Harun Al-Rashid: Caliph of Bagdad - Gabriel Audisio

Islam Against Byzantium

Fortunately for Harun al-Rashid's nerves, war broke out suddenly and shook him from his brooding melancholy. There is no better tonic for a desolate and remorseful heart than an unexpected and insistent challenge that must be answered. He threw himself heart and soul into the situation with the feverish energy of a man who has no more interest in life and hopes to lose himself entirely in the fiery absorption of war.

At Byzantium, Irene had been dethroned by a fresh revolution in the palace. Nothing seemed more important to her successor, Nicephorus I, than to renounce the severe treaty which the Caliph of Bagdad had forced Irene to accept. Nicephorus was fuming with indignation and refused to be treated as the Empress had been. His was a choleric nature, eager for attentions, power and conquest. Was he not known as The Victor? Snatching his pen he began to voice his grievances to his enemy. The note was direct and expressive but in a vein scarcely usual among chancellories.

Nicephorus, King of the Greeks
To Harun, King of the Arabs:

The Empress who preceded me considered you a rook and herself a pawn. She agreed to pay a tribute that was twice what you yourself should have been paying to her. So much for a woman's weakness and stupidity! Now, as soon as you have read my letter refund to us all that you have received from Irene, and in addition send as much more as possible, as a ransom. For if you do not, the sword shall divide us!

Harun's face was a study when he received this ultimatum. Flying into one of his characteristic rages, he foamed with fury. Every one kept away from him at first, dreading to see or address him until he should calm down. Then he called for writing materials and wrote on the back of the letter:

In the Name of the most merciful God—
Harun al-Rashid, Commander of the Faithful, to Nicephorus, Roman dog:

I have read your letter, O son of an unbelieving mother. You behold my answer, before you hear it.

Firm, clear, and precise!

Truer to his word than his adversary, Harun followed up his threat by beginning the campaign immediately. It was pious work, starting out against the Greeks, following in the path of God, as the Koran admonishes the Faithful to do. A holy war was more helpful than a pilgrimage in admitting one to the supreme throne of God. Losing one's life in this cause meant mounting straight to the Paradise of Allah. To arms, Faithful! The Caliph brandished Dhul-Figar, the sword of the Prophet. Those arrogant successors of Alexander the Great must be punished. The Angels would surely be on the righteous side, as witnesses for God, that Great Judge, Who would see to it that justice was meted out where it was due. At the proper time the Ababil birds, as in former days, would drop on the skulls of the Christians deadly pebbles, chickenpox, and panic. The Lord was on the side of his Faithful. Their enemies were to be trampled on as beasts crush grain. Forward!

The Caliph's army swarmed into Taurus and the territories of Asia Minor conquered by Byzantium, and took Heraclea. For nearly two years the Mussulman troops plundered and destroyed cities and crops along the line of march until the once belligerent Nicephorus was forced to sue for peace.

cambat near jerusalem


As a conqueror, however, Harun proved less severe than he had at first appeared. His vanity appeased, and victory in his hands, he generously waived all conditions except the disputed tribute of which Nicephorus had thought to rid himself by a stroke of the pen. The tax was now to be paid twice a year instead of once, as the former arrangement had provided. It is interesting to note that the warlike Arabs cared little about pushing any advantages gained through their victories. They seemed to get more satisfaction from the mere waging of war, fighting for the love of the struggle itself, and seeking rather to conquer individual sovereigns, than in reigning over their conquests. On twenty different occasions, if they had wished to, they could have anticipated the year 1453, the capture of Constantinople.

They seem to have deliberately encouraged the possibilities of war by their curious custom of ransoming prisoners. The truce with Nicephorus was scarcely concluded when one of these transactions took place at Taurus, on the borders of the Mediterranean, about thirty-five miles from Tarsus. After the even exchange had been completed, the surplus captives were ransomed. Three or four thousand Mussulmans of both sexes who had been held by the Greeks were redeemed in this way. That same Turk, Faraj, who had rebuilt and fortified Tarsus, directed the operations assisted by a freed Berber, Salem al-Barallusi, and treaties were signed by Qasim, third son and heir of the Caliph, who had empowered him to do so. During this time, Harun al-Rashid was camping at Marj-Dabi, in the province of Aleppo.

