A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

When Raqqa was the Capital of a Real Caliph: Harun al-Rashid

The glories of Baghdad during the reign of the ‘Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid have been much celebrated and elaborated upon in the tales of the 1001 Nights, so his reign is generally identified with the great period of Baghdad's glories. Yet of the 23 solar years, 786-809 AD, of Harun's Caliphate, for 13 of those he reigned not from Baghdad, but from Raqqa on the Euphrates. Long before Raqqa served as the capital of ISIS' self-declared "Caliphate," it was the capital of the ‘Abbasids when they ruled most of the Islamic world (except Umayyad Spain).

With the announcement today that Raqqa has fallen to the Syrian Democratic Forces (mainly the Kurdish YPG), it may be worth remembering Raqqa's previous glories. The Islamic State most likely chose Raqqa as its capital because it was one of the few cities it controlled, but it was surely aware of its role as a onetime Caliphal capital.

Raqqa was an ancient foundation, known in classical times as Kallinikos. Harun was the fifth ‘Abbasid Caliph. His grandfather the second ‘Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur (Harun's father and brother had reigned between the two), who was the real founder of Baghdad, noticed the attractive elements of Raqqa and founded a suburb he named al-Rafiqa ("the companion"). Though proud of his great new Round City of Baghdad, al-Mansur adopted Rafiqa as the ‘Abbasid summer capital. (For the nitpickers: I know Mansur did not found "Baghdad," the Persian name for the village on the Tigris which preceded Mansur's city, which was officially named Madinat al-Salam, the City of Peace. But everyone called it by the older name. Al-Mansur's Round City, until destroyed by the Mongols in 1258, lay where the al-Mansur neighborhood of modern Baghdad is today.)

In 796 AD, ten solar years into his Caliphate, Harun moved his administrative capital to Raqqa, though the state bureaucracy mostly remained in Baghdad. Many of the descriptions (mostly anachronistic) of the glories of Harun's Baghdad refer to Raqqa, where outside the view of the religious establishment and the Baghdad populace, Harun was more free to indulge his penchants for horse-racing, wine, and other pleasures. Some of the songs/poems in the Kitab al-Aghani refer to the pleasures of Harun's place at Raqqa.

Not much remains of ‘Abbasid-era Raqqa, even before ISIS and the fight to retake the city. Some ancient walls and the Baghdad Gate at left, less whatever damage ISIS and the air and artillery assaults on the city may have destroyed.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Iraqi Forces Enter Kirkuk

Iraqi Armed Forces entered Kirkuk today, pushing back Kurdish Peshmerga and lowering the Kurdish flag. Following a period of threats and symbolic gestures after the Kurdish independence referendum, the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government are now teetering on the brink of war, especially in Kirkuk, where ethnic Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen dispute control of the city at the heart of Iraq's northern oilfields.

The US, which in many ways has encouraged autonomous Kurdistan since the early 1990s and has supported the Peshmerga as a counterweight to ISIS, now finds two of its allies, the governments in Baghdad and Erbil, at daggers drawn. The Iraqi Army and its allies, the Shi‘ite militia the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, al-Hashd al-Sha‘bi) seem determined to take all of Kirkuk, though some  Yezidi units in the PMF are said to have refused to fight the Peshmerga, since most Yezidis are ethnic Kurds.

As a sign of the dangers posed by the Iraqi-KRG clashes, ISIS reportedly took two villages north of Kirkuk from the Peshmerga.

Dumbarton Oaks Makes Irfan Shahid's Mastetpiece Available for Free Download

After Irfan Shahid died in 2016, I lamented the fact that his multi-volume life's work, Byzantium and the Arabs, and its "Prolegomenon," Rome and the Arabs, were in several cases out of print (and not inexpensive when available).

Well, there's great news for anyone interested in the Arabs in Late Antiquity or the pre-Islamic context of the rise of Islam (especially the Ghassanids): Dumbarton Oaks has made all seven of the volumes available for free download.

If you have any interest in the subject, download them all now.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Jalal Talabani, 1933-2017

Jalal Talabani, former President of Iraq and founder of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), has died in Germany at the age of 83. One of the two historic leaders of Iraq's Kurds, along with the late Mullah Mustafa Barzani (father of Kurdish Regional Government President Mas‘oud Barzani), he was also President of Iraq (a position now constitutionally reserved for a Kurd) from 2005-2014. The impact of his passing barely a week after the referendum on Kurdish independence remains to be seen.

In 1961 Talabani joined in the Kurdish uprising, originally as a supporter of the elder Barzani and his Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). He and his supporters, mostly based in eastern and southern Kurdistan around Suleimaniyya (now frequently known by the Kurdish form Sulaimani), and with support from leftists and intellectuals, were increasingly at odds with Barzani's KDP, which largely depended on tribal support from northern and western Kurdistan.

After the Kurdish revolt failed following a deal between Iran and Iraq in 1975, Talabani and his supporters founded the PUK. Though a rival of the KDP, the two major parties have shared power within the Kurdish Regional Government.

The PUK was, generally speaking, less enthusiastic than the KDP about the recent unilateral referendum on independence.

Talabani left the Presidency after a stroke in 2014 and went to Germany for treatment. His PUK co-founder Fuad Masum succeeded him as President. Talabani's son Qubad is Deputy Prime Minister in the Kurdish Regional Government.