Islam’s Initial Conquests II

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Once again the Byzantines, fighting desperately, drove off their attackers, and once again passage to the rest of continental Europe was blocked, with great effort. The Muslim threat was still by no means neutralized, however. For some time after 726, Muslim forces invaded Anatolia annually, besieging important and historic Christian cities such as Nicaea, the site in 325 of perhaps the most important of all the ecclesiastical councils in Christian history. In 740, however, the Byzantines won another battle, at Acroinon, and suppressed the attacks on their heartland for the time being.

By now, the Umayyad dynasty was losing its hold over the Muslim world (and the Dar al-Islam was about to meet a long-term check in Central Asia by a Chinese army at Talas in 751), and the Byzantines were allowed a respite and a chance to rebuild and even counterattack. In 746 they reoccupied part of Syria and in 747 destroyed a Muslim fleet. And they temporarily reoccupied areas of Armenia and Mesopotamia, though these were quickly lost to powerful Muslim counter-thrusts. In 781, Arabs inflicted a sharp defeat on the Byzantines in western Anatolia. For more than half a century thereafter, the line between the two faiths settled into inconclusive, if bloody, border war. Life was more or less difficult for Christians in the area, depending on the whim and resources of local Muslim rulers. Christian writers recount a tale of repeated harassment and outright persecution, from the seventh century to the eleventh, with occasional respites.

When matters heated up again, it was because the Byzantines had gotten their feet under them sufficiently to mount significant campaigns with a real chance of success. In 843 the Byzantines recovered Crete, though only for about a year, and this brief advance was answered by a Muslim victory in Anatolia in 844. But in 853, the Byzantines sent a great fleet to the south, taking and sacking Damietta in the Nile Delta in the first Byzantine counter-thrust against Egypt since the 640s. Unfortunately for them, the principal long-term result of this action was to inspire the Muslim rulers of Egypt to concentrate more intently on their own naval power, which would cause the Byzantines a great deal of trouble in the next century. But at the moment, it was a great achievement, and Christian arms began to advance steadily.

In 853, Emperor Michael III sent his general Petronas to campaign against the Muslims in Anatolia, and the military momentum began to shift back toward the Byzantines. When the emir of Melitene in northern Mesopotamia, who had been raiding and harassing Anatolia since the 850s, penetrated as far as Amisos on the Black Sea, they caught him on his way home in 863, encircled his army, and killed him. Following up this victory with a counterattack into Muslim lands, the Byzantines thereby eliminated the immediate threat to their frontiers and took the fight back to the enemy.

The mid-tenth century saw a great wave of Byzantine victories. In 943 and 944, they retook the northern end of Mesopotamia, besieging Edessa, which had fallen to Muslim forces in 638 but still had a majority Christian Armenian population. Edessa famously possessed the relic known as the “Mandylion,” believed to be an imprint of the face of Jesus Christ and thought by some to be the “Veil of Veronica” or even what is now called the “Shroud of Turin.” The emir of Edessa handed over this relic to the Byzantines in exchange for some two hundred Muslim prisoners. In 960 and 961, the Byzantines finally retook Crete, which would remain in Christian hands till 1669. The island had been a major staging ground for Islamic campaigns in the Mediterranean, so this was an important victory. It was followed up by the reconquest of Cilicia and the island of Cyprus in 965 and of Antioch in 969. In the next year Aleppo was captured and its emir made a tributary of Byzantium, though the city was not formally re-incorporated into the empire.

The next decade—the 970s—saw the high point of the Byzantine counterattack. It would not be correct to call these campaigns actual “crusades,” as some writers have attempted to do, but in the words of George Ostrogorsky, they “breathed the veritable crusading spirit.” The idea that Jerusalem was a Christian city that ought to belong to Christians, not Muslims, was not, as Khalid Yahya Blankinship claims, original to Pope Urban II, nor was it at all unheard of before 1095; rather, everyone knew that Jerusalem, for reasons including those given above, was central to the Christian faith, and the Byzantines were demonstrably trying very hard to recover it more than a century before the First Crusade.

In pursuit of this goal, Emperor John Tzimiskes mounted a series of major, and mostly successful, campaigns against the Muslims. He pressed farther into Mesopotamia, placed Damascus under tribute, and retook Lebanon (including Beirut and Sidon), Tiberias, Nazareth (Christ’s home town), the area around the Sea of Galilee (where Christ had carried out much of his ministry, including, it was believed, delivering the Sermon on the Mount), Acre, and even Caesarea (one of several centers of apostolic activity in the first century). He lacked the resources to reach Jerusalem, however, and some of his conquests were short lived, though he wrote rather optimistically to his Armenian allies that “all Phoenicia, Palestine and Syria are freed from the yoke of the Saracens [Muslims] and recognize the rule of the Romans [Byzantines].” Unfortunately for the Byzantines, this energetic and capable ruler died in early 976, and the program of reconquest slowed. But the Byzantines retained Antioch and were able to use it as an operational base for the next several decades.

The Muslims promptly contested this; in the mid-990s, the Fatimid Egyptians mounted serious attacks on both Antioch and Aleppo and were barely fought off. Within the Shi’a Fatimid Empire, which was often more tolerant than the Sunni caliphate toward Christians and Jews, the period of the late tenth to early eleventh centuries proved difficult for dhimmis. The “mad” Fatimid caliph al-Hakim (996–1021) persecuted Christians and Jews with unusual vigor. He outlawed wine (which had the practical and probably intended effect of interdicting not only the Christian Eucharist but also some Jewish rituals, such as the Passover seder meal), forced conversions, forbade the celebration of Epiphany and Easter, required them to wear identification of their subject status in public, and, in 1009, ordered the demolition of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the most revered church in the Christian world, as well as a number of other churches and at least one convent.

