Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Gabriel Audisio

Agrippina on the Tigris

The power behind the throne was Khaizuran, who, aided by Yahia the Barmecide, was scheming to pass the succession on to her favorite son. The fact that he had been designated as heir-presumptive was not enough for her. She could not become reconciled to his playing second fiddle for the time being. Harun's golden hour seemed too remote to her. Hadi, the elder, given a few years to perpetuate his line, would be tempted to disregard his father's wishes. Who could be sure that he would not abrogate his brother's rights to succeed him?

Khaizuran was ambition without scruple. Though undoubtedly considering her Benjamin s happiness, she closed her eyes to his own inclination; for there is no evidence that Harun was eager to usurp the throne or to occupy it. It is obvious, therefore, that through Harun she hoped to maintain and increase her personal power. Hadi was stubborn by nature, while Harun, more easily influenced, and attracted by the pleasures of the court rather than the responsibilities of statecraft, would be more malleable in her hands. There was something of Nero's mother, Agrippina, about this woman.

She was certainly tenacious, working for years on her plans and using every arrow in the quiver of her wiles to pin the Caliph to her purpose. A slave at the time of Harun's birth, Khaizuran had been first freed by the Caliph and later married to him. No other woman had so much authority at court, not even the Dailamite Khiklah whom the Caliph had also freed when she had given him his son Ibrahim, whose golden voice later endeared him to all Mussulmans. The strongest proof of Khaizuran's sway over Mandi is that among his seven sons hers were the only two ever mentioned as candidates for his throne.

The Caliph granted practically all of her requests, her whims. Yet she was constantly drawing him to further indulgences by her chronic state of dissatisfaction. Being a woman who accepted all favors and services condescendingly and who saw in the liberality of others only her rightful due, she was accustomed to underestimate whatever was done for her.

On one occasion Mandi had made her a lavish gift of two thousand slaves, half of them men, half women. Of the thousand men each carried a silver purse containing a thousand dinars, while each female slave bore a golden purse of a thousand dirhems. The same evening that she received this munificent tribute of her royal spouse's affection and generosity she remarked calmly, perhaps even with a touch of sarcasm, "What benefits have I ever received from you!" Instead of remonstrating with her, the Caliph redoubled his favors.

It is quite true that this affectionate, affable man had a weakness for women and was easily swayed by them. He passed every evening among the favorites of his harem and was so devoted to one of his daughters that he did not scruple to take her into the country on hunting trips, letting her gallop at his side in the black costume of the Abbassids, a turban on her head and a sword at her side. It goes without saying that the people were completely scandalized by such unconventional proceedings.

Khaizuran left no stone unturned to keep the undeniable merits of young Harun before her husband's eyes, and Yahia abetted her in this. Even the slumbers of the Caliph seemed to favor their designs. There is an anecdote recounting that one night he dreamed of having given two branches of a tree to Hadi and Harun. The branch that Hadi received bore only a few leaves on its stem, while Harun's was covered with foliage from end to end. Their father had not failed to see in this a premonition that Hadi's reign would not endure long while Harun's would prove to be an era of prosperity.

The Mussulman faith, not unlike some others, is full of superstitions, and one can draw from its history many incidents like this one which would not stand the test of clear reason but perhaps had a strong influence on their victims. The hard-pressed Mandi finally decided to change his plans for the succession in favor of Harun. This was going to be difficult, however. Hadi had been regularly appointed and it would be necessary, for the sake of appearances, to obtain his consent, his voluntary renunciation, to release the Faithful from their oath of loyalty to Hadi and at the same time induce them to transfer their allegiance to Harun.

Hadi was at this time in the field warring against a group of rebels from Tabaristan. His father recalled him to Bagdad in order to discuss the matter with him. The heir to the throne became suspicious, however, and took good care not to obey. Thereupon the Caliph, urged on by his scheming wife, resolved to go in person and withdraw his pledge from this rebel son who apparently did not intend to be cast aside lightly. Accompanied by Harun, the irritated monarch set forth.

The hand of fate blocked Mandi's swift move, however, and prevented him from reaching his destination. Upon his arrival at Masabadhan, he died suddenly on the seventh of August, 785, while still in his forties.

History, particulary that of the Mussulmans, is too full of untoward accidents such as this for one to believe them always free from human agency. Oriental historians have long suspected that Mandi's death was not due to chance. Some attribute it to an accident met while hunting; others mention a misdirected arrow, a bucking horse. Still others tell a tale of poisoned sweetmeats made by a jealous slave girl, confections meant for one of her rivals and served to the Caliph by mistake. The more cynical have suspected the dark hand of political intrigue, a theory that will surely appeal to most critical minds, considering the importance of this event in the career of him against whose interests the Caliph was acting.

Mandi's death, however, did not distinguish him from other caliphs. Those who died from natural causes are conspicuously few. He was in his prime, but caliphs did not ordinarily live long. The young seemed ready enough to assist their elders into the grave. It was for this reason perhaps that the older generation lived so fast and furiously.

