The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan.
When we last left Frankopan’s history of the Silk Roads at the time of the middle of the seventh century, Christianity was on the eastward march. There was soon to be a new sheriff (or is that Sharīf) in town.
But first, the bubonic plague. The year is 541:
It moved like lightning, so fast that by the time panic set in, it was already too late. No one was spared. The scale of death was barely imaginable.
This is known today as the Plague of Justinian:
The Plague of Justinian (541–542) was a pandemic that afflicted the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, especially its capital Constantinople, the Sassanid Empire, and port cities around the entire Mediterranean Sea. One of the deadliest plagues in history, this devastating pandemic resulted in the deaths of an estimated 25 million (at the time of the initial outbreak that was at least 13% of the world's population) to 50 million people (in two centuries of recurrence).
The plague is believed to have begun in China; it was brought west through trade – grain ships carrying rats, etc. (And Americans complain about the devastation brought on by NAFTA!) In addition to death, the plague brought chronic economic depression; returning to Frankopan:
…fields denuded of farmers, towns stripped of consumers and a generation scythed down in their youth naturally altered the demography of late antiquity, and caused a severe contraction of the economy.
A Byzantine treasury already depleted before the plague could not withstand the demands after the plague. Justinian was left with the option of buying off his neighbors, as he did not have the means to fight them off. His successors decided on a different approach. The new Emperor, Justin II, sent the Avars – who were looking for their customary payment of tribute – away with a message:
“Never again shall you be loaded at the expense of this empire, and go on your way without doing us any service; for from me you shall receive nothing.”
A powerful alliance of Türk nomads felt Constantinople could be a worthwhile partner in support of their ambition to destroy Persia. The Roman attack failed, and the Türks felt that they chose an unreliable partner. This episode, however, brought on a period of two decades of fighting between the Romans and Persians.
The result would be devastating for both sides, especially for the Persians; further, the fighting would make the soil fertile for a new enemy, one to arise from the deserts of the south.
At one point, after the Persians successfully penetrated deep into Asia Minor, the Romans successfully ambushed the Persian army. The queen was taken prisoner along with the royal golden carriage; the Persian sacred fire – considered greater than any other fire – was captured and thrown into a river; the Zoroastrian high priest and a “multitude of the most senior people” were drowned.
These were seen, as you might imagine, as aggressive and provocative acts, meant to belittle the Persians and their religion. At the same time, the Roman army embraced an ever more religious tone.
The details of the battles, the ebbs and flows, the intrigue, the diplomacy…too much for this post. By 626, the Persian army was camped within site of the walls of Constantinople. Heraclius, the Roman Emperor of Armenian descent, felt this would be a fight to defend the Christian faith.
Just as all seemed lost, the walls held and the assaults were beaten away. The Avars – allied in this battle alongside the Persians – gave up first; the Persians soon had to follow, given reports of attacks in the Caucasus by the Türks.
Heraclius did not leave it at this; he organized a swift counter-attack, making an alliance with the Türks. After crushing a large Persian army, the Persian leadership cracked under the pressure. Heraclius led a ceremonial entry into Jerusalem. Jews in the city were forcibly baptized; Eastern Christians, whose doctrinal positions did not match those of the Orthodox Church, were forced into conforming.
In the meantime, a new threat to both Romans and Persians was rising up from the south…
It was in this region, as war raged to the north, that a trader named Muḥammad, a member of the Banū Hāshim clan of the Quraysh tribe, retreated to a cave not far from the city of Mecca to contemplate.
Muḥammad was not alone in this region with a new preaching about a single god; there were others who rose in this region during this time, a region experiencing acute economic contraction as a result of the Perso-Roman Wars. Yet, it is Muḥammad who advanced.
Those who followed his teachings were promised fruitful land, economic rewards, paradise, and receipt of the lord’s forgiveness; those who did not would see their crops fail, face doom, disaster and damnation.
Anyone who waged war on his followers would suffer terribly and receive no mercy. They were to be executed or crucified, lose limbs or be exiled: the enemies of Muḥammad were the enemies of God; truly they would suffer an awful fate.
The conservative elite met this new teaching with ferocious opposition; Muḥammad was forced to flee to Yathrib (later renamed Medina); this year, the year 622, became the year zero in the Muslim calendar.
While the Byzantines and Persians manipulated local rivalries in order to gain advantage, Muḥammad sought to bring the many tribes together.
Unity was a core tenet, and a major reason for Islam’s imminent success. “Let there not be two religions in Arabia,” were to be Muḥammad’s last words, according to the investigation of one respected Islamic scholar writing in the eighth century.
