Military history


First Contact

THIS BOOK IS ABOUT ENMITY, HOW IT WAS CREATED AND HOW IT IS sustained. While Muslims were not the first or only enemies of Western Christendom, they quickly became its prime focus for fear and hatred. Eventually the very words used to describe them became common tokens of abuse.1 Christians at the time of Lepanto often insulted each other in terms applied to Muslims. Protestants in sixteenth-century Bavaria described their clerical enemy as “Jesuits and Mamelukkes.” In England, William Tyndale regretted how many of his Catholic countrymen had become “the Antichriste of Rome’s mamelukes.” “Lustful Turk,” “street Arab,” and “mad mullah” are all nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century epithets, but they reached back to ideas about the East that developed steadily from the seventh century onward.2

The Christian preoccupation with “Islam,” if we judge it by the volume of written texts—books, exegeses, descriptions, polemics, odes, and epics—far exceeded any Muslim interest in Western Christendom.3 We should distinguish Islam or Christianity, which are the faiths that their adherents would recognize, from “Islam” or “Christianity,” which are images constructed by their enemies. From the mid–seventh century, “Islam” was seen as the prime external challenge to true Christian faith. Only the enemy within, heresy, came close to its deadly menace. The image of “Islam” as enemy, competitor, and archadversary grew more complex and more potent over time. The initial crudity of the image was made more subtle both by adding new dimensions as circumstances altered and by jettisoning those no longer relevant. So, the crude parodies of the Prophet Mohammed tended to diminish while ever more baroque descriptions of Islamic virulence multiplied.

This ability to “construct” enemies, to make them demonic in their power, all-embracing in their antagonism, unsurpassed in their malevolence, permeated western European society. It was deployed on many occasions, and proved effective against all types of dissidents, and every kind of political, ethnic, and social enemy.4 We should therefore take nothing said about “Islam,” or for that matter “heresy” or “Judaism,” at face or surface value, but try to see, first of all, behind the accretion of meanings. From the outset, the pace of Islam’s advance took Christendom by surprise. The Prophet Mohammed was born about 570, only five years after the death of the emperor Justinian, who had restored the Roman Empire to its greatest extent since the second century A.D. Yet within a single generation after the Prophet’s own demise in 632, the desert warriors of Islam were laying siege to Justinian’s capital city, Constantinople. As Edward Gibbon observed, “When the Arabs first issued from the desert, they must have been surprised at the ease and rapidity of their own success.”

Before the coming of Islam, Arabs took pride in their tribal wars and their heroic wildness; the Latin epithet later used was ferox, suggesting a wild headstrong impetuosity. The Latin suggested an animal vigor, but for the Arabs it was a largely positive self-image, while for Christians it was a synonym for barbarism.5 The armies of Islam that emerged from the void beyond Roman Philadelphia (modern Amman in Jordan) and the other Roman cities of the desert edge, known collectively as the Decapolis, looked no different from any other tribesmen. They had none of the trained skills or the well-made weapons of the best Byzantine troops or of the heavily armored Persian horsemen. At best, they were tribal warriors inured to a hard life, who could flourish in a desert environment where the heavily armored cavalry and plodding infantry could not survive for more than a few days. Neither of the two Eastern empires—Rome and Persia—paid much attention to the desert margin. They hired other Arabs to protect their towns and cities from desert marauders. This was the approach that the Western Roman Empire had centuries before adopted toward its own “barbarians.”

This was a different military problem to Rome in Europe, where the boundaries, or limines, ran along natural limits, such as rivers or mountains. But along the eastern desert fringe the contrast between civilization and wilderness was often much more extreme. Civilization meant organized agriculture, village settlements, towns, and cities. The wilderness seemed empty of life. The desert Arabs could wage war in more civilized territories, but it was difficult, logistically speaking, for the organized forces of the Byzantine Empire or Sassanid Persia to campaign far from their bases. The desert Arabs rarely mounted more than the occasional raid across the uncertain border. The tribes were few in number and they had no reason to attack a strong enemy. The nascent faith rallied a powerful new army and provided a purpose for war. Within a year of the Prophet Mohammed’s death all the main tribes of Arabia had been cowed and notionally united under the banners of Islam. Apostates and renegades were hunted down and slaughtered. Those who had stood on the sidelines now submitted. The new faith prohibited war between Muslim brothers, so the raiding culture of the desert tribes turned outward, beyond the Arabian peninsula.

Tribal societies, especially those that emerged in Asia—the Huns and the Mongols are two prime examples—often achieved an optimum balance providing just enough social and political cohesion without curtailing their aggressive energy and vigor. The same transformation seems to have occurred in the heart of Arabia in the seventh century. As an ideology, Islam provided both coherence and direction, as well as the capacity to mobilize tribal groups which only a few years before had been at war among themselves. Thereafter, they displayed all the power, speed of movement, and raw energy that later commentators observed in the hordes from farther east. However, there was one difference. The Asian armies centered around the horse, while the Arabs were still foot soldiers. Of course, they had some horsemen, and camels were used to provide mobility. But in contrast to later images, these were not a horde mounted on fine Arab horses, cavalry armies, fighting from horseback. The Arabs were poor men, often with little more than a spear as a weapon. They walked, tirelessly, using less water and needing less food than any animal. Previously they had fought alone or in small groups, but now, marshaled by the leaders of Islam, they numbered thousands.

