Chronicles of the Crusades: Eyewitness accounts of the wars between Christianity and Islam ed. by E Hallam, Wiedenfield & Nicolson, London, 1989
The very word ‘Islam’ means ‘submission’ in Arabic and the violent history of that religion leaves no doubt as to why it has come to be called by that name, drenched as it is in the blood of countless hundreds of thousands of Europeans.
Islam: Born in conflict
Islam’s founder, Muhammed claimed in 610AD to have received a message from Allah to start that religion. In 617 he began to preach in the city of Mecca but was not well received. A popular revolt against his teachings forced him to flee for his life in 622.
He found refuge in the rival city of Medina, where his message found more fertile ground. Soon he had a fairly large following and, within the year, Muhammed issued Islam’s very first “holy war” order – the jihad – against Mecca. Using his status as founder of that religion, Muhammed created the precedent still used today of justifying violent conquest in the name of Islam, by claiming that it was Allah’s will.
An eight year long war then erupted between Medina and Mecca, which ended with Muhammed’s forces being victorious. Muhammed became ruler of Medina and Mecca in 630. The first Islamic state had been founded, born out of war, violence, bloodshed and aggressive conquest.
Muhammed saw that it was easier to spread his religion through violent coercion rather than preaching and in two years his muslim armies had, through open warfare, seized the majority of the Arabian peninsula, and had forcibly converted it to Islam.
Islam’s continued violent expansion
Muhammed died in 632. his successors continued with the policy of violently expanding the reach of Islam: Syria was conquered in 636; Jerusalem and Persia were conquered in 637; and, in 641, the by now thoroughly blood-soaked muslim army captured Alexandria, and started forcing Islam on what is today Egypt.
Sweeping through North Africa, the muslim armies took Tunisia in 698. By 709, their army stood at the Straights of Gibraltar, with only the fortress of Cueta, situated on the African side of the Straight still in Spanish hands.
Islam violently attacks mainland Europe
Two years of ferocious assaults by the muslims, by now called ‘Moors’, led to the fall of Cueta in 711. The Moors then seized a beachhead on Andalusia in Spain, their first territory on the European mainland. The Spanish king Roderic rushed an army south and engaged the Moors in a three day battle at Xeres. The Spanish were defeated and, within a few months, the Muslims had violently seized most of Spain and Portugal, putting to death untold tens of thousands of Europeans.
The ‘Tribute’ of 100 white virgins per year
The subjugated Spanish were subjected to the full horror of muslim rule, as exemplified in the ‘100 virgins a year’ treaty they were forced to sign. In terms of this treaty, the Spaniards had to hand over 100 white virgins to the muslims for use in their harems – a painful tribute which continued until 791, when the treaty was broken.
The Islamic jihad against Europe continued: in 722, the muslim armies had crossed the Pyrenees and invaded France, seizing several towns. In 732 they launched a massive assault, under the command of the moorish governor of Spain, Abd arRahman, on central France. Huge regions were utterly laid waste and the inhabitants forced to convert to Islam or be executed on the spot.
Charles Martel defeats muslim invasion
The Paris based king of the Franks, Charles Martel, mobilised a counter attack against the muslim invasion. Charles met Abd arRahman in battle between the towns of Tours and Poitiers, in October 732. the future of Europe hinged on the battle: defeat for the Europeans would have seen all of Western Europe fall under the sway of Islam. An epic seven day battle ensued. In the first six days of the battle, the archers and cavalry of the Moors seemed to have the advantage, but on the seventh day, the main body of fighting closed to hand-to-hand combat. Here the greater physical stature of the Franks counted for more – with the Frankish king Charles earning the name Martel (“hammer”) at this battle in recognition of the mighty and fatal strokes with which he personally killed dozens, if not hundreds, of moors.
The muslims fled south, suffering the first reverse in their plans of violent conquest. The Franks followed up with an attack against the town of Narbonne in 755, and six years later, after much fighting and blood-letting, the last of the muslims were driven from all of France.
Phew! well that covers some of its first 100 years, and already we have quite a body count. OK, quick slurp of ale and let's plough on shall we?
The European re-conquest of Spain
The muslims still held the Iberian peninsula. In 778, Charlemagne, Charles Martel’s grandson, launched an invasion into northern Spain which recaptured much of the territory north of the Ebo river from the control of Islam. The European counter-attack had started.
Slowly but surely, small parts of northern Spain were liberated from the harsh muslim rule by local princes. In July 1212, the muslims were defeated at the battle of Toledo, but in December 1482, they seized the town of Zahara, only 15 miles from Seville.
