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Rodney Stark Gods Battalions The Case For The Crusades

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  • Rodney Stark Gods Battalions The Case For The Crusades

    Rodney Stark Gods Battalions The Case For The Crusades

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    The truth about the Christian Crusades and Muslim Jihad.
    In God’s Battalions, distinguished scholar Rodney Stark puts forth a controversial argument that the Crusades were a justified war waged against Muslim terror and aggression. Stark, the author of The Rise of Christianity, reviews the history of the seven major crusades from 1095-1291 in this fascinating work of religious revisionist history.

    From the Back Cover
    In God's Battalions, award-winning author Rodney Stark takes on the long-held view that the Crusades were the first round of European colonialism, conducted for land, loot, and converts by barbarian Christians who victimized the cultivated Muslims. To the contrary, Stark argues that the Crusades were the first military response to unwarranted Muslim terrorist aggression.
    Stark reviews the history of the seven major Crusades from 1095 to 1291, demonstrating that the Crusades were precipitated by Islamic provocations, centuries of bloody attempts to colonize the West, and sudden attacks on Christian pilgrims and holy places. Although the Crusades were initiated by a plea from the pope, Stark argues that this had nothing to do with any elaborate design of the Christian world to convert all Muslims to Christianity by force of arms. Given current tensions in the Middle East and terrorist attacks around the world, Stark's views are a thought-provoking contribution to our understanding and are sure to spark debate.

    There is much to be learned here. Filled with fascinating historical glimpses of monks and Templars, priests and pilgrims, kings and contemplatives, Stark pulls it all together and challenges us to reconsider our view of the Crusades. --Publishers Weekly

    Stark makes the case for the crusades with admirable frankness and flair. --The Catholic Thing

    Stark's style is clear and direct. He sets the pace of narrative masterfully...The result is a good read...Christian readers should welcome Stark's affirmation of the best in scholarship, both old and new, and his willingness to argue a controversial position. --Christian Scholar's Review

    About the Author
    Rodney Stark is the Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University. His thirty books on the history and sociology of religion include The Rise of Christianity, Cities of God, For the Glory of God, Discovering God, and The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. Stark received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.
    Rodney Stark grew up in Jamestown, North Dakota, and began his career as a newspaper reporter. Following a tour of duty in the U.S. Army, he received his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, where he held appointments as a research sociologist at the Survey Research Center and at the Center for the Study of Law and Society. He left Berkeley to become Professor of Sociology and of Comparative Religion at the University of Washington. In 2004 he joined the faculty of Baylor University. He has published 30 books and more than 140 scholarly articles on subjects as diverse as prejudice, crime, suicide, and city life in ancient Rome. However, the greater part of his work has been on religion. He is past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. He also has won a number of national and international awards for distinguished scholarship. Many of his books and articles have been translated and published in foreign languages, including Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Slovene, and Turkish.


    Chapter 1. MUSLIM INVADERS





    Chapter 6. GOING EAST








  • #2

    Pope Urban II asks a gathering of bishops and clergy during the Council at Clermont to help him preach the First Crusade. The next day he preached the Crusade to a huge crowd in a meadow.
    © Bridgeman-Giraudon / Art Resource, NY

    ON NOVEMBER 27, 1095, Pope Urban II mounted a platform set up in a meadow outside the French city of Clermont, surrounded in all directions by an immense crowd. A vigorous man of fifty-three, Urban was blessed with an unusually powerful and expressive voice that made it possible for him to be heard at a great distance. On this memorable occasion, addressing a multitude that included poor peasants as well as nobility and clergy, the pope gave a speech that changed history.

    Urban had arranged the gathering in response to a letter from Alexius Comnenus, emperor of Byzantium, who had written from his embattled capital of Constantinople to the Count of Flanders requesting that he and his fellow Christians send forces to help the Byzantines repel the Seljuk Turks, recent converts to Islam who had invaded the Middle East, captured Jerusalem, and driven to within one hundred miles of Constantinople. In his letter, the emperor detailed gruesome tortures of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land and vile desecrations of churches, altars, and baptismal fonts. Should Constantinople fall to the Turks, not only would thousands more Christians be murdered, tortured, and raped, but also “the most holy relics of the Saviour,” gathered over the centuries, would be lost. “Therefore in the name of God…we implore you to bring this city all the faithful soldiers of Christ…[I]n your coming you will find your reward in heaven, and if you do not come, God will condemn you.”1

    There were many reasons that Europeans might have ignored any plea for help from Byzantium. For one thing, their cultural heritage as well as their Christianity was Roman, while the Byzantines were Greeks, whose lifestyle seemed decadent to Europeans and whose “Orthodox” Christianity held Latin Catholicism in contempt—often persecuting its priests and practitioners. Nevertheless, when Pope Urban II read this letter he was determined that it be answered by worthy deeds, and he arranged for a church council at Clermont, which he followed with his famous speech.2

    Speaking in French, the pope began by graphically detailing the torture, rape, and murder of Christian pilgrims and the defilement of churches and holy places committed by the Turks (he called them Persians) : “They destroy the altars, after having defiled them with their uncleanness. They circumcise the Christians, and the blood of the circumcision they either pour on the altars or pour into the vases of the baptismal font. When they wish to torture people by a base death, they perforate their navels, and dragging forth the extremity of the intestines, bind it to a stake; then with flogging they lead the victim around until the viscera having gushed forth the victim falls prostrate on the ground…What shall I say about the abominable rape of women? To speak of it is worse than to be silent. On whom therefore is the labor of avenging these wrongs and recovering this territory incumbent, if not upon you?”3

    At this point Pope Urban raised a second issue to which he and his illustrious predecessor Gregory VII had devoted years of effort—the chronic warfare of medieval times. The popes had been attempting to achieve a “truce of God” among the feudal nobility, many of whom seemed inclined to make war, even on their friends, just for the sake of a good fight. After all, it was what they had trained to do every day since early childhood. Here was their chance! “Christian warriors, who continually and vainly seek pretexts for war, rejoice, for you have today found a true pretext…If you are conquered, you will have the glory of dying in the very same place as Jesus Christ, and God will never forget that he found you in the holy battalions…Soldiers of Hell, become soldiers of the living God!”4

    Now, shouts of “Dieu li volt!” (God wills it!) began to spread through the crowd, and men began to cut up cloaks and other pieces of cloth to make crosses and sew them against their chests. Everyone agreed that the next year they would set out for the Holy Land. And they did.

    That is the traditional explanation of how and why the First Crusade began. But in recent times a far more cynical and sinister explanation of the Crusades has gained popularity. Thus, in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center by Muslim terrorists, frequent mention was made of the Crusades as a basis for Islamic fury. It was argued that Muslim bitterness over their mistreatment by the Christian West can be dated back to the First Crusade. Far from being motivated by piety or by concern for the safety of pilgrims and the holy places in Jerusalem, the Crusades were but the first extremely bloody chapter in a long history of brutal European colonialism.5

    More specifically, it is charged that the crusaders marched east not out of idealism, but in pursuit of lands and loot; that the Crusades were promoted by power-mad popes seeking to greatly expand Christianity through conversion of the Muslim masses;6 and that the knights of Europe were barbarians who brutalized everyone in their path, leaving “the enlightened Muslim culture…in ruins.”7 As Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic studies at American University in Washington, D.C., has suggested, “the Crusades created a historical memory which is with us today—the memory of a long European onslaught.”8

    Two months after the attack of September 11, 2001, on New York City, former president Bill Clinton informed an audience at Georgetown University that “[t]hose of us who come from various European lineages are not blameless” vis-à-vis the Crusades as a crime against Islam, and then summarized a medieval account about all the blood that was shed when Godfrey of Bouillon and his forces conquered Jerusalem in 1099.

    That the Crusades were a terrible crime in great need of atonement was a popular theme even before the Islamic terrorists crashed their hijacked airliners. In 1999, the New York Times had solemnly proposed that the Crusades were comparable to Hitler’s atrocities or to the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.9 That same year, to mark the nine hundredth anniversary of the crusader conquest of Jerusalem, hundreds of devout Protestants took part in a “reconciliation walk” that began in Germany and ended in the Holy Land. Along the way the walkers wore T-shirts bearing the message “I apologize” in Arabic. Their official statement explained the need for a Christian apology:

    Nine hundred years ago, our forefathers carried the name of Jesus Christ in battle across the Middle East. Fueled by fear, greed, and hatred…the Crusaders lifted the banner of the Cross above your people…On the anniversary of the First Crusade…we wish to retrace the footsteps of the Crusaders in apology for their deeds…We deeply regret the atrocities committed in the name of Christ by our predecessors. We renounce greed, hatred and fear, and condemn all violence done in the name of Jesus Christ.10

    Also in 1999, Karen Armstrong, a former nun and a popular writer on religious themes, proposed that “crusading answered a deep need in the Christians of Europe. Yet today most of us would unhesitantly condemn the Crusades as unchristian. After all, Jesus told his followers to love their enemies, not to exterminate them. He was a pacifist and had more in common with Gandhi, perhaps, than with Pope Urban.” Armstrong went on to propose that, in fact, “holy war is a deeply Christian act,” since Christianity has “an inherent leaning toward violence, despite the pacifism of Jesus.”11 And a prominent former priest, James Carroll, agreed, charging that the Crusades left a “trail of violence [that] scars the earth and human memory even to this day.”12

    These are not new charges. Western condemnations of the Crusades were widespread during the “Enlightenment,” that utterly misnamed era during which French and British intellectuals invented the “Dark Ages” in order to glorify themselves and vilify the Catholic Church (see chapter 3). Hence, Voltaire (1694–1778) called the Crusades an “epidemic of fury which lasted for two hundred years and which was always marked by every cruelty, every perfidy, every debauchery, and every folly of which human nature is capable.”13 According to David Hume (1711–1776), the Crusades were “the most signal and most durable monument to human folly that has yet appeared in any age or nation.”14 Denis Diderot (1713–1784) characterized the Crusades as “a time of the deepest darkness and of the greatest folly…to drag a significant part of the world into an unhappy little country in order to cut the inhabitants’ throats and seize a rocky peak which was not worth one drop of blood.”15 These attacks also reinforced the widespread “Protestant conviction that crusading was yet another expression of Catholic bigotry and cruelty.”16 Thus the English historian Thomas Fuller (1608–1661) claimed that the Crusades were all the pope’s doing and that this “war would be the sewer of Christendom” in that it attempted to deprive the Muslims of their lawful possession of Palestine.17

    However, the notion that the crusaders were early Western imperialists who used a religious excuse to seek land and loot probably was originated by the German Lutheran church historian Johann Lorenz von Mosheim (1693–1755), who wrote: “The Roman pontiffs and the European princes were engaged at first in these crusades by a principle of superstition only, but when in the process of time they learnt by experience that these holy wars contributed much to increase their opulence and to extend their authority…[then] ambition and avarice seconded and enforced the dictates of fanaticism and superstition.”18 Mosheim’s views were echoed by Edward Gibbon (1737–1794), who claimed that the crusaders really went in pursuit of “mines of treasures, of gold and diamonds, of palaces of marble and jasper, and of odoriferous groves of cinnamon and frankincense.”19

    During the twentieth century, this self-interest thesis was developed into an elaborate “materialist” account of why the Crusades took place.20 The prolific Geoffrey Barraclough (1908–1984) wrote: “[O]ur verdict on the Crusades [is that it amounted to] colonial exploitation.”21 Or, as Karen Armstrong confided, these “were our first colonies.”22 A more extensive and sophisticated material explanation of why the knights went east was formulated by Hans Eberhard Mayer, who proposed that the Crusades alleviated a severe financial squeeze on Europe’s “knightly class.” According to Mayer and others who share his views, at this time there was a substantial and rapidly growing number of “surplus” sons, members of noble families who would not inherit and whom the heirs found it increasingly difficult to provide with even modest incomes. Hence, as Mayer put it, “the Crusade acted as a kind of safety valve for the knightly class…a class which looked upon the Crusade as a way of solving its material problems.”23 Indeed, a group of American economists recently proposed that the crusaders hoped to get rich from the flow of pilgrims (comparing the shrines in Jerusalem with modern amusement parks) and that the pope sent the crusaders east in pursuit of “new markets” for the church, presumably to be gained by converting people away from Islam.24 It is thus no surprise that a leading college textbook on Western civilization informs students: “From the perspective of the pope and European monarchs, the crusades offered a way to rid Europe of contentious young nobles…[who] saw an opportunity to gain territory, riches, status, possibly a title, and even salvation.”25


    • #3
      To sum up the prevailing wisdom: during the Crusades, an expansionist, imperialistic Christendom brutalized, looted, and colonized a tolerant and peaceful Islam.

      Not so. As will be seen, the Crusades were precipitated by Islamic provocations: by centuries of bloody attempts to colonize the West and by sudden new attacks on Christian pilgrims and holy places. Although the Crusades were initiated by a plea from the pope, this had nothing to do with hopes of converting Islam. Nor were the Crusades organized and led by surplus sons, but by the heads of great families who were fully aware that the costs of crusading would far exceed the very modest material rewards that could be expected; most went at immense personal cost, some of them knowingly bankrupting themselves to go. Moreover, the crusader kingdoms that they established in the Holy Land, and that stood for nearly two centuries, were not colonies sustained by local exactions; rather, they required immense subsidies from Europe.

