In the year 797 a ship set out from Venice for the Holy Land. Among the merchants and pilgrims that made up the majority of the passengers were two unusual parties that had been travelling together from Treviso. The first was a group of clerics employed by the Count of Treviso to collect the relics of Saints Genesius and Eugenius from the Patriarch of Jerusalem. The second group had been on the road much longer and had further still to go. Led by Counts Sigimund and Lantfrid and guided by a Jewish man named Isaac, they had been sent by Charlemagne, king of the Franks (r.768-814), with a message to Caliph Harun al-Rashid (r.786-809), the most powerful man west of China, asking for an elephant. After meeting the Patriarch, the two parties split up. The men from Treviso remained in Jerusalem, while the embassy made their way inland to the court of the Caliph in Raqqa. This was the last time that anyone from the Frankish world saw Lantfrid and Sigimund alive. The relic hunters waited some time for their companions, before eventually despairing and returning home.
Four years later, in June 801, while travelling between Vercelli and Ivrea, the now-Emperor Charlemagne received an embassy from Harun with good news. Isaac was in North Africa, accompanied by the elephant that Charlemagne had requested. The only fly in the ointment was Isaac’s lack of accompaniment. Sigimund and Lantfrid had both died while on the embassy. They were the first Frankish ambassadors to the Caliphate to perish, but not the last. When the second embassy sent by Charlemagne to Harun al-Rashid got back in 806, running a Byzantine naval blockade in the process, they did so with similar news: the leader of their party, Radbert, was no more.
In 807/8, the Emperor sent Counts Agamus and Roculf to Jerusalem. Whether they also went on to Harun al-Rashid is unclear. If so, they were lucky outliers because they survived to return home, albeit in a bad odour: Pope Leo III thought it necessary to beg Charlemagne to show them mercy for unspecified reasons. Three years later Roculf is found as a witness to Charlemagne’s will, so Leo’s intervention may have helped. If Agamus and Roculf only went to Jerusalem, then every single formal legate dispatched by Charlemagne to the ‘Abbasid court perished during the mission.
This is not normal. Carolingian diplomats faced multiple dangers, ranging from paranoid monarchs and pirate attacks to the threat of being sued while away and unable to defend oneself. Death was a risk, but not a common one. Nor does it seem to have routinely affected the ‘Abbasid envoys, although (incredibly) we know even less about them than we do about Charlemagne’s ambassadors. The embassy of 806 was led by one ‘Abd Allah, who was still alive when the Franks put him on a boat back home in 807. Nearly eighty years later, Notker the Stammerer boasted that:
Because of the most vigorous efforts of Charlemagne, the messengers of Harun, whether youths, boys or old men, passed easily from Parthia into Germany and returned from Germany to Parthia and it was not only possible but easy for them to come and go.(Gesta Karoli Magni II.9)
Although the ‘Abbasid envoys faced challenges of their own, there is no evidence that they suffered a particularly high mortality rate.
So what’s going on? We can probably rule out shenanigans by Harun al-Rashid. For obvious reasons of practicality, the safety of envoys was a universally respected convention. In his Life of Muhammad, Ibn Hisham (d.833) recounts a story of the Prophet getting annoyed by ambassadors sent by his rival Maslama in 631/2. Muhammad upbraided the envoys, ‘By God, were it not that heralds are not to be killed I would behead the pair of you.’ The Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk (d.1092) commented that:
Whatever treatment is given to an ambassador, whether good or bad, it is as if it were done to the very king who sent him; and kings have always shown the greatest respect to one another and treated envoys well.(Siyasatnameh, XXI.1)
While things could go horribly wrong, there’s no obvious sign that any problems had arisen. Charlemagne took the protection of envoys seriously, issuing laws that made them untouchable. Merovingian precedent also suggested a strong response to the poor treatment of diplomats. King Childebert II (r.575-596) demanded justice from Emperor Maurice (r.582-602) when his envoys were murdered in Byzantine Carthage in 589. Theuderic I (r.511–534) motivated his subjects to wage war on the Thuringians in 531 by telling them about the crimes the latter had committed against Frankish legates. Had Lantfrid, Sigimund and Radbert been the victims of skulduggery, it seems very unlikely that relations between Aachen and Raqqa would have remained as cordial as they were.
Travelling in the early medieval world had its perils. Pirates or bandits could lie in wait, eager to separate people from their goods, and possibly hold their victims to ransom or sell them into slavery. Nor were the only dangers human, as the elements could conspire against travellers as well. Such was the experience of Archbishop Amalarius of Trier (r.812-813), who was sent by Charlemagne as his envoy to Byzantium in 813. On his return from Constantinople, Amalarius’ ship was attacked by pirates, and they were only saved by a miraculous storm that helped them escape.
