Since certain Muslim media are fond of rehashing old history, reminding Muslims of the “atrocities” committed by the hated Crusader—past and present—it seems only logical that we here in the West also remember the past. Today in history, Christendom secured a great victory over Islam—one that is responsible for the very existence of Western civilization.
The year was 715, and one Suleiman had risen to the caliphate. He immediately made it clear that he would be the one Muslim who would fulfill Muhammad’s prophecy that Constantinople would eventually be subsumed into the umma. After spending nearly two years mustering the Muslims and preparing a massive navy, he unleashed the full might of the caliphate: the chroniclers say that 120,000 infantry and cavalry, along with 80,000 seamen, were sent to seal Constantinople’s fate. To further give his “blessing” to this campaign, and evincing how seriously he took it, he appointed his own brother, Maslama, at the head of the land army.
While making their way through that great desolate no-man’s land between the Byzantine and Umayyad empires, where certain Turkic tribes (then mushrikin) frequented the region, the Muslims would often wait till near dawn, and then shout in mass “Allahu Akbar!” (God is greatest), attacking and slaying all in their path. According to the Muslim chronicler al-Tabari, “The inhabitants of the city were filled with terror the likes of which they had never experienced before. All they saw were Muslims in their midst screaming ‘Allahu Akbar!’ Allah planted terror in their hearts…. The men were crucified over the course of 24 km.” (Al-Tabari goes on to explain that they did so, and were successful, in accordance to Koranic verse 3:151: “We shall cast terror into the hearts of infidels!”)
Simultaneously, the Muslim fleets were on their way to the Bosporus. Luckily for Constantinople, Leo III came to power, since it was in part due to his many stratagems that the Muslims were repulsed. (Tabari simply relates that Leo continuously duped Maslama, as if the latter were “a silly plaything of a woman.”)
At any rate, the Byzantine war-ships, which had recently come to utilize a new “secret weapon” commonly known as “fire-water” or “Greek fire,” according to Theophanes, set ablaze almost the entire Muslim fleet. After this Christian victory, the Byzantines settled into their fortified city for the winter, and let the elements have their way with Maslama’s massive land force. According to the chroniclers, this was by far one of the harshest winters; many thousands of Muslims perished of starvation and disease. Says Theophanes: “Some even say they put dead men and their own dung in pans, kneaded this, and ate it. A plague-like disease descended on them, and destroyed a countless throng.” The second sentence verifies the veracity of the first.
The new caliph, Omar II (the ambitious Suleiman had by now died of “indigestion,” apparently after consuming two baskets of eggs and figs, followed by marrow and sugar for dessert) had just assumed the caliphate. After many Muslims had died out on the frontiers (where snow lasted on the earth for 100 days), Omar finally sent reinforcements and supplies. It was by now spring, and the Muslims tried one last effort. The chroniclers relay that some 800 ships were sent from Alexandria and North Africa to the Bosporus, this time on guard against the Greek fire. Maslama had also renewed the siege.
Delivery for Constantinople came from the least expected source—the Egyptian crew of the Alexandrian ships. During the night, they all fled to Constantinople, acclaiming the Christian emperor. Why? Because they were all primarily still Christian—Copts—and, contrary to the many apologetics that suggest the Copts “welcomed” the invading Muslims, as this anecdote clearly reveals, had no great love for Islamic rule. Theophanes says that, as the Copts were fleeing in desertion to the city, “the sea looked entirely made of wood.” Taking advantage of this, Leo released from the citadel once again the fire-ships. Considering the loss of manpower with the Copts’ desertion, the confrontation was more a rout than a battle.
Finally, and due to Leo’s “diplomatic” overtures to the warlike Bulgars, he managed to get this Turkic people to attack Maslama’s already wearied army—killing, according to the chroniclers, 22,000 Muslims. It was over, and, on August 15th, 718, the siege was lifted, and the dejected Muslim army made its way back to Dar al-Islam.
Though many historians have rightly hailed the somewhat contemporary Battle of Tours of 732, where Charles the Hammer repulsed the invading Muslim armies, as one of the most decisive victories for Western civilization, in fact, the Byzantine victory over the Muslims is more important: it had the full backing of the caliphate, and consisted of far greater manpower. Had the Muslims won, and since Byzantium was the bulwark of Europe’s eastern flank, there would have been nothing in their way from turning the whole of Europe into the north-western appendage of Dar al-Islam.
This has been a “Today in History” moment.