The Byzantine Empire and Islam

The Byzantine Empire, Early Russia, and Muslim Expansion

 

It is important to point that when we speak of the fall of the Roman Empire we are speaking about the fall of the Western part of the empire and not the eastern part.

In the east the Roman Empire for almost 1000 years protected the West from Muslim expansion and invasion.

By the time the empire collapsed in 1453 its religious mission had been accomplished and its political concepts had spread among the Slavic peoples of eastern Europe and Russia.

The 2nd great civilization that will be discussed is that of the rise of Islam and the Islamic civilization was religious in its origins for it had developed from the teachings of the prophet Mohammed.

The ancient Greek city of Byzantium was formally christened as "new Rome" in AD 330.

New Rome eventually was to be called Constantinople and as the western part of the Roman empire fell to foreign invaders, Constantinople turned eastward to secure its economic livelihood and culture and gradually became less and less Roman and Western and more Greek and oriental.

In the 6th century Justinian ruled the eastern empire from 527 to 565 and his ambition was to restore the Roman empire to its previous size and power.

Apparently many of his ideas and successes were due to his wife Theodora who had been a common dancer from poor background.

In 532 the Nike rebellion occurred and was the most famous of many popular insurrections.

During this rebellion Theodora showed great coolness, and through her direction her husband stayed and crushed the rebellion.

Justinian, in order to restore the glory of Rome and defeat Germanic armies first bought off the Persian Kings who threatened Syria and Asia Minor.

In 533 he seized North Africa from the Vandals, but it took 20 years of war for his generals to retrieve Italy from the Ostrogoths and in the process most of the great cities of Italy lay in rubble. He also recovered a small part of Spain.

With Justinians death in 565 the greatest period in Byzantine history had ended and the tired empire entered a period of instability lasting from 600 to 900 AD.

Slavic tribes had invaded the Balkans, a new wave of Asiatic nomads were being kept at the gates of the empire only by paying tribute, and the Persians were well on their way of conquering Syria, Palestine and Egypt.

But the emperor Heraclius who ruled from 610 to 640 conducted 3 brilliant military campaigns and destroyed the Persian empire and regained Syria, Palestine, Egypt and the Holy Cross.

The empire was then confronted with a new enemy that of Islam and Arabs attacked the Byzantine empire and by the middle of the seventh century they had subjugated Palestine, Syria, Persia, Egypt and most of Northern Africa.

Every year an Arab fleet attacked Constantinople and the weakened empire was also threatened by the Bulgars who in 680 would settle in what today is Bulgaria.

By 700 the entire empire stood on the verge of disintegration.

Leo the III saved the empire with the aid of new technology called Greek Fire which was essentially a primitive form of flame thrower and drove back a desperate Arab assault on Constantinople in 718.

Leo then turned to administrative and military reform. Civil and military administration were combined under the authority of provincial generals.

In exchange for their military service land was granted to the peasants and this landed peasant army became the backbone for the powerful Byzantine army.

The Macedonian Dynasty that ran from 867 to 1057 ushered in the 3rd period of Byzantine history during which the empire went on the offensive.

The Bulgarians were conquered as they tried to expand into the Balkans, southern Italy and Sicily which had been lost to the Muslims had been regained and the power of the Muslims in the east was shattered.

The empire reached a high point under Basil II who ruled from 976 to 1025 and in these years the Byzantine military finally crushed their Bulgarian foes and on one occasion purposely blinded 15,000 Bulgarian prisoners and sent them home wit the aid of a handful of guides who were left with one eye.

Basil II was cordial with Vladimir the Prince of Kiev in southern Russia and was instrumental in bringing about the conversion of Vladimir to Christianity.

Trade was also furthered between Russia and the Byzantine empire.

By the end of the Macedonian empire in 1057, the Byzantine empire entered a long period of decline and for 4 centuries the government, social order and economy suffered irreparable damage and the weakened empire would be further shattered by Christian and Muslim invaders.

In the 10th century a powerful landed nobility had begun to threaten the power of the emperor.

