The story of Harun al-Rashid, the celebrated caliph from The Thousand and One Nights, who ruled the Islamic world when its power was at a peak in the late eighth and early ninth centuries and when the Arab world influenced Western Christian culture. During the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid, Islam dominated much of the known world, from the Atlantic Ocean to China. Harun's capital, Baghdad, was the most cosmopolitan metropolis of the era. In this magnificent work of history, acclaimed scholar Benson Bobrick resurrects Harun's glorious world and the complex, pervasive influence it had on its neighbors in the Byzantine Empire and the Frankish kingdom of Harun's contemporary Charlemagne. Harun's power was checked by the Byzantine Empire, with its capital at Constantinople, and Charlemagne's European kingdom. Yet along with conflict went cultural exchange. In fact, it was the preservation and development of classical learning by the Muslims that lighted the lamp of knowledge in the West during the so-called Dark Ages when Europe fell into ruin.
Popular historian Bobrick (The Fated Sky: Astrology in History) breathlessly recounts the ornate pageantry of the Islamic caliphate, from its meteoric rise as an empire on three continents, with magnificent cities that were centers of scientific and artistic achievement, through the debauchery and licentiousness that characterized Harun al-Rashid's late-eighth-century Baghdad. While ostensibly about the diplomatic and military drama encircling the caliphate, the Byzantine Empire, and Charlemagne's kingdom (al-Rashid sent Charlemagne a white elephant, which the king took as his beloved pet), the book is much more preoccupied with the standard Orientalist tropes of sex and violence. Drawing equally from sober, scholarly works and the fanciful accounts of fabulists reporting or inventing rumors from the caliph's court, Bobrick has every scene bathed in a postcoital purple haze of opium, wine, and the bloody mist of thousands of beheadings. Each evening, we are told, seven slave girls spent hours sitting on "pierced chairs with incense wafting up from below... thereby made abundantly fragrant, and so readied for Harun's embrace," a much needed nightly respite from his busy days of assassinating his rivals, dismembering their bodies, and having them "hung on Baghdad's three pontoon bridges for all to see." 16 pages of color photos, 2 maps. Agent: Russell Galen, Scovil, Galen, and Ghosh. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
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Simon & Schuster
August 13, 2012
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