Post-classical history




WHEN MUHAMMAD IBN Abdallah first heard the word of God in or around the year 610, he had no intention of founding a world empire.

He was not even sure he was sane.

“Wrap me up!” the forty-year-old merchant said, shivering miserably as he crawled up to his wife, who threw a cloak around him and held him, stroking his hair as he wept. He had been meditating in his usual cave outside Mecca—a luxury afforded him by marriage to a rich widow fifteen years his senior—when the angel Gabriel appeared, threw him into a painful, ecstatic trance, and spoke to him the words of God. Muhammad was terrified that he was going mad and contemplated throwing himself off the mountain. But the voice kept coming back, and three years later Muhammad began to preach in public. Gradually the message emerged: the faith of Abraham and Jesus was the true faith, but it had become corrupted. There was one God, and He demanded islam—complete surrender.

This was bad news for the rulers of Mecca, who had grown fat on religious tourism to the city’s 360 shrines. Mecca had sprung up around a palmy oasis in the Hijaz, the baked barrier of mountains that stretches along the Red Sea coast of the Arabian Peninsula. Its authority radiated from the Kaaba, the square, squat sanctuary at its center that housed the Arabs’ chief idols. Every year hordes of pilgrims emerged from the desert, descended on the holy precinct, and circled the stone cube seven times, straining to kiss each corner before the press of bodies pushed them back into the whirl. Over time one tribe, the Quraysh, had orchestrated their guardianship of the Kaaba into a stranglehold on Mecca’s commercial lifeblood, and at first Muhammad’s revelations were aimed squarely at them. The greedy Quraysh, he accused, had severed the egalitarian threads of Arab society; they had exploited the weak, enslaved the poor, and neglected their duty to care for the needy and oppressed. God had taken note, and they would all go to hell.

What infuriated the Quraysh was not so much Muhammad’s talk of the one merciful God, or even his claim to be God’s mouthpiece. To the north a kingdom of Christian Arabs had existed for centuries, and in the Kaaba itself the figures of Jesus and Mary stood proud among the idols. Jewish migrants to Arabia had been influential for even longer; the Arabs considered themselves the Jews’ fellow descendants of Abraham, through his firstborn son, Ishmael, and many identified their high god with the god of the Jews. In Muhammad’s time poet-preachers perpetually roamed the deserts, exhorting their tribesmen to renounce idolatry and return to the pure monotheism of their forefathers. Nothing could be less controversial; what was uniquely intolerable was that Muhammad was an insider. His family clan, the Hashemites, was a minor branch of the Quraysh. He was a respected businessman and a small but solid pillar of the community, and he had turned on his own kind.

The Quraysh tried everything from bribes to boycotts to discredit the troublesome preacher, and finally they turned their hand to midnight assassination. Just in time Muhammad slipped out of his house, evaded the blade, and fled to a distant oasis settlement that would become known as Medina, the City of the Prophet. There, as his following grew, he implemented the radically new society he had only dreamed of in Mecca: an ummah, or community of equals, united not by birth but by allegiance, bound by laws that gave unprecedented rights to women and redistributed wealth to the neediest. As the revelations continued, he began to believe that God had chosen him not just to deliver a warning to his tribe but to be a Messenger to humanity.

For his message to spread, he first had to reckon with Mecca. Eight years of ferocious wars with the Quraysh bloodied the establishment of Islam. At the darkest hour, his face smashed up and smeared with blood, Muhammad was dragged from the battlefield by one of his warriors, and only the rumor that he was dead saved the remnants of his army. The ummah’s morale was crushed, and it was about then that Muhammad made his fighters a promise that would echo through history. The slain in battle, it was revealed to him, would be swept up to the highest level of Paradise: “They shall be lodged in peace together, amid gardens and fountains, arrayed in rich silks and fine brocade. . . . We shall wed them to dark-eyed houris.”

The Muslims—“those who submit”—clung on, and clinging on against the odds itself seemed a sign of divine favor. The decisive moment was not a battlefield victory but a spectacular public-relations coup. In the year 628 Muhammad unexpectedly appeared before Mecca with a thousand unarmed pilgrims and asserted his lawful right as an Arab to worship at the Kaaba. As he solemnly performed the rituals, while the Quraysh stood sullenly by, the rulers of Mecca suddenly looked more foolish than invincible, and opposition began to crumble. In 630 Muhammad returned with massed ranks of followers. He once again circled the sanctuary seven times, intoning “Allahu akbar!”—“God is great!”—then climbed inside, carried out the idols, and smashed them to pieces on the ground.