      In addition, it is utterly unreasonable to impose modern notions about proper military conduct on medieval warfare; both Christians and Muslims observed quite different rules of war. Unfortunately, even many of the most sympathetic and otherwise sensible historians of the Crusades are unable to accept that fact and are given to agonizing over the very idea that war can ever be “just,” revealing the pacifism that has become so widespread among academics. Finally, claims that Muslims have been harboring bitter resentments about the Crusades for a millennium are nonsense: Muslim antagonism about the Crusades did not appear until about 1900, in reaction against the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the onset of actual European colonialism in the Middle East. And anti-crusader feelings did not become intense until after the founding of the state of Israel. These are principal themes of the chapters that follow.

      Historians disagree about which events were Crusades and therefore about when they occurred.26 I exclude the “crusades” against heretics in Europe and accept the conventional definition: that the Crusades involved conflicts between Christendom and Islam for control of the Holy Land, campaigns that occurred between 1095 and 1291. However, unlike most conventional Crusade historians, I shall not begin with the pope’s appeal at Clermont, but with the rise of Islam and the onset of the Muslim invasions of Christendom. That’s when it all started—in the seventh century, when Islamic armies swept over the larger portion of what was then Christian territory: the Middle East, Egypt and all of North Africa, and then Spain and southern Italy, as well as many major Mediterranean islands including Sicily, Corsica, Cyprus, Rhodes, Crete, Malta, and Sardinia. It also is important to examine the Christian counterattacks that began in the eighth century and soon “liberated” many of the occupied areas, for these were previews of the military confrontations that eventually took place in the Holy Land. Nor shall I merely recount the crusader battles, for they are comprehensible only in light of the superior culture and technology that made it possible for European knights to march more than twenty-five hundred miles, to suffer great losses along the way, and then to rout far larger Muslim forces.

      Many superb historians have devoted their careers to studying aspects of the Crusades.27 I am not one of them. What I have done is synthesize the work of these specialists into a more comprehensive perspective, written in prose that is accessible to the general reader. However, I have been careful to fully acknowledge the contributions of the many experts on whom I have depended, some in the text and the rest in the endnotes.


      • #4
        Chapter One

        The history of the Crusades really began in the seventh century when armies of Arabs, newly converted to Islam, seized huge areas that had been Christian.
        © Werner Forman / Art Resource, NY

        IN WHAT CAME TO BE KNOWN as his farewell address, Muhammad is said to have told his followers: “I was ordered to fight all men until they say ‘There is no god but Allah.’”1 This is entirely consistent with the Qur’an (9:5) : “[S]lay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them [captive], and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush.” In this spirit, Muhammad’s heirs set out to conquer the world.

        In 570, when Muhammad was born, Christendom stretched from the Middle East all along North Africa, and embraced much of Europe (see map 1.1). But only eighty years after Muhammad’s death in 632, a new Muslim empire had displaced Christians from most of the Middle East, all of North Africa, Cyprus, and most of Spain (see map 1.2).

        In another century Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, Crete, and southern Italy also came under Muslim rule. How was this accomplished? How were the conquered societies ruled? What happened to the millions of Christians and Jews?

        Before he died, Muhammad had gathered a military force sufficient for him to contemplate expansion beyond Arabia. Foreign incursions had become increasingly attractive because Muhammad’s uniting the desert Bedouin tribes into an Arab state eliminated their long tradition of imposing protection payments on the Arab towns and villages as well as ending their freedom to rob caravans. So, attention turned to the north and east, where “rich spoils were to be won, and warriors could find glory and profit without risk to the peace and internal security of Arabia.”2 Raids by Muhammad’s forces into Byzantine Syria and Persia began during the last several years of the Prophet’s life, and serious efforts ensued soon after his death.

        In typical fashion, many historians have urged entirely material, secular explanations for the early Muslim conquests. Thus, the prominent Carl Heinrich Becker (1876–1933) explained that the “bursting of the Arabs beyond their native peninsula was…[entirely] due to economic necessities.”3 Specifically, it is said that a population explosion in Arabia and a sudden decline in caravan trade were the principal forces that drove the Arabs to suddenly begin a series of invasions and conquests at this time. But the population explosion never happened; it was invented by authors who assumed that it would have taken barbarian “Arab hordes”4 to overwhelm the civilized Byzantines and Persians. The truth is quite the contrary. As will be seen, the Muslim invasions were accomplished by remarkably small, very well led and well organized Arab armies. As for the caravan trade, if anything it increased in the early days of the Arab state, probably because the caravans were now far more secure.

        A fundamental reason that the Arabs attacked their neighbors at this particular time was that they finally had the power to do so. For one thing, both Byzantium and Persia were exhausted by many decades of fighting one another, during which each side had suffered many bloody defeats. Equally important is that, having become a unified state rather than a collection of uncooperative tribes, the Arabs now had the ability to sustain military campaigns rather than the hit-and-run raids they had conducted for centuries. As for more specific motivations, Muhammad had seen expansion as a means to sustain Arab unity by providing new opportunities, in the form of booty and tributes, for the desert tribes. But most important of all, the Arab invasions were planned and led by those committed to the spread of Islam. As Hugh Kennedy summed up, Muslims “fought for their religion, the prospect of booty and because their friends and fellow tribesmen were doing it.”5

        All attempts to reconstruct the Muslim invasions are limited by the unreliability of the sources. As the authoritative Fred Donner explained, early Muslim chroniclers “assembled fragmentary accounts in different ways, resulting in several contradictory sequential schemes,” and it is impossible to determine which, if any, is more accurate.6 Furthermore, both Christian and Muslim chronicles often make absurdly exaggerated claims about the size of armies—often inflating the numbers involved by a factor of ten or more. Fortunately, generations of resourceful scholars have provided more plausible statistics and an adequate overall view of the major campaigns. The following survey of Muslim conquests is, of course, limited to those prior to the First Crusade.

        The first conquest was Syria, then a province of the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire). Syria presented many attractions. Not only was it close; it was the most familiar foreign land. Arab merchants had regularly dealt with Syrian merchants, some of whom came to the regular trade fairs that had been held in Mecca for generations. Then, too, Syria was a far more fertile region than Arabia and had larger, more impressive cities, including Damascus. Syria also presented a target of opportunity because of its unsettled political situation and the presence of many somewhat disaffected groups. After centuries of Byzantine rule, Syria had fallen to the Persians in about 611, only to be retaken by Byzantium in about 630 (two years before Muhammad’s death). During their rule the Persians destroyed the institutional basis of Byzantine rule, and when they were driven out a leadership vacuum developed. Moreover, Arabs had been migrating into Syria for centuries and had long been a primary source of recruits for the Byzantine forces. In addition, some Arab border tribes had long served as mercenaries to guard against their raiding kinsmen from the south. However, when Byzantium regained control of Syria, the emperor Heraclius, burdened with enormous debts, refused to reinstate the subsidies paid to these border tribes—an action that alienated them at this strategic moment.7 The many Arab residents of Syria had little love for their Roman rulers, either. Hence, when the Islamic Arab invaders came, many Arab defenders switched sides during the fighting. Worse yet, even among the non-Arabs in Syria, “the Byzantine rule was so deeply hated that the Arabs were welcomed as deliverers.”8 And no one hated and feared the Greeks more than the many large Christian groups such as the Nestorians, who had long been persecuted as heretics by the Orthodox bishops of Byzantium.

        The first Muslim forces entered Syria in 633 and took an area in the south without a major encounter with Byzantine forces. A second phase began the next year and met more determined resistance, but the Muslims won a series of battles, taking Damascus and some other cities in 635. This set the stage for the epic Battle of Yarmk, which took place in August 636 and lasted for six days. The two sides seem to have possessed about equal numbers, which favored the Muslim forces since they were drawn up in a defensive position, forcing the Greeks to attack. Eventually the Byzantine heavy cavalry did manage to breach the Arab front line, but they were unable to exploit their advantage because the Muslims withdrew behind barriers composed of hobbled camels. When the Byzantines attacked this new line of defense they left their flanks exposed to a lethal attack by Muslim cavalry. At this point, instead of holding fast, the Greek infantry mutinied and then panicked and fled toward a ravine, whereupon thousands fell to their deaths below. Shortly thereafter, the shattered Byzantine army abandoned Syria.9 Soon the Muslim caliph established Damascus as the capital of the growing Islamic empire (the word caliph means “successor,” and the title caliph meant “successor to Muhammad”).

        Meanwhile, other Arab forces had moved against the Persian area of Mesopotamia, known today as Iraq. The problem of unreliable Arab troops also beset the Persians just as it had the Byzantines: in several key battles whole units of Persian cavalry, which consisted exclusively of Arab mercenaries, joined the Muslim side, leading to an overwhelming defeat of the Persians in the Battle of al-Qdisyyah in 636.

        The Persians had assembled an army of perhaps thirty thousand, including a number of war elephants. The Muslim force was smaller and not as well armed but had a distinct positional advantage: a branch of the Euphrates River across their front, a swamp on their right, and a lake on their left. Behind them was the desert. The fighting on the first day was quite exploratory, although a probing advance by the war elephants was repulsed by Arab archers. The second day was more of the same. But on the third day the Persians mounted an all-out offensive behind their elephant combat teams. Again they were met with a shower of arrows, and the two leading elephants were wounded. As a result, they stampeded back through the other elephants, which followed suit, and the whole herd stomped their way back through the Persian ranks. As chaos broke out, the Arab cavalry charged and the battle was won—with immense Persian losses.10

        Subsequently, after a brief siege the Muslim forces took the capital city of Ctesiphon. Thus was the area that today constitutes Iraq conquered by the Muslims, reducing Persia to what now is known as Iran. Soon it, too, was conquered by Muslim invaders, but not without fierce resistance, and Persians continued to erupt in rebellion against Muslim rule for the next century. Once Persia was sufficiently pacified, Caliph al-Mansr moved the capital of the Muslim empire from Damascus to a new city he built on the Tigris River in Iraq. Its official name was Madina al-Salam (“City of Peace”), but everyone called it Baghdad (“Gift of God”).

        Having conquered Persia, Muslim forces ventured north to conquer Armenia and also moved east, eventually occupying the Indus Valley (modern Pakistan). From this base, over many centuries the Muslims eventually expanded far into India.


        • #5
          The Holy Land
          Palestine was part of Byzantine Syria, and the crushing defeat of Greek forces at the Battle of Yarmk left the Holy Land protected only by local forces. At this time, even though Palestine was administered by Greek Christians, the population was mostly Jewish. Apparently, the Muslim victories over the Byzantines had been interpreted by many Jews as signs that the Messiah was about to appear, and this may account for the reports that Jews welcomed invading Muslim forces.11 Muslim units entered Palestine in 636, and after a long siege, Jerusalem surrendered in 638 to the caliph ‘Umar, who rode into the city on a splendid horse, leading a camel. ‘Umar allowed Byzantine Christians to continue to live in Jerusalem but prohibited all Jews from doing so, 12continuing the policy Byzantine governors had imposed for centuries.13 However, several years later the prohibition against Jews was lifted.

          Egypt was also a Byzantine province; hence its security was undermined by the defeats suffered by Greek forces to the northeast. In 639 Caliph ‘Umar sent a small invasion force of about four thousand men to the Nile Delta area. In response, the Byzantine defensive forces withdrew into the walled towns, where they were quite secure against the small force of invaders. So, in 640 another twelve thousand Muslim troops arrived, and the two groups established themselves at Heliopolis. Having failed to attack either Muslim body when they were still separated, a Byzantine force now decided to march out and give battle. During the night the Arab commander managed to hide two detachments, one on each flank of the battlefield. After the main Arab force engaged the Greeks, these flanking units emerged from ambush, whereupon the Byzantine lines broke and “great numbers were cut down and slaughtered by the exultant Muslims.”14

          Next, in an effort to lure other Byzantine garrisons into coming out to engage in battle, the Muslims stormed the undefended city of Nikiou and massacred the inhabitants, and then did the same to a number of the surrounding villages.15 At this point, most of the remaining Byzantine garrisons withdrew “in good order into the defences of Alexandria.”16 The Arabs followed and made an ill-advised assault against the walls, suffering a very bloody defeat. Withdrawing out of range of arrows and of catapult shots from the defensive walls, the Arabs set up camp.

          What followed ought to have been a hopeless siege, since Alexandria was a port and the Byzantine navy, which then had complete control of the seas, could easily supply and reinforce the city for as long as necessary. Being the second largest city in the whole Christian world, 17 Alexandria “was surrounded by massive walls and towers, against which such missiles as the Arabs possessed were utterly ineffectual…Such a city could have held out for years.”18 But, for reasons that will never be known, in 641, a month after he had arrived by sea to become the new governor of Egypt, Cyrus went out to meet the Muslim commander and surrendered Alexandria and all of Egypt.

          But this wasn’t the end. Four years later a Byzantine fleet of about three hundred vessels suddenly arrived in the harbor at Alexandria and disembarked a substantial army that quickly dispatched the Muslim garrison of about one thousand. Once again the Greeks had an impregnable position behind the great walls of the city, but their arrogant and foolish commander led his forces out to meet the Arabs and was routed. Even so, enough Byzantine troops made it back to Alexandria to adequately man the fortifications, and once again they were secure against attack—but for the treachery of an officer who opened a gate to the Arabs. Some reports say he was bribed; others claim he was a Coptic Christian who was getting even with the Greeks for having persecuted people of his faith. In any event, having burst into the city, the Muslims engaged in “massacre, plunder, and arson…[until] half the city was destroyed.”19 They also tore down the city walls to prevent any repetition of the problem.

          The need to take Alexandria twice made the Muslims fully aware of the need to offset Byzantine sea power. Turning to the still-functioning Egyptian shipyards, they commissioned the construction of a fleet and then hired Coptic and Greek mercenaries to do the navigation and sailing. In 649 this new fleet was adequate to sustain an invasion of Cypress; Sicily and Rhodes were pillaged soon after. A major Muslim empire now ruled most of the Middle East and was free to continue spreading along the North African coast.

