At its very apogee, the caliphate of Bagdad was to see its halcyon days of Hymen rudely disrupted by a startling divorce. Harun al-Rashid and the Barmecides were coming to a parting of the ways. Oriental history has preserved with vivid detail the story of this shocking drama. Descending without warning, and in origin, the brutal tragedy brought consequences of great historical interest in its train. The court of Bagdad, which had so joyously and completely abandoned itself to pleasures, was threatened by a mighty tempest that in a short time was to throw all Mussulman society of the eastern caliphate into disorder, leaving behind it a bloody trail of death. The most notable reverses in European history hold nothing more striking than the disgrace and downfall of the Barmecides, and none has left to posterity a more instructive example of the vanity of worldly things, of the dangerous frailty of human relations.
The Barmecides had aspired too high, and it was inevitable that their glory should crumble. The incalculable influence and controlling power which they had succeeded in arrogating to themselves, together with their generosity and wide-spread patronage, had won them a large and devoted following. But there were naturally enemies also in that court honeycombed with intrigues where no one was ever sure of the morrow. Among so many ambitious courtiers, inclined to any perfidy or treachery, many were slowly coming to realize the situation, and here and there sly attempts were being made to undermine the Caliph's confidence in the Barmecides. Ibn Khaldun says: "Envy and jealousy lifted their masks and the scorpions of calumny came to sting the Barmecides even on the couch that they had erected in the very shadow of the throne."
Many were jealous of their credit, their power, their wealth. Harun was susceptible, suspicious, and full of pride. The schemers knew his weak spots. What they dared not say was put into libelous writing and sent to him. It is the way of malcontents in autocratic governments to vent their spleen in an endless stream of satire. The reigns of the Roman Caesars and the despotic monarchy of Versailles were soiled by anonymous belchings, those inevitable protests against excess of power; an unsavory, yet time-honored expression of the spirit of liberty. Paradoxically enough, the pamphleteers were reproaching this tyrannical sovereign with not being masterful enough, or rather, with not being the sole master. Through their ballad-writers the Roman plebeians accused the Emperor Claudius of dozing in his palace. The satirists of Bagdad exclaimed:
Heaven grant that destiny fulfils her promises
and cures our afflicted hearts!
Let her take command!
this other has lost the power to lead.
Rumors of this sort continually came to Harun's ears, arousing his pride and his slumbering imperial instinct. "By God, yes!" he said. "Very lacking in force is he who relegates his power to others. It is the weak alone who are not free." He found notes among his papers which ran this way:
"Say to the earthly Lieutenant of God, to him who has power to ruin or to save, that the Barmecides are kings as much as he. There is no longer any difference. Yes, there is, after all, one distinction: they ignore your orders while seeing to it that their own are obeyed." Harun comforted himself after reading these disquieting words by writing some verse in this sententious strain:
When the ant spreads her wings to fly,
her end is near. . .
He felt a heavy anger surging in him against these ministers into whose hands he had voluntarily resigned his powers. "Govern as you like," he had once said to Yahia: careless instructions lightly given by a young prince, too full of the joy of living to welcome the cares and responsibilities of actual administration. His words appeared in a new light to this mature king already wearying of pleasure. The time had come when he wished to reign himself. Like William with his Bismarck, Harun found himself completely dominated by his prime minister.
At first he did not have the courage to free himself. He went about, complaining to others and telling his friend and physician Gabriel, while laughing sarcastically: "God bless Yahia! He has relieved me of all my cares and leaves me endless leisure to enjoy myself." But when Yahia appeared before him the bitterness all disappeared. The old vizier understood how to regain his prestige and his young master's confidence by wise advice. If he thought it necessary, he would artfully threaten to resign. With an innocent air he would say: "I am getting old. I need rest. I should like to consecrate my life now to pious duties." Harun, suddenly alarmed at this prospect, would beg him not to withdraw his services and overwhelm him with fresh honors.
The scorpions of calumny did not lie low very long. They knew how to find the sensitive spots under the Caliph's skin. These Barmecides, not content with having usurped the authority, must now have all the wealth! Could the prince not see that most of the revenues from the empire were pouring into the treasury of his ministers? That they held innumerable fiefs, and that all Schammasiya belonged to them? That more and more provinces were coming under their control? People were wondering whether the Caliph did not have to beg for his pocket money. And such arrogant pomp! It was not proper that Rashid's retinue should be eclipsed by that of Jafar!
Handsome Jafar has built himself a palace whose floor is strewn with rubies and pearls; nothing in Persia or India can be found to equal it.
When you are dead, he will reign in your place.
One must be a slave to be guilty of such temerity!
Harun loved Jafar deeply, but his love faltered before such insinuations. Jafar did have, in truth, a brilliant following, and lines of equipages stood in front of his door. He had built a splendid home on the left river bank. The Barmecides were rich, very rich, much too rich. The scorpions were leaving their mark. Harun's jealousy flared up.
