Starred Review. These days Baghdad is associated with violence and insurgency. But more than a thousand years ago, during the Abbasid caliphate, Baghdad was a center of the arts and sciences, a city of dreams and limitless opportunities. This eminently entertaining book by respected British historian Kennedy focuses on these glory days of Baghdad in the eighth and ninth centuries, and the city's eventual downfall. Firmly grounded in the original Arabic literary sources of the era, Kennedy (Mongols, Huns and Vikings) emphasizes the amazing personalities of the period, such as Caliph Harun al-Rashid (mythologized in TheArabian Nights) and his powerful queen Zubayda. Kennedy's account is not a dry political chronicle but rather full of stories of love, sex, power, corruption, sibling rivalry and political intrigue—for which he makes no apology. Kennedy does a superb job resurrecting the human dimension of the period, as in apt descriptions of life in Harun al-Rashid's harem or the various caliphs' decisions whether or not to wage war. He also provides a sophisticated account of the general cultural and political climate based on recent scholarship. Combining academic rigor and accessibility, this is compelling reading for anyone concerned with the perils of power, the medieval Islamic legacy and the images that Baghdad continues to conjure in the modern imagination. 24 pages of illus., 3 maps. (June)
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