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Lewis Lapham: Caliph’s Wife Made VIPs Kiss Monkey’s Hand

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Sept. 29 (Bloomberg) -- When he ascended the throne in 786 A.D., Caliph Harun al-Rashid oversaw an Islamic empire stretching from the Atlantic to India, and his court in Baghdad was suitably magnificent.

(To listen to the podcast, click here.)

Harun married six times and fathered 25 children with his wives and concubines, but he never put aside Zubaidah, his first consort.

She built herself a palace of ivory and gold, had a large bodyguard of Koran-reciting slave girls and often wore so many jewels she needed aides to hold her up.

Zubaidah had a favorite pet monkey: It was dressed in a cavalry uniform and had 30 servants to attend to every need. Anyone wishing to speak with the Caliph’s wife -- generals included -- had to kiss the monkey’s hand.

I spoke with Benson Bobrick, author of “The Caliph’s Splendor: Islam and the West in the Golden Age of Baghdad,” on the following topics:

1. Harun al-Rashid

2. Islamic Armies

3. Baghdad Shines

4. Wives & Concubines

5. Knowledge Saved

To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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