The Elephant from Baghdad by Mary Tavener Holmes and John Harris illustrated by Jon Cannell


the elephant from baghdad cover

This fun and informative picture book written on a 4th grade 8th month AR level retells a historical event through a fictionalized narrator.  A great retelling of a West meets East event with an albino elephant thrown in, makes for a story that is hard to believe is true.

Charlemagne, the medieval ruler of most of Europe, sent ambassadors to meet the Caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid.  Charlemagne was curious to learn more about the amazing ruler he had heard so much about.  When the Europeans arrived they were astounded at the buildings, libraries, organization and cleanliness of the city.  For months, Harun “introduced the men to artists, musicians, scholars, mathematicians, architects and poets” and taught them about “science, medicine, engineering, and art.”  Harun al-Rashid’s generosity however did not stop there.  “He loaded a caravan with presents fit for a fellow emperor.”  He sent a saber and scabbard, a precious water jug, and a magnificent clock that he had commissioned his artisans to create.  A mechanical water clock, that unfortunately, has been lost in history, but was detailed in the 807 CE Annles regain Francium, a journal that chronicled the daily life in Charlemagne’s court as well as in a book written 400 years after Harun by Al-Jazazi in Istanbul, Turkey.  Even this, however, was not enough for the great emperor of the West, and Harun gave Charlemagne the rarest treasure of his court, an albino Elephant named Abu.the elephant from baghdad

Abu even had his own keeper, a Jewish man named Isaac, and when they returned back to Europe both were invited to live in the palace.  “Once or twice a day Charlemagne would visit his immense guest.” Abu’s image was preserved in portraits and began to appear on coins and tapestries in the empire.  Even in Charlemagne’s tomb is a silk cloth woven with elephants.  Abu was taken into battle against the Danes and when he got old, Charlemagne had a house built for him and Isaac near a river.  In 810 Abu died and when Charlemagne learned of his death, “he wept.”

The story shows the amazing respect the two leaders had for one another, for animals, and the tolerance of people of different faiths.   At 40 pages it works for story time and for older students learning about the Middle Ages.  Obviously they would take away drastically  different points from the story, but both groups would enjoy it.  I learned a lot, so I recommend it to adults as well.  The pictures are beautiful water colors and pencil, supplemented with actual photos of artifacts, that all combine to make the story and book a wonderful addition to your library to be read and enjoyed again and again. elephant from baghdad 2


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