Muslim Wars and the Destruction of Palestine

THE FATIMID DYNASTY came originally from Syria and claimed descent from the third caliph, Ali, and his wife, Fatima – hence their name – and after migrating across North Africa they established their own caliphate centred on Tunisia in 909. Sixty years later they returned eastwards and invaded Egypt, where they founded ‘The Victorious City of the Exalter of the Divine Religion’, or ‘Victorious’ for short, al-Qahira in Arabic – that is Cairo, just north of Fustat – and immediately built the great mosque and theological school of al-Azhar to propagate their version of Islam among Egypt’s Sunni Muslims. The Fatimids were Ismailis, a dualist offshoot of Shia Islam; they believed that the universe contains both good and evil because God himself is made up of good and evil, light and darkness. This set them apart from orthodox Islam (or for that matter from orthodox Christianity), which believes that God is wholly good and that evil has its origins elsewhere. Dualism is an ancient belief that can be traced back to Manichaeanism in Persia and to Hellenistic Gnosticism, and which, without altering its fundamental outlook, cloaked itself in later religions such as Islam and Christianity in order to survive and propagate.

The Fatimids may have picked up their dualism from Persian influences while still in Syria or from the Berbers of North Africa, many of whom had been Christian Gnostics and now constituted the bulk of the army. The Fatimids’ caliphs were also the Fatimids’ imams, which according to Ismaili doctrine meant they were the infallible essence of the divine on earth. By establishing a caliphate the Fatimids were laying claim to universal political and spiritual dominion, and the conquest of Egypt was their first step towards their ambition of overthrowing the Abbasids’ Sunni caliphate in Baghdad and imposing themselves and their beliefs on the entire Islamic world. The Templars would later encounter Ismaili dualists in the form of the Assassins, who would descend from their Syrian mountain eyrie to commit acts of terror against all sides.

The Fatimid victory over the Ikhshidids in Egypt was helped by a terrible famine caused by the failure of the Nile to rise sufficiently in 967; the land was still in the grip of starvation and plague, six hundred thousand people were said to have died in the region of Fustat alone, and many thousands more were abandoning their homes to seek salvation elsewhere.1 Less than a year later, in the spring of 970, with Egypt still suffering from hunger and disease, the Fatimids resumed their campaign against the Abbasid caliphate and marched northwards into Palestine. But this was no easy conquest; their arrival marked the start of a series of wars against a succession of enemies, including Arab tribes, Turkish warlords and a terrorist sect called the Qarmatians, who like the Fatimids were Ismailis but refused to accept their imams as their spiritual overlords. ‘A state bordering on anarchy prevailed. Pillage, fire and slaughter marched in the wake of the invaders’, while cities such as Jerusalem and Damascus were ‘tossed like a ball from one alien hand to another’,2 usually with much slaughter. Throughout the Umayyad period the Muslims of Syria and Palestine had followed the orthodox Sunni line, but their growing hatred for the distant Abbasid regime opened the way for many to adopt the apocalyptic and communistic outlook of the Qarmatians. Sectarian divisions between the various Muslim forces made the fighting all the more vicious. ‘Atrocities, the like of which had never been seen in the lands of Islam, were committed by them.’3 The people who most suffered were those who were the majority of the population in Palestine, the Christians and the Jews, but who played no part in this long catalogue of violence, this ‘almost unceasing war which destroyed Palestine’.4

The Fatimids did what they could to impose their Shia beliefs on Egypt, but whether Shia or Sunni, Egypt’s Muslims were outnumbered by the Copts, the native Christians of the country.5 To bolster their position against the recalcitrant Sunni, the Fatimids put special emphasis on good relations with Egypt’s Christians and Jews. Anxious to preserve the expertise that came with continuity, the Fatimids showed a preference for Copts in their administration, especially in the irrigation department, where traditional techniques going back to ancient times and exact knowledge were essential; and in the closely linked revenue department, where the Copts’ carefully devised system of record-keeping was indispensable. In financial matters and international trade the Fatimids relied on Jews and their well-developed knowledge of Mediterranean commerce. Egyptian foreign trade during the preceding Muslim regimes had been negligible, but under the Fatimids Egypt was at the centre of a flourishing network of mercantile relations extending from India to Spain, and its harbour at Alexandria was alive with ships bound for Amalfi, Pisa and Venice. With their initiative and experience, and their readiness to adapt to the Arabic cultural environment, Jews served the Fatimids loyally and well.

