1453 The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West
By ROGER CROWLEY
HYPERION Copyright © 2005 Roger Crowley
All right reserved. ISBN: 1-4013-0191-6
Chapter One The Burning Sea 629-717
O Christ, ruler and master of the world, to You now I dedicate this subject city, and these sceptres and the might of Rome. Inscription on the column of Constantine the Great in Constantinople
Islam's desire for the city is almost as old as Islam itself. The origin of the holy war for Constantinople starts with the Prophet himself in an incident whose literal truth, like so much of the city's history, cannot be verified.
In the year 629, Heraclius, "Autocrat of the Romans" and twenty-eighth emperor of Byzantium, was making a pilgrimage on foot to Jerusalem. It was the crowning moment of his life. He had shattered the Persians in a series of remarkable victories and wrested back Christendom's most sacred relic, the True Cross, which he was triumphantly restoring to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. According to Islamic tradition, when he had reached the city he received a letter. It said simply: "In the name of Allah the most Beneficent, the most Merciful: this letter is from Muhammad, the slave of Allah, and His Apostle, to Heraclius, the ruler of Byzantines. Peace be upon the followers of guidance. I invite you to surrender to Allah. Embrace Islam and Allah will bestow on you a double reward. But if you reject this invitation you will be misguiding your people." Heraclius had no idea who the writer of this letter might have been, but he is reported to have made inquiries and to have treated its contents with some respect. A similar letter sent to the "King of Kings" in Persia was torn up. Muhammad's reply to this news was blunt: "Tell him that my religion and my sovereignty will reach limits which the kingdom of Chosroes never attained." For Chosroes it was too late - he had been slowly shot to death with arrows the year before - but the apocryphal letter foreshadowed an extraordinary blow about to fall on Christian Byzantium and its capital, Constantinople, that would undo all the emperor ever achieved.
In the previous ten years Muhammad had succeeded in unifying the feuding tribes of the Arabian Peninsula around the simple message of Islam. Motivated by the word of God and disciplined by communal prayer, bands of nomadic raiders were transformed into an organized fighting force, whose hunger was now projected outward beyond the desert's rim into a world sharply divided by faith into two distinct zones. On the one side lay the Dar al-Islam, the House of Islam; on the other, the realms still to be converted, the Dar al-Harb, the House of War. By the 630s Muslim armies started to appear on the margins of the Byzantine frontier, where the settled land gave way to desert, like ghosts out of a sandstorm. The Arabs were agile, resourceful, and hardy. They totally surprised the lumbering mercenary armies in Syria. They attacked, then retreated into the desert, lured their opponents out of their strongholds into the barren wilderness, surrounded and massacred them. They traversed the harsh empty quarters, killing their camels as they went and drinking the water from their stomachs - to emerge again unexpectedly behind their enemy. They besieged cities and learned how to take them. Damascus fell, then Jerusalem itself; Egypt surrendered in 641, Armenia in 653; within twenty years the Persian Empire had collapsed and converted to Islam. The velocity of conquest was staggering, the ability to adapt extraordinary. Driven by the word of God and divine conquest, the people of the desert constructed navies "to wage the holy war by sea" in the dockyards of Egypt and Palestine with the help of native Christians and took Cyprus in 648, then defeated a Byzantine fleet at the Battle of the Masts in 655. Finally in 669, within forty years of Muhammad's death, the Caliph Muawiyyah dispatched a huge amphibious force to strike a knockout blow at Constantinople itself. On the following wind of victory, he had every anticipation of success.
To Muawiyyah it was to be the culmination of an ambitious long-term plan, conceived and executed with great care and thoroughness. In 669 Arab armies occupied the Asian shore opposite the city. The following year a fleet of 400 ships sailed through the Dardanelles and secured a base on the peninsula of Cyzicus on the south side of the Sea of Marmara. Supplies were stockpiled, dry dock and maintenance facilities created to support a campaign that would last as long as was necessary. Crossing the straits west of the city, Muslims set foot on the shores of Europe for the first time. Here they seized a harbor from which to conduct the siege and mounted large-scale raids around the hinterland of the city. Within Constantinople itself, the defenders sheltered behind their massive walls, while their fleet, docked in the Golden Horn, prepared to launch counterattacks against the enemy.
For five successive years between 674 and 678 the Arabs conducted the campaign on a steady pattern. Between spring and autumn each year they besieged the walls and mounted naval operations in the straits that involved running battles with the Byzantine fleet. Both sides fought with the same types of oared galleys and largely with the same crews, as the Muslims had access to the seafaring skills of Christians from the conquered Levant. In winter the Arabs regrouped at their base at Cyzicus, repaired their ships, and prepared to tighten the screw the following year. They were in the siege for the long haul, secure in the belief that victory was inevitable.
