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Monday, January 5, 2015

“The Caliph’s Splendor: Islam and the West in the Golden Age of Baghdad”, by Benson Bobrick


304 pages, Simon & Schuster, ISBN-13: 978-1416567622

The Caliph’s Splendor: Islam and the West in the Golden Age of Baghdad details the history of the early Islamic Empire and so, naturally, there is much focus on the rulers of said empire – the Caliphs – and the intrigues of the royal court, but Benson Bobrick, the author, also discusses the development of Islamic science and culture, the architecture of major cities, and even the eating habits of the ordinary citizen. Additionally, one whole chapter is devoted to Charlemagne and how the “dark ages” of Europe compared with the splendor of Baghdad (hint: not well at all).

This is a lot of history to cover in just 244 pages and, as so much history is crammed into each page, The Caliph’s Splendor takes not a little effort to read. I give Bobrick credit for not resorting to invention or sensationalism, but there is much that is dry by way of numerous, lengthy in-text lists (of spices, trades, ethnicities, etc.); the many anecdotes and quotes from contemporary or near-contemporary sources concerning the caliphs and others; and Abbasid society that are clearly somewhat contrived (by the authors of antiquity) if not entirely apocryphal (lore with political purpose; story of Arabs burning thousands of papyri in Egypt to heat the Roman baths for their luxuriance uncritically stated as fact); discussions of Umayyad al-Andalus, Byzantium, the Franks seem rather starkly tangential; and the few illustrations, although colorful, are merely a hastily assembled and rather incoherent handful. The more you read, the more you wonder about the book’s alluring title.

I wouldn't call this book an eye-opener, and certainly not the last word on the early Islamic empire, but it does manage to keep our interest – when it's not raising our eyebrows, as when the author equates the Delhi Sultanate with the Mughals (“Moghuls”). As an excellent coda to The Caliph’s Splendor, I recommend What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East and The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (both by Bernard Lewis and both reviewed by me on October 3rd, 2013); both books document the decline of the Islamic Empire, particularly its science. All of these books take effort to read, but all are also well worth the effort.

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