THROUGHOUT THE eleventh century, the divided Arab Empire became weaker in all its parts. Meanwhile, the Christian lands to the north became stronger. Adventures from northern France snatched Sicily and Southern Italy from the Arabs. The pope called on the rulers of Europe for a united Christian attack on the Moslems. By the end of the century, European knights in chain-mail armour were streaming into Syria by land and sea, determined to recapture the holy places of their religion.
This campaign was the first of many. The Crusades dragged on for two centuries, with long periods of peace coming between bouts of fighting. Christian kings and noblemen carved small states out of Moslem territory, only to lose them. In 1099, Frankish troops seized Jerusalem, the Christians’ holy city, and made it the capital of a kingdom. In 1187 Saladin reconquered the country for Islam. After the Moslems forced the last Crusaders to leave Syria in 1291, only the island of Cyprus remained under the Christian flag.
So, in the end, although the Crusades did not change the balance of power between Christianity and Islam, they left behind bitter memories which were to poison Moslem-Christian relations for centuries. Not all of the results were bad, however. The Crusaders, who came to the Near East convinced of their own superiority, found that their despised enemies knew more than they did about a great many things. They took the knowledge they had gained home to Europe. The brave deeds of the warriors on both sides gave rise to thousands of poems, songs and tales which enriched the literatures of Europe and Islam. The Christian heroes included two kings — Richard the Lion Hearted of England and Louis IX of France, who was made a saint. Among the Moslem heroes, the most famous were Saladin and a fighting Mameluke ruler named Baybars.
During the twelfth century, the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad paid little attention to the Syrians’ pleas for help against the Crusaders. Soon after the start of the next century, however, the Abbasid caliphs began to receive reports from the east which filled them with alarm. Slant-eyed and short-legged men on horseback were roaming across the eastern provinces of Islam. Wherever, they went, they killed, looted and burned. Attacking great centres of government and learning, they left “bare deserts or shapeless ruins where stately palaces and libraries had lifted their head”.
These terrifying pagan strangers were called Mongols. Their home was in the heart of Asia, the immense deserts and plains of sparse grass to the north and west of China. Like the Arabians of old, they were nomadic herdsmen and like them, they were both poor and tough — greedy for plunder and strong enough to grab it by force.
As the Bedouins were superb camel-riders, so the Mongols were marvelously skillful horsemen. They hunted with bows and arrows from the backs of their small, swift ponies, sometimes spending days on end in the saddle and covering tremendous distances. They ate the meat of the animals they killed and made tents and clothing out of the skins. They drank the milk of their mares. Again like the Bedouins, they were organized into tribes.
For centuries, Mongol tribes had raided the farmlands on the far side of the Great Wall that stretched along the northern frontier of China. Whenever they could, the Chinese rulers bought them off with bribes or set the tribes to fighting one another. At last a Mongol leader appeared who brought the scattered tribes together in a nation. His name was Genghis Khan.
When Genghis was very young, his father was killed. The boy set out to avenge him. Over many years, he won the support of his nomadic countrymen, either through friendship or, when necessary, by fraud or fear. By the start of the thirteenth century, he had built the largest personal following in Central Asia.
Now that his original aim of avenging his father’s death had served its purpose, he quietly dropped it. He trained his followers to fight as a mounted army, using the best cavalry tactics of his times. This done, he calmly set out to conquer the world.
Astonishingly enough, Genghis and his sons and grandsons almost made his dream come true. At its height, the Mongol Empire covered most of Asia and Eastern Europe. Genghis, who founded it, was the mightiest and most bloodthirsty conqueror of all history‚ more feared than any other man until modem times.
After unifying Central Asia and taking the Chinese capital, Peking, Genghis sent his fierce horsemen into Western Asia. The terrified ruler of the Khwarizmian Empire, on Islam’s eastern flank‚ fled to an island in the Caspian Sea‚ where he died in 1220. When Genghis died, seven years later, his sons carried on, enlarging the Mongol empire at the expense of the Chinese and the Russians. Soon, Mongol warriors were streaming across eastern Europe and into Mesopotamia. The death of Genghis’s son halted their advance for a time, but in 1255 a grandson of the conqueror named Hulagu headed southwest from Mongolia to destroy the Abbasid caliphate. In January, 1258, his soldiers were massed outside Baghdad, using rock-throwing machines called mangonels to batter down its walls.
In despair, the caliph’s vizier warned Hulagu that “if the caliph is killed the whole universe is disorganized, the sun hides its face, rain ceases and plants grow no more.” Hulagu’s astrologers told him that this was nonsense. In February his men broke into the city. The caliph and three hundred aides rushed to surrender, but ten days later they were all slain. The invaders set fire to the city’s houses and massacred its inhabitants. Within a few days they had to camp outside the walls again to get away from the stench of rotting corpses.
So fell the supposedly everlasting dynasty of the house of al-Abbas. For the first time, the Moslems had no caliph whose name could be mentioned in the Friday prayers. But not all of Islam was to yield to the pagan invaders. Just two years after they took Baghdad, the Mongols were defeated in Syria by a Mameluke army and their westward surge was stopped.
Hulagu became the first khan, or overlord, of a Mongol kingdom that stretched from Syria to India. He did his best to stamp out Moslem culture. His successors after 1265 toyed with the idea of becoming Christians; it was during their reign that the Venetian traveler Marco Polo paid his long and famous visit to the court of their chief, Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor of distant China. Hulagu’s great-grandson Ghazan, the seventh khan, became a Moslem. He proclaimed Islam the state religion and set about rebuilding the very mosques his great-grandfather had destroyed. Ghazan’s conversion was a great victory for the faith of Mohammed. Where its swords had failed, its great book, the Koran, had triumphed.
Toward the end of the fourteenth century, a new Mongol conqueror arose. Born in the Moslem province east of the Oxus River called Transoxiana, he was named Timur. Because he walked with a limp, he bore the nickname Tamerlane, or Timur the Lame. Like Genghis Khan, from whom he claimed he was descended, Timur (1336-1404) thought nothing of butchering thousands of men, women and children at a time. Unlike Genghis, he was a Moslem, but that did not prevent him from attacking his fellow Moslems. For his aim, like that of Genghis, was conquest.
Starting out in 1380, he conquered Afghanistan, Persia and Kurdistan. In 1393, he captured Baghdad and overran Mesopotamia, leaving a pyramid of his victims’ skulls in the town where Saladin was born. In 1595, he turned north and occupied Moscow; three years later he left a trail of blood across North India. In 1400 he invaded Syria. After sacking Aleppo, his men built several tall mounds of human heads, using twenty thousand heads in all. At Damascus he left nothing standing but the walls of the Omayyad Mosque and he sent the best of the city’s world-famous swordmakers, clothworkers and other craftsmen off to his capital at Samarkand, never to return. Then he dashed back to Baghdad to avenge the deaths of some officers who had been ambushed. This time, he piled up no fewer than one hundred and twenty mounds of severed heads.
In 1402, Timur invaded Asia Minor, where he crushed an army of Turks and took their ruler prisoner. Two years later, he died while fighting in China. His son governed the lands he had seized, but his grandsons squabbled over which should rule. The way was open for another non-Arab people to become masters of Islam the Ottoman Turks.