Exploration and Conquest
Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka
The Abbasids moved the capital from Damascus to Baghdad, and ruled the Islamic world from 750-1258. After a century or so of quelling uprisings and solidifying control, the Abbasid Caliphate oversaw an era of prosperity and cultural achievement. Industry, agriculture, and commerce all flourished, while Baghdad became an international trade center with a population of nearly a half-million. This wealth funded research in math, science, medicine, architecture and art, poetry, literature, and philosophy. Muslim cities became important centers of learning where Greek and Latin works of science and philosophy were translated, interpreted, revised, and recast to fit an Islamic world view. Cross-cultural exchanges, particularly in science and art, enriched Islamic civilization and neighboring civilizations alike. Christian scholars in Europe studied the work of Muslim scholars, who brought sophisticated mathematics and science, and the translations of Greek and Latin scholarship, to the European cities and schools.
The Abbasids ruled directly over Mesopotamia, Iran, Egypt, and Syria, and collected taxes and tributes from the more distant provinces. In the late 9th century, Morocco, Tunisia, Syria, and Iran won autonomy from the Abbasid Caliphate. Changes in leadership in Egypt and Baghdad contributed to growing dissension, weakening the power of the central government. In the late 11th century, Abbasid armies were attacked in the west by invading Christian Crusaders and in the east by Mongol forces. The Mongols captured Baghdad in 1258, and executed the last Abbasid caliph. This event marked the end of the Islamic caliphates.
There were other Islamic empires after 1258, but no single empire after the Abbasids extended its influence throughout the whole Islamic world. The end of the Abbasid Caliphate was thus an important watershed in Islamic history, marking the end of the era of Muslim political unity. Some Muslims still look forward to a time when Muslim political unity could be restored.
Often called the jewel of the western Islamic Empire, the Caliphate of Andalusia (in modern Spain) survived for two more centuries after the end of the Abbasid Caliphate, although losses to Christian armies began eroding the Spanish caliphate's territorial unity in the 12th century. At its peak, in the 9th - 10th centuries, the Andalusian Caliphate boasted a wealthy and diverse population. Commerce, science and mathematics, the arts, and learning all flourished, making Muslim Spain a symbol for some of the most acclaimed aspects of Muslim culture, including architecture, libraries, literature, and scientific innovation. The last of the Spanish Muslim kingdoms, in Granada, fell in 1492 to the forces of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who expelled the Muslim population and appropriated Muslim property. The legacies of the Spanish Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire suggest that Islam, far from being a foreign element in Europe, is an integral part of European history and culture.