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Thursday, June 24, 2021

Mussolini’s View of the British

In January 1939, British Prime Minister Chamberlain and his Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax visited Italy to convince Italian Premier Mussolini to fight alongside Britain and France in case of a war with Hitler’s Germany. 

When Chamberlain and Halifax departed, Mussolini said to his Foreign Minister Count Galeazzo Ciano: “These men [the British] are not made of the same stuff, as the Francis Drakes and the other magnificent adventurers who created the empire. These, after all, are the tired sons of a long line of rich men and they will lose their empire.” (The Ciano Diaries 1939-1943

After observing the weak response of Britain (and France) to Hitler’s multiple transgressions, Mussolini had become contemptuous of the two countries. In 1939, Mussolini’s relationship with Hitler was not good. He was worried that Hitler’s policies would destabilize Europe and that Stalin would take advantage of the chaos to expand the frontiers of the Soviet Union. But he refused to join Britain and France because he believed that the two countries lacked the will to fight Hitler. 

Mussolini was right to doubt the leadership in Britain and France. In September 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany, but they did not provide military assistance to Poland. A few RAF fighter planes flew over the German and Polish territories but instead of dropping bombs on the Germans, the planes dropped leaflets containing some naive propaganda literature. The French didn’t take any military action. 

A British government cabinet note of September 1939 declared, “There is good reason to believe that the German authorities feared the effect of our propaganda… the fact that our planes were able to fly with impunity all over North-West of Germany was bound to have a depressing effect on the morale of the German people.” The British cabinet agreed to drop more leaflets on German territory in the future. They thought that they could defeat Hitler with propaganda leaflets.

The Story of Elihu Yale: Yale University’s Benefactor

The benefactor of Yale University, Elihu Yale, after whom the university was named, made his fortune as an employee of the East India Company. Born in Boston in 1649, Yale moved with his family to England when he was three years old. After completing his school education, he joined the East India Company and was posted at Fort St. George, the company's headquarter in Madras, India. 

Yale began as a low level clerk, and rising through the ranks he became the governor of Madras. But he misused his powers as governor to enrich himself. He purchased land by using company funds. He committed acts of brutality—he was accused of selling people into slavery and hanging a stable boy for a petty misconduct. Charges of corruption and cruelty were brought against him. He was sacked in 1692. In 1699, when he returned to England, he had with him five tons of spices, and a massive amount of diamonds and other precious objects—all this was beyond his legal sources of income, but the British government allowed him to keep this fortune. 

Towards the end of his life, he remembered America, the country of his birth, and donated a good sum to the Collegiate School of Connecticut, which recognized his gift by renaming itself after him, and became Yale College. Yale died in 1721 and was buried at the churchyard of the parish church of St Giles’ Church, Wales.. He himself wrote the epitaph inscribed on his tomb:

Born in America, in Europe bred
In Africa travell'd and in Asia wed
Where long he liv'd and thriv'd; In London dead
Much good, some ill, he did; so hope all's even
And that his soul thro' mercy's gone to Heaven
You that survive and read this tale, take care
For this most certain exit to prepare
Where blest in peace, the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in the silent dust. 

This line in the epitaph, “Much good, some ill, he did; so hope all's even,” could be taken as Yale’s subtle admission that the accusations of corruption and cruelty against him were correct. Yale University celebrated the 350th anniversary of Yale's birthday on 5 April 1999.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Rise of Saladin

Saladin was not an Arab or a Turk. He was a Kurd. His real name was Yusuf bin Ayyub. He was the nephew of Shirkuh, a Kurdish lieutenant in the army of Emir of Damascus Nur ad-Din. Saladin began his career as Nur ad-Din’s chief of police in Damascus. The contemporary chroniclers have reported extensively on Saladin’s deeds as a ruler, but they have barely anything to say about the early days of his life, and no description of his physical features has survived. It was not in Damascus but in Egypt that Saladin attained the status of a world-historical Sultan.

In the 1160s, the Egyptian government was in chaos. A conflict had broken out between the vizier of Egypt and the Fatimid caliph. There was a spate of coups and assassinations. Power was being nominally wielded by Fatimid Caliph al-Adid, an eleven year old boy who was a puppet in the hands of various strongmen in Cairo. The political situation was unsustainable. The Fatimid caliphate was on the verge of collapse, and Egypt was up for grabs.

Both Nur ad-Din and Amalric, King of Jerusalem, were trying to take advantage of the chaos in Egypt. Amalric marched his army of crusaders to Egypt in 1163. His army met the Egyptian army at Pelusium, a city on the eastern side of Egypt’s Nile delta. Amalric was victorious, but the Egyptian army opened the Nile dams flooding the river, making it impossible for Amalric’s forces to cross into Egypt. Amalric was forced to retreat.

Shawar, the former vizier of Egypt who had been deposed in a power struggle, went to the court of Nur ad-Din and pleaded for assistance. In April 1164, Nur ad-Din dispatched Shirkuh with a sizable army to Egypt with orders to restore Shawar on the throne of Egypt. In the fighting that followed, Dirgham, the vizier of Egypt was killed, and Shawar became the new vizier.

Once he had attained power, Shawar refused to remain subservient to Nur ad-Din. He tried to bribe Shirkuh with 30,000 gold dinars in return for his departure from Egypt. When Shirkuh refused to accept the money, Shawar turned to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. He requested Amalric to help him in destroying the army of Shirkuh. Amalric agreed to send his army. In the summer of 1164, Amalric’s forces besieged Shawar’s forces at Bilbais. The siege lasted for three months after which a cessation of hostilities was negotiated—both Amalric and Shirkuh departed with their forces, and Shawar was left in control of Egypt.

In 1166 and 1167, Nur ad-Din and Amalric made several attempts to intervene in Egypt. When Shirkuh marched into Egypt with his troops (this time with his 29 years old nephew Saladin), Amalric arrived with his own troops. Shirkuh was forced to withdraw. Shawar agreed to pay tribute to Amalric (an amazing sum of 400000 gold dinars), and allowed the Kingdom of Jerusalem to station its troops in Cairo.

At this point Amalric overplayed his hand. He had a treaty with the Byzantine Empire to attack Egypt jointly. But Amalric decided to attack Egypt on his own with some help from a newly arrived contingent of crusaders from France. He did not want to share the Egyptian loot with the Byzantines. This time Shawar turned towards the benefactor that he had earlier betrayed, Nur ad-Din, who immediately dispatched Shirkuh and Saladin with a large army. Amalric’s forces were decisively defeated, and he had to retreat from Egypt.

Having driven the crusaders out of Egypt, Shirkuh and Saladin invited Shawar to their camp for a meeting. Shawar thought that it would be a traditional meeting and he rode to their camp, but on the way he was confronted by Saladin and his men. They forcibly unhorsed Shawar and beheaded him. Later they presented Shawar’s head to the caliph as a proof of their success. Shirkuh was appointed the vizier of Egypt, but he died in two months due to a throat infection.

Being Shawar’s nephew, Saladin had a claim to the throne, but there were several more powerful claimants. Saladin displayed remarkable political acumen in playing other claimants against each other, and he emerged as a compromise candidate. In March 1169, 31 years old Saladin’s appointment as vizier and commander of the army was confirmed by the Fatimid caliph.

This was a big step upwards for Saladin. But his hold on power was tenuous. He was a Sunni Kurd in a Shia country. He was commanding the Sunni army of Nur ad-Din but the nominal head of the country was the Shia Fatimid caliph. He could easily become a target of a coup or assassination. Saladin proved to be a ruthless and fearsome ruler. He crushed every entity that could threaten his life and throne. He maintained a respectful attitude towards Nur ad-Din, paying regular tributes to him and promising his loyalty to him. But he refused to allow Nur ad-Din’s family members to enter Egypt.

When Nur ad-Din died in 1174, Saladin immediately moved to take advantage of the power vacuum that had been created in the Near East. He positioned himself as Nur ad-Din’s successor. The members of Nur ad-Din’s Zengid dynasty saw Saladin as a usurper. They wanted Nur ad-Din’s empire to go to his lone son As-Salih Ismail al-Malik who was eleven year old when his father died. Saladin claimed that he was there to protect the rights of As-Salih. But it was clear that he was focused on cementing his own rule. By applying coercion, Saladin managed to peacefully grab Damascus, and he solidified his position by getting the Abbasid caliph to recognize him as the overlord of Egypt and southern Syria.

There were several assassination attempts on Saladin. But he had a knack for survival. In 1176, he married Nur ad-Din’s widow Ismat ad-Din Khatun to strengthen his claim to Nur ad-Din’s legacy and empire. He continued to take measures against the Zengids to weaken their resolve to oppose him. When Nur ad-Din’s son As-Salih died in 1181, the Zengids lost their only rallying point. By using threats, bribery, and force Saladin managed to get the Zengids to give up Aleppo and Mosul. In 1187, he defeated a crusader army in the battle of the Horns of Hattin, and was proclaimed the Sultan of Egypt and Syria.

The God Rush, The Carnage, The Creativity

The unexpected consequence of the gold rush that the Spanish conquistadors began in the sixteenth century was the demise of the smaller political entities in Europe. In 1500, there were five hundred political entities in Europe—in 1900, there were twenty-five.

A significant part of the enormous revenue that Spain, Britain, Portugal, and the Dutch were generating from their colonies was poured into their military sector. France, Germany, Belgium, and Italy rushed to conquer their own colonies and, while their profits were not as substantial as what Spain, Britain, Portugal, and the Dutch were making, they garnered enough revenues to build a military that could protect their borders. 

When nations upgrade their military, wars become inevitable. Europe became the land of unending warfare. The competition in Europe between 1500 and 1945 (end of the Second World War) was brutal. The Europeans were killing each other wherever they could, with whatever weapons they could—they fought in Europe, in the colonies, in the seas, and after the discovery of aviation, in the sky. The smaller states could not compete at this level of militarization and brutality, and they were devoured by the bigger states.