By the time he died, two years later, Muhammad had pulled off a feat that no other leader in history had even envisaged: he had founded a flourishing new faith and an expanding new state, the one inseparable from the other. In little more than a year the armies of Islam crushed the Arab tribes that held out against the new order, and for the first time in history the Arabian Peninsula was united under one ruler and one faith. Driven by religious zeal, a newfound common purpose, and the happy alternatives of vast spoils in life or eternal bliss in death, God’s newly chosen people looked outward.

What they saw were two superpowers that had been doing their utmost to obliterate each other from the face of the earth.

For more than a millennium, East and West had faced off across the River Euphrates in Mesopotamia, the fertile land long known as the cradle of civilization and today home to Iraq. On the eastern side was the illustrious Persian Empire, the guardian of an ancient, refined culture and of the world’s first revealed religion, the monotheistic faith of the visionary priest Zarathuster—a faith known after his Latinized name, Zoroaster, as Zoroastrianism—that told of creation, resurrection, salvation, apocalypse, heaven and hell, and a savior born to a young virgin centuries before the birth of Christ. Led by their great shahanshahs—“kings of kings”—the Persians had been the inveterate foes of the Greeks until Alexander the Great had smashed their armies. When Persia’s power revived, it had simply transferred its hostility to the Greeks’ successors, the Romans. The ancient struggle was the formative East-West clash, and in 610, just as Muhammad was receiving his first revelations, it had finally exploded into total war.

As waves of barbarians ran riot around western Europe, the emperor Constantine had built a new Rome on Europe’s eastern brink. Glittering Constantinople looked out across the Bosporus, a strategic sliver of water that leads from the Black Sea toward the Mediterranean, at Asia. Ensconced behind the city’s impregnable walls, Constantine’s successors watched helplessly as the Persians swept across their rich eastern provinces and headed toward holy Jerusalem. Long ago the Romans had razed Jewish Jerusalem to the ground, and a new Christian city had risen over the sites identified with Jesus’s passion; Constantine, the first Christian emperor, had himself built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher over the purported places of Jesus’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Now, to Christian anguish bordering on the apocalyptic, the Persians carted away the True Cross on which Jesus was believed to have died, along with the Holy Sponge and Lance and the city’s patriarch, and left the Holy Sepulcher smoldering and hollowed out against a blackened sky.

On the brink of oblivion, the Romans struggled back and emerged triumphant, and Persia imploded into civil war. But the victors, too, were exhausted. Roman cities had been laid waste and were overwhelmed by refugees, agriculture had been blighted and trade had ground to a halt, and everyone was heartily sick of the crushing taxes that had paid for imperial deliverance. In a time of churning Christian controversy, most damaging of all was Constantinople’s remorseless drive to enforce its orthodox version of Christianity across its lands. Having first fed Christians to the lions, the Romans had turned to persecuting anyone who refused to toe the official line, and across a large swath of the eastern Mediterranean, from Armenia in the north to Egypt in the south, Christian dissidents were far from unhappy at the prospect of a new regime.

With breathtaking bravado, the Arabs attacked both ancient empires at once.

In 636, eleven centuries of Persian might ended in a bellowing elephant charge near the future site of Baghdad. “Damn this world, damn this time, damn this fate,” Iran’s national epic would rue, “That uncivilized Arabs have come to make me Muslim.” Islam’s path opened north to Armenia, northeast to the Asian steppes bordering China, southeast to Afghanistan, and onward to India. That same year, an Arab army crushed a vastly larger Roman force at the Battle of Yarmuk and annexed Syria, where Saul of Tarsus had been converted on the road to Damascus and where, in Antioch, he had founded the first organized Christian church. The next year Jerusalem was starved into submission and opened its gates to the new set of conquerors, just eight years after the Romans had triumphantly restored the True Cross to its rightful place. The faith-torn city was holy to Islam as well as to Judaism and Christianity, and centuries of struggles between Romans and Jews over the sacred places gave way to centuries of clashes between Muslims and Christians.

