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Course | Al-Babtain Masterclasses

Masterclasses by Hugh Kennedy

Thursday 21 October 2021 - Friday 10 December 2021
There are limited places available, please register below.
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden
1.21, 3.08, 2.02, and tba

In October and December, Al-Babtain Visiting Professor Hugh Kennedy will teach six masterclasses on the idea of a “Greater Mesopotamia” and its fundamental importance in understanding the economy and geopolitics of the early Islamic world, from 650 to 1050 CE.

“Greater Mesopotamia” was home to one of the largest cities in the world at the time, Baghdad, and the central hub of a vast international trade network. Hugh Kennedy discusses the environmental, economic, and political factors that allowed this region to flourish in the early Middle Ages.

Are you interested in the early Islamic World? Would you like to know more about the archaeology and history of the medieval Middle East? Don’t miss this opportunity to learn from the best!


Lipsius room 1.21, 11:15 - 13:00 hrs

This class will discuss the resources and opportunities offered by the landscapes and climate of Greater Mesopotamia (GM). The main climatic parameters are the overwhelmingly arid climate. Only in the most northern areas along the foothills of the Anatolian mountains is there more than 200 mm of rainfall, the minimum for dry farming and even there it is not always reliable. On the positive side, the climate in most of the area is reliably warm and sunny. Heavy rain is rare, frost and snow virtually unknown. Were it not for the rivers fed by the rainy and snowy mountains of Anatolia and the Zagros, this area would be little more than a barren extension of the Arabian and Syrian deserts. The rivers, most famously the Tigris and the Euphrates, were the essential source for the prosperity of the ancient landscapes. The two great rivers were not the only source of water for irrigation the Balikh and Khabur, the northern tributaries of the Euphrates in Syria, the two Zabs and the Diyala, the eastern tributaries of the Tigris in Iraq were just as vital as the two great rivers and in some ways much easier to manage. Finally the Karun (Ar. Dujayl) and other rivers which rise in the Zagros and water the flat plains of Khuzistan, form a separate but in many ways comparable system in the southeast.

Although the rivers rise and fall through different seasons of the year, there is no regular flooding of the landscape like that of the Nile. The water needs to be managed much more intensively and requires regular and sustained investment in manpower and money to deliver results. North of Samarra both the great rivers flow in beds which are substantially below the level and the surrounding landscapes. While limited local use can be made of this water by raising it using animal or human power, only gravity-powered irrigation systems will generate the volumes of water required for extensive and sustained agricultural activity. This usually involves leading water off a river into a canal which descends at a level less steep than the river from which it derives, so allowing the flowing water to be maintained higher than the valley floor. From this elevated position, it can be distributer by secondary irrigation channels to fields on the valley floor. The Arabic sources refer to such canals as nahr (pl. anhār), a word which is also used for a natural river and is normally translated as canal. However, it must be born in mind that these canals are different from the static transport and drainage canals characteristic of north-west Europe. In most cases these canal flow above the level of the surrounding country which means that the levees which contain the water require constant maintenance and continuing investment. Without this the levees will break and the water be dispersed unproductively to hollows and brackish lakes.

Lipsius room 3.08, 11:15 - 13:00 hrs

Climate and hydrology can be used together to create a very productive agricultural environment in which regular food surpluses can be used to feed large cities whose inhabitants live off trade, manufacturing or government service and do not grow their own food. Greater Mesopotamia also provides opportunities for varied cultivation. Broadly speaking, the areas north of Baghdad, the Jazīra of the Arabic sources, can be cultivated to yield grain, wheat and barley. This is also the case in some part of the Sawād, the area of the alluvium south of Baghdad. However, these southern areas also produce other important foodstuffs, notably dates and fish. 

In antiquity during the first half of the first millennium of the common era, GM was almost always divided politically between a Syria dominated by the Mediterranean power of Rome and a Sawād ruled by Parthian and Sasanian dynasts whose political power, if nor their economic power, was based on the Iranian plateau. The political frontier, often bitterly contested and fought over, ran through the potentially productive area of the Jazīra. Archaeological evidence suggests that this long-term insecurity meant that these lands were cultivated at a level well below their agricultural potential, or, to put it another way, that many possibly rich grain-growing areas remained unirrigated and were given over to pastoral herding. In the frontier zone itself, urban settlement was confined to a few military outposts like Circesium (Qarqīsiyā) and Anastasiopolis (Dara) and towns on the southern edge of the Anatolian plateau like Edessa.

