The Abbasid dynasty began surreptitiously as an underground revolt in the far-away province of Khurasan, a region between Iran and Afghanistan and continued until it had amassed enough men and arms to overthrow the entire Umayyad ruling family in Damascus bar one, the famous Abdul-Rahman who made his way to Spain and eventually installed a dynasty of his own.

Like the Alids, the descendants of Ali, who was the last of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, the Abbasids were descended from an uncle of Muhammad, al-Abbas. However, “their immediate claim to the Caliphate rested upon the allegation that a great-grandson of Ali, Abu Hashim, had bequeathed them leadership of the family” (Lapidus 1988, 65). The Abbasids were supported by Abu Muslim (728–755), a brilliant strategist who soon became the leader of the revolution in all but name.

They also drew on the support of the mawali (the non-Arab Muslim “client” population in the Islamic empire). Although the old landed Iranian aristocracy had assimilated quickly in Khurasan and lands further east, the Iranian converts were still discriminated against and had to form patron-client relationships with Arab tribes in order to achieve some form of parity in the new society.

Many came to believe that their status as second-class citizens was unfair and utterly unworthy of the Islamic ideology of the empire. Joined to those grievances were those of the former Arab warrior class, “who had been promised tax reform by the Umayyads and had been betrayed” (Lapidus 1988, 76). They had become settled farmers in Khurasan; burdened by taxes and yet denied relief, they took up arms against the Umayyad in a last-ditch effort to strike a better bargain for themselves and their families.

The Abbasid revolution has gone down in history as one of the bestorganized rebellions in the annals of early Islam and one that was of central importance to the reorientation of the Islamic empire to the east, Iran in particular.

In the latter stages of the campaign, eschatological prophecies were reproduced to announce the coming of the impending revolution, and black banners, which had already acquired messianic overtones because of their connotations with past rebellions, were unfurled once more, this time as the Abbasids’ symbol.

All those signs and portents of a looming battle were widely circulated to create a base for revolutionary hopes and millennial expectations (Shaban 1971, 183). The call to arms was accompanied by the vivid reenactment of the martyrdom of Ali’s son, Husayn, at the hands of the Umayyad ruler, Yazid, and the promise of justice and retribution once the Abbasids had come to power.

When, after months of secret and intense preparation, the revolution fi nally broke out in Merv (present-day Turkmenistan) in 747, close to 10,000 people joined Abu Muslim’s command. In 750, Kufa fell, and the fi rst spiritual leader of the Abbasid forces, Abu al-Abbas (r. 750-754), became the Commander of the Faithful (amir al-muminin).

Four years later, he was succeeded on the throne by his stronger and more charismatic brother, Abu Jaafar al-Mansur (r. 754–775); by that time, the last of the Umayyad family, Marwan II (r. 744–750), had been defeated, and the new dynasty, refl ecting a wider mix of Arab and nonArab Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and even Buddhist populations, was well on its way to bursting onto the world stage.

The Building of Baghdad Abu Jaafar al-Mansur, the second caliph of the Abbasid Empire, decided to build a new capital as a symbol of a new beginning. The building of Baghdad is one of those highly symbolic moments in history that was fortunately captured by Muslim historians either contemporary to or living somewhat later than al-Mansur.

One summer day in 762, it is recounted, the caliph surveyed the spot on which his new capital was to be erected and proclaimed it to be excellent. After praying the afternoon prayer, he spent the night in a nearby church, “passing the sweetest and gentlest night on earth” (quoted in Hourani 1991, 33).

The next day al-Mansur was further impressed by the commercial opportunities offered by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers that tied Iraq to lands east and west, as well as the immense potential for the provisioning and resupply of his large land army. And so he is supposed to have ordered the immediate building of his new capital on that very morning. After calling for God’s mercy on himself and his subjects, he initiated the project by laying the fi rst brick by hand.

Continuing with an ancient Iraqi tradition of constructing new cities outside the traditional population centers in the empire and in so doing, underlying the shift from the old to the new, Baghdad was built on a concentric plan in which the centers of power, such as the palace, the military barracks, and the bureaucracy, were situated in the inner core while the markets and residential quarters were located outside.

Refl ecting its structure, foreign observers referred to the new capital as the “Round City.” However, for the Abbasid caliph who built it and for all the Muslim chroniclers who recorded its development and transmitted that lore over centuries, the city retained its original title, Madinat al-Salam (the City of Peace).

The name that ultimately stuck, Baghdad, is the name of the village that previously existed on the site. In addition to the palace-administrative complex, Baghdad spawned two large city quarters, that of the Harbiyya (where the troops were situated), and al-Karkh, the suburb where the builders and workmen lived and where workshops, industries, and markets testifi ed to the bustling activity generated by the ongoing building of the city.

After its inception, Baghdad went from strength to strength. From the eighth to the 12th centuries, it was one of the most sophisticated cities in the world, a multicultural hub of economic opportunity, intellectual brilliance, and expanding social horizons.

As al-Mansur had so aptly prophesied, Baghdad became a thriving center of trade: it was not only a major international transit point for goods but produced a number of valuable products of its own, such as textiles, leather, and paper.

Moreover, the city was thronged by people from all over the known world—Christians, Jews, Persians, Arabs, Syrians, Africans, and people from ma wara al-nahr (“what is beyond the river,” the Arab name for Transoxania or Central Asia)—many of whom settled in Baghdad and took up occupations that further added to the capital’s prospects. In the words of a famous historian,

Baghdad, then, was the product of upheavals, population movements, economic changes, and conversions of the previous century: the home of a new Middle Eastern society, heterogeneous and cosmopolitan, embracing numerous Arab and non-Arab elements, now integrated in a single society under the auspices of the Arab empire and the Islamic religion. Baghdad provided the wealth and manpower to govern a vast empire: it crystallized the culture which became Islamic civilization (Lapidus 1988, 70).