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!
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.