The Muslim conquests changed all this. From the 640s both Syrian and Iraqī areas of the Jazīra were united under one sultān, there were certainly disturbances and civil wars but there were no long-term factors preventing the export of grain surpluses from the Jazīra to the major Muslim cites of southern Iraq, Kufa, Basra and, after 762, Basra.

Lipsius room 2.02, 11:15 - 13:00 hrs

As has been suggested above, the economy of GM allowed the transport of large quantities of foodstuffs to sustain the developing cities of the area. Virtually all pre-industrial systems were dependent on water-transport for the long term movement of bulk commodities. Camel caravans were certainly important for the transport of textiles and luxury foods, but the staples of everyday life depended on boats. The Tigris and Euphrates are both rivers with a strong current and many shoals and obstacles. Attempts in the nineteenth century to set up regular steam ship routes were thwarted by these obstacles.

There is no Arabic literature devoted to river transport but anecdotal information in both geographical works and chronicles make it clear that it was important. We hear of elite use of boats, in Baghdad but also wider afield. We also hear of military campaigns using a wide variety of river craft. Commercial use of water ways is less well attested; like animal caravans they were probably too mundane to be described except in exceptional circumstances. Al-Manṣūr’s description of the economic advantages of the site of his new city of Baghdad make it clear that foodstuffs were imported from both the north (grain from the Jazīra) and the south (dates and fish). We hear about boats being used even on small tributaries like the Khabur in Jazīra and the Karun in Khuzistan. The likelihood is that the system was similar to that recorded in the nineteenth century: small craft were built with wood from the Anatolian foothills, loaded with good from Jazīra and floated down to Baghdad and other urban centres in Iraq where the cargoes would be sold and the boats themselves broken up and the timbers sold for building. The direct references in the sources are sparse and scattered, but the indications are that water transport was the arterial backbone GM. Until the early tenth century, the system worked: we find almost no reports of famine and food shortage, despite the expanding cities and burgeoning population. 

Lipsius room 3.08, 11:15 - 13:00 hrs

It is a cliché to say that the lands GM were the site of the earliest urban civilisation known to mankind. From the third millennium BC urban centres had dominated the political and social life of the plains. In a sense then, the growth of cities in the early Islamic period was the continuation of an ancient pattern. In other ways, however, the early Islamic cities marked a break with, or at least an evolution of, the ancient systems. The urban life of GM after c.800 was dominated by three great cities, Basra in the south, Baghdad in the centre and Mosul in the north. All these were Islamic new towns and they have remained the principal cities of Iraq down to the present day. The second main contrast was the sheer size of these cities. There is a general scholarly consensus that Baghdad in the ninth and early tenth centuries had a population of between 250,000 and half a million, Basra was smaller but we can estimate that it had 150,000 to 200,000 inhabitants in the early Islamic period. The ruin field of Samarra, the political and military, but not the economic and cultural capital of the caliphate from the 830s to 892, stretched for some seventy kilometres along the banks of the Tigris. These cities were vastly larger than those of Ancient Mesopotamia and, probably much bigger than those of late medieval and early modern Iraq. We should also note that these cities were all on riverain sites with direct access to water transport. This was true of smaller cities like Rahba Tawq b. Mālik, Jazīrat Ibn ʿUmar, and Hadīthat al-Mawsil in the Jazīra. From the mid-tenth century, this pattern begins to change. The riverain cities fall into decay. Rahba migrates to a fortified site on the nearby escarpment, leaving the riverain site deserted. The emerging cities of the era are fortified hill-top towns like Mardin, or sites of ancient citadels like Erbil. For the builders and inhabitants of these cities, defence was clearly more important than water communications.

Week beginning 6 December; date, place and time tba

So far we have identified some of the main features of the agricultural and urban life of GM, the expansion of the cultivated area into marginal lands and the expansion of large and small cities. What then were the market forces which generated this activity? State spending in the form of salaries to soldiers, bureaucrats, and other stake-holders were fundamental to this process. Large numbers of people were paid salaries which enabled them to enter the market to buy the essentials of life and small luxuries. Of course the super elite of princes of the royal house, viziers, and successful generals spent vastly more than this but what marks the society of GM out from many pre-modern societies was the extent to which this comparative affluence penetrated wider echelons of society. Recent research has convincingly suggested that this was a period of high real incomes and that even people from modest social and economic backgrounds could earn incomes which meant that they could purchase goods and services beyond their immediate subsistence needs.