          But at this moment the Muslim conquests halted because a brutal civil war broke out within Islam and lasted for years. At issue were conflicting claims to be the true successor to Muhammad, which pitted Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali against Muawiyah, cousin of the murdered caliph Uthman. After much bloodshed, Ali was also murdered and Muawiyah became caliph, with the result that Islam was forever divided into the Sunnis and the Shiites (who had backed Ali). It was not until 670 that a Muslim army advanced further along the North African coast.

          North Africa
          As Egypt had been, the entire north coast of Africa also was under Byzantine rule. Since all the major cities were ports and well garrisoned, the Arab commander moved west over desert routes, established an inland base, and built a huge mosque in what became the city of Kairouan—now regarded as the third holiest Muslim city (after Mecca and Medina).20 From this base in the Maghreb (as the Arabs called North Africa), the Muslim force first made war on the desert-dwelling Berbers, many of whom had long ago converted to Judaism.21 Despite bitter resistance, especially by tribes from the Atlas Mountain area led by a charismatic Jewish woman named Kahina, the Muslims eventually prevailed and then succeeded in enlisting the Berbers as allies.22 Meanwhile, a new Muslim army of perhaps forty thousand swept over the coastal cities, taking Carthage in 698. But, as had happened with Alexandria, the Greeks managed to land troops in the Carthage harbor and retake the city. In response, the Muslims assembled a fleet and another army, including large numbers of Berbers, and in 705 Carthage was “razed to the ground and most of its inhabitants killed.”23 Possession of an adequate fleet by the Muslims sealed the fate of all the remaining Byzantine coastal towns.24

          In 711 an army of seven to ten thousand Muslims from Morocco crossed the Mediterranean at its narrowest western point and landed on the coast of Spain at the foot of a mountain jutting out into the sea. Later this mountain was named after the Muslim commander, the Berber Tariq ibn-Ziyad, as the Rock of Tariq, hence Jabal Tariq or Gibraltar.25 The Muslim landing took everyone in Spain by surprise. King Rodrigo hastily assembled an army and marched south from his capital in Toledo, only to be routed in a battle at the river Guadalete; Rodrigo drowned while fleeing the carnage. This was the first time that Muslim forces engaged Christians who were not Byzantines, but were, in this instance, Visigoths who had conquered Roman Spain in about 500. As usual, contemporary figures as to the numbers involved and the extent of casualties are useless. Gibbon cited them to assign Rodrigo an army of one hundred thousand men and claimed that although the Muslims won, they suffered sixteen thousand killed in action. Rodrigo’s force probably numbered fewer than ten thousand. What is certain is that Rodrigo lost and that Tariq sent what he believed to be Rodrigo’s head (soaked in brine) to the caliph in Damascus.26

          Then followed a seven-year campaign that brought the rest of Al-Andalus, as the Muslims called Spain, under their control, except for a small area in the north from which the Christians could never be ousted. Almost nothing is known of this campaign to conquer most of Spain except for the fact that there was no popular resistance to the Muslims because the corrupt and rather brutal Visigoth regime was widely hated by the indigenous population. This same population called the Muslim invaders Moors, or people from Morocco, and the name stuck. Immediately upon having located their capital in the city of Córdoba, the Moors built a great mosque on the site of a former Christian cathedral. Initially, Al-Andalus was part of the Muslim empire, but in 756 it was established as an independent emirate.

          Sicily and Southern Italy
          The first Muslim invasion of Sicily took place in 652 and failed. So did attacks in 667 and 720. Further attempts were delayed by civil wars in North Africa involving the Berbers and Arabs. The Muslims came again in 827 and landed about ten thousand troops. The local Byzantine commanders fought back furiously, and it took more than seventy years for the Muslims to succeed, only after “much fighting and many massacres.”27 Thus, although Palermo fell after a long siege in 831, Syracuse did not fall until 878, and Taormina, the last Byzantine stronghold, held out until 902.

          From their initial foothold in Sicily the Muslims crossed into southern Italy, and in 840 Taranto and Bari were taken, Capua was razed, and Benevento was occupied. Rome was pillaged in 843 and again in 846, when all the famous churches were looted and the pope was forced to pay a huge tribute. Withdrawing to the south, the Muslim commanders divided portions of southern Italy into independent emirates.

          The occupation of Sicily and southern Italy lasted for more than two centuries.

          Major Islands
          Little has been written about the Muslim conquests of major Mediterranean islands; perhaps historians have considered them too insignificant to matter much. However, possession of islands such as Crete and Sardinia were of considerable strategic importance to Muslim fleets. Hence, the fall of Cyprus (653), Rhodes (672), Sardinia (809), Majorca (818), Crete (824), and Malta (835) were significant losses for the West.


          • #6
            MUSLIM WARFARE
            How did the Arabs triumph so quickly and seemingly so easily? Many historians unfamiliar with military arts have found this inexplicable. They ask: how could a bunch of desert barbarians roll over the large, trained armies of the “civilized” empires?

            As noted, many have attributed the Muslim conquests to an immense superiority of numbers, to hordes of Arabs riding out of the desert to overwhelm far smaller Byzantine and Persian forces. But desert tribes are never very large, and, in fact, the conquering Muslim armies usually were substantially smaller than the “civilized” armies they defeated. Consequently, many historians have fallen back on the thesis that the Muslims won because “the Byzantines failed to appreciate the new power that Muslim religious fervor gave to Arab armies.”28 This suggests onslaughts by wave after wave of fanatics charging the enemy, screaming, “Death to the unbelievers.” Finally, some historians have blamed the Byzantine and Persian losses on their being too civilized in contrast to fearless Islamic savages. Indeed, this explanation even was proposed by the famous Muslim thinker Ibn Khaldn (1332–1406), who wrote, “It should be known that…savage people are undoubtedly braver than others.”29

            In truth, Muslim troops were as apt as Byzantines or Persians to break and run when the tide of battle went against them. Their victories are easily comprehended on the basis of ordinary military techniques and technology.

            The first thing to recognize is that the more “civilized” empires did not possess any superior military hardware, with the exception of siege engines, which were of no use in repelling attacks. Everyone depended on swords, lances, axes, and bows; everyone carried a shield, and those who could afford it wore some armor, albeit the “civilized” forces wore more.30 However, by this era there no longer were dedicated and highly disciplined “citizen soldiers” in the imperial forces of either Byzantium or Persia. Instead, these forces were recruited from hither and yon, and mostly drew “foreigners” who served mainly for pay, which placed limits on their loyalty and their mettle. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, many of the rank and file in the Byzantine and Persian forces were Arabs, large numbers of whom ended up deserting to the Muslim side.

            Nor were the “professional” armies of Persia and Byzantium better trained. To the contrary, they mainly were “fortress” troops used primarily for static defense of strong points such as walled garrisons or cities, and they were poorly suited to battles of maneuver.31 Worse yet, a chronic shortage of troops resulted in an inability to maintain a network of garrisons sufficiently dense to prevent an enemy from mounting surprise attacks. Nor did either the Persians or the Byzantines possess sufficient cavalry to make up for this lack of density by scouting enemy routes and strength; indeed, as noted earlier, what cavalry units they had consisted mostly of hired Arabs, who tended to desert at critical moments. Moreover, in contrast to the Persian and Greek soldiers, who came mostly from peasant backgrounds, the desert Arabs devoted themselves to arms from an early age, and when they went into battle, the individual Muslim fighters were part of a close-knit, small unit of men from the same tribe, who fought alongside their relatives and lifelong friends—a situation that placed each individual under extreme social pressure to be brave and aggressive.

            Perhaps the most important advantage of the Muslim invaders was that they all traveled by camel; even the cavalry rode from place to place on camels, leading their horses. The use of camels made the Arabs the equivalent of a “mechanized force,” in that they so greatly outpaced the Persian and Byzantine armies traveling on foot.32 This superior mobility allowed the Arabs to find and attack the most weakly held places and avoid the main Persian and Byzantine forces until they had them at a great disadvantage. In addition, the “only means of locomotion across the desert was the camel, of which the Arabs held a monopoly. Thus neither the Byzantine nor Persian armies could cross the desert.”33 Hence, given the geography of the area, the Muslims could always outflank the imperial forces by using desert routes, and, should it be necessary, they could always withdraw into the desert to avoid battle. This ability not only gave the Arabs an immense edge in the Middle East, but was equally significant in the conquest of North Africa. Just as Erwin Rommel, Germany’s “Desert Fox,” frequently sent his tanks looping into the desert and thereby outflanked British forces attempting to prevent him from invading Egypt, so the Arabs used their camels to go around Byzantine forces attempting to defend the coastal settlements.

            Contrary to what many would suppose, a very significant Arab advantage lay in the small size of their field armies; they seldom gathered more than ten thousand men and often campaigned with armies of two to four thousand.34 Their successes against the far larger imperial forces were similar to those often enjoyed by small, well-led, aggressive forces in the face of lumbering enemy hosts; consider how often in ancient history tiny Greek armies routed immense Persian forces. Ironically, due to their smaller numbers the Arab invading forces often were able to far outnumber their opponents on a given battlefield because their much greater mobility allowed them to attack an inferior enemy force and destroy it before reinforcements could arrive. The imperial forces either wore themselves out marching in fruitless pursuit of a battle or made themselves vulnerable by spreading out and trying to defend everywhere at once. Nor was this merely a tactical problem facing Byzantine forces in a specific area; it was a more general strategic problem, in that the Byzantine forces were stretched very thin by the immensity of their empire. As a result, while the Arabs concentrated their forces to attack a specific area such as Syria or Egypt, tens of thousands of Greek troops sat idle, far from the battlefield, serving as garrisons in such places as southern Italy or Armenia.35

            As should be clear, the Arab forces also were very well led. Not by their tribal leaders, but by officers selected from “the new Islamic ruling elite of settled people from Mecca, Medina or al-T’if.”36 All of the middle to higher ranks were staffed from the elite by men who clearly understood administration, including the chain of command, and who were able to keep the larger strategic goals in mind while embroiled in tactical engagements. Finally, promotion and appointment of officers in the early Muslim armies was based primarily on merit, while the Byzantine and Persian commanders often were unqualified other than by their bloodlines.

            Initially, the conquered societies were considered provinces of the Muslim state and were ruled by governors appointed by the caliph. Eventually, central control broke down, and, as already noted, many provinces became independent Muslim states “whose rulers commonly recognized the Caliph as Imam or chief of Islam but allowed him no power in their dominions.”37 Hence, when the West began its counterattacks, their opposition was limited to the troops available to a particular ruler; reinforcements usually were not sent from other Muslim states.

            In the beginning, the conquering Arabs constituted a small elite who ruled over large populations of non-Muslims, most of whom remained unconverted for centuries, as will be seen. Indeed, the ruling Muslim elites were required by the caliphs to settle in their own garrison cities. “This would enable them to maintain their military control and discourage them from becoming assimilated and losing their religious and ethnic identity.”38 This was, of course, a two-way street, and Muslim isolation put a damper on conversion. Thus, relations with the subject people were limited to imposing restrictions on such activities as, for example, building churches or riding horses, and to collecting the substantial taxes always imposed on non-Muslims.

            A great deal of nonsense has been written about Muslim tolerance—that, in contrast to Christian brutality against Jews and heretics, Islam showed remarkable tolerance for conquered people, treated them with respect, and allowed them to pursue their faiths without interference. This claim probably began with Voltaire, Gibbon, and other eighteenth-century writers who used it to cast the Catholic Church in the worst possible light. The truth about life under Muslim rule is quite different.

            It is true that the Qur’an forbids forced conversions. However, that recedes to an empty legalism given that many subject peoples were “free to choose” conversion as an alternative to death or enslavement. That was the usual choice presented to pagans, and often Jews and Christians also were faced with that option or with one only somewhat less extreme.39 In principle, as “People of the Book,” Jews and Christians were supposed to be tolerated and permitted to follow their faiths. But only under quite repressive conditions: death was (and remains) the fate of anyone who converted to either faith. Nor could any new churches or synagogues be built. Jews and Christians also were prohibited from praying or reading their scriptures aloud—not even in their homes or in churches or synagogues—lest Muslims accidentally hear them. And, as the remarkable historian of Islam Marshall G. S. Hodgson (1922–1968) pointed out, from very early times Muslim authorities often went to great lengths to humiliate and punish dhimmis—Jews and Christians who refused to convert to Islam. It was official policy that dhimmis should “feel inferior and…know ‘their place’…[imposing laws such as] that Christians and Jews should not ride horses, for instance, but at most mules, or even that they should wear certain marks of their religion on their costume when among Muslims.”40 In some places non-Muslims were prohibited from wearing clothing similar to that of Muslims, nor could they be armed.41 In addition, non-Muslims were invariably severely taxed compared with Muslims.42

            These were the normal circumstances of Jewish and Christian subjects of Muslim states, but conditions often were far worse. In 705 the Muslim conquerors of Armenia assembled all the Christian nobles in a church and burned them to death.43 There were many similar episodes in addition to the indiscriminate slaughters of Christians noted earlier in discussions of the Muslim conquests. The first Muslim massacre of Jews occurred in Medina when Muhammad had all the local adult Jewish males (about seven hundred of them) beheaded after forcing them to dig their own graves.44 Unfortunately, massacres of Jews and Christians became increasingly common with the passage of time. For example, in the eleventh century there were many mass killings of Jews—more than six thousand in Morocco in 1032–1033, and at least that many murdered during two outbursts in Grenada.45 In 1570 Muslim invaders murdered tens of thousands of Christian civilians on Cyprus.46

            This is not to say that the Muslims were more brutal or less tolerant than were Christians or Jews, for it was a brutal and intolerant age. It is to say that efforts to portray Muslims as enlightened supporters of multiculturalism are at best ignorant.


