Entrances to Other Worlds

The Mediterranean, the Orient, and the Atlantic

The scourge of heaven’s wrath
in the hands of the inhuman
Tartars, erupting as it were from
the secret confines of Hell,
oppresses and crushes the earth.


TO MEDIEVAL MAN, THE COSMOS WAS full of “secret confines,” arcana no one knew the way to and few knew anything about but which one might stumble upon without warning. As in those fables rooted in the Middle Ages and collected by the Brothers Grimm in the nineteenth century, a secret door or a hidden path might lead the unsuspecting traveler almost anywhere. Like Alice’s rabbit hole or the wardrobe that leads to Narnia or Hildegard’s imagined mountain perforated by windows, reality itself was permeable. Not only did Hell have secret cupboards; so did Purgatory and Heaven. And our world of ordinary reality was intersected by other worlds, both nightmarish terrains of infernal cruelty and incandescent landscapes of impossible beauty and passionate peace. When medieval people beheld the night sky, they were not terrified, as would be Blaise Pascal in the seventeenth century, by the “eternal silence of these infinite spaces.” They believed that just above their heads there moved a harmonious universe, resounding with the Music of the Spheres, far too lovely for earthlings to appreciate, and that the sky was full of winged angels in their serried ranks, invisible to most of us most of the time.

Alfred the Great, Christian king of the West Saxons, whose success diminished the pagan Danish presence in England at the end of the ninth century and paved the way for the eventual union of England under one crown, was a practical leader of both military prowess and considerable learning. Fearful that knowledge of Latin might perish entirely, he was responsible for the translation of a whole library of standard Latin texts into Old English. But he was also a visionary, impelled onward by voices and pictures from another world. As G. K. Chesterton presents him in The Ballad of the White Horse, young Alfred, then in flight from the Danes, was confronted by the Virgin Mary, who spoke to him in a voice “human but high up, / Like a cottage climbed among / The clouds”:

    “The gates of heaven are lightly locked,

               We do not guard our gain,

    The heaviest hind may easily

    Come silently and suddenly

               Upon me in a lane.

    “And any little maid that walks

               In good thoughts apart,

    May break the guard of the Three Kings

    And see the dear and dreadful things

               I hid within my heart.

    “The meanest man in grey fields gone

               Behind the set of sun,

    Heareth between star and other star,

    Through the door of the darkness fallen ajar,

    The council, eldest of things that are,

               The talk of the Three in One.”

But as for the question Alfred has posed to her—will his English forces be able to overwhelm the Danes in the end?—she offers no help, reminding the king only that predicting the future is an occupation for pagans, not Christians:

    “The gates of heaven are lightly locked,

    We do not guard our gold,

    Men may uproot where worlds begin,

    Or read the name of the nameless sin;

    But if he fail or if he win

    To no good man is told.

    “The men of the East may spell the stars,

    And times and triumphs mark,

    But the men signed of the cross of Christ

    Go gaily in the dark.a

(Photo Credit 2.7a)

No wonder that in such a universe a voice from another world could speak to Francis through a crucifix.

If a concealed latch or a shadowed staircase might beckon one suddenly to an unknown spirit world, medieval maps abounded in recommendations for more corporeal journeys. Francis’s voyage across the Mediterranean brought him face to face with an exotic sultan, his strangely elegant palace hung with the same sorts of precious cloths that Francis’s father imported from France. By the time of their meeting, the Mediterranean had become, in fact, a Muslim sea, its African and Asian coasts entirely dominated by the Crescent. The Islamic call to prayer still sounded on the salty air of southern Spain; and one might even imagine hearing the ghostly cry of the muezzin in Sicily and along the Amalfi coast, where the boldly abstract domes of magnificent Christian cathedrals owed their dazzle to the skill of Islam’s ceramic artists. France had long ago beaten back the Muslim challenge, only to find itself importing the gorgeously elaborate cloths of Islamic Persia and north Africa, while French dyers created new versions of Islamic designs, poor imitations at first that gradually abandoned the rigidity of the originals and took on a free-form Gallic liveliness of their own.

