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Holy War: How Vasco da Gama's Epic Voyages Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations

Holy War: How Vasco da Gama's Epic Voyages Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations

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by Nigel Cliff

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HistorianNigel Cliff delivers a sweeping, radical reinterpretation of Vasco da Gama’spioneering voyages, revealing their significance as a decisive turning point inthe struggle between Christianity and Islam—a series of events which foreveraltered the relationship between East and West. Perfect for readers of


HistorianNigel Cliff delivers a sweeping, radical reinterpretation of Vasco da Gama’spioneering voyages, revealing their significance as a decisive turning point inthe struggle between Christianity and Islam—a series of events which foreveraltered the relationship between East and West. Perfect for readers of Endurance:Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, Galileo’sDaughter, and Atlantic, this first-ever completeaccount of da Gama’s voyages includes new information from the recentlydiscovered diaries of his sailors and an extraordinary series of lettersbetween da Gama and the Zamorin, a king of modern-dayKerala, India. Cliff, the author of The Shakespeare Riots, draws uponhis own travels in da Gama’s footsteps to add detail, authenticity, and acontemporary perspective to this riveting, one-of-a-kind historical epic.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this fresh take on the history of the age of discovery, British historian Cliff (The Shakespeare Riots) not only recovers the story of Vasco da Gama's voyages (long overshadowed by Columbus's) for our times. He also uncovers da Gama's complex motives. In 1498, his fleet he set sail ; from Lisbon to open a sea route from Europe to Asia and "unlock the age-old secrets of the spice trade," but also to reconquer Jerusalem from the Muslims and bring the Second Coming. After almost a year on the seas, tossed about by heavy storms and ravaged by disease and lack of food and water, the fleet found its way to India, which da Gama helped to conquer for Portugal. Yet, as Cliff points out, da Gama's men had arrived in India not just to acquire wealth; they were the new crusaders. They began as soon as they landed to push out the Muslim merchants and establish Christianity as the dominant religion. Da Gama's voyages, says Cliff, were the dividing line between the eras of Muslim ascendancy—the Middle Ages—and of Christian ascendancy—the modern age. Though occasionally digressive, Cliff's historical sketch opens new vistas on much-explored territory. 8 pages of color illus.; printed endpaper map. (Sept.)
Eric Ormsby
“Lively and ambitious . . . Cliff has a novelist’s gift for depicting character . . . he brings 16th century Portugal in all its splendor and squalor pungently to life.”
James Eckardt
“A story told with great flair and serious scholarship.”
“Cliff tells an often thrilling tale of adventure . . . He effectively restores the luster of da Gama’s achievement and provocatively reassesses the goals and significance of his expedition.”
Kansas City Star
“Nigel Cliff’s Holy War is one of the most readable, engaging, and provoking books of the season, hands down . . . Cliff . . . writes with considerable energy, humor and narrative skill.”
Sunday Times (London)
“A stirringly epic book…a thrilling narrative…This is broad-brush history, but it is accurate, and enlivened by splendid spots of color.”
“Epic . . . a compelling adventure tale, told by Cliff with the right mix of sweep and detail.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Readers who enjoy a yeasty narrative by a skilled storyteller will mark this book as one of their favorites of the year.”
Kirkus Reviews

Historian and Economist contributor Cliff (The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama and Death in Nineteenth Century America, 2007) presents Portugal's outreach to India as a deployment by a fundamentalist Christian monarchy against Islam.

The author offers shocking documentation that Vasco da Gama's voyages to India's east coast were not only aimed at the spice trade of the merchants whose annual, monsoon-driven convoys kept the European supplied from Venice. In addition, King Manuel's ambition "required India's rulers to switch their entire trade to the West and oust every last Muslim from their lands," just as his own kingdom and the neighboring Spanish monarchs were then doing to their Moorish and Jewish subjects. Scrupulous attention to coastal navigation was combined with overland exploration by undercover agents to investigate the structure of the trade routes. Both strands succeeded, but not completely—nobody was able to discover the mythical Prester John and his kingdom. For failing in this respect, Pedro Álvares Cabral, who mapped India's east coast and its ports, was disgraced on his return Portugal. Covilha, one of Manuel's spies, was afraid to return and was discovered, many years later, in Ethiopia. Superstition may have provided part of the fuel for the project, but there was nothing fantastical about the gunpowder and shot of Gama's cannons, and the brutality applied to the Zamorin of Calicut and his people on his next return. Throughout the narrative, Cliff examines the roots of many succeeding atrocities and massacres, all levers in the service of opening foreign markets to competition and securing what even then was called "fair trade."