            • #7
              It was a very long time before the conquered areas were truly Muslim in anything but name. The reality was that very small Muslim elites long ruled over non-Muslim (mostly Christian) populations in the conquered areas. This runs contrary to the widespread belief that Muslim conquests were quickly followed by mass conversions to Islam.

              In part this belief in rapid mass conversions is rooted in the failure to distinguish “conversions by treaty” from changes in individual beliefs and practices. Tribes that took arms for Muhammad often did so on the basis of a treaty that expressed acceptance of Muhammad’s religious claims, but these pacts had no individual religious implications—as demonstrated by the many defections of these tribes following the prophet’s death. Similar conversions by treaty continued during the Muslim conquests, the Berbers being a notable case. When attacked by the Muslim invaders of North Africa, some of the Berber tribes were pagans, some were Jews, and some were Christians. But after the defeat of Kahina and her forces, the Berbers signed a treaty declaring themselves to be Muslim. Perhaps some of them were. But even though Marshall Hodgson wrote that the Berbers “converted en masse,”47 theirs was mainly a conversion by treaty that qualified them to participate in subsequent campaigns of conquest and share in the booty and tribute that resulted. The actual conversion of the Berbers in terms of individual beliefs was a slow process that took many centuries.

              Aside from confusing conversion by treaty with the real thing, historians also have erred by assuming that once a people came under Muslim occupation, mass conversions “must have” occurred. But must have is one of the most untrustworthy phrases in the scholarly vocabulary. In this case, social scientists who have studied conversion would respond that there “must not” have been mass conversions, since it is very doubtful that a mass conversion has ever occurred anywhere! All observed instances of conversion have revealed them to be individual acts that occurred relatively gradually as people were drawn to a particular faith by a network of family and friends who already had converted.48 In the instances at hand, the network model gains credibility from the fact that it took centuries for as many as half of the population of conquered societies to become Muslims.

              Richard W. Bulliet has provided superb data on conversion to Islam in the various conquered regions.49 For whatever reason, from earliest times Muslims produced large numbers of very extensive biographical dictionaries listing all of the better-known people in a specific area, and new editions appeared for centuries. Eventually Bulliet was able to assemble data on more than a million people. The value of these data lies in the fact that Bulliet was able to distinguish Muslims from non-Muslims on the basis of their names. Then, by merging many dictionaries for a given area and sorting the tens of thousands of people listed by their year of birth, Bulliet was able to calculate the proportion of Muslims in the population at various dates and thus create curves of the progress of conversion in five major areas. Because only somewhat prominent people were included in the dictionaries, these results overestimate both the extent and the speed of conversions vis-à-vis the general populations in that elites began with a higher proportion of Muslims and Muslims would have continued to dominate. Consequently, Bulliet devised a very convincing procedure to convert these data into conversion curves for whole populations.

              Table 1.1 shows the number of years required to convert 50 percent of the population to Islam in five major areas. In Iran it took 200 years from the date of the initial conquest by Muslim forces to the time when half of Iranians were Muslims. In the other four areas it took from 252 years in Syria to 264 years in Egypt and North Africa. As to why things happened somewhat more rapidly in Iran, two things set it apart from the other areas. Probably the most important is that for more than a century after falling to Islamic invaders, the Iranians frequently revolted again Muslim rule and did so with sufficient success so that many very bloody battles ensued, as did brutal repressions. These conflicts would have resulted in substantial declines in the non-Muslim population, having nothing to do with conversion. Second, the climate of fear that must have accompanied the defeats of these rebellions likely would have prompted some Iranians to convert for safety’s sake and probably caused others to flee.

              In any event, despite the onerous conditions of dhimmitude imposed upon them, the conquered peoples only slowly converted to Islam. Even as late as the thirteenth century, very substantial segments of the populations of the Muslim empire outside of Arabia (where non-Muslims were not permitted) were Christians or Jews. Moreover, most of what has been regarded as Muslim culture and said to have been superior to that of Christian Europe was in fact the persistence of preconquest Judeo-Christian-Greek culture that Muslim elites only slowly assimilated, and very imperfectly (see chapter 3).

              Many critics of the Crusades would seem to suppose that after the Muslims had overrun a major portion of Christendom, they should have been ignored or forgiven; suggestions have been made about turning the other cheek.50 This outlook is certainly unrealistic and probably insincere. Not only had the Byzantines lost most of their empire; the enemy was at their gates. And the loss of Spain, Sicily, and southern Italy, as well as a host of Mediterranean islands, was bitterly resented in Europe. Hence, as British historian Derek Lomax (1933–1992) explained, “The popes, like most Christians, believed war against the Muslims to be justified partly because the latter had usurped by force lands which once belonged to Christians and partly because they abused the Christians over whom they ruled and such Christian lands as they could raid for slaves, plunder and the joys of destruction.”51 It was time to strike back.
              TABLE 1.1 Number of Years Required to Convert 50 Percent of the Population to Islam in Five Major Areas
              Syria 252
              Western Persia (Iraq) 253
              Eastern Persia (Iran) 200
              Egypt and North Africa 264
              Spain 247
              Source: Calculated from Bulliet, 1979a, 1979b.


              • #8
                Chapter Two

                In 732, a large Muslim army from Spain pushed far north into France, there to be overwhelmed by Frankish troops led by Charles Martel. From then on, the Muslim invaders slowly began to be driven out of Europe.
                © Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY

                DESPITE HAVING SO QUICKLY assembled a large empire out of areas conquered from the Persians, Byzantines, and Visigoths, the Muslim armies were not invincible. When they abandoned their camels and ventured far from the deserts to face loyal and determined Christian forces, the “fierce” and “irresistible” Islamic invaders proved to be quite vulnerable and perhaps deficient in both arms and tactics. The first major Muslim defeat occurred at Constantinople, and then they were routed in Gaul. Soon after that, the Muslim tide began to ebb in Spain, and then they were driven out of Sicily and southern Italy.

                Having defeated Byzantine armies in Syria and Egypt, and having begun a successful campaign to conquer the entire north coast of Africa from Byzantium, in 672 the caliph Muawiyah decided to strike directly at his enemy. From his new capital in Damascus, the caliph directed his fleet to transport an army through the Dardanelles (the narrow strait linking the Mediterranean with the Sea of Marmara). Numbering about fifty thousand men, the caliph’s troops captured the peninsula of Cyzicus, across the water from Constantinople, and fortified it as their principle base, from where they began a siege of Constantinople.

                Had the Muslims taken the city, the way would have been open to invading Europe through the Balkans. But Constantinople easily withstood the siege and inflicted a huge naval defeat on the Muslims. With their fleet destroyed, it was the Arabs who were, in effect, under siege and starving. Soon dysentery became epidemic, and thousands of Muslim soldiers died. Worse yet, few Muslims had ever seen snow or ice, and when winter came they were entirely unprepared. Having no warm clothing, many froze to death. Even so, the Muslims hung on for several years, their ranks continuing to thin while well-fed Byzantines taunted them from the walls of Constantinople. Finally, with his army marooned, “discouraged and demoralized,” Muawiyah accepted Byzantium’s “offer of peace—under terms which, a few years before, he would have considered ignoble: the evacuation of the Aegean islands he had so recently conquered, plus an annual tribute to the Emperor [of Byzantium] of fifty slaves, fifty horses, and 3,000 pounds of gold.”1 A year later Muawiyah died, and the new caliph soon reneged on the annual tribute payments.

                Western historians have long hailed this as “a turning point in the history of mankind.”2 The Russian-born Byzantine scholar George Ostrogorsky (1902–1976) characterized the attack on Constantinople as “the fiercest which had ever been launched by the infidels against a Christian stronghold, and the Byzantine capital was the last dam left to withstand the rising Muslim tide. The fact that it held saved not only the Byzantine Empire, but the whole of European civilization.”3 Or as the distinguished historian of Byzantium Viscount John Julius Norwich put it: “Had they captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than the fifteenth, all Europe—and America—might be Muslim today.”4

                How was this Byzantine victory achieved? Unfortunately, Arab sources are “so confused as to be valueless.”5 Hence, we know little from the Muslim side, and the Greeks observed Muslim forces only from a distance, safe behind their battlements. That may not be very important since, perhaps surprisingly, there wasn’t all that much fighting, victory being a triumph of Western technology—of impenetrable fortifications6 and a secret offensive weapon.7

                The walls of the city not only defended Constantinople on the land side but enclosed the three seaward sides of the city as well, even including the harbor, which could be entered only through a massive gate. These were not merely walls; they were an engineering marvel: a massive outer wall with towers and superb battlements and behind it an even stronger inner wall, forty feet high and fifteen feet thick, having even more elaborate battlements and towers. If that weren’t enough, on the landward side there was a huge moat, and, of course, on the other three sides attackers could reach the walls only by boat. Against these extraordinary fortifications, the Arabs brought siege engines that were quite primitive, even for the times, and able to inflict nothing more than small gouges and scratches on the walls. Until attacked by heavy artillery in the fifteenth century, the walls of Constantinople could only be scaled, not shattered.

                Of course, the Muslims might have been able to starve the city into surrender had they retained their control of the seas. But that’s where the secret weapon came in.

                Tradition has it that in about 670 a Greek architect or engineer named Kallinikos of Heliopolis invented something that has come to be called “Greek fire” and took it to Constantinople. Greek fire was a highly flammable liquid, somewhat akin to napalm, that burst into flames and could not be extinguished by water; it may have burned even more intensely when it came in contact with water. The story of its invention seems a folktale; more likely it was developed by “chemists in Constantinople who had inherited the discoveries of the Alexandrian chemical school.”8 In any event, the formula was a very closely held secret that eventually was lost when the Fourth Crusade caused many untimely deaths among the ruling elite in Constantinople, 9 and modern scientists have never been able to fully duplicate the effect.10

                Possession of Greek fire allowed the Byzantines to destroy opposing fleets as well as terrorize opposing armies. It was delivered in several ways, but most often by catapult or by a pumping device. A glass or pottery container of Greek fire was loaded onto a catapult and then hurled toward a target as distant as four or five hundred yards. When it struck, it shattered and burst into flames, splashing its blazing liquid over a considerable area—perhaps as far as seventy-five feet in diameter. This was immensely effective when hurled from the battlements of Constantinople and soon discouraged the Muslims from approaching the city. However, catapults are not well suited for use from boats. So the Byzantine engineers invented a primitive flamethrower—a pump that discharged a stream of flaming liquid through a tube projecting from the bow of a galley. (These tubes often had animal heads.) This system had quite limited range but was more than adequate for the close-quarters action of galley warfare. Armed with pumps spewing Greek fire, the Byzantines rowed out and burned the Muslim navy to a cinder—several times.11

                In 717 the Muslims tried once more. This time they came in even greater numbers aboard as many as eighteen hundred galleys. The Greeks lured them into the Bosporus by removing the huge chain used to block entry, and when the Muslim fleet was packed together in these narrow waters out came the Byzantines with their Greek-fire pumps and destroyed most of the fleet, killing or drowning most of the troops aboard. The Muslims tried again the next spring with a new fleet. The Byzantines came out spouting Greek fire again. Some Muslim galleys managed to flee, only to be caught in a devastating storm. In the end, only five Muslim galleys managed to survive.12


                • #9
                  As they so often have throughout history, the Pyrenees Mountains served as a barrier that contained the Muslim advance in northern Spain—for a few years. But in 721, Al-Samh ibn Malik al-Khawlani, the Muslim governor of Spain, led his troops north, intent on annexing the duchy of Aquitaine in southern Gaul (now France). His first step was to lay siege to the city of Toulouse. After three months, with the city on the brink of surrender, Duke Odo of Aquitaine arrived with an army of Franks. While Odo had been away gathering his forces, lack of opposition had encouraged Muslim arrogance, setting them up for a devastating defeat. They had constructed no defenses around their camp, had sent out no scouts to warn of an approaching threat, and may not even have posted sentries. Taken completely by surprise when the Franks attacked, the Muslims fled, many without their weapons or armor, and most of them were slaughtered by Frankish cavalry as they ran away. Al-Samh ibn Malik al-Khawlani was mortally wounded.

                  In 732, led by ‘Abd-al-Rahmân, the Muslims tried again, this time with a far larger force. Muslim sources claim it was an army of hundreds of thousands, and the Christian Chronicle of St Denis recorded that three hundred thousand Muslims died in the battle! More realistic is Paul K. Davis’s estimate of an army of eighty thousand Muslims, 13 while Victor Davis Hanson thinks there were only about thirty thousand.14 In any event, contrary to some historians who want to minimize the importance of the engagement,15 this was no mere raid or exploratory expedition. The Muslims came with a large army and drove deep into Gaul: the battle occurred only about 150 miles south of Paris, although it is uncertain precisely where it was fought. The best that can be done is to place it near where the rivers Clain and Vienne join, between Tours and Poitiers. Thus some historians refer to it as the Battle of Tours, while others call it the Battle of Poitiers.

                  As they moved north from Spain, everything went very well for the Muslims. A company of Franks attempting to defend Bordeaux was defeated, and the city was plundered. Then another small Christian army was slaughtered at the Battle of the River Garonne. Along the way, the Muslim army laid waste to the countryside, and soon they were heavily burdened with booty and plunder.