The Ten Years War: Islamic invaders expelled from Spain
The muslim attack on Zahara sparked the Ten Years’ War: under the combined leadership of Queen Isabella 1 and her husband, Ferdinand V, the Spaniards counter attacked.
In 1482, the European armies seized Alhama from the muslims. Between 1483 and 1486 the Spanish drove the muslims out of the western half of the kingdom of Grenada. With the capture of the city of Malaga in 1487, followed in quick succession by the fall of the towns of Baza, Almeria and Gaudix in campaigns during 1488 to 1489, the Europeans closed in on the last muslim stronghold - the citadel of Grenada. The siege of Grenada lasted from July 1491 to January 1492. Finally the muslims were forced to surrender, and they and their religion were expelled from Spain. Islam’s 781-year long attempt, violently to seize western Europe, had failed.
Islam attacks Italy: The Hill of the Martyrs
Setbacks in Spain did not deter Islam’s desire to conquer other parts of mainland Europe. In 1479, under the leadership of Mohammed II, the muslims attacked the island of Rhodes off Greece, only being repulsed by a European defence force under the Knights of St. John. Undeterred, Mohammed the II then invaded Italy itself, seizing the city of Otranto in the kingdom of Naples. Of the 22,000 inhabitants captured by the Muslims 12,000 were bound with ropes and tortured to death outside the city walls. The muslims also killed all the Christian priests they could find. On a hill outside the city, still known as Martyr’s hill they killed many captives who refused to convert to Islam.
Islam attacks south eastern Europe
In 717AD, the muslims under Caliph Velid launched a furious attack upon the capital of the eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople. Through feats of incredible bravery, the Europeans managed to hold on to the city fortress. A new muslim attack was planned: Led by Osman, a new muslim army was formed. The followers of Osman became known as the Osmanlilar, (“those associated with Osman”), or as they became known in the west, the Ottomans.
By 1330, the muslim Ottomans had fought their way to the Aegean Sea, and in that year the first islamic army stood at the Bosphorous Straights, directly opposite Constantinople. In 1354, they attacked and plundered the city of Gallipoli, and poured troops into south Eastern Europe.
Marching into the Balkans, the Muslims defeated a Bulgarian army and then advanced into Serbia, defeating that country’s army at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. During that battle, a Serbian soldier killed the Ottoman leader, Murad. After the battle was over, the Muslims cruelly tortured and executed the captured Serbian prince, Lazar, as a reprisal.
Muslim army advances into central Europe
A combined European army attempted to halt the Islamic invasion in 1396, where they met the muslim tyrants at the battle of Nicopolis on the Danube river. The Europeans were defeated, and the muslims celebrated their victory by executing thousands of prisoners they had taken during the battle, in a bloodthirsty massacre lasting several hours.
In 1439, Serbia was formally annexed to the muslim empire and in 1440 Belgrade was besieged. In 1444 another attempt by the Europeans to defeat the Islamic army ended in failure at the Battle of Varne in Bulgaria.
The Janissaries: White children abducted by the invading Muslims
The muslim leader Emir Orkhan, issued an edict to the conquered Europeans in the Balkans that they had to hand over to the Ottomans 1,000 white male babies “with faces shining white” each and every year. These abducted children were raised as muslims, and were compelled to serve the Ottomans, with their origins being concealed from them. They became the best armed unit within the Ottoman Empire, known as the Janissaries. This annual tribute continued for 300 years until 1648 and the Janissaries were only disbanded in 1826, after they rebelled against their masters.
Constantinople falls to Islam: Renamed Istanbul
The city of Constantinople had managed to hold on grimly through all these muslim advances: far behind the muslim front line, the city grew weaker and weaker. Finally, in 1453, the muslim army launched a mighty effort to break the city. After bombarding the city walls with cannon fire for months, a determined overnight attack saw the city fall at last – the official end of the Eastern Roman Empire, defended only by 7,000 knights from all over Europe against a muslim army numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
The Venetian ship’s doctor, Nicolo Barbaro, who was at the battle, recorded the terrible revenge exacted upon the remaining Europeans.
“The Turks put the city to the sword as they came, and everyone they found in their way they slashed with their scimitars, women and men, old and young, of every condition, and this slaughter continued from dawn until midday. They sought out the convents and all the nuns were taken to the ships and abused and dishonoured by the Turks, and they were all sold at auction as slaves and taken to Turkey, and similarly the young women were all dishonoured and sold at auction; some preferred to throw themselves into wells and drown. These Turks loaded their ships with people and a great treasure. They had this custom; when they entered a house, they would at once raise a flag with their own device, and when other Turks saw such a flag raised, no other Turk would for the world go into that house but would go looking for a house that had no flag; it was the same with all the convents and churches. Blood flowed on the ground as though it were raining.”