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Harun Al-Rashid, Caliph of Bagdad by  Gabriel Audisio

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HARUN ASCENDS THE THRONE

[44] IT WAS a gorgeous night when Harun al-Rashid was proclaimed Caliph, and a beautiful morning when he made his official entry next day into the city of Bagdad, preceded by his bodyguard and followed by the army. It was Friday, the day of rest and prayer. Throngs of people from outlying districts pressed towards the palace, joining the procession. Karkh and Harbiya were deserted and only cats prowled in the gardens of Baratha.

In order to satisfy the enormous demand for mounts, almost everything on four legs was pressed into service—mangy mules, bandy-legged colts, every breed of broken-down horseflesh. Children gaily clad, chains of them, scampered merrily to the fore. Jews, riding without stirrups, jostled the milling but good-natured pedestrians. The banks of the Tigris were thronged. Thousands upon thousands crowded the great bridge of boats which the Caliph would cross on his way to the citadel, swarmed about the Khorassan [45] Gate through which he must pass. Still others were massed about the mosque, where he would lead in prayer; covered the parade grounds, over-flowing to the very portals of the palace. Fleets of barges full of spectators choked the river. Terraces were flowered with the bright garments of women, and the murmur of the populace swelled like a humming chant in honor of the monarch's approach.

When the cortege appeared at the entrance to the bridge its living freight burst forth in acclamations of the Commander of the Faithful. From the terrace rose more faintly the plaudits of the women, like the music of excited birds. With their cries mingled the rustling of standards and banners. The black cloaks, black turbans, black flags of the Abbassids stood out like splashes of kohl on the face of the sun-bleached city, glistened like black onyx in the sun. Sabres and lances, trumpets and timbrels glittered even more brilliantly. The procession swept by slowly. One by one, passed the great chiefs, ministers and princes. Finally came the mighty Barmecides, Yahia and his sons. They were followed by a troop of guards with drawn swords, maces at their shoulders, bows ready for action. In their midst was a fine figure of a man, shrouded in a black cloak, and [46] riding erect on a gorgeously caparisoned charger. It was Harun al-Rashid, revealed at last to the dazzled and admiring gaze of his subjects.

Thanks to God the Most High and to His Prophet, this His Lieutenant, Aaron the Orthodox, the Well-Directed, Commander of the Faithful, was now about to bestow upon the people that harmony and peace for which they had been waiting since the days of Abbas. The accession of Harun to the throne seemed a prelude to the Golden Age.

The Caliph advanced slowly as the people, suddenly silent, prostrated themselves before him. Boats floated almost motionless on the river; only the occasional stamping of a horse or the sharp cries of birds broke the stillness. All eyes were on this new leader who was to carry the renown of his power and pomp to the ends of the earth and whose glory was so fascinating to his contemporaries and to posterity that he became the dominating figure of extraordinary legends, for centuries and centuries the living hero of the Thousand and One Nights.


[Illustration]

BAGDAD, CAPITAL OF THE CALIPH'S VAST EMPIRE.

Adoring throngs gazed upon him. He was scarcely twenty-four, handsome, well-built, tall and of a noble countenance. Everyone was certain that he possessed rare virtues, was a model [47] of piety and generosity. His culture and knowledge of science called forth admiration from all sides. They praised his skill as a musician and poet. The Roi Soleil  himself boasted no more effulgent aureole than this young emperor when his fame in France, all Europe, was at its height. Such was the morning star of glory which shone that gala morning before the eyes of the inhabitants of Bagdad.

Khaizuran, at her window in the Palace of the Green Dome, wept with pride and joy. How distant seemed those days when her Harun had in his following only one troop of slaves led by a single lancer! Tears gave way to half-suppressed smiles of exultation as her women crowded about, murmuring the honeyed words of flattery. Her son would soon be secure on the throne and she would have her way again.

Suddenly at a sign from the Sovereign, the procession stopped. Harun al-Rashid was in the middle of the great bridge. From his horse's back he gazed at the flowing current with a strange, ironic expression. From that very spot he had once thrown a ring given him by his father the Caliph Mandi. It has been handed down from sovereign to sovereign since the days of the Chosroes, but Harun had refused to relinquish it to Hadi, in [48] spite of requests and threats. He had preferred consigning it to the river rather than give in to his brother.

He was gazing at the place where he had thrown it, when an idea struck him and he murmured a brief order. Like a flock of water creatures, startled by a sudden noise, a hundred swimmers plunged into the depths of the water, making heavy waves which rolled up on the shores. One of them, luckier than the rest, brought up the ring. The Caliph put it on his finger, lifting his hand toward Heaven that God might be a witness. A hum of admiration ran through the people like a fire in the brush. A miracle, probably encouraged by a clever stage manager, had taken place and the prestige of the new reign was palpably strengthened.

The procession started again, crossed the parade ground and escorted the Caliph to his Palace of Eternity. Inaugural ceremonies, vows and prayers took up the entire day. It is doubtful if Harun himself fully realized what had happened until nightfall gave him time to think. When he could finally be alone to enjoy the fragrance of his gardens, while the last songs of the oarsmen were dying in the distance and the women were decking themselves with jewels and feathers to re- [49] ceive their sovereign, then Harun al-Rashid realized that he had become master of the world. He seemed to smell incense coming toward him from all directions and to hear the golden-tongued adulation of poets:

Have you not seen the Sun linger

to shed its light on Harun, the Chosen,

on the blessed Confidant of God,

Harun the Magnificent?

Adulation, flattery, fear and a kind of mystic power made all heads incline before him and brought to the dust the foreheads of his subjects and slaves. He was Commander of the Faithful, Lieutenant of the Prophet of God on earth, almost divine himself.

At that time, the Caliph was no longer simply the leader of the Mussulmans, elected by the people as in the time of Muhammad's first successors; nor just a wise man to whom was entrusted the direction of prayers and spiritual destinies. He was no longer even a supreme sovereign like the Ommayyad caliphs, who loved luxury but did not feel it necessary that the dust under their feet should be laid by the kisses of the Faithful.

The influence of autocratic Persia, to which the [50] Abbasids owed their accession, was at its height. It was not exercised now with tribes united in a kind of democratic federation. The governmental authority had ceased to be in the hands of wandering horsemen; it belonged to the men of letters, viziers and closet politicians. That nomad Caliph whose shoulder every one kissed familiarly was no more. In his place existed a ruler with tyrannical powers, hidden behind an impenetrable veil, upon a throne of gold and precious stones, in the heart of a palace built circle within circle, inaccessible!

The Commander of the Faithful had become an Asiatic despot, a reincarnation of the King of Kings, a Darius.


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