Abbasid–Carolingian alliance

There was an Abbasid–Carolingian alliance during the 8th and 9th centuries, effected through a series of embassies, rapprochements and combined military operations between the Frankish Carolingian Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate.[1][2][3]

Map of the Abbasid and Carolingian empires around 814
Foreign alliances of France
Frankish–Abbasid alliance 777–800s
Franco-Mongol alliance 1220–1316
Franco-Scottish alliance 1295–1560
Franco-Polish alliance 1524–1526
Franco-Hungarian alliance 1528–1552
Franco-Ottoman alliance 1536–1798
Franco-English alliance 1657–1660
Franco-Indian alliance 1603–1763
Franco-British alliance 1716–1731
Franco-Spanish alliance 1733–1792
Franco-Prussian alliance 1741–1756
Franco-Austrian Alliance 1756–1792
Franco-Indian Alliances 1700s
Franco-American alliance 1778–1794
Franco-Persian alliance 1807–1809
Franco-Prussian alliance 1812–1813
Franco-Austrian alliance 1812–1813
Franco-Russian alliance 1892–1917
Entente Cordiale 1904–present
Franco-Polish alliance 1921–1940
Franco-Italian alliance 1935
Franco-Soviet alliance 1936–1939
Western Union 1948–1954
North Atlantic Alliance 1949–present
Western European Union 1954–2011
European Defence Union 1993–present
Regional relations

The alliance is likely to have formed first between Pepin the Short and al-Mansur, and later to have continued under Charlemagne and Harun al-Rashid. These contacts followed the intense conflict between the Carolingians and the Emirate of Córdoba, marked by the Battle of Tours in 732, and were aimed at establishing a counter-alliance with the 'faraway' Abbasid Empire based in the Near East. Slightly later, another Carolingian-Abbasid alliance was attempted in a conflict against the Byzantine Empire.

Primary sourcesEdit

Direct evidence for Abbasid–Carolingian diplomacy comes almost entirely from Frankish (Latin) sources. These are mostly contemporary or nearly so. Especially important are the quasi-official Royal Frankish Annals, Einhard's Vita Karoli magni and the anonymous Vita Hludowici imperatoris. There is also indirect evidence. Charlemagne's elephant is referenced by Dicuil, an Irishman writing around 825. Likewise, the Basel roll, a record of a survey of the church in the Holy Land commissioned by Charlemagne, corroborates Einhard's account.[4]

The absence of references to Abbasid–Carolingian diplomacy in Islamic sources is not peculiar. The major Arabic history of the period, that of al-Ṭabarī, routinely records relations only with the Byzantine Empire. Otherwise routine diplomacy that went smoothly goes unreported. There is no reference to diplomatic contacts with Tang China, for example, which is known directly only from Chinese sources. There is only one contemporary source from the Abbasid Caliphate that refers to diplomacy with Charlemagne, versions III and IV of the Arabic Sibylline prophecy, which were redacted in the aftermath of Harun's death.[4]


The Umayyad invasion of Gaul from 719 to 759 was a period of intense conflict between the Carolingians and the Umayyads, marked by the Battle of Tours in 732. Umayyad forces were finally expelled from Gaul with the conquest of Narbonne in 759 by Pepin the Short, but the Umayyad presence in the Iberian peninsula continued to represent a challenge to the Carolingians.

Pepin the Short and al-MansurEdit


Contacts between the Carolingians and the Abbasids started soon after the establishment of the Abbasid Caliphate and the concomitant fall of the Umayyad Caliphate in 751. The Carolingian ruler Pepin the Short had a powerful enough position in Europe to "make his alliance valuable to the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad, al-Mansur".[5] Former supporters of the Umayyad Caliphate were established firmly in southern Spain under Abd ar-Rahman I, and constituted a strategic threat both to the Carolingians on their southern border, and to the Abbasids at the western end of their dominion. Embassies were exchanged both ways, with the apparent objective of cooperating against the Umayyads of Cordova (Al-Andalus): a Frankish embassy went to Baghdad in 765, which returned to Europe after three years with numerous presents, and an Abbasid embassy from al-Mansur visited France in 768.[5]

