Ancient to Medieval Christianity: Its Birth, the Rise of Islam, and the Crusades

The Chapel of Saint Ananias, located near Bab Sharqi in the old Christian quarter of Damascus, Syria, is the only surviving Christian house of worship in the city and dates from around the 1st century CE.

By Dr. Mark Damen / 07.25.2015
Professor of Ancient Drama, Ancient History, Latin and Greek Languages
Utah State University

Jesus and History

Hard archaeology is quite marginal to the continuing power of the biblical tradition . . . Archaeology’s most important role in the exploration of the emergence of Christianity is not as a fact-checker but as a context-giver—helping us understand what was happening all over ancient Judea during the lifetimes of Jesus and his followers. (Neil Asher Silberman, Archaeology, 2005)

Christ in Majesty between Alpha and Omega, painting mid-4th century CE on the ceiling of Commodille cemetery, Rome. / Photo by Andre Held, Wikimedia Commons

At the very heart of Christianity lies the life of Jesus Christ, which from nearly every perspective imaginable involves complications of some sort. Believers can choose to focus on Christ’s human suffering or divine transcendence, theologians are left to debate the specific details of his resurrection and, without any contemporary portraits to go by, artists have little or no guidance in depicting him. Most problematical of all, an array of accounts now known as the Gospels ascribed to various disciples connected with him, present different and sometimes incompatible recollections of his teachings. But of all those struggling to situate him in some kind of framework, historians perhaps face the most intimidating challenge of all, trying to figure out what-really-happened in the wake of Jesus’ life.

Indeed, the first century CE presents an excellent example of the difficulties encountered in dealing with the various types of histories. As “remembered history,” for instance, the four canonical gospels are said to be contemporaneous accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry, the recollections of four of his apostles (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). But careful analysis of these texts suggests otherwise, since from a historian’s perspective they seem to be responding to issues and events relating to life in the Holy Lands decades after Jesus’ death. Moreover, given their different and sometimes conflicting accounts of his life, we have no choice but to conclude that some of them must contain some degree of “invented history.” Worse yet, discoveries in the sands of Egypt have “recovered” evidence of diverse approaches to Christianity, especially in the very early stages of its evolution. These so-called Gnostic gospels paint a very different picture of Christ from the one which orthodox Christians in the day envisioned, and following in their wake, most Christians today do also.

With all this, savvy historians tend to steer a wide course around Jesus himself. Particularly given the yawning vacuum of external sources for primordial Christianity, scholars cannot speak—certainly not with any sense of comfort—about the original stimulus producing this religion. That is, no contemporary Jewish or Roman account constitutes primary, external evidence of the actual events of Jesus’ life. The closest we come is a brief mention by the Roman historian Tacitus recounting Nero’s cruelty to a sect called Christianos, in the eyes of most Romans at the time a pathetic mob of doom-speakers. To Tacitus, that is, the emperor’s savage recrimination against this demented, benighted cult was unwarranted and only served to prove that Nero was a savage and deranged bully, not that Tacitus felt anyone should sympathize with Christians. His point seems to be that civilized people should be ashamed to stand by and watch a sadist butcher morons.

Likewise, the Jewish historian and general Josephus also notes the existence of early Christians, but he was active several decades after Jesus’ life and thus cannot serve as an eyewitness to the central events lying at the heart of Christianity. Also, he writes in the aftermath of the Roman holocaust which destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE and inaugurated the infamous diaspora, the Romans’ general eviction of the Jews from the Holy Lands. Like Tacitus, then, Josephus’ primary attention seems to rest not on Christianity itself but the plight and political crises facing his own people in his day.

The language of the New Testament only further complicates the situation, since it’s all but certain that the gospels and epistles and other works which make up its canon of twenty-seven books are, at best, translations of what Jesus actually said. Instead of Greek, the language of the New Testament, Jesus most likely spoke Aramaic, a Semitic tongue used commonly throughout the Holy Lands in his day. And because he was born a Jew and most Jewish boys at the time were trained in Hebrew, he almost certainly could speak that language, too, or at least read it. But Greek? It’s a fair question to ask if Jesus even knew Greek, and yet that is the language in which his words are recorded.

Whether or not he did, one thing is clear, the reason the authors of the Gospels chose to write their accounts of Jesus’ life in Greek. As the international language of science, philosophy and commerce, both intellectual and economic, the Greek tongue would in those days have reached a much wider audience than Aramaic or Hebrew. The result is that the gospels seem unlikely to represent the actual words spoken by Christ—surely, however, they’re close to what he actually said—still, as anyone who communicates in a second language can attest, translations are never exact.

So if the New Testament does not transmit Christ’s words literally—which is not the same thing as saying it’s not the “Word of God”—the situation encompasses a hopeless conundrum for those intent on deciphering what-really-happened-in-the-past. On the other hand, believers and theologians who have freedom to traffic in mysteries or miracles may find easy and ready solutions to this problem—or difficult ones, but solutions all the same—by calling on resources historians do not find on their menu of executable options. So, without external sources to contradict, corroborate or give dimension to the testimony of its authors, the gospels of the New Testament do not admit history as such, which exempts the life of Christ itself from the direct scrutiny of historical investigation. And perhaps, in the end, that’s not a bad thing for historians. It’s always good not to attract the attention of anyone’s Inquisition.

Little makes the desperation of this situation more apparent than the thorny issue of the year in which Jesus was born. The year we call “1 CE (or AD)” is almost certainly not the date of his birth—ironically then, Jesus was most likely born several years “before Christ,” by perhaps as much as a decade—moreover, his birth story as related in the gospels is highly problematical, at least from a historian’s perspective. For one thing, Romans in the day wouldn’t have ordered a census so that they could tax “all the world,” as the Gospel of Luke claims, because with the resources they had at the time it would have been utterly infeasible.

Neither would they have made those they were assessing return to their ancestral cities—that was a Jewish custom, not a Roman one—nor does the historical record support the proposition that, out of fear of Herod’s wrath and subsequent proclamation to kill all male infants in his realm, Jesus’ family fled from Judea to Egypt, a story related in the second chapter of Matthew. To top it all off, Herod died in 4 BCE which means his notorious Slaughter of the Innocents can’t have affected the infant Jesus if he were born in 1 CE. All in all, the life of Jesus, especially his early days, is a narrative so fraught with bias and so frail in corroborating data that it’s best left for specialists in religion to explore.

Early Christianity and History

“If you have all this evidence and proof positive that God exists, you don’t need faith. I think he kind of designed it so that we’d never be able to prove his existence. And I think that’s really cool.” (Mary Schweitzer, paleontologist and self-described “complete and total Christian,” 2006)

Saint Paul

St Paul Mosaic, end of the 5th century CE / Museo Arcivescovile e Cappella di San Andrea, Ravenna, Italy

This means that the historical study of Christianity begins not with Christ but with his most important early follower, Paul. Originally Saul of Tarsus—Tarsus is a city on the southern coast of Asia Minor—Saint Paul (ca. 3-67 CE) was the greatest of Christ’s interpreters in the wake of his crucifixion. Often called the “second founder of the Christian church,” he was a Jew who had Roman citizenship and initially oppressed Christians until he experienced an intense vision of Christ and converted to Christianity. Though never having met Jesus in person, at least not in a conventional sense, Paul became the most visible of the apostles after Christ’s execution since he was the best educated and uniquely positioned to bridge the Jewish and Roman worlds, opening the new religion up to a much larger audience.

Roman road in Damascus / Wikimedia Commons

More important from a historian’s standpoint, Paul is an individual with clear connections to things attested in non-biblical sources outside of the Holy Lands. Addressed to budding communities of Christians in cities around the Roman world, Paul’s letters are, as far as we know, the earliest Christian documents extant, predating by a decade or more the gospels themselves, at least in the form we have them. In Paul’s writings are also found for the first time several features of Christian life central in later worship, for instance, the rituals of communion and mass, the doctrine of redemption through Christ’s suffering and a growing sense of separation between Christians and Jews. Over time, the last developed into a schism, then open contempt and finally outright insurgency, forging a long-standing tradition of animosity between these religious sects.

In leaning toward the wider pagan world, Paul set a precedent for incorporating aspects of Roman and Greek culture into the burgeoning cult, “christianizing” several useful and admirable aspects of ancient life. In particular, from the Greek philosophical system called Stoicism he adopted notions such as the assumption that all people are fundamentally equal, that slavery is an abomination and that war does less good in the world than peace. Greek literature also clearly informed his upbringing, as is visible in the high quality of lyric expression he produces at times:

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I thought as a child, I reasoned as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we look through a mirror darkly, but later we will see him face to face. Now I understand only partly; then I will understand fully, just as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope and love live on, three things; but the greatest of them is love.

While there’s no external corroboration of the tradition that Paul died a martyr in the Roman arena, this apostle stands out from the others as a visionary, organizer and motivator who gave the religion he adopted a definite form, molding inspired teaching into a working belief system. Among his many titles, Saint Paul should also be proclaimed Christianity’s “Darius,” its shopkeeper.

As it grew and prospered, Christianity came more and more into the public eye, and that ultimately brought its membership into conflict with Roman authority. In particular, the predilection of early believers in Christ to proclaim that the end of the world was imminent smacked to the Romans of insurrection, the sort of cabal that promoted general despair and hysteria and late payment of taxes. From the early Empire’s perspective, doom-cults like Christianos did not contribute to Roman life the way good religions were expected to.

Rome and the Early Christians

Roman certificate of sacrifice to the gods / Wikimedia Commons

Moreover, the Romans saw the Christians as a subset of Jews who had already been granted special privileges because of their unusual religion and, in return, delivered little more than a ragged promise of peaceful cooperation. Because of their non-conformist monotheistic notions, they had also received a general exemption from emperor-worship, which in the minds of many Romans amounted to tax-dodging. Worse still, this mercy imported the potential for setting other sects off which might decide to petition for the same sort of licence. Thus, into an already noxious environment, Christianity was pumping only more poison.

The Alexamenos graffito, the earliest known depiction of the crucifixion of Christ is a graffito scratched into stone just years after the Gospel was first preached in Rome. / Palatine Museum, Rome

But persecution was not the way Romans as a rule preferred to handle their civic and social responsibilities. To the contrary, open acceptance of new ideas was their default position, whenever feasible. From any polytheist’s perspective, after all, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with having a few more gods—the more the holier, in fact—ironically, then, the Christians’ insistence on exclusivity branded them atheists in the eyes of many Romans, because not letting people worship freely seemed selfish and pointless, by the standards of the day. A Pantheon, a space consecrated to “all gods,” is the type of temple the Romans and their coalition partners encouraged everyone to embrace.

So, because the Christians riled the already irritable Jewish element in Roman society and furthermore claimed their god was returning at any moment to end all time—which implied that serving the state or doing any work at all was pointless—the Romans felt they had to come down hard on these gloomy rebels who were so inexplicably ungrateful for the government’s largesse. And so they did, several times in history, though never harder, it should be noted, than they did on the Jews themselves or, for that matter, other barbarian groups whom they slaughtered mercilessly and displaced in droves, always in the name of protecting Rome and the greater good. But that’s mostly because there were much larger numbers of barbarians and even Jews compared to Christians, at least in the first few centuries of the modern age.

Laureate bust of Diocletian / Museum of Archaeology, Istanbul

Later pro-Christian historians played up these random persecutions as some sort of organized devilry on the Romans’ part. The fact is, decades often passed between assaults on Christian groups and, while it’s true that several emperors did, in fact, go after Christians per se, most weren’t persecuting them for their religion but their wealth. Especially in the great economic depression of the third century CE when it was becoming harder and harder for the Roman government to pay its armies and keep at bay the hordes of foreigners pounding on the gates of the frontier, emperors sought reasons to confiscate wealth anywhere they could and, because Christians lived in a tax-shelter of sorts, exempted from having to participate in certain forms of revenue collection, some of them had become quite well-off.

Many more used their religious convictions to beg off serving in the army. If the emperors of Rome were wrong to attack Christians as such—and there’s no question they were wrong!—it’s not hard to see why they did. They feared for the Roman state’s survival and, as history ultimately proved, they were right about that, at least.