France had turned back the Islamic armies in the early eighth century. By the late eleventh century, Franco-Normans had taken Sicily from the Muslims, though Muslims would long remain a social and artistic presence there as well as throughout the racially and religiously mixed populations of southern Italy, now ruled by Normans. Bit by bit, the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula were gaining territory and pushing the Muslims farther south, though the expulsion would not be complete till the last decade of the fifteenth century, when (in the same year as Columbus’s first voyage of discovery) the forces of Ferdinand and Isabella would overwhelm the emirate of Granada. All the same, confrontations between the Eastern forces of Islam and the Western forces of Christianity have never completely abated. Famous battles to come include Lepanto in the sixteenth century and Gallipoli in the twentieth, not to speak of wars still raging.

Though the Catholic Christianity of the West managed to stop Islam from overwhelming Europe, Greek Orthodoxy, based not in Rome but in Constantinople, was less fortunate. It was geographically inevitable that the golden city of Constantine would fall finally to Islam, which it did in May of 1453, when its legendary line of two hundred towers, unbreached for ten centuries, was turned to rubble by Turkish bombardment, the first time in history that gunpowder would claim such a victory. But long before gunpowder had come from the Far East, the ancient Near East, home to the apostolic centers of Byzantine Christianity—Alexandria and all of northern Africa, Jerusalem, Antioch and all of Asia Minor—had exchanged the Cross for the Crescent and become the Middle East that we know to this day. Were it not for Orthodoxy’s missions north and northeastward—into the Balkans and Russia—it is unlikely that this ancient form of Christianity would still be a presence in our world.

The presence of Islam, however, has become impossible to ignore. This Arabian religion, which almost since its inception in the seventh century has stalked the West as a periodic threat, has now risen up against us in its most fanatical form, promising—and delivering—atrocities without warning. People living in explicitly targeted Western capitals (New York, Washington, London, Madrid, Copenhagen, Milan, Rome) and even in less likely targets can sometimes feel like characters in a horror film, waiting only for the next explosion—where and when we know not, knowing only that it will come. It is tempting, therefore, to allow fear to run riot over reason and to demonize all of Islam without exception.

I do not mean to indulge in the sort of weakly mooing rhetoric of tolerance one sometimes hears. Yes, the wealthy West has yet to face up to its responsibilities to poor nations. Yes, the Bush/Blair invasion of Iraq was an immense blunder engineered by adolescent fantasists, ignorant of cultural realities. But no one, whether Bush or bin Laden, has the right to blow up innocent civilians. And since 9/11 preceded the American invasion of Iraq by a year and a half (and since the initial attack on New York’s WorldTrade Center preceded that invasion by ten years), we may reasonably conclude that there is an element in Islam intent on devastating the West, quite apart from any concessions the West may be prepared to make.

Islam began as a warrior religion bent on worldly conquest. The followers of Islam, the brainchild of a (probably illiterate) camel driver named Muhammad, gained their initial prominence by raiding caravans and claiming territory. This religion was first spread by coercion, not conversion. Nonetheless, the simplicity of its demands—proclamation of monotheistic belief, five-times-daily prayer to the one God, almsgiving, daylight fasting during the month of Ramadan, once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Meccab—ensured its wide acceptance by simple societies like that of the Arabs, who were still in the midst of a transition from nomadic herding to settled farming and trading.

Rather quickly, Islam sprouted a body of law, subsequently called shari‘ah, by which all Muslims were to be governed. Its regulation of women, though in its time an advance over the more degrading customs of the polytheistic Arabian tribes, was extremely confining, at least when compared with the position of women in medieval Christian societies. (Nor can there be any doubt that the relative flexibility of medieval Christian attitudes toward women served as an essential stepping-stone to their modern emancipation.) To apply these inflexible laws today—laws that so severely limit a woman’s rights to property, inheritance, divorce, movement, and self-determination—is as antic and oppressive as it would be for Christians to reinstitute the ducking stool or insist that known sinners stand at the church door in sackcloth and ashes.

Muhammad, in his simplicity, thought that he would be accepted as a prophet by other monotheists, that is, by Jews and Christians. In fact, Islam contains considerable borrowings—dietary restrictions, circumcision, the rigid separation of the sexes and exclusion of women even from such essential exercises as communal prayer, endless reformulations and interpretations of a voluminous body of religious law by experts—from rabbinical Judaism, in particular. When Muhammad failed to find acceptance among both Jews and Christians, his attitudes toward these “People of the Book,” as he called them, turned harsher. At times, he actively persecuted Jews; and he declared Mecca the central earthly locus of holiness. (Jerusalem, to which he had earlier given that honor, was reduced in status, still holy but not the holiest.) His final attitude toward followers of other religions was that though idolaters, if they were unwilling to convert to Islam, were to be executed, Jews and Christians could be tolerated in Muslim society, provided they paid a special tax and refrained from proselytizing as well as from all public religious display.

