What Type of Elephant did Charlemagne Have?

[Editor’s note: this week, I’m excited to welcome a new writer on the blog. He’s going to be taking over roughly ever other week, so please give a big welcome to Sam!]

Hello everyone. The observant among you will notice that I’m not Fraser (the clue is the complete absence of charters in this post). My name is Sam Ottewill-Soulsby and I’m thrilled to be joining the blog. I’ve been a huge fan of what Fraser has been doing here since he began and I’m really excited to have the opportunity to share some of the things I’ve been working.

I’m a postdoctoral researcher for the ERC-funded ’Impact of the Ancient City’ project, which means that a lot of my work is concerned with the legacy of Roman ideas of the city on subsequent urbanism (more on which in future weeks). I’m also really interested in early medieval diplomacy and foreign policy, particularly as it relates to the Carolingian world. I’m also currently working on a book on Carolingian diplomacy with the Islamic world, provisionally entitled The Emperor and the Elephant: Christians and Muslims in the Age of Charlemagne, under contract with Princeton University Press.

This post comes from that side of my research. One of the biggest moments (in many ways) in these relations came when the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid (r.786-809) sent Charlemagne (r.768-814) an elephant. In his biography of Charlemagne, Einhard says that the Frankish monarch asked Harun for the elephant with his very first embassy to the Caliph in 797, demonstrating an impressive level of confidence. The elephant, Abu al-Abbas, arrived in Italy in 801, before travelling north to Aachen in 802, where he was a mammoth success, before eventually dying in Saxony in 810.

This charming early ninth-century elephant, from Physiologus Bernensis (Burgerbibliothek Bern Cod. 318 f.19r,) is probably based on a late antique model rather than Abu al-Abbas, but I will shoehorn him into any discussion of Charlemagne’s elephant

I’ve spent an awful lot of time thinking about elephants (some would say too much), and not just because elephants are cool (although elephants are cool). One of the things that has caught my attention is the question of what species of elephant Abu al-Abbas belonged to. As you know, elephants come in a number of flavours, including the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) and the two African species, the African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). This matters because learning Abu al-Abbas’ species would give us a pretty strong clue about where he was from, telling us a lot specifically about where the Abbasids sourced their elephants and more generally about communications and logistics in the period. It might also have shaped the way people at the time thought and reacted to Abu al-Abbas based on the associations they had with his place of origin.

Unfortunately, none of the primary sources tell us his species directly. There is no reference to Harun sending Charlemagne an elephant in the Arabic sources at all, while the Latin Frankish sources don’t specify where he was from originally. We can rule out one candidate out from the beginning. According to Isidore of Seville (Etymologies 12.2.14), the North African elephant beloved by Hannibal was sadly already extinct by the late eighth century. Nonetheless, a case can be made for an African origin. Abu al-Abbas first appears in the sources when he and the envoys escorting him from Harun al-Rashid to Charlemagne arrived in modern Tunisia, which could be taken as a sign of an African connection. Further evidence for an African origin comes from a splendid early ninth-century ivory plaque depicting the Virgin Mary, now in the Met in New York. Ivory was an important part of Carolingian art. Most of it was Roman ivory being reused in later centuries, but this plaque demonstrates that at least one piece of new African ivory was available in Aachen in the early ninth century. The plaque is too large to have come from one of the smaller Asian elephants and radio-carbon dating has demonstrated that this is not ancient ivory. Because it is so unusual to have new ivory in this period, it has been argued that this came from Abu al-Abbas after he died, and that therefore he must have been an African elephant.

The big problem with this, and the reason I think that Abu al-Abbas was an Asian elephant, is that all of the most contemporary sources from the Caliphate are convinced that that was the only type of elephant that could be even slightly domesticated. Writers like al-Jahiz (ninth century) and al-Ma’sudi (tenth century) said that although the best ivory came from Africa, living elephants had to be sourced from India. How true that is might be open to question. There certainly seems to be more evidence for the training of Asian elephants, although the rulers of Axum in Ethiopia possessed elephants, and the Belgians in the Congo appear to have had some success in training elephants there. What matters here is what Harun al-Rashid believed to be true and given that everyone around him assumed that only Asian elephants could be owned, it seems rather unlikely that he would have possessed or sent an African elephant.

A possible hint that Charlemagne’s elephant was an Asian elephant appears in one of the Latin sources, a geography compiled by an Irish monk named Dicuil in 825 (De mensura orbis terrae, 7.35). He mentions Abu al-Abbas while addressing the ancient and vexed question of whether elephants can lie down (more on which another time), placing this comment in a section otherwise about the geography of India.

Interestingly this means that Abu al-Abbas was almost certainly born in India. The Arabic sources are clear that people had tried and failed to breed elephants in Iraq. That Abu al-Abbas was probably from India and that this might have been known by Charlemagne and company has implications for how they thought about him to be explored another time. In the meantime, I’ll close with the thought that long before he began his journey to Charlemagne, Abu al-Abbas was already a very experienced traveller.