The Court of the Caliphs

by Hugh Kennedy

Paperback, 2005



Call number




Phoenix Press (2005), Paperback


The "golden age of Islam" in the eighth and ninth centuries was as significant to world history as the Roman Empire was in the first and second centuries. The rule of Baghdad's Abbasid Dynasty stretched from Tunisia to India, and its legacy influenced politics and society for years to come. In this deftly woven narrative, Hugh Kennedy introduces us to the rich history and flourishing culture of the period, and the men and women of the palaces at Baghdad and Samarra-the caliphs, viziers, eunuchs, and women of the harem that produced the glorious days of the Arabian Nights.

User reviews

LibraryThing member robnotbob3304
A nice departure from the traditional, textbook-style history book. A good way to read up on an important period in Muslim and world history ... you remember it more because it's told like a story. Also very factually on top of its game.
LibraryThing member CassandraStrand
When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World claims to introduce us to the history and flourishing culture of the "golden age of Islam." Overall, there aren't too many books on the market to compare to but the scope of the work is interesting and relatively unexplored by most scholars. Unfortunately, the
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book doesn't live up to all of the expectations I had for it.

Hugh Kennedy admirably tries to tell the history of the Abbasids in as a story but fails to achieve the level of storytelling success that one might find in a book like Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary. His biggest problem with his story format is that 1. it's inconsistent and 2. it switches without notice between storytelling and history lecture in an abrupt manner that doesn't flow well. I have a bit of a love hate relationship with his writing style. He seems to desperately want to share this history as a story but fails to do so in a consistently cohesive and logical way. It seems like he often presents the most dramatic/entertaining/shocking story first as if that IS what happened but, then all of the sudden cuts it off and tells you that's just one possibility and another source says x, y, z. I would have really preferred if he could have told the story that facts confirm and then add in the miscellaneous possibilities as to what else may have occurred. It was kind of like reading "this is what happened.... or is it?" over and over again.

I loved the stories he did tell, I hated hearing once again that it was only one of several possibilities. I think the stories he did tell were perhaps how he'd like to imagine history having occurred and that by telling that story he puts his opinion first in your mind while marginally acknowledging the other possibilities so he doesn't lose credibility. This way you're more likely to remember the more interesting story as opposed to the other possibilities which are presented as more dry facts or secondary considerations. Aside from that I really enjoyed most of the content and I loved reading about Harun Al-Rashid,The Harem, and Abbassid court culture.

Unfortunately, this particular look at court culture contains essentially no information about dancers as part of the court or general culture. There are some images in the middle of the book including one from Samarra depicting two dancing girls pouring wine. It is part of a small fragment of the murals which decorated the palace. Clearly dance was present in court culture but, despite even including an image there is no real information about dance in any form. It does talk quite a bit about poets and makes some mentions of Musicians though. We can make some guesses about the possible place of dance in court culture based on the information about musicians and possibly slaves but the author made no attempt to mention anything about dance.

Although the beginning has a lot of problems with the switching between storyteller and historian writing style the later chapters don't do this as much. Instead the majority switches to more dry history. The information is interesting but, harder to follow and keep interested in. However there are occasional small instances like this throughout the books.

Another issue I had with the book is that although the author of the book is supposed to be neutral to religion but several comments and assertions of the authors opinions seemed to be rather biased against Islam. This gives me reservations about how he perceives the historic events. Considering he presents certain versions of possible history as being his story arc is it because these are products of his bias or is it historically the most viable? I don't know.

My other issue with the book is the way that it's divided into chapters. Some books like Women, Men and Eunuchs: Gender in Byzantium can take a more separate approach to a historical time period and work. this is because the scope of each chapter is very specific in what it covers. there is little to no overlap in other chapters and there is generally not much repeated. Kennedey's work however attempts to separate while weaving together in a story and it doesn't work well. It's a bit like reading a novel out of order randomly selecting which chapter you will read. It's a disjointed experience and you have to jump from one person to another and one topic to another constantly to re situate yourself in the context of what's happening. I wonder if he wouldn't have been better off using a bit more of a chronological progression throughout the book in which he could have incorporated each of the elements he tried to separate. It might have made it easier for the reader to compare military, architectural, and cultural differences between all the different caliphs while also moving forward in a logical and more story like progression.

I would still recommend this for people looking to learn more about the Abbasid Caliphs which is mostly what the book ends up talking about but most other questions about court culture or how people lived their daily lives go largely unanswered. Be aware that parts are going to quickly switch from a story to history in a split second and that jolting experience as a reader can be a problem with moving forward in the book. I do think there is a lot of good information and it is relatively accessible to the average reader (assuming you like reading history and are used to reading in that genre). It does help to examine the history and successions of the Abbasid Caliphs and tells some of the stories that make them seem more like human beings as opposed to just some distant historical figures.
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LibraryThing member le.vert.galant
Interesting stories of court life during the Abbasid Caliphate. The book is poorly organized, jumping around chronologically and spitting events up between chapters. I enjoyed it but can't recommend it.


Original publication date


Physical description

352 p.; 8.4 inches


0753818965 / 9780753818961
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