Above all, it was Muhammad’s military successes that brought most of Arabia to submit to Islam (which means “submission”), either through outright conquest or through admiration. If he won such victories, God must be with him. The weakened empires of Persia and Byzantium then became easy prey to Muhammad’s hordes. And it would not be long before the forces of Islam stood at the gates of Western Christendom, demanding obedience. By then, jihad (holy war) had become a supreme duty of every Muslim male. One who died in such a war was a martyr to whom the gates of Paradise would be flung open. (The papal dispensing of plenary indulgences to soldiers participating in crusades is no more than a Christian imitation of a Muslim idea.)

All these things must be said—and they are the usual things trotted out whenever a Westerner wishes to prove that Islam and the West are engaged in inevitable conflict. On the other side, the genial Islamic toleration of (and even interaction with) Jews and Christians in Muslim Spain, the bloodthirsty cruelty of the crusades, the West’s indifference to disfranchisement and economic suffering in Muslim (and especially Palestinian) lands, the West’s bottomless greed for oil, America’s mindless war in Iraq—just the latest “crusade,” to employ the designation that escaped from Bush’s own lips,c discolored by the blood of thousands—the capture and interminable imprisonment of innocent Muslims, and the appalling abuse of Muslim prisoners are all brought forth to bolster the justice of even moderate Islam’s hatred of the West and its backing for the destabilization of Western societies.

Obscured by the clashing debating points on each side, however, lies the essential thought that a religion as old as Islam has developed a range of paths, schools, options, strategies, and interpretations. It is no longer simply the artifact, however impressive, of a seventh-century desert trader. It cannot be reduced to a handful of historical factoids and anecdotal caricatures. It is rather a vast and colorful spectrum. Each of the great religions creates finally a spectrum of voices that ranges all the way from pacifist to terrorist. But each religion, because of its metaphorical ambiguity and gradual intellectual refinement, holds within it marvelous potential for unexpected development and subtle adaptation. This development will be full of zigzags and may sometimes seem as slow as the development of the universe, but it runs—I would say, almost inevitably—from exclusivist militancy to inclusive peace.

To what point Islam has advanced in this development is a question beyond the scope of this book. But it may be said without fear of contradiction that Islamic society and Christian society have been generally bad neighbors now for nearly fourteen centuries, often eager to misunderstand each other. We stand in desperate need of contemporary figures like al-Malik al-Kamil and Francis of Assisi to create an innovative dialogue. We in the West must come to accept that a people now numbering 1.3 billion and parked at our doord for a millennium and a half will not go away. This is a force that cannot be conquered but must be reckoned with. Similarly, the Islamic East must come to terms with the immense spectrum of the Christian/post-Christian West, a variegated society twice as large as Islam. We will not go away, either.

Despite the fact that medieval Christians were normally unable to distinguish one wave of Islam from another, the Muslims who came in contact with Europeans originated in different places—Arabia, Syria, Persia, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt—and had differing relationships to Islam. The Mongols, originally nomadic horsemen who rode from the north and west of China across the endless grasslands of the steppes, had by the mid-thirteenth century conquered most of Asia—from southern Russia to northern India. Such legendary cities as Baghdad, Kiev, Samarkand, and Peking fell to their ferocity. Even parts of Eastern Europe, where they played the part of the “inhuman Tartars” of Pope Alexander IV’s hyperbolical address, were absorbed into their orbit. Shamanistic animists to begin with, many Mongols became in time Buddhists, Christians (of a heretical variety), and most especially Muslims, as their conquests touched areas controlled by these more complex religious outlooks.