Four years later, fertile, gilded Egypt, the richest of all Roman provinces, fell to the Arabs. While Constantinople stood impotently by, the truculent desert tribesmen it disparagingly labeled Saracens—“the tent people”—had taken all the lands it had so recently reconquered, at such great cost. As kingdoms and empires were humbled and fell, even bishops began to wonder if Muhammad had been commanded from on high.

From Egypt, the armies of Islam marched west across the Mediterranean shores of Africa—and there, quite unexpectedly, their seemingly unstoppable onrush stalled.

The trouble was partly domestic. Muhammad had died without naming an heir, or even leaving clear instructions about how a successor should be chosen. Ancient rivalries soon resurfaced, sharpened by the booty of conquest that snaked in endless caravans across the deserts and invariably ended up in the pockets of the Quraysh, the very tribe whose monopolistic greed Muhammad had so roundly attacked. After some tribal jockeying, the first four caliphs—“successors” to the Prophet—were selected from among Muhammad’s close companions and family, but even that high status failed to protect them. An irate Persian soldier thrust a dagger into the second caliph’s belly, gutted him, and knifed him in the back while he was at prayer. A cabal of Muslim soldiers incensed at the third caliph’s lavish lifestyle and blatant nepotism bludgeoned him to death, and the ummah erupted into civil war. Ali, the fourth caliph—the Prophet’s cousin, son-in-law, and closest confidant—was stabbed with a poisoned sword on the steps of a mosque for being too willing to negotiate with his fellow Muslims. His followers, who had always maintained that Ali was Muhammad’s divinely anointed successor, eventually came together as the Shiatu Ali—“the party of Ali”—or Shia for short, and split irrevocably from the pragmatist majority, who became known, after the term for the path shown by the Prophet, as Sunnis.

Out of the turmoil the first caliphal dynasty emerged in the form of the Umayyads, who moved the capital away from the snake pit of Arabia and ruled for nearly a century from ancient, cosmopolitan Damascus. Yet opposition continued to plague the young empire, this time from outside. In North Africa the Arab armies were bogged down for decades by ragged hordes of blue-eyed Berbers, the ancient indigenous peoples of the region. The Berbers had rampaged down from their mountain redoubts every time previous waves of conquerors had paid them a visit, and they were not inclined to adapt their behavior merely because they professed themselves converts to the new faith. At the head of the Berber charge was a fearsome Jewish warrior-queen known to the Arabs as Kahina, or “the Prophetess,” who galloped into battle with her fiery red curls streaming out behind and drove the invaders far back east, until she was finally hunted down by a vast Arab army and died fighting, sword in hand.

As the eighth century dawned the Berbers’ revolts petered out, and many swelled the ranks of their vanquishers. In little more than the span of a single lifetime, the armies unloosed by Muhammad had swept an unbroken crescent around the Mediterranean basin all the way to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

From there they gazed on Europe.

With staggering speed, the world had turned full circle. A religion that had erupted in the deserts of the East was about to burst into a stunned Europe from the west. But for the obstreperous Berbers, it might well have stormed straight across the continent before Europe’s warring tribes had roused themselves to respond.

In time, it would turn again. When Western Christendom eventually recovered from the shock, a struggle of faiths would rage on the mainland of Europe—a struggle that would drive Vasco da Gama into the heart of the East.

SINCE THE AGE of legends, two stony peaks had marked the western end of the known world. The ancients called them the Pillars of Hercules, and they told how the mighty hero had fashioned them on his tenth impossible labor. Hercules was sent to the far shores of Europe to steal the cattle of the three-headed, six-legged monster Geryon, and to clear his path he smashed a mountain in two. Through the gap the waters of the one ocean that ringed the world rushed into the Mediterranean. Beyond was the realm of the writhing, shape-shifting Old Man of the Sea and the sunken civilization of Atlantis, fragments of old tales lost in the fog of time and the terrors of a millennium of mariners.

For more than two thousand years a port city called Ceuta has sat in the shadow of Hercules’ southern pillar. Ceuta occupies a twist of land anchored to the northern shores of Africa by a jagged mountain range known as the Seven Peaks. The little isthmus drifts out into the Mediterranean until a large mound called Monte Hacho—Beacon Hill—brings it to an emphatic end. From its summit the limestone fist of the Rock of Gibraltar is easily visible on the Spanish coast. Gibraltar is Hercules’ northern pillar, and it gives its name to the turbulent strait that opens into the Atlantic Ocean. Here Africa and Europe are separated by a mere nine miles of water, and here, time after time, history has made its crossing.

