Trip to Israel – more on historical Jaffa

Jaffa is now part of what is called Tel Aviv-Yafo in modern day Israel. A city with a long and historic past, it changed hands in ancient times between ancient Egyptians, conquering Greeks and of course the Romans. From the reign of Constantine to Heraclius in the seventh century AD, it was part of the eastern Roman empire – or Byzantine if you prefer. Then in 1099, as Jerusalem fell to the crusaders so did Jaffa – which was termed the ‘port of Jerusalem’. From 1291, the Mamelukes invaded from Egypt and it would remain under their control until 1515 when the Ottoman Turks swept in and they would rule it until 1917 when General Allenby took it for the British Empire. There’s still a main avenue in Tel Aviv named after Allenby.

Most of Jaffa is in a state of what one might term genteel ruination. It’s being tarted up and I saw luxury flats being built in to the old walls. Many of the fortifications were damaged by Napoleon and then the Ottomans who took down a lot of the walls in the 1870s and then the British in the 1930s. It’s now part of Israel though retains a distinctive Arabic flavour to the rest of neighbouring Tel Aviv.

Saladin the merciful – think again!

SaladinAn excellent new BBC series The Crusades takes a fresh look at Saladin and his fight with Richard the Lionheart in the second episode.   Jihadi warrior and unifier of Islam – is the description of Saladin from the programme presenter Dr Thomas Asbridge.  It’s hard not to agree.  It is an incredible story of how a Kurdish soldier – Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb – unified Egypt and the Middle East as sultan.  His reputation has remained strong over the centuries and he is revered by many Arabs today as a vanquisher of the crusaders – a reputation he established at the slaughter of Templars and Christian warriors at the Horns of Hattin.

But Saladin has also been cast as a man of mercy – and this is with particular reference to his refusal to slaughter the population of Jerusalem when he won it back in 1187.  The chronicler Bahā’ ad-Dīn who traveled with Saladin on his campaigns makes it clear that Saladin did not have mercy in mind when he took back the holy city.  He was going to avenge the mass killing that had been perpetrated when the crusaders had taken Jerusalem a hundred years before and he was going to burnish his credentials as a jihadi warrior in no uncertain terms.  There would be no mercy and the streets would run with blood.  Anybody who doubted Saladin’s intent only had to look at how he’d put down a mutiny by a Sudanese garrison in Cairo.  They had been burnt alive with their wives and children in their barracks, Dr Asbridge recounts.

The Christians knew full well what was in store for them from Saladin.  The legends that followed were stuff and nonsense.  When Jerusalem had originally been taken, Islam had been badly divided and Asbridge says many Muslims didn’t really understand what exactly had landed on their soil.  Many apparently thought the crusaders were Byzantine mercenaries come to take the city for Constantinople.  It was this confusion and division on the Saracen side that allowed the crusader states of outremer to develop and consolidate.  And Asbridge makes the point that their position was surprisingly strong – the eastern Mediterranean was Christian Europe’s back yard and they could ship in troops by sea whenever they wanted.

But Saladin was the unifier and he slowly encircled Jerusalem.  After the defeat of Hattin, he closed in for the kill.  So why didn’t he massacre the city’s population – as they clearly expected he would.  Well, the Franks of Jerusalem engaged in some pretty gritty diplomacy.  If you come to kill us, they said, we’ll slaughter thousands of Muslim prisoners in our jails and demolish all the Muslim holy places including the Dome of the Rock.  This proved too much for Saladin, it seems, and he backed down.  Many Christians were sold in to slavery but many were also ransomed and able to slip out.

However, this was not something that pleased Saladin – who Asbridge says worried that his image would actually be damaged by this act of supposed mercy.  There have been many views of Saladin created down the centuries but the primary one in modern times has been of some kind of medieval Arab nationalist.  I’ve flagged up this movie before made during the Nasser period in Egypt but it’s worth bringing to your attention again.

Here we have Saladin depicted in ‘Kingdom of Heaven’

Saladin animated in a cartoon series!

Eurabia is nothing new – Arab Europe 1,000 years ago

An imaginary flag of a futuristic Islamic Euro...
An imaginary flag of a futuristic Islamic Europe (i.e. = Eurabia) 

In certain American and European newspapers, magazines and chat show hosts – like Glenn Beck – there are claims that Europe is being ‘islamified’ and that very soon we will be living in an entity they call ‘Eurabia’.  Well, I have news for these columnists, shock jocks and blow hards – we’ve been here before.  Parts of Europe were under Islamic rule for centuries and I’m talking about parts of Europe that subsequently became almost a hundred per cent Christian.

Spain and Portugal are the classic examples but Sicily, Greece, the Balkans and even southern France (in the period after the initial invasion of Iberia in 711 AD) were under the sway of Islamic emirs and ruled effectively by the Caliph – first in Damascus and then Baghdad.  The evidence is strongest in the architecture you can still see all over southern Europe but also in the language.  For instance, in Spanish – one can exclaim ‘ojala’.  In Portuguese, the word is ‘oxala’.  In front of a sentence it means ‘I do hope…” and then whatever you hope.  The word is undeniably derived from the Arabic ‘In sa Allah’ – God willing.

From 711AD, Spain and Portugal were mainly under Arabic/Berber Islamic rule.  There’s no ifs or buts about it.  And most of the large cities like Cordoba, Silves, Valencia and Seville were in the parts of the peninsula most effectively controlled by the Islamic authorities.  What is most controversial is that modern scholarship indicates that by 1000AD, most people in what is now Spain and Portugal were muslim.  Whether they were converted or had come over with the invading armies.  And I’m talking about 70 to 80 per cent of the population.

Likewise, Sicily still had a large Byzantine Greek community after it was invaded by the Arabs but by the time the Normans were conquering it in the eleventh century, most of the population was praying in a mosque.

Last year, I went to Cordoba for the first time and it’s simply incredible to see buildings constructed in the ninth and tenth century that were way ahead of anything being built at the time in northern Europe.  The great mosque of Cordoba is the most splendid example of this and was built from the eighth century onwards but more or less completed by 987AD under the rule of Al Mansur.  It’s not difficult to appreciate how the wealth and opulence of the Islamic world must have turned the heads of many Christians in the so-called Dark Ages – a term now largely out of favour.

Here are some photos I took of the Great Mosque in Cordoba and just think to yourself – this was built a thousand years ago…

Inside the columned hall of the Grand Mosque of Cordoba
Gold gate at Cordoba Mosque
Courtyard of the mosque in Cordoba