*. Except for one notorious year (69 CE), when four emperors mounted the throne in quick succession, the first two centuries were on the whole free from civil war and in this sense relatively stable. Succession to the throne was based as far as possible on family descent, either natural or adoptive, and even the army was strongly wedded to this principle. For example, Tiberius (14-37 CE), the second in the long line of Roman emperors, was not the natural son of Augustus, the ruler who founded the Principate, but Augustus adopted him to ensure a smooth transition. External warfare was also much less common in the first two centuries. The empire inherited by Tiberius from Augustus was already so vast that further expansion was felt to be unnecessary. In fact, the ‘Augustan age’ is remembered for the peace it ushered in after decades of internal strife and centuries of military conquest. The only major campaign of expansion in the early empire was Trajan’s fruitless occupation of territory across the Euphrates, in the years 113-17 CE abandoned by his successors. Shops in Forum Julium, Rome. This piazza with columns was built after 51 BCE, to enlarge the older Roman Forum. *Civil war refers to armed struggles for power within the same country, in contrast to conflicts between different countries. The Emperor Trajan’s Dream – A Conquest of India? Then, after a winter (115/16) in Antioch marked by a great earthquake, in 116 Trajan marched down the Euphrates to Ctesiphon, the Parthian capital, and then to the head of the Persian Gulf. There [the historian] Cassius Dio describes him looking longingly at a merchant-ship setting off for India, and wishing that he were as young as Alexander. – Fergus Millar, The Roman Near East. The Near East From the perspective of someone who lived in the Roman Mediterranean, this referred to all the territory east of the Mediterranean, chiefly the Roman provinces of Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia, and in a looser sense the surrounding territories, for example Arabia. *These were local kingdoms that were ‘clients’ of Rome. Their rulers could be relied on to use their forces in support of Rome, and in return Rome allowed them to exist. Pont du Gard, near Nimes, France, first century BCE. Roman engineers built massive aqueducts over three continents 62• THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY Much more characteristic was the gradual extension of Roman direct rule. This was accomplished by absorbing a whole series of ‘dependent’ kingdoms into Roman provincial territory. The Near East was full of such kingdoms*, but by the early second century those which lay west of the Euphrates (towards Roman territory) had disappeared, swallowed up by Rome. (Incidentally, some of these kingdoms were exceedingly wealthy, for example Herod’s kingdom yielded the equivalent of 5.4 million denarii per year, equal to over 125,000 kg of gold! The denarius was a Roman silver coin containing about 4½ gm of pure silver.) In fact, except for Italy, which was not considered a province in these centuries, all the territories of the empire were organised into provinces and subject to taxation. At its peak in the second century, the Roman Empire stretched from Scotland to the borders of Armenia, and from the Sahara to the Euphrates and sometimes beyond. Given that there was no government in the modern sense to help them to run things, you may well ask, how was it possible for the emperor to cope with the control and administration of such a vast and diverse set of territories, with a population of some 60 million in the mid-second century? The answer lies in the urbanisation of the empire. The great urban centres that lined the shores of the Mediterranean (Carthage, Alexandria, Antioch were the biggest among them) were the true bedrock of the imperial system. It was through the cities that ‘government’ was able to tax the provincial countrysides which generated much of the wealth of the empire. What this means is that the local upper classes actively collaborated with the Roman state in administering their own territories and raising taxes from them. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of Roman political history is the dramatic shift in power between Italy and the provinces. Throughout the second and third centuries, it was the provincial upper classes who supplied most of the cadre that governed the provinces and commanded the armies. They came to form a new elite of administrators and military commanders who became much more powerful than the senatorial class because they had the backing of the emperors. As this new group emerged, the emperor Gallienus (253-68) consolidated their rise to power by excluding senators from military command. We are told that Gallienus forbade senators from serving in the army or having access to it, in order to prevent control of the empire from falling into their hands. To sum up, in the late first, second and early third centuries the army and administration were increasingly drawn from the provinces, as citizenship spread to these regions and was no longer confined to Italy. But individuals of Italian origin continued to dominate the senate at least till the third century, when senators of provincial origin became a majority. These trends reflected the general decline of Italy within the empire, both political and economic, and the rise of new elites in the wealthier and more urbanised parts of the Mediterranean, such as the south of Spain, Africa and the east. A city in the Roman sense was an urban centre with its own magistrates, city council and a ‘territory’ containing villages which were under its jurisdiction. Thus one city could not be in the territory of another city, but villages almost always were. Villages could be upgraded to the status of cities, and vice versa, usually as a mark of imperial favour (or the opposite). One crucial advantage of living in a city was simply that it might be better provided for during food shortages and even famines than the countryside. The Doctor Galen on how Roman Cities Treated the Countryside The famine prevalent for many successive years in many provinces has clearly displayed for men of any understanding the effect of malnutrition in generating illness. The city-dwellers, as it was their custom to collect and store enough grain for the whole of the next year immediately after the harvest, carried off all the wheat, barley, beans and lentils, and left to the peasants various kinds of pulse – after taking quite a large proportion of these to the city. After consuming what was left in the course of the winter, the country people had to resort to unhealthy foods in the spring; they ate twigs and shoots of trees and bushes and bulbs and roots of inedible plants… – Galen, On Good and Bad Diet. Public baths were a striking feature of Roman urban life (when one Iranian ruler tried to introduce them into Iran, he encountered the wrath of the clergy there! Water was a sacred element and to use it for public bathing may have seemed a desecration to them), and urban populations also enjoyed a much higher level of entertainment. For example, one calendar tells us that spectacula (shows) filled no less than 176 days of the year! Amphitheatre at the Roman cantonment town of Vindonissa (in modern Switzerland), first century CE. Used for military drill and for staging entertainments for the soldiers. *Saint Augustine (354-430) was bishop of the North African city of Hippo from 396 and a towering figure in the intellectual history of the Church. Bishops were the most important religious figures in a Christian community, and often very powerful. 64• THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY The Third-Century Crisis If the first and second centuries were by and large a period of peace, prosperity and economic expansion, the third century brought the first major signs of internal strain. From the 230s, the empire found itself fighting on several fronts simultaneously. In Iran a new and more aggressive dynasty emerged in 225 (they called themselves the ‘Sasanians’) and within just 15 years were expanding rapidly in the direction of the Euphrates. In a famous rock inscription cut in three languages, Shapur I, the Iranian ruler, claimed he had annihilated a Roman army of 60,000 and even captured the eastern capital of Antioch. Meanwhile, a whole series of Germanic tribes or rather tribal confederacies (most notably, the Alamanni, the Franks and the Goths) began to move against the Rhine and Danube frontiers, and the whole period from 233 to 280 saw repeated invasions of a whole line of provinces that stretched from the Black Sea to the Alps and southern Germany. The Romans were forced to abandon much of the territory beyond the Danube, while the emperors of this period were constantly in the field against what the Romans called ‘barbarians’. The rapid succession of emperors in the third century (25 emperors in 47 years!) is an obvious symptom of the strains faced by the empire in this period. Gender, Literacy, Culture One of the more modern features of Roman society was the widespread prevalence of the nuclear family. Adult sons did not live with their families, and it was exceptional for adult brothers to share a common household. On the other hand, slaves were included in the family as the Romans understood this. By the late Republic (the first century BCE), the typical form of marriage was one where the wife did not transfer to her husband’s authority but retained full rights in the property of her natal family. While the woman’s dowry went to the husband for the duration of the marriage, the woman remained a primary heir of her father and became an independent property owner on her father’s death. Thus Roman women enjoyed considerable legal rights in owning and managing property. In other words, in law the married couple was not one financial entity but two, and the wife enjoyed complete legal independence. Divorce was relatively easy and needed no more than a notice of intent to dissolve the marriage by either husband or wife. On the other hand, whereas males married in their late twenties or early thirties, women were married off in the late teens or early twenties, so there was an age gap between husband and wife and this would have encouraged a certain inequality. Marriages were generally arranged, and there is no doubt that women were often subject to domination by their husbands. Augustine*, the great Catholic bishop who spent most of his life in North Africa, tells us that his mother was regularly beaten by his father and that most other wives in the small town where he grew up had similar bruises to show! Finally, fathers had substantial legal control over their children – sometimes to a shocking degree, for example, a legal power of life and death in exposing unwanted children, by leaving them out in the cold to die. What about literacy? It is certain that rates of casual literacy* varied greatly between different parts of the empire. For example, in Pompeii, which was buried in a volcanic eruption in 79 CE, there is strong evidence of widespread casual literacy. Walls on the main streets of Pompeii often carried advertisements, and graffiti were found all over the city. By contrast, in Egypt where hundreds of papyri survive, most formal documents such as contracts were usually written by professional scribes, and they often tell us that X or Y is unable to read and write. But even here literacy was certainly more widespread among certain categories such as soldiers, army officers and estate managers. The cultural diversity of the empire was reflected in many ways and at many levels: in the vast diversity of religious cults and local deities; the plurality of languages that were spoken; the styles of dress and costume, the food people ate, their forms of social *The use of reading and writing in everyday, often trivial, contexts. One of the funniest of these graffiti found on the walls of Pompeii says: ‘Wall, I admire you for not collapsing in ruins When you have to support so much boring writing on you.’ organisation (tribal/non-tribal), even their patterns of settlement. Aramaic was the dominant language group of the Near East (at least west of the Euphrates), Coptic was spoken in Egypt, Punic and Berber in North Africa, Celtic in Spain and the northwest. But many of these linguistic cultures were purely oral, at least until a script was invented for them. Armenian, for example, only began to be written as late as the fifth century, whereas there was already a Coptic Mosaic in Edessa, second century CE. The Syriac inscription suggests that those depicted are the wife of king Abgar and her family. Pompeii : a winemerchant’s dining-room, its walls decorated with scenes depicting mythical animals. Shipwreck off the south coast of France, first century BCE. The amphorae are Italian, bearing the stamp of a producer near the Lake of Fondi. translation of the Bible by the middle of the third century. Elsewhere, the spread of Latin displaced the written form of languages that were otherwise widespread; this happened notably with Celtic, which ceased to be written after the first century. Economic Expansion The empire had a substantial economic infrastructure of harbours, mines, quarries, brickyards, olive oil factories, etc. Wheat, wine and olive-oil were traded and consumed in huge quantities, and they came mainly from Spain, the Gallic provinces, North Africa, Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Italy, where conditions were best for these crops. Liquids like wine and olive oil were transported in containers called ‘amphorae’. The fragments and sherds of a very large number of these survive (Monte Testaccio in Rome is said to contain the remnants of over 50 million vessels!), and it has been possible for archaeologists to reconstruct the precise shapes of these containers, tell us what they carried, and say exactly where they were made by examining the clay content and matching the finds with clay pits throughout the Mediterranean. In this way we can now say with some confidence that Spanish olive oil, to take just one example, was a vast commercial enterprise that reached its peak in the years 140-160. The Spanish olive oil of this period was mainly carried in a container called ‘Dressel 20’ (after the archaeologist who first established its form). If finds of Dressel 20 are widely scattered across sites in the Mediterranean, this suggests that Spanish olive oil circulated very widely indeed. By using such evidence (the remains of amphorae of different kinds and their ‘distribution maps’), archaeologists are able to show that Spanish producers succeeded in capturing markets for olive oil from their Italian counterparts. This would only have happened if Spanish producers supplied a better quality oil at lower prices. In other words, the big landowners from different regions competed with each other for control of the main markets for the goods they produced. The success of the Spanish olive growers was then repeated by North African producers – olive estates in this part of the empire dominated production through most of the third and fourth centuries. Later, after 425, North African dominance was broken by the East: in the later fifth and sixth centuries the Aegean, southern Asia Minor (Turkey), Syria and Palestine became major exporters of wine and olive oil, and containers from Africa show a dramatically reduced presence on Mediterranean markets. Behind these broad movements the prosperity of individual regions rose and fell depending on how effectively they could organise the production and transport of particular goods, and on the quality of those goods. The empire included many regions that had a reputation for exceptional fertility. Campania in Italy, Sicily, the Fayum in Egypt, Galilee, Byzacium (Tunisia), southern Gaul (called Gallia Narbonensis), and Baetica (southern Spain) were all among the most densely settled or wealthiest parts of the empire, according to writers like Strabo and Pliny. The best kinds of wine came from Campania. Sicily and Byzacium exported large quantities of wheat to Rome. Galilee was densely cultivated (‘every inch of the soil has been cultivated by the inhabitants’, wrote the historian Josephus), and Spanish olive oil came mainly from numerous estates (fundi) along the banks of the river Guadalquivir in the south of Spain. On the other hand, large expanses of Roman territory were in a much less advanced state. For example, transhumance* was widespread in the countryside of Numidia (modern Algeria). These pastoral and semi-nomadic communities were often on the move, carrying their oven-shaped huts (called mapalia) with them. As Roman estates expanded in North Africa, the pastures of those communities were drastically reduced and their movements more tightly regulated. Even in Spain the north was much less developed, and inhabited largely by a Celtic-speaking peasantry that lived in hilltop villages called castella. When we think of the Roman Empire, we should never forget these differences. We should also be careful not to imagine that because this was the ‘ancient’ world, their forms of cultural and economic life were necessarily backward or primitive. On the contrary, diversified applications of water power around the Mediterranean as well as advances in water-powered milling technology, the use of hydraulic mining techniques in the Spanish gold and silver mines and the gigantic industrial scale on which those mines were worked in the first and second centuries (with levels of output that would not be reached again till the nineteenth century, some 1,700 years later!), the existence of well-organised commercial and banking networks, and the widespread use of money are all indications of how much we tend to under-estimate the sophistication of the Roman economy. This raises the issue of labour and of the use of slavery. *Transhumance is the herdsman’s regular annual movement between the higher mountain regions and low-lying ground in search of pasture for sheep and other flocks. Controlling Workers Slavery was an institution deeply rooted in the ancient world, both in the Mediterranean and in the Near East, and not even Christianity when it emerged and triumphed as the state religion (in the fourth century) seriously challenged this institution. It does not follow that the bulk of the labour in the Roman economy was performed by slaves. That may have On the Treatment of Slaves been true of large parts of Italy in the Republican‘Soon afterwards the City Prefect, period (under Augustus there were still 3 millionLucius Pedanius Secundus, was slaves in a total Italian population of 7.5 million) butmurdered by one of his slaves. After it was no longer true of the empire as a whole. Slavesthe murder, ancient custom were an investment, and at least one Romanrequired that every slave residing agricultural writer advised landowners against usingunder the same roof must be executed. But a crowd gathered, them in contexts where too many might be required eager to save so many innocent (for example, for harvests) or where their health could lives; and rioting began. The be damaged (for example, by malaria). These senate-house was besieged. Inside, considerations were not based on any sympathy forthere was feeling against excessive the slaves but on hard economic calculation. On the severity, but the majority opposed other hand, if the Roman upper classes were oftenany change (….) [The senators] brutal towards their slaves, ordinary people didfavouring execution prevailed. sometimes show much more compassion. See whatHowever, great crowds ready with one historian says about a famous incident thatstones and torches prevented the occurred in the reign of Nero.order from being carried out. Nero rebuked the population by edict, As warfare became less widespread with the and lined with troops the whole establishment of peace in the first century, the supply route along which those of slaves tended to decline and the users of slave condemned were taken for labour thus had to turn either to slave breeding* or execution.’ to cheaper substitutes such as wage labour which – Tacitus (55-117), historian of the was more easily dispensable. In fact, free labour was early empire. extensively used on public works at Rome precisely because an extensive use of slave labour would have been too expensive. Unlike hired workers, slaves had *The practice of to be fed and maintained throughout the year, which increased the encouraging female cost of holding this kind of labour. This is probably why slaves are not slaves and their widely found in the agriculture of the later period, at least not in thepartners to have eastern provinces. On the other hand, they and freedmen, that is, more children, who would of course also slaves who had been set free by their masters, were extensively used be slaves. as business managers, where, obviously, they were not required in large numbers. Masters often gave their slaves or freedmen capital to Opp page: Mosaic at run businesses on their behalf or even businesses of their own. Cherchel, Algeria, The Roman agricultural writers paid a great deal of attention to theearly third century CE, management of labour. Columella, a first-century writer who came with agricultural scenes. from the south of Spain, recommended that landowners should keep Above: Ploughing and a reserve stock of implements and tools, twice as many as they needed, sowing. so that production could be continuous, ‘for the loss in slave labour-Below: Working in time exceeds the cost of such items’. There was a general presumptionvineyards. among employers that without supervision no work would ever get done, so supervision was paramount, for both free workers and slaves. To make supervision easier, workers were sometimes grouped into gangs or smaller teams. Columella recommended squads of ten, claiming it was easier to tell who was putting in effort and who was not in work groups of this size. This shows a detailed consideration of the management of labour. Pliny the Elder, the author of a very famous ‘Natural History’, condemned the use of slave gangs as the worst method of organising production, mainly because slaves who worked in gangs were usually chained together by their feet. All this looks draconian*, but we should remember that most factories in the world today enforce similar principles of labour control. Indeed, some industrial establishments in the empire enforced even tighter controls. The Elder Pliny described conditions in the frankincense** factories (officinae) of Alexandria, where, he tells us, no amount of supervision seemed to suffice. ‘A seal is put upon the workmen’s aprons, they have to wear a mask or a net with a close mesh on their heads, and before they are allowed to leave the premises, they have to take off all their clothes.’ Agricultural labour must have been fatiguing and disliked, for a famous edict of the early third century refers to Egyptian peasants deserting their villages ‘in order not to engage in agricultural work’. The same was probably true of most factories and workshops. A law of 398 referred to workers being branded so they could be recognised if and when they run away and try to hide. Many private employers cast their agreements with workers in the form of debt contracts to be able to claim that their employees were in debt to them and thus ensure tighter control over them. An early, second-century writer tells us, ‘Thousands surrender themselves to work in servitude, although they are free.’ In other words, a lot of the poorer families went into debt bondage in order to survive. From one of the recently discovered letters of Augustine we learn that parents sometimes sold their children into servitude for periods of 25 years. Augustine asked a lawyer friend of his whether these children could be liberated once *Draconian: harsh (so-called because of an early sixth-century BCE Greek lawmaker called Draco, who prescribed death as the penalty for most crimes!). **Frankincense – the European name for an aromatic resin used in incense and perfumes. It is tapped from Boswellia trees by slashing the bark and allowing the exuded resins to harden. The best-quality frankincense came from the Arabian peninsula. *A rebellion in Judaea against Roman domination, which was ruthlessly suppressed by the Romans in what is called the ‘Jewish war’. *The equites, (‘knights’ or ‘horsemen’) were traditionally the second most powerful and wealthy group. Originally, they were families whose property qualified them to serve in the cavalry, hence the name. Like senators, most ‘knights’ were landowners, but unlike senators many of them were shipowners, traders and bankers, that is, involved in business activities. the father died. Rural indebtedness was even more widespread; to take just one example, in the great Jewish revolt of 66 CE* the revolutionaries destroyed the moneylenders’ bonds to win popular support. Again, we should be careful not to conclude that the bulk of labour was coerced in these ways. The late-fifth-century emperor Anastasius built the eastern frontier city of Dara in less than three weeks by attracting labour from all over the East by offering high wages. From the papyri we can even form some estimate of how widespread wage labour had become in parts of the Mediterranean by the sixth century, especially in the East. Social Hierarchies Let us stand back from the details now and try and get a sense of the social structures of the empire. Tacitus described the leading social groups of the early empire as follows: senators (patres, lit. ‘fathers’); leading members of the equestrian class; the respectable section of the people, those attached to the great houses; the unkempt lower class (plebs sordida) who, he tells us, were addicted to the circus and theatrical displays; and finally the slaves. In the early third century when the Senate numbered roughly 1,000, approximately half of all senators still came from Italian families. By the late empire, which starts with the reign of Constantine I in the early part of the fourth century, the first two groups mentioned by Tacitus (the senators and the equites*) had merged into a unified and expanded aristocracy, and at least half of all families were of African or eastern origin. This ‘late Roman’ aristocracy was enormously wealthy but in many ways less powerful than the purely military elites who came almost entirely from non-aristocratic backgrounds. The ‘middle’ class now consisted of the considerable mass of persons connected with imperial service in the bureaucracy and army but also the more prosperous merchants and farmers of whom there were many in the eastern provinces. Tacitus described this ‘respectable’ middle class as clients of the great senatorial houses. Now it was chiefly government service and dependence on the State that sustained many of these families. Below them were the vast mass of the lower classes known collectively as humiliores (lit. ‘lower’). They comprised a rural labour force of which many were permanently employed on the large estates; workers in industrial and mining establishments; migrant workers who supplied much of the labour for the grain and olive harvests and for the building industry; self-employed artisans who, it was said, were better fed than wage labourers; a large mass of casual labourers, especially in the big cities; and of course the many thousands of slaves that were still found all over the western empire in particular. One writer of the early fifth century, the historian Olympiodorus who was also an ambassador, tells us that the aristocracy based in the City of Rome drew annual incomes of up to 4,000 lbs of gold from theirestates, not counting the produce they consumed directly! The monetary system of the late empire broke with the silver-based currencies of the first three centuries because the Spanish silver mines were exhausted and government ran out of sufficient stocks of the metal to support a stable coinage in silver. Constantine founded the new monetary system on gold and there were vast amounts of this in circulation throughout late antiquity. The late Roman bureaucracy, both the higher and middle echelons, was a comparatively affluent group because it drew the bulk of its salary in gold and invested much of this in buying up assets like land. There was of course also a great deal of corruption, especially in the judicial system and in the administration of military supplies. The extortion of the higher bureaucracy and the greed of the provincial governors were proverbial. But government intervened repeatedly to curb these forms of corruption – we only know about them in the first place because of the laws that tried to put an end to them, and because historians and other members of the intelligentsia denounced such practices. This element of ‘criticism’ is a remarkable feature of the classical world. The Roman state was an authoritarian regime; in other words, dissent was rarely tolerated and government usually responded to protest with violence (especially in the cities of the East where people were often fearless in making fun of emperors). Yet a strong tradition of Roman law had emerged by the fourth century, and this acted as a brake on even the most fearsome emperors. Emperors were not free to do whatever they liked, and the law was actively used to protect civil rights. That is why in the later fourth century it was possible for powerful bishops like Ambrose to confront equally powerful emperors when they were excessively harsh or repressive in their handling of the civilian population. Late Antiquity We shall conclude this chapter by looking at the cultural transformation of the Roman world in its final centuries. ‘Late antiquity’ is the term now used to describe the final, fascinating period in the evolution and break-up of the Roman Empire and refers broadly to the fourth to seventh centuries. The fourth century itself was one of considerable ferment, both cultural and economic. At the cultural level, the period saw momentous developments in religious life, with the emperor Constantine deciding to make Christianity the official religion, and with the rise of Islam in the seventh century. But there were equally important changes in the structure of the state that began with the Incomes of the Roman Aristocracy, Early Fifth Century ‘Each of the great houses of Rome contained within itself everything which a medium-sized city could hold, a hippodrome, fora, temples, fountains and different kinds of baths… Many of the Roman households received an income of four thousand pounds of gold per year from their properties, not including grain, wine and other produce which, if sold, would have amounted to one-third of the income in gold. The income of the households at Rome of the second class was one thousand or fifteen hundred pounds of gold.’ – Olympiodorus of Thebes. emperor Diocletian (284-305), and it may be best to start with these. Overexpansion had led Diocletian to ‘cut back’ by abandoning territories with little strategic or economic value. Diocletian also fortified the frontiers, reorganised provincial boundaries, and separated civilian from military functions, granting greater autonomy to the military commanders (duces), who now became a more powerful group. Constantine consolidated some of these changes and added others of his own. His chief innovations were in the monetary sphere, where he introduced a new denomination, the solidus, a coin of 4½ gm of pure gold that would in fact outlast the Roman Empire itself. Solidi were minted on a very large scale and their circulation ran into millions. The other area of innovation was the creation of a second capital at Constantinople (at the site of modern Istanbul in Turkey, and previously called Byzantium), surrounded on three sides by the sea. As the new capital required a new senate, the fourth century was a period of rapid expansion of the governing classes. Monetary stability and an expanding population stimulated economic growth, and the archaeological record shows considerable investment in rural establishments, including industrial installations like oil presses and glass factories, in newer technologies such as screw presses and multiple water-mills, and in a revival of the long-distance trade with the East. All of this carried over into strong urban prosperity that was marked by new forms of architecture and an exaggerated sense of luxury. The ruling elites were wealthier and more powerful than ever before. In Egypt, hundreds of papyri survive from these later centuries and they show us a relatively affluent society where money was in extensive use and rural estates generated vast incomes in gold. For example, Egypt contributed taxes of over 2½ million solidi a year (roughly 35,000 lbs of gold) in the reign of Justinian in the sixth century. Indeed, large parts of the Near Eastern countryside were more developed and densely settled in the fifth and sixth centuries than they would be even in the twentieth century! This is the social background against which we should set the cultural developments of this period. The traditional religious culture of the classical world, both Greek and Roman, had been polytheist. That is, it involved a multiplicity of cults that included both Roman/Italian gods like Jupiter, Juno, Minerva and Mars, as well as numerous Greek and eastern deities worshipped in thousands of temples, shrines and sanctuaries throughout the empire. Polytheists had no common name or label to describe The Colosseum, built in 79 CE, where gladiators fought wild beasts. It could accommodate 60,000 people. themselves. The other great religious tradition in the empire was Judaism. But Judaism was not a monolith* either, and there was a great deal of diversity within the Jewish communities of late antiquity. Thus, the ‘Christianisation’** of the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries was a gradual and complex process. Polytheism did not disappear overnight, especially in the western provinces, where the Christian bishops waged a running battle against beliefs and practices they condemned more than the Christian laity*** did. The boundaries between religious communities were much more fluid in the fourth century than they would become thanks to the repeated efforts of religious leaders, the powerful bishops who now led the Church, to rein in their followers and enforce a more rigid set of beliefs and practices. The general prosperity was especially marked in the East where population was still expanding till the sixth century, despite the impact of the plague which affected the Mediterranean in the 540s. In the West, by contrast, the empire fragmented politically as Germanic groups from the North (Goths, Vandals, Lombards, etc.) took over all the major provinces and established kingdoms that are best described as ‘post-Roman’. The most important of these were that of the Visigoths in Spain, destroyed by the Arabs between 711 and 720, that of the Franks in Gaul (c.511-687) and that of the Lombards in Italy (568-774). These kingdoms foreshadowed the beginnings of a different kind of world that is usually called ‘medieval’. In the East, where the empire remained united, the reign of Justinian is the highwater mark of prosperity and imperial ambition. Justinian *monolith – literally a large block of stone, but the expression is used to refer to anything (for example a society or culture) that lacks variety and is all of the same type. **Christianisation – the process by which Christianity spread among different groups of the population and became the dominant religion. ***laity – the ordinary members of a religious community as opposed to the priests or clergy who have official positions within the community. recaptured Africa from the Vandals (in 533) but his recovery of Italy (from the Ostrogoths) left that country devastated and paved the way for the Lombard invasion. By the early seventh century, the war between Rome and Iran had flared up again, and the Sasanians who had ruled Iran since the third century launched a wholesale invasion of all the major eastern provinces (including Egypt). When Byzantium, as the Roman Empire was now increasingly known, recovered these provinces in the 620s, it was just a few years away, literally, from the final major blow which came, this time, from the south-east. The expansion of Islam from its beginnings in Arabia has been called ‘the greatest political revolution ever to occur in the history of the ancient world’. By 642, barely ten years after Prophet Muhammad’s death, large parts of both the eastern Roman and Sasanian empires had fallen to the Arabs in a series of stunning confrontations. However, we should bear in mind that those conquests, which eventually (a century later) extended as far afield as Spain, Sind and Central Asia, began in fact with the subjection of the Arab tribes by the emerging Islamic state, first within Arabia and then in the Syrian desert and on the fringes of Iraq. As we will see in Theme 4, the unification of the Arabian peninsula and its numerous tribes was the key factor behind MAP 2: West Asia the territorial expansion of Islam. Mosaic at Ravenna, 547 CE, showing Emperor Justinian. Exercises ANSWER IN BRIEF 1. If you had lived in the Roman Empire, where would you rather have lived – in the towns or in the countryside? Explain why. 2. Compile a list of some of the towns, cities, rivers, seas and provinces mentioned in this chapter, and then try and find them on the maps. Can you say something about any three of the items in the list you have compiled? 3. Imagine that you are a Roman housewife preparing a shopping list for household requirements. What would be on the list? 4. Why do you think the Roman government stopped coining in silver? And which metal did it begin to use for the production of coinage? ANSWER IN A SHORT ESSAY 5. Suppose the emperor Trajan had actually managed to conquer India and the Romans had held on to the country for several centuries. In what ways do you think India might be different today? 6. Go through the chapter carefully and pick out some basic features of Roman society and economy which you think make it look quite modern. THEME The Central Islamic Lands 4 AS we enter the twenty-first century, there are over 1 billion Muslims living in all parts of the world. They are citizens of different nations, speak different languages, and dress differently. The processes by which they became Muslims were varied, and so were the circumstances in which they went their separate ways. Yet, the Islamic community has its roots in a more unified past which unfolded roughly 1,400 years ago in the Arabian peninsula. In this chapter we are going to read about the rise of Islam and its expansion over a vast territory extending from Egypt to Afghanistan, the core area of Islamic civilisation from 600 to 1200. In these centuries, Islamic society exhibited multiple political and cultural patterns. The term Islamic is used here not only in its purely religious sense but also for the overall society and culture historically associated with Islam. In this society not everything that was happening originated directly from religion, but it took place in a society where Muslims and their faith were recognised as socially dominant. Non-Muslims always formed an integral, if subordinate, part of this society as did Jews in Christendom. Our understanding of the history of the central Islamic lands between 600 and 1200 is based on chronicles or tawarikh (which narrate events in order of time) and semi-historical works, such as biographies (sira), records of the sayings and doings of the Prophet (hadith) and commentaries on the Quran (tafsir). The material from which these works were produced was a large collection of eyewitness reports (akhbar) transmitted over a period of time either orally or on paper. The authenticity of each report (khabar) was tested by a critical method which traced the chain of transmission (isnad) and established the reliability of the narrator. Although the method was not foolproof, medieval Muslim writers were more careful in selecting their information and understanding the motives of their informants than were their contemporaries in other parts of the world. On controversial issues, they reproduced different versions of the same event, as they found in their sources, leaving the task of judgement to their readers. Their description of events closer to their own times is more systematic and analytical and less of a collection of akhbar. Most of the chronicles and semi-historical works are *Aramaic is a language related to Hebrew and Arabic. It has also been used in Ashokan inscriptions. in Arabic, the best being the Tarikh of Tabari (d. 923) which has been translated into English in 38 volumes. Persian chronicles are few but they are quite detailed in their treatment of Iran and Central Asia. Christian chronicles, written in Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic*), are fewer but they throw interesting light on the history of early Islam. Besides chronicles, we have legal texts, geographies, travelogues and literary works, such as stories and poems. Documentary evidence (fragmentary pieces of writing, such as official orders or private correspondence) is the most valuable for writing histories because it does not consciously refer to events and persons. It comes almost entirely from Greek and Arabic papyri (good for administrative history) and the Geniza records. Some evidence has emerged from archaeological (excavations done at desert palaces), numismatic (study of coins) and epigraphic (study of inscriptions) sources which is of great value for economic history, art history, and for establishing names and dates. Proper histories of Islam began to be written in the nineteenth century by university professors in Germany and the Netherlands. Colonial interests in the Middle East and North Africa encouraged French and British researchers to study Islam as well. Christian priests too paid close attention to the history of Islam and produced some good work, although their interest was mainly to compare Islam with Christianity. These scholars, called Orientalists, are known for their knowledge of Arabic and Persian and critical analysis of original texts. Ignaz Goldziher was a Hungarian Jew who studied at the Islamic college (al-Azhar) in Cairo and produced path-breaking studies in German of Islamic law and theology. Twentieth-century historians of Islam have largely followed the interests and methods of Orientalists. They have widened the scope of Islamic history by including new topics, and by using allied disciplines, such as economics, anthropology and statistics, have refined many aspects of Orientalist studies. The historiography of Islam is a good example of how religion can be studied with modern historical methods by those who may not share the customs and beliefs of the people they are studying. The Rise of Islam in Arabia: Faith, Community and Politics During 612-32, the Prophet Muhammad preached the worship of a single God, Allah, and the membership of a single community of believers (umma). This was the origin of Islam. Muhammad was an Arab by language and culture and a merchant by profession. Sixth-century Arab culture was largely confined to the Arabian peninsula and areas of southern Syria and Mesopotamia. The Arabs were divided into tribes* (qabila), each led by a chief who was chosen partly on the basis of his family connections but more for his personal courage, wisdom and generosity (murawwa). Each tribe had its own god or goddess, who was worshipped as an idol (sanam) in a shrine (masjid). Many Arab tribes were nomadic (Bedouins), moving from dry to green areas (oases) of the desert in search of food (mainly dates) and fodder for their camels. Some settled in cities and practised trade or agriculture. Muhammad’s own tribe, Quraysh, lived in Mecca and controlled the main shrine there, a cube-like structure called Kaba, in which idols were placed. Even tribes outside Mecca considered the Kaba holy and installed their own idols at this shrine, making annual pilgrimages (hajj) to the shrine. Mecca was located on the crossroads of a trade route between Yemen and Syria which further enhanced the city’s importance (see Map p. 82). The Meccan shrine was a sanctuary (haram) where violence was forbidden and protection given to all visitors. Pilgrimage and commerce gave the nomadic and settled tribes opportunities to communicate with one another and share their beliefs and customs. Although the polytheistic Arabs were vaguely familiar with the notion of a Supreme God, Allah (possibly under the influence of the Jewish and Christian tribes living in their midst), their attachment to idols and shrines was more immediate and stronger. Around 612, Muhammad declared himself to be the messenger (rasul) of God who had been commanded to preach that Allah alone should be worshipped. The worship involved simple rituals, such as daily prayers (salat), and moral principles, such as distributing alms and abstaining from theft. Muhammad was to found a community of believers (umma) bound by a common set of religious beliefs. The community would bear witness (shahada) to the existence of the religion before God as well as before members of other religious communities. Muhammad’s message particularly appealed to those Meccans who felt deprived of the gains from trade and religion and were looking for a new community identity. Those who accepted the doctrine were called Muslims. They were promised salvation on the Day of Judgement (qiyama) and a share of the resources of the community while on earth. The Muslims soon faced considerable opposition from affluent Meccans who took offence to the rejection of their deities and found the new religion a threat to the status and prosperity of Mecca. In 622, Muhammad was forced to migrate with his followers to Medina. Muhammad’s journey from Mecca (hijra) was a turning point in the history of Islam, with the year of his arrival in Medina marking the beginning of the Muslim calendar. *Tribes are societies organised on the basis of blood relationships. The Arab tribes were made up of clans or combinations of large families. Unrelated clans also merged to make a tribe stronger. Non-Arab individuals (mawali) became members through the patronage of prominent tribesmen. Even after converting to Islam, the mawali were never treated as equals by the Arab Muslims and had to pray in separate mosques. Medival painting of Archangel Gabriel (Jibril) who brought messages to Muhammad. The first word he spoke was ‘recite’ (iqra) from which has come the word Quran. In Islamic cosmology, angels are one of the three intelligent forms of life in the Universe. The other two are humans Islamic Calendar The Hijri era was established during the caliphate of Umar, with the first year falling in 622 CE. A date in the Hijri calendar is followed by the letters AH. The Hijri year is a lunar year of 354 days, 12 months (Muharram to Dhul Hijja) of 29 or 30 days. Each day begins at sunset and each month with the sighting of the crescent moon. The Hijri year is about 11 days shorter than the solar year. Therefore, none of the Islamic religious festivals, including the Ramazan fast, Id and hajj, corresponds in any way to seasons. There is no easy way to match the dates in the Hijri calendar with the dates in the Gregorian calendar (established by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 CE). One can calculate the rough equivalents between the Islamic (H) and Gregorian Christian (C) years with the following formulae: (H × 32 / 33) + 622 = C (C – 622) × 33 / 32 = H The survival of a religion rests on the survival of the community of believers. The community has to be consolidated internally and protected from external dangers. Consolidation and protection require political institutions such as states and governments which are either inherited from the past, borrowed from outside or created from scratch. In Medina, Muhammad created a political order from all three sources which gave his followers the protection they needed as well as resolved the city’s ongoing civil strife. The umma was converted into a wider community to include polytheists and the Jews of Medina under the political leadership of Muhammad. Muhammad consolidated the faith for his followers by adding and refining rituals (such as fasting) and ethical principles. The community survived on agriculture and trade, as well as an alms tax (zakat). In addition, the Muslims organised expeditionary raids (ghazw) on Meccan caravans and nearby oases. These raids provoked reactions from the Meccans and caused a breach with the Jews of Medina. After Pilgrims at the Kaba, illustration from a fifteenth-century Persian manuscript. A pilgrim (haji) touches the black stone (hajr al-aswad) while angels (malaika) watch. a series of battles, Mecca was conquered and Muhammad’s reputation as a religious preacher and political