The intense warfare, which showed no sign of ending, made it necessary for the big European powers to make relentless advancements in weapons and tactics. They had to pump ever increasing amounts of resources in their military sector. The wars in Europe, before the rise of the conquistadors (the gold-bearing boys of Spain), used to consume a few hundred lives, but by the twentieth century, the European powers had the capacity to slaughter millions.

The First and the Second World Wars saw the worst carnage in history, and with these two wars, the European powers lost their colonies. They were financially bankrupt and politically and culturally demoralized. The power to dictate the world’s political and financial agenda rushed out Europe and flowed into the USA and the Soviet Union. 

[Note: During the 445 years (1500 to 1945) of warfare, mass slaughter, destruction, genocide, and colonization by the European powers, a lot of creative activity was going on simultaneously. There were political reforms and Europe transformed into an industrial civilization The birth rate remained high, there was decline in infant mortality, and the life expectancy went up by several decades—with the result that the population kept rising.]

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The East India Company & the American War of Independence

The American War of Independence was influenced by the fortunes of the British company that was operating in South Asia, the East India Company (EIC). In the 1770s, the EIC was in a desperate condition—its revenues from India and China had plummeted while its operating expenses had skyrocketed, and to make things worse, parliamentarians and jurists in England were trying to have the EIC’s top management arrested on charges of corruption and cruel conduct in the colonies. These controversies led to a run on EIC’s shares and the company was pushed to the brink of bankruptcy.

The government of Lord Frederick North decided that the EIC could not be allowed to fail. The company was too big. Its operations were too extensive. It employed too many people. It controlled much of the trading between Britain, India, Persian Gulf, and China. It had too much debt. It had too many important connections in Persia, India, and China. Since the British government did not want to burden England’s taxpayers, they decided to bailout the EIC by raising revenues from the British colonies in North America.

In 1773, the British parliament passed the Tea Act, which would bring the tax system in the North American colonies in line with England and facilitate the mobilization of revenues for the EIC’s bailout. But the North American colonies reacted furiously to the proposal of higher taxation. A pamphlet campaign began in Pennsylvania. In these pamphlets, the EIC was depicted as a gang of rapacious plunderers, tyrants, pirates, and bloodsuckers. The pamphleteers accused Lord North’s government of being in league with the EIC’s crooked management.

If the political establishment in England had refrained from openly admitting that the taxes were being raised to fund the bailout of the EIC, it is possible that their subjects in the North American colonies would have accepted the tax increase after some protests. The EIC was one of the most detested companies in England and its colonies. The North American colonies refused to let their money go to the EIC.

Several ships carrying tea were turned back by the colonists. In November 1773, three ships carrying tea belonging to the East India Company managed to enter Boston. One of these ships was the Dartmouth. On December 16, men dressed as Indians boarded the Dartmouth and dumped its tea into the ocean. This led to a chain of events which culminated in the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. The British government’s strategy of solving the problems on one side of the world with taxes raised from the other side of the world had badly backfired.

Lord Cornwallis, British general who surrendered to George Washington and the French commander, the Comte de Rochambeau, on 19 October 1781, was appointed the governor-general of India in 1786. The EIC was dissolved in 1874. In a strictly legal sense, the British Empire was born after the dissolution of the EIC—this is because the EIC was the de facto imperial power while it was in existence. In the 1760s, Robert Clive had said in his deposition before the British Parliament that “the East India Company was an imperial power in all but name.”

The Era Dorada and the Spanish Armada

In the sixteenth century, the conquistadors were shipping gold to Spain in such enormous quantities that the Spanish ran out of storage space. On days when a large number of ships full of gold arrived, they would keep tons of gold in the open, outside their store houses. The avalanche of gold caused an economic boom in Spain. There was a surge in construction activity—new palaces, cathedrals, gardens, residences, roadways came up, changing the character of the cities. Works of art were commissioned not only by the nobility but also by the ordinary folks, whose fortune was made in the South American colonies.

The Spanish elite termed their age “Era Dorada”—the Age of Gold. They believed that the flood of gold would never end, because they had been chosen by God to be the recipient of this largesse. God was pleased with Spain because of the Catholic faith of the Spanish. God wanted them to be His policeman and use the gold to build an army that would punish the heathens in Europe and elsewhere. To ably perform the role of “Almighty’s Policeman,” the Spanish spent a significant part of their gold on enhancing their military and navy. The result was that by 1550, the Spanish possessed the most powerful fighting machine in Europe.

When Elizabeth I, a protestant, became the Queen of England in 1558, the Catholic establishment in Europe was outraged. Liberating Britain from her regime became their holy mission. In 1570, Pope Pius V issued the bull Regnans in Excelsis (Reigning on High), which called Elizabeth I “the pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime.” The Pope threatened to excommunicate all Englishmen who were obeying her laws.

Elizabeth I was aware of the danger that she faced from her Catholic rivals in Europe (mainly Spain). She realized that her survival depended on building a navy that could match the strength of the Spanish navy. She hired the best shipbuilders in England to develop the design for a new generation of ships. These designs were quickly put into practice—the result was that the tonnage of English commercial and navy ships tripled between 1560 and 1580. There was a vast improvement in the maneuverability and speed of English ships.

The irony is that the progress of English shipping industry was partially funded by the activities of her rival, Spain. Part of the gold that the Spanish were hauling from South America was entering the English economy. The English privateers used to capture a number of Spanish ships coming from South America and bring their gold to England.

In the summer of 1588, the Spanish Armada (a fleet of 130 ships) sailed from Lisbon. The purpose of the Armada was to escort an army from Flanders to invade England and overthrow the monarchy of Elizabeth I. But the Armada was outmaneuvered and outgunned by the English navy and privateers like Sir Francis Drake. Many Spanish ships were lost in the sea—a few that survived were forced to flee to Spain. The new generation of ships commissioned by Elizabeth I had proved to be far superior than the ships that the Spanish possessed.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Renaissance in the West—Annihilation in the East

The irony is that the Renaissance of the West was contemporaneous with the annihilation of the East. When the culture of the Eastern Roman Empire was being systematically annihilated by the Ottomans, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Italy and several other parts of Europe were having the Renaissance, their great flowering of religious scholasticism, culture, and art.

Western Gladiators and Eastern Theists

The largest building in the cities of the Western Roman Empire was the arena, where the Romans held their gladiatorial combats. The largest building in the cities of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine) was the place of worship. 

The Byzantines were not interested in watching gladiators kill each other in the arena, and for this they were often branded as effeminate by their Western counterparts. This indicates that the Western Romans were brawny (gladiatorial) and the Byzantines were brainy (theistic). 

The Byzantine Empire had its Renaissance between the ninth to the eleventh centuries, three centuries earlier than the Western Roman Empire. It can be argued that the Byzantine Renaissance was the fountainhead of the Renaissance in Western Europe.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Second Crusade: Debacle at Damascus

The Second Crusade was sparked by the loss of Edessa in December 1144, to the forces of Imad al-Din Zengi, Atabeg of Mosul. But instead of reaching Edessa, this crusade landed outside the walls of Damascus, one of the largest and oldest cities in the Levant.

The decision to attack Damascus was taken at a Latin assembly held at Acre on June 24, 1148. Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany, the two kings who were leading the Second Crusade, were at the assembly. But some of the local crusader elite—including the heads of Antioch, Edessa, and Tripoli—were not present. The King of Jerusalem, the patriarch of Jerusalem, and the Grandmaster of Templars were present.

It is not clear how the assembly reached the decision to attack Damascus, which was an ally of the crusader held Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Second Crusade did not have enough soldiers and armored siege towers to lay siege to a large and well-defended city. The chroniclers of that time give no explanation for this decision. It is possible that the assembly felt that Damascus could come under the control of Emir of Aleppo Nur ad-Din and so they decided to conquer it first.

In July 1148, Louis VII and Conrad III marched their crusader army to Damascus. The governor of Damascus Mu'in ad-Din Unur sent frantic calls to the two Emirs of the Zengid Dynasty, Nur ad-Din and Saif ad-Din. On July 24, the crusaders approached Damascus from the western side where richly irrigated and dense orchards stretched about five miles outside the city.

The orchards provided much needed shade and water, which was a good thing from the point of view of the crusaders, but the problem was that the dense orchards provided cover in which the city's defenders could launch surprise attacks. Hundreds were killed during the skirmishes in the orchards. After crossing the orchards, the crusaders established their camp in an open area in front of the city, close to the Barada river.

Damascus seemed vulnerable since it was protected by low walls on the side where the crusaders had made their camp. When the crusaders tried to scale the low walls and enter the city, a desperate hand to hand combat broke out in the overcrowded outlying suburbs of the city. The defenders put up a heavy fight, and the crusaders were bogged down in the narrow streets which were barricaded with rubble, large rocks, and wooden beams.

The crusaders had to fight for every bit of advance that they made in the narrow streets. The fighting went on for three days. Both sides butchered each other in merciless hand to hand combat and the streets were red with blood and piled with dead bodies. The crusaders were running out of time—Nur ad-Din had dispatched an army to relieve the city.

Having failed to make progress beyond the narrow streets of the outlying areas of the city, Louis VII and Conrad III held a council of war on July 27. The decision was made to move the crusader army to the eastern side of the city which was relatively open and barren. They believed that it would be easier to launch a direct attack from the east side. But they failed to take into account the fact that the east side of the city was a rocky desert—it had no shade and water.

The resolve of the Second Crusade melted quickly under the unforgiving desert sun from which the east side of Damascus offered no protection. The crusaders had no water to drink. On July 28, the panicked decision was taken to abandon the siege and retreat from Damascus before Nur ad-Din’s army arrived. As the crusaders fled, they were chased by the defenders of Damascus and many crusader lives were lost in the skirmishes that followed.

With the failure at Damascus, the Second Crusade came to an effective end. Most of the crusaders were dead or badly injured. The two kings, Louis VII and Conrad III, who had marched out of Western Europe with thousands of troops hoping to transform the character of the Levant, were greatly humiliated. They spent some time in the Levant, not as crusaders for the Holy Land but as pilgrims, and then they sailed for Western Europe. 

