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Abd al Malik ibn Marwan

Yitzchak Schwartz, Intern, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters

Posted: Thursday, June 21, 2012

«Born in Mecca and raised in Medina, the two most holy sites of Islam, the fifth caliph, Abd Al Malik Ibn Marwan, spearheaded the creation of many of the institutions that centralized the Islamic empire around his capital in Damascus and asserted its independence from Byzantine traditions.»

At the time of his ascent to the throne, the caliphate had lost several important wars to the Byzantines, and local rulers had more autonomy. Abd al Malik went to war with several local rulers, reasserting Umayyad control, and established institutions such as a postal service and a new, unified currency based in Damascus. He also oversaw the construction of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which celebrated the location of the ascent of Prophet Muhammad and proclaimed Islamic dominance over Jerusalem, the holy city of Judaism and Christianity. The Dome of the Rock was also meant to compete with the great Byzantine holy sites in the region.

Dome of the Rock

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, completed 691/692. © Scala / Art Resource

Since it allowed trade in the Islamic world to function independently of the Byzantine empire, currency reform proved to be one of the most important of Abd Al Malik's innovations, and ultimately was a major cause of war with the Byzantine emperor Justinian II. Soon, the new Islamic coinage developed its own iconography, some bearing the likeness of the caliph.

coin     coin

Dinar of Arab Type (obverse and reverse), 694/695. Probably made in Damascus. Gold; 13/16 in. (2 cm); wt: 4.5 g. The American Numismatic Society, New York (1970.63.1)

While the transition from Byzantine to Islamic rule in the Near East has often been imagined to have been very abrupt, this exhibition reveals that the process was actually gradual, and that there were many continuities between Byzantine and Islamic rule. Abd Al Malik's reign was a critical step in the Islamicization of the Southern Mediterranean, even as his developments built on Byzantine precedents and innovations.

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About the Author

Yitzchak Schwartz is a student at the Bard Graduate Center for Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, as well as Yeshiva University's Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, where he researches Jewish material culture and cultural history. He is also a Research Associate at the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies, where, among other projects, he is working on the exhibition The Samaritans: A Biblical People, which will open at the Museum of Biblical Art in Fall 2014.

About this Blog

This blog accompanied the special exhibition Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, on view March 14–July 8, 2012.