ISIS destroys a mosque built by a ‘scourge of the crusaders’ – Nur ad-Din

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Nur ad-Din fleeing from crusaders – not something that happened often in reality

It’s been reported that the thugs of ISIS have blown up an 800 year old mosque built during the Crusades by Nur ad-Din, a Saracen ruler described during his lifetime as a scourge of the crusader armies.

 

Up until recently, ISIS had exploited the historical significance of the mosque to legitimise their land grab in Syria and Iraq. Three years ago, their so-called caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi launched the ISIS “caliphate” from the pulpit at the Grand al-Nuri mosque, which now lies in complete ruins.

The mosque was based in Mosul, Iraq – a city that ISIS invaded in 2014. The terror group now faces almost certain defeat at the hands of Iraqi government forces. So they have reacted by blowing up this ancient jewel. It’s appalling to see a mass of rubble where this medieval glory so recently stood.

This mosque was a physical link between us in the 21st century and those far off times. Its builder, Nur ad-Din, famously captured the Knight Templar grand master Bertrand de Blanquefort who was held in prison for three years in Aleppo before being handed over to the Byzantine emperor. Even though he bested the crusaders on several occasions, Nur ad-Din was respected by the Christian chronicler William of Tyre who described him as a “just prince, valiant and wise”.

This is one of many historical sites that have been vandalised by ISIS. Many churches, mosques, shrines, temples and of course the Roman ruins at Palmyra have been trashed by ISIS. The objective is to erase history and undermine the sense of national identity of Syrians and Iraqis. However, with every insane of violence, they simply show themselves to be mindless, bigoted vandals.

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How much the Templars can teach us today

I’d like your thoughts on how much we can learn today from the experiences of the Knights Templar in the 12th and 13th centuries. We have certainly entered into a period where faith, politics and history have combined to create a particularly toxic brew. So could we find solutions by delving into the past?

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Can the period of the Knights Templar shed any light on today’s events?

What we find might surprise us. Listening to several podcasts lately on medieval history and especially the story of the Byzantine empire, I’m struck by how fluid the boundaries were between Islam and Christianity in the Middle Ages. Those boundaries are becoming more fluid again.

I’ve blogged many times in the past about how the caliphate once dominated southern Europe. Spain and Portugal were majority Muslim from 711CE to around the start of the 13th century. Sicily was an emirate and Greece was swallowed up by the Ottoman empire in the late Middle Ages. For many centuries, the boundaries between the two faiths seemed set, into modern times, but that situation is changing. The question is – can we live in harmony?

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The boundaries between Islam and Christianity have always been shifting

Just as parts of Europe were Muslim in the Middle Ages – so was the presence of Christianity surprisingly strong in North Africa and the Levant. Not just as a result of crusader conquest, but populations that had remained Christian long after the Arab conquest of the seventh century. Egypt, for example, was more than likely majority Christian for at least three hundred years after the Arabian armies stormed in. Syria had large Christian populations that are only now being finally decimated by war and terrorism. Constantinople was the capital of an eastern Christian empire that – at times – dominated Asia Minor and the Balkans until it was crushed by the Turks in the middle of the fifteenth century.

Religious zealotry – what we might now term ‘extremism’ – abounded in the medieval period. On the Christian side, new monastic orders preached asceticism and violent crusade. On the Muslim side, a violent interpretation of jihad was demanded from those who felt the caliphate had grown soft and corrupt. As Spain was slowly invaded by Christian crusader kingdoms in the north, waves of Muslim zealots – the Almohads and Almoravids – tried to put backbone in to the caliphate with a return to perceived theological purity. Sound familiar?

Cicero once correctly noted that those who ignore history fail to grasp the present and future. Quite right! So I’d like to know what you think the past can teach us today. Your thoughts would be very welcome.

 

 

 

 

Save human civilisation from ISIS thuggery

ISIS has not only been destroying ancient Roman and Assyrian monuments but also the medieval Christian and Muslim heritage of Syria and Iraq. For example, the Mar Elian monastery dated back to the 4th century when the Roman empire converted to Christianity. ISIS bulldozers brought its walls crashing down.

Dura-Europos was described as the Pompeii of the desert yielding amazing remains of Roman armour and many temples. Needless to say that aerial photographs show it to have now been looted and demolished in a mindless display of barbarism.

Mosul saw the infamous attack on the city’s museum but less well reported was the burning of the university library and the central public library. In those flames went thousands of ancient books, manuscripts and scientific instruments developed by medieval Arabic scholars. UNESCO said it was possibly one of the worst destructions of libraries in history.

The Mar Behnam monastery survived centuries of the Islamic caliphate and the Mongol invasion of the Middle Ages. But then ISIS showed up and rigged the 4th century site with explosives pulverising a saint’s tomb and exquisite decoration. Save human history from ISIS

Precursors of ISIS

The Islamic State has rightly horrified millions of people – both non-Muslim and Muslim. A trail of public executions, mass rapes, the selling of women and random killings has dismayed ordinary people in the Middle East and most folks in the West. But does it have precursors in modern times, the Middle Ages or before? There’s no doubt that for the average Syrian or Iraqi, the activities of IS seem very alien, in spite of their brutal experience of the Assad and Saddam dictatorships. Most people have never experienced anything like IS – and they keep their mouths shut lest they end up crucified or whipped. Yet IS – many of whose fighters come from outside the region – claim to be good Muslims doing the right thing by the Qur’an and the Sunnah (sayings and life of the Prophet).

