Harun Al-Rashid: Caliph of Bagdad - Gabriel Audisio

The Days of Hymen

If charlemagne's biographers, in describing his relations with the Eastern princes, thought to emphasize his glory and increase his world prestige by making him out a sort of crusader, they calculated badly. Instead, it is Harun al-Rashid's name that they have magnified in the eyes of posterity, his name that has come to epitomize the entire Bagdad caliphate. He was widely known elsewhere, too. He exchanged envoys with the Emperor of China and the kings of India. He ranked as King of Kings, ruling over an immense domain which extended, at least nominally, from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to the steppes of Chinese Turkestan, and from the Black Sea to India, which at this time had reached the height of its strength and prosperity. At the center of his empire, admirably located geographically by the farseeing early Abbassids, was Bagdad with its eight hundred thousand inhabitants, palaces, mosques, schools and hostelries, a great metropolis of civilization. Enemies outside and beyond the frontiers feared the Caliph's well-disciplined army. Order reigned throughout. In state affairs a strong administrative and bureaucratic organization assured the authority of a firmly centralized government. The provincial powers were the objects of a system of continuous surveillance in which the local chiefs played the roles of true "missi dominici."

The treasury was regularly refilled without the need of armed force to insure the prompt payment of taxes. Each year some seven thousand five hundred-weight of gold coinage went into it besides revenues in kind: balsam from Khorassan, sugar from Khuzistan, pomegranate jam, white honey, rosewater, dates, caraway seeds, silks, rugs and falcons.

Industry and commerce flourished. Mesopotamia was more than ever a thoroughfare for the great traffic routes of the Orient, a market-place where wares and produce were interchanged on caravan trails, where cargoes from Indian seas passed one another. Agriculture flourished abundantly on one of the richest plains in the world, continually irrigated by an intricate network of canals. The construction of great public works, wells, cisterns, fortifications, bridges, palaces, mosques and hospitals kept the workers busy. Relay posts functioned regularly. There had never before been such stability, order, wealth and security.

Contemporaries, or at least their immediate successors, were able to judge Harun al-Rashid's period in proper perspective and in the light of an already perceptible decadence. Oriental writers call his reign "The Days of Hymen" and they mean the phrase in its highest sense—of fruitfulness. We less romantic moderns would make it "The Age of Harun al-Rashid."

To the East this period is as well known as those of Pericles, Augustus and Louis XIV are to European culture. It was of course not that Golden Age which has been dreamed of by all rulers since time immemorial, and which Abbas the Shedder of Blood had imprudently announced to his people. Nevertheless, it is true that from the time of Mansur, on past Harun's successors, Oriental Islam experienced more than seventy years of a splendor which practically crystallized around Harun and was analogous to that of the Western Renaissance. Yet it were as foolish to assert that this brilliant period was entirely the work of him who symbolized it as to disparage Harun's immortal fame by attributing it to reflected glory.

Harun al-Rashid was not only the man of the hour in a mighty epoch, but he understood his task thoroughly. His personal influence on culture has never been disputed. An artist and man of letters, he encouraged a taste for knowledge and culture in all things and a development of intellectual and artistic life by the brilliant court atmosphere that he created around him. Thinking always in sensuous terms of poetry and music, opulence and luxury, he treated scholars with great respect and admiration, frequenting their courses like a student and following their instructions with the charming intellectual humility of Mussulmans, who never tire of going to school even when gray-headed and bald.

One day he solemnly washed the hands of an eminent professor to express his veneration for science, having in mind that wise precept of the Koran: "He who is busy with inkwells and pens will go directly to Paradise when his time comes." Competition for this journey may not have been so great in Harun's time, but Paradise would certainly be fearfully swamped nowadays if so simple a qualification as this were the only one required!

Harun al-Rashid was at all events an omnipotent Maecenas who loved adulation and the constantly rising fumes of incense. He paid well for the extravagant hyperboles which were showered upon him but, as one of his predecessors said, "if presents fade, the eulogies remain," and meantime their authors were enabled to exist and to leave disinterested works behind them!

Certainly no one is fooled by the panegyrics and admiring cries of the writers of Harun's time. Experience has taught us how much to accept when they begin enumerating and singing the virtues of the Caliph. Nor can these judges be believed who knew so well how to swing the scales in the sovereign's favor. There is no limit to the depths of servility and bribery to which the Orientals, with rare exceptions, can sink. On occasions they were capable of doing anything for a favor, a pension. Some of the poets were very like jugglers of the Middle Ages. Their calling was not free from danger. A dithyramb paid well, but despotic power is likely to invite satires that pay well in a different coin. One might be thrashed by the servants of a noble, like Voltaire, or whipped by order of the Caliph, or worse still, have one's tongue torn out. However, there were compensations: the ease of living that these talented poets enjoyed thanks to an enlightened monarch, tyrant though he was, permitted them to consecrate their time to their art and to leave enduring works.