The Byzantines and their Persian enemies either ignored or were not fully informed of the upheavals in the desert, of the years of battles and skirmishes between the Muslims and the much more powerful tribes that surrounded them. But at midsummer 633, a large desert army suddenly appeared before the Persian walled town of Hira, on the desert frontier south of the Euphrates. At the time of the Muslim advance, Persia was weak, first from years of conflict with the Byzantines, and second from civil war among the ruling dynasty. Within a matter of months, fast-moving Muslim columns had progressed northward, destroying isolated Persian garrisons, killing those who opposed them, by crucifixion or with the sword.6 Their enemies eliminated, they enlisted converts to Islam from among the local peasants, and passed on. They levied tribute rather than settling the lands they had conquered.7

Thus, like rural guerrillas throughout history, the Arab Muslims seized control of borderlands. The desert, the element in which they were supreme, was like a sea that washed the shoreline of the settled lands, in Syria and Palestine, and along the fertile plain between the Tigris and the Euphrates. They moved with astonishing speed, wrong-footing their static Persian and Byzantine enemies. A Muslim army fighting east of the great rivers of Iraq suddenly changed direction, marched southwest around the Syrian desert, then north toward Palmyra. At one stage, it had to pass through a completely arid region without oases or water holes. Here the desert lore of the tribesmen came into play, as they searched for desert plants that indicated water just below the surface. They had also made their camels drink to fill their internal water bladders at the last oasis. Then each day they killed four of them, and cut out the sacs still full of water to provide liquid for the few precious horses.8

At the same time another Arab force, at least 3,000 strong, but perhaps numbering as many as 9,000 men, huge by the standards of desert campaigning, was pushing northwest from the Arabian peninsula toward the Mediterranean coast. The Byzantine emperor Heraclius, a veteran of decades of war against the Persians, was now aware of the danger posed by the desert Arabs. He dispatched a field army from Homs in Syria to intercept the Muslims advancing north from Beersheba. This Muslim army had already tasted victory, sweeping aside the local forces commanded by the governor of Gaza. A Syriac chronicle written sometime after the event described the outcome of the encounter. “The Byzantines fled and abandoned the commander … and the Arabs slew him. Some 4,000 poor villagers from Palestine were killed, Christians, Jews and Samaritans, and the Arabs destroyed the palace completely.”9 Heraclius had sent the bulk of his soldiers south along the flat coastal strip. The Byzantine column passed the town of Ramleh, heading toward the Arab army, reported as being still near to Gaza. A force of this size moved slowly, keeping close to the sea so that it could be supplied from the Byzantine fleet cruising off the coast. These were not just poorly trained local conscripts but included a nucleus of heavily mailed infantry, horse archers, and armored heavy cavalry—the cataphracts.

At some point south of Ramleh the Byzantines were ambushed by the Arabs—the Muslim army had advanced farther north than Heraclius or his commanders had anticipated. The exact location of the ensuing battle of Ajnadain is uncertain. But the outcome, on July 31, 634, was an annihilating victory for the Muslims. The Byzantine force was following the track south, giving a wide berth to the Jabal Nablus (Judean hills). The land was flat, not the broken ground or ravines that favored irregular fighters. The only advantage that the Muslims possessed was their speed of maneuver and their reckless zeal. All day long the few Arab horsemen darted at the enemy, tempting them into pursuit, and drawing the fire from their bowmen. Their leader, Khalid Al-Walid, had to remind his men to “reserve yourself until the evening. It was in the evening that the Prophet was accustomed to vanquish.”10 But once it had broken the enemy ranks in the late afternoon, the Byzantine army’s advantages of larger numbers and better equipment vanished. The Muslims could gut their opponents’ horses with their knives and spears, and mob the heavily armored infantry. Meanwhile, with the light failing the Byzantine archers had no clear targets.

As they slashed and stabbed, cutting off the heads and limbs of their opposites, shouting their tribal battle cries, the Arabs’ assault destroyed their enemy’s cohesion. The bewildered Byzantine troops ceased to obey orders, milling about as they tried to fight back against their gadfly foe. Once the Byzantines’ momentum had slackened and they began to retreat, the Arabs turned this attempt at maneuver into a rout. The Byzantine troops fled north, pursued by the Arabs for a while, until the latter returned to strip the bodies of the fallen soldiers of their arms and equipment. Tribesmen who had been armed with nothing more than a spear now acquired a horse and a sword. Buoyed up by victory, the Muslims moved against the cities and towns. Jerusalem shut its gates, but outside the walls, according to the patriarch of Jerusalem, the tribesmen “plunder cities, despoil the fields, burn the villages, despoil holy monasteries.” In reality, the Muslims were more concerned with consolidating their authority. Far from mindlessly ravaging the land, they decreed that the Christian inhabitants should pay an annual poll tax of one dinar, and hand over a percentage of their crops each year.11

