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Episode 52 - Harem wall painting fragments

Harem wall painting fragments (made ninth century AD), from Samarra, Iraq

This week we are entering the hidden places of powerful men and women around the world, in the years about 800 AD. For the last programme we were in Mexico, with a Mayan queen in a private ritual of self-inflicted pain; today we're in the Middle East, and we catch a glimpse of the lives of the harem - the fantasy, and the reality of pleasure. We're in the world of the Arabian Nights - the 1001 tales supposedly told by the beautiful Scheherazade to stop the king from killing her:

"The girls sat around me, and when night came, five of them rose and set up a banquet with plenty of nuts and fragrant herbs. Then they brought the wine vessels and we sat to drink."

"With the girls sitting all around me, some singing, some playing the flute, the psalter, the lute, and all other musical instruments, while the bowls and cups went round. I was so happy that I forgot every sorrow in the world, saying to myself, 'This is the life; alas, that it is fleeting'. Then they said to me, 'O our lord, choose from among us whomever you wish to spend this night with you'."

So Scheherazade entertains the king, with tantalising tales which are always to be continued. The girls of this tale have their real counterparts in some fragmentary portraits held here at the British Museum, and these pieces of painted plaster take us back into the heart of the Islamic Empire, 1,200 years ago.

Today, we mostly know the Arabian Nights through the distorted filter of Hollywood and pantomime. They summon up a kaleidoscope of characters. Sinbad, Aladdin and the Thief of Baghdad, caliphs and sorcerers, viziers and merchants, and lots of girls - many of them slaves, but still talented, and outspoken. We see all of them within the vast bustling landscapes of the great Muslim cities of the age: Baghdad at its height, of course, but also Cairo and - most important for this programme - Samarra, the city which straddles the River Tigris north of Baghdad in modern Iraq.

We treat the Arabian Nights as exotic fiction, but in fact they tell us a lot about real life in the court of the Abbasid caliphs, the supreme rulers of the vast Islamic Empire that in the eighth to tenth centuries stretched from Central Asia to Spain. The Abbasid name doesn't often make it into Hollywood, but we can learn something about it through the tales. The historian Robert Irwin has written a companion to the Arabian Nights, and has traced its various historical connections:

"Some of these stories do reflect the realities of Baghdad in the eighth and ninth centuries. The Abbasid caliphs employed a group of people known as 'nudema' - these were professional cup companions, their job was to sit with the caliph as he ate and drank, and entertain him with edifying information, jokes, discussions of food, and stories. So, some of the stories in the Arabian Nights are part of the repertoire of these cup companions.

"It's a closed society; few people ventured within its walls, and it's been said that when a pious Muslim was summoned to see the caliph, he took with him his shroud. Ordinary people rather feared what went on within the walls of the caliph's palaces, and I say 'palaces' advisedly - the Abbasid caliphs seem to have had rather a 'Kleenex' attitude towards their palaces, once they had used one up they went and built another, and then abandoned it. So you get a succession of palaces, one after another, in Baghdad, which are built, are magnificent, and then are dropped in favour of a new site, and then of course, they moved to Samarra where they do the same thing."

Most of the Abbasid palaces, both in Baghdad and in the new capital Samarra, are now in ruins. But some elements survive.

In front of me, I've got a few fragments of painted plaster - they come from the harem quarters of an Abbasid caliph. The harem is, of course, where the caliphs' women were kept, and for me these fragments have more magic than any movie could have. They're haunting glances across the centuries, and they could themselves inspire 1001 stories.

The little portraits that I've got here are all of women, although some believe that some of these show boys as well, and they're fragments of larger wall paintings. They link us directly to medieval Iraq. In Baghdad itself hardly anything architectural survives from this great age of glory around 800 AD, because the city was later destroyed by Genghis Khan. But luckily we can still get quite a good idea of what the Abbasid court looked like, because for almost 60 years, its capital was moved 70 miles (110 km) north to a brand new city called Samarra. And luckily, a lot of ancient Samarra survives, that lets us get much closer to this empire that dominated so much of the globe, 1,200 years ago.

You might think at first that these paintings are not very much to look at - they're really just scraps of paintings, and the largest is no bigger than a CD disc. They are drawn fairly simply, with black outlines on a yellow ochre background, with just a few sketchy lines to catch the features. But there are flecks of gold in the painting, which give us a hint of their original lavishness.

Like random pieces from a jigsaw puzzle, it's difficult to guess what the bigger picture that they once came from might have been, and, indeed, they're not all portraits - some of the fragments show animals, some show bits of clothing and bodies. But the faces that are caught here have, I think, a definite sense of personality - there's a clear air of melancholy in the eyes, as they look out at us from a lost world.