By turning the peasants into serfs these landowners had become wealthy and powerful and opposed to the central government.

As more peasants became serfs the backbone of the Byzantine army and tax base was undermined.

At the end of the century Basil had to suppress two revolts by generals representing a hostile aristocracy.

But by 1081 one of the generals had become powerful enough to claim the throne.

At the same time in the arena of commerce a serious rival was emerging and this was the city of Venice which had been founded in the 5th century by refugee who had fled the barbarian invasions of northern Italy.

The island city of Venice was relatively safe and easily defensible from barbarian invaders and they remained under Byzantine control when most of the empire and Italy was being overrun.

Since the Byzantine’s protected Venice, the Venetians could concentrate on trade and the accumulation of wealth and capital.

By the 11th century, Venice had become the undisputed economic power of the Adriatic, and ambitious Venice merchants were dreaming of replacing Byzantine commercial control throughout the eastern Mediterranean.

At the same time the Byzantine were also confronted with external threat in the forces of the Turks who threatened Asia Minor and the adventurous Normans led by Robert Guiscard who were carving out colonies for themselves in southern Italy.

The Byzantine army was defeated at the crucial battle of Manzikert in 1071 and all of Asia Minor was lost. In the same year the Normans captured Bari the empires last stronghold in the south.

In 1081 amidst all these external and internal problems a powerful, aristocratic landowners Alexius Comneus became emperor through a coup d’etat.

In 1096 the first crusaders appeared on the scene. Alexius appealed to the Pope Urban II to order the crusaders to fight the Turks for him, but the crusaders approached the city.

Shortly thereafter Alexius convinced the crusaders to attack the Muslims instead of the Byzantine empire.

And the successful weakening of Muslim power by the First Crusade helped Alexius to recover valuable portions of Asia Minor.

Yet by the fourth crusade of 1202 to 1204 all the envy that had been building up against the Byzantine empire was converted into open conflict.

The crusaders were financially backed by the Venetians and the knights were first persuaded to attack the Christian city of Zara in Dalmatia which was a commercial rival of Venice, their next target would then be Constantinople.

At the time Constantinople was so fractured by factional strife that the crusaders had no trouble in capturing the city.

Unfortunately priceless works of art and countless irreplaceable manuscripts from the ancient world were either destroyed or carried off to the west to private collectors.

The 4th crusade completely weakened the Byzantine empire. A Latin Emperor ruled Constantinople and Venice successfully monopolized all trade and commerce in the eastern Mediterranean.

The Latin empire of Constantinople was hated by the native population on whom it imposed the Roman Catholic Church, but the empire lasted until 1261.

But the Byzantine empire continued to decline despite replacing the emperor with a Greek.

A form of feudalism had developed that sapped the empire of its financial strength as taxes and customs duties diminished. Money was constantly being devalued and military forces were becoming weaker and weaker.

Bitter religious disputes also arose between emperor and clergy over whether or nor to accept Western aid for the unification of the Eastern and Roman churches under the tutelage of Rome.

Externally the situation was precarious for the empire held only a tiny portion of the territory it once held and it was surrounded by ambitious rival and foes.

At the same time a tremendous foe had arisen across the straits in Asia Minor and these were the Ottoman Turks who were named after the leader Ottoman.

In 1356 the Ottoman Turks crossed to Europe and captured Adrianople which they converted into their capital.

Within 30 years they had overrun Bulgaria, Serbia and had reached the Danube by 1390.

They also expanded into Asia until they were defeated by the Mongol leader Tamerlane in 1402.

The Ottoman Turks finally conquered Constantinople in 1453. The siege took 7 weeks and the city faced an army of 160,000 Turks with only 9,000 soldiers and the great eastern fortress of Christianity fell to Islam.

The fall of Constantinople was profoundly important for when it fell the last direct link with the classical era was broken.

Rome had perished then New Rome and an historical epoch had ended.

The Byzantine empire was anything but politically stable and during the 1000 years of its existence it experienced 65 revolutions and the abdication or assassination of 60 emperors.