Nevertheless, late third-century Rome finally found the savior it so desperately needed, not a divine one but a hard-nosed, working-class emperor named Diocletian. This no-nonsense general who had risen to pre-eminence out of the lowest caste of Roman society looked with suspicion upon those who appealed to ideology as a means of escaping any form of public service. When he fell seriously ill toward the end of his life in 304 CE, Diocletian commanded everyone in the Empire, including Christian authorities, to sacrifice to the emperor’s health.

Some Christians obeyed even though the Church was against it, others didn’t, some died and that was the last systematic Roman assault on Christians in the West. In the East, on the other hand, it took a few more years, until 311 CE and the death of the Emperor Galerius who was a fierce opponent of Christianity. Then, general persecutions ended once and for all. Within the century, Rome would not only learn to tolerate this new belief-system but come to embrace it exclusively.

Constantine and the Triumph of Christianity

Mosaic of Michael Cerularius, Patriarch of Constantinople (Byzantine Empire) from 1043 to 1059; opposed to Pope Leo IX ideas; started the east-west schism of the church. / Wikimedia Commons

In the generation after Diocletian, Constantine (ca. 285-337 CE) came to power. He was the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity—that much at least is clear, even if little else about Constantine is—but as a man he’s a historical enigma, and a great deal of conflicting information surrounds this imperial paradox, the primordial “Christian general.”

Constantine was born the illegitimate son of a Roman ruler but was later made his father’s heir. As a child he grew up in the Roman West, yet he later preferred the Hellenized East and, in fact, moved the center of Roman government there, where he built a grand new capital named after himself, Constantinople (“Constantine’s city”). Furthermore, during his tumultuous rise to power he fomented civil war on the pretext of re-uniting Rome and, even after he’d embraced Christianity, he continued to worship the sun the way many pagans did. Without doubt, one of history’s most important transitional figures, this conundrum of a man seems to have been constantly in the process of transformation himself.

Mosaic of Constantine’s vision – In Hoc Signo Vince at the Battle of Milvian Bridge / Wikimedia Commons

What matters to the issue at hand here is that he converted to some sort of Christianity at some point during his life. The story goes that he’d had a vision of the cross before one of the crucial battles in the civil wars that brought him to power, and on that cross was written in hoc signo vince, “With this ensign, conquer!” So, according to later legend, he’d appended it to his royal insignia and thus Christianity had at last won itself a winning emperor. But close examination of the historical evidence from the day muddies the waters considerably, suggesting this is an invented history since it’s confirmed only long after the fact and then by sources with a direct interest in promoting the emperor’s allegiance to Christian belief. The truth is, Constantine was only finally baptized on his deathbed, and his biography hardly constitutes a model of the good Christian life.

Whatever the what-really-happened, this emperor’s adoption of Christianity stopped once and for all the persecution of Christians in the West. If, in issuing the Edict of Milan in 313, Constantine did not go so far as to declare Rome a Christian state, he did enforce a policy of official neutrality in Christian affairs. Under his regime, Christians were free at last to speak as themselves in public without fear of reprisal or torture and, more important, to worship as they wished. It was surely his hope that the Edict of Milan and a general posture of tolerance would help restore order within the government and the state. Just the opposite happened.

By sanctioning Christianity, Constantine quickly learned that he had made himself an important figure in the Church and, like any influential “board member,” he was now obliged to give his advice on matters of consequence which, as it turned out, were all there seemed to be in this religion. The Christian Church in his day was, in fact, boiling over with controversy, and Constantine—much to his surprise and, no doubt, dismay—found himself having to render judgment about complex theological issues. If anyone ever in history was poorly prepared or ill-equipped to debate the nature of the Trinity, it was this lucky bastard.

Early Christian Controversies

The evidence is unclear about Constantine’s motivations for adopting the Christian religion. Part of him must have believed in it, part of him must have believed it would help bind together a fractured society, and part of him surely hoped that from it would rise a new brand of soldier pledged to follow the Emperor’s cross-encrusted signum into victory. If so, his conversion turned out to offer the mere mirage of peace and order, for not only did his investment in Christianity embroil Roman government in doctoral-dissertation-level religious disputes, but it seriously alienated the many who refused to join the Church, those traditional pagans who still constituted the majority of Romans, the conservatives of their day.

What’s particularly compelling in all this is that, while the city of Rome and its urban counterparts across the late classical world were splintering into gangs and cults and various interest groups, life and religion in the countryside, where the vast majority of people under Roman sway lived throughout antiquity, changed remarkably little as far as we can tell. There, the worship of local gods and spirits persisted, even as countless armies marched by and revolutions revolved. Well past Roman times and into the Middle Ages, these so-called pagan beliefs carried on. Indeed, Charlemagne’s Christ as late as the eighth century met more than one Thor on the battlefield of gods. It’s important, then, to note that most of the phenomena we think of as Roman, including Christianity, were features of life in municipal Rome, the life which urban, not rural Romans knew.

Furthermore, to many Christians in the day, especially Church administrators, there were “heathens” inside their ranks, too. Because much acrimonious debate surrounded the formation of the hierarchy which ultimately came to govern the early Church, this antagonism tended to center around what constituted being a “good upstanding Christian.” That gave rise to terms like orthodoxy (literally in Greek, “straight opinion,” meaning those views sanctioned by the officials of the Church) as opposed to heresy (literally, “choice,” implying the freedom to follow a doctrine of one’s own desire). Fascinating, isn’t it, that even back then “choice” was a word around which the winds of controversy swirled?

The Gnostics

One of the earliest and most prominent of the heretical groups denounced by Church officials was a class of believers called the Gnostics. In evidence as early as the second century CE, they represented not so much an organized sect as a motley collection of alternative Christians whose views on the nature of Jesus and the lessons of his ministry differed broadly, sometimes directly contradicting each other as much as the Church. To many of the bishops and saints who held the reins of the burgeoning Christian community at that time, these factions represented a real—if not the real—enemy.

The Gnostic Gospels, by Elaine Pagels

Because of the diversity it embraced, it’s impossible to sum up Gnostic theology quickly or simply. Nor does it help that the Church’s condemnation did not allow a single Gnostic scripture to survive intact from antiquity. But in 1945, a fortuitous find of ancient texts later called the Nag Hammadi library—Nag Hammadi (or Naj ‘Hammadi) is the site in southern Egypt where these texts were discovered—increased enormously our awareness of the wide range of religious views early Christians embraced. This cache of fifty-two scriptures included several works by Gnostic authors whose “gospels” were later censured and censored by the Church. Before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi trove, most of these writings had survived only in tattered fragments, several completely lost.

But with their resurrection came a whole new insight into the complexity of Christianity’s early years and growth as a religion. As Elaine Pagels says (p. xxxv) in her eye-opening boo k, The Gnostic Gospels, a work which has made the world of nascent Christianity accessible to many non-historians today:

Yet even the fifty-two writings discovered at Nag Hammadi offer only a glimpse of the complexity of the early Christian movement. We now begin to see that what we call Christianity—and what we identify as Christian tradition—actually represents only a small selection of specific sources, chosen from among dozens of others. . . . Now, for the first time, we have the opportunity to find out about the earliest Christian heresy; for the first time, the heretics can speak for themselves.

To give just a brief glimpse of the scope of this “heresy,” most Gnostics write about Jesus in less literal terms than orthodox scriptures. To them, the real world was evil, incapable of either containing or deriving from a true divinity. Thus, Jesus wasn’t really among us, but just seemed to be. Gnostics subscribed to the notion that those who met this god in real life saw him only with the crude instruments of sensation humans possess—eyes and ears—and these crude tools of perception had misled them grossly. What they had really encountered was merely a specter of Jesus’ actual presence, a shadow of his true luminous godhead.

This meant Jesus’ suffering on the cross was not the point of his life and ministry. To many Gnostics, he was far too removed from the material world to feel human pain. In this context, wearing a crucifix makes little sense; waving it around in battle even less. Nor does baptism. One Gnostic author remarks on how people “go down into the water and come up without having received anything”—that is, they just get wet—and with this, martyrdom cannot carry special meaning, either. “Anyone can do these things,” sighs another Gnostic author.

But the heart of the controversy between the Gnostics and the Church centered around the value of bishops and priests, and whether there was any need for clergy at all. To many non-orthodox Christians, such things were “waterless canals,” without any definitive basis in what Jesus was verified to have said. Instead, wholesome Christians must find their own way to heaven by exploring their personal feelings, not participating in empty rituals bearing no clear sanction from Christ. Or, in the words of the Gnostic teacher Theodotus, “each person recognizes the Lord in his own way, not all alike.” Again, Pagels explicates (p. xxxvi):

[I]nvestigation of the newly discovered gnostic sources . . . suggests that these religious debates—questions of the nature of God, or of Christ—simultaneously bear social and political implications that are crucial to the development of Christianity as an institutional religion. In simplest terms, ideas which bear implications contrary to that development come to be labeled as “heresy”; ideas which implicitly support it become “orthodox.”

What Gnostics saw as the model for a better way to heaven were Jesus’ miracles which to them hinted at his supernatural essence. They preached also that the knowledge of self was the knowledge of God, saying “When you come to know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will realize that you are the sons of the living Father.” And, because gender is clearly not relevant to matters of spirit like these, some Gnostics spoke of men and women having equal footing before God and, thus, of sharing fully in the responsibilities of a Christian life. Referring to Mary Magdalene as one of Christ’s disciples, the Gnostic Gospel of Mary envisions her as the foremost of the apostles and calls her the “woman who knew the All.” Others went so far as to speak of “God the Mother.”

All in all, it was a very different take on Christian thinking than that endorsed by the Church politic. Indeed, to more than one theological expert in the last century, the discovery of the Gnostic scriptures has proven nothing less than shocking, especially in how profoundly at odds the Gnostics were with what later evolved into the standard view. More confusing yet was that so complex and radically diverse a system of thought existed so early in the Christian tradition, and that was nowhere near the end of radical thinking in the first few centuries of the religion’s evolution.


In the later stages of the Roman Empire, neither pagans nor Gnostics proved the fiercest foe the early Church would face. Because in principle Gnostics refused to act collectively, they made an easy target for the clergy’s growing intolerance toward internal diversity. This type of factionalism could be rooted out and isolated, silenced or eradicated with relative ease because its adherents had no overarching bureaucracy sheltering them from general onslaught. Even if the process took centuries, it was not all that difficult, certainly compared to the other challenges that lay ahead. Little did Christian officials suspect a far more dangerous foe was lurking within their very own ranks, a well-organized body of questioners who were prepared to attack the orthodox vision of Christ.

The basic issue underlying this festering controversy stemmed from Jesus himself, who in the day represented a new type of divinity, both man and god at the same time. While in Greek religion Dionysus was also depicted as having a two-fold nature—likewise, both mortal and divine—once Dionysus had assumed immortal status, he no longer suffered in human ways. Jesus, of course, was quite different. As recorded in the four gospels accepted by the orthodox Church, his story gave rise to serious questions about the exact nature of his divinity, issues which kept cropping up because they were inherent in the narratives of his life, in particular, how a being could be both a deity and a non-deity at once.

That, in turn, led directly to another complication built into Christianity, the relationship between God and Jesus. If Jesus is God’s Son, to many that means he should be taken as subordinate to his father—good sons obey their fathers, don’t they?—the logical response is, then, to worship the Father principally, the Son secondarily, which is in effect to return Christianity to its Jewish roots. If, instead, you make the choice to see Jesus as God incarnate, then you’re left with the enigma that God is his own Son.

Primitive Christ image / Wikimedia Commons

This perplexing conundrum fueled many a lively debate among the first few centuries of Christians, especially after their religion had assumed world prominence in the days following Constantine. Much as earnest deliberation can be a helpful and healthy exercise for a growing and evolving system like early Christianity, it can also make some aspects of organizing a working religion hard to manage, such as spreading the good word. That is, when priests have a hard time explaining easily the nature and function of a deity—even something as simple as where he came from or who his parents are, or parent is—it can impede the process of recruiting converts, especially among the hordes of unschooled barbarians filtering through and around late Rome.

