THE AGHLABIDS, who made themselves the masters of North Africa in 800 and who dominated the Mediterranean during the travels of Bernard the Monk, were a symptom of the weakening authority of the Abbasids in the western reaches of their empire, which was partly a consequence of moving the caliphate eastwards from Damascus to Baghdad. Spain became effectively independent of the Abbasids already in 756, right after the fall of the Umayyads; while Ibn Tulun, a Turk who was sent from Baghdad to Egypt as governor in 868, was busy creating a powerful black and Turkish slave army when Bernard passed through the country, and used it to make himself autonomous of the caliphate, although he maintained a nominal allegiance. Taking advantage of declining Abbasid authority in Palestine and Syria, the Arab tribes again rose in revolt in the 860s and were only suppressed in 878, when Ibn Tulun took control of the region. From then on, with only occasional interruptions, Palestine and Syria ceased to be ruled from Baghdad and would fall within the orbit of whoever ruled Egypt.
Persian ambitions had a similar fragmenting effect in the eastern lands of the caliphate, where a number of local dynasties were established during the ninth century. Soon the caliphs’ writ hardly ran beyond Iraq. As their revenues declined, they resorted to tax farming, turning over tax collection to local governors who remitted an agreed sum to the central government, keeping any surplus for themselves. Increasingly the real power in the Abbasid empire rested with these governors, mostly Persian, and with the army commanders, usually Turkish Mamelukes, who served as their enforcers. These same Mamelukes formed the palace guard, which was supposed to protect the caliph. But in 861, when the caliph Mutawakkil tried to counter the growing power of the Mamelukes by recruiting troops from Armenia and North Africa, he was murdered by a palace conspiracy, and thereafter it was clear that any caliph who did not answer to the demands of the Mamelukes would not last long. The caliphs became figureheads, the symbolic representatives of Islam and the state; often they were merely puppets in the hands of one warlord or another who over the coming centuries fought one another incessantly with the result that the Abbasid heartlands of Persia and Mesopotamia, once the most flourishing part of the Islamic world, were laid waste.
But internal upheavals did not stop the Baghdad regime from launching its almost annual attacks against the Byzantines along the eastern borders of Asia Minor; in fact, Muntasir, who succeeded the murdered Mutawakkil, understood well enough that the call to jihad could distract from internal ailments when he declared holy war against the Byzantines in 862. In a letter broadcast from the mosques during Friday prayers, he proclaimed the excellence of Islam, quoted from Koranic texts which justified jihad, and promised the joys of paradise to all those who gathered at the frontier to wage war against the Byzantines: ‘The Commander of the Faithful desires to come close to God by waging Holy War against his enemy, by carrying out His obligations in the religion that He entrusted him with and seeking closeness to Him by strengthening his friends and permitting injury and revenge against those who deviate from His religion, deny His messengers and disobey Him.’1
But the answer to continued Muslim aggression came in the tenth century, when the Byzantines, after three centuries of keeping on the defensive, began to advance and triumph under the emperor Romanus Lecapenus and his general John Curcuas, ‘the most brilliant soldier that the Empire had produced for generations. He infused a new spirit into the imperial armies, and led them victorious deep into the country of the infidels.’2 In 933 Curcuas won an important victory when he captured Melitene (present-day Malatya, in Turkey) at the foot of the Anti-Taurus mountains. The fall of Melitene was a profound shock to Muslims. The city had been taken during the initial Arab conquests in 638 and had remained a base for Umayyad and Abbasid raids into Byzantine territory ever since, but now its reconquest was the first major recovery of Byzantine territory and opened the way for the even more dramatic reconquests later in the century.
