But first, let us recall just how Christian Jerusalem was. First and foremost, of course, it was the site of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, and a small Christian population lived in the city from the time of Christ onwards. Admittedly, it remained a predominantly Jewish city, despite the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, until the Romans expelled the entire Jewish population after renewed insurrection in 135.
Jerusalem was then rebuilt by Hadrian, given a new name (Aelia Capitolina) and Roman temples were built on the site of the old Jewish Temple and on the sites sacred to Christians. The objective was to humiliate Jews and Christians alike and, in the case of the Christians, to wipe out the association with Christ's life and certain sites. Furthermore, both Jews and Christians were expelled from Jerusalem and persecuted. Aelia Capitolina was a pagan city, and as such it was nothing more than provincial backwater of little importance to the Roman Empire.
For nearly 300 years thereafter, Jerusalem was one of the most important cities of the Eastern Roman Empire. Although unable to compete with Constantinople and Alexandria in terms of trade and industry, it was revered for its sacred traditions. Pilgrims flooded to the sacred sites providing a strong economic base that was reflected in construction of churches, monasteries, shops, inns and residences. The inhabitants of this revitalized city were primarily Christian, although Jews were allowed to return as well. The population exceeded 60,000 -- a very substantial population for this period.
For the next three hundred years, Islam continued to expand -- by the sword. Indeed, within the next fifteen years alone Syria, Persia, Anatolia, Egypt and Libya fell. These loses crippled the economy of the Eastern Roman Empire, and in 655 the Byzantine navy was also effectively destroyed in a major engagement that left Constantinople incapable of providing support to the far-flung outposts of the Eastern Empire.
The following year, however, the Shia-Sunni split led to the first civil war within the Dar al-Islam (the House of Islam) lasting from 656-661. At roughly the same time, Arab invaders encountered serious resistance from the Berbers in North Africa.
By 678, however, the forces of Islam were again so powerful that they launched an assault on Constantinople itself. The Byzantines fought off the assault with the aid of their massive walls and the use of a new weapon which became known as "Greek fire" - a napalm-based substance that was delivered in pottery vessels that broke on impact resulting in fires that could not be extinguished by water. The attacking Arabs suffered such severe losses that they agreed to a thirty year truce in the wake of defeat. Constantinople was temporarily saved, but the Eastern Roman Empire was in no position to defend its remaining Mediterranean territories, much less undertake an offensive to regain what had been lost. In 698, the mighty (Christian) city of Carthage fell to the advancing Muslim forces and by 700 Islam was ready to turn its violent tactics of "conversion" on Western Europe.
|A Crusade-Era container for "Greek Fire." Photographic credit: Amir Gorzalczany, Israel Antiquities Authority|
Meanwhile Arab rule of the conquered Christian territories from Syria to Spain was characterized by brutality, oppression and humiliation for their majority Christian subjects. (See The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise.) The small Arab elite ruled initially over populations that were overwhelmingly Christian. Due to the burdensome taxes, humiliations and oppression, however, more and more people chose to abandon their faith for the sake of economic gain. Yet conversion is a far slower process than invasion and occupation. To this day, even after 1,400 years of Muslim rule, there are significant Christian minorities in Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. Historians estimate that after four hundred years of occupation the inhabitants of formerly Christian territories was still roughly half Christian.
Knowing the history of Jerusalem is useful in understanding the thinking and attitudes of people in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem -- the context of my "Jerusalem" trilogy.
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