Harun al-Rashid's sudden attack upon the Barmecides was incomprehensible to his contemporaries. The unexpected and absolute disgrace of this illustrious family mystified every one. It was vain to try to figure out reasons for the catastrophe. Indeed it is still a moot question, having kept historians occupied off and on ever since the time of the early Arabian chroniclers who began arguing about it before a century had gone by. The meteoric catastrophe was such a resounding coup d'etat, so striking a reversal of fortunes, that it challenged every one's attention.
There are no lack of motives assigned for it. It is rather a question of finding the right one among them all. One is swamped with suggested reasons for Harun's anger. The scorpions of calumny, as Ibn Khaldun said, have insinuated that the chief causes were the excessive power in the hands of the Barmecides, the insolence of their wealth and pomp, which had become annoying to the Caliph's self-love, and his fear of seeing them favor a movement for Persian nationalism or a return to the religion of Zoroaster just when Arabian orthodoxy was planning a reaction against its heretical and rationalist doctrines. For centuries historians have been enumerating all these motives without knowing which to choose. Sometimes they regard all of them as valid, which is not illogical and quite as likely to be correct. Others have decided not to search for useless complications and assert that the cause of the downfall of the Barmecides as the sudden emancipation of a king who was tired of having his authority in the hands of over-powerful ministers and who relieved himself of them at one stroke after the expeditious manner of his race, country and epoch.
This does not explain, however, why Jafar, who held little political power and was Harun's closest friend, was the only Barmecide to be slain. Why the amiable and beloved companion, rather than the head of the family, Yahia, that powerful vizier, or at least, Fadl, whom Harun did not like and who could be dangerous politically?
This is the crux of the question, and here imaginations run riot. The Arabian historians, led by the serious Tabari, thought they had found a solution in the story of Abbasa. That romance offers an alluring field. An entire page would be required to list the volumes inspired by the forbidden love between Jafar and Abbasa! A sham marriage had been consummated between these two (as mentioned in an earlier chapter) because Harun al-Rashid could not see his friend and his sister, the two beings whom he loved most in the world, separated by Mussulman conventions; and Jafar had given his word to observe the conditions of this ceremony of convenience. La Harpe says: "Barmecide [speaking of Jafar] had not yet seen his destined wife [Abbasa]. When he met her his heart recoiled against the agreement he had made. He found it unjust and cruel, and love and nature became more sacred to him than his promise. Unfortunately, he could not hide the result of an intrigue all the more delightful, perhaps, because it was secret and forbidden!" The result referred to was, as one may guess, a beautiful little child, one, two, or three, according to the liberality of the chroniclers!
But not all historians find the amorous demands of Jafar's nature sufficient basis for such a piquant story. They prefer to interest themselves in Abbasa's nature; a scene making her out another Potiphar's wife pursuing her Joseph. Then again comedy would be turned into vaudeville: an amorous lady persecutes a young man, too scrupulous of his word; she peppers him with provocations and poetry. She coerces the mother of the unfeeling male, overwhelming her with presents in return for which the bribed parent coaxes her son to behave more gallantly. Prayers being of no avail, the two conspirators are reduced to stratagem. The mother announces to her son that she has just bought him a delicious slave and, one evening when he comes home quite drunk, unable to tell a bladder from a lantern, she presents the new concubine. It turns out to be his wife, veiled, who slips into his bed, neither seen or recognized, but nine months later . . .
Zubaida, jealous of her sister-in-law and Jafar, may have been the one to discover the pot of roses and warn Harun. She would have unearthed that secret refuge at Medina and the living evidence of disloyalty to the Caliph. On that pilgrimage of 802, Harun may have convinced himself of his friend's treachery, the offense committed against his rank and race. Dark thoughts would race furiously through his brain and so—the pilgrimage completed—Jafar was murdered, and the whole family carried down to disgrace with him. The picture, however, is not yet vigorous enough. Other writers carry it on, and accentuate its values in touching it up. Avid for bloodshed, they show us Harun presiding at the death of his sister: slaves burying her alive in her room, the executioners then executed, the vault triple-locked, and the key thrown into the depths of the Tigris. Even this is not enough. The guilty child or children must be massacred. Harun orders them to be roasted on a bright little fire, the innocents meanwhile clinging to his trousers, caressing his beard, calling him "grandfather," begging for mercy. But the Caliph, helpless before these clear evidences of his dishonor, is forced to persist in their destruction, sometimes holding them close, his face bathed in tears, sometimes dry-eyed and striking them. Fire rather than shame! Their ashes are scattered to the winds. After comedy and vaudeville, this morbid Spanish drama!