William Blake’s English Jerusalem

The dream of liberating the Holy Land of Jerusalem was the zeitgeist of the medieval period in Western Europe. But in practice, the liberation of Jerusalem, and the imposition of Latin Christian rule on it, was an incredibly complicated, expensive, and perilous exercise. 

Between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, a large number of men from Western Europe made the long journey to Outremer to participate in the holy war for liberating Jerusalem. They promised their families that they would be back in six months. Most of them never returned. 

In the nineteenth century, poet William Blake suggested that it would be preferable to build a Jerusalem in a safe and convenient location, such as England’s countryside. In his poem, “Jerusalem,” he wrote:

“I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.”

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Churchill: On The Soviet Iron Curtain

Immediately after the Yalta Conference (held February 4–11, 1945), Churchill said to a member of his staff: “Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I am wrong about Stalin.” By the end of the year, he realized that he was wrong about Stalin, possibly as wrong as Chamberlain was on Hitler. He was convinced that the Soviets were acting like a Great Empire and were after world domination. He wanted to develop a strong policy to counter the Soviet threat, but he no longer had the power. He had lost the election. Clement Attlee of the Labor Party had become the Prime Minister in July 1945.  

As head of the Conservative Party and Leader of the Opposition, Churchill tried to build public opinion against the Soviets. On 5 March 1946, he gave his “Iron Curtain” speech. He said, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere.” He noted that the expansive and evangelical philosophy of the Soviets was a threat to the West.

Anna Komnene’s Contribution to Ancient Greek Philosophy

The first major study of Aristotle and Plato was commissioned by Anna Komnene, daughter of Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, in the twelfth century. While much of the work was done in Byzantine Greek, she had Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and some of Plato’s Dialogues translated into Latin for the benefit of the scholars in Western Europe. The translation of Nicomachean Ethics eventually found its way to Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. Anna is the famous author of the twelfth century masterpiece of history, the Alexiad, but her contributions to the study of Ancient Greek philosophy are often ignored by modern scholars. In twelfth century Constantinople, she was seen as a philosopher and a scholar of Plato and Aristotle.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Zengi and the Fall of Edessa

Imad al-Din Zengi first made a name for himself in Outremer in 1126, in the conflict between the Abbasid Caliph and the Sultan of Baghdad. Zengi fought on the side of the Sultan and defeated the forces of the Caliph. But he conducted himself tactfully and earned the trust of both the Caliph and the Sultan, and with their support he became the atabeg of Mosul in 1127. Till 1130, Zengi exploited the factionalism in Northern Syria to defeat a number of Islamic warlords and seized control of towns like Aleppo, Homs, and Shayzar.

With his exploits in the battlefield, and the cruelty and capriciousness that he showed in his personal dealings, Zengi earned the reputation of a merciless warlord. By the 1130s, he was the most dreaded and powerful figure in Outremer. During this period he made several attempts to capture Damascus, which had an alliance with the Kingdom of Jerusalem, then under King Fulk.

In December 1139, Zengi laid a siege to Damascus but he did not dare to launch a full scale attack, probably because the city was of great historical and religious significance. He preferred to force Damascus into submission by applying an economic chokehold. Instead of yielding to Zengi, the ruler of Damascus Mu'in ad-Din Unur turned towards its non-Islamic ally, King Fulk, for help. Fulk dispatched his army to Damascus and Zengi was forced to lift the siege and retreat to Mosul. Throughout the 1130s, Zengi had shown little interest in attacking the crusader states, but that changed in the 1140s.

On April 1, 1143, Emperor of the Byzantine Empire John II Komnenos died when he was injured by a poisoned arrow while hunting wild boar. In the same year, King Fulk died after falling from his horse while he was hunting rabbits. These two hunting deaths led to the Byzantine Empire and Kingdom of Jerusalem getting bogged down in a succession crisis.

Zengi took advantage of the chaos to attack the Kurdish warlords in Diyar Bakr. One of these Kurdish warlords had a mutual defense treaty with Jocelyn II, count of Edessa. Edessa was the first crusader state, established by Baldwin of Boulogne on 10 March 1098. Jocelyn II had little sense of Zengi’s capabilities and intentions. He thought that Edessa was safe from attacks, and marched out with a large force (almost his entire army) to help his Kurdish ally. But Zengi had informants inside Edessa. When he learned that Edessa was largely undefended in Jocelyn’s absence, he force-marched his troops to the city.

With continuous bombardment and use of armored seize towers, Zengi devastated the life of the city’s inhabitants. Jocelyn tried to muster a rescue army to save his city, but it was too late. Zengi’s miners collapsed a section of the city’s walls on 24 December 1144, and his troops rushed into the city. The Christian inhabitants fled towards the city’s citadel, but such was the rush that hundreds got crushed to death (among them was the Latin archbishop). Zengi’s soldiers massacred the men and enslaved the women and children. Edessa was lost to the crusaders—the first of the four crusader states to fall.

The fall of Edessa and the reports of the massacre and enslavement of the city’s inhabitants sent shock waves through the remaining three crusader states and Western Europe. In 1145, Pope Eugenius III launched the Second Crusade. In 1147, the armies of Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany left for Outremer. But they would not have the chance to extract vengeance from Zengi since he was assassinated in September 1146 by one of his Frankish slaves. Zengi’s territories were divided between his two sons: Saif ad-Din (who got Mosul and eastern territory) and the younger son Nur ad-Din (who got Aleppo and western territory).

Nur ad-Din became a legendary ruler, known for his shrewdness, competence, and ruthlessness. He decisively defeated the Second Crusade. During his reign, from 1146 to 1174, he conquered large parts of Asia Minor and Egypt.

The Natural State of Mankind: Barbarism

“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.” ~ Robert E. Howard in his story Beyond the Black River

This is a good insight by Robert E. Howard. In the short term, a civilization dominated by intellectuals might score some victories, but barbarism always triumphs in the end. By barbarism, I mean the political and cultural forces that are ruthless, realistic, religious, passionate, energetic, ambitious, tradition-bound, and innovative. Barbarism does not entail mindless destruction. 

From history we learn that the greatest acts of mindless destruction have been caused by the civilizations which were dominated by the intellectuals (the most recent examples are communism, nazism, fascism, and neoliberalism). Mindless intellectualism is the death sentence for a civilization.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Last Crusade of Bohemond I of Antioch

When Bohemond arrived in Europe in late 1104, he had a hero’s welcome wherever he went. The story of his exploits in the First Crusade had turned him into a living legend. Tales of his bravery in fighting the heathens during the battles of Antioch and Jerusalem (though he never fought in Jerusalem) had made him more popular than any other leader of the First Crusade. In his letters to the Pope and European monarchs, he introduced himself as the “Prince of Antioch.” In his meetings, he distributed the relics which he had brought from the Holy Land. 

Bohemond was in Europe on a mission. He was planning a new crusade, whose goal would be to secure Jerusalem but along the way the crusaders would also conquer the Byzantine Empire. When he reached Italy, he was received by Pope Urban’s successor, Pope Paschal II. It seems that he managed to convince the pope. At the Council of Poitiers in 1106, Paschal II launched a new crusade. He granted Bohemond the banner of St Peter to carry into the battle and a legate to help him gain support for his cause.

Since Bohemond was unmarried, eligible heiresses were being lined up for him. He decided to marry the most powerful woman of his time: Constance, daughter of the French king, Philip I. Meanwhile, he was recruiting men for his new crusade. His marital connection with the royal house of France, helped him gather a large number of men. 

Bohemond toured Europe, promising his followers more spectacular victories in the Levant than those that the First Crusade had achieved at Nicaea, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Fighters from all over Europe flocked to be part of his holy war. Only England refused to pay heed to his call. King Henry I refused to allow Bohemond to cross the English Channel. It is not clear why Henry I did not want to have Bohemond in England—perhaps it had something to do with Bohemond’s connections with the French royal house. 

With an army of 34000 men, Bohemond set out from Europe in October 1107. Despite the high expectations, the crusade against the Byzantine Empire went badly. The Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos knew about Norman tactics. When Bohemond’s troops arrived in Epirus, in south-western Balkans, Alexios refused to get drawn into a pitched battle. With the help of his Venetian allies, he cut off the supply lines of Bohemond’s troops and then allowed the siege to drag on. Famine and disease began to spread in Bohemond’s camp.

By 1108, the condition in Bohemond’s camp was desperate and he was forced to sue for peace. In her book of history, the Alexiad, Anna Komnene, the daughter of Emperor Alexios, gives details of the humiliating peace agreement that Bohemond was forced to sign in Diabolis (modern Albania). The agreement made Bohemond the liegeman of not only Alexios but also his son and heir John Komnenos. Humiliated by the crushing defeat, Bohemond never returned to Antioch. He died in Italy in 1111.

The Delusion of Intellectuals

The intellectuals can invent the solutions to the world’s most intricate problems in ten minutes, but to expect them to solve the problems in their personal life is like asking them to live on vodka and morphine.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The Fall of the Crusader States: Jerusalem and Acre

In 1244, the Ayubid Sultan granted the Khwarazmiyya the permission to attack Jerusalem. The Khwarazmiyya forces began their siege of Jerusalem from 11 July 1244. The city’s defenses fell rapidly. On 15 July 1244, the Khwarazmiyya entered the city. There was extensive looting and killing and by the time the Khwarazmiyya left, the city was in such bad shape, with the streets choked with rotting corpses, that the place seemed unfit for human habitation. When the news of the pillaging and massacre at Jerusalem reached Western Europe, King Louis IX tried to organize a Seventh Crusade to the Levant. But the crusaders would never be able to retake Jerusalem.

The remaining forces of Jerusalem rallied around the Crusading orders and they clashed with the army of the Ayubid Sultan in the Battle of La Forbie (also known as the Battle of Hiribya), which began on October 17, 1244. After the experience of Khwarazmiyya’s sack ofJerusalem, the crusaders realized that no mercy would be shown to them if they lost. They fought bravely, since they knew that defeat meant death or enslavement, but the Sultan’s forces had overwhelming numerical superiority, and the crusader resistance collapsed on October 18. Over 5,000 crusaders had died, 800 prisoners were taken, including Walter of Brienne, William of Chastelneuf, Master of the Hospital, and the Constable of Tripoli.

