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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

“The Good Haroun Alraschid”

By Arthur Gilman (1837–1909)

[Born in Alton, Ill., 1837. Died in Atlantic City, N. J., 1909. The Story of the Saracens. 1886.]

WE have now reached that brilliant period in the history of the world when the heroes of romance were ruling at once—imperial Charlemagne in the west and capricious Harun al Rashid in the east, and we can scarcely turn the pages on which the record of the times is written without expecting to see a paladin of the one start up before us, or to have our ears ravished by the seductive voice of Queen Scheherazade telling her romantic tales. The familiar picture of the period is crowded with jinns, efreets, and ghouls; minarets burnished with gold shine from every quarter; gayly-lighted pleasure barges float on the waters of the Tigris; deadly cimeters flash before our startled eyes; we are introduced to caves in which thieves gorged with gold have hoarded their ill-gotten wealth; we tread the streets of Bagdad by night in company with caliphs true and false; we hear the sound of a voice calling upon us to exchange old lamps for new; we enter the gorgeous palace of the four-and-twenty windows, and as we behold the unfinished one, exclaim with the poet:

  • “Ah, who shall lift that wand of magic power,
  • And the lost clew regain?
  • The unfinished window in Aladdin’s tower
  • Unfinished must remain….
  • “So I wander and wander along,
  • And forever before me gleams
  • The shining city of song,
  • In the beautiful land of dreams.”
  • It is a land of dreams to most of the world, but it was far otherwise to the citizens of Bagdad then. To them Harun was a flesh-and-blood monarch; his cimeter was no phantasm of a dream; his caprices were not the entertaining story of a fascinating Persian genius; the brilliant Oriental imagination had not yet wrought out its rich pages of adventure and despotic marvels; the people of Bagdad did not smile at the erratic deeds of their chief ruler: to them he was one whose words made every subject tremble, lest the fate of the Barmecides, perchance, might be theirs; lest the whirling cimeter of the executioner should cut through their own necks. The people who in that day were borne “adown the Tigris,”

  • “By Bagdad’s shrines of fretted gold,
  • High-walled gardens green and old,”
  • who rested beneath the citron shadows, who saw
  • “The costly doors flung open wide,
  • Cold glittering through the lamplight dim,
  • And broidered sofas on each side,”
  • did not enjoy the charms of the scenes they were surrounded by so much as we may now; for every step they took was dogged by fear—fear that was based upon ghastly experience of the tyranny and peremptory savagery of the “good” Harun al Rashid, of which poetry so gayly speaks to us to-day.

    The reign of this monarch, who raised the greatness of the caliphate higher than it had ever before been carried, was divided into two periods, during the first of which the sovereign, giving himself up to the enjoyment of luxurious ease, permitted his ministers, the sons of Barmek, to send his armies hither and thither in search of conquests or in efforts to put down risings against his power. This period closed in 803, and the affairs of the caliph then fell into a state of confusion which only grew worse after his death in 809.

    The Barmecides were patrons of arts, letters, and science, and encouraged men of learning to make their homes at the capital; Harun sympathized in this policy, and Bagdad became magnificent almost beyond the power of words to express to readers accustomed to the comparative simplicity of nineteenth-century magnificence. In the progress of Bagdad the caliph’s brother Ibrahim, a man of parts, who afterwards became a claimant for supreme power, was a helper not to be left out of the account. The chief vizier, who bore the burdens of state, as the title signifies, was Yahya, son of Kalid, son of Barmek; and he it was who encouraged trade, regulated the internal administration of government in every respect, fortified the frontiers, and made the provinces prosperous by making them safe. Jaafer, his son, governed Syria and Egypt, besides having other responsibilities. The family was an ornament to the forehead and a crown on the head of the caliph, as the chroniclers relate; they were brilliant stars, vast oceans, impetuous torrents, beneficent rains, the refuge of the afflicted, the comfort of the distressed, and so generous are they represented that the story of their beneficence reads like a veritable page from the Thousand and One Nights.

    The Alyites rose in Africa in 792, and the Barmecides put them down; dissensions broke out at Damascus, at Mosul, in Egypt, among the Karejites, but they were restrained by the strong ministers, and all the while the caliph pursued his career as patron of arts and letters; wits and musicians thronged about him; grammarians and poets, jurists and divines, alike were encouraged in their chosen pursuits. In 802, a new emperor came to the throne at Constantinople; Nicephorus usurped the place of Irene. He courted Charlemagne on the west, and insulted Harun on the east. He sent a letter to the caliph, saying:

    “From Nicephorus, King of the Greeks, to Harun, King of the Arabs.

    “The queen considered you as a rook and herself as a pawn; she submitted to pay tribute to you, though she ought to have exacted twice as much from you. A man speaks to you now; therefore send back the tribute you have received, otherwise the sword shall be umpire between me and thee!”

    To this haughty note Harun replied:

    “In the name of Allah most merciful!

    “Harun al Rashid, Commander of the Faithful, to Nicephorus, the Roman dog.

    “I have read thy letter, O thou son of an unbelieving mother! Thou shalt not hear but behold my reply!”

    The caliph set forth that very day; he plundered, burned, and completely conquered the region about Heraclea, in Bithynia. Nicephorus sued for peace, which was granted him on condition that the usual tribute should now be paid twice a year. Scarcely had the caliph reached his palace, when the treacherous emperor broke the treaty, and Harun advanced upon him over the Taurus mountains in spite of the inclement winter weather, with an army of one hundred and twenty-five thousand men. Heraclea and other fortresses were again taken, and this time dismantled, and peace was once more agreed upon.

    At about this period, Harun became jealous of his great ministers, the Barmecides, one of whom had secretly married his sister, and decreed their ruin. With the usual Oriental treachery, the different members of the family were taken and imprisoned for life or slaughtered, to the last man. In this case, as in many others in the Saracen history, no sentiment of gratitude for all that had been accomplished by the faithful servants was taken into account; though Harun is said to have shed tears over the fate of the two children of his sister and Yahya, he did not allow such sentimental weakness to interfere with his atrocious purpose. There had been enemies of the Barmecides at court, some of whom had lost their offices on the advent of the favorites, and these had endeavored to prejudice the mind of the caliph against them. As Persians they were naturally hated, and these enemies accused them of disloyal ambition. When they found themselves unable to carry their point in this way, they accused the Barmecides, with more grounds, of infidelity, and doubtless they were thought nihilists by many, for they had little sympathy with Islam. Harun was himself exceedingly orthodox, and very scrupulous in obeying such of the laws of his religion as he did not care to break, and though at the time he paid little attention to this accusation, he found it convenient to remember when he had determined to overthrow his favorites….

    When Harun was assured that his last moment had almost arrived, he chose his shroud, ordered his grave prepared, and then superintended the savage butchery of one of the captured revolters, causing his body to be cut to pieces limb by limb in his presence. Two days after this ghastly performance, he died, breathing his last at the capital of Korassan (A.D. 809). In accordance with an agreement to which he had caused his sons Amin and Mamun to swear within the sacred enclosures of the Kaaba, on the occasion of the last of his many pilgrimages, Harun was succeeded by his eldest son Amin.