Thunder out of Arabia

The Battle of Manzikert was fought between the Byzantine Empire and the Seljuq Turks on August 26, 1071 near Manzikert (modern Malazgirt in Muş Province, Turkey). The decisive defeat of the Byzantine army and the capture of the Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes played an important role in undermining Byzantine authority in Anatolia and Armenia, and allowed for the gradual Turkification of Anatolia.

Alexius I Comnenus in Eastern Greece Then he was surrounded by nine Normans who stuck him with spears. But his heavy cataphract armor stopped all six spears and his horse bolted and he managed to escape.

In Mecca, eight hundred miles south of Jerusalem, in a landscape as bleak and parched as the Judaean wilderness, there existed another empty tomb. This was the kaaba, or “cube,” where according to Islamic tradition Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, Abraham’s Egyptian concubine, were buried. Originally built by Abraham, it was later used as a temple for the worship of Hubal, the red-faced god of power, and al-Uzza, the goddess of the morning star, together with three hundred other gods and goddesses who formed the pantheon of the Arabs before Muhammad destroyed them. Then the kaaba was dedicated to Allah, the One God, lord of all universes. There was nothing in it except silver lamps, brooms for sweeping the floor, and the three teakwood columns that supported the roof. Fragments of a black meteorite were inserted in the southeastern wall, and these are kissed by the faithful who walk, and run, around the kaaba in obedience to Muhammad’s command.

The kaaba is a statement of religious belief—four-square, sharp-edged, emblematic of the power believed to reside in the Arab people. Those qualities were already present in these people before the coming of Muhammad. It was their sharpness of intellect and solidness of purpose that were to make them a world power, and Muhammad was therefore justified in retaining that strange unornamented box, which had once housed so many gods, as the symbol of his own powerful faith in Allah, the One God.

The faith of Muhammad was unlike any other that existed at that time. It was compounded out of visions and dreams, the apocrypha learned along the camel routes from Mecca to Damascus, stray bits of learning and tradition, and a vast understanding of the human need for peace and salvation. The Koran, meaning “the Recitations,” reads strangely to Western ears. It is a work of fierce intensity and trembling urgency. God speaks, and what he has to say is recorded in tones of absolute authority by a mind singularly equipped to reflect the utmost subtleties of the Arabic language. The message Muhammad delivers is that God is all-powerful, his hand is everywhere, and there is no escape from him. Just as he is everywhere, so is his mercy. Into this mercy fall all men’s accidents and purposes. It is not that God is benevolent–the idea of a benevolent and helping God is foreign to Muhammad’s vision–but his mercy is inevitable, uncompromising, absolute. In this assurance Muhammad’s followers find their peace.

Muhammad ibn-Abdullah, of the tribe of Quraysh, was born in Mecca about the year A.D. 570. His father died before he was born and his mother, Amina, died when he was a child. As a youth he traveled with the caravans that traded between Mecca and Syria, and he was twenty-five when he married Khadija, a rich widow fifteen years his senior. He was about forty when he first saw visions and heard the voice of the Angel. Out of these visions and voices came the revelations he attributed directly to God.

According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad commanded that the human figure must never be depicted, so he himself is very rarely depicted in Islamic art. On the rare occasions when he is seen, he wears a veil over his face. But his friends remembered him and described him. They spoke of a thickset man with burly shoulders, a rosy skin “like a woman’s,” a thick, black, curling beard. Most of all they remembered his eyes, which were very large, dark, and melting. The clue to his personality lies perhaps in his rosy skin, for he was no sun-bitten Bedouin of the desert, but a townsman with a townsman’s peculiar sensibilities and perplexities.

In a cave on Mount Hira, not far from Mecca, he would spend time meditating. There he became aware one day of the presence of the Angel standing “two bow shots away,” watching him. “O Muhammad, you are God’s messenger and I am Gabriel,” the voice thundered. From the Angel he learned that man was created from a clot of blood and lay under the protection of Allah, the Only God, the All-Merciful, whose mysteries would be revealed to him. Thereafter, day after day, in waking visions, Muhammad was visited by the Angel who expounded mysteries testifying to God’s mercy and absolute power in verses that crackle and roar like a brushfire.

Half-learned in the religions of his time, impatient with all of them, Muhammad struck out into unexplored territories with a new style, a new rhythm, speaking urgently in a voice of great power:

That which striketh!

