Harun Al-Rashid: Caliph of Bagdad - Gabriel Audisio

A Bizarre Triangle

The young Caliph was so admirably served by the Barmecides, in whom he had entire confidence, that he was able to spend his days as he pleased from the very beginning of his reign. Yahia supervised the fortification of frontiers, Fadl toured the provinces, exacting oaths of loyalty and quieting down those excitable subjects in distant regions who were likely to become restive after sudden changes in government. In peaceful Bagdad one heard nothing more menacing than murmuring waters, rustling palms and the laughter of ceramic workers busied with their craft. Mesopotamia, that mother of ancient civilization, overflowing with wealth and plenty, waxed eloquent about the prosperous capital. "Bagdad, City of Peace, Gift of God, Paradise on Earth."

There was nothing to mar Harun's enjoyment of life. The Caliph's personal charm attracted to his court the most brilliant groups imaginable. It became a rendezvous for poets and artists as well as for prodigal princes. Harun's best-loved companion, the handsome Barmecide Jafar, was always there—the pearl of the Caliph's eye, the rarest rose in his garden. His presence was as welcome to his sovereign as the rainfall to pasturelands on parched plateaus.

In addition to Jafar's charm and good looks, he was generous and eloquent; a poet and musician and versed in astrology. He could trace exquisite characters, arabesques, which were greatly admired. A natural distinction, combined with originality and fastidiousness in dress, grace in carriage and gesture made him an arbiter of fashion. Courtiers copied his garments and his pronunciation. He started new styles and created novel fads. The elite adopted his mode of wearing a beret covered by an embroidered turban, and his handsome belts caused a furor. Modish young Mussulmans tried to discover the secret of his coiffure, the hair falling over his forehead, blending with his eyebrows, circling the ears and curving in a dashing manner up towards the temples. His persiflage, his mannerisms were discussed everywhere. Harun adored this beautiful youth and tender friend. He felt toward him as Jemil toward his Botakia:

My heart was clinging to yours before we were created,

our love has grown as we have grown,

and even death would not be able to break our vows.

Perhaps, when Jafar was sleeping on soft cushions and rugs, Harun may have come to kiss his bare foot as Sultan Mahmud, sovereign of Ghazna, used to kiss the feet of his favorite, an incident illustrated by old miniatures in The Conduct of Lovers.

Harun could not live without Jafar. When his friend was absent, the Caliph's heart was heavy, his soul plunged deep in melancholy, and his nights were sleepless. He would be forced to send for Jafar to restore his serenity. Jafar suffered also from these separations and neither of the young men could endure being apart from the other. Harun expressed his emotions in eloquent words, assiduous attentions and countless honors. At the table he chose the tenderest morsels for Jafar, in affairs of state he continued to name him for prominent posts, even though these were merely nominal. Jafar's name appeared on the currency, his protégés  always received careful attention, none of his caprices or whims remained ungratified.

Once, though Jafar went so far as to promise the hand of the Caliph's daughter to the son of a prince who had had the effrontery to enlist his help, Harun did not hesitate to sanction the marriage. The friends were like the two halves of a succulent fruit. They were so intimate that they willingly shared a single cloak.

But Harun loved his sister, Abbasa, as well—too well. He found her a delightful companion who composed very lovely poems and sang ravishingly. The Caliph was never so happy as when he had Abbasa and Jafar both near him, chatting together, languorous with perfumes and heady wines, verses and music. He was not content with the company of the one when the other was not there, but custom and the Koran forbade this tender relationship. "O Mussulmans, will you show the faces of your women?" Cruel injunction! Must a curtain always separate his dearest companions? Should Jafar never see Abbasa face to face? No, it could not be borne that anything should stand in the way of so exquisite a triangle.

Then it was that Harun conceived the plan of marrying Jafar and Abbasa, so that they could be together without breaking the laws of the Koran. This clever subterfuge enchanted him. It was an audacious thought, a king's caprice. The relationship of course must remain ingenuous and pure. Abbasa was of the blood royal; Jafar the descendant of freedmen. Besides, those concerned never would have dreamed of availing themselves of the customary marital privileges. Never would they destroy ties so spiritual. Who could suspect them of such a thing? Both promised, swore by the face of God to respect the pact, and one fine evening Harun married them by the light of flaring torches in the presence of Masrur, his trusted eunuch, and a few other favored ones.

Thereafter the three were free to go on with their bizarre association. They used to meet in an inner room where the Caliph would contemplate with solicitude his two darlings, the twin poles of his heart. Abbasa was modest before her nominal husband and Jafar lowered his eyes shyly before this beauty which was his legally, but not by the ties of the flesh, and which he was never to have the privilege of enjoying. Harun was ravished with the situation.