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Volume 14, Number 3March 1963

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The Splendid Sultan

"Now it happened in the reign of the mighty Haroun al-Rashid ..."

The caliph of Baghdad held audience in an antechamber of his royal palace. The room was small but sumptuous, befitting the Commander of the Faithful, Haroun al-Rashid. No noises from the outside penetrated the plush brocade drapes from Syria. Thick Persian carpets muffled the sound of footfalls inside. Brilliant tapestries from Samarcand hung from the walls; shimmering gold figurines from the Horn of Africa stood on the shelves; there were pearls from Arabia, and bars of platinum from Malaya, and glossy furs from Russia.

Haroun al-Rashid sat at a table of polished teakwood from Ceylon. His robes were of the finest silk from China. To his right flickered an oil lamp from Egypt. He played idly with an ivory medallion from Zanzibar, while on his finger an enormous diamond ring from Turkestan glittered in coruscating colors.

It was like a scene from the Arabian Nights, the immortal anthology of tales in which Haroun al-Rashid appears so often as a character. But this time the Caliph of Baghdad was not playing a fictional role. He was dealing with the intricate problems of international diplomacy.

"The important thing," said Haroun al-Rashid to the officials grouped around the table, "is to make my friend, the Emperor of the Franks, the mighty Charlemagne, realize how helpful we can be to one another." He unrolled a map of the known world and flattened it on the teakwood. His officials leaned over the map as his finger traced the outline of continents, seas and empires as they were known in the year 803.

"Here, to our northwest on the Bosphorous," the Caliph noted, "lies Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines, as we know, are rivals of the Franks. Therefore, Charlemagne is beholden to me for defeating the Byzantine armies and preventing them from driving west beyond the Balkans."

"And we shall gain from the pressure exerted by the Franks on Spain?" said one of the officials.

"Exactly. The Umayyad Caliphate of Cordova challenges our Abbasid Caliphate for authority in the Islamic world. By invading Spain, Charlemagne has drawn the Umayyad power from the Mediterranean to the Pyrenees. We hope that he will continue to harry their Pyrenean frontier."

The officials nodded. "We understand," said one, "and are ready to leave for Aachen on the Rhine. We will repeat your sagacious words to the Frankish barbarian."

Haroun al-Rashid smiled. "Barbarian? Yes, Charlemagne can barely write his name, according to reports. Nevertheless, do not underestimate him. He has, after all, built an empire. Tell him that I wish I were in Aachen, or he in our own city of Baghdad."

This meeting, held over a thousand years ago, is regarded by scholars today as one of the piquant moments of history—the planning of a ninth-century summit conference between the slim dark Sultan Haroun al-Rashid and the tall blond Emperor Charlemagne. Unfortunately, the two most imposing personalities of their time never met.

They did exchange embassies. The diplomats of Haroun al-Rashid astounded Charlemagne and his court when they arrived in Aachen with gifts that included spices, perfumes, a water clock and, according to one report, an elephant.

Haroun al-Rashid, for all the Arabian Nights fantasy that surrounds his legend, was a diplomatist of the highest order. He understood international politics better, probably, than any other man of the ninth century. His liaison with Charlemagne across so much space and time proves this. Aachen lay far from Baghdad, off in the middle of Europe, in the depths of the Rhine forests. Yet the Caliph was astute enough to propose an alliance with Charlemagne, an alliance firmly cemented by mutual self-interest, and an alliance that worked.

Haroun al-Rashid kept the Byzantines occupied while Charlemagne ruled as Emperor of the Western Empire. Charlemagne kept the Umayyads occupied while Haroun al-Rashid ruled as Caliph of the Abbasid Empire.

Haroun al-Rashid was the grandson of the great Caliph al-Mansur who built Baghdad. He inherited much of al-Mansur's military ability, and as a young man made a name for himself in the Byzantine wars. Only 22 when he became Caliph in 786, he was accepted by the soldiers of the army and the people of Baghdad. He reigned until 809, the most spectacular 23 years in the annals of the Caliphate—years forever memorable in history and romance.

The Sultan based his imperial power solidly on the realities of war, diplomacy and economics.

