Monday, June 7, 2021

The Eastern Fringes


To the east, there lay another Christian empire – and in 1073, even as Gregory was being enthroned as the Bishop of Rome, he feared that a literally fiendish danger was menacing the Second Rome.

-          Millennium, Tom Holland

As regular readers will note, the two books I am currently covering are somewhat overlapping at this moment.  Where I last left The Age of Paradise, by John Strickland was the mid-eleventh century, but just before the Great Schism.  At this point in Holland’s book, we are a couple of decades after this event.

So, by this point in Holland’s book, Pope Gregory VII (also known as Hildebrand) was presiding over the Western portion of a Church divided.  He could also observe the threat to the Church in the East, on the fringes of Christendom – the eastern edges of Anatolia and stretching into Armenia.

Pope Gregory would write: “for everything has been laid waste, almost to the very walls of Constantinople.”

News so shocking as to seem unbelievable – and yet every traveler returning from overseas had confirmed it. 

Holland does not offer any such accounts from travelers, but I find this account of a battle from 1064, a few years previous and further east – the Christian Armenian city of Ani, under siege for 25 days by a large Seljuk Turk army under Alp Arslan who eventually captured the city and slaughtered its population:

An account of the sack and massacres in Ani is given by the Turkish historian Sibt ibn al-Jawzi, who quotes an eyewitness saying:

… children were ravished from the embraces of their mothers and mercilessly hurled against rocks, while the mothers drenched them with tears and blood... The city became filled from one end to the other with bodies of the slain…

The army entered the city, massacred its inhabitants, pillaged and burned it, leaving it in ruins and taking prisoner all those who remained alive...The dead bodies were so many that they blocked the streets; one could not go anywhere without stepping over them.

And the number of prisoners was not less than 50,000 souls. I was determined to enter city and see the destruction with my own eyes. I tried to find a street in which I would not have to walk over the corpses; but that was impossible.

Returning to Holland, he notes that this invasion began even decades before, again in Armenia and again by Turks:

In the winter of 1016, dragons had swooped in over Armenia, on the easternmost limit of the empire, ‘vomiting fire upon Christ’s faithful,’ and volumes of the Holy Scriptures had begun to tremble.

These early encounters apparently didn’t concern the Byzantines much – they had dealt with attempted invasion before.  Surprising, at least to me, given how much of Eastern Christendom had already been lost to Muslim in the preceding centuries.  Perhaps as long as the capital was safe, the elite cared little about the hinterlands.  Sounds familiar.

Gregory believed it was the Devil showing his hand, with the “chillingly genocidal” goal of putting the Christian people to slaughter “like cattle.”  From the evidence further east and nine years earlier in Armenia, this seemed a reasonable concern.

Byzantine Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes would finally act, putting together an imperial task force to march east and hunt down the barbarians.  The battle, from August 1071, is known by the plain on which it was fought – Manzikert.  The imperial forces were annihilated.

The Basileus himself, taken captive, had ended up on his face before a Turkish warlord, as a leather slipper pressed down upon his neck.

With this, the victors fanned out from Manzikert to all points west, using Roman roads that for a thousand years served the cause of Roman greatness.  With this devastation to their east, rival factions in Constantinople focused on scrapping over whatever remained of the empire (this also sounds a lot like what’s happening in today’s crumbling empire).

The Turks would continue to advance, trampling down ancient cities, stabling horses in monasteries, enslaving Christians, and driving out refugees.


Christianity is equally under assault in the West today – not by direct armed invasion, but a more insidious and effective method: purposefully created cultural rot from within. 

One nation survived the Turkish invasions, even until today and as noted above: the Christian nation of Armenia (although it remains under tremendous threat).  So…I guess I’m sayin’ there’s a chance for us in the West.  If they could do it there, why not here?


Meanwhile, in North Africa, equally appalling news; bishops beaten, the church was dying:

Of the two hundred bishoprics and more that it had once boasted, a mere five remained.

Why couldn’t the same fate befall the Christians in Byzantium?  Certainly, we know that Constantinople would stand for another four centuries.  But at that time, at that moment in history toward the end of the eleventh century, there was no reason to think otherwise.


  1. So how was Armenia able to survive as a Christian nation? Strong national identity? Did they live in the mountains and have a warrior culture? Something else?

    1. If they had a warrior culture, they were not often very successful in war, usually under authority of Persians, Turks, or Russians.

      It probably helped that they were in a mountainous area. Even in defeat, it seems some pockets survived due to relative inaccessibility.

    2. That's what I thought. Need to move to the Rockies when it all goes to pot.

    3. We got plenty of hills, limestone aquifers, and vast expanses of desert and cactus-infested shrubland in Texas to hide in like the Taliban. Come on down! I need to hurry up and get my AK-47 under-folder.

  2. RMB, you need to move before it all goes to pot. If you wait until it happens, you probably will not be able to do it. Ten years too early is better than one day too late.