The third Fatimid caliph to take the throne in Cairo, and the first to be born in Egypt, bore the sonorous name of al-Hakim bi Amr al-Lah, meaning ‘ruler by Allah’s command’. The year was 996, and al-Hakim was only eleven years old. The youthful al-Hakim looked set to continue the Fatimid policy of fostering good relations with dhimmis; his stepmother was a Greek Orthodox Christian, as were her two brothers, one of whom was patriarch of Alexandria, the other patriarch of Jerusalem. Also he seemed to have an open and curious mind. He showed a keen interest in mathematics and the sciences, and endowed Cairo with an astronomical observatory and a great scientific library which attracted such figures as the polymath Ibn al-Haytham, famous for his contributions to optics, ophthalmology, astronomy and physics, and his commentaries on Aristotle, Euclid and Ptolemy. But al-Hakim’s true fascination seems to have been with astrology and mysticism, and he would spend hours walking in the Moqattam Hills overlooking Cairo, where he looked for portents in the stars.

The dark side of al-Hakim was revealed when he began persecuting Christians and Jews in 1003. It began with the claim that the church of St Mark in Fustat had been built without permission; al-Hakim ordered it to be pulled down and a mosque built in its place and even extended so that the mosque covered Jewish and Christian cemeteries in the area. A continuous series of oppressions followed. A few years later he was throwing scientists into prison, al-Haytham feigning madness to escape what he feared would be his execution. In 1016 al-Hakim had himself publicly proclaimed God at Friday prayers in Cairo, a claim he was obliged by the resultant uproar from his Sunni subjects to retract. Some have said he was insane, others that he was merely eccentric, but his own grandfather the caliph al-Muizz had also declared himself God, though more discreetly. As Ismaili imams, the Fatimid caliphs were absolute and infallible monarchs ruling by hereditary right as determined by divine will. Moreover the imams possessed the key to cosmic salvation, and al-Hakim would have been seen, and would have seen himself, as the redeeming mahdi, who appears on earth before the Day of Judgement and rids the world of evil.

Among al-Hakim’s redeeming acts, as he would have seen them, was to order that Christians must wear round their necks a wooden cross a foot and a half long and weighing five pounds,6 while Jews had to wear an equally weighty frame of wood with jingling bells. Later he demanded that Christians and Jews convert to Islam, which many did to save their lives, although some Christians were able to escape into Byzantine territory. Conversion meant little under these circumstances, however, as many resorted to what has been called the ‘single-generation conversion ruse’,7 by which a man would shield himself and his family from persecution and discrimination by converting to Islam while ensuring that his wife and children remained Christian or Jewish. By repeating this ruse from generation to generation the appearance was given of a family having converted to Islam when in fact it remained steadfastly rooted in its true faith. Also there were those who after the death of al-Hakim quietly resumed their old religion. In the event there were no mass conversions to Islam among Christians or among Jews.8 Al-Hakim’s further ordinances demanded the confiscation of Christian property, the burning of crosses and the building of small mosques on the roofs of churches. At first these various measures were applied only to Egypt, but soon they were applied throughout the Fatimid empire, including Palestine.