In the little port choked with ships, the Greeks were landing at docks piled high with merchandise, and embarking again as rapidly as the exchange of prisoners could be effected. The Arabian negotiators were surrounded by about thirty thousand troops, besides an immense and excited crowd of spectators, traders, all kinds of merchants, freighters, brokers, recruiters for ships, money-changers, weighers and appraisers. Soldiers and sailors were bumping into one another violently in taverns and guarded districts, according to the most ancient traditions. This swarming market lasted for forty days while nations and ranks mingled together happily for the transaction of business and the interchange of ideas. It is easy to realize the influence that such assemblages had on the evolution of human relations and national arts. Afterwards, of course, when each side had reorganized its forces, nothing prevented their going to war again.

That is exactly what happened. Taking advantage of Harun's absence on a pilgrimage, and his subsequent tours through the eastern provinces, Nicephorus did not hesitate to repudiate his word. His treachery was not altogether a surprise. Harun had sent a discreet legate to the court of Byzantium to keep him informed of what was going on.

The Greeks, swarming over the frontiers, invaded the provinces. They had already reached Anazarba, in the border districts, when the news of their successes reached Harun's camp. At first no one cared to tell him, partly on account of his temper, and partly because the generals dreaded the freezing cold of a winter in the mountains of the Taurus. War was all very well in good weather; then it was a pleasure, not a drudgery. It remained for a poet to incorporate the news in a subtle poem which was, nevertheless, quite clear to the Caliph. The bard assigned to this task recited a long stanza which began this way:

Nicephorus has broken what you gave him,

and already death is soaring over his head . . .

and ended thus:

It is our sacred duty to warn the Imam.

Harun cried: "Ah! so it is like this! That dog of a Nicephorus has done such a thing, and no one here has told me!" His officials were degraded in rank, and ministers lost their portfolios. Then, en route to the frontier!

Harun set out at the head of one hundred and thirty-five thousand regulars, and entered the barren regions of Asia Minor in the heart of winter. The excessive cold caused great suffering among the army but he was nevertheless determined on a bold stroke. He wanted to start a siege near Heraclea but hesitated before the importance of the step. Gathering his generals together in a council of war, he asked their advice. Some advised taking the place at once, believing that the fall of such a strategic position would presage a general victory; others urged the serious risk of meeting a fatal setback at the outset of the war, and advised advancing farther into the territories of Byzantium.

The first opinion carried the day and the city was besieged. At the end of a fortnight, however, grave troubles were brewing. The losses were high, and a scarcity of food and forage was painfully evident, but no one dreamed of giving up the siege. Even those who had advised differently in the beginning were now determined to persevere. Al-Fizari, a governor of the Syrian frontiers, and a skilful general, proposed that they construct, opposite Heraclea, not a simple camp, but a real city to emphasize the intention of the assailants to remain until they should be victorious. It was the old Roman tradition that the Arabs were now about to imitate. The imposing ruins of several cities like Mansura, near Tlemcen in Algeria, testify to the extent of the sieges which first brought these cities into existence. To carry out the strategic idea of this plan it was also necessary to throw confusion into the ranks of the besieged. A simple ruse would suffice for this, according to the general, provided it was kept an absolute secret even from the Caliph's army. "All war," he said, invoking the words of the Prophet, "is trickery, especially this one, which is a battle of stratagem rather than sabres," a very interesting interpretation of the art of winning battles.

This advice was followed. A proclamation informed the warriors that they were to settle down for a while, and that the Amir of the Faithful would remain before the walls of this city until God should open its gates to the Mussulmans. Great activities began at once. Stones were brought, and trees felled, for building purposes. The soldiers busily carved, hewed, sawed and dug . . .The besieged knew very well that things were going badly for them, but they tried to make the best of it and put on a bold front. One day through the hail of stones, fire and arrows raining down on the city, a young man of extraordinary beauty dressed in magnificent armor rode out, crying in a reverberating voice:

"O Arabs, we have been facing each other now for a long time. Let one, ten, twenty among you come forward to match himself against me!"

This proud challenge and its consequences, as they are historically set down, sound a heroic note reminiscent of The Iliad. In Masudi's tale of the duel between the warring champions of these two races, almost we seem to be listening to Homer. Here is the tale as written by the author of Meadows of Gold:

A simple volunteer, by the name of Ibn al-Jurzi, was appointed to return the challenge of the Greeks.

