Harun Al-Rashid: Caliph of Bagdad - Gabriel Audisio

When a Barmecide Feast Spelled Plenty

A head far steadier than Harun's might well have been turned by such worship had he been of our race. His character, as defined in history, not in legend, appears to have been molded to expect adulation as a commonplace. The nature of his authority, absolute and co-extensive with his dominions, he also took for granted, and exercised it more and more exactingly through the twenty-three years of his reign.

It is altogether probable that, left to his own devices, he would not have been inclined to seek such heavy responsibilities and, without the urging of his mother and tutor, he would have remained an unpretentious prince of the blood. In choosing the docile Harun for their designs, in grooming him for the role of Caliph, they had thought to insure their own control, and saw in him no obstacle to their plans.

This reasoning undoubtedly had a sound basis. Harun was young. He had always been considerably under his mother's control and her position was stronger than ever since Hadi's death. And Harun's attitude toward Yahia is shown by the respectful "My Father" which he always used in addressing his tutor.

If at the outset this young sovereign inclined more toward the spectacular phases of life to which his supreme powers were an Open Sesame than in the direction of political and governmental problems, was this not natural? There were efficient ministers and officials to carry on the affairs of state, so why should he be irked with them? Was it not a caliph's duty to make his personality felt throughout the empire and to attract to his court men of valor and learning? Since time immemorial ambitious kings had started out in the same way—Solomon, for example. To increase the prosperity of a nation, the glory of an epoch, until one should become its immortal symbol, was a splendid ideal which appealed vastly to the young Harun.

No one, apparently, expected anything else of him. Islam was at the height of its power. Everyone felt certain that the era of great conquests was over. The dominion of the Mussulmans must be maintained rather than extended. The western regions were already emancipating themselves. The last survivor of the Ommayyads had founded a caliphate at Cordova, and another Alid named Idris was creating a kingdom at Fez. The rest of Africa was breaking its ties. Keeping guard was the business of viziers. Victorious Islam needed now only a dependable government. A caliph could not be expected to concern himself with matters of routine such as an order regulating navigation on the Tigris, a new standard of weights and measures, methods of drainage to counteract excessive rainfalls, a searching investigation of the budget. Harun had no desire to be a copy-book king.

The Magnificent, he had been hailed. As such he wanted to dazzle the eyes of the world and the best way of accomplishing this was to use to the full his extraordinary opportunities. All this earth's pleasures were his for the beckoning: lovely women, music, poetry, games, sports, court fetes sensuous with dance and song and wine—festive occasions which often developed into orgies. A caliph is human after all. The people, however, knew nothing of this, and believed firmly in the sanctity of Harun the Orthodox, who knew so well how to preserve an exemplary attitude of faith and piety—in public.

As to the responsibilities attendant upon great power, they were most congenial to the capable Yahia. He was a good and wise administrator, a trained diplomat and finished politician with all the essentials of a great prime minister. On the first day of Harun's reign, the Caliph, partly from affection and appreciation, but chiefly through necessity, had made the Barmecide his vizier and authorized him to accept in his name the vows of fealty to the throne.

"My dear Father," he said, "with the aid of Heaven and your own great influence and wise advice, you have guided me to this throne. In turn I grant you absolute power." He sealed the ceremony with a ring and gave Yahia the title of Imam with civil and judicial authority and precedence over the emirs of Persia and Turkestan. Yahia became the most important person in the kingdom. Nothing that concerned the government, from the safekeeping of the royal seals to the control of the harem, from finances to war, from education to religion, escaped his attention.

The vizier undoubtedly shared this authority with the royal mother at first and took no important steps without consulting her. That is to say, in matters which concerned her, such as the distribution of fiefs, honors to Khaizuran's proteges, the appointment of that same chief of police whom Hadi had called the son of a strumpet. These privileges were intensely gratifying to her. She was not to enjoy them for very long, however. Three years later, with much pomp and pious ceremony, her son escorted her to her last resting place. Yahia became then the undisputed ruler. He planned to share his powers with his two older sons, Fadl, the foster brother of the Caliph, and the handsome Jafar, who had become Harun's inseparable companion and closest friend.

