Harun Al-Rashid: Caliph of Bagdad - Gabriel Audisio

Harun and Charlemagne

Byzantium was ever at heart Oriental, and along with Bagdad was at odds with Rome. Facing these two empires was that of Charlemagne, upon whose head Pope Leo III had just placed a crown. The emperor with the flowing beard, that epic hero who scoured Europe, sword in hand, for the greater glory of God—and the handsome Caliph of Bagdad, looming large in the enchanting pages of The Thousand and One Nights! It was almost inevitable that these famous contemporaries should find much in common with each other, and thus they have always been coupled in European minds.

Their friendship was curious, and the tales about it gave rise subsequently to a long altercation that has only lately been composed. It has been said that the two emperors did not even know each other, and that the famous stories of their exchange of embassies, courtesies, and gifts are entirely fictitious, as untrue as the adventures of that valiant Huon of Bordeaux, sent by the emperor of the Franks to cut off the beard of the amir of Babylon!

Harun al-Rashid may not have had a clear idea of Charlemagne's personality; and on the other hand, perhaps this Caliph of "Baldach" was thought of by Europeans only as "Miramolin," the pillar of Mahoum, and a rather detestable pagan divinity. Still, the East and the West have always communicated and always will. The sea, great assembler of civilizations, has many functions. The Jews and the Marseillais are always connecting links. Marine traffic and commerce in foreign commodities have never been interfered with either through religion or war. Everyone seems to agree that in the time of Harun al-Rashid there were continuously friendly relations between Europe and the Levant which even Arab invasions had not interfered with materially.

The Holy Sepulchre has always attracted Occidentals. Priests and monks of the Middle Ages have handed down the records of their pilgrimages. They were not the only ones. There were all those humble believers who went to Jerusalem, journeying over the earth for the love of God and the good of their souls. There were also vendors of relics who brought back little pieces of wood, thorns and nails from the True Cross. Most important of all were the Provencal ship-owners who sent their vessels out among the Levantine ports in search of valuable cargoes, with the same daring and instinct for business as the Phoenicians when they sought the counting houses of the Gauls. Stored on the docks of Arles and Marseilles—doors to the East then as now—were Syrian oils, Egyptian papyrus, Arabian incense, the pearls and gems, ivory and spices of India, wine from Gaza, and beautiful fabrics from farthest Asia. The Mediterranean thalassocracies have always been drawn together by this sea.

There was nothing to prevent Harun and Charlemagne from knowing each other, nor is there any evidence to prove that they were not acquainted. Moreover, French biographies of the bearded emperor give glowing details of their friendship. The Arab chroniclers, on the other hand, never even hinted at it. Their silence has perturbed many scholarly minds because they cannot find a logical reason for it.

It was, of course, difficult to obtain accounts of events taking place so far away. The Arabian writers may have been reluctant to admit friendly relations with a famous destroyer of Saracens; yet Mussulman history is full of instances of such alliances, which have never been concealed; even a few unions with idolaters, which is worse! Harun al-Rashid, Commander of the Faithful, would have been no less ready to associate with Charlemagne than was Francis the First, a very Christian king, to make friends with the Grand Turk. Charlemagne would have been called Karleh, as Charles Martel was called by the Arabs in Spain, or his name changed entirely, perhaps, as in the case of the Byzantine Nicephorus, who became Nigpur. As for the Europeans, they got their "Miramolin" from Amir-al-Muslimin.

The only reasonable excuse for this neglect of Charlemagne on the part of the Arabs is that the French were wrong, perhaps, regarding the extent of the friendship between the two sovereigns and their kingdoms. Those relations appeared important to the French as indicative of the worldwide glory and prestige of Charlemagne, a matter of little or no importance to Orientals. Charlemagne would naturally have taken the initiative. He needed the Caliph's assistance to enable him to protect pilgrims to the Holy Sepulchre, to aid the Christian communities of Syria, restore churches in Jerusalem, and thus establish a French protectorate in the Holy Land, which was to endure as a traditional policy of his country.

