The Human Story – The Mongols

It is time to discuss the Mongols!

Now, you probably have a picture in your head of the Mongols as being brutal, blood-thirsty warriors, clad in furs and riding the Eurasian plains on horseback. In short, we imagine the Mongol Empire as stereotypically barbarous – and we are not entirely wrong to think this. The amazing speed and success of their ruthless conquests was truly breath-taking. They conquered more land territory in 25 shorts than the Romans did in 400 years! They controlled 11 million contiguous square miles of land and created nations like Russia and Korea. It has even been suggested that the Mongols smashed the feudal system and created an early form of international law.

Renowned for their religious tolerance of conquered peoples, the Mongols in this new and modern viewpoint created the first great trade zone, similar in many ways to a medieval Eurasian European Economic Area and that is not entirely wrong either.

The Great Khan

Do you remember the herders that we looked at earlier? We briefly discussed them as an alternative to agricultural societies or hunting and gathering. There are four key points to remember:

1) Nomads do not just go out on random road trips. They migrate according to Climate Conditions in order to feed their flocks.

2) Generally, they do not produce manufactured goods and for this reason they tend to live fairly nearby established settlements in order to trade.

3) Because they live close to nature and sometimes in harsh conditions, they have a tendency to be a rather hardy and tough bunch.

4) Pastoral people are also usually more egalitarian, especially where women are concerned. Paradoxically, when there is less to go around, humans tend to share more and both men and women must work for the social order to survive. More often than nought this leads to less patriarchal control over women. (although it is worth mentioning that Mongol women rarely went to war).

If you had to choose one pastoral, nomadic group to come out of central Asia to dominate medieval Eurasia it is unlikely that you would have chosen the Mongol people. For most of their history they had been living in the foothills which border the Siberian forests, mixing, herding and hunting. However, another way to look at it is that they were quietly getting expert at horse riding and archery. The Mongols were also much smaller than other Asiatic nomadic pastoral groups such as the Tatars or Uighurs.

The reason that the Mongols rose to a position of dominance is down to one man: Genghis Khan. It is time to delve into another episode of “Great Man History”.

The story goes that Genghis, or Chingis, Khan was born around 1162 to a lowly clan and named Temujin. His father was poisoned to death, leaving the young Temujin under the control of his older brothers, one of whom, Behter, he soon killed during a heated argument, over a fish that he had brought back and had snatched from him, whilst only 14 years old.


By the age of 19, Temujin was married to his first and most important wife, Börte, who was kidnapped (this was common practice amongst the Mongol people; Temujin’s own mother had, herself, also been kidnaped). In rescuing his bride, Temujin proved his military mettle and soon became a leader of his tribe. However, uniting the Mongol confederation would require a civil war which he won largely down to two innovations. Firstly, Temujin enacted a system of meritocracy, promoting people on merit as opposed to the traditional method of familial position. Secondly, he brought lower classes of conquered people into his own tribe whilst dispossessing the leaders of these conquered clans. Thus, the peasants loved him whilst the rich hated him but that did not really matter as they were no longer rich.

With these two building block policies, Temujin was able to win the loyalty of a growing number of people and in 1206 he was declared as the Great Khan: leader of all the Mongol people. This was done during a council called the Kurultai which was called by a prospective leader. During the Kurultai, anyone who supported the prospective leader’s candidacy for leadership would show up on their horses; and boy did Temujin, now styled as Genghis Khan, have a lot of men and horses show up to his Kurultai.

Once Genghis Khan had united the Mongol people he went on to conquer a vast swathe of territory. By the time that the Great Khan died in his sleep in 1227 his empire stretched from the Mongolian homeland all the way west to the Caspian Sea and east to the northern parts of the Korean peninsula.

The Massive (Fragmented) Empire

So, the Mongols had a fantastic looking empire, sure much of it was pastureland, mountains and desert but the Mongol armies did conquer a lot of people too. With the death of Genghis Khan the empire was really only getting started and his son Ogedei Khan expanded the Empire even further and Genghis’ grandson, Möngke was the Great Khan in 1258 when Baghdad, the fabulous capital city of the Abbasid Empire fell to the Mongol hordes. Another of Genghis’ grandsons, Kublai Khan, conquered the Song Dynasty in China in 1279, establishing the Yuan Dynasty which ruled China until it was ousted by the Ming Dynasty in 1368. If Mamluks had not stopped another of Genghis’ grandsons, Hulagu Khan, at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260 in southern Galilee then the Mongols probably would have taken the whole of North Africa too.

Unfortunately for the Mongol Empire its leaders were not always working in unison and although he may have been an incredible general Genghis Khan was not a great statesman and he failed to create one single political unit out of his vast empire. Instead, after his death the Mongols were left with four smaller empires called Khanates:


• Yuan Dynasty in China
• Ilkhanate in Persia
• Chagatai Khanate in Central Asia
• Khanate of the Golden Horde in Russia and Eastern Europe

If this seems a little familiar it is because this is what happened to the empire of another of history’s “Great Men”: Alexander the Great. Another great general who was not much for administration.

The Mongols were so successful primarily because of their military skills and Genghis Khan’s army, which never numbered more than 130,000, was built upon speed and archery. Compared to the foot soldiers and knights that they were up against, the Mongols were more like superfast modern mobile fighting vehicles, sniping their enemies from afar. So, the question begs: why did people not just hole up in castles and behind city walls when they knew the Mongols were approaching? Well, they did. However, the Mongols were incredibly adaptable and even though these nomadic peoples had never laid eyes upon a castle before they began invading foreign lands they soon became experts at siege warfare by interrogating prisoners and adapting gunpowder; most likely introducing it to the Europeans.