Poisoned sweetmeats, unruly horse, error of chief steward, no matter: the succession to the throne was open, and the prize was worth grasping. The reign of Mandi had been prosperous. He had strengthened the throne of the Abbassids, and the power of the Caliph of Bagdad was recognized in distant countries, even by the Emperor of China, the King of Thibet, and the Princes of India. His mistake had been to draw too heavily upon the public treasury for his sumptuous pilgrimages and pious almsgivings. But this situation could easily be adjusted.

If the succession to the throne was worth having, it was worth keeping, thought Hadi, well satisfied with the turn of events. Not so with his mother, Yahia the Barmecide and perhaps also Harun, whose plans had all been set awry by this catastrophe. Mandi had died without being able to rearrange the order of succession. There was no escaping this fact. Something had to be done about it.

The unfortunate Caliph was scarcely mourned, unless perhaps by Hassaneh, the most beautiful of his slaves, and others of his concubines whose comfortable days were now over. An Arab poet dedicated to the memory of Mandi this apt advice: "Since you must lament, it is your own destiny that you should bewail." Mandi might also have applied to himself the Oriental adage, "There is nothing like one's own nail to scratch one's skin."

As for Yahia and Harun, dazed by the turn of affairs, they consulted together feverishly. Should they risk a march against Hadi? That would be a bold stroke, for he had the law on his side. They were trying desperately to keep the death of the Caliph a secret, but it could be concealed only for a few hours at the most, and they were apprehensive of a sudden uprising in the army. As a matter of fact, the secret was already seeping out and couriers were making their way, full speed, to bear the news to the legitimate heir. If the conspirators did nothing, it meant merely awaiting the possible vengeance of the new caliph. Yet, they reflected, they might wait for worse things. "Let us have a care," they said to each other. "The enmity of one's relatives is more dangerous than the sting of scorpions." In the face of this serious dilemma, Yahia the Barmecide flashed his political genius. He counseled feigning submission and loyalty. The important thing just then was to save their heads; the future could be attended to later.

Harun appears to have been completely under his tutor's thumb. At Yahia's direction he dispatched letters of condolence and felicitations to his brother, full of protestations of devotion. He addressed him as Caliph, sent him the insignia of power, the ring, baton, cloak of the Prophet and other attributes of the caliphate. He informed Hadi that he had recited as proxy for him several funeral prayers over the body of their father, that he had presided for him at the ceremony of the oath of office, and that he had made a point of bringing the army back to Bagdad. Nothing could have been done more astutely.

Meanwhile, Hadi abandoned his camp and advanced on the capital by forced marches. The new Caliph was not wrong to hasten. The news of Mandi's death had spread rapidly through Bagdad, and already there were rumors of a revolt. The brief periods between one reign and the next are perfect fields for agitators. The army summoned back so soon to the capital had profited little from its interrupted campaign. Pay was in arrears and the warriors employed their idle days as they pleased.

When the lion is away the hyenas will dance. The streets and marketplaces were overrun with soldiers. They invaded the prisons and, taking the inmates with them, burned the doors of the chamberlain's palace, made a great uproar and held drunken orgies in public eating-places, taverns, and brothels. Crossing the bridges of the Tigris, they tore the corpses of victims from their gibbets and threw them into the river, where they drifted under the walls of the Palace of Eternity, on a stream more eternally tragic. At night by the glare of torches which disclosed the bloody waters of this Oriental Venice, they made lewd haunts of the alleys of the outlying quarter of Karkh. In the House of Singing Women, the doors had to be barricaded. The loyal Ansarian Guard, at the ramparts of the capital, locked the posterns and grilled gates. Now and then the thud of a body could be heard falling into the Canal of the Dogs.

Throughout this long night of horrors, Khaizuran was in a transport of joy. The world has seen other women of her stamp, furies who enjoyed watching Rome in flames, or who leaned from the balconies of the Louvre to gaze upon the massacre of alleged heretics. This was merely a temporary outbreak of disorganized troops, but it foreshadowed the coming of civil war when brother would be pitted against brother, each pursuing the other from door to door, intent on murder and destruction. The lurid spectacle consoled Khaizuran for her widowhood. Through this chaos she hoped to regain some of her waning power. There is reason to suspect that she may even have had a hand in stirring up the trouble as a last move in favor of Harun. If this was true, she was too late, for Hadi was about to arrive, and Yahia, more determined than ever on procrastination, had to reestablish order quickly.

This resourceful man had all sorts of irresistible arguments. In order to appease the warriors he gave them, forthwith, two years' pay. They were to feast if they liked, but on condition that the state did not suffer. The ambitious Queen Mother must possess her soul in patience. She should have her favored Caliph in good time, and with him plenty of power and glory; but meantime the lawful heir must find a city where peace and order would assure him all the security necessary to his accession.

The fall of the Abbassids would mean the end of Harun—and of Khaizuran.