An Emperor and his Elephant - Charlemagne and Abul Abaz

20 July 802, the first elephant north of the Alps mentioned in a document since antiquity arrived as a gift from Harun al-Rashid at Charlemagne’s court in Aachen.

“On July 20 of this same year Isaac arrived with the elephant and the other presents sent by the Persian king, and he delivered them to the emperor at Aachen. The name of the elephant was Abul Abaz” (“The Royal Frankish Annals”)

A 19th century imagination of Abul Abaz from Charlotte M. Yonge's "Young Folks' History of Germany" (1878), found on

Even though the Abbasid Caliphate was at the height of its power during his reign, Harun al-Rashid's legacy is not regarded as non-controversially glorious at all in the Islamic world. The West remembers him as the wise and resourceful ruler though, roaming through the streets and taverns of nightly Baghdad in disguise to get first hand information about his subjects' sensitivities. And the embassy from Charlemagne he received in 801 made his name almost eponymous with “Caliph” in Western tradition since the early Middle Ages.  Led by the first Jew known by name from medieval Europe, the merchant Isaac of Aachen, who acted as guide, interpreter and counsellor for the two Frankish ambassadors Lantfried and Sigismund, the mission to Baghdad negotiated access to the holy sites in Palestine for Western pilgrims and, one a geostrategic scale, a rapprochement of the Frankish Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate against their mutual rivals and enemies, Byzantium and the Umayyads in Spain. Isaac and his embassy returned to the west laden with wondrous gifts and led one exceptional present towards Aachen – an Indian elephant named Abul-Abbas.

Julius Köckert's (1827 - 1918) imagination of unfortunate Lantfrid and Sigismund arriving at Harun al-Rashid's court (1864)

How Isaac and the pachyderm made it back to Europe is unrecorded, they probably crossed the Mediterranean from Kairouan in Tunisia and landed in Genoa in October 801, wintered in La Spezia and started their trek across the Alps in the following spring. Finally arriving in Aachen, Charlemagne and his court were rather overwhelmed by the exotic grandeur of the gifts of “Aaron, the king of the Persians” as the Caliph was called in the chronicles, aromatics, fabrics, an automatic water clock and, of course, Abul-Abbas the elephant. The annals remain silent about Charlemagne’s immediate reactions on suddenly having an exotic 3-ton pet but at least he seems to have regarded Abul-Abbas as a symbol of his Imperial power. The imperial pachyderm was probably exhibited in his various “Kaiserpfalzen” (fortified imperial palaces) over the next years, accompanying Charlemagne on his meanderings through his vast domains on a regular basis. Rather inclement weather conditions in Central Europe, at least for elephants,  finally did it for the pachyderm in 810. Abul Abbas died of pneumonia, after crossing the Rhine in 810 in a place called Lippeham in Wesel.

The rather late-Romantic imagination of an unknown mid-20th century
illustrator showing the arrival of Abul Abbas in Aachen and substituting Isaac
with various Orientals against the background
of quasi-Carolingian Renaissance architecture
(image found on

If Abul Abbas really was a white elephant and if Charlemagne considered to use him in war is debated since the last 1200 years. Elephant bones found in a field near Lippeham in 1750 were, naturally, classified as the remains of Charlemagne’s elephant, even though they might have been the remains of some prehistoric trunked animal. Abul Abbas became the name that inspired the German word “Popanz”, a kind of a bogeyman, and the idea of the large animals carrying towers on their backs, inspired by Charlemagne's elephant and resounding from antiquity as well, got stuck at least in the depiction of chess castles as elephants with fortifications on their backs and an 18th century pub sign showing the same image and lending the name to a district in south London, Elephant and Castle, along with other rather curious displays of pachyderms in western imagery until the late 19th century.