As testament to their flexibility, the Mongols, those warriors famed for their horseback blitzkrieg tactics, even built ships with which to attack the Japanese. It may have worked too if it had not been for typhoons, or the “Divine Winds” (Kamikaze). These Divine Winds, incredibly, saved Japan not once, but twice. The First Mongol invasion attempt of Japan was in 1274 and they made a second attempt in 1281. Both spectacular failures which eroded further Mongol naval ambitions.

The blood thirsty reputation of the Mongol armies preceded them, and it must have been a truly terrifying experience to learn that a Mongol army was bearing down on your city. Often, cities would surrender the moment that the Mongols arrived in an effort to avoid the slaughter that usually accompanied them. It is estimated that the Mongol invasions directly killed anywhere between 20 and 60 million people. The vast majority of these deaths were not of enemy warriors, but rather stem from the wholesale elimination of civilian populations. Hundreds of thousands would be executed in a single day and the Mongols did not stop at killing the people, but all the living creatures of a town or city that put up resistance, right down to the cats, dogs and livestock.

The Mongols: A Force for Good?

With this grisly background, let us return to the question of Mongol “excellence”. There are five reasonable arguments to suggest that the Mongols were a force for good in medieval Eaurasia:

1) The Mongols really did reinvigorate cross-Eurasian trade and the Silk Road trading routes that had existed for over 1,000 years by this point had fallen into disuse. The Mongols, however, really valued trade because they could tax it and they did a fantastic job of keeping their empire safe. It was said that a man could walk from one end of the Mongol Empire to the other with a gold plate upon his head without fear of being robbed.

2) The Mongols did a great job of increasing communication through Eurasia by developing a pony express-like system of way stations with horses and riders that could quickly relay information. They called this the Yam system and it also included bronze passports which helped facilitate travel.

3) It was not just goods that travelled along the Mongol trading routes, but also cuisine. For example, it was because of the Mongols that rice became a staple food of the Persian diet.

4) The Mongols forcibly relocated people that were useful to them, like artisans, musicians and administrators. The Mongols were not especially good at administrative tasks like keeping records, so they found people who were good at it and dispersed them throughout their empire. Although this one does not necessarily paint the Mongols in a great light, it had an interesting result: it led to cross-culture pollenisation that modern world historians love to talk and write about.

5) Finally, the Mongols were almost unprecedently tolerant of all religions. They themselves were Shamanistic, believing in nature spirits but since their religion was tied to the lands of their homelands they did not expect others to adopt it and they did not force them to. So, within the Mongol Empire, one could expect to find Buddhist, Jew, Muslim, Christian, Zoroastrian and people of any other religion prospering. It was this kind if openness that has led many historians to go back and re-evaluate the Mongols and view them as a pre-cursor to modernity.

Of course, there is another side to the story of the Mongol Empire too that we really should not forget. So, here are five reasons that the Mongols were not all that excellent:

1) Genghis Khan defined happiness in the following way: “The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.” I am not so sure that you would find too many people nowadays that would find this level of brutality as pleasurable.


2) As an extension to the first point, Genghis Khan’s definition of happiness, the Mongols were seriously brutal conquerors who often destroyed entire cities and the estimated number of people that they killed is in the tens of millions.

3) Their Empire did not last long. Within only 80 years of conquering China they left and were replaced by the rival Ming Dynasty and in Persia they blended in so thoroughly that by the fifteenth century they were completely assimilated and unrecognisable from the local populace.

4) The Mongols were not particularly interested in artistic patronage and architecture and under their rule, the once great cities of Eurasia fell into ruin.

5) Although we viewed their opening of the trade routes as a positive earlier, it also most likely led to the Black Death. By opening up these trading routes they also opened up avenues for the disease to travel in the form of fleas that were infected with Yersinia Pestis and according to one story the Mongols even intentionally spread the plague by catapulting their plague-ridden cadavers over the walls of Kaffa in the Crimean peninsula. Whilst this primitive form of biological warfare may have happened, it is unlikely that it would have caused the spread of the disease. It is more likely that it was the fleas on the rats on the holds of ships that traded with Europeans… but that trade only existed because of the Mongols!

So the Mongols promoted trade, meritocracy, diversity and tolerance but they also promoted wholesale slaughter and senseless destruction. So, all in all, the Mongols probably were not that great after all!

The Rest is History

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
  15. The Rise of Islam
  16. The Dark Ages
  17. The Cross and the Crescent – The Crusades
  18. Medieval Africa and Islam

The Human Story – Islam and Trade in Medieval Africa

The controversial British historian Hugh Trevor Roper through a galvanised and very Eurocentric point of viewing history wrote that the only history in Africa is the history of Europe in Africa and that Africa was “no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit.” Was he correct? Let’s find out.

Much of African history has been preserved and handed down through the generations through oral tradition rather than through the written word. These days we tend to think of written records as being the most accurate and reliable form of description… then again, we do live in a print-based culture (you are reading this after all!!).

It has already been noted in an earlier article of the series that one of the markers of civilisation is the ability to record things in the written form. This implies that peoples who do not develop a writing style are not “civilised” – a prejudice that has been applied many times to describe Africa, its peoples and its history.