A useful addition to a continuing lively discussion of Christianity and Islam, situated both in respect of religions and culture, as well as empires and trade.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt

Holy War

How Vasco da Gama's Epic Voyages Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations
By Nigel Cliff


Copyright © 2011 Nigel Cliff
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780061735127

Chapter One

When Muhammad ibn Abdallah first heard the word of
God in or around the year 610, he had no intention of
founding a world empire.
He was not even sure he was sane.
"Wrap me up!" the forty-year-old merchant said, shivering
miserably as he crawled up to his wife, who threw a cloak around him
and held him, stroking his hair as he wept. He had been meditating
in his usual cave outside Mecca—a luxury afforded him by marriage
to a rich widow fifteen years his senior—when the angel
Gabriel appeared, threw him into a painful, ecstatic trance, and spoke
to him the words of God. Muhammad was terrified that he was
going mad and contemplated throwing himself off the mountain. But
the voice kept coming back, and three years later Muhammad
began to preach in public. Gradually the message emerged: the faith of
Abraham and Jesus was the true faith, but it had become corrupted.
There was one God, and He demanded Islam—complete surrender.
This was bad news for the rulers of Mecca, who had grown fat
on religious tourism to the city's 360 shrines. Mecca had sprung up
around a palmy oasis in the Hijaz, the baked barrier of mountains
that stretches along the Red Sea coast of the Arabian Peninsula. Its
authority radiated from the Kaaba, the square, squat sanctuary at
its center that housed the Arabs' chief idols. Every year hordes of
pilgrims emerged from the desert, descended on the holy precinct,
and circled the stone cube seven times, straining to kiss each corner
before the press of bodies pushed them back into the whirl. Over
time one tribe, the Quraysh, had orchestrated their guardianship of
the Kaaba into a stranglehold on Mecca's commercial lifeblood, and
at first Muhammad's revelations were aimed squarely at them. The
greedy Quraysh, he accused, had severed the egalitarian threads of
Arab society; they had exploited the weak, enslaved the poor, and
neglected their duty to care for the needy and oppressed. God had
taken note, and they would all go to hell.
What infuriated the Quraysh was not so much Muhammad's
talk of the one merciful God, or even his claim to be God's mouthpiece.
To the north a kingdom of Christian Arabs had existed for
centuries, and in the Kaaba itself the figures of Jesus and Mary stood
proud among the idols. Jewish migrants to Arabia had been
influential for even longer; the Arabs considered themselves the Jews'
fellow descendants of Abraham, through his firstborn son, Ishmael,
and many identified their high god with the god of the Jews. In
Muhammad's time poet-preachers perpetually roamed the deserts,
exhorting their tribesmen to renounce idolatry and return to the
pure monotheism of their forefathers. Nothing could be less
controversial; what was uniquely intolerable was that Muhammad was
an insider. His family clan, the Hashemites, was a minor branch of
the Quraysh. He was a respected businessman and a small but solid
pillar of the community, and he had turned on his own kind.
The Quraysh tried everything from bribes to boycotts to
discredit the troublesome preacher, and finally they turned their hand
to midnight assassination. Just in time Muhammad slipped out of
his house, evaded the blade, and fled to a distant oasis settlement
that would become known as Medina, the City of the Prophet.
There, as his following grew, he implemented the radically new
society he had only dreamed of in Mecca: an ummah, or community
of equals, united not by birth but by allegiance, bound by laws that
gave unprecedented rights to women and redistributed wealth to
the neediest. As the revelations continued, he began to believe that
God had chosen him not just to deliver a warning to his tribe but
to be a Messenger to humanity.
For his message to spread, he first had to reckon with Mecca.
Eight years of ferocious wars with the Quraysh bloodied the
establishment of Islam. At the darkest hour, his face smashed up and
smeared with blood, Muhammad was dragged from the battlefield
by one of his warriors, and only the rumor that he was dead saved
the remnants of his army. The ummah's morale was crushed, and
it was about then that Muhammad made his fighters a promise that
would echo through history. The slain in battle, it was revealed to
him, would be swept up to the highest level of Paradise: "They shall
be lodged in peace together, amid gardens and fountains, arrayed
in rich silks and fine brocade. . . . We shall wed them to dark-eyed
The Muslims—"those who submit"—clung on, and clinging
on against the odds itself seemed a sign of divine favor. The
decisive moment was not a battlefield victory but a spectacular public
relations coup. In the year 628 Muhammad unexpectedly appeared
before Mecca with a thousand unarmed pilgrims and asserted his
lawful right as an Arab to worship at the Kaaba. As he solemnly
performed the rituals, while the Quraysh stood sullenly by, the
rulers of Mecca suddenly looked more foolish than invincible, and
opposition began to crumble. In 630 Muhammad returned with
massed ranks of followers. He once again circled the sanctuary
seven times, intoning "Allahu akbar!"—"God is great!"—then
climbed inside, carried out the idols, and smashed them to pieces
on the ground.
By the time he died, two years later, Muhammad had pulled off
a feat that no other leader in history had even envisaged: he had
founded a flourishing new faith and an expanding new state, the
one inseparable from the other. In little more than a year the armies
of Islam crushed the Arab tribes that held out against the new order,
and for the first time in history the Arabian Peninsula was united
under one ruler and one faith. Driven by religious zeal, a new found
common purpose, and the happy alternatives of vast spoils in life or
eternal bliss in death, God's newly chosen people looked outward.
What they saw were two superpowers that had been doing their
utmost to obliterate each other from the face of the earth.
For more than a millennium, East and West had faced off across
the River Euphrates in Mesopotamia, the fertile land long known
as the cradle of civilization and today home to Iraq. On the eastern
side was the illustrious Persian Empire, the guardian of an ancient,
refined culture and of the world's first revealed religion, the
monotheistic faith of the visionary priest Zarathuster—a faith known
after his Latinized name, Zoroaster, as Zoroastrianism—that told of
creation, resurrection, salvation, apocalypse, heaven and hell, and a
savior born to a young virgin centuries before the birth of Christ.
Led by their great shahanshahs—"kings of kings"—the Persians had
been the inveterate foes of the Greeks until Alexander the Great had
smashed their armies. When Persia's power revived, it had simply
transferred its hostility to the Greeks' successors, the Romans. The
ancient struggle was the formative East-West clash, and in 610, just
as Muhammad was receiving his first revelations, it had finally