The disaster at Ajnadain was wholly unexpected and threw all the plans of the emperor Heraclius into complete disarray. He had beaten so many powerful adversaries that it seemed incredible that he could now be humbled by a rabble of Arab tribesmen. However, the reports he received showed that these desert raiders, clad in coarse cloth or even skins, armed with a spear and a long knife, were as dangerous as the skilled Persian soldiers whom he had fought against for half his life. He quickly withdrew from Homs, which might be threatened by Arab raiders, north to the safety of Antioch, and set about rebuilding his army. He paid the Christian Arab tribes that had once garrisoned the frontier to fight for him again. He summoned the redoubtable Armenians from over the mountains in Anatolia. Meanwhile, the Muslims concentrated their forces in a well-chosen position close to the town of Deraa, on the river Yarmouk. The Byzantine armies, moving down from the north, could approach them only from the front. The land to their left was fissured by deep ravines, while to the right was a lava field, the residue of an extinct volcano. Small groups of warriors could work their way across these badlands, but no organized army would choose to fight in such conditions. The Byzantines set up a strongly fortified camp just to the north of the Arab position. This blocked the Muslims from advancing into Syria, and if they chose to attack, the Byzantine commanders were confident that their wild and savage enemies would die in their thousands before the well-built ramparts.

However, the Muslims resorted to the classic maneuver of desert war: a mobbing attack from all sides. Small groups scrambled through the ravines of the Yarmouk, and hid behind the Byzantine position. Others, on horseback or on camels, crossed the gray lava shale, and began to raid the Byzantine lines of communication back toward Syria. The two armies confronted each other for over four months, and the Byzantine forces ran short of food and other supplies. Their lifeline was the road to the ports of Tyre and Sidon, but all the supplies had to be carried across the bridge over the Yarmouk, only a few miles from the great encampment. In the middle of August, Muslims hiding in the ravines emerged and captured the lightly guarded bridge. This cut the Byzantines off from the coast, with their only line of retreat through the desert to Damascus. Early on August 20, 636, the wind began to blow off the desert, picking up sand and dust, with the sky turning the color of dull bronze. As the day went on, it became darker and darker, the air so thick with sand that it was hard to breathe and impossible to see more than a few yards ahead. Struggling with the elements, the Byzantines suddenly faced the full weight of an Arab attack. It was late in the afternoon, and by the time night fell, around six, the Muslims had broken through the lines at many points. All attempts at a coordinated defense fell apart, and through the night the Byzantine troops were slaughtered where they stood. By dawn their dead lay in huge heaps on the ground, with the Arabs stripping the corpses of every object they could use. Then they abandoned the battleground to the crows and other scavengers.

Only a few thousand of the Byzantine army managed to slip away in small groups to take the news of the devastating defeat to Heraclius in Antioch. After the cities of the region had fallen one by one to the Muslims, the emperor eventually concluded that the whole Levant, from the border with Egypt to the Taurus Mountains at the edge of Anatolia, was untenable. His remaining forces withdrew through the narrow pass called the Cilician Gates, after destroying all the towns and villages for miles around.12 From then onward, the frontier of the Byzantine Empire lay on the high plateau of Anatolia, and not in the rich and fertile lands of the Levant. The emperor relinquished Jerusalem as well as the Christian Arabs who had formed much of his support in the region. However, the image of sudden and catastrophic abandonment is exaggerated. The Levant had been fought over by the Byzantines and the Persians since the days of Justinian. Heraclius and the Byzantines had regained full control of the Holy Land from the Persians barely ten years before the arrival of the Muslims. Moreover, many of the Christians in the region were regarded as schismatics and heretics by the Orthodox authorities in Constantinople, who had oppressed them remorselessly. This is one reason why some of the Christian accounts present conflicting views of the Muslim conquest. It was the Orthodox who usually anathematized the Muslims most fiercely. They were not universally regarded irreconcilably as enemies by all the Christian communities.

In the year after Ajnadain, the Arabian warriors pushed farther north until they arrived before the walls of Damascus, thrusting aside the armies sent against them. A few miles short of the city, they defeated the Byzantine general Baanes. He had denuded the city of its garrison, confident that an ill-equipped desert army had no hope of taking a great city like Damascus. But a Monophysite Christian (Syriac) bishop, who had been treated as a heretic by the Byzantines, informed a Muslim commander, Khalid, that the east gate of the city was weakly defended, and even supplied the Muslims with ladders to scale the wall. Once the Byzantines learned of the breach, they quickly came to terms with the Muslim general, Abu Ubaid, camped on the far side of the city. The two Muslim forces met in the center of the city, and Abu Ubaid insisted that it should be respected and its people not put to the sword. Part of Damascus was ceded and the remainder conquered. For some time, half the Cathedral of St. John was used for Christian worship, and half was turned into a mosque. A flimsy partition wall, hastily erected, divided the two faiths.

