Harun al-Rashid (Arabic هارون الرشيد also spelled Harun ar-Rashid, Haroun al-Rashid or Haroon al Rasheed; English: Aaron the Upright; ca. 763–809) was the fifth and most famous Abbasid Caliph. Ruling from 786 until 809, his reign and the fabulous court over which he held sway are immortalized in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.
Harun was the son of al-Mahdi, the third 'Abbasid caliph (ruled 775–785), and al-Khayzuran, a former slave girl from Yemen and a woman of strong personality who greatly influenced affairs of state in the reigns of her husband and sons.
Harun was strongly influenced by the will of his mother in the governance of the empire until her death in 789. His vizier (chief minister) Yahya the Barmakid, his sons, and other Barmakids generally controlled the administration.
The Barmakids were a Persian family that had become very powerful under Al-Mahdi. Yahya had aided Harun in obtaining the caliphate, and he and his sons were in high favor until 798, when the caliph threw them in prison and confiscated their land. The cause assigned was this:—
Yahya's son, Jafar (also a character in Disney's Aladdin), who was the companion of Harun, loved to have Harun's sister Abbasa with him at times of recreation. But Muslim etiquette forbade their common presence; and, to allow this, Harun had the marriage ceremony performed between them, on the understanding that it was purely nominal. But the ban was too weak for Abbasa. A child given secret birth was sent by her to Mecca; while a maid, quarreling with her mistress, made known the scandal. Harun while on a pilgrimage in Mecca heard the story and ascertained that the tale was probably true.
On his return, shortly after, he had Jafar executed, whose body was despatched to Bagdad, and there, divided in two, impaled on either side of the bridge. It stayed there for three years, when Harun, happening to pass through Bagdad from the East, gave command for the remains to be taken down and burned. On the death of Jafar, his father and brother were both cast into prison.
Harun became caliph when he was in early 20s. On the day of accession, his son al-Ma'mun was born, and al-Amin some little time later:—the latter was the son of the granddaughter of al-Mansur (founder of the city of Baghdad); so he took precedence over the former, whose mother was a Persian slave-girl. He began his reign by appointing very able ministers, who carried on the work of the government so well that they greatly improved the condition of the people.
It was under Harun that Baghdad flourished into the most splendid city of its period. Tribute was paid by many rulers to the caliph, and these funds were used on architecture, arts and a luxurious life at court.
Abbasid coins during Harun's reign
Harun built a palace in Baghdad, far grander and more beautiful than that of any caliph before him. He established his court there and lived in great splendor, attended by hundreds of courtiers and slaves. Later in his life he moved and set up his court at Ar Raqqah, in the north of Syria. He did this ostensibly to hold disloyal Syria in check, in spite (as he would say) of his loving Baghdad better than any other place in the whole world; he never again resided in Baghdad.
He was very anxious that his people should be treated justly by the officers of the government, and he was determined to find out whether any had reason to complain. So he sometimes disguised himself at night and went about through the streets and bazaars, listening to the talk of those whom he met and asking them questions. In this way he learned whether the people were contented and happy, or not.
Harun gave great encouragement to learning, poetry and music. He was a scholar and poet himself and whenever he heard of learned men in his own kingdom, or in neighboring countries, he invited them to his court and treated them with respect. The name of Harun, therefore, became known throughout the world. He had diplomatic relations with China and with Charlemagne. It is said that a correspondence took place between him and Charlemagne and in 802 Harun sent him a present consisting of silks, brass candelabra, perfume, slaves, balsam, ivory chessmen, a colossal tent with many-colored curtains, and a water clock that marked the hours by dropping bronze balls into a bowl, as mechanical knights — each one for each hour — emerged from little doors which shut behind them, and an elephant. The presents were unprecedented in Western Europe and may have influenced Carolingian art.