True to his mercurial, supposedly mad nature, after 1012 he allowed unwilling apostates to return to their Christian and Jewish faiths and rescinded most of his anti-Christian, anti-Jewish edicts, but by then great damage had been done to his dhimmi subjects. Al-Hakim was hard on Sunni Muslims, as well, and came to a mysterious and apparently violent end in 1021. His successors were less relentlessly repressive than he, but the Christians remaining in the Holy Land, who might still have been as much as 40 to 50 percent of the population, were traumatized. Word reached the West fairly quickly of their sufferings and vulnerability, of the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and of the difficulties encountered by pilgrims to the Holy Land.60 That news would color and inform Western attitudes toward Jerusalem and Muslims throughout the eleventh century and into the era of what we call the crusades.

The mid-eleventh century saw serious disruptions to the Muslim world of the Near East. In 1055, the Seljuk Turks, nomads from the steppes of Central Asia who were part of a larger group of Turkish peoples known as the Oghuz, effectively neutralized the weakened descendants of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad and began the process of replacing Muslim Arabs as overlords of the region. Pagan at first, the Seljuks converted to the Sunni branch of Islam during this process of replacement. By the latter part of the century, then, the Muslim Arab elite, which had forced itself on the diverse population of the Near East in the seventh century, found itself displaced by another foreign, and once again newly Muslim, elite. By 1065, the Seljuk Turks had captured part of Christian Armenia, devastated Byzantine Cilicia, and made inroads into Byzantine Anatolia. In 1067, they took Caesarea, in Cappadocian Anatolia.

In response, Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes assembled a large but patchwork army, drawing on pagan Pechinegs and other steppe peoples, Norman and Frankish mercenaries, and the various peoples of the empire, and carried off some reasonably successful counterattacks in 1068 and 1069. But in 1071, the world fell apart for the Byzantines when the Seljuk ruler Alp Arslan thrust into far eastern Anatolia, meeting an imperial army near the shores of Lake Van. On August 26, the Byzantine army was decisively defeated, and the emperor himself was taken prisoner.

The emperor was later ransomed for several cities—including the promise (never fulfilled) of Antioch and Edessa (which the Byzantines had recovered in 1031)—and an enormous sum of money. Romanus never recovered his throne, however, losing it in a palace coup that resulted in his blinding, exile, and death. Christian Byzantium was plunged into several decades of turmoil and instability. It lost its “breadbasket” and principal military recruiting grounds in Anatolia and, of course, those ancient Christian centers such as Antioch (which was taken again by the Turks in 1084) and Nicaea, both of which would not be recovered until the First Crusade. In the 1080s, Alp Arslan established his own Sultanate of Rum (Rome) with its eventual capital tauntingly near Constantinople, 125 miles away in the city of Nicaea.

In the chaos that followed Manzikert, Romanus’ Norman mercenaries tried briefly to establish their own principality in Galatia, in central Anatolia. They failed, but the knowledge of this attempt probably made its way back to Norman territories in southern Italy, Sicily, and France. Here was territory that might be taken and perhaps even held.

The Byzantines, in the person of the new emperor, Michael VII (r. 1071–1078), had begun sending off appeals to the West soon after Manzikert, primarily to the person they thought most likely to help, since—among other things—holders of his office had been involved in defensive actions against Muslim invaders in Italy for quite some time: the pope. Gregory VII (r. 1073–1085), current occupant of the See of Saint Peter, was favorably inclined63 and immediately began to plan for an expedition to the eastern empire’s aid. Unfortunately for him and them, he was soon interrupted by a conflict with the German king and emperor elect, Henry IV, and embroiled in the Investiture Controversy (1075–1122). Documents mentioning any such rescue expedition thereupon ceased to be written by Pope Gregory’s secretariat—he now had neither time nor resources to come to Constantinople’s aid, as he was fighting, often literally, for his life.

Meanwhile, the Seljuk Turks, avowed champions of Sunni Islam, continued their encroachments against Shi`a Muslims and Eastern Christians alike. They seized Jerusalem from the Fatimids in 1073 and took Damascus around 1076. The Fatimids seem to have retaken Jerusalem in 1076, only to lose it again to the Turks soon thereafter.

The city still retained a substantial Christian population, even after the Turkish massacres of its inhabitants in the 1070s. These residents of the Holy City were not just Eastern Christians of various loyalties but increasingly Latin Christians too. Charlemagne had taken an interest in the well-being of Eastern Christians in the eighth and ninth centuries, and in the eleventh century not only pilgrims but also merchants such as Amalfitans from Italy were increasingly taking up residence in Jerusalem, despite the increased difficulties for, and pressure on, Christians in the area.

Therefore, just because the area had fallen under Muslim rule did not mean that Christians had ceased to live there or had forgotten it or lost interest in its well-being and significance to their faith. Recognizing the dangers, however, determined Western pilgrims increasingly began to band together and bear arms to ensure their safety and ability to reach and return from their destination. In 1064–1065, a large group of mainly German pilgrims made it to Jerusalem and back, though they were forced to fight for their lives and suffered losses. Between 1087 and 1091 Count Robert of Flanders (later a leader of the First Crusade) led a major, and armed, pilgrimage to the Holy Land, stopped along the way to visit Emperor Alexius I Comnenus and swearing an oath to him to send five hundred Flemish knights, on his return, to help the Byzantines fight off the Muslims.

In August 1098 the Fatimids recovered Jerusalem. By this time the First Crusade was almost upon them. Bracing for the attack, the Fatimids expelled all Christians from the Holy City in 1099—probably (and reasonably) supposing that their sympathies would be more likely to lie with their fellow Christians than their Muslim overlords—and waited for the arrival of the latest Christian attempt to recover their central city: the First Crusade.

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