When a Christian Emperor Courted a Muslim Caliph

Though officially enemies, Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid and Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne had much more in common than we think — including a love for lavish gifts

When a Christian Emperor Courted a Muslim Caliph
Old engraved illustration of Charlemagne (circa 742-814) King of the Franks, receiving gifts from Harun al-Rashid (766-809) Caliph of Baghdad / Getty Images

There once lived two emperors who ruled over two of the grandest empires of their time and whose names would resonate for centuries to come as legendary embodiments of what was supposedly noble and brave in Christendom and Islam.

Even though Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great or Karl der Grosse (c. 747-814), and Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid (c. 763-809) were officially enemies in a cosmic conflict between good and evil, believers and infidels, they acted like long-distance lovers with bottomless pockets, lavishing on each other luxurious and beguiling gifts. These two monarchs may not have shared a common religion, but they shared the kind of geopolitical and economic interests that stretch across the porous and elastic civilizational lines, magically transforming the infidel into the very embodiment of fidelity. Through the exchange of several envoys, the Frankish king and the Abbasid caliph sought to deepen the alliance first forged by Charlemagne’s father, Pepin the Short (c. 714-768), and al-Rashid’s grandfather, Abu Jaafar al-Mansur (c. 714-775). Charlemagne took the initiative and was first to send an envoy, even though al-Rashid’s father, Abu Abdallah al-Mahdi, had indirectly been the cause of a humiliating military defeat for the Frankish monarch.

In return for high-end red fabrics and other luxuries sent by Charlemagne, al-Rashid dispatched silk robes, fragrant perfumes, aromatic spices and, of all things, an exotic elephant — an animal possibly unseen in Europe since Hannibal crossed the Alps to take the battle to his Roman enemy.

This elephant was known as Abu al-Abbas, like the first Abbasid caliph. Charlemagne became so enamored of this beast that he reportedly took it with him on many of his campaigns. The emperor’s heart shattered when his beloved Abu al-Abbas died the same month as his eldest daughter, Rotrude, in June 810.

But the gift that drew the greatest gasps of astonishment in Charlemagne’s court, and for centuries to come in Europe, was a sophisticated water clock. Almost a millennium before the invention of the cuckoo clock in Germany, this water-powered timepiece was a masterpiece of contemporary engineering.

“All who beheld it were stupefied,” confessed Notker the Stammerer, a Benedictine monk and author of “Gesta Karoli” (“The Deeds of Charlemagne”).

The “Royal Frankish Annals” of 807 described the clock as:

“A marvelous mechanical contraption, in which the course of the 12 hours moved according to a water clock, with as many brazen little balls, which fall down on the hour and through their fall made a cymbal ring underneath. On this clock there were also 12 horsemen who at the end of each hour stepped out of 12 windows, closing the previously open windows by their movements.”

The relative sophistication and extravagance of al-Rashid’s gifts in comparison with Charlemagne’s reflected the relative might and technological progress of the two polities over which they ruled. The Abbasid Empire at the time of al-Rashid was around 5 million square miles, while the Carolingian Empire over which Charlemagne held sway was a tenth of the size.

The Abbasid Empire, which was probably the wealthiest and most powerful realm of the time, was a scientific and cultural powerhouse of the medieval world, the de facto successor of both the Byzantines and the Persians. This was visible in the splendor of the newly founded imperial capital, Baghdad, which lay close to the site of ancient Babylon.

Although al-Rashid had moved his court temporarily to Raqqa in Syria (to be close to the Byzantine front line and the restive Syrian tribes), Baghdad remained the empire’s cultural, intellectual and economic capital and became the capital once again following his death. With an estimated population of somewhere between 1 million and 2 million, which made it possibly the largest metropolis in the world at the time, the city housed the famed Grand Library of Baghdad (“Bayt al-Hikmah” or House of Wisdom), as well as a multitude of philosophers, scientists and poets from around the world. It was also reputedly home to 1,000 physicians and an enormous free hospital, an abundance of water (valuable in this dry region), thousands of hamams (public baths), a comprehensive sewage system, banks and a regular postal service.

In the inner circle of Baghdad lay the Palace of the Golden Gate, which was originally envisioned by al-Mansur as an integral part of the city center. This surprised a Byzantine visitor who, while praising al-Mansur’s new city, also criticized the fact that “your subjects are with you inside your palace.”