Commercial exchangesEdit

Commercial exchanges occurred between the Carolingian and Abbasid realms, and Arabic coins are known to have spread in Carolingian Europe in that period.[6] Arab gold is reported to have circulated in Europe during the 9th century, apparently in payment of the export of slaves, timber, iron and weapons from Europe to Eastern lands.[7] It is noted that Charlemagne made attempts to establish an open market between the Carolingians and Abbasids, possibly as a means for the Carolingians to economically benefit from trade with the Abbasids. As a famous example, the 8th century English king Offa of Mercia is known to have minted copies of Abbasid dinars struck in 774 by Caliph Al-Mansur with "Offa Rex" centered on the reverse amid inscriptions in Pseudo-Kufic script.[8][9]

Charlemagne and Harun al-RashidEdit

Strategic interest in Spain (777–778)Edit

In 777, pro-Abbasid rulers of northern Spain contacted the Carolingian to request help against the powerful Umayyad Emirate of Córdoba in southern Spain, led by Abd ar-Rahman I.[10] The "Spanish Abbasids sought support for their cause in Pepin's Francia; he was content to oblige because the Cordovan dynasty posed a constant military threat to southwestern France".[11]

Sulayman al-Arabi the pro-Abbasid Wali (governor) of Barcelona and Girona sent a delegation to Charlemagne in Paderborn, offering his submission, together with the allegiance of Husayn of Zaragoza and Abu Taur of Huesca in return for military aid.[10] The three pro-Abbasid rulers also conveyed that the caliph of Baghdad, Muhammad al-Mahdi, was preparing an invasion force against the Umayyad ruler Abd al-Rhaman I.[10]

Following the sealing of this alliance at Paderborn,[12] Charlemagne marched across the Pyrenees in 778 "at the head of all the forces he could muster".[13] His troops were welcomed in Barcelona and Girona by Sulayman al-Arabi.[14] As he moved towards Zaragoza, the troops of Charlemagne were joined by troops led by Sulayman.[13] Husayn of Zaragoza, however, refused to surrender the city, claiming that he had never promised Charlemagne his allegiance. Meanwhile, the force sent by the Baghdad caliphate seems to have been stopped near Barcelona.[15] After a month of siege at Zaragoza, Charlemagne decided to return to his kingdom.[15] On his retreat, Charlemagne suffered an attack from the Basques in central Navarra. As a reprisal he attacked Pamplona, destroying it.[15] However, on his retreat north his baggage train was ambushed by the Basques at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass on August 15, 778.[16]

Charlemagne's conflict with the Umayyad Emir of Cordova is one of the possible military conflicts which made him an ally of Harun al-Rashid,[17] as they found a common enemy to unite against.[18]

For Charlemagne, the alliance may also have functioned as a counterweight against the Byzantine Empire, which was opposed to his role in Italy and his claim to the title of Roman Emperor. For Harun al-Rashid, there was an advantage in having a partner against his rivals in the Emirate of Cordova (Al-Andalus).[19]


After these campaigns, there were again numerous embassies between Charlemagne and the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid from 797,[20] apparently in view of a Carolingian-Abbasid alliance against Byzantium,[21] or with a view to gaining an alliance against the Umayyads of Cordova.[22]

Three embassies were sent by Charlemagne to Harun al-Rashid's court and the latter sent at least two embassies to Charlemagne.[21]

The 797 embassy, the first one from Charlemagne, was composed of three men, Isaac the Jew (probably as interpreter),[23] Lantfrid and Sigimud. Four years later in 801, an Abbasid embassy arrived in Pisa. They met with Charlemagne who was present in Italy at that time.[24] In 799, Charlemagne sent another mission to the Patriarch of Jerusalem,[25] with which the Patriarch of Jerusalem sent Charlemagne the keys to the Holy Sepulcher and the site of Calvary, as well as a Jerusalem Banner.