leader spread far and wide. Muhammad now insisted on conversion as the sole criterion for membership of the community. In the harsh conditions of the desert, the Arabs attached great value to strength and solidarity. Impressed by Muhammad’s achievements, many tribes, mostly Bedouins, joined the community by converting to Islam. Muhammad’s alliances began to spread until they embraced the whole of Arabia. Medina became the administrative capital of the emerging Islamic state with Mecca as its religious centre. The Kaba was cleansed of idols as Muslims were required to face the shrine when offering prayers. In a short space of time, Muhammad was able to unite a large part of Arabia under a new faith, community and state. The early Islamic polity, however, remained a federation of Arab tribes and clans for a long time. The Caliphate: Expansion, Civil Wars and Sect Formation After Muhammad’s death in 632, no one could legitimately claim to be the next prophet of Islam. As a result, his political authority was transferred to the umma with no established principle of succession. This created opportunities for innovations but also caused deep divisions among the Muslims. The biggest innovation was the creation of the institution of caliphate, in which the leader of the community (amir almuminin) became the deputy (khalifa) of the Prophet. The first four caliphs (632-61) justified their powers on the basis of their close association with the Prophet and continued his work under the general guidelines he had provided. The twin objectives of the caliphate were to retain control over the tribes constituting the umma and to raise resources for the state. Following Muhammad’s death, many tribes broke away from the Islamic state. Some even raised their own prophets to establish communities modelled on the umma. The first caliph, Abu Bakr, suppressed the revolts by a series of campaigns. The second caliph, Umar, shaped the umma’s policy of expansion of power. The caliph knew that the umma could not be maintained out of the modest income derived from trade and taxes. Realising that rich booty (ghanima) could be obtained from expeditionary raids, the caliph and his military commanders mustered their tribal strength to conquer lands belonging to the Byzantine Empire in the west and the Sasanian empire in the east. At the height of their power, the Byzantine and Sasanian empires ruled vast territories and commanded huge resources to pursue their political and commercial interests in Arabia. The Byzantine Empire promoted Christianity and the Sasanian empire patronised Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Iran. On the eve of the Arab invasions, these two empires had declined in strength due to religious conflicts and revolts by the aristocracy. This made it MAP 1: The Islamic Lands Expansion of Islam under Muhammad Central Islamic lands c. 750 easier for the Arabs to annex territories through wars and treaties. In three successful campaigns (637-642), the Arabs brought Syria, Iraq, Iran and Egypt under the control of Medina. Military strategy, religious fervour and the weakness of the opposition contributed to the success of the Arabs. Further campaigns were launched by the third caliph, Uthman, to extend the control to Central Asia. Within a decade of the death of Muhammad, the Arab-Islamic state controlled the vast territory between the Nile and the Oxus. These lands remain under Muslim rule to this day. In all the conquered provinces, the caliphs imposed a new administrative structure headed by governors (amirs) and tribal chieftains (ashraf ). The central treasury (bait al-mal) obtained its revenue from taxes paid by Muslims as well as its share of the booty from raids. The caliph’s soldiers, mostly Bedouins, settled in camp cities at the edge of the desert, such as Kufa and Basra, to remain within reach of their natural habitat as well as the caliph’s command. The ruling class and soldiers received shares of the booty and monthly payments (ata). The non-Muslim population retained their rights to property and religious practices on payment of taxes (kharaj and jiziya). Jews and Christians were declared protected subjects of the state (dhimmis) and given a large measure of autonomy in the conduct of their communal affairs. Political expansion and unification did not come easily to the Arab tribesmen. With territorial expansion, the unity of the umma became threatened by conflicts over the distribution of resources and offices. The ruling class of the early Islamic state comprised almost entirely the Quraysh of Mecca. The third caliph, Uthman (644-56), also a Quraysh, packed his administration with his own men to secure greater control. This further intensified the Meccan character of the state and the conflict with the other tribesmen. Opposition in Iraq and Egypt, combined with opposition in Medina, led to the assassination of Uthman. With Uthman’s death, Ali became the fourth caliph. The rifts among the Muslims deepened after Ali (656-61) fought two wars against those who represented the Meccan aristocracy. Ali’s supporters and enemies later came to form the two main sects of Islam: Shias and Sunnis. Ali established himself at Kufa and defeated an army led by Muhammad’s wife, Aisha, in the Battle of the Camel (657). He was, however, not able to suppress the faction led by Muawiya, a kinsman of Uthman and the governor of Syria. Ali’s second battle, at Siffin (northern Mesopotamia), ended in a truce which split his followers into two groups: some remained loyal to him, while others left the camp and came to be known as Kharjis. Soon after, Ali was assassinated by a Kharji in a mosque at Kufa. After his death, his followers paid allegiance to his son, Hussain, and his descendants. Muawiya made himself the next caliph in 661, founding the Umayyad dynasty which lasted till 750. After the civil wars, it appeared as if Arab domination would disintegrate. There were also signs that the tribal conquerors were adopting the sophisticated culture of their subjects. It was under the Umayyads, a prosperous clan of the Quraysh tribe, that a second round of consolidation took place. The Umayyads and the Centralisation of Polity The conquest of large territories destroyed the caliphate based in Medina and replaced it with an increasingly authoritarian polity. The Umayyads implemented a series of political measures which consolidated their leadership within the umma. The first Umayyad caliph, Muawiya, moved his capital to Damascus and adopted the court ceremonies and administrative institutions of the Byzantine Empire. He also introduced hereditary succession and persuaded the leading Muslims to accept his son as his heir. These innovations were adopted by the caliphs who followed him, and allowed the Umayyads to retain power for 90 years and the Abbasids, for two centuries. The Umayyad state was now an imperial power, no longer based directly on Islam but on statecraft and the loyalty of Syrian troops. There were Christian advisers in the administration, as well as Zoroastrian scribes and bureaucrats. However, Islam continued to provide legitimacy to their rule. The Umayyads always appealed for unity and suppressed rebellions in the name of Islam. They also retained their Arab social identity. During the reign of Abd al-Malik (685-705) and his successors, both the Arab and Islamic identities were strongly emphasised. Among the measures Abd al-Malik took were the adoption of Arabic as the language of administration and the introduction of an Islamic coinage. The gold dinar and silver dirham that had been circulating in the caliphate were copies of Byzantine and Iranian coins (denarius and drachm), with symbols of crosses and fire altars and Greek and Pahlavi (the language of Iran) inscriptions. These symbols were removed and the coins now carried Arabic inscriptions. Abd al-Malik also made a highly visible contribution to the development of an Arab-Islamic identity, by building the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Abd al-Malik’s Coinage Reform The three coin specimens show the transition from Byzantine to Arab-Islamic coinage. On the second coin, the bearded and long-haired caliph is dressed in traditional Arab robes and is holding a sword. It is the first extant portrait of a Muslim. It is also unique because later there developed an antipathy towards the representation of living beings in art and craft. Abd al-Malik’s reform of coinage was linked with his reorganisation of state finances. It proved so successful that for hundreds of years, coins were struck according to the pattern and weight of the third specimen. The Dome of the Rock, built over a rocky mound by Abd al-Malik, is the earliest major work of Islamic architecture. Created Byzantine gold solidus (denarius aureus) showing the emperor Heraclius and his two sons. Portrait gold dinar struck by Abd al-Malik with his name and image. The reformed dinar was purely epigraphic. It carries the kalima: ‘There is no God but Allah and He has no partner (sharik)’ The Abbasid Revolution For their success in centralising the Muslim polity, the Umayyads paid a heavy price. A well-organised movement, called dawa, brought down the Umayyads and replaced them with another family of Meccan origin, the Abbasids, in 750. The Abbasids portrayed the Umayyad regime as evil and promised a restoration of the original Islam of the Prophet. The revolution led not only to a change of dynasty but changes in the political structure and culture of Islam. The Abbasid uprising broke out in the distant region of Khurasan (eastern Iran), a 20-day journey from Damascus on a fast horse. Khurasan had a mixed Arab-Iranian population which could be mobilised for various reasons. The Arab soldiers here were mostly from Iraq and resented the dominance of the Syrians. The civilian Arabs of Khurasan disliked the Umayyad regime for having made promises of tax concessions and privileges which were never fulfilled. As for the Iranian Muslims (mawali), they were exposed to the scorn of the race-conscious Arabs and were eager to join any campaign to oust the Umayyads. The Abbasids, descendants of Abbas, the Prophet’s uncle, mustered the support of the various dissident groups and legitimised their bid for power by promising that a messiah (mahdi) from the family of the Prophet (ahl al-bayt) would liberate them from the oppressive Umayyad regime. Their army was led by an Iranian slave, Abu Muslim, who defeated the last Umayyad caliph, Marwan, in a battle at the river Zab. Under Abbasid rule, Arab influence declined, while the importance of Iranian culture increased. The Abbasids established their capital at Baghdad, near the ruins of the ancient Iranian metropolis, Ctesiphon. The army and bureaucracy were reorganised on a non-tribal basis to ensure greater participation by Iraq and Khurasan. The Abbasid rulers strengthened the religious status and functions of the caliphate and patronised Islamic institutions and scholars. But they were forced by the needs of government and empire to retain the centralised nature of the state. They maintained the magnificent imperial architecture and elaborate court ceremonials of the Umayyads. The regime which took pride in having brought down the monarchy found itself compelled to establish it again. The Great Mosque of al-Mutawwakil in Samarra (the second Abbasid capital) built in 850. The minar is 50 metres high, and is made of brick. Inspired by Mesopotamian architectural traditions, this was the largest mosque in the world for centuries. Break-up of the Caliphate and the Rise of Sultanates The Abbasid state became weaker from the ninth century because Baghdad’s control over the distant provinces declined, and because of conflict between pro-Arab and pro-Iranian factions in the army and bureaucracy. In 810, a civil war broke out between supporters of Amin and Mamun, sons of the caliph Harun al-Rashid, which deepened the factionalism and created a new power bloc of Turkish slave officers (mamluk). Shiism once again competed with Sunni orthodoxy for power. A number of minor dynasties arose, such as the Tahirids and Samanids in Khurasan and Transoxiana (Turan or lands beyond the Oxus), and the Tulunids in Egypt and Syria. Abbasid power was soon limited to central Iraq and western Iran. That too was lost in 945 when the Buyids, a Shiite clan from the Caspian region of Iran (Daylam), captured Baghdad. The Buyid rulers assumed various titles, including the ancient Iranian title shahanshah (king of kings), but not that of caliph. They kept the Abbasid caliph as the symbolic head of their Sunni subjects. The decision not to abolish the caliphate was a shrewd one, because another Shiite dynasty, the Fatimids, had ambitions to rule the Islamic world. The Fatimids belonged to the Ismaili sub-sect of Shiism and claimed to be descended from the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, and hence, the sole rightful rulers of Islam. From their base in North Africa, they conquered Egypt in 969 and established the Fatimid caliphate. The old capital of Egypt, Fustat, was replaced by a new city, Qahira (Cairo), founded on the day of the rise of the planet Mars (Mirrikh, also called al-Qahir). The two rival dynasties patronised Shiite administrators, poets and scholars. Between 950 and 1200, Islamic society was held together not by a single political order or a single language of culture (Arabic) but by common economic and cultural patterns. Unity in the face of political divisions was maintained by the separation between state and society, the development of Persian as a language of Islamic high culture, and the maturity of the dialogue between intellectual traditions. Scholars, artists and merchants moved freely within the central Islamic lands and assured the circulation of ideas and manners. Some of these also percolated down to the level of villages due to conversion. The Muslim population, less than 10 per cent in the Umayyad and early Abbasid periods, increased enormously. The identity of Islam as a religion and a cultural system separate from other religions became much sharper, which made conversion possible and meaningful. A third ethnic group was added to the Arabs and Iranians, with the rise of the Turkish sultanates in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The Turks were nomadic tribes from the Central Asian steppes (grasslands) of Turkistan (north-east of the Aral Sea up to the borders of China) who gradually converted to Islam (see Theme 5). They were skilled riders and warriors and entered the Abbasid, Samanid and Buyid administrations as slaves and soldiers, rising to high positions on account of their loyalty and military abilities. The Ghaznavid sultanate was established by Alptegin (961) and consolidated by Mahmud of Ghazni (998-1030). Like the Buyids, the Ghaznavids were a military dynasty with a professional army of Turks and Indians (one of the generals of Mahmud was an Indian named Tilak). But their centre of power was in Khurasan and Afghanistan and for them, the Abbasid caliphs were not rivals but a source of legitimacy. Mahmud was conscious of being the son of a slave and was especially eager to receive the title of Sultan from the caliph. The caliph was willing to support the Sunni Ghaznavid as a counterweight to Shiite power. The Saljuq Turks entered Turan as soldiers in the armies of the Samanids and Qarakhanids (non-Muslim Turks from further east). They later established themselves as a powerful group under the leadership of two brothers, Tughril and Chaghri Beg. Taking advantage of the chaos following the death of Mahmud of Ghazni, the Saljuqs conquered Khurasan in 1037 and made Nishapur* their first capital. The Saljuqs next turned their attention to western Persia and Iraq (ruled by the Buyids) and in 1055, restored Baghdad to Sunni rule. The caliph, al-Qaim, conferred on Tughril Beg the title of Sultan in a move that marked the separation of religious and political authority. The two Saljuq brothers ruled together in accordance with the tribal notion of rule by the family as a whole. Tughril (d. 1064) was succeeded by his nephew, Alp Arsalan. During Alp Arsalan’s reign, the Saljuq empire expanded to Anatolia (modern Turkey). From the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, there was a series of conflicts between European Christians and the Arab states. This is discussed below. Then, at the start of the thirteenth century, the Muslim world found itself on the verge of a great disaster. This was the threat from the Mongols, the last but most decisive of all nomadic assaults on settled civilisations (see Theme 5). The Crusades In medieval Islamic societies, Christians were regarded as the People of the Book (ahl al-kitab) since they had their own scripture (the New Testament or Injil). Christians were granted safe conduct (aman) while venturing into Muslim states as merchants, pilgrims, ambassadors and travellers. These territories also included those which were once held by the Byzantine Empire, notably the Holy Land of Palestine. Jerusalem was conquered by the Arabs in 638 but it was ever-present in the Christian imagination as the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. This was an important factor in the formation of the image of Muslims in Christian Europe. Hostility towards the Muslim world became more pronounced in the eleventh century. Normans, Hungarians and some Slavs had *An important Perso-Islamic centre of learning and the birthplace of Umar Khayyam. Aleppo, a Hittite, Assyrian and Hellenistic site, which was occupied by the Arabs in 636. It was fought over for the next 1,000 years; note the Crusaders seen in action. –Nasuh al-Matraki’s Itinerary, 1534-36. been converted to Christianity, and the Muslims alone remained as the main enemy. There was also a change in the social and economic organisation of western Europe in the eleventh century which contributed to the hostility between Christendom and the Islamic world. The clergy and the warrior class (the first two orders – see Theme 6) were making efforts to ensure political stability as well as economic growth based on agriculture and trade. The possibilities of military confrontation between competing feudal principalities and a return to economic organisation based on plunder were contained by the Peace of God movement. All military violence was forbidden inside certain areas, near places of worship, during certain periods considered sacred in the Church’s calendar, and against certain vulnerable social groups, such as churchmen and the common people. The Peace of God deflected the aggressive tendencies of feudal society away from the Christian world and towards the ‘enemies’ of God. It built a climate in which fighting against the infidels (non-believers) became not only permissible but also commendable. The death in 1092 of Malik Shah, the Saljuq sultan of Baghdad, was followed by the disintegration of his empire. This offered the Byzantine emperor, Alexius I, a chance to regain Asia Minor and northern Syria. For Pope Urban II, this was an opportunity to revive the spirit of Christianity. In 1095, the Pope joined the Byzantine emperor in calling for a war in the name of God to liberate the Holy Land. Between 1095 and 1291, western European Christians planned and fought wars against Muslim cities on the coastal plains of the eastern Mediterranean (Levant). These wars were later designated as Crusades*. In the first crusade (1098-99), soldiers from France and Italy captured Antioch in Syria, and claimed Jerusalem. Their victory was accompanied by the slaughter of Muslims and Jews in the city, chronicled by both Christians and Muslims. Muslim writers referred to the arrival of the Christians (called ifrinji or firangi) as a Frankish invasion. The Franks quickly established four crusader states in the region of Syria-Palestine. Collectively, these territories were known as Outremer (the land overseas) and later crusades were directed at its defence and expansion. The Outremer survived well for some time, but when the Turks captured Edessa in 1144, an appeal was made by the Pope for a second crusade (1145-49). A combined German and French army made an attempt to capture Damascus but they were defeated and forced to return home. After this, there was a gradual erosion of the strength of Outremer. Crusader zeal gave way to living in luxury and to battles over territory among the Christian rulers. Salah al-Din (Saladin) created an Egypto-Syrian empire and gave the call for jihad or holy war against the Christians, and defeated them in 1187. He regained Jerusalem, nearly a century after the first crusade. Records of the time indicate that Salah al-Din’s treatment of the Christian population was humane, in marked contrast to the way in which Christians had earlier dealt with Muslims and Jews. Although he gave custody of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to the Christians, a number of churches were turned into mosques, and Jerusalem once again became a Muslim city. The loss of the city prompted a third crusade in 1189, but the crusaders gained little except for some coastal towns in Palestine and free access to Jerusalem for Christian pilgrims. The Mamluks, the rulers of Egypt, finally drove the crusading Christians from all of Palestine in 1291. Europe gradually lost military interest in Islam and focused on its internal political and cultural development. The Crusades left a lasting impact on two aspects of Christian-Muslim relations. One was the harsher attitude of the Muslim state towards its Christian subjects which resulted from the bitter memories of the conflict as well as the needs for security in areas of mixed populations. The other was the greater influence of Italian mercantile communities (from Pisa, Genoa and Venice) in the trade between the East and the West even after the restoration of Muslim power. *The Pope ordered the ceremonial granting of crosses to those who had sworn to fight. Franks in Syria The treatment of the subjugated Muslim population differed among the various Frankish lords. The earliest of the crusaders, who settled down in Syria and Palestine, were generally more tolerant of the Muslim population than those who came later. In his memoirs, Usama ibn Munqidh, a twelfth-century Syrian Muslim, has something interesting to say about his new neighbours: ‘Among the Franks there are some who have settled down in this country and associated with Muslims. These are better than the newcomers, but they are exceptions to the rule, and no inference can be drawn from them. Here is an example. Once I sent a man to Antioch on business. At that time, Chief Theodore Sophianos [an eastern Christian] was there, and he and I were friends. He was then all powerful in Antioch. One day he said to my man, ‘‘One of my Frankish friends has invited me. Come with me and see how they live.’’ My man told me: “So I went with him, and we came to the house of one of the old knights, those who had come with the first Frankish expedition. He had already retired from state and military service, and had a property in Antioch from which he lived. He produced a fine table, with food both tasty and cleanly served. He saw that I was reluctant to eat, and said: “Eat to your heart’s content, for I do not eat Frankish food. I have Egyptian women cooks and eat nothing but what they prepare, nor does swine flesh ever enter my house.” So I ate, but with some caution, and we took our leave. Later I was walking through the market, when suddenly a Frankish woman caught hold of me and began jabbering in their language, and I could not understand what she was saying. A crowd of Franks collected against me, and I was sure that my end had come. Then, suddenly, that same knight appeared and saw me, and came up to that woman, and asked her: “What do you want of this Muslim?” She replied: “He killed my brother Hurso.” This Hurso was a knight of Afamiya who had been killed by someone from the army of Hama. Then the knight shouted at her and said, “This man is a burjasi [bourgeois, that is, a merchant]. He does not fight or go to war.” And he shouted at the crowd and they dispersed; then he took my hand and went away. So the effect of that meal that I had was to save me from death.” ’ – Kitab al-Itibar. Economy: Agriculture, Urbanisation and Commerce Agriculture was the principal occupation of the settled populations in the newly conquered territories. The Islamic state made no changes in this. Land was owned by big and small peasants and, in some cases, by the state. In Iraq and Iran, land existed in fairly large units cultivated by peasants. The estate owners collected taxes on behalf of the state during the Sasanian as well as Islamic periods. In areas that had moved from a pastoral to a settled agricultural system, land was the common property of the village. Finally, big estates that were abandoned by their owners after the Islamic conquests were acquired by the state and handed over mainly to the Muslim elites of the empire, particularly members of the caliph’s family. The state had overall control of agricultural lands, deriving the bulk of its income from land revenue once the conquests were over. The lands conquered by the Arabs that remained in the hands of the owners were subject to a tax (kharaj), which varied from half to a fifth of the produce, according to the conditions of cultivation. On land held or cultivated by Muslims, the tax levied was one-tenth (ushr) of the produce. When non-Muslims started to convert to Islam to pay lower taxes, this reduced the income of the state. To address the shortfall, the caliphs first discouraged conversions and later adopted a uniform policy of taxation. From the tenth century onwards, the state authorised its officials to claim their salaries from agricultural revenues from territories, called iqtas (revenue assignments). Agricultural prosperity went hand in hand with political stability. In many areas, especially in the Nile valley, the state supported irrigation systems, the construction of dams and canals, and the digging of wells (often equipped with waterwheels or noria), all of which were crucial for good harvests. Islamic law gave tax concessions to people who brought land under cultivation. Through peasant initiatives and state support, cultivable land expanded and productivity rose, even in the absence of major technological changes. Many new crops such as cotton, oranges, bananas, watermelons, spinach and brinjals (badinjan) were grown and even exported to Europe. Grain harvesting; the labourers’ lunch is being brought on a tray. –Arabic version of the Pseudo-Galen’s Book of Antidotes, 1199 (see the story about Doctor Galen, p 63). A boat sailing to Basra. The crew are Indian and the passengers Arab. The transport of goods and passengers by water was cheaper, quicker and safer in premodern times. Illustration from the Maqamat written by Hariri (twelfth-century manuscript). The Maqamat (Assemblies) were a genre of popular Arabic literature in which a narrator tells stories of a trickster and his escapades. 92• THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY Islamic civilisation flourished as the number of cities grew phenomenally. Many new cities were founded, mainly to settle Arab soldiers (jund) who formed the backbone of the local administration. Among this class of garrison-cities, called misr (the Arabic name for Egypt), were Kufa and Basra in Iraq, and Fustat and Cairo in Egypt. Within half a century of its establishment as the capital of the Abbasid caliphate (800), the population of Baghdad had reached around 1 million. Alongside these cities were older towns such as Damascus, Isfahan and Samarqand, which received a new lease of life. Their size and population surged, supported by an expansion in the production of foodgrains and raw materials such as cotton and sugar for urban manufactures. A vast urban network developed, linking one town with another and forming a circuit. At the heart of the city were two building complexes radiating cultural and economic power: the congregational mosque (masjid al-jami), big enough to be seen from a distance, and the central marketplace (suq), with shops in a row, merchants’ lodgings (fanduq) and the office of the money-changer. The cities were homes to administrators (ayan or eyes of the state), and scholars and merchants (tujjar) who lived close to the centre. Ordinary citizens and soldiers had their living quarters in the outer circle, each fitted with its own mosque, church or synagogue (Jewish temple), subsidiary market and public bath (hammam), an important meeting place. At the outskirts were the houses of the urban poor, a market for green vegetables and fruits brought from the countryside, caravan stations and ‘unclean’ shops, such as those dealing in tanning or butchering. Beyond the city walls were inns for people to rest when the city gates were shut and cemeteries. There were variations on this typology depending on the nature of the landscape, political traditions and historical events. Political unification and urban demand for foodstuffs and luxuries enlarged the circuit of exchange. Geography favoured the Muslim empire, which spread between the trading zones of the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. For five centuries, Arab and Iranian traders monopolised the maritime trade between China, India and Europe. This trade passed through two major routes, namely, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. High-value goods suitable for long-distance trade, such as spices, textile, porcelain and gunpowder, were shipped from India and China to the Red Sea ports of Aden and Aydhab and the Gulf ports of Siraf and Basra. From here, the merchandise was carried overland in camel caravans to the warehouses (makhazin, origin of the word magazine which has a similar collection of articles) of Baghdad, Damascus and Aleppo for local consumption or onward transmission. The caravans passing through Mecca got bigger whenever the hajj coincided with the sailing seasons (mawasim, origin of the word monsoon) in the Indian Ocean. At the Mediterranean end of these trade routes, exports to Europe from the port of Alexandria were handled by Jewish merchants, some of whom traded directly with India, as can be seen from their letters preserved in the Geniza collection. However, from the tenth century, the Red Sea route gained greater importance due to the rise of Cairo as a centre of commerce and power and growing demand for eastern goods from the trading cities of Italy. Paper, Geniza Records and History In the central Islamic lands, written works were widely circulated after the introduction of paper. Paper (made from linen) came from China, where the manufacturing process was a closely guarded secret. In 751, the Muslim governor of Samarqand took 20,000 Chinese invaders as prisoners, some of whom were good at making paper. For the next 100 years, Samarqand paper remained an important export item. Since Islam prohibited monopolies, paper began to be manufactured in the rest of the Islamic world. By the middle of the tenth century, it had more or less replaced papyrus, the writing material made from the inner stem of a plant that grew freely in the Nile valley. Demand for paper increased, and Abd al-Latif, a doctor from Baghdad (see his depiction of the ideal student on p. 98) and a resident of Egypt between 1193 and 1207, reported how Egyptian peasants robbed graves to obtain mummy wrappings made of linen to sell to paper factories. Paper also facilitated the writing of commercial and personal documents of all kinds. In 1896, a huge collection of medieval Jewish documents was discovered in a sealed room (Geniza, pronounced ghaniza) of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat. The documents had been preserved thanks to the Jewish practice of not destroying any piece of writing that contained the name of God. The Geniza was found to contain over a quarter of a million manuscripts and fragments dating back as far as the mid-eighth century. Most of the material dated from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries, that is, from the Fatimid, Ayyubid and early Mamluk periods. These included personal letters between merchants, family and friends, contracts, promises of dowry, sale documents, laundry lists, and other trivia. Most of the documents were written in Judaeo-Arabic, a version of Arabic written in Hebrew characters that was commonly used by Jewish communities throughout the medieval Mediterranean. The Geniza documents provide rich insights into personal and economic experiences as also into Mediterranean and Islamic culture. The documents also suggest that the business skills and commercial techniques of merchants of the medieval Islamic world were more advanced than those of their European counterparts. Goitein wrote a multi-volume history of the Mediterranean from Geniza records, and Amitav Ghosh was inspired by a Geniza letter to tell the story of an Indian slave in his book, In an Antique Land. Towards the eastern end, caravans of Iranian merchants set out from Baghdad along the Silk Route to China, via the oasis cities of Bukhara and Samarqand (Transoxiana), to bring Central Asian and Chinese goods, including paper. Transoxiana also formed an important link in the commercial network which extended north to Russia and Scandinavia for the exchange of European goods, (mainly fur) and Slavic captives (hence the word, slave). Islamic coins, used for the payment of these goods, were found in hoards discovered along the Volga river and in the Baltic region. Male and female Turkish slaves (ghulam) too were purchased in these markets for the courts of the caliphs and sultans. The fiscal system (income and expenditure of the state) and market exchange increased the importance of money in the central Islamic lands. Coins of gold, silver and copper (fulus) were minted and circulated, often in bags sealed by money-changers, to pay for goods and services. Gold came from Africa (Sudan) and silver from Central Asia (Zarafshan valley). Precious metals and coins also came from Europe, which used these to pay for its trade with the East. Rising demand for money forced people to release their accumulated reserves and idle wealth into circulation. Credit combined with currencies to oil the wheels of commerce. The greatest contribution of the Muslim world to medieval economic life was the development of superior methods of payment and business organisation. Letters of credit (sakk, origin of the word cheque) and bills of exchange (suftaja) were used by merchants and bankers to transfer money from one place or individual to another. The widespread use of commercial papers freed merchants from the need to carry cash everywhere and also made their journeys safer. The caliph too used the sakk to pay salaries or reward poets and minstrels. Although it was customary for merchants to set up family businesses or employ slaves to run their affairs, formal business arrangements (muzarba) were also common in which sleeping partners entrusted capital to travelling merchants and shared profits and losses in an agreed proportion. Islam did not stop people from making money so long as certain prohibitions were respected. For instance, interest-bearing transactions (riba) were unlawful, although people circumvented usury in ingenious ways (hiyal), such as borrowing money in one type of coin and paying in another while disguising the interest as a commission on currency exchange (the origin of the bill of exchange). Many tales from the Thousand and One Nights (Alf Layla wa Layla) give us a picture of medieval Islamic society, featuring characters such as sailors, slaves, merchants and money-changers. Learning and Culture As the religious and social experiences of the Muslims deepened through contact with other people, the community was obliged to reflect on itself and confront issues pertaining to God and the world. What should be the ideal conduct of a Muslim in public and private? What is the object of Creation and how does one know what God wants from His creatures? How can one understand the mysteries of the universe? Answers to such questions came from learned Muslims who acquired and organised knowledge of different kinds to strengthen the social identity of the community as well as to satisfy their intellectual curiosity. For religious scholars (ulama), knowledge (ilm) derived from the Quran and the model behaviour of the Prophet (sunna) was the only way to know the will of God and provide guidance in this world. The ulama in medieval times devoted themselves to writing tafsir and documenting Muhammad’s authentic hadith. Some went on to prepare a body of laws or sharia (the straight path) to govern the relationship of Muslims with God through rituals (ibadat) and with the rest of the humanity through social affairs (muamalat). In framing Islamic law, jurists also made use of reasoning (qiyas) since not everything was apparent in the Quran or hadith and life had become increasingly complex with urbanisation. Differences in the interpretation of the sources and methods of jurisprudence led to the formation of four schools of law (mazhab) in the eight and ninth centuries. These were the Maliki, Hanafi, Shafii and Hanbali schools, each named after a leading jurist (faqih), the last being the most conservative. The sharia provided guidance on all possible legal issues within Sunni society, though it was more precise on questions of personal status (marriage, divorce and inheritance) than on commercial matters or penal and constitutional issues. Courtyard of Mustansiriya Madrasa of Baghdad, founded in 1233. The madrasa was a college of learning for students who had finished their schooling in maktab. Madrasas were attached to mosques but big madrasas had a mosque attached to The Quran ‘And if all the trees on earth were pens and the ocean were ink with seven oceans behind it to add to its supply, yet would not the words of Allah be exhausted in the writing.’ (Quran, chapter 31, verse 27) Page from a Quran written on vellum in the ninth century. It is the beginning of Sura 18, ‘al-Kahf’ (The Cave) which refers to Moses, the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus and Alexander (Zulqar Nayn). The angular Kufi script has vowel signs in red for the correct pronunciation of the language. The Quran is a book in Arabic divided into 114 chapters (suras) and arranged in descending order of length, the shortest being the last. The only exception to this is the first sura which is a short prayer (al-fatiha or opening). According to Muslim tradition, the Quran is a collection of messages (revelations) which God sent to the Prophet Muhammad between 610 and 632, first in Mecca and then in Medina. The task of compiling these revelations was completed some time in 650. The oldest complete Quran we have today dates from the ninth century. There are many fragments which are older, the earliest being the verses engraved on the Dome of the Rock and on coins in the seventhcentury. The use of the Quran as a source material for the history of early Islam has posed some problems. The first is that it is a scripture, a text vested with religious authority. Theologians generally believed that as the speech of God (kalam allah), it has to be understood literally, but rationalists among them gave wider interpretations to the Quran. In 833, the Abbasid caliph al-Mamun imposed the view (in a trial of faith or mihna) that the Quran is God’s creation rather than His speech. The second problem is that the Quran very often speaks in metaphors and, unlike the Old Testament (Tawrit), it does not narrate events but only refers to them. Medieval Islamic scholars thus had to make sense of many verses with the help of hadith. Many hadith were written to help the reading of the Quran. Before it took its final form, the sharia was adjusted to take into account the customary laws (urf) of the various regions as well as the laws of the state on political and social order (siyasa sharia). Customary laws, however, retained their strength in large parts of the countryside and continued to bypass the sharia in matters such as the inheritance of land by daughters. In most regimes, the ruler or his officials dealt routinely with matters of state security and sent only selected cases to the qazi (judge). The qazi, appointed by the state in each city or locality, often acted as an arbitrator in disputes, rather than as a strict enforcer of the sharia. A group of religious-minded people in medieval Islam, known as Sufis, sought a deeper and more personal knowledge of God through asceticism (rahbaniya) and mysticism. The more society gave itself up to material pursuits and pleasures, the more the Sufis sought to renounce the world (zuhd) and rely on God alone (tawakkul). In the eighth and ninth centuries, ascetic inclinations were elevated to the higher stage of mysticism (tasawwuf) by the ideas of pantheism and love. Pantheism is the idea of oneness of God and His creation which implies that the human soul must be united with its Maker. Unity with God can be achieved through an intense love for God (ishq), which the woman-saint Rabia of Basra (d. 891) preached in her poems. Bayazid Bistami (d. 874), an Iranian Sufi, was the first to teach the importance of submerging the self (fana) in God. Sufis used musical concerts (sama) to induce ecstasy and stimulate emotions of love and passion. Sufism is open to all regardless of religious affiliation, status and gender. Dhulnun Misri (d. 861), whose grave can still be seen near the Pyramids in Egypt, declared before the Abbasid caliph, al-Mutawakkil, that he ‘learnt true Islam from an old woman, and true chivalry from a water carrier’. By making religion more personal and less institutional, Sufism gained popularity and posed a challenge to orthodox Islam. An alternative vision of God and the universe was developed by Islamic philosophers and scientists under the influence of Greek philosophy and science. During the seventh century, remnants of late Greek culture could still Painting of whirling dervishes, Iranian manuscript, 1490. Of the four men dancing, only one is shown with his hands in the ‘correct’ position. Some have succumbed to vertigo and are being led away. be found in the Byzantine and Sasanian empires, although they were slowly dying. In the schools of Alexandria, Syria and Mesopotamia, once part of Alexander’s empire, Greek philosophy, mathematics and medicine were taught along with other subjects. The Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs commissioned the translation of Greek and Syriac books into Arabic by Christian scholars. Translation became a well-organised activity under al-Mamun, who supported the Library cum Institute of Science (Bayt al-Hikma) in Baghdad where the scholars worked. The works of Aristotle, the Elements of Euclid and Ptolemy’s Almagest were brought to the attention of Arabic-reading scholars. Indian works on astronomy, mathematics and medicine were also translated into Arabic during the same period. These works reached Europe and kindled interest in philosophy and science. The Ideal Student Abd al-Latif, a twelfth-century legal and medical scholar of Baghdad, talks to his ideal student: ‘I commend you not to learn your sciences from books unaided, even though you may trust your ability to understand. Resort to teachers for each science you seek to acquire; and should your teacher be limited in his knowledge take all that he can offer, until you find another more accomplished than he. You must venerate and respect him. When you read a book, make every effort to learn it by heart and master its meaning. Imagine the book to have disappeared and that you can dispense with it, unaffected by its loss. One should read histories, study biographies and the experiences of nations. By doing this, it will be as though, in his short life space, he lived contemporaneously with peoples of the past, was on intimate terms with them, and knew the good and bad among them. You should model your conduct on that of the early Muslims. Therefore, read the biography of the Prophet and follow in his footsteps. You should frequently distrust your nature, rather than have a good opinion of it, submitting your thoughts to men of learning and their works, proceeding with caution and avoiding haste. He who has not endured the stress of study will not taste the joy of knowledge. When you have finished your study and reflection, occupy your tongue with the mention of God’s name, and sing His praises. Do not complain if the world turns its back on you. Know that learning leaves a trail and a scent proclaiming its possessor; a ray of light and brightness shining on him, pointing him out.’ – Ahmad ibn al Qasim ibn Abi Usaybia, Uyun al Anba. The study of new subjects promoted critical inquiry and had a profound influence on Islamic intellectual life. Scholars with a theological bent of mind, such as the group known as Mutazila, used Greek logic and methods of reasoning (kalam) to defend Islamic beliefs. Philosophers (falasifa) posed wider questions and provided fresh answers. Ibn Sina (980-1037), a doctor by profession and a philosopher, did not believe in the resurrection of the body on the Day of Judgement. This was met with strong opposition from theologians. His medical writings were widely read. The most influential was al-Qanun fil Tibb (Canon of Medicine), a million-word manuscript that lists 760 drugs sold by the pharmacists of his day and includes notes on his own experiments conducted in hospitals (bimaristan). The Canon points out the importance of dietetics (healing through dietary regulation), the influence of the climate and environment on health and the contagious nature of some diseases. The Canon was used as a textbook in Europe, where the author was known as Avicenna (see Theme 7). Just before his death, the scientist and poet Umar Khayyam was said to be reading the Canon. His gold toothpick was found between two pages of the chapter on metaphysics. In medieval Islamic societies, fine language and a creative imagination were among the most appreciated qualities in a person. These qualities raised a person’s communication to the level of adab, a term which implied literary and cultural refinement. Adab forms of expressions included poetry (nazm or orderly arrangement) and prose (nathr or scattered words) which were meant to be memorised and used when the occasion arose. The most popular poetic composition of pre-Islamic origin was the ode (qasida), developed by poets of the Abbasid period to glorify the achievements of their patrons. Poets of Persian origin revitalised and reinvented Arabic poetry and challenged the cultural hegemony of the Arabs. Abu Nuwas (d. 815), who was of Persian origin, broke new ground by composing classical poetry on new themes such as wine and male love with the intention of celebrating pleasures forbidden by Islam. After Abu Nuwas, the poets addressed the object of their passion in the masculine, even if the latter was a woman. Following the same tradition, the Sufis glorified the intoxication caused by the wine of mystical love. By the time the Arabs conquered Iran, Pahlavi, the language of the sacred books of ancient Iran, was in decay. A version of Pahlavi, known as New Persian, with a huge Arabic vocabulary, soon developed. The formation of sultanates in Khurasan and Transoxiana took New Persian to great cultural heights. The Samanid court poet Rudaki (d. 940) was considered the father of New Persian poetry, which included new forms such as the short lyrical poem (ghazal) and the quatrain (rubai, plural rubaiyyat). The rubai is a four-line stanza in which the first two lines set the stage, the third is finely poised, and the fourth delivers the point. In contrast to its form, the subject matter of the rubai is unrestricted. It can be used to express the beauty of a beloved, praise a patron, or express the thoughts of the philosopher. The rubai reached its zenith in the hands of Umar Khayyam (1048-1131), also an astronomer and mathematician, who lived at various times in Bukhara, Samarqand and Isfahan. At the beginning of the eleventh century, Ghazni became the centre of Persian literary life. Poets were naturally attracted by the brilliance of the imperial court. Rulers, too, realised the importance of patronising arts and learning for enhancing their prestige. Mahmud of Ghazni gathered around him a group of poets who composed anthologies (diwans) and epic poetry (mathnavi). The most outstanding was Firdausi (d. 1020), who took 30 years to complete the Shahnama (Book of Kings), an epic of 50,000 couplets which has become a masterpiece of Islamic literature. The Shahnama is a collection of traditions and legends (the most popular being that of Rustam), which poetically depicts Iran from Creation up until the Arab conquest. It was in keeping with the Ghaznavid tradition that Persian later became the language of administration and culture in India. The catalogue (Kitab al-Fihrist) of a Baghdad bookseller, Ibn Nadim (d. 895), describes a large number of works written in prose for the moral education and amusement of readers. The oldest of these is a collection of animal fables called Kalila wa Dimna (the names of the two jackals who were the leading characters) which is the Arabic translation of a Pahlavi version of the Panchtantra. The most widespread and lasting literary works are the stories of hero-adventurers such as Alexander (al-Iskandar) and Sindbad, or those of unhappy lovers such as Qays (known as Majnun or the Madman). These have developed over the centuries into oral and written traditions. The Thousand and One Nights is another collection of stories told by a single narrator, Shahrzad, to her husband night after night. The collection was originally in Indo-Persian and was translated into Arabic in Baghdad in the eighth century. More stories were later added in Cairo during the Mamluk period. These stories depict human beings of different types – the generous, the stupid, the gullible, the crafty – and were told to educate and entertain. In his Kitab al-Bukhala (Book of Misers), Jahiz of Basra (d. 868) collected amusing anecdotes about misers and also analysed greed. From the ninth century onwards, the scope of adab was expanded to include biographies, manuals of ethics (akhlaq), Mirrors for Princes (books on statecraft) and, above all, history (tarikh) and geography. The tradition of history writing was well established in literate Muslim societies. History books were read by scholars and students as well as by the broader literate public. For rulers and officials, history provided a good record of the glories and achievements of a dynasty as well as examples of the techniques of administration. In the two major historical works, Ansab al-Ashraf (Genealogies of the Nobles) of Baladhuri (d. 892) and Tarikh al-Rusul wal Muluk (History of Prophets and Kings) of Tabari, the whole of human history was treated with the Islamic period as the focal point. The tradition of local history writing developed with the break-up of the caliphate. Books were written in Persian about dynasties, cities or regions to explore the unity and variety of the world of Islam. Geography and travel (rihla) constituted a special branch of adab. These combined knowledge from Greek, Iranian and Indian books with the observations of merchants and travellers. In mathematical geography, the inhabited world was divided into seven climes (singular iqlim) parallel with the Equator, corresponding to our three continents. The exact position of each city was determined astronomically. Muqaddasi’s (d. 1000) descriptive geography, Ahsan al-Taqasim (The Best Divisions) is a comparative study of the countries and peoples of the world and a treasure trove of exotic curiosities. Geography and general history were combined in Muruj al-Dhahab (Golden Meadows) of Masudi (written in 943) to illustrate the wide variety of worldly cultures. Alberuni’s famous Tahqiq ma lil-Hind (History of India) was the greatest attempt by an eleventh-century Muslim writer to look beyond the world of Islam and observe what was of value in another cultural tradition. By the tenth century, an Islamic world had emerged which was easily recognisable by travellers. Religious buildings were the greatest external symbols of this world. Mosques, shrines and tombs from Spain to Central Asia showed the same basic design – arches, domes, minarets and open courtyards – and expressed the spiritual and practical needs of Muslims. In the first Islamic century, the mosque acquired a distinct architectural form (roof supported by pillars) which transcended regional variations. The mosque had an open courtyard (sahn) where a fountain or pond was placed, leading to a vaulted hall which could accommodate long lines of worshippers and the prayer leader (imam). Two special features were located Mosaic floor in the bath-house of the palace at Khirbat al-Mafjar, Palestine, eighth century. Imagine the caliph enthroned on the tree; the scene below depicts peace and war. The Islamic decorative genius found full expression in the art of metal objects that are among the best-preserved specimens. This mosque lamp from fourteenth-century Syria has the Light verse inscribed on it. ‘God is the Light (nur) of the heavens and the earth His light is like a niche (mishkat) with a lamp (misbah) The lamp is in a glass which looks as if it were a glittering star Kindled from a blessed olive (zaitun) tree that is neither eastern nor western Whose oil would always shine even if no fire (nar) touched it’ (Quran, chapter 24, verse 35). inside the hall: a niche (mihrab) in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca (qibla), and a pulpit (minbar, pronounced mimbar) from where sermons were delivered during noon prayers on Friday. Attached to the building was the minaret, a tower used to call the faithful to prayer at the appointed times and to symbolise the presence of the new faith. Time was marked in cities and villages by the five daily prayers and weekly sermons. The same pattern of construction – of buildings built around a central courtyard (iwan) – appeared not only in mosques and mausoleums but also in caravanserais, hospitals and palaces. The Umayyads built ‘desert palaces’ in oases, such as Khirbat al-Mafjar in Palestine and Qusayr Amra in Jordan, which served as luxurious residences and retreats for hunting and pleasure. The palaces, modelled on Roman and Sasanian architecture, were lavishly decorated with sculptures, mosaics and paintings of people. The Abbasids built a new imperial city in Samarra amidst gardens and running waters which is mentioned in the stories and legends revolving round Harun al-Rashid. The great palaces of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad or the Fatimids in Cairo have disappeared, leaving only traces in literary texts. The rejection of representing living beings in the religious art of Islam promoted two art forms: calligraphy (khattati or the art of beautiful writing) and arabesque (geometric and vegetal designs). Small and big inscriptions, usually of religious quotations, were used to decorate architecture. Calligraphic art has been best preserved in manuscripts of the Quran dating from the eight and ninth centuries. Literary works, such as the Kitab al-Aghani (Book of Songs), Kalila wa Dimna, and Maqamat of Hariri, were illustrated with miniature paintings. In addition, a wide variety of illumination techniques were introduced to enhance the beauty of a book. Plant and floral designs, based on the idea of the garden, were used in buildings and book illustrations. The history of the central Islamic lands brings together three important aspects of human civilisation: religion, community and politics. We can see them as three circles which merge and appear as one in the seventh century. In the next five centuries the circles separate. Towards the end of our period, the influence of Islam over state and government was minimal, and politics involved many things which had no sanction in religion (kingship, civil wars, etc.). The circles of religion and community overlapped. The Muslim community was united in its observance of the sharia in rituals and personal matters. It was no more governing itself (poltics was a separate circle) but it was defining its religious identity. The only way the circles of religion and community could have separated was through the progressive secularisation of Muslim society. Philosophers and Sufis advocated this, suggesting that civil society should be made autonomous, and rituals be replaced by private spirituality. Exercises 1. What were the features of the lives of the Bedouins in the early seventh century? 2. What is meant by the term ‘Abbasid revolution’? 3. Give examples of the cosmopolitan character of the states set up by Arabs, Iranians and Turks. 4. What were the effects of the Crusades on Europe and Asia? 5. How were Islamic architectural forms different from those of the Roman Empire? 6. Describe a journey from Samarqand to Damascus, referring to the cities on the route. THEME 5 NOMADIC EMPIRES THE term ‘nomadic empires’ can appear contradictory: nomads are arguably quintessential wanderers, organised in family assemblies with a relatively undifferentiated economic life and rudimentary systems of political organisation. The term ‘empire’, on the other hand, carries with it the sense of a material location, a stability derived from complex social and economic structures and the governance of an extensive territorial dominion through an elaborate administrative system. But the juxtapositions on which these definitions are framed may be too narrowly and ahistorically conceived. They certainly collapse when we study some imperial formations constructed by nomadic groups. In Theme 4 we studied state formations in the central Islamic lands whose origins lay in the Bedouin nomadic traditions of the Arabian peninsula. This chapter studies a different group of nomads: the Mongols of Central Asia who established a transcontinental empire under the leadership of Genghis Khan, straddling Europe and Asia during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Relative to the agrarian-based imperial formations in China, the neighbouring nomads of Mongolia may have inhabited a humbler, less complex, social and economic world. But the Central Asian nomadic societies were not insulated ‘islands’ that were impervious to historical change. These societies interacted, had an impact on and learnt from the larger world of which they were very much a part. This chapter studies the manner in which the Mongols under Genghis Khan adapted their traditional social and political customs to create a fearsome military machine and a sophisticated method of governance. The challenge of ruling a dominion spanning a melange of people, economies, and confessional systems meant that the Mongols could not simply impose their steppe traditions over their recently annexed territories. They innovated and compromised, creating a nomadic empire that had a huge impact on the history of Eurasia even as it changed the character and composition of their own society forever. The steppe dwellers themselves usually produced no literature, so our knowledge of nomadic societies comes mainly from chronicles, travelogues and documents produced by city-based litterateurs. These authors often produced extremely ignorant and biased reports of nomadic life. The imperial success of the Mongols, however, attracted many literati. Some of them produced travelogues of their experiences; others stayed to serve Mongol masters. These individuals came from a variety of backgrounds – Buddhist, Confucian, Christian, Turkish and Muslim. Although not always familiar with Mongol customs, many of them produced sympathetic accounts – even eulogies – that challenged and complicated the otherwise hostile, city-based tirade against the steppe marauders. The history of the Mongols, therefore, provides interesting details to question the manner in which sedentary societies usually characterised nomads as primitive barbarians*. Perhaps the most valuable research on the Mongols was done by Russian scholars starting in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the Tsarist regime consolidated its control over Central Asia. This work was produced within a colonial milieu and was largely survey notes produced by travellers, soldiers, merchants and antiquarian scholars. In the early twentieth century, after the extension of the soviet republics in the region, a new Marxist historiography argued that the prevalent mode of production determined the nature of social relations. It placed Genghis Khan and the emerging Mongol empire within a scale of human evolution that was witnessing a transition from a tribal to a feudal mode of production: from a relatively classless society to one where there were wide differences between the lord, the owners of land and the peasant. Despite following such a deterministic interpretation of history, excellent research on Mongol languages, their society and culture was carried out by scholars such as Boris Yakovlevich Vladimirtsov. Others such as Vasily Vladimirovich Bartold did not quite toe the official line. At a time when the Stalinist regime was extremely wary of regional nationalism, Bartold’s sympathetic and positive assessment of the career and achievements of the Mongols under Genghis Khan and his successors got him into trouble with the censors. It severely curtailed the circulation of the work of the scholar and it was only in the 1960s, during and after the more liberal Khruschev era, that his writings were published in nine volumes. The transcontinental span of the Mongol empire also meant that the sources available to scholars are written in a vast number of languages. Perhaps the most crucial are the sources in Chinese, Mongolian, Persian and Arabic, but vital materials are also available in Italian, Latin, French and Russian. Often the same text was produced in two languages with differing contents. For example, the Mongolian and Chinese versions of the earliest narrative on Genghis Khan, titled Mongqol-un niuèa tobèa’an (The Secret History of the *The term ‘barbarian’ is derived from the Greek barbaros which meant a non-Greek, someone whose language sounded like a random noise: ‘bar-bar’. In Greek texts, barbarians were depicted like children, unable to speak or reason properly, cowardly, effeminate, luxurious, cruel, slothful, greedy and politically unable to govern themselves. The sterotype passed to the Romans who used the term for the Germanic tribes, the Gauls and the Huns. The Chinese had different terms for the steppe barbarians but none of them carried a positive meaning. MAP 1: The Mongol Empire Mongols) are quite different and the Italian and Latin versions of Marco Polo’s travels to the Mongol court do not match. Since the Mongols produced little literature on their own and were instead ‘written about’ by literati from foreign cultural milieus, historians have to often double as philologists to pick out the meanings of phrases for their closest approximation to Mongol usage. The work of scholars like Igor de Rachewiltz on The Secret History of the Mongols and Gerhard Doerfer on Mongol and Turkic terminologies that infiltrated into the Persian language brings out the difficulties involved in studying the history of the Central Asian nomads. As we will notice through the remainder of this chapter, despite their incredible achievements there is much about Genghis Khan and the Mongol world empire still awaiting the diligent scholar’s scrutiny. Introduction In the early decades of the thirteenth century the great empires of the Euro-Asian continent realised the dangers posed to them by the arrival of a new political power in the steppes of Central Asia: Genghis Khan (d. 1227) had united the Mongol people. Genghis Khan’s political vision, however, went far beyond the creation of a confederacy of Mongol tribes in the steppes of Central Asia: he had a mandate from God to rule the world. Even though his own lifetime was spent consolidating his hold over the Mongol tribes, leading and directing campaigns into adjoining areas in north China, Transoxiana, Afghanistan, eastern Iran and the Russian steppes, his descendants travelled further afield to fulfil Genghis Khan’s vision and create the largest empire the world had ever seen. It was in the spirit of Genghis Khan’s ideals that his grandson Mongke (1251-60) warned the French ruler, Louis IX (1226-70): ‘In Heaven there is only one Eternal Sky, on Earth there is only one Lord, Genghis Khan, the Son of Heaven… When by the power of the Eternal Heaven the whole world from the rising of the sun to its setting shall be at one in joy and peace, then it will be made clear what we are going to do: if when you have understood the decree of the Eternal Heaven, you are unwilling to pay attention and believe it, saying, “Our country is far away, our mountains are mighty, our sea is vast”, and in this confidence you bring an army against us, we know what we can do. He who made easy what was difficult and near what was far off, the Eternal Heaven knows.’ These were not empty threats and the 1236-41 campaigns of Batu, another grandson of Genghis Khan, devastated Russian lands up to Moscow, seized Poland and Hungary and camped outside Vienna. In the thirteenth century it did seem that the Eternal Sky was on the side of the Mongols and many parts of China, the Middle East and Europe saw in Genghis Khan’s conquests of the inhabited world the ‘wrath of God’, the beginning of the Day of Judgement. The Capture of Bukhara Juwaini, a late-thirteenth-century Persian chronicler of the Mongol rulers of Iran, carried an account of the capture of Bukhara in 1220. After the conquest of the city, Juwaini reported, Genghis Khan went to the festival ground where the rich residents of the city were and addressed them: ‘O’ people know that you have committed great sins, and that the great ones among you have committed these sins. If you ask me what proof I have for these words, I say it is because I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you’… Now one man had escaped from Bukhara after its capture and had come to Khurasan. He was questioned about the fate of the city and replied: ‘They came, they [mined the walls], they burnt, they slew, they plundered and they departed.’ How did the Mongols create an empire that dwarfed the achievements of the other ‘World Conqueror’, Alexander? In a pre-industrial age of poor technological communications, what skills were deployed by the Mongols to administer and control such a vast dominion? For someone so self-confidently aware of his moral, divinely-dispensed right to rule, how did Genghis Khan relate to the diverse social and religious groups that comprised his dominion? In the making of his imperium what happened to this plurality? We need to start our discussion, however, with a humbler set of questions to better comprehend the social and political background of the Mongols and Genghis Khan: who were the Mongols? Where did they live? Who did they interact with and how do we know about their society and politics? Social and Political Background The Mongols were a diverse body of people, linked by similarities of language to the Tatars, Khitan and Manchus to the east, and the Turkic tribes to the west. Some of the Mongols were pastoralists while others were hunter-gatherers. The pastoralists tended horses, sheep and, to a lesser extent, cattle, goats and camels. They nomadised in the steppes of Central Asia in a tract of land in the area of the modern state of Mongolia. This was (and still is) a majestic landscape with wide horizons, rolling plains, ringed by the snow-capped Altai mountains to the west, the arid Gobi desert in the south and drained by the Onon and Selenga rivers and myriad springs from the melting snows of the hills in the north and the west. Lush, luxuriant grasses for pasture and considerable small game were available in a good season. The hunter-gatherers resided to the north of the pastoralists in the Siberian forests. They were a humbler body of people than the pastoralists, making a living from trade in furs of animals trapped in the summer months. There were extremes of temperature in the entire region: harsh, long winters followed by brief, dry summers. Agriculture was possible in the pastoral regions during short parts of the year but the Mongols (unlike some of the Turks further west) did not take to farming. Neither the pastoral nor the hunting-gathering economies could sustain dense population settlements and as a result the region possessed no cities. The Mongols lived in tents, gers, and travelled with their herds from their winter to summer pasture lands. Ethnic and language ties united the Mongol people but the scarce resources meant that their society was divided into patrilineal lineages; the richer families were larger, possessed more animals and pasture lands. They therefore had many followers and were more influential in local politics. Periodic natural calamities – either unusually harsh, cold winters when game and stored provisions ran out or drought which parched the grasslands – would force families to forage further afield leading to conflict over pasture lands and predatory raids in search of livestock. Groups of families would occasionally ally for offensive and defensive purposes around richer and more powerful lineages but, barring the few exceptions, these confederacies were usually small and short-lived. The size of Genghis Khan’s confederation of Mongol and Turkish tribes was perhaps matched in size only by that which had been stitched together in the fifth century by Attila (d. 453). Unlike Attila, however, Genghis Khan’s political system was far more durable and survived its founder. It was stable enough to counter larger armies with superior equipment in China, Iran and eastern Europe. And, as they established control over these regions, the Mongols administered complex agrarian economies and urban settlements – sedentary societies – that were quite distant from their own social experience and habitat. Although the social and political organisations of the nomadic and agrarian economies were very different, the two societies were hardly foreign to each other. In fact, the scant resources of the steppe lands drove Mongols and other Central Asian nomads to trade and barter with their sedentary neighbours in China. This was mutually beneficial to both parties: agricultural produce and iron utensils from China were exchanged for horses, furs and game trapped in the steppe. Commerce was not without its tensions, especially as the two groups unhesitatingly applied military pressure to enhance profit. When the Mongol lineages allied they could force their Chinese neighbours to offer better terms and trade ties were sometimes discarded in favour of outright plunder. This relationship would alter when the Mongols were in disarray. The Chinese would then confidently assert their influence in the steppe. These frontier wars were more debilitating to settled societies. They dislocated agriculture and plundered cities. Nomads, on the other hand, could retreat away from the zone of conflict with Listed below are some of the great Central Asian steppe confederacies of the Turks and Mongol people. They did not all occupy the same region and were not equally large and complex in their internal organisation. They had a considerable impact on the history of the nomadic population but their impact on China and the adjoining regions varied. Hsiung-nu (200 BCE) (Turks) Juan-juan (400 CE) (Mongols) Epthalite Huns (400 CE) (Mongols) T’u-chueh (550 CE) (Turks) Uighurs (740 CE) (Turks) Khitan (940 CE) (Mongols) marginal losses. Throughout its history, China suffered extensively from nomad intrusion and different regimes – even as early as the eighth century BCE – built fortifications to protect their subjects. Starting from the third century BCE, these fortifications started to be integrated into a common defensive outwork known today as the ‘Great Wall of China’ a dramatic visual testament to the disturbance and fear perpetrated by nomadic raids on the agrarian societies of north China. The Career of Genghis Khan Genghis Khan was born some time around 1162 near the Onon river in the north of present-day Mongolia. Named Temujin, he was the son of Yesugei, the chieftain of the Kiyat, a group of families related to the Borjigid clan. His father was murdered at an early age and his mother, Oelun-eke, raised Temujin, his brothers and step-brothers in great hardship. The following decade was full of reversals – Temujin was captured and enslaved and soon after his marriage, his wife, Borte, was kidnapped, and he had to fight to recover her. During these years of hardship he also managed to make important friends. The young Boghurchu was his first ally and remained a trusted friend; Jamuqa, his blood-brother (anda), was another. Temujin also restored old alliances with the ruler of the Kereyits, Tughril/Ong Khan, his father’s old blood-brother. Through the 1180s and 1190s, Temujin remained an ally of Ong Khan and used the alliance to defeat powerful adversaries like Jamuqa, his old friend who had become a hostile foe. It was after defeating him that Temujin felt confident enough to move against other tribes: the powerful Tatars (his father’s assassins), the Kereyits and Ong Khan himself in 1203. The final defeat of the Naiman people and the powerful Jamuqa in 1206, left Temujin as the dominant personality in the politics of the steppe lands, a position that was recognised at an assembly of Mongol chieftains (quriltai) where he was proclaimed the ‘Great Khan of the Mongols’ (Qa’an) with the title Genghis Khan, the ‘Oceanic Khan’ or ‘Universal Ruler’. Just before the quriltai of 1206, Genghis Khan had reorganised the Mongol people into a more effective, disciplined military force (see following sections) that facilitated the success of his future campaigns. The first of his concerns was to conquer China, divided at this time into three realms: the Hsi Hsia people of Tibetan origin in the north-western provinces; the Jurchen whose Chin dynasty ruled north China from Peking; the Sung dynasty who controlled south China. By 1209, the Hsi Hsia were defeated, the ‘Great Wall of China’ was breached in 1213 and Peking sacked in 1215. Long drawn-out battles against the Chin continued until 1234 but Genghis Khan was satisfied enough with the progress of his campaigns to return to his Mongolian homeland in 1216 and leave the military affairs of the region to his subordinates. After the defeat in 1218 of the Qara Khita who controlled the Tien Shan mountains north-west of China, Mongol dominions reached the Amu Darya, and the states of Transoxiana and Khwarazm. Sultan Muhammad, the ruler of Khwarazm, felt the fury of Genghis Khan’s rage when he executed Mongol envoys. In the campaigns between 1219 and 1221 the great cities – Otrar, Bukhara, Samarqand, Balkh, Gurganj, Merv, Nishapur and Herat – surrendered to the Mongol forces. Towns that resisted were devastated. At Nishapur, where a Mongol prince was killed during the siege operation, Genghis Khan commanded that the ‘town should be laid waste in such a manner that the site could be ploughed upon; and that in the exaction of vengeance [for the death of the prince] not even cats and dogs should be left alive’. Estimated Extent of Mongol Destruction All reports of Genghis Khan’s campaigns agree at the vast number of people killed following the capture of cities that defied his authority. The numbers are staggering: at the capture of Nishapur in 1220, 1,747,000 people were massacred while the toll at Herat in 1222 was 1,600,000 people and at Baghdad in 1258, 800,000. Smaller towns suffered proportionately: Nasa, 70,000 dead; Baihaq district, 70,000; and at Tun in the Kuhistan province, 12,000 individuals were executed. How did medieval chroniclers arrive at such figures? Juwaini, the Persian chronicler of the Ilkhans stated that 1,300,000 people were killed in Merv. He reached the figure because it took thirteen days to count the dead and each day they counted 100,000 corpses. Opp. page: ‘Barbarians’ as imagined by a European artist. Mongol forces in pursuit of Sultan Muhammad pushed into Azerbaijan, defeated Russian forces at the Crimea and encircled the Caspian Sea. Another wing followed the Sultan’s son, Jalaluddin, into Afghanistan and the Sindh province. At the banks of the Indus, Genghis Khan considered returning to Mongolia through North India and Assam, but the heat, the natural habitat and the ill portents reported by his Shaman soothsayer made him change his mind. Genghis Khan died in 1227, having spent most of his life in military combat. His military achievements were astounding and they were largely a result of his ability to innovate and transform different aspects of steppe combat into extremely effective military strategies. The horse-riding skills of the Mongols and the Turks provided speed and mobility to the army; their abilities as rapid-shooting archers from horseback were further perfected during regular hunting expeditions which doubled as field manoeuvres. The steppe cavalry had always travelled light and moved quickly, but now it brought all its knowledge of the terrain and the weather to do the unimaginable: they carried out campaigns in the depths of winter, treating frozen rivers as highways to enemy cities and camps. Nomads were conventionally at a loss against fortified encampments but Genghis Khan learnt the importance of siege engines and naphtha bombardment very quickly. His engineers prepared light portable equipment, which was used against opponents with devastating effect. The Mongols after Genghis Khan We can divide Mongol expansion after Genghis Khan’s death into two distinct phases: the first which spanned the years 1236-42 when the major gains were in the Russian steppes, Bulghar, Kiev, Poland and Hungary. The second phase including the years 1255-1300 led to the conquest of all of China (1279), Iran, Iraq and Syria. The frontier of the empire stabilised after these campaign. The Mongol military forces met with few reversals in the decades after 1203 but, quite noticeably, after the 1260s the original impetus of campaigns could not be sustained in the West. Although Vienna, and beyond it western Europe, as well as Egypt was within the grasp of Mongol forces, their retreat from the Hungarian steppes and defeat at the hands of the Egyptian forces signalled the emergence of new political trends. There were two facets to this: the first was a consequence of the internal politics of succession within the Mongol family where the descendants of Jochi and Ogodei allied to control the office of the great Khan in the first two generations. These interests were more important than the pursuit of campaigns in Europe. The second compulsion occurred as the Jochi and Ogodei lineages were marginalised by the Toluyid branch of Genghis Khanid descendants. With the accession of Mongke, a descendant of Toluy, Genghis Khan’s youngest son, military campaigns were pursued energetically in Iran during the 1250s. But as Toluyid interests in the conquest of China increased during the 1260s, forces and supplies were increasingly diverted into the heartlands of the Mongol dominion. As a result, the Mongols fielded a small, understaffed force against the Egyptian military. Their defeat and the increasing preoccupation with China of the Toluyid family marked the end of western expansion of the Mongols. Concurrently, conflict between the Jochid and Toluyid descendants along the Russian-Iranian frontier diverted the Jochids away from further European campaigns. The suspension of Mongol expansion in the West did not arrest their campaigns in China which was reunited under the Mongols. Paradoxically, it was at the moment of its greatest successes that internal turbulence between members of the ruling family manifested itself. The next section discusses the factors that led to some of the greatest successes of the Mongol political enterprise but also inhibited its progress. Social, Political and Military Organisation Among the Mongols, and many other nomadic societies as well, all the able-bodied, adult males of the tribe bore arms: they constituted the armed forces when the occasion demanded. The unification of the different Mongol tribes and subsequent campaigns against diverse people introduced new members into Genghis Khan’s army complicating the composition of this relatively small, undifferentiated body into an incredibly heterogeneous mass of people. It included groups like the Turkic Uighurs, who had accepted his authority willingly. It also included defeated people, like the Kereyits, who were accommodated in the confederacy despite their earlier hostility. Genghis Khan worked to systematically erase the old tribal identities of the different groups who joined his confederacy. His army was organised according to the old steppe system of decimal units: in divisions of 10s, 100s, 1,000s and [notionally] 10,000 soldiers. In the old system the clan and the tribe would have coexisted within the decimal units. Genghis Khan stopped this practice. He divided the old tribal groupings and distributed their members into new military units. Any individual who tried to move from his/her allotted group without permission received harsh punishment. The largest unit of soldiers, approximating 10,000 soldiers (tuman) now included fragmented groups of people from a variety of different tribes and clans. This altered the old steppe social order integrating different lineages and clans and providing them with a new identity derived from its progenitor, Genghis Khan. The new military contingents were required to serve under his four sons and specially chosen captains of his army units called noyan. Also important within the new realm were a band of followers who had served Genghis Khan loyally through grave adversity for many years. Genghis Khan publicly honoured some of these individuals as his ‘bloodbrothers’ (anda); yet others, freemen of a humbler rank, were given special ranking as his bondsmen (naukar), a title that marked their close relationship with their master. This ranking did not preserve the rights of the old clan chieftains; the new aristocracy derived its status from a close relationship with the Great Khan of the Mongols. In this new hierarchy, Genghis Khan assigned the responsibility of governing the newly-conquered people to his four sons. These comprised the four ulus, a term that did not originally mean fixed territories. Genghis Khan’s lifetime was still the age of rapid conquests and expanding domains, where frontiers were still extremely fluid. For example, the eldest son, Jochi, received the Russian steppes but the farthest extent of his territory, ulus, was indeterminate: it extended as far west as his horses could roam. The second son, Chaghatai, was given the Transoxanian steppe and lands north of the Pamir mountains adjacent to those of his brother. Presumably, these lands would shift as Jochi marched westward. Genghis Khan had indicated that his third son, Ogodei, would succeed him as the Great Khan and on accession the Prince established his capital at Karakorum. The youngest son, Toluy, received the ancestral lands of Mongolia. Genghis Khan envisaged that his sons would rule the empire collectively, and to underline this point, military contingents (tama) of the individual princes were placed in each ulus. The sense of a dominion shared by the members of the family was underlined at the assembly of chieftains, quriltais, where all decisions relating to the family or the state for the forthcoming season – campaigns, distribution of plunder, pasture lands and succession – were collectively taken. Genghis Khan had already fashioned a rapid courier system that connected the distant areas of his regime. Fresh mounts and despatch riders were placed in outposts at regularly spaced distances. For the maintenance of this communication system the Mongol nomads contributed a tenth of their herd – either horses or livestock – as provisions. This was called the qubcur tax, a levy that the nomads paid willingly for the multiple benefits that it brought. The courier system (yam) was further refined after Genghis Khan’s death and its speed and reliability surprised travellers. It enabled the Great Khans to keep a check on developments at the farthest end of their regime across the continental landmass. The conquered people, however, hardly felt a sense of affinity with their new nomadic masters. During the campaigns in the first half of the thirteenth century, cities were destroyed, agricultural lands laid waste, trade and handicraft production disrupted. Tens of thousands of people – the exact figures are lost in the exaggerated reports of the time – were killed, even more enslaved. All classes of people, Family tree of Genghis from the elites to the peasantry suffered. In the resulting instability, the Khan. underground canals, called qanats, in the arid Iranian plateau could no longer receive periodic maintenance. As they fell into disrepair, the desert crept in. This led to an ecological devastation from which parts of Khurasan never recovered. Once the dust from the campaigns had settled, Europe and China were territorially linked. In the peace ushered in by Mongol conquest (Pax Mongolica) trade connections matured. Commerce and travel along the Silk Route reached its peak under the Mongols but, unlike before, the trade routes did not terminate in China. They continued north into Mongolia and to Karakorum, the heart of the new empire. Communication and ease of travel was vital to retain the coherence of the Mongol regime and travellers were given a pass (paiza in Persian; gerege in Mongolian) for safe conduct. Traders paid the baj tax for the same purpose, all acknowledging thereby the authority of the Mongol Khan. The contradictions between the nomadic and sedentary elements within the Mongol empire eased through the thirteenth century. In the 1230s, for example, as the Mongols waged their successful war against the Chin dynasty in north China, there was a strong pressure group within the Mongol leadership that advocated the massacre of all peasantry and the conversion of their fields into pasture lands. But by the 1270s, when south China was annexed to the Mongol empire after the defeat of the Sung dynasty, Genghis Khan’s grandson, Qubilai Khan (d. 1294), appeared as the protector of the peasants and the cities. In the 1290s, the Mongol ruler of Iran, Ghazan Khan (d. 1304), a descendant of Genghis Khan’s youngest son Toluy, warned family members and other generals to avoid pillaging the peasantry. It did not lead to a stable prosperous realm, he advised in a speech whose sedentary overtones would have made Genghis Khan shudder. MAP 2: The Mongol Campaigns Ghazan Khan’s Speech Ghazan Khan (1295-1304) was the first Il-Khanid ruler to convert to Islam. He gave the following speech to the Mongol-Turkish nomad commanders, a speech that was probably drafted by his Persian wazir Rashiduddin and included in the minister’s letters: ‘I am not on the side of the Persian peasantry. If there is a purpose in pillaging them all, there is no one with more power to do this than I. Let us rob them together. But if you wish to be certain of collecting grain and food for your tables in the future, I must be harsh with you. You must be taught reason. If you insult the peasantry, take their oxen and seed and trample their crops into the ground, what will you do in the future? … The obedient peasantry must be distinguished from the peasantry who are rebels…’ From Genghis Khan’s reign itself, the Mongols had recruited civil administrators from the conquered societies. They were sometimes moved around: Chinese secretaries deployed in Iran and Persians in China. They helped in integrating the distant dominions and their backgrounds and training were always useful in blunting the harsher edges of nomadic predation on sedentary life. The Mongol Khans trusted them as long as they continued to raise revenue for their masters and these administrators could sometimes command considerable influence. In the 1230s, the Chinese minister Yeh-lu Ch’u-ts’ai, muted some of Ogedei’s more rapacious instincts; the Juwaini family played a similar role in Iran through the latter half of the thirteenth century and at the end of the century, the wazir, Rashiduddin, drafted the speech that Ghazan Khan delivered to his Mongol compatriots asking them to protect, not harass, the peasantry. The pressure to sedentarise was greater in the new areas of Mongol domicile, areas distant from the original steppe habitat of the nomads. By the middle of the thirteenth century the sense of a common patrimony shared by all the brothers was gradually replaced by individual dynasties each ruling their separate ulus, a term which now carried the sense of a territorial dominion. This was, in part, a result of succession struggles, where Genghis Khanid descendants competed for the office of Great Khan and prized pastoral lands. Descendants of Toluy had come to rule both China and Iran where they had formed the Yuan and Il-Khanid dynasties. Descendants of Jochi formed the Golden Horde and ruled the Russian steppes; Chaghatai’s successors ruled the steppes of Transoxiana and the lands called Turkistan today. Noticeably, nomadic traditions persisted longest amongst the steppe dwellers in Central Asia (descendants of Chaghatai) and Russia (the Golden Horde). The gradual separation of the descendants of Genghis Khan into separate lineage groups implied that their connections with the memory and traditions of a past family concordance also altered. At an obvious level this was the result of competition amongst the cousin clans and here the Toluyid branch was more adept in presenting their version of the family disagreements in the histories produced under their patronage. To a large extent this was a consequence of their control of China and Iran and the large number of literati that its family members could recruit. At a more sophisticated level, the disengagement with the past also meant underlining the merits of the regnant rulers as a contrast to other past monarchs. This exercise in comparison did not exclude Genghis Khan himself. Persian chronicles produced in Il-Khanid Iran during the late thirteenth century detailed the gory killings of the Great Khan and greatly exaggerated the numbers killed. For example, in contrast to an eyewitness report that 400 soldiers defended the citadel of Bukhara, an Il-Khanid chronicle reported that 30,000 soldiers were killed in the attack on the citadel. Although Il-Khanid reports still eulogised Genghis Khan, they also carried a statement of relief that times had changed and the great killings of the past were over. The Genghis Khanid legacy was important, but for his descendants to appear as convincing heroes to a sedentary audience, they could no longer appear in quite the same way as their ancestor. Following the research of David Ayalon, recent work on the yasa, the code of law that Genghis Khan was supposed to have promulgated at the quriltai of 1206, has elaborated on the complex ways in which the memory of the Great Khan was fashioned by his successors. In its earliest formulation the term was written as yasaq which meant ‘law’, ‘decree’ or ‘order’. Indeed, the few details that we possess about the yasaq concern administrative regulations: the organisation of the hunt, the army and the postal system. By the middle of the thirteenth century, however, the Mongols had started using the related term yasa in a more general sense to mean the ‘legal code of Genghis Khan’. We may be able to understand the changes in the meaning of the term if we take a look at some of the other developments that occurred at the same time. By the middle of the thirteenth century the Mongols had emerged as a unified people and just created the largest empire the world had ever seen. They ruled over very sophisticated urban societies, with their respective histories, cultures and laws. Although the Mongols dominated the region politically, they were a numerical minority. The one way in which they could protect their identity and distinctiveness was through a claim to a sacred law given to them by their ancestor. The yasa was in all probability a compilation of the customary traditions of the Mongol tribes but in referring to it as Genghis Khan’s code of law, the Mongol people also laid claim to a ‘lawgiver’ like Moses and Solomon, whose authoritative code could be imposed on their subjects. The yasa served to cohere the Mongol people around a body of shared beliefs, it acknowledged their affinity to Genghis Khan and his descendants and, even as they absorbed different aspects of a sedentary lifestyle, gave them the confidence to retain their ethnic identity and impose their ‘law’ upon their defeated subjects. It was an extremely empowering ideology and although Genghis Khan may not have planned such a legal code, it was certainly inspired by his vision and was vital in the construction of a Mongol universal dominion. Conclusion: Situating Genghis Khan and the Mongols in World History When we remember Genghis Khan today the only images that appear in our imagination are those of the conqueror, the destroyer of cities, and an individual who was responsible for the death of thousands of people. Many thirteenth-century residents of towns in China, Iran and eastern Europe looked at the hordes from the steppes with fear and distaste. And yet, for the Mongols, Genghis Khan was the greatest leader of all time: he united the Mongol people, freed them from interminable tribal wars and Chinese exploitation, brought them prosperity, fashioned a grand transcontinental empire and restored trade routes and markets that attracted distant travellers like the Venetian Marco Polo. The contrasting images are not simply a case of dissimilar perspectives; they should make us pause and reflect on how one (dominant) perspective can completely erase all others. Beyond the opinions of the defeated sedentary people, consider for a moment the sheer size of the Mongol dominion in the thirteenth century and the diverse body of people and faiths that it embraced. Although the Mongol Khans themselves belonged to a variety of different faiths – Shaman, Buddhist, Christian and eventually Islam – they never let their personal beliefs dictate public policy. The Mongol rulers recruited administrators and armed contingents from people of all ethnic groups and religions. Theirs was a multi-ethnic, multilingual, multi-religious regime that did not feel threatened by its pluralistic constitution. This was utterly unusual for the time, and historians are only now studying the ways in which the Mongols provided ideological models for later regimes (like the Mughals of India) to follow. The nature of the documentation on the Mongols – and any nomadic regime – makes it virtually impossible to understand the inspiration that led to the confederation of fragmented groups of people in the pursuit of an ambition to create an empire. The Mongol empire eventually altered in its different milieus, but the inspiration of its founder remained a powerful force. At the end of the fourteenth century, Timur, another monarch who aspired to universal dominion, hesitated to declare himself monarch because he was not of Genghis Khanid descent. When he did declare his independent sovereignty it was as the son-in-law (guregen) of the Genghis Khanid family. Today, after decades of Soviet control, the country of Mongolia is recreating its identity as an independent nation. It has seized upon Genghis Khan as a great national hero who is publicly venerated and whose achievements are recounted with pride. At a crucial juncture in the history of Mongolia, Genghis Khan has once again appeared as an iconic figure for the Mongol people, mobilising memories of a great past in the forging of national identity that can carry the nation into the future. The Capture of Baghdad by the Mongols, a miniature painting in the Chronicles of Rashid al-Din, Tabriz, fourteenth century. Qubilai Khan and Chabi in camp. Exercises 1. Why was trade so significant to the Mongols? 2. Why did Genghis Khan feel the need to fragment the Mongol tribes into new social and military groupings? 3. How do later Mongol reflections on the yasa bring out the uneasy relationship they had with the memory of Genghis Khan. 4. ‘If history relies upon written records produced by city-based literati, nomadic societies will always receive a hostile representation.’ Would you agree with this statement? Does it explain the reason why Persian chronicles produced such inflated figures of casualties resulting from Mongol campaigns? ANSWER IN A SHORT ESSAY 5. Keeping the nomadic element of the Mongol and Bedouin societies in mind, how, in your opinion, did their respective historical experiences differ? What explanations would you suggest account for these differences? 6. How does the following account enlarge upon the character of the Pax Mongolica created by the Mongols by the middle of the thirteenth century? The Franciscan monk, William of Rubruck, was sent by Louis IX of France on an embassy to the great Khan Mongke’s court. He reached Karakorum, the capital of Mongke, in 1254 and came upon a woman from Lorraine (in France) called Paquette, who had been brought from Hungary and was in the service of one of the prince’s wives who was a Nestorian Christian. At the court he came across a Parisian goldsmith named Guillaume Boucher, ‘whose brother dwelt on the Grand Pont in Paris’. This man was first employed by the Queen Sorghaqtani and then by Mongke’s younger brother. Rubruck found that at the great court festivals the Nestorian priests were admitted first, with their regalia, to bless the Grand Khan’s cup, and were followed by the Muslim clergy and Buddhist and Taoist monks…