However, if you need evidence that it is possible to produce incredible artefacts of literacy without first creating the benefits of writing then let me direct your attention to two of the central pieces of ancient Greek literature: namely, the Odyssey and the Iliad. The Greek poet Homer’s voluminous poems were memorised and recited by subsequent poets for centuries before anyone had the idea of writing them down. Secondly, no less an authority than Plato himself said that writing destroyed humanity’s ability to memorise by alleviating the need to remember anything (he may have had a point – I cannot remember anything on my shopping list unless it’s written down). And finally, to transport ourselves thousands of years to the present, everyday billions of people around the globe tune into radio and television rather than pick up a book and I do not think that anyone would consider our times as uncivilised.

Mansa Musa and his Golden Pilgrimage

Whether or not you consider lack of written records as civilised or uncivilised there are many interesting records of African historical note that have made their way down the generations, including the tale of the African king Mansa Musa.


Mansa (King or Emperor) Musa ruled the vastly wealthy Islamic Mali Empire in western Africa from 1312 to 1337. Sometime in the middle of his reign (it is thought around about 1324, Musa left his home to make the Hajj, the pilgrimage to the Arabian city of Mecca. You may remember that the Hajj was one of the Five Pillars of Islam and all devout Muslims are expected to at least attempt to visit the city at least once in their lifetime. He brought with him an entourage of over 1,000 people and some say as high as 60,000, but most importantly to this story is that he travelled with one hundred camel loads of gold.

Along the way Mansa Musa spent freely and gave away much of his riches: most famously when he reached the Egyptian city of Alexandria, one of the most cultured and learned cities of antiquity and the medieval period. Musa spent so much gold in the city that he inadvertently caused runaway inflation throughout the city and the price of the precious metal plummeted. Alexandria took years to recover from the recession.

The great king built homes in Cairo and Mecca to house his many attendants and as he travelled throughout northern Africa and the Middle East a lot of people took notice, particularly the merchants of Venice. These merchants returned home to Italy with tales of Mansa Musa’s ridiculous wealth which, in turn, helped to foment the myths in the minds of Europeans that West Africa was a land laden with gold; exactly the kind of place that you’d pillage. The seed was sown and a couple of centuries later, Europeans did indeed pillage West Africa of both its physical wealth and of its people.

So, what is so important about the tale of Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage? Well, firstly, it tells us that there were African kingdoms that were ruled by fabulously wealthy African kings which sort of undermines the modern stereotypes of Africa: that the people were poor and lived in basic tribal hierarchies ruled by chieftains and preached to by shamanistic witchdoctors. It also tells us that Mansa Musa was making the Islamic holy pilgrimage to Mecca which demonstrates that he must have been a relatively devout Muslim. This simple tale of one king’s (and his colossal entourage’s) journey east also illuminates us to the fact that West Africa was far more connected to other parts of the world than contemporary views are generally led to believe. Mansa Musa knew all about the places that he was visiting before he got there and after his journey the Mediterranean world was very keen to learn more about his homeland with its seemingly inexhaustive treasures.

Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca also dredges up a lot of important questions about medieval West Africa. Principally, what did his kingdom look like? And how exactly did he come to follow the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad?

Islamic Empires Come and Go in the West


The Empire of Mali (1235 – 1670) encompassed a massive swathe of West Africa which ran from the Atlantic coast hundreds of miles inland and included many large cities, the largest and most well known being the city of Timbuktu (which was settled as early as the fifth century BCE). How this impressive territory came to follow the doctrines laid out by the Prophet Muhammad is one that was mirrored all over Africa.

The story of the Islamisation of Africa is a little complicated. Pastoral North Africans called Berbers had long traded with the peoples of West Africa with the Berbers offering life-preserving salt in exchange for West African gold. The Berbers were early converts to Islam and the religion spread along those pre-existing trade routes between the people of North Africa and West Africa. So, the first converts to Islam in Mali were the traders who benefitted from having a religious, as well as a commercial connection to their trading partners in the north and the rest of the Mediterranean. The kings followed the traders, perhaps because following the religion of the more established kingdoms in the north and east would provide them with more prestige, not to mention access to administrators and scholars who could help them solidify their power.

Consequently, Islam became the religion of the elites in West Africa which meant that Islamic kings were trying to exert their power over largely non-Muslim populations which worshipped traditional African gods and spirit deities. In order to not seem too foreign to their subjects these kings would often blend the traditional local religion with Islam, for example by providing women with more rights than in the birthplace of their adopted religion.

The first records that we have of kings adopting Islam come from the Ghana Empire (700 – 1240) which was probably the first true empire located in West Africa and it really took off around the eleventh century. As with all empires across the world throughout history the Ghana Empire rose and fell to be replaced by the next up and coming empire: in this case it was the Malian Empire. The kings of the Mali Empire, especially Mansa Musa and his successor, Masa Sulieman, tried to increase the knowledge and practice of Islam within their territory. For example, when Mansa Musa returned from his Hajj, he brought back scholars and architects to build mosques.

The real reason that we know so much about the Empire of Mali is because it was visited by a man called Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan cleric and scholar who led an incredible life. He was particularly interested in gender roles within the Malian Empire and by Malian women. Ibn Battuta was an extremely learned scholar who managed to develop his vast knowledge of Islam over one of the greatest road trips in history. The Moroccan born Battuta travelled from Mali to Constantinople, to India, Russia and China and even to the islands of Indonesia: he was quite possibly the most well-travelled man before the invention of the steam engine. Everywhere that Ibn Battuta visited, he was treated like a king and he wrote a book, capturing the world of his day, called Rihla which is still widely read today.


