Around the turn of the 9th century, after Charlemagne (r. 768-814) had spread his influence over much of Europe, the great king of the Franks realized there was a certain thing that he wanted but had not yet obtained—an elephant. Fortunately for Charlemagne, he had become pen pals with just the person who had the means and knowledge of how to acquire such a beast. The king of the Franks had begun corresponding with Harun-al-Rashid (r.786-809), the Caliph of Baghdad, as early as the year 797. So, after the two rulers had become acquainted, Harun-al-Rashid received an interesting message: Charlemagne wanted an elephant.
The Caliph of Baghdad reportedly decided to fulfill Charlemagne’s wish and shipped an Indian or African war elephant across the Mediterranean to the Carolingian Empire, which would later be renamed as the Holy Roman Empire. The elephant, allegedly named Abul Abaz, landed in Italy and was led through the Alps before meeting Charlemagne at Aachen in July, 802. The king apparently decided to let the animal keep its foreign name and integrated the elephant into the military. There is no knowing how much combat Abul Abaz saw, but the elephant would have been present in Europe to witness the end of Charlemagne’s long war with the Saxons (c. 772-804) and participated in the Frankish defense against raids from Denmark. In fact, Abul Abaz died in 810, near the Rhine settlement of Lippeham, where Charlemagne had stationed troops to defend against invasions from the Danes.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Depiction of a military elephant, by Sebastian Münster (1488–1552), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammer, translated by David Ganz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.