“Since you see fit to comment on my secret,” al-Mansur reportedly replied flippantly, “I have none from my subjects.” However, after a foiled attempt to foment an insurrection, the caliph heeded the Byzantine’s warning, moving the market away from the palace and shifting his residence to a palace on the other bank of the Tigris.

In contrast, Charlemagne’s capital, Aachen — which lies in modern-day Germany near the border with Belgium and the Netherlands — was a far more modest affair, not even counted among the largest cities in Europe. First established as the Roman spa town Aquae Granni, the name morphed into Aachen via the German word “ahha” (water or stream). Charlemagne chose it for reasons strategic (to be near his empire’s heartland), political (to leave Rome to the pope) and military (to be close to the restive Saxons).

To ensure his new capital befitted his stature as the “new Constantine,” Charlemagne abandoned the Germanic practice of having a mobile itinerant court and built a permanent palace in Aachen. While Charlemagne’s residence was likely relatively modest compared with Abbasid excess, members of his court were convinced otherwise.

Echoing the high praise lavished by Arab poets on medieval rulers, Notker the Stammerer reported that a delegation from Baghdad who visited Aachen in 802 considered Charlemagne to be “so much more than any king or emperor they had ever seen” and that when the Frankish king gave them a tour of his incomplete palace, “the Arabs were not able to refrain from laughing aloud because of the greatness of their joy.”

The Arab envoys may have been genuinely impressed by how relatively humble Charlemagne was in giving them a personally guided tour of his home and inviting them to dine at his table, while their own king, al-Rashid, reputedly met foreign diplomats and dignitaries from behind a screen. This is a far cry from the numerous anecdotes and legends associated with the second caliph, Omar ibn al-Khattab, and his simple life, humble dress and gruff, unrefined manner.

So why, despite the geographical, religious and power chasms separating them, did al-Rashid and Charlemagne seek to forge an alliance?

For the simple and complicated reason that the Carolingians and Abbasids had two common and highly tenacious enemies: the Umayyads and the Byzantines.

The Umayyads had ruled the realms of Islam until they were overthrown during the Abbasid revolution, which occurred around the time Charlemagne was born. This had driven the last remnants of the Umayyad dynasty westward from Damascus, where they set up a rival caliphate, centered in Cordoba.

The Abbasid-Umayyad beef was over who should rightly call themselves “caliph,” i.e., the successor of Muhammad. The caliph was originally selected through a tumultuous process known as “shura” (consultation), but the Umayyads succeeded in turning this “elected” office into a dynastic, hereditary title. The Abbasids, who rose to power on the back of a popular revolt against the Umayyads, did not question the undemocratic nature of their predecessors, because they too wished to rule dynastically, but instead attacked Umayyad exclusion of non-Arab Muslims and the dynasty’s alleged moral failings. Ironically, the Abbasids eventually became Islam’s first true absolute monarchs and lived in even greater splendor and seclusion than the Umayyads had.

Though the Umayyads had become largely a political threat to the Abbasids, they were, from their new base in Cordoba, a territorial threat to the Carolingians. In fact, Charles Martel, Charlemagne’s grandfather, held them back at the Battle of Tours/Poitier, saving Gaul from being subsumed by the Umayyads. Nevertheless, the Muslim rulers of Spain continued to be a menace to the Frankish king’s territories and territorial ambitions.

Still, it was a Muslim ruler by the name of Sulayman ibn Yaqzan al-Arabi who convinced the Frank Charlemagne — before al-Rashid had even ascended the throne — to invade Arab-dominated Spain. Al-Arabi, the pro-Abbasid ruler of Barcelona, fearful of Umayyad expansion northward and backed by other Abbasid-aligned Arab chiefs in northern Spain, called on the aid of Charlemagne in 777, who at this point appeared invincible. To tempt the Frankish king, they claimed that the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, al-Mahdi, had promised to support the proposed expedition with an invading force.

Decades earlier, the inverse occurred at the other end of the Iberian Peninsula when Julian of Septem and other Visigothic rivals of the unpopular Roderick, who became the last king of the Goths in the former Roman region of Hispania (modern-day Spain and Portugal), persuaded the Islamic military commander Tariq ibn Ziyad to invade Iberia (the peninsula occupied today by Spain and Portugal).

