Islamic Golden Age: Abbasid-Timurid (786-1500)

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Great Mosque Damascus Mosaics
Hagia Sophia Thesssaloniki
Shahnameh manuscript
World Atlas of al-Idrisi
Scholars at the House of Wisdom
Monzón Lion

Mongols besieging Baghdad, 1258
Sultan Husayn Bayqara
Theorem by Jamshid al-Kashi
Construction of the fort of Kharnaq

The Islamic Golden Age is usually atributed to the Abbasid period. It commenced with the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (786 to 809) and the inauguration of the Grand Library of Baghdad (aka the House of Wisdom), at that time the world’s largest city. It is said, by some to have ended with the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate following the Mongol invasions and the 1258 Siege of Baghdad (which included the destruction of the Library). Other historiography extends the period to include the Timurid Renaissance and so ended later.

This Golden Age was driven by Quranic injunctions and the Hadith (a record of the words and actions of Muhammad [PBUH]), which placed a high value on education and the acquisition of knowledge, played a vital role in influencing the Muslims of this age in their search for knowledge and the development of the body of science.

The Abassid Caliphate heavily supported education, for example the money it spent on the Translation Movement (Greek, Persian, Sanskrit and Syriac into Arabic) is estimated by some to have been the equivalent to about twice today’s annual research budget of the United Kingdom’s Medical Research Council. Key scholars and translators were well remunerated, for example Hunayn ibn Ishaq (translator, scholar, physician, and scientist), had a salary equivalent to top professional athletes today. The focus on written Arabic, led to developments in calligraphy, illuminated manuscripts and architectural decoration.

The Timurid Renaissance spanned the late 14th, 15th, and early 16th centuries. Based in Central Asia, it was ruled by the Timurid dynasty and hosted the revival of arts and sciences in the Muslim world. Its movement spread across the Muslim world and left profound impacts on late medieval Asia and the Early Modern Period.


Caliph al-Walid I (sixth caliph of the Umayyads, reigned 705-715) proclaimed: ‘Inhabitants of Damascus, four things give you a marked superiority over the rest of the world: your climate, your water, your fruits, and your baths. To these I wanted to add a fifth: this mosque.’

The Great Mosque of Damascus, top image is its interior, was intended to give permanence to the Umayyad rule. The city had been under Persian rule from 612–628 and Arab rule from 635–661. (Source metmuseum.org)

The mosque became the model for later imperial mosques. Four minarets set at the four corners. A long prayer hall faces the qibla – indicating the direction that should be faced when a Muslim prays during salah, the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca.

It is famous for the mosaics that decorate the prayer hall, the the perimeter walls and court facades. Attributed to Byzantine workmen, these mosaics appear on the prayer hall, the inner side of the perimeter walls, and the court facades. They show flowing rivers, fantastic houses, trees of variegated greens sitting upon a golden background and referenced with passages from the Qur’an. Other areas feature geometric patterns.

Image source: khanacademy.org

Image source: metmuseum.org

Image source: pinterest.co.uk

Image source: patterninislamicart.com

Image source: Wikimedia commons

It is interesting to compare these decorations with the decoration of the Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki. Originally an 8th c church it became a mosque in 1430, and switched back to a church in 1912.

The top image is of the iconostasis, the screen between nave and sanctuary. The lower image is of a mosaic.

While the Qu’ran has no specific guidelines on the use of images, hadiths usually do express a clear antipathy towards realistic figurative depictions. The purpose of this ‘prohibition’ of images was to avoid idolatry. Muhammad demonstrated this when he purified the Kaaba of sculptures and idols.
The Shahnameh (aka The Book of Kings) is an epic poem written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi between c977-1010 CE. It consists of around 50,000 couplets and is thus one of the world’s longest epic poems. It tells the part mythical and part historical account of the Persian Empire from the creation of the world until the Muslim conquest in the seventh century.

This image is from the Shahnameh and shows Sassanian shahanshah Bahram Gur and his courtiers being entertained by Barbad the Musician. This is on show at the Brooklyn Museum.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

The image is an introductory overview map from al-Idrisi’s world atlas published in 1154. It helps to know that South is at the top of the map and that large land mass is Africa.

Navigational sciences were developed during this period through the use of a kamal, a proto-sextant. With this and detailed maps, sailors sailded the oceans rather than hugging the coast. Islamic sailors also reintroduced large, three-masted merchant vessels to the Mediterranean. The name caravel may derive from qārib, from this period.
Scholars at the Abbasid library, the House of Wisdom.
It is from the Maqamat of al-Hariri by Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti, Baghdad.

It is dated to1237 and at the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: qantara-med.org

This bronze ‘Lion with an articulated tail’ is said to be from the Caliphate of Cordoba in Spain. It is also known as the Monzón Lion, as it was found at Monzón de Campos, when the Reconquista retook the area in the 11th c.

Its acreditation to the Caliphate is based on the open mouth, the almond-shaped eyes and has foliage decoration used to decorate Umayyad palaces in Syria and Jordan.

It is 54 x 30 cms and on show at the Musée du Louvre, Paris France.
Painting depicting the Mongol Hulagu Khan’s army besieging the walls of Baghdad for 13 days in 1258. The city fell and was sacked, the House of Wisdom library was destroyed. The Mongols executed Al-Musta’sim (the 37th and last Abbasid caliph) and massacred many residents of the city. The siege is considered to mark the end of the Islamic Golden Age, during which the caliphs had extended their territory to extend from the Iberian Peninsula to Sindh (Pakistan).
It is on show at the Bibliothèque nationale de France

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

A 1490s portrait of Sultan Husayn Bayqara (when aged 50), a patron of the Arts. A benefactor and patron of learning who built multiple centres for learning. His sophisticated court was a source of admiration, particularly from his cousin, Babur of Mughal India.

Painted by Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād, the great artist of the Timurid Renaissance, it is on show at the Harvard University Art Museum.
The image shows a theorem by Jamshid al-Kashi, taken from the book, Kashaniname. al-Kashi was one of the most influential contributors in the fields of mathematics and astronomy. He was patronised by Emperor Shah Rukh and Queen Goharshad, who were interested in the sciences. They encouraged their court to study various fields in great depth and this prompted many scholarly achievements.
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons
A 1494-5 painting showing the construction of the fort of Kharnaq, by Kamal-ud-din Bihzad.

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