Al-Hakim’s most infamous act was in 1009, when he gave the order for the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, ‘to destroy, undermine, and remove all traces of the holy Church of the Resurrection’. The work was thoroughly done by Abu Dhahir, the governor at Ramla, who, recorded the Christian chronicler Yahya Ibn Said, ‘did all he could to uproot the Sepulchre and to remove all trace of it, and to this effect he dug away most of it and broke it up’.9 The church was razed to its foundations, its graves were dug up, church property was taken, furnishings and treasures were seized, and the tomb of Jesus was hacked to pieces with pickaxes and hammers and utterly obliterated. Nothing remained but a few portions of the Rotunda, which, according to Ibn Said, ‘proved too difficult to demolish’ and have been incorporated into the church that stands there today.10 Muslim sources saw the destruction as a reaction to the magnificence of the church and to the fact that it drew pilgrims from all over the world, among them many Christians from Egypt. Christianity and its symbols had to be destroyed and its churches too; over the next few years thirty thousand churches throughout Egypt, Palestine and Syria were pillaged or torn down or converted into mosques.11

That these were not simply the acts of a madman is evidenced by the fact that the devastations continued into the early years of al-Hakim’s son and successor the caliph al-Zahir.12 In fact, the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was ‘one of the most popular acts of al-Hakim’s administration’ so far as the Muslims of Palestine and Syria were concerned.13 Also it seems to have been part of a deliberate Fatimid policy to enhance the Islamic sanctity of Jerusalem, a city about which Muslims held ambivalent views, some believing that it was tainted by Christian and Jewish associations and that the true focus for Islamic sanctity should be Mecca and Medina. Obliterating the Holy Sepulchre went some way towards erasing that Christian contamination of Jerusalem. In contrast, enhancing the city’s Islamic sanctity was the purpose of al-Zahir’s act when he rebuilt the mosque at the southern end of the Temple Mount and added a mosaic inscription, the first in Jerusalem to begin with Koranic verse 17:1, about the Night Journey, which Muslims have come to interpret as Mohammed travelling to Jerusalem and ascending from there into heaven: ‘Glory be to Him, who carried His servant by night from the Holy Mosque to the Further Mosque the precincts of which We have blessed that We might show him some of Our signs.’14 From this moment the mosque became known as the Furthest, al-Aqsa, contributing to the story that would further Saladin’s jihad.

Reports by returning pilgrims of Muslim sacrilege against the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the cruel persecution of Christians in the East travelled rapidly through the Byzantine Empire, throughout the Mediterranean, and into Western Europe, causing astonishment and pain. With the reports also came rumours that Jews in western Europe and Muslims in Spain had been sending secret letters to al-Hakim encouraging him to destroy the Holy Sepulchre.15 But there is no evidence for these claims. Yahya Ibn Said, the Christian chronicler based in Antioch, while making no mention in his history of Jewish involvement in al-Hakim’s outrage in 1009, did write that Jews had been among the mob that attacked the Church of the Holy Sepulchre over forty years earlier in 966, saying ‘The Jews have overtaken the Muslims in their acts of destruction and ruination’.16Certainly there were severe communal tensions between Jews and Christians in Palestine at that time; as Abbasid Baghdad collapsed, the Jews of Iraq moved westwards, many of them into Palestine, where they found themselves at a disadvantage to the well-established Christian community. But if Jews were among the anti-Christian mobs in 966, there are no accounts, apart from those generated in Western Europe, of Jews having been involved in al-Hakim’s destruction of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009. As for Western Europe, Jews prospered there until well into the eleventh century and were generally free from discrimination.17 But al-Hakim’s outrage changed the situation. Most Western Europeans hardly knew the difference between Muslims and Jews,18 so that the acts of one were readily attributed to the other; but whereas Muslims were far away, Jews lived close at hand, scattered throughout Christian Europe, where the first serious anti-Semitic incidents now broke out.

The destruction of the Holy Sepulchre also gave new impetus to the belief that the West should move to the aid of the East, and new versions of the story of Charlemagne now appeared, among them that the emperor himself had journeyed to Jerusalem after receiving a letter from the patriarch of Jerusalem telling him that the Muslims were desecrating the very tomb of Christ. But still no armies were raised in the West, not for many decades yet, not until Europe was confronted with the very real and terrifying threat of a Muslim invasion from the East in the form of the Seljuk Turks.

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