exploded into total war.
As waves of barbarians ran riot around western Europe, the
emperor Constantine had built a new Rome on Europe's eastern brink.
Glittering Constantinople looked out across the Bosporus, a strategic
sliver of water that leads from the Black Sea toward the Mediterranean,
at Asia. Ensconced behind the city's impregnable walls,
Constantine's successors watched helplessly as the Persians swept across
their rich eastern provinces and headed toward holy Jerusalem. Long
ago the Romans had razed Jewish Jerusalem to the ground, and a
new Christian city had risen over the sites identified with Jesus's
passion; Constantine, the first Christian emperor, had himself built the
Church of the Holy Sepulcher over the purported places of Jesus's
crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Now, to Christian anguish
bordering on the apocalyptic, the Persians carted away the True Cross on
which Jesus was believed to have died, along with the Holy Sponge
and Lance and the city's patriarch, and left the Holy Sepulcher
smoldering and hollowed out against a blackened sky.
On the brink of oblivion, the Romans struggled back and
emerged triumphant, and Persia imploded into civil war. But the
victors, too, were exhausted. Roman cities had been laid waste and
were overwhelmed by refugees, agriculture had been blighted and
trade had ground to a halt, and everyone was heartily sick of the
crushing taxes that had paid for imperial deliverance. In a time of
churning Christian controversy, most damaging of all was
Constantinople's remorseless drive to enforce its orthodox version of
Christianity across its lands. Having first fed Christians to the lions,
the Romans had turned to persecuting anyone who refused to toe
the official line, and across a large swath of the eastern Mediterranean,
from Armenia in the north to Egypt in the south, Christian
dissidents were far from unhappy at the prospect of a new regime.
With breathtaking bravado, the Arabs attacked both ancient
empires at once.
In 636, eleven centuries of Persian might ended in a bellowing
elephant charge near the future site of Baghdad. "Damn this world,
damn this time, damn this fate," Iran's national epic would rue,
"That uncivilized Arabs have come to make me Muslim." Islam's
path opened north to Armenia, northeast to the Asian steppes
bordering China, southeast to Afghanistan, and onward to India. That
same year, an Arab army crushed a vastly larger Roman force at the
Battle of Yarmuk and annexed Syria, where Saul of Tarsus had been
converted on the road to Damascus and where, in Antioch, he had
founded the first organized Christian church. The next year Jerusalem
was starved into submission and opened its gates to the new set
of conquerors, just eight years after the Romans had triumphantly
restored the True Cross to its rightful place. The faith-torn city was
holy to Islam as well as to Judaism and Christianity, and centuries
of struggles between Romans and Jews over the sacred places gave
way to centuries of clashes between Muslims and Christians.
Four years later, fertile, gilded Egypt, the richest of all Roman
provinces, fell to the Arabs. While Constantinople stood
impotently by, the truculent desert tribesmen it disparagingly labeled
Saracens—"the tent people"—had taken all the lands it had so
recently reconquered, at such great cost. As kingdoms and empires
were humbled and fell, even bishops began to wonder if Muhammad
had been commanded from on high.
From Egypt, the armies of Islam marched west across the
Mediterranean shores of Africa—and there, quite unexpectedly, their
seemingly unstoppable onrush stalled.
The trouble was partly domestic. Muhammad had died without
naming an heir, or even leaving clear instructions about how
a successor should be chosen. Ancient rivalries soon resurfaced,
sharpened by the booty of conquest that snaked in endless caravans
across the deserts and invariably ended up in the pockets of
the Quraysh, the very tribe whose monopolistic greed Muhammad
had so roundly attacked. After some tribal jockeying, the first four
caliphs—"successors" to the Prophet—were selected from among
Muhammad's close companions and family, but even that high
status failed to protect them. An irate Persian soldier thrust a dagger
into the second caliph's belly, gutted him, and knifed him in the
back while he was at prayer. A cabal of Muslim soldiers incensed at
the third caliph's lavish lifestyle and blatant nepotism bludgeoned
him to death, and the ummah erupted into civil war. Ali, the fourth
caliph—the Prophet's cousin, son-in-law, and closest confidant—
was stabbed with a poisoned sword on the steps of a mosque for
being too willing to negotiate with his fellow Muslims. His followers,
who had always maintained that Ali was Muhammad's divinely
anointed successor, eventually came together as the Shiatu Ali—
"the party of Ali"—or Shia for short, and split irrevocably from
the pragmatist majority, who became known, after the term for the
path shown by the Prophet, as Sunnis.
Out of the turmoil the first caliphal dynasty emerged in the
form of the Umayyads, who moved the capital away from the snake
pit of Arabia and ruled for nearly a century from ancient,
cosmopolitan Damascus. Yet opposition continued to plague the young
empire, this time from outside. In North Africa the Arab armies
were bogged down for decades by ragged hordes of blue eyed
Berbers, the ancient indigenous peoples of the region. The Berbers
had rampaged down from their mountain redoubts every time
previous waves of conquerors had paid them a visit, and they were
not inclined to adapt their behavior merely because they professed
themselves converts to the new faith. At the head of the Berber
charge was a fearsome Jewish warrior-queen known to the Arabs
as Kahina, or "the Prophetess," who galloped into battle with her
fiery red curls streaming out behind and drove the invaders far back
east, until she was finally hunted down by a vast Arab army and
died fighting, sword in hand.
As the eighth century dawned the Berbers' revolts petered out,
and many swelled the ranks of their vanquishers. In little more than
the span of a single lifetime, the armies unloosed by Muhammad
had swept an unbroken crescent around the Mediterranean basin all
the way to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.
From there they gazed on Europe.
With staggering speed, the world had turned full circle. A
religion that had erupted in the deserts of the East was about to burst
into a stunned Europe from the west. But for the obstreperous Berbers,
it might well have stormed straight across the continent before
Europe's warring tribes had roused themselves to respond.
In time, it would turn again. When Western Christendom
eventually recovered from the shock, a struggle of faiths would rage
on the mainland of Europe—a struggle that would drive Vasco da
Gama into the heart of the East.
Since the age of legends, two stony peaks had marked the western
end of the known world. The ancients called them the Pillars of
Hercules, and they told how the mighty hero had fashioned them
on his tenth impossible labor. Hercules was sent to the far shores
of Europe to steal the cattle of the three-headed, six-legged
monster Geryon, and to clear his path he smashed a mountain in two.