But the empire was economically stable for the most part and the reason for this economic stability was that the economy had been completely monetized for trade and especially for the payment of taxes.

The Byzantines also excelled at using applied technology for warfare.

Also the loss of foreign lands may have contributed to the length of the empire’s existence for the by 700 the emperors ruled lands and people that were more or less similar.

Also the empire had a highly efficient and highly centralized system of administration. The western part of the old Roman empire had been broken up into fiefdoms, but the Byzantines were governed by a strong monarchy who was aided by a well-trained bureaucracy.

The authority of the emperor rested on the idea that God had chosen him to run the empire. The emperors rule was absolute and his title was Autokrator which meant absolute supremacy.

Finally the Orthodox Church served as the handmaiden of th state and was a staunch ally and protector of the monarchy.

The Orthodox church dominated religious, cultural and political life of the empire and state.

The Roman Church did not identify itself with the Roman state, but the Orthodox Church was a state church ruled by a king-priest who ruled the Byzantine empire.

The church was a department of the state.

Relations for the most part were poor between the eastern and western branches of the church.

In 726 Leo issued an edict forbidding the use of images or icons of the sacred personages of Christianity including Christ and all the saints.

In reaction to this rioting broke out in Constantinople broke out and was suppressed, but riots continued to break out against this edict that was formulated in Rome.

In 843 the iconoclastic problem was finally settled by the restoration of the images, but other bitter feuds broke out between the east and the west.

In 1054 the issue was the use of leavened bread vs. unleavened bread in the communion service and this issue caused the pope and the patriarch of Constantinople to excommunicate each other which led to an open schism that still exists in the catholic world today.

The key thing to remember is that for centuries both churches had been growing in separate and distinct ways until they came to maintain completely separate existences, and each distrusting the other.

Constantinople was a great city that stood at the crossroads of Europe and Asia and its site ensured its being a port of transit for a great marine trading basin that extended from the Adriatic to southern Russia.

Merchants exported luxury goods, wines, spices, and silks to Russia and they imported furs, fish, caviar, honey and amber.

Manufactured gods such as metalwork, leather goods went to India and China in return for precious stones, spices, woods and perfumes.

Trade was supported and furthered by the existence of a currency backed up by gold reserves and the currency was so stable that it became the money for international trade and was not devalued for almost 1000 years the longest stable coinage in history.

Constantinople was the greatest trading center of the Middle Ages, but it also manufactured armor, weapons, hardware and textiles.

After silk worms were smuggled out of China in 550 AD Constantinople had a flourishing silk industry that was controlled by the state.

The state controlled the economy through a system of guilds to which all tradesmen were required to belong.

All wages, profits, hours and the price of the job, article or foodstuff were controlled by the state to prevent exploitation.

The city and social life of Constantinople had three centers: the imperial palace, the church of Hagia Sophia, and the giant Hippodrome that seated 80,000 for the chariot races.

The chariot races reflected the social and class division in Byzantine society for teams of Chariots would race. There were two teams the Greens and the Blues. The Greens represented the merchants, artisans and bureaucrats, while the Blues represented the landed aristocracy.

While Byzantine art is basically Roman it is monumental in scale especially in terms of architecture, mosaics and wall and panel painting that were used to decorate the great churches of Constantinople.

The Byzantines adopted the Greek language as the official language and it proved to stimulate the preservation of classical works in philosophy, literature and science.

Byzantine monasteries produced many saints and mystics but showed little interest in teaching or learning.

One of the greatest feats of Byzantine scholarship was the codification of Roman law and the result was a great legal work known as the Justinian code or Corpus Juris Civilis.

The code states that the will of the emperor is the source of the law, that the judge is the emperor’s representative in interpreting the law, and that equity is the basic principle of the law.

The Byzantine empire always had a formative influence on the development of the Slavic peoples to the north and east.

The Slavs who were the ancestors of the Russians migrated into the lands vacated by the Germanic tribes.

