National Geographic : 1962 Dec
Charlemagne receives a Caliph's gift elephant W ONDERS from the workshops of Araby dazzle the monarch of the Frankish Em pire, but the elephant called Abu al-Abbas wins his heart. The day: July 20, 802. Envoys from Harun al-Rashid, the Caliph of Arabian Nights fame, display their master's presents at Charlemagne's palace at Aachen, in present-day Germany. From Baghdad come gold platters, bolts of silk, rugs, porce lain vases, swords and daggers of Damascene steel, and a chessboard. A marvelous bronze waterclock (center) that struck the hours ar rived with a later embassy. Charlemagne adopted the elephant as a member of the family. For eight years, Abu al-Abbas lumbered beside his master on trav els across an empire that stretched from the Pyrenees to the Elbe. The Indian beast as tonished the Frankish people, even as circus animals delight small boys today. When Charlemagne set out to fight the Danes in 810, Abu al-Abbas went with him to terrorize the enemy. Suddenly, to the Em peror's sorrow, the elephant died. And the monarch's luck went with him. A mysterious plague decimated cattle. Three members of Charlemagne's family died, and he soon fol lowed them. During his reign, Charlemagne, a deeply religious man, reformed and strengthened the Church. In Rome on Christmas Day, 800, Pope Leo III crowned him Emperor. Charlemagne encouraged the founding of schools, but he himself was barely able to write the difficult scripts of his day. He used to keep "tablets and blanks in bed under his pillow," a member of his court reported, so that "at leisure hours he might accustom his hand to form letters; however, as he did not begin his efforts in due season, but late in life, they met with ill-success." Islam Enjoys a Golden Age Could Abu al-Abbas have talked, he might have told Charlemagne of a civilization su perior to Europe's. For five centuries 37 caliphs of the Abbasid dynasty reigned in magnificence from Bagh dad. Moslem scholars translated learned works into Arabic from Greek, Persian, Syri ac, and Sanskrit. Moslem physicians were famous. "Julep" is a Persian word; "sirup," Arabic; both were aromatic medicinal drinks. Geographers, astronomers, and astrologers, alchemists, physicists, and mathematicians, the Moslems enriched European culture. Proof of their contributions is preserved in our technical vocabulary, which contains many words of Arabic origin. Among them are alkali, alembic, alcohol, alchemy, algebra, amalgam, zenith, nadir, cipher. Moslem math ematicians used the cipher, or zero, more than two centuries before it appeared in Europe. Moslem scholars wrote about tides and the weather, agriculture and irrigation, plants and trees, camels and wild animals. Europeans prized Damascene steel and Cordovan leather. Fustat gave us our word "fustian"; Mosul contributed "muslin," and Damascus, "damask." Spain copied the brown-and-yellow watered silks produced in Baghdad's Attabiyah quarter. Samuel Pepys's "false taby wastecoate" derives from Attabiyah, as does our term "tabby" cat. Regal figure in bronze, thought to be Charlemagne, stands among the medie val treasures of the Louvre. PAINTING BY ANDRE DURENCEAU© N.G.S.