And then in 678 the Byzantine fleet made a decisive move. They launched an attack on the Muslim fleet, probably in their base at Cyzicus at the end of the campaigning season - the details are either unclear or were deliberately suppressed - spearheaded by a squadron of fast dromons: light, swift-sailing, many-oared galleys. There are no contemporary versions of what happened next, though the details can be deduced from later accounts. As the attack ships closed on their opponents, they unleashed, behind the conventional volley of winged missiles, an extraordinary stream of liquid fire from nozzles mounted high on their prows. Jets of fire burned the surface of the sea between the closing vessels, then caught hold of the enemy ships, falling "like a flash of lightning on the faces in front of it." The explosion of flame was accompanied by a noise like thunder; smoke darkened the sky, and steam and gas suffocated the terrified sailors on the Arab ships. The firestorm seemed to defy the laws of nature: it could be directed sideways or downward in whatever direction the operator wished; where it touched the surface of the sea, the water ignited. It seemed to have adhesive properties too, sticking to the wooden hulls and masts and proving impossible to extinguish, so that the ships and their crews were rapidly engulfed in a propulsive torrent of fire that seemed like the blast of an angry god. This extraordinary inferno "burned the ships of the Arabs and their crews alive." The fleet was destroyed, and the traumatized survivors, "having lost many fighting men and received great injury," lifted the siege and sailed home. A winter storm wrecked most of the surviving ships while the Arab army was ambushed and destroyed on the Asian shore. Discouraged, Muawiyyah accepted a thirty-year truce on unfavorable terms in 679 and died, a broken man, the following year. For the first time the Muslim cause had received a major setback.
The chroniclers presented the episode as clear evidence that "the Roman Empire was guarded by God," but it had, in truth, been saved by a new technology: the development of Greek fire. The story of this extraordinary weapon remains the subject of intense speculation even now - the formula was regarded as a Byzantine state secret. It seems that at about the time of the siege, a Greek fugitive called Kallinikos came to Constantinople from Syria, bringing with him a technique for projecting liquid fire through siphons. If so, it is likely that he built on techniques of incendiary warfare widely known throughout the Middle East. The core ingredient of the mixture was almost certainly crude oil from natural surface wells on the Black Sea, mixed with powdered wood resin that gave it adhesive properties. What was probably perfected in the secret military arsenals of the city over the length of the siege was a technology for projecting this material. The Byzantines, who were heirs to the practical engineering skills of the Roman Empire, seem to have developed a technique for heating the mixture in sealed bronze containers, pressurizing it by means of a hand pump, then emitting it through a nozzle, where the liquid could be ignited by a flame. To handle inflammable material, pressure, and fire on a wooden boat required precision manufacturing techniques and highly skilled men, and it was this that comprised the true secret of Greek fire and destroyed Arab morale in 678.
For forty years the setback at Constantinople rankled with the Umayyad caliphs in Damascus. It remained inconceivable within Islamic theology that the whole of humankind would not, in time, either accept Islam or submit to Muslim rule. In 717 a second and even more determined attempt was made to overcome the obstacle that hindered the spread of the Faith into Europe. The Arab attack came at a time of turmoil within the empire. A new emperor, Leo II, had been crowned on March 25, 717; five months later he found an army of 80,000 men dug in the length of the land walls and a fleet of 1,800 ships controlling the straits. The Arabs had advanced their strategy from the previous siege. It was quickly realized by the Muslim general Maslama that the walls of the city were invulnerable to siege machines; this time there was to be a total blockade. The seriousness of his intentions was underlined by the fact that his army brought wheat seed with them. In the autumn of 717 they plowed the ground and planted a food supply outside the walls for harvesting the following spring. Then they settled down to wait. A foray by the Greek fire ships had some success but failed to break the stranglehold. Everything had been carefully planned to crush the infidels.