His armies bivouacked at strongpoints along the frontiers. The most important of these barred the way from the Anatolian Plateau into Armenia and Persia, blocking the advance of Byzantine power. The other, in central Asia, held in check the Mongols of Khorasan who threatened to invade Persia from the east. Here Haroun al-Rashid took the field in person, hitting the Mongols first, and driving them back into the steppes beyond the Caspian.

While the armies of the Caliph were fighting, his diplo mats were negotiating, his biggest coup in this respect being his long-range alliance with Charlemagne. As a result, the Umayyads of Spain never did imperil the extension of the Abbasid Caliphate west along the Mediterranean shores of North Africa. Safe from outside interference, Haroun al Rashid was free to develop his city and his empire.

The beautiful furnishings of the royal palace reflected the prosperity of Baghdad. The Caliph's merchants were known in the trade marts of the world. Their ships docked at Aden and Bombay and Cadiz. Their caravans plodded the historic trails to Medina and Samarcand. They filled the bazaars of Baghdad with the articles mentioned above, and with such other exotic goods as Indonesian dyes and English honey. No other city on the globe could compete with Baghdad in luxury.

Haroun al-Rashid ruled Baghdad through administrative districts, each under its own mayor accountable directly to him. The arts and crafts of the city lay grouped together—a builders' quarter, a tailors' quarter, a physicians' quarter, and so on. Since the people of Baghdad craved entertainment, there was even a circus quarter. And the Caliph's police were well aware of the thieves' quarter!

The police, incidentally, were strictly charged by the Caliph to supervise all shops and bazaars. They examined the goods on sale for quality and price. They tested the weights and measures for accuracy. They heard complaints from displeased buyers, and explanations both plausible and implausible from glib tradesmen. The saying went that no commercial community was more honest than that of Baghdad during the reign of Haroun al-Rashid.

The city was no less famous for its justice. The Caliph took particular care in selecting judges, interrogating each personally before awarding him a commission. And severe verdicts involving the death penalty, or long prison terms, or heavy fines, had to be approved at the royal palace.

Haroun al-Rashid's care in the selection and supervision of his officials was responsible for the romantic legend about him. He used to sally out into the streets of Baghdad by night, disguised as an ordinary citizen. He would wander through the city, stopping occasionally to inquire of those he met how they felt about their government.

Countless stories tell of this practice. On one occasion, a shopkeeper criticized the Caliph. When the Caliph-in-disguise asked why, the shopkeeper replied: "He stays in the palace too much. The people never see him."

The next day a royal procession wound its way down that same street. The Caliph reined in his white steed before the shop that he had visited the night before. Beckoning the shopkeeper forward, Haroun al-Rashid asked gravely: "My friend, do you still feel that the Caliph does not mingle with his people?"

The terror-stricken subject feared that he would pay with his head for having spoken thus to his sovereign. But the Caliph smiled and threw him a bag of gold before riding on.

Out of incidents like this came the legend of the Caliph of Baghdad that still charms readers of the Arabian Nights. Haroun al-Rashid provides color for several of the tales by appearing as the dramatic potentate of the luxurious metropolis in which the events take place. "Now it happened in the reign of the mighty Caliph Haroun al-Rashid"—this is the kind of opening that so often captures the attention of the reader and makes it impossible for him to set the book down before he finds out what happened.

The reality is almost as romantic. Haroun al-Rashid frequently roamed Baghdad accompanied by the poet Abu Nuwas, who chanted extemporaneous lampoons as they pushed their way through the milling crowds at the bazaar. Back at the palace, the Caliph listened to more dignified poetry such as the devotional verse of Abu Atahiya.

Haroun al-Rashid patronized writers, artists, musicians, scholars. Among the latter, interestingly, was the feminine savant Shuhda, proving that the anti-feminist tradition was not as strong in Baghdad as has sometimes been supposed. Because of his fondness for listening to popular storytellers, Haroun al-Rashid gave impetus to the subsequent gathering of the tales that became the Arabian Nights, and he himself stands at the origin of much history and romantic legend. Even his death was memorable, for he fell in battle in far-off Khorasan, leading his soldiers in the defense of his Caliphate. He lives on in the historical archives, and in the Arabian Nights. Neither would be what they are with out Medieval Baghdad and Haroun al-Rashid.

This article appeared on pages 22-24 of the March 1963 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March 1963 images.