Reviewed by Shannon Trenton

Toward the end of the first millennium C.E., a beautiful empire extended across cultural and religious borders. Its dynastic rulers patronized the arts, pursued knowledge and education for their subjects, and established governments that would provide a firm foundation for modern civil and political development.

You may be thinking of the burgeoning Holy Roman Empire; however, the empire in question found its home in modern-day Iraq.

The glittering empire of Baghdad preserved the knowledge of the Greeks, Romans, and Persians, and facilitated the spread of trade and Islam from the Middle East to the farthest reaches of Europe. The Abbasid caliphs built their empire alongside the more famous Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne and the Byzantine emperor Constantine, yet their rich and compelling history is best known in Western culture from passing references to Arabian Nights.

Benson Bobrick makes great strides in resolving this imbalance with The Caliph’s Splendor: Islam and the West in the Golden Age of Baghdad. This rich, flowing narrative begins with the Prophet Muhammad and the emergence of Islam, and traces the development of the caliphate as the Abbasids (Sunnis) gained supremacy over their Umayyad (Shiite) brethren and the latter developed a rival emirate in modern-day Spain. Of particular interest are the accomplishments of the caliphs Mahdi, Harun, and Amin, three generations of rulers who combined intellectual and artistic development with military conquest to overcome their Western rivals.

Rather than merely a primer on Islamic rule, The Caliph’s Splendor relates the caliphate to the spread of Islam to Spain and North Africa as well as its assimilation of (and into) Western, Christian, and Jewish culture. Bobrick also narrates the changing face of Western rule in the context of Islam and Islamic rule, and vice versa, including details on everyday life such as food, dress, and entertainment.

This is a gripping story worthy of placement with the tales passed down about this period and its people, but it is also founded on extensive research (a four-page bibliography and several pages of endnotes precede the index) that makes it a mostly reliable source for study. Research purists may find discomfort with the small number of Wikipedia references in the bibliography, but I do not feel that those links take away from the overall value of the book.

The Caliph’s Splendor is an excellent and entertaining choice for the armchair history buff who wants to learn more about the impact the “Golden Age of Baghdad” had on the West of the Dark Ages and continues to have on the modern world.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

Shannon lives in Cleveland, Ohio with her husband, son, and two cats. When she isn’t reading, getting paid to play on social media, or running her own business she enjoys playing with her baby and cooking.

Review copies were provided free of any obligation by Simon & Schuster. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.