Story of the Crusades - E. M. Wilmot-Buxton

The Spread of Islam

Swift and resistless through the land he passed,

Like that bold Greek who did the East subdue,

And made to battles such heroic haste

As if on wings of victory he flew.

DRYDEN: On Cromwell.

Of those sovereigns visited by the envoys of Mohammed and bidden to give their allegiance to the Prophet, was Khosru, King of Persia, who, in utter disdain of such a demand, tore the letter to pieces.

"Beware, O king," said the messenger as he departed," for in the days to come your kingdom shall be treated as you have treated the written words of the Prophet."

The idea of an unknown sect from an Arabian desert attacking the power of the "Great King" seemed preposterous to those who heard, for Persia was then at the height of one of her spasmodic periods of success. Some eighteen years before the envoy of Islam appeared at his court the king had covered his empire with glory by the capture of Jerusalem (611 A.D.), then in the hands of Rome, and inhabited chiefly by Christians. On this occasion the Jews throughout Palestine rose on his behalf with the object of exterminating the Christians, ninety thousand of whom are said to have perished. "Every Christian church was demolished, that of the Holy Sepulchre was the object of furious hatred; the stately building of Helena and Constantine was abandoned to the flames; the devout offerings of three hundred years were rifled in one sacrilegious day." Fortunately for future ages, the great church, built by the pious Helena over the place where the body of Christ had lain, was not entirely destroyed; but—a worse blow still to the Christian inhabitants—the True Cross was taken from its sacred hiding place and carried into Persia.

Egypt had also fallen into the hands of the conquering Khosru, when at length Heraclius, the Emperor of the East, "slumbering on the throne of Constantinople," awoke, drove the Persian from Syria and Egypt, restored the ruined churches of Jerusalem, and brought back in triumph the Cross to the Holy City.

The preceding year had seen the fall of Khosru, and peace concluded between the Empires of Rome and Persia; eight years later Jerusalem was in the hands of the Saracens (637 A.D.).

The years intervening between this event and the death of Mohammed had been utilised by the sons of Islam in making a series of conquests, which seem well-nigh miraculous. We can indeed only account for them by the fact that the contest was between a race of fighters, stirred by their new faith to a perfect frenzy of enthusiasm, and the remnants of Empires far gone in decay.

Yet, even so, there was no light task. Chaldaea and Babylonia, perhaps the most ancient empires in the world, fell before the sword of Islam only after a long and terrible struggle. The bloodshed on both sides was appalling, but the ever-increasing numbers of Moslems were always providing fresh recruits, eager to win victory or Paradise. Even when they were less numerous than their enemies, they more than made up for it by the determination and obstinacy of their attacks.

Emboldened by this success, the Saracens flung themselves upon the Empire of Persia. Three months after the great battle of Cadesia, the "white palace" of Khosru was in their hands, and the remnants of the Persian hosts had fled before them.

The story of Harmozan, the Prince of Susa, Persia's most important city, shows the craft of the native Persian, and the binding nature of the Islamite promise. Brought before Omar the Caliph of Islam, stripped of his gorgeous robes, bullied and insulted, Harmozan complained of intolerable thirst. They brought him a cup of water, which he eyed askance.

"What ails the man?" cried Omar. "I fear, my lord, lest I be killed even as I drink," confessed Harmozan. "Be of good courage," replied the Caliph, "your life is safe till you have drunk the water." Instantly the crafty ruler dashed the cup to the ground, and when Omar would have avenged his deceit, the bystanders promptly reminded him that the word of a Moslem is as sacred as an oath. Harmozan was liberated, and became speedily a convert to a religion which taught so well how to "keep faith."

While these conquests were being made in the East, the forces of Omar had been making equal progress in the West.

Palestine was their destination, and Damascus, that famous city, the centre of immense trade, their first prey.

From thence they advanced upon Jerusalem, taking town after town on the way. A siege of four months convinced the Christian Patriarch that it was hopeless to hold out longer. All he now demanded was that Omar himself should come to take possession, on the ground that it was written in the sacred book of the Jews that the city should one day fall into the hands of a king having but four letters in his name.

In Arabia the word "Omar" fulfilled this condition, and forthwith the Caliph arrived, in the plainest garb, riding upon a camel, and bearing with him his pouch of grain and dates and his skin of water.

To meet him came the chieftains he had sent out two years before, clad in the rich cloths of Damascus.

"Is it thus ye come before me?" cried Omar in disgust, throwing a handful of sand in their faces. Dismayed for a moment, they recollected themselves, and, opening their gorgeous robes, revealed the armour beneath.

"Enough!" cried the Caliph. "Go forward!"

The terms arranged were by no means harsh, though clearly marking the inferior position of the conquered Christians. No crosses were to be shown, nor church bells rung in the street. A Christian must rise and stand in the presence of a Moslem. The latter might practise his religion and use his church undisturbed; but the great mosque of Omar was to rise over the ruined altar of the temple and over the sacred stone upon which the patriarch Jacob had once rested his head.

Strange as it may seem, the two races settled down side by side in peace and friendship. Both acknowledged the holiness of the Israelites of old, whose bones lay buried in the neighbourhood of the Holy City. Within its walls the Mohammedans treated with respect, if not with reverence, the worship of Him whom they regarded as a prophet not far inferior to their own. Thus four centuries rolled quietly away, until the old distinction between conquerors and conquered had almost ceased to exist, and pilgrims from all parts of Christendom were welcomed by Christian and Moslem alike.

Meantime the forces of Islam threatened to overrun the greater part of the known world. The Saracens "rode masters of the sea," throughout the Greek archipelago; their sway was recognised towards the East up to the sources of the Euphrates and Tigris, to the North they had spread over Asia Minor deep to the very walls of Constantinople, the seat of the Eastern Empire.