                  At this point, according to Isidore of Beja’s contemporary account, the Muslim commander “burned churches, and imagined he could pillage the basilica of St. Martin of Tours.”16 But first he paused to regroup. Once again the Muslims were brimming with confidence. According to an anonymous Arab chronicler, “The hearts of ‘Abd-al-Rahmân, his captains and his men were filled with wrath and pride.”17 Hence, they sent out no scouts and failed to detect the approach of Charles Martel, de facto ruler of Gaul, leading an army of battle-hardened Franks.

                  Martel was an unusually tall and powerfully built man, the bastard son of King Pippin and famous for his military exploits. Even had he not confronted Muslim invaders, Martel would have been a major historical figure for having founded the Carolingian Empire (named for him) by winning many battles against the Bavarians, the Alemanni, the Frisians, and the Saxons—an empire later perfected by his grandson Charlemagne. Now, after gathering his troops, Martel marched south to meet the Muslim threat.

                  Taking the Muslims completely by surprise, Martel was able to choose a battleground to his liking, and he positioned his dense lines of well-armored infantry on a crest, with trees to the flanks, thus forcing the Muslims to charge uphill or refuse to give battle. And charge they did. Again and again.

                  It is axiomatic in military science that cavalry cannot succeed against well-armed and well-disciplined infantry formations unless they greatly outnumber them.18 The effective role of cavalry is to ride down infantry fleeing the battlefield, once their lines have given way. But when determined infantry hold their ranks, standing shoulder to shoulder to present a wall of shields from which they project a thicket of long spears butted in the ground, cavalry charges are easily turned away; the horses often rear out of control and refuse to meet the spears. In this instance, the Muslim force consisted entirely of light cavalry “carrying lances and swords, largely without shields, wearing very little armor.” Opposing them was an army “almost entirely composed of foot soldiers, wearing mail [armor] and carrying shields.”19 It was a very uneven match. As Isidore of Beja reported in his chronicle, the veteran Frankish infantry could not be moved by Arab cavalry: “Firmly they stood, one close to another, forming as it were a bulwark of ice.”20The Muslim cavalry repeatedly rushed at the Frankish line, and each time they fell back after suffering severe casualties, with increasingly large numbers of bleeding and riderless horses adding to the confusion on the battlefield.

                  Then, late in the afternoon, as the Arab chronicler reported, many Muslims became “fearful for the safety of the spoil which they had stored in their tents, and a false cry arose in their ranks that some of the enemy were plundering the camp; whereupon several squadrons of the Muslim horsemen rode off to protect their tents.”21 To other units this appeared to be a retreat, and it soon became one, during which the Franks unleashed their own heavily armored cavalry22 to inflict severe casualties on the fleeing Muslims; at least ten thousand of them died that afternoon, including ‘Abd-al-Rahmân, who was run through repeatedly by Frankish lancers.23

                  Even during the rout, the Frankish infantry left the pursuit to their cavalry and maintained their discipline, remaining firmly in position, finally spending the night lying in their ranks. In the morning no Muslim forces reappeared. After very carefully scouting the Muslim camp, the Franks learned that during the night the Muslims had fled, leaving empty tents behind them.

                  Many historians have regarded the victory at Tours/Poitiers as crucial to the survival of Western civilization. Edward Gibbon supposed that, had the Muslims won at Tours, they would soon have occupied “the confines of Poland and the Highlands of Scotland…and the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.”24 Subsequently, many Western historians have taken a similar view of the battle as a major historical turning point; indeed, the German military historian Hans Delbrück (1848–1929) wrote that there was “no more important battle in world history.”25

                  As would be expected, some more recent historians have been quick to claim that the Battle of Tours was of little or no significance. According to Philip Hitti, “[N]othing was decided on the battlefield at Tours. The Muslim wave…had already spent itself and reached a natural limit.”26 And Franco Cardini wrote that the whole thing was nothing but “propaganda put about by the Franks and the papacy.”27 This is said to be consistent with evidence that the battle made no impression on the Muslims, at least not on those back in Damascus. Bernard Lewis claimed that few Arab historians make any mention of this battle at all, and those who do present it “as a comparatively minor engagement.”28

                  Given the remarkable intensity of Muslim provincialism, and their willful ignorance of other societies, 29 the defeat at Tours/ Poitiers probably was regarded as a minor matter as seen from Damascus. But that’s not how the battle was seen from Spain. Indeed, unlike Muslim leaders elsewhere, the Spanish Muslims were fully aware of who Charles Martel was and what he had done to their aspirations. Indeed, Muslims in Spain had learned from their defeat that the Franks were not a sedentary people served by mercenary garrison troops, nor were they a barbarian horde. They, too, were empire builders, and the Frankish host was made up of very well trained citizen volunteers who possessed arms, armor, and tactics superior to those of the Muslims.30 Indeed, when the Muslims tried to invade Gaul again in 735, Charles Martel and his Franks gave them another beating, so severe that Muslim forces never ventured very far north again. Forty years later, Martel’s grandson joined the long process of driving them from Spain.


                  • #10
                    THE RECONQUEST OF SPAIN
                    Despite their attacks into France, the Muslims never conquered all of Spain. As the Spanish nobility retreated from the initial Muslim onslaught, they eventually reached the Bay of Biscay on the northern coast, and having nowhere left to go, they made their stand in an area known as Asturias, protected on three sides by mountains and by the sea to the north. This area became the Christian kingdom of Asturias, and from the start the Asturians were committed to reconquering Spain. So, in 741, while Muslim Spain was ravaged by a Berber uprising, Asturia annexed Galicia—the coastal region to the west. However, the next step in the Christian Reconquista was initiated by a Muslim faction.

                    In 777, more than sixty years after the initial Muslim invasion of Spain, the Muslim governor of Barcelona sought the aid of the great Frankish emperor Charlemagne against his rival the emir of Cordova, offering “Saragossa and other [northern] cities to Charlemagne in return for his help.”31 In the spring of 778 Charlemagne assembled two armies and directed them into Spain. One army marched through the East Pyrenees and approached Barcelona. Charlemagne led the other through the West Pyrenees toward Pamplona. Oddly enough, although Pamplona was a city of Christian Basques, and despite Charlemagne’s intense Christianity, when he reached Pamplona, Charlemagne ordered that the city be taken. Then, joined by his other army, Charlemagne led his forces on to the promised city of Saragossa, accepting surrenders from several cities along the way, only to discover that the Muslim governor had switched sides and refused to surrender the city.32

                    At this point Charlemagne received news that Saxony had revolted against his rule, so he gathered his forces and quickly marched north to settle this threat. As his rear guard passed through the narrow Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees, they were ambushed by a coalition of Muslims and Basques, the latter having been angered by the sack of Pamplona. Trapped and greatly outnumbered, this Frankish contingent was massacred, and among the dead was Charlemagne’s nephew Duke Roland of Brittany—fated to be celebrated in the great medieval epic poem La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland).

                    This was not the end of Charlemagne’s Spanish adventures. Several years later he sent a new army and forced the Muslims south of Barcelona. This new area of Christian Spain became known as the Marca Hispanica (Spanish March). After Charlemagne’s death in 814, Frankish control weakened and the Christian areas broke up “to become tiny states enjoying practical autonomy.”33 Acting singly and sometimes together, these Christian states continued to push the Muslims slowly south. Their efforts were assisted in 835 when it was believed that the bones of Saint James had been discovered in Galicia. These holy relics served as “a great inspiration to the Christian cause,” and in addition, almost at once Christian pilgrims began to flock to the Shrine of Saint James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, bringing “a substantial flow of wealth into Galicia.”34 Then, in 1063 the local forces received reinforcements and renewed spirit from the north.

                    Alexander II became pope in 1062—one of a series of reforming popes who brought renewed respect and power to the office. A year after his election, Alexander proposed that knights who went to help drive the Muslims out of Spain would receive remission for their sins, thus launching “a crusade before the crusade” as Menéndez Pidal put it so well.35 The response was very modest. A small number of Frankish knights seem to have ventured into Spain, and their participation may have helped recover more Muslim territory, but no significant battles were fought.

                    It is worth noting that the pope was very concerned that the knights setting out to fight the Muslims not attack Jews along the way. Having directed that the Jews be protected, he subsequently wrote that he was glad to learn “that you protect the Jews who live among you, so that they may not be killed by those setting out for Spain against the Saracens…for the situation of the Jews is greatly different from that of the Saracens. One may justly fight against those [Saracens because they] persecute Christians.”36

                    In 1073 Pope Alexander II died and was replaced by another dedicated reformer who also favored the reconquest of Spain. In fact, immediately following his election, Pope Gregory VII wrote to those knights wishing to go to Spain, promising to “dispose of Spanish lands to any Frenchman who conquered them.”37 Again the turnout was very small, but it seems to have been sufficient to encourage local Christian forces, which resulted in the taking of Toledo on May 25, 1085. The fall of Toledo was a strategic and psychological “disaster for the Muslims.”38 Located at the very center of Spain, Toledo was home to one of the wealthiest Muslim dynasties, which had maintained a splendid court there for generations. Indeed, Toledo had been the capital of Visigothic Spain. Now it was back in Christian hands.

                    Then, in 1092 Alfonso VI, king of León-Castile, recalled Spain’s most famous knight from exile. With the king’s permission, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, widely known as El Cid, raised an army and, after a two-year siege, conquered Valencia on June 16, 1094. The Muslims reacted quickly, sending a very large field army to Valencia in December. To their surprise, El Cid did not accept a siege but sallied forth and met the Muslim army at Cuarte, a town near Valencia. El Cid was a brilliant tactician who never lost a battle against Muslims, and in this instance he conducted a daring night attack, inflicting a crushing and bloody defeat. Shortly thereafter he squelched a revolt of Muslims in Valencia, expelling those involved and taking revenge by turning Valencia’s nine mosques into Christian churches. In January 1097 El Cid defeated a new Muslim army sent against Valencia, meeting and beating them at the town of Bairén, and he then rode on to capture a number of other towns in the area.

                    El Cid’s resounding victories over major forces “showed other Christian Spaniards what could be done.”39 Although Islamic armies won some subsequent battles, the tide had turned. Islamic Spain was receding toward the southern coast.

                    RETAKING ITALY AND SICILY
                    Perhaps the single most remarkable feature of the Islamic territories was almost ceaseless internal conflict; the intricate plots, assassinations, and betrayals form a lethal soap opera. North Africa was frequently torn by rebellions and by intra-Islamic wars and conquests. Spain was a patchwork of constantly feuding Muslim regimes that often allied themselves with Christians against one another. Recall that it was the Muslim governor of Barcelona who invited Charlemagne to enter Spain, and El Cid spent part of his career as a brilliant mercenary leader on behalf of the Muslim “king” of Saragossa, warring against other Muslims. And just as Muslim disunity made Spain vulnerable to Christian efforts to drive them out, so, too, in Italy and Sicily.

                    In 873 the Byzantine emperor Basil I, having murdered his co-emperor and driven the Muslims from the entire Dalmatian coast (facing Italy), decided to reclaim southern Italy from Muslim rule.40 He landed his troops on the heel of Italy and soon accepted the surrender of Otranto. Three years later Bari came under his control, and during the next decade “virtually the whole of south Italy was restored to Byzantine authority.”41

                    It did not, however, become a peaceful province. Time and again there were rebellions, coups, and new regimes, in addition to the constant intrigues back in Constantinople. But Byzantine rule prevailed, and then in 1038, determined to put an end to Muslim pirates and raiders operating from the ports of Sicily, the Italian Byzantines launched an invasion across the narrow Strait of Messina. They had chosen a most opportune time, as the Arab emirs in Sicily had fallen into one of their typical civil wars. In fact, al-Akhal, the Muslim ruler of Palermo, had sent an envoy to Constantinople in 1035 to ask for Byzantine help against his mounting enemies. The emperor agreed to send forces, but al-Akhal was assassinated, and that “removed this useful pretext for an unopposed landing.”42 However, the civil war continued to spread among the Sicilian Arabs, making it seem unlikely that they could offer serious resistance to a Greek invasion force.

                    So, in 1038, George Maniakes, the most famous of the living Byzantine generals, led an oddly assorted army across the strait. Although he had a Greek name, Maniakes probably was of Mongol origin, “a great bear of a man: strong, ugly, thoroughly intimidating…his military prowess was much respected in the capital, but he was a blunt man who had to survive under a regime increasingly given to palace intrigue and treachery.”43 His troops consisted of Lombards forced into service, a few Byzantine regulars, and various contingents of mercenaries, including one made up of Norman knights who were remarkable for their political awareness and their ambition, as well as for their unusual stature, they being of Scandinavian origins. (The word Norman derives from the Old Norse Northmathr [“Norseman”].)

                    The invasion began in late summer and was an immediate success. Messina fell almost at once. The invaders then won major battles at Rometta and Troina, “and within two years over a dozen major fortresses in the east of the island, plus the city of Syracuse, had been subdued.”44 Then everything fell apart. First, Maniakes so alienated the Normans by withholding their share of the booty that they returned to Italy, “angry, bitter, and dangerous,”45 leaving the Byzantine force without its most effective contingent. In addition, antagonism had been building between Maniakes and the commander of the navy, the emperor’s brother-in-law Stephen, who lacked military virtues but not ambition. When Stephen foolishly allowed the Muslim fleet to escape through the Byzantine blockade, Maniakes made the mistake of abusing him physically and calling him an effeminate pimp.46 In revenge, Stephen sent a message to the emperor accusing Maniakes of treason. Summoned to Constantinople, Maniakes was immediately thrown into prison, and command in Sicily was given to Stephen, who made a complete mess of things and then died. He was replaced by a court eunuch named Basil, “who proved very little better.”47 The Byzantine army began a slow retreat. At this point, Lombard rebels rose up in Apulia, the southernmost province in the heel of Italy. The army was urgently recalled to quell the rebellion, leaving Sicily once again under uncontested Muslim rule.