"Are you ready to fight?" the Caliph asked.

"Yes, Prince," he replied, "and I pray that God may come to my assistance." Rashid wanted to order a horse, lance and shield given to him, but he replied:

"Prince of the Faithful, I have confidence in my own horse and lance, but the sabre and shield I gladly accept."

When he had donned his armor, Harun al-Rashid had him come forward, bade him good-bye, and promised him his prayers. The horseman went forth escorted by twenty volunteers and descended into the vale. Counting them slowly, the Greek cried:

"We agreed on twenty men and you have added one more—but no matter!" They told him, however, that only one man was to advance against him. As Ibn al-Jurzi rode ahead of his escort, the Barbarian, as Masudi called him, gazed intently at his antagonist while the Greeks, from their ramparts, had only eyes for their compatriot.

"Will you answer a question truthfully?" asked the Barbarian.

"Certainly," replied the Mussulman.

"I ask you, in the name of Allah, are you not Ibn al-Jurzi?"

"None other, by Heaven! I am your man." "A soldier like myself," returned the other, "is able to take your measure."

They fell upon each other, lances at rest. The fierce encounter lasted until their horses almost dropped under them, but neither champion had received a scratch.

Finally they stuck their lances in the ground, one placing his beside his escort, the other alongside the ramparts, and drew their sabres. The horses were blown from exhaustion and the intense heat. Ibn al-Jurzi thrust at his adversary, with what he hoped would be a decisive blow, but the other parried the blow thanks to his iron shield, which resounded with a terrific clamor. The Greek reposted and his sword pierced the shield of Ibn al-Jurzi. The shield was made of Tibetan leather, and the Barbarian feared that his blade might be blunted by it.

Just as each was despairing of conquering his adversary, to the great dismay of Rashid and the Mussulmans Ibn al-Jurzi took to flight. The Greeks began to shout victory, but it proved to be only a feint. While his adversary was pursuing him with raised sabre, the Mussulman struck the Greek with such violence that he was thrown from his horse, but before he hit the dust Ibn al-Jurzi pounced upon him and severed his head from his body.

The consternation in the Greek ranks was only exceeded by the wild enthusiasm among the Mussulmans, as their Horatius returned triumphant to his comrades. They offered him gold, decorations, and an advance in rank, but with the typical dignity of the ancients he begged that they permit him to remain as he was.

The siege was soon over, for the Greeks were fast becoming demoralized by the Caliph's elaborate preparations. Some of the besieged were discovered trying to escape during the night by descending the walls by means of ropes. The ballistas redoubled their attack and the city was pelted with stones and fire. Soon the ramparts were pierced, and the Mussulmans forced a passage through, sword in hand, took the city by storm, and destroyed it utterly.

Harun al-Rashid's flags, at the scene of victory

seemed to float in the air like clouds,

as Abul-Atahiya put it.

The conquest of arms was followed by a conquest of hearts; the epic poem by a love lyric. After the surrender, Harun is said to have discovered a strikingly beautiful girl at a slave auction. She was a patrician daughter of Heraclea. Far from bemoaning her fate, she soon captivated the Caliph, who fell very much in love and built a beautiful pleasure-house for her on the Euphrates.

The capture of Heraclea was a great victory and made Harun al-Rashid's triumph complete. Leading separate commands, his generals took one Byzantine stronghold after the other. Sixty thousand men marched on Ancyra. Admiral Homaid sailed his flee, to revolting Cyprus, landed on the island, took possession of it, and led seventeen thousand prisoners back into Syria.

Nicephorus "the Victor" had suffered defeat after defeat, lost forty thousand men and many ships, and was completely beaten. Once more, Harun al-Rashid stopped in his tracks. So many battles and a lasting conquest not assured; so many victories—and the morrow still not safe! He ceded peace to the Emperor of the East but under particularly harsh conditions: Nicephorus was to pay a much higher tribute, and he and his family were to be subjected to individual assessments. He was not to rebuild Heraclea, and was required to send to the Caliph, at regular intervals, some water from a spring celebrated for its sparkling purity.

Harun forgot only one thing: to compel Nicephorus to keep his word.