Harun Al-Rashid: Caliph of Bagdad - Gabriel Audisio

The Trumpet of Israfil

The hour has come to meditate on the admonitions of the Holy Book:

I swear by those who come to take away our souls

on that day when the trumpet sounds its awful note,

when earth and mountain dissolve into space

crushed at a single stroke,

(that) hearts shall be overcome by terror . . .

It was a long way to Khorassan. Harun al-Rashid rode forth like a black phantom in the uniform of the Abbassids. As the days went by he grew increasingly weary, and his mind was filled with melancholy forebodings. Through some strange freak of fate, the Caliph was on his way to the city of his birth when he received the news of Fadl's death in the cell at Bagdad. Harun's heart contracted at the realization that death was taking his old friends, one by one. He felt his own turn drawing near and murmured tragically: "I am doomed to go next."

The campaign was going very badly. Rafi had stirred up more provinces, his forces were well armed and strong in numbers, and the outcome of the Caliph's offensive was problematical. The Greeks had avenged themselves by defeating several generals and were now in a most defiant mood. The triumphs of Heraclea seemed very far away.

Harun was far from well but he dared not complain because he feared those about him. He could see one consuming thought plainly written on all their faces, with perhaps a secret element of hope in it also. Everyone was speculating on his approaching end.

The Caliph was well aware that his two sons were eager for a chance to rule and only awaited a propitious moment to throw themselves at his throne like famished dogs. Masur was watching Harun closely on Mamun's account, while Gabriel, the Caliph's physician, appeared to be counting his respiration merely in order to warn Amin as soon as possible. Harun feared and mistrusted them all. His mind was full of thoughts of treachery and crime, he dared not eat lest he be poisoned, he saw only death in the sparkling liquor which his slaves poured for him.

When they reached Tus, he could go no further, and was forced to call a halt. They took him into the gardens of a house in Sanabad. Still he would not give in and insisted upon appearing in the saddle before his army. Antar had died on his horse, and Harun, Commander of the Faithful, was still capable of putting his foot in the stirrup! In spite of his efforts, however, he staggered and fell back, letting the animal sheer off.

"Carry me away," he cried, "carry me away!" And they took him into the house.

Once in his bedroom, however, he could not rest. Sleep was out of the question; he was tormented by fearful nightmares. In the dim light he gazed at the gleaming ruby in his father's ring. Why had he disregarded the legend and had his own name carved thereon? Since the time of the Chosroes every caliph whose name had been inscribed on this fatal ring had died by the hand of an assassin. Harun wondered whether his turn were near. Faces rose out of the glowing centre of the stone. An outstretched hand over his bed pointed at some red soil, and a voice cried: "This is the earth in which you shall be buried!"

He recognized it now: that red clay of Tus and the gardens of Sanabad. Other faces came to people his delirium. In a white room sadly lit by pale moonlight, his father Mandi was kneeling, and praying for his family. Harun tried in vain to pray. The sadas, those uneasy ghosts of assassinated men, brought back dead voices that re-echoed in his ears, crying out for vengeance: his brother's ghost, and the head of Jafar! Harun writhed before these visions and phantoms, crying: "O Lord of men, King of men, God of men, I seek refuge from genii and men in You alone!" Sweating in agony he waited for the dawn, for it is written:

Since dawn I have been seeking shelter close to God

from the loneliness of the melancholy night,

from the spite of witches

who add knots to the skein of one's destiny.

The agonized spirit still clung to life, and Harun now wished nothing left undone that might save him. A king of India was asked to send his physician, whose fame was a byword. The empiric, Manka, came in great haste. His first prescriptions relieved Harun and revived his hope, so that he fell to cursing his own physician Gabriel and accusing him of trying to destroy his sovereign. Gabriel was a perfidious traitor whose scientific knowledge was all a sham and he must lose his life! Summoned to the Caliph and told of his impending fate, the physician gazed fixedly at the dying man and, noting the unmistakable signs of his condition, replied fearlessly:

"Master, I have often cared for you and cured you. Have you no longer confidence in me? This Indian's drugs have not yet taken full effect and I should like to observe the final results. I ask a reprieve of only one day. If I am proved to have been wrong, you are to do with your slave as you will. Only one day. . . ."

Harun, thinking to humiliate the physician, agreed, and Gabriel went away saying to himself: "I am saved. There is nothing that even I can do to help him now."

The next day, the twenty-third of March, 809, when Harun was still weaker, he learned that a brother of the rebel Rafi had been captured and brought to Tus. The Caliph felt new life surging in him with the rage into which this news threw him, and insisted that the prisoner be brought before him. When he caught sight of him, he burst out furiously:

"Dogs," he cried, "you and your brother! Dogs, see what you have done, forcing me into this expedition in spite of my ill-health! May Allah curse you! If I had only breath for two words I should say: kill him! May God bear me witness when I vow that you shall perish suffering as no one ever has before!"