Today we think of Africa and Europe as two starkly different continents sundered by a chasm of civilization, but until quite recently that distinction would have made no sense. For many centuries goods and men moved more easily on water than on land, and trade and empire brought the peoples of the Mediterranean together. The path-finding Phoenicians mined silver in Spain and tin as far away as Britain. Where North Africa juts out toward Sicily they built the fabled city of Carthage, and with the same feel for the strategic value of a bottleneck, they established Ceuta as their western outpost. Greek colonists followed, founding settlements from Spain to Sicily and installing the descendants of Alexander the Great’s bodyguard as the Ptolemaic pharaohs of Egypt. Next came the Romans, who leveled Carthage and fortified Ceuta into the military camp at the end of the world. The term Mediterranean comes from the Latin for “the middle of the Earth,” but political reality as much as imperial pride prompted the more common Roman name Mare Nostrum—“Our Sea.” That sense of entitlement made it all the more intolerable when the barbarian Vandals swept through France and Spain, poured across the Strait of Gibraltar, marched east across Rome’s African provinces, and launched themselves into the Mediterranean, where they settled its larger islands, specialized in piracy, and finished up by sacking Rome itself.

No amount of sea traffic, though, could have prepared the northern shores of the Mediterranean for the events of 711. That year a Muslim army massed at Ceuta, sailed across the strait, and ushered in 781 years of Islamic rule in Western Europe. The leader of the expedition was a Berber convert called Tariq ibn Ziyad, and the rock beneath which he landed was named the Mountain of Tariq—in Arabic Jebel al-Tariq, or to us Gibraltar.

At the time, Spain—the name that medieval Europe applied to the whole Iberian Peninsula, including the future homeland of Portugal—was ruled by the barbarian Goths, who had seized it from the Vandals, who had taken it from Rome. In a little over three years the Goths were sent scurrying to the uplands of the north, where they had plenty of time to contemplate the ruin of their state as divine punishment for the sinful wickedness of their rulers. Having secured most of the peninsula, the Arab commanders and their Berber troops streamed northeast over the mountainous necklace of the Pyrenees into France.

At stake was nothing less than Christendom itself.

Twice, in Islam’s first century, colossal Arab armies had besieged Constantinople and had failed to penetrate its monumental walls. Twice the city on the Bosporus had seen off enormous fleets of Arab warships amid seas slicked with a lethal new concoction called Greek fire. Constantinople was now the eastern bulwark of a diminished, fragile Christendom, but it showed no sign of caving in. In contrast, beleaguered western Europe was a disaster waiting to be conquered. The invasion of Spain had begun as a daring bit of opportunism, but it was soon directed from the heart of the Islamic empire. Its leaders planned to march straight across Europe, annex the lands abandoned by Rome, and attack Constantinople from its Balkan backyard. If they succeeded, the crescent that Islamhad mapped around the Mediterranean would become a complete circle.

Tens of thousands of Arabs and Berbers burst into France, swept through Aquitaine, burned Bordeaux, and set off down the old Roman road that led from Poitiers to the holy city of Tours. A century to the year after the death of Muhammad, a Muslim army was on the march barely 150 miles from the gates of Paris.

In the fog of war that enveloped Dark Ages Europe, the momentous events that had gripped the far shores of the Mediterranean had come carried on the uncertain winds of rumor. The idea that those distant rolls of thunder presaged a lightning strike in the very heart of Christendom was so remote as to be incomprehensible. Yet here was a turbaned army, driven by a strange faith, riding under unknown pennants, heralded by the wail of unfamiliar horns and the jarring crash of cymbals, crying out chilling oaths in a foreign tongue, and picking up speed on the autumnal fields of France.