Ibn Khaldun, writing in the fourteenth century, attributed the success of the desert Arab tribes to their wild spirit. But they also proved adaptable. Poor infantrymen acquired horses and camels, and thereafter wore Byzantine swords and armor. In 636, the Muslims created the military towns that became the key element in their subsequent advance. Here the tribes encamped, and could be called to prayer on Fridays. Muslim discipline and social control could be enforced. But they also needed to be satiated, on a regular basis, with fresh conquest. Wars of conversion were a religious duty, but they were also a means of social mobility, taking tribesmen from desert poverty toward a settled life, free from want. It seems paradoxical that the Arab soldiers, whose ethos was built upon individual prowess, could act with such cohesion. However, the morality of Islam had emerged from within the values of a tribal society. There remained profound tensions between conflicting loyalties to tribe and to the service of God, but despite the contradictions, the Muslim system worked.

In the Levant much of the Christian Arab population soon converted to Islam.13 The new faith was appealing:

The chief attraction of Islam was that it was practical; it did not demand seemingly superhuman efforts … The Christian East on the eve of the Islamic conquest had forgotten the limitations of human nature. Many members of the Church desired to imitate the angels; hence the mass movements towards the sexless life of monks and nuns; hence the exodus from towns and villages into the desert; hence the feats of self-mortification which showed the extent to which men could subdue their bodies at the dictates of the spirit. Some of these Eastern ascetics slept only in a standing position, others immured themselves in dark cells or lived on pillars, or ate only herbs, and even those not more than once a week.

Islam stopped all these excesses. It swept away the exaggerated fear of sex, discarded asceticism, banished the fear of hell for those who failed to reach perfection, quenched theological enquiry … Islam was like the sand of the desert … It created a sense of solidarity and brotherhood which had been lost among the contending Christians.14

Not surprisingly, from the first days of the Islamic conquest, the Orthodox hierarchy, the spiritual arm of Byzantine political power, saw the Muslims as a unique menace. They had not responded so fiercely to the Persian occupation of Palestine and their capture of Jerusalem in 614, even though the occupiers had carried away with them Jerusalem’s supreme Christian relic, the true cross.15 On the day in the spring of 638 that the leader of the Muslims, Caliph Omar, clad in his old and tattered robe, arrived to take the city under his protection, the Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem, Sophronius, watched him walk slowly through the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The patriarch remarked quietly in Greek to an acolyte, “Surely this is the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the Prophet standing in the holy place.”16 All those who heard him would have understood not just an allusion to the prophet Daniel, but also to the words of Jesus Christ on the Mount of Olives, when his disciples asked him to prophesy the future.

When ye shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel, stand in the holy place, let him understand … For there shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be … Then if any man shall say unto you, “Lo here is Christ, or there,” believe it not. For there shall arise false Christs and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; insomuch, that if it were possible, they should deceive the very elect.17

The patriarch, who had lived through the Persian occupation, saw in this grizzled old man a quality much more dangerous than in all the grand Persian satraps who had preceded him.

From this point of first contact, there was a profound fear and antipathy among the Orthodox toward Islam. These attitudes proliferated in the written polemic of Byzantine scholars. From these early days themes and tropes began to emerge, which appeared and reappeared in later diatribes.18 Desert Arabs had been seen as barbarian long before the coming of Islam. According to one contemporary, Maximus Confessor, “They behave like beasts of prey though they look like human beings.”19 In later accounts, the Muslim subjects of an Armenian king had been transmogrified into dog-headed men, cynocephali.20 Within two generations of Omar entering Jerusalem, Christian scholars developed a comprehensive attack against Islam. One powerful polemicist was John of Damascus, who served as an official at the caliph’s court before he abandoned public life in 716 and became a monk.21 He put the case against Islam in one sentence: “He who does not believe according to the tradition of the universal church is an infidel.”22 He condemned the Prophet Mohammed as the Antichrist. Yet John, who read Arabic and knew the Qur’an, was thought excessively moderate by his fellow clerics. A synod in 754 condemned him as being “Saracen minded,” and too sympathetic to Islam.23 Nicetas Byzantios was more antagonistic to it. “Above all [he considered that] Islam was a step backwards, a retrogression, ‘a destruction and a ruin.’ It was a ‘bad and noxious’ religion. The Prophet Mohammed himself was ‘the son of the father of lies’ and he [Nicetas] triumphantly concluded, ‘Thus I do not hesitate to pronounce [my judgment] on Mohammed: he is the very Antichrist.’ ”24

IN THE BYZANTINE SYSTEM, THE ORTHODOX CHURCH SERVED GOD through serving the state. Over the centuries since Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312, his new city of Constantinople had become an arsenal of the faith. More and more holy relics had been accumulated in the city’s churches. At the dedication of Constantinople on May 1, 330, a great statue of the emperor had been placed atop a huge column of porphyry, which was more than 100 feet tall, and glowed a pale red in the setting sun. Holy relics were carried in procession to the foot of the shaft and then placed in a hidden chamber. There were crumbs from the bread with which Christ had fed the five thousand in the wilderness; the crosses on which the two thieves had been crucified on either side of Jesus of Nazareth at Golgotha; the alabaster box that had contained the ointment with which Mary Magdalene had anointed Jesus’ feet; the adze with which Noah had built the ark; the rock that Moses had touched with his wand and from which had gushed forth water in the wilderness; and the garment of the Virgin Mary, the Palladium, which Aeneas had carried from Troy to Rome. And cast into the bronze statue itself was a fragment of the true cross.25