                    The Norman mercenaries found the entire experience most edifying. First, they now knew that Sicily was rich, that the large Christian population would support an invasion, and that the Muslims were hopelessly divided. They also recognized that Constantinople was too far away and too corrupted by intrigues to sustain its rule in the West. So rather than hire out to suppress the Lombard uprising, the Normans decided to lead it. In 1041 the Norman knights sneaked across the mountains and descended into Apulia.

                    The Normans were led by William of Hauteville, whose heroic exploits in Sicily had earned him the nickname “Iron Arm,” and they quickly seized the town of Melfi as their base—a well-situated and fortified hill town. From there, within several weeks they accepted the submission of all the surrounding towns, having successfully presented themselves as supporters of the rebellion. The Byzantine governor was much too experienced to just sit back and allow the Norman and rebel forces to expand. Assembling an army considerably larger than his opponents’, he met them at the Olivento River. He then sent a herald to the Norman camp offering either a safe return of the Normans to Lombard territory or battle. Historians agree that the following actually happened in response: the enormous Norman knight holding the herald’s horse struck a huge blow with his mailed fist, smashing in the horse’s head, and it fell dead on the spot.48 Provided with a new horse, the herald was sent back to the Byzantine camp, whereupon the battle ensued the next day.

                    Although vastly outnumbered, the Normans routed the Byzantine forces, most of whom were killed in battle or drowned while trying to flee across the river. The Byzantine governor quickly responded by importing many regular troops from Constantinople and marching them off to confront the Normans and their Lombard allies at Montemaggiore. Again led by William Iron Arm, the Normans slaughtered this new Byzantine army. Even then the Byzantines did not accept defeat, but gathered another army and fought one more battle near Montepeloso. And again Iron Arm and his Normans prevailed, even taking the Byzantine governor prisoner and holding him for ransom. Never again were the Byzantines willing to fight an open battle with Normans in Italy; they instead contented themselves with defending strongly fortified towns and cities. In this manner they avoided any further military catastrophes, but they also failed to hold southern Italy as it was slowly transformed into a Norman kingdom.

                    Meanwhile, the Normans had not lost interest in Muslim Sicily. In 1059, after Robert Guiscard, duke of southern Italy, had designated himself in a letter to Pope Nicholas II as “future [lord] of Sicily,”49 the Norman plans for an invasion began to take shape. Guiscard was a remarkable man. The Byzantine princess Anna Comnena described him as “overbearing,” “brave,” and “cunning,” and as having a “thoroughly villainous mind.” She continued: “He was a man of immense stature, surpassing even the biggest men; he had a ruddy complexion, fair hair, [and] broad shoulders,” but was remarkably “graceful.”50

                    In 1061 Guiscard, his brother Roger, and a select company of Normans made a night landing at Messina and in the morning found the city abandoned. Guiscard immediately had the city fortified and then formed an alliance with Ibn at-Tinnah, one of the feuding Sicilian emirs, and took most of Sicily before having to return to Italy to see after affairs there. He made several minor gestures toward expanding his control of part of Sicily but concentrated on overwhelming the remaining Byzantine strongholds in southern Italy, finally driving the Greeks out of southern Italy in 1071. The next year he returned to Sicily, captured Palermo, and soon took command of the entire island. In 1098 Robert Guiscard’s eldest son, Bohemond, led the crusader forces that took the city of Antioch and became the ruler of the princedom of Antioch. Then, in 1130, Guiscard’s nephew Robert II established the Norman kingdom of Sicily (which included southern Italy).51 It lasted for only about a century, but Muslim rule never resumed.


                    • #11
                      CONTROL OF THE SEA
                      During the 1920s, the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne (1862–1935) gained international fame by claiming that the “Dark Ages” descended on Europe not because of the fall of Rome or the invasion of northern “barbarians,” but because Muslim control of the Mediterranean isolated Europe. He wrote: “The Mediterranean had been a Roman lake; it now became, for the most part, a Moslem lake,”52 and, cut off from trade with the East, Europe declined into a backward collection of rural economies.

                      To support this claim Pirenne cited fragmentary evidence that overseas trade had declined sharply late in the seventh century and remained low until early in the tenth. Although Pirenne’s thesis was very influential for many years, eventually it lost plausibility as scholars discovered convincing evidence that the alleged decline in trade on which it rested had been greatly overstated. Perhaps there had been some interruptions of seaborne trade with the East during the first fifty years of Muslim expansion, but there is evidence that extremely active Mediterranean trade quickly resumed, even between western Europe and Islamic countries.53

                      Oddly enough, historians have failed to pay much attention to the most fundamental and easily assessed of Pirenne’s assumptions: that Muslim sea power ruled the Mediterranean.54 It is difficult to know how Pirenne came to this view. Perhaps he simply believed Ibn Khaldn (1332–1406), who wrote that “the Muslims gained control over the whole Mediterranean. Their power and domination over it was vast. The Christian nations could do nothing against the Muslim fleets, anywhere in the Mediterranean. All the time the Muslims rode its waves for conquest.”55 Nevertheless, even with the advantages provided by possession of some strategically placed island bases, the Muslim fleet never ruled the waves.

                      Granted, soon after the conquest of Egypt the Muslims acquired a powerful fleet, and in 655 they defeated a Byzantine fleet off the Anatolian coast. But only twenty years later the Byzantines used Greek fire to destroy a huge Muslim fleet, and in 717 they did so again. Then, in 747 “a tremendous Arab armada consisting of 1,000 donens [galleys] representing the flower of the Syrian and Egyptian naval strength” encountered a far smaller Byzantine fleet off Cyprus, and only three Arab ships survived this engagement.56Muslim naval forces never fully recovered, in part because they suffered from chronic shortages “of ship timber, naval stores, and iron,” all of which the Byzantines had in abundance.57 Hence, rather than the Mediterranean becoming a Muslim lake, the truth is that the eastern Mediterranean was a Byzantine lake, the Byzantine navy having become “the most efficient and highly trained that the world had ever seen, patrolling the coasts, policing the high seas and attacking the Saracen raiding parties whenever and wherever they might be found.”58 It is true that the Muslims were able to sustain some invasions by sea in the western Mediterranean in the eighth and ninth centuries, far from the Byzantine naval bases, but by the tenth century they were driven to shelter by Western fleets as well as those of a renewed Byzantium.

                      Muslim naval weakness should always have been obvious. For one thing, the Muslims quickly realized that they must withdraw their fleets from open harbors, where they risked destruction from surprise attacks. Thus, for example, Carthage was abandoned, and the fleet stationed there was moved inland to Tunis and a canal dug to provide access to the sea. Being so narrow as to accommodate only one galley at a time, the canal was easily defended against any opposing fleet.59 In similar fashion, the Egyptian fleet was removed from Alexandria and rebased up the Nile. While these were sensible moves, they also revealed weakness.

                      That the Muslims lacked control of the seas also was obvious in the ability of Byzantium to transport armies by sea with impunity—for example, their landing and supplying of the troops that drove Islam from southern Italy. Nor could the Muslim navies impede the very extensive overseas trade of the Italian city-states such as Genoa, Pisa, and Venice.60 Indeed, in the eleventh century, well before the First Crusade, Italian fleets not only preyed on Muslim shipping but successfully and repeatedly raided Muslim naval bases along the North African coast.61 Hence, during the Crusades, Italian, English, Frankish, and even Norse fleets sailed to and from the Holy Land at will, transporting thousands of crusaders and their supplies. Finally, as will be demonstrated in the next chapter, contrary to Pirenne’s thesis, Muslim sea barriers to trade could not have caused Europe to enter the “Dark Ages,” because the “Dark Ages” never took place.

                      All of these Christian victories preceded the First Crusade. Consequently, when the knights of western Europe marched or sailed to the Holy Land, they knew a lot about their Muslim opponents. Most of all, they knew they could beat them.


                      • #12
                        Chapter Three

                        Contrary to frequent claims, Muslim technology lagged far behind that of the West. The knights shown here are armed with crossbows that were far more accurate and deadly than Muslim bows—Muslim arrows could seldom penetrate the chain-mail armor worn by these and most other crusaders, but very few Muslims had such armor.
                        © British Library / HIP / Art Resource, NY

                        IT HAS LONG BEEN the received wisdom that while Europe slumbered through the Dark Ages, science and learning flourished in Islam. As the well-known Bernard Lewis put it in his recent study, Islam “had achieved the highest level so far in human history in the arts and sciences of civilization…[intellectually] medieval Europe was a pupil and in a sense dependent on the Islamic world.”1 But then, Lewis pointed out, Europeans suddenly began to advance “by leaps and bounds, leaving the scientific and technological and eventually the cultural heritage of the Islamic world far behind them.”2 Hence, the question Lewis posed in the title of his book: What Went Wrong?

                        This chapter documents my answer to Lewis’s question: nothing went wrong. The belief that once upon a time Muslim culture was superior to that of Europe is at best an illusion.

                        DHIMMI CULTURE
                        To the extent that Arab elites acquired a sophisticated culture, they learned it from their subject peoples. As Bernard Lewis put it, without seeming to fully appreciate the implications, Arabs inherited “the knowledge and skills of the ancient Middle east, of Greece, of Persia and of India.”3 That is, the sophisticated culture so often attributed to Muslims (more often referred to as “Arabic” culture) was actually the culture of the conquered people—the Judeo-Christian-Greek culture of Byzantium, the remarkable learning of heretical Christian groups such as the Copts and the Nestorians, extensive knowledge from Zoroastrian (Mazdean) Persia, and the great mathematical achievements of the Hindus (keep in mind the early and extensive Muslim conquests in India). This legacy of learning, including much that had originated with the ancient Greeks, was translated into Arabic, and portions of it were somewhat assimilated into Arab culture, but even after having been translated, this “learning” continued to be sustained primarily by the dhimmipopulations living under Arab regimes. For example, the “earliest scientific book in the language of Islam” was a “treatise on medicine by a Syrian Christian priest in Alexandria, translated into Arabic by a Persian Jewish physician.”4 As in this example, not only did most “Arab” science and learning originate with the dhimmis; they even did most of the translating into Arabic.5 But that did not transform this body of knowledge into Arab culture. Rather, as Marshall Hodgson noted, “those who pursued natural science tended to retain their older religious allegiances as dhimmis, even when doing their work in Arabic.”6 That being the case, as the dhimmis slowly assimilated, much of what was claimed to be the sophisticated Arab culture disappeared.

                        Although not a matter of intellectual culture, Muslim fleets provide an excellent example. The problems posed for their armies by the ability of Byzantium to attack them from the sea led the early Arab conquerors to acquire fleets of their own. Subsequently, these fleets sometimes gave good account of themselves in battles against Byzantine and Western navies, and this easily can be used as evidence of Islamic sophistication. But when we look more closely, we discover that these were not really “Muslim” fleets.

                        Being men of the desert, the Arabs knew nothing of shipbuilding, so they turned to their newly acquired and still-functioning shipyards of Egypt7 and the port cities of coastal Syria (including Tyre, Acre, and Beirut) and commissioned the construction of a substantial fleet. The Arabs also knew nothing of sailing or navigation, so they manned their Egyptian fleet with Coptic sailors8 and their Persian fleet with mercenaries having Byzantine naval backgrounds. A bit later, when in need of a fleet at Carthage, the Muslim “governor of Egypt sent 1,000 Coptic shipwrights…to construct a fleet of 100 warships.”9 While very little has been written about Muslim navies (itself suggestive that Muslim writers had little contact with them), 10 there is every reason to assume that Muslims never took over the construction or command of “their” fleets but that they continued to be designed, built, and sailed by dhimmis. Thus in 717, when the Arabs made their last effort against Constantinople by sea, a contributing factor in their defeat was “the defection to the Byzantine side of many of the Christian crews of Arab vessels.”11 Finally, when an enormous Muslim fleet was sunk by Europeans off the coast of Lepanto in 1571, “the leading captains of both fleets were European. The sultan himself preferred renegade Italian admirals.”12 Moreover, not only were the Arab ships copies of European designs; “[t]hey were built for the sultan by highly paid runaways,”13 by “shipwrights from Naples and Venice.”14

                        The highly acclaimed Arab architecture also turns out to have been mainly a dhimmi achievement, adapted from Persian and Byzantine origins. When Caliph Abd el-Malik had the great Dome of the Rock built in Jerusalem, and which became one of the great masterpieces attributed to Islamic art, he employed Byzantine architects and craftsmen, 15 which is why it so closely resembled the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.16 Similarly, in 762, when the caliph al-Mansr founded Baghdad, he entrusted the design of the city to a Zoroastrian and a Jew.17 In fact, many famous Muslim mosques were originally built as Christian churches and converted by merely adding external minarets and redecorating the interiors. As an acknowledged authority on Islamic art and architecture put it, “the Dome of the Rock truly represents a work of what we understand today as Islamic art, that is, art not necessarily made by Muslims…but rather art made in societies where most people—or the most important people—were Muslims.”18

                        Similar examples abound in the intellectual areas that have inspired so much admiration for Arab learning. Thus, in his much-admired book written to acknowledge the “enormous” contributions of the Arabs to science and engineering, Donald R. Hill noted that very little could be traced to Arab origins and admitted that most of these contributions originated with conquered populations. For example, Avicenna, whom the Encyclopaedia Britannica ranks as “the most influential of all Muslim philosopher-scientists,” was a Persian. So were the famous scholars Omar Khayyám, al-Biruni, and Razi, all of whom are ranked with Avicenna. Another Persian, al-Khwarizmi, is credited as the father of algebra. Al-Uqlidisi, who introduced fractions, was a Syrian. Bakht-Ish’ and ibn Ishaq, leading figures in “Muslim” medical knowledge, were Nestorian Christians. Masha’allah ibn Athar, the famous astronomer and astrologer, was a Jew. This list could be extended for several pages. What may have misled so many historians is that most contributors to “Arabic science” were given Arabic names and their works were published in Arabic—that being the “official” language of the land.