What is that which striketh?

Ah, who will convey to thee what the Striking is?

The day mankind shall become like scattered moths,

And the mountains like tufts of carded wool.

Then those whose scales weigh heavy shall enter Paradise,

And those whose scales are light shall enter the Abyss.

And who shall convey to thee what the Abyss is?

A raging fire!

(Sura ci)

Like Jesus, Muhammad was haunted by the Last Day. The end seemed very near, but instead of simply submitting to the dissolution of the universe, there must be in this waiting time a change of heart, a total submission to God. Muhammad felt that the laws of submission must be discovered, and that men should find the way in which to hold themselves in the light of the coming flames. In these visions, dictated over a long period, Muhammad presented a cosmology of breathtaking simplicity, rounded, complete, and eminently satisfying to the Arab mind.

His torrent of visionary poetry convinced Muhammad’s friends that he was indeed a prophet and a messenger of God. Soon he acquired followers and an army. Medina fell, and then Mecca, but these were only the beginnings. The furious pent-up poetry, so memorable and so naked, had the effect of inspiring the Arabs to challenge all their neighbors on behalf of the messenger of God. The Jews must be converted; so must the Christians; all the world must acknowledge the truth of the Koran. Muhammad also proved to be a gifted military commander. His successors were even more gifted. They came like thunder out of Arabia. Within a generation after Muhammad’s death in A.D. 632, long-established empires fell like ninepins, and half the known world, from Spain to Persia, fell to the armies he had set in motion.

Out of the blaze of Muhammad’s visionary eyes there came a force that shook the world to its foundations.

In July A.D. 640, eight years after Muhammad’s death, an Arab army under Amr ibn-al-As stood outside the walls of the great university city of On, the modern Heliopolis, where the Phoenix was born and where Plato had once studied. On was the most sacred of Egyptian cities, and one of the oldest. Egypt was then a province of the Byzantine empire, and the viceroy was Cyrus, Patriarch of Alexandria. The Arabs attacked, Cyrus fled to the north, and soon the Arabs pursued him to Alexandria, where there were huge battlements and siege works and a harbor that included within its ample seawalls the largest naval base in the world. For a thousand years the Greeks and the Romans had been quietly building a city so powerful and so sumptuous that no other city could rival it. Gleaming between the sea and a lake, illuminated by the great lighthouse called the Pharos in the harbor, with powerful ships riding at anchor, and guarded by an army believed to be the best in the world. Alexandria was a bastion of Byzantine power in Africa. The scholarly and ambitious Cyrus looked upon the guerrilla army lodged outside the walls of Alexandria with cunning and distaste. He thought he could bargain with Amr ibn-al-As, while the citizens continued to receive supplies by sea, to attend the racetrack and to worship in the great cathedral of St. Mark overlooking the two harbors. Cyrus was overconfident.

In time, Alexandria fell and the Arabs rode in triumph through the Gate of the Sun and along the Canopic Way, past Alexander the Great’s crystal tomb. What they did to Alexandria is described very aptly by E. M. Forster: “Though they had no intention of destroying her, they destroyed her, as a child might a watch.”

The Arab army also raged through Palestine and Syria, swung eastward toward Persia, and defeated the army of the Sassanian emperor in the same year that Cyrus surrendered Alexandria. Two years later the Arabs were in command of all of Persia. The Umayyad dynasty, ruling from Damascus, derived from the Persians the habits of splendor. Luxury and corruption set in: the grandsons of the followers of Muhammad preferred to be city dwellers. The same corruption soon became evident in North Africa and Spain, which the Arabs conquered with incredible speed. In A.D. 732, a hundred years after the death of Muhammad, the Arabs poured into France, where they were defeated by the ragged army of Charles of Heristal and the bitterly cold weather.

The Arab tide was turned back, but the Arab empire now extended halfway across the known world from the Pyrenees to Persia. It had made inroads into India, and Arab armies were breaking through the Asiatic outposts of the Byzantine empire, which would endure for another seven hundred years. The Muslims regarded Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine empire, as the eastern gateway to Europe: it must be captured and all Europe must fall under their sway.