However romantic these tales may be (and the presumption is that their authors did nothing but embroider an old folklore theme), however scholarly historians may object to them, one would not altogether discredit them if they had been brought down to more reasonable proportions. Ibn Khaldun did not believe them, but his reasons are not very conclusive. They sum up somewhat like this: "Abbasa to have committed such a fault? To have misbehaved thus? Impossible for one so distinguished!"
The various tales have at least this advantage, that they locate the drama where it belongs, between Harun and Jafar. It is a crime of passion as well as a political drama. The coup d'etat was really only a by-product. Harun had wanted, perhaps for a long time, to rid himself of the Barmecides, but he could probably never have done it without a strong motivating impulse such as his rage towards Jafar. Weary and envious though he might be of their prestige and power, it did not really concern him deeply until he made up his mind to do away with Jafar in whose hands lay the fate of all the Barmecides. Jafar, once sentenced, unwittingly sentenced them all. No one really knows why. The Caliph may have been the victim of a special type of jealousy that would explain both the strength of the sentimental bonds that united him to his victim, and the regrets that he expressed later. Then the tragedy dissolves itself into a kind of pathological crisis in a man who, becoming increasingly alarmed and suspicious, suddenly gets angry and massacres the object of his love.
Masudi prudently sums it up: "As to the inner causes, they remain unknown. Various explanations have been given, but only God knows the truth!" The Koran says: "The Wise, the All-knowing is God." Who are we to dispute its wisdom?
The repercussion of the tragedy at the time was tremendous. The Barmecides had enjoyed a boundless authority, they were thought impregnable in their high position, they had acquired great sympathy on account of their generosity, and their epoch was considered to be at its apogee. Then, between one day and the next, everything crumbled. Those who had loved, admired, served the Barmecides, went away, sorrowing, repeating the poet's words: "The earth was your wife, now she is your widow." Harun had wished to efface this family from the earth and the minds of men, but everywhere people were vowing to perpetuate its memory until the Judgment Day. The sovereign had now to contend with those who were establishing the Barmecide cult. He had forbidden the name to be spoken in public or to be celebrated in poems. The police scattered the people who gathered around the ruined dwellings of the Barmecides, and arrested those who evoked them aloud. Footmen insulted and chased from the court a poet who was celebrating them, and the Caliph had him sent away to die in misery, no one knew where. Harun had a noble killed, before his eyes, who dared to praise Jafar.
But all this vengeance was in vain. Every one spoke of the martyrs. Panegyrists sprang up over night. Poets seized on a topic that offered so admirable a theme; the splendor and misery of man, his grandeur and decadence. Pointing to the Barmecides, they advised men to guard themselves against the pitfalls of fortune and, when it seemed to smile on them, to consider that pitiable corpse which hung on the gibbets of Bagdad. So have the misfortunes of the Bhrmecides come down to us. The Thousand and One Nights weaves them into its mystic tissue and when their period is mentioned, one pictures, as Zamakhshari did, "all that was perfect in the highest degree of abundance and happiness."
Harun had succeeded in destroying only their race. Their memory was safe. The few that were left women, children, and old men—finished their days in beggary and want. Jafar's mother, who had once been surrounded by hundreds of slaves, held out her hand for a sheepskin which was henceforth to be her cloak and bed. Yahia and Fadl died in prison after years of tortures inflicted by those who were vainly trying to wrest from them the secret of their supposed treasures. A few survived for a time and carried on a famous name that was soon only a name.
A dead race, but a fine legend and a glorious name, which may be found even now in a perfume, compounded—somewhat like their fate—of sugar, hollyhocks and aromatics.