However, as unfortunate as it may be, as with all great empires, the Malian Empire eventually fell and was replaced, in parts, by the West African Songhai Empire (a one-time dependency of the Mali Empire) which itself, in turs, collapsed to be replaced by various states of varying local dominance.

All this is to say that much like Europe, China and India, West Africa had its own empires that relied upon religion, war, dynastic politics and familial power struggles in order to survive, thrive and ultimately decay and dive.

On that note, it is now time to cross the vast continent and explore how civilisation evolved in the east of Africa.

East African Trading

An alternative model of civilisation developed on and around the shores of East Africa from that of their fellow Africans in the west. The eastern coast saw the rise of the Swahili civilisation which was neither an empire nor a kingdom but rather a collection of city-states, perhaps the most well-known being Zanzibar, Mogadishu and Mombasa, all of which formed an intricate network of trading posts. There was no one central authority to govern these trading posts, but rather each city-state was autonomously ruled, usually, but not always, by a king.

There were three things linking these city-states in the east that make the argument for them having a common culture. These were language, trade and religion. The Swahili language is part of a linguistic family known as Bantu and, curiously, its original speakers originated in West Africa. Their migration east altered not just the linguistic traditions of East Arica but everything else as they brought with them iron work and agriculture. Until this point most of the people living in East Africa had been hunter-gatherers or herders but once agriculture was introduced it revolutionised life in that part of the world, as it almost always has done.

For a long time it was believed that these East African cities were all founded by Arab or Persian traders exclusively for trading, owing much to the prejudices of earlier western scholars and historians who did not believe that Africans were sophisticated enough to found such great cities. However, nowadays, we recognise that all the major Swahili cities were established long before Islam arrived in the area, and that trade had been occurring since at least the first century CE.

However, it is also acknowledged that Swahili culture and civilisation did not truly begin its rapid development until the eighth century when Arab traders arrived on the shores looking for goods that they could trade on the vast Indian Ocean network: the Silk Road of the Seas. Of course, these merchants brought the religion of Islam with them, which was adopted by the ruling elites, just as it had been in West Africa, who sought religious as well as commercial connections to the rest of the Mediterranean world.


In many of these Swahili city-states the Islamic communities started out quite small but at their height during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries most of the cities boasted large and magnificent mosques, the one in Kilwa (an island off modern day Tanzania) even impressing Ibn Battuta with its great dome.

Most of the goods exported from these east African Islamic communities were raw materials like ivory, timber and animal hides. However, much like the rest of history, there is also a darker side to the history of the east African trading posts: the east African slave trade. Although humans were not exported in the huge numbers that would be seen later in the west during the Atlantic Slave Trade, human life still had a price tag and slaves were traded for imported luxury goods like porcelain and books. In fact, archaeological digs at the aforementioned Kilwa have unearthed houses that often contained bookshelves built into the walls.

The learning of script consumption through archaeology neatly captures the magic of studying history. Through a mixture of archaeology, writing and oral tradition we are presented with a concoction that intermingles and provides us with a glimpse into the past. Each of these lenses may show us the past as if through some distorted fun-housesque mirror but when we are conscious of these distortions, we can at least recognise them for what they are.

Studying Africa reminds us that we need to study many sources and lots of different kinds of sources if we are to get a fuller picture of the past. If we only relied on written sources, it would be far too easy to fall into the old trap of viewing Africa as backward and uncivilised. However, by approaching the subject matter through multiple source types we are introduced to a complicated and diverse place that was sometimes rich and sometimes poor. When we look at it from these different angles, African history becomes not separate but very much part of the human story: a very “historical part of the World.”

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
  15. The Rise of Islam
  16. The Dark Ages
  17. The Cross and the Crescent – The Crusades

The Human Story – The Cross and the Crescent

The Crusades were a series of military expeditions, originating in parts of Europe, to the eastern Mediterranean world. The real reason that they feature so prominently in history is not so much due to their historical importance, but, rather, due to the fact that the stories of the Crusades have been endlessly romanticised. Throughout the centuries, storytellers such as Sir Walter Scott in his Tales of the Crusaders, have created simple narratives of good versus bad with characters to root for and against.

The reality is a little… OK a lot more convoluted than this.

Let’s just begin by saying that initially the Crusades were definitely not a Holy War as part of some greater conflict of Christian Europe against Islam. However, that being said, the Crusades were driven, in part, by religious faith.

If the Crusades had been brought about by the lightning fast rise of the Islamic Empire and an overwhelming desire to keep the lands of Jesus in Christian hands, then they would have begun in the eighth century. However, the early Islamic Empires like the Umayyad and Abbasid were perfectly happy for Jews and Christians to live amongst them so long as they paid a tax. Besides much like the Bedouin Arab pilgrimage had once been a boon for the Prophet Muhammad’s hometown of Mecca, the Christian pilgrimage business was similarly great for the Islamic Empire’s economy.

It all came to an end when another group of Muslims, the Seljuk Turks, moved into the area in the eleventh century and sacked the Holy cities and made it more difficult for Christians to make their pilgrimages. They soon realised that this had been a massive mistake, but it was too late. The Byzantines, who the Seljuks had defeated at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, feared this new threat coming from the east and called upon their fellow Christians in the west for help.

The call was answered in 1095 by Pope Urban II.

The Early Crusades

Medieval politics more than anything drove the decision to launch the First Crusade. This was partly because Urban wanted to unite Europe and he figured that there was no greater way to do this than to provide them with a common enemy. He pleaded with the bickering nobility and knights of Europe to help their Byzantine brethren and liberate Jerusalem. Of course, there was an ulterior motive to this seeming act of alliance. The Great Schism of 1054 was still within living memory at this time and perhaps if Urban were to call some sort of action to aid his fellow Christians then this would provide him with some leverage for asking the Orthodox Byzantines to convert back to Roman Catholicism.

