The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night

Al-Rashid and the Barmecides269

It is said that the most wondrous of matters which happened to Al-Rashid was this. his brother Al-Hádí,270 when he succeeded to the Caliphate, enquired of a seal-ring of great price, which had belonged to his father Al-Mahdi,271 and it reached him that Al-Rashid had taken it. So he required it of him, but he refused to give it up, and Al-Hadi insisted upon him, yet he still denied the seal-ring of the Caliphate. Now this was on Tigris-bridge, and he threw the ring into the river.272 When Al-Hadi died and Al-Rashid succeeded to the Caliphate, he went in person to that very place with a seal-ring of lead, which he cast into the stream at the same stead, and bade the divers seek it. So the duckers did his bidding and brought up the first ring, and this was counted an omen of Al-Rashid’s good fortune and of the continuance of his reign.273 When Al-Rashid come to the throne, he invested Ja’afar bin Yahyá bin Khálid al-Barmaki274 with the Wazirate. Now Ja’afar was eminently noted for generosity and munificence, and the histories of him to this purport are renowned and have been documented. None of the Wazirs rose to the rank and favour whereto he attained with Al-Rashid, who was wont to call him brother275 and used to carry him with him into his house. The period of his Wazirate was nineteen276 years, and Yahya one day said to his son Ja’afar, “O my son, as long as thy reed trembleth,277 water it with kindness.” Men differ concerning the reason of Ja’afar’s slaughter, but the better opinion of it is follows. Al-Rashid could not bear to be parted from Ja’afar nor from his own sister ’Abbásah, daughter of Al-Mahdi, a single hour, and she was the loveliest woman of her day; so he said to Ja’afar, “I will marry thee to her, that it may be lawful to thee to look upon her, but thou shalt not touch her.” After this time the twain used to be present in Al-Rashid’s sitting chamber. Now the Caliph would get up bytimes and leave the chamber, and they being filled with wine as well as being young, Ja’afar would rise to her and know her carnally.278 She conceived by him and bare a handsome boy; and, fearing Al-Rashid, she dispatched the new-born child by one of her confidants to Meccah the Magnified (May Allah Almighty greaten it in honor and increase it in venerance and nobility and magnification!). the affair abode concealed till there befel a brabble between Abbasah and one of her hand-maidens whereupon the slave-girl discovered the affair of the child to Al-Rashid and acquainted him with its abiding-place. So, when the Caliph pilgrimaged, he sent one who brought him the boy and found the matter true, where he caused befel the Barmecides whatso befel.279

269 Bresl. Edit., vol. vii. pp. 258-60, Night dlxvii.

270 Fourth Abbaside, A.D. 785-786, vol. v. 93. He was a fantastic tyrant who was bent upon promoting to the Caliphate his own son, Ja’afar; he cast Harun into prison and would probably have slain him but for the intervention of the mother of one of the two brothers, Khayzarán widow of Al-Mahdi, and Yahya the Barmecide.

271 Third Abbaside, A.D. 775-785, vol. vii. 136; ix. 334.

272 This reminds us of the Bir Al-Khátim (Well of the Signet) at Al-Medinah; in which Caliph Osman during his sixth year dropped from his finger the silver ring belonging to the founder of Al-Islam, engraved in three lines with “Mohammed / Apostle (of) / Allah /.” It had served to sign the letters sent to neighboring kings and had descended to the first three successors (Pilgrimage ii. 219). Mohammed owned three seal-rings, the golden one he destroyed himself; and the third, which was of carnelian, was buried with other objects by his heirs. The late Subhi Pasha used to declare that the latter had been brought to him with early Moslem coins by an Arab, and when he died he left it to the Sultan.

273 Mr. Payne quotes Al-Tabari’s version of this anecdote. “El-Mehdi had presented his son Haroun with a ruby ring, worth a hundred thousand dinars, and the latter being one day with his brother (the then reigning Khalif), El Hadi saw the ring on his finger and desired it. So, when Haroun went out from him, he sent after him, to seek the ring of him. The Khalif’s messenger overtook Er Reshid on the bridge over the Tigris and acquainted him with his errand; whereupon the prince, enraged at the demand, pulled off the ring and threw it into the river. When El Hadi died and Er Rashid succeeded to the throne, he went with his suite to the bridge in question and bade his Vizier Yehya ben Khalid send for divers and cause them to make search for the ring. It had then been five months in the water and no one believed it would be found. However, the divers plunged into the river and found the ring in the very place where he had thrown it in, whereat Haroun rejoiced with an exceeding joy, regarding it as a presage of fair fortune.”

274 Not historically correct. Al-Rashid made Yáhyà, father of Ja’afar, his Wazir; and the minister’s two sons, Fazl and Ja’afar, acted as his lieutenants for seventeen years from A.D. 786 till the destruction of the Barmecides in A.D. 803. The tale-teller quotes Ja’afar because he was the most famous of the house.

275 Perhaps after marrying Ja’afar to his sister. But the endearing name was usually addressed to Ja’afar’s elder brother Fazl, who was the Caliph’s foster-brother.

276 Read seventeen: all these minor inaccuracies tend to invalidate the main statement.

277 Arab. “Yar’ad” which may mean “thundereth.” The dark saying apparently means, Do good whilst thou art in power and thereby strengthen thyself.

278 The lady seems to have made the first advances and Bin Abú Hájilah quotes a sixaine in which she amorously addresses her spouse. See D’Herbelot, s.v. Abbassa.

279 The tale-teller passes with a very light hand over the horrors of a massacre which terrified and scandalised the then civilised world, and which still haunt Moslem history. The Caliph, like the eking, can do no wrong; and, as Viceregent of Allah upon Earth, what would be deadly crime and mortal sin in others becomes in his case an ordinance from above. These actions are superhuman events and fatal which man must not judge nor feel any sentiment concerning them save one of mysterious respect. For the slaughter of the Barmecides, see my Terminal Essay, vol. x.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31