IT is hard for us, pigeonholed in Christendom, to realize that from the eighth to the thirteenth century Islam was culturally, politically, and militarily superior to Europe. Even in its decline in the sixteenth century it prevailed from Delhi and beyond to Casablanca, from Adrianople to Aden, from Tunis to Timbuktu. Visiting the Sudan in 1353, Ibn-Batuta found there a creditable civilization under Moslem leadership; and a Negro Mohammedan, Abd-er-Rahman Sa’di, would later write a revealing and intelligent history, Tarik-es-Sudcm (c. 1650), describing private libraries of 1,600 volumes in Timbuktu, and massive mosques whose ruins attest a departed glory.
The Marini dynasty (1195–1270) made Morocco independent, and developed Fez and Marraqesh into major cities, each with august gateways, imposing mosques, learned libraries, colleges squatting amid shady colonnades, and wordy bazarres where one could buy anything at half the price. In the thirteenth century Fez had some 125,000 inhabitants, probably more than any city in Europe except Constantinople, Rome, and Paris. In its Karouine Mosque, seat of Morocco’s oldest university, religion and science lived in concord, taking eager students from all African Islam, and—in arduous courses of three to twelve years—training teachers, lawyers, theologians, and statesmen. Emir Yaqub II (r. 1269–86), ruling Morocco from Fez or Marraqesh, was one of the most enlightened princes of a progressive century, a just governor, a wise philanthropist, tempering theology with philosophy, shunning bigotry, and encouraging friendly intercourse with Europeans. The two cities received many refugees from Spain, and these brought a new stimulus to science, art, and industry. Ibn-Batuta, who had seen nearly all of vast Islam, called Morocco the earthly paradise.
On the way from Fez to Oran the modern traveler is surprised to find at Tlemcen the modest remnant of what in the thirteenth century was a city of 125,000 souls Three of its once sixty-four mosques—the Jama-el-Kebir (1136), the mosque of Abul Hassan (1298), and that of El-Halawi (1353)—are among the finest in the Mohammedan world; marble columns, complex mosaics, brilliant mihrabs, arcaded courts, carved wood, and towering minarets survive to tell of a splendor gone and almost forgotten. Here the Abd-el-Wahid dynasty (1248–1337, 1359—1553) maintained for three centuries a relatively enlightened rule, protecting Christians and Jews in religious freedom, and providing patronage to letters and arts. After the Turks captured the city (1553) it lost its importance as a center of trade, and declined into the shadows of history.
Farther east, Algiers flourished through a mixture of commerce and piracy. Half-hidden in a rock-bound semicircular bay, this picturesque port, rising in tier upon tier of white tenements and palaces from the Mediterranean to the Casbah, provided a favorite lair for “privateers”; even from Pompey’s days the corsairs of that coast had preyed upon defenseless shipping. After 1492 Algiers became a refuge for Moors fleeing from Spain; many of them joined the pirate crews, and turned with vengeful fury upon what Christian shipping they could waylay. Growing in number and audacity, the pirates manned fleets as strong as national navies, and raided the North Mediterranean coasts. Spain retaliated with protective expeditions that captured Oran, Algiers, and Tripoli (1509–10).
In 1516 a colorful buccaneer entered the picture. The Italians called him Barbarossa from his red beard; his actual name was Khair ed-Din Khizr; he was a Greek of Lesbos, who came with his brother Horush to join the pirate crew. While Khair ed-Din raised himself to command of the fleet, Horush led ‘an army against Algiers, expelled the Spanish garrison, made himself governor of the city, and died in battle (1518). Khair ed-Din, succeeding to his brother’s power, ruled with energy and skill. To consolidate his position he went to Constantinople, and offered Selim I sovereignty over Tripoli, Tunisia, and Algeria in return for a Turkish force adequate to maintain his own authority as vassal governor of these regions. Selim agreed, and Suleiman confirmed the arrangement. In 1533 Khair ed-Din became the hero of Western Islam by ferrying 70,000 Moors from inhospitable Spain to Africa. Appointed first admiral of the entire Turkish fleet, Barbarossa, with eighty-four vessels at his command, raided town after town on the coasts of Sicily and Italy, and took thousands of Christians to be sold as slaves. Landing near Naples, he almost succeeded in capturing Giulia Gonzaga Colonna, reputed the loveliest woman in Italy. She escaped half clad, rode off with one knight as her escort, and, on reaching her destination, ordered his death for reasons which she left to be inferred.
