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Volume 28, Number 2March/April 1977

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An Elephant for Charlemagne

Written by Jon Mandaville
Photographed by Penny Williams-Yaqub

From the court of Harun al-Rashid...

In the year 798, the Imperial Council of Baghdad, Abbasid capital of the Islamic Empire, received and initialed a personal request from Harun al-Rashid, whom history remembers as the caliph who opened Islam's Golden Age.

Later, after the council had initialed the document and the clerks had distributed copies to the appropriate offices, a clutch of officials fanned out through Baghdad to make purchases or place orders with various artisans, merchants and specialists. One specialist—an animal trainer—was so surprised by the order placed with him that he could not reply. At length, however, he smiled and spoke. "An elephant? An elephant! Maybe. Just maybe."

So, with that episode, Harun al-Rashid obtained an elephant that, three years later, would startle Europe, delight the Holy Roman Emperor and, ever so slightly, affect the diplomacy of the medieval world.

At that time—in 801—there were three major powers in Europe and the Mediterranean, each ruling a portion of what had been the Roman Empire. There was Byzantium, ruling from Constantinople over what it could of the eastern half of the old Roman Empire. There was the Kingdom of the Franks in the west, reaching out from the banks of the Rhine for the scattered pieces of Caesar's Gaul, Rome itself and northern Europe. Finally, stretching along the southern Mediterranean shores, and blanketing the whole of what we know today as the Middle East, as well as Spain, was a gigantic state administered from the new city of Baghdad by the Abbasid Dynasty of the Islamic Empire.

At that time too, historical forces had elevated to the thrones of those empires three rulers whose destinies were already interwoven with past events: Harun al-Rashid, later the fabled caliph of The Thousand and One Nights; Irene, Empress of Byzantium, and Charlemagne—Charles the Great—ruler of the kingdom of the people known as Franks.

Nearly 70 years before, Charlemagne's grandfather—Charles Martel—had led the Franks into the Battle of Tours which brought the Muslim thrust into France to a decisive halt. And Charlemagne himself, 20 years before, had crossed the Pyrenees in a futile attempt to secure one of his frontiers with a victory over the Muslim forces in Spain. It was a disastrous campaign, but it did persuade Charlemagne that he would, some day, have to come to terms with the Abbasids in Baghdad.

The Empress Irene, as it happened, was also aware of the importance of the Abbasids; their armies had recently besieged Constantinople, her capital, and to end the siege she had been forced to promise an annual tribute to Baghdad. Irene, therefore, was also interested in an alliance—but with Charlemagne.

Charlemagne was non-committal. Why not wait, he asked himself, until the threat of Abbasid power forced Irene to offer him more? Why not, in fact, join the Abbasids in filling the vacuum that the weakening Byzantine state would leave? Why not, in sum, negotiate with Harun al-Rashid?

So it was that in 798 Charlemagne dispatched an embassy to Baghdad with orders to seek an alliance with Harun al-Rashid. And so it was that Harun al-Rashid, who was also interested in negotiation, decided to send Charlemagne a very special gift—a gift, he said in his note to the Imperial Council, that few in Europe had seen since Hannibal and his Carthaginians marched across the Alps. The gift, said the Caliph, would be an elephant.

There are no details on where the Caliph's animal trainer found the elephant. Or how he got it to Europe. But find it and get it there he did. In the spring of 801 the huge creature lumbered patiently down the streets of Aachen, an old Roman town in western Germany near today's border between Belgium and Holland—a town newly prosperous since Charlemagne, ruling King of the Franks and recently crowned Holy Roman Emperor, had chosen it as his residence a few years earlier.

To Aachen, the arrival of the elephant was an exciting event. Crowds turned out to meet it. Boys, running and slipping over the cobblestone streets, shouted excitedly to their friends to come see. Adults, gathered in taverns or working in shops, turned out to point and stare at this gray beast with the stubby tail and the long trailing nose.

It was probably exciting for Charlemagne too. For the elephant was only one of many wondrous gifts that Charlemagne received from Harun al-Rashid—either then or later. There was, for example, a carved horn of ivory, a golden tray and golden pitcher, perfumes, a set of chessmen, bolts of fine cloth, a large tent and a richly woven robe of honor with the phrase "There is but one God" embroidered on it in Arabic—a point both rulers could agree upon. There were also two very tall and intricately worked brass candlesticks and a complicated water clock which caught the fancy of the historians of the day; it had 12 brass balls that struck the hour by falling on a cymbal and 12 carved horsemen which came out of little windows to parade as well.

Some of those gifts—the golden pitcher and tray, the chess set, the horn and the robe—can be found today in Aachen, in Saint-Denis, France, and as far away as Durham, in England. But there were other gifts that exist mostly in popular legend: a wondrous organ for the Chapel at Aachen and the keys to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem—along with permission to rule in Jerusalem which, years before, had fallen to Islam.

The legends, to be sure, were based on fact, but they gained something in the telling. The organ, for example, was actually a primitive contraption of oxhide bellows, bronze pipes and air tanks and had, furthermore, been given to Charlemagne by the Byzantines, not the Muslims. As for the story of the keys, it was based on fact too—so much so that Europe later used it to justify the Crusaders' conquest and sack of Jerusalem. So much so that in the 1850's France would angrily tell Russia that she, the heir to Charlemagne, was the protector of the Christians in Jerusalem—and in so doing trigger the Crimean War.

As noted, however, the facts had gained something in the telling. For although Charlemagne was given the keys to Jerusalem he was not given them by the Caliph of Baghdad. He was given them by the Patriarch of Jerusalem in exchange for gifts sent him by Charlemagne earlier. The keys, furthermore, were purely honorary keys which did not give Charlemagne, the Crusaders, France or Russia the right to rule in Jerusalem. So much can come from a diplomatic exchange of gifts.

As for the alliance that Charlemagne wanted, it never came off. Charlemagne and Harun al-Rashid achieved no more than a vague understanding on trade and communications. Charlemagne, however, did keep the elephant and, later, even took him into battle where he frightened enemy horses. By the time he died in 810, his name—Abul Abbas—had become a household name in France and Germany and even the laconic historian of the Royal Frankish Annals, normally concerned only with kings and wars and eclipses, was sufficiently moved by that event to break into his narrative in 811 and add, "... the elephant which Harun, King of the Saracens sent, suddenly died." So passed one of the more curious episodes in the history of European-Middle Eastern relations.

Jon Mandaville is an associate professor of history and Middle East studies at Portland State University and a frequent contributor to Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 24-27 of the March/April 1977 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1977 images.