I’m inclined to suspect that such an attack on the road was probably not the cause of death for the Carolingian ambassadors. The ‘Abbasid postal and communications system was pretty good, with 930 postal stations where supplies could be acquired. There was also a network of hostels that travellers could stay in. Isaac and his party most likely returned to the Frankish world by following the North African coastline to minimise the amount of time they had to keep a nervous elephant on board a ship, crossing to Italy from modern Tunisia. Both this embassy and the one upon which Radbert died came back with vast wealth, including a magnificent curtained tent and a marvellous mechanical clock. Given the safe transmission of these valuable items, they probably weren’t ambushed by pirates or sunk by a gale. Charlemagne seems to have been entirely confident about sending gold and cloth back to the Caliphate in 807.
A more plausible cause of death might be misadventure. Travelling in the Caliphate could be unpredictable. In the eleventh century, al-Khatib al-Baghdadi advised travellers to perform istikhara (prayer for guidance) in order to receive predictions in their dreams about their forthcoming trip. It was inauspicious to start a journey on a Friday, and better to begin on Monday or Thursday. Lantfrid and Sigimund were probably in the Caliphate for multiple years, more than enough time for a stupid and unlucky accident to happen. The odds of both of them and Radbert dying in such a way may be low, but ludicrous coincidences happen all the time. February 2022 saw the tragic deaths of the Serbian ambassador to Portugal and of the Italian ambassador to Australia, both by accidentally falling from a great height. It’s not impossible to imagine some sort of innocent accident on the road or while being entertained by the Caliph.
My favoured cause of death, however, is disease. People in the early medieval Caliphate were well aware that travel could be bad for your health. Building on ancient Greek precedent and particularly the work of Galen, medical knowledge of the time taught that people’s bodies were accustomed to the climate and food of their native lands, which explained why so many became sick when they travelled through different countries. In response to this, the ninth century saw the production of a large number of medical treatises for staying healthy while travelling, often based on Greek medical knowledge.
Among the most celebrated was that of Qusta ibn Luqa (820-912), a Christian doctor originally from Syria who wrote a Medical Regime for the Pilgrims to Mecca. In addition to information specific to the hajj, this work contained:
1. ‘Knowledge of the regimen to resting, eating, drinking, sleeping and sexual intercourse.’
2. ‘Knowledge of the different kinds of fatigue and their cure.’
3. ‘Knowledge of the diseases which are caused by the blowing of the different winds and their treatment.’
4. ‘Knowledge of the prophylaxis against vermin and of the treatment of the injuries caused by them.’
(Trans. Bos, Qusṭā Ibn Lūqā’s Medical Regime, 19.)
Other medical texts, such as that of Razi in the tenth century, advised that people carry a piece of clay from their homeland with which to purify waters in foreign lands that might be less conducive to their constitutions. This is not to say that the Caliphate was a less healthy place than the Carolingian empire (although some places, like Egypt, had a bad reputation for sickness). Rather, the journey to the court of Harun al-Rashid was probably the longest and most stressful that any Frankish diplomat ever had to make. It was one undertaken in a strange climate with unfamiliar food. In such circumstances, I would find it unsurprising if Sigimund, Lantfrid and Radbert were ultimately the victims of disease.
We will probably never know the exact causes of the deaths of Charlemagne’s envoys to Harun al-Rashid, but considering the possible reasons gives us a decent sense of the challenges and dangers involved in conducting pre-modern diplomacy. I suspect that it also gives us a hint at the factors that lay behind the short lifespan of Carolingian-‘Abbasid diplomacy. Although Louis the Pious (r. 814-840) received an embassy from Caliph al-Ma’mun (r. 813-833) in 831, to the best of our knowledge he never sent one back. Nor did any of his successors. While there were many reasons for this silence, I can’t help thinking that the toll on Frankish diplomats may have contributed to this. If someone can be trusted to helm an embassy to the Caliphate, they’re probably not the sort of person you can afford to lose to attrition. Given the track record it must have been a really, really unpopular job, so finding volunteers was probably also difficult. While this wouldn’t have stopped a vital military alliance or an essential economic agreement, if the Carolingians saw contact with the ‘Abbasids as more of a prestigious photo-op to impress a domestic audience, they may have calculated that the human wastage was just too high.