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῾Abbasid Caliphate

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East What is This? Provides comprehensive coverage of the history and scope of archaeology in the Near East.

῾Abbasid Caliphate

As the result of a revolution that culminated In 750 CE in the defeat of the last Umayyad caliph, Marwan ibn Muhammad, on the River Zab in northern Iraq, the ῾Abbasid family came to power. This real revolution stemmed from the profound social stresses of the Umayyad period: the imposition of new cultural values on the Middle East, the privileged position of Arab Muslims over others, the perceived irreligious lifestyle of the Umayyads, exemplified by their desert castles, and finally the constant in-fighting of the Arab tribes. Like all revolutions, the constitution of the new state did not initially differ much from the old but was rather affected by environmental factors. Although the ῾Abbasid family had lived at Humeima in Jordan, the revolutionary army, the Khurasaniyah, was recruited on the frontier in eastern Iran, and the ῾Abbasids found their support in the former territories of the Sasanian empire, notably in Iraq.

The ῾Abbasids first settled near Kufah, but In 762 the second ῾Abbasid caliph, al-Mansur, founded a new capital, Baghdad, only 30 km (19 mi.) from the Sasanian capital of Ctesiphon. The centralized administrative traditions of the late Sasanian Empire were taken as a model for an imperial state, a phase which in its original form lasted for half a century until the death of Harun al-Rashid In 809. [See Sasanians.] The subsequent civil war, including the siege of Baghdad In 811–813, destroyed much of the state's infrastructure and led to the increasing recruitment of peoples from the eastern frontier in the army, notably Central Asian Iranians and Turks. Reliance on the Turks led to alienation of the state from the Muslim population; in particular disturbances between the Turks and the Baghdadis led to the foundation of a new capital, Samarra, by al-Mu῾tasim In 836. In spite of the success of al-Mu῾tasim himself in reforming the state, the isolation of the caliphs with their army in Samarra exposed the ruler to control by the soldiery, culminating in a decade of troubles in the 860s, and gravely weakened the prestige of the state. Already existing tendencies were given free rein: the increasingly successful attempts by the provinces to gain independence, a separation of the religious institution of Islam from the control of the caliph, and the evolution of a commercial economy that was uncontrolled by the state.

Although the state's prestige was reestablished under the regent al-Muwaffaq (d. 891) and his son al-Mu῾taḍid, who settled again at Baghdad In 892, the disastrous reign of al-Muqtadir (d. 932) led to a complete loss of power by the regime from 937 and a takeover of Baghdad by an Iranian Shi῾i tribal dynasty, the Buyids, In 945. The ῾Abbasids remained virtual prisoners in their palaces even after the Sunni reconquest by the Seljuks In 1055. Nevertheless, the idea of a unified Islamic world did not disappear, and the ῾Abbasids gave legitimacy to independent dynasts. Notably under al-Muqtafi (1136–1160) and al-Nasir li-Din Allah (1180–1225), an independent ῾Abbasid state reemerged in central Iraq, only to be extinguished finally by the Mongols under Hülegü In 1258. Even subsequently, the Mamluks installed an ῾Abbasid prince as caliph in the Cairo Citadel, a line that continued until the Ottoman conquest In 1517.

The ῾Abbasids never controlled the extensive territories lightly governed by the Umayyads; the ῾Abbasid empire extended from Tunisia to Samarkand. The problem of control over far distant provinces was solved at the beginning of the ninth century by hereditary dynasties of autonomous governors: the Aghlabids in Tunisia and the Tahirids in Khurasan (eastern Iran), who continued to contribute to the central treasury. In the era of Samarra, however, genuinely independent rulers, such as the Saffarids of Sistan, ceased to pay, and much confusion was caused by the slave revolt of the Zanj in the marshes of southern Iraq for fifteen years until 883. Removal of Arabs from the pay registers of the army (c. 833) equally alienated the tribes, and control over the Arabian Peninsula was increasingly lost, apart from the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina.