The result was a faction of churchmen led by a dynamic and well-educated priest named Arius (ca. 250-336 CE), who championed a more remedial version of Christ than the mystical, enigmatic vision offered by the orthodox Church. Seeing Jesus as a divine being and the offspring of God but not a god exactly like God—in other words, a very high-level, celestial messenger sent to earth—this heresy later called Arianism endorsed the position that, if Jesus is the Son of God, then he cannot be allowed to assume precedence over his Father in heaven or on earth. In essence, Arius’ conclusion was that the orthodox interpretation of the Trinity made no sense, at least not in terms of power-sharing; rather, logic dictated the Father had to be primary and central, and thus should be respected as such.

It was a difficult position to counter in the arena of argument and reason. Common sense dictates that sons should submit to their fathers, and common decency demands respect for elders. But Church officials could not admit such a proposition without conceding Jesus’ inferiority to God, so they had little choice but to step into the fray and attempt to squelch this controversy. Leading the opponents of Arianism was none other than Arius’ own superior Athanasius—his boss, so to speak—the patriarch of Alexandria and a formidable power-broker in the Church. Also a savvy administrator, Athanasius made no real attempt to counter the arguments of his trouble-making underling but, instead, insisted that Jesus was ultimately unknowable and the Trinity a mystical union. In simple terms, he told Arius to shut up.

Rise and Triumph of Christianity / Utah State University, Creative Commons

But an issue that divisive does not die down so easily, and like so many other theological questions circulating in the day, Arianism, too, ultimately landed in Constantine’s lap. Like any powerful, under-educated politician confronted with a real brain-teaser of this sort, the emperor called together his advisors, in this case, Christian clergy from all across the Empire to a synod, the famous Council of Nicaea (near Constantinople) in 325 CE. After some vigorous debate, the bishops ended up backing Athanasius and forged the famous Nicene Creed in which adherents and converts to Christianity were sworn to uphold the orthodox perception of Christ as “begotten not made” by God and “(who) was made flesh, was made man, suffered and rose again on the third day . . .”

The credo did not stop there either. It continued on to an outright denial of the major tenets underlying Arianism and Gnosticism, in fact, any version of Christianity which challenged the Church’s authority, forcing its membership to denounce these heresies publicly:

But those who say that there was once when he was not and before he was begotten he was not and he was made of things that were not or maintain that the Son of God is of a different essence or substance or created or subject to moral change or alteration—the Catholic and Apostolic Church condemn them to damnation.

This constitutes the wholesale deprecation of all heresies which were at that time raising their voices in opposition to the policies and existence of not only the orthodox vision of Christ but also an organized Church government.

But even such extreme measures did not forestall the growth of Arianism. Later synods reversed the decision of the Council of Nicaea and confirmed Arian views, which only exacerbated divisions within the Christian world. More important, Arian proponents played well the advantages inherent in their vision of Christ, especially outside the Empire in areas where Church bureaucrats who lived for the most part in Roman metropolises had as yet little influence. The Arian Christians’ simpler conception of Jesus as subordinate to and discrete from God allowed them to win many converts, especially among those unfamiliar with the complex theological history underlying Christian orthodox doctrine. In particular, the Arian monk Ulfilas was able to attract many Germanic barbarian groups to his side, the Goths especially who became avid non-orthodox Christians.

The result was that Church officials hardened their position on not only dissension within their ranks but also the interpretation of scripture and what to them constituted acceptable texts. The Gnostic gospels of Thomas, Mary and Philip, along with many other accounts of Jesus’ life in wide circulation by that time, were branded heretical and stricken from the canon of the New Testament. Soon thereafter, clerical officials ordered the destruction of all copies of these texts, and it was probably amidst this censorship that some unknown Gnostic supporter buried those scriptures which were discovered many centuries later at Nag Hammadi. If so, just as with Akhetaten, a systematic attempt to erase history has provided us with our best access to what-really-happened-in-the-past.

The Growth of Church Government

Among the administrators of the Church, the internal unrest precipitated by these heresies only intensified interest in formalizing holy services and offices of all sorts. Doctrine and ritual came to center around what is now known as the seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, marriage, ordination and final unction. Church leadership fell into the hands of bishops, each of whom oversaw a see, a religious “province” of sorts, in which, as it turned out, not all bishops were equal. Those situated in the great urban centers of the Empire became archbishops (“head-bishops”) whose opinion carried more weight because of the large populations they represented. In particular, the Bishop of Rome stood out among his peers and hence came to be called the papa (“Father”). From this evolved the papacy and the office of Pope.

The justification advanced to lend credence to this bureaucracy sheds light on the psychological machinery of the early Church, all the more because the reasoning used is likely to rest on invented history. The bishoprics and sees of the Roman West grew up in places unassociated with Jesus himself, places it could not even be imagined he ever went in person. Thus, in order to ground their communities in Christ himself somehow, the bishops had no choice but to build bridges to the apostles of Jesus, but that was difficult, too. There was no clear or credible testimony about the lives of Jesus’ apostles after his crucifixion—where did they go? what do they do? how did they die?—so amidst this yawning vacuum of data, the story arose that they had spread out across the Empire, seeding Christian cells and founding the sees which evolved later. In origin, this unconfirmed history probably served truth less than the western bishops’ need to tie their authority directly to Jesus himself.

Spread of Christianity, 300-800 CE / Wikimedia Commons

Through this elaborate reconstruction of the past—the transference of power from Jesus to the apostles and then to the bishops came to be called the apostolic succession—Church bureaucrats linked their authority to the seminal voices and events of the New Testament. But this path to empowerment, be it revisionist or not, also proved no smooth or easy road. Besides the continuing resistance of heretics who sought to undercut and discredit leaders like the Pope, the bishops themselves vied for real control of an increasingly wealthy and influential institution. In particular, the patriarch of Constantinople, who led a large and well-organized community of Christians in the great capital city of the eastern half of the Empire, was reluctant to take his marching orders from an occidental bishop inhabiting faraway Rome.

Later, as the western end of the Empire began to fall apart, it made even less sense to Rome’s eastern denizens to continue obeying some purported papa. By the early Middle Ages (ca. 600 CE), the Roman popes had become corrupt and ineffectual—often they were also the uneducated and illiterate kin of corrupt barbarians, the progeny of those whose fathers had sacked and pillaged the holy seat—or so they seemed to Asian eyes. Eventually, the growing sense of estrangement between Church officials in Rome and Constantinople led to the division of Christianity into Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox factions. This, in turn, opened the door to military conflicts like the Crusades.

Thus, the early Church’s efforts to promote unity within the Christian world by imposing standard doctrine and firm governance only ended up fracturing it incurably in the long run. The irony and futility of orthodoxy-through-force would, no doubt, not be lost on the Gnostics. Indeed, is that sound we hear from deep beneath the sands of Nag Hammadi the lamentation of an extinguished sect, or is it laughter and echoes of “I told you so”?

What Early Christianity Teaches

God the Mother, Mary Magdalene the Apostle, a Jesus who never actually suffered on the cross—it all seems unimaginably foreign to the modern view of Christianity. Even to suggest these sorts of things in most corners of the Christian world today would be to open the door for widespread recrimination and scorn or, worse yet, entice someone to author a best-seller like The Da Vinci Code. And yet ideas of this sort were not only advanced in Christianity’s first centuries but also attracted many adherents and enjoyed considerable popularity, at least to judge from the vitriol with which their orthodox adversaries attacked the “heretics” who promulgated these notions.

To see such a wide range of beliefs attested so near the navitity of Christ’s religion may seem odd to many today, not just on theological grounds but because, in general, we’re taught to expect increasing differentiation as things expand over time. The widely used, so-called “Darwinian” model of evolution which is built around notions like survival-of-the-fittest and natural selection presumes that growth will be accompanied by rising variation—often presented as graphs that look like upside-down Christmas trees—in other words, we’re trained to look for greater complexity over time as things evolve. While that may be the way things work in paleontology, it’s not the pattern of change which the historical study of Christianity presents.

Indeed, the great open frontier of the Christian religion in its earliest phase has left behind a record of more creative and pioneering visions of Christ’s message and divinity than all later ages combined. And as time passed, orthodox forces antagonistic to any ideology at odds with institutionized Christianity obliterated those conceptions of Jesus which ran against the growing mainstream. And once Christ came to be defined in certain ways, and on that perspective of his life and teaching depended a powerful and influential social institution like the Church, it was all but impossible to recast his image without changing what he stood for and, of more immediate consequence, what stood for him.

And that makes tracking down a historical Christ a very difficult endeavor, not so much because the what-really-happened of his life has been obscured in a void of verifiable data—it has been, but that’s not the point!—but because it ended up mattering so much to so many people across such a long stretch of time. All in all, Jesus has proven an ideal target for invented history, which is not to say any particular narrative about him rests on lies, only that he is the sort of figure around which exaggeration and myth tend to accrue. In other words, as we see so often in history, when people care very much about something, the truth of history isn’t likely to be what they serve first, or at all.

But it seems safe to say at least this much: out of so many possibilities, one perspective on Christ won out, the literal view of his life and resurrection. Yet we now know this was neither the only nor the most “historical” take on his life story. Rather, it met the needs of an institution in ascendancy and was the version of the truth most feasible for a world needing comfort and stability amidst turmoil and savage upheaval. And if this was the first time Christian orthodoxy was to go to war with heresy, it would certainly not be the last.

In later ages, others followed the trail mapped out by the Gnostics and their heretical brethren and re-ignited the debate over what constituted a Christ and a God. I don’t mean Protestants at the time of the Reformation (the early 1500’s CE)—though they certainly fit the mold—but nearly a millennium before them, another group began asking questions which challenged the central tenets of orthodoxy and through innovative insight and revelation structured a religion that was both revolutionary and at the same time rooted deeply in the theological traditions of the Near East. From this was created a new type of believer who would take the controversies of Christianity to different and unexpected heights. More important, their novel responses to classical Christian paradoxes like the nature of the Trinity and the role of an institutional Church would find expression in a different world, in a different language, in Arabic in fact. They were, of course, the Moslems.

Arabia and the Early Arabs

The Saudi Arabian peninsula south of the Holy Lands and east of Egypt contains, and has ever since antiquity, an enormous desert. Accordingly, there is little mention of it in the historical record prior to the rise of Islam. Most ancient conquerors—including the classical Persians, Alexander the Great, and even the Romans—ignored Arabia, largely because the scarcity of resources in such a place does not attract or facilitate human habitation.

Bedouins / Wikimedia Commons

The few who have ever managed to survive there, a people known collectively as Bedouins, eke out a life on the edge. These nomads herd camels and travel from place to place, subsisting on milk, meat and the date palms which grow by the springs at oases. Of the earliest Arabs’ culture, little is known other than that they were polytheistic, prone to worshiping features of nature like trees and stones, and they were not Indo-European. Their language, the forerunner of modern Arabic, is Semitic, tying them linguistically and culturally to the Babylonians and Assyrians of ancient Mesopotamia. But living where they did, the Bedouins’ political and technological life lagged far behind that of their powerful, urbanized cousins to the north.

All that began to change dramatically in the sixth century CE. The powers-that-be in the day, the Sassanian Persians and the Byzantines—both remnants of once-great empires, Persia and Rome respectively—were engaged in a protracted and debilitating war which had forced a diversion of the lucrative trade routes coming up out of Africa and Asia into the Near East. With Egypt at the center of much of the fighting, it became unsafe to move goods along the Nile, and a new route had to be sought through Arabia. The sort of money that comes when one lives near a railroad or interstate started working its way into Bedouin society, and the lifestyle of these desert denizens evolved quickly from nomadic to commercial.

Cities also began to grow up at important intersections in trade networks crossing the desert. Particularly at Mecca and Yathrib—both were communities situated on the western side of Arabia—commercial municipalities of a sort not seen before in this part of the world began to rise from the sand. This is not to say that there hadn’t been settlements in these localities before. Mecca, especially, had long been a religious center since it housed the sacred Ka’aba (“the cube”), a structure built over the holiest of holies, the Black Stone. Around the Ka’aba various shrines to the many deities which the early Bedouins worshiped had accumulated over time, making Mecca a well-established site of pilgrimage long before Muhammad’s day.

Early Mecca painting / Wikimedia Commons

Thus, at this time the Meccans were not only overseeing a healthy industry based on religious tourism but were also becoming entrepreneurs whose city was growing into a lucrative center for business and trade. As wealthy foreign caravans passed through this part of the world, money began pouring in. Of course, fortune favored some more than others which produced a nouveaux-riches aristocracy called the Kuraish—it’s also the name of the largest of the family clans inhabiting Mecca—this new upper crust was soon prosperous enough to start sending out caravans of its own, making the community even wealthier. It was a heady time indeed, which means it was ripe for revolution.


