“History gives us many cautionary tales.”
—Excerpt from The Caliph’s Splendor, by Benson Bobrick
In this informative volume, Bobrick, a historian, recounts the reign of eighth-century-CE caliph Harun al-Rashid, the beginnings of Baghdad, the seat of power in the Abbasid Caliphate, and the various cultural, gastronomic and technological breakthroughs of the time. Bobrick incorporates both secular, scientific chronicles and sacred texts such as the Qur’an. In this way, he paints a multifaceted picture of what life may have been like for various cross-sections of people during the Abbasid Caliphate. While the focus is always on al-Rashid, the titular caliph, readers also learn about political, social, economic and marital intrigues that are usually overlooked in nonfiction historical literature. Overall, I appreciated Bobrick’s colorful storytelling as well as the respectful tone with which he approaches his topic. For example, it is common for Western writers to fetishize harems and marital practices, but Bobrick discusses al-Rashid’s marriages and personal life with dispassion and dignity.