In the year 802 a most remarkable gift for Emperor Charlemagne was delivered to Aachen: an elephant! Named Abul-Abbas, it had been sent by the Caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid, in order to fulfil a request that Charlemagne himself had made a few years earlier. But why did Charlemagne express this unusual desire? And what meaning should be given to the exchange of gifts between the emperor and the caliph? The story of Charlemagne’s elephant may appear to be an oddity, a somewhat sad tale of a poor animal that died after a few years spent in the cold Germanic climate. Actually, a careful investigation of the whole affair reveals much about the diplomatic relations of that era, the politics of gifts, the political meaning of owning an elephant as an attribute of royalty, and Christian Europe’s perception of the world.
Giuseppe Albertoni teaches Medieval History at the University of Trento.