After the fall of Jerusalem and the decisive defeat in the Battle of La Forbie, the remaining Crusader states in the Levant were in a bad shape. But instead of becoming united to face the external enemy, in Acre, they became embroiled in an internal war. This was the War of Saint Sabas, which pitted the shipping interests of Venice against the shipping interests of Genoa. The  Venetians and the Genoese quarters in Acre were separated by a neutral stretch of land belonging to the monastery of Saint Sabas. For several years, the Venetians and the Genoese had been petitioning the Papacy in Rome to be granted possession of the monastery and its territory. 

It is not clear to which party the Papacy had granted the monastery’s territory, since the Papal records of this momentous decision are missing. But both Venetians and the Genoese were able to flourish in Acre the papers which showed that they had the exclusive papal grant to the territory of Saint Sabas. Each side accused the other side of foul play and a war broke out. By 1256, the people in the Kingdom of Acre had forgotten that they faced the threat from the Islamic forces—they were too busy choosing sides in the battle between the Venetians and the Genoese. The Teutonic Knights sided with the Venetians while the Hospitallers sided with the Genoese. Between 1256 and 1260 most intense fighting took place. Many sections of Acre were ruined. Most of its defensive towers were destroyed. 

The final fall of Acre came in 1291. The Mamluks besieged Acre in April 1291, and by May 18 they had breached its defenses. The crusaders, their families, and the local residents made a mad dash for the harbor to escape the invading army, but most were killed or enslaved. Many of those who made it into the boats drowned when the boats capsized due to overcrowding. A Templar stronghold was the last to fall. It held out till May 18, when the Templars surrendered after accepting a truce offer. But they were promptly executed.

Churchill's Perspective

When British politician and socialite Violet Asquith, aboard the HMS Enchantress in 1912, looked out at the Mediterranean coastline and exclaimed, "How perfect!”, Churchill, who was with her, replied, "Yes—range perfect—visibility perfect—If we had got some six-inch guns on board how easily we could bombard …” (based on David Fromkin’s book A Peace to End All Peace)

This exchange does not depict Churchill as a warmonger who would love to bombard every piece of land on which he had set his eyes. His thinking is typically masculine. He is taking a realist, practical, and masculine view of what he is before his eyes. 

Throughout history it has been the responsibility of the men to defend their land and their family from invaders. Churchill was following the masculine tradition of being prepared to defend one’s land when he said to Asquith: “Yes—range perfect—visibility perfect—If we had got some six-inch guns on board how easily we could bombard …” 

I support Churchill’s perspective.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Imperial Ambitions of Anna Komnene

Anna Komnene, the author of the twelfth century masterpiece of history, the Alexiad, harbored imperial ambitions from her childhood. 

She was born on 1 December 1083, the eldest of the seven children of Alexios I Komnenos and Irene Doukaina. Her younger siblings were Maria, John II, Andronikos, Isaac, Eudokia, and Theodora. Her father Alexios had seized the imperial throne of the Byzantine Empire on August 15, 1081, in a violent coup, during which his troops had sacked Constantinople. His reign was hardly stable and there were frequent attempts to overthrow him, but he managed to survive and ruled for nearly four decades, till he died on August 15, 1118.

Since John was the eldest son, he had been designated as the heir to the imperial throne by Alexios. But Anna wanted the throne to go to the man whom she had married in 1097, Nikephoros Bryennios, a descendent of the Bryennios family that had held the imperial throne before the accession of Alexios.

Anna began to dispute John’s right to succession while her father was alive. Queen Irene Doukaina too preferred to see Nikephoros on the throne. According to the accounts of that period, Irene "threw her full influence on [Anna's] side” and tried to coerce Alexios into nominating Nikephoros as the next emperor. But Alexios could not be moved. He continued to insist that John would be his successor.

At the funeral of Alexios, Anna and her mother tried to get John murdered. When this attempt failed, they made a second attempt to have him murdered. But the second attempt too failed, possibly because Nikephoros did not fully cooperate with the coup plotters. Anna was outraged by her husband’s weakness. She is reported to have exclaimed that “nature had mistaken their sexes, for he [her husband] ought to have been the woman.”

A cleric in Hagia Sophia, the patriarchate of Constantinople and a principal setting for Byzantine imperial ceremonies, proclaimed John II Komnenos as emperor. He would rule until 1143, when he died of natural causes.

Anna was only thirty-six years old when she plotted to get her brother murdered, but with the failure of her plot, her life was over. She was banished to the monastery of Kecharitomene, which was founded by her mother. She would live at the monastery for the rest of her life, consumed with pain, jealousy, and hatred. She outlived John by a few years. The exact date of her death is not recorded, but it is generally believed that she died in the 1150s.

The Alexiad was written during the period when Anna was imprisoned at the monastery. There is no mention of her failed coup attempts in the book, but her pain at her thwarted political ambitions is visible in some of the passages.

Monday, June 14, 2021

George and Clemenceau: Dividing the Middle East

After the First World War, the British and French governments started the process of identifying the territories in the Middle East that they wanted to control. In December 1918, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George had a meeting with his French counterpart Georges Clemenceau in London to have a blunt conversation on how the Middle East was to be divided among the allies. Here’s how their conversation went:

Clemenceau: “What do you want?”

George: “I want Mosul.”

Clemenceau: “You shall have it. Anything else?”

George: “I want Jerusalem too.”

Clemenceau: “You shall have it.” 

Clemenceau wanted to establish a protectorate over Syria, to which George agreed. George identified Palestine as the territory which he must control if he was to protect the Suez Canal. Clemenceau agreed to let George have Palestine. (Source: The Papers of Lord Maurice Hankey, Secretary of the Imperial War Cabinet and top aide to David Lloyd George)

In light of the knowledge of the disastrous fate of the interventions in the Middle East from 1918 to this day, this exchange between Clemenceau and George seems naive, arrogant, and quixotic.

If Clemenceau and George knew history, they would have realized that the West had been failing in the Middle East for more than two thousand years. The Western Roman Empire failed to control the Middle East. The Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantines) failed. The three centuries of crusaders could not make any headway in the Middle East.  

The policy of Clemenceau and George failed, not only in the Middle East but also in Europe, with the result that there was a Second World War.

On Complete Independence

At a dinner in Baghdad in 1920, Gertrude Bell, an English writer who had been recruited to work for British intelligence, said to Jaafar Al-Askari, soon to be appointed Prime Minister of the new country of Iraq, that “complete independence is what we [the British] wish to give to Iraq.” Jaafar Al-Askari replied: “My lady, complete independence is never given—always taken.”

(Source: Gertrude Bell: Complete Letters; Page 224)

Sunday, June 13, 2021

The Fallout of the Battle of Manzikert

When Byzantine Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes marched his military into Asia Minor, he thought that he would decisively defeat the Turkish forces and prove to his enemies in the region that the Byzantines, and not the Seljuk Turks, were the preeminent military power. The Byzantine and Turkish forces met at Manzikert on 26 August 1071. The spies employed by Romanos had conveyed to him that the Turkish forces at Manzikert were modest and were led by a minor commander. Romanos thought that they would be easy to defeat. But the intelligence that he had received was flawed—the Turkish forces at Manzikert were under the personal command of Sultan Alp Arslan (who had established himself as the leader of Sunni Islam in Asia Minor) and were part of the main Turkish army. 

The Byzantines were employing a significant number of mercenaries and Anatolian levies who fled when the Seljuk Turks began their onslaught. The professional Byzantine soldiers tried to put up a stand. They managed to inflict heavy casualties on the Turkish forces but they were eventually overwhelmed by the superior fighting tactics of the Turks. Romanos himself was injured and captured. When he was brought before Sultan Alp Arslan in a disheveled, bloodied, and tattered state, the Sultan could not believe that the exhausted man who was barely able to stand before him was the Emperor of the great Byzantine Empire (which was then known as the Roman Empire). According to one famous account, Arslan placed his boot on Romanos’s neck and forced him to kiss the ground. This is the exchange that took place between them: 

Alp Arslan: "What would you do if I were brought before you as a prisoner?"
Romanos: "Perhaps I'd kill you, or exhibit you in the streets of Constantinople."
Alp Arslan: "My punishment is far heavier. I forgive you, and set you free."

Romanos and the survivors of his army were set free by the Sultan. But a great damage had been done to the prestige of the Byzantine Empire. As the news of the defeat of the Byzantine army and the capture of its Emperor spread through the Levant, there was a panic among the orthodox Christians. They realized that in Asia Minor they were no longer safe. They started fleeing towards Constantinople, which they thought was the only place where they could be safe from the Turkish raids. The influx of refugees put a strain on the economy of Constantinople. There was massive inflation—by the middle of the 1070s, the price of wheat had risen by twenty times. The economic meltdown was accompanied by political upheaval. Several leading magnates rebelled and Constantinople was plunged into a civil war. 

The neighbors of the Byzantine Empire took advantage of the chaos. With no military to oppose their advance, the Seljuk Turks marched into Asia Minor. Advancing at great speed, leaving a trail of slaughter and destruction in their wake (according to the account by Anna Komnene, written a few decades after the war), they reached the shores of the Bosphorus, and the surrounding areas became exposed to their raids. By the 1080s, the Seljuk Turks had captured an area of 78,000 square kilometers. There was trouble for the Byzantines in Europe too. The Normans started eying the Empire’s western territories. The dynasties in Croatia and Duklja cancelled their alliance with the Byzantines and sought a new alliance with the papal establishment in Rome.

The Age of Excommunication of Monarchs

In the eleventh century began the age of intense disputes between the papal establishment in Rome and the monarchies of Christendom. The Popes started excommunicating the monarchs to force them to obey the tenets of religion and the papal directives on political issues.  