Excerpted from Holy War by Nigel Cliff Copyright © 2011 by Nigel Cliff. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Eric Ormsby
“Lively and ambitious . . . Cliff has a novelist’s gift for depicting character . . . he brings 16th century Portugal in all its splendor and squalor pungently to life.”
James Eckardt
“A story told with great flair and serious scholarship.”

Meet the Author

Nigel Cliff is a historian, biographer, and translator. His first book, The Shakespeare Riots, was a finalist for the National Award for Arts Writing and was chosen as one of the Washington Post’s best books of the year. His second book, The Last Crusade: The Epic Voyages of Vasco da Gama, was a New York Times Notable Book. His most recent book is a translation and edition of The Travels by Marco Polo. A former film and theater critic for the London Times and contributor to The Economist, he writes for a range of publications, including the New York Times Book Review. A Fellow of Harris Manchester College, Oxford, he lives in London.

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Holy War 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A very in depth analysis of the perpetual Muslem/Christian conflict. Cliff fails to take sides but instead brings to light the tragedy when beliefs conflict. Perhaps the last sentence in the book says it all. It's a long book and keeping track of who does what to who is a little difficult at time but Cliff does manage to transport the reader to the scene a few hundred years ago. This too was missing from my world history books.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Overall, an engaging read. I was disappointed that the death of the little girl (when the father insisted on abortion against the mother's wishes) hasn't received more attention in the mind and heart of the author.