These three Barmecides together with Khaizuran and Harun's wife, Zubaida, were the principal figures in his reign. For seventeen eventful years they ruled for him and he did nothing without consulting them. In the Orient, the name of Barmecide is linked forever with that of Harun al-Rashid and his reign, and to this day the Mussulmans commemorate their memories together. History, literature and Oriental traditions all shine with their glorious deeds, adventures and accomplishments.

It is surprising that the Occident knows so little concerning the family of which Yahia was the piece de resistance. England and America, true, use the expression "Barmecide feast"; but even they, in common with most readers west of Suez, remain Shakabaks though Asiatic lore is rich in morsels relating to the Barmecides.

In their own times, however, a certain haze of mystery obscured their early history. They were said to have descended from priests who had perpetuated the fire-worship of Zoroaster. In reality their Persian ancestors had been pontiffs of a Buddhist temple at Balkh, and had held high rank among the natives of Transoxiana long before the Mussulman conquest. Submitting to its yoke and converted to Islamism, through expediency, finally they reached the court of the caliphs at Damascus. This court was so cosmopolitan that by their wealth and accomplishments they were able to gain the confidence of the last Ommayyads. Far from sharing in the downfall of the latter, they grew still more powerful under the early Abbassids. During the reign of the Shedder of Blood, Khalid, Yahia's father, became grand vizier and retained this post under Mansur. It was through him that Mandi had been selected as heir to the throne. Khalid died in 782, Governor of Mosul, with the satisfaction of having seen his sons, grandsons, and many other relatives holding official positions.

Yahia in his turn did not hesitate, when the powers of the caliphate were entrusted to him, to share them with his own flesh and blood. His eldest son, Fadl, was a gifted man, born to command. He was proud, austere, serious in his tastes. Not at all given to the lighter pleasures of the court, he refused its pressing invitations firmly but courteously, making way for his handsome brother, Jafar. Though firm to blandishments, he was extremely kind-hearted and charitable to the point of being nicknamed the Paragon of the Generous. He became Governor of Khorassan and several other provinces, general of the armies, a Keeper of the Seal, and tutor of one of Harun's sons. He was a clear-sighted administrator; in fact, he excelled in all of his various occupations. Too much so, indeed, for his own, popularity: he was one of those men whom others prefer to admire from a distance. Hence his appointment to the border states of the empire. Long before the coming of rails efficient rivals have been railroaded to Ultima Thule in this fashion.

Harun al Rashid and Jafar


What distinction Fadl earned by actual accomplishment, the attractive Jafar won through his close friendship with Harun. The Caliph preferred this younger brother to Fadl. He was even jealous for Jafar because of Fadl's successes and he saw to it that his favorite received just as many titles and honors. One could not count the provinces of which Jafar was governor, if in name only. He was also made a Keeper of the Seal and Commander of the Califal Guard; and he supervised the education of another of Harun's sons.

Yahia's two younger sons Musa and Muhammad also held important charges, and his brother filled the office of chamberlain for several years. The Barmecides had soon monopolized all the chief positions of authority. The imperial dignities, administrative offices, patronage in both military and bureaucratic fields, were entirely in the hands of the descendants of Barmak and their followers.

This was much more than a remarkable example of family solidarity and worldly success. The control of the Barmecides over the Arabian empire was an eloquent symbol of the renascence of Persia. Harun's reign glowed throughout from that luminous revolution which set in motion again the destiny of the people of old Europe. The Aryan race was taking its revenge on the Semites; the triumphant Arabs were in process of defeat by their very conquest.

The words of Horace on Rome and Greece might have been applied to these Bedouins of the Yemen, who in exchange for the religion and language which they had brought to the Iranians were to receive in turn civilization and government, as Europe understands them. Surely by making Islam the connecting link between the Mediterranean of the ancients and the world of today, they have renewed the miracle that was Greece for Europe, that "final bourne of Asia."