Several major figures of the eleventh century were excommunicated by the Popes: Henry IV of Germany (excommunicated by Pope Alexander II), Philip I of France (excommunicated by Pope Urban II), King Harold of England (excommunicated by Pope Gregory VII), Alexios I Komnenos of the Byzantine Empire (excommunicated by Pope Gregory VII), the Norman Duke Robert Guiscard (excommunicated by Pope Gregory VII). When the monarchs made the appropriate conciliatory gestures, the Popes allowed them to return to the communion but when another dispute emerged, the monarchs were excommunicated again.  

Towards the end of the eleventh century, the Popes realized that the threat of excommunication was not a significant deterrence for the monarchs, and they conceived the idea of having an army that would be under papal control and could be used to subdue the recalcitrant monarchs. The idea of crusades was conceived. In principle, the crusaders owed allegiance to the papal authority. But the situation was different in practice and the crusaders often obeyed the monarchs. Between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries crusades were called against several excommunicated Christian monarchs.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Why Did Alexios I Komnenos Invite the First Crusade?

Alexios I Komnenos had not attained the throne of the Byzantine Empire through the legitimate method of inheritance. He had seized the throne in a military coup in 1081. He was appointed as a general by Emperor Michael VII Doukas 1071. Since Alexios had served with distinction in campaigns against the Seljuk Turks, Nikephoros III Botaneiates, the next Emperor who took power in 1078, retained him as a general.

In 1081, Alexios was entrusted with a significant military to counter the Norman threat, but he used this military to besiege Constantinople. On 1 April 1081, Alexios and his men broke through the walls of Constantinople and sacked the city. Botaneiates was forced to abdicate and retire into a monastery where he spent the rest of his life as a monk.

Alexios became the emperor but a significant part of the Byzantine political establishment despised him. They viewed him as a traitor who had acquired the throne through a coup. During his reign, Alexios was battling external threats from the Seljuk Turks and other Islamic forces and internal threats from his political enemies in Constantinople. He maintained his grip on power by promoting his family members to key positions in the government. But the questions regarding the legitimacy of his government would not go away.

By the 1090s, his position in Constantinople had become precarious. He could not be sure of the loyalties of even his family members. Since he could trust no one in his kingdom, he had to look westwards to save his throne. In 1095, he sent his envoys to Pope Urban II to plead for military assistance.

If Alexios needed military assistance then why did he choose to plead before the Pope, the leader of a religious institution, which does not maintain a military. Alexios had good connections with the monarchies of Western Europe. He could have asked for military assistance from them. But he didn’t. I think this is because Alexios did not want a real military from Western Europe to march into the Levant.

Alexios knew that if he allowed the European monarchs to march into the Levant with their military, then his days as emperor would be numbered. Once the European monarchs became aware of the factionalism in Byzantine politics and his weak position, they would be tempted to usurp his throne. Alexios must have thought that the Pope’s crusaders would pose less threat to his regime than with the real militaries owned by the European monarchs.

By sending his envoys to plead before Pope Urban II, Alexios bears the primary responsibility for triggering the First Crusade. The ostensible purpose of the First Crusade was to free the Holy Land, but the real purpose was to save Alexios’s throne from his political rivals in Constantinople.

Friday, June 11, 2021

The Consequence of Richard Lionheart’s Death: Magna Carta

The unexpected consequence of the sudden death of Richard Lionheart, the hero of the Third Crusade, in April 1199, due to an arrow injury that he received while trying to suppress a revolt at the castle of Châlus-Chabrol, in southwestern France, was the Magna Carta in England. Richard was a courageous, jealous, and ruthless monarch. He had a traditionalist view of the institution of monarchy. He was convinced that he possessed the divine right to rule. He would have never allowed the nobles of England to coerce him into accepting the Magna Carta. He would have viewed the nobles who dared to present the Magna Carta before him as traitors and rebels whose just punishment was execution.

John Lackland (he was nicknamed Lackland because, being the youngest son of King Henry II, he lacked significant lands to inherit) became the King of England after Richard’s death. But he was unpopular with his subjects who viewed him as a coward because he had not participated in the Third Crusade, and as a traitor because when Richard was fighting the forces of Sultan Saladin in the Third  Crusade, John tried to usurp the throne of England. Richard’s contemptuous reflection on John’s treachery is preserved in the account of Roger of Howden, the twelfth century English diplomat and chronicler: “My brother John is not a man to conquer a land if there is someone to resist him with even a meagre degree of force.” There was so much hatred and suspicion between the two brothers that if Richard had not died in 1199, he would have ordered the execution of John for betraying him.

Most historical accounts of that period are critical of John. One source, identified as the Anonymous of Bethune, writes: “[John] was a bad man, more cruel than all others; he lusted after beautiful women and because of this he shamed the high men of the land, for which reason he was greatly hated. Whenever he could, he told lies rather than the truth.” In the chronicles of two thirteenth century monks at St Albans Abbey, Roger of Wendover and his successor Matthew Paris, John is presented as a cruel and godless tyrant. They claim, without any evidence, that John had sent a message to the Emir of Morocco offering to convert his Kingdom to Islam. Paris concludes his assessment of King John with this verse:  “England is still fouled by the stink of John; the foulness of Hell is defiled by John’s foulness.”

John accepted the Magna Carta on 15 June 1215. The monarchs of Europe were horrified by the Magna Carta, and so was the papacy at Rome. Pope Innocent III annulled the Magna Carta but that led to a civil war in England, the First Barons' War ((1215–1217). John was defeated in the civil war (he died in 1216), and that was the end of the Angevin Empire which was founded by his father King Henry II in 1154.

Erich Hoffer: On the Elites

“But the elites are finally catching up with us. We can hear the swish of leather as saddles are heaved on our backs. The intellectuals and the young, booted and spurred, feel themselves born to ride us.” ~ Eric Hoffer in “The Young and The Middle Aged" (1970). In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the elites did catch up with us. The global power grab by the elites in the name of a strange pandemic will not have a happy ending. The unexpected consequences of this power grab are now starting to reveal themselves. I wonder, how devastating will be the tsunami of consequences which the elites have failed to anticipate?

Thursday, June 10, 2021

The Consequences of Constantine’s Conversion

Persia was a rival of the Roman Empire since the third century BC. When Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 AD, the Persians started regarding Christianity as a Roman religion. While Constantine had not made Christianity a state religion, his personal ambition was to be the protector of all Christians, including those who were living outside the borders of the Roman Empire. He adopted a strident attitude towards Persia, which was then being ruled by the Sasanian dynasty (224-651 AD) who were Zoroastrian. Zoroastrianism was deeply rooted in Persia, having arrived in the country in the second millennium BC.

In the final years of his life, Constantine began to contemplate a military campaign against Persia. In a letter to Persian Emperor Shapur II, Constantine declared that he was delighted to know that Persia was home to a significant number of Christians whose faith was like his own and that he would advise Shapur II to treat his Christian subjects well. Constantine’s letter sounded like a threat. He was eliding the promotion of Rome’s geopolitical interests with that of his new Christian faith. Shapur II was incensed. 

There was no cause for Constantine to believe that the Christians were being mistreated in Persia. While Zoroastrianism was the state religion of Persia, other religions were not facing persecution in the country. Moreover, there were too few Christians in Persia in that time for the Persian regime to take note of their existence. The Romans and the Persians had been fighting wars for more than six centuries. The Romans had contempt for Zoroastrianism, and the Persians were contemptuous of Roman paganism. But their wars were over geopolitical issues and not religious differences. In 297 AD, Narseh of Persia and Diocletian of Rome had signed a treaty (Peace of Nisibis) which led to a period of peace between the two empires.

Before he could march his troops into Persia, Constantine fell ill and died in 337 AD. But in his letter to Shapur II, he had already created a convincing casus belli against the Persians. Most historians agree that it is Shapur II who broke the peace treaty of 297 AD by moving into Roman Mesopotamia. The two empires became embroiled in long drawn wars (337–350 AD and 358-363 AD). The Persians blamed Constantine’s conversion to Christianity for the conflict, and they started viewing the Christians living in their land as the secret supporters of Rome. Shapur II and his successors launched a series of persecutions which made martyrs of several Christians.

Blindsided by their obsession with destroying each other, the Romans and the Persians failed to take timely action to curb the barbarian tribes: Goths, Alans, Huns, Vandals, Suebi, and the nomadic Turks. By the fifth century, some of these tribes had become a serious threat to Rome and Persia. Rome was conquered by the Visigoths in the fifth century. Persia was destabilized and economically ruined by the barbarians but they survived till the seventh century, when a new force arose: Islam. The Sasanian dynasty was toppled by the groups fighting under the banner of Islam. Zoroastrianism was overthrown. By the eighth century, Islam had conquered almost the entire Levant, and significant parts of North Africa, East Asia, and Southwestern Europe. 

Constantine’s conversion was good for Christianity in the West, but it proved to be a disaster for Christianity and Zoroastrianism in the East. According to a 2011 census, there are 25,000 Zoroastrians living in modern day Persia (Iran)—in Constantine’s time, ninety-seven percent of Persia was Zoroastrian.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The Controversy Over Silk in Ancient Rome

Silk from China started flooding into the Roman Empire as early as the third century BC. The popularity of the fine flowing silk garments among the Roman elite class horrified the traditionalists. 

Seneca the Elder declared that silk garments could barely be regarded as clothing since these garments would not hide the curves and the decency of the Roman ladies. He declared that the foundation of Roman morality was being undermined by silk garments, which allowed men to see through the light fabric which clung to the female form and left little to the imagination. Here’s an excerpt from Seneca’s Declamations (Volume One):

"I can see clothes of silk, if materials that do not hide the body, nor even one's decency, can be called clothes... Wretched flocks of maids labour so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife's body."

In the first century AD, Pliny the Elder complained about the high cost of silk. He said that the Roman economy was being drained for enabling the “Roman lady to shimmer in public.” He calculated that the Roman economy was losing 100 million sesterces annually in importing silk. 