However, Charlemagne’s campaign in 778 was, unlike Tariq ibn Ziyad’s, a humiliating debacle. Charlemagne crossed the Pyrenees at the head of the largest army he could muster and, after a brief stop at Barcelona, headed toward Zaragoza. However, the ally he expected within the city walls had a change of heart — because the Umayyad caliph in Cordoba, Abd al-Rahman, had amassed a massive counterforce — and the turncoat turned coat again.

This pattern of constantly shifting alliances, in which Christians and Muslims were sometimes foes and at other times friends, was to mark the next seven centuries of Muslim presence in Iberia. The Crusader kingdoms that sprang up in the Middle East during the Crusades, which kicked off at the end of the 11th century, were similarly embroiled in a constant ebb and flow of shifting allegiances. This is partly because the idea of a unified Islam or Christendom was always aspirational and never a reality, as reflected in everything from the so-called Apostasy Wars following the death of Muhammad, which almost spelled the end of his nascent ummah (nation), to the sacking of Constantinople by crusaders in April 1204. While religion can occasionally motivate state action, it is one (often minor) factor among many, and is often trumped by geopolitical interests, convenience and opportunism, power struggles between neighbors and supposed allies, historic ties that predate the advent of the two rival religions, or simple sympathy or empathy between two leaders on opposing sides of a supposedly civilizational divide.

Take the curious case of the crusader Raymond of Tripoli (in modern-day Lebanon). A fluent speaker of Arabic who was widely read in Islamic literature, Raymond, despite having earlier spent a decade in a Syrian prison, forged a temporary peace with the fabled Saladin (Salahaddin al-Ayubbi) and allowed the Kurdish leader of Egypt and Syria (who ruled from Cairo) to cross the Galilee and set up a garrison in Tiberias (in today’s Israel).

The official crusade/jihad notwithstanding, and even though Saladin was engaged in an Islamic version of the Reconquista, a baffled Andalusian traveler who passed through the Levant wrote: “There is complete understanding between the two sides, and equity is respected. The men of war pursue their war, but the people remain at peace.”

For al-Rashid and Charlemagne, the other mutual enemy the two emperors shared was the Byzantine Empire, which was a territorial rival to the Abbasids, with a shifting frontier between the two warring empires in the Eastern Mediterranean, and a political menace to the Carolingians, who did not share a border (besides Venice, which was nominally a Byzantine duchy) but did share aspirations for ruling Christendom. The Abbasid weakening of the Byzantine Empire territorially served Charlemagne’s interest, while any dent to the political reach and stature of the Byzantine Empire inflicted by the Carolingians served al-Rashid.

When Irene of Athens became the first woman to rule over the Byzantine Empire after the death in prison of her son and co-regent Constantine VI, Pope Leo III, driven by misogyny and opportunism, proclaimed Charlemagne emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, arguing that the throne was technically vacant because a woman was not permitted to rule. This weakened status of the Byzantine Empire was music to the ears of al-Rashid and the Abbasids.

But common enemies are not all that bound the Carolingians with the Abbasids. There were also old-fashioned economic interests, especially as Charlemagne was keen to attract Abbasid dirhams under his “open market” policies. Some economic historians posit that the lavish gifts accompanying the two emperors’ envoys served an ulterior motive for developing new consumer tastes and, hence, export markets.

According to Arab geographers of the time, there was active trade between the two empires. The Abbasids exported luxury goods, such as spices, silks and even, surprisingly, top-grade Gazan wine, which was gradually being muscled out thanks to the improving wines of Gaul. The Carolingians exported mostly commodities, including beaver skins, furs, lead and coral, as well as more valuable goods like rugs, clothes and perfumes. Most surprisingly from our modern perspective is that there was a heavy flow of slaves and eunuchs from Carolingian Europe to the Abbasid world. Most of the humans trafficked by the Carolingians at this time were Slavs, and it is from this medieval trade that our English word “slave” ultimately derives. The Vikings and Venetians were also known to sell European slaves to the Abbasids.

Despite the mutual interests and realpolitik that defined their relationship, Charlemagne and al-Rashid, though they never met, had surprisingly much in common. Both were born to rule and groomed to lead Christendom and Islam, at least in their own estimations.

Charlemagne’s dream was to be a king who would be remembered as a just and honorable ruler. Al-Rashid, or the rightly guided as his honorific means, was also haunted by similar concerns about his legacy.

Both al-Rashid and Charlemagne also viewed themselves as the virtuous representation, even embodiment, of their respective faiths. One way they expressed this was through holy war or military campaigns ostensibly aimed at spreading the faith by the point of the sword in the lands of the infidel.

