HARUN AL-RASHID (786 - 809)

Aged 22 when he became caliph, Harun had already made a name as an 18-year-old for his brisk and efficient conquest of Anatolia from the Byzantines. Because he figures prominently as a character in the Thousand and One Nights, his name is more familiar than most; his actual achievements were noteworthy in a different way.

Illustration from Hassan by James Elroy Flecker 1924

Haroun al-Rashid 's court is the setting for James Elroy Flecker's romantic drama Hassan, relecting the orientalist fantasies of the time (1922). This is from an edition of the play illustrated by Thomas Mackenzie (1924).


The army - no longer Arabs from the desert as in the era of the conquest, and made up now largely of mercenaries from the east (including many Turks and eastern Iranians) needed to have its loyalty ensured by generous cash hand-outs.

Visitors to his palace were required to prostrate themselves as in the old days of the Kings of Kings. While everyday administration was left to his vizier (formerly his boyhood tutor) Yahya (aka Jafar) the Barmakid, Harun travelled all over his empire, ensuring that his subjects knew him. But Harun eventually became suspicious of the Barmakids' influence and wealth: in AD 803 Yahya was killed and the rest of his family arrested. Their fall was possibly connected with trouble in Khorasan, the Barmakids' home territory, which finally rebelled in AD 807. Harun was dealing with the situation when he fell ill and died in AD 809.

He seems to have had no real interests in the remoter parts of the Abbasid empire. Spain and the Maghrib had already gone (though they still recognised the Abbasids as caliphs): now it was the turn of Ifriqiya. Harun allowed Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab, a trusted officer, a free hand if he agreed to ensure peace and security. Ibrahim founded the Aghlabid dynasty which ruled Ifriqiya for a century.

Wealth & Commerce

Baghdad was without doubt now the world's richest city. Gold was everywhere: worn by women, decorating houses, weapons and horses. Jewels, embroidered silks, carpets, fountains, music and perfumes all added to the atmosphere of refined luxury. Harun's merchants traded with China, Indonesia, India and East Africa, supported by an efficient international banking system.

Harun receives Charlemagne's envoys

Harun receiving a delegation from Charlemagne

The Army

Harun's army was much changed from the original cavalry-based enthusiasm of the early Arab invaders. In battle, at the front were armoured light cavalry with lances (evolved from the Sasanian heavy Savaran knights). Infantry was divided into pikemen, swordsmen and archers. The pikemen were if possible, static - waiting for the enemy attack. As the enemy advanced, unable to get through the pikemen, they would be thrown into confusion by the archers, and the swordsmen would then relentlessly sweep them up as they retreated. As a young man, Harun had humiliated the Byzantines and the ruler, the empress Irene (AD 782). When she was deposed in 802, the usurping emperor Nicephorus I absurdly demanded repayment of all the tribute paid to Baghdad during Irene's reign. Harun's army once again swept through Anatolia to threaten Constantinople: Nicephorus backed down, only to try again as soon as the Arab army had retreated. This was too much - Harun's army came back with a vengeance in 805, and Nicephorus was totally humiliated. The appearance of the Caliph on horseback confronting the infidels was a powerful symbol of the Abbasids' leadership of the Islamic world. The real threat to Harun's power was closer to home: Khorasan. Lukewarm in its tolerance of the Abbasids since the days of Abu Muslim, Khorasan had suffered from bad government and agitation - probably - by the Barmakid family (hence their fall from power) and was ready to revolt. In 804 it did so. Before Harun died on campaign in 809, he showed the importance he placed in restoring Khorasan to Abbasid rule by making his eldest son al-Mamun governor of all the eastern provinces.

Poster for a modern TV series!

The succession

No doubt Harun thought he was being fair by dividing his empire between his three sons, but it turned out to have been a disastrous mistake. Al-Mamun was given Khorasan and the east, al-Amin was given the actual caliphate and rule over Iraq and most of the west; a third son al-Mutamin was given Syria.