The tug of war between Islam and Christianity changed course that day in 732. On the road outside Poitiers the armies of Islam slammed into an immovable wall of shaggy but resolute Franks—West Germanic peoples who had long ago settled in Roman territory—led by Charles Martel, who was known to his men as the Hammer. The lines of infantry buckled as eddies of fleet Arab horsemen crashed into the front ranks, but they refused to break. The Arab tactics that had reaped such spectacular rewards for a century—cut up the front line, scatter while unloosing arrows, swarm back around the confused huddles, and pick them off one by one—failed for the first time, and Muslim bodies piled up in front of Frankish shields. Sporadic fighting continued into the night, but by morning the surviving invaders had melted away, headed back to Spain.

For decades huge Islamic armies would continue to march across the Pyrenees; they would briefly reach the Alps and send the Hammer racing back into the fray. When the invasions finally petered out, it was more thanks to rancorous power struggles among thetens of thousands of Arab and Berber immigrants who had begun to pour into Spain than to military prowess on the part of Western Christendom. Even then, Muslim bandits would control the Alpine passes—their greatest catch was the abbot of Cluny, the richest monastery in Europe, who brought them a king’s ransom—and Muslim pirates would overrun the seas until Christians, gloated a caliph’s chief of staff, could “not even put a plank on the water.” Yet in the West, the Battle of Poitiers would be remembered as the turning point.

It was to describe Martel’s men that a chronicler first coined the term europenses—“Europeans.”

No such people had existed before. The geographical dividing lines between the continents were first drawn by the Greeks, who for their convenience named the land to their east Asia, that to the south Africa, and everything else Europe. As they explored farther, they puzzled over which northern river marked the boundary between Europe and Asia, or whether Africa started at the borders of Egypt or at the River Nile, and they questioned the sense of separating a single landmass into three parts. To everyone else the division was perfectly arbitrary. When northern Europe was still a hinterland of blue-faced savages and the Mediterranean was the lake of Western civilization, the Continent’s peoples dreamed of no shared identity; nor were Rome’s Asian and African provinces any less Roman because they were outside Europe. When the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth traveled in every direction out of Roman Judea, no one predicted that his followers’ faith would be claimed as a European religion; Ethiopia was among the first nations to adopt Christianity, while St. Augustine, the church father who profoundly influenced the evolution of Christian thought, was a Berber from Algeria. It was Islam’s armies and the empire they spread across three continents that reduced Christianity, with a few scattered exceptions, to a European faith.

Nor was there ever a single European Christianity. Most of the barbarians at first adopted Arianism, a popular creed that taught that Jesus was a created being: one Arian tribe, the Longbeards or Lombards, made it their mission to murder every Catholic clergyman who came their way. The popes, many the scions of old senatorial families, clung on amid the overgrown ruins of Rome until Clovis, a sixth-century king of the Franks, saw the light during a particularly tight battle with the Goths. The Franks made a pact with Rome that gave its kings legitimacy and the papacy military backing, and the deal was sealed on Christmas Day, 800, when Charles Martel’s grandson Charlemagne climbed the steps of St. Peter’s on his knees, prostrated himself before the holy father, and was crowned Augustus, Emperor of the Romans. The other emperor in Constantinople impotently fumed. The pope, the mere bishop of Rome, had effectively staged a coup, and the stage was set for schism with the Orthodox Church of Eastern Europe.

As Charlemagne’s short-lived empire disintegrated and the Vikings launched waves of ravaging attacks from Scandinavia, as the barren countryside sprouted stone castles and its sparse population huddled under their walls, Europe became a backward peninsula precariously perched between the ocean and the green sea of Islam. In that, for want of much else, it found its identity. The modern concept of Europe was born not from geography alone, nor simply from a shared religion. It slowly emerged among a patchwork of fractious peoples that found common purpose in their struggle with Islam.

There was one conspicuous exception to that emerging identity: Iberia was still dominated by an imposing Islamic state. As the Christian counteroffensive began, it was there that the most zealously Catholic nations of all would be born. The reason was frighteningly simple. Christianity and Islam are sister religions, and in Iberia they long lived side by side. If you are about to hunt your sister out of your home, you need to work yourselves into a much more self-righteous frenzy than if you were expelling a stranger.

At the western end of the known world the forces of fundamentalism were about to be let loose among Christians and Muslims alike. The repercussions would be felt far and wide for centuries to come.

IT COULD ALL have been very different. In Arabic, Islamic Spain was called al-Andalus—the name would pass on to the Spanish region of Andalusia—and for three centuries al-Andalus was home to the most cosmopolitan society in the Western world.

