This Week in Middle East History – July 15th – 21st

Mohammad Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan who was deposed in July 1972 after forty years of peacefully ruling Afghanistan

Siege of Jerusalem – July 15th, 1099 – The Crusaders from Western Europe ended a month-long siege of Jerusalem by storming the city walls and taking control of the entire city.  Once the Crusaders entered the city they proceeded to forget their holy intentions and massacre most of the inhabitants of the city, whether Muslim, Christian or Jew.  By taking Jerusalem the Crusaders fulfilled their original objective and began a series of European kingdoms in the Levant that would last for almost two centuries.

– Beginning of the Islamic Calendar – July 16th, 622 – The Islamic calendar began its reckoning from the day that Muhammad left Mecca on his way to the city of Yathrib (to be renamed Medina).  This lunar calendar is used by all Muslims around the world and compromises the second most used calendar system to the European Gregorian calendar.

Abdul Rahman Arif is deposed – July 17th, 1968 – Arif, the third president of Iraq (from 1966 to 1968) was overthrown in a bloodless coup orchestrated by members of the Baath party that would later become infamous as the original party of future dictator Saddam Hussein.

Mohammed Zahir Shah is deposed – July 17th, 1973 – Zahir Shah was the last king of Afghanistan who ruled for over four decades until he was overthrown by an ex-Prime Minister while in Italy undergoing eye surgery.  Following his fall from power Afghanistan became a republic for the first time in its history.

– Birth of Ismail I – July 17th, 1487 – Ismail I was the first leader of the Safavid dynasty that would come to rule over much of Iran and neighboring countries until its fall in the mid 18th-century.  The Safavids brought about a rebirth in Iranian culture and power while also contesting the Ottoman Empire as the most powerful Muslim empire in the world.

Battle of Mirbat – July 19th, 1972 – A battle occurring during the Dhofar Rebellion in Oman that pitted the democratic, British supported, Omani government against the communist Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman that was supported the communist government of South Yemen.  Mirbat signified a significant victory on the Omani government’s long road to eventual total victory against the rebels within its territory.

Siege of Jerusalem – July 70 AD – The Roman forces, led by future emperor Titus, succeeded in capturing the city from the Jewish rebels who had revolted against Roman control three years earlier.  When the Romans entered the city they massacred many of the inhabitants, with estimates ranging up to almost one million killed.  They also destroyed the Temple of Solomon, which dealt a psychological blow to the Jewish people that still resonates to this day.



Rumi (as he is known in the west), the most celebrated Persian poet of the Middle Ages and also said to be the “most popular poet in America” in 2007

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī (Rumi) – 1207 – 1273

The poet known commonly in the Western world as Rumi (for the region he lived in) was born in present-day Iran which was then ruled by the Khwarazmian dynasty.   When the Mongols invaded he moved with his father east and eventually settled in the Sultanate of Rum in present-day Turkey.  It was in central Turkey that he would compose the majority of his poems that would make him universally read in centuries to come.

Rumi became the ascetic, mystical poet that he is most known for upon meeting a wandering Sufi mystic in his mid-twenties.  After this meeting he became reclusive and introspective and began to search for God in the tradition of Sufis before him.

The dervish he met was Shams-e Tabrizi, a man who had been traveling throughout the Middle East looking for someone who could ‘endure his company.’  Eventually Shams became Rumi’s mentor and taught him the ways of the Sufi mystics, and it was upon Shams’ requests that Rumi began to pursue writing as a career and after Shams’ death Rumi became a reclusive writer.

He wrote ghazals, a form of Persian poetry consisting of couplets and refrains that share the same meter.  But Rumi was the writer who made this form of poetry universally renowned through his extensive volumes of poetry.  His poetry was written in New Persian, and he was instrumental in making this the popular language in the Iranian plateau until the present day.  Due to Rumi and others writings Persian became the intellectual and artistic language of the Middle Ages and he brought about a rebirth in Persian culture.

Rumi’s poems covered a variety of themes, among them love, religion, introspection and were filled with rich symbolism and metaphorical language typical of Sufi poetry.  His works propounded a philosophy of universal truth in which he believed that all religions were inching towards the same truth and he continuously advocated universal tolerance and charity.  Throughout his works he advocated the Islamic doctrine of tawhid, reiterating the universal nature of God in all aspects of life.

His best loved work is the Masnavi, a massive volume of Sufi poetry that is considered by many Sufis to be the equivalent of the Persian language Qur’an.  The Masnavi is a collection of spiritual advice to guide Sufis on their quest to become fully in love and close with God.