Abbasid provinces during the caliphate of Harun
In military matters, Harun was an excellent soldier and showed this ability at a young age when his father was still caliph. He later commanded an army of 95,000 Arabs and Persians, sent by his father to invade the Eastern Roman Empire, which was then ruled by the Empress Irene. After defeating Irene's famous general, Nicetas, Harun marched his army to Chrysopolis (now Scutari) on the Asiatic coast, opposite Constantinople. He encamped on the heights, in full view of the Roman capital. The Empress saw that the city would certainly be taken by the Muslims. She therefore sent ambassadors to Harun to arrange terms; but he sternly refused to agree to anything except immediate surrender. It is reported that then one of the ambassadors said, "The Empress has heard much of your ability as a general. Though you are her enemy, she admires you as a soldier." These flattering words were pleasing to Harun. He walked to and fro in front of his tent and then spoke again to the ambassadors. "Tell the Empress," he said, "that I will spare Constantinople if she will pay me seventy thousand pieces of gold as a yearly tribute. If the tribute is regularly paid Constantinople shall not be harmed by any Muslim force." The Empress agreed to these terms. She paid the first year's tribute; and soon the great Muslim army set out on its homeward march. The tribute of gold that the Empress Irene agreed to pay Harun was sent regularly for many years. It was always received at Baghdad with great ceremony. The day on which it arrived was made a holiday. The Roman soldiers who came with it entered the gates in procession. Muslim troops also took part in the parade. When the gold had been delivered at the palace, the Roman soldiers were hospitably entertained, and were escorted to the main gate of the city when they set out on their journey back to Constantinople. In AD 802 Nicephorus usurped the throne of the Eastern Empire. He sent ambassadors with a letter to Harun to tell him that the tribute would no longer be paid. The letter contained these words:
- "The weak and faint-hearted Irene submitted to pay you tribute. She ought to have made you pay tribute to her. Return to me all that she paid you; else the matter must be settled by the sword."
As soon as Harun had read these words the ambassadors threw a bundle of swords at his feet. The caliph smiled, and drawing his own sword, or scimitar, he cut the Roman swords in two with one stroke without injuring the blade, or even turning the edge of his weapon. Then he dictated a letter to Nicephorus, in which he said:
- "Harun-al-Rashid, Commander of the Faithful to Nicephorus, the Roman dog: I have read thy letter. Thou shalt not hear, thou shalt see my reply."
Harun was as good as his word. He started that day with a large army to punish the emperor. As soon as he reached Roman territory he ravaged the country and took possession of everything valuable that he found. He laid siege to Heraclea, a city on the shores of the Black Sea, and in a week forced it to surrender. Then he sacked the place. Nicephorus was now forced to agree to pay the tribute. Scarcely, however, had the caliph reached his palace in Baghdad when the emperor again refused to pay. Harun, consequently, advanced into the Roman province of Phrygia, in Asia Minor, with an army of 15,000 men. Nicepherus marched against him with 125,000 men. In the battle which followed the emperor was wounded, and 40,000 of his men were killed. After this defeat Nicephorus again promised payment of the tribute, but again failed to keep his promise. Harun now vowed that he would kill the emperor if he should ever lay hands upon him. But as he was getting ready to march once more into the Roman provinces a revolt broke out in one of the cities of his own kingdom; and while on his way to suppress it he died of an illness which had long given him trouble. He is said to be buried in Tus.
766: Harun is born, the son of caliph al-Mahdi and the Yemeni slave girl al-Khayzuran.
780: Harun is the nominal leader of military expeditions against the Byzantine Empire. .mcx;cvm, 782: Harun is nominal leader of a military campaign against the Byzantine Empire reaching as far as the Bosporus. A peace treaty is signed on favourable terms. Harun receives the honorific title ar-Rashid, and is named second in succession to the caliph throne, and is also appointed governor to Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
786 September 14: Harun's brother al-Hadi dies under mysterious circumstances — it was rumoured that his mother al-Khayzuran was responsible. Harun becomes new caliph, and makes Yahya the Barmakid his Grand Vizier, but al-Khayzuran would exercise much influence over the politics.
789: al-Khayzuran dies, leaving more of the effective power in the hands of Harun.
791: Wages war against the Byzanitine Empire.
800: Harun appoints Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab governor over Tunisia, making him a semi-autonomous ruler in return for substantial yearly payments.
803: Yahya dies, and even more of effective power comes in the hands of Harun.
807: Harun's forces occupy Cyprus.
809: Dies while travelling in the eastern parts of his empire. al-Amin succeeds him as caliph.
The character Jafar, in Disney's animated motion picture Aladdin, is vaguely based on Harun's Vazir Yahya's son.
The comic book The Sandman issue 50 featured a story set in the world of the Arabian Nights, with Harun al-Rashid as one of the protagonists. The story, entitled Ramadan, is included in the collection The Sandman: Fables and Reflections.
References and further reading
- Andre Clot Harun Al-Rashid and the Age of a Thousand and One Nights
- John H. Haaren, Famous Men of the Middle Ages  (http://www.authorama.com/famous-men-of-the-middle-ages-13.html)
- WILLIAM MUIR, K.C.S.I., THE CALIPHATE ITS RISE, DECLINE, AND FALL  (http://www.answering-islam.org/Books/Muir/Caliphate/)