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 | Study Guide

The Historical Context

The events of this historical romantic novel take place shortly before the year 803 AD (187 AH)  in Baghdad in the closing years of the reign of Harun al-Rashid, the fifth caliph of the ‘Abbasid caliphate that stretched from 750 until 1258 AD (132 to 656 AH). The period of his reign marked a notable development of culture. Harun was a generous patron of learning, poetry, and music, and his court was visited by the most eminent Muslims of the age. He is perhaps best known to the Western world as the caliph whose court is described in the Arabian Nights. In the Islamic world Harun al-Rashid’s reign represented the peak of ‘Abbasid power in a caliphate that is often seen as the golden age of Islamic civilization. And yet Jurji Zaidan in this historical novel turns his pen to a dark side of al-Rashid’s reign set against the pomp, splendor and learning of that age.

Zaidan’s adventures usually unfold against a textured backdrop of history, culture and politics, and The Caliph’s Sister is no exception. As recounted by Zaidan, Harun al-Rashid was a popular ruler who relied on the Barmakis to run the Islamic Empire. They were admirable viziers, wise administrators and filled the public treasure. It was through them that the glory of Harun-al-Rashid clanged from Morocco and Andalusia to the farthest bounds of China and Tartary.  Chief among the Barmakis was his best friend and vizier, Ja‘far al-Barmaki -- a central figure in the novel. Ja‘far at the helm, ran the state with a steady hand, but there were those among the Caliph’s inner circle who were unhappy that he had so much authority and so many possessions.

This was the situation until 803 AD (187 AH) when the Barmakis fell from power beginning with Ja‘far. Their disgrace and fall has been the object of intense speculation. Many explanations have been put forward for Harun’s ungrateful behavior towards men to whom he owed so much – the whole family had served the ‘Abbasids for three generations with competence and devotion. Harun never disclosed the reasons for their chastisement. When one of his sisters asked him for the reason he is said to have replied: “If I thought my right hand knew I would cut it off”. Al-Rashid’s secrecy fuels Zaidan’s pen: he is free to imagine the details of the circumstances that led to the fall of the Barmakis relying on several clues provided by history.

Following Harun’s death there was a period of civil war between his two sons, al-Amin and al-Ma'mun. By the end of the 9th century the ‘Abbasids were unable to exercise real religious or political authority. The territories they controlled fell apart as independent states arose in regions previously under ‘Abbasid rule.  Although always honored to the end of the ‘Abbasid caliphate as symbols of the unity of Sunni Islam, no claimant to the office has since achieved anything like the general recognition among the Muslims that prevailed until the reign of Harun al-Rashid.



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