This new movement was, on the religious side, an intense simplification of the body of Catholic doctrine, eliminating nearly all that had seemed difficult to the untrained masses: the Trinity, the Incarnation, above all the mysterious Sacrament, and therefore the priesthood. On the political side it got rid of the burden of debt, the shame and suffering of slavery, the toils of an elaborate legal system and the lawyers who battened on it. It also ministered to the jealousy felt by the outlying parts for the despotic central power at Constantinople. The message of Mohammed promised easy thinking on the religious side, freedom on the political; freedom not only to the individual but to local groups — the Egyptians, for instance. The individual was relieved from his debts and from legal constraint; the social groups from their domination by a distant imperial government with its arbitrary rule and its heavy weight of taxation.
The new creed came to be called Islam, that is, “The Acceptation,” and has retained that name. Those who followed it were the “True Believers.” We call them also, from the name of the great heresiarch who launched their effort, “Mohammedans.” We also talk of the culture they founded as the “Moslem” world.
Not long after Mohammed’s death, in A.D. 634, his Arab followers broke forth, a swarm of eager desert cavalry sweeping northward and making converts wherever it passed. Those who joined it, if they were slaves or debtors, recovered their freedom and could henceforward boast their independence of the imperial government. They were the more enthusiastic for their new creed because it seemed to them so simple of comprehension after the Christian affair of sacrifice and renunciation and difficult strain: its hierarchy of priests and its mysteries. The new enthusiasm, sweeping the Oriental world much as Communism proposes to sweep the Western world today, enthusiastically preached one God, It revered Jesus Christ as the greatest of the prophets but rejected the complications of the Trinity. It revered our Lady highly — far the highest among women, but not the Mother of God. It offered comprehensive worship to the Deity, but it swept away the Mass with its Communion and all the rest. It had hardly a ritual; only prayers that all could follow, and a social system which men could easily adopt and find just.
Within a century of the first change, the soldiery of this new thing, Islam, had mastered and garrisoned and were governing Syria, North Africa, and much the most of Spain. They had even for a moment thrust into the heart of France, whence they were thrown back to the Pyrenees. They had thus dismembered the Roman Empire of the East and had overrun North Africa and Spain in the West. There remained, of course, in the countries they thus garrisoned and held, a great number (for generations a large majority) of subject orthodox Christians; but these pretended to no political power. They paid tribute to their Arabian masters and those of their own fellows who in great numbers has joined themselves to these new Arabian masters. Through these Christians and renegades the old culture went on, for they could build and they could write and calculate and do all that had been done by civilised men. But political power was in the hands of the Moslems soldiery and their chiefs.
Islam mastered not only Syria and Egypt and North Africa and most of Spain but rapidly extended itself eastward, seizing the very fertile plain and wealth of Mesopotamia, flooding with its religion and arms Persia and the tangle of mountains on the borders of India and up into the steppes of Asia; and here it was, on this Asiatic border (which Western soldiers had visited after the campaigns of Alexander but had never colonised nor transformed in their own image), that Islam, this new power and expansion, did a fateful thing: it introduced the Mongol: it opened the gates to a racial force of murder and destruction.
The Mongol of the Asiatic steppes, nomadic hordes of mounted men, horrible in the eyes of all Westerners, detestable to the European, were favoured by Islam in the following fashion:
The original Arabian conquest looked to be short-lived. As a political power it had no sense of unity save such as was given by a simple, widespread religion. Native commanders here and there took over the government of towns and districts, fought each other and combined in alliances that dissolved almost as soon as made: hardly a lifetime’s lease. There was a moment when it seemed as though the power of Islam would break up into an anarchy, making possible the recovery of Africa and the Near East by the Christian power of the Empire seated in the Imperial City on the Bosphorus. Suddenly out of the steppes of Asia, came one band, then another, of these hideous, swift, fighting, mounted Mongol hordes, brought up wholly to combat, archers and swordsmen, pouring out in clouds.
Centuries earlier these same Asiatics had forced their way into the heart of Europe. They had been beaten back. Many of them remained in permanent fashion in the neighbourhood of the Black Sea and the Middle Danube, where today the word “Hungary” perpetuates their name of Huns. But here they never governed; in the East they did. They mastered, by their fighting quality, their physical endurance, and their ruthlessness, the central power of the Moslem world. They became the bodyguard and afterwards the supplanters of the caliphs of Baghdad. They were the real power, acting in the name of the Commander of the Faithful. That is the prime business which led at last to the Crusades: the Mongol, the Turk.
The issue to be joined was the issue between the main bulwark of Christendom on the east, Byzantium, and the pressure of these savage horsemen upon its frontiers.
Byzantium had held out bravely. Asia Minor had been stoutly maintained and great Christian armies were recruited from it. But the pressure on its eastern border was constant and severe. That border might crack and let in the Turkish torrent of death.
