Abul-Abbas was an Asian elephant given to Carolingian emperor Charlemagne by the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid. The elephant's name and events from his life are recorded in the Carolingian Annales regni Francorum,[a] and he is mentioned in Einhard's Vita Karoli Magni.[b] However, no references to the gift or to interactions with Charlemagne have been found in Abbasid records.
From the Orient to Europe
Abul-Abbas was brought from Baghdad, the capital city of the Abbasid Caliphate, by a Frankish Jew named Isaac, who along with two other emissaries, Lantfrid and Sigimund, had been sent to the caliph on Charlemagne's orders. That the only surviving member of the group of three, Isaac, was being sent back with the elephant was heralded as advance news to Charlemagne from two emissaries he met in 801: one was sent by the caliph Harun al-Rashid himself, another by Abraham (Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab), who was governor of Africa. Charlemagne then ordered a man to Liguria (the province around Genoa) to commission a fleet of ships to carry the elephant and other goods.
Researchers have speculated on Isaac and the elephant's route through Africa: Isaac and the elephant began the trek back by following the Egyptian coast into Ifriqiya, ruled by Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab who had bought the land from al-Rashid for 40,000 dinars annually. Possibly with the help of Ibrahim in the capital city of Kairouan (now in Tunisia), Isaac set sail from port (possibly Carthage, now in Tunisia) with Abul-Abbas and traveled the remaining distance to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea.
At any rate, the strict reading of the historic text Annales regni Francorum is that "Isaac the Jew returned from Africa with the elephant" (Isaac Iudeus de Africa cum elefanto ) and landed in Porto Venere (near Genoa) in October 801. The two spent the winter in Vercelli, and in the spring they started the march over the Alps to the Emperor's residence in Aachen, arriving on 20 July 802.
In the year 810, Charlemagne left his palace and mounted a campaign intending to engage with King Godofrid of Denmark and his fleet that invaded and plundered Friesland. Charlemagne had crossed the Rhine River and tarried at a place called "Lippeham" awaiting troops for three days, when his elephant suddenly died. On the tacit assumption that the Abul-Abbas was with Charlemagne when he died, some modern commentators venture that the beast had been brought to serve as a war elephant.
Place of death
The location of "Lippeham" is a matter of conjecture, but has been placed at the "mouth of the Lippe River" (its confluence with the Rhine), in other words, somewhere near the city of Wesel. The claim dates at least as far back as 1746 (or even 1735), when J. H. Nünning (Nunningus) and colleague published a notice that "Lippeham" was to be identified with Wesel; and that a colossal bone unearthed from the area, in the possession of their affiliated museum, was plausibly a part of the remains of the elephant Abul Abbas. Another gigantic bone was found in the Lippe River among a catch of fish in the herrschaft of Gartrop in early 1750, and it too was claimed to be a piece of Abul Abbas.
Modern embellished accounts
Details of exhibition and death
The Annales regni Francorum contain only short reports about the transport of Abul-Abbas (801), his delivery to the Emperor (802) and his death (810). But modern writers have given various embellished accounts. Some indicate that when Abul-Abbas arrived, he was marched through various towns in Germany to the astonishment of onlookers, that he was shown in "Speyer, Strassburg, Verdun, Augsburg, and Paderborn" as ostentatious display of the emperor's might, and was eventually housed in Augsburg in what is now southern Bavaria.
Some added details about the elephant's death, stating he was in his forties and already suffering from rheumatism when it accompanied Charlemagne in the campaign across the Rhine heading to Friesland. According to these sources, in a spell of "cool rainy weather", Abul-Abbas developed a case of pneumonia. His keepers were able to transport the beast as far as Münster, where he collapsed and died.
Some modern works indicate that Abul-Abbas was albino – literally a white elephant – but the basis for the claim is wanting. An early example claiming that Abul-Abbas was a "white elephant" occurs in a title authored by Willis Mason West (1902), In 1971, Peter Munz wrote a book intended for popular readership which repeated the same "white elephant" claim, but a reviewer flagged this as a "slip" given there was "no evidence" known to him to substantiate it. Mention of "white elephant" also misleadingly occurs in the title of the published catalog from the Aachen exhibition of 2003: Ex oriente : Isaak und der weisse Elefant, however, in this publication is a contributing article by Grewe and Pohle that appends a question mark on it: "Among the famous gifts to Charlemagne was a (white?) elephant".
A number of authors have also asserted with seemingly unwavering certitude that Abul-Abbas was an Indian elephant, though others cast this as an open question with the African elephant being a distinct possibility.
- The Annales regni francorum Anno 802 gives "venit Isaac cum elefanto et ceteris muniberus, quae a rege Persarum missa sunt, et Aquisgrani omnia imperatori detulit; nomen elefanti erat Abul Abaz". Harun al Rashid is referred to as either the king of the Persians (ibid 801:116 "rex Persarum") or of the Saracenes (ibid 810:113 "ubi dum aliquot dies moraretur, elefant ille, quem ei Aaron rex Sarracenorum miserat, subita morte periit"
- Einhard refers to the elephant as the only one Harun al Rashid had ("quem tunc solem habetat"), which is regarded an invention.
- Annales regni francorum Anno 801 (Kurze 1895, p. 116, Monumenta Germaniae Historica edition)
- Scholz 1970, pp. 81–2 (Eng. tr. of ARB = Royal Frankish Annals)
- Einhard (tr. Thorpe 1969, p. 70)
- Thorpe 1969, p. 184 (endnotes)
- Sherman, Dennis; Salisbury, Joyce. The West in the World, Volume I: To 1715. 1 (3 ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. p. 220. ISBN 0-07-331669-5. OCLC 177823124.