Harun thoroughly enjoyed the brilliant minds of scholars and artists, and opened up many avenues of expansion and self-expression to them. He had palaces built and decorated by great artists. He was always wanting new music, and composers never lacked orders, while his poets were encouraged to originate their own themes. Sometimes the Caliph forced them to action even while overwhelming them with generosity. Like Fra Lippo Lippi, who was put under lock and key by the Medicis, one poet was confined to his room until he had completed a long-awaited sonnet.

Harun drew around him philosophers and theologians and held his own with them. Thirsting for knowledge he sent to the Indies for wise doctors and ordered an inquiry to discover the mysterious origin of the gray amber found on the coast of the Sea of Oman. His clerks were set to translating Greek manuscripts. He dreamed of all sorts of great undertakings like piercing the Isthmus of Suez, or uniting the canals of the Nile and the Red Sea so as to establish communication between the two. This vast project was only discarded at the remonstrances of his ministers, and from a fear that the Holy Cities might be menaced some day by Christian fleets. Harun wanted to rebuild Antioch, but gave up the idea for reasons which might well arouse the admiration of modern hygienists. It was reported to him that rust was attacking the weapons at Antioch and perfumes were decaying there, that the water engendered parasites in the human stomach and produced cold and black gases accompanied by intense colic. No matter what questions arose, Harun seemed always at the helm of the astonishing activities of his time.

All forms of literature were brilliantly represented during his reign, and there were many celebrated poets. Lyric, bacchic, erotic, and satirical verse reached a new level in a lighter vein, containing none of the roughness of those Bedouin chants which extolled horses, camels, wars, and wanton campfire loves. It became a mental diversion rather than a sentimental wail; less sincere, perhaps, but more scholarly and excellently suited to madrigals. In becoming a poetry of court and salon, it had lost in vigor and naivete, but it had gained in distinction, art, and sometimes profundity, as in the verse of Abul-Atahiya, dealing with death and the vanity of this world:

In my foolish meanderings, I was forgetting death,

as if I had never seen its handiwork.

Is not death the climax of everything?

Why not renounce from now on

that which must eventually elude us?

Silent, mysterious, and sympathetic,

misfortune appears suddenly to give you warning,

speaking of bones, which will crumble into dust:

in the midst of tombs, you see your own

and keep on living as if you never had to die!

Grammar, wherein the Arab spirit lost itself in arduous subtleties, was at its flower, its heroic age. It was cultivated with so much fervor that ferocious arguments ensued. Two scholars tore each other's hair so violently one day over a question of the nominative and accusative cases that one (surnamed "Odor of the Apple," which was not bad for a grammarian, and at least better than "Bundle of Science Tied up in a Skin," as the dirty Abu Ubayda was called) had to be exiled from Bagdad. "Can one indeed love grammar too well?" asked Quintilian, and after him, Don Leopold Auguste de Claudel: "Adorable grammar, beautiful grammar, delicious grammar, daughter, wife, mother, mistress!"

Jousts in Moslem world


Philology and the interpretation of the Koran developed because the people, conquered by the Arabs and thrown together in Islamic communities, had adopted the language of the conquerors. In studying it, they opened up new areas to the Arabs themselves. In Harun's reign two great schools came into existence. One of these was at Basra under the eye of Khalil, author of the first work on lexicography. This volume, The Book of the Letter A, was illustrated by that good friend of the Caliph, al-Asmai, so celebrated for his erudition that the famous Romance of Antar was attributed to him although it was really of much later date. The other school, at Kufa, was founded by al-Kisai, to whom Harun entrusted the education of two of his sons.

History had its representatives also, but their works are for the most part lost. Theology and jurisprudence, maintained by the need of expounding the sacred text, and of clearing up the obscurities due to ellipsis and aggravated by religious ferment—these were at their height contemporaneously with the lives of the founders of the four orthodox rites of Islamism: Abu Hanifa, Melik, Ash Shafi, and Ibn Hanbal. Of the four rites, Shafiism was the official choice of the Abbassids.

