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Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The Decline of Eastern Christianity: A Review

The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: 
From Jihad to Dhimmitude

Bat Ye’or
A Review by Dr. Helena P. Schrader

Bat Ye’or’s book is a comprehensive and significant work, which examines a topic far too often ignored in histories of the Middle East, Islam and the crusades: the fate, status and experience of Christians and Jews living under Muslim rule from the 6th to the 19th centuries. It is based on a wealth of documentary evidence drawn from Arab, Turkish, Armenian, Latin, Greek and Balkan sources. It includes a discussion of the sources and a 23 page-long bibliography. It also analyzes the historiography to date and provides an appendix of documentary evidence supporting her principle theses, translated into English, which encompasses 175 pages of evidence.

In short, this is an eminently well-researched and meticulously documented scholarly book rather than a polemical or popular work of history — which perhaps explains why it has not received the prominence it is due. Another factor contributing to the apparent neglect of this important work is that it depicts the fate and represents the views of the victims, who are now for the most part exterminated, forgotten and powerless, in contrast to narratives written from Arab/Islamic or Western European perspectives. I can’t help but wonder if the fact that Ms. Ye’or is an Egyptian, a woman, and a Jew but not a professor, has not also contributed to her work being unjustly slighted by academics, without anyone undertaking a serious refutation of her basic findings.

Ye’or notes that the most common terminology for Jews and Orthodox Christians in Muslim states is as “protected minorities.” This very term, she argues, is misleading. The Orthodox Christians were throughout most of the 1,300 years covered in this book the majority population of the states in which they lived. Second, they were not ‘protected’ but rather, in the course of more than a thousand years, gradually driven to near extinction. This book describes in great detail how that came about.

Ye’or is careful to note the acquiesce and indeed collaboration of key elites in the conquered communities. In the beginning, “treaties” with the ravaging nomadic tribes from the Arabian Peninsula seemed like common sense and self-defense once the imperial powers of Byzantium and Persia became too weak to protect the local population. Paying “tribute” seemed like the lesser evil to hopeless defiance.

Ye’or likewise describes without apology the rivalries and hatred between the various Christian sects and their anti-Semitism, factors that enabled the Muslim conquerors to effectively play the groups off against one another. She makes no secret of the religious fanaticism among some Christian monks, which undermined a sense of solidarity among the Christian subjects of Islam. Ye’or is also quick— and nowhere more bitter — than in pointing out that it was above all the religious leadership that profited from the new situation. Christian and Jewish leaders alike became the representatives of their respective communities and were made responsible for collecting the tribute and paying their Arab masters. This gave them greater autonomy than under the former Byzantine regime, while also offering multiple opportunities to enrich themselves. Last but not least, Ye’or freely acknowledges and highlights the degree to which some elites — secretaries and translators, accountants and bankers, merchants and professionals —adapted to the new situation and, in exchange for collaboration, were allowed to prosper — at the expense of the vast majority of the co-religionists.

Yet Ye’or musters overwhelming and almost numbing evidence that the vast majority of Christians and Jews living under Islamic regimes were subjected to frequent waves of violence punctuated by periods of oppression and humiliation. She describes how the repeated extortion of money, goods, livestock, and even children, reduced entire populations to such destitution that they abandoned their lands altogether and fled into the mountains to be hunted down like outlaws and wild beasts. She describes how the repeated raids by nomadic tribes turned entire regions into wastelands, because no crop could be sown much less harvested. “The once-flourishing villages of the Negev had already disappeared by about 700, and by the end of the eighth century the population had deserted the greater part of the region stretching from south of Gaza to Hebron, fleeing back northwards, abandoning ruined churches and synagogues.” (102) This depopulation and desertification of once-flourishing and densely populated regions, described in full by both Muslim and Christian chroniclers, was the result of the massive deportation of captives — that is the enslavement of entire populations.

Yet even during periods of comparative stability when the caliph and/or sultan was able to exert his authority over the tribes and, out of self-interest in the revenues derived through the exploitation of the subject peoples, prevent outright slaughter and deportation, the situation of the conquered non-Muslims was deplorable. The non-Muslim population enjoyed no legal protections because their word was considered worthless in an Islamic court. They were required by Sharia Law to live in smaller and more dilapidated houses. They were not allowed to build houses of worship, to conduct any religious rite or ceremony in public, and were prohibited from wearing symbols of their religion. They were required to wear distinctive clothing and carry proof that they had paid their taxes. They were forbidden from riding horses or camels and from bearing arms.  The Muslim population was actively encouraged to demonstrate contempt for non-Muslims by shoving them aside or otherwise demeaning them. And they were always just a false-move away from being robbed and beaten by the mob (or just hooligans) or enslaved for some alleged crime.