For al-Rashid that was the Byzantine Empire, against which he launched two large-scale invasions of Asia Minor. The first occurred in 782, when al-Rashid was still a prince, and saw the heir apparent lead a campaign that reportedly cost as much as the entire Byzantine Empire’s annual income. Al-Rashid’s force reached just across the Bosporus Strait from Constantinople but was almost defeated on the march back had it not been for the aid of an Armenian prince who had defected earlier to the Byzantines, only now to shift his allegiance back to the Abbasids. This victory, and the tribute from Empress Irene that accompanied it, cemented al-Rashid’s reputation as a capable military leader, despite his only having nominal command over the Abbasid forces.

The 806 invasion of Asia Minor was even larger than al-Rashid’s first one. It was prompted when Irene’s successor, Nikephoros I, tore up her peace agreement, refused to pay the tribute to Baghdad and launched raids against the Abbasid frontier. Incensed by this defiance, al-Rashid decided to punish the Byzantine emperor and succeeded not only in reimposing the tribute but also in forcing Nikephoros to pay a personal tax.

While Charlemagne had some skirmishes with the Muslims of Spain later in his reign, Frankish Christianity at the time was more interested in conquista than reconquista. Rather than reclaiming the traditional territories of Christendom, Charlemagne sought to conquer new lands and bring them into the Christian fold. At the time, and this is something that is often forgotten today, Christianity was as new to many parts of Europe as Islam.

Charlemagne aimed to change that by bringing Christianity to the pagan Saxons and Slavs, among others. In the course of the Saxon Wars, spanning three decades and 18 campaigns, he conquered Saxonia and proceeded to forcibly convert it to Christianity despite steadfast Saxon resistance. The “Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae,” a legal code issued by Charlemagne to govern the Saxons, which sounds remarkably like a precursor for the later inquisitions, prescribed: “If any one of the race of the Saxons hereafter concealed among them shall have wished to hide himself unbaptized, and shall have scorned to come to baptism and shall have wished to remain a pagan, let him be punished by death.” In 782, the same year as al-Rashid’s shock-and-awe campaign in Asia Minor, the Frankish king committed the infamous Massacre of Verden, which involved the beheading of 4,500 Saxons, while 10,000 others were deported with their wives and children.

The Abbasids were also involved in religious persecution, including that of “heretics” who refused the rationalist explanation of the nature of the Quran. But al-Rashid’s policy was more intermittent and pragmatic than Charlemagne’s. This was partly ideological, as Muslims were not supposed to persecute fellow People of the Book, originally Christians and Jews, but widened during the Umayyad period to include Zoroastrians and Buddhists. On more pragmatic grounds, “Ahl al-Dhimma” (dhimmis), were profitable for the state treasury because non-Muslims’ second-class status was reflected in not just accepting Islamic rule but also paying a special poll tax and being exempted from military service, known as “jizyah.” Moreover, narrow religious zealotry and fanaticism would have made an empire as large as al-Rashid’s ungovernable and relative tolerance was paying off handsomely for the Abbasids, in the form of flourishing sciences, arts and commerce. That being said, the oft-crippling financial burden of being a non-Muslim, combined with structural discrimination against non-Muslims and popular prejudice, coerced many non-Muslims, particularly Persian Zoroastrians, to convert “voluntarily” to Islam.

Another characteristic Charlemagne and al-Rashid had in common was that they were both born at the peak of the power and prestige of their empires and expanded them, though they subsequently went into decline (rather rapidly in the case of the Abbasids).

The two monarchs were also the recipients of a large measure of posthumous reverence. The two men lived on after their deaths as swashbuckling heroes of folklore and popular tales. A fictionalized version of al-Rashid was immortalized in the expansive annals of the “One Thousand and One Nights.” In these popular tales, the caliph is not a distant and cloistered figure out of touch with his people but is, rather, a humorous eccentric who cares deeply about his subjects, so much so that he secretly circulates among them at night to learn about the issues concerning them. Whether the real al-Rashid, who was accustomed to living in opulence and luxury, actually slummed it with his subjects is questionable, but the fact his subjects believed it earned him enormous admiration.

