Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
 HARUN AL-RASHID had excellent reasons, however, for not deserting every evening his palace at Rakka or the Palace of
Eternity at Bagdad. The entertainments which he gave at both eclipsed the feasts of Petronius.
After piously observing the evening prayer, his guests arrived in their most handsome equipages. The
festivities always began with a banquet, and heaven knows that the courtiers loved good food. Harun
himself was indiscreet enough at table to require an occasional bloodletting. In the halls of the
palace, lighted by tall torches and golden candlesticks, on floors of alabaster from Mosul,
decorated rugs more beautiful than those of the Sassanids, beds of ebony and cushions of ostrich
feathers were scattered about for the comfort of these nonchalant princes. It was pleasanter to be
seated than to stand, and more comfortable to lie down than to sit.
At nightfall, the various heroes of war and sport and numbers of other courtiers gathered
 round the divan of the Caliph. Those were stimulating assemblies of clever minds where diplomats,
generals, doctors, poets, magistrates, musicians, scholars and jesters were drawn together through
love of pleasure, culture, or adulation for the sovereign. The men were dressed in fine silk robes
of bright colors, red, green and yellow, the accepted fashion for festal occasions and a welcome
relief from the somber black livery of the Abbassids, token of eternal mourning for the first
ancestor of the dynasty.
The Barmecides attended, wreathed in basil and flowers. Many well-known poets were also to be found
there: Abu-Nuwas, son of a laundress, always ready to forget his religion before an amphora of good
wine bought from a Jew or a Christian; Abul-Atahiya, the Intriguer, who was a potter by trade, and
Ibn al-Ahnaf a very distinguished lord who excelled at the madrigal and whose company Harun always
enjoyed either on pilgrimages or during wars. We have proof of his accomplishments in those delicate
poems put to music by Musuli, poems which brought about a reconciliation between the Caliph and his
beautiful concubine Marida. Among others were Marwan, so sordidly avaricious that he would scarcely
have been admitted to court had he not
 been a most brilliant panegyrist of the dynasty; and Muslim, Victim of Beautiful Women, as Harun had
named him, a delightful Bohemian who always slept under the stars—seldom alone.
There were also Abu-Yusuf, Grand Cadi of Bagdad; Al-Asmai, that versatile raconteur whose tales and
bons mots they never wearied of hearing; Hussayn the Jester, who could tear apart a man's dignity
for you; and a number of talented musicians like Barsuma the flute-player; Zalzal, proficient on the
lute; the amiable Maskine of Medina who, though roughshod in the matter of rhythm, had a rare skill
at improvisation; and Hakam al-Wadi, to whom one day in an excess of wild extravagance Harun gave a
draft of three hundred thousand dirhems on the province of Damascus—through love of his art.
There were others, too, but the most illustrious was Ibrahim al-Musul, known as Musuli, a
half-brother and great favorite of Harun's, whose death was to cause universal mourning in the
Moslem world and whose fame as a singer has lasted throughout the ages.
The composers were the most important members of that cultured circle. "The art of music," as Masudi
said a century later in his Meadows of
 Gold, "has its place among the most noble accomplishments. Music is nourishment, recreation and
diversion to the soul, which is exalted and plunged into a sweet drunkenness by its cadences and
Harun encouraged his musicians in various ways. Sometimes he would call for a certain air and have
it executed in turn by each one of the more skilful. He who succeeded in satisfying the monarch by
the excellence of his technique and songs received high praise and many royal presents. The Caliph
would invite him to draw forward his cushion, a favor which was as highly esteemed in Bagdad as the
stool which gave hysterics to the duchesses at Versailles! Such attentions naturally excited
jealousies among the musicians and through their partisans plunged Bagdad into several famous
disputes. Various groups had their innovators and classicists, their ancients and moderns, like our
own partisans of Gluck and Puccini. Society was strongly divided and took sides, sometimes to the
point of bloodshed. The Arab genius for algebra made musicians resort to the most abstruse and
ridiculous subtleties: grace notes, lighter than a hair, invited the play of Arab scimitars.