In 802, a second embassy was sent by Charlemagne, which returned in 806.[26] In 807, Rodbertus, Charlemagne's ambassador died as he returned from Persia. In turn, Abdallah, Harun al-Rashid's envoy reached Charlemagne in Aachen accompanied by two monks from Jerusalem, George and Felix, who represented of the Patriarch Thomas.[24]

The third and final embassy was sent by Charlemagne in 809, but it arrived after Harun al-Rashid had died.[21] The embassy returned in 813 with messages of friendship, but little concrete results.[26]

Diplomatic giftsEdit

An inhabited initial B from a copy of Cassiodorus' Commentary on the Psalms made at the Abbey of Saint-Denis in the first quarter of the ninth century (now Paris, BnF lat. 2195) incorporates an elephant's head.[27] The realistic portrayal of an Asian elephant suggests that the artist had seen Abul-Abbas.[28]

The embassies sent by Charlemagne possessed sundry royal red fabrics, a textile noted to be of value within the Abbasid realm. In addition, Charlemagne sponsored the construction of the Church of St. Mary in Jerusalem and its library and sent sums of money with all of his envoys.[29][30]

Harun al-Rashid is reported to have sent numerous presents to Charlemagne, including silks, a brass candelabra, perfume, balsam, a tent with multi-colored curtains, ivory chessmen, and an elephant named Abul al-Abbas. The 802 Royal Frankish Annals briefly describes the arrival of the emissary referred to as Isaac the Jew, who brought with him the elephant Abul al-Abbas.[31] Abul al-Abbas is reported to have died suddenly in 810, while Charlemagne was on campaign in a town called "Lippeham".[32]

The automatic water-clock made of brass, described in the 807 Royal Frankish Annals, and had spherical decorations which would strike cymbals below to create a chiming sound for each hour. There were also twelve figurines of horsemen that would animate at the end of each hour.[33][34][35] Harun al-Rashid is also reported to have offered the custody of the Holy places in Jerusalem to Charlemagne.[21]

The ivory elephant known as the Chessman of Charlemagne was traditionally held to have been a gift from Harun to Charlemagne. Although this is consistent with its dating, the earliest reference to the carved piece is from Paris in 1505.[36]

Artistic influencesEdit

Various Islamic influences seem to appear in Christian religious architecture such as the multi-colored tile designs which may have been inspired by Islamic polychromy in the 800 CE gatehouse at Lorsch Abbey.[37]

Early Carolingian architecture generally combines Roman, Early Christian, Byzantine, Islamic and Northern European designs.[38]

The “Iconoclasm” that occurred in the Byzantine Empire from 732 to 842, influenced a Christian movement that destroyed idols, icons, amongst other images. Arnold Toynbee has postulated that the successes of the Islamic Military throughout the 8th centuries motivated Byzantine Christians to adopt the notion of Islam that does not favor the imagery of idols. Charlemagne has been recorded as following the iconoclastic fervor of the East Roman Emperor Leo Syrus, however, Charlemagne's attempts were ultimately stopped by Pope Adrian I.[39]

From Carolingian times, various Islamic influences seem to appear in Christian religious architecture such as the multi-colored tile designs which may have been inspired by Islamic polychromy in the 800 CE gatehouse at Lorsch Abbey.[40]

Lasting impactsEdit

Romantic depiction of Harun receiving a Frankish delegation

It seems that in 831, Harun al-Rashid's son al-Ma'mun also sent an embassy to Louis the Pious.[41] These embassies also seem to have had the objective of promoting commerce between the two realms.[41]

After 814 and the accession of Louis the Pious to the throne, internal dissensions prevented the Carolingians from further ventures into Spain.[22]