These small bits of plaster were excavated by archaeologists from the ruins of the Dar al-Khilafah palace - the main residence of the caliph in Samarra and the ceremonial heart of the new purpose-built capital city. And pleasure was built into the very name of the city, which was interpreted at the court as a shortened form of 'Surra Man Ra'a' - 'He who sees it is delighted'.

But beneath the frolicking, there were ominous undercurrents. The decision in 836 to move the court from Baghdad to Samarra was taken in order to defuse a tricky situation. There were dangerous tensions between the caliph's armed guards and the inhabitants of Baghdad - tensions that had already ignited a string of riots. And Samarra was intended to provide both a haven for the court and a safe base for the caliph's army.

The new city of Samarra was vast, with gigantic palaces by the standards of any age, built at enormous cost. Over six thousand different buildings have been identified - and a contemporary description gives some impression of the spectacular nature of one of the palaces of the caliph al-Mutawakkil, perhaps the greatest builder of all the Abbasids:

"He made in it great pictures of gold and silver, and a great basin, whose surfacing outside and inside was plates of silver, and he put on it a tree of gold in which birds twittered and whistled... There was made for him a great throne of gold, on which were two depictions of great lions, and the steps to it had depictions of lions and eagles and other things. The walls of the palace were covered inside and outside with mosaics and gilded marble."

But this was building mania with a purpose. This city of palaces and barracks was intended to dazzle visitors, to be the unforgettable centre of the huge Islamic Empire. And, hidden away in a warren of small rooms in the caliph's palace, were the harem quarters with the wall paintings showing scenes of enjoyment and entertainment. It's here that our portrait fragments were found.

They show us the faces of the caliph's slaves and servants, the women and the boys of his intimate world and of his pleasures. The women housed in these rooms were slaves, but slaves that enjoyed considerable privileges. Amira Bennison, who teaches Islamic studies at the University of Cambridge, comments on the portraits that have survived:

"They hint at the entertainment the caliphs enjoyed, which would have ranged from having salon sessions with intellectuals and religious scholars, to lighter events where characters such as those depicted in the wall paintings, dancing or singing girls, would have performed before the rulers. One thing that is important to note is that these kind of women were very, very highly trained - in a sense a little bit similar to geishas. To become part of the caliph's household - perhaps household is a better word than harem - was actually something women could aspire to, and if you were of humble origins but you were good at singing or dancing, and you got properly trained, this was very much a career move."

Here, there could be self-indulgence and boisterousness. Caliph al-Mutawakkil's sense of humour doesn't seem to have been especially sophisticated, and he had a court poet, Abu al-'lbar, repeatedly catapulted into one of his ornamental ponds. Less happily, a tale in the Arabian Nights records al-Mutawakkil's assassination following a night of music performed by his singing girls. After the drunken caliph had quarrelled violently with his son, so the story tells us, his Turkish soldiers killed him, and his courtiers and girls scattered in horror.

And this story from the Arabian Nights is true. Al-Mutawakkil was murdered by his Turkish commanders in 861, and his death was the beginning of the end for Samarra as a capital. Within a decade, the army had left the city, and Baghdad resumed its status as capital, leaving the palace at Samarra as a decaying ghost. The court lions were put down, and the slave girls and singers of our portraits were dispersed. The last coin to be struck in Samarra is dated 892.

Samarra was built at the end of the heroic days of the Abbasids but, in a sense, it is a monument to their political failure. The tensions that led to the assassination of al-Mutawakkil ultimately led to the fragmentation of the empire. A poet, exiled in the now decaying Samarra, mused elegiacally on its decline:

"My acquaintance with it, when it was peopled and joyous,
was heedless of the disasters of Time and its calamities.
There lions of a realm strutted
Around a crowned Imam;
Then his Turks turned treacherous - and they were transformed
Into owls, crying of loss and destruction."

Samarra was the capital of a world empire for less than 50 years, but it is still a significant place of pilgrimage in the world of Shi'a Islam, for it's the burial place of two of the great imams. But modern Samarra also has a tragic history. In 2006 the great dome of the famous al-Askari mosque was destroyed by bombs. A year later, the archaeological ruins of the ancient city, which include the Great Mosque with its famous spiral minaret, were recognised and protected as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The anonymous faces of the girls and boys of Samarra were never meant to be viewed by anyone other than the familiars of a caliph. They have survived as a rare record of the people of the Abbasid age, and they now remain to look at us, as we look at them. Ironically, and rather wonderfully, instead of the images of the grand caliphs who built Samarra, we see their slaves and their servants - restored from Hollywood cartoon caricature to moving historical reality.

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