Harun al-Rashid knew Charlemagne only slightly, but he had no reason to dislike him. The Jew Isaac who was, according to the Vita Karoli, a prime factor in the royal negotiations, undoubtedly described Charlemagne to the Caliph of Bagdad. He would have talked to him, perhaps, in this strain: "Karleh is a respectable king, you know, with a beautiful country and a large army. He admires you very much, for, as far as the region of the setting sun, every one knows that you are a great king, a very great king, the greatest of kings. . . ." A Jewish ambassador knows how to be humble and diplomatic by turns as needed. Isaac might have added that Karleh detested the Caliph's enemies, the Byzantines, for example, and those low Ommayyads of Cordova, who had felt the weight of his arms.

That would have made Harun's face brighten. "In short," the Caliph would have reflected, "this Karleh does not interest me overmuch, but I have no unkindly feelings toward him"—and would straightway have sent Charlemagne some presents. Gifts meant very little to one surrounded by Oriental splendor. An elephant and rich cloths were only trifles. It is conceivable that such details were not handed down to the Arab historians who began to write a century later. But they caused great excitement in a Europe less accustomed to Eastern splendor, where they seemed like the fabulous treasures of Golconda.

To Harun, Charlemagne appeared a kind of savage. Perhaps he was not far wrong. The Caliph regarded the French king as Europeans look upon those negro sultans to whom they send gifts of umbrellas and calicoes. The negroes glow with excitement over their gifts, while we never give the matter a second thought. In a similar situation Harun might have emulated the example of Louis XIV with the famous Moroccan Sultan, Mulai Ishmael, who had requested nothing less than the hand of Mademoiselle de Conti. The king of France responded disdainfully with the gift of a splendid carriage. Our writers do not mention the coach, but they go into ecstasies over some Siamese ambassadors who came to prostrate themselves before the Sun King!

It is a fact that Arabian historians have been absolutely silent concerning their Caliph and Charlemagne, but it is going too far to assume that Harun and his contemporaries did not even know who Charlemagne and the Franks were. There must have been some victims of Charles Martel in the hospitals of Bagdad, some heroes of the Path of Martyrs, some wounded veterans from the Battle of Poitiers. After all, when it comes to a question of text, one does not hesitate between an Oriental chronicler with his tales and stories and the parchments of monasteries, the capitularies of the abbeys and the Chronicle of St. Denis.

The supposition that Isaac may have been an impostor and prevaricator is provocative of another interesting discussion. One might easily imagine the excellent Jew tarrying with the Arabs to establish an alibi for his long absence from France, buying perfumes in Oriental bazaars and an elephant at a hostelry, then pretending to Charlemagne that it was Miramolin who had given them to him.

Modern authors have advanced some very substantial arguments favoring the disputed friendship between these two monarchs. If historical records are not final enough there are still sentimental arguments which have their value. It would never do to cast doubt on those gifts of water-clock and elephant! God forbid! One might as well call Roland a traitor! Several centuries of faith are worth more than all the Oriental historians put together. We have believed in our heroes too implicitly and too long to be disillusioned now!

About the year 800, Harun al-Rashid was informed that the envoys of a Christian king called Charles, who ruled over countries even farther away than Byzantium and Moorish Spain, were demanding an interview in their master's name. This mission was said to be in charge of two officers with uncouth names, Counts Lantfried and Sigismund, accompanied by a Jew named Isaac who was to serve as interpreter. Harun's informant needed to say no more. The Caliph was not interested in this information and in no haste to receive the ambassadors. He subjected them to a long delay which even outlasted customary governmental red tape.

