Showcase: Byzantines vs. Abbasids

ᔥ Joy of Shards

Many of my students do MUN; I myself attended the IASAS MUN Conference in 2000 as the Russian delegate. This simulation is inspired by such negotiation- and speech-based events. Students are divided into groups and essentially debate the relative merits of the respective civilizations.


I do this activity as part of my Islamic Civilization unit. Students have already studied both the Abbasid and Byzantine civilizations, so the simulation is useful as a summative review of the content and an evaluative, analytical, synthetic exercise.

The setting of the simulation is in 1000A.D. A delegation from the Abbasid Empire arrives in Constantinople to convince the Byzantine Empire to submit to its rule. They must convince four factions in Byzantium; at the end of the negotiations, each faction will vote whether or not to submit.

First, I break the students into the five factions, each with its own motivation:

  • Byzantine Emperors: desire to hold onto power at any cost
  • Orthodox Clergy: want to preserve the influence of Orthodox Christianity, and to support the holy emperor
  • Byzantine Merchants: ambitious to maximize profits from their trade routes
  • Byzantine Commoners: look out for themselves
  • Abbasid Ambassadors: convince the factions to submit to Abbasid rule

The simulation proceeds as follows:

  1. Each Byzantine faction prepares an introductory statement. It should include their motivations and their view of the pros and cons of the current state of Byzantium (this is where students bring in their content knowledge). The Abbasid Ambassadors prepare a proposal detailing why the Byzantines should submit to Abbasid rule; i.e. highlighting the achievements of Abbasid civilization. The proposal should be detailed, enumerating specific laws and regulations, and it should be tailored to address the perceived concerns of the Byzantine factions.
  2. The forum convenes. The Byzantines present their statements.
  3. The Abbasids present their proposal.
  4. The forum breaks up into a “mingle” sessions where individuals from each factions are encouraged to meet with those from other factions and compare their reactions. The Abbasid ambassadors also mingle, trying to convince individual faction members of the worthiness of their cause.
  5. The forum reconvenes into a formal Q&A session, where factions can address the Abbasid proposal. The Abbasids may modify portions of their proposal as the sessions goes along.
  6. The faction members vote individually on the Abbasid proposal.

Being persuasive and effective in this simulation requires a substantial amount of knowledge of the respective achievements of the Byzantines and Abbasids. It requires that students evaluate the relative worth of these achievements. The best participants are able to incorporate knowledge of historical cause and effect and context to judge the implications of the Abbasid proposal.

It’s also really, really fun for the kids.


I’ve run this a dozen times now, and each time it’s been a blast. The procedure is simple, especially if it’s up on the board at the beginning of the exercise, and the students fall into their roles with enthusiasm. There is one critical component separating a simulation with valuable debate and negotiation from one with superficial arguments: the quality of the Abbasid proposal. I think I need to assign the roles at the end of the prior class, let the kids work on their introductory statements/proposals for homework, and especially give guidance to the Abbasids with specific points they need to address, such as:

  • The fate of the Byzantine emperor
  • Political organization/form of government
  • New laws the Byzantines may need to follow
  • Cultural and intellectual differences (benefits) of the Abbasids

Ultimately, I find this to be a great way to do compare/contrast, and I’d like to adapt this model to other units next year.

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