But Barbarossa aimed at less perishable booty than a beautiful woman. Landing his Janissaries at Bizerte, he marched against Tunis (1534). The Nefsid dynasty had ruled that city reasonably well since 1336; arts and letters had flourished under their patronage; but Muley Hassan, the current prince, had alienated the people by his cruelties. He fled as Barbarossa approached; Tunis was taken bloodlessly; Tunisia was added to the Ottoman realm, and Barbarossa was master of the Mediterranean.
It was another crisis for Christendom, for the unchallenged Turkish fleet could at any moment secure a foothold for Islam in the Italian boot. Strangely enough, Francis I was at this time allied with the Turks, and Pope Clement VII was allied with France. Fortunately, Clement died (September 25, 1534); Pope Paul III pledged funds to Charles V for an attack on Barbarossa, and Andrea Doria offered the full co-operation of the Genoese fleet. In the spring of 1535 Charles assembled at Cagliari, in Sardinia, 400 vessels and 30,000 troops. Crossing the Mediterranean, he laid siege to La Goletta, a fort commanding the Gulf of Tunis. After a month’s fighting, La Goletta fell, and the Imperial army marched on to Tunis. Barbarossa tried to stop the advance; he was defeated and fled. Christian slaves in Tunis broke their chains and opened the gates, and Charles entered the city unresisted. For two days he surrendered it to pillage by his soldiers, who would otherwise have mutinied; thousands of Moslems were massacred; the art of centuries was shattered in a day or two. The Christian slaves were joyously freed, and the surviving Mohammedan population was enslaved. Charles reinstated Muley Hassan as his tributary vassal, left garrisons in Bona and La Goletta, and returned to Europe.
Barbarossa escaped to Constantinople, and there, with Suleiman’s funds, built a new fleet of 200 ships. In July 1537, this force effected a landing at Taranto, and Christendom was again besieged. A new “Holy League” of Venice, the papacy, and the Empire took form, and gathered 200 vessels off Corfu. On September 27 the rival armadas, at the entrance to the Ambracian Gulf, fought an engagement almost in the same waters where Antony and Cleopatra had met Octavian at Actium. Barbarossa won, and again ruled the seas. Sailing east, he took one after another of the Venetian possessions in the Aegean and Greece, and forced Venice to a separate peace.
Charles tried to win Barbarossa to his service by gifts and an offer to make him vassal king of North Africa, but Khair ed-Din preferred Islamic bait. In October 1541, Charles and Doria led an expedition against Algiers; it was defeated on land by Barbarossa’s army, and at sea by a storm. Barbarossa returned the call by ravaging Calabria and landing, unhindered, at Ostia, the port of Rome. The great capital shivered in its shrines, but Paul III was at that time on good terms with Francis, and Barbarossa, allegedly out of courtesy to his ally, paid in cash for all that he took at Ostia, and departed peacefully.1 He sailed up to Toulon, where his fleet was welcomed by the matter-of-fact French; he asked that the church bells should suspend their ringing while Allah’s vessels were in the harbor, for the bells disturbed his sleep, and his request was law. He joined a French fleet in taking Nice and Villefranche from the Emperor. Then, seventy-seven, the triumphant corsair retired with full honors to die in bed at eighty (1546).
Bona, La Goletta, and Tripoli fell back to Islam, and the Ottoman Empire reached from Algiers to Baghdad. Only one Moslem power dared to challenge its predominance in Islam.