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The Emperor and the Elephant: Christians and Muslims in the Age of Charlemagne

July 7, 2023 at 8:58 pm

The Emperor and the Elephant: Christians and Muslims in the Age of Charlemagne
  • Book Author(s): Sam Ottewill-Soulsby
  • Published Date: July 2023
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Hardback: 392 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691227962

Charlemagne, the 8th century Frankish King, holds a near-mythical status in European history. He is widely regarded as a stalwart defender of Christendom against an expanding Islamic realm. Additionally, his role as a unifier of Europe has solidified his reputation as the “Father of Europe”. By successfully uniting significant portions of Western Europe, he accomplished a feat not achieved since the decline of the Roman Empire.

This enduring legacy has persisted to the present day. That his grandfather, Charles Martel, won a decisive victory against Muslim forces in present-day southern France at the Battle of Tours in 732 CE, has also added to his distinguished pedigree.

This enduring legacy of the Carolingians (the dynasty consisting of Martel’s descendants) has often been misinterpreted, both historically and in contemporary times, as “the depiction of the Emperor as a dedicated enemy of Muslims is one with a pedigree that stretches all the way back to the high middle ages”. On the other hand, the Carolingians have been appropriated by the far-right and white nationalists to espouse anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiments in the West.

However, Sam Ottewill-Soulsby, a historian specialising in the late antique and early medieval period, presents a nuanced perspective on Charlemagne’s relationship with the Islamic world in his new publication, The Emperor and the Elephant: Christians and Muslims in the Age of Charlemagne.

The book’s title is in reference to the magnificent and opulent gift, an elephant, named Abul Abbas, bestowed to Charlemagne, (among several other rarities, including a mechanical clock) a few years after his coronation as Emperor of the Romans, by his Abbasid contemporary, the Caliph Harun Al-Rashid, who is arguably more famous in the West for his inclusion in the legendary One Thousand and One Nights stories.

Charlemagne is said to have returned the favour by gifting the Caliph with the equivalent in gold and other gifts. The move was a power play for both rulers, especially as elephants had a royal connotation for both men.  That the Frankish King kept the name Abul Abbas “speaks to the importance of maintaining his alien, exotic image”.

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Ottewill-Soulsby argues that Charlemagne’s attitudes towards the Islamic world were more complex than a simple binary opposition. In addition to his military engagements with the “Saracens”, Charlemagne was also actively involved in diplomatic endeavours.

In fact, this diplomatic activity was itself not monolithic, given that the Carolingians “encountered a multipolar Islamic world”, one that included the Abbasid caliphate, who had supplanted the Umayyads – whose remnants went on to form a rival caliphate of Cordoba in Islamic Spain. There were also other Muslim powers across North Africa and the Mediterranean such as the Idrisids, Aghlabids of the Maghreb and Muslim city-states in southern Italy. However, for these entities, “proximity did not make diplomacy automatic”.

Encounters between the Frankish rulers and this plethora of competing Muslim dynasties form the basis of the book, with the author setting out to challenge pre-existing narratives which focus heavily on “privileging the Carolingian perspective”, largely due to the disproportionate European sources from that period in comparison to their Arabic counterparts, but also to challenge previous literature on the topic, some of which argued in favour of a simplistic notion of an “alliance system pitting the Abbasids and the Carolingians against the Byzantines and the Umayyads.”

For Ottewill-Soulsby, Charlemagne’s interactions with the Abbasids differed significantly compared to those with the neighbouring Umayyads in Al-Andalus. This is due to the fact that the former were a distant power and, as such, engaged in mutual “prestige diplomacy” with the Franks, which the author describes as being influenced by a desire to secure the rulers’ respective domestic position and to bolster their own international reputation as important and respected statesmen.

Contact with the Umayyads, by contrast, was one of “frontier diplomacy”, as they served as a constant menace on the southern border, with both sides posing as mutual threats to the other.

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In short, diplomacy vis-à-vis the Abbasid caliphate was one of choice and largely for propaganda purposes, while interactions with the Umayyads was one of necessity for security and stability. Although the author points out that “This is not to say there is no overlap between the two categories.”

An intriguing point was raised comparing the imperial influence of the Romans and Sassanid Persia on their respective successors – with both ancient empires having an established notion of projecting power of their rulers “by the reception of dignitaries from distant lands”.

I found the chapter detailing Carolingian diplomacy with the Abbasids the most engaging and interesting, partly due to the legendary gift in question, but also because the examples of diplomacy was more straight-forward and easier to digest and comprehend. On the other hand, the two chapters dedicated to diplomacy with the Umayyads, I found a bit more convoluted and more difficult to find instances of diplomacy to the same degree of clarity with which they were vividly presented in the previous section.

Granted, this may be largely due to the different types of diplomacy identified by the author, and that contact with the Umayyads involved more ebbs and flows, militarily and politically resembling a sort of Cold War at times. Charles the Bald, we read, “sought good relations with Cordoba, but was in a weak position to enforce peace with the Umayyads”.

The Emperor and the Elephant undoubtedly presents a promising premise and starts off on a compelling note, drawing upon previously untapped sources in the West. The book effectively captures the reader’s attention, particularly historians and subject specialists, who will find great appeal in the new perspectives. However, certain portions of the book exhibit inconsistency in terms of reader engagement, specifically the double chapters dedicated to the Umayyads.

Perhaps, the discrepancy in engagement arises from the fact that frontier diplomacy, though more enduring, lacks the captivating allure of prestige diplomacy with distant rulers offering intriguing gifts and extravagant showcases of hospitality. Though, to be fair, surpassing the gift of an elephant was always going to be a tall order on the diplomatic front.

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