Within an hour the execution took place. The Caliph ordered that not an official executioner but a butcher be brought to perform this function in his presence. The unfortunate young man was torn to pieces alive, his body cut apart and its members boned as one prepares a chicken. Harun al-Rashid, watched haggard-eyed, clinging to his couch and uttering horrible cries of pleasure mingled with the groans of his own physical suffering. He now felt satisfactorily revenged upon the dead man, and the attack of sadism had prolonged his life an hour. But suddenly, at the end of his strength, he fainted away.

When he came to, he realized that his end had come and henceforth he had only to await the trumpet of Israfil, the Angel of the Judgment Day. His strength was failing him fast but a deep serenity pervaded his last deeds and words, giving them dignity and wisdom. At his request, shrouds were brought and spread before him, and after gazing at them for some time he selected one.

He had himself carried on a litter into the gardens where a grave was dug under his very eyes. The readers of the Koran drew near to hallow the excavation by reciting sacred verses.

Harun began to weep softly. He was reminded of those lines which Abul-Atahiya used to repeat so often:

Where are the kings who have preceded you?

They have gone where you are going.

Pluck all the pleasures that you can,

for death is always waiting at the last.

The poet had written these words for Harun, and the Koran, too, seemed to have him in mind now: "Of what use are my riches? My royalty has vanished."

The dying Caliph joined his lament to the monotone of the readers:

"O God, I do not weep for the wealth of this world.

O God, I appear before You and submitto Your judgment.

O God, the hour has come to cross that bridge,

thin as a thread and sharp as a sabre.

May the Angels keep me from falling!"

Then he rallied himself to address the Hashimite nobles standing about his couch and dictated his last wishes to them:

"Everything that is young must grow old, everything living must perish. You see what fate has done to me. I leave you three counsels: fulfill your promises religiously, keep faith with your imams and with one another, and watch over my two sons Amin and Mamun. If one of them rebels against his brother, do not hesitate to stifle his insubordination and punish his perfidy. Take care that the birds of prey do not pounce down upon this country!"

[His sons were watching eagerly for his last breath, their followers eying one another, each treacherous mind busily scheming.]

"We are here for the purpose of waging war. Lead the army into the heart of Khorassan and take whatever measures are necessary to suppress the rebellion in that region. Think no more of me. None of my ancestors died in a peaceful bed. Leave me, as they were left, at the side of the road, on the path which leads to God . . ."

Toward evening Harun fell into a coma. During the night he was heard to murmur:

"Harun is Prince of the Faithful. Those of his race know how to die. . . ." And his eyes closed forever.

Harun's favorite slaves, Masrur and Hussayn, buried him in the grave that had been made ready in the garden. Under the red soil of Tus lay the sovereign who had ruled over a great part of the ancient world. A magnificent tomb was erected under the beautiful trees of Sanabad. In time there came to cluster round it a mass of popular legend, transitory rumors, judgments pronounced by the ignorant that yet have lived through the ages: expressions of admiration and loathing, eulogies and curses. To some he was always Harun the Magnificent, resplendent with infinite glory. Others, like Dabil, that dreaded satirist, cried out in this wise:

Every one has two tombs:

in one is the most noble of creatures,

in the other the most infamous of beings.

As the voices of his contemporaries died away gradually, only the songs of birds, the whisperings of the plane trees, and the murmured secrets of the springs disturbed the deep sleep of the Caliph and of his illustrious companions, Firdousi the poet and Ghazali the philosopher, who joined him in this garden of the dead.

The tombs themselves finally were swallowed by oblivion, but Harun needed no sepulchre for his immortality, nor even the bright halo of the Days of Hymen, that shining period which kindled the fires of a great disaster. Four centuries after his death the ravaging armies of Hulagu the Mongol, grandson of Genghis Khan, hurled themselves upon the Arab empire. Nisapur, Rai, Tus, Bagdad—all crumbled under the invasion. The authentic monuments that bore witness to Abbassid culture were destroyed, and the imagination of posterity was left to extract from the mouldering ruins whatever poetic hyperboles it might choose. Hulagu's horsemen are said to have crossed the Tigris with dry feet, over a bridge formed by innumerable parchments stolen from libraries in Bagdad and stuffed into sacks. The sacred ashes of the Prophet's mantle, which Harun had worn on several occasions, were dumped into the river and carried away by the tide.

At that point history stopped, but from the vanished tomb has risen a new Harun al-Rashid, more splendid still, who has thrown wide the enchanted doors of legend and passed into the immortal splendors of those wonderful gardens of the Thousand and One Nights.