Looking for Abu'l Abbas

Episode 37

Looking for Abu'l Abbas

In 801 CE, an elephant named Abu’l Abbas landed in Portovenere, Italy from Ifriqiya. According to The Royal Frankish Annals, he was as a gift from Caliph Harun al-Rashid to Charlemagne. Although he appears regularly in any discussion of the period, Abu’l Abbas, like many other animals, remains a cipher. For world history, he tells a story about the circuits of diplomacy and trade that linked the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean or fuels more speculation on the relationship of Holy Roman Christendom to the Islamic Caliphate. For art history, he is translated into the ivories, oliphants and imagery of elephants in the European imagination. Or else, he finds his proper province in children’s fables.

In this podcast, Dr. Radhika Subramaniam, Director of The Sheila Johnson Center and Associate Professor of Art History & Design at the New School / Parsons School of Design reconstructs a plausible tale of this Asian elephant’s travels, which would undoubtedly have been in the company of a mahout or handler, who, although unacknowledged and unnamed, probably accompanied him from India. This podcast is adapted from a longer work-in-progress that is part animal biography, part migration story, part tale of human-animal relationships and all quest narrative. It explores the writing of an animal biography as a challenge to both research and narrative as well as a promise for re-articulating an interspecies relationship.

This episode, part of the Centre d'Études Maghrébines à Tunis (CEMAT) History of the Maghrib / History in the Maghreb lecture series, was recorded at the Library of the Medina of Tunis - Dar Ben Achour - on 12 April 2018.

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We thank Ahmed Fetoui for his interpretation of "Bellah Ya Ghazali" for the introduction and conclusion of this podcast.


Suggested Readings

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Bedini, Silvio. 1997. The Pope’s Elephant. Manchester: Carcanet Press.

Buckler, F.W. 1931. Harunu’l Rashid and Charles the Great. Cambridge, MA: The Medieval Academy of America.

Clot, André. 2005. Harun al-Rashid and the World of 1001 Nights. London: Saqi Books.

Edgerton, Franklin W., trans. 1931. The Elephant-Lore of the Hindu: The Elephant-sport (Matanga-lila) of Nilakantha. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Einhard and Notker the Stammerer. 1969. Two Lives of Charlemagne. Translated and with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe. London: Penguin Books.

Dutton, Paul Edward. 2004. Charlemagne’s Mustache and Other Cultural Clusters of a Dark Age. New York/Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Flood, Finbarr Barry. 2009. Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu-Muslim” Encounter. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hack, Achim Thomas. 2011. Abul Abaz: Zur Biographie eines Elefanten. Badenweiler: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Bachmann.

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Hart, Lynette and Sundar. 2000. “Family Traditions forMahouts of Asian Elephants.” Anthrozoos 13(1): 34-42.

Hart, Lynette and Piers Locke. 2007. “Indian and Nepali Mahouts and their Unique Relationship with Elephants.” In Marc Bekoff (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Human-Animal Relationships Vol. 2. Westport CT: Greenwood Press: 510-515.

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Lahiri Choudhury, D.K. 1989. “The Indian Elephant in a Changing World.” In Carla M. Borden (Ed.) Contemporary Indian Tradition: Voices on Culture, Nature and the Challenge of Change. Washington/London: Smithsonian Institution Press: 301-321.

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Parkin, David and Ruth Barnes, ed.  2002. Ships and the Development of Maritime Technology in the Indian Ocean.  London: Routledge Curzon.

Piers Locke. 2006. “History, Practice, Identity: An Institutional Ethnography of Elephant Handlers in Chitwan, Nepal.” Phd diss., University of Kent.

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Sypeck, Jeff. 2006. Becoming Charlemagne. New York: Harper Collins.

“Taming African Elephants.” (From our Kenya Correspondent) The Times of London, April 9, 1927.

Trautmann, Thomas R. 2015. Elephants and Kings: An environmental history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Kindle edition.

Tyler, JE.  1930. The Alpine Passes: The Middle Ages (962-1250). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Wink, André. 1990. Al-Hind: The Making of the Indo-Islamic World. Leiden: Brill.

Zeier, Kristin. “Baghdad, Jerusalem, Aachen: On theTrail of the White Elephant.”  Deutsche Welle, July 21, 2003.

Zvelebil, K.V. 1979. “‘Elephant Language’ of the Mahouts of Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary.” Journal of the American Oriental Society. 9(4): 675-676.