Less known are the many instances in which cultural and artistic goods have passed back and forth between Muslim and Christian lands. Consequently, the few instances that have found their way into the common historical narrative appear anomalous, or even amusing. The earliest of these is the exchange of embassies and gifts between Charlemagne and Harun al–Rashid, the Abbasid caliph, in 798. What made this exchange memorable to later historians was the delivery of an elephant in 801 to Charlemagne’s capital in Aachen.
However, the elephant was not the only gift from the caliph. He also sent a carved ivory horn, a golden tray and pitcher, two tall and intricately engraved brass candlesticks, perfumes, a chess set, some lengths of fine cloth, and a tent and robe of honor bearing the words “There is no God but God.” Finally, there was a water clock in which 12 metal balls sounded the hour by falling on a cymbal, and 12 carved horsemen emerged from little windows and paraded. Historians of Islamic art easily recognize each of these items as representative of the high cultural standards of the Baghdad caliphate, and some of the items—the tray and pitcher, possibly chess pieces, the carved ivory, and the robe of honor—still survive in European museums.
Though this episode is usually cited as an oddity, it was not an isolated instance of the exchange of embassies and gifts. Charlemagne’s great–great–granddaughter, Bertha, the daughter of Lothair II, repeated her famous forebear’s actions when she sent an embassy to the Abbasid caliph al–Muktafi in 906. Her letter, preserved in an Arabic manuscript compiled less than a century later, describes her as “Queen of all the Franks” and relates that “a friendship took place between [her] and the King of Ifriqiyah [Muslim Tunisia].” Despite this friendship, a Tunisian ship fell to her navy in battle and a man named ‘Ali, one of 150 captives, entered her court and stayed for seven years. Through ‘Ali she learned that:
There is friendship between you [the caliph] and the Byzantine king who resides in Constantinople. But my armies are far greater than his, and my kingdom is larger, and my authority covers twenty–four kingdoms, the language of each of which being different from that next to it. The great city of Rome lies within my kingdom, thanks to God. [‘Ali] told me good things about you that filled my heart in regard to your state of affairs. I do request God to support me in winning your friendship and peace between us for as many years as you wish. The [final] decision in this is yours. A settlement of peace is something that had never been requested by any member of my family, or my relatives, or the like of us.’3
The text goes on to list the gifts Queen Bertha’s ambassador, who was none other than the Tunisian ‘Ali, was charged to deliver to the caliph: fifty swords, fifty shields, fifty Frankish spears, twenty garments woven with gold, twenty pieces of cloth made of sea wool (i.e., fibers from the shells of Pinna nobilis, a Mediterranean bivalve; also known as “sea byssus” or “byssus silk”), twenty male slaves, twenty female slaves, ten large dogs, seven falcons, three birds that sniff out poison, and beads to remove spearheads and arrowheads from wounds. This list contrasts sharply with the artistic manufactures that Harun al–Rashid sent to Charlemagne and thereby symbolizes the great disparity between the refined arts of the Muslim realm and the much less sophisticated military courts of western Europe. The two lists together further demonstrate that embassies and gift exchanges were very elaborate affairs involving scores of people, as they continued to be through the following centuries.Back to the top.