What actually ensued for the Arabs was an unimaginable catastrophe that unfolded in inexorable stages. According to their own chroniclers, Leo managed to deceive his enemies by an extraordinary diplomatic double-cross that was impressive even by the standards of the Byzantines. He persuaded Maslama that he could get the city to surrender if the Arabs both destroyed their own food stores and gave the defenders some grain. Once done, Leo sat tight behind the walls and refused to parley. The tricked army was then subjected to a winter of freak severity for which they were ill prepared. Snow lay on the ground for a hundred days; the camels and horses started to perish in the cold. As they died, the increasingly desperate soldiers had no option but to eat them. The Greek chroniclers, not known for their objectivity, hinted at darker horrors. "It is said," wrote Theophanes the Confessor a hundred years later, "that they even cooked in ovens and ate dead men and their dung which they leavened." Famine was followed by disease; thousands died in the cold. The Arabs had no experience of the surprising severity of winters on the Bosphorus: the ground was too hard to bury the dead; hundreds of corpses had to be thrown into the sea.
The following spring a large Arab fleet arrived with food and equipment to relieve the stricken army but failed to reverse the downward spiral of fortune. Warned of the dangers of Greek fire, they hid their ships on the Asian coast after they had unloaded. Unfortunately some of the crews, who were Egyptian Christians, defected to the emperor and revealed the position of the fleet. An imperial force of fire ships fell on the unprepared Arab vessels and destroyed them. A parallel relief army dispatched from Syria was ambushed and cut to pieces by Byzantine infantry. Meanwhile Leo, whose determination and cunning seem to have been indefatigable, had been negotiating with the pagan Bulgars. He persuaded them to attack the infidels outside the walls; 22,000 Arabs were killed in the ensuing battle. On August 15, 718, almost a year to the day from their arrival, the armies of the caliph lifted the siege and straggled home by land and sea. While the retreating soldiers were harassed across the Anatolian plateau, there was one further calamity in store for the Muslim cause. Some ships were destroyed by storms in the Sea of Marmara; the rest were overwhelmed by an underwater volcanic eruption in the Aegean that "brought the sea water to a boil, and as the pitch of their keels dissolved, their ships sank in the deep, crews and all." Of the vast fleet that had set sail, only five ships made it back to Syria "to announce God's mighty deeds." Byzantium had buckled but not collapsed under the onslaught of Islam. Constantinople had survived through a mixture of technological innovation, skillful diplomacy, individual brilliance, massive fortifications - and sheer luck: themes that were to be endlessly repeated in the centuries ahead. Not surprisingly under the circumstances, the Byzantines had their own explanation: "God and the all-holy Virgin, the Mother of God, protect the City and the Christian Empire, and ... those who call upon God in truth are not entirely forsaken, even if we are chastised for a short time on account of our sins."
The failure of Islam to take the city in 717 had far-reaching consequences. The collapse of Constantinople would have opened the way for a Muslim expansion into Europe that might have reshaped the whole future of the West; it remains one of the great "What ifs" of history. It blunted the first powerful onslaught of Islamic jihad that reached its high watermark fifteen years later at the other end of the Mediterranean when a Muslim force was defeated on the banks of the Loire, a mere 150 miles south of Paris.
For Islam itself the significance of resounding defeat at Constantinople was rather more theological than military. In the first century of its existence there had been little reason to doubt final victory for the Faith. The law of jihad dictated inevitable conquest. But under the walls of Constantinople, Islam had been repulsed by the mirror image of its own faith; Christianity was a rival monotheism with a matching sense of mission and desire to win converts. Constantinople had defined the front line in a long-running struggle between two closely related versions of the truth that was to be pursued for hundreds of years. In the interim, Muslim thinkers were forced to recognize a practical change in the relationship between the House of Islam and the House of War; the final conquest of the non-Muslim world would have to be postponed, perhaps until the end of the world. Some jurists conceived of a third state, the House of Truce, to express postponement of final victory. The age of jihad seemed to be over.
Byzantium had proved the most obdurate of enemies, and Constantinople itself remained for Muslims both a scar and a source of deep longing. Many martyrs had perished at its walls, including the Prophet's standard-bearer Ayyub in 669. Their deaths designated the city as a holy place for Islam and imparted a messianic significance to the project of its capture. The sieges left a rich legacy of myth and folklore that was handed down the centuries. It included among the Hadith, the body of sayings attributed to Muhammad, prophecies that foretold a cycle of defeat, death, and final victory for the warriors of the Faith: "In the jihad against Constantinople, one third of Muslims will allow themselves to be defeated, which Allah cannot forgive; one third will be killed in battle, making them wondrous martyrs; and one third will be victorious." It was to be a long-range struggle. So huge was the architecture of the conflict between Islam and Byzantium that no Muslim banners would be unfurled again before the city walls for another 650 years - a span of time greater than that separating us from 1453 - but prophecy decreed that they would return.
Excerpted from 1453 by ROGER CROWLEY Copyright © 2005 by Roger Crowley. Excerpted by permission.
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