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 II

EMPIRES

An Empire Across Three Continents

The Central Islamic Lands

Nomadic Empires

 


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EMPIRES

Over the two millennia that followed the establishment of empires in Mesopotamia, various attempts at empire-building took place across the region and in the area to the west and east of it.

By the sixth century bce, Iranians had established control over major parts of the Assyrian empire. Networks of trade developed overland, as well as along the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea.

In the eastern Mediterranean, Greek cities and their colonies benefited from improvements in trade that were the result of these changes. They also benefited from close trade with nomadic people to the north of the Black Sea. In Greece, for the most part, city-states such as Athens and Sparta were the focus of civic life. From among the Greek states, in the late fourth century bce, the ruler of the kingdom of Macedon, Alexander, undertook a series of military campaigns and conquered parts of North Africa, West Asia and Iran, reaching up to the Beas. Here, his soldiers refused to proceed further east. Alexander’s troops retreated, though many Greeks stayed behind.

Throughout the area under Alexander’s control, ideals and cultural traditions were shared amongst the Greeks and the local population. The region on the whole became ‘Hellenised’ (the Greeks were called Hellenes), and Greek became a well-known language throughout. The political unity of Alexander’s empire disintegrated quickly after his death, but for almost three centuries after, Hellenistic culture remained important in the area. The period is often referred to as the ‘Hellenistic period’ in the history of the region, but this ignores the way in which other cultures (especially Iranian culture associated with the old empire of Iran) were as important as – if not often more important than – Hellenistic notions and ideas.

This section deals with important aspects of what happened after this.

Small but well-organised military forces of the central Italian city-state of Rome took advantage of the political discord that followed the disintegration of Alexander’s empire and established control over North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean from the second century bce. At the time, Rome was a republic. Government was based on a complex system of election, but its political institutions gave some importance to birth and wealth and society benefited from slavery. The forces of Rome established a network for trade between the states that had once been part of Alexander’s empire. In the middle of the first century bce, under Julius Caesar, a high-born military commander, this ‘Roman Empire’ was extended to present-day Britain and Germany.

Latin (spoken in Rome) was the main language of the empire, though many in the east continued to use Greek, and the Romans had a great respect for Hellenic culture. There were changes in the political structure of the empire from the late first century bce, and it was substantially Christianised after the emperor Constantine became a Christian in the fourth century ce.

To make government easier, the Roman Empire was divided into eastern and western halves in the fourth century ce. But in the west, there was a breakdown of the arrangements that existed between Rome and the tribes in frontier areas (Goths, Visigoths, Vandals and others). These arrangements dealt with trade, military recruitment and settlement, and the tribes increasingly attacked the Roman administration. Conflicts increased in scale, and coincided with internal dissensions in the empire, leading to the collapse of the empire in the west by the fifth century ce. Tribes established their own kingdoms within the former empire, though, with the prompting of the Christian Church, a Holy Roman Empire was formed from some of these kingdoms from the ninth century ce. This claimed some continuity with the Roman Empire.

Ruins at Greek city of Corinth.

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Between the seventh century and the fifteenth century, almost all the lands of the eastern Roman Empire (centred on Constantinople) came to be taken over by the Arab empire – created by the followers of the Prophet Muhammad (who founded the faith of Islam in the seventh century) and centred on Damascus – or by its successors (who ruled from Baghdad initially). There was a close interaction between Greek and Islamic traditions in the region. The trading networks of the area and its prosperity attracted the attention of pastoral peoples to the north including various Turkic tribes, who often attacked the cities of the region and established control. The last of these peoples to attack the area and attempt to control it were the Mongols, under Genghis Khan and his successors, who moved into West Asia, Europe, Central Asia and China in the thirteenth century.

All these attempts to make and maintain empires were driven by the search to control the resources of the trading networks that existed in the region as a whole, and to derive benefit from the links of the region with other areas such as India or China. All the empires evolved administrative systems to give stability to trade. They also evolved different types of military organisation. The achievements of one empire were often taken up by its successor. Over time, the area came to be marked by Persian, Greek, Latin and Arabic above many other languages that were spoken and written.

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The Great Mosque, Damascus, completed in 714.

 The empires were not very stable. This was partly due to disputes and conflict over resources in various regions. It was also due to the crisis that developed in relations between empires and pastoral peoples to the north – from whom empires derived support both for their trade and to provide them with labour for production of manufactures and for their armies. It is worth noting that not all empires were city-centric. The Mongol empire of Genghis Khan and his successors is a good example of how an empire could be maintained by pastoral people for a long time and with success.

Religions that appealed to peoples of different ethnic origins, who often spoke different languages, were important in the making of large empires. This was true in the case of Christianity (which originated in Palestine in the early first century ce) and Islam (which originated in the seventh century ce).

 

 

 

TIMELINE II

(c. 100 bce to 1300 ce)

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This timeline focuses on kingdoms and empires. Some of these such as the Roman Empire were very large, spreading across three continents. This was also the time when some of the major religious and cultural traditions developed. It was a time when institutions of intellectual activity emerged. Books were written and ideas travelled across continents. Some things that are now part of our everyday lives were used for the first time during this period.

 

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THEME 3

An Empire Across Three Continents

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The Roman Empire covered a vast stretch of territory that included most of Europe as we know it today and a large part of the Fertile Crescent and North Africa. In this chapter we shall look at the way this empire was organised, the political forces that shaped its destiny, and the social groups into which people were divided. You will see that the empire embraced a wealth of local cultures and languages; that women had a stronger legal position then than they do in many countries today; but also that much of the economy was run on slave labour, denying freedom to substantial numbers of persons. From the fifth century on, the empire fell apart in the west but remained intact and exceptionally prosperous in its eastern half. The caliphate which you will read about in the next chapter built on this prosperity and inherited its urban and religious traditions.

 

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Papyrus scrolls

Roman historians have a rich collection of sources to go on, which we can broadly divide into three groups: (a) texts, (b) documents and (c) material remains. Textual sources include histories of the period written by contemporaries (these were usually called ‘Annals’, because the narrative was constructed on a year-by-year basis), letters, speeches, sermons, laws, and so on. Documentary sources include mainly inscriptions and papyri. Inscriptions were usually cut on stone, so a large number survive, in both Greek and Latin. The ‘papyrus’ was a reed-like plant that grew along the banks of the Nile in Egypt and was processed to produce a writing material that was very widely used in everyday life. Thousands of contracts, accounts, letters and official documents survive ‘on papyrus’ and have been published by scholars who are called ‘papyrologists’. Material remains include a very wide assortment of items that mainly archaeologists discover (for example, through excavation and field survey), for example, buildings, monuments and other kinds of structures, pottery, coins, mosaics, even entire landscapes (for example, through the use of aerial photography). Each of these sources can only tell us just so much about the past, and combining them can be a fruitful exercise, but how well this is done depends on the historian’s skill!

Two powerful empires ruled over most of Europe,North Africa and the Middle East in the period between the birth of Christ and the early part of the seventh century, say, down to the 630s. The two empires were those of Rome and Iran. The Romans and Iranians were rivals and fought against each other for much of their history. Their empires lay next to each other, separated only by a narrow strip of land that ran along the river Euphrates. In this chapter we shall be looking at the Roman Empire, but we shall also refer, in passing, to Rome’s rival, Iran.

If you look at the map, you will see that the continents of Europe and Africa are separated by a sea that stretches all the way from Spain in the west to Syria in the east. This sea is called the Mediterranean, and it was the heart of Rome’s empire. Rome dominated the Mediterranean and all the regions around that sea in both directions, north as well as south. To the north, the boundaries of the empire were formed by two great rivers, the Rhine and the Danube; to the south, by the huge expanse of desert called the Sahara. This vast stretch of territory was the Roman Empire. Iran controlled the whole area south of the Caspian Sea down to eastern Arabia, and sometimes large parts of Afghanistan as well. These two superpowers had divided up most of the world that the Chinese called Ta Ch’in (‘greater Ch’in’, roughly the west).


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Map 1: Europe and North Africa


The Early Empire

The Roman Empire can broadly be divided into two phases, ‘early’ and ‘late’, divided by the third century as a sort of historical watershed between them. In other words, the whole period down to the main part of the third century can be called the ‘early empire’, and the period after that the ‘late empire’.

A major difference between the two superpowers and their respective empires was that the Roman Empire was culturally much more diverse than that of Iran. The Parthians and later the Sasanians, the dynasties that ruled Iran in this period, ruled over a population that was largely Iranian. The Roman Empire, by contrast, was a mosaic of territories and cultures that were chiefly bound together by a common system of government. Many languages were spoken in the empire, but for the purposes of administration Latin and Greek were the most widely used, indeed the only languages. The upper classes of the east spoke and wrote in Greek, those of the west in Latin, and the boundary between these broad language areas ran somewhere across the middle of the Mediterranean, between the African provinces of Tripolitania (which was Latin speaking) and Cyrenaica (Greek-speaking). All those who lived in the empire were subjects of a single ruler, the emperor, regardless of where they lived and what language they spoke.

The regime established by Augustus, the first emperor, in 27 bce was called the ‘Principate’. Although Augustus was the sole ruler and the only real source of authority, the fiction was kept alive that he was actually only the ‘leading citizen’ (Princeps in Latin), not the absolute ruler. This was done out of respect for the Senate, the body which had controlled Rome earlier, in the days when it was a Republic.* The Senate had existed in Rome for centuries, and had been and remained a body representing the aristocracy, that is, the wealthiest families of Roman and, later, Italian descent, mainly landowners. Most of the Roman histories that survive in Greek and Latin were written by people from a senatorial background. From these it is clear that emperors were judged by how they behaved towards the Senate. The worst emperors were those who were hostile to the senatorial class, behaving with suspicion or brutality and violence. Many senators yearned to go back to the days of the Republic, but most must have realised that this was impossible.

*The Republic was the name for a regime in which the reality of power lay with the Senate, a body dominated by a small group of wealthy families who formed the ‘nobility’. In practice, the Republic represented the government of the nobility, exercised through the body called the Senate. The Republic lasted from 509 bc to 27 bc, when it was overthrown by Octavian, the adopted son and heir of Julius Caesar, who later changed his name to Augustus. Membership of the Senate was for life, and wealth and office-holding counted for more than birth.

Next to the emperor and the Senate, the other key institution of imperial rule was the army. Unlike the army of its rival in the Persian empire, which was a conscripted** army, the Romans had a paid professional army where soldiers had to put in a minimum of 25 years of service. Indeed, the existence of a paid army was a distinctive feature of the Roman Empire. The army was the largest single organised body in the empire (600,000 by the fourth century) and it certainly had the power to determine the fate of emperors. The soldiers would constantly agitate for better wages and service conditions. These agitations often took the form of mutinies, if the soldiers felt let down by their generals or even the emperor. Again, our picture of the Roman army depends largely on the way they were portrayed by historians with senatorial sympathies. The Senate hated and feared the army, because it was a source of often- unpredictable violence, especially in the tense conditions of the third century when government was forced to tax more heavily to pay for its mounting military expenditures.

 **A conscripted army is one which is forcibly recruited; military service is compulsory for certain groups or categories of the population.

To sum up, the emperor, the aristocracy and the army were the three main ‘players’ in the political history of the empire. The success of individual emperors depended on their control of the army, and when the armies were divided, the result usually was civil war*. Except for one notorious year (69 ce), when four emperors mounted the throne in quick succession, the first two centuries were on the whole free from civil war and in this sense relatively stable. Succession to the throne was based as far as possible on family descent, either natural or adoptive, and even the army was strongly wedded to this principle. For example, Tiberius (14-37 ce), the second in the long line of Roman emperors, was not the natural son of Augustus, the ruler who founded the Principate, but Augustus adopted him to ensure a smooth transition.

*Civil war refers to armed struggles for power within the same country, in contrast to conflicts between different countries.

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Shops in Forum Julium, Rome. This piazza with columns was built after 51 bce, to enlarge the older Roman Forum.

External warfare was also much less common in the first two centuries. The empire inherited by Tiberius from Augustus was already so vast that further expansion was felt to be unnecessary. In fact, the ‘Augustan age’ is remembered for the peace it ushered in after decades of internal strife and centuries of military conquest. The only major campaign of expansion in the early empire was Trajan’s fruitless occupation of territory across the Euphrates, in the years 113-17 ce abandoned by his successors.

The Emperor Trajan’s Dream – A Conquest of India?

‘Then, after a winter (115/16) in Antioch marked by a great earthquake, in 116 Trajan marched down the Euphrates to Ctesiphon, the Parthian capital, and then to the head of the Persian Gulf. There [the historian] Cassius Dio describes him looking longingly at a merchant-ship setting off for India, and wishing that he were as young as Alexander.’

– Fergus Millar, The Roman Near East.

Much more characteristic was the gradual extension of Roman direct rule. This was accomplished by absorbing a whole series of ‘dependent’ kingdoms into Roman provincial territory. The Near East was full of such kingdoms*, but by the early second century those which lay west of the Euphrates (towards Roman territory) had disappeared, swallowed up by Rome. (Incidentally, some of these kingdoms were exceedingly wealthy, for example Herod’s kingdom yielded the equivalent of 5.4 million denarii per year, equal to over 125,000 kg of gold! The denarius was a Roman silver coin containing about 4½ gm of pure silver.)

*These were local kingdoms that were ‘clients’ of Rome. Their rulers could be relied on to use their forces in support of Rome, and in return Rome allowed them to exist.


The Near East.

From the perspective of someone who lived in the Roman Mediterranean, this referred to all the territory east of the Mediterranean, chiefly the Roman provinces of Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia, and in a looser sense the surrounding territories, for example Arabia.


In fact, except for Italy, which was not considered a province in these centuries, all the territories of the empire were organised into provinces and subject to taxation. At its peak in the second century, the Roman Empire stretched from Scotland to the borders of Armenia, and from the Sahara to the Euphrates and sometimes beyond. Given that there was no government in the modern sense to help them to run things, you may well ask, how was it possible for the emperor to cope with the control and administration of such a vast and diverse set of territories, with a population of some 60 million in the mid-second century? The answer lies in the urbanisation of the empire.


The great urban centres that lined the shores of the Mediterranean (Carthage, Alexandria, Antioch were the biggest among them) were the true bedrock of the imperial system. It was through the cities that ‘government’ was able to tax the provincial countrysides which generated much of the wealth of the empire. What this means is that the local upper classes actively collaborated with the Roman state in administering their own territories and raising taxes from them. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of Roman political history is the dramatic shift in power between Italy and the provinces. Throughout the second and third centuries, it was the provincial upper classes who supplied most of the cadre that governed the provinces and commanded the armies. They came to form a new elite of administrators and military commanders who became much more powerful than the senatorial class because they had the backing of the emperors. As this new group emerged, the emperor Gallienus (253-68) consolidated their rise to power by excluding senators from military command. We are told that Gallienus forbade senators from serving in the army or having access to it, in order to prevent control of the empire from falling into their hands.

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Pont du Gard, near Nimes, France, first century bce. Roman engineers built massive aqueducts over three continents to carry water.

To sum up, in the late first, second and early third centuries the army and administration were increasingly drawn from the provinces, as citizenship spread to these regions and was no longer confined to Italy. But individuals of Italian origin continued to dominate the senate at least till the third century, when senators of provincial origin became a majority. These trends reflected the general decline of Italy within the empire, both political and economic, and the rise of new elites in the wealthier and more urbanised parts of the Mediterranean, such as the south of Spain, Africa and the east. A city in the Roman sense was an urban centre with its own magistrates, city council and a ‘territory’ containing villages which were under its jurisdiction. Thus one city could not be in the territory of another city, but villages almost always were. Villages could be upgraded to the status of cities, and vice versa, usually as a mark of imperial favour (or the opposite). One crucial advantage of living in a city was simply that it might be better provided for during food shortages and even famines than the countryside.


ACTIVITY 1

Who were the three main players in the political history of the Roman Empire? Write one or two lines about each of them. And how did the Roman emperor manage to govern such a vast territory? Whose collaboration was crucial to this?



Doctor Galen on how Roman Cities

Treated the Countryside

‘The famine prevalent for many successive years in many provinces has clearly displayed for men of any understanding the effect of malnutrition in generating illness. The city-dwellers, as it was their custom to collect and store enough grain for the whole of the next year immediately after the harvest, carried off all the wheat, barley, beans and lentils, and left to the peasants various kinds of pulse – after taking quite a large proportion of these to the city. After consuming what was left in the course of the winter, the country people had to resort to unhealthy foods in the spring; they ate twigs and shoots of trees and bushes and bulbs and roots of inedible plants…’

– Galen, On Good and Bad Diet.




Public baths were a striking feature of Roman urban life (when one Iranian ruler tried to introduce them into Iran, he encountered the wrath of the clergy there! Water was a sacred element and to use it for public bathing may have seemed a desecration to them), and urban populations also enjoyed a much higher level of entertainment. For example, one calendar tells us that spectacula (shows) filled no less than 176 days of the year!


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 Amphitheatre at the Roman cantonment town of Vindonissa (in modern Switzerland), first century ce. Used for military drill and for staging entertainments for the soldiers.


The Third-Century Crisis

If the first and second centuries were by and large a period of peace, prosperity and economic expansion, the third century brought the first major signs of internal strain. From the 230s, the empire found itself fighting on several fronts simultaneously. In Iran a new and more aggressive dynasty emerged in 225 (they called themselves the ‘Sasanians’) and within just 15 years were expanding rapidly in the direction of the Euphrates. In a famous rock inscription cut in three languages, Shapur I, the Iranian ruler, claimed he had annihilated a Roman army of 60,000 and even captured the eastern capital of Antioch. Meanwhile, a whole series of Germanic tribes or rather tribal confederacies (most notably, the Alamanni, the Franks and the Goths) began to move against the Rhine and Danube frontiers, and the whole period from 233 to 280 saw repeated invasions of a whole line of provinces that stretched from the Black Sea to the Alps and southern Germany. The Romans were forced to abandon much of the territory beyond the Danube, while the emperors of this period were constantly in the field against what the Romans called ‘barbarians’. The rapid succession of emperors in the third century (25 emperors in 47 years!) is an obvious symptom of the strains faced by the empire in this period.


Gender, Literacy, Culture

One of the more modern features of Roman society was the widespread prevalence of the nuclear family. Adult sons did not live with their families, and it was exceptional for adult brothers to share a common household. On the other hand, slaves were included in the family as the Romans understood this. By the late Republic (the first century bce), the typical form of marriage was one where the wife did not transfer to her husband’s authority but retained full rights in the property of her natal family. While the woman’s dowry went to the husband for the duration of the marriage, the woman remained a primary heir of her father and became an independent property owner on her father’s death. Thus Roman women enjoyed considerable legal rights in owning and managing property. In other words, in law the married couple was not one financial entity but two, and the wife enjoyed complete legal independence. Divorce was relatively easy and needed no more than a notice of intent to dissolve the marriage by either husband or wife. On the other hand, whereas males married in their late twenties or early thirties, women were married off in the late teens or early twenties, so there was an age gap between husband and wife and this would have encouraged a certain inequality. Marriages were generally arranged, and there is no doubt that women were often subject to domination by their husbands. Augustine*, the great Catholic bishop who spent most of his life in North Africa, tells us that his mother was regularly beaten by his father and that most other wives in the small town where he grew up had similar bruises to show! Finally, fathers had substantial legal control over their children – sometimes to a shocking degree, for example, a legal power of life and death in exposing unwanted children, by leaving them out in the cold to die.

*Saint Augustine (354-430) was bishop of the North African city of Hippo from 396 and a towering figure in the intellectual history of the Church. Bishops were the most important religious figures in a Christian community, and often very powerful.

What about literacy? It is certain that rates of casual literacy* varied greatly between different parts of the empire. For example, in Pompeii, which was buried in a volcanic eruption in 79 ce, there is strong evidence of widespread casual literacy. Walls on the main streets of Pompeii often carried advertisements, and graffiti were found all over the city.

*The use of reading and writing in everyday, often trivial, contexts.

By contrast, in Egypt where hundreds of papyri survive, most formal documents such as contracts were usually written by professional scribes, and they often tell us that X or Y is unable to read and write. But even here literacy was certainly more widespread among certain categories such as soldiers, army officers and estate managers.

The cultural diversity of the empire was reflected in many ways and at many levels: in the vast diversity of religious cults and local deities; the plurality of languages that were spoken; the styles of dress and costume, the food people ate, their forms of social organisation (tribal/non-tribal), even their patterns of settlement. Aramaic was the dominant language group of the Near East (at least west of the Euphrates), Coptic was spoken in Egypt, Punic and Berber in North Africa, Celtic in Spain and the northwest. But many of these linguistic cultures were purely oral, at least until a script was invented for them. Armenian, for example, only began to be written as late as the fifth century, whereas there was already a Coptic translation of the Bible by the middle of the third century. Elsewhere, the spread of Latin displaced the written form of languages that were otherwise widespread; this happened notably with Celtic, which ceased to be written after the first century.

funy


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Mosaic in Edessa, second century ce. The Syriac inscription suggests that those depicted are the wife of king Abgar and her family.

Pompeii: A wine-merchant’s dining-room, its walls decorated with scenes depicting mythical animals.


ACTIVITY 2

How independent were women in the Roman world? Compare the situation of the Roman family with the family in India today.

 

Economic Expansion

The empire had a substantial economic infrastructure of harbours, mines, quarries, brickyards, olive oil factories, etc. Wheat, wine and olive-oil were traded and consumed in huge quantities, and they came mainly from Spain, the Gallic provinces, North Africa, Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Italy, where conditions were best for these crops. Liquids like wine and olive oil were transported in containers called ‘amphorae’. The fragments and sherds of a very large number of these survive (Monte Testaccio in Rome is said to contain the remnants of over 50 million vessels!), and it has been possible for archaeologists to reconstruct the precise shapes of these containers, tell us what they carried, and say exactly where they were made by examining the clay content and matching the finds with clay pits throughout the Mediterranean. In this way we can now say with some confidence that Spanish olive oil, to take just one example, was a vast commercial enterprise that reached its peak in the years 140-160. The Spanish olive oil of this period was mainly carried in a container called ‘Dressel 20’ (after the archaeologist who first established its form). If finds of Dressel 20 are widely scattered across sites in the Mediterranean, this suggests that Spanish olive oil circulated very widely indeed. By using such evidence (the remains of amphorae of different kinds and their ‘distribution maps’), archaeologists are able to show that Spanish producers succeeded in capturing markets for olive oil from their Italian counterparts. 


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Shipwreck off the south coast of France, first century bce. The amphorae are Italian, bearing the stamp of a producer near the Lake of Fondi.

This would only have happened if Spanish producers supplied a better quality oil at lower prices. In other words, the big landowners from different regions competed with each other for control of the main markets for the goods they produced. The success of the Spanish olive growers was then repeated by North African producers – olive estates in this part of the empire dominated production through most of the third and fourth centuries. Later, after 425, North African dominance was broken by the East: in the later fifth and sixth centuries the Aegean, southern Asia Minor (Turkey), Syria and Palestine became major exporters of wine and olive oil, and containers from Africa show a dramatically reduced presence on Mediterranean markets. Behind these broad movements the prosperity of individual regions rose and fell depending on how effectively they could organise the production and transport of particular goods, and on the quality of those goods



The empire included many regions that had a reputation for exceptional fertility. Campania in Italy, Sicily, the Fayum in Egypt, Galilee, Byzacium (Tunisia), southern Gaul (called Gallia Narbonensis), and Baetica (southern Spain) were all among the most densely settled or wealthiest parts of the empire, according to writers like Strabo and Pliny. The best kinds of wine came from Campania. Sicily and Byzacium exported large quantities of wheat to Rome. Galilee was densely cultivated (‘every inch of the soil has been cultivated by the inhabitants’, wrote the historian Josephus), and Spanish olive oil came mainly from numerous estates (fundi) along the banks of the river Guadalquivir in the south of Spain.

On the other hand, large expanses of Roman territory were in a much less advanced state. For example, transhumance* was widespread in the countryside of Numidia (modern Algeria). These pastoral and semi-nomadic communities were often on the move, carrying their oven-shaped huts (called mapalia) with them. As Roman estates expanded in North Africa, the pastures of those communities were drastically reduced and their movements more tightly regulated. Even in Spain the north was much less developed, and inhabited largely by a Celtic-speaking peasantry that lived in hilltop villages called castella. When we think of the Roman Empire, we should never forget these differences.

*Transhumance is the herdsman’s regular annual movement between the higher mountain regions and low-lying ground in search of pasture for sheep and other flocks.


ACTIVITY 3

Archaeologists who work on the remains of pottery are a bit like detectives. Can you explain why? Also, what can amphorae tell us about the economic life of the Mediterranean in the Roman period?


We should also be careful not to imagine that because this was the ‘ancient’ world, their forms of cultural and economic life were necessarily backward or primitive. On the contrary, diversified applications of water power around the Mediterranean as well as advances in water-powered milling technology, the use of hydraulic mining techniques in the Spanish gold and silver mines and the gigantic industrial scale on which those mines were worked in the first and second centuries (with levels of output that would not be reached again till the nineteenth century, some 1,700 years later!), the existence of well-organised commercial and banking networks, and the widespread use of money are all indications of how much we tend to under-estimate the sophistication of the Roman economy. This raises the issue of labour and of the use of slavery.



Controlling Workers

Slavery was an institution deeply rooted in the ancient world, both in the Mediterranean and in the Near East, and not even Christianity when it emerged and triumphed as the state religion (in the fourth century) seriously challenged this institution. It does not follow that the bulk of the labour in the Roman economy was performed by slaves. That may have been true of large parts of Italy in the Republican period (under Augustus there were still 3 million slaves in a total Italian population of 7.5 million) but it was no longer true of the empire as a whole. Slaves were an investment, and at least one Roman agricultural writer advised landowners against using them in contexts where too many might be required (for example, for harvests) or where their health could be damaged (for example, by malaria). These considerations were not based on any sympathy for the slaves but on hard economic calculation. On the other hand, if the Roman upper classes were often brutal towards their slaves, ordinary people did sometimes show much more compassion. See what one historian says about a famous incident that occurred in the reign of Nero.

On the Treatment of Slaves

‘Soon afterwards the City Prefect, Lucius Pedanius Secundus, was murdered by one of his slaves. After the murder, ancient custom required that every slave residing under the same roof must be executed. But a crowd gathered, eager to save so many innocent lives; and rioting began. The senate-house was besieged. Inside, there was feeling against excessive severity, but the majority opposed any change (….) [The senators] favouring execution prevailed. However, great crowds ready with stones and torches prevented the order from being carried out. Nero rebuked the population by edict, and lined with troops the whole route along which those condemned were taken for execution.’

– Tacitus (55-117), historian of the early empire.

As warfare became less widespread with the establishment of peace in the first century, the supply of slaves tended to decline and the users of slave labour thus had to turn either to slave breeding* or to cheaper substitutes such as wage labour which was more easily dispensable. In fact, free labour was extensively used on public works at Rome precisely because an extensive use of slave labour would have been too expensive. Unlike hired workers, slaves had to be fed and maintained throughout the year, which increased the cost of holding this kind of labour. This is probably why slaves are not widely found in the agriculture of the later period, at least not in the eastern provinces. On the other hand, they and freedmen, that is, slaves who had been set free by their masters, were extensively used as business managers, where, obviously, they were not required in large numbers. Masters often gave their slaves or freedmen capital to run businesses on their behalf or even businesses of their own.

*The practice of encouraging female slaves and their partners to have more children, who would of course also be slaves.

The Roman agricultural writers paid a great deal of attention to the management of labour. Columella, a first-century writer who came from the south of Spain, recommended that landowners should keep a reserve stock of implements and tools, twice as many as they needed, so that production could be continuous, ‘for the loss in slave labour-time exceeds the cost of such items’. There was a general presumption among employers that without supervision no work would ever get done, so supervision was paramount, for both free workers and slaves. To make supervision easier, workers were sometimes grouped into gangs or smaller teams. Columella recommended squads of ten, claiming it was easier to tell who was putting in effort and who was not in work groups of this size. This shows a detailed consideration of the management of labour. Pliny the Elder, the author of a very famous ‘Natural History’, condemned the use of slave gangs as the worst method of organising production, mainly because slaves who worked in gangs were usually chained together by their feet.


Opp page: Mosaic at Cherchel, Algeria, early third century ce, with agricultural scenes.

Above: Ploughing and sowing.

Below: Working in vineyards.

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All this looks draconian*, but we should remember that most factories in the world today enforce similar principles of labour control. Indeed, some industrial establishments in the empire enforced even tighter controls. The Elder Pliny described conditions in the frankincense** factories (officinae) of Alexandria, where, he tells us, no amount of supervision seemed to suffice. ‘A seal is put upon the workmen’s aprons, they have to wear a mask or a net with a close mesh on their heads, and before they are allowed to leave the premises, they have to take off all their clothes.’ Agricultural labour must have been fatiguing and disliked, for a famous edict of the early third century refers to Egyptian peasants deserting their villages ‘in order not to engage in agricultural work’. The same was probably true of most factories and workshops. A law of 398 referred to workers being branded so they could be recognised if and when they run away and try to hide. Many private employers cast their agreements with workers in the form of debt contracts to be able to claim that their employees were in debt to them and thus ensure tighter control over them. An early, second-century writer tells us, ‘Thousands surrender themselves to work in servitude, although they are free.’ In other words, a lot of the poorer families went into debt bondage in order to survive. From one of the recently discovered letters of Augustine we learn that parents sometimes sold their children into servitude for periods of 25 years. Augustine asked a lawyer friend of his whether these children could be liberated once the father died. Rural indebtedness was even more widespread; to take just one example, in the great Jewish revolt of 66 ce* the revolutionaries destroyed the moneylenders’ bonds to win popular support.

*Draconian: Harsh (so-called because of an early sixth-centurybce Greek lawmaker called Draco, who prescribed death as the penalty for most crimes!).

**Frankincense – the European name for an aromatic resin used in incense and perfumes. It is tapped from Boswellia trees by slashing the bark and allowing the exuded resins to harden. The best-quality frankincense came from the Arabian peninsula.

*A rebellion in Judaea 

against Roman domination, 

which was ruthlessly suppressed by

the Romans in

what is called the ‘Jewish war’.


Again, we should be careful not to conclude that the bulk of labour was coerced in these ways. The late-fifth-century emperor Anastasius built the eastern frontier city of Dara in less than three weeks by attracting labour from all over the East by offering high wages. From the papyri we can even form some estimate of how widespread wage labour had become in parts of the Mediterranean by the sixth century, especially in the East.


ACTIVITY 4

The text has referred to three writers whose work is used to say something about how the Romans treated their workers. Can you identify them? Reread the section for yourself and describe any two methods the Romans used to control labour.


Social Hierarchies

Let us stand back from the details now and try and get a sense of the social structures of the empire. Tacitus described the leading social groups of the early empire as follows: senators (patres, lit. ‘fathers’); leading members of the equestrian class; the respectable section of the people, those attached to the great houses; the unkempt lower class (plebs sordida) who, he tells us, were addicted to the circus and theatrical displays; and finally the slaves. In the early third century when the Senate numbered roughly 1,000, approximately half of all senators still came from Italian families. By the late empire, which starts with the reign of Constantine I in the early part of the fourth century, the first two groups mentioned by Tacitus (the senators and the equites*) had merged into a unified and expanded aristocracy, and at least half of all families were of African or eastern origin. This ‘late Roman’ aristocracy was enormously wealthy but in many ways less powerful than the purely military elites who came almost entirely from non-aristocratic backgrounds. The ‘middle’ class now consisted of the considerable mass of persons connected with imperial service in the bureaucracy and army but also the more prosperous merchants and farmers of whom there were many in the eastern provinces. Tacitus described this ‘respectable’ middle class as clients of the great senatorial houses. Now it was chiefly government service and dependence on the State that sustained many of these families. Below them were the vast mass of the lower classes known collectively as humiliores (lit. ‘lower’). They comprised a rural labour force of which many were permanently employed on the large estates; workers in industrial and mining establishments; migrant workers who supplied much of the labour for the grain and olive harvests and for the building industry; self-employed artisans who, it was said, were better fed than wage labourers; a large mass of casual labourers, especially in the big cities; and of course the many thousands of slaves that were still found all over the western empire in particular.


*The equites, (‘knights’ or ‘horsemen’) were traditionally the second most powerful and wealthy group. Originally, they were families whose property qualified them to serve in the cavalry, hence the name. Like senators, most ‘knights’ were landowners, but unlike senators many of them were shipowners, traders and bankers, that is, involved in business activities.

One writer of the early fifth century, the historian Olympiodorus who was also an ambassador, tells us that the aristocracy based in the City of Rome drew annual incomes of up to 4,000 lbs of gold from their estates, not counting the produce they consumed directly!

The monetary system of the late empire broke with the silver-based currencies of the first three centuries because the Spanish silver mines were exhausted and government ran out of sufficient stocks of the metal to support a stable coinage in silver. Constantine founded the new monetary system on gold and there were vast amounts of this in circulation throughout late antiquity.

Incomes of the Roman Aristocracy, Early FifthCentury

‘Each of the great houses of Rome contained within itself everything which a medium-sized city could hold, a hippodrome, fora, temples, fountains and different kinds of baths… Many of the Roman households received an income of four thousand pounds of gold per year from their properties, not including grain, wine and other produce which, if sold, would have amounted to one-third of the income in gold. The income of the households at Rome of the second class was one thousand or fifteen hundred pounds of gold.’

– Olympiodorus of Thebes.

The late Roman bureaucracy, both the higher and middle echelons, was a comparatively affluent group because it drew the bulk of its salary in gold and invested much of this in buying up assets like land. There was of course also a great deal of corruption, especially in the judicial system and in the administration of military supplies. The extortion of the higher bureaucracy and the greed of the provincial governors were proverbial. But government intervened repeatedly to curb these forms of corruption – we only know about them in the first place because of the laws that tried to put an end to them, and because historians and other members of the intelligentsia denounced such practices. This element of ‘criticism’ is a remarkable feature of the classical world. The Roman state was an authoritarian regime; in other words, dissent was rarely tolerated and government usually responded to protest with violence (especially in the cities of the East where people were often fearless in making fun of emperors). Yet a strong tradition of Roman law had emerged by the fourth century, and this acted as a brake on even the most fearsome emperors. Emperors were not free to do whatever they liked, and the law was actively used to protect civil rights. That is why in the later fourth century it was possible for powerful bishops like Ambrose to confront equally powerful emperors when they were excessively harsh or repressive in their handling of the civilian population.


Late Antiquity

We shall conclude this chapter by looking at the cultural transformation of the Roman world in its final centuries. ‘Late antiquity’ is the term now used to describe the final, fascinating period in the evolution and break-up of the Roman Empire and refers broadly to the fourth to seventh centuries. The fourth century itself was one of considerable ferment, both cultural and economic. At the cultural level, the period saw momentous developments in religious life, with the emperor Constantine deciding to make Christianity the official religion, and with the rise of Islam in the seventh century. But there were equally important changes in the structure of the state that began with the emperor Diocletian (284-305), and it may be best to start with these.


Overexpansion had led Diocletian to ‘cut back’ by abandoning territories with little strategic or economic value. Diocletian also fortified the frontiers, reorganised provincial boundaries, and separated civilian from military functions, granting greater autonomy to the military commanders (duces), who now became a more powerful group. Constantine consolidated some of these changes and added others of his own. His chief innovations were in the monetary sphere, where he introduced a new denomination, the solidus, a coin of 4½ gm of pure gold that would in fact outlast the Roman Empire itself. Solidi were minted on a very large scale and their circulation ran into millions. The other area of innovation was the creation of a second capital at Constantinople (at the site of modern Istanbul in Turkey, and previously called Byzantium), surrounded on three sides by the sea. As the new capital required a new senate, the fourth century was a period of rapid expansion of the governing classes. Monetary stability and an expanding population stimulated economic growth, and the archaeological record shows considerable investment in rural establishments, including industrial installations like oil presses and glass factories, in newer technologies such as screw presses and multiple water-mills, and in a revival of the long-distance trade with the East.