From the first years of Islam, Muslims had classed Christians and Jews who submitted to Islamic rule as dhimmi, or “protected peoples.” Pagans were fair game—they were given the stark alternatives of conversion or death—but Muhammad himself had forbidden his followers to interfere with the religious freedom of their fellow Peoples of the Book. The early Arab conquerors had gone even further: they had made it as difficult as possible for Jews and Christians to convert, not least because anyone who joined the Muslim elite was absolved of paying the jizya, the poll tax on unbelievers. As mass conversions became the norm, though, tolerance proved to have its limits. One ninth-century caliph with a flair for petty humiliations ordered Jews and Christians to hang wooden images of the devil from their houses, wear yellow, keep their graves level with the ground, and ride around only on mules and asses “with wooden saddles marked by two pomegranate-like balls on the cantle.”

In al-Andalus, non-Muslims were not classed as equals—that would have gone against Islamic teaching—but they were rarely required to make more than token gestures of submission. Instead a radical concept was born: convivencia, or peoples of different faiths living and working together. Jews and even Christians began to take prominent roles in government as scribes, soldiers, diplomats, and councilors; one urbane, learned, and devout Jew became the Islamic state’s unofficial but all-powerful foreign minister, while a bishop was one of his ambassadors. Jewish poets revived Hebrew as a living language after centuries of liturgical desiccation, and the Sephardi Jews—named after Sepharad, the Hebrew term for al-Andalus—were released from a long era of barbarian persecutions into a Golden Age. Christians took just as happily to Arab culture; along with dressing, eating, and bathing like Arabs, they even read the Scriptures and recited the liturgy in Arabic. That earned them the nickname Mozarabs, or “wannabe Arabs,” from a handful of refuseniks who made it their mission to insult Islam; one, an aristocratic monk named Eulogius, claimed among his many colorful insults that Muhammad had boasted he would deflower the Virgin Mary in heaven. Most met with the martyr’s death they were after, and various bits of their corpses were spirited across the border to become favored attractions in far-flung Christian towns. Al-Andalus was never quite a multicultural melting pot, and yet as different traditions commingled and refreshed each other, as difference itself was celebrated in place of the conformity enforced by less confident societies, individuals with their own perceptions and desires emerged from the shadows of a rigidly hierarchical world.

This was a remarkable phenomenon in Dark Ages Europe, which had plunged into a continent-wide depression and was convinced the world was growing old and apocalyptic fires were flickering on the horizon. Spain, in contrast, was vibrant with exotic new crops transplanted from the East and heady with the fragrance of orange blossom wafting across the land. Córdoba, the Islamic capital on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, was transformed into the most magnificent metropolis west of Constantinople, its markets heaped with delicate silks and carpets, its paved and brightly lit streets hung with signs offering the services of lawyers and architects, surgeons and astronomers. The shelves of the main library—one of seventy in the city—groaned with four hundred thousand books, a thousand times the number boasted by the greatest collections of the Christian West. The Great Mosque—in Spanish the Mezquita—was a Gothic church transformed into an optical illusion, a shifting dream space of dainty marble columns supporting arches piled on arches in red and white candy stripes. With its population approaching half a million, Córdoba was for a while the largest city on earth; it was, wrote a Saxon nun, “the brilliant ornament of the world.”

Al-Andalus reached the peak of its power in the tenth century, when its ruler discovered he had become too grand to stomach his status as a mere emir, or governor, and proclaimed himself the true caliph, the heir to the legitimate line of succession from Muhammad and the leader of all Muslims. To match his new magnificence Abd al-Rahman III built himself a sprawling palatine city outside Córdoba. Teeming with treasures, with doors carved from ivory and ebony that opened onto moated gardens complete with exotic menageries, gaudy sculptures fashioned from amber and pearls, and gargantuan fish ponds whose inhabitants were fed twelve thousand freshly baked loaves a day, it was a blazing statement of dynastic intent. The long line of ambassadors who tripped over themselves to offer fitting gifts to the new caliph were received in a hall of translucent marble, with at its center, beneath a giant pendant pearl, a pool filled with mercury that dazzled them when it was stirred at the operative moment.