Almost a century later Bertha, daughter of Lothar II and mother of several tenth-century Italian kings, is reported to have sent an embassy to the Abbasid caliph Al-Muktafi, requesting friendship and a marital alliance.[42]


  1. ^ Heck, p.172
  2. ^ Shalem, p.94-95
  3. ^ Carolingian Chronicles by Bernhard Walter Scholz, p.16
  4. ^ a b Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby (2019), "ʿAbbāsid–Carolingian Diplomacy in Early Medieval Arabic Apocalypse", Millennium, 16 (1): 213–231, doi:10.1515/mill-2019-0011, S2CID 207892673.
  5. ^ a b Deanesly, p.294
  6. ^ Goody, p.80
  7. ^ Charlemagne, Muhammad, and the Arab roots of capitalism by Gene W. Heck p.179-181 [1]
  8. ^ British Museum
  9. ^ Medieval European Coinage By Philip Grierson p.330
  10. ^ a b c Lewis, p.244
  11. ^ Mohammed, Charlemagne, and the Origins of Europe Richard Hodges, p.120 [2]
  12. ^ Lewis, p.245
  13. ^ a b Lewis, p.246
  14. ^ Lewis, p.253
  15. ^ a b c Lewis, p.249
  16. ^ Lewis, p.251-267
  17. ^ Carolingian Chronicles by Bernhard Walter Scholz p.16
  18. ^ Beyond the Arab disease by Riad Nourallah p.51
  19. ^ Creating East and West by Nancy Bisaha p.207
  20. ^ Heck, p. 172
  21. ^ a b c d Heck, p. 172
  22. ^ a b O'Callaghan, p.106
  23. ^ Charlemagne and the Early Middle Ages by Miriam Greenblatt, p.29
  24. ^ a b Gil, p.286
  25. ^ War And Peace in the Law of Islam by Majid Khadduri, p.247
  26. ^ a b Mohammed, Charlemagne, and the Origins of Europe Richard Hodges, p.121 [3]
  27. ^ Rosamond McKitterick, Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity (Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 286.
  28. ^ BnF Expositions, Trésors carolingiens, Cassiodore, Commentaire sur les psaumes I-L, Initiale B ornée zoomorphe.
  29. ^ Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, Emperor of the East, 905-959. (2008). De administrando imperio. Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies. ISBN 978-0-88402-343-2. OCLC 1062030419.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  30. ^ Muratori, Lodovico Antonio (1762). Dall'anno 601 dell'era volgare fino all'anno 840. Olzati. OCLC 258143787.
  31. ^ Annales regni Francorum Anno 810 (Kurze 1895, p. 131, Monumenta Germaniae Historica edition)
  32. ^ Scholz 1970, pp. 91 (Eng. tr. of ARB = Royal Frankish Annals)
  33. ^ Daily life in the age of Charlemagne by John J. Butt p.146
  34. ^ Legends of Charlemagne; or Romance of the middle ages Thomas Bulfinch p. xix [4]
  35. ^ Scholz, Bernhard Walther (1931- ). Rogers, Barbara (1945- ). Nithardus (ca 790-ca 845). Histories (ang.) (2000). Carolingian chronicles : Royal Frankish annals and Nithard's Histories. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-06186-0. OCLC 867938000.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  36. ^ Mathilde Avisseau-Broustet (2022), "L'éléphant de Charlemagne", Le Blog Gallica: La Bibliothèque numérique de la BnF et de ses partenaires.
  37. ^ A world history of architecture Marian Moffett p.194
  38. ^ A world history of architecture Marian Moffett p.195
  39. ^ A Study of History: Abridgement of volumes VII-X by Arnold Joseph Toynbee p.259 [5]
  40. ^ A world history of architecture Marian Moffett p.194
  41. ^ a b Heck, p. 173
  42. ^ M. Hamidullah, "An Embassy of Queen Bertha to Caliph al-Muktafi billah in Baghdad 293/906", Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society, I, 1953, pp 272-300.