The “Night of the three Caliphs” in 786

14 September 786, the “Night of the three Caliphs” took place in the Abbasid capital of Baghdad. The old Caliph al-Hadi died, Harun al-Rashid became the new ruler and his son al-Ma’mun was born.
“Six columns, three on either side, Pure silver, underpropt a rich
Throne of the massive ore, from which
Down-drooped, in many a floating fold,
Engarlanded and diapered
With inwrought flowers, a cloth of gold.
Thereon, his deep eye laughter-stirred
With merriment of kingly pride,
Sole star of all that place and time.
I saw him in his golden prime, The good Haroun Alraschid!

(Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Recollections of the Arabian Nights“)

Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî: a scene from al-Harîrî’s “Maqâmât”

If there is a fairy tale prince from “Thousand and One Nights” whose name immediately springs to mind when the word “Caliph” is uttered, it is probably Harun al-Rashid. The writings of the Frankish chroniclers Einhard and Notker the Stammerer made his name popular in the West during the early Middle Ages, when Charlemagne’s embassy returned to Aachen laden with gifts from fabulous Baghdad, the elephant Abul-Abbas among them, a sophisticated water clock, mechanical knights, things and tales that might have appeared to the worthy Franks like the fabrics from another planet, even though the Carolingian Renaissance just had reached its own peak of civilisation after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. When Sir Richard Burton translated The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night roughly a thousand years later, the stories about Harun al-Rashid, an integral part of the cycle, found a fertile ground to sprout the imaginations of the stern, just but sometimes a bit capricious ruler, who ranges through the bazaars of Baghdad at night in disguise to hear what his subjects think and say about him.

Julius Köckert (1827 - 1918): "Harun al-Rashid receives the delegation of Charlemagne"

In fact, Harun al-Rashid had his brother murdered in the “Night of the three Caliphs” to get on the throne and his patrons and backers, the mighty Persian Barmakid family, whose influence and prudent stewardship as viziers had made the Abbasid Empire what it was at the end of the 8th century soon learned what a viper they had nurtured in their bosom. The “Arabian Nights” tell the echo of their fall. By 803, the Barmakids had fallen from Harun al-Rashid’s grace, probably because they had become too rich and powerful for his taste, didn’t approve of his alleged debauchery and were not respectful enough. Grand Vizier Ja’far, who was not the scoundrel at all he is depicted as these days, and most of his family were either executed or imprisoned and their vast riches were seized by the Caliph and the decline of the empire began. The legendary Caliph is still not very popular in the Eastern World.

A 19th century view of Baghdad 

Nonetheless, Harun al-Rashid had even expanded the splendour of Baghdad during his reign, and the city flourished as a place of trade with goods from Spain to India and China available, a centre of learning with the famous Bayt al-Hikma ("House of Wisdom") and luxuries making the metropolis second to none in the world. The Caliph didn’t spend much of his time there, though, transferring his capital to the Euphrates at ar-Raqqa, close to the frontlines with his arch enemy, the Eastern Roman Empire. The friendly receival of Charlemagne’s embassy at his court might well be seen under this light, since the Frankish Empire was constantly at loggerheads with the Byzantines over who was the rightful emperor and who was the head of the church – the pope or the emperor in Constantinople. However, Harun al-Rashid gave the crisis-ridden late 8th century Byzantines one trashing after the other, until his own hinterland rebelled under relatives of the Barmakids and he died campaigning, possibly poisoned, in Tus, near Mashad in north eastern Iran in 809. His decision to divide his empire after his death among his three sons proved to be fatal and lead to the collapse of the caliphate.

Below is the video with the read version of Harun’s tale by yours truly