Yet after three centuries, the Islamic powerhouse on mainland Europe crumbled to nothing in a historical flick of the fingers. Like every nation that succumbs to a superiority complex, it had grown too complacent to heed the danger signs. The fairy tale that climaxed with its haughty caliphs sequestered in their palace of marvels came to a fitting end at the hands of an evil courtier named Abu Amir al-Mansur—“the Victorious”—who was indeed so victorious that he won fifty-two out of his fifty-two battles. Most were fought with unprecedented fanaticism against the descendants of the Goths who had clung on in the northern fastnesses of Spain, and al-Mansur’s notoriety earned him the Westernized name of Almanzor. Almanzor locked up the boy caliph who was on the throne, built himself a rival palatine city on the opposite side of Córdoba, turned al-Andalus into a police state, and outraged his urbane subjects by roping rough Berbers and even Christian mercenaries into his military campaigns. On his death in 1002, Muslim Spain imploded into civil war; a few years later, resentful Berber troops tore down the showpiece home of the caliphs, just seventy years after it had risen to astonish the world.

Al-Andalus fragmented into a patchwork of competing city-states, and the Christian kings across the border finally saw their chance.

The Christian revival in Spain was a long, squabbling business, and the endless churn of its miniature kingdoms is a mind-numbing affair. By long-standing tribal tradition, its rulers left their territories to be divided among their children, and their children duly launched themselves into orgies of fratricide. As the ripples of war eddied back and forth, the rival monarchs made alliances of convenience with Muslim raiders as often as with their religious brethren. Yet gradually they moved south into the weakened city-states, and suddenly a spectacular upset of history was within their grasp.

Around the turn of the millennium, western Europe had finally begun to throw off its bloodstained blanket of darkness. The Vikings had started to settle down and convert to Christianity. France had begun to emerge from the western parts of Charlemagne’s old empire, while the Holy Roman Empire, the forerunner of Germany, soldiered on in its eastern lands. The Roman Church had recovered from an ignominious low point, and once again it had begun to dream of increasing its flock. It saw its chance in Spain.

In 1064 the papacy gave its backing to war against the Muslims of al-Andalus—the first Christian war overtly fought against an enemy that was defined by its faith. From then on the Spanish marched—protected, if never exactly united—under the papal banner. They went into battle armed with an ironclad guarantee from Christ’s representative on earth: mass indulgences for those who died, which absolved them of doing penance for their sins and guaranteed immediate admittance to heaven.

The struggle soon developed a name—the Reconquest—that swept aside the inconvenient fact that most of the peninsula had been Muslim territory for longer than it had been Christian. A haphazard flurry of battles fought for personal glory and territorial expansion was transformed into a war of religious liberation, and it boasted its own patron saint in the form of the Apostle James. St. James—Santiago in Spanish—had been beheaded in Jerusalem a few years after Jesus’s death, but a hermit guided by a star had miraculously unearthed his bones in a Spanish field. In his unlikely new afterlife, Jesus’s companion was transformed into Santiago Matamoros—“St. James the Moor-slayer”—with Moro, from the Roman name for the Berbers, being the catchall term that Iberia’s Christians applied to Muslims, Berber and Arab alike. The Moor-slayer lent his name to the Order of Santiago, one of many military brotherhoods that sprang up to wage war on Islam, and the order adopted a stirring motto: “May the sword be red with Arab blood.” From then on the Apostle regularly showed up in the heat of battle, dressed in shining armor and riding a white horse, urging on his followers to stick it to the Infidel.

Even now, not all of Spain’s Christians were so sure where their loyalties lay. This was the time of El Cid, who earned a glowing reputation as a Spanish hero despite being a soldier for hire by Muslims and Christians alike. In 1085 El Cid’s sometimes master, the wily and ambitious Alfonso the Brave of Castile and Leon, inveigled his way into control of the old fortress city of Toledo, and Christian Toledo took over from ruined Córdoba as Europe’s capital of culture. Inside a synagogue designed by Muslim architects, its Christians, Muslims, and Jews celebrated their rites alongside each other. In its School of Translators, Muslims and Jews collaborated to translate medical, scientific, and philosophical texts from Arabic to Latin. Travelers crisscrossed the Pyrenees, introduced Islamic culture and learning to the rest of Europe, and transformed its intellectual life along with its decorative styles, recipes, fashions, and songs. In the twilight of convivencia, the Spanish had become the masters of modernity.