The economic basis of the ῾Abbasid state was the land tax on agriculture, initially calculated in cash, and later as a proportion of the crop. By far the largest sums were contributed by Iraq, but Egypt and western Iran were also significant. The importance of Iraq stemmed from the high degree of development of irrigation under the Sasanians, which has been well illustrated by the area surveys of Robert McC. Adams in the Diyala region (Adams, 1965), and south central Iraq (Adams, 1981). [See Diyala.] Although it is difficult to date the construction of canals, the full elaboration of the system seems to date to the later Sasanian period in the sixth century, probably under the centralizing monarch Khusrau Anushirvan (531–578). Particularly the northern extension of the Nahrawan canal east of Baghdad (Ar., al-Qatul al-Kisrawi) with its offtakes from the Tigris River in the region of Samarra increased the availability of irrigation water considerably. The early ῾Abbasids, al-Rashid and al-Ma'mun (813–833), took care to add to the system. However, this achievement carried within it the seeds of its own decay: according to Adams, the sharp increase in the availability of water leads to rapid salinization and, after a certain length of time, decline in land productivity (Adams, 1981, p. 20). Even if this were not so, the long and massive Sasanian irrigation canals of Iraq—the Nahrawan canal is 225 km (139.5 mi.) long—required a large investment to excavate, and a centralized administration to maintain, a degree of organization that did not exist before the sixth century or after the ninth century. It was impossible, then, later to replace canals ruined by warfare, sedimentation or, more importantly, the regrettably frequent tendency of the Tigris and the Euphrates to change their courses. According to both archaeological surveys and historical sources, there was a severe retrenchment in the cultivated area of Iraq from the mid-tenth century onward. Although the decline of Iraq, one of the most striking phenomena of the economic history of Islam, remains a puzzle, it may be that the explanation lies in this area.

There is no doubt that the fortunes of the ῾Abbasid state paralleled the economic fortunes of Iraqi agriculture. In its first century the ῾Abbasid caliphate was a great world power. The system was established by al-Mansur (754–775), based upon the bureaucracy inherited from the Sasanians and an aristocracy of the Khurasani Arabs. Monumental architecture played a significant role. The new capital of Baghdad (founded 762–766) was dominated by the Round City, the circular fortified palace and administrative quarter, which is the first fully developed example of an Islamic royal city (Northedge, 1994). The ῾Abbasid army, the Khurasaniyah, were settled in a cantonment in al-Harbiyah, and the crown prince, al-Mahdi, had his own establishment on the east bank in Rusafa. The markets were centered around a pre-Islamic settlement at al-Karkh. Although we have no archaeological trace of early Baghdad, the plan was very influential, and the same general pattern can be seen repeated over the following century. After the abandoned construction of an octagonal city on the pattern of the Round City at Qadisiyah In 796, Harun al-Rashid (786–809) built a palace quarter at Raqqa in Syria, outside the walls of a horseshoe-plan city built by al-Mansur In 772 apparently as a garrison center. [See Raqqa, ar-.]

The construction of caliphal cities reached its greatest extent at Samarra (836–892), where 57 sq km (22 sq. mi.) of construction in pisé, mud brick and baked brick in a steppe zone on the bank of the Tigris included two caliphal establishments, Surra Man Ra'a and al-Mutawakkiliyah, six major military cantonments and a moderate-sized town. The two main military cantonments (Ar., qati῾a), of the Turks at al-Karkh, and the Central Asian Iranians at al-Matira, were placed apart from Surra Man Ra'a, at a distance of 2 farsakhs each (c. 10 km [6 mi.]), although Matira was later engulfed by the development of the city, and there were further cantonments in the city itself. The caliphal establishments and military cantonments consisted of a main palace, minor palaces, a grand avenue, and a grid of streets with houses. Significant differences from Roman practices in military settlement lay in the freedom of ῾Abbasid troops to marry, personal allegiance to generals, and ethnic division of units. The imperial character of the city is emphasized by the lack of fortifications and the monumental provision for sports—race courses and polo grounds. According to the extravagant textual descriptions, the tenth-century palace complex in Baghdad (Dar al-Khilafah) was similar, but the economic collapse of the caliphate suggests a reality of more limited dimensions.

The planning of the palaces revolved around the four iwan plan—according to E. J. Keall (1974) the iwan is first found as an open-fronted vaulted hall in Parthian Mesopotamia. The original pattern of four iwans facing onto a courtyard gave way to a central dome chamber with four iwans opening to the exterior. Samarra and Raqqa are typically Mesopotamian, vast complexes of rooms and courtyards, with provision at Samarra for sunken basins to avoid the heat of summer. In Iraq and Iran the Sasanian tradition of carved stucco revetments was further developed with new inspiration in the designs, suggested to be of Indian, Central Asian, and Byzantine origin—a sign of wider cultural horizons.

This dynastic concentration on the capital diverts our attention from the growing islamization of the provinces; apart from Syria, many of the congregational mosques in cities were first built in the ninth century, such as at Isfahan. The pattern was established of a courtyard mosque with a hypostyle or basilical prayer hall, and a minaret opposite to the miḥrab (the niche indicating the direction of Mecca), a plan built differently according to local architectural traditions. At Kairouan (Qayrawan) in Tunisia the mosque has a square brick minaret, horseshoe arches, and square external buttresses; at Samarra the minaret is helicoidal, apparently after the pattern of Assyrian ziggurats, the buttresses semicircular, and the arches pointed.