Science had no reason to be jealous of literature. Harun al-Rashid inaugurated the translation movement which was to expand under his son Mamun and restore the spiritual treasures of antiquity to the West. Syria had preserved the Hellenic writings. Monks in Syrian cloisters had never ceased translating Greek works of philosophy and science. The Arabs borrowed from these Syrian translations and from the traditions surviving from the Sassanid academies founded in Susa. Aristotle, Euclid and Ptolemy came to life again. Mathematics was extremely popular. Medicine had famous practitioners such as the family of Bakhtishwa to which Gabriel belonged, special physician and friend of the Caliph. Harun was deeply interested in this science and had some medical treatises translated by a doctor of Susa, Yuhanna Ibn Masawayhi.

Alchemists, concentrating upon their mystical experiences with a fervor which survived the sarcasms with which they were attacked, and astrologers, too, should perhaps be classed with the poets since they also divine their secrets from the skies. The tall minarets of the Abbassids with spiral ramps that rise around their axes, as in the ziggurat of Chaldea (true image of the Tower of Babel), bear witness, amid the dusty solitudes of the Oriental desert, to a fervent desire to ascend the Throne of God, to reach the Infinite Mystery by an actual road. The idea has never since been better represented, not even in the ages of Cathedral, metal pylon, or concrete structure.

What are commonly called the fine arts had little real expression during Harun's reign. At every stage the development of plastic arts found itself limited by the old Semitic disapproval of images. Although the Mussulmans made light of this prohibition of the Koran, and the traditional taste of the Persians for painting was deeply marked, the human form did not occur in decorative works until much later. There is scarcely an example of it before the tenth century, which explains why we have no portrait of Harun. Sculpture was entirely confined to architectural ornamentation of stone and stucco in arabesques and interlacings. Mural paintings and ceramics did not appear in the palaces of the Caliph, but bronze objects kept alive the tradition of fantastic creatures like the griffin which was passed on from the Sassanids to the Mussulmans, who in turn transmitted it to the stone-cutters of Christian lands, who carved it on Roman capitals.

The art of carving in wood and ivory and that of inlaying copper reached a high degree of development at this period. Paper was already being made, and hand-written letters of gold stood out from its yellow background. There were celebrated ateliers for the making of ceramics and glossy faiences at Rakka, where Harun so loved to stay, and at Rai where he was born. The manufacture of beautiful silk and cotton stuffs was also flourishing in Bagdad. The products exported at this epoch were appreciated so much in the West that merchants called them by their original names, such as those that by our time have become moire and baldachin.

There is no record of Arabian music because of a rather negligent system of musical notation. The Orientals, thanks to their astonishing memories, relied entirely on oral tradition. There are, however, records of historians and treatises of theorists, the Yahias of Mecca, the Musuli, the Ishaks and the Ibrahims, scholarly specialists who explain how the musical science of the Greeks was taken and utilized by the Arabs. The soirees of Bagdad give a clear idea of the esteem in which music was held at Harun al-Rashid's court: "Music is the food of the soul." It was probably here that organs first originated.

Architecture was a royal luxury then, an affirmation of power. Harun al-Rashid had monuments built in proportion to his glory, his pride, and his needs. Here again we must trust entirely to writers of this period. The Mussulmans destroyed as much as they built. Each dynasty wanted its capital, each reign its monuments. It was quite a universal habit for the sovereigns of Islam to tear down palaces built by their predecessors in order to replace them—more gorgeously, if possible—by their own. That would complicate the labors of an archaeologist under ordinary conditions, but what about a kingdom like this at Bagdad, of which the Mongol invasion left only ruins? Even the ruins have perished. Some crumbling walls, a few vestiges here and there in the middle of abandoned spaces are all that remain, yet they give an idea of Abbassid architecture. The ruins bring back memories of Seleucis, Firuzabad, Ctesiphon of the Chosroes, with its vaults filled with cells and stalactites, ovoid cupolas covered with enamelled faiences, enormous arcades, portals and bays where the ogive and the three-lobed arches already appear, considerably in advance of our Gothic. The colossal edifices of these Abbassids renewed and preserved the most ancient of Mesopotamian traditions.