The Mongols’ establishment of an Asian ecumene that stretched from the Black Sea to the Sea of Japan made it possible for European traders to penetrate for the first time as far as Asia’s Pacific coast. The memoirs of one such trader, The Book of Marvels by the Venetian jewel merchant Marco Polo, became a publishing sensation throughout Europe at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Marco had spent more than twenty years in the service of Kublai Khan, Mongol conquerer of China and descendant of GenghisKhan, the frightening founder of the Mongolian Empire. His tales of the fabulous wealth of the Mongol rulers, the incredible immensity of their cities, the exquisite refinement of their courts, dazzled his readers. They devoured his narrative as we might an account of interplanetary travel. To them, where Marco had been and what he had seen were as strange as the most fanciful fiction. If such people could exist, if such customs could thrive, surely anything was possible.e

(Photo Credit 3.1)

Though contact with the Orient hardly changed the course of European civilization, it enlivened imagination and complicated social intercourse at least as much as the earlier contacts with Muslims had done. Spices, pasta, paper, and of course gunpowder all came to us from the Far East. And such firing of the imagination helped set the scene for the amazing discovery of a previously unknown continent at the end of the fifteenth century. The medieval intellectuals whose task it was to think about such things—the cartographers and the geographers—had long surmised that since the people of the world they knew inhabited but one hemisphere, it would make sense that there was in the unknown hemisphere another series of lands—“on the opposite side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets to us”—and that these lands might well be inhabited. They called this hypothetical territory the Antipodes.

As early as the sixth century, the Irish boatbuilder Brendan the Navigator may have visited North America. His epic saga, labeled Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot), was a staple of medieval wonder literature. In this as in many other matters, the intangible dreams of medieval man could become solid reality only in the next age, even if the Viking voyages to North America seemed to confirm the existence of a large island in the far Atlantic. And as the Atlantic seafaring nations of Portugal, Spain, France, and England increased their fleets, technical expertise was building to the point where the Age of Discovery would become possible. Portugal, in particular, was colonizing the mid-Atlantic islands of the Azores by the late fourteenth century and fishing off the coast of Newfoundland by the fifteenth century, probably in advance of the first Atlantic voyage by the Genoese captain Cristofero Colombo.

But more important than the ships, more basic than the technical knowledge, were the travelers’ tales, the rich imaginings, and a growing passion to penetrate the secrets of the universe.

a The belief that time is processive rather than cyclical—and that, therefore, the only thing real about the future is that it has not happened yet (and that, therefore, it is useless to consult oracles)—represents the first great step that the ancient Jews took to separate themselves from the age-old cultures that surrounded them. This was, therefore, the first great step in the creation of a distinctively Western sensibility. For an exposition of this remarkable process and its historic reverberations, see The Gifts of the Jews, Chapter II (“The Journey in the Dark: The Unaccountable Innovation”) and passim.

b Mecca, where Muhammad hailed from, contains a shrine called the Kaaba, which was venerated from time immemorial by Arabian polytheists. Islamic tradition claims that the central feature of the Kaaba, a black cube containing what is almost certainly a meteorite, was God’s gift to Adam, the first man. Much of the Quran, Islam’s holy book, contains such allusions to and reworkings of Old Testament stories and themes. But Muslims refuse to allow either the Kaaba or the Quran to be subjected to scientific investigation in the same way that the relics and scriptures of Judaism and Christianity have routinely been.

c In the words of the percipient Jonathan Raban, “At the time, I heard it said that Bush used the word ‘crusade’ by accident and was probably ignorant of its significance, particularly for Muslims. This seems unlikely, given the amount of writing and rewriting that goes into presidential speeches. Perhaps Bush himself was not entirely aware of what he was saying, but some White House scribe surely intended to put us at least loosely in mind of Richard Coeur de Lion.”

d Not only parked at our door but inside the house. There may be, for instance, more Muslims living in the United States than Jews and Episcopalians combined.

e The gradual awareness that the world beyond Europe was large and diverse may be plotted in medieval depictions of the magi who came to pay homage to Jesus after his birth, as related in the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. The incident is intended to emphasize that “the kings of the earth,” even those from exotic places far beyond Judea recognized Jesus as Savior. In later tradition, there were thought to have been three visitingmagi (or kings), though Matthew gives no number and in art more are sometimes shown. Matthew tells us they all came “from the East,” almost certainly from Persia (if they are historical figures). But in early artistic depictions, one of the magi is often shown as a black African, the others as Europeans or as men of the Middle East. After the circulation of Marco Polo’s travel memoirs, however, one of the magi was sometimes depicted as Chinese.

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