Egypt was conquered by Amrou, one of the most famous generals of the Caliph Omar. With Egypt fell Alexandria, a city renowned for its learning, and especially for its magnificent library, through the civilised world.

"I have taken," Amrou told the Caliph," the great city of the West. It contains four thousand palaces, four thousand baths, four hundred theatres or places of amusement, twelve thousand shops for the sale of vegetable food, and forty thousand tributary Jews. The town has been subdued by force of arms, without treaty or capitulation, and the Moslems are impatient to seize the fruits of their victory."

Fortunately for the inhabitants, who were the last to be referred to, Omar would not allow slaughter or pillage. But if the tale be true, the fate of the famous library of Alexandria shows very clearly the narrow limits of Saracen culture in those days.

A learned scholar of the city, who had won the liking and respect of Amrou, entreated that the library might be given over to him, as the Moslems would have no use for it. The question was referred to Omar, who replied, "If these writings of the Greeks agree with the Book of God, they are useless, and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are harmful, and should be destroyed." And forthwith the priceless volumes were committed to the flames.

Six years later (647 A.D.) the warrior Othman accomplished the conquest of Northern Africa; and a little more than sixty years later, a small expedition of Saracens crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and set foot in Spain. Their leader, Tarif, gave his name to the place (Tarifa) where he landed, and likewise to the "tariff" or "duty" levied upon the vessels which passed through the straits.

At Xeres they were met by Roderick, the "last of the Goths," who was killed, and whose army was put to flight by the forces of the Saracens, or Moors as they were called after their settlement in Mauretania or Morocco, just across the straits. But the conquest of Spain by the Moors, teeming as it is with romantic interest, is too long to be related here, and we must retrace our steps to the East.

By the end of the first half of the eighth century, and only a little over a hundred years after Mohammed's death, the Saracens had brought their career of conquest almost to an end, and were firmly established as "the most potent and absolute monarchs of the globe." One determined attempt, indeed, was made during the latter half of the century to take Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Empire. A battle was fought beneath the walls of the city, and the Saracens were victorious; but they were prevailed upon to retire on the promise of an immense yearly tribute.

The beginning of the ninth century saw the Eastern and Western worlds ruled respectively by those two famous monarchs of history and romance, Haroun-Al-Raschid and Charlemagne. The first is familiar to most of us through the enchanting pages of the Arabian Nights, but history unfortunately gives us a darker portrait of the renowned Caliph, painting him as a jealous and selfish tyrant. He was, however, a patron of literature and of art, which distinguishes him from his predecessors, who were merely warriors. He could fight, too, on occasion, both with tongue and sword. A new Emperor of Constantinople chose to refuse the tribute promised by the late Empress in these words.

"Nicephorus, King of the Greeks, to Haroun, King of the Arabs.

"The late Queen was too humble; she submitted to pay tribute to you, though she should have exacted twice as much from you. A man speaks to you now; therefore send back the tribute you have received, otherwise the sword shall be umpire between me and thee."

The Caliph replied in unmistakable terms—

"In the name of Allah, most merciful!"

"Haroun-al-Raschid, Commander of the Faithful, to Nicephorus, the Roman dog.

"I have read thy letter, O thou son of an unbelieving mother! Thou shalt not hear, but thou shalt see my reply."

Forthwith a huge force crossed over into the domains of Nicephorus, and only the promise to pay the tribute twice, instead of once a year, induced the Caliph to withdraw his forces.

To us, however, the most interesting incident of his reign is the link that was forged between East and West when the great Haroun courteously received the ambassadors of Charlemagne at his court in Bagdad. He may have been prompted only by a desire to obtain the Great Emperor of the West as his ally against the Emperor of the Eastern Empire, but there seems little doubt that Haroun actually sent to Charlemagne the keys of the Holy Places at Jerusalem, declaring that the city belonged first and foremost to the Champion of Christendom.

Charlemagne did not hesitate to avail himself of this generosity. Fifty years later, a monk of Brittany, named Bernard the Wise, described how he was lodged at the hospital of the most glorious Emperor Charles, wherein are received all pilgrims who speak Latin, and who come for a religious reason. There, too, he discovered the fine library founded by Charlemagne close by, in the Church of the Blessed Virgin. He speaks in high terms of the relations existing between Christians and Moslems, both at Jerusalem and in Egypt.

"The Christians and Pagans," he says,—have there such peace between them that, if I should go a journey, and in this journey my camel or ass which carried my burdens should die, and I should leave everything there without a guard, and go to the next town to get another, on my return I should find all my property untouched."

Thus, in peace and security, the long stream of pilgrims from the West flowed towards the Holy City until the beginning of the eleventh century. Then came, quite suddenly, a terrible interval of persecution. The reigning Caliph, El Hakim, became, as he grew up, a fierce and fanatical madman. Inflamed, it is said, by the report of the Jews, who warned him that unless he put a stop to the crowds of pilgrims he would soon find himself without a kingdom, he instituted a fierce persecution of the Christians, and commanded that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre should be destroyed. Another furious outburst was directed against the Jews themselves, as well as the Christians. Many were killed, and many of their churches laid low.

Just before his end a fit of remorse seized El Hakim, and he commanded that the churches of the Christians should be restored. Before he could again change his mind, he was assassinated by command of his own sister, as being a dangerous madman.

A brief interval of toleration followed, which was but the lull before the storm; for an outbreak of terrible persecution was to come, an outbreak which was the immediate cause of the First Crusade.

[Illustration] from The Story of the Crusades by E. M. Wilmot-Buxton