Everywhere the prestige of the monarch left its impression. His entourage contributed substantially to this widespread development in pleasures of the mind and senses. His favorite wife, the celebrated Zubaida, was famed for her many endowments and her munificence. The splendid palace of Karar, The Pond, was built for Zubaida, and she lived there surrounded by many slaves in the midst of rare fabrics and vessels of gold and silver enriched with precious stones. Her bodyguard was composed of eunuchs who galloped beside her palanquin of silver, ebony, and sandal-wood, encrusted with gold and silver and upholstered with sables and with red, yellow, and blue brocades. She introduced the fashion of dressing servants as pages, wearing laced boots adorned with pearls, and also that of using amber candles. She had her favorite poets, artists, and proteges. With a lavish generosity worthy of the most ostentatious prince, she built and endowed hostelries, cisterns, and wells along the routes to the holy places. She constructed khans for travellers on the frontier, and founded the city of Kashan, which then began to establish its reputation for rugs woven with gold, brocades, velours, and taffetas.

As for the Barmecides, they had been busy organizing the State and leading it on to brilliant prosperity. Their role was extremely important in the development of civilization. Each of the three was a patron of the sciences and had his coterie of fine minds and brilliant groups of artists and scholars. To Yahia goes the credit for having had translated from the Greek the Alma gest of Ptolemy and Hermes Trismegistus. To encourage literature and the arts, Yahia had the historian Al-Waqidi appointed a cadi at Bagdad. Poets were especially welcome at these soirees and were made much of in every way. The Barmecides were also responsible for many examples of architecture. Jafar had a palace at Al-Achik which conceded nothing to those of the Caliph. The Barmecide fiefs were covered with handsome habitations. Medicine interested them keenly. The Bakhtishwa owe their success to this family, and it was Yahia who appointed Gabriel as court physician to Harun at the very beginning of his reign. Jafar was a close friend of Gabriel. Having a passion for music and poetry, this Barmecide was patron also to a number of artists and writers like the blind poet Abu Bashshar, who was not willing to outlive him.

The Barmecide fetes rivalled closely the soirees at Harun's court. Guests met at their houses to discuss all sorts of lofty subjects. Yahia, especially, was very cultivated, and a liberal partisan of free speech. He used to gather together celebrated doctors and theologians for debates—endless discussions of "the hidden" and "the apparent," pre-existence and creation, endurance and weariness, motion and rest, the unity and the divisibility of the divine substance; topics dear to all Mussulman philosophers. And the debaters usually ended on the eternal subject of love.

One day Yahia proposed that each guest describe and define love. An historical account of this seance rather amusingly presents the long palaver of each of the orators, the most renowned of their time. We ourselves may find not uninteresting this simple definition found in a verse by an Arab poet: "There are three kinds of love: one is a bond, the second a caress, the third, death." Leisure hours might, after all, be filled in less profitable ways!

The Barmecides were Persians with a Persian type of mind, and they had a strong influence on the civilization of their time. The restoration of Persia was the great moral and historical fact of that epoch. The Barmecides under Harun al-Rashid put it into the spotlight so well that they themselves fell back into the shadow. The government of the State had passed into the hands of Persians, without any violent reaction on the part of the Arabs. Weary of conquest, these nomads turned sedentary; these erstwhile warriors were on a vacation and busied themselves very little with affairs of state. The office positions were held by elderly Persians. The divan, pronounced diwan—original with them, and inherited in Europe as douane—is a form of administration which they applied with the vizierate system. This term comes from them also, the vizier being the deputy or proxy who carries the burden of power and puts the caliph in his pocket into the bargain. The regime of relays and posts was theirs, and also the financial year, the solar years of the Persians, which commence at the spring equinox.

In brief, this was a not unusual spectacle in history: the success of a doctrine insured by another people than that which first introduced it. Rome first, then the Germans, imposed Christianity upon the world; the Buddhism of India came into its own, thanks to China; and Islam's triumph was due to Persia. There is so little doubt of this that such a trustworthy Arab historian as Ibn Khaldun, the only one with truly critical acumen, openly declares that Islam owed its glory to the Persians. They were not remarkably creative. Gobineau, to whom one always returns in dealing with this subject, says that the Persians never created anything new in art, but he adds that "they possessed in the highest degree the spirit of understanding, the gift of comparison, and a sort of discrimination that permitted them to combine successfully elements entirely foreign to one another." Geographically, Persia was an ideal spot for the interchange of thought. Situated at the crossroads of three great empires—Byzantium, India and China—she was "a focus where ideas and inventions from distant countries came to mingle with each other."

The name and era of Harun al-Rashid have benefited from this crystallization of splendors around the caliphate of the Orient. When the ninth century was two years old, no one could have dreamed that this resplendent empire was soon to disintegrate and smash; it was still solidly held together by the symbolic figure of its magnificent sovereign and his cultivated viziers.