Muhammad (ca. 570-632 CE), the founder of Islam, was born and grew up in Mecca at the end of the sixth century. Though belonging to one of the lesser clans of the Kuraish, Muhammad was orphaned early in life and went into the service of an older widow whom he later married. Spending most of his early adulthood running her affairs—which means embarking on trading expeditions—Muhammad carved out a reasonably comfortable existence but, far more important for later history, among these various business ventures he visited the urbanized civilizations around Arabia which brought him into contact with Jews, Persians and Christians.

To judge from the subsequent nature of Islam, Christianity seems to have been particularly interesting to him, since Muhammad adopted and adapted quite a few Christian ideas. The reverse, it should be noted, is equally true. In the wake of Muhammad’s successes and the triumph of the world view he created, Christianity absorbed more than one Islamic notion, such as the image of an angel blowing a trumpet on Judgment Day. Indeed, the prophet may have initially conceived of his religion as a reformation or completion of Christianity, but whether or not he did, it went much further than that in the long run.

Muhammad, shown with a veiled face and halo, at Mount Hira (16th-century Ottoman illustration of the Siyer-i Nebi) / Bilkent University, Wikimedia Commons

Relatively little is known about Muhammad’s life until he reached his forties and started experiencing a series of intense visions which he said had been sent to him from Allahoriginally Al-Illah ( “The God”), Allah was the chief god of the early Arabic pantheon—and during these visitations Allah declared himself the one and only god, the single divine presence in the universe, laying the groundwork for a very strong form of monotheism. Seen as both the god of the ancient Hebrew scriptures and the Christian New Testament, Allah ordained Muhammad as his prophet the same way several others had served before, including Abraham, Noah, and Jesus. But according to Allah, Muhammad was to be the last in this series of divine messengers, the final chance given humanity to rescue itself from the morass of impiety into which it seemed always to fall so easily and regularly.

When Muhammad set out to preach this extended form of Christianity, he met with little success at first. No one converted except his immediate family and a few poor people who had little to lose. The rich and well-born Kuraish, especially, scoffed at his notion of being a prophet and scorned him because of his less-than-lofty birth, but behind this mockery surely lay the fear that any change in the way people worshiped might detract from the lucrative business pilgrimage brought to Mecca. The future would prove such apprehensions spectacularly misguided, for Muhammad would turn Mecca into the single greatest pilgrimage site ever in human history.

Hegira: Muhammad hides in a cave and escapes Satan / Wikimedia Commons

The Meccans’ hostility toward Muhammad increased until he was forced to flee to Yathrib, a city north of Mecca in 622 CE. Having previously been invited there by the locals to serve as an impartial judge, Muhammad and a few loyal followers, including a man named Ali who later played an important role in Islamic history, resettled there during what was to become a central moment in the establishment of Islam, the Hegira (or hijrah), Muhammad’s famous emigration from Mecca—the Hegira is often but wrongly termed a “flight”—the Hegira marks the turning point in the prophet’s fortunes and as such is remembered as the “year one” in the calendar system used by Moslems today. As a testament to the force of his charisma and the power of his new world vision, Muhammad converted the inhabitants of Yathrib en masse to his new religion and became both the political and religious leader of the city, now renamed in his honor Medina (Medinat al-Nabi, “the City of the Prophet”).

Now angry and bent on revenge against his Meccan detractors who, according to some records, were out to destroy the new Moslem community, Muhammad’s policies became more openly militarized, resulting in what he called a jihad (“a holy war”) against the “infidels” who included the people of Mecca as well as some of the Jews living in Medina. Winning many followers across the Arabian peninsula, his attentions now turned from a more universalist outlook to immediate, pragmatic concerns like advancing his own interests and those of the people who had joined his cause. Fired up by their fervor for the new religion, Muhammad’s followers began raiding the many, well-laden caravans coming out of Mecca and blockading the trade that made life so comfortable there.

Furthermore, as a people accustomed to traveling in the desert, Muhammad’s Bedouin faithful were uniquely well-equipped to use the harsh landscape to their advantage, where sandstorms can cover sneak attacks or retreats and camels, not horses, rule. Indeed, the formation of a camel cavalry must all on its own have looked like an act of god, much less that Moslem jihaders (in Arabic, mujaheddin) could charge with lances while riding on such creatures. Allah or not, it must have seemed to many that some sort of powerful deity was backing these people.

Hegira to Mecca / Wikimedia Commons

By 630 CE, less than a decade after the Hegira, Muhammad was able to return to Mecca, whereupon he converted the Kuraish along with the entire city to his new religion. By then a living legend, Muhammad saw Arabic tribes near and far line up to join his faith. In triumph, he entered the holy district of Mecca, cleared out the idols—that is, the statues of every god there—and anointed the Ka’aba an Islamic holy site and pilgrimage destination. Leaving little but the Black Stone and its “cubic” shrine intact, Muhammad had reformed his city, his people and his world.

A mere two years later (632 CE), however, Muhammad unexpectedly died in mid-life, having forged a united Arabia as it had never been before and, of more immediate consequence, a new highly energized, well-armed military power. At the same time as well, a period of peace and high culture was beginning to dawn, the Pax Arabica, so named because it’s the Islamic counterpart of the Pax Romana, the centuries of peace accompanying the early period of the Roman Empire. The level of prosperity and civilization initiated by the Moslems’ conquest and cultural domination of much of the world over the next five hundred years has rarely seen its equal in history.

Islamic Religion

In Arabic, the word islam means “surrender,” that is, submission to Allah and his will. It encompasses a life of divine service as directed through the writings preserved in the Islamic “bible,” the Koran. This somewhat disorganized compilation of scriptures is said to have been dictated to Muhammad through a divine ambassador sent from Allah, and thus it constitutes the god’s exact words. To recompose them in any way would be to compromise the pure sense of Allah’s message to humankind.

Arabic writing / Wikimedia Commons

Accordingly, Muhammad forbade translation of the Koran. This later popularized Arabic as a language, turning it from an obscure desert dialect of Semitic into an international language capable of great finesse and nuance, though that can hardly be Muhammad’s primary motivation for such a stern injunction. More likely, he saw the troubling controversies surrounding Christian texts—that the various translations of Christ’s message presented all sorts of challenges to its interpreters and impeded the formation of a coherent doctrine—knowing that, Muhammad, no doubt, resolved to avoid the same problem by enforcing linguistic uniformity.

From the Koran it’s also clear Muhammad envisioned Allah as the sole god in the universe, not only unrivaled by other deities but not even accompanied by any other divine presence. Simply put, Allah was, to Muhammad, all that’s holy, pure and unadulterated. It’s hard not to see this, too, as a reaction to Christian controversies, in particular, the difficulties presented by a conception like the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

That is, to the foolish, unenlightened or anyone without an advanced degree in Byzantine theology from Constantinople State, the Christian Trinity could be mistaken as a form of polytheism. Muhammad made certain that no such divisive controversy would ever rend Islam the way Arianism and other heresies plagued early Christianity. In Islam, God was Allah and that was that, a notion which had considerable appeal in the philosophically “realist” East where pure ideas untainted by pragmatism tended to go over well anyway. Little wonder, then, that Islam spread across the Near East with remarkable ease and efficiency. It was the sort of thing people there liked already.

At the same time, however, Muhammad allowed that Allah could also manifest his will through agents, like the angel Gabriel who had brought Muhammad his first divine message. Likewise, prophets, too, were part of Allah’s universe, even if none including Muhammad was a god. With this, Islam had no need for a clergy to oversee ceremonies, which consequently preempted any need for priests or celebrating mass since, according to Muhammad’s reasoning, individual Moslems were directly responsible for their own salvation. Though at a later date Islamic holy men called sufis did finally appear, they were slow to be accepted and never attained the sort of power or influence popes, bishops or even monks wielded in the West.

Muslims praying at Mecca / Wikimedia Commons

Thus lacking much of the ceremony and mythological underpinnings that lie behind Hebrew and Christian worship, the Koran ordains a comparatively simple and straightforward regimen of ritual, involving the so-called “Five Pillars of Islam”: faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage. Calling the faithful at least once in life to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, in Arabic a hajj—a haji is a pilgrim on a hajj—Muhammad gave new life to an old and well-established custom in Arabia. Joining the religion was also made easy—no baptisms, Nicene Creeds or other initiation issues for this prophet!—converts only have to say in front of a Moslem believer “La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammad rasul Allah” (“There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is his prophet”) and they have joined the religion.

Other aspects of the new religion involved other unusual practices for the day. Muhammad forbade the drinking of alcoholic beverages except for a very mild raisin or date wine called rabidh. While he endorsed polygamy, the Koran seems to suggest a limit of four wives, a restriction later accepted by very few among the Islamic ultra-rich, some of whom kept hundreds of women, even if never more than four were called “wives”—legal dodges are part of every culture that has laws—indeed, what seem to be restrictions advanced by the prophet himself in favor of women’s rights were often and widely undercut by later Islamic tradition. In the end was rendered one of the most socially repressive systems toward women ever known.

For Moslem men, however, Muhammad made the message of life very clear: to fight and die in a jihad was the supreme calling. And to drive that message home, the Koran describes in concrete and plentiful detail the rewards bestowed on jihaders—a garden of earthly delights including music, food and beautiful women—and for infidels, the converse was no less real, a hell featuring torture, fire and excruciating pain. Here Muhammad left no room for legalities.

Arabesque design with repeating motifs / Wikimedia Commons

Before his untimely death, Muhammad also left behind few indications about how to build proper houses of worship. With little to go on, his successors modeled Moslem holy edifices on Muhammad’s house in Medina, the only construction project he’d been associated with in life. Eventually these evolved into Islamic “temples,” today known as mosques (“places for prostration”). These were buildings designed mainly for prayer and meditation, not for presentation of any formal services or ceremonies as in Western churches.

Among the few avenues available to artists in this context, rugs for kneeling on during prayers became a focus of creative activity, and from that was born the Persian rug. Also permitted were decorative prayer niches built into walls directing the faithful to bow toward Mecca as they prayed. But since all realistic images were forbidden in early Islam, none of these could contain depictions of anything in the visible world, on the reasoning that making images of animals or humans is to challenge Allah who created all things. The result was a system of ornate but non-realistic designs which Westerners eventually came to call “arabesques” (from the French word for “Arabic”), which to this day characterize Arabic art throughout the world.

From the Chludov Psalter, 9th century, depicting Byzantine iconoclasm / State Historical Museum, Russia

In much of this, it’s hard not to see a reaction to the controversies roiling Christianity in Muhammad’s day. Indeed, many of these principal tenets of Islam deal with issues which had proven to be sources of crisis and upheaval within the early Christian community. For instance, iconoclasm—Greek for “image-breaking”—was a movement that swept across the Byzantine world during and after the seventh century and which saw much of its best artwork destroyed in the name of a purer religion. Watching such pointless and self-destructive strife might well have taught the young Muhammad the wisdom of not admitting realistic art into the religious arena at all. To this can be added the role of saints in the Christian church, which also caused great controversy because it appeared to distract from the worship of God and Jesus and, to some, that smacked of polytheism. Thus, Muhammad permitted no humans to be seen as deities of any sort.

And, finally, what most clearly distinguishes Islamic society from its Western counterparts, its union of religious and political structures, effectively undercut the formation of any Islamic clergy by firmly melding church and state together. With that, Muhammad’s world view disallowed any possibility whatsoever that Moslem “popes” might one day end up at odds with Arabic kings, a type of crisis which was threatening to disrupt the Christian world in the early medieval period. Whatever the reason these aspects of Islam evolved—and surely the full truth is vastly more complex than a series of knee-jerk responses to the controversies racking Christianity at the time—Muhammad was clearly a good student of Western religious history, at least inasmuch as he knew a losing proposition when he saw it. He had, after all, spent many years as a businessman before becoming a prophet.