No, that is not the politically correct narrative that has been popular in Western Europe and the Islamic world for the last two centuries. But Ye’or has the evidence — the chronicles and the statistics — on her side.

Furthermore, as she notes, the treatment of the non-Islamic inhabitants of Dafur at the hands of the Muslim Sudanese rightly outraged the international community — yet this treatment is identical, indeed the formulaic, meticulously documented and theologically justified treatment of conquered populations in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Anatolia and the Balkans. The descriptions of the raids, extortion, capture of children, ransom of captives, enslavement and destruction of entire villages recorded by the UN and various aid organizations in Dafur read exactly like the chronicles describing Arab conquests in the Middle East in the sixth to ninth centuries. Why were Sudanese actions in Dafur “atrocities” and the Arab conquest of the Middle East and Balkans “enlightened”? Why are the peoples of Dafur victims and the Christians of Egypt, Palestine and Syria “protected” and “privileged”?

Tragically, the myth of Islamic tolerance is now so deeply embedded in modern perceptions of the medieval world that I will no doubt be vilified and insulted for writing and publishing this review. Yet it is precisely because this book challenges politically correct versions of history with irrefutable evidence drawn from contemporary sources, including Arab and Turkish sources, that this book deserves to be read and discussed — not ignored or dismissed. 

The status and contribution of Orthodox Christians to the crusader states is a constant theme of my novels set in the Holy Land in the era of the crusades: 

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Thursday, April 9, 2020

Saladin and Byzantium - An Unholy Alliance

The brutal sack of Constantinople in 1204 dominates discourse about the relationship between the crusaders and the Byzantine Empire. Yet, as important and shocking as it was, this one episode should not be allowed to obscure everything that preceded and followed it. Relations between Byzantium and the crusader states were complex and fraught with misunderstandings and mutual misconceptions, but they were also punctuated by periods of cooperation. 
Equally important: the Byzantines were not innocent lambs devoured by evil Latin wolves. Rather, the attack on Constantinople had its roots in actions taken by the Byzantines themselves, one of the most important of which was an alliance forged with Saladin with the goal of destroying the Crusader States. 

Andronicus I Comnenus swept into power on the back of fervent anti-Latin feelings, directed against the Dowager Empress Marie of Antioch, who was regent for her underaged son Alexius II, the son of Manuel I. Following anti-Latin riots in Constantinople in 1182 in which the Genoese and Pisan residents of the city were slaughtered, Andronicus seized power. He had Empress Marie and her lover murdered, and in September 1183 had himself crowned co-emperor with Alexius. Within two months, he had strangled Alexius and seized sole power for himself, "legitimizing" his actions by marrying the murdered Alexius' 13-year-old bride.

While his domestic policies included attempts to fight corruption and reform the administration of the Empire particularly in the provinces, his foreign policy consisted fundamentally of a repudiation of Manuel I Comnenus' pro-Western policies and alliances with the crusader states. Significantly, Andronicus had been an exile from Manuel's court and had fled to Damascus and Baghdad, where he had been well-received by Nur al-Din. 

In June 1185, two years into his reign as Byzantine Emperor, Andronicus sent an envoy to Saladin, Nur al-Din's successor, proposing a treaty of alliance between their empires. The purpose of the proposed alliance was the destruction of the crusader states. After a successful conquest of the crusader states, the Byzantine Emperor generously offered to divide the spoils, by retaining Jerusalem and all the (wealthy) coastal cities for himself and giving the rest (Transjordan?) to Saladin. All Andronicus required of Saladin was an oath of homage and the promise to render assistance to the Eastern Roman Empire whenever requested. One can only imagine Saladin's response for it is not recorded, but it is not hard to imagine that he laughed out loud at so much unfounded insolence.

Before Saladin's ambassadors with his official response could reach Constantinople, Andronicus was savagely torn to pieces by the mob in Constantinople and replaced by a  man who had rebelled against him and himself faced arrest and execution: Isaac Angelus. The latter had also sought refuge in the court of Damascus along with his elder brother, Alexis, who was still there at the time Isaac was acclaimed emperor by the mob. Isaac used this fact to renegotiate the treaty with Saladin, which was duly confirmed by an imperial decree. 

Isaac then recalled his brother, but Alexis foolishly chose to return to Constantinople by way of Acre. It was now 1186, the King of Jerusalem was Baldwin V, a child, and the regent of the kingdom was the savvy Raymond of Tripoli -- who was himself well-connected in Saladin's court. He certainly had wind of the new alliance between Isaac and Saladin targeting Jerusalem, and he promptly imprisoned Alexis. 