Al-Rashid’s colorful entourage also features in the “One Thousand and One Nights,” with the most vibrant undoubtedly being Abu Nuwas, the court poet. At a time when Charlemagne’s clergy was busy condemning and equating homosexuality with bestiality as well as persecuting homosexuals, Abu Nuwas was singing the praises of and trying to seduce “handsome beardless young men, as if they were youths of the gardens of paradise” in fictional tales and real life.

Although Persian-Arab Abu Nuwas is depicted as something of a joker and court jester in Arab folklore, in reality, he was so much more. More irreverent than Oscar Wilde, always ready with a witty and scathing riposte, and a proud hedonist, Abu Nuwas was the original rebel without a cause — or his cause was to mock and defy social convention and highlight its hypocrisy and prejudice, especially against non-Arabs. He revolutionized Arabic poetry by ditching the nostalgia for romanticized Bedouin life and replacing it with themes suited to the cosmopolitan, multicultural and urbane Baghdad, which was his world.

Abu Nuwas did fall out of favor with al-Rashid and had to hightail it to Egypt. But al-Rashid’s displeasure seems to have been aroused not by Abu Nuwas’ odes to gay love and wine but by the verses he penned lamenting the downfall of the powerful Persian Barmakid family, which had administered the empire on behalf of the caliph until al-Rashid decided, in a moment of whimsical caprice, to rid himself of his long-standing allies because they had become too powerful and rich.

Like al-Rashid, Charlemagne became the star of numerous medieval fictions and legends, which also combined heroics with no small measure of humor. Charlemagne was one of the central characters of the Matter of France, which ranks alongside the Matter of England as one of the greatest medieval literary cycles. In it, the Frankish king is cast as a kind of French Arthur and his paladins are the French answer to the Knights of the Round Table.

Legends in the cycle from around the period of the First Crusade depicted Charlemagne as the first crusader, a kind of patron saint of crusading, even though he never went to the Middle East and was an ally of the Abbasids against his fellow Christians, the Byzantines. Reimagining or fabricating history in this way had a clear political purpose: It enabled the people of the time to believe that their crusading enterprise had a precedent and that Charlemagne embodied the justness and chivalry of their cause.

One epic poem from the 12th century, “Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne” (“The Pilgrimage of Charlemagne”), describes Charlemagne and his paladins arriving in Jerusalem, where the patriarch offers the Frankish king a multitude of religious relics and declares him emperor. More outlandish still, the group of merry men continues on to Constantinople, where the fictional Byzantine emperor, after seeing Charlemagne perform miraculous physical feats, agrees to become Charlemagne’s vassal. In 1095, a year before the First Crusade, Ekkehard of Aura, a Benedictine monk and chronicler, reported of stories that were circulating at the time that Charlemagne had actually risen from the dead to lead the crusaders.

Even today, the two men have found themselves reappropriated as important cultural building blocks in cross-border identities and as part of the mortar mix holding together pan-European and pan-Arab identities. Charlemagne, for example, is often referred to as the “Father of Europe.” Manifestations of this iconic status include the European Commission’s Charlemagne building in Brussels and an eponymous EU youth prize, to name but two examples.

Al-Rashid is often held up by modern Arab nationalists as one of the supreme exemplifiers of lost Arab glory. Those dreaming of pan-Arabism, not to mention pan-Islamism, often evoke the memory of the Abbasid caliph, as do Arab dictators. Saddam Hussein, for example, was fond of likening himself to al-Rashid, as well as Saladin and Hammurabi. Saddam even adopted the Abbasid caliph’s “One Thousand and One Nights” persona in the early years of his presidency. He was shown on television visiting factories, schools, mosques, farms and homes, disguised in a traditional keffiyeh scarf or hat, ostensibly to find out about the situation of his citizens. And, invariably, his supposedly unsuspecting interlocutors would praise his achievements and act shocked when he revealed his true identity before an admiring world.

However, what the romantic nationalist views of al-Rashid and Charlemagne overlook is that the two emperors were as much dividers as unifiers in the empires they ruled; they built alliances with their supposed enemies and attacked their co-religionists as much as they defended their faith. Even their supposed defense of the faith was mostly about a quest for power, wealth and status.

The myths surrounding al-Rashid and Charlemagne, which depict them as just, honorable and courageous commanders of the faithful, reinforce the idea that Christendom has always been at war with Islam — and, by implication, always will be. But what the history of the two monarchs reveals is that Muslims and Christians can simultaneously be foes and friends, both with each other and among themselves. Sharing a religion is no guarantee of peace, just as belonging to different faiths is no assurance of war.

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