The Spread and Triumph of Islam after Muhammad

The Aftermath of Muhammad’s Death

Muhammad’s sudden death in 632 CE not only did not stop the progress of Islam but, in fact, accelerated it. Indeed, the seventh century came to belong largely to the Moslems, who claimed much of the western world during that time. There was, of course, a brief moment of confusion following the prophet’s untimely and unexpected demise, especially since Muhammad had made no post-mortem provision for the future governance of the religion and society he’d created, naming neither a successor nor even a method of succession.

Worse yet, he had no surviving sons, only one daughter Fatima. Ultimately, Abu Bekr, an elder in the nascent Moslem community was nominated caliph, a title meaning “(Muhammad’s) successor.” An old man already, Abu Bekr ruled only two years, most of which he spent reconsolidating Arabia under Muhammad’s religion—many of the tribes which had joined Islam had done so out of personal loyalty to Muhammad and, when he died, had defected—after re-unifying Arabia under Moslem control, Abu Bekr passed away two years later in 634 CE.

Spread of Islam 632-750 CE / Wikimedia Commons

The next caliph was Omar (r. 634-644 CE), a zealous and younger convert to Islam, who pushed north into Persian and Byzantine territory. The Moslems’ incredible success had as much to do with the timing of their onslaught as their warriors who were fired up with religious zeal. Having just completed a draining war in which the Byzantines had badly beaten the Persians, both sides were exhausted and depleted of resources.

Attacking the Byzantines in 636 CE, Moslem forces waited for a dust storm to blow up and, when the Byzantines were blinded, charged and scored a stunning victory. Syria, Jerusalem and much of the Near East fell to them. Wheeling east, they defeated the Persians the next year so decisively that they captured the Persian capital of Ctesiphon. The next decade they spent consolidating their conquests and, although their siege of Constantinople failed in 646, by 651 they had stripped the Persians of their empire and all their provinces, making it a Moslem realm de facto.

The rest of the 600’s proved hardly less triumphant for the Moslems. Heading to sea, they wrested the islands Cyprus and Rhodes in the eastern Mediterranean from Byzantine control and then surged across North Africa. By 711 they reached and crossed the straits of Gibraltar—in Arabic Jebel Tariq (“Tariq’s hill”)—which lies between Morocco and Spain. Both were absorbed into the burgeoning Islamic sphere of cultural and political influence.

The reasons for such astounding success amount to more than a mere combination of lucky timing and well-organized hysteria, what had characterized the Moslems’ first military adventures outside Arabia. In particular, the nature of their religion and governance played deftly into the hands of disgruntled Byzantine provincials, especially the Monophysites in Egypt who were ever ready to revolt from their orthodox oppressors enshrined in Constantinople. These Monophysites found it better to join with non-Christians who neither forced their beliefs on others nor envisioned a “poly-physite” heaven.

What problems the early Moslems encountered stemmed less from foreign than internal strife. The history of the succession of Islamic caliphs is, in fact, a gruesome catalogue of assassinations leading invariably to wave after wave of civil disorder. The caliph Omar, for instance, died in 644 CE, murdered by a Christian (or Persian) slave while he was praying. This did little to endear Christians (or non-Arabs) to Moslems.

Next in line was a weak “successor” named Othman from a Kuraish family, the Umayyads, infamous within Arabia for having resisted Muhammad in the early stages of his prophetic career. To some it seemed inappropriate for this clan, however powerful or influential, to assume the caliphate when it was so clearly ill-deserved. Consequently, a quarrel broke out between the Umayyads and Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and Fatima’s husband.

Insisting that a caliph must be designated through his relation to Muhammad somehow, Ali stirred up such discontent in the early days of the caliphate that in 656 CE mutinous troops assassinated Othman. Thereupon, Ali declared himself caliph, and disorder broke out within Islam. A short five years later (661 CE), Ali joined Omar and Othman among the ranks of murdered caliphs, though his cause didn’t die with him. His followers created a separatist Islamic sect called Shi’ites—that is, “factionalists” (the Shiat Ali, “the party of Ali”)—this splinter group still exists, accounting for about one-tenth of Moslems today. The rivalry between Shi’ites and mainstream Moslems has more than once sparked war, including several that are still ongoing.

The Umayyads

Despite their travails with Ali, the family of Othman managed to reassert themselves as the principal Moslem clan, inaugurating in 661 CE the Umayyad Dynasty (661-750 CE). Using Damascus in Syria as their base, the Umayyads moved the center of Moslem society out of Arabia which was never again to serve as a political hub in the medieval Islamic world. With this important development, Islam now took up residence in the traditional corridors of power in the Near East. In other words, though born in sands of Arabia, it was no longer sequestered in some far-off desert land.

The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem /  Wikimedia Commons

The Umayyad regime inaugurated an age of prosperity and growth, well-evidenced by the construction of the famous mosque in Jerusalem, The Dome of the Rock, the oldest surviving Islamic monument. Built over the place from which Muhammad purportedly ascended into heaven, this holy site’s seniority in the tradition of Moslem architecture is shown in its essentially Byzantine design, for there was as yet no Islamic style in these early days. Still, the Dome of the Rock presaged Islamic things to come, especially in the addition of the minaret to the exterior of the site.

The explosive stage of early Moslem expansion ended in two great military defeats: the failed siege of Constantinople in 717-718 CE, routed by the Byzantines’ use of Greek fire; and Charles Martel’s rebuff of Moslem forces at Tours (central France) in 732 CE. The result was that the Moslems’ northern progress was stopped, and they turned their ambitions eastward toward India, Southeast Asia and China. Another consequence of these failures was to undermine the Umayyad dynasty which eventually fell, its prestige severely battered. Nor did it help that the Shi’ite issue refused to go away, especially after the Umayyads were linked to the murder of Ali’s sons, the prophet Muhammad’s only male descendants.

The Abbasids

Thus, another powerful Moslem family, the Abbasids of Persia took advantage of this opening and defeated the Umayyads in a brief civil war (747-749 CE). This inaugurated the Abbasid dynasty (750-1258 CE). The last Umayyad ruler, however, escaped to Spain, where he established a separate Moslem kingdom, accelerating the growing separatism that had already with the Shi’ites begun to rend the Islamic world. But for the moment, under the Abbasids’ guidance the Moslems produced a level of civilization unrivaled in that day.

In Mesopotamia along the Tigris river near the ancient site of Babylon, they established their capital city Baghdad, still a major urban site in modern Iraq. At that location, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers come within twenty miles of one another, enabling the Abbasids to link them with a canal. This, combined with ditches and walls laid out in concentric circles the largest of which were two miles in diameter, restricted the approaches to the city and turned the rivers and canal into functionally a large defensive moat. It’s hard not to see Constantinople, also well-protected by water and walls, as the model for Baghdad—a lesson the Moslems learned, perhaps, from their unsuccessful siege of that city a generation or two before—and, like Constantinople, Baghdad rose and triumphed with amazing speed. From its ground-breaking in 762 CE, the city was up and running within four years, a speed of construction which outstripped even its Byzantine prototype.

The lifestyle in Baghdad was very high by the standards of the day. Situated on a plateau that provides cool nights and few mosquitoes, the city delivers a remarkably pleasant climate for that part of the world most of the year. And because it sat on the intersection of several important trade routes and provided a link between the major rivers in the area, Baghdad also became a center of commerce and wealth. In that way, too, it seems designed to serve as a rival to Constantinople, but with the expansion of Moslem influence throughout much of the known world it far surpassed the Byzantines’ range of contacts. In fact, during the Abbasids’ heyday a check that was written in Baghdad could be cashed in Morocco.

Scene from The Thief of Baghdad (1924) / Wikimedia Commons

Other such evidence abounds attesting to the luxuries and elegance characterizing life in this “Golden Age of Islam.” Resplendent palaces featuring elaborate court ceremony, eunuchs and harems showcased the power Abbasid caliphs wielded, in many ways traditional eastern autocrats who, if not gods themselves, were seen as the “Shadow of Allah on Earth.” This world known to ours as the age of The Arabian Nights brought with it tales of flying carpets and genies but bestowed more on the world than mythical brilliance. From it come many features of modern life: porcelain, polo, chess, backgammon, frying pans, pants and rag paper, all of which owe their popularity in the world today to the Moslems who constructed this golden era.

Not everything the Moslems touched, however, wrought splendorous advancement. Women’s rights, for example, suffered under the oppressive social restrictions grafted onto Islam after it merged with Persian society. This age of harems and veiled faces greatly diminished women’s power within the Islamic world, and so a husband had only to say three times “I divorce you” to dissolve his marriage—of course, it usually took several months to finalize all the legalities—but still women had no such recourse and depended almost entirely on men for their well-being. This oppression constituted a serious setback from earlier days in the Moslem world when Muhammad had apparently sought to protect women’s rights.

Likewise, other constituencies in Islamic society withered under a cloud of bigotry and repression. For instance, wealthy Moslems enslaved black Africans in large numbers, popularizing the notion that sub-Saharan peoples were somehow fit for such subjection. This behavior laid the foundation for similar attitudes among Europeans later and opened the door for the horrific abuses perpetrated through slavery during the period of European colonization, the tragedies of which still haunt the world.

Yet at its peak the Golden Age of Islam brought unparalleled civilization to a world despoiled by invasion and internal unrest. From the broken brilliance of ancient Mesopotamia, the Parthians and Sassanian Persians in the first half of the millennium before the coming of Muhammad had struggled to keep alive a moribund culture mired in its own past glory. To all this the Moslems gave new life, direction and sense of unity, especially under the greatest of the Abbasid caliphs, Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809). A contemporary of the medieval potentate Charlemagne, Harun al-Rashid communicated widely and commanded respect from virtually every corner of the known world. He was remembered, for instance, in European records for having sent an elephant named Abu’l Abbas as a gift to the Holy Roman Emperor in Aachen. The elephant survived many years and became legendary in the history of the Carolingian Age.

Harun al-Rashid’s reign marked, however, a downturn in Abbasid fortunes. Like the Roman emperor Augustus, he was unable to continue the expansion of his domain, which soon led to stalled fortunes and the general decentralization of Moslem governance. By 945 CE, Shi’ites had captured Baghdad and turned all subsequent Abbasid caliphs into puppet rulers. And when Seljuk Turks, a ferocious horde of Asiatic invaders, seized the capital in 1055 CE, the fate of the Abbasids as rulers of the Islamic world was sealed.

Even this nominal claim to power did not last forever. In the fifteenth century, a different Turkish group, the Ottomans, seized control of the Near East from the Abbasids and Seljuk Turks and did what Moslems had tried to achieve for centuries. They captured the city of Constantinople and changed its name to Istanbul, finally uprooting Byzantium, the last remnant of ancient Rome. This Ottoman Empire continued until after the close of World War I at the beginning of the twentieth century, its demise ending the final chapter in the long and luminous history of Medieval Islam.

The Contributions of the Islamic World

In the course of Islam’s rise and triumph, people living in the Moslem world advanced human life in many arenas, including philosophy, poetry and architecture. In particular, Arab-speaking philosophers called faylasufs, a term clearly borrowed from the Greek word philosophos (“philosopher”), investigated and enriched several areas of thought and science. For instance, the great Iranian doctor Avicenna (in Arabic, Ibn Sina) wrote a medical encyclopedia, a manual still used in training physicians up until the seventeenth century. Born in Moslem Spain, Averroes (Ibn Rushd) composed a commentary on the classical philosopher Aristotle and even studied Greek philosophy in texts that came from Constantinople. His influence was widely felt in the early universities of Christian Europe during the High Middle Ages, when Aristotelian reasoning reappeared in Western thought and revolutionized intellectual discourse.

Likewise, it was said that the ghost of Aristotle appeared to the caliph Ma’mun and told him there’s no conflict between reason and faith, and so he built a “House of Wisdom” in Baghdad, a university of sorts housing many Arabic translations of Greek texts. This helped preserve much ancient learning and, at the same time, encouraged scholars there to apply the principles and methods of Plato and Aristotle to the study of religion. A similar movement called Scholasticism in the West later imitated this notion of uniting theological and philosophical thought. That, in turn, laid the foundation for modern science.

The Moslem Middle Ages also witnessed several important developments in art. Arising from a long-standing tradition of oral verse among pre-Islamic Bedouins, Arabic poetry forged a strong and supple style of expression, grounded in Muhammad’s language as exemplified in the Koran. The result was a dynasty of magnificent love-poets, including the wife of the first Umayyad caliph who, haunted by a love of desert life, longed for the “uncouth, slim tribesmen I love, not these fat men,” presumably the bureaucrats around her husband in his capital.

Later, the very popular poet Ma’arri exhibited for the age an unusual degree of freedom of expression, evidenced in his assertion of belief in Allah but not in any afterlife or the need for having children. Early Islam also clearly tolerated dissent in a way few religions have. And last but not least, Omar Khayyam who died in 1123 CE is arguably one of the best known poets who ever lived. His Rubaiyat, a collection of love poems, was written in his native Persian, not Arabic, and its famous line, “a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou,” ranks among some of the most famous and often quoted words ever uttered.

The Alhambra in Granada, Spain / Wikimedia Commons

However, perhaps most visible of all Moslem arts is architecture. With injunctions against realistic art firmly ensconced in Islamic tradition, the architects working for caliphs and those who oversaw their realm perfected the geometric designs which characterize their art. Evidenced nowhere better than at the Alhambra, a palace-fortress in Granada (southern Spain), the lush intricacy of the architecture seen in this Moslem fortress features vine-like trails and the horseshoe arch, the latter originally a Visigothic device borrowed and perfected during the Moslem period.

In related fields, Moslem intellectuals combined Greek geometry with “Arabic” enumeration to advance mathematics and from this created modern algebra. Today’s medicine also finds its roots in Islamic civilization. Moslem doctors and care-givers were the first to distinguish between diseases like measles and smallpox, to build hospitals widely, to train physicians and issue medical licenses.

All in all, the medieval Moslem world represents one of the finest civilizations of its day, if not one of the finest ever. This fact should be borne in mind as aggressions and tensions persist between the East and the West. As bombs fly back and forth, it’s best to stop and recall how much is shared on both sides and how much is owed between us, and how we got to the point where our animosity is as sharp as it is today.

The Nature and Consequences of the Crusades

Pope Benedict, on his first visit to a Muslim country…travel(ed) through the streets of Ankara (the capital of Turkey), … Benedict infuriated Muslims worldwide in September with a lecture that seemed to depict Islam as an irrational religion tainted with violence. He later expressed regret at the pain his comments caused but stopped short of a full apology. More than 20,000 Muslim protesters rallied against the Pope’s trip on Sunday in Istanbul, chanting “Pope don’t come.” (Gareth Jones, Reuters News)

Spanning more than two centuries (1096-1300 CE) across the majority of the so-called High Middle Ages, the Crusades were, in essence, military expeditions initiated by the medieval papacy to wrest the Holy Lands from Moslem control. That means, if they can be traced back to a single source, it’s fair to say it was the Christian Church in the West. Yet, the promotion of warfare was clearly not at the top of the Vatican’s agenda prior to the eleventh century and so it’s also fair to ask how such a dramatic shift in policy came to be, that popes moved from denouncing bloodshed to demanding it in the name of God.

First through Fourth Crusades Routes / Wikimedia Commons

In one respect, the answer to that question is easy: these extended military raids stemmed from changes which took place outside Europe before the age of the Crusades, principally the growth and expansion of Islam. Indeed, Christian holy wars such as these bear a striking resemblance—and, no doubt, owe at least some of their existence—to the Moslem custom of the jihad, which by then had become a very successful Islamic institution. By translating the notion of a “holy warrior” into Christian terms, a succession of medieval popes and churchmen created the crusader, a “knight for Christ.”

In all fairness, however, the Crusades were more than just military exploits. They built and touched upon almost every aspect of life in the day, a fact that is especially clear when one looks at their outcome. First and foremost, if the popes who promoted the Crusades gained the authority to muster an army and send it on a mission—it should be noted that they never acquired the actual power of a field commander to oversee a battle or call for specific maneuvers, at least not during the Crusades—in the end, their excursion into the armed forces did more damage than good to the prestige of the papacy. By the last Crusade, many in Europe had come to see the Pope as just another war-mongering king, not the guardian of souls who stand before heaven’s gate.

But in other respects, these Church-sanctioned wars brought some benefit to Medieval Europe. For instance, crusading allowed westerners to take advantage of the much richer East for the first time since the days of ancient Rome. More important, it served as an outlet for Europe’s youth and aggression as population exploded during the High Middle Ages (1050-1300 CE). That is, sending young men off to fight in a holy cause stifled, if only briefly, the internal wars which had racked the West since the collapse of Roman government and forestalled the self-destruction that would again characterize European history in the centuries to come. Moreover, the mere fact that a few of these Crusades produced victories of some kind helped Europeans regain a sense of self-confidence—after centuries of losing on nearly every front imaginable, they finally turned the tables on their military and cultural superiors to the east—the resulting surge of optimism that followed the minority of Crusades which eked out some measure of success contributed in no small way to the glorious twelfth-century renaissance in art and literature which swept Europe during the High Middle Ages.

But when these meager triumphs are tallied up against the casualties and mayhem resulting from the Crusades, it’s hard to say they were worth it, especially in the long run. For instance, crusading brought no significant new territories or allies into the European cultural sphere—at best, it can be said it opened the door slightly for western traders to do business abroad, but even that proved harmful by making the Church seem commercial and greedy—and worse yet, the enormous drain of energy and manpower won the West little more than increased antagonism with its neighbors in the East, a situation which still resonates in modern international relations. So, after they were all done, the Crusades didn’t look as much like God’s will as a catastrophic mistake.

And for those living in the Near East during this period it’s fair to say the results of these invasions—”Viking raids” is how many in the Islamic world saw, and still do see, the Crusades—were entirely negative. To the highly civilized and peaceful states there, the crusaders were marauders who left behind in their wake little more than bloodshed, turmoil, ashes and a well-earned hatred, an animus subsequently extended to all Europeans. Indeed, it is as hard to build a case that the Moslem East benefited in any way from the Crusades as it is to argue that the Huns brought blessings to Europe seven centuries prior.

But there’s another way to situate and see the Crusades in history, not by looking back at their origins and causes—the way historians ever since Herodotus have tended to do—instead, by peering into the future, we can examine them not as a consequence but a cause, as the overture to something more significant than failed attacks on the Near East. Underlying the crusaders’ excursions was the impulse to migrate and conquer, the same drive which had long before pushed their Indo-European forebears out of their homeland and across Eurasia. If the Crusades proved unsuccessful attempts at expansion, it is safe to assert that they nudged Europe out of the deep provincialism, that uncharacteristically non-Indo-European mode in which it had been mired since the onset of the Middle Ages.

Indeed, not since the days of ancient Rome had westerners found many viable opportunities to expand their horizons in any respect—not just militarily but also economically, culturally and politically—crusading, however, gave them a glimpse of the larger world that lay beyond their immediate frontiers. This taste of the globe sparked in them a curiosity about life beyond Europe, which, in turn, helped to lay the groundwork for the colonial period to follow. In fact, one can argue that the Crusades of the twelfth century, not Columbus’ expeditions three centuries later, mark the real onset of Western expansionism, arguably the single most significant development in the millennium just past. Only the crusaders, modern Europe’s first colonists of a sort, headed the wrong direction: east, not west.

However they presaged the future, in their day the Crusades were a dark moment in the Dark Ages, less a series of misguided adventures than Medieval Europe’s “Lost Weekend,” that is, a drunken binge from which one wakes up having only vague memories of what happened, and with whom. So, in the end, the issue which stands at the forefront here is not so much their consequences or place in history as why the Crusades happened at all, what created the powerful cocktail of religious zealotry, overpopulation, ignorance and bigotry which westerners so eagerly downed, only to come to their senses in a century or so and realize what havoc they’d wrought. In many ways, we today are still nursing that hangover.

The First Crusade, 1096-1099 CE

The Causes and Excuses of the First Crusade

The spark that set off the Crusades was struck not in Europe but the East, when the Byzantines first confronted a new Moslem force, the Seljuk Turks. Originally an Asian horde which, like the Huns of earlier times, had penetrated far into the West, the Seljuk Turks controlled much of the Near East by the eleventh century CE. With Persia in their grip—including Baghdad, the capital of the Moslem world—they had converted to Islam en masse and presented a truly terrifying prospect: “Moslem Huns,” or Mongol jihaders. The Byzantines were right to be concerned.

Worry quickly turned to panic when Turkish forces began expanding into eastern Asia Minor. Meeting the Turks at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 CE, the Byzantines were badly defeated and stood on the verge of losing the whole of Asia Minor to Turkish onslaught. Casting about for help and seeing none nearby, they resorted to what must have seemed to them a last resort, appealing to the West for aid.

Christian Pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem / Wikimedia Commons

Ever since Justinian’s Gothic Wars and the Byzantines’ subsequent failure to impose iconoclasm on the West—to name but a few of their past religious and political differences—Byzantium and Western Europe had long suffered strained relations. This tension grew to such a pitch that, by the middle of eleventh century (during the 1050’s CE), they splintered into separate sects: the Catholic Church based in Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Church in Constantinople. The result was that, by the time of the Crusades, the Christians of Western Europe might as well have belonged to a different religion from their brethren in the Middle East. To re-open the channels of communication between these former allies who did not speak the same language and had not fought side-by-side for centuries, seemed impossible, but with Islamicized Mongols poised on one’s border, the impossible starts looking like a reasonable option.

Portrait of Emperor Alexius I, from a Greek manuscript / Wikimedia Commons

This situation was also having a minor but immediate impact on the West as well. The few direct contacts between Moslems and Europeans in this day were largely the result of Christian pilgrims wending their way to Jerusalem and the Holy Lands. Prior to the Turkish takeover, Moslems had not actively prevented their coming and going. Indeed, Moslems in the day must have chuckled a little at these pale northern pilgrims, a harmless if rather misguided lot who, like children imitating adults, were attempting to incorporate into their unenlightened religion the sacred hajj. These comfortable Easterners could not have imagined how much of Islam Christians would soon be borrowing.

As Byzantine-Turkish antagonism escalated in the late eleventh century, it had become increasingly difficult for Christian pilgrims, or anyone for that matter, to pass through Asia Minor and Syria safely and reach the Holy Lands. Looking for ways to leverage military assistance from the West, some sort of bargaining chip he could play, the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus used this conflict with the Turks and its impact on Christian pilgrimage and tourism as the basis of an appeal for Western aid. Writing to the Church in Rome, he intentionally spread stories—some corroborated, some not—of Turkish atrocities against Christians in Asia Minor and then offered an enticement he knew was virtually irresistible to the Pope. He proposed reunifying the recently severed Eastern and Western Churches.

The Call for a Crusade

That was chum no school of cardinals could resist. Pope Urban II warmly embraced the idea of helping Europe’s “beleaguered allies” and fellow Christians in the East, so he proposed a holy war—a radical shift in Christian doctrine, to say the least—and explained this maneuver not as any substantive change of direction but as an extension of a policy already in place entitled the Truce of God. This program of measures was part of the Church’s attempt to limit warfare within Europe in the day by insisting there be no fighting on holidays or weekends.

In Urban’s crafty hands, the Truce of God was remolded into a declaration ending all wars in which Christian fought Christian, deflecting European militarism toward what was perceived as the “real” enemy now, the Moslem infidels in the East. Thus seen ideologically, the Crusades were the culmination of a “peace” movement, as illogical as that may sound. Needless to say, it took some monumental re-reading of the New Testament where, at least on the surface, war is hardly the preferred vehicle of peace, but in those days the Pope had the advantage of being one of the few in Europe who could read at all, much less re-read.

Christ Leading Crusaders from medieval manuscript / Wikimedia Commons

In giving knights a holy vocation and calling them “the vassals of Christ,” Urban II was granting anyone who joined his crusade an automatic indulgence—namely, the forgiveness of all prior sins—so then, instead of paying penance for murder, killing could spell a sinner’s salvation, as long as he slew the right sort of person, a Moslem that is. Not since “Die for Rome!,” had Europeans heard such a stirring advertisement and, when Urban began to sense how well this was going to work, he took his marketing campaign on the road.

In a spell-binding speech before a crowd of French knights, Urban exhorted his adherents to win back “the land of milk and honey” and avenge the Turkish atrocities allegedly perpetrated against their fellow Christians. He cited several of the gory details sent to him by Alexius Comnenus and ended by bidding them fight “for the remission of your sins, with the assurance of imperishable glory.” No matter his actual words, “Kill Moslems indiscriminately!” is what the crowd understood him to say and chanted back Deus le vult! Deus le vult!” (“God wills it! God wills it!”)