 It is a far cry, fortunately, for the uninitiated listener, from theory to practice. Aware of this,
Harun al-Rashid's musicians gave charming concerts. They organized orchestras of harps, guitars,
lutes, citharas and timbals which blended harmoniously with the voices of harem singers. The
entrance of a newcomer was nearly always a signal to requisition his services as entertainer and
incidentally to have sport at his expense.
On one occasion it was Ibrahim that every one maliciously urged to tell the story of a handsome
young genius who had gotten into his house and out again in a rapid and extraordinary way. Ibrahim
told the story quite innocently and said in conclusion that he could not understand why the handsome
stranger had ever come in the first place. Stifled laughter shook his hearers at the composer's
remark, and the spiteful whispered behind their hands, "Why does he not ask his women? They should
know better than he!"
Another time it was a poet whose quickness of wit was put to the test.
"Welcome, Poet!" said Harun, as Ibn es-Sammak entered. "Look at this dove eating near me, and
describe her quickly in a few words." The poet answered without hesitation.
 She seems to be looking through two rubies, she seems to peck at the grain with two pearls, she
seems to walk on two carnelians.
Every one applauded but Harun. "That may be," he observed to the rhymester, "but another poet has
said that a dove's two feet resemble the amaranth flower and that the claws are branches of coral.
That is not bad either. What do you think?" And the Caliph casually fingered his necklace of
Not all got off so lightly as Ibn es-Sammak. The court chuckled for many a day over a trick played
on the celebrated poet Abu-Nuwas. Arriving late as is the habit of poets, he found the evening in
full swing. To punish the tardy guest, Harun al-Rashid prepared an agreeable little game of forfeits
quite typical of the times. The forfeit was a gentle beating, a mere nothing, twelve little blows .
"You are very late, Abu-Nuwas. Your engagement was here. Come, take your place in the game. Sit
there on that cushion and do as we do. . ."
The Caliph began to cluck like a hen, then suddenly drew a handsome egg from his cushion.
 Each of the guests in turn followed his example. A royal poultry yard! Abu-Nuwas was not amused. He
broke into a cold sweat. Twelve blows of a wand! What to do?
"Your turn," Abul-Atahiya cried to him. "Keep quiet, vendor of jars!"
"Your turn," Marwan called out.
"Silence, eater of sheep's heads!"
"You are next," Harun was speaking.
Gleeful encouragement was coming to him from all directions. Suddenly the poet rose to his feet
before all these hens and waving his arms up and down like wings began to crow like a rooster! In
the hilarity aroused by his ingenuity there was, nevertheless, no little ridicule. To the ear, the
rooster is not very far removed from the ass.
In spite of all these pranks, the gathering would become bored at times; but Ibrahim's arrival never
failed to raise their flagging spirits. Though usually in his cups, he was invariably ready to add
his talents to theirs.
A curious character, this Ibrahim of Mosul, son of Mandi, and half-brother of Harun. The Caliph
loved the swarthy youth, whom they called the Dragon because of his complexion, and found his
company delightful. Both gentle and cruel,
 sensitive and cynical, at times more greedy than Ahab, then again generous to the point of folly,
infatuated with himself, despotic, a bon vivant and heavy drinker, fantastic in the extreme, Ibrahim
had, nevertheless, what amounted to sheer genius for music. When he sang the poems of Abu-Nuwas with
that exquisite voice of his, Harun went into ecstasies.
As for Jafar, he became distraught when Ibrahim, picking up a lute and tuning it, began on an air of
Ibn Ayesha, or improvised one of his own to this poem of Darimi:
To describe her beauty
is to compare her to the pure gold
of Egypt's ancient coinage,
to the pearl in its case of mother-of-pearl
which is the despair of the fisherman.