"My uncle," he said to the honorable Ishmael, "I am enriching the Barmecides at the expense of my own children. . . . Look from this window. Do you see yonder the crowd that throngs Jafar's door? Where do I stand now?"
"You are the Commander of the Faithful," replied wise Ishmael, "and Jafar is your slave. All his belongings are in reality yours."
These were comforting words to a heart which only sought reassurance. Jafar, also, knew how to calm his august companion. He suddenly decided not to keep for himself that palace which he had built at great expense. It should belong to Mamun, the Caliph's son. Harun recognized his beloved friend in this generous gesture. He accepted the palace for his heir, but insisted that Jafar should have the use of it during his lifetime. So for the time being, Jafar retained the palace and the Caliph's confidence, and Harun's jealousy and rancor were temporarily lulled! He bestowed the liveliest tokens of appreciation and undiminished affection upon the gentle, suave Jafar. When he was alone, however, he became once more the prey of the venomous scorpions. They had designs on his very heart!
The Barmecides were soon accused of everything. Their loyalty was a sham. Let the Caliph visit the prisons—he would look in vain there for certain culprits! The Barmecides had secretly released them for reasons of their own. That Alid now, once thrown into jail at Harun's command and supposedly dead; might Jafar not have released him? Perhaps he was plotting trouble somewhere with the approval of those foreigners, those Persians, traitors to the law of the One and Only God and his Lieutenant on earth! Traitors to God also! Who could be sure after all that the Barmecides were not still loyal to the religion of the Magi and followers of Zoroaster? When the Caliph had wished to have the ruins of the palaces of the Chosroes demolished, Yahia had objected. Perhaps the cult of the Magi was to blame for this! Their devotion to the Faith as preached by the Prophet might be mere pretense. They had been known to laugh quite cheerfully when some black sheep used impious and blasphemous words before them. They were zendiks, freethinkers—anything at all but Mussulmans!
Prince of the Faithful, what will you answer
on the Judgment Day when you must account
to God the All-Powerful for having subjected
Mussulmans and their kingdom
to these disloyal ones, these atheists?
Aaron the Orthodox felt it no longer righteous to endure this wrong against the true religion. If he could only be sure. . . . There was really nothing that he detested like heresy, but there were as yet no proofs of that sin. One could not accuse them of impiety because their ancestors had been idolatrous before the affirmation. In order to preserve some ruins at Ctesiphon, Yahia had given reasons which really redounded to the glory of Harun. The ministers attended to business faithfully, of course, but what ministers did not? No, these were only anonymous rumors, veiled slanders, low libels.
Again Harun made excuses to himself, but the evil tongues and pens persisted. The Caliph could not escape them, even in his most intimate circle. There was that son of Rabi who gained his confidence and became chamberlain. Yahia had done his best to prevent this and Rabi's son never forgave the Barmecides. He detested them, dreamed of ruining them and of getting their following for himself. He knew how to injure them with the Caliph by indirect means, making use of skilful ruses such as trying to replace Jafar in the Caliph's good graces with his own henchman, the elegant Zaraza:
The does of the harem also knew how to use their volatile poisons, once the Caliph's head was on a pillow. Zubaida led the rest. She disliked the Barmecides intensely. Her mania for power had suffered too often from the insidious practical jokes of Yahia, whom Harun had put in control of the harem. She was exceedingly jealous of Jafar, who enjoyed the Caliph's confidence entirely too fully to suit her and who, as tutor to young Mamun, was working against her own son Amin, whom she wished to see the sole heir to the throne. Harun's beautiful sister Abbasa, who shared the Caliph's company with Jafar, was another source of bitter jealousy to Zubaida. She felt it necessary to get these two out of the way and she was in a strategic position to harm them. Zubaida was not a slave. She was of royal blood, a pure Hashimite, granddaughter of Mansur the Victorious and a cousin of Harun al-Rashid. Endowed with a certain prestige and unusual efficiency, she had many followers to do her bidding and usually could gain her ends. Zubaida continually represented the Barmecides in an unfavorable light to her royal spouse, repeating foolish little tales which meant nothing to him at first but began, little by little, to make an impression. Jafar, the loyal friend—Abbasa, the virtuous sister—every one knew about their marriage, their promise to the Caliph, and every one was laughing. . . . On the coast of Medina there was a wet nurse who could say much if she wished, and there was a child whose features could not be mistaken! Alas for the pride of a race, the honor of a house!
Pursued to the borderland of sleep and perhaps even beyond, Harun still held firm. They must stop talking about the Barmecides! He was master and knew his business best. For more than sixteen years he had trusted them and now, in spite of every one, he would continue to do so. It would have taken a clairvoyant to read his heart and guess its real thoughts when, one day, as a fresh token of his royal favor, Harun al-Rashid led his viziers forth on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.