From the perspective of history, however, it’s clear that there was much more than religious frenzy at work here. The Crusades reflect other aspects of life in Europe at that time, in particular, its burgeoning population, one of the most significant features of the High Middle Ages. As destructive invasions like those of the Vikings had begun to abate around the turn of the millennium (ca. 1000 CE) and a relative calm had followed, the continent had quickly repopulated. It’s difficult not to conclude, then, that the Crusades, a century later, are tied to the rapidly changing demographics within Europe, since the first three come almost exactly forty years apart, in other words, at intervals of about a generation and a half. If so, they are, in one respect, a means of bleeding off the ever-replenishing supply of young warriors, especially sons without inheritances or livelihoods and, in general, people seeking some purpose and direction in life.

And there were political forces at work as well, since the Crusades were also tied to the Investiture Controversy, the struggle for power between the rising authority of the Pope and the ruling political system in the day. From the papal perspective, the kings of Europe had long intruded upon the sacred right of the Pope to run his own business—that is, to choose the men who constituted the Church’s administration—and in calling the First Crusade, Urban II shifted the theatre of action in this political conflict to an arena where medieval kings had traditionally reigned supreme, the battlefield. In doing so, Urban usurped the prerogative most secular rulers had claimed traditionally to declare an enemy and muster troops for battle.

Worse yet, by reinterpreting the Truce of God as a warrant for Europeans to kill Moslems and not each other, he also sought to embarrass secular leaders for all their intra-European wars which now looked positively “un-Christian.” Never mind that the Church had for centuries up until then sanctioned European-upon-European carnage, just not on certain days. Nevertheless, popes briefly owned the momentum and set the spin. In other words, the Crusades gave them, if only for a minute by historical standards, the opportunity to redefine the rules of the game.

The Burning of Jews prior to the First Crusade, from a medieval manuscript / Wikimedia Commons

But for all these underlying causes, the major motivation driving the Crusades—both on the surface and well beneath it—was religious sentiment, something bordering on hysteria. There can be no doubt that a majority of Christian Europeans saw Urban’s call-to-arms as a means to salvation and a way of ridding the world of infidels. That, to them, referred not only to the Moslems but also the Jews of Europe, many of whom were slaughtered before the knights of the First Crusade rolled out in search of the Holy Lands. After all, good Christians couldn’t send their men off to fight one infidel and abandon the homeland to another. With this benighted stab at genocide pitched as protecting the loved ones they left behind, the crusaders surged out of Europe on a tidal bore of blood, only to wash up on the shores of the Near East soon to be bathed in more of the same.

The History of the First Crusade

The First Crusade began in 1096 CE, when Christian knights began to assemble from all over Europe and move toward Constantinople. The Byzantines were horrified to see hordes of Western Europeans knocking at their doors, particularly because most of the crusaders were poor and, worse still, poorly armed. When he had made his initial request, Alexius Comnenus was not asking the Pope for mobs of indigent desperadoes but a small force of skilled fighters who could help him repulse the Turks. To the Byzantines, this multitude was no army but a different sort of invasion.

The lowest estimate of the crusaders’ force is indeed around 25,000—and there were probably far more, perhaps as many as 100,000—and as far as the Byzantines were concerned, it was an uncivilized, ill-equipped throng driven by a fanaticism as poorly cloaked in words of faith and brotherhood as their ragged flesh. Moreover, the crusaders’ aims corresponded little with those of the Byzantines who were seeking to stem the tide of Turkish aggression. The Europeans, on the other hand, entertained fantasies of “liberating” Jerusalem and the Holy Lands from Moslem oppression; thus, neither understood or even listened to the others’ words.

Crusaders catapulting heads inside a city, from a medieval manuscript / Wikimedia Commons

As a result, the Byzantines acted in a fashion typical of Easterners, from the Western European perspective at least. Following a long-standing policy of baffling, stalling and deceiving intrusive foreigners, Alexius Comnenus greeted the crusaders with cold but reasonable hospitality and, as soon as it was feasible, escorted them through his kingdom and beyond the eastern boundaries of the Byzantine Empire, vowing that military and financial support would follow. Once they were gone, however, the Emperor promptly reneged on his deal and slammed the gate shut, preventing their return. Surely, he thought the Turks would make quick work of them and he would be free of this pest, but the Byzantines grossly underestimated the crusaders’ will and, by defaulting on his pledge of support, he earned Europe’s distrust. Byzantium was now as much the crusaders’ foe as any Moslem state.

At length and against all odds, many of the crusaders survived this betrayal. After all, as poor folk, most of them were used to getting by on little food and few comforts. Indeed drawn onward by their religious convictions, they managed to get further than anyone would have guessed, making it all the way to Syria, in fact, and somehow engineering the capture of the capital city Antioch in June of 1098 CE.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jersualem / Wikimedia Commons

Though it proved a long and arduous siege, this victory gave new life to their cause and, continuing south, they pushed their way into the Holy Lands where they besieged and took Jerusalem the next year (1099 CE). Instrumental in that success was a brutality astonishing in its barbarity and ruthlessness, bloody enough to make a Viking proud. Of course, most of these marauders were Vikings, genetically or culturally.

Treating the defeated as no better than animals, the crusaders ravaged whole populations. For instance, after they captured Antioch, they exterminated all the Turks there. Later, following the sack of Jerusalem, they boasted of their own savagery, claiming “We rode in the blood of the infidels up to the knees of our horses”—if true, this is horrific, and if invented history, it’s almost worse—whatever the case, the crusaders’ disregard of basic human decency has struck few over time as anything but utterly repugnant. To wit, a non-crusader Christian who witnessed their wanton cruelty wrote:

If you had been there, you would have seen our feet colored to our ankles with the blood of the slain. But what more shall I relate? None of our people were left alive: neither women nor children were spared . . . And after they were done with the slaughter, they went to the Sepulcher of the Lord to pray.

Krak des Chevaliers, Crusader castle in Syria / Wikimedia Commons

Worse yet, few crusaders had any long-term interest in settling the Holy Lands. With Jerusalem now seemingly secure in Christian hands, most of its western assailants opted to return home, where they were hailed as heroes. Some, however, stayed and set up Christian-run governments, the four so-called Crusader states, along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. There, they built European-style castles called kraks. It’s somewhat disconcerting to look across Syria today and see crumbling medieval castles of a sort one would expect to find in England or France. Thus, along with the other devastations they wrought—such as the enmity they inspired between East and West—the crusaders brought enormous disharmony to the cultural landscape of this area, arguably one of the more enduring legacies of their outrage.

The Second and Third Crusades

The Second Crusade

The Second Crusade (1147-1148 CE) is the heir, so to speak, of the First. Not only did the Second Crusade follow a generation or so after the First—indeed, a number of its soldiers were the actual descendants of those who had gone on the First Crusade—but the later crusade was also precipitated by the earlier one. Thus, in more ways than one, the First Crusade sired the Second.

Crusaders and Muslims, from a medieval manuscript / Wikimedia Commons

In the decades following the First Crusade, the Christian overlords of the Crusader States failed to integrate themselves into Middle Eastern society in any meaningful way. Despised by the natives for their imperious and condescending manner, many turned out to be cruel and abusive despots. Though a minority proved kinder and gentler, the general impression their rule left behind was far from favorable. Even their fellow Christians disliked them, as witnessed by one churchman who wrote home complaining:

They devoted themselves to all kinds of debauchery and allowed their womenfolk to spend whole nights at wild parties; they mixed with trashy people and drank the most delicious wines.

Such a situation cannot endure for long, and indeed in 1144 CE, one of the Crusader states fell back into Moslem hands.

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, from an altarpiece / Wikimedia Commons

This re-ignited crusading fever in Europe and led to the call for a follow-up crusade to re-secure the Holy Lands in the name of Christ. No less than Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, perceived by many to be the “holiest” man of the day, endorsed the notion of a new crusade, and his sanction drew in many of the leading figures and kings in Europe. Bernard, however, had the sense to protect the homeland first and forbade the massacre of Jews, the sad overture that had opened the earlier Crusade.

In the end, however, the Second Crusade proved a dismal failure. This time, the Byzantines and the Turks were ready for the “Franks” as they called them—that is, western barbarian invaders—and plotted together to exterminate them. Thus, betrayed on both sides, by Byzantium and Turkish forces, the Second Crusade was nearly obliterated as the crusaders tried to pass through Asia Minor.

What little of the expedition made it to the Holy Lands only ended up fighting with the survivors and descendants of the First Crusade who saw this new European incursion as a band of thugs sent to rob them of their lands. The result was that most participants in the Second Crusade returned to Europe empty-handed, such a pitiful troupe that Saint Bernard was forced to admit, “I must call him blessed who is not tainted by this.” That killed most Europeans’ interest in crusading, for another generation at least.

The Third Crusade

One of the few contemporary depictions of Saladin from an Arab Manuscript / Wikimedia Commons

The Third Crusade (1189-1193 CE) was, as the one before it, precipitated by yet another turnover of power in the Middle East. In Egypt, a new Moslem leader arose named Saladin (r. 1169-1193 CE). He recaptured Syria and much of the Holy Lands, including Jerusalem in 1187 CE. So forceful was his assault that the Crusader States were reduced to little more than the port of Tyre and a few castles.

Richard I, the Lion-Hearted from a medieval manuscript / Wikimedia Commons

With Jerusalem no longer in Christian hands, some sort of reprisal was called for—another crusade, of course—but this time one that was well-organized and well-equipped, and no one better to do that than the foremost regents of Europe: the kings of Germany, France and England. Thus, the German emperor Frederick Barbarossa, the French king Philip Augustus and Richard the Lion-hearted, the King of England, pushed aside their political differences and joined forces in the name of God to avenge this affront to Christendom at large. And this large, well-funded, planned-out triple-threat had no chance for success, if for no other reason than that it was triple.

Three-headed freaks like the Third Crusade rarely live very long. First, Frederick drowned while crossing a river, either of a heart attack or because he fell off his horse and his armor was so heavy he couldn’t swim back up to the surface. His troops, now leaderless, turned back. Next, Philip and Richard quarreled—and if one believes the court gossip of the time, they certainly had personal issues to work out—and Philip went back to France. Richard was left alone with his forces, not enough of an army to retake Jerusalem on its own but they continued anyway. When he reached the Middle East, Richard met Saladin and, after a bit of jousting and some general medieval male-bonding if one can trust the accounts from the day, they managed to forge an agreement to let Christians visit the Holy Lands without being hassled. But making deals with Moslems was, to many in Europe, not the point of crusading.

Richard’s stock dropped precipitously, and on his way home, he was captured, not by any Moslem foe, but by Germans—in fact, his former ally Frederick Barbarossa’s son—and was imprisoned and was held in exchange for the payment of an exorbitant sum. This 100,000 pounds, literally a “king’s ransom,” nearly bankrupted England and left John, Richard’s brother, regent and successor, in deep debt and trouble. The Crusades were now one for three.

The Fourth Crusade, 1201-1204 CE

If crusading was to continue at all, it was going to need some serious restructuring. Having failed in so many respects, the Third Crusade entailed disappointments no one in Europe could ignore. For one, it hadn’t returned Jerusalem and the Holy Lands to Christian control. For another, it had led to bitter in-fighting within Europe—which ran directly counter to its Truce-of-God mission to repress wars on the home front and that was, at least in part, because it hadn’t deflected the restless aggression of Europe’s knights outside the West—by these standards, the Third Crusade might as well not have happened at all, which helps to explain why the Fourth Crusade followed so quickly on its heels.

Pope Innocent III from a medieval manuscript / Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, there were other changes afoot within the European community. In particular, by the beginning of the thirteenth century, the papacy had found a strong advocate in Innocent III, the most effective pope in medieval history. This young, intelligent pontiff had been trained in law and thus spoke the language of international diplomacy better than most political rulers in Europe, indeed as well as the best statesmen ever have. His ability to craft strategies promoting the interests of the Church and to put them into effect is unparalleled in Western history, so he gave the next crusade a professional appearance of a sort the Crusades had never enjoyed before. Nevertheless, Europe would soon learn that amateurism really suited crusading better.