The great Church of the Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, was filled with relics, most notably the true cross itself, recaptured by the emperor Heraclius from the Persians shortly before the Muslims occupied Palestine. It was by then in fragments, kept in a chest on a golden altar. There, too, were other relics of the passion: the crown of thorns, the sponge, and slabs from the tomb. The emperor Alexis Comnenus was supposed to have written to Robert, count of Flanders, in 1095 of the rich spiritual treasure of the city: “You will find more of it at Constantinople than in the whole world, for the treasures of its basilicas alone would be sufficient to furnish all the Churches of Christendom and all their treasures cannot together amount to those of St Sophia, whose riches have never been equalled even in the Temple of Solomon.”26

All these were touchstones of the true faith, and over the centuries, Constantinople had become one vast reliquary. The Holy Land and the Christian sites were ransacked for sacred memorabilia, and increasingly Constantinople was identified with the “holy city” predicted in the Revelation of St. John the Divine: “And I, John, saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.’ ”27 Indeed, as a city prepared for this sacred purpose, New Jerusalem was better than Old Jerusalem, which was filled with shadows of Christ’s betrayal and suffering as well as with divine light. The passion of Christ had combined both pain and transcendence, but Jerusalem was not a city fit for the pure risen Christ, as Constantinople could be. The sheer wealth of Constantinople, with its innumerable churches, its daily processions of relics, or the celebration of saints’ days, made it possible to build a city worthy of its purpose. Jerusalem was the past. New Jerusalem was the future.

What prompted Byzantine polemics against Islam was attacks on the city of the Mother of God, Constantinople, New Jerusalem. In the spring of 670, to the surprise and terror of the people of Constantinople, a huge fleet of small vessels crammed with armed Muslims appeared in the Hellespont. The ships sailed down toward the Bosphorus and beached on the northern shore about seven miles from the city, close to the deserted sea palace of the Hebdomon. There they discharged their human cargo, and withdrew back into the Sea of Marmara. The long column of infantry advanced until it extended in a huge arc before the triple land walls built under the emperor Theodosius in the fourth century, which protected the heart of the city against attack from the north. Recovering from their shock, the Byzantine forces were at first successful. They marched from the city and almost wiped out the Arab army. At sea, they attacked the Arab fleet and destroyed many of the vessels. A new weapon, “Greek fire,” which could not be put out with water, proved a devastating weapon against the Arabs, both on land and sea.28 But the Arab losses were quickly made up. A new fleet and a new army arrived from the south. The Byzantines had lost control of the sea around the city and now could not move beyond the walls, for they were both outnumbered and out-fought by the Arabs. The Arabs were prepared to stay for as long as it took to reduce Constantinople.

From their fortified camp close to the city the Arabs mounted a new assault each spring from 671 to 676. The costs in human life were enormous. In one assault 30,000 were killed. Gradually, the Byzantine defenders adapted the tactics they had learned to use against the Muslim columns on land, and harried them mercilessly at sea. At Syllaeum, off Asia Minor, a Byzantine squadron caught the Arab supply ships heading north, and destroyed them. Deprived of reinforcements, in the seventh year of the siege, the Arabs finally abandoned their attack and returned to the Levant. They realized that they had too few men and not enough of the large siege engines needed to breach the Theodosian walls. Moreover, depending solely on the sea route for their supplies and reinforcements had imperiled the entire venture.

For a generation the Arabs made no new assault on the city. But early in 716, the Byzantine ambassador in Damascus returned to Constantinople with news that the Arabs were preparing an army and a fleet larger than any that had been seen before. The emperor issued orders that all the public granaries and cisterns were to be filled to capacity, the walls were to be repaired and extended, and all ships were to be put on a war footing. He anticipated a long investment of possibly three years.

In the late spring of 717 an Arab army of 80,000 men advanced from the south. Five years before, the Muslims had pushed aside the Byzantine field troops at the Cilician Gates and then occupied the land between the Taurus Mountains and the Mediterranean coast. Now as they advanced north the Muslims took each well-fortified Byzantine-occupied city on their route without much difficulty, showing that their skills in siegecraft had improved markedly since their earlier assaults on Constantinople. They reached the Mediterranean coast at Pergamum and followed it north to the shores of the Hellespont in early June. At Abydos they met a flotilla of small ships from Syria which ferried the troops, their horses, and camels across the mile of water to the northern shore. It was a historic spot, for here the Persian King of Kings, Xerxes, had, more than a thousand years before, made a long bridge of boats so that his armies could cross into Europe.

