Khaizaran (d. 790)

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Khaizaran (d. 790)

Arabian queen. Name variations: Khaizuran; al-Khaizurān. Birth date unknown; died in 790 ce; married al-Mahdi, 3rd Abbasid caliph of Baghdad (present-dayIraq); children: Musa al-Hadi (4th Abbasid caliph, r. 785–786); Harun al-Rashid also seen as Haroun al-Raschid (763/5–809, 5th Abbasid caliph); and a daughter (name unknown); (stepdaughters)Ulayya and Abassa.

During the 8th century, Baghdad was the center of a world market: ships arrived with porcelain, silks, spices, mirrors, linen, dyes, and jewels, as well as slaves taken in war. Its wharves were busy with the selling of uprooted boys and girls; the most beautiful of the Greeks, Turks, Scandinavians, Russians, Africans, and fair, doeeyed beauties from the Caucasus were saved for the caliph or Baghdad's nobility. Alev Croutier in Harem reprints a customs declaration of 1790: "Circassian girl, about eight years old; Abyssinian virgin, about ten; five-year-old Circassian virgin, Circassian woman, fifteen or sixteen years old; about twelve-year-old Georgian maiden, medium tall negro slave, seventeen-year-old Negro slave. Costs about 1000–2000 kurush." At that time, a horse was worth around 5,000 kurush.

Khaizaran was a slave girl from Yemen. One story maintains that she was first noticed by the powerful Abu Jafar (known as al-Mansur), 2nd Abbasid caliph of Baghdad, who brought her to the imperial household of his son, al-Mahdi. Another suggests that al-Mahdi, while crushing a revolt in Tabaristan in Persia, had absconded with two Persian "maidens" as trophies of conquest from the house of the defeated governor. One of them gave birth to his daughter Abassa ; the other was Khaizaran who, as a slave, bore Mahdi two boys at Raiy near Teheran—Musa al-Hadi and Harun al-Rashid—as well as another daughter, name unknown.

In 775, when al-Mahdi became caliph on the death of al-Mansur, he freed and married Khaizaran. Women of 8th- and 9th-century Arabia enjoyed considerable liberty. It was not until the end of the 10th century that the system of seclusion became commonplace. Those of the early Abbasid period could achieve great distinction, and exercised influence in state affairs. Arab maidens not only composed poetry, but competed with men in literary and musical undertakings; they also went to war and commanded troops.

Since it was also not uncommon for slaves in Baghdad to become extremely powerful, Khaizaran exerted considerable influence over her husband. She convinced al-Mahdi to place her favorite son Harun first in line of succession over his elder brother Musa. When Musa, who was fighting a campaign in Persia, balked at the idea, his father set out with an army from Baghdad to teach him some paternal respect. But on the way, Mahdi was mistakenly given poisoned fruit and died. Surprisingly, Harun, who had been accompanying his father and was now leader of the army, did not take advantage of his position. Instead, he diplomatically sent a message to Musa to come at once to Baghdad and claim the caliphate.

Under Musa al-Hadi, Khaizaran was confined to quarters and her influence was greatly diminished—until Musa foolishly set aside Harun's generosity, named a son next in line for succession, and dropped his brother to third place. Furious, Khaizaran began to make plans with her ladies-in-waiting. When Musa fell ill during the second year of his reign (786), he was smothered to death by his concubines. Other versions say Khaizaran poisoned him. The 23-year-old Harun was now caliph. Four years later, Khaizaran died.


Croutier, Alev Lytle. Harem: The World Behind the Veil. NY: Abbeville Press, 1989.