Rumi continues to be the most famous poet in Iranian history and is still revered as the greatest literary figure in that nation’s history.  Iranians are deeply enamored with Rumi’s poetic works and his Persian poetry keeps the Persian language alive and beloved in Iran.

This Week in Middle East History

Events –

– Battle of Aqaba – July 6th, 1917 – Arabs rebelling against the Ottoman Empire, led by T.E. Lawrence and Auda Ibn Tayi, fought the first battle of the Arab Revolt.  They were victorious in present-day Jordan, the first of many successes for this motley army led by an Englishmen, but mainly composed of Arab tribesman.

Tel-Aviv Bus 405 attack – July 6th, 1989 – A Palestinian militant attacked a passenger bus traveling between Tel Aviv and Israel as it was driving on the edge of a cliff resulting in fourteen deaths.  This attack is widely regarded as the first use of ‘suicide’ attacks by Palestinians in their revolt against Israeli control.

– Israeli Knesset passes the Law of Return – July 5th, 1950 – The Law of Return was the fulfillment of Israel’s Zionist pledges made before it gained independence in 1948.  The Law stated that all people ‘born Jewish’ have the right to immigrate to Israel and will be helped by the Israeli government to do so.  When they reach Israel they will immediately gain citizenship and receive government stipends if they need them.  Over the years this law has been used to support the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews all over the world to Israel.

Ousting of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto from office – July 5th, 1977 – Bhutto was the effective ruler of Pakistan from 1971 until his ousting by military coup in 1977. He negotiated two successful treaties with India that returned thousands of Pakistani POW’s and gave Pakistan a small piece of disputed Indian territory.  However his use of the Pakistani army to quell rebellions led to dissension and he was overthrown and then executed in 1979 by his political opponents.

Sharia law instituted in Iran – 1979 – Under the new government of the Ayatollah Iran made Islamic law (Sharia law) the law of the land, effectively creating a theocracy that still stands in Iran.

Battle of Hattin – July 4th, 1187 – Forces of Saladin, the ruler of Egypt, and the Crusader States of present-day Israel and Lebanon fought one of the most historically important medieval battles in the Middle East.  Saladin was decisively victorious which meant an end to the Crusader States in the Levant and therefore the end of European intervention in the area until World War I.

Operation Entebbe – July 4th, 1976 – A daring raid conducted by the Israeli Defense Forces to recover a plane hi-jacked a week earlier by Palestinian militants of the PLO containing 248 passengers.  The IDF soldiers traveled secretly from Israel all the way to Uganda where the plane was given asylum by Idi Amin.  The raid was a complete success and 102 of the 106 remaining hostages were rescued in one of the most spectacular military operations of the twentieth century.

Births –

Gazi Yasargil – A Turkish born scientist who became one of the most innovative neurosurgeons of the twentieth century while pioneering techniques for treating epilepsy and other ailments of the brain.  He invented the field of microneurosurgery through his use of tools that he made himself.

Nursultan Nazarbayev – A native Kazakh who has served as Kazakhstan’s only president since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.  His reign has been marked by allegations of extreme corruption and rigged elections. However, he has also been instrumental in removing Soviet era nuclear weapons from Kazakhstan and allowing women to be involved in politics.

Georgios Grivas – The leader of the EOKA guerillas who strove to obtain independence for Cyprus from the British Empire after World War II.  Grivas became one of the most sought after guerilla fighters in the world and published many influential treatises on how to beat numerically superior armies with guerilla tactics during his years of fighting in Greece and Cyprus.

Weekly Middle East Historical Figure – Harun Al-Rashid

Harun Al-Rashid delivering a decree surrounded by opulence and decadence, as his reign came to be viewed by Europeans

Harun Al-Rashid (763-809) – Ruler of the Abbasid Caliphate (786-809)

Perhaps the most famous Muslim ruler of his era, Harun Al-Rashid was instrumental in creating the modern image of the Middle East and his reign represented a golden age of Muslim culture.  His court was the model that was used for the setting of many of the stories in One Thousand and One Nights that later became famous in the Western world.

Under his rule the Abbasid Caliphate became the richest, most powerful and culturally influential political entity in the world.  His court was filled with philosophers and scientists and he was a patron of the arts and architecture.  This time of Muslim history, filled with richness and splendor, became the way that many Europeans came to view the Muslim world.  This is characterized by the settings used in the Arabian Nights tales or myths such as the magic carpets, making Harun Al-Rashid’s cultural legacy as important as the political achievements of his lifetime.

