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Taylor Irish

HIS 110
Prof. Lee

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Sinbad and The Abbasid Culture That Created Him

The Abbasid Caliphate is an empire that centered in what is known as

modern-day Baghdad and began around 750 CE. The Abbasid period, which lasted
until around 1258 CE when the Mongol conquests occurred, is considered the

Islamic Golden Age according to Kennedy Hugh, a writer for History Today. 1 This is
where Sinbads story, and many of the stories from 1001 Arabian Nights took place.

Although the book is believed to have Indian folklore influences, no copies remain in
their language and the earliest copies are in Persian, but historians have been able
to uncover that many of the stories have Middle-Eastern descent. The Abbasid

Caliphate was able to extend the reach of their culture through trading routes, Greek
to Arabic translations, and the popular culture of the time.

The beginning of the story starts out showing us Sinbad, a young man living

in Barsa, which is connected to Baghdad by the Tigris River, who inherited his

parents wealth and spent it unwisely. Sinbad realizes how much money he has

spent, and decides to go on a journey to enrich his life, as he knows no old man is

happy being poor. He sells some of what is left of his belongings and embarks on his
first voyage. During this voyage, Sinbad becomes marooned on what seems to be an
island, but then becomes a giant whale. He is eventually saved and returned to his
vessel where the crew can barely believe he lived. Once he tries settling down, he
realizes it was not the life for him and decides to venture out on another journey.

Hugh, Kennedy. "The True Caliph of The Arabian Nights." History Today 54, no. 9
(Sept 2004): 31-32.
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Upon returning from each on his seven voyages, Sinbad becomes increasingly

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wealthy. 2

When the Abbasid Caliphate took reign over the Arabian Peninsula and

Northern Africa, they decided to focus on refining the culture of the time. Although
this time period is known as the Islamic Golden Age, not much is said about the

leaders of this time. The stories in 1001 Arabian Nights and Book of Songs have roles
that bear the likeness to Harun, a caliph who was not recognized by the strides he
took in politics or as a leader, but current day Muslims look back at his reign as a
time of magnificence and luxury. 3 The story of Sinbad, like many other stories in

1001 Arabian Nights, is focused around danger and extravagance. This idea of

wealth that occurred during caliph Haruns reign reflects the ideals seen in the story
of Sinbad.

Although Harun did not do much for his caliphate, the early period of his

reign was a time of peace. 4 Haruns close family friends, the Barmakids, were the
people who originally brought a need for culture to the land, and they did this

through having poets attend courts and write songs about them. This family also
held meetings in the capital to discuss, what Hugh describes as, political and

religious ideas with surprising openness and freedom and it was they who began

the translation of Greek learning into Arabic. 5 The Abbasid Caliphs had a certain

ideology and jurisprudence that through these translations and the trading helped
A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, in The Human Record: Sources of Global
History, 6th ed, Alfred Andrea & James Overfield, eds. (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin,
2009) 1: 278-281
3 Hugh, 32.
4 Ibid, 35.
5 Hugh, 35.
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to make this the Islamic Golden Age. 6 This view of culture was what sets this period
in history apart, and how we now recognize it as the Islamic Golden Age.

The spreading of culture was very important in this time. The trade routes

through the Indian Ocean and the subsidiary channels, seas, and rivers that connect
through it were a major means for trade of goods and trade of ideas. 7 These trade
routes connected many different cultures from China to India, all the way to

Mediterranean countries where, as Robert Marks, the author of The Origins of the
Modern World, states: these merchants served as conduits for cultural and

technological exchanges well, with ideas, books, and ways of doing things that

carried in the minds of the merchants while their camels or ships carried their

goods. 8 Greek Culture leaked into this area currently known as Baghdad and other
major cities along the trading routes. The leaders of the time saw this culture as

valuable, which is a key reason why the Barmakids in the Abbasid Caliphate started
translating it into Arabic. These leaders wanted the knowledge to be able to be

shared with the residents of their vast area of empire and by translating works of
Greek culture into Arabic they were able to share it more extensively.

Another positive aspect to the translations of Greek works into Arabic took

place with trade. Having these works that were considered important knowledge for
all being translated into various language made it easier for the ideas to cross into

Ya'Ghoubi, Mohammad Taher, and Asghar Montazerolghaem. "The Shi'a of


Baghada at the time of the 'Abbasid Caliphs and the Seljuq Sultanate' (447 575 AH)."
Journal of Shi'a Islamic Studies (Islamic College) VI, no. 1 (2013): 53-74.
7 Marks, Robert B, The Material and Trading Worlds, circa 1400: The World and Its
Trading System Circa 1400, in The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and
Ecological Narrative from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-first Century, 2nd ed, (New
York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007) 35.
8 Marks, 36.
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different cultures. A huge influence in the way on life and religion of this time had to
do with Muhammad. As Felipe Fernndez-Armesto states, Muhammad created a
blueprint for society, complete with a demanding but unusually practical moral

code, a set of precepts of personal discipline, and the outline of a code of civil law. 9
This type of trading was also very popular, because of the wealth merchants could
make with raw materials, spices and rare metals.

Alfred Andrea and James Overfield discuss how people of these cities that

were located along the trade routes that decided to start trading could become

rapidly wealthy and rise to positions of eminence within their cities. In terms of

Sinbad, Baghdad and Barsa could be connected to some of the richest markets for
trade at the time through the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. 10 The fact that
these merchants were able to make so much money trading is what made it a

desirable position, even with the dangers present. This story is a reflection of the
time period where people would become trading merchants to try and generate

wealth and power in society, but they had many dangers to face in the oceans such
as competitive fleets, disease, and unpredictable weather. Sinbads story reflects
some of these dangers they faced and some realistic dangers as well, but it also

Fernndez-Armesto, Felipe, Chasing the Monsoon: Seaboard Civilizations of


Maritime Asia, Caravans of the Monsoon: The Arabs and their Seas, in Civilizations:
Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature, 1st ed, (New York, Simon &
Schuster, 2001) 330.
10 Andrea, Alfred & James Overfield, Sinbads First Voyage, in The Human Record:
Sources of Global History, 6th ed, Alfred Andrea & James Overfield, eds. (Boston:
Houghton-Mifflin, 2009) 1: 277.
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reflected the the view of the world from the perspective of Iraq. 11 Thus, these

fantastical tales of wealth and danger were born into 1001 Arabian Nights.

Although the story of Sinbad may seem unrealistic, it still holds some

historical merit as it draws from the values of the culture during this time period.

The merchants of the Abbasid Caliphate could attain riches like Sinbad through the
act of trading as wealth and extravagance were highly sought after. The Greek to

Arabic translations were fully utilized through the trading network to expand the
Abbasid culture and Sinbads story emphasizes these ideals. It is clear that this
profuse culture of the time influenced the writing of 1001 Arabian Nights, and
especially Sinbads Voyage.

11

Ibid, 278.

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