The Roman political establishment made repeated efforts to discourage their people from wearing silk. Emperor Aurelian forbade his wife from buying a mantle of Tyrian purple silk. Laws were passed to ban men from wearing silk since it was seen as effeminate and antithetical to Rome’s militaristic culture.

Caesar and Constantine: Movement of Capital City to the East

If Julius Caesar was not assassinated in 44 BC, he would have moved the Roman Empire’s seat of Imperial Power out of Rome. Caesar believed that the seat of Imperial Power should be based in a region which would improve the governance of the lands where the best interests of Rome lay. He had in mind two places: Alexandria and the site of Ancient Troy in Asia Minor. The seat of Imperial Power was ultimately moved by Constantine in 324 AD to Constantinople, a city that was strategically located at the Bosphorus strait and was a testament to the fact that the aim of the Romans was to dominate both Europe and Asia.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Eastward March of Alexander and Octavian

When Alexander became the King of Macedonia in 336 BC, he had no doubt in which direction he had to march his military for gaining everlasting glory: East. He didn’t waste a moment in thinking of marching into Western Europe. East was where all the fabulous cities were located. East was where he would go. 

Tutored by Aristotle and other great teachers of Macedonia and Athens, Alexander knew about Herodotus’s glowing account of the wealth and splendor of Persia, and the grandeur of Egypt, which was conquered by the Persians in the 6th century BC. He knew about plays like The Bacchae (by Euripides), in which Dionysus says: “I have come to Greece from the fabulously wealthy East.” According to Dionysus, the lands of the East were dancing with the divine long before the Greeks. Alexander knew about the reports of the travelers, sailors, traders, and military adventurers on the treasures and culture of the East. “March eastwards” (because there was nothing worth conquering in the West) became the clarion call for his military. 

The “march eastwards” theme can be seen in the empire which inherited the legacy of Alexander and his great general Seleucus I Nicator: Rome. The Romans did not become an empire when they established their control on much of Europe (which the Romans regarded as the land of barbarians) but when they turned their focus on Eastern Mediterranean, and under Gaius Octavius (later named Caesar Augustus by the grateful Roman Senate) managed to conquer the great empire in the east, Egypt. 

Cleopatra made a major miscalculation when she got involved in a Roman civil war and decided to support the faction led by Mark Antony. When Antony’s forces were routed in the Battle of Actium in 30 BC, the shrewd and ruthless Octavian had the opportunity to bring his troops to Egypt. Despite the fall of Mark Antony, Cleopatra had enough military strength to cause serious damage to Octavian’s forces, but she played a series of bad political moves and was outfoxed by Octavian. She committed suicide and Octavian became the master of Egypt. He had arrived in Egypt as a Roman general; he left as a Roman Emperor. He had turned Rome into an Empire.

Our Apocalyptic Media

Reading a newspaper is like being waterboarded by a stream of apocalyptic water (propaganda masquerading as news). Here’s Michael Crichton’s take on the mainstream media: “The media is like the guy going down the street with a sign that says 'The End of the World is Near,' and he picks a date and the day comes and goes, and the world doesn't end. So he doesn't stop with the sign. He goes home, makes another sign, puts a new date on it, and starts marching again. That's the way the media is.”

Monday, June 7, 2021

Napoleon and the Making of Modern Egypt

After the fall of Saladin’s Ayyubid dynasty in the thirteenth century, the Mamluk Sultanate became the masters of Egypt. The Mamluks were overthrown by the Ottomans in the Ottoman–Mamluk war of 1516 and 1517. But after the war, the Ottomans retained the Mamluks as an Egyptian ruling class. The Mamluks were allowed to retain their influence in Egypt though they remained the vassals of the Ottomans. 

When Napoleon attacked Egypt in 1798, the country was out of direct control of the Ottomans and was being dominated by the local Mamluk elite. In the Battle of the Pyramids, fought on 21 July 1798, Napoleon’s French forces decisively defeated the Mamluk cavalry. The battle was over in an hour, with the French suffering just 300 casualties while inflicting more than 6000 casualties on the Mamluk cavalry. The Mamluk power in Egypt was finished. The Mamluk survivors moved into Syria, leaving Egypt in the hands of Napoleon who, three days later, triumphantly marched his troops into Cairo.

With his quick victory in Egypt, Napoleon had created the impression in Western Europe that he would achieve what all the crusades of the past had failed to achieve. But ten days later, the British Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson shattered Napoleon’s dream of founding a French Empire in the Levant. In the Battle of the Nile, between 1st and 3rd of August 1798, Nelson obliterated Napoleon’s navy at Aboukir Bay on the Mediterranean coast off the Nile Delta of Egypt. With most of his ships destroyed, Napoleon was now cut off from France and basically stuck in Egypt with his 35,000 troops. He remained in Cairo for three years, till 1801. 

Napoleon’s three year stay in Cairo wrought profound, long-term consequences for Egypt. He had not arrived in Egypt to merely conquer and loot—he believed that it was his destiny to liberate, reform, and bring modern ideas to the backward nations of the world. He had brought with him a team of more than 160 scholars. In three years, he gave Egypt the kind of reforms that this country had not seen for several centuries. He turned the traditional Egyptian society on its head. 

Egypt got a postal service. In Cairo and other urban areas street lighting and sanitation was created. A modern mint was established. A French trading company came up. There was creation of plague hospitals, and printing presses with typescript for French, Greek, and Arabic. Slavery was abolished. The dhimmi system was abolished, and the Ottoman and Mamluk social hierarchy came to an end. Though the Egyptian elite remained unconvinced of Napoleon’s intentions, many of his tectonic reforms worked so well that they were not abolished after he left the country. 

It can be argued that Napoleon led to the rise of Egyptian nationalism through his support of Egyptian scholarship. He encouraged the study of Egyptian culture before the time of the Mamluk Sultanate and the Ottoman Empire. He funded several scholarly works on ancient Egypt. This led to the rise of the new discipline of Egyptology. In July 1799, a young engineering officer, Pierre-François-Xavier Bouchard, who had arrived in Egypt with Napoleon, discovered the Rosetta Stone, which played a significant role in the deciphering of ancient Egyptian language.

Genghis Khan: The Excellent, Noble King

The historiography of Genghis Khan in the West shows that he was viewed as an “excellent, noble king,” before the onset of the Age of Enlightenment (eighteenth century), when the Western historians started presenting him as a “brutal pagan.” The Mongols were not savages. They did not cause death and destruction purposelessly—they had a political plan to build a great empire. After the death of Genghis Khan, the Mongol Empire did become the largest contiguous empire in history. The Mongols usually killed the ruling classes in the places that they conquered in order to subdue the local population, but such a strategy was being used by all cultures in the Middle Ages. 

In his book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Prof. Jack Weatherford offers a different perspective on Genghis Khan. Weatherford argues that it is a mistake to see Genghis Khan as a savage and sadistic warlord who caused death and devastation wherever he went. He attributes several aspects of the Renaissance to Genghis Khan, such as the spread of paper, printing, the compass, gunpowder, paintings, and musical instruments such as the violin. He says that Genghis Khan was religiously tolerant and deeply interested in learning about the moral philosophy of other religions. He used to consult Buddhist monks, Christian missionaries (Nestorian and Catholics), Islamic preachers, and Taoist monks. In Mongol culture men and women had equal rights. There are several instances of women acquiring powerful positions in the Mongol political establishment. Weatherford suggests that the Mongol Empire was an important inspiration for the Age of Discovery in Europe. 

Here’s an excerpt from Weatherford’s book: “The Mongol army had accomplished in a mere two years what the European Crusaders from the West and the Seljuk Turks from the East had failed to do in two centuries of sustained effort. They had conquered the heart of the Arab world. No other non-Muslim troops would conquer Baghdad or Iraq again until the arrival of the American and British forces in 2003.”

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Galileo and The Medici

The Medici family played an important role in Galileo’s life. Galileo was the son of a poor descendent of a Florentine noble family. He wanted to become a painter but his father felt that painting was not a worthy profession for a man of noble birth, and he studied medicine instead. Galileo began his career in 1589 as a teacher of mathematics in the University of Pisa. His colleagues were unable to bear his sarcasm and independence, and they made it clear to him that if he decided to resign, they would gladly accept his resignation. 

In 1592, Galileo moved to the University of Padua where he taught geometry, mechanics, and astronomy for eighteen years. Cosimo II de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who had once been Galileo’s student, invited him to Florence where he could do his studies and experiments in a rich environment without having to worry about the interference from his detractors. Galileo accepted the offer and he spent the final years of his life under the protection of the Medici. Cosimo gave Galileo the title of court mathematician. This position brought to Galileo the freedom to advance the theories of Nicolaus Copernicus using mathematics. 

In his 1610 book Sidereus Nuncius, Galileo honored his Medici benefactors by naming the four moons of Jupiter, which he had discovered through his telescope, Medicea Sidera (Medicean stars), in reference to Cosimo and his three brothers.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

The Ottoman-Safavid Wars

In the sixteenth century, the foremost commitment of the Ottoman sultans was not the wars with their European enemies but their religious wars with Safavid Iran. The Ottomans and the Safavids had an apocalyptic view of the conflict between them—each power was convinced that the religious truth was on its side and that the other side was indulging in heresy and had to be annihilated. Both sides wanted to claim the religious leadership of the Islamic world. Safavid Iran arose in the early sixteenth century after the fall of the Timurid Empire, which was founded by Tamerlane. Ironically, Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, contributed to the rise of the Safavid dynasty by his victories over Uzun Hasan, one of the descendants of Tamerlane. Once the Timurid Empire was swept away, the Safavids had the space to grow their power. 

The Safavids wanted Shiaism to be recognized as the fifth school of Islam, but that was not acceptable to the Sunni Ottomans. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, Ottomans and the Safavids fought several major wars over religious reasons, and over the control of the South Caucasus and Mesopotamia. The Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle East today is to some extent influenced by the conflict between the Ottomans and the Safavids.