Toledo was one last bright flare of what could have been, one final, chaotic explosion of creativity. As Christian armies pushed on farther south, Iberia’s remaining Muslim rulers began to fear their days were numbered. When Alfonso the Brave’s enthusiasm carried him a step too far and he prematurely proclaimed himself emperor of all Spain, al-Andalus finally resorted to calling in help from abroad.

It was a fateful mistake.

The Almoravids were a ferocious Muslim sect from the Sahara Desert that had sprung up around a hard-line missionary who insisted on strict discipline and regular bouts of scourging. They had already expanded south to sub-Saharan Africa and north to Morocco, and they were only too ready to hop across the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain. As soon as they arrived, they decided their coreligionists were a bunch of addled sensualists and went home to arm themselves with a fatwa, or legal opinion, confirming their right to depose them. When they returned, the proud Arabs of al-Andalus took a deep breath and caved in. The new caliphate duly reunited the squabbling city-states and beat back the Christians until it, too, grew lax and was chased out of power by the Almohads, yet another all-conquering Berber dynasty that poured over from Ceuta.

The Almohads were even more fanatical fundamentalists than the Almoravids, and they set out to transform al-Andalus into a jihadist state.

Long ago, as Islam had expanded far beyond Arabia, its scholars had divided the world into the dar al-Islam, the House of Islam, and the dar al-Harb, or the House of War. According to that doctrine, the first was duty-bound to press on the second until it withered to nothing. Armed jihad—jihad itself merely means “struggle,” and often refers to an inner striving for grace—was the divinely sanctioned instrument of expansion. As the House of Islam fractured and Muslims fought Muslims, the strong arm of holy war had itself withered away. Yet the Almohads tolerated no such frailty, and besides imposing severe strictures on their fellow Muslims, they declared an everlasting jihad against Spain’s Christians and Jews. In the Almohads’ uprooted and fiercely pruned faith, Christians were no better than pagans: as worshippers of a divine trinity rather than the one true God, they no longer deserved the status of protected people. The dhimmi who still lived in al-Andalus were given an ultimatum: die or convert. Rather than choose, many fled.

Western Christendom had undergone a similar transformation. Christianity had begun as a humble movement of Jewish sectaries, but when it was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire, it had soon made peace with war. Rome’s legions had marched into battle under the cross, and so had successive waves of barbarians, many of whom had themselves been converted to Catholicism at the point of a sword. St. Augustine, the first Christian thinker to frame the concept of a just war, had condemned battles fought for power or wealth as no better than grand larceny, but he acknowledged that violence had to be met with violence in order to keep the peace. The journey from Augustine had wound through marauding barbarians and Vikings, through grand papal dreams and a Europe overshadowed by military camps, until fighting for Christianity was seen as a noble struggle against the Antichrist. To Catholic theologians, as they finally began to unravel the mysteries of Islam, any accommodation between the two faiths made no more doctrinal than practical sense: while Muslims at least acknowledged Christians, however misguided, as their precursors in faith, to Christians the newer religion, intolerably, told them they had got it all wrong.

For all their differences, it was their similarities that most divided the two faiths. Unlike any other major religion, both claimed exclusive possession of God’s final revelation. Unlike most, both were missionary faiths that strove to take their message to nonbelievers, whom they labeled infidels. As universal religions and geographical neighbors, they were natural competitors. In the West, those rivalries had been held in check by a handful of enlightened rulers, by the unwieldy extent of the Islamic empire, and by Europe’s bloody introspection. But the final glimmer of tolerance was fast fading, the Islamic world had begun to splinter into sharper shards, and Europe was finally on the move.

The pope called the warriors of Western Christendom to arms. Tens of thousands of Christian soldiers marched south across Spain, their shoulders squared with a vengeful zeal to drive Islam from Europe.

At the western edge of the world, holy war had been unleashed at the same time on both sides of an increasingly unbreachable divide. It was no coincidence that the descendants of Iberia’s freedom fighters would race across the oceans to conquer far-flung lands in the name of Christ. Fighting Islam was in their blood: it was the very founding mission of their nations.

As the battle for the West neared its climax, an energized Europe turned its sights eastward. The counterstrike against Islam that had begun in Spain was headed to Jerusalem itself, and now it came with a name that would haunt the coming centuries: Crusade.

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