By the end of July 717 the Muslim general Maslama and his soldiers were encamped in a long curved line before the Theodosian walls. Each day he sent parties to probe the defenses, noting where the walls were lightly manned, before launching an all-out assault in mid-August. The emperor, Leo, who had concentrated the best of his troops in mobile squadrons behind the defenses, managed to throw back the Arab attack. The weapon that did most to defeat the Arab assault on the walls was a recently improved form of Greek fire. A Greek refugee from Syria had developed a new compound of quicklime, sulfur, and bitumen tar, known as “sea fire.” Mixed with water, the quicklime began to burn with an intense heat, igniting the mixture. Many of the warships in the Byzantine fleet were armed with special projectors for Greek fire, but Leo had stripped some of the ships and placed their projectors at intervals along the highest ramparts. Special detachments were equipped with mobile versions of these flamethrowers. Once it was burning, the liquid fire was almost impossible to extinguish, and the advancing Arab columns were simply incinerated, and by dusk a thick gray smoke hung over the city, filling it with the acrid smell of charred flesh.

In the following month, the balance of advantage shifted back to the Muslims. A fleet of some 1,800 small boats full of soldiers with twenty larger warships from Egypt sailed into the Sea of Marmara. Their commander, Suleiman, landed most of his troops to reinforce Maslama’s besieging army, but then the whole armada sailed down toward the Bosphorus to attack the city from the seaward side. However, the Byzantine war galleys at anchor in the Golden Horn rowed out to shower the closely packed Arab vessels with sea fire, and loosed burning fireships upon them. Soon the narrow gap between the Asian and European shores was “a moving forest” filled with blazing ships, each one setting the sails or cordage of its neighbors alight. Suleiman managed to rally a few of his undamaged vessels and sailed back down into the Sea of Marmara. Over the following winter, which was exceptionally cold, large numbers of the Arabs and other Easterners died of exposure, and the Arab commanders sent urgent requests to Damascus for fresh reinforcements.29

In the following spring the blockade tightened. More ships arrived from Alexandria and the ports of Africa. Meanwhile many of the ships damaged the previous autumn were salvaged and repaired. One night, under cover of darkness, a Muslim fleet slipped past the watching Byzantines and landed thousands of soldiers on the eastern flank of the city. But now the besiegers were themselves attacked on both sides. The Byzantines paid the Bulgar tribes in the Balkans to attack the Arabs and a horde of tribesmen suddenly massed around the Muslim camp. In a ferocious battle, the Bulgars overwhelmed the Arabs. Twenty thousand Muslims were left dead or wounded in sight of the great walls of Constantinople. Many more died from disease. On August 15, 718, Maslama reluctantly struck camp and marched back toward the Hellespont.

THE TWO ARAB SIEGES OF 668–75 AND 717–18, AND THE SIMULTANEOUS loss to Muslim arms of the remaining Byzantine territories in North Africa, established the “Saracens,” “Agarenes,” or “Ishmaelites” as the most determined and diabolical enemy the Byzantines had ever faced. Byzantine scholars began to talk of the “arrogant soul of the enemy, the sons of Ishmael,” a “race born of a slave.” The failure of the sieges, they suggested, stemmed from God’s determination to save his people from “the insatiable and utterly perverse Arabs.”30 However, there was a long delay in mounting a full assault by Byzantine scholars on the Muslims because the second attack on the city was almost immediately followed by a civil war within Orthodox Christianity. Those who revered the holy images—icons—and those who thought them blasphemous (iconoclasts) persecuted and murdered each other for more than a century after the defender of Constantinople, Leo III, proscribed images in 726.31 For most of that period the image breakers were in power, and the iconoclast cause was strongly supported by the army. The effective end of the attack on images and the renewal of sustained conflict with the Muslims came more or less simultaneously. In March 843, under the leadership of Empress Theodora, who was regent for her two-year-old son, all the decrees against images were withdrawn, and long-dead iconoclasts were posthumously excommunicated.

It is not surprising that the very similar views of Islam and of the now defeated iconoclasts toward the depiction of God in human form were seen to be connected. “Iconoclasm,” as Nicolas Zernov put it, was “the last Oriental protest within Christianity against Hellenism, which was interwoven with the tradition of the Byzantine Church. It was part of that movement towards Monotheism and simplified theology, the most powerful expression of which was Islam itself.” He also pointed out that the army supported its leaders in their campaign against images, and that most of the soldiers were recruited “amongst Armenians, Mardaites, Isaurians and other Asiatic peoples.”32 Muslims were simultaneously the external and the internal enemy, with their doctrines and ideology challenging what had become the key tenet of Orthodox belief. For some Orthodox scholars Muslims were simply heretics, to be classed with the Jacobites, Nestorians, Copts, and other dissenters. For others, they were the prophesied apocalyptic beast, the flail of God and a hellish instrument of divine vengeance on a failing Christendom. Sometimes they would be equated with the old enemies of Byzantium, and were called “Persians” and their ruler named “Chosroes.” At other times they would be called “Ishmaelites,” to mark their descent from the illegitimate son of Abraham, or “Agarenes,” descended from his mother, Hagar, the concubine of the patriarch. There is no clear answer why they should more generally have been called “Saracens,” that is descendants of Sarah, wife of Abraham, but the word was used to describe the inhabitants of desert Arabia, and then by extension the Muslims.33 One theory propagated by St. Isidore of Seville was that these were Syringae—Syrians—and Saraceni was a simple misreading. Another was that the word first related to one Arab Bedouin tribe, the Bani Sara, and later was applied to all Arabs.

