Harun Al-Rashid: Caliph of Bagdad - Gabriel Audisio

The Last Call to the Saddle

Harun al-Rashid had no choice now but to plunge into extensive warfare. He must ride with his men over his vast domains in pursuit of enemies and of rebels. He sensed correctly that both these were increasing on every side. The bronze knight who kept his lookout from the green cupola of the Palace of the Golden Door was facing in many directions. Swung this way and that by gusts of wind, his lance pointed often towards Khorassan. Harun had come from there, and now he was going back again.

The rebellion was an uprising against Ali-ibn-Isa, governor of Khorassan, by a man called Rafi. The son of Isa had made himself unpopular by his extortions. He had been enriching himself at the expense of his subordinates by cruel and despotic methods, having carried to an extreme the Oriental tradition of bakshish and tribute. That incurable plague of governments, by which titles and position are distributed, taxes levied, and quotas raised through graft, had become a stench in the nostrils of men. It was an evil all the more acute in Mussulman states where one can not be sure that its victims really preferred clean methods, and where the guilty subordinates involved their chief, and further paralyzed his sense of justice, by craftily handing over a part of their loot to him.

This same governor of Khorassan had been suspected some year earlier. He had gone to court planning to justify his conduct and silence criticisms. He had taken along some irresistible arguments in the form of costly gifts which were displayed on the parade grounds at Rai. These presents were magnificent enough to stupefy any one's imagination; young slaves, boys and girls, horses, clothing of gold and silver, bladders of musk and amber, exotic fruits, and skins of ermine and martin. Harun enjoyed this imposing array immensely, and received the tributes without any apparent suspicions regarding their original source, or any idea of restoring the treasures to their rightful owners. What had once been taken was taken, and it was pleasant to keep gorgeous gifts. The theory of restitution is, after all, a modern and democratic idea! Yahia the Barmecide had tried when he was in power to have the governor's guilt exposed. He had remarked wisely: "If this man had not kept just as much for himself he could not have given so lavishly to the Prince of the Faithful. When Khorassan has been drained dry and its people reduced to the last extremities, it will be too late to act." Excellent advice but expounded in vain.

Later, in the midst of war against Byzantium, Harun was forced to hurry to Rai in order to control the administration of this son of Isa and adjust the acute grievances of his people. Crossing the bridge to Bagdad, he came upon a fearful reminder of an unforgettable tragedy. After two years, Jafar's remains were almost entirely decomposed. Harun could not endure the sight. "Have all that destroyed by fire," he said, pointing to the gibbets. The guards hastened to obey. The bureaucrats took note of this proceeding, and the accountants of the Treasury were very thoughtful that evening when they entered in their ledgers, which already showed many such items as collar of honor for Jafar the Barmecide . . . one hundred thousand dinars, a new item: oakum and brushwood for burning the remains of Jafar . . . ten obols.

Harun continued on his way. Once in the provinces, however, and anxious to continue his war against the Greeks, he had let himself be imposed upon once more. Now the time had come when evidence of guilt could no longer be denied. The governor's abuses had started a revolt among the Persians of the Northeast whose hatred of Arabian power had been increased by the fall of the Barmecides. Rafi, who led the rebels, was an outlaw of the most picturesque type. Well built and handsome, loving wine and women, this dashing officer of the garrison at Samarkand had stolen the wife of a noble a short time before and made her his own in an ingenious if unorthodox fashion. She was first excommunicated, which automatically annulled her first marriage, and then converted anew to Islamism, which permitted Rafi to marry her. When word of this proceeding came to Harun's ears he decided that both of the newly married must be punished. The bridegroom was to be flogged, and his spouse led through the streets on a mule after her face had been thoroughly blackened!

Love, however, will find out the way. Rafi took to the woods, so to speak, but appeared shortly afterward as chief of a band of outlaws and reconquered his wife at the point of the sword in a manner worthy of high romance. The dissatisfied Persians hastened to enroll in his army, which succeeded in defeating the governor's regular troops. It was a conquest by popularity as well as the sword. Revolt spread rapidly. Rafi became master of Samarkand and the people of Balkh massacred their own garrison and joined his forces, while even Merv began to seethe with discontent.

Harun realized that the only way to suppress the insurrection was to get at its original source, the governor of Khorassan. This was not easy. This official could not be summarily dismissed, for he was still in possession of sufficient troops and followers to defend his position. As usual, trickery seemed the proper method. Harun sent for the chevroned general, old Harthama, and gave him instructions.

"Harthama, I am about to entrust you with a mission which must remain secret until the last moment. If your own shirt appears to suspect what it is, tear up the shirt! I am going to appoint you Governor of Khorassan, but Ali-ibn-Isa must not know it or he will take up arms at once against us. Let your soldiers think that you are going to the assistance of the governor but, when you reach Merv, have him arrested and force him to surrender."

After writing out Harthama's appointment, Harun prepared three letters. The first was a cordial invitation to the troops of Khorassan to join the forces of the new governor. The second promised justice to the insurgent population, and asked a renewal of their allegiance. The last letter was for the son of Isa himself and addressed him in a manner befitting the child of a prostitute, reproaching him bitterly for having alienated a people from their sovereign.

Harthama started out with twenty thousand men. At Merv, the governor, believing that the Caliph's troops were arriving as reinforcements, received them with the customary honors. When they were almost through eating, Harthama handed the Caliph's letter to the host. Isa's son had scarcely time to recover from his surprise when he found himself in chains. For several days following, he was taken into the great mosque to answer for his exactions before the people whom he had so long oppressed. Then he was sent to Bagdad, fettered to the back of a dromedary. It took several hundred of these noble beasts to carry away the treasures which the governor had unlawfully filched. One might think that it would have been much simpler to restore them to their rightful owners.

All this time the revolt continued to spread. Rafi was now master of all Transoxiana and had installed himself at Bokhara. An expedition into this distant country promised many dangers. Harthama's own army refused to cross the Oxus until reinforcements arrived. It was then that Harun al-Rashid, in spite of poor health, determined to direct operations in person. He set forth at once, and those iron gates, said to have been built by Solomon, closed behind him forever.