The defenses of the Byzantine frontier in southeastern Anatolia, stretching from Tarsus to Malatya, and Erzurum, were based on series of fortified cities, in which the frontier troops were settled. It was only at the end of the eighth century and the beginning of the ninth that the Roman concept of the frontier fort was introduced in the ribats of the Tunisian coast and Central Asia. With the collapse of the secular authority of the ῾Abbasid Caliphate, the ribats were manned by volunteers for religious reasons, and in the tenth century they developed into religious centers, or caravanserais, if located on a main route.

During the early part of the ῾Abbasid period, especially in the reigns of al-Mahdi and Harun al-Rashid, the transdesert pilgrim road from Baghdad and Kufah to Mecca was built up in a monumental form, known today as Darb Zubaydah [See Darb Zubaydah.] The hajj was sometimes led by the caliph and nearly always by a leading man of state. Long stretches of the road were cleared of boulders, and in places the road was walled and drainage ditches were dug. The road stations in Iraq and Saudi Arabia have been surveyed, and the station at ar-Rabadha has been excavated. The arrangements seem to have fallen into decay in the tenth century.

Apart from state activity, a thriving commercial economy begins to be visible in the archaeological evidence. In part this was related to the growth of maritime trade with the Far East. Although the Sasanians had taken care to control Indian Ocean trade, a substantial increase in quantity occurred about 800, based on Basra and the Gulf. Excavations at Siraf on the Iranian coast recorded the first appearance of Chinese stoneware and, later, porcelain, the first of a long line of Chinese ceramic imports that came to dominate the Middle East. However, distribution patterns show that in fact Chinese pottery did not penetrate in quantity far from the ports or river transport to the capital cities of Iraq. Ceramics are also only the most visible element of trade in the archaeological record; spices and teakwood were also important. From the tenth century onward, after the sack of Basra by the Qaramita, the trade moved elsewhere, notably the Red Sea and Egypt.

The consequences of this trade were fundamental. On the simplest level, it is remarkable that the introduction of polychrome-glaze pottery in Iraq, and thus in Islam, closely postdates the first large-scale Chinese imports. Although some copying of Chinese white stoneware and splash-lead glazes took place, original Islamic techniques played a more important role—cobalt-blue painting, luster painting, and glazed-relief molded wares. The evidence appears to show that the idea of polychromy spread immediately to Syria, Egypt, and Iran, and polychrome-glaze pottery quickly became the staple of fine ceramics. The stimulation to the pottery industry was not limited to glazed wares: Brittle-Ware cooking pots from North Syria, and unglazed barbotine and molded vessels were also traded widely.

However, as demonstrated for later periods by K. N. Chaudhuri (1985), although there was a risk of shipwreck, even a single successful eastern voyage could lead to enormous profits. The availability of large quantities of investment capital among Basran and other merchants is the best explanation of phenomena in the historical sources and the archaeological record. Gangs of imported East African slaves (Zanj) put to clearing saline land for agricultural estates around Basra, revolted, but particularly there was economic development in the Arabian Peninsula. Large-scale development of copper mining in Oman during the ninth century has been demonstrated, and the Saudi Arabian archaeological survey has found mining sites east of Medina for gold and chlorite-schist for cooking pots, lamps, and incense burners. Produced around Sa῾dah in Yemen even today, chlorite-schist is found in most archaeological deposits in the Fertile Crescent between the mid-eighth and ninth centuries, and the central Arabian production represents an expansion. Investment in Arabia may have been sentimental, but peaceful conditions there opened up possibilities that did not exist later.

῾Abbasid Caliphate

῾Abbasid Caliphate

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At any rate the political collapse of the ῾Abbasid regime in the second quarter of the tenth century brought an end to promising developments. Political and economic power (including also the centers of production, most visibly of ceramics) was subsequently in Egypt (the Fatimids from 969) and Iran–Central Asia (the Buyids, Samanids and Seljuks). The agriculture of these regions depends on short-distance, easily maintained irrigation systems, which could survive independently of the low level of organization of a medieval state.

[See also Arabian Peninsula, article on Arabian Peninsula in Islamic Times; Baghdad; Fatimid Dynasty; Mesopotamia, article on Mesopotamia in the Islamic Period; Samarra, article on Islamic Period; and Umayyad Caliphate.]


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Alastair Northedge

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