They camped out for about a month before being received. Curious passersby stared at them as if they were trained bears, exclaiming and pointing at their blonde moustaches and queer weapons. The homesick envoys meantime were thinking sadly of their beautiful France and wondering whether they should ever see her again. They had left home in 797 on a mission to the Patriarch of Jerusalem; and now, after a long, hard voyage, they were beginning to wonder why they had come. Emperor Charles had his reasons, of course: the Christians in Syria had appealed to him to protect them. For more than a century, Mussulman tolerance, particularly lenient towards Christians who, in spite of their failings, were people of the Bible, had permitted them to practise their religion in peace. But conditions had changed and were now becoming intolerable. The former lenience had given way to persecution. Repeated disorders in Syria and Palestine destroyed all sense of security. In 795 a Christian had been martyred at Damascus; in 796, the monastery of Saint Saba, near Jerusalem, had undergone a disastrous attack from a party of Bedouins. To be sure, the community had gained twenty martyrs, which was agreeable to God and diffused an odor of sanctity, but the monastery had been pillaged and burned to the ground. Churches, monasteries and the glorious and revered city of Jerusalem, the Holy City, were submerged in sorrow and oppression. Charlemagne's heart was deeply afflicted.

He had sent the two counts and Isaac to the pagan Caliph seeking protection for these Christians. The ambassadors wondered how best to approach this delicate question. Their ostensible object was not exactly calculated to facilitate their real task. They were to ask the monarch for an elephant. Charlemagne adored these huge beasts. Anticipating the city of Hamburg by several centuries, he had organized a zoo at Aix-la-Chapelle where one could see the lions and Numidian bears described so pleasingly in the poem of Engelbert. Counts Lantfried and Sigismund wondered whether they would not be laughed at.

Harun al-Rashid finally condescended to see them, but without any ceremony. They were too bedraggled and pathetic in appearance to merit the honors reserved for great ambassadors welcomed within the curved enclosures of Bagdad. There were for them no golden belts scintillating with precious stones, no processions of eunuchs and guards, no gayly adorned boats and gondolas on the Tigris, no thick rugs, nor lions, nor the gold and silver tree with singing birds made of rare and precious metals which Abul Fida describes in telling of a reception to a Byzantine embassy. Harun was gracious, however, and found his guests unexpectedly interesting. He was delighted to learn that their master considered him a great monarch and that they had many mutual enemies. Far from ridiculing the request of the envoys, he was pleased by it, and ordered a beautiful elephant, which bore the honorable name of Abbas, to be brought at once from his menageries and given to the Frenchmen. It was a very small favor indeed, in that country of the thousand white elephants of Chosroes!

Between exchanges of salaams and congratulations, Isaac, who had thus far kept himself in the background, timidly broached the subject of those Syrian Christians. The Caliph, however, saw nothing out of the way in this, and agreed to protect them provided they rendered homage to him. The visitors left at last with excellent safe-conducts and escorted by a few Mussulman attaches as a return courtesy to the French king.

The fears of the French counts that they should never see their land again proved only too well founded, for they died on the way home. Isaac, whose mission was not yet completed, got his elephant and himself as far as the coast of Carthage to beg relics of Saint Cyprian from the Arlabid amirs. The remaining members of the French company continued on their way together with the Mussulmans.

On the thirtieth of November in the year 800, Charlemagne, summoned to Rome by Pope Leo III, received a delegation of Christian pilgrims from Syria who had, thanks to Harun's leniency, made the long journey safely. Among them was the priest Zacharius, on his way back from the Orient, accompanied by two monks, one from the Mount of Olives and the other from Saint Saba. The Patriarch of Jerusalem had sent them to give Charlemagne, as a token of benediction, the keys to the Sepulchre of Our Lord and of Calvary, together with those of the City and the Mount. In thus allowing them an unmolested passage, Harun al-Rashid had granted Charlemagne a right of way through the holy places of Christianity.

The French king was very anxious for news of his elephant and his envoys. He could scarcely wait. In the springtime the company of Frenchmen and Arabs disembarked at Pisa and reached the king's headquarters by way of Italy and Provence. Meeting them midway between Ivree and Verceil, Charlemagne was greatly distressed to learn that Counts Lantfried and Sigismund had died on the way. After prayers had been said for their souls, the king asked news of Isaac. He was told that the Jew had made a detour towards the land of the Berbers and that, by the grace of God, he would be back before long.