Jafar, unable to contain himself, purred, hand on heart, "O Moon of delight, what grace, what
talent!" He was not so different from some of the aesthetes of today. His long Asiatic robes fairly
undulated with emotion:
He forgets that it is a grave sin
to wear these trailing garments,
he forgets that punishment
pursues him in the folds of his robe . . .
Nevertheless, great as was Harun's love of music, he did not altogether deem it a proper pastime for
red-blooded Mussulmans. The Arabian musician, even though widely acclaimed, was not free from that
same disapproval which surrounded the flute-players of antiquity. As if musicians smelled of
brimstone. Is it not with strains of music that the sirens, loreleis, jinn, have shipwrecked
sailors, violated virgins, and drawn souls down to hell? So much for old wives' tales.
Ibrahim was so well aware of this feeling that he attributed his own musical talent to a pact with
Iblis, the sequel, no doubt, to as diabolical a dream as Tartini's. One day, seriously ill, he did
not scruple to repent openly of his guilt and vowed to consign his works to the divine flames. He
consoled himself by reflecting in secret that many people knew them already by heart. Almost as
subtle, but less the true artist than Lully who, at the point of death, burned his
manuscripts—after he had safely stored away several excellent copies.
Harun was jealous regarding the dignity of
 his family. Born king of kings, the breath of his kin was not for common mortals. In principle,
therefore, he reserved his brother's singing for the circle of his intimates, his sisters and Jafar.
The same restriction was put upon his own son Abu Isa, another distinguished vocalist, and one of
his sisters, Uleyah. The latter sang so well, accompanying herself on a twelve-stringed guitar, that
one day, inspired by the rhythm and beauty of the air she was playing, Harun could not help dancing
as he listened to her, like David before the Ark.
When the company was more numerous, the Caliph would allow Ibrahim to sing only when concealed
behind the royal curtain. No one was fooled, however, as Ibrahim's technique was unmistakable. But
who could have dreamed that this gay companion would become the Tyrtaeus of Bagdad and stiffen the
flagging courage of warriors with his heroic lays; that, shortly after the death of Harun, this
minstrel would be the guiding spirit of a great political upheaval and actually ascend the throne of
the caliphs, if only for an hour? A graceful note in the gamut of the imperial scale, but how
discordant to rigid conceptions of its dignity!
Arabs, the caliphate is doomed!
Look for the Apostle of the Prophet
among lutes and oboes!
The satirical poets placed music and wine in somewhat the same category. Fermented drinks were
prohibited, but no one paid any attention to the law. Wine was king, people drank incessantly, heads
reeled from the fumes of famous brews from Bahr Nitas to Bahr Fares, from the red wine of Shiraz to
white wine of Kirmith.
Harun was not often the last to drain his cup. A venerable historian, Ibn Khaldun, was at great
pains to prove that the Orthodox was as sober as he was pious and that he drank only the unfermented
wine of the date and hippocras, which was not a sin according to the book. This hippocras, a thick,
smoky concoction, was strong enough to make the face peel. As for date-wine, the Lion of Allah,
himself, holy uncle of the Prophet, used to beat his nephew's camels with the flat of his sabre
after imbibing too many bumpers of his harmless tonic.
Hippocras? Stuff for milksops! Wine for men, was the view of Harun—wine, daughter of the
grape, the blood of lions, the magic that made
 thousands of birds sing in one's head. Wine was worthy of a toast.
A live draught with a piquant flavor
a golden draught that foams a bowl .. .
a draught that reaches the marrow of one's bones .. .
like the silent creeping of ants.
Could wine have been good for the tribesmen in Muhammad's train and bad for the lords of Bagdad?
Long live wine, was their sentiment. The followers of Muhammad were not afraid to drain bumpers to
his health; they reconciled alcohol with sacred things. The time was coming when Omar Ibn Alfarai
would write a mystic poem called: "In Praise of Wine," wherein he treated it as the symbol of the
love of God.