All of this carried over into strong urban prosperity that was marked by new forms of architecture and an exaggerated sense of luxury. The ruling elites were wealthier and more powerful than ever before. In Egypt, hundreds of papyri survive from these later centuries and they show us a relatively affluent society where money was in extensive use and rural estates generated vast incomes in gold. For example, Egypt contributed taxes of over 2½ million solidi a year (roughly 35,000 lbs of gold) in the reign of Justinian in the sixth century. Indeed, large parts of the Near Eastern countryside were more developed and densely settled in the fifth and sixth centuries than they would be even in the twentieth century! This is the social background against which we should set the cultural developments of this period.

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Part of a colossal statue of Emperor Constantine, 313 ce.

The traditional religious culture of the classical world, both Greek and Roman, had been polytheist. That is, it involved a multiplicity of cults that included both Roman/Italian gods like Jupiter, Juno, Minerva and Mars, as well as numerous Greek and eastern deities worshipped in thousands of temples, shrines and sanctuaries throughout the empire. Polytheists had no common name or label to describe themselves. The other great religious tradition in the empire was Judaism. But Judaism was not a monolith* either, and there was a great deal of diversity within the Jewish communities of late antiquity. Thus, the ‘Christianisation’** of the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries was a gradual and complex process. Polytheism did not disappear overnight, especially in the western provinces, where the Christian bishops waged a running battle against beliefs and practices they condemned more than the Christian laity*** did. The boundaries between religious communities were much more fluid in the fourth century than they would become thanks to the repeated efforts of religious leaders, the powerful bishops who now led the Church, to rein in their followers and enforce a more rigid set of beliefs and practices.

*Monolith – literally a large block of stone, but the expression is used to refer to anything (for example a society or culture) that lacks variety and is all of the same type.

 **Christianisation – the process by which Christianity spread among different groups of the population and became the dominant religion.

 ***Laity –

the ordinary members of a religious community as opposed to the priests or clergy who have official positions within the community.


The general prosperity was especially marked in the East where population was still expanding till the sixth century, despite the impact of the plague which affected the Mediterranean in the 540s. In the West, by contrast, the empire fragmented politically as Germanic groups from the North (Goths, Vandals, Lombards, etc.) took over all the major provinces and established kingdoms that are best described as ‘post-Roman’. The most important of these were that of the Visigoths in Spain, destroyed by the Arabs between 711 and 720, that of the Franks in Gaul (c.511-687) and that of the Lombards in Italy (568-774). These kingdoms foreshadowed the beginnings of a different kind of world that is usually called ‘medieval’. In the East, where the empire remained united, the reign of Justinian is the highwater mark of prosperity and imperial ambition. Justinian recaptured Africa from the Vandals (in 533) but his recovery of Italy (from the Ostrogoths) left that country devastated and paved the way for the Lombard invasion. By the early seventh century, the war between Rome and Iran had flared up again, and the Sasanians who had ruled Iran since the third century launched a wholesale invasion of all the major eastern provinces (including Egypt). When Byzantium, as the Roman Empire was now increasingly known, recovered these provinces in the 620s, it was just a few years away, literally, from the final major blow which came, this time, from the south-east.

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The Colosseum, built in 79 ce, where gladiators fought wild beasts. It could accommodate 60,000 people.

The expansion of Islam from its beginnings in Arabia has been called ‘the greatest political revolution ever to occur in the history of the ancient world’. By 642, barely ten years after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, large parts of both the eastern Roman and Sasanian empires had fallen to the Arabs in a series of stunning confrontations. However, we should bear in mind that those conquests, which eventually (a century later) extended as far afield as Spain, Sind and Central Asia, began in fact with the subjection of the Arab tribes by the emerging Islamic state, first within Arabia and then in the Syrian desert and on the fringes of Iraq. As we will see in Theme 4, the unification of the Arabian peninsula and its numerous tribes was the key factor behind the territorial expansion of Islam.

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Map 2: West Asia

 

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Mosaic at Ravenna, 547 ce, showing Emperor Justinian.

Exercises

Answer in brief

1. If you had lived in the Roman Empire, where would you rather have lived – in the towns or in the countryside? Explain why.

2. Compile a list of some of the towns, cities, rivers, seas and provinces mentioned in this chapter, and then try and find them on the maps. Can you say something about any three of the items in the list you have compiled?

3. Imagine that you are a Roman housewife preparing a shopping list for household requirements. What would be on the list?

4. Why do you think the Roman government stopped coining in silver? And which metal did it begin to use for the production of coinage?

 

Answer in a short essay

5. Suppose the emperor Trajan had actually managed to conquer India and the Romans had held on to the country for several centuries. In what ways do you think India might be different today?

6. Go through the chapter carefully and pick out some basic features of Roman society and economy which you think make it look quite modern.


Theme 4

The Central Islamic Lands

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As we enter the twenty-first century, there are over 1 billion Muslims living in all parts of the world. They are citizens of different nations, speak different languages, and dress differently. The processes by which they became Muslims were varied, and so were the circumstances in which they went their separate ways. Yet, the Islamic community has its roots in a more unified past which unfolded roughly 1,400 years ago in the Arabian peninsula. In this chapter we are going to read about the rise of Islam and its expansion over a vast territory extending from Egypt to Afghanistan, the core area of Islamic civilisation from 600 to 1200. In these centuries, Islamic society exhibited multiple political and cultural patterns. The term Islamic is used here not only in its purely religious sense but also for the overall society and culture historically associated with Islam. In this society not everything that was happening originated directly from religion, but it took place in a society where Muslims and their faith were recognised as socially dominant. Non-Muslims always formed an integral, if subordinate, part of this society as did Jews in Christendom.

Our understanding of the history of the central Islamic lands between 600 and 1200 is based on chronicles or tawarikh(which narrate events in order of time) and semi-historical works, such as biographies (sira), records of the sayings and doings of the Prophet (hadith) and commentaries on the Quran (tafsir). The material from which these works were produced was a large collection of eyewitness reports (akhbar) transmitted over a period of time either orally or on paper. The authenticity of each report (khabar) was tested by a critical method which traced the chain of transmission (isnad) and established the reliability of the narrator. Although the method was not foolproof, medieval Muslim writers were more careful in selecting their information and understanding the motives of their informants than were their contemporaries in other parts of the world. On controversial issues, they reproduced different versions of the same event, as they found in their sources, leaving the task of judgement to their readers. Their description of events closer to their own times is more systematic and analytical and less of a collection of akhbar. Most of the chronicles and semi-historical works are in Arabic, the best being the Tarikh of Tabari (d. 923) which has been translated into English in 38 volumes. Persian chronicles are few but they are quite detailed in their treatment of Iran and Central Asia. Christian chronicles, written in Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic*), are fewer but they throw interesting light on the history of early Islam. Besides chronicles, we have legal texts, geographies, travelogues and literary works, such as stories and poems.

Documentary evidence (fragmentary pieces of writing, such as official orders or private correspondence) is the most valuable for writing histories because it does not consciously refer to events and persons. It comes almost entirely from Greek and Arabic papyri (good for administrative history) and the Geniza records. Some evidence has emerged from archaeological (excavations done at desert palaces), numismatic (study of coins) and epigraphic (study of inscriptions) sources which is of great value for economic history, art history, and for establishing names and dates.

Proper histories of Islam began to be written in the nineteenth century by university professors in Germany and the Netherlands. Colonial interests in the Middle East and North Africa encouraged French and British researchers to study Islam as well. Christian priests too paid close attention to the history of Islam and produced some good work, although their interest was mainly to compare Islam with Christianity. These scholars, called Orientalists, are known for their knowledge of Arabic and Persian and critical analysis of original texts. Ignaz Goldziher was a Hungarian Jew who studied at the Islamic college (al-Azhar) in Cairo and produced path-breaking studies in German of Islamic law and theology. Twentieth-century historians of Islam have largely followed the interests and methods of Orientalists. They have widened the scope of Islamic history by including new topics, and by using allied disciplines, such as economics, anthropology and statistics, have refined many aspects of Orientalist studies. The historiography of Islam is a good example of how religion can be studied with modern historical methods by those who may not share the customs and beliefs of the people they are studying.


The Rise of Islam in Arabia: Faith, Community and Politics

During 612-32, the Prophet Muhammad preached the worship of a single God, Allah, and the membership of a single community of believers (umma). This was the origin of Islam. Muhammad was an Arab by language and culture and a merchant by profession. Sixth-century Arab culture was largely confined to the Arabian peninsula and areas of southern Syria and Mesopotamia.

The Arabs were divided into tribes* (qabila), each led by a chief who was chosen partly on the basis of his family connections but more for his personal courage, wisdom and generosity (murawwa). Each tribe had its own god or goddess, who was worshipped as an idol (sanam) in a shrine. Many Arab tribes were nomadic (Bedouins), moving from dry to green areas (oases) of the desert in search of food (mainly dates) and fodder for their camels. Some settled in cities and practised trade or agriculture. Muhammad’s own tribe, Quraysh, lived in Mecca and controlled the main shrine there, a cube-like structure called Kaba, in which idols were placed. Even tribes outside Mecca considered the Kaba holy and installed their own idols at this shrine, making annual pilgrimages (hajj) to the shrine. Mecca was located on the crossroads of a trade route between Yemen and Syria which further enhanced the city’s importance (see Map p. 82). The Meccan shrine was a sanctuary (haram) where violence was forbidden and protection given to all visitors. Pilgrimage and commerce gave the nomadic and settled tribes opportunities to communicate with one another and share their beliefs and customs. Although the polytheistic Arabs were vaguely familiar with the notion of a Supreme God, Allah (possibly under the influence of the Jewish and Christian tribes living in their midst), their attachment to idols and shrines was more immediate and stronger.

Around 612, Muhammad declared himself to be the messenger (rasul) of God who had been commanded to preach that Allah alone should be worshipped. The worship involved simple rituals, such as daily prayers (salat), and moral principles, such as distributing alms and abstaining from theft. Muhammad was to found a community of believers (umma) bound by a common set of religious beliefs. The community would bear witness (shahada) to the existence of the religion before God as well as before members of other religious communities. Muhammad’s message particularly appealed to those Meccans who felt deprived of the gains from trade and religion and were looking for a new community identity. Those who accepted the doctrine were called Muslims. They werepromised salvation on the Day of Judgement (qiyama) and a share of the resources of the community while on earth. The Muslims soon faced considerable opposition from affluent Meccans who took offence to the rejection of their deities and found the new religion a threat to the status and prosperity of Mecca. In 622, Muhammad was forced to migrate with his followers to Medina. Muhammad’s journey from Mecca (hijra) was a turning point in the history of Islam, with the year of his arrival in Medina marking the beginning of the Muslim calendar.

*Tribes are societies organised on the basis of blood relationships. The Arab tribes were made up of clans or combinations of large families. Unrelated clans also merged to make a tribe stronger. Non-Arab individuals (mawali) became members through the patronage of prominent tribesmen. Even after converting to Islam, the mawali were never treated as equals by the Arab Muslims and had to pray in separate mosques.

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A thirteenth century painting from ‘Ajaibul Makhluqat’ depicting the artist’s imagination of the Archangel Gabriel (Jibril) who brought messages to Muhammad. The first word he spoke was ‘recite’ (iqra) from which has come the word Quran. In Islamic cosmology, angels are one of the three intelligent forms of life in the Universe. The other two are humans and jinns.


Islamic Calendar

The Hijri era was established during the caliphate of Umar, with the first year falling in 622 ce. A date in the Hijri calendar is followed by the letters ah.

The Hijri year is a lunar year of 354 days, 12 months (Muharram to Dhul Hijja) of 29 or 30 days. Each day begins at sunset and each month with the sighting of the crescent moon. The Hijri year is about 11 days shorter than the solar year. Therefore, none of the Islamic religious festivals, including the Ramazan fast, Id and hajj, corresponds in any way to seasons. There is no easy way to match the dates in the Hijri calendar with the dates in the Gregorian calendar (established by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 ce). One can calculate the rough equivalents between the Islamic (H) and Gregorian Christian (C) years with the following formulae:

(H × 32 / 33) + 622 = C

(C – 622) × 33 / 32 = H

 

The survival of a religion rests on the survival of the community of believers. The community has to be consolidated internally and protected from external dangers. Consolidation and protection require political institutions such as states and governments which are either inherited from the past, borrowed from outside or created from scratch. In Medina, Muhammad created a political order from all three sources which gave his followers the protection they needed as well as resolved the city’s ongoing civil strife. The umma was converted into a wider community to include polytheists and the Jews of Medina under the political leadership of Muhammad. Muhammad consolidated the faith for his followers by adding and refining rituals (such as fasting) and ethical principles. The community survived on agriculture and trade, as well as an alms tax (zakat). In addition, the Muslims organised expeditionary raids on Meccan caravans and nearby oases. These raids provoked reactions from the Meccans and caused a breach with the Jews of Medina. After
a series of battles, Mecca was conquered and Muhammad’s reputation as a religious preacher and political leader spread far and wide. Muhammad now insisted on conversion as the sole criterion for membership of the community. In the harsh conditions of the desert, the Arabs attached great value to strength and solidarity. Impressed by Muhammad’s achievements, many tribes, mostly Bedouins, joined the community by converting to Islam. Muhammad’s alliances began to spread until they embraced the whole of Arabia. Medina became the administrative capital of the emerging Islamic state with Mecca as its religious centre. The Kaba was cleansed of idols as Muslims were required to face the shrine when offering prayers. In a short space of time, Muhammad was able to unite a large part of Arabia under a new faith, community and state. The early Islamic polity, however, remained a federation of Arab tribes and clans for a long time.

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Pilgrims at the Kaba, illustration from a fifteenth- century Persian manuscript.


The Caliphate: Expansion, Civil Wars and Sect Formation

After Muhammad’s death in 632, no one could legitimately claim to be the next prophet of Islam. As a result, his political authority was transferred to the umma with no established principle of succession. This created opportunities for innovations but also caused deep divisions among the Muslims. The biggest innovation was the creation of the institution of caliphate, in which the leader of the community (amir al-muminin) became the deputy (khalifa) of the Prophet. The first four caliphs (632-61) justified their powers on the basis of their close association with the Prophet and continued his work under the general guidelines he had provided. The twin objectives of the caliphate were to retain control over the tribes constituting the umma and to raise resources for the state.



Following Muhammad’s death, many tribes broke away from the Islamic state. Some even raised their own prophets to establish communities modelled on the umma. The first caliph, Abu Bakr, suppressed the revolts by a series of campaigns. The second caliph, Umar, shaped the umma’s policy of expansion of power. The caliph knew that the umma could not be maintained out of the modest income derived from trade and taxes. Realising that rich booty (ghanima) could be obtained from expeditionary raids, the caliph and his military commanders mustered their tribal strength to conquer lands belonging to the Byzantine Empire in the west and the Sasanian empire in the east. At the height of their power, the Byzantine and Sasanian empires ruled vast territories and commanded huge resources to pursue their political and commercial interests in Arabia. The Byzantine Empire promoted Christianity and the Sasanian empire patronised Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Iran. On the eve of the Arab invasions, these two empires had declined in strength due to religious conflicts and revolts by the aristocracy. This made it easier for the Arabs to annex territories through wars and treaties. In three successful campaigns (637-642), the Arabs brought Syria, Iraq, Iran and Egypt under the control of Medina. Military strategy, religious fervour and the weakness of the opposition contributed to the success of the Arabs. Further campaigns were launched by the third caliph, Uthman, to extend the control to Central Asia. Within a decade of the death of Muhammad, the Arab-Islamic state controlled the vast territory between the Nile and the Oxus. These lands remain under Muslim rule to this day.

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In all the conquered provinces, the caliphs imposed a new administrative structure headed by governors (amirs) and tribal chieftains (ashraf ). The central treasury (bait al-mal) obtained its revenue from taxes paid by Muslims as well as its share of the booty from raids. The caliph’s soldiers, mostly Bedouins, settled in camp cities at the edge of the desert, such as Kufa and Basra, to remain within reach of their natural habitat as well as the caliph’s command. The ruling class and soldiers received shares of the booty and monthly payments (ata). The non-Muslim population retained their rights to property and religious practices on payment of taxes (kharaj and jiziya). Jews and Christians were declared protected subjects of the state (dhimmis) and given a large measure of autonomy in the conduct of their communal affairs.

Political expansion and unification did not come easily to the Arab tribesmen. With territorial expansion, the unity of theumma became threatened by conflicts over the distribution of resources and offices. The ruling class of the early Islamic state comprised almost entirely the Quraysh of Mecca. The third caliph, Uthman (644-56), also a Quraysh, packed his administration with his own men to secure greater control. This further intensified the Meccan character of the state and the conflict with the other tribesmen. Opposition in Iraq and Egypt, combined with opposition in Medina, led to the assassination of Uthman. With Uthman’s death, Ali became the fourth caliph.

The rifts among the Muslims deepened after Ali (656-61) fought two wars against those who represented the Meccan aristocracy. Ali established himself at Kufa and defeated an army led by Muhammad’s wife, Aisha, in the Battle of the Camel (657). He was, however, not able to suppress the faction led by Muawiya, a kinsman of Uthman and the governor of Syria. Ali’s second battle, at Siffin (northern Mesopotamia), ended in a truce which split his followers into two groups: some remained loyal to him, while others left the camp and came to be known as Kharjis. Soon after, Ali was assassinated by a Kharji in a mosque at Kufa. After his death, his followers paid allegiance to his son, Hussain, and his descendants. Muawiya made himself the next caliph in 661, founding the Umayyad dynasty which lasted till 750.

After the civil wars, it appeared as if Arab domination would disintegrate. There were also signs that the tribal conquerors were adopting the sophisticated culture of their subjects. It was under the Umayyads, a prosperous clan of the Quraysh tribe, that a second round of consolidation took place.


The Umayyads and the Centralisation of Polity

The conquest of large territories destroyed the caliphate based in Medina and replaced it with an increasingly authoritarian polity. The Umayyads implemented a series of political measures which consolidated their leadership within the umma. The first Umayyad caliph, Muawiya, moved his capital to Damascus and adopted the court ceremonies and administrative institutions of the Byzantine Empire. He also introduced hereditary succession and persuaded the leading Muslims to accept his son as his heir. These innovations were adopted by the caliphs who followed him, and allowed the Umayyads to retain power for 90 years and the Abbasids, for two centuries.

*Aramaic is a language related to Hebrew and Arabic. It has also been used in Ashokan inscriptions.

The Umayyad state was now an imperial power, no longer based directly on Islam but on statecraft and the loyalty of Syrian troops. There were Christian advisers in the administration, as well as Zoroastrian scribes and bureaucrats. However, Islam continued to provide legitimacy to their rule. The Umayyads always appealed for unity and suppressed rebellions in the name of Islam. They also retained their Arab social identity. During the reign of Abd al-Malik (685-705) and his successors, both the Arab and Islamic identities were strongly emphasised. Among the measures Abd al-Malik took were the adoption of Arabic as the language of administration and the introduction of an Islamic coinage. The gold dinar and silver dirham that had been circulating in the caliphate were copies of Byzantine and Iranian coins (denarius and drachm), with symbols of crosses and fire altars and Greek and Pahlavi (the language of Iran) inscriptions. These symbols were removed and the coins now carried Arabic inscriptions. Abd al-Malik also made a highly visible contribution to the development of an Arab-Islamic identity, by building the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

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The Dome of the Rock, built over a rocky mound by Abd al-Malik, is the earliest major work of Islamic architecture. Created as a monument to the Muslim presence in the city of Jerusalem, it acquired a mystical association connected with the Night Journey of the Prophet to Heaven (miraj).

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The Abbasid Revolution

For their success in centralising the Muslim polity, the Umayyads paid a heavy price. A well-organised movement, called dawa, brought down the Umayyads and replaced them with another family of Meccan origin, the Abbasids, in 750. The Abbasids portrayed the Umayyad regime as evil and promised a restoration of the original Islam of the Prophet. The revolution led not only to a change of dynasty but changes in the political structure and culture of Islam.

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The Great Mosque of al-Mutawwakil in Samarra (the second Abbasid capital) built in 850. The minar is 50 metres high, and is made of brick. Inspired by Mesopotamian architectural traditions, this was the largest mosque in the world for centuries.

The Abbasid uprising broke out in the distant region of Khurasan (eastern Iran), a 20-day journey from Damascus on a fast horse. Khurasan had a mixed Arab-Iranian population which could be mobilised for various reasons. The Arab soldiers here were mostly from Iraq and resented the dominance of the Syrians. The civilian Arabs of Khurasan disliked the Umayyad regime for having made promises of tax concessions and privileges which were never fulfilled. As for the Iranian Muslims (mawali), they were exposed to the scorn of the race-conscious Arabs and were eager to join any campaign to oust the Umayyads.

The Abbasids, descendants of Abbas, the Prophet’s uncle, mustered the support of the various dissident groups and legitimised their bid for power by promising that a messiah (mahdi) from the family of the Prophet (ahl al-bayt) would liberate them from the oppressive Umayyad regime. Their army was led by an Iranian slave, Abu Muslim, who defeated the last Umayyad caliph, Marwan, in a battle at the river Zab.


Under Abbasid rule, Arab influence declined, while the importance of Iranian culture increased. The Abbasids established their capital at Baghdad, near the ruins of the ancient Iranian metropolis, Ctesiphon. The army and bureaucracy were reorganised on a non-tribal basis to ensure greater participation by Iraq and Khurasan. The Abbasid rulers strengthened the religious status and functions of the caliphate and patronised Islamic institutions and scholars. But they were forced by the needs of government and empire to retain the centralised nature of the state. They maintained the magnificent imperial architecture and elaborate court ceremonials of the Umayyads. The regime which took pride in having brought down the monarchy found itself compelled to establish it again.


Break-up of the Caliphate and the Rise of Sultanates

The Abbasid state became weaker from the ninth century because Baghdad’s control over the distant provinces declined, and because of conflict between pro-Arab and pro-Iranian factions in the army and bureaucracy. In 810, a civil war broke out between supporters of Amin and Mamun, sons of the caliph Harun al-Rashid, which deepened the factionalism and created a new power bloc of Turkish slave officers (mamluk). Shiism once again competed with Sunni orthodoxy for power. A number of minor dynasties arose, such as the Tahirids and Samanids in Khurasan and Transoxiana (Turan or lands beyond the Oxus), and the Tulunids in Egypt and Syria. Abbasid power was soon limited to central Iraq and western Iran. That too was lost in 945 when the Buyids, a Shiite clan from the Caspian region of Iran (Daylam), captured Baghdad. The Buyid rulers assumed various titles, including the ancient Iranian title shahanshah (king of kings), but not that of caliph. They kept the Abbasid caliph as the symbolic head of their Sunni subjects.

The decision not to abolish the caliphate was a shrewd one, because another Shiite dynasty, the Fatimids, had ambitions to rule the Islamic world. The Fatimids belonged to the Ismaili sub-sect of Shiism and claimed to be descended from the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, and hence, the sole rightful rulers of Islam. From their base in North Africa, they conquered Egypt in 969 and established the Fatimid caliphate. The old capital of Egypt, Fustat, was replaced by a new city, Qahira (Cairo), founded on the day of the rise of the planet Mars (Mirrikh, also called al-Qahir). The two rival dynasties patronised Shiite administrators, poets and scholars.

Activity 1

Identify the changing locations of the caliphate’s capital. Which would you say was most centrally situated?

Between 950 and 1200, Islamic society was held together not by a single political order or a single language of culture (Arabic) but by common economic and cultural patterns. Unity in the face of political divisions was maintained by the separation between state and society, the development of Persian as a language of Islamic high culture, and the maturity of the dialogue between intellectual traditions. Scholars, artists and merchants moved freely within the central Islamic lands and assured the circulation of ideas and manners. Some of these also percolated down to the level of villages due to conversion. The Muslim population, less than 10 per cent in the Umayyad and early Abbasid periods, increased enormously. The identity of Islam as a religion and a cultural system separate from other religions became much sharper, which made conversion possible and meaningful.

A third ethnic group was added to the Arabs and Iranians, with the rise of the Turkish sultanates in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The Turks were nomadic tribes from the Central Asian steppes (grasslands) of Turkistan (north-east of the Aral Sea up to the borders of China) who gradually converted to Islam (see Theme 5). They were skilled riders and warriors and entered the Abbasid, Samanid and Buyid administrations as slaves and soldiers, rising to high positions on account of their loyalty and military abilities. The Ghaznavid sultanate was established by Alptegin (961) and consolidated by Mahmud of Ghazni (998-1030). Like the Buyids, the Ghaznavids were a military dynasty with a professional army of Turks and Indians (one of the generals of Mahmud was an Indian named Tilak). But their centre of power was in Khurasan and Afghanistan and for them, the Abbasid caliphs were not rivals but a source of legitimacy. Mahmud was conscious of being the son of a slave and was especially eager to receive the title of Sultan from the caliph. The caliph was willing to support the Sunni Ghaznavid as a counterweight to Shiite power.

The Saljuq Turks entered Turan as soldiers in the armies of the Samanids and Qarakhanids (non-Muslim Turks from further east). They later established themselves as a powerful group under the leadership of two brothers, Tughril and Chaghri Beg. Taking advantage of the chaos following the death of Mahmud of Ghazni, the Saljuqs conquered Khurasan in 1037 and made Nishapur* their first capital. The Saljuqs next turned their attention to western Persia and Iraq (ruled by the Buyids) and in 1055, restored Baghdad to Sunni rule. The caliph, al-Qaim, conferred on Tughril Beg the title of Sultan in a move that marked the separation of religious and political authority. The two Saljuq brothers ruled together in accordance with the tribal notion of rule by the family as a whole. Tughril (d. 1064) was succeeded by his nephew, Alp Arsalan. During Alp Arsalan’s reign, the Saljuq empire expanded to Anatolia (modern Turkey).

*An important Perso-Islamic centre of learning and the birthplace of Umar Khayyam.


From the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, there was a series of conflicts between European Christians and the Arab states. This is discussed below. Then, at the start of the thirteenth century, the Muslim world found itself on the verge of a great disaster. This was the threat from the Mongols, the last but most decisive of all nomadic assaults on settled civilisations (see Theme 5).



The Crusades

In medieval Islamic societies, Christians were regarded as the People of the Book (ahl al-kitab) since they had their own scripture (the New Testament or Injil). Christians were granted safe conduct (aman) while venturing into Muslim states as merchants, pilgrims, ambassadors and travellers. These territories also included those which were once held by the Byzantine Empire, notably the Holy Land of Palestine. Jerusalem was conquered by the Arabs in 638 but it was ever-present in the Christian imagination as the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. This was an important factor in the formation of the image of Muslims in Christian Europe.

Hostility towards the Muslim world became more pronounced in the eleventh century. Normans, Hungarians and some Slavs had been converted to Christianity, and the Muslims alone remained as the main enemy. There was also a change in the social and economic organisation of western Europe in the eleventh century which contributed to the hostility between Christendom and the Islamic world. The clergy and the warrior class (the first two orders – see Theme 6) were making efforts to ensure political stability as well as economic growth based on agriculture and trade. The possibilities of military confrontation between competing feudal principalities and a return to economic organisation based on plunder were contained by the Peace of God movement. All military violence was forbidden inside certain areas, near places of worship, during certain periods considered sacred in the Church’s calendar, and against certain vulnerable social groups, such as churchmen and the common people. The Peace of God deflected the aggressive tendencies of feudal society away from the Christian world and towards the ‘enemies’ of God. It built a climate in which fighting against the infidels (non-believers) became not only permissible but also commendable.


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Aleppo, a Hittite, Assyrian and Hellenistic site, which was occupied by the Arabs in 636. It was fought over for the next 1,000 years; note the Crusaders seen in action.

–Nasuh al-Matraki’s Itinerary, 1534-36.

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The death in 1092 of Malik Shah, the Saljuq sultan of Baghdad, was followed by the disintegration of his empire. This offered the Byzantine emperor, Alexius I, a chance to regain Asia Minor and northern Syria. For Pope Urban II, this was an opportunity to revive the spirit of Christianity. In 1095, the Pope joined the Byzantine emperor in calling for a war in the name of God to liberate the Holy Land. Between 1095 and 1291, western European Christians planned and fought
wars against Muslim cities on the coastal plains of the eastern Mediterranean (Levant). These wars were later designated as Crusades*.

*The Pope ordered the ceremonial granting of crosses to those who had sworn to fight.

In the first crusade (1098-99), soldiers from France and Italy captured Antioch in Syria, and claimed Jerusalem. Their victory was accompanied by the slaughter of Muslims and Jews in the city, chronicled by both Christians and Muslims. Muslim writers referred to the arrival of the Christians (called ifrinji or firangi) as a Frankish invasion. The Franks quickly established four crusader states in the region of Syria-Palestine. Collectively, these territories were known as Outremer (the land overseas) and later crusades were directed at its defence and expansion.

The Outremer survived well for some time, but when the Turks captured Edessa in 1144, an appeal was made by the Pope for a second crusade (1145-49). A combined German and French army made an attempt to capture Damascus but they were defeated and forced to return home. After this, there was a gradual erosion of the strength of Outremer. Crusader zeal gave way to living in luxury and to battles over territory among the Christian rulers. Salah al-Din (Saladin) created an Egypto-Syrian empire and gave the call for jihad or holy war against the Christians, and defeated them in 1187. He regained Jerusalem, nearly a century after the first crusade. Records of the time indicate that Salah al-Din’s treatment of the Christian population was humane, in marked contrast to the way in which Christians had earlier dealt with Muslims and Jews. Although he gave custody of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to the Christians, a number of churches were turned into mosques, and Jerusalem once again became a Muslim city.

The loss of the city prompted a third crusade in 1189, but the crusaders gained little except for some coastal towns in Palestine and free access to Jerusalem for Christian pilgrims. The Mamluks, the rulers of Egypt, finally drove the crusading Christians from all of Palestine in 1291. Europe gradually lost military interest in Islam and focused on its internal political and cultural development.

The Crusades left a lasting impact on two aspects of Christian-Muslim relations. One was the harsher attitude of the Muslim state towards its Christian subjects which resulted from the bitter memories of the conflict as well as the needs for security in areas of mixed populations. The other was the greater influence of Italian mercantile communities (from Pisa, Genoa and Venice) in the trade between the East and the West even after the restoration of Muslim power.