The Christians saw in the religion of Muhammad a mortal enemy to be opposed at all costs. The name of the religion was Islam, which means “submission,” “submission to God’s purposes.” The Christians were not prepared to submit. They regarded Islam as a heresy, a diabolic and dangerous perversion of the truths handed down by Moses, the prophets, Jesus and St. Paul. Islam was monotheism stripped bare, unclouded by ambiguities, without mysteries, without vestments, without panoply, without hierarchies of priests, democratic in its organization, abrupt and simple in its protestations of faith. There are no complex ceremonies in Islam, no Nicene Creed, no Mass, no tinkling of bells. A mosque is usually a walled space open to the sky with a pulpit, a prayer niche, and a tower from which the faithful are called to prayer; the religion, too, is open, spacious, clear-cut, without shadows. God is conceived as an abstraction of infinite power and infinite glory, the source and end of all things. That God should in some mysterious way be divided into the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost was incomprehensible to the Muslims, who conceived of him as one and indivisible.

Although Islam reserved a special place for Jesus, the Islamic Jesus is almost unrecognizable to Christians. Muhammad tells the story of the Virgin Birth three times and is deeply moved by it, and he is aware of something supernatural in Jesus, but he has no patience with those who proclaim his divinity. Jesus is a sign, a word, a spirit, an angel; he is also a messenger and a prophet. He could raise the dead, heal the sick, and breathe life into clay birds. He was not crucified in the flesh, for someone else was crucified in his stead. He ascended to heaven when God summoned him, and he will return in the Last Day.

No one knows where Muhammad learned about Jesus. Most likely it was from some lost Gnostic scriptures, or he may have listened to a Christian preacher during his travels. Mary and Jesus “abide in a high place full of quiet and watered with springs”; and there, very largely, they remain. They are peripheral to his main argument, which is concerned with the nature of man, the clot of blood, confronted with the stupendous presence of God, who is both far away and as close to man as his neck artery. Man is naked and defenseless; he has nothing to give God except his utter and total devotion. God, to the Muslims, has no history, while to the Christians the history of God is bound up with the history of Christ.

The two religions had no common ground, or so little that it could scarcely be perceived. It was as though Christianity and Islam were meant to engage in a death struggle, which would end only when one submitted to the other. Yet there were long periods when there was a kind of peace between them. Jerusalem, captured very early by the Arabs, was permitted to retain a Christian community, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre remained untouched. Charlemagne conducted a long correspondence with Harun al-Rashid, Caliph of Baghdad, who acknowledged the right of the Christians to maintain their church. Harun gave the church over to Charlemagne, who was addressed as “Protector of Jerusalem.” Although Charlemagne never visited Jerusalem, he sent a stream of envoys, founded a hospital and library in the Holy City, and paid for their upkeep. Throughout the ninth century, relations between Christians and Muslims were fairly amicable. The Christians demanded only that Jerusalem should be accessible to them, and that pilgrims to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre should be treated reasonably. And so it continued for another century. Even after the destruction of the church by the mad Caliph Hakim, there was peace, for the church was quickly restored. The pilgrims continued to come to Jerusalem, worshipping at the altars in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, passing freely in and out of the city. It was as though the two religions had reached an accommodation, as though nothing would interrupt the continual flow of pilgrims.

In the middle years of the eleventh century there occurred an event that would cause a drastic change in the military posture of the Muslims in the Near East. The Seljuk Turks, advancing from Central Asia, conquered Persia. Converted to Islam, they moved with the zeal of converts, prosetyliz-ingall the tribes they came upon in their lust for conquest. They had been herdsmen; they became raiders, cavalrymen, living off the earth, setting up their tents wherever they pleased, taking pleasure in sacking cities and leaving only ashes. The once all-powerful Caliph of Baghdad became the servant of the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan. In August 1071, the Seljuk army under Alp Arslan confronted the much larger army of the Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes near Manzikert north of Lake Van in Armenia. Romanus was an emperor with vast military experience, brave to excess, commanding a hundred thousand well-trained troops, including many Frankish and German mercenaries. There was, however, treachery among his officers; orders were not obeyed. The lightly armed Seljuk cavalry poured thousands of arrows into the tight formations of the Byzantine army, and when the emperor ordered a retreat at the end of the day, his flanks were exposed, his army began to disintegrate, and the Turks rushed in to fill the vacuum created by his retreating troops. Romanus fought bravely; he was seriously wounded in the arm and his horse was killed under him. Captured, he was led to the tent of Alp Arslan in chains. There he was thrown to the ground, and Alp Arslan placed his foot ceremonially on the emperor’s neck. The Seljuk sultan half-admired the broad-shouldered Byzantine emperor, and two weeks later the emperor was allowed to go free. Still the defeat was so decisive, so shattering, that the emperor fell from grace in the eyes of the Byzantines, who had no difficulty deposing him. When he returned to Constantinople, he was blinded, and in the following year he died either from the injuries caused by the blinding or of a broken heart.