Whatever the etymology, some common factors quickly attached themselves to the Saraceni after the invasions of 634 in the Levant. The first Christian sources stress the apocalyptic quality of the invasion, that this was the symbolic vengeance of God on his sinful people at a time when Christ’s second coming was still confidently anticipated. The Armenian bishop Sebeos, in his History of Heraclius, the only contemporary account of the conquest from a Christian source, said that he feared to tell the full horror of the invasion by the Ishmaelites. He called it a hot poisonous wind (simoom) “burning and lethal, which blew upon us, setting alight the tall and beautiful trees of the garden, the young and burgeoning (leafy) plants of the garden.”34 He also cited the other horrors committed, and suggested that this could be nothing other than the fourth beast of the Apocalypse, “like a flying eagle,” which, unlike the other beasts, never rested day or night, “saying ‘Holy, holy, holy Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.’ ”35

Sebeos elaborated his description of the beast. It was

terrible, wondrous, with teeth of iron, talons of copper, which devoured and crushed and trampled … It came from great and limitless desert where once Moses and the Children of Israel lived, according to the word of the prophet, that is to say from a vast and terrible desert, whence the tempest of the nations arose and filled the earth, conquered the earth and trampled it down. And thus it was accomplished: the fourth beast will be the fourth kingdom on the earth, that will be most disastrous of all kingdoms, that will transform the entire earth into a desert.36

However, the beast was doing the work of God although it was itself an instrument of evil. In the vision of St. John the Divine, the fourth beast was Death: “I looked and beheld a pale horse, and his name that sat upon him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto him over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death.” What followed from the coming of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, on horses white, red, black, and the last pale as Death, was the fulfillment of God’s prophecy: “For the great day of his wrath is come, and who shall be able to stand it?”37 The inevitable killings and destruction that accompanied the conquest were attested by many sources. In the written record they fulfilled a prophetic vision of Christianity. This instrument of devastation was the bastard line of Abraham: protected by God and yet at an infinite distance from the love of Christ. The metaphoric vocabulary of violence and horror created from those initial contacts carried through into many accounts. Yet as with so much prophetic utterance, the terms were unstable. Sebeos was interpreting events in terms of what needed to take place so as to fulfill the word and will of God. The Muslims were a necessary evil.38

BYZANTINE WRITERS FROM THE SEVENTH CENTURY ONWARD PRESENTED Islam as a mortal danger facing the Christians, greater than Persia had ever been. At the end of his history, after recounting the first assault on Constantinople, Sebeos catalogued the threat that Islam posed: “For just as arrows fly from the well-curved bow of a strong man toward the target, so are the Arabs who come from the Sinai desert to destroy the entire world with hunger, the sword, and great terror.”39

Muslims were characterized in the same negative terms in the Western Catholic polemics as they had been in the East.40 There too they were the quintessence of evil, even the Antichrist himself, but also a necessary instrument of divine wrath and judgment upon God’s sinful people. Over time new forms of condemnation proliferated, but they were all raised upon a framework initially elaborated within a few decades of first contact. From this point, “Islam” was assimilated to existing examples of evil and ruin in the Old and New Testaments. These primordial ascriptions were repeated in later scholarly discourse and went unchallenged for centuries. They also leaked out beyond the community of scholars into the minds—or mouths—of ordinary people. Thereafter the words of the scholars acquired new meanings, but this process was resisted. Alcuin, the most renowned Anglo-Saxon scholar of the eighth century and founder of the academy in Charlemagne’s palace at Aachen, wrote: “Those people should not be listened to who say that the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotous tumult of the crowd is always very close to madness.”41 How ideas embodied in a few scholarly works were implanted within a much larger (and illiterate) population is still under debate.

Communicating ideas of the Muslim infidel depended on the way that language functions.42 There are many theories of how language works, but in the 1950s the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan provided a useful explanation of how language bears the traces of its use. He took the model first articulated by the father of linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, and refined it to fit what he saw as the reality of human relationships. Saussure had defined communication as a pure and comprehensive system of signs, with each sign consisting of two elements.43 The first was what was described, or “signified,” from the French signifié. The second element was the “signifier,” the means by which its meaning was communicated, by spoken sound or by visible marks, such as writing.