                        Consider mathematics. The so-called Arabic numerals were entirely of Hindu origin. Moreover, even after the splendid Hindu numbering system based on the concept of zero was published in Arabic, it was adopted only by mathematicians while other Muslims continued to use their cumbersome traditional system. Many other contributions to mathematics also have been erroneously attributed to “Arabs.” For example, Thabit ibn Qurra, noted for his many contributions to geometry and to number theory, is usually identified as an “Arab mathematician,” but he was a member of the pagan Sabian sect. Of course, there were some fine Muslim mathematicians, perhaps because it is a subject so abstract as to insulate its practitioners from any possible religious criticism. The same might be said for astronomy, although here, too, most of the credit should go not to Arabs, but to Hindus and Persians. The “discovery” that the earth turns on its axis is often attributed to the Persian al-Biruni, but he acknowledged having learned of it from Brahmagupta and other Indian astronomers.19 Nor was al-Biruni certain about the matter, remarking in his Canon Masudicus that “it is the same whether you take it that the Earth is in motion or the sky. For, in both cases, it does not affect the Astronomical Science.”20 Another famous “Arab” astronomer was al-Battani, but like Thabit ibn Qurra, he, too, was a member of the pagan Sabian sect (who were star worshippers, which explains their particular interest in astronomy).

                        The many claims that the Arabs achieved far more sophisticated medicine than had previous cultures21 are as mistaken as those regarding “Arabic” numerals. “Muslim” or “Arab” medicine was in fact Nestorian Christian medicine; even the leading Muslim and Arab physicians were trained at the enormous Nestorian medical center at Nisibus in Syria. Not only medicine but the full range of advanced education was offered at Nisibus and at the other institutions of learning established by the Nestorians, including the one at Jundishapur in Persia, which the distinguished historian of science George Sarton (1884–1956) called “the greatest intellectual center of the time.”22 Hence, the Nestorians “soon acquired a reputation with the Arabs for being excellent accountants, architects, astrologers, bankers, doctors, merchants, philosophers, scientists, scribes and teachers. In fact, prior to the ninth century, nearly all the learned scholars in the [Islamic area] were Nestorian Christians.”23 It was primarily the Nestorian Christian Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-‘Ibadi (known in Latin as Johannitius) who “collected, translated, revised, and supervised the translation of Greek manuscripts, especially those of Hippocrates, Galen, Plato, and Aristotle[,] into Syriac and Arabic.”24 Indeed, as late as the middle of the eleventh century, the Muslim writer Nasir-i Khrusau reported, “Truly, the scribes here in Syria, as is the case of Egypt, are all Christians…[and] it is most usual for the physicians…to be Christians.”25 In Palestine under Muslim rule, according to the monumental history by Moshe Gil, “the Christians had immense influence and positions of power, chiefly because of the gifted administrators among them who occupied government posts despite the ban in Muslim law against employing Christians [in such positions] or who were part of the intelligentsia of the period owing to the fact that they were outstanding scientists, mathematicians, physicians and so on.”26 The prominence of Christian officials was also acknowledged by Abd al-Jabbr, who wrote in about 995 that “kings in Egypt, al-Shm, Iraq, Jazra, Fris, and in all their surroundings, rely on Christians in matters of officialdom, the central administration and the handling of funds.”27

                        Even many of the most partisan Muslim historians, including the famous English convert to Islam and translator of the Qur’an Mar-maduke Pickthall (1875–1936), 28 agree that the sophisticated Muslim culture originated with the conquered populations. But what has largely been ignored is that the decline of that culture and the inability of Muslims to keep up with the West occurred because Muslim or Arab culture was largely an illusion resting on a complex mix of dhimmi cultures, and as such, it was easily lost and always vulnerable to being repressed as heretical. Hence, when in the fourteenth century Muslims in the East stamped out nearly all religious nonconformity, Muslim backwardness came to the fore.


                        • #13
                          ISLAM AND ARISTOTLE
                          Underlying the belief that the Muslims were more learned and sophisticated than the Christian West is the presumption that a society not steeped in Greek philosophy and literature was a society in the dark! Thus for the past several centuries many European writers have stressed the Arab possession of the classical writers, assuming that by having access to the advanced “wisdom” of the ancients, Islam was the much superior culture. Although medieval European scholars were far more familiar with the “classics” than was claimed, the fact is that because of the persistence of Byzantine/Greek culture in most of the conquered Arab societies, the most-educated Arabs did have greater knowledge of the work of classical Greek authors such as Plato and Aristotle. What is less known is the rather negative impact that access to Greek scholarship had on Arab scholarship.

                          The works of Plato and Aristotle reached the Arabs via translations into Syrian late in the seventh century and then into Arabic by Syrians in, perhaps, the ninth century. However, rather than treat these works as attempts by Greek scholars to answer various questions, Muslim intellectuals quickly read them in the same way as they read the Qur’an—as settled truths to be understood without question or contradiction—and thus to the degree that Muslim thinkers analyzed these works, it was to reconcile apparent internal disagreements. Eventually the focus was on Aristotle. As the respected Muslim historian Caesar Farah explained, “[I]n Aristotle Muslim thinkers found the great guide; to them he became the ‘first teacher.’ Having accepted this a priori, Muslim philosophy as it evolved in subsequent centuries merely chose to continue in this vein and to enlarge on Aristotle rather than to innovate.”29 This eventually led the philosopher Averroës and his followers to impose the position that Aristotle’s physics was complete and infallible, and if actual observations were inconsistent with one of Aristotle’s teachings, those observations were either in error or an illusion.30

                          Attitudes such as these prevented Islam from taking up where the Greeks had left off in their pursuit of knowledge. In contrast, knowledge of Aristotle’s work prompted experimentation and discovery among the early Christian scholastics. Indeed, then as now, one’s reputation was enhanced by disagreeing with received knowledge, by innovation and correction, which motivated scholastics to find fault with the Greeks.31 And there were many faults to be found.

                          BOOKS AND LIBRARIES
                          As noted, central to all claims concerning the superiority of Muslim culture has been their possession of translations of many books by classical authors. But books must be kept somewhere, and large collections of books can be identified as libraries—whether these are the collection of books belonging to individuals or are institutions devoted to acquiring and preserving books. There is sufficient evidence of the existence of both kinds of libraries in Islam, dating back to early days. Indeed, libraries confronted the conquering Muslim armies all across the Middle East and North Africa. Some of these libraries had survived from pagan times; others were created by Christians and Jews. Among the Copts in Egypt, “every monastery and probably every church once had its own library of manuscripts.”32 All across Byzantium, the Orthodox clergy sustained libraries. At their great centers of learning, the Nestorian Christians maintained huge collections of books. There seems to have been nothing very unusual about the story of a Nestorian monk who checked out a book from the monastery library every week and devoted most of his waking hours to pondering and memorizing it.33 Thus it was demonstrated to the early Muslims that if they “were to make use of the diversified knowledge to which they fell heir, they must have books, preferably in the Arabic language, and these books must be preserved in safety and rendered accessible to readers.”34

                          However, the notion that Muslims valued libraries is contrary to the controversial claim that they burned the huge library at Alexandria.35 The story is told that after the conquest of Alexandria, the Muslim commander inquired of the caliph ‘Umar back in Damascus as to what should be done with this immense library, said to contain hundreds of thousands of scrolls. ‘Umar is said to have replied, “[I]f what is written in them agrees with the Book of God [the Qur’an], they are not required: if it disagrees, they are not desired. Therefore destroy them.”36 Thus the general distributed the scrolls to the four thousand baths of the city to be used as fuel, and the burning took six months.

                          This story has provoked very angry responses from many admirers of Islam despite the fact that the leading Western historians (including Edward Gibbon) have rejected it, most being satisfied with the tradition that the library was burned by accident when Julius Caesar conquered Egypt. Nevertheless, Asma Afsaruddin angrily charged that the story reflects nothing more than Christian hatred of Muslims, 37 ignoring the fact that the story first appeared in the thirteenth century in an account written by a Muslim Egyptian historian! It was then repeated by other Muslim writers, including the famous Ibn Khaldn.38 That the charge that the caliph caused the great library to be burned was leveled by Muslims does not increase the likelihood that it is true; the first account was written about six hundred years after the alleged event. But that the story was believed by so many Muslim intellectuals suggests something far more interesting: that many Muslims, including heads of state, were hostile to books and learning!

                          This anti-intellectual attitude seems obvious if one reads Muslim political history rather than accounts of the glories of Muslim science. The former notes that when Mutawakkil became caliph in 847 he immediately “began to stifle independent research and scientific inquiry and increase the suppression of religious dissent by force.”39 So did his successors. Then with the collapse of the caliphate, it no longer was possible to apply any policies—whether “enlightened” or “repressive”—to a Muslim empire now shattered into a mosaic of emirates, subject to a series of internal invasions. From then on, some Muslim rulers were more tolerant than others of scholars, their books, and their learning, but most were not very tolerant. Indeed, Saladin, the famous twelfth-century Muslim hero so greatly admired by Western writers, closed the official library in Cairo and discarded the books.40 All of this would seem to indicate a prevailing tension between the sophisticated, so-called Muslim culture sustained by the dhimmis and the actual culture of the Muslim elites.

                          THE MYTHICAL DARK AGES
                          The claim that Muslims possessed a more advanced culture also rests on illusions about the cultural backwardness of Christendom—on the widespread but unfounded belief that subsequent to the fall of Rome, Europe regressed into the Dark Ages and thus lost the cultural heritage that still was thriving in Islam. Voltaire (1694–1778) claimed that after Rome fell, “barbarism, superstition, [and] ignorance covered the face of the world.”41 According to Rousseau (1712–1778), “Europe had relapsed into the barbarism of the earliest ages. The people of this part of the world…lived some centuries ago in a condition worse than ignorance.”42 Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) also pronounced this era as the “triumph of barbarism and religion.”43

                          Not surprisingly, this became the received wisdom on the matter. Thus, in his bestselling book The Discoverers (1983), Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin (1914–2004) included a chapter titled “The Prison of Christian Dogma,” in which he claimed that the “Dark Ages” began even before the fall of Rome. “Christianity conquered the Roman Empire and most of Europe. Then we observe a Europe-wide phenomenon of scholarly amnesia, which afflicted the continent from A.D. 300 to at least 1300.” This occurred because “the leaders of orthodox Christendom built a grand barrier against the progress of knowledge.”44 And in the words of the distinguished historian William Manchester (1922–2004), this was an era “of incessant warfare, corruption, lawlessness, obsession with strange myths, and an almost impenetrable mindlessness…The Dark Ages were stark in every dimension.”45

                          Some of these claims are malicious, and all are astonishingly ignorant. Granted, like the Muslim conquerors, the Germanic tribes that conquered Roman Europe had to acquire considerable culture before they measured up to their predecessors. But, in addition to having many Romans to instruct and guide them, they had the Church, which carefully sustained and advanced the culture inherited from Rome.46 What is even more significant is that the centuries labeled as the “Dark Ages” were “one of the great innovative eras of mankind,” as technology was developed and put into use “on a scale no civilization had previously known.”47 In fact, as will be seen, it was during the “Dark Ages” that Europe began the great technological leap forward that put it far ahead of the rest of the world.48 This has become so well known that rejection of the “Dark Ages” as an unfounded myth is now reported in the respected dictionaries and encyclopedias that only a few years previously had accepted and promulgated that same myth. Thus, while earlier editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica had identified the five or six centuries after the fall of Rome as the “Dark Ages,” the fifteenth edition, published in 1981, dismissed that as an “unacceptable” term because it incorrectly claims this to have been “a period of intellectual darkness and barbarity.”

                          As has been evident, the claims concerning a more advanced and sophisticated Muslim culture are often based on “intellectualism.” But there is far more to culture than books or “book learning.” No one can learn how to farm, sail, or win battles by reading Plato or Aristotle. Technology, in the broadest sense of the word, is the stuff of real life that determines how well people live and whether they can protect themselves. And whatever Muslim intellectuals did or didn’t know about Aristotle’s science or Plato’s political philosophy in comparison with the knowledge of the learned Christian scholastics, Islamic technology lagged well behind that of Byzantium and Europe.


                          • #14
                            CONTRASTS IN TECHNOLOGY
                            It is far more difficult than it ought to be to contrast Christendom and Islam in terms of important technology, because the subject is dominated by Muslim authors who are too much given to absurd claims. Thus one can “discover” that “Ibn Firnas of Islamic Spain invented, constructed, and tested a flying machine in the 800s.”49 European shipbuilders did not invent the rudder; Muslim shipbuilders did. (Which Muslim shipbuilders were these?) The Chinese did not invent the compass; Muslims did. And on and on.50

                            What we do know with absolute certainty is that following the Muslim conquest of Egypt, the rest of North Africa, and Spain, the wheel disappeared from this whole area!51 For centuries there were no carts or wagons. All goods were hand-carried or packed on camels, donkeys, or horses. This did not happen because the Arabs lacked knowledge of the wheel, but because they thought it of little use. In their judgment, wheels required streets and roads. Camels and pedestrians required neither. Moreover, given their disdain for the wheel, it is doubtful that Muslims knew how to construct a proper harness to hook draft animals to carts and wagons.