Pope Urban shifting the focus of invasion towards Jerusalem was an integral part of the plan as this First Crusade was not designed to be, primarily, a military operation. Instead, it was supposed to be one massive pilgrimage. It must be noted here that, theologically speaking, Christianity did not have a concept of a Holy War. A war may be just (as established by Saint Augustine of Hippo in the fifth century) but fighting was not something that got you into heaven… Pilgrimages on the other hand, especially to a holy shrine, could help you out on that front and Urban had the key insight to pitch the First Crusade as a pilgrimage with a sprinkling of war on the side.

One final myth that must be dispelled is that the Crusades were not an example of early European colonisation of the Middle East; even if they did establish some European-based kingdoms there for a while. This idea formulated hundreds of years later from an anti-colonialist reading of history, that stemmed from, in part, Marx’s interpretation of historical colonialism. This idea comes from the argument that it tended to be the second and third sons of wealthy nobles who went adventuring into the Levant. Due to European inheritance rules of the time these sons were lower down the pecking order and had little to look forward to by staying in Europe, whilst having lots to gain from plundering the Holy Lands.

Although this is may be a neat theory, it is a wrong theory. Firstly, most of the people who responded to Pope Urban’s call to crusade were not wealthy knights, but rather peasants and other poor people. Secondly, the nobles who did go crusading were mostly the lords of the estates and not their profligate children.

Most importantly, that analysis ignores religious motivations and instead focuses on the guts and glory adventurism that was romanticised by later writers. So far in this series, we have approached religions as historical phenomenon; for example, how the unpredictable environment of Mesopotamia led to an erratic and unpredictable pantheon of Mesopotamian gods. However, just as the environment shapes religion, religion also shapes the environment and although some modern historians may ignore the religious motivations of the crusades, the medieval crusaders who went on them sure did not: they genuinely believed that God was on their side.


The crusaders believed that they were taking up arms to protect Christ and his Kingdom. What better way to demonstrate your devotion than painting a cross on your shield, spending several times your annual income to outfit yourself and all your horses for war and heading east to the Holy Land? Answer: there was no better way to honour God for European Christians of this period. So, when these people marching east cried out “God will’s it!” to explain their reasoning for going, we should believe that they meant it!

And the result of the First Crusade did seem to indicate that god had, indeed, willed it.

Following the lead of itinerant preachers with names like Peter the Hermit, thousands of peasants and noblemen alike volunteered for Pope Urban II’s First Crusade. It did get off to a slightly rocky start as the pilgrims had a bad habit of robbing those that they encountered on the way east. Plus, there was no real leader to speak of, so there were constant rivalries between the noblemen who could supply the most troops… I mean, pilgrims. Notable amongst the notable nobles were Godfrey of Bouillon, Bohemund of Taranto and Raymond of Toulouse.

Despite the disorganisation and the rivalries, the crusaders were miraculously successful. By the time that they arrived in the Levant they were fighting not against the Seljuk Turks but, rather, against the Fatimid Egyptians who had captured the Holy Lands from the Seljuk Turks. At the ancient city of Antioch (modern day southern Turkey near the border with Syria) the Crusaders reversed a seemingly hopeless situation when a peasant allegedly uncovered the spear that had pierced the side of Christ hidden under a church. This miraculous discovery rose the Christian army’s morale enough for them to triumph over the enemy. Soon after, the Crusader army did the impossible and captured the Holy City itself. The climax of the First Crusade saw the Crusader Army capture Jerusalem and secure the city for Christendom in the summer of 1099. This great victory was infamously overshadowed by the slaughter of tens of thousands of Muslim and Jewish men, women and children.

The Crusaders succeeded in part because the Turkish Muslims, who were Sunni, refused to help their Egyptian brethren as they were Shi’ite. This complicated inter-Islamic rivalry gets in the way of a miraculous narrative of Christians triumphing over Muslims: the Christians simply saw their victory as divinely inspired by God.

European nobles held both the strategic city of Antioch and the holy city of Jerusalem as Latin Christian kingdoms by 1100. There were already Christians living in these cities but they tended to be Orthodox as opposed to Catholic; an issue that will soon become relevant to the tale of the Crusades.

The Second Crusade (1147-1150) was a complete disaster from the point of view of the Christians. They lost in Anatolia and at the city of Damascus. Their one success was at the city of Lisbon… in Portugal… at the complete other end of the Mediterranean Sea from the Holy Lands that we tend to associate with the Crusades of the medieval period.

The Third Crusade (1189-1192) is the most famous Crusade. This is the one that we tend to think of when we think of the Crusades. Broadly speaking, this Crusade was a European response to a rising Islamic power which was neither Turkish nor Abbasid. The Egyptian (although he was actually a Kurd) sultan, An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, better known today as Saladin, had consolidated his power in Egypt and was looking to expand his influence by taking the cities of Damascus and Jerusalem. The loss of Jerusalem prompted Pope Gregory VIII to issue a call for another Crusade in 1189. Three of the most prominent European monarchs answered Gregory’s call:

  • Philip II of France
  • Richard I of England
  • Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire


Both Richard, whom history remembers as the “Lionheart”, and Saladin were great generals who commanded the respect of their troops. Whilst from a European perspective, the Crusade was viewed as a failure as the Crusader Army failed to recapture Jerusalem, it did radically change crusading by turning Egypt into a target. Richard, ever the strategist, understood that his best chance of taking Jerusalem was to first conquer Egypt. However, he could not convince any of his fellow Crusader commanders to join him because Egypt held much less of a religious value to Christians than the Holy City of Jerusalem did. Richard was forced to call off the Crusade early but if he had just hung around until the Easter of 1192 then he would have seen Saladin die and would probably have succeeded in his goals.