Although Alp Arslan himself, and his son Malek Shah, had no thought of conquering the Byzantine empire, the chieftains who served under them had different ideas. They poured into the undefended provinces of Anatolia. While the Christians remained in the towns, the invading Turks ravaged the countryside. Gone were the days when the Byzantine empire stretched from Egypt to the Danube and from the borders of Persia to southern Italy. The Turks advanced to Nicaea, less than a hundred miles from Constantinople, and occupied the city, making it the capital of the sultanate that ruled over Asia Minor. The Turks were spreading out in all directions. In the same year that saw the Byzantine defeat at Manzikert, they captured Jerusalem from the Arabs of Egypt on behalf of the Caliph of Baghdad. In 1085 Malek Shah captured Antioch from the Byzantines. Malek Shah himself came to the Palestinian shore and dipped his sword in the waters of the Mediterranean, a ceremony by which he asserted that the Mediterranean itself belonged to him.

The grandson of nomads from Central Asia, Malek Shah had the temperament of an emperor. He was more relentless, more determined, than his more famous father. He ruled in great state and saw himself as the sovereign of all the Near East. His Turks were rougher than the Egyptians; they had come like thunder from the regions north of the Caspian and they possessed to the highest degree what the historian Ibn Khaldun called assabiya, the determination based on a communion of interests that characterized the early Arab conquerors. The Arabs had made accommodations with the Christians; the Turks were more sure of themselves.

Christendom was reeling from the Turkish invasions. In a single generation Asia Minor had fallen into their hands. The Byzantine empire had lost the sources of its greatest wealth. Christians could no longer be assured that they could journey to Jerusalem without being arrested or sold into slavery or ill-treated in other ways. The Turks were fanatical Muslims, determined to exact the last ounce of power from their victories. But their survival as a united people depended on their leader, and when Malek Shah died in 1091, the empire was divided up among his sons and nephews, whose hatred for one another contributed to the early success of the Crusaders when at last they made their way across Asia Minor in order to recover Jerusalem.

In 1081, Alexius Comnenus, who had served in the army of Romanus IV Diogenes as a general fighting against the inroads of the Turks, came to the throne at the age of thirty-three. He was an able commander in the field and uncompromising in his determination to regain the lost provinces of his empire. His daughter, Anna Comnena, wrote a history of his reign that is among the acknowledged masterpieces of Byzantine literature. Through her eyes he appears as a superb diplomat, a man who moved surefootedly amid treacheries, who knew his own value and was both forceful and humble in dealing with his friends and enemies. He reigned for thirty-seven years, recaptured some of the lost provinces, and there were few Byzantine emperors who reigned so long or fought so well.

When Alexius Comnenus came to the throne, the empire was in disarray. Although the Balkan provinces had been recaptured from Robert Guiscard, the Norman-Sicilian adventurer who founded his own kingdom in southern Italy and Sicily, he was confronted with dangers along the long Danube border from the Oghuz, Kuman, and Pecheneg Turks, half-brothers to the Turks in Asia Minor, and from Slavs and Bulgars. Only a few coastal cities in Asia Minor remained in his hands. It was necessary at all costs to push back the frontiers of the sultanate of Roum. He appealed for military assistance to the pope and to the Western princes who might be sympathetic to his cause. They were asked to raise armies, to march to Constantinople and to join forces under the banner of Christendom against the infidels. He recounted the atrocities committed by the enemy and pointed to the peculiar sanctity of Constantinople as the guardian of so many relics of Christ. Constantinople and the Byzantine empire must be saved, Jerusalem must be reconquered, and the pax Christiana must be established in the Near East. A copy of his letter to Robert, Count of Flanders, a cousin of William the Conqueror, has been preserved. The emperor speaks with mingled anguish and pride, despair and humility, and from time to time there appears a faint note of humor.