Yet with Innocent spearheading the venture, it was bound to succeed somehow. The pontiff began by doing his history homework from which he devised a means to avoid the hazards which had scuttled the last two Crusades. What had drowned the most recent one was the division of leadership among three kings, and Innocent resolved to avoid that error by putting himself in charge alone. What had foundered the Second Crusade was the treachery of the double-dealing Byzantines, so the decision was made to send the next wave of crusaders by sea, enabling them to avoid Byzantium completely—that the Fourth Crusade would eventually end up in downtown Constantinople is a rousing tribute to human folly, not an indictment of Innocent’s plan—and if everything had gone the way he arranged it, it would have been a perfectly fine Crusade. But the best-laid plans of popes and men . . .

Innocent arranged to contract ships and supplies from the port city of Venice, by now a great sea-power, and it looked like smooth sailing—on paper, at least, which is what lawyer-popes tend to look at—but problems developed before this Crusade even got on board. All participants thought someone else was paying for the “rental” of the ships. So, when the crusaders began to arrive in Venice and were greeted with outstretched hands but no one had any money to offer, the deal nearly fell through.

There are more ways than one, however, for a large contingent of warriors to earn their passage across the sea. For instance, Zara, one of Venice’s subject states on the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea, had recently revolted from the city’s burgeoning maritime empire and, to avoid Venetian reprisal, the people of Zara had delivered their city into the Pope’s warm and all-welcoming embrace. Zara was now part of the Papal States, a growing “mutual fund” owned and managed by the Roman Church.

In exchange for cash-on-delivery, the Venetians contracted with the crusaders to stop in at Zara on their way out east and force it back under Venice’s thumb. Such an agreement was certainly not part of Innocent’s plan for this Crusade—that is, his goals did not include that the crusaders he’d assembled would strip his papacy of newly-won territory—and when he learned about their agreement with the Venetians, he withdrew his support of the Crusade, along with his funding. And when that didn’t stop them, he laid a writ of excommunication on them all—that is, he effectively ousted them from the Church, condemning their souls to perdition—but that, too, made exactly zero difference in their arrangements. The crusaders sailed to Zara and duly delivered it back into Venetian hands.

While lingering in the area, the crusaders came across a Byzantine exile, a pretender to the throne who had recently been exiled from Byzantium and who offered them a substantial sum if they would make him the emperor. With the sanction of the Venetians who saw nothing but advantage in causing turmoil within Byzantium, their trading rival in the Mediterranean, the crusaders were again diverted from the Holy Lands. This time they headed in the direction of Constantinople.

There, the crusaders’ approach inspired considerable panic among the Byzantines, not an unreasonable reaction as this now well-funded, sea-borne assault force bore down on them. The reigning Emperor, along with many others, fled the city. Thus, meeting no real resistance, the crusaders entered the capital and set their “Latin” nominee for Emperor on the throne, then turned around and headed for the Holy Lands at last—so far, this expedition could hardly be called a crusade, more a floating band of hitmen-for-hire—but now these Zara-siegers and Byzantine-kingmakers were at last on their way to becoming true crusaders and Moslem killers, for the moment anyway.

They had hardly left the harbor at Constantinople when their “Latin” pretender was murdered. After the news of his assassination reached them, the crusaders turned their ships around and headed back to secure the situation, if for nothing else, to fortify their supply lines. Their earlier treacheries would now come back to haunt the Byzantines. When the crusaders found the city bolted tight against them, the stage was set for a siege and the odds were strongly in the Byzantines’ favor. In all the centuries since its founding by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century, Constantinople had never succumbed to an assault from the outside.

Sack of Constantinople, 1204 CE, from a medieval manuscript / Wikimedia Commons

But contrary to historical precedent, these crusading marauders who seemed determined to fight anyone but Moslems accomplished the seemingly impossible. At long last the heavens failed Byzantium and its capital city fell to siege for the first time ever, and not at the hands of Moslems or Vikings or Mongols—not that all of those hadn’t at some point tried to take Constantinople—but to the descendants of the Byzantines’ closest relatives, western Europeans, the other heirs of Rome. To put it another way, when Constantine’s “New Rome” finally went down, the culprit was the original Rome.

The resulting Sack of Constantinople in 1204 CE lasted three days, though its tremors are still felt today. For one, the great library there was destroyed when the crusaders ransacked it, even stabling their horses inside—it’s horrifying to think how much ancient learning and literature was lost in that catastrophe—it’s almost certain the complete works of some ancient authors whose writings now exist only in tattered fragments, some entirely lost, were housed in this library once. Worse yet, the fire set in that dark year became a cataclysmic blaze two centuries later.

Byzantine Horses on the Cathedral of St. Mark’s in Venice / Wikimedia Commons

In 1453 CE, the Turks relit the flames of siege and took the city once and for all, exterminating Byzantium at long last. Thus, ironically, it was the Christian crusaders’ siege of Constantinople that paved the way for the Moslems’ eventual takeover of the entire area. Constantinople is now Istanbul, part of the Islamic world.

In besieging two cities—neither of which was Moslem at the time—the men of the Fourth Crusade clearly thought they had done enough. Feeling no particular need to proceed on to the Holy Lands, they returned to Europe with their spoils of conquest, and given that they had briefly re-united East and West, healing momentarily the schism in the Church, Innocent III had little choice but to forgive and “re-communicate” these crusaders. So, they paraded in triumph, bearing the plunder of the East: gold, relics and all sorts of memorabilia, though very few books of learning. In fact, remarkably little of any intellectual substance would come of the ransacked Byzantines. It was as if all Europe in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade was collectively wearing a souvenir t-shirt that read, “My uncle sacked Constantinople, and all I got was a big bronze horse.”

The Last Crusades

The next wave of crusading came soon after the Fourth Crusade which, like the Third, had depleted little of Europe’s material resources or manpower. A perceived success in hindsight, the siege of Constantinople reinvigorated Western Europeans’ interest in religious warfare with the East. None of the subsequent crusades, however, resembled their immediate forebears much—certainly not in constituency or outcome—which should probably be counted as a blessing.

Called by Innocent III in 1208 CE, the so-called Albigensian Crusade took many years to complete. Moreover, it was directed not against the Moslem East but at lands inside Europe, a dramatic shift in focus for something dubbed a Crusade. The ostensible aim of this campaign was to rid southern France of the Albigensians, a heretical sect who refused to recognize the authority of the Church—shades of the Gnostics!—which makes it more of a “papal” war than a Crusade really, at least inasmuch as it promoted fighting inside Europe.

But the days when the Crusades had to be excused as an extension of the “Truce of God” were by then long past—the Crusades were now accepted for what they’d always really been, military missions launched against the Church’s, or at least the Pope’s enemies—even so, the rewards were still the same. Namely, one could still earn a place in heaven not only by fighting “infidels” but now also one’s neighbors in Europe. This proved very attractive to many since it was much less risky to go on a Crusade close to home, as opposed to trekking hundreds of miles across hostile and sometimes barren lands to rescue Jerusalem from ungrateful heathens.

As evidence of just how hard it was to mount a foreign expedition, no western army had even come near the holy city since Richard shook lances with Saladin. Still, not even trying to head east seemed to many so far from the true spirit of crusading that Innocent’s campaign against southern France was never numbered with the other Crusades. History and its own age agreed: this was not the “Fifth Crusade” but the “Albigensian Crusade,” and that says it all.

Matthew Paris from a medieval manuscript / Wikimedia Commons

What no Crusade since the Second had achieved, the mass exportation of European aggression and manpower outside the West, the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221 CE) at last accomplished. It killed thousands of disenfranchised Europe-born hotheads and bled off their pent-up hostility far away from their homeland, even though this expedition to the East was still not aimed squarely at the Holy Lands. Sent by sea to Egypt instead—after all, ocean travel had been good to the men of the Fourth Crusade—these benighted knights landed on the shores of the Nile just at the time of its annual flood. Trapped in high waters, they met a collective watery death at the hands of the natives there.

With this, the consequences of the ignorance which had embraced the West since the Fall of Rome were now fully apparent. For, if these crusaders had read their Herodotus, they would have known about the flooding of the Nile, but since virtually no one in Europe could read Greek, how could they have anticipated the perils they faced? The Fifth Crusade stands alone as one of the best arguments ever for the practical merits of studying history—and the value of a liberal education.

Bust of Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor / Wikimedia Commons

Like the Albigensian Crusade, the next European expedition to the East is not numbered either, this one also disqualified for being too far from the spirit of crusading. Dubbed Frederick’s Crusade (1228-1229 CE) because its leader was the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, it was neither called for nor sanctioned by the papacy but was, in fact, an attempt to forge peaceable relations with the Middle East. Even after Frederick managed to return Jerusalem to Christian control, the pope would not acknowledge it as a “Crusade”—if Innocent III had still been alive, he might have appreciated the emperor’s ambassadorial finesse but Innocent had died by then—the problem was Frederick had achieved his objective not through force of war but by diplomacy, and negotiation was not the point of crusading, any more than promoting war within Europe was. Besides, Moslem forces retook Jerusalem soon thereafter, where it remained until very recently.

Seventh Crusade from a medieval manuscript / Wikimedia Commons

The last of these military expeditions are the Sixth and Seventh Crusades (1248 CE / 1270 CE). Each was led by Louis IX, the King of France, and both proved utter failures. Louis, in fact, died leading the latter and in neither came anywhere near the Holy Lands. These crusades did little more than ensure the King’s journey to canonization—his trip to Saint Louis, so to speak.

Acre aerial / Wikimedia Commons

So, when in 1291 CE the last Christian outpost in the Middle East, the port city of Acre, fell to Moslem forces, the Crusades were brought to an ignominious close. As a sign of this, at his great centennial Jubilee in 1300 CE, a celebration of Christianity’s might and longevity, Pope Boniface VIII offered indulgence to Christian pilgrims if they would “crusade” to Rome, not Jerusalem. It was the papacy’s veritable admission that crusading had failed, as if to say, “There’s no point anymore in fighting for the Holy Lands.”

The same door that closed the Crusades opened another path leading down one of the darkest stretches in European history. The series of self-destructive conflicts which erupted soon thereafter among the nations of Europe—the most notable of them was the Hundred Years’ War between France and England—these combined with the Black Death made for dismal days. As it turned out, the Crusades were not, in fact, the main event but a warm-up for the real “dance of death,” lying in wait and limbering its swollen loins.

The Results of the Crusades

As is so often true of history, the Crusades are more telling in their failures than their successes. Because of them, the credibility of the Pope as the agent of God on earth suffered irreparable damage in the Middle Ages, especially those Crusades that turned out not so well, which added up to virtually all of them in the long run. But even the ones that did succeed in some respect accomplished little real good over time.

For instance, laying the groundwork for the destruction of the Byzantine Empire can hardly be seen as a boon to Europe, if for no other reason than Byzantium no longer could serve as a buffer state against Moslem expansion to the west. That opened Eastern Europe to Turkish incursion, the consequences of which can still be seen in the recent interreligious conflicts that have ravaged the Balkan region. Ironically, then, the two parties which had instigated these grand experiments in foreign atrocity—the Byzantines and the papacy—suffered the most in the end.

In sum, by all reasonable standards none of the Crusades profited Europe much, certainly not in proportion to their cost. Only the First Crusade delivered any substantial and immediate gains. Moreover, the commercial progress, the extension of trade which might have followed in their wake, didn’t, as if that would excuse the extermination of so many souls. Besides, even then only the Venetians in the wake of the Fourth Crusade managed to advance their mercantile interests in the East long term. But, on the whole, was the toppling of Constantinople a fair price for this small gain? Few would say so today.

Still, to be fair to the complexity of these military expeditions, they surely amounted to “more than a romantic bloody fiasco,” as some historians claim, but if so, not much more. Yet there must be something to be learned from all this somehow. What that lesson that is, however, has not been determined so far. Until we decide what drove our ancestors to this mad exploit, how we became the enemy of our brethren in the East, we will find no safe path out of the morass of intolerance and animosity which characterizes Christian-Islamic relations in the modern world. No other aspect of life today makes it clearer that there can be no secure future as long as we continue to war over our past and what-really-happened back then.