Saturday, July 19, 2003

SOME PEOPLE COUNT THE REIGN OF CHARLEMAGNE AS THE END OF ANTIQUITY, so on that theory I'll link to the following story, which involves the king, a Jewish merchant, the Caliph Harun ar-Rashid, and a white elephant named Abu Abbas.

Baghdad, Jerusalem, Aachen � On the Trail of the White Elephant (Deutsche Well)

1,200 years ago three men set off on a journey from Europe to the Middle East and back. Today their trip across three cultures and religions is recreated in the Aachen exhibit "Ex oriente: Isaac and the white elephant."

Baghdad and Jerusalem. Today the cities conjure up images of armed conflict and religious strife. For many they are the epitome of the collision between the Orient and Occident, the battlefields of global interests, where the foreign other is so different and distant from Europe. But a thousand years ago the cities represented the pinnacle of cultural and religious symbiosis and were the choice destination for one of history�s lesser-known but certainly more interesting journeys.

The year was 797 in the Christian calendar (4557 in the Jewish and 175 in the Muslim dating system). Charlemagne, King of the Francs, had sent forth two of his envoys and the Jewish merchant Isaac to the court of Harun al Rashid, Caliph of Baghdad. Their mission: establish contact with the ruler of the Abbasids and observe the ways of the city on the Euphrates. Compared to the town of Aachen with its 400 some residents, Baghdad was a flourishing metropolis, a renowned place of learning and a melting point for various cultures and religions.

When the envoys departed from Charlemagne�s court in western Germany, the distant lands of the Orient were still largely unknown and exotic. The envoy�s route led them first to upper Italy, then by ship to the holy city of Jerusalem, and from there to Baghdad, the seat of the Abbasid Caliph. All in all, the men traversed a good portion of the known world at the time, passing through the territories of the three great monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

After several months in Baghdad, the men embarked on their return journey, laden with gifts, the most impressive of which was a white Indian elephant, Abu Abbas � a symbol of friendship from the Muslim caliph to the Christian king. But because the pachyderm was so much slower than a horse, the return voyage turned into an arduous four-year adventure along the southern Mediterranean from Jerusalem to Carthage, where Isaac � who was now traveling alone � and Abu Abbas set sail to Italy. In the spring of 802, Isaac crossed the Alps on elephant-back and rode on to Aachen in the Kingdom of the Francs.


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