It is remarkable that the Mongol hordes, from their first wave onward, had fitted in at once with the social structure and creed of Islam. Why and how this was so had never been explained. It has not even been described. Their own bloody or absurd superstitions, barbaric as they were, without substance or philosophy or reason, yielded at once to the religious spirit of the society into which they came. They became not only Mohammedan, but fanatically Mohammedan, and through their military power what had already begun to be the decline of Mohammedanism recovered.
The best general name for them is the name “Turk.” They had no conscious unity; they came in bands fighting for immediate gain. They were possessed, as the original Arabian horsemen out of the desert had not been possessed, of a fierce lust for cruelty and mere destruction, and the letting in of that spirit and all its armed agents was the great and almost mortal wound delivered indirectly by Islam to the civilisation of Europe. They burnt and unroofed and massacred everywhere in their campaigns. Successive arrivals of them were to continue in that mood which was inherited from them by their mixed descendants in whom the Mongol language (Turkish) remained, though the Mongol features and habit of body had been transformed by perpetual intermarriage. Their function was the function of the Destroyer, and from the first of the great names among them, Attila, to the very last modern massacre of remaining Christians in Asia Minor, they have brought with them nothing constructive — only death.
But their fighting power, though it was merely murderous, was of such energy that for centuries it continued dominant, and even so late as little more than two hundred years ago it had penetrated to the heart of Europe, besieged Vienna, and threatened to reach the Rhine. Of these successive Turkish waves, of this Mongol abomination to which the original Arabian Islam had opened the door, the one which here concerns us was the Seljuk, for this it was, coming forward out of Asia in the eleventh century, which almost overwhelmed what was left of the Christian East and which provoked the Crusade.
The Seljuk clan took their name from a chieftain three generations back from the moment of which I am here writing, the last part of the eleventh century. He had extended his power as the leader of all those bands one after the other until starting from the stepped around the Aral Inland Sea, he had built up a sort of loose empire based on nothing more than the terror of small but fierce garrisons, the commanders of which soon quarrelled among themselves but, in coalition, could bring forward formidable armies.
Being the latest of the Mongol hordes, the Seljuk Turks had least benefitted by intermixture with more civilised people. They were still dwarfish, slant-eyed Tartars, crouched on the saddle of their small, swift horses, riding with the absurd short stirrup of nomads, kneeling over the horse’s neck, as do (or did) certain jockeys of our own day.
Their tactics were simple. Thousands of them came on, not in a close line but in a sort of thin extended flock, galloping closely at top speed, shooting with their short bows from the saddle then wheeling back again, while a second relay did just the same thing and then a third. Only when the enemy thus attacked was thoroughly shaken would they all come forward and charge with the curved, thin-bladed, very sharp sword, which, with their light bows, was their chief weapon. Mounted, mobile, and not dependent upon exact dressing, they would in this final charge work to envelop either wing of the strict, dense Byzantine line.
During the tenth century, at the end of what was for the West of Europe the Dark Ages (the generations when the Swabian German kings were wrangling for control of the Papacy, and when the Scandinavian pirates came so near to destroying our civilisation in northern Gaul and in Britain), Imperial Byzantium, the last heir of the Roman Empire, the last island of the ancient culture, passed through a period of military and political resurrection. These had not only stood up to the pressure of Islam on the eastern borders, they had found it possible to carry the counter-offensive into what had so long been Mohammedan territory. Christendom under their leadership pushed back Islam in spite of successive waves of Turkish invasion. The Turks would raid into Byzantine territory in Asia Minor but never came near to establishing a permanent foothold — until one fatal day, the day of Manzikert.
A Byzantine counterattack upon Mohammedanism even reached halfway down the Syrian coast. There was a moment when it threatened Mesopotamia.
But the strength of this revival in the Christendom if the East, in the Christians of the Greek rite, was sapped by political intrigue at the centre. That political intrigue was mixed up with an “intellectual” disease comparable to the movement called today in Europe by the barbaric names of “Pacifism,” and “Anti-Militarism.” The coming into power of such politicians as batten upon movements of that kind undermined the whole new strength which the Macedonian Emperors had built up. The last fighting emperor could no longer be certain of proper support in the filed against the Turk.
They still had admirable recruiting material in what was still the numerous peasantry, and ample finance from what were still the wealthy towns of Asia Minor. Their generals and leaders in the field were drawn mainly from the great landowners of that same Anatolian land which was the bulwark of Christendom against Islam. But the politician had done his work; the armed power was sapped: a collapse must come and did. The whole situation disastrously changed in one decisive action. At Manzikert on August 19, 1071, the great-grandson of Seljuk, the Turk, Alp Arslan, struck the fatal blow.
~Hilaire Belloc: excerpt from The Crusades: The World's Debate, Ch. II.