Elephants are never forgotten: Exotic animals in early Umayyad diplomacy

By Ian Morris
Submitted to Session Individual Submission, 2016 Annual Meeting
7th-13th Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper will draw attention to a large but little-known diplomatic gift from Syria to Armenia in 668; it will argue that this event provides valuable evidence for the institutionalisation of caliphal power and practice in the seventh century.

“Diplomatic gifts”, says Rosamond McKitterick, “were eloquent symbols of the cultural connections of the ruler and an essential link with the exotic which raised him far above his ordinary subjects. The knowledge of their existence, and their addition to the palace treasury or menagerie, functioned as a powerful reminder of the ruler’s place in the world.” The Fatimid and Abbasid caliphs understood this: they both sent and received exotic animals as a part of diplomatic practice. To this end, al-Mustansir sent the Byzantine emperor Constantine IX a giraffe; al-Muqtadir received a monkey from the emir of Oman. Best known today is the elephant that Harun al-Rashid sent Charlemagne in 801, along with a clock.

Yet al-Rashid was not the first caliph to send an elephant as a diplomatic gift. According to a much-overlooked source, the ‘History of the Caucasian Albanians’, Mu‘awiya I sent an elephant and a parrot to Juanshir, prince of Armenia—a gift of thanks for Juanshir’s part in a plot to assassinate Constans II. This was in 668, a full 130 years before Charlemagne’s elephant stamped onto the Frankish scene. Although the Armenian ‘History’ was compiled in the 10th century, James Howard-Johnston has argued that it preserves extracts from the lost ‘Eulogy of Juanshir’, which was not only contemporaneous; it may even record an eyewitness impression of the exotic animals as they reached the prince’s court.

Having recounted the story and historiography of Mu‘awiya’s exotic gift, this paper will tease out certain implications for our understanding of the caliph’s role and resources by the late seventh century. Not two generations into the Arab conquests, here is imperial diplomacy on a scale unattested and scarcely conceivable for the Arab kings of previous centuries. This anecdote – exceptional in both its content and its very early date – reflects the conquerors’ vigour in establishing trade routes from India to Africa, and their ambition in diplomatic affairs.