Harun Al-Rashid: Caliph of Bagdad - Gabriel Audisio

The Raid of the Saracens

Harun al-Rashid, Commander of the Faithful and Caliph of Bagdad, remarked one day to his grand vizier, Yahia the Barmecide: "When the Prophet died, Father, there was peace and unity among the Arabs, to whom God had granted security after the perils they had endured and glory in proportion to the humiliations they had suffered. Islam was in the full strength of her youth and the Faith had just been born. You are aware of all that has come to pass since."

The Caliph reflected, not without melancholy perhaps, on those wonderful days to which he had just referred. Inspired by the ardent words of Muhammad which echoed in their ears, together with the natural inclination of the Bedouin to wander and loot, the Arab tribes had plunged into the most reckless raid that had ever been known. A century and a half of conquests raged throughout the Old World beginning from the year 632 when the Prophet of Allah had died.

It was not a migration of famishing hordes dragging heavy carts toward tillable lands nor an invasion by tribes envious of the prosperity of older empires, but a swift impetuous excursion, made with camels and horses, to carry on the divine word, to propagate and proclaim, wherever the sun shines and human beings breathe, the glory of Allah who alone is God, unrivalled and all-powerful.

From the peninsula where Islam had its birth the squadrons set out on a continually renewed charge. Leaping into the saddle the knights dug in their spurs and, standing erect in their stirrups, rushed blindly on like phantoms pursuing lightning among the clouds. Lances and javelins whirled over their heads amid the flags and standards flapping in the wind. The cries of warriors mingled with horses' neighs. One wave surged after another as the sea of the Faithful rolled stormily towards the two extremities of the earth. It turned first to the northern and eastern countries where the people of the Bible lived, the old Semitic brothers who were already aware that there is only one God. Jerusalem, the City of the Temple, admitted the children of Ishmael. Leaping from the steaming rumps of their horses the knights prostrated themselves in the dust and made a solemn vow. "Here, O Lord, shall arise the domes and columns of Thy sanctuary." They made forty genuflections, facing toward that finger of light, the Holy City, Mecca itself, whither they expected to return some day in triumph.

Syrian Jerusalem lay still further off in Asia. The animals were scarcely allowed leisure to browse. The sweat had not dried on their flanks before the warriors were coaxing, exhorting, urging them on. They were servants, comrades, loves to these barbarians whose hearts were overflowing with poetry and whose souls were full of the glory of stars and nocturnal beauties; and, yielding to their masters' wishes, they plunged on once more. Like Borak, the winged mare who carried Muhammad up to the throne of God and back to his home in a single night, they seemed to fly through the air.

Ancient Asia resounded with the tumult of their passing. For centuries she had sent hordes out toward the West; it was now her turn to be invaded. Divine , plagues had descended on Nineveh, Susa and Babylon. The regions where the Sassanids had ruled from their magnificent thrones had been seared with iron and fire. The empire of the Chosroes had collapsed at one stroke like huts torn away by a sand storm, and the satraps covered with jewels and hiding their heads in the folds of their robes were pursued beyond the Oxus and the Indus. They fled into China like wandering flocks driven by brush fires.

The raids towards the West were madder and more frenzied still. Egypt saw this human cloud pass by. The Sphinx smiled gravely, reminded of a former plague, the locusts of the Sudan. Faster and faster flowed the irresistible flood, stirring up quicksands, raising dust on the steppes, trampling the variegated carpets of the high plains. Tightening their knees, the knights pushed on and on. There was only one God and Muhammad was his Prophet! Sidi Okba galloped ahead, restless, dissatisfied. There were too few municipalities, stadiums, Roman arches for him. The mirages of tablelands and lagoons ravaged by sun and salt spread beautiful chimeras before him towards the boundaries of the setting sun. "Why tarry among people who seek refuge in the mountains like rats? Allah or death!" he cried, and they all replied, "Allah!"

One morning they came upon fresh marvels. The shimmering beauty of smiling waves, the naked ocean immense, impassable. Then the conquerors, having penetrated to the most distant regions that man had been able to reach, rode their horses breast-high into the water, shouting with pride and joy and praising the omnipotence and glory of Him Who had guided them.

This, however, was only a temporary halt. The stinging, briny bath quickened the blood of beasts and men. En route, again, they turned to the North. The cavalcade had discovered that the world did not end here after all. There was another land on the opposite shore, its white summits towering proudly beyond an azure channel. This narrow strait rushed swiftly, a deep and stony torrent.

Tarik, in the lead, opened up Spain to the soldiers of God, and gave his name to the vast cliff on its southern coast, Jebel-al-Tarik—Gibraltar. Not a single backward glance was cast towards Africa, now quite forgotten. All Europe lay open to conquest. Why consider what lay behind?

"Warriors," shouted Tarik, standing in his stirrups, "the enemy lies before you, the sea behind; whither would you go? This land contains endless numbers of lovely girls dressed in sumptuous robes shining with pearls, gold and coral. May the Word of God be exalted in this glorious country! God has said: 'From East to West, the kingdoms of the world are spread before My eyes. All that I see shall become the domain of My people!'"

The women of this land proved so alluring that the invaders put to flight with bow and sword the natural defenders of such ravishing beauty and exalted the Word so thoroughly that nothing could stop them; neither the king of the Goths, whose head was soon on its way to Damascus, nor the muds of the Guadalete, nor thirst in arid Castile, nor ice on the Pyrenees. Even the women did not tempt them to tarry long. When boots were pulled off at resting places, the warriors had their fill of these beauties, but the ones whom they dreamed of for the morrow, beautiful as fires on cold nights, were always more to be desired than those already possessed. Not all of these Christian girls had slit their noses like the saints in history! Squadrons of Saracens began to gallop over the meadows and under the flowering apple trees of the Gauls, on to the conquest of "the great land."

But this coveted world, which extended from the Pyrenees to the Black Sea, was destined to escape them. Their extraordinary onslaught was checked just in sight of its two goals. On the East a narrow channel, where Byzantium reared her cupolas, would not allow them to cross. Fires of destruction flaring on the water appeared to them like the flames of the Frankish inferno. At the other extremity, somewhere near Poitiers, Charles Martel led his men heavily armed with battle-axes and broadswords against the invaders, and his forces annihilated the envoys of Allah like an advancing wall of jagged iron.

The great invasion had come to an abrupt stop after a full century of triumphs. It had not succeeded in gaining world dominion for Islam or in making of the Mediterranean an interior lake of its domain. But it had created the greatest empire since Rome, extending from Spain to India.

And the Overlord of all this immense empire was the Caliph who reigned in Bagdad—Harun al-Rashid.