But in 923, even before the start of Curcuas’ eastern campaigns, a year-long wave of persecutions by Muslims against Christians swept through the Middle East. Atrocities were committed in Egypt, Syria and Palestine; in Ascalon, Caesarea and Jerusalem churches were destroyed. The fall of Melitene, followed by further Byzantine victories, aroused still greater Muslim violence; on Palm Sunday 937 in Jerusalem a mob attacked the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, robbed it of its treasures and set it alight, causing large sections of the church to collapse, including the Rotunda or Anastasis enclosing the tomb of Jesus.
Again in 966, towards the end of May, severe anti-Christian riots took place in Jerusalem. The Byzantines had reconquered Crete in 961, releasing the island from 135 years of Muslim occupation and clearing out the pirates whose slave raids had terrorised the coasts and islands of the Aegean; and another expedition drove the Muslims out of Cyprus in 965. But these events had nothing to do with the disturbances in Jerusalem, which were caused by Mohammed al-Sinaji, the governor of the city, in revenge against the Christians because they would not submit to his demands for bribes beyond the normal level of taxation. When the patriarch John VII dared complain to the governor’s superiors in Egypt – the short-lived Ikhshidid dynasty, a Turkish military dictatorship like the earlier Tulunids – al-Sinaji directed a mob against the patriarch, who took refuge in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The mob looted and set fire to the church, causing its dome to collapse, and the patriarch, who had hidden in a vat of oil, was tied to a pillar and set alight. The Muslims set their seal on these acts by seizing part of the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where they constructed the mosque of Umar. But the Ikhshidids in Egypt also attempted to appease the Byzantine emperor by saying they would rebuild the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and make it lovelier than it had been before. Back came the reply from Nicophorus Phocas: ‘No, I shall build it, with the sword.’3
In the aftermath of these events Nicophorus Phocas, the victor of Crete and Cyprus who had been crowned Byzantine emperor in 963, made it his mission to liberate Jerusalem after more than three hundred years of Muslim occupation – to launch ‘a sort of tenth-century crusade’.4 In 968 he breached the Abbasid defences along the Taurus mountains and captured Tarsus, followed by the whole of Cilicia; and crossing into Syria in 969 he recovered the ancient Greek city of Antioch, the cradle of gentile Christianity. Shortly afterwards his armies took Aleppo and Latakia along with a coastal strip extending down through Syria nearly to Tripoli, in northern Lebanon. Cilicia and Antioch, with much of northern Syria, were restored to the Byzantine Empire. Aleppo was left under Muslim control but made a Byzantine vassal state, the treaty terms allowing the Muslim inhabitants to remain undisturbed, but now they were to pay taxes from which the Christians were exempt, the revenue going towards rebuilding churches that had been destroyed, while the freedom to convert from Islam to Christianity (previously punishable by death) or from Christianity to Islam was guaranteed.
Nicophorus Phocas was assassinated in the same year he took Antioch, but his successor, Emperor John Tzimisces, continued the Byzantine campaign, ‘a real crusade’,5 to wrest Jerusalem from Muslim control. Marching south from Antioch, John Tzimisces took Damascus, the first Byzantine city to have been conquered by the Arabs, which left open the way to Baghdad. But the Abbasid capital was hardly worth taking. Throughout Mesopotamia and Persia military disorders and financial crises had taken their toll. Incessant fighting between warlords had laid waste to what had only recently been the flourishing centre of the Muslim world. Agriculture was devastated, irrigation canals ruined beyond repair, and much of Baghdad had been pillaged and abandoned. Security throughout the caliphate had collapsed, and Bedouin adherents of the Qaramatian sect had even stolen the sacred black stone from the Kaaba in Mecca.6 Instead John Tzimisces advanced into Palestine, where Nazareth and Caesarea opened their gates to him and the Muslim authorities at Jerusalem pleaded for terms. But first the emperor turned towards the Mediterranean to clear the enemy from the coast – only to die suddenly, possibly of typhoid, in 976, before he could return his attention to Jerusalem. For the next century the Byzantines remained in control of northern Syria, but their attempts to liberate Jerusalem were frustrated by a new regime in Egypt, the Fatimids.