Slavic civilization changed in the ninth century when Swedish Norsemen known as Varangians were able to establish themselves as rulers in the Slavic settlements.

By the end of the 9th century the Varangian ruler of Kiev had succeeded in establishing his supremacy over a large area, which eventually became known as Russia, which was a word derived from Rus which meant seafarers.

The state of Kiev operated as a loose confederation of Russian city states.

By the end of the 10th century the Norse minority had merged with the Slavic populations and the Russian ethnicity was formed.

Kiev was more a commercial entity than a political entity, for all the states coordinated with one another to maintain open trade along the river routes.

Kievan military expeditions against Constantinople occurred as early as 860 in order to not only rape and plunder, but also to force treaties to open up profitable Russian-Byzantine trade.

Under Prince Vladimir of Kiev in 989 conversion to Christianity took place.

Essentially Vladimir shopped around for official religions and rejected Islam due to the prohibitions against alcohol, he was against Judaism because Yahew was a weak god for he allowed them to be booted out of the holy land and he rejected Roman Christianity for the pope thought that he was supreme to secular rulers.

Finally, he was left with the orthodox church of the Byzantines.

Kiev reached its greatest point under Yaroslav the Wise (1019-54), who issued Russia’s first code of law.

Yaroslav also negotiated marriage alliances for his children with the royal families of Poland, Norway, Hungary and France.

But with the death of Yaroslav the city-states led by their princes dissolved the confederation in a civil war for who would rule Kiev.

Many inhabitants sensing that they could not survive the conflict and bloodshed fled into what is present day Moscow in order continue their lives.

Finally, in 1240 the Asiatic Mongols invaded and destroyed Kiev.

We now will shift the focus of discussion to Islam. The term Islam essentially means peace and come from the Muslim holy book the Koran. The followers of Mohammed who was the founder of the faith are known as Muslims.

Islam has its origins in the Middle East among the bedouin tribes who had worshipped nature and polytheism.

Among the more advanced cities in Arabia was Mecca which would become the center for Islam.

Mecca was a thriving commercial city that taxed the surrounding districts for its income.

In Mecca Mohammed was born 570-632 as an orphan and was brought up by an uncle. He worked for a wealthy widow who was 15 years older than himself and ran a caravan business between Mecca and Syria. They had 4 daughters.

Muhammed was a peaceful man who suffered at times from severe depression. Often he would hike into the foothills near Mecca to meditate.

One night he dreamed that the archangel Gabriel appeared before him and ordered him to speak. Gabriel spoke through Muhammed and the collected revelations of Muhammed became call the Koran.

Muhammed at first thought that he had been possessed, and contemplated suicide. He was comforted by his wife Kadija and he finally realized that he had been appointed prophet by God or Allah.

Now this was the same god worshipped by the Jews and Christians, but God had chosen him to perfect the religion that had earlier been revealed to Abraham and Jesus.

Muslims believe that the Koran contains the actual word of God as revealed to Muhammed.

Because the Koran could never be translated the spread of Islam created a great deal of linguistic unity among the Arabs.

The central theme of Islam is monotheism that of Allah. Islam recognizes that there were prophets before Muhammed and even recognizes Jesus but the last and the greatest prophet is Muhammed. Muhammed is not a god and is not the son of Allah, but simply a man that Allah spoke through.

Those who follow Allah’s rule upon death will receive entrance into paradise, an oasis of love. But those who do not will be cast into hell.

Besides being a religion Islam was a system of government, law and society and the Islamic community was an excellent example of a Theocratic state, where all power resides in God, and in whose behalf political, religious and other forms of authority are exercised.

On the Prophet’s death in 632 Islam spread rapidly under the Caliphs. Their wars of devotion were aided by a fierce devotion to the idea of jihad or holy war against any cause thought to be unjust.

In 636 Arab forces conquered Syria and in 642 conquered Persia.

The imposition of a head tax on all Muslims encouraged conversion and for the most part Jews and Christians enjoyed some form of toleration for they worshipped the same god as the Muslims.