A very telling story was of a woman, Faddah Ahmad, who was led out to a public square in a Syrian town this year to be stoned to death. A lorry pulled up depositing stones on the road. The IS thugs urged local people to join in the stoning. They refused. This barbarity hasn’t after all been seen in the Levant since the 15th century. Stoning all but died out during the long reign of the Ottoman Empire. Yet here we are in the 21st century with a so-called “caliphate” reviving this brutal practice. In fact, IS may have stoned more people to death over the last six months than the Ottoman Empire did in six centuries.

So – where can we find an equivalent to IS in the period covered by the Knights Templar, the subject of this blog.  The only group that comes remotely close in my view is the Assassins. They originated in the 11th and 12th centuries as an offshoot of the Ishmaili Shi’ite branch of Islam. Murder was used as a political tactic. And their objective was to overthrow the Sunni Islamic empire of the Middle East. Sound familiar? They attacked crusaders as well, slaying the king of Jerusalem – Conrad of Montferrat. Their daring attacks were often carried out in public without any thought of effective escape. In fact, martyrdom was to be gloried in.

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Victorian image of an Assassin at work

“They prefer rather to die than to live” wrote one contemporary chronicler. Their Grand Master would force his warriors to commit suicide in his presence to evidence their loyalty – rather a waste of manpower you might think. The Assassin Grand Master was referred to as the “old man of the mountain” in crusader sources but never referred to as such in Arabic sources. I should add that tales of the Assassins smoking hashish and this being the reason for their name is total garbage. But they were a fanatical sect with blurred messianic objectives led by a self-appointed madman. Well, that’s pretty close to ISIS!

Over time, the Templars were able to exact control over the Assassins and even collect tribute from them. And in a complete turn of events, the Assassins were forced to turn to the west for help in the mid-13th century as the Mongol armies appeared on the horizon.

If anybody else can think who ISIS resemble in history – feel free to comment. 

Racy images in an early Islamic palace

During my recent visit to Jordan I journeyed into the eastern deserts towards Iraq and visited the only remnant of an early Islamic castle dating back to around 723AD – built by the Umayyad caliph Al-Walid II.  This was within a hundred years of the death of the prophet Muhammad – so fascinating to see how an early Muslim lived. And it seems Al-Walid lived very well.

The site was being cleaned by a team of archaeologists as I entered and being in the middle of a vast, hot desert, I was very much on my own. What I saw was not what I expected. The remaining building of a once great palace was a bathhouse with Roman-style underfloor heating and rather racy paintings on the walls and ceilings. Dancing ladies and animals playing musical instruments. It seems the caliph liked the high life!

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More from the biblical city of Gadara – modern Um Qais

I have just returned from a ten day visit to Jordan – a country with an amazing history sandwiched between Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to share the incredible places I visited.

Staying with Gadara – the city where Jesus cured two demoniacs. Other Roman remains here include the main street with identifiable shops and a basilica later converted into a Byzantine Christian church.

Knights of Malta spotted in Baghdad

The veteran journalist and scourge of the Vietnam War, Seymour Hersh, has angrily claimed that US military leaders in the Iraq War were linked to the Knights of Malta – that they saw their mission as one to replace mosques with cathedrals.

“That’s the attitude – we’re gonna change mosques in to cathedrals.  That’s an attitude that pervades.  I’m here to say.  A large percentage of the  Joint Special Operations Command.”

This speech was being delivered in Qatar this week and Hersh said the war against Saddam Hussein was seen as a crusade pure and simple. 

Alleging that commanders in the US army were also connected to Opus Dei, he went on:

“They do see what they’re doing — and this is not an atypical attitude among some military — it’s a crusade, literally. They seem themselves as the protectors of the Christians. They’re protecting them from the Muslims [as in] the thirteenth century.  And this is their function.”

He added the curious allegation that these generals pass crusader coins or that have crusader insignia between them. 

“They have insignia that reflect the whole notion that this is a culture war. … Right now, there’s a tremendous, tremendous amount of anti-Muslim feeling in the military community.”

Needless to say Catholic bloggers have not been delighted by the reference to the Order of Malta.  Catholic League president Bill Donohue blasted Hersh on the Catholic Online website:

“So this is the group that Seymour Hersh seeks to demonize. His long-running feud with every American administration-he now condemns President Obama for failing to be “an angry black man”-has disoriented his perspective so badly that what he said about the Knights of Malta is not shocking to those familiar with his penchant for demagoguery.”

I bring this spat to your attention as it conjures up images of Christian knights versus Saracens being replayed a thousand years later.  But is it actually true?  There’s no doubt that some of the rhetoric post-9/11 had an unfortunate crusader tinge to it – and the word ‘crusade’ was even used injudiciously to refer to the Iraq War.

But we then have to take a leap further and ask is the US military really engaged on a project to roll back Islam and establish crusader states in the Middle East (excepting Israel which muslim fundamentalists would call a de facto crusader state)? 

If they are – they’ve failed spectacularly.  The only state with a smile all over its face in the Middle East today is Iran – is that what our erstwhile crusaders thought would be the outcome in 2003?