- Kistler, John M.; Lair, Richard (2006). War elephants. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 187–188. ISBN 0-275-98761-2.
- Scholz 1970, p. 82, "..and the envoy of Emir Abraham, who ruled on the border of Africa in Fustât"; and Scholz 1970, Note 4 to year 801, quote:"Harun al-Rashid, emir al Mumenin.. appointed Ibrahim ibn al'Aghlab governor of Africa about 800. Fustât, his place of residence is Abbasiya near Kairwan in southern Tunis.."
- This reconstructed route (via Carthage) was mapped in Grewe, Klaus; Pohle, Frank (2003), "Der Weg des Abul Abaz von Bagdad zu Aachen", Ex oriente : Isaak und der weisse Elefant : Bagdad-Jerusalem-Aachen : eine Reise durch drei Kulturen um 800 und heute, Mainz am Rhein: P. von Zabern, pp. 66–69, ISBN 380533270X (part of an Exhibition catalog), according to "Klaus Grewe - Frank Pohle, Der Weg, etc". Medioevo latino. Centro italiano di studi sull'alto Medioevo. XXV: 336. 2004., quote: "The motives for Issac's particular route from Baghdad to Carthage, via ship from Carthage to Protovenere (near Genoa, and north via Vercelli and St. Bernard's pass to Aachen, are illuminated (I. D.) |2683"
- Sypeck, Jeff (2006). Becoming Charlemagne. HarperCollins. pp. 172–3.ISBN 0-06-079706-1
- Annales regni Francorum Anno 802 (Kurze 1895, p. 117, Monumenta Germaniae Historica edition)
- Annales regni Francorum Anno 810 (Kurze 1895, p. 131, Monumenta Germaniae Historica edition)
- Scholz 1970, pp. 91 (Eng. tr. of ARB = Royal Frankish Annals)
- Dembeck, Hermann (1965). Animals and men. Natural History Press. p. 264. ISBN 1-598-84347-8. (Cf. Dembeck, Mit Tieren leben, 1961)
- Kistler, John M. (2011). Animals in the Military: From Hannibal's Elephants to the Dolphins of the U.S. Navy. ABC-CLIO. p. 91. ISBN 1-598-84347-8., citing Hodges, Richard. (cf. Kistler & Lair 2006)
- Becher, Matthias (1999). Karl der Grosse. C.H.Beck. p. 61. ISBN 978-3-406-43320-7., quote:"den Rhein bei Lippeham (an der Mundung der Lippe?)"
- Barth, Reinhard (2005). Karl der Grosse. Buch Vertrieb Blank. p. 12. ISBN 978-3-937-50114-7.
- Newfield, Timothy (2012). "A great Carolingian panzootic: The probable extent, diagnosis and impact of an early ninth-century cattle pestilence". Argos. 46: 203.
- Nünning, Jodocus Hermann; Cohausen, Johann Heinrich (1746), "Epistolae IV: De osse femoris Elephantini", Commercii literarii dissertationes epistolicae, Frankfurt am Main, p. 44, after Oettermann, Die Schaulust am Elefanten (1982) p.98, note 117
- J.G. Leidenfrost (7 July 1750). "Nachricht von einigen Überbleibseln des Elephanten Abdulabbas". Duisburger Intelligenz-Zettel (XXVII)., citing Nünning et al.
- Nünning & Cohausen 1746, p. 44, "... os Elephantini femoris, ex inculto ad Rheni ripam agro haud procul Luppiae ostiis, olim Luppemunda, Luppeheim, Lippeham, Lippekant, & Lippia dictis. ubi vetus celebrisque Regum Francorum Carolingicae Stirpis olim fuit curia, hodie VESALIA dicta" ("elephant femur bone unearthed from the field on the banks of the Rhine, at a place not far from the mouth of the Lippe river, aka Luppemunda, Luppeheim, Lippeham, Lippekant, & Lippia, now called Wesel, where the celebrated scions of the Franks kings of the Carolingian dynasty held court." )
- Nünning & Cohausen 1746, p. 48, Itaque os Musei nostri cum Elephantis fit,.. ad exuvias ABULABAZII Carolo M. ab Aarone Persarum Rege dono submissi"
- Hodges, Richard (2000). Towns and Trade: In the Age of Charlemagne. Duckworth Publishers. p. 37. ISBN 978-0-715-62965-9.
- West, Willis Mason (1902). Ancient history to the death of Charlemagne. Allyn and Bacon. p. 521n.
- Cowdrey, H.E.J. (January 1970). "Review: Life in the Age of Charlemagne by Peter Munz". The Journal of Ecclesiastical History. 21 (1): 75. doi:10.1017/s0022046900048466., quote: "I know of no evidence that Harun al-Rashid's present to Charlemagne was literally a 'white' elephant."
- Grewe & Pohle 2003, p. 66: "Zu den für Karl den Großen bestimmten Geschenken gehörte ein (weißer?) Elefant, "
- "We know very little about the elephant; some accounts say it was African, others an Indian beast."
- Kurze, Friedrich, ed. (1895). Annales regni Francorum (741–829) qui dicuntur Annales Laurissenses maiores et Einhardi. Post editionem G. H. Pertzii. Scriptores rerum germanicarum in usum scholarum. 6. Hannover. pp. 116–117.
- Scholz, Bernhard Walter (1970). Carolingian Chronicles:: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard's Histories. Barbara Rogers (co-translator). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. pp. 81–2. ISBN 9780472061860. LCCN 77083456.
- Thorpe, Lewis (1969). Einhard and Notker the Stammerer: Two lives of Charlemagne (7 ed.). Penguin Classics. p. 184. ISBN 0-14-044213-8.