Communication would be impossible if there were no common understanding about how signifier and signified were linked. The same object has to be named in the same way. But as a psychologist, Lacan saw among his patients that in practice no one-to-one relationship existed between the two elements. They were already part of a chain of mental connections, and carried internally the residue of those connections. Applied to curses and imprecations, Lacan’s theory of linguistic practice means that any insult has to be contextualized, because it carries inside it imperceptible traces of similar insults that have gone before. In the case of Christianity and Islam that context would encompass a history extending back over many centuries. If we accept this notion, then very few statements within that history can safely be taken at face value. Their meaning derives in part from the extended skein of fear and hatred. We lack the information in the patchy early records to see the full implications of this idea. But, stepping outside the chronological flow for a moment, there is an instance from the second half of the nineteenth century that suggests how hostility can fabricate and sustain such a tissue of meaning.

THIS EXAMPLE APPEARS IN THE BRITISH CONSULAR RECORDS FOR June 1860, at a time when there were savage attacks on Christians in the Levant, which will figure again later in this book. The British government asked its consuls in the Ottoman Empire to write a short overall impression of how Christians were living under a Muslim government. The various officials interpreted their open-ended instructions in different ways. Consul Blunt at Pristina in the Balkans remarked that Christians were “decidedly” better off than they had been ten years before. In those days “one can judge the measure of Turkish toleration practised at that time by having had to creep under doors scarcely four feet high.”44 The inference here was unambiguous. The Turks compelled Christians to make their church doors so low that worshipers had to bend to enter, and hence humiliate themselves. But as I read this, I wondered whether this seasoned consular official was interpreting the situation correctly. There was another explanation for these low doors that I had picked up elsewhere. This suggested that it was the Christians themselves who deliberately made their church doors low, so that Muslims would be prevented from riding mules into their churches and the animals fouling the floors. Both versions of the story certainly demonstrate oppression—but the tales follow different paths.

However, I also questioned how reliable either interpretation was as evidence of general oppression. Mary Eliza Rogers lived in Palestine during the 1850s. She described many Christian churches in great detail, but never referred to these architectural symbols of oppression, nor once alluded to Christians bending double to enter their places of worship. Were there other interpretations that did not signify oppression? In Christian Europe, church doors came in all shapes and sizes. Large and heavy doors often contain a smaller portal that is used daily, while the great doors are thrown open only on holy days and festivals. Many European churches also have small and narrow secondary entrances. So which interpretation is correct? Was it official tyranny, designed to humiliate Christians? Was it a Christian response to a distasteful problem? Or could it have been only a rhetorical device, a metaphor presented in the guise of fact, a graphic means to express the quality of “Turkish toleration”? We cannot know. Perhaps the consul just wanted a convenient emblem of oppression for the “bad old days” of the 1840s.

However, there is one specific door that might have been the archetype for these stories. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built by Justinian in 529, originally had three great doors in its western façade. But the history of the building reveals how it changed over the centuries:

The main access to the Basilica is by the very small Door of Humility (78 cm in width and 130 cm in height, 2.3 by 4.3 feet). Visitors must enter bending over, as if to a real cave. Originally the church had three entrances, two of which have been bricked up. They are hidden respectively by a buttress built later (after the 16th century) and by the Armenian buildings. The central and highest portal of Justinian’s church door was reshaped by the Crusaders. This resulted in a pointed arch which is still visible today with the cornice of the Justinian entrance which can be seen above. The present small entrance was made during the Ottoman era to prevent mounted horsemen from entering the Basilica.45

All the modern accounts repeat this story, with the Ottomans stabling their horses on the holy ground.46 But there the trail peters out. There is no agreement as to precisely when or why this sacrilege happened. Moreover, there is no sense that other sites of equal importance, such as the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, were subjected to the same treatment. So which story is right: horses, or humiliation? Or was the door in Bethlehem reduced in size for structural reasons, which might account for the changes made in the era of the Crusaders? Certainly, the low portal made no symbolic impression on Mary Rogers when she visited the Church of the Nativity. “We passed under a deep arched way” was the matter-of-fact way she described her entry through the Door of Humility.47

These tales, and others like them, should always, I suggest, be interpreted with care. Undoubtedly, over the centuries, linking “Islam’s rule” with the image of a low and narrow church portal generated ideas of Christian humiliation. This, Westerners were expected to infer, was how Muslims always behaved toward Christians. Yet changing the context alters the meaning. The same narrow door, in a Christian land, would have a quite different significance. Then it might become a metaphor for the path to salvation, recalling the words of Christ “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”48

This paradox reminded me of Lacan’s graphic example of how meaning was created, conveyed, and perceived. He first drew two identical doors side by side. Neither had any special significance until he wrote the word “Men” above one and “Women” above the other. Then the reader understood. Each portal now suggested what happened behind them, unleashing a whole cascade of connections. Lacan’s point was that there was nothing in the words “Men” and “Women” alone, nor in the image of the doors by themselves. But their juxtaposition, and the words inscribed, immediately made a clear cultural connection with sexual differentiation, with urination, and with defecation.49 So, he suggested, the particular meaning of these doors was determined by context. Many of the European stories concerning “Islam” were constructed in this way, like Consul Blunt’s interpretation of the low threshold in Pristina. The dominant Western paradigms of “Islam”—oppression, savagery, and threat—determined how events, structures, and images were to be understood.50

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