Ancient history

Abul-Abbas, the elephant given to Charlemagne by the Caliph of Baghdad who was the first to set foot in northern Europe

Not only human beings go down in history. So have not a few animals, often linked to the exploits of their masters but other times for themselves. We have seen some of them here, in the case of the parrot Álex , the dog Balto or the horse Kluger-Hans , but others like Bucéfalo sound familiar to all of us , Laika , Incitatus , Dolly , Peritas , Babieca

Equidae and canidae predominate, logically, and although there could also be some rarity such as the octopus Paul , it is curious that elephants are not missing from the list. Of all of them, probably the most unique was Abul-Abbas .

We have already talked in these pages about other pachyderms, some generically -those used in war or at festivals- and others identified as having starred in some historical episode, such as Hanno , whose body was buried in the Vatican, or the foundling that was brought to Spain from the Philippines and today is exhibited dissected in the National Museum of Natural Sciences. Today we are going to discover another one who noted in his curriculum the fact of having been the first to set foot in the northern zone of Europe, Prehistory apart is understood.

We all know the deed of Hannibal crossing the Pyrenees and the Alps with thirty-seven combat proboscideans, most of which, by the way, did not resist the adventure and died along the way, only one reaching the Italian peninsula, the famous Sirus (who died shortly after). But, mountains aside, that was in the Mediterranean area. Abul-Abbas he reached the north and even participated in a war campaign against Denmark. Of course, like most of his peers, the climate of those latitudes did not suit him and ended up being fatal.

If we listen to some authors, it differed from Sirus in which it was an Asian elephant. In this case, surely of the subspecies Elephas indicus , which is the most widespread in continental Asia (there are two others but exclusive to Sri Lanka and Sumatra). That is, the same as the one brought to Spain in 1773, smaller in size than its African cousins ​​(including Sirus , which, as its name indicates, came from Syria and was different from the other Carthaginians, since they used to be found around the Sahara and belong to the subspecies Loxodonta cyclotis , African forest elephant).

However, there are no certainties about it and other researchers believe that the most logical thing is that it was an African elephant. They would be based for this on geographical proximity but ignoring that this species,Loxodonta africana , has too strong a character to be kept in captivity and for this reason perhaps the aforementioned forest subspecies would be more appropriate. In short, the exact provenance of Abul-Abbas is unknown. and we only know that its entry into the annals began in Baghdad, capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, in the year 798 A.D.

Caliph Harun al-Rashid, the most important of the Abbasids, had initiated diplomatic relations with the court of Charlemagne, who had sent an embassy incarnated by three emissaries named Lantfrid, Sigimund and Isaac. Harun al-Rashid wanted to reciprocate and, apart from also sending an ambassador (who was joined by another by order of Ibrahim I Ibn Al Aghlab, emir of Ifriqiya, the former Roman province of Africa -what is now Tunisia plus part of Libya and Algeria-), decided to include a gift.

Quite an unusual gift, because if an elephant was already tremendously original in the Middle Ages, this one was albino and bore the name of the founder of the dynasty. In reality, it is not certain that it was a white animal, since there is no documentary evidence to prove it, nor are mortal remains preserved to carry out the corresponding analyses; however, this is how it has traditionally been represented in art and literature and the truth is that this physical rarity gives the story a special touch.

Since Lantfrid and Sigimund had passed away, the person in charge of fulfilling the caliph's wish was Isaac, a Frankish Jew but established in North Africa, who until then had worked as an interpreter and now was in charge of guiding the animal and its mahout (caretaker) to the Mediterranean coast. The messengers had previously notified Charlemagne, who ordered his representative in Liguria to arrange ships for the transport of the elephant and other rich gifts, including spices, fabrics, a mechanical water clock, the remains of the martyrs Saint Cyprian and Saint Pantaleon… Before, the path to the sea was made on foot through Egypt.

Then they embarked in Carthage -the city had been destroyed after its defeat by Rome but the Muslims partially rehabilitated its port-, they crossed the sea to Porto Venere (a commune near Genoa), they spent the winter in Vercelli (a Lombard dukedom conquered by the Franks and made a county of his kingdom) and in the spring of 802 AD. They resumed the march towards Aachen, an ancient Roman spa where Charlemagne wintered and which became his de facto capital.