In 1514, the Ottoman Sultan Selim I issued a fatwa in the name of Sunni Islam against Shia Iran, then ruled by Shah Ismail. Selim transformed his war against Iran into a Holy War by declaring that the Safavids were heretics and must be annihilated. As he marched through the cities in Anatolia, his forces beheaded every Shiite between the age of seven and seventy. This led to the greatest massacre in Ottoman history. The forces of Shah Ismail fought bravely but Selim’s forces had the upper hand in the battle. The Safavids survived the defeat by moving their capital to Qazvin in 1555 and then from Qazvin to Isfahan in 1598—this ensured that the Safavid ruling elite was beyond the reach of the Ottoman forces. The Safavids adopted the strategy of continuous guerrilla warfare which was immensely damaging to the Ottoman economy. 

In 1548, Suleiman the Magnificent launched a campaign against Iran. His army laid waste to large parts of Persia and conquered most of modern Iraq, including the city of Baghdad, the historic seat of the Abbasid caliphate, which was of religious importance to the Shi'ites. In 1555, Suleiman the Magnificent and Shah Tahmasp, the Iranian Emperor, negotiated the Treaty of Amasya to draw a border between their empires and end their conflict. But in 1577, the Ottoman sultan Murad III became determined to destroy the Safavid dynasty. His ambition condemned the two empires for fifty years of bloodshed. Between 1578 and 1639, the Ottomans and the Safavids fought three major wars. For a  brief period, 1588–1629, Baghdad came under direct Safavid rule. 

In 1638, Murad IV himself took the leadership of the Ottoman military and he took Revan and Tabriz from the Safavids. In 1638, he conquered Baghdad after a siege of forty days. On 17 May 1639, both sides agreed to the Treaty of Zuhab which settled the Ottoman–Persian frontier, with Iraq ceded to the Ottomans. The Safavid Empire went into decline towards the end of the seventeenth century, and the Ottomans took advantage of their problems to usurp several territories in Georgia, Iranian Azerbaijan, and Armenia. But in the eighteenth century there was the rise of Nadir Shah who deposed the last members of the Safavid dynasty and became a Shah himself. During the Ottoman–Persian War of 1730–1735, Nadir Shah forced the Ottomans to accept Persian hegemony over the Caucasus.

Weakened by the unending conflict with the Safavids and other powerful forces in the Levant, the Ottomans could not defend their lengthy northern border in Europe which they shared with the Habsburg empire, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and Orthodox Russia. They were doomed after the eighteenth century (perhaps from the middle of the seventeenth century). It is surprising that they continued to be a geopolitical power in the twentieth century and it took a tectonic event like the First World War to break apart their empire.

Civilization is a Children’s Project

The average life expectancy four thousand years ago was twenty-five years. Before that it was even less. This means that the world we live in is the creation of young adults (many of them were children by modern standards). 

Mankind’s achievements in the prehistoric age—from the invention of wheel, to the discovery of agriculture, domestication of cattle, development of languages, rise of the world’s first primitive religions, mythologies, philosophies, and political systems—was the outcome of the labor and enterprise of people who would be of ten to thirty-five years. A few people in the prehistoric age would live to the age of fifty or even ninety, but the lifecycle of most would plateau at thirty-five. 

This implies that in the prehistoric period, which comprises 99% of human existence on this planet, the young adults were the driving force of civilization. 

In the modern age, the situation has changed. In the last three hundred years, there has been a rise in average life expectancy and the forces of civilization have gone into the hands of older people. The average age in Japan is currently forty-eight years; in the USA it is thirty-eight years; in Germany it is forty-five years; in UK it is forty years. But when Japan, the USA, Germany, and the UK were in a high-growth phase, their average age was quite low. The rise of average age can be a cause of economic, militaristic, and political stagnation. 

The young adults are often the best barbarians. The older generations are often the best utopians.  History tells us that the barbarians are often the creators of new civilizations, whereas the utopians are often the destroyers of old civilizations.

Friday, June 4, 2021

The Sykes-Picot Agreement to Divide the Ottoman Empire

After capturing power in Russia, the Bolshevik government led by Lenin and Trotsky went to extraordinary lengths to discredit the policies of the deposed government of Tsar Nicholas II. Trotsky, then People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs, published some of the dirtiest secrets of the Tsar’s regime in the Soviet newspaper Izvestia. In late November 1917, he published all the documents related to the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between Russia, England, France, and Italy to partition the territory controlled by the Ottoman Empire. The agreement signed on 16 May 1916 was based on the premise that these four nations would manage to conclusively defeat the Ottoman Empire and its allies in the First World War.  

The Sykes-Picot Agreement stipulated that the Ottoman territory outside the Arabian Peninsula would be divided along the Sykes-Picot line into areas of British and French dominance. Britain would get the areas where today southern Israel and Palestine, Jordan and southern Iraq are located—they would get the ports of Haifa and Acre to enable them to have direct access to the Mediterranean. The areas where southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are located today was to be France’s share. Russia was to get Western Armenia in addition to Constantinople (which was of great importance to the Orthodox Tsarist regime for religious and historical reasons) and the Turkish Straits. Italy was to receive southern Anatolia.  

Under the secret Constantinople Agreement (also known as the Straits Agreement), ratified by Russia, England, and France in 1915, the territories of Constantinople and the Dardanelles had already been promised to Russia in the event of their victory in the First World War. The leaking of the Sykes-Picot Agreement caused a major political scandal in Europe, Asia, and the USA.

The Sick Man of Europe

In the nineteenth century, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia coined the phrase the “sick man of Europe” to define the Ottoman Empire. He used this phrase in a series of confidential letters that he exchanged in 1853 with British ambassador Sir George Hamilton Seymour. 

Nicholas I was the first world leader to realize that the Ottoman Empire had become ossified and weak. He asserted in his letters that the Ottomans do not possess the military capability to defend their vast territory and economic interests, and that the fall of their empire was imminent. He invited the British to join his government in the exercise of drawing plans for dividing the Ottoman territory among the traditional European powers and the emerging powers in the Levant. 

The British Establishment of that time was taken by surprise by the Tsar’s view. They, like the French and other West European powers, believed that the Ottomans were a powerful empire and, notwithstanding the few military defeats that they had suffered in the last two centuries, they would continue to exist forever.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

The Russo-Ottoman Wars of the Eighteenth Century

During the Russo-Turkish war of 1768–1774, Catherine the Great, Tsarina of Russia, concocted the orthodox Greek and Russian plan of driving the Ottomans out of the territory held by the former Byzantine Empire and placing her grandson Constantine on the imperial throne of Constantinople. 

More than three centuries after the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the Ottomans were defending themselves against another orthodox Christian power: Tsarist Russia. The Russian forces were largely victorious in the war and they were in a position to annex significant Ottoman territory in Europe and the Levant. But the complexities of European politics of that time were such that the West European powers feared that the balance of power in Europe could tilt permanently in orthodox Russia’s favor if they allowed the Russians to dominate large sections of Ottoman territory. Austria and other West European states intervened diplomatically to place a limit on the territorial gains that the Russians could expect from their victory.

The Ottomans and the Russians signed the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca in 1774. Russia returned the territories of Wallachia and Moldavia to the Ottomans. But Catherine the Great negotiated and got the guardianship of the Orthodox Christian holy sites and the right to protect Orthodox Christians throughout the Ottoman Empire—this provision ensured that the Russians had a readymade excuse to interfere in Ottoman territory whenever they thought that the time was ripe. A second war between the Russian and Ottoman empires was inevitable.  

In 1783, Russia annexed Crimea and Kabardia. In May and June 1787, Catherine the Great, and her new ally, the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, held a triumphal procession in New Russia and the annexed Crimea. The Ottomans saw the triumphal procession as a violation of their territory—they ordered the Russians to evacuate Crimea. In August 1787, the Ottomans declared a war on Russia with the aim of reversing the losses of the earlier Russo-Turkish war. While this war was being fought, the Ottomans became involved in another war with Austria in 1788. Both wars were fought concomitantly till 1792. Caught between two wars, the Ottoman situation became militarily hopeless. Their logistics collapsed, and they were forced to negotiate. 

The Treaty of Jassy, signed between Russia and the Ottoman Empire in 1792, established Russian dominance in the Black Sea region. The Ottoman aim of reclaiming Crimea had failed. If the West European powers and the Orthodox Russian Empire had not been distracted by the eruption of the French Revolution in 1789, the fate of the Ottoman Empire could have been much worse during the second Russo-Turkish War.

Ottomans, Seljuks, and their Land of the Rum

When Mehmed II conquered Constantinople in 1453, he adopted the title Qayser-i Rum (Caesar of the Roman Empire), and he gave the name “Rumelia” (land of the Romans) to the Ottoman Empire’s possessions in southeastern Europe (the Balkans). The Seljuk dynasty, which can be seen as a geopolitical predecessor of the Ottomans in the Levant, used the title “land of the Rûm" (land of the Romans) to refer to Anatolia (much of modern-day Turkey), which they had conquered after defeating the Byzantine Empire in the Battle of Manzikert in 1071.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

The Qayser-i Rum: The Caesar of the Roman Empire

The Ottomans had been trying to conquer the Byzantine Empire since the early 14th century. Osman Ghazi had laid a siege to Nicaea in 1301. He annihilated the Byzantine army but failed to capture Nicaea because of the arrival of a mercenary army of 8000 troops led by Roger de Flor. Osman was succeeded by his son Orhan in 1324. Orhan captured several cities belonging to the Byzantines in northwest Turkey. He took advantage of the civil war, which followed the death of the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos in 1341, and captured the peninsula of Gallipoli which he fortified to gain control of Dardanelles. Orhan’s son Murad I became the sultan in 1362 and continued to pursue the policy of expanding the frontiers of the Ottoman Empire. 