The Disastrous Crusade

The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) was a little… shall we say crazy. More than thirty-five thousand (35,000) people volunteered for the Fourth Crusade and the generals did not fancy marching such a large force all the way through Anatolia as it was dangerous and very hot. Instead, they decided to go by ship which required building the largest fleet Europe had seen since the times of the Roman Empire. The Crusaders employed the shipbuilders of Venice to build five hundred (500) ships but unfortunately for the financiers of this enterprise only around eleven thousand (11,000) of the expected thirty-five thousand Crusaders showed up to Venice. There was not enough money to pay for the Venetian built ships, so a deal was stuck between the Crusaders and the people of Venice. The Venetians agreed to ferry the Crusader Army to Anatolia if they, in turn, helped the Venetians recapture the rebellious city of Zara which lay across the Adriatic Sea in modern day Croatia. This was a little problematic as the city of Zara was a Christian city. However, the Crusaders agreed to help which led to Pope Innocent III briefly excommunicating both the Crusader Army and the people of Venice. The excommunication order on the crusaders was rescinded soon after, once it was decided by the powers that be that the Venitians had coerced them into sacking the city.

Although they were no longer excommunicated, they were still broke; enter a would-be Byzantine Emperor named Alexios who promised to pay the Crusaders if they helped him out. So now there was a situation where excommunicated Catholic Crusaders, who had no chance of reaching heaven due to their earlier excommunication, were fighting on behalf of the Orthodox Alexios who soon became Emperor Alexios IV and sat on his throne in Constantinople.

Alexios took his time procuring the money that he had promised to the Crusaders in return for their help in capturing the Byzantine throne. This led to the Crusader Army hanging around the city of Constantinople waiting to be paid, which made the people of the city very uncomfortable and anti-Crusader sentiment engulfed the populace. Alexios IV was deposed by anti-Crusader cheerleader Alexios Doukas (nicknamed Mourtzouphlos), who became Emperor Alexios V and refused to pay the crusaders the money that had been promised to them by Alexios IV.

Surely Christian warriors could not sack the largest and most important city in the whole of Christendom, could they? As it turns out, yes. Yes, they could.

In April 1204 the Crusaders sacked Constantinople for three days, during which time many ancient Greco-Roman and medieval Byzantine works of art were stolen or ruined. Much of the civilian population of the city were raped and murdered whilst their property was looted. Despite the threat of another excommunication, the Crusaders destroyed, defiled and looted the city’s churches. Some of the loot taken by the Crusaders can still be seen today: the famous Horses of Saint Marks statues in Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice, were looted during the Crusader sack of Constantinople.


You would think that this disgraceful disaster would have discredited the whole notion of crusading and brought the whole enterprise crashing down on itself. If you genuinely believe this then you would be wrong. Instead, it legitimised the idea that crusading did not have to be focused on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. From this point forth any enemy of the Catholic Church was fair game.

The Fourth Crusade essentially doomed the Byzantine Empire, which never fully recovered from the sacking of its capital city in 1204. Constantinople was a shadow of its former glorious self and was conquered by the Ottoman Turks less than 250 years later in 1453.

The Remaining Crusades

The Fourth Crusade had set the benchmark for terrible crusading. The speed at which these guys totally gave up their divine mission to save Jerusalem in order to sack fellow Christian cities speaks volumes about what the crusades had degenerated into and what they really meant to some of the Crusaders. From this point onwards the crusades were to delve even further into protracted and ineffective belligerence.

The Fifth Crusade (1217 – 1221) was a spectacular disaster to retake Jerusalem and the rest of the Holy Land by first conquering the powerful Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt. Pope Innocent III and his successor Honorius III organised the crusader army to attack Jerusalem which led to an embarrassing humiliation, leaving the city in Muslim hands. A later expedition, aided by Islamic allies from the Seljuk Sultanate of Rûm, set out to capture the Egyptian port city of Damietta. From here the Crusaders marched south towards Cairo but were forced to retreat after dwindling supplies and a night-time battle resulted in a great number of losses.

Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, had greater success in the Sixth Crusade (1228 – 1229) which can scarcely be called a “Crusade” in the traditional sense. Nearly no actual fighting occurred during this crusade which was called and waged by Frederick himself. Jerusalem was simply negotiated into Christian hands, where it remained (mostly) until 1244.

King Louis IX of France launched the Seventh Crusade (1248 – 1254). His troops were defeated, and Louis was captured and ransomed back for 800,000 gold bezants. The Eighth Crusade (1270) was an even bigger disaster after King Louis (yeah, same guy) died of dysentery shortly after arriving on the shores of Tunisia and his disease-ridden army dispersed back to Europe shortly after. The Ninth Crusade (1271 – 1272), led by Prince Edward of England, the future King Edward I, was somewhat of an extension of the previous Crusade and the final Crusade to reach the Holy Land before the fall of Christian-held Acre in 1291 brought an end to the permanent crusader presence in the region. Arguably, by this time the “Crusading Spirit” was nearly non-existent anyway after two centuries of religious warfare.