One of the more famous anecdotes concerning Harun Al-Rashid was the clock that he sent to Charlemagne, then emperor of the Franks.  The Frankish emperor had never seen such technology and thought that the clock was run by magic, displaying the technological gap that then existed between the Muslim world and most of Europe.

In the political sphere HarunAl-Rashid led successful military expeditions against the Byzantine Empire and was instrumental in reinvigorating the previously declining and fragmenting Abbasid Caliphate.  But, upon his death, he divided his empire between his sons, which led to a lengthy civil war that began the irreversible decline of the empire that stretched from modern day Iran to Spain.

Yet, the reign of Harun Al-Rashid represented the high point of Muslim cultural and political influence in the world at large.  Not until the Ottoman Empire would a Muslim ruler exert so much control over the world.

This week in Middle Eastern History – May 29th – June 4th

Rashid Karami, longtime Prime Minister of Lebanon

Events –

Cyprus Convention (1878) – The United Kingdom and the Ottoman Empire signed a secret treaty that allowed for the United Kingdom to take de facto control over the island while the Ottomans would retain legal control.  This ended over three hundred years of Ottoman occupation and ushered in the modern age of Cyprus

Ali Khamenei is elected Ayatollah of Iran (1981) – He served as the Supreme Leader of Iran in the religious (and often political) sectors and was named the 26th most influential man in the world in 2010.  He has been instrumental in the Islamization of Iran and continues to support an anti-western stance for Iran’s government.   During the 2009 Presidential elections he came under intense criticism and had a falling out with President Ahmadinejad over reforms.

Farhud (1942) – A violent pogrom against the Jewish population in Baghdad erupted in the interim between the fall of Iraq’s pro-Nazi regime and the arrival of British troops.  The violence was the beginning of the end for Iraq’s Jewish population that had existed for over three thousand years and has been called the ‘forgotten event of the Holocaust.’

– Attempted assassination of Shlomo Argov (1982)- Shlomo, Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom was paralyzed in an attempted assassination while in London.  This attack, and the reaction to it, was a leading cause of the civil war that erupted in Lebanon soon after.

Births – Hassan Fathy (1900) – Pioneering Egyptian architect who brought back the traditional use of adobe bricks to replace the Western models of architecture that had come to predominate Egypt

Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa (1933) – the former emir of Bahrain who oversaw the development of Bahrain into one of the wealthiest countries in the world

Khawar Rizvi (1938) –  One of the most prominent Urdu poets of the 20th century who campaigned tirelessly for a progressive agenda based on freedom and liberalism.

Deaths – Nazim Hikmet (1963) – famous Turkish poet renowned for his anti-authoritarian stances that often led him to be thrown in jail

Rashid Karami (1987) – Prime Minister of Lebanon for over thirty years, most prominently during the Lebanon Civil War of the 1980’s.  He was instrumental in giving power to the recent Muslim majority in deference to the Christian population of the country.

Weekly Middle East Historical Figure – Ibn Khaldun

A statue of Ibn Khaldun in his native Tunis, where he is revered as a national hero

May 27th, 1332 AD (732 by Islamic reckoning) marked the birth of one of the Middle East’s greatest minds, Ibn Khaldun of present-day Spain and North Africa.

Ibn Khaldun left behind an indelible mark on the Islamic world through his monumental work Kitābu l-ʻibārwhich attempted to create a ‘universal history’ of mankind.  The encylopedic work was divided into seven books and through them Ibn Khaldun wrote down the history of all peoples (who he knew of) while also devoting extensive areas to the history of the Berber peoples of Northern Africa.  The Berber sections are particularly valuable for historians as these sedentary people rarely left behind writings of their own and Khaldun’s description of them is one of the few available to historians.

The most famous part of this work though, is Khaldun’s theory about the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations throughout history.  Khaldun theorized that all civilizations will enter into a period of decay after their golden age and be conquered by less civilized, or ‘barbaric,’ people.

These barbarians will eventually lose their nomadic ways and become weak by accepting the sedentary lifestyles of cities and empires.  Then they too will succumb to another group of barbarians, and the cycle will continue.  This idea, along with others, were some of the first sociological theories in history and laid the groundwork for later historical work in that vein.

Ibn Khaldun’s legacy is so well-known worldwide that British historian Arnold Toynbee went so far as to say that Khaldun’s universal history “is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.”