In 661 after the death of the last of the first four caliphs, the governor of Syria proclaimed himself caliph and founded the Umayyad Dynasty that lasted until 750.

The Umayyad were very aggressive and expanded into the Mediterranean, into Spain in 711 and even gained a foothold in southern France.

They were defeated by Charles Martel near Tours in 732 in a decisive battle that halted their expansion into Europe.

At the same time the Muslims were expanding into central Asia and by the 8th century they had converts and provinces in Turkey and India.

The center of Umayyad power was the ruling class of Arabs who formed a privileged aristocracy and who were greatly outnumbered by non-Arabic converts to Islam such as Egyptians, Persians, Syrians and others.

The empire depended on these people but they were treated as second class citizens and resentment grew that would eventually lead to the undoing of the Umayyad empire.

This resentment found expression in the Shia movement that formed around Ali, Muhammed’s son in law, who was deposed as the fourth caliph.

His followers continued to regard Ali and his family as the rightful rulers of the Islamic community.

They believed that in every age a messiah would appear.

The Shia also rejected the sunna which was the body of later tradition that was not contained in the Koran.

And they insisted that the Koran was the sole authority no the life and teachings of the prophet and they became a major movement within Islam and stood in opposition to the ruling dynasty of the Umayyads.

In 750 the Umayyad Dynasty was crushed by rebels and a new dynasty, the Abbasid ruled most of the Muslim world from 750 to 1258.

The city of Baghdad was built in 762 as the capital of the new dynasty.

With the rise of the new dynasty Arab predominance within the Islam religion was ended and now all Muslims were treated as equals.

The patterns of nomadism and tribal warfare gave way before economic prosperity, the growth of town life and the rise of a merchant class.

Iraq had now become the center of the Moslem world.

From the 8th to the 12th centuries the Muslim world enjoyed great prosperity. Muslim traders were in close contact with three continents and could move goods back and forth between China and Western Europe and from Russia to Central Africa.

Joint stock companies flourished as did branch banking, and the checks drawn on one bank could be cashed elsewhere in the empire.

There were tremendous irrigation works, the likes of which had never been seen as well as water clocks.

The Abassid Dynasty from the very start was in constant threat of dissolving.

Early in 1300 the grandson of Ghenghis Khan succeeded in uniting the nomads of Central Asia and in 1258 his grandson captured Baghdad and the Abbasid Dynasty came to an end as did its magnificent irrigation works.

Between 900 and 1100 there were great advances in medicine, great medical schools, clinics, pharmacies and hospitals. The most famous doctor of the time was Rhazes who wrote more than 100 medical treatises.

In his most famous work On Smallpox and Measles he clearly describes the symptom and treatment of these diseases.

The Muslims also had great physicists who made important theoretical breakthroughs in optics.

The Muslims were great alchemists who created sulfuric acid in the first chemical laboratories in history. In fact the Muslims were the first to place a real emphasis on the value of scientific experimentation.

They also used chemistry to try to transmute metals to gold and developed methods for evaporation, filtration, sublimation, crystallization and, most importantly distillation.

The process of distillation was invented around 800 and produced what was called Alkuhl, a new liquor that made Geber it inventor a man of some notoriety. The name of Geber some claim is the base for out word of "gibberish".

The Muslims borrowed from the Hindus and the Greeks for their conceptions of mathematics. The Muslims were the first to invent the all important zero and nine place numeration in the West, though it is important to point out that the Mayan civilization in the Yucatan Peninsula discovered nine place numeration and the zero much earlier.

In fact the word Algebra is an Arabic word and an individual named Omar Khayyam (d. 1123) went beyond quadratic equations to cubic equations.

Arab sailors could navigate due to the use of astrolobes and created sailing vessels that could sail into as well as with the wind.

Muslim intellectual life was in a good part the product of a genius for synthesizing various cultures and the diffusion of knowledge was a tremendous factor in the revival of classical learning and the coming of the Renaissance in Europe.