At the beginning of the eleventh century, the Arab empire extended halfway across the know world from the Pyrenees to Persia. It had made inroads into India, and Arab armies were breaking through the Asiatic outposts of the Byzantine empire. The Muslims regarded Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine empire, as the eastern gateway to Europe: it must be captured and all Europe must fall under their sway. . . .
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It was as though Christianity and Islam were meant to engage in a death struggle, which would end only when one submitted to the other. Yet there were long periods when there was a kind of peace between them. Jerusalem, captured very early by the Arabs, was permitted to retain a Christian community, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher remained untouched. . . . Throughout the ninth century, relations between Christians and Muslims were fairly amicable. The Christians demanded only that Jerusalem should be accessible to them, and that pilgrims to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher should be treated reasonably. And so it continued for another century. Even after the destruction of the church by the mad Caliph Hakim in 1009, there was peace, for the church was quickly restored. The pilgrims continued to come to Jerusalem, worshipping at the altars in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, passing freely in and out of the city. It was as though the two religions had reached an accommodation, as though nothing would interrupt the continual flow of pilgrims.
The Seljuk Turks
In the middle years of the eleventh century there occurred an event that would cause a drastic change in the military posture of the Muslims in the Near East. The Seljuk Turks, advancing from Central Asia, conquered Persia. Converted to Islam, they moved with the zeal of converts, proselytizing all the tribes they came upon in their lust for conquest. They had been herdsmen; they became raiders, cavalrymen, living off the earth, setting up their tents wherever they pleased, taking pleasure in sacking cities and leaving only ashes. The once all-powerful caliph of Baghdad became the servant of the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan. In August 1071, the Seljuk army under Alp Arslan confronted the much larger army of the Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes near Menzikert north of Lake Van in Armenia. Romanus was an emperor with vast military experience, brave to excess, commanding a hundred thousand well-trained troops, including many Frankish and German mercenaries. There was, however, treachery among his officers; orders were not obeyed. The lightly armed Seljuk cavalry poured thousands of arrows into the tight formations of the Byzantine army, and when the emperor ordered a retreat at the end of the day, his flanks were exposed, his army began to disintegrate, and the Turks rushed in to fill the vacuum created by his retreating troops. Romanus fought bravely; he was seriously wounded in the arm and his horse was killed under him. Captured, he was led to the tent of Alp Arslan in chains. There he was thrown to the ground, and Alp Arslan placed his foot ceremonially on the emperor’s neck. The Seljuk sultan half-admired the broad-shouldered Byzantine emperor, and two weeks later the emperor was allowed to go free. Still the defeat was so decisive, so shattering, that the emperor fell from grace in the eyes of the Byzantines, who had no difficulty deposing him. When he returned to Constantinople, he was blinded, and in the following year he died either from the injuries caused by the blinding or of a broken heart.
Although Alp Arslan himself, and his son Malek Shah, had no thought of conquering the Byzantine empire, the chieftains who served under them had different ideas. They poured into the undefended provinces of Anatolia. While the Christians remained in the towns, the invading Turks ravaged the countryside. Gone were the days when the Byzantine empire stretched from Egypt to the Danube and from the borders of Persia to southern Italy. The Turks advanced to Nicaea, less than a hundred miles from Constantinople, and occupied the city, making it the capital of the sultanate that ruled over Asia Minor. The Turks were spreading out in all directions. In the same year that saw the Byzantine defeat at Manzikert, they captured Jerusalem from the Arabs of Egypt on behalf of the Caliph of Baghdad. In 1085 Malek Shah captured Antioch from the Byzantines. Malek Shah himself came to the Palestinian shore and dipped his sword in the waters of the Mediterranean, a ceremony by which he asserted that the Mediterranean itself belonged to him. . . .
Christendom was reeling from the Turkish invasions. In a single generation Asia Minor had fallen into their hands. The Byzantine empire had lost the sources of its greatest wealth. Christians could no longer be assured that they could journey to Jerusalem without being arrested or sold into slavery or ill treated in other ways. The Turks were fanatical Muslims, determined to exact the last ounce of power from their victories. But their survival as a united people depended on their leader, and when Malek Shah died in 1091, the empire was divided up among his sons and nephews, whose hatred for one another contributed to the early success of the Crusaders when at last they made their way across Asia Minor in order to recover Jerusalem.
An Appeal From Constantinople
In 1081, Alexius Comnenus, who had served in the army of Romanus IV Diogenes as a general fighting against the inroads of the Turks, came to the throne at the age of thirty-three. He was an able commander in the field and uncompromising in his determination to regain the lost provinces of his empire. . . . he reigned for thirty-seven years, recaptured some of the lost provinces, and there were few Byzantine emperors who reigned so long or fought so well.
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When Alexius Comnenus came to the throne, the empire was in disarray. . . . He was confronted with dangers along the long Danube border from the Oghuz, Kuman, and Pecheneg Turks, half brothers to the Turks in Asia Minor, and from Slavs and Bulgars. Only a few coastal cities in Asia Minor remained in his hands. It was necessary at all costs to push back the frontiers of the sultanate of Roum. He appealed for military assistance to the pope and to the Western princes who might be sympathetic to his cause,. They were asked o raise armies, to march to Constantinople and to join forces under the banner of Christendom against the infidels. He recounted the atrocities committed y the enemy and pointed to the peculiar sanctity of Constantinople as the guardian of so many relics of Christ. Constantinople and the Byzantine empire must be saved, Jerusalem must be reconquered, and the pax Christiana [Christian Peace] must be established in the Near East. A copy of his letter to Robert, Count of Flanders, a cousin of William the Conqueror, has been preserved. The emperor speaks with mingled anguish and pride, despair and humility. . . .
Mingling allurements and enticements with intimations of the final disaster that would overwhelm the community of Christians if the Turks and Pechenegs succeeded in conquering what was left of the Byzantine empire, Alexius Comnenus appealed to Robert of Flanders to come to his aid. The letter contained admissions of terrible defeats and was sustained by a vast pride, but it also provided a picture of the world as he saw it, with its pressing dangers and wildest hopes. Two images prevailed: the atrocities committed by the enemy, and the spiritual and material wealth of Constantinople, last bastion against the Turks.
The letter was addressed not only to Robert of Flanders but to Western Christendom. Pope Urban II read it and was deeply moved. . . . And now very slowly and with immense difficulty there came into existence the machinery that would bring the armies of the West to Constantinople and later to Jerusalem.
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