Harun Al-Rashid: Caliph of Bagdad - Gabriel Audisio

The Harem and the Hunt

Though the joys of his harem were not to be despised, with its preserve of does, so to speak, game for any diversion, he seems to have regarded his visits to it as a sacrifice to the demands of nature and the normal laws by means of which one might make sure of descendants! Some hundreds of concubines were ready there at the drop of a handkerchief to come out from their baths of rose-water and fulfill their duties graciously. There were women of all races and colors. Some were plump and soft as ointment, but most of them were erect and firm as lances, their wits as keen as their bodies were beautiful, tongues as fluent as their eyes were deep.

The poet Abu-Nuwas has enumerated some of these creatures in verses depicting to Harun the pleasures of this world. There were outstanding favorites, Hamduna, Marida, Helen—a Greek; enough, certainly, to prevent monotony by the endless variety of their charms, and to preserve for his wives the prestige and the consideration due them; a privilege which they knew only too well how to use. An example of this was Zubaida, the granddaughter of Mansur the Victorious and a cousin of the Caliph. Harun had married her four or five years before he came to the throne and she was still quite young but already beginning to show signs of emulating Khaizuran's masterful ways. "Husbands are superior to their wives. God is powerful and wise," says the Koran. True, but wives are often more astute.

One can hardly blame Harun for leaving sometimes the formal quarters of the palace to wander in his pleasant gardens amid the murmurings of many little springs. There were blossom-rimmed pools, beds of carnations and roses, summer-houses gorgeous with tiles and inlaid furniture and carpets thick as the grassy turf of the meadows where girls and boys, beautiful as angels, complied with the Caliph's least whim. It seemed only necessary to move one's lips in those gardens to make the very walls bow to one's will, to twinkle an eye in order to hear the warbling of invisible birds. Between the terraces flowed the main body of the river Tigris' on which he could float as far up as Mosul, lulled into delightful drowsiness by the songs of the boatmen. Here Harun sometimes whiled away the hours at chess. There was no fear of his being defeated, for he was the first Caliph to play this game and aroused a widespread interest in it by offering prizes and honors to good players.

The majestic Tigris seemed to make way voluntarily for His Majesty when the bridges drew back to clear a passage for his oarsmen. That Father of Rivers whose mighty waters have washed so many capitals of the world, that ancient stream older than the first man of Genesis—how he doted on it. He loved to stroll on its banks. Convents of Nestorian monks were scattered along it. Dogs of Christians they were, no doubt, these unkempt Babas, but generous hosts with veritable nectar in their amphoras. It was good to drink freely on warm days of the cool wine with these hospitable monks. After all, Jesus was a prophet too.

When one felt restive, there was was the hunt. The beaters would round up hyenas and gazelles. Falcons flying from the wrists of the huntsmen pounced on their confused prey. Harun was a splendid sight as he galloped ahead of his followers, his cloak flowing in the wind. The admiring courtiers were so dazzled by him that they scarcely knew if he were man or god. He recalled the legendary Bahram Gur who took the kingdom of Hira from Chosroes by snatching the crown from between two famished lions and with a single arrow fixing the hind hoof of a wild ass to the animal's forehead. The huntsmen really believed they saw the white falcons which had flown from their sovereign's wrist bring back in their claws fabulous beasts, a cross between serpent and fish, with feathers in place of fins!

Harun, like all of his race, loved horses. From time immemorial Arabs have sung their praises. They do not speak of them simply as the noblest conquests ever made by man, but extol them in poetry, exalting them to the plane of, perhaps even above, the most ardent mistress. The steed first, then the woman! Even now there are probably Arabian lyric poets who know how to kiss the nostrils of a stallion.

Horse racing was one of Harun's special hobbies. On racing days the large stables, on the right bank of the river not far from the palace, were in a fever of excitement. The favorites who were to carry the Caliph's colors at the hippodrome at Bagdad or Rakka were chosen with much ritual and expert attention. When they won, Harun's satisfaction knew no bounds. Poets were called upon to celebrate their victory, while the scholar Asmai, author of "The Book of Horses," was expected to go into eulogies. The royal stables usually won, for the competitors understood their position to the letter.

Harun al Rashid


There were other diversions also at the esplanade. Prominent was the sport of javelin-throwing in which it was difficult to surpass the skill of the Abyssinians. At the archery contests the mark was a small golden sphere: struck, it would break and release a dove. The marksman kept the cote of gold! Then there were feats with the long bow, to be scored at a full gallop. Jousts with blunted weapons and hand-ball tournaments also. had their vogue. Again, Harun was the first caliph to play polo and made it popular not only among his nobles but among the masses by offering prizes to those who took it up.