It is evident that after the Third Crusade these affairs got rapidly less noble and less religiously justifiable. Each Crusade was theoretically called in defence of the Cross but the most they ever did was defend some territory that happened to be owned by Christians during the First and Second Crusades. After those wars the Crusaders all developed an unhealthy obsession with the city of Jerusalem. Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Christians, Muslims and Jews died in two centuries of warfare for a whole lot of nothing.


Ultimately, the Crusades were a total failure at establishing Christian kingdoms in the Holy Land on a long-term basis and with the emergence of the Ottoman Turks in the early fourteenth century, the region remained solidly in Muslim hands.


Like them or hate them, the crusading wars were a mess from start to finish, plagued with political in-fighting on all sides. Unarguably, they did far more harm than good – even if they were coming from a place of good intentions and good faith. It needs to be remembered that throughout history religion has motivated and influenced many events, but the participants who carry out these events are always human and it is human nature to compromise one’s religious beliefs for more human-scale motivations like money, land and power. Christianity itself is not inherently bad; but it is susceptible to twists from some very human factors. Islam and Judaism have engaged in similar things on occasion: it is hardly a reason to condemn an entire religion.

Additionally, unlike popular contemporary beliefs, the crusades did not open lines of communication between the Christian and Islamic worlds because those channels were already active. It is generally accepted by most historians that the crusades did not drag Europe kicking and screaming out of the Middle Ages through contact with the superior intellectual accomplishments of the Islamic world. The truth is that the crusades were, in fact, a significant drain on Europe’s resources for a couple of centuries.

The reason that the crusades matter today is because they remind us that the medieval world was profoundly different from our own. The men, women and children who took up the cross believed in the religious significance of their work in a way that few of us could scarce even conceive of today. When we focus so much on the heroic narrative, the anti-imperial narrative, or the political in-fighting, we tend to lose sight of what the crusades must have meant to the people who lived and breathed it: how that journey from pilgrimage to holy war must have transformed both their faith and their lives.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
  15. The Rise of Islam
  16. The Dark Ages

The Human Story – The Dark Ages

What were the Dark Ages and just how dark were they?

Historians typically regard the Early Middle Ages (or Early Medieval Period), often referred to as the Dark Ages, as lasting from the fifth or sixth century and ending in the tenth or eleventh century. They were the opening phase of what is known as the European Middle Ages as they came between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the beginning of the Modern Age with the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Early Middle Ages are often referred to, rather pejoratively, as the Dark Ages as they were purportedly a period of mass unenlightenment.

In the western world we tend to take a very Eurocentric view on history and the labelling of the Early Middle Ages as the Dark Ages is perhaps one of the most egregious examples. So, how dark were they then? Well that really depends.

If you enjoy studying classical poetry and the great cities of history then the Dark Ages were, in fact, fairly dark in Europe. That being said, wars were less common compared to earlier times and disease and famine was rather scarce (until the Black Death arrived in the fourteenth century). If, however, you happened to live anywhere outside of Europe then the chances are that you were living through an age of enlightenment.

Europe’s Dark Age

When we last left Western Europe the Western Roman Empire had imploded under the weight of migrating tribes and this trend continued for a while until the Europe that we know today began to take shape around 1,200 years ago. This is when the great migrations across Europe began to taper out and states began to form along natural frontiers and familiar European languages began to evolve as the continent divided between Germanic, Slavonic and Romantic speakers. A couple more invasions of Germanic and Scandinavian Vikings and Hungarian Magyars brought new cultures to France, Britain, Sicily and Central Europe.

As a consequence of these migrations and invasions Medieval Europe had fewer cities, reduced trade and less cultural output than the original Roman Empire. London and Paris were filthy fire-traps with none of the civic planning or sewage management of places 5,000 years older like Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley Civilisation, let alone Rome.

Nonetheless, with fewer powerful governments, the wars of the period were at least smaller and less deadly, which is one of the reasons the average lifespan actually increased during this time.

Instead of centralised governments, Europe in the Middle Ages was governed by an arrangement known as Feudalism: a political system based on reciprocal relationships between lords, who owned lots of land, and vassals, who protected this land. These vassals are more commonly known as knights and they pledged loyalty to their lords. The lords, in turn, were also vassals of more important lords with the most important lord of all being the king. Below the knights were the peasants who did the actual work on the land in exchange for protection from bandits and other threats.

Feudalism also acted as the economic model for Medieval Europeans with the peasants working the land and keeping some of the produce to feed themselves and their families whilst giving the rest to the land owner whose land they worked. The small, local nature of the Feudal system was ideal for a time and place where the threats to people’s safety were also small and local. From a modern social justice point of view the Feudal system did have one major drawback and that is that it enforced social stratification and presented little freedoms and absolutely no chance of social mobility. Peasants could never work their way up to a lordship and almost never even had the chance to travel further than their local village.

As a side note, one interesting point from a historical perspective to acknowledge is that the devolution from empire to localism has happened many times and in numerous locations throughout history during times of extreme political stress. When this occurs power very often falls into the hands of local lords who are in a better position to protect the peasants than the crumbling state is. We hear a lot about this in Chinese history, even as recently as the twentieth century, and in contemporary Afghanistan. These lords outside of the Western hemisphere are never called Feudal Lords, however, but rather Warlords; Eurocentrism striking again perhaps?