                            In contrast, sometime early in the “Dark Ages,” Europeans were the first to develop a collar and harness that would allow horses rather than oxen to pull heavy wagons—with a very substantial gain in speed. Properly harnessed, one horse could pull a wagon loaded with about two thousand pounds, 52 a burden that would require at least four pack camels and probably five.53 The pulling capacity of European horses was increased again when, in the eighth century, iron horseshoes were invented and came into widespread use by the next century. Horseshoes not only protected the horse’s hooves from wear and tear, especially on hard surfaces; they also allowed the horse to dig in on softer surfaces and gain better traction.54 In addition, tenth-century Europeans were the first to discover a harness that would allow large teams of horses or oxen to be lined up in a column of pairs, as opposed to hooking them up abreast. This permitted the use of large numbers of draft animals to pull a single load, 55 such as giant catapults or assault towers during a siege.

                            An objection that Arabs may have had to wagons is that those in use at the time of the Muslim conquests and before had a fixed front axel that made them difficult to turn. They also had no brakes and could be very dangerous on downward slopes.56 By no later than the ninth century Europeans had solved these problems, and their wagons had front axels that swiveled, as well as adequate brakes. This was a significant advantage when they undertook a major military campaign more than twenty-five hundred miles from home. Indeed, one contingent in the First Crusade is thought to have started out with at least two thousand wagons.57

                            Finally, despite having the swiftest riding horses in the world, the Muslims lacked the large draft horses used by Europeans. Hence, for them the advantage of using wagons as opposed to pack camels would have been somewhat less. Of course, both Muslims and Europeans were expert at breeding horses, so these differences were a matter of preference.

                            Big draft horses also played a substantial role in the agricultural revolution that transformed Europe during the “Dark Ages.” Food production per capita rose dramatically. Part of the reason was that horses could pull a plow twice as fast as could oxen; hence by switching to horses one farmer could plow twice as much land in the same amount of time. Of equal importance, the “Dark Ages” farmers’ big horses were pulling a far superior plow.

                            Until some time in the sixth century, the most advanced farmers all over the world used some variant of the scratch plow, which is nothing more than a set of digging sticks arranged in rows on a flat surface. The scratch plow does not turn over the soil but is simply dragged over the surface, leaving undisturbed soil between shallow furrows, a process that often requires cross-plowing.58 This was barely adequate for the thin, dry soils along the Mediterranean and was insufficient for the heavy, often damp, but extremely fertile soil of most of northern Europe. What was needed was a very heavy plow, with a large, sharp, heavy share (blade) that would turn over the soil and dig a deep furrow. To this was added a second share at an angle to cut off the slice of turf that was being turned over by the first share. Then was added a moldboard to completely turn over the sliced-off turf. Finally, wheels were added to the plow to facilitate moving it from one field to another and to make it possible to set the share to plow at different depths. Presto! Land that could not previously be farmed, or not farmed effectively, suddenly became very productive, and even on thinner soil the use of the heavy moldboard plow nearly doubled crop yields.59

                            During the eighth century came the next step in the agricultural revolution: the adoption of the three-field system, wherein farmland belonging to each village was divided into three plots60 and each farmer had his own strip in each of the three fields. One plot was planted in a winter crop such as wheat; the second, in a spring crop such as oats (an especially important crop once the horse became the primary draft animal), legumes (such as peas and beans), or vegetables; and the third plot was allowed to lie fallow (unplanted). The next year the plot that had been fallow was planted in the winter crop, the second in a spring crop, and the plot that had grown a spring crop the previous year was left fallow. Not only did using the fallow plot for grazing keep down the weeds, but the manure spread by the cattle had dramatic effects on the land’s fertility.

                            As a result, starting during the “Dark Ages” most Europeans began to eat far better than had the common people anywhere, ever. Indeed, medieval Europeans may have been the first human group whose genetic potential was not badly stunted by a poor diet, with the result that they were, on average, bigger, healthier, and more energetic than ordinary people elsewhere.

                            A far longer list of technological breakthroughs made by Europeans during the “Dark Ages” could be assembled, and I have done so elsewhere.61 Here it seems adequate and more appropriate to conclude the matter by a close comparison of military technology.


                            • #15
                              Military Might
                              Consider that in 732, supposedly during the depths of the “Dark Ages,” Charles Martel’s heavy cavalry possessed high-backed saddles equipped with stirrups that allowed them to put the full weight of a charging horse and heavily armored rider behind a long lance without the rider’s being thrown off by the impact. In contrast, the opposing Muslim cavalry rode bareback or on thin pads, and lacked stirrups, thereby being limited to swinging swords and axes, just as had all previous cavalries including those of the Romans and Persians.62 Muslim cavalry could avoid and flee the thundering charges by Western knights, but they could not stand up to them.

                              In addition, just as the Muslims lacked the big horses needed to pull plows and heavily loaded wagons, they lacked the big chargers needed by well-armored knights—a problem that also first became apparent at the Battle of Tours/Poitiers and never was overcome. In the era of the Crusades, the European knights rode horses weighing about twelve to thirteen hundred pounds, while the Muslim cavalry was mounted on horses weighing about seven to eight hundred pounds.63 This gave the crusaders a considerable advantage when it came to man-to-man fighting, for the man on the larger, taller horse was striking down at his opponent, and his horse could push the other horse around. It also was important because the average crusader cavalryman weighed far more than did his Muslim counterpart. For one thing, he was a larger man. But the major weight factor was the difference in armor.

                              Unlike modern times, in those days there was no “standard equipment” issued to the troops. Although some of the nobility provided some arms and armor for their troops, this was not typical: most combatants supplied their own equipment. Consequently, comparisons of the equipment of Christian and Muslim armies are far less exact than, for example, comparisons between the equipment of American and Japanese soldiers in World War II. That said, crusaders wore considerably more and better armor than did their Muslim opponents. However, do not suppose that the Europeans were decked out in the complete, jointed suits of plate armor that stand around in museums. These suits came later, and only some knights of the heavy cavalry ever wore them, as they were dangerously impractical. Knights in plate-armor suits had to be lifted onto their saddles by booms; if they fell off they could not rise to their feet to fight on. Rather than armor suits, even the heavy crusader cavalry wore chain-mail coats sufficiently thick to turn aside all but the most powerful sword and axe strokes, and helmets that covered their head, neck, and sometimes part of their face. So did the infantry, who made up by far the greater proportion of any medieval Western army.

                              Chain mail was constructed of tiny iron rings, each threaded with four others, and it was fashioned into a long “shirt split at the groin, with flaps hanging down from the thighs to about the knees. These could be tied around the leg like a cowboy’s chaps, or, more commonly, left to hang as a kind of split skirt.”64 Some crusaders also wore leggings made of chain mail, some of which also covered the foot.

                              Chain-mail armor was well known in the East but not widely employed. Metal scales attached to cloth or leather jackets were used instead—a variety of armor regarded as “outmoded in the West.”65 Having lighter and less armor contributed to the greater mobility of Muslim fighters, but it also made them far more vulnerable when forced to fight head-on. The chain-mail armor worn by the Franks was remarkably stout. For example, Muslim arrows could only partly penetrate it, “often without wounding the body. The image of the porcupine was sometimes used to describe the appearance of men…who had been under Turkish attack.”66 In his memoir of the First Crusade, Ralph of Caen summed it up correctly, noting that the Saracens “trusted in their numbers, we in our armour.”67

                              But no armor, not even a plate-armor suit, was very effective against the invention that made the crusaders so lethal in battle—the crossbow. Although it was widely used by the crusaders, remarkably little has been written about the crossbow because it was thought to be quite shameful, even sinful, to use it. In 1139 the Second Lateran Council prohibited its use (except against infidels) “under penalty of anathema, as a weapon hateful to God and to Christians,” and this ban was subsequently confirmed by Pope Innocent III.68 However, European armies ignored the Church and made widespread use of the crossbow until it was made obsolete by firearms. Thus, for example, the Knights Templar garrison at the castle of Saphet in northern Galilee in about 1260 consisted of fifty knights and three hundred crossbowmen.69

                              The “moral” objections to the crossbow had to do with social class, as this revolutionary weapon allowed untrained peasants to be lethal enemies of the trained soldiery. It took many years of training to become a knight, and the same was true for archers. Indeed, it took years for archers to build the arm strength needed to draw a longbow, let alone to perfect their accuracy. But just about anyone could become proficient with a crossbow in less than a week. Worse yet, even a beginner could be considerably more accurate than a highly skilled longbow archer at ranges up to sixty-five to seventy yards.70 This was because the crossbow was aimed like a rifle and fired by pulling a trigger that released the string and propelled a bolt (heavy arrow) that went in a straight line to wherever the weapon was pointed. Although longbows could be fired more rapidly and farther (by using a very high trajectory), they could not match the accuracy of the crossbow. The projectiles fired by crossbows were called bolts because they were much shorter and heavier than the arrows fired by regular bows. While this reduced the range of crossbows, it greatly increased their impact at shorter ranges. The fact that so little training was required meant that huge numbers of crossbowmen could be assembled quickly; the Genoese several times fielded as many as twenty thousand for a single battle.71

                              Against the crusader crossbows, the Muslims employed a short, composite bow of far less range and striking power than the crossbow. Muslim arrows were effective against lightly armored opponents such as other Muslims, but unless fired point-blank, they needed to hit a crusader in an unarmored spot. In contrast, a bolt from a crossbow, fired at a range of 150 yards or less, achieved remarkable penetration even of armor plate. As the Byzantine princess Anna Comnena (c. 1083–1153) reported in The Alexiad, her superb account of her father’s reign, the crossbow fires with “tremendous violence and force, so that the missiles wherever they strike do not rebound; in fact they transfix a shield, cut through heavy iron breastplate and resume their flight on the far side.”72

                              In the crusader armies, such as the one organized by Richard Lionheart, crossbows were served by three-man teams: one carried and braced up a huge shield, which they crouched behind in battle as protection from enemy arrows and missiles; one reloaded crossbows and passed them to the archer, who did the shooting. These teams could regularly fire eight times a minute, about the same as the rate of fire achieved by a single long bowman, but with far greater effect.73

                              Crossbow teams backing up well-armored, reliable infantry formations made a lethal combination: the enemy suffered severe losses inflicted by the crossbows while advancing for an attack and then had to confront intact infantry lines.74 This was especially a problem for Muslim armies, since they had the additional disadvantage of being primarily a light cavalry force, ill suited to attack determined infantry unless they very greatly outnumbered them. The severe beatings administered in the eighth century by the Franks, even without crossbows, might have prompted Muslim leaders to reconsider the composition of their forces. But in such affairs tradition is very difficult to overcome; the Arabs had always been light cavalry, and they had achieved a brilliant series of early conquests with their traditional methods. Any tendency for the Muslims to rethink their overwhelming dependence on cavalry, perhaps in response to having been driven from Europe, was thwarted in the eleventh century when the Seljuk Turks, newly converted to Islam, overran the Arab Middle East. The Turks were mounted nomads who held infantry in contempt. Hence, the Muslim reliance on light cavalry remained a serious tactical and technological deficit that played a major role during the Crusades. Again and again in the Holy Land, despite having overwhelming numerical superiority, Muslim cavalry failed against Christian infantry. Even Christian knights often dismounted to fight as infantry, and their formations always included large numbers of crossbow teams.75

                              Crossbows not only were lethal on the battlefield, but were very effective at picking defenders off the walls of fortresses and at repelling attacks against a fortress. They also played a very important role in naval warfare.

                              The most significant fact to consider when attempting to compare Christian and Muslim fleets is that the ships of the latter were copies of those of the former and were built and crewed by Christian renegades and mercenaries. From this it follows that the crews of Muslim ships were not imbued with the same level of commitment as were the Christian fleets. Thus, after Saladin had rebuilt a Muslim fleet in the 1180s, it was completely destroyed in 1187 while anchored off Tyre to prevent the city, which was under siege by Saladin’s forces, from being resupplied from the sea. Surprised by a crusader fleet, according to an Egyptian account, Saladin’s crews abandoned their ships without a fight.76

                              In addition, having been built by Christians and copied from Christian boats, the Muslim fleets were always somewhat out-of-date. Therefore, in addition to superior seamanship and commitment, the Christian fleets enjoyed a “lead both in size and in the technological capabilities of their ships.”77 One of these advantages was to pack the “castles” of each galley with crossbowmen, which permitted Christian fleets to inflict considerable casualties on an opposing galley from a distance—just as the English fleet later used its canons against the Spanish Armada and refused to close for hand-to-hand fighting. In addition, Christians developed very heavy crossbows mounted on the decks of their galleys and used them to launch large projectiles—sometimes canisters of Greek fire—against their opponents. Another technological advantage involved special galleys that made it possible for Christian fleets to transport a company of knights together with their big war horses and land them on a hostile beach, mounted and ready to fight.78

                              Even if we grant the claims that educated Arabs possessed superior knowledge of classical authors and produced some outstanding mathematicians and astronomers, the fact remains that they lagged far behind in terms of such vital technology as saddles, stirrups, horseshoes, wagons and carts, draft horses and harnesses, effective plows, crossbows, Greek fire, shipwrights, sailors, productive agriculture, effective armor, and well-trained infantry. Little wonder that crusaders could march more than twenty-five hundred miles, defeat an enemy that vastly outnumbered them, and continue to do so as long as Europe was prepared to support them.