An outraged Isaac pressured Saladin to attack Jerusalem and free his brother. Saladin did both -- although it is unlikely he did so as a favor to the Byzantine Emperor. By January 1188, Saladin was in control of the entire kingdom except for Tyre, and the terms of the treaty with Constantinople were completely irrelevant. Saladin made no move to surrender any territory to the Byzantines, but he did allow the Greek Orthodox Church to take control of the Christian shrines in the newly occupied territories. 

Meanwhile, the Western European powers were preparing to mount a major campaign to re-take the Holy Land. Arab accounts suggest that Saladin was genuinely unsettled. He was particularly concerned about the prospect of the Holy Roman Emperor, Friederick Barbarossa, bringing a large army to the Near East. It was now Saladin's turn to make demands based on the alliance with Byzantium: he sent ambassadors to Constantinople to re-negotiate the terms of the anti-Western alliance. He expected the Byzantines prevent -- or at least harass, delay, and impede -- the passage of any crusading armies entering Byzantine territory. Isaac happily agreed to the new terms.

The contents of the treaty did not remain secret. By September of 1188, Conrad de Montferrat sent letters to the West detailing the extent of Byzantine treachery. It must be remembered, that Conrad had himself been married to a Byzantine princess and his brother Rainier had been Emperor Manuel I's son-in-law, the husband of Manual's daughter Maria. Both Rainier de Montferrat and his imperial wife had been murdered in Constantinople at the same time as Marie of Antioch. Conrad had friends in Constantinople, because many there opposed Isaac's anti-Christian alliance. Allegedly, in return for preventing any crusading armies from reaching the Middle East, Saladin promised to restore Jerusalem and Palestine to Constantinople. In addition, a clause envisaged a joint campaign to reconquer Cyprus, which had rebelled and was independent, not yet a Latin kingdom. 

Isaac, however, maintained a facade of friendliness toward the West, negotiating with Frederick Barbarossa for the passage of his armies "unmolested," and promising to provide markets and ensure a "fair exchange" of currency.  Just before the Holy Roman Emperor set out on crusade in May 1189, he sent envoys to Constantinople to announce his impending arrival. They were promptly imprisoned and their horses and possessions turned over to Saladin's representatives in the Byzantine capital. 

That did not stop Frederick Barbarossa. When the German crusaders found no markets ready to sell them provisions, they 'foraged' for whatever they needed. When units of the Byzantine military poorly disguised as 'bandits' harassed them, they destroyed them. From Nish to Sofia, Barbarossa drove the Byzantines out if their fortifications and at Philippopolis defeated them soundly. He ravaged Thrace from Enos to Thessalonica demanding the release of his ambassadors, but he resisted pressure from within his own ranks to turn his army on Constantinople. Barbarossa remained true to his vow and his aim, which was the liberation of Jerusalem, not the conquest of a Christian country. 

In February 1190, Isaac finally recognized that Saladin wasn't going to do anything to help him stop Barbarossa and that without help he wasn't able to stop him. He signed the Treaty of Adrianople, which again promised markets and fair exchange rates. Isaac helped Barbarossa cross into Asia -- and reneged on all other aspects of the agreement. 

It didn't matter. The German Emperor soon crossed into the Sultanate of Rum, where he promptly and decisively defeated the Seljuk army at the Battle of Iconium. His tragic death four months later put an effective end to the German contribution to the Third Crusade -- but it was hardly Isaac's doing.

Saladin recognized this. Arab sources summarized the alliance with Constantinople as follows: "In truth, the Greek king has never succeeded in his enterprises; we gain nothing from his friendship, and need fear nothing from his enmity." (1)

But the damage to Byzantine relations with the West had already been done. Although the alliance between Damascus and Constantinople ended in 1192 it left a legacy of bitterness and mistrust. The West, particularly the Holy Roman Empire, viewed the Byzantines as duplicitous traitors to Christianity. Here, along with the massacres of the Italians in 1177 and again in 1182, are the seeds of the Fourth Crusade.

(1) Abu Samah, quoted in Charles Brand, "The Byzantines and Saladin, 1185-1192: Opponents of the Third Crusade," Journal of Mediaeval Studies, Vol. XXXVII, # 3, April 1962, 178.

The Third Crusade is the focus of "Envoy of Jerusalem," recognized as the Best Biography 2017 by Book Excellence Awards and as Best Christian Historical Fiction 2017 by Readers' Favorite Book Awards. Find out more at: