This date in 786 CE is known as the Night of the Three Caliphs, because on this day Hārūn al-Rashid became the Abbasid caliph upon the death of his brother al-Hadi who had a short reign as caliph, and Hārūn’s son al-Ma’mun was born today, and he succeeded his father. For now I will focus on Hārūn, and give a video recipe for fried, salted fish from the Abbasid empire at the end.
Under Hārūn ar-Rashīd Baghdad flourished into the most splendid city of its period. Tribute paid by many rulers to the caliph funded architecture, the arts and court luxuries. In 796, Hārūn moved the entire court to Raqqa at the middle Euphrates, and spent 12 years, most of his reign, there. Subsequently, he visited Baghdad only once. Several reasons may have influenced the decision to move to Raqqa: its closeness to the Byzantine border; its communication lines via the Euphrates to Baghdad and via the Balikh river to the north and via Palmyra to Damascus were excellent; rich agriculture land; and strategic advantage from Raqqa over any rebellion in Syria and the middle Euphrates area. Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani pictures in his anthology of poems the splendid life in his court. In Raqqa the Barmekids, who had been original supporters of the Abbasids, managed the fate of the empire, and both heirs, al-Amin and al-Ma’mun, grew up there. At some point the royal court relocated again to Al-Rayy, the capital city of Khorasan, where the famous philologist and leader of the Kufan school, Al-Kisa’i, accompanied Hārūn with his entourage. When al-Kisa’i became ill, while in Al-Rayy, it is said that Hārūn visited him daily. It seems that the Hanafi jurist Muhammad al-Shaybani and al-Kisa’i both died there on the same day in 804. Hārūn is quoted as saying: “Today Law and Language have died.”
Hārūn made pilgrimages to Mecca several times: 793, 795, 797, 802 and last in 803. Tabari concludes his account of Hārūn’s reign with these words: “It has been said that when Hārūn ar-Rashid died, there were nine hundred million [silver] dirhams in the state treasury.”
Hārūn was influenced by the will of his incredibly powerful mother in the governance of the empire until her death in 789. His vizier Yahya the Barmakid, Yahya’s sons (especially Ja’far ibn Yahya), and other Barmakids generally controlled the administration. The position of Persians in the Abbasid caliphal court reached its peak during al-Rashid’s reign. The Barmakids were a Persian family (from Balkh) that dated back to the Barmak a hereditary Buddhist priest of Nava Vihara, who converted after the Islamic conquest of Balkh and became very powerful under al-Mahdi. Yahya had helped Hārūn 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. Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari dates this in 803 and lists various accounts for the cause: Yahya’s entering the Caliph’s presence without permission; Yahya’s opposition to Muhammad ibn al Layth, who later gained Hārūn’s favour; and Ja’far’s release of Yahya ibn Abdallah ibn Hasan, whom Hārūn had imprisoned.
Both Einhard and Notker the Stammerer refer to the envoys traveling between Hārūn’s and Charlemagne’s courts, amicable discussions concerning Christian access to the Holy Land and the exchange of gifts. Notker mentions Charlemagne sent Hārūn Spanish horses, colorful Frisian cloaks and impressive hunting dogs. In 802 Hārūn sent Charlemagne a present consisting of silks, brass candelabra, perfume, balsam, ivory chessmen, a colossal tent with many-colored curtains, an elephant named Abul-Abbas, and a water clock that marked the hours by dropping bronze balls into a bowl, as mechanical knights—one for each hour—emerged from little doors which shut behind them. The presents were unprecedented in Western Europe and may have influenced Carolingian art.
When the Byzantine empress Irene was deposed in 802, Nikephoros I became emperor and refused to pay tribute to Hārūn, saying that Irene should have been receiving the tribute the whole time. News of this angered Hārūn, who wrote a message on the back of the Roman emperor’s letter and said “In the name of God the most merciful, From Amir al-Mu’minin Hārūn ar-Rashid, commander of the faithful, to Nikephoros, dog of the Romans. Thou shalt not hear, thou shalt behold my reply”. After campaigns in Asia Minor, Nikephoros was forced to conclude a treaty, with humiliating terms. Hārūn established an alliance with the Chinese Tang dynasty after he sent embassies to China. He was called “A-lun” in the Chinese Tang Annals. The alliance was aimed against the Tibetans.
Because of his appearance as the protagonist in many tales in Thousand and One Nights, Hārūn ar-Rashid turned into a legendary figure obscuring his true historic personality. In fact, his reign initiated the political disintegration of the Abbasid caliphate. Syria was inhabited by tribes with Umayyad sympathies and remained the bitter enemy of the Abbasids, while Egypt witnessed uprisings against Abbasids due to maladministration and arbitrary taxation. The Umayyads had been established in Spain in 755, the Idrisids in Morocco in 788, and the Aghlabids in Ifriqiya (modern Tunisia) in 800. Besides, unrest flared up in Yemen, and the Kharijites rose in rebellion in Daylam, Kerman, Fars and Sistan. Revolts also broke out in Khorasan, and ar-Rashid waged many campaigns against the Byzantines.
Ar-Rashid appointed Ali bin Isa bin Mahan as the governor of Khorasan, who tried to bring to heel the princes and chieftains of the region, and to reimpose the full authority of the central government on them. This new policy met with fierce resistance and provoked numerous uprisings in the region. A major revolt led by Rafi ibn al-Layth was started in Samarqand which forced Hārūn al-Rashid to move to Khorasan. He first removed and arrested Ali bin Isa bin Mahan but the revolt continued unchecked. Hārūn al-Rashid became ill and died very soon after he reached Sanabad village in Tus and was buried in Dar al-Imarah, the summer palace of Humayd ibn Qahtaba, the Abbasid governor of Khorasan. Due to this historical event, the Dar al-Imarah was known as the Mausoleum of Hārūniyyeh. The location later became known as Mashhad (“The Place of Martyrdom”) because of the martyrdom of Imam ar-Ridha in 818.
Al-Rashid virtually dismembered the empire by apportioning it between his two sons al-Amin and al-Ma’mun (with his third son, al-Qasim, being belatedly added after them). Very soon it became clear that by dividing the empire, Rashid had actually helped to set the opposing parties against one another, and had provided them with sufficient resources to become independent of each other. After the death of Hārūn al-Rashid, civil war broke out in the empire between his two sons, al-Amin and al-Ma’mun, which spiraled into a prolonged period of turmoil and warfare throughout the Caliphate, ending only with Ma’mun’s final triumph in 827.
Here is a fish dish from an Abbasid cookbook. The video is in Arabic, but there are English subtitles: