Somebody should send somebody an elephant. Nobody can resist such a gift.
Things get worse by the day in Iraq. The Iraqis are not doing at all well. I suggest sending the Ayatollah Khomeini an elephant, not that it would do any good, maybe, but you never know till you try, and it would be cheaper than a lot of alternatives if it worked and smoothed things over.
It was, of course, on July 20, 802, when Iraq was a great power, that the caliph of Baghdad's elephant arrived at Charlemagne's German capital of Aachen after four years on the road. Poor beast walked all the way.
Charlemagne exchanged gifts with the caliph, the great Harun al-Rashid whom you remember from the "Thousand and One Nights." Charlemagne was buried, later on, in a shroud of Persian silk. Things got going so well that the western emperor was allowed to establish a hospital and trading post in Jerusalem.
It always comes as a surprise to discover that by the time of Christ, merchants were getting silk from China in Rome, and even after the fall of Rome, when we assume the world was somehow all black chaos, we are surprised to see gorgeous sword hilts of gold and jewels in barbarian England, bearing the unmistakable signs of an opulent Orient.
We take it for granted that we should explore outer space, but it rarely occurs to us that our fathers, who were, after all, put together precisely as we are, should be equally keen at poking about. If there were only more written records preserved, we'd be amazed at the traffic from China to Ireland in ancient times. Why not? There is no geographic barrier, and it is the nature of the human beast to start wandering off oblivious to robbers, typhoid and assorted monsters along the way.
In the darkest Dark Ages, long before the great 12th-century renaissance, it is possible to see the influences of China and Persia even in so remote and savage a Saxon kingdom as England, and one reason I always personally celebrate July 20 as Elephant Day is that I like to be reminded of the currents running around the world even in the darkest ages, and I love to think of the German excitement when the elephant came marching in. Such things light up horizons. It does not have to be a continuing flood; sometimes one instance can have enormous effect on men's imaginations and behavior.
Unfortunately I do not know what happened to the caliph's elephant once he got to Germany. All those savages, all that snow. Enough to discourage the wisest of animals.
But my point is the efficacy of giving somebody an elephant. Who knows what gorgeous highs, what expansions of consciousness, trail right behind?
An equally grand example may be found a few centuries later, when the king of Portugal needed a few big concessions from the pope, Leo X. (A glittering account of this is to be found in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, a paper called "The Papal Pachyderms" by Silvio A. Bedini, keeper of rare books at the Smithsonian Institution.)
Now your average amateur would send a lawyer to Rome to argue the Portuguese case, and probably would wind up in a snarl of bribes and whereases. Your wise king, on the other hand, sent the pope a white elephant named Hammo, along with vestments woven with gold and rubies (he had done his homework and knew the pope, Giovanni Medici, had a great weakness for pretty things).
On March 12, 1514, the elephant entered the gates of Rome, accompanied by carefully chosen Portuguese dignitaries done up in the most lavish costumes imaginable, with sensational effect. The pope gave the Portuguese what they wanted.
Mind you, there are problems along the way. These must be accepted as part of the game. One trembles at the logistical hazards of getting a subtropical animal from Basra to Aachen over a four-year period, and the probable sufferings of the beast's human trainers used to dates and apricots and suddenly dumped in the savage wilderness.
Thanks to Bedini, we know in some detail of the problems of the pope's elephant. Word got around, and once the elephant landed at a small seacoast town 70 miles from Rome, the whole countryside turned out to see so great a wonder. Bedini thinks it was the first elephant seen in Rome since classical times.
"At Alicante, Ibiza and Palma, the countryside was virtually depopulated as people left work and swarmed to the waterside to see the approaching mission, surrounding the ship at each port of call with small boats, and tried to clamber aboard."
But then, "after some difficulties in disembarking the elephant" they began the land trip into the imperial city.
"Word spread like wildfire, nobles rode in on horseback from the interior and peasants left their fields . . . spectators packed the roads, and a large caravan had formed which insisted on following them every step of the route. It was difficult to make any progress and the experience proved vexatious to the tired voyagers and particularly to the harassed elephant."
Besides all that, those famous stone roads, still remaining from the days of empire, were bad for the elephant, whose feet were soon worn to the quick.
Finally, just outside Rome the Portuguese tried to rest in a cardinal's villa, behind walls. This did not please the great crowds desiring to see the elephant.
"They brought tools with which they broke holes through the walls, and with their trampling they devastated the cardinal's vineyards and orchards, until finally the entourage made its escape to the pope's cannon factory" where they had some genuine privacy and rest.
So there is no point underestimating the inconveniences along the way. All the same, and on the bottom line as you might say, these troubles amount to nothing in comparison with the great benefits derived from Project Elephant.
"The emotion of bystanders knew no bounds," Bedini goes on. The pope himself "ran along the secret passage of the Corridore from the apostolic palace to the Borgia tower in front of Castel Sant'Angelo to obtain a better view.
"The papal artillery boomed out, the music of marching fifers and drummers filled the air and mingled with the raucous sounds of the mob.
"The pope's excitement grew until he could hardly contain himself when he obtained his first glimpse of the elephant. Just as the beast arrived before the Borgia tower it stopped, genuflected three times, and trumpeted at the pontiff. It then paused to fill its trunk from a water trough and gently sprayed the pope and his companions . . ."
Needless to say, "the pope's delight was boundless and he behaved like a small boy, jumping about and calling out."
Now you don't get that sort of response from sending Al Haig or somebody, and without meaning the least disrespect for great diplomats, I do say the record clearly indicates one elephant is sometimes worth all the lawyers of Basra.
The elephant only lived several years, but long enough for the pope to invite the public to see the beast every Sunday (he was sheltered in the great plaza in front of St. Peter's though the great Bernini Colonnade was not yet built), and when he died the pope was distressed. Meanwhile, the Portuguese had mopped up.
The conclusion is pretty plain: In triumph or in despair, in hope or in greed, try saying it with elephants.