03 December 2009

8th-Century Abbasid Caliphate Martyrdoms


I have sad news to report. Well, if by ‘news’, I can refer to something that happened 1300 years ago. Last January I wrote a post on Martyr Abo the Perfumer of Baghdad, wherein I made the following remarks:

On a personal note, I became interested in doing this post on St Abo when I saw him described as ‘the Perfumer of Baghdad’ on the Holy Trinity calendar (I discovered that most other sources seem to refer to him as ‘Martyr Abo of Tiflis [Tbilisi]’). I have had a sort of fascination with old Baghdad ever since high school, when I read Neil Gaiman’s story ‘Ramadan’ in the Sandman collection, Fables and Reflections (NY: DC Comics, 1993), pp. 226-58. The story concerns the legendary Caliph, Harun al-Rashid (هارون الرشيد, ‘Aaron the Just’), the ‘Golden Age’ figure who plays so prominent a rôle in many of the stories in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. It occurred to me, I know so little about the history of the Islamic world, that I had no idea when Harun’s reign was, or whether it was anywhere close in time to the martyrdom of St Abo. It turns out St Abo was martyred in January of 786, under Harun’s brother, nine months before Harun took over the Caliphate in September of that year. It’s nice to know that the second most famous ‘Aaron’ didn’t martyr St Abo.


Well, while ‘the second most famous’ Aaron is innocent of that martyrdom, it turns out that there is at least one to his credit. A Google search for [St] ‘Gregory Decapolites’ (whose feastday we celebrate today on the Church’s calendar) led me to this, by way of Monachos.net. At the top of St Gregory’s ‘speech’ the editor refers to ‘the life of the genuine convert and martyr St Anthony Ruwah who was martyred under the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809) on Christmas Day 799’. Say it ain’t so, Harun!

I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised. What are the chances that any given Muslim ruler didn't martyr at least one Christian at some point? But still, I had hoped for better from a fellow Aaron.

Incidentally, Frederick Artz has inadvertently confirmed Gaiman’s portrait of mediæval Baghdad, ‘the Heavenly City, the jewel of Arabia’ (p. 228), in his magisterial study, The Mind of the Middle Ages: An Historical Survey, AD 200-1500, 3rd rev. ed. (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1980), p. 149:

Bagdad came to be even larger than Damascus; in the tenth century it had at least 800,000 inhabitants and was, after Constantinople, the largest city in the world. The Tigris River and a system of canals gave the city access to the sea, and its trade and manufacture brought an enormous accumulation of wealth. Its palaces, mosques, schools, and public buildings were the wonder of the world.

8 comments:

Hence72 said...
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Matthew said...

Bad news about poor Harun, but good news about Artz. I bought The Mind of the Middle Ages for a dollar from Half Price books in Pittsburgh several years ago but I haven't read it or looked through it yet. With such a recommendation, I'll have to try to read it soon.

aaronandbrighid said...

Matthew> Well, to tell the truth, I bought Artz from Half Price Books and haven't read it through yet either! But I've poked around in it quite a bit and always find good things. For instance, when I was researching St Odo the other day he was the only source I had that mentioned the Saint's musical achievements.

Btw, is this your first time to comment here? Your blog looks great! Expect me to comment soon!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I don't know if you're familiar with them, but Bat Ye'or (a nom de plume, "Daughter of the Nile") has two great compilations of translations of documents on Jewish and Christian persecution in Muslim lands, The Dhimmi, and The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam. They make for grim reading. They certainly dispel the myth of a tolerant Islam.

Matthew said...

Aaron> I did comment here once before, I believe (on your post about Anglo-Saxon book recommendations), but I have Logismoi in my Google Reader and I read it every day.

I appreciate your encouragement about my attempt at a blog. Unfortunately I have a lot more post notes and post ideas than I have actual posts, and a lot less time to write than I would like. I’ve been resolving to try to be a little more dedicated to it.

I miss Half Price Books. There isn’t one here in Alabama, though that’s probably good for our budget… But I'm glad I took a chance the Artz book. It seems to be comprehensive in a way most survey books aren’t (judging from the Table of Contents).

Xeneteia said...

Arent's the Sandman comics great? I used them for a paper I wrote on Ovid's retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice. Speaking of books that reflect history - have you read Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie? Haroun and Rashid are two characters in the book, a passing reference to Harun al-Rashid.

Xeneteia said...

P.S. - Speaking of the Arabian Nights - have you seen the beautiful movie version with Mili Avital, John Leguizamo, etc? It's one of my favorite movies, about the power of storytelling.

aaronandbrighid said...

Xeneteia> Please excuse the lengthy delay in responding to your comments. It's one of those things where I didn't have time when I saw them, and then I promptly forgot!

Yes, I do love Sandman. I have not read any Salman Rushdie--I'm afraid I'm generally very poorly read when it comes to the modern stuff. I've not seen the movie you mentioned either, but I'll have to keep an eye out for it. Sounds fun!