When Murad I was killed in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, the sultanate passed into the hands of his son Bayezid I Yildirim, who took the title Sultan-i Rum (Rum being an old oriental name for the Roman Empire). Bayezid had his brothers strangled to prevent any disputes regarding his succession. He blamed the death of his father to Byzantine and Serbian treachery, and was determined to conquer Constantinople. In 1394, he laid siege to Constantinople and ordered the Byzantine emperor to surrender. The Byzantines pleaded before Pope Boniface IX who called a crusade to vanquish the Ottoman forces. Sigismund of Luxembourg, the King of Hungary, who later became the Holy Roman Emperor, and knights from France, Germany, Venice, and Genoa, answered the pope’s call. But Bayezid managed to defeat the crusader forces in the Battle of Nicopolis and then he resumed the blockade of Constantinople. 

Bayezid's heavy artillery could not cause much damage to the ancient wall which protected Constantinople but he would have found a way to enter the city if he had not been forced to lift the seize in 1402 due to the appearance of the massive army of Tamerlane, the Prince of Destruction, who had fought several wars in Asia, Africa, and Europe and was never defeated. 

Tamerlane and Bayezid had been insulting each other in letters for sometime. In one of his letters, Tamerlane wrote: “Believe me, you are but pismire ant: don't seek to fight the elephants for they'll crush you under their feet. Shall a petty prince such as you are contend with us? But your rodomontades (braggadocio) are not extraordinary; for a Turcoman never spake with judgement. If you don't follow our counsels you will regret it.” Tamerlane’s army marched into Syria in 1400, killing most of the inhabitants of Aleppo and Damascus. They sacked Baghdad in 1401, slaughtering 20,000 people, and on July 20, 1402, they marched into Anatolia where they were confronted by Bayezid’s forces. But Bayezid was defeated and captured. He subsequently died in Tamerlane’s prison. 

With Bayezid death, there was a period of respite for the Byzantine Empire since the Ottomans became entangled in a succession related civil war. Four of Bayezid's sons, Süleyman Çelebi, İsa Çelebi, Mehmed Çelebi, and Musa Çelebi, were the main contenders for the throne. Mehmed Çelebi was victorious. At his coronation in 1413, he took the name Mehmed I. When Mehmed I died in 1421, the power went to his son Murad II who began his reign by besieging Constantinople. But the Byzantines managed to coerce Murad’s younger brother Küçük Mustafa, who was only thirteen years old, to rebel against the sultan and besiege Bursa. Murad was forced to abandon the siege of Constantinople and rush to Bursa to deal with his rebellious brother. He defeated Mustafa’s army and executed him. 

In 1451, Murad II was succeeded by his son Mehmed II who achieved the dream of his ancestors by conquering Constantinople in 1453. After the conquest, Mehmed II took the title, Qayser-i Rum (the Caesar of the Roman Empire). According to some historical accounts, Mehmed II used to say: “I have conquered the New Rome. Now it is time to conquer the Old Rome.”

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

The Split in the Orthodox World

In the fourteenth century, the Orthodox Russians realized that the Byzantine Empire had surrendered itself to not just papal authority in Rome but also the Ottoman sultans. They accused the Byzantine Emperors of abdicating their leadership of the Orthodox world by accepting papal and Ottoman overlordship. 

The Byzantine Empire of Nicaea had recaptured Constantinople in 1261, but their military power was inadequate for settling the territorial disputes in which they were involved in the Levant and southeastern Europe. Their weakness forced them to solicit military support from the Ottoman sultans. The Ottomans arrived in Europe on the invitation of the Byzantines—in the Byzantine civil war between 1341 and 1347, one of the Byzantine factions used the support of Orhan Ghazi, the Ottoman Sultan, to gain an upper hand in southeastern Europe. Once the Ottomans had got a taste of European politics and warfare, they decided to expand into Europe. In 1354, they captured  Gallipoli, and in 1360s, they won Adrianople in the Balkans. 

In 1274, Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos, the founder of the dynasty that would rule the Byzantine Empire until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, pleaded before the Latin Church for military assistance. In 1366, John V Palaiologos visited the Hungarian Kingdom and pleaded for help. The Hungarian King agreed to help on one condition—John V should convert to Catholicism. In October 1369, John V became the first Byzantine Emperor, in seven hundred years, to travel to Rome, where he converted to Catholicism in St Peter's Basilica and acknowledged the pope as the supreme head of the Church. But his acceptance of Catholicism did not hinder John V from accepting the suzerainty of the Ottoman sultan Murad I in 1371. In 1376, Murad I helped John V suppress a civil war. 

The Russians were appalled by the Byzantine attempts to merge Orthodox Christianity with Catholicism, and they were suspicious of the Ottoman sultans. In the middle of the fifteenth century, Orthodox Christianity was split into Russian and Greek (Byzantine) branches. The Russians claimed that they were the true representatives of Orthodox Christianity and the inheritors of the Roman Empire. The Russian Emperors started viewing Moscow as the third Rome, and they assumed the title of Caesar (Tsar in Russian).

The Submergence of Dwaraka

The Mausala Parva, Book 16 of the Mahabharata, describes the events which transpire thirty-six years after the Kurukshetra war: the demise of Krishna, the demise of his brother Balarama and their father Vasudeva, the civil war in which every member of the Yadava clan is killed, and the destruction of the kingdom of Dwaraka. Arjuna arrived in Dwaraka to find out what had happened to Krishna and his clan and he saw the submergence of the kingdom in the sea. 

Here’s an excerpt from Arjuna’s description of Dwaraka’s final moments: 

“The sea, which had been beating against the shores, suddenly broke the boundary that was imposed on it by nature. The sea rushed into the city. It coursed through the streets of the beautiful city. The sea covered up everything in the city. I saw the beautiful buildings becoming submerged one by one. In a matter of a few moments it was all over. The sea had now become as placid as a lake. There was no trace of the city. Dwaraka was just a name; just a memory.”

The end of Krishna’s clan leads the five Pandava brothers to renounce their own kingdom and begin their march towards heaven.

Monday, May 31, 2021

On Richard Lionheart’s Crusade

After mentioning that Richard Lionheart’s life came to a close when he was hit by a stray arrow shot from a rebel castle in France on 26 March 1199, Steven Runciman delivers his judgement on Lionheart’s life in a single sentence: “He was a bad son, a bad husband and a bad king, but a gallant and splendid soldier.” (A History of the Crusades III: The Kingdom of Acre; Chapter III, “Coeur-de-Lion”)

Lionheart was not fully committed to the war for the Holy Land since his priority was to safeguard the interests of his empire in England and France. He arrived in Acre on 8 June 1191 and departed for Europe on 9 October 1192. During his sixteen months in the Levant, Lionheart acted like a shrewd political operator and a pragmatic military commander—he carried out extensive negotiations with Emperor Saladin while fighting to defeat him in several battles. He and Saladin delighted in being respectful and generous to each other. Lionheart realized that with the kind of military commitment that Western Europe was in a position to make in the Levant, Saladin and other oriental forces could not be defeated. 

After a siege of about two years (started by King Guy in August 1189), the crusaders conquered Acre on 12 July 1191. Lionheart played a decisive role in the success at Acre. In September 1191, Lionheart defeated Saladin in a battle north of Arsuf. Towards the end of May 1192, the crusaders had taken all the coastal areas that they had lost to Saladin. In January 1192, and then for the second time in June 1192, the crusaders were just ten to twelve miles from Jerusalem, which was largely undefended since most of Saladin’s forces were committed to other parts of the battlefield. On both occasions, Lionheart refused to besiege Jerusalem. Apparently he believed that even if the crusader forces managed to conquer Jerusalem, they would not be able to hold it while Saladin continued to be the ruler of Egypt and Syria. 

Lionheart’s struggle to make it back to England proved as perilous as his struggle against Saladin. The ship in which he left Acre was wrecked by a storm near Venice, forcing him to continue his journey overland. To evade his European enemies, he was traveling in disguise, but he was captured by Duke Leopold of Austria. Leopold accused Lionheart of the murder of Conrad of Montferrat and locked him in a castle. On 28 March 1193, Lionheart was handed over to Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, who imprisoned him in a castle in Germany. After the payment of a huge ransom, Lionheart was released on 4 February 1194. On his release, King Philip of France sent a message to John, Lionheart’s brother: “Look to yourself; the devil is loose"

Sunday, May 30, 2021

The Outcome of the Crusades

In November 1095, when Pope Urban II called for a crusade to the Holy Land, he believed that the crusaders would win resounding victories, and that in his lifetime the day would come when Western Christendom would take control of not just Jerusalem and other holy sites but entire Levant. But the First Crusade, and the subsequent crusades, became bogged down in a series of wars, massacres, conspiracies, riots, and assassinations which went on for two centuries, till 1291. 

The high religious and political rhetoric of the crusades was not backed by wisdom, political prudence, and astute military planning. Even the high-ranking crusaders, the kings and the nobles, had a naive view of the region where they were going to fight. They were mostly clueless of the ruthlessness and military capabilities of their oriental rivals. Whenever the crusaders scored a military victory, they failed to build on it. With the result that the fruits of that victory would get frittered away. The crusades ended in a colossal failure: all the Christian kingdoms in the Levant, including the Byzantine Empire and the four crusader kingdoms which the First Crusade had won, were lost. There was a massive desecration of places of historical and religious significance, and a thorough decimation of the minority communities (Jews and Orthodox Christians) which had been living in the Levant for centuries before the crusades were even conceived.

The crusades in the East were undoubtedly a geopolitical and religious disaster for Western Christendom. The irony is that the only geopolitical success that the crusades achieved was in the heart of Western Europe. Pope Urban II had enjoined the Spaniards in 1096 that instead of marching eastwards, towards the Levant, they should complete the conquest of the Spanish territories. The reconquista went on in Spain till the second half of the fifteenth century when the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II, won the kingdom of Granada. But Isabella and Ferdinand were not committed to taking back Jerusalem. Their priority was European internal politics. Another crusade in Western Europe that was successful in religious terms was the Northern Crusade, which pitted the crusaders against the pagan Slavs (Wends) and Balts and led to the expansion of Christian forces in the Northern parts of Europe. 

The Spanish reconquista and the movement against the pagans might have happened even if there were no crusades to the Holy Land. It is not clear if the crusades to the Holy Land can be credited with the victories that Christendom achieved in Western Europe.