Harlin al-Rashid's virtue clearly wavered at these love feasts. It is easy to believe that once well
started he would follow his pleasure to the limit until moralists of all times, Arabian chroniclers
and German scholars, have called him a debauchee. Unfriendly tongues even accuse him of having
attempted to ease his conscience by deliberately corrupting the serious-minded and the very priests,
by forcing paragons of abstinence and
 piety to drink with him at the point of a sabre. They were easily forced. As the poet says:
They came together to drink
after the evening prayer ..
until the sinking of Scorpio.
Ibrahim, waving his bowl, his "little pool," as he called it, always drained to the lees, remarking
wittily as it was replenished:
I empty one cup for my pleasure;
now another for penance!
Inspired with emulation, Maskine would intone an air of Muharik:
To how many thirsty companions
have I not quaffed
this brew of Babel,
delight of the earth-bound!
To which Ibrahim would drink again . . . in approval, if the singing was as good as the wine.
Cups were passed about, borne by beautiful youths, straight and slender as swords of India. These
the courtiers admired unreservedly. What were the foolish females of the harem compared with these
handsome boys? They, too, wore earrings, and their robes were drawn back at the
 waist to disclose the lines of their hips. They glided about with amphoras and varicolored crystal
flasks, filling glasses with wine and pomegranate juice, the sirup of apples and sherbets of violet
snow. They were sought out, caressed, fondled. When they tried to escape, they were cajoled; if they
opposed blandishment with mockery, the guests laid hold of them or blocked their passage with a
sprig of basil, a jasmin wreath. Their provocative treble was a delight to these jaded ears, softer
than the guitars which accompanied the half-nude women singers. Their breath had the scent of honey.
They offered the allurement of the forbidden.
As Lot cried out:
I pray you my brothers, do not so wickedly,
O people given up to all excesses.
But the princely voluptuaries seemed to take no heed of the future. Perhaps they hoped that on
Judgment Day some small virtue of theirs would be taken into account, even if it weighed no more
than a mustard seed. They seemed unable to resist the charm of these youths whose white faces shone
like stars, infernos to the heart, paradise to the eyes. This exotic taste of the elite of Bagdad
was quite typical of the times.
 Ganymede might claim that eroticism of this color has flourished in a similar way at every brilliant
epoch of civilization—under Pericles, during the Renaissance, at the court of Louis XIV, among
the Chinese and the Mussulmans of the East and West. One sees how far this craze could go in the
love songs, delirious hyperboles, sobs, supplications, which the poet Ibrahim ibn-Sahl wrote in the
thirteenth century for a certain Musa who was turning the heads of all the Sevillians. But the
imperturbable Ibn Khaldun, solicitous of royal reputations, would reply to Ganymede: "An infamous
calumny against the ulemas or sacred college." A defense comparable to the white-washing of every
coterie of intellectuals.
But widespread as was this taste of the noble Bagdadians, it did not mean that women were entirely
excluded from those pleasant evenings at court. Women had their place in dance and song, as
entertainers at the drinking-bouts. The harems were full of this type. They were trained there from
a tender age as in modern academies or subsidized theatres, and were sometimes recruited from the
Darrabat, the House of Musicians, near the mill of Abul Kwazim. Some of them were famous for their
talent, and more
 than one has left her name on the pages of history like the courtesans of Greece.
The women came accompanied by eunuchs. They wore red tunics, with tiaras on their foreheads, and
carried fans to refresh the lords. From their shoulders hung scarves embroidered with verses, which
could be read through their hanging locks of hair interwoven with hyachinths and jewels. The bizarre
color with which their eyes were painted to the inside of the eyelids made them appear very alluring
and languorous in the torchlight. As they moved about, one could see through their transparent robes
the undulating outlines of their lovely forms, supple but plump, according to the fashion of the
day. The Mussulman admired a full bosom, eyes of a gazelle and a mouth like the seal of Solomon.
Harun had no aversion to these peris. One can be quite sure of that, for his wife Zubaida was
terribly jealous of them, especially the lovely Dananir. This beauty belonged to the prime minister.