By any pre-modern standards Baghdad was a very large city and its teeming inhabitants must have hoped to enjoy at least one meal a day, even if it was a basic repast of bread and vegetables. The cuisine of the elite was much more varied and elaborate and even the more modest inhabitants must have aspired to eat meat at the two great ʿīds of the Muslim year. The feeding of the population must have been the most complex and largescale commercial activity of the late eighth and ninth centuries anywhere on earth. And yet we find very few details in the sources. When al-Manṣūr was choosing the site of his new capital of Baghdad in 762, he is reported to have explained that the accessibility of food supplies from both north and south was a major reason for the location he decided on. 

The caliph may have shown his concern for the supply of food but there is little indication that the sulṭān played an active part in this process. This is in marked contrast to the food supply of classical Rome. Here the authorities organized the annona, the free supply of basic gains to the poorer inhabitants. To supply the annona, they established a regular system of cargo ships to carry the vast quantities of grain needed from Egypt. It became an accepted feature of imperial rule that the provision of grain was the responsibility of the Empire. There is no sign that the ʿAbbasid sultān did this, or indeed, took any active role in food supply. This was basically done by a market which responded to the demands of the city. The markets of Baghdad provided the incentive for landowners, large and small, to develop their agricultural holdings and make the investments which would generally produce results. It was, in short, a free market system in marked contrast to the government-controlled systems of ancient Rome.  

This goes against the argument developed by Wittfogel and his followers, the argument of “Oriental Despotism”. This maintains that the necessity of constructing and maintaining large scale irrigation works requires a strong state which will order its subjects to work for the common good, with or without pay. In doing so they may secure their food supply but they lose their economic and political independence, hence oriental despotism, the inevitable by-product of hydrological necessity. There is no indication that this happened in GM in the time of the caliphate. There is evidence of agricultural slavery among the Zanj, imported slaves from East Africa set to work to clear salt from the increasingly saline fields of southern Iraq but these were the exception Instead the picture is one of entrepreneurs and free labourers who were incentivised by wages and profits to expand agricultural activity.

Week beginning 6 December; date, place and time tba

This period of intensive agriculture and thriving towns came to an end during the course of the tenth century. There are a number of reasons for this, all of them related to the others. The first is salinisation of the agricultural lands, the encrusting of the top soil with a layer of salt deposited by irrigation waters leached into the ground. This in turn was a product of the lack of thorough drainage. It can be argued that this process inevitably occurred after a prolonged period of intensive irrigation and that recovery may have needed decades even centuries, especially in areas with little or no precipitation. There is evidence of this, particularly in the lands surrounding Basra in south of Iraq where salt deposits can still be seen. There is however little or no evidence for this in the Jazira and the piedmont landscapes of eastern Iraq and Khuzistan either because natural drainage was better or because rainfall, though inadequate for dry farming, nonetheless was sufficient to wash the salts away.

Political division and open warfare also contributed to the economic problems. In the first half of the tenth century the Hamdanid family established their power over most of the Jazīra. Their rule was brutal and rapacious, as Ibn Ḥawqal noted, and it is clear that they used food supply and the threat of famine as a political weapon. The inevitable consequence of this must have been to dry up investment in the agricultural sector in the province.

Finally we should note changing patterns of elite investment. Umayyad princes and early ʿAbbasid bureaucrats had invested the wealth they had acquired in agricultural property and its development, reckoning that such investments would be profitable in the medium and long-term. In the 930s we find the leading Turkish general of the period, Bajkam, burying his ill-gotten gains in a hole in the ground at an unknown desert location. Given that he was killed soon after, the treasure may still be there to this day but the important point is that he did not consider investment in productive land. Instead this became zombie capital, serving no productive purpose at all.

Please register before 7 October

There are limited places available for this Masterclass. You will receive an email to let you know if you have been selected.

Click here to register

About Hugh Kennedy

Hugh Kennedy has been Professor of Arabic at SOAS University of London since 2017. After completing a PhD at Cambridge, he taught as lecturer and then professor of Middle Eastern History in the University of St Andrews from 1972 to 2017. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and also of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the history and archaeology of the early Islamic world. His books have been translated into ten languages. He is presently working on a new translation of al-Balādhurī's Futūḥ al-Buldān and an economic history of the Muslim Middle East in the early Middle Ages.

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