Muḥammad and his followers turned to armed resistance; caravans were targeted, in increasingly ambitious raids. Success compelled his followers to believe they were under divine protection. Intense negotiations with the leaders of the Quraysh tribe of Mecca resulted in the treaty of al-Ḥudaybiya, providing for a ten year truce.
The number of followers swelled following these successes; senior tribe officials pledged allegiance to Muḥammad. This at a fortuitous time: Persia’s influence in the region was diminished; a virtual anarchy took hold in Persia as anywhere from six to eight kings (depending on the historian) claimed royal authority over Persia. Soon enough cities in Palestine – including Jerusalem – submitted to this new warrior-prophet.
Support from the tribes of Arabia was one thing. Muḥammad was to gain support from two unlikely – when considered through the lens of mainstream, modern narratives – sources:
…two other important reasons also help explain the triumph of Islam in the early part of the seventh century: the support provided by Christians , and above all that given by Jews.
I note these as unlikely given mainstream, modern narratives; yet, one could make the same argument during the last 100 years and – while labeled a conspiracy theorist – not be far off.
Muslim relations with the Christians are described by Frankopan as “pacific and warmly encouraging”; as to support from the Jews:
The support of the Jews in the Middle East was vital for the propagation and spread of the word of Muḥammad.
Historians of all stripes – Arabic, Armenian, Syriac, Greek and Hebrew – note that Muḥammad and his followers went to great lengths to assuage the fears of Christians and Jews.
Where Jewish leaders in Yithrab once persecuted Christians, Muḥammad successfully petitioned for their support in his early years. Mutual defense between Muslim and Jew was promised in the case of attack by any third parties. Islam was seen by the Jews as having much in common with the Old Testament; further, Jesus was seen by Muḥammad not as God’s son, but a man.
Jews in Palestine welcomed the news of the successes of Muḥammad – seeing him as offering relief from the grip of both the Romans and the Persians. Some Jews concluded that this was the coming of the Messiah – welcome evidence of their view that Jesus Christ was a fraud. Other Jews were not so convinced…“for the prophets do not come armed with a sword.”
Whatever the religious significance, other texts corroborate that the Arabs were seen by the Jews as liberators from Roman rule. Muḥammad would provide the means to return the lands of Abraham to the Jews.
Christian sects – those who were forced to change their views under the aforementioned Heraclius – also offered support to and saw hope in these new conquerors. For a time, there was some form of peace. New churches were built in North Africa, Egypt and Palestine.
And then the infighting: who would succeed Muḥammad? Three of the four men appointed as successors were assassinated; furious arguments raged over interpretation of Muḥammad’s teaching. Internal arguments served to harden attitudes toward non-Muslims; by the late seventh century, converting Christians gained attention – this, accompanied by hostilities when necessary.
However, the ultimate battles were between the rival factions within Islam; the Caliph took up arms against the direct descendants of Muḥammad. Yet, for many followers of the new religion, even this was secondary: armies penetrated both east and west – Central Asia, the Caucasus, and North Africa; Spain and France. In Europe, this advance was halted finally by Charles Martel, in 732 – just 200 miles short of Paris.
The fate of Christian Europe hung by a thread, later historians argued, and had it not been for the heroism and skill of the defenders, the continent would surely have become Muslim.
Of course, this was a setback to the Muslims only in one place and only for a time….
What remained of Rome was Constantinople and some immediate regions. Trade in the Christian Mediterranean shriveled; trade that was not local came to an end. Bustling cities were virtually abandoned.
At the same time, the Muslim world stretched from the Atlantic through Egypt and Mesopotamia to the Himalayas. Hundreds of cities full of taxable consumers came under Muslim control. Ports connecting the Persian Gulf and China were annexed. Immense wealth was extracted. An enormous new city was built, one that was to become the richest and most prosperous in the world. It was known at the time as Madīnat al-Salām. We know it as Baghdad.
Wealth from trade funded scholarship; translations of texts from Greek, Persian and Syriac into Arabic; science, medicine, and philosophy; mathematics and astrology. Many Christian and Jewish communities continued to survive and even flourish under Muslim rule. Baghdad and the Muslim world eclipsed anything of compare in Christian Europe.
But all was not positive. Three Muslim centers developed: one in Spain, one in Egypt, and a third in Mesopotamia. They fought over theology; they fought over influence; they fought over succession. They slowly evolved to encourage and even demand conversion by their non-Muslim subjects.
But, for now, the story is simple: the chain of events that began with the intense rivalry between the Byzantine Romans and Persians ended with the Muslims – within a few decades of Muḥammad’s contemplations – “establishing perhaps the greatest empire that the world has seen….”