10/26/06 - charlemagne and the caliph

In today's encore excerpt we see the intelligently cordial relations between the legendary Charlemagne, the secular head of the Christian church, and the Caliph of Islam residing in Baghdad:

"The imperial stature Charlemagne assumed in the years leading up to 800 and confirmed by his coronation in St. Peter's was also reflected in his relations with his Muslim equivalent, the caliph of Baghdad . At the time, the prince of believers was Harun al-Rashid, caliph from 786 to 809 and one of the protagonists of Thousand and One Nights. Like Charles, he was to become a legend among his people. There were excellent relations between the Christian emperor and the Muslim one, whom the Frankish chroniclers called 'Aaron rex Persarum'. In 801, the caliph's ambassadors landed at Pisa, and also brought home the Jew Isaac, whom Charles [Charlemagne] had sent to Baghdad four years earlier. They brought the gift of the famous elephant, Abdul Abbas, which caused such a sensation that it was repeatedly mentioned in the Royal Annals. Einhard asserted that the elephant had been expressly requested by Charles for his menagerie, and the caliph was so determined to please him that he gave away the only elephant he had, although it would be quite legitimate to doubt the latter detail. ...

"[T]he possession of an elephant or any other exotic animal had symbolic importance. It was the prerogative of an imperial figure to whom God had entrusted the government of a large portion of the world and whose name had been heard in infinitely distant lands. Both Charles and Harun were certainly well aware of all these connotations.

"In 807 another legation from the caliph in Baghdad brought rich gifts that included monkeys, costly fabrics, oriental aromatic herbs, and ointments, a mechanical clock with moving figures and chimes, orichalc candelabras, and even a pavilion for encampments. There was every extravagance the East could provide, as the chronicles themselves concluded. Charles could not compete with the splendor and ingenuity of such gifts, but he returned the compliment with hounds, horses, mules and precious fabrics, which do not appear to have made a similar impression on Arab chroniclers. It is clear, though, that the two rulers had every intention to maintain cordial, relations in spite of the different religions ...

"Charles had another reason for maintaining good relations with Baghdad, given that the benevolence of Harun al-Rashid was indispensable to Christians in the Holy Land, who lived under Muslim rule and had frequent disputes with Bedouin tribes. Concerned about those communities to which he often sent financial assistance, the emperor undoubtedly suggested to the caliph that a gesture of goodwill in that direction would considerably enhance relations, and Harun al-Rashid decided to grant him his wish. He actually extended it to a symbolic gift of the land on which the Holy Sepulchre stood. Hence we can appreciate why in this very period in which the Frankish king exchanged ambassadors and gifts with the caliph, the patriarch of Jerusalem acknowledged him as the protector of the holy places and sent him the keys to the Holy Sepulchre. Charles' prestige as the supreme leader of Christendom did not rest on his military strength alone."


Alessandro Barbero


Charlemagne: Father of a Continent


University of California Press


2004 by The Regents of the University of California


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