Harun Al-Rashid: Caliph of Bagdad - Gabriel Audisio

Supreme—and Lonely

Following the disgrace of the Barmecides, Harun al-Rashid's first act was to confer the office of vizier upon that son of Rabi who had plotted so successfully against them. This man was, however, intelligent and cultured, and he had some background. His father had been chamberlain under Mahdi, and he himself had held this office for several years. There is evidence of his merits, but his name hardly stands out in the long succession of chamberlains. Harun gave him no opportunity to exercise unlimited authority; not for nothing had he rid himself of over-powerful administrators. He decided to hold the reins himself, and henceforth to rule alone. Rabi's son should be a high official, nothing more.

Installing his new vizier in Bagdad, Harun left the capital. It was anything but very pleasant for him there. From his palace he could see the Great Bridge where Jafar's head hung at the mercy of birds of prey. During the night the cries of screech-owls circling around the gibbets haunted his uneasy slumber. So he left Bagdad, and possibly his thoughts resembled those in the verses written later by Turai:

Why prolong my stay in Bagdad?

There is nothing to hold me now:

No camels, male or female.

The Caliph, however, was moved not by sentimental reasons alone. He knew that the people were not all silently accepting his recent outburst, and he was no more sure of the army. Since Bagdad had long since ceased to attract him, he left it without regrets, remarking that he thought a sovereign should be near the seat of war. Katul, the site of the future Samara, was his next stop. He settled finally, however, at Rakka.

Then he began to realize the tragic extent of the solitude which he had brought upon himself. He had wanted to reign alone; he was lonely, now, beyond all expectations. Zubaida was his only companion, and she had become so grasping, through the success of her plots, that she gave him no peace. Like his mother, Kaizuran, who had once exasperated him with her jealousies and demands, his wife was now nagging the Caliph incessantly, for all kinds of favors for herself and her son, Amin. The wise physician, Fuydayl, once said to Harun: "O you, who are handsome of feature, who hold in your hands the government of this people, you bear a heavy burden." Harun realized it only too well. The days of Hymen were disappearing like that illustrious family which had directed the empire so felicitously.

Harun was penitent now. He missed the Barmecides at every turn, and felt quite inadequate to fill their places. He began to dread a general decay of the prosperous empire and could not rid himself of a certainty that everything was going wrong. Like Charlemagne, he pictured a dismemberment of his domains; barbarians searing their way with fire and sword into the realms of his descendants. Owing to that fatal rage, Jafar was no longer at hand to cheer his royal friend. When one of Harun's sisters, trying to comfort him, asked why Jafar had been sacrificed, the Caliph answered, weeping: "If I knew, I would tear the shirt from my body!"

His days were joyless, his moods black and taciturn. Harun was scarcely forty years old and in his prime, but he seemed to have aged prematurely, with graying temples and stern, drawn features. His piety was becoming fanatical. He persecuted mercilessly all forms of heresy, heterodoxy, and free thought, pushing his zeal to the point of inquisitions. Even his Christian and Jewish subjects were not exempt from this meddling. He enforced an old statute obliging them to distinguish themselves from the Mussulmans by certain quite humiliating badges. At the same time his cruelty increased and he had faith in no one. Despite the care with which his sons had been reared, notwithstanding the wise advice that he had given them, and the papers hanging on the wall of the Kaaba, not to mention many fervent prayers to Allah, he felt sure that some day they would end by tearing each other to pieces. Alone and solitary, he feared everything. Like the King of Persia in the Legend of The Centuries, his palace, his gardens

were full of armed men, for fear of his family.

His seal bore the device: "Harun leans on God," it should have been, "O Harun, be on your guard!"

Harun al-Rashid, alone in his palace at Rakka, dreaming of days gone for ever and trembling for the future, might, like Musa the Orator, have cried to God, "Lord, you have made me supreme—and lonely."