We do not know what itinerary that bizarre entourage followed; only the brief phrase that appears in the Annales regni Francorum or Laurissenses maiores (a Carolingian chronicle that glosses from the death of Charles Martel to the reign of Louis the Pious ): «Isaac Iudeus of Africa cum elephant (i.e., "Isaac the Jew returned from Africa with the elephant"). Logic says that, retracing Hannibal's feat in reverse, they had to cross the Alps and after traversing central Europe, probably astonishing their way through every city and town, they reached their destination in July.

Two years later Godofredo I of Denmark attacked the town of Reric, present-day Lübeck, with the aim of securing his position in the trade of that area. He then established the border with the Frankish Kingdom at Hedeby, which was integrated within the perimeter of the Danevirke , a long wall of earth and wood built in 808 and separating Jutland into two halves, the northern Danish and the southern Frankish, fearing Charlemagne's expansionism.

Diplomatic negotiations were unsuccessful and in 810 Godfrey decided to get ahead of his enemy by launching a fleet to conquer Frisia, a region that the Franks had occupied a century earlier under cover of the fight against paganism but which Denmark claimed as its own. Charlemagne got fed up and summoned his army to stop the Danes. In three days, the troops were to converge on Lipperham, a meeting point whose location we do not know today but which some place near Wesel, where the Lippe tributary empties into the Rhine.

This is where we find references to Abul-Abbas again. , since, apparently, the emperor considered it a good idea that he accompany them on the campaign. It's unclear if he intended to bring him into the fray, which would make for a memorable "An Elephant vs. Vikings" headline episode . As we explained before, elephants had been a weapon of war in ancient times. Indians and Chinese and other Eastern peoples used them in large quantities more than a millennium before Christ, Alexander added to his ranks those used by the Persians and we have news of those used by Pyrrhus and Hannibal.

In the West they ceased to be used for combat in 46 BC, after the Battle of Thapsus. In it, Julius Caesar faced the proboscideans of Quintus Cecilio Metelo Escipión and his ally Juba I, king of Numidia, giving axes to his legionnaires to cut off their legs. That combined with a hail of arrows and stones caused them to panic and turn against their own lines. Their performance was so heroic that, after capturing more than fifty animals with their towers and harnesses, Caesar allowed them to carry an elephant on his banner.

The fact is that the Frankish soldiers had to cross the riverbed and the pachyderm had to get wet like the others to cross to the other shore, something that did not do his health any good. A health that, they say, was already battered because the elephant was around forty years old, suffering from rheumatism whose symptoms began to manifest themselves on the march from Aachen. The cold and rainy climate was not the most appropriate for an animal adapted to heat and the cooling resulting from the bath in the Rhine gave him the coup de grâce by causing pneumonia.

Unable to go any further, he opted to return it but was only able to get as far as Münster. There he collapsed to the ground and died. What happened to the remains of Abul-Abbas ? It is not known. In the middle of the 18th century, several large bones were found around Wesel that were attributed to the elephant, but since they were not preserved, we do not know if, in fact, they were his or some prehistoric animal. But his influence was greater than it seems in determining artistic iconography.

And it is that the classic image of the war elephants, with tall battlemented towers on their backs to accommodate several archers, is a product of the imagination that aroused the splendor of the Carolingian court and does not correspond, experts say, with historical reality, in which the warriors would go on a simple basket or even bareback.


Annals of the Carolingian Empire (800-843) (Edited by Javier del Hoyo and Bienvenido Gazapo)/Brief history of Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire (Juan Carlos Rivera Quintana)/Annales regni Francorum (English translation by Bernhard Walter Sholz and Barbara Rogers)/Animals in the military. From Hannibal's elephants to the dolphins of the U.S Navy (John M. Kistler)/Two lives of Charlomagne (Einhard and Notker the Stammerer )/History of Emperor Charlemagne (translation by Nicholas of Piedmont)/An emperor and his elephant – Charlemagne and Abul Abaz (The Wunderkammer in Once Upon a Time… )/Wikipedia