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Economy: Agriculture, Urbanisation and Commerce

Agriculture was the principal occupation of the settled populations in the newly conquered territories. The Islamic state made no changes in this. Land was owned by big and small peasants and, in some cases, by the state. In Iraq and Iran, land existed in fairly large units cultivated by peasants. The estate owners collected taxes on behalf of the state during the Sasanian as well as Islamic periods. In areas that had moved from a pastoral to a settled agricultural system, land was the common property of the village. Finally, big estates that were abandoned by their owners after the Islamic conquests were acquired by the state and handed over mainly to the Muslim elites of the empire, particularly members of the caliph’s family.

The state had overall control of agricultural lands, deriving the bulk of its income from land revenue once the conquests were over. The lands conquered by the Arabs that remained in the hands of the owners were subject to a tax (kharaj), which varied from half to a fifth of the produce, according to the conditions of cultivation. On land held or cultivated by Muslims, the tax levied was one-tenth (ushr) of the produce. When non-Muslims started to convert to Islam to pay lower taxes, this reduced the income of the state. To address the shortfall, the caliphs first discouraged conversions and later adopted a uniform policy of taxation. From the tenth century onwards, the state authorised its officials to claim their salaries from agricultural revenues from territories, called iqtas (revenue assignments).

Agricultural prosperity went hand in hand with political stability. In many areas, especially in the Nile valley, the state supported irrigation systems, the construction of dams and canals, and the digging of wells (often equipped with waterwheels or noria), all of which were crucial for good harvests. Islamic law gave tax concessions to people who brought land under cultivation. Through peasant initiatives and state support, cultivable land expanded and productivity rose, even in the absence of major technological changes. Many new crops such as cotton, oranges, bananas, watermelons, spinach and brinjals (badinjan) were grown and even exported to Europe.

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Grain harvesting; the labourers’ lunch is being brought on a tray.

–Arabic version of the Pseudo-Galen’s Book of Antidotes, 1199 (see the story of Doctor Galen, p. 63).

 


Islamic civilisation flourished as the number of cities grew phenomenally. Many new cities were founded, mainly to settle Arab soldiers (jund) who formed the backbone of the local administration. Among this class of garrison-cities, called misr(the Arabic name for Egypt), were Kufa and Basra in Iraq, and Fustat and Cairo in Egypt. Within half a century of its establishment as the capital of the Abbasid caliphate (800), the population of Baghdad had reached around 1 million. Alongside these cities were older towns such as Damascus, Isfahan and Samarqand, which received a new lease of life. Their size and population surged, supported by an expansion in the production of foodgrains and raw materials such as cotton and sugar for urban manufactures. A vast urban network developed, linking one town with another and forming a circuit.

A boat sailing to Basra. The crew are Indian and the passengers Arab. The transport of goods and passengers by water was cheaper, quicker and safer in pre-modern times. Illustration from the Maqamat written by Hariri (twelfth-century manuscript). The Maqamat (Assemblies) were a genre of popular Arabic literature in which a narrator tells stories of a trickster and his escapades.

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At the heart of the city were two building complexes radiating cultural and economic power: the congregational mosque (masjid al-jami), big enough to be seen from a distance, and the central marketplace (suq), with shops in a row, merchants’ lodgings (fanduq) and the office of the money-changer. The cities were homes to administrators (ayan or eyes of the state), and scholars and merchants (tujjar) who lived close to the centre. Ordinary citizens and soldiers had their living quarters in the outer circle, each fitted with its own mosque, church or synagogue (Jewish temple), subsidiary market and public bath (hammam), an important meeting place. At the outskirts were the houses of the urban poor, a market for green vegetables and fruits brought from the countryside, caravan stations and ‘unclean’ shops, such as those dealing in tanning or butchering. Beyond the city walls were inns for people to rest when the city gates were shut and cemeteries. There were variations on this typology depending on the nature of the landscape, political traditions and historical events.

Political unification and urban demand for foodstuffs and luxuries enlarged the circuit of exchange. Geography favoured the Muslim empire, which spread between the trading zones of the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. For five centuries, Arab and Iranian traders monopolised the maritime trade between China, India and Europe. This trade passed through two major routes, namely, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. High-value goods suitable for long-distance trade, such as spices, textile, porcelain and gunpowder, were shipped from India and China to the Red Sea ports of Aden and Aydhab and the Gulf ports of Siraf and Basra. 
From here, the merchandise was carried overland in camel caravans to the warehouses (makhazin, origin of the word magazine which has a similar collection of articles) of Baghdad, Damascus and Aleppo for local consumption or onward transmission. The caravans passing through Mecca got bigger whenever the hajj coincided with the sailing seasons (mawasim, origin of the word monsoon) in the Indian Ocean. At the Mediterranean end of these trade routes, exports to Europe from the port of Alexandria were handled by Jewish merchants, some of whom traded directly with India, as can be seen from their letters preserved in the Geniza collection. However, from the tenth century, the Red Sea route gained greater importance due to the rise of Cairo as a centre of commerce and power and growing demand for eastern goods from the trading cities of Italy.

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Paper, Geniza Records and History

In the central Islamic lands, written works were widely circulated after the introduction of paper. Paper (made from linen) came from China, where the manufacturing process was a closely guarded secret. In 751, the Muslim governor of Samarqand took 20,000 Chinese invaders as prisoners, some of whom were good at making paper. For the next 100 years, Samarqand paper remained an important export item. Since Islam prohibited monopolies, paper began to be manufactured in the rest of the Islamic world. By the middle of the tenth century, it had more or less replaced papyrus, the writing material made from the inner stem of a plant that grew freely in the Nile valley. Demand for paper increased, and Abd al-Latif, a doctor from Baghdad (see his depiction of the ideal student on p. 98) and a resident of Egypt between 1193 and 1207, reported how Egyptian peasants robbed graves to obtain mummy wrappings made of linen to sell to paper factories.

Paper also facilitated the writing of commercial and personal documents of all kinds. In 1896, a huge collection of medieval Jewish documents was discovered in a sealed room (Geniza, pronounced ghaniza) of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat. The documents had been preserved thanks to the Jewish practice of not destroying any piece of writing that contained the name of God. The Geniza was found to contain over a quarter of a million manuscripts and fragments dating back as far as the mid-eighth century. Most of the material dated from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries, that is, from the Fatimid, Ayyubid and early Mamluk periods. These included personal letters between merchants, family and friends, contracts, promises of dowry, sale documents, laundry lists, and other trivia. Most of the documents were written in Judaeo-Arabic, a version of Arabic written in Hebrew characters that was commonly used by Jewish communities throughout the medieval Mediterranean. The Geniza documents provide rich insights into personal and economic experiences as also into Mediterranean and Islamic culture. The documents also suggest that the business skills and commercial techniques of merchants of the medieval Islamic world were more advanced than those of their European counterparts. Goitein wrote a multi-volume history of the Mediterranean from Geniza records, and Amitav Ghosh was inspired by a Geniza letter to tell the story of an Indian slave in his book, In an Antique Land.



Towards the eastern end, caravans of Iranian merchants set out from Baghdad along the Silk Route to China, via the oasis cities of Bukhara and Samarqand (Transoxiana), to bring Central Asian and Chinese goods, including paper. Transoxiana also formed an important link in the commercial network which extended north to Russia and Scandinavia for the exchange of European goods, (mainly fur) and Slavic captives (hence the word, slave). Islamic coins, used for the payment of these goods, were found in hoards discovered along the Volga river and in the Baltic region. Male and female Turkish slaves (ghulam) too were purchased in these markets for the courts of the caliphs and sultans.

The fiscal system (income and expenditure of the state) and market exchange increased the importance of money in the central Islamic lands. Coins of gold, silver and copper (fulus) were minted and circulated, often in bags sealed by money-changers, to pay for goods and services. Gold came from Africa (Sudan) and silver from Central Asia (Zarafshan valley). Precious metals and coins also came from Europe, which used these to pay for its trade with the East. Rising demand for money forced people to release their accumulated reserves and idle wealth into circulation. Credit combined with currencies to oil the wheels of commerce. The greatest contribution of the Muslim world to medieval economic life was the development of superior methods of payment and business organisation. Letters of credit (sakk, origin of the word cheque) and bills of exchange (suftaja) were used by merchants and bankers to transfer money from one place or individual to another. The widespread use of commercial papers freed merchants from the need to carry cash everywhere and also made their journeys safer. The caliph too used the sakk to pay salaries or reward poets and minstrels.

Although it was customary for merchants to set up family businesses or employ slaves to run their affairs, formal business arrangements (muzarba) were also common in which sleeping partners entrusted capital to travelling merchants and shared profits and losses in an agreed proportion. Islam did not stop people from making money so long as certain prohibitions were respected. For instance, interest-bearing transactions (riba) were unlawful, although people circumvented usury in ingenious ways (hiyal), such as borrowing money in one type of coin and paying in another while disguising the interest as a commission on currency exchange (the origin of the bill of exchange).

Many tales from the Thousand and One Nights (Alf Layla wa Layla) give us a picture of medieval Islamic society, featuring characters such as sailors, slaves, merchants and money-changers.

Learning and Culture

As the religious and social experiences of the Muslims deepened through contact with other people, the community was obliged to reflect on itself and confront issues pertaining to God and the world. What should be the ideal conduct of a Muslim in public and private? What is the object of Creation and how does one know what God wants from His creatures? How can one understand the mysteries of the universe? Answers to such questions came from learned Muslims who acquired and organised knowledge of different kinds to strengthen the social identity of the community as well as to satisfy their intellectual curiosity.

For religious scholars (ulama), knowledge (ilm) derived from the Quran and the model behaviour of the Prophet (sunna) was the only way to know the will of God and provide guidance in this world. The ulama in medieval times devoted themselves to writing tafsir and documenting Muhammad’s authentic hadith. Some went on to prepare a body of laws orsharia (the straight path) to govern the relationship of Muslims with God through rituals (ibadat) and with the rest of the humanity through social affairs (muamalat). In framing Islamic law, jurists also made use of reasoning (qiyas) since not everything was apparent in the Quran or hadith and life had become increasingly complex with urbanisation. Differences in the interpretation of the sources and methods of jurisprudence led to the formation of four schools of law (mazhab) in the eight and ninth centuries. These were the Maliki, Hanafi, Shafii and Hanbali schools, each named after a leading jurist (faqih), the last being the most conservative. The sharia provided guidance on all possible legal issues within Sunni society, though it was more precise on questions of personal status (marriage, divorce and inheritance) than on commercial matters or penal and constitutional issues.


Courtyard of Mustansiriya Madrasa of Baghdad, founded in 1233. The madrasa was a college of learning for students who had finished their schooling in maktab. Madrasas were attached to mosques but big madrasas had a mosque attached to them.

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The Quran

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Page from a Quran written on vellum in the ninth century. It is the beginning of Sura 18, ‘al-Kahf’ (The Cave) which refers to Moses, the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus and Alexander (Zulqar Nayn). The angular Kufi script has vowel signs in red for the correct pronunciation of the language.

‘And if all the trees on earth were pens and the ocean were ink

with seven oceans behind it to add to its supply,

yet would not the words of Allah be exhausted in the writing.’

(Quran, chapter 31, verse 27)

The Quran is a book in Arabic divided into 114 chapters (suras) and arranged in descending order of length, the shortest being the last. The only exception to this is the firstsura which is a short prayer (al-fatiha or opening). According to Muslim tradition, the Quran is a collection of messages (revelations) which God sent to the Prophet Muhammad between 610 and 632, first in Mecca and then in Medina. The task of compiling these revelations was completed some time in 650. The oldest complete Quran we have today dates from the ninth century. There are many fragments which are older, the earliest being the verses engraved on the Dome of the Rock and on coins in the seventh century.

The use of the Quran as a source material for the history of early Islam has posed some problems. The first is that it is a scripture, a text vested with religious authority. Theologians generally believed that as the speech of God (kalam allah), it has to be understood literally, but rationalists among them gave wider interpretations to the Quran. In 833, the Abbasid caliph al-Mamun imposed the view (in a trial of faith or mihna) that the Quran is God’s creation rather than His speech. The second problem is that the Quran very often speaks in metaphors and, unlike the Old Testament (Tawrit), it does not narrate events but only refers to them. Medieval Islamic scholars thus had to make sense of many verses with the help of hadith. Many hadith were written to help the reading of the Quran.

Before it took its final form, the sharia was adjusted to take into account the customary laws (urf) of the various regions as well as the laws of the state on political and social order (siyasa sharia). Customary laws, however, retained their strength in large parts of the countryside and continued to bypass thesharia in matters such as the inheritance of land by daughters. In most regimes, the ruler or his officials dealt routinely with matters of state security and sent only selected cases to theqazi (judge). The qazi, appointed by the state in each city or locality, often acted as an arbitrator in disputes, rather than as a strict enforcer of the sharia.



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Painting of whirling dervishes, Iranian manuscript, 1490. Of the four men dancing, only one is shown with his hands in the ‘correct’ position. Some have succumbed to vertigo and are being led away.

A group of religious-minded people in medieval Islam, known as Sufis, sought a deeper and more personal knowledge of God through asceticism (rahbaniya) and mysticism. The more society gave itself up to material pursuits and pleasures, the more the Sufis sought to renounce the world (zuhd) and rely on God alone (tawakkul). In the eighth and ninth centuries, ascetic inclinations were elevated to the higher stage of mysticism (tasawwuf) by the ideas of pantheism and love. Pantheism is the idea of oneness of God and His creation which implies that the human soul must be united with its Maker. Unity with God can be achieved through an intense love for God (ishq), which the woman-saint Rabia of Basra (d. 891) preached in her poems. Bayazid Bistami (d. 874), an Iranian Sufi, was the first to teach the importance of submerging the self (fana) in God. Sufis used musical concerts (sama) to induce ecstasy and stimulate emotions of love and passion.

Sufism is open to all regardless of religious affiliation, status and gender. Dhulnun Misri (d. 861), whose grave can still be seen near the Pyramids in Egypt, declared before the Abbasid caliph, al-Mutawakkil, that he ‘learnt true Islam from an old woman, and true chivalry from a water carrier’. By making religion more personal and less institutional, Sufism gained popularity and posed a challenge to orthodox Islam.

An alternative vision of God and the universe was developed by Islamic philosophers and scientists under the influence of Greek philosophy and science. During the seventh century, remnants of late Greek culture could still be found in the Byzantine and Sasanian empires, although they were slowly dying. In the schools of Alexandria, Syria and Mesopotamia, once part of Alexander’s empire, Greek philosophy, mathematics and medicine were taught along with other subjects. The Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs commissioned the translation of Greek and Syriac books into Arabic by Christian scholars. Translation became a well-organised activity under al-Mamun, who supported the Library cum Institute of Science (Bayt al-Hikma) in Baghdad where the scholars worked. The works of Aristotle, the Elements of Euclid and Ptolemy’s Almagest were brought to the attention of Arabic-reading scholars. Indian works on astronomy, mathematics and medicine were also translated into Arabic during the same period. These works reached Europe and kindled interest in philosophy and science.


Activity 3

Comment on this passage. Would it be relevant to a student today?

 


The Ideal Student

Abd al-Latif, a twelfth-century legal and medical scholar of Baghdad, talks to his ideal student:

‘I commend you not to learn your sciences from books unaided, even though you may trust your ability to understand. Resort to teachers for each science you seek to acquire; and should your teacher be limited in his knowledge take all that he can offer, until you find another more accomplished than he. You must venerate and respect him. When you read a book, make every effort to learn it by heart and master its meaning. Imagine the book to have disappeared and that you can dispense with it, unaffected by its loss. One should read histories, study biographies and the experiences of nations. By doing this, it will be as though, in his short life space, he lived contemporaneously with peoples of the past, was on intimate terms with them, and knew the good and bad among them. You should model your conduct on that of the early Muslims. Therefore, read the biography of the Prophet and follow in his footsteps. You should frequently distrust your nature, rather than have a good opinion of it, submitting your thoughts to men of learning and their works, proceeding with caution and avoiding haste. He who has not endured the stress of study will not taste the joy of knowledge. When you have finished your study and reflection, occupy your tongue with the mention of God’s name, and sing His praises. Do not complain if the world turns its back on you. Know that learning leaves a trail and a scent proclaiming its possessor; a ray of light and brightness shining on him, pointing him out.’

– Ahmad ibn al Qasim ibn Abi Usaybia, Uyun al Anba.


The study of new subjects promoted critical inquiry and had a profound influence on Islamic intellectual life. Scholars with a theological bent of mind, such as the group known as Mutazila, used Greek logic and methods of reasoning (kalam) to defend Islamic beliefs. Philosophers (falasifa) posed wider questions and provided fresh answers. Ibn Sina (980-1037), a doctor by profession and a philosopher, did not believe in the resurrection of the body on the Day of Judgement. This was met with strong opposition from theologians. His medical writings were widely read. The most influential was al-Qanun fil Tibb (Canon of Medicine), a million-word manuscript that lists 760 drugs sold by the pharmacists of his day and includes notes on his own experiments conducted in hospitals (bimaristan). The Canon points out the importance of dietetics (healing through dietary regulation), the influence of the climate and environment on health and the contagious nature of some diseases. The Canon was used as a textbook in Europe, where the author was known as Avicenna (see Theme 7). Just before his death, the scientist and poet Umar Khayyam was said to be reading the Canon. His gold toothpick was found between two pages of the chapter on metaphysics.
In medieval Islamic societies, fine language and a creative imagination were among the most appreciated qualities in a person. These qualities raised a person’s communication to the level of adab, a term which implied literary and cultural refinement. Adab forms of expressions included poetry (nazmor orderly arrangement) and prose (nathr or scattered words) which were meant to be memorised and used when the occasion arose. The most popular poetic composition of pre-Islamic origin was the ode (qasida), developed by poets of the Abbasid period to glorify the achievements of their patrons. Poets of Persian origin revitalised and reinvented Arabic poetry and challenged the cultural hegemony of the Arabs. Abu Nuwas (d. 815), who was of Persian origin, broke new ground by composing classical poetry on new themes such as wine and male love with the intention of celebrating pleasures forbidden by Islam. After Abu Nuwas, the poets addressed the object of their passion in the masculine, even if the latter was a woman. Following the same tradition, the Sufis glorified the intoxication caused by the wine of mystical love.

By the time the Arabs conquered Iran, Pahlavi, the language of the sacred books of ancient Iran, was in decay. A version of Pahlavi, known as New Persian, with a huge Arabic vocabulary, soon developed. The formation of sultanates in Khurasan and Transoxiana took New Persian to great cultural heights. The Samanid court poet Rudaki (d. 940) was considered the father of New Persian poetry, which included new forms such as the short lyrical poem (ghazal) and the quatrain (rubai, plural rubaiyyat). The rubai is a four-line stanza in which the first two lines set the stage, the third is finely poised, and the fourth delivers the point. In contrast to its form, the subject matter of the rubai is unrestricted. It can be used to express the beauty of a beloved, praise a patron, or express the thoughts of the philosopher. The rubai reached its zenith in the hands of Umar Khayyam (1048-1131), also an astronomer and mathematician, who lived at various times in Bukhara, Samarqand and Isfahan.

At the beginning of the eleventh century, Ghazni became the centre of Persian literary life. Poets were naturally attracted by the brilliance of the imperial court. Rulers, too, realised the importance of patronising arts and learning for enhancing their prestige. Mahmud of Ghazni gathered around him a group of poets who composed anthologies (diwans) and epic poetry (mathnavi). The most outstanding was Firdausi (d. 1020), who took 30 years to complete the Shahnama (Book of Kings), an epic of 50,000 couplets which has become a masterpiece of Islamic literature. The Shahnama is a collection of traditions and legends (the most popular being that of Rustam), which poetically depicts Iran from Creation up until the Arab conquest. It was in keeping with the Ghaznavid tradition that Persian later became the language of administration and culture in India.

The catalogue (Kitab al-Fihrist) of a Baghdad bookseller, Ibn Nadim (d. 895), describes a large number of works written in prose for the moral education and amusement of readers. The oldest of these is a collection of animal fables called Kalila wa Dimna (the names of the two jackals who were the leading characters) which is the Arabic translation of a Pahlavi version of the Panchtantra. The most widespread and lasting literary works are the stories of hero-adventurers such as Alexander (al-Iskandar) and Sindbad, or those of unhappy lovers such as Qays (known as Majnun or the Madman). These have developed over the centuries into oral and written traditions. The Thousand and One Nights is another collection of stories told by a single narrator, Shahrzad, to her husband night after night. The collection was originally in Indo-Persian and was translated into Arabic in Baghdad in the eighth century. More stories were later added in Cairo during the Mamluk period. These stories depict human beings of different types – the generous, the stupid, the gullible, the crafty – and were told to educate and entertain. In his Kitab al-Bukhala (Book of Misers), Jahiz of Basra (d. 868) collected amusing anecdotes about misers and also analysed greed.

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Dimna is talking to the lion (asad) in this miniature painting of a thirteenth-century Arabic manuscript.

From the ninth century onwards, the scope of adab was expanded to include biographies, manuals of ethics (akhlaq), Mirrors for Princes (books on statecraft) and, above all, history (tarikh) and geography. The tradition of history writing was well established in literate Muslim societies. History books were read by scholars and students as well as by the broader literate public. For rulers and officials, history provided a good record of the glories and achievements of a dynasty as well as examples of the techniques of administration. In the two major historical works, Ansab al-Ashraf (Genealogies of the Nobles)of Baladhuri (d. 892) and Tarikh al-Rusul wal Muluk (History of Prophets and Kings) of Tabari, the whole of human history was treated with the Islamic period as the focal point. The tradition of local history writing developed with the break-up of the caliphate. Books were written in Persian about dynasties, cities or regions to explore the unity and variety of the world of Islam.

Geography and travel (rihla) constituted a special branch ofadab. These combined knowledge from Greek, Iranian and Indian books with the observations of merchants and travellers. In mathematical geography, the inhabited world was divided into seven climes (singular iqlim) parallel with the Equator, corresponding to our three continents. The exact position of each city was determined astronomically. Muqaddasi’s (d. 1000) descriptive geography, Ahsan al-Taqasim (The Best Divisions) is a comparative study of the countries and peoples of the world and a treasure trove of exotic curiosities. Geography and general history were combined in Muruj al-Dhahab (Golden Meadows) of Masudi (written in 943) to illustrate the wide variety of worldly cultures. Alberuni’s famous Tahqiq ma lil-Hind (History of India) was the greatest attempt by an eleventh-century Muslim writer to look beyond the world of Islam and observe what was of value in another cultural tradition.

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Mosaic floor in the bath-house of the palace at Khirbat al-Mafjar, Palestine, eighth century. Imagine the caliph enthroned on the tree; the scene below depicts peace and war.

By the tenth century, an Islamic world had emerged which was easily recognisable by travellers. Religious buildings were the greatest external symbols of this world. Mosques, shrines and tombs from Spain to Central Asia showed the same basic design – arches, domes, minarets and open courtyards – and expressed the spiritual and practical needs of Muslims. In the first Islamic century, the mosque acquired a distinct architectural form (roof supported by pillars) which transcended regional variations. The mosque had an open courtyard (sahn) where a fountain or pond was placed, leading to a vaulted hall which could accommodate long lines of worshippers and the prayer leader (imam). Two special features were located inside the hall: a niche (mihrab) in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca (qibla), and a pulpit (minbar, pronounced mimbar) from where sermons were delivered during noon prayers on Friday. Attached to the building was the minaret, a tower used to call the faithful to prayer at the appointed times and to symbolise the presence of the new faith. Time was marked in cities and villages by the five daily prayers and weekly sermons.

The same pattern of construction – of buildings built around a central courtyard (iwan) – appeared not only in mosques and mausoleums but also in caravanserais, hospitals and palaces. The Umayyads built ‘desert palaces’ in oases, such as Khirbat al-Mafjar in Palestine and Qusayr Amra in Jordan, which served as luxurious residences and retreats for hunting and pleasure. The palaces, modelled on Roman and Sasanian architecture, were lavishly decorated with sculptures, mosaics and paintings of people. The Abbasids built a new imperial city in Samarra amidst gardens and running waters which is mentioned in the stories and legends revolving round Harun al-Rashid. The great palaces of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad or the Fatimids in Cairo have disappeared, leaving only traces in literary texts.


The Islamic decorative genius found full expression in the art of metal objects that are among the best- preserved specimens. This mosque lamp from fourteenth-century Syria has the Light verse inscribed on it.

‘God is the Light (nur) of the heavens and the earth

His light is like a niche (mishkat) with a lamp (misbah)

The lamp is in a glass which looks as if it were a glittering star

Kindled from a blessed olive (zaitun) tree that is neither eastern nor western

Whose oil would always shine even if no fire (nar) touched it’

(Quran, chapter 24, verse 35).


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The rejection of representing living beings in the religious art of Islam promoted two art forms: calligraphy (khattati or the art of beautiful writing) and arabesque (geometric and vegetal designs). Small and big inscriptions, usually of religious quotations, were used to decorate architecture. Calligraphic art has been best preserved in manuscripts of the Quran dating from the eighth and ninth centuries. Literary works, such as the Kitab al-Aghani (Book of Songs), Kalila wa Dimna, and Maqamat of Hariri, were illustrated with miniature paintings. In addition, a wide variety of illumination techniques were introduced to enhance the beauty of a book. Plant and floral designs, based on the idea of the garden, were used in buildings and book illustrations.

The history of the central Islamic lands brings together three important aspects of human civilisation: religion, community and politics. We can see them as three circles which merge and appear as one in the seventh century. In the next five centuries the circles separate. Towards the end of our period, the influence of Islam over state and government was minimal, and politics involved many things which had no sanction in religion (kingship, civil wars, etc.). The circles of religion and community overlapped. The Muslim community was united in its observance of the sharia in rituals and personal matters. It was no more governing itself (poltics was a separate circle) but it was defining its religious identity. The only way the circles of religion and community could have separated was through the progressive secularisation of Muslim society. Philosophers and Sufis advocated this, suggesting that civil society should be made autonomous, and rituals be replaced by private spirituality.

which

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Exercises

Answer in brief

1. What were the features of the lives of the Bedouins in the early seventh century?

2. What is meant by the term ‘Abbasid revolution’?

3. Give examples of the cosmopolitan character of the states set up by Arabs, Iranians and Turks.

4. What were the effects of the Crusades on Europe and Asia?

 

Answer in a short essay

5. How were Islamic architectural forms different from those of the Roman Empire?

6. Describe a journey from Samarqand to Damascus, referring to the cities on the route.



 

THEME 5

NOMADIC EMPIRES

 

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The term ‘noma1dic empires’ can appear contradictory: nomads are arguably quintessential wanderers, organised in family assemblies with a relatively undifferentiated economic life and rudimentary systems of political organisation. The term ‘empire’, on the other hand, carries with it the sense of a material location, a stability derived from complex social and economic structures and the governance of an extensive territorial dominion through an elaborate administrative system. But the juxtapositions on which these definitions are framed may be too narrowly and ahistorically conceived. They certainly collapse when we study some imperial formations constructed by nomadic groups.

In Theme 4 we studied state formations in the central Islamic lands whose origins lay in the Bedouin nomadic traditions of the Arabian peninsula. This chapter studies a different group of nomads: the Mongols of Central Asia who established a transcontinental empire under the leadership of Genghis Khan, straddling Europe and Asia during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Relative to the agrarian-based imperial formations in China, the neighbouring nomads of Mongolia may have inhabited a humbler, less complex, social and economic world. But the Central Asian nomadic societies were not insulated ‘islands’ that were impervious to historical change. These societies interacted, had an impact on and learnt from the larger world of which they were very much a part.

This chapter studies the manner in which the Mongols under Genghis Khan adapted their traditional social and political customs to create a fearsome military machine and a sophisticated method of governance. The challenge of ruling a dominion spanning a melange of people, economies, and confessional systems meant that the Mongols could not simply impose their steppe traditions over their recently annexed territories. They innovated and compromised, creating a nomadic empire that had a huge impact on the history of Eurasia even as it changed the character and composition of their own society forever.

The steppe dwellers themselves usually produced no literature, so our knowledge of nomadic societies comes mainly from chronicles, travelogues and documents produced by city-based litterateurs. These authors often produced extremely ignorant and biased reports of nomadic life. The imperial success of the Mongols, however, attracted many literati. Some of them produced travelogues of their experiences; others stayed to serve Mongol masters. These individuals came from a variety of backgrounds – Buddhist, Confucian, Christian, Turkish and Muslim. Although not always familiar with Mongol customs, many of them produced sympathetic accounts – even eulogies – that challenged and complicated the otherwise hostile, city-based tirade against the steppe marauders. The history of the Mongols, therefore, provides interesting details to question the manner in which sedentary societies usually characterised nomads as primitive barbarians*.

*The term ‘barbarian’ is derived from the Greek barbaroswhich meant a non-Greek, someone whose language sounded like a random noise: ‘bar-bar’. In Greek texts, barbarians were depicted like children, unable to speak or reason properly, cowardly, effeminate, luxurious, cruel, slothful, greedy and politically unable to govern themselves. The sterotype passed to the Romans who used the term for the Germanic tribes, the Gauls and the Huns. The Chinese had different terms for the steppe barbarians but none of them carried a positive meaning.

Perhaps the most valuable research on the Mongols was done by Russian scholars starting in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the Tsarist regime consolidated its control over Central Asia. This work was produced within a colonial milieu and was largely survey notes produced by travellers, soldiers, merchants and antiquarian scholars. In the early twentieth century, after the extension of the soviet republics in the region, a new Marxist historiography argued that the prevalent mode of production determined the nature of social relations. It placed Genghis Khan and the emerging Mongol empire within a scale of human evolution that was witnessing a transition from a tribal to a feudal mode of production: from a relatively classless society to one where there were wide differences between the lord, the owners of land and the peasant. Despite following such a deterministic interpretation of history, excellent research on Mongol languages, their society and culture was carried out by scholars such as Boris Yakovlevich Vladimirtsov. Others such as Vasily Vladimirovich Bartold did not quite toe the official line. At a time when the Stalinist regime was extremely wary of regional nationalism, Bartold’s sympathetic and positive assessment of the career and achievements of the Mongols under Genghis Khan and his successors got him into trouble with the censors. It severely curtailed the circulation of the work of the scholar and it was only in the 1960s, during and after the more liberal Khruschev era, that his writings were published in nine volumes.


