The True Caliph of the Arabian Nights

Hugh Kennedy examines the life of one of the most powerful men in the world in the eighth century.

Not many of the great figures of early Islamic history are widely known in the Western world today. The achievements of caliphs such as the Umayyad Abd al-Malik (r.685-705) or the second Abbasid caliph Mansur (r.754-75) in consolidating their respective holds over the Muslim world and establishing administrative systems that maintained their vast empires, are virtually unknown outside the ranks of specialists in early Islamic history. Most people are aware that Arab Muslim civilisation enjoyed a ‘golden age’ in early medieval times but the men and women who led and dominated this world are virtually forgotten.

There is, however, one exception to this, the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (r.786-809). A contemporary of Charlemagne, his caliphate (the title caliph comes from the Arabic khalifa meaning the deputy of God on earth) stretched from modern Tunisia, through Egypt, Syria and Iraq, to Iran and ex-Soviet Central Asia. Oman, Yemen and much of modern Pakistan were in his domains.

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