The Birth and Rise of Mohammedanism
Once upon a time, there was a great empire that encompassed all the shores of its largely maritime realm. Though it suffered to varying degrees under bouts of corruption, and remote parts of it had been occupied by uncivilized invaders, its banner was still held aloft by its long line of emperors, some wise, some foolish, some great, some venal. And harsh as its rule could be from time to time on both its subjects and its enemies, the Eastern Roman Empire of the Byzantine Greeks preserved order and promoted prosperity for its people for centuries. Its great cities throughout the eastern Mediterranean were home to craftsmen and merchants, artists and lawyers, soldiers, sailors, and priests; and its mighty capital of Constantinople was the beating heart of Christendom.
Far to the southeast, in the desert sands where few ventured, was another people, the Arabs: barbarous and pagan, the few who lived in the largely empty expanse were mostly nomadic herdsmen and merchants with their camel caravans. From their number arose a charismatic leader of brigands and cutthroats who proclaimed himself the infallible prophet of a religion of his own devising, centered on a book he himself had authored. When he was weak, he made treaties; when he was strong he broke them. When covetousness struck him – for his neighbors’ lands, herds, women, whatever – he would announce a new “revelation” from his god providing sanction for his crimes. Stealing, murdering, conquering, enslaving, and while he was at it, marrying a six-year-old, Mohammed propelled his tribe first to subdue their neighbors, and then, by the time of his death in AD 632, the western half of Arabia, from the Gulf of Aqaba to Yemen.
To avoid death, his captives had only two choices: conversion or submission. Conversion made them his warriors; submission, the status of the dhimmi, meant payment of tribute, no legal rights, and countless indignities at the hands of the Mohammedan faithful. The Arabic word islam means “submission”: submit or die.
Mohammed’s successors continued his jihad, spreading their creed by the sword into the two rival empires that sat to the north. Within ten years, they had overwhelmed the Byzantines in Judaea and Syria and conquered Egypt, the empire’s breadbasket; within twenty, the entire Persian Empire of the Sassanians had been subdued, and their conquests extended as far west as Tripoli, as far north as Cyprus and Tarsus, and as far east as Afghanistan. By 710, they had reached the Atlantic Ocean in Morocco, they were across the Indus River in India, and they had taken the wealthy city of Samarkand sitting athwart the Silk Road in Central Asia. The next year, they crossed into Spain, pushing the Christians Visigoths into a small mountainous bastion in the north, and they spent the next quarter century raiding France. They seemed unstoppable. Though the Byzantines still stood strong in the east, there was a real possibility that they would be confronted on all sides by monolithic Mohammedanism, intent on world conquest.
Only then were they stopped. The Visigoth count, Pelayo, fought them to a standstill at Covadonga (the battle is dated variously anywhere from 717 to 722) and was rewarded with his people’s crown. The Franks did likewise, under their duke, Charles Martel (“the Hammer”), who bloodied them at Tours near the river Loire – that is, closer to Paris than to Spain – in 732. Though the Moors continued to attack France for years afterward, they were never able to establish a lasting presence. Under this constant pressure to defend, the Franks instituted a permanent military caste, and feudalism was born to support it. The Spanish and their allies from other Christian kingdoms spent the next almost eight centuries retaking the country from the entrenched Mohammedan emirs.
Stopped in the West, the Mohammedans gained new impetus in the East. Migrating from the Far East, the Turks found in Mohammedanism a faith amenable to conquerors, and found themselves on the Byzantine border in the late 11th Century. At Manzikert in 1071, they handed the Greeks a crippling defeat and moved into the high plateau of Anatolia, which they called the Sultanate of Rum (Turkish for Rome) and where they remain to this day. The Greek and Latin churches had formalized their schism only a generation before, but so dire was this peril that the Byzantine emperor, Alexius I Comnenus, wrote to the Pope in Rome for aid in 1092. He is said to have been expecting mercenaries, to serve in his employ; what he got were Crusaders, with ambitions and designs of their own.
These men of the First Crusade, mostly from France, Flanders, and Germany, fought their way through Anatolia and down the Levantine coast and captured Jerusalem in 1099. A string of feudal Latin principalities and counties dotted the landscape, with the King of Jerusalem as suzerain, not sovereign. It was not to last, however, as the Mohammedan sultan Saladin, a Kurd from Egypt, took Jerusalem from them in 1187. A Third Crusade was mounted by Richard the Lion-heart of England, Philip II Augustus of France, and the German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (who died en route) to retake it, but it and all subsequent efforts failed. The last Crusader stronghold, Acre, fell in 1291. (A “White History Month” movie recommendation: 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven, which, though fictionalized – Balian was not a blacksmith, and he was far from popular with the chroniclers – nevertheless includes a fair amount of historicity and conveys a good feel for the events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem.)
It was not long afterward when the Ottoman Turks first landed in Europe. Having conquered the Asian side of the Byzantine Empire, they spent the next century and more gutting the European side, extending their rule to the Danube and ultimately reducing the fabled empire to just the city of Constantinople. Though they had been for ages safe behind their massive walls, time had caught up with them, and in 1453 the Turks brought up the largest artillery pieces then known, pounding the ancient stones until they punctured them. The last Byzantine emperor died fighting alongside his men; his body was never identified, so he was buried among them in a common grave. And on that dark day, the Hagia Sophia, the greatest church in all of Christendom, cathedral of emperors, became a mosque.
As before, so then: the Christians of Turkish Europe were subject to the same cultural oppression that Mohammedans had imposed on the Copts of Egypt, the Syriacs and Chaldeans of Syria and Medopotamia, and the Jews. The Ottoman Turks, however, took it one step farther: they demanded a child from each Christian family, raised them as Mohammedans, and trained them to be the most feared soldiers in the empire, the Janissaries.
The Ottoman Empire dominated the map like no state had since Rome and had both the ambitions and the capabilities to do even more.
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