On the days devoted to sports, the imperial cortege, accompanied by attendants carrying mallets and rackets, wended its impressive way to the field. These were gala days and the Bagdadians turned out in full force to watch Harun al-Rashid and his mighty vassals gallop about, dealing furious blows to the small ball. Impassive guards policed the area around the field. A mislaid polo ball or mallet might be the instrument for some unexpected crime, it seemed.

Under their breath, some of the court wags called polo the "Sport of the Sceptre and the Ball." Unwittingly, the young Caliph's pastime did reflect his attitude toward power. The royal sceptre usually seen in the hands of solemn effigies, the sceptre which sways the sphere of the universe, was being reduced to the level of a sporting accessory by this king and his minions.

When one had been rushing about all day, it was pleasant to get back to the palace at dusk and spend the evening with congenial companions. Unless, perhaps, one might prefer to go out and mingle incognito with one's subjects.

No historian, however sceptical, will ever succeed in proving that Harun al-Rashid did not actually make these adventurous promenades with Jafar and the eunuch Masrur. Legend is, after all, only the poetic sublimation of reality. The popular beliefs of a race are sometimes more valuable than facts certified on parchment, and popular traditions often prove to be the most authentic of records. It is true, besides, that the tales of The Thousand and One Nights  are quite often founded on fact. At any rate they depict the same atmosphere at the court of Bagdad as the Book of Songs, which is a collection of anecdotes, not legends. One cannot help thinking of the words of Gobineau, who has never been accused of yielding to his imagination: "At each step into Asia one discovers more and more clearly that the most exact, complete and trustworthy accounts of the kingdoms in this part of the world are found in The Thousand and One Nights  . . ."

It is easy to imagine the three companions, safely disguised, strolling at night through the streets of Bagdad. It is debatable whether they actually met that sot, Badur, waiting for the morning star to rise in a gutter, or encountered the amusing spectacle of a fisherman, stupid from opium, who, mistaking the reflection of the moon on paving stones for water, was earnestly angling for a dog attracted by the bait on his line. It is quite certain, though, that they frequented the populous quarters, the old-clothes shops and water-mills, that they visited everything between the Mound of the Ass and Quarter of the Lion, strolled in and out of bazaars, enjoying the display of gleaming cucumbers, of melons, black raisins, saffron, peppers and eggplant; that they went into eating-houses where legs of mutton were roasting on spits, talked with mule-drivers, gossiped with trinket-vendors, and questioned sailors about their voyages to distant countries.

They were looking for adventure, of course, but not begging for it any more than they were seeking to protect widows and orphans, unite yearning lovers, and investigate judges and the secret police. What Harun really craved was an atmosphere of liberty, the savor of simple healthy lives, free from pomp, and a chance to breathe the same air as ordinary folk; to relieve himself of that heavy melancholy which so often weighs down the hearts of those in high places.

Surrounded by pleasures too easy to command, Harun suffered greatly from ennui, for habit and satiety made distraction increasingly difficult. He wanted to laugh, but he had to have assistance. Jesters were not enough. Jafar could cheer him sometimes, but not always. Harun would summon him brusquely:

"Oh, Jafar," he would moan, "I have had you brought to drive away the sadness which overwhelms me. God has created human beings who can comfort the afflicted. Are you, perhaps, one of them?"

"Oh, Commander of the Faithful, let us go up on the terrace and gaze above us at the millions of gentle, expressive stars. Let us look at the moon which glows like the face of a lover!"

"No, not tonight."

"Then, have the windows opened which over-look the gardens and contemplate the beauty of the trees, breathe the sweet perfumes of flowers, incline your ear to the songs of birds, the murmurs of fountains which make the water give off sighs like those of a lover bereft of his mistress, and then, Commander of the Faithful, sleep until dawn."

"No, not tonight."

"Then have the windows opened which face the Tigris, and behold the ships, fishermen and sailors who sing as they work with nets and ropes."

"No, I do not wish to."

"Then, Commander of the Faithful, let us go to your stables and feast our eyes on your horses; chargers as black as the deepest night, and palfreys of all colors, gray, nut-brown, bay, piebald, white—enough to make the mind reel."

"No, not mine."

"Oh, Commander of the Faithful, since you have three hundred women to sing, dance and play for you, have them all brought before you and perhaps the sadness of your heart will go away."

"Ah! I do not want them."

"Then, have the head of your faithful slave Jafar struck off, since he cannot help his master!"

That constant refrain of royalty, "My heart is heavy . . . sleep escapes me. . . ."

We can readily see how the weary caliph could have enjoyed going out incognito among his subjects, simple folk whose daily lives differed so from his own. Similar tastes have been attributed to Nero, Peter of Castile, Sebastian the First and James the Fifth of Scotland. There must have been many others whom history, through lack of data, has been unable to list with them. One does not like to think them so lacking in imagination and romance that the little devil of wander-lust never took them by the hand.