TO THE LORD AND GLORIOUS COUNT, Robert of Flanders, and to the generality of princes of the kingdom, whether lay or ecclesiastical, from Alexius Comnenus, Emperor of Byzantium.

O illustrious count and great consoler of the faith, I am writing in order to inform Your Prudence that the very saintly empire of Greek Christians is daily being persecuted by the Pechenegs and the Turks. . . . The blood of Christians flows in unheard-of scenes of carnage, amidst the most shameful insults. . . . I shall merely describe a very few of them. . . .

The enemy has the habit of circumcising young Christians and Christian babies above the baptismal font. In derision of Christ they let the blood flow into the font. Then they are forced to urinate in the font. . . . Those who refuse to do so are tortured and put to death. They carry off noble matrons and their daughters and abuse them like animals. . . .

Then, too, the Turks shamelessly commit the sin of sodomy on our men of all ages and all ranks . . . and, O misery, something that has never been seen or heard before, on bishops. . . .

Furthermore they have destroyed or fouled the holy places in all manner of ways, and they threaten to do worse. Who does not groan? Who is not filled with compassion? Who does not reel back with horror? Who does not offer his prayers to heaven? For almost the entire land has been invaded by the enemy from Jerusalem to Greece . . . right up to Thrace. Already there is almost nothing left for them to conquer except Constantinople, which they threaten to conquer any day now, unless God and the Christians of the Latin rite come quickly to our aid. They have also invaded the Propontis . . . passing below the walls of Constantinople with a fleet of two hundred ships . . . stolen from us. They forced the rowers against their will to follow the sea-roads chosen by them, and with threats and menaces, as we have said, they hoped to take possession of Constantinople either by land or by sea.

Therefore in the name of God and because of the true piety of the generality of Greek Christians, we implore you to bring to this city all the faithful soldiers of Christ . . . to bring me aid and to bring aid to the Greek Christians. . . . Before Constantinople falls into their power, you should do everything you can to be worthy of receiving heaven’s benediction, an ineffable and glorious reward for your aid. It would be better that Constantinople falls into your hands than into the hands of the pagans. This city possesses the most holy relics of the Saviour [including] . . . part of the True Cross on which he was crucified. . . .

And if it should happen that these holy relics should offer no temptation to the pagans, and if they wanted only gold, then they would find in this city more gold than exists in all the rest of the world. The churches of Constantinople are loaded with a vast treasure of gold and silver, gems and precious stones, mantles and cloths of silk, sufficient to decorate all the churches of the world. . . . And then, too, there are the treasuries in the possession of our noblemen, not to speak of the treasure belonging to the merchants who are not noblemen. And what of the treasure belonging to the emperors, our predecessors? No words can describe this wealth of treasure, for it includes not only the treasuries of the emperors but also those of the ancient Roman emperors brought here and concealed in the palace. What more can I say? What can be seen by human eyes is nothing in comparison with the treasure that remains concealed.

Come, then, with all your people and give battle with all your strength, so that all this treasure shall not fall into the hands of the Turks and Pechenegs. . . . Therefore act while there is still time lest the kingdom of the Christians shall vanish from your sight and, what is more important, the Holy Sepulchre shall vanish. And in your coming you will find your reward in heaven, and if you do not come, God will condemn you.

If all this glory is not sufficient for you, remember that you will find all those treasures and also the most beautiful women of the Orient. The incomparable beauty of Greek women would seem to be a sufficient reason to attract the armies of the Franks to the plains of Thrace.

In this way, mingling allurements and enticements with intimations of the final disaster that would overwhelm the community of Christians if the Turks and Pechenegs succeeded in conquering what was left of the Byzantine empire, Alexius Comnenus appealed to Robert of Flanders to come to his aid. The letter contained admissions of terrible defeats and was sustained by a vast pride, but it also provided a picture of the world as he saw it, with its pressing dangers and wildest hopes. Two images prevailed: the atrocities committed by the enemy, and the spiritual and material wealth of Constantinople, last bastion against the Turks.

The letter was addressed not only to Robert of Flanders but to Western Christendom. Pope Urban II read it and was deeply moved. Robert of Flanders would eventually take part in the Crusade. And now very slowly and with immense difficulty there came into existence the machinery that would bring the armies of the West to Constantinople and later to Jerusalem.

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