About Jurji Zaidan

Introductory Summary

The Conquest of Andalusia | The Battle of Poitiers | The Caliph's Sister

The Caliph's Heirs | Saladin and the Assassins

About the Novel | The Historical Context | The Translator | Afterword | Study Guide

The Historical Context

This historical novel is one of four novels by Jurji Zaidan whose story is set amid what the author imagined to be the military and political intrigues and conflicts between Persians and Arabs at the zenith of ‘Abbasid imperial power during the eighth and ninth centuries. The Caliph al-Mansur had relied on the critical support of Abu Muslim from Khurasan, to found the ‘Abbasid dynasty in 745 AD but had executed Abu Muslim after his accession. But not long thereafter the Barmaki family was to assume a position of unparalleled influence as Yahia the Barmaki was instrumental in helping Harun al-Rashid become caliph. His son, Ja‘far, was to become the caliph’s vizier. But Harun executed Ja‘far in 803 AD and within a day of Ja‘far’s death, he ordered the imprisonment of his father, brother and all his children and removed all other Barmakis from any authority or influence in the affairs of state.

The present novel opens very shortly before Harun al-Rashid’s death in 809 AD following the recounting of the events leading to Ja‘far’s execution and the fall of the Barmakis in the previous novel, The Caliph’s Sister -- Harun al-Rashid and the Fall of the Persians. The historical context is the war of succession between al-Rashid’s two sons – al-Amin and al-Ma’mun. Zubayda, Harun’s favorite Hashemite wife was the mother of al-Amin. Al-Ma’mun, the son of a Persian slave girl and al-Amin’s rival, had been raised by Ja‘far. Harun admired al-Ma’mun’s gifts and at the prodding of his Persian advisors and to Zubayda’s dismay decreed that his son al-Amin would succeed him first but that his heir apparent would be al-Ma’mun. Both sons swore to this agreement which was hung from the ceiling of the Ka’aba. After Ja‘far’s execution and the Barmaki’s demise, the Persians lay low, ever so vigilant to exploit any opportunity that might arise for them to reassert themselves and recapture their authority and return to run the affairs of state and more. Al-Fadl Ibn Sahl, a very ambitious Persian who was to become al-Ma’mun’s vizier, had been assigned by Ja‘far to raise al-Ma’mun. But after al-Rashid’s death, Al-Amin made his own sons his heirs and removed al-Ma’mun from the succession reneging on what he had sworn to his father. The Persians saw in this turn of events an opportunity to support al-Ma’mun and work towards removing al-Amin.

By the end of the 9th century the ‘Abbasids were unable to exercise any real religious or political authority. The territories they controlled fell apart, as independent states arose in regions previously under their rule, although they were always honored to the end of the ‘Abbasid caliphate as symbols of the unity of Sunni Islam. The war between al-Amin and al-Ma’mun was a turning point in this respect and led inexorably to the decline of ‘Abbasid control and the disintegration of the empire. After al-Ma’mun, temporal authority became fragmented and devolved to various regions including Khurasan, Syria, Egypt, the Maghreb, etc. who were all able to exercise  directly their own authority in independent states while paying lip service to the sovereignty of the Caliph.



Opera on the Life of Jurji Zaidan
(in Arabic) attended by the
President of Egypt

Prelude with Speeches of Literary Figures


Jurji Zaidan and his Family

Centennial Celebrations
of Dar-al-Hilal