When Yahia brought her to the palace, every heart hung on her lips. When she appeared, men of
letters, artists, poets, the Caliph himself, murmured the verses of the Mullakwat of Tarifa:
The singer is dressed in a saffron robe .
her tunic discloses fruits most delectable
she begins her song in a slow and tender tone,
not squandering the treasures of her voice.
Little by little she draws on the riches of these . . .
varying them ever in a manner so moving
that one believes one hears the plaints of a mother
who laments the loss of her children. . . .
Under the direction of skilled teachers, beautiful girls went through the measures of court ballets.
Naphtha flames rising from small sockets sunk in the floor illumined them from head to foot. Amber
bodies and silken draperies glowed green and gold in this weird bright light and threw the
spectators into ecstasies of delight. The scarf dance and the dance of the sabres were followed by
sham battles, the eternal mime of offer and demand, love which refuses and love which yields. There
were novelties. For example, the lovely houris would suddenly appear, galloping on mock mounts to
which their robes were harnessed in various amusing ways, much as we see them today in the front row
of the chorus.
Strange the recreations needed to offset the
 tedium of excessive power. According to the admirable Beckford, who wrote a fanciful life of Vathek,
grandson of Harun, the latter used to soar away on the wings of the roc, into the midst of jinn and
their enchantments. He would come back to earth soon, however, for in order to laugh heartily one
must have serious things to amuse one. Harun's guests never hesitated to relate in front of him
anecdotes which aimed at holy personages, to make jokes and puns with verses from the Koran. It was
considered not a blasphemous, but an amusing pastime!
The music was interrupted sometimes to allow a prisoner to be put on the rack and tortured before
these befuddled revelers. Once it was a monk of the desert whom they tormented with all sorts of
temptations of the flesh.
Anything for a change. The Caliph handed over commissions and positions of authority even for clever
ideas, for an epigram. When the virtuous and dignified Ishmael let himself be coerced into singing a
ditty in a ridiculously cracked voice, nothing more was needed for Harun's delight. He attached the
banner of Egypt to a lance, handed it to the singer, and a new provincial governor was created.
On occasion the Caliph would order that a
be-  lated passer-by be brought in from the street. The terrified actions of the poor wretch never failed
to amuse the assemblage. Then again the interlude would be an execution. Masrur would bring a sabre
and a leather cushion for the condemned, and one more head would fall under the sinister blade. At
such times, drunkenness was a relief.
Until the sinking of Scorpio . . .
As the dawn broke little by little, a pensive voice, accompanied by a few melancholy arpeggios,
would be heard singing:
O my friends, empty a few more cups with me before we separate!
Cup-bearer, pour me more of this pure and limpid wine!
Already the dawning day
is violating the shadows and tearing to shreds the, night . . .
Satiety was eating into their hearts; wan faces were haggard and sad; the wine was turning bitter.
Maudlin, they were ready for verses on man's misery and life's brevity. The feast was not yet
finished, though, and citharas, flutes and oboes struck up again:
 "Sing once more, Abul-Atahiya! Sing, and give this royal night a new lease of life." Then
The poet would chant to timbals and lutes:
O Caliph! live long to the bent of your caprices
in the cool shadow of your lofty palaces.
"More, more!" they would chorus.
From morning until evening may everything about you
press forward eagerly to satisfy your desires
But the poet's voice was dying out. The timbals beat time dully, and the exhausted guests, overcome
by drunkenness, nausea and vertigo, became silent. Then once more the voice of Abul-Atahiya would be
At the hour when the death-rattle shall
come to shake your throat,
alas, you will realize that your pleasures
were only chimeras and vanities!
Then Harun al-Rashid would burst into sobs.
 "Leave off," he would cry, "leave off! You have shown us our blindness."
Day at last. Man-made music ceased and that of the priests of God began to be heard. The Muezzzins
were calling the Faithful together for the morning prayer.