The transcontinental span of the Mongol empire also meant that the sources available to scholars are written in a vast number of languages. Perhaps the most crucial are the sources in Chinese, Mongolian, Persian and Arabic, but vital materials are also available in Italian,Latin, French and Russian. 
Often the same text was produced in two languages with differing contents. For example, the Mongolian and Chinese versions of the earliest narrative on Genghis Khan, titled 
Mongqol-un niuèa tobèa’an (The Secret History of the 
Mongols
) are quite different and the Italian and Latin versions of Marco Polo’s travels to the Mongol court do not match. Since the Mongols produced little literature on their own and were instead ‘written about’ by literati from foreign cultural milieus, historians have to often double as philologists to pick out the meanings of phrases for their closest approximation to Mongol usage. The work of scholars like Igor de Rachewiltz on The Secret History of the Mongols and Gerhard Doerfer on Mongol and Turkic terminologies that infiltrated into the Persian language brings out the difficulties involved in studying the history of the Central Asian nomads. As we will notice through the remainder of this chapter, despite their incredible achievements there is much about Genghis Khan and the Mongol world empire still awaiting the diligent scholar’s scrutiny.


Introduction

In the early decades of the thirteenth century the great empires of the Euro-Asian continent realised the dangers posed to them by the arrival of a new political power in the steppes of Central Asia: Genghis Khan (d. 1227) had united the Mongol people. Genghis Khan’s political vision, however, went far beyond the creation of a confederacy of Mongol tribes in the steppes of Central Asia: he had a mandate from God to rule the world. Even though his own lifetime was spent consolidating his hold over the Mongol tribes, leading and directing campaigns into adjoining areas in north China, Transoxiana, Afghanistan, eastern Iran and the Russian steppes, his descendants travelled further afield to fulfil Genghis Khan’s vision and create the largest empire the world had ever seen.

5_1.tif Map 1: The Mongol Empire

It was in the spirit of Genghis Khan’s ideals that his grandson Mongke (1251-60) warned the French ruler, Louis IX (1226-70): ‘In Heaven there is only one Eternal Sky, on Earth there is only one Lord, Genghis Khan, the Son of Heaven… When by the power of the Eternal Heaven the whole world from the rising of the sun to its setting shall be at one in joy and peace, then it will be made clear what we are going to do: if when you have understood the decree of the Eternal Heaven, you are unwilling to pay attention and believe it, saying, “Our country is far away, our mountains are mighty, our sea is vast”, and in this confidence you bring an army against us, we know what we can do. He who made easy what was difficult and near what was far off, the Eternal Heaven knows

These were not empty threats and the 1236-41 campaigns of Batu, another grandson of Genghis Khan, devastated Russian lands up to Moscow, seized Poland and Hungary and camped outside Vienna. In the thirteenth century it did seem that the Eternal Sky was on the side of the Mongols and many parts of China, the Middle East and Europe saw in Genghis Khan’s conquests of the inhabited world the ‘wrath of God’, the beginning of the Day of Judgement.

 

The Capture of Bukhara

Juwaini, a late-thirteenth-century Persian chronicler of the Mongol rulers of Iran, carried an account of the capture of Bukhara in 1220. After the conquest of the city, Juwaini reported, Genghis Khan went to the festival ground where the rich residents of the city were and addressed them: ‘O people know that you have committed great sins, and that the great ones among you have committed these sins. If you ask me what proof I have for these words, I say it is because I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you’… Now one man had escaped from Bukhara after its capture and had come to Khurasan. He was questioned about the fate of the city and replied: ‘They came, they [mined the walls], they burnt, they slew, they plundered and they departed.’


Activity 1

Assume that Juwaini’s account of the capture of Bukhara is accurate. Imagine yourself as a resident of Bukhara and Khurasan who heard the speeches. What impact would they have had on you?

How did the Mongols create an empire that dwarfed the achievements of the other ‘World Conqueror’, Alexander? In a pre-industrial age of poor technological communications, what skills were deployed by the Mongols to administer and control such a vast dominion? For someone so self-confidently aware of his moral, divinely-dispensed right to rule, how did Genghis Khan relate to the diverse social and religious groups that comprised his dominion? In the making of his imperium what happened to this plurality? We need to start our discussion, however, with a humbler set of questions to better comprehend the social and political background of the Mongols and Genghis Khan: who were the Mongols? Where did they live? Who did they interact with and how do we know about their society and politics?

Social and Political Background

The Mongols were a diverse body of people, linked by similarities of language to the Tatars, Khitan and Manchus to the east, and the Turkic tribes to the west. Some of the Mongols were pastoralists while others were hunter-gatherers. The pastoralists tended horses, sheep and, to a lesser extent, cattle, goats and camels. They nomadised in the steppes ofCentral Asia in a tract of land in the area of the modern state of Mongolia. This was (and still is) a majestic landscape with wide horizons, rolling plains, ringed by the snow-capped Altai mountains to the west, the arid Gobi desert in the south and drained by the Onon and Selenga rivers and myriad springs from the melting snows of the hills in the north and the west. Lush, luxuriant grasses for pasture and considerable small game were available in a good season. The hunter-gatherers resided to the north of the pastoralists in the Siberian forests. They were a humbler body of people than the pastoralists, making a living from trade in furs of animals trapped in the summer months. There were extremes of temperature in the entire region: harsh, long winters followed by brief, dry summers. Agriculture was possible in the pastoral regions during short parts of the year but the Mongols (unlike some of the Turks further west) did not take to farming. Neither the pastoral nor the hunting-gathering economies could sustain dense population settlements and as a result the region possessed no cities. The Mongols lived in tents, gers, and travelled with their herds from their winter to summer pasture lands.

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Onon river plain in flood.
Ethnic and language ties united the Mongol people but the scarce resources meant that their society was divided into patrilineal lineages; the richer families were larger, possessed more animals and pasture lands. They therefore had many followers and were more influential in local politics. Periodic natural calamities – either unusually harsh, cold winters when game and stored provisions ran out or drought which parched the grasslands – would force families to forage further afield leading to conflict over pasture lands and predatory raids in search of livestock. Groups of families would occasionally ally for offensive and defensive purposes around richer and more powerful lineages but, barring the few exceptions, these confederacies were usually small and short-lived. The size of Genghis Khan’s confederation of Mongol and Turkish tribes was perhaps matched in size only by that which had been stitched together in the fifth century by Attila (d. 453).

Listed below are some of the great Central Asian steppe confederacies of the Turks and Mongol people. They did not all occupy the same region and were not equally large and complex in their internal organisation. They had a considerable impact on the history of the nomadic population but their impact on China and the adjoining regions varied.

 Hsiung-nu (200 bce) (Turks)

Juan-juan (400 ce) (Mongols)

Epthalite Huns (400 ce) (Mongols)

T’u-chueh (550 ce) (Turks)

Uighurs (740 ce) (Turks)

Khitan (940 ce) (Mongols)

Unlike Attila, however, Genghis Khan’s political system was far more durable and survived its founder. It was stable enough to counter larger armies with superior equipment in China, Iran and eastern Europe. And, as they established control over these regions, the Mongols administered complex agrarian economies and urban settlements – sedentary societies – that were quite distant from their own social experience and habitat.

Although the social and political organisations of the nomadic and agrarian economies were very different, the two societies were hardly foreign to each other. In fact, the scant resources of the steppe lands drove Mongols and other Central Asian nomads to trade and barter with their sedentary neighbours in China. This was mutually beneficial to both parties: agricultural produce and iron utensils from China were exchanged for horses, furs and game trapped in the steppe. Commerce was not without its tensions, especially as the two groups unhesitatingly applied military pressure to enhance profit. When the Mongol lineages allied they could force their Chinese neighbours to offer better terms and trade ties were sometimes discarded in favour of outright plunder. This relationship would alter when the Mongols were in disarray. The Chinese would then confidently assert their influence in the steppe. These frontier wars were more debilitating to settled societies. They dislocated agriculture and plundered cities. Nomads, on the other hand, could retreat away from the zone of conflict with marginal losses. Throughout its history, China suffered extensively from nomad intrusion and different regimes – even as early as the eighth century bce – built fortifications to protect their subjects. Starting from the third century bce, these fortifications started to be integrated into a common defensive outwork known today as the ‘Great Wall of China’ a dramatic visual testament to the disturbance and fear perpetrated by nomadic raids on the agrarian societies of north China.

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  The Great Wall of China.


The Career of Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan was born some time around 1162 near the Onon river in the north of present-day Mongolia. Named Temujin, he was the son of Yesugei, the chieftain of the Kiyat, a group of families related to the Borjigid clan. His father was murdered at an early age and his mother, Oelun-eke, raised Temujin, his brothers and step-brothers in great hardship. The following decade was full of reversals – Temujin was captured and enslaved and soon after his marriage, his wife, Borte, was kidnapped, and he had to fight to recover her. During these years of hardship he also managed to make important friends. The young Boghurchu was his first ally and remained a trusted friend; Jamuqa, his blood-brother (anda), was another. Temujin also restored old alliances with the ruler of the Kereyits, Tughril/Ong Khan, his father’s old blood-brother.

Through the 1180s and 1190s, Temujin remained an ally of Ong Khan and used the alliance to defeat powerful adversaries like Jamuqa, his old friend who had become ahostile foe. It was after defeating him that Temujin felt confident enough to move against other tribes: the powerful Tatars (his father’s assassins), the Kereyits and Ong Khan himself in 1203. The final defeat of the Naiman people and the powerful Jamuqa in 1206, left Temujin as the dominant personality in the politics of the steppe lands, a position that was recognised at an assembly of Mongol chieftains (quriltai) where he was proclaimed the ‘Great Khan of the Mongols’ (Qa’an) with the title Genghis Khan, the ‘Oceanic Khan’ or ‘Universal Ruler’.

Just before the quriltai of 1206, Genghis Khan had reorganised the Mongol people into a more effective, disciplined military force (see following sections) that facilitated the success of his future campaigns. The first of his concerns was to conquer China, divided at this time into three realms: the Hsi Hsia people of Tibetan origin in the north-western provinces; the Jurchen whose Chin dynasty ruled north China from Peking; the Sung dynasty who controlled south China. By 1209, the Hsi Hsia were defeated, the ‘Great Wall of China’ was breached in 1213 and Peking sacked in 1215. Long-drawn-out battles against the Chin continued until 1234 but Genghis Khan was satisfied enough with the progress of his campaigns to return to his Mongolian homeland in 1216 and leave the military affairs of the region to his subordinates.

After the defeat in 1218 of the Qara Khita who controlled the Tien Shan mountains north-west of China, Mongol dominions reached the Amu Darya, and the states of Transoxiana and Khwarazm. Sultan Muhammad, the ruler of Khwarazm, felt the fury of Genghis Khan’s rage when he executed Mongol envoys. In the campaigns between 1219 and 1221 the great cities – Otrar, Bukhara, Samarqand, Balkh, Gurganj, Merv, Nishapur and Herat – surrendered to the Mongol forces. Towns that resisted were devastated. At Nishapur, where a Mongol prince was killed during the siege operation, Genghis Khan commanded that the ‘town should be laid waste in such a manner that the site could be ploughed upon; and that in the exaction of vengeance [for the death of the prince] not even cats and dogs should be left alive’.


Estimated Extent of Mongol Destruction

All reports of Genghis Khan’s campaigns agree at the vast number of people killed following the capture of cities that defied his authority. The numbers are staggering: at the capture of Nishapur in 1220, 1,747,000 people were massacred while the toll at Herat in 1222 was 1,600,000 people and at Baghdad in 1258, 800,000. Smaller towns suffered proportionately: Nasa, 70,000 dead; Baihaq district, 70,000; and at Tun in the Kuhistan province, 12,000 individuals were executed.

How did medieval chroniclers arrive at such figures?

Juwaini, the Persian chronicler of the Ilkhans stated that 1,300,000 people were killed in Merv. He reached the figure because it took thirteen days to count the dead and each day they counted 100,000 corpses.

Mongol forces in pursuit of Sultan Muhammad pushed into Azerbaijan, defeated Russian forces at the Crimea and encircled the Caspian Sea. Another wing followed the Sultan’s son, Jalaluddin, into Afghanistan and the Sindh province. At the banks of the Indus, Genghis Khan considered returning to Mongolia through North India and Assam, but the heat, the natural habitat and the ill portents reported by his Shaman soothsayer made him change his mind.

Opp. page: ‘Barbarians’ as imagined by a European artist.

Genghis Khan died in 1227, having spent most of his life in military combat. His military achievements were astounding and they were largely a result of his ability to innovate and transform different aspects of steppe combat into extremely effective military strategies. The horse-riding skills of the Mongols and the Turks provided speed and mobility to the army; their abilities as rapid-shooting archers from horseback were further perfected during regular hunting expeditions which doubled as field manoeuvres. The steppe cavalry had always travelled light and moved quickly, but now it brought all its knowledge of the terrain and the weather to do the unimaginable: they carried out campaigns in the depths of winter, treating frozen rivers as highways to enemy cities and camps. Nomads were conventionally at a loss against fortified encampments but Genghis Khan learnt the importance of siege engines and naphtha bombardment very quickly. His engineers prepared lightportable equipment, which was used against opponents with devastating effect.

birth


barbarian.tif

peking

The Mongols after Genghis Khan

We can divide Mongol expansion after Genghis Khan’s death into two distinct phases: the first which spanned the years 1236-42 when the major gains were in the Russian steppes, Bulghar, Kiev, Poland and Hungary. The second phase including the years 1255-1300 led to the conquest of all of China (1279), Iran, Iraq and Syria. The frontier of the empire stabilised after these campaign.

The Mongol military forces met with few reversals in the decades after 1203 but, quite noticeably, after the 1260s the original impetus of campaigns could not be sustained in the West. Although Vienna, and beyond it western Europe, as well as Egypt was within the grasp of Mongol forces, their retreat from the Hungarian steppes and defeat at the hands of the Egyptian forces signalled the emergence of new political trends. There were two facets to this: the first was a consequence of the internal politics of succession within the Mongol family where the descendants of Jochi and Ogodei allied to control the office of the great Khan in the first two generations. These interests were more important than the pursuit of campaigns in Europe. The second compulsion occurred as the Jochi and Ogodei lineages were marginalised by the Toluyid branch of Genghis Khanid descendants. With the accession of Mongke, a descendant of Toluy, Genghis Khan’s youngest son, military campaigns were pursued energetically in Iran during the 1250s. But as Toluyid interests in the conquest of China increased during the 1260s, forces and supplies were increasingly diverted into the heartlands of the Mongol dominion. As a result, the Mongols fielded a small, understaffed force against the Egyptian military. Their defeat and the increasing preoccupation with China of the Toluyid family marked the end of western expansion of the Mongols. Concurrently, conflict between the Jochid and Toluyid descendants along the Russian-Iranian frontier diverted the Jochids away from further European campaigns.

The suspension of Mongol expansion in the West did not arrest their campaigns in China which was reunited under the Mongols. Paradoxically, it was at the moment of its greatest successes that internal turbulence between members of the ruling family manifested itself. The next section discusses the factors that led to some of the greatest successes of the Mongol political enterprise but also inhibited its progress.


Social, Political and Military Organisation

Among the Mongols, and many other nomadic societies as well, all the able-bodied, adult males of the tribe bore arms: they constituted the armed forces when the occasion demanded. The unification of the different Mongol tribes and subsequent campaigns against diverse people introduced new members into Genghis Khan’s army complicating the composition of this relatively small, undifferentiated body into an incredibly heterogeneous mass of people. It included groups like the Turkic Uighurs, who had accepted his authority willingly. It also included defeated people, like the Kereyits, who were accommodated in the confederacy despite their earlier hostility.

Genghis Khan worked to systematically erase the old tribal identities of the different groups who joined his confederacy. His army was organised according to the old steppe system of decimal units: in divisions of 10s, 100s, 1,000s and [notionally] 10,000 soldiers. In the old system the clan and the tribe would have coexisted within the decimal units. Genghis Khan stopped this practice. He divided the old tribal groupings and distributed their members into new military units. Any individual who tried to move from his/her allotted group without permission received harsh punishment. The largest unit of soldiers, approximating 10,000 soldiers (tuman) now included fragmented groups of people from a variety of different tribes and clans. This altered the old steppe social order integrating different lineages and clans and providing them with a new identity derived from its progenitor, Genghis Khan.

The new military contingents were required to serve under his four sons and specially chosen captains of his army units called noyan. Also important within the new realm were a band of followers who had served Genghis Khan loyally through grave adversity for many years. Genghis Khan publicly honoured some of these individuals as his ‘blood-brothers’ (anda); yet others, freemen of a humbler rank, were given special ranking as his bondsmen (naukar), a title that marked their close relationship with their master. This ranking did not preserve the rights of the old clan chieftains; the new aristocracy derived its status from a close relationship with the Great Khan of the Mongols.

In this new hierarchy, Genghis Khan assigned the responsibility of governing the newly conquered people to his four sons. These comprised the four ulus, a term that did not originally mean fixed territories. Genghis Khan’s lifetime was still the age of rapid conquests and expanding domains, where frontiers were still extremely fluid. For example, the eldest son, Jochi, received the Russian steppes but the farthest extent of his territory, ulus, was indeterminate: it extended as far west as his horses could roam. The second son, Chaghatai, was given the Transoxianian steppe and lands north of the Pamir mountains adjacent to those of his brother. Presumably, these lands would shift as Jochi marched westward. Genghis Khan had indicated that his third son, Ogodei, would succeed him as the Great Khan and on accession the Prince established his capital at Karakorum. The youngest son, Toluy, received the ancestral lands of Mongolia. Genghis Khan envisaged that his sons would rule the empire collectively, and to underline this point, military contingents (tama) of the individual princes were placed in each ulus. The sense of a dominion shared by the members of the family was underlined at the assembly of chieftains, quriltais, where all decisions relating to the family or the state for the forthcoming season – campaigns, distribution of plunder, pasture lands and succession – were collectively taken.

Genghis Khan had already fashioned a rapid courier system that connected the distant areas of his regime. Fresh mounts and despatch riders were placed in outposts at regularly spaced distances. For the maintenance of this communication system the Mongol nomads contributed a tenth of their herd – either horses or livestock – as provisions. This was called thequbcur tax, a levy that the nomads paid willingly for the multiple benefits that it brought. The courier system (yam) was further refined after Genghis Khan’s death and its speed and reliability surprised travellers. It enabled the Great Khans to keep a check on developments at the farthest end of their regime across the continental landmass.


ncert-photo5-genealogy.tif
Family tree of Genghis Khan.

The conquered people, however, hardly felt a sense of affinity with their new nomadic masters. During the campaigns in the first half of the thirteenth century, cities were destroyed, agricultural lands laid waste, trade and handicraft production disrupted. Tens of thousands of people – the exact figures are lost in the exaggerated reports of the time – were killed, even more enslaved. All classes of people, from the elites to the peasantry suffered. In the resulting instability, the underground canals, called qanats, in the arid Iranian plateau could no longer receive periodic maintenance. As they fell into disrepair, the desert crept in. This led to an ecological devastation from which parts of Khurasan never recovered.

Once the dust from the campaigns had settled, Europe and China were territorially linked. In the peace ushered in by Mongol conquest (Pax Mongolica) trade connections matured. Commerce and travel along the Silk Route reached its peak under the Mongols but, unlike before, the trade routes did not terminate in China.

They continued north into Mongolia and to Karakorum, the heart of the new empire. Communication and ease of travel was vital to retain the coherence of the Mongol regime and travellers were given a pass (paiza in Persian; gerege in Mongolian) for safe conduct. Traders paid the baj tax for the same purpose, all acknowledging thereby the authority of the Mongol Khan.

Ch5_1%26_1.tif

Map 2: The Mongol Campaigns


Activity 2

Note the areas traversed by the Silk Route and the goods that were available to traders along the way. This map does not reflect one of the eastern terminal points of the silk route during the height of Mongol power.

Can you place the missing city? Could it have been on the Silk Route in the twelfth century? Why not?


The contradictions between the nomadic and sedentary elements within the Mongol empire eased through the thirteenth century. In the 1230s, for example, as the Mongols waged their successful war against the Chin dynasty in north China, there was a strong pressure group within the Mongol leadership that advocated the massacre of all peasantry and the conversion of their fields into pasture lands. But by the 1270s, when south China was annexed to the Mongol empire after the defeat of the Sung dynasty, Genghis Khan’s grandson, Qubilai Khan (d. 1294), appeared as the protector of the peasants and the cities. In the 1290s, the Mongol ruler of Iran, Ghazan Khan (d. 1304), a descendant of Genghis Khan’s youngest son Toluy, warned family members and other generals to avoid pillaging the peasantry. It did not lead to a stable prosperous realm, he advised in a speech whose sedentary overtones would have made Genghis Khan shudder.

Ghazan Khan’s Speech

Ghazan Khan (1295-1304) was the first Il-Khanid ruler to convert to Islam. He gave the following speech to the Mongol-Turkish nomad commanders, a speech that was probably drafted by his Persian wazir Rashiduddin and included in the minister’s letters:

‘I am not on the side of the Persian peasantry. If there is a purpose in pillaging them all, there is no one with more power to do this than I. Let us rob them together. But if you wish to be certain of collecting grain and food for your tables in the future, I must be harsh with you. You must be taught reason. If you insult the peasantry, take their oxen and seed and trample their crops into the ground, what will you do in the future? … The obedient peasantry must be distinguished from the peasantry who are rebels…’


Activity 3

Why was there a conflict of interests between pastoralists and peasants? Would Genghis Khan have expressed sentiments of this nature in a speech to his nomad commanders?

From Genghis Khan’s reign itself, the Mongols had recruited civil administrators from the conquered societies. They were sometimes moved around: Chinese secretaries deployed in Iran and Persians in China. They helped in integrating the distant dominions and their backgrounds and training were always useful in blunting the harsher edges of nomadic predation on sedentary life. The Mongol Khans trusted them as long as they continued to raise revenue for their masters and these administrators could sometimes command considerable influence. In the 1230s, the Chinese minister Yeh-lu Ch’u-ts’ai, muted some of Ogedei’s more rapacious instincts; the Juwaini family played a similar role in Iran through the latter half of the thirteenth century and at the end of the century, the wazir, Rashiduddin, drafted the speech that Ghazan Khan delivered to his Mongol compatriots asking them to protect, not harass, the peasantry.

The pressure to sedentarise was greater in the new areas of Mongol domicile, areas distant from the original steppe habitat of the nomads. By the middle of the thirteenth century the sense of a common patrimony shared by all the brothers was gradually replaced by individual dynasties each ruling their separate ulus, a term which now carried the sense of a territorial dominion. This was, in part, a result of succession struggles, where Genghis Khanid descendants competed for the office of Great Khan and prized pastoral lands. Descendants of Toluy had come to rule both China and Iran where they had formed the Yuan and Il-Khanid dynasties. Descendants of Jochi formed the Golden Horde and ruled the Russian steppes; Chaghatai’s successors ruled the steppes of Transoxiana and the lands called Turkistan today. Noticeably, nomadic traditions persisted longest amongst the steppe dwellers in Central Asia (descendants of Chaghatai) and Russia (the Golden Horde).

The gradual separation of the descendants of Genghis Khan into separate lineage groups implied that their connections with the memory and traditions of a past family concordance also altered. At an obvious level this was the result of competition amongst the cousin clans and here the Toluyid branch was more adept in presenting their version of the family disagreements in the histories produced under their patronage. To a large extent this was a consequence of their control of China and Iran and the large number of literati that its family members could recruit. At a more sophisticated level, the disengagement with the past also meant underlining the merits of the regnant rulers as a contrast to other past monarchs. This exercise in comparison did not exclude Genghis Khan himself. Persian chronicles produced in Il-Khanid Iran during the late thirteenth century detailed the gory killings of the Great Khan and greatly exaggerated the numbers killed. For example, in contrast to an eyewitness report that 400 soldiers defended the citadel of Bukhara, an Il-Khanid chronicle reported that 30,000 soldiers were killed in the attack on the citadel. Although Il-Khanid reports still eulogised Genghis Khan, they also carried a statement of relief that times had changed and the great killings of the past were over. The Genghis Khanid legacy was important, but for his descendants to appear as convincing heroes to a sedentary audience, they could no longer appear in quite the same way as their ancestor.

Following the research of David Ayalon, recent work on theyasa, the code of law that Genghis Khan was supposed to have promulgated at the quriltai of 1206, has elaborated on the complex ways in which the memory of the Great Khan was fashioned by his successors. In its earliest formulation the term was written as yasaq which meant ‘law’, ‘decree’ or ‘order’. Indeed, the few details that we possess about the yasaqconcern administrative regulations: the organisation of the hunt, the army and the postal system. By the middle of the thirteenth century, however, the Mongols had started using the related term yasa in a more general sense to mean the ‘legal code of Genghis Khan’.

We may be able to understand the changes in the meaning of the term if we take a look at some of the other developments that occurred at the same time. By the middle of the thirteenth century the Mongols had emerged as a unified people and just created the largest empire the world had ever seen. They ruled over very sophisticated urban societies, with their respective histories, cultures and laws. Although the Mongols dominated the region politically, they were a numerical minority. The one way in which they could protect their identity and distinctiveness was through a claim to a sacred law given to them by their ancestor. The yasa was in all probability a compilation of the customary traditions of the Mongol tribes but in referring to it as Genghis Khan’s code of law, the Mongol people also laid claim to a ‘lawgiver’ like Moses and Solomon, whose authoritative code could be imposed on their subjects. The yasa served to cohere the Mongol people around a body of shared beliefs, it acknowledged their affinity to Genghis Khan and his descendants and, even as they absorbed different aspects of a sedentary lifestyle, gave them the confidence to retain their ethnic identity and impose their ‘law’ upon their defeated subjects. It was an extremely empowering ideology and although Genghis Khan may not have planned such a legal code, it was certainly inspired by his vision and was vital in the construction of a Mongol universal dominion.

Yasa

In 1221, after the conquest of Bukhara, Genghis Khan had assembled the rich Muslim residents at the festival ground and had admonished them. He called them sinners and warned them to compensate for their sins by parting with their hidden wealth. The episode was dramatic enough to be painted and for a long time afterwards people still remembered the incident. In the late sixteenth century, ‘Abdullah Khan, a distant descendant of Jochi, Genghis Khan’s eldest son, went to the same festival ground in Bukhara. Unlike Genghis Khan, however, ‘Abdullah Khan went to perform his holiday prayers there. His chronicler, Hafiz-i Tanish, reported this performance of Muslim piety by his master and included the surprising comment: ‘this was according to the yasa of Genghis Khan’.


Activity 4

Did the meaning of yasa alter over the four centuries separating Genghis Khan from ‘Abdullah Khan? Why did Hafiz-i Tanish make a reference to Genghis Khan’s yasa in connection with ‘Abdullah Khan’s prayer at the Muslim festival ground?


Conclusion: Situating Genghis Khan and the Mongols in World History

When we remember Genghis Khan today the only images that appear in our imagination are those of the conqueror, the destroyer of cities, and an individual who was responsible for the death of thousands of people. Many thirteenth-century residents of towns in China, Iran and eastern Europe looked at the hordes from the steppes with fear and distaste. And yet, for the Mongols, Genghis Khan was the greatest leader of all time: he united the Mongol people, freed them from interminable tribal wars and Chinese exploitation, brought them prosperity, fashioned a grand transcontinental empire and restored trade routes and markets that attracted distant travellers like the Venetian Marco Polo. The contrasting images are not simply a case of dissimilar perspectives; they should make us pause and reflect on how one (dominant) perspective can completely erase all others.

Beyond the opinions of the defeated sedentary people, consider for a moment the sheer size of the Mongol dominion in the thirteenth century and the diverse body of people and faiths that it embraced. Although the Mongol Khans themselves belonged to a variety of different faiths – Shaman, Buddhist, Christian and eventually Islam – they never let their personal beliefs dictate public policy. The Mongol rulers recruited administrators and armed contingents from people of all ethnic groups and religions. Theirs was a multi-ethnic, multilingual, multi-religious regime that did not feel threatened by its pluralistic constitution. This was utterly unusual for the time, and historians are only now studying the ways in which the Mongols provided ideological models for later regimes (like the Mughals of India) to follow.

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The Capture of Baghdad by the Mongols, a miniature painting in the Chronicles of Rashid al-Din, Tabriz, fourteenth century.

The nature of the documentation on the Mongols – and any nomadic regime – makes it virtually impossible to understand the inspiration that led to the confederation of fragmented groups of people in the pursuit of an ambition to create an empire. The Mongol empire eventually altered in its different milieus, but the inspiration of its founder remained a powerful force. At the end of the fourteenth century, Timur, another monarch who aspired to universal dominion, hesitated to declare himself monarch because he was not of Genghis Khanid descent. When he did declare his independent sovereignty it was as the son-in-law (guregen) of the Genghis Khanid family.

Today, after decades of Soviet control, the country of Mongolia is recreating its identity as an independent nation. It has seized upon Genghis Khan as a great national hero who is publicly venerated and whose achievements are recounted with pride. At a crucial juncture in the history of Mongolia, Genghis Khan has once again appeared as an iconic figure for the Mongol people, mobilising memories of a great past 
in the forging of national identity that can carry the nation into 
the future.

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Qubilai Khan and Chabi in camp.

Exercises

Answer in brief

1. Why was trade so significant to the Mongols?

2. Why did Genghis Khan feel the need to fragment the Mongol tribes into new social and military groupings?

3. How do later Mongol reflections on the yasa bring out the uneasy relationship they had with the memory of Genghis Khan.

4. ‘If history relies upon written records produced by city-based literati, nomadic societies will always receive a hostile representation.’ Would you agree with this statement? Does it explain the reason why Persian chronicles produced such inflated figures of casualties resulting from Mongol campaigns?

Answer in a short essay

5. Keeping the nomadic element of the Mongol and Bedouin societies in mind, how, in your opinion, did their respective historical experiences differ? What explanations would you suggest account for these differences?

6. How does the following account enlarge upon the character of the Pax Mongolica created by the Mongols by the middle of the thirteenth century?

The Franciscan monk, William of Rubruck, was sent by Louis IX of France on an embassy to the great Khan Mongke’s court. He reached Karakorum, the capital of Mongke, in 1254 and came upon a woman from Lorraine (in France) called Paquette, who had been brought from Hungary and was in the service of one of the prince’s wives who was a Nestorian Christian. At the court he came across a Parisian goldsmith named Guillaume Boucher, ‘whose brother dwelt on the Grand Pont in Paris’. This man was first employed by the Queen Sorghaqtani and then by Mongke’s younger brother. Rubruck found that at the great court festivals the Nestorian priests were admitted first, with their regalia, to bless the Grand Khan’s cup, and were followed by the Muslim clergy and Buddhist and Taoist monks…


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