The grace of God was apparently granted him, for Isaac, laden with relics of Saint Cyprian and accompanied by his elephant, came safely through storms and winds to Port Vendres in the month of October, 801. Great excitement and confusion attended his landing. The naval inspectors were forced to hide in their offices, and the dock men scratched their heads in bewilderment. The captain of the port had to decide whether free passage should be accorded a vessel which carried such a singular passenger. There were no provisions in the bills of lading and port charters for this kind of freight. Everything was adjusted at last, however, and Isaac could lead his noble Abul Abbas on to dry land while the little Catalonians danced about. That was the beginning of a triumphant and doubtless remunerative journey through France. One can imagine that the huge, strange creature with his fascinating trunk earned an excellent living for Isaac throughout the trip. On the nineteenth of July, 802, the Jew reached Aix-la-Chapelle and, caressing his companion's trunk for the last time, presented Abul Abbas to the delighted Charlemagne.

The friendship between Harun al-Rashid and Charlemagne, thanks to the mediation of a little Jew and a big pachyderm, had begun too auspiciously not to continue. That same year the French monarch sent a second embassy to the Caliph bearing some flags of frieze which were very expensive and rare in the Orient.

The envoys came back four years later, having settled the various diplomatic questions raised by the administration of French control over Christian communities in the East. In exchange for this protective right, Charlemagne accorded to Arabian ship-owners rights of entry into the Christian Mediterranean ports for maritime traffic in general and importation of exotic luxuries in particular. Not to be outdone, Harun al-Rashid decided, the following year, to send a special commission to the Christian sovereign whose first envoys had so thoroughly demonstrated the importance of such embassies.

Harun put one of his officers, Abdallah, in charge of this group which included two representatives of Thomas, Patriarch of Jerusalem, and a monk, Felix. They carried with them for Karleh, King of France, some fine examples of Bagdadian industries and Oriental workmanship: a pavilion and some tents of varicolored linen, silk coats, aromatics, ornaments and perfumes, gazelle musk (which is indeed a royal gift), gilded candelabra, sets of chessmen, drinking glasses, ornaments of ivory, and a clock of copper with an ingenious mechanism worked by water-power.

Harun's envoys took the water route to Europe. The Mussulmans were admirably equipped for their journey and their passing aroused more than the ordinary native curiosity. They seemed to exhale the perfumes of Arabia, vapors from incense that stupefied the common people. When they went along the countryside of Provence, old shepherds, motionless as Algerians, thought they were seeing a procession of Wise Men, and little peasants, playing the tambourine and galoubet, began to sing:

In the early morning,

I saw the passage of

three mighty Kings . . .

When they reached Aix-la-Chapelle, fetes were given in their honor. They scored a great success. There should have been a Labruyere or a Saint-Simon to describe the people's enthusiasm. Eginhard was not capable of adequately depicting the sensation caused by Abdallah and his companions. The joy of the populace knew no bounds:

Come, one and all, to see

the Mussulman ambassador!

From Arabia he brings

rare and costly gifts.

The women quite lost their heads as they were to do later when the Siamese ambassadors came to the court of Versailles. Ogling the handsome, smooth-skinned Arabs, they put their hands to their hearts, murmuring very low:

I am faithful to my husband,

yet I tremble for my honor;

night and day I think of nothing

but the three trains of the ambassador.

The nobles were no less impressed. Abdallah set the great water-clock going for them and they heard the twelve midday strokes, as twelve brass bells fell tinkling into a metallic basin, and twelve warriors on horseback issued forth from as many doors. Of course they understood nothing of it at all, but they shouted with enthusiasm, and celebrated in the best of faith the pomp and glory of Harun al-Rashid, the great Miramolin.