Aside from the transient tribes leading to reduced urbanisation and poor quality of life for the bottom of society (a recurring theme of history) the other, and perhaps principal, reason that these were known as the Dark Ages is because Europe was dominated by superstition and pointless theological debate about the gender of demons and angels. Nothing was written down and recorded unless it was Holy in nature and medical advancements all but ground to a halt as many people simply placed their hopes in the Church and God to heal their ailments. Thinking in these grounds took a large step backwards as the origin and cure of disease were not purely secular, but based on the world view that aspects such as destiny and sin played an integral part in the causes.

While there is some criticism to be made about the feudalism, superstition and heavy reliance upon and domination of Christian doctrine within society there was one feudal lord who used it to his advantage. The Holy Roman Empire began in 800 as a marriage of convenience between the Germanic feudal lord Charlemagne and Pope Leo III. Charlemagne shrewdly recognised that the Church’s mainly literate hierarchy and command of tradition were his best possible instruments for governing the feudal lords under himself. So he struck a deal with the pope in which the head of the Church would bestow upon Charlemagne the authority and tradition of the Caesars while Charlemagne would acknowledge that the Church had spiritual superiority over his secular power. The name for the agreement reflected the terms of the deal:

  • Holy – The Church demanded top billing
  • Roman – This provided Charlemagne maximum prestige amongst his feudal subjects
  • Empire – Because all parties involved really wanted their new hybrid creation to be an empire


Of the Holy Roman Empire, which lasted in varying territorial sizes across Central Europe, for over one thousand years, the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire later said that “The Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.” Voltaire may have been correct in his observation but no one can play down the importance of the Holy Roman Empire. This confederacy served as the ruling government for much of Europe for the majority of medieval history and the church-state alliance massively shaped European history for centuries.

Islam’s Enlightened Age

While Christianity was holding back progress in Western Europe, things were certainly looking a lot brighter in the Islamic world.

When we last left Islam the Islamic Caliphate had left its Arabian homeland and conquered the wealthy Egyptian provinces of the Byzantines and its flags flew throughout the whole of the once powerful Sasanian Persian Empire. The Muslims had achieved all of this in the alarmingly shocking time of around one century; the Blitzkrieg of its day. The Umayyad dynasty then expanded the Empire even further west across Northern Africa and up through the Iberian peninsula, stopped only at the Battle of Poitiers in 732 by Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles Martel, who confined the religion south of the Pyrenees.

The Umayyad also relocated their capital to the ancient city of Damascus because it was closer to the action (following the example set by the Roman Emperor Constantine) whilst still technically being in Arabia. This last point was vitally important to the Umayyad as they had established a hierarchy with the Arabs, like themselves, at the top and even made attempts to keep Arabs from fraternising with non-Arabs throughout their empire. This of course annoyed the non-Arab Muslims. After all, the Qur’an does state that all of the Ummah were equal in the eyes of God. With the rapid expansion of the empire it did not take long before the majority of Muslims were not ethnically Arabian which made it pretty easy to overthrow the Umayyad dynasty… which of course happened in 750.


The Umayyad replacements, the Abbasid family, claimed to have descended from al-Abbas, an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad. The Abbasid Revolution marked the end of the Arab empire and the beginning of a more inclusive, multi-ethnic state in the Middle East which was far more welcoming of non-Arabs than the previous regime had been. Remembered as one of the most well organised revolutions of this period of history, the Abbasid dynasty reoriented the focus of the Islamic World to the east.

The Abbasid rulers kept the idea of hereditary monarchy but wanted their own capital from which they could rule and chose a site a little north of where the ancient city of Babylon had once stood. The Caliph Al-Mansur believed that this was the perfect location to be the capital of the Abbasid Empire and loved the city so much that he said: “This is indeed the city that I am to found, where I am to live, and where my descendants will reign afterward.” The city that Al-Mansur founded in 762 was Baghdad.

Under the Abbasids the Islamic world began to take on a distinctively Persian caste that it has never really lost. At the highest levels of government, the Caliph began to style himself as the “King of Kings” just as the original Persian rulers, the Achaemenids, had done and pretty soon the Caliphs rule was a lot more indirect, just as the Persian one had been with their satrapies. Naturally, this meant that the Caliphs control became much weaker and by around 1000 CE the Islamic Caliphate which looked very impressive on a map had really devolved into a series of smaller kingdoms, each paying tribute to the Caliph in Baghdad. This arrangement of governance occurred partly because the Islamic Empire was beginning to rely more and more on soldiers from the frontiers, in this case the Turks, and slaves pressed into military service as the backbone of the army; a strategy that has been tried throughout history and has rarely worked.

More importantly to Abbasid culture than the adoption of the Persian style of monarchy and governance was their openness to foreigners and their ideas. This tolerance and curiosity ushered in a golden age of Islamic learning and enlightenment centred in the vibrant city of Baghdad. The Abbasid Caliphate oversaw an explosion of culture unlike anything seen since the Classical Greek Age with Arabic replacing Greek, not only as the language of commerce and religion but also of culture, philosophy, medicine and poetry. Baghdad became the world centre of scholarship with its ‘House of Wisdom’ which was either an immense library or an academic institution. Muslim scholars translated works of Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, scientific works by Archimedes and Hippocrates and even translated Buddhist and Hindu manuscripts that may otherwise have been lost to time. They also adopted mathematical concepts from India, including the idea of the number zero.

Baghdad was not the only centre of learning in the Islamic world. Cordoba, in Spain, became a centre for the arts, especially architecture and one of the finest examples of Moorish building prowess is the Great Mosque of Cordoba, the earliest parts of which were built between 784 and 786. The Muslims in Spain also had engineers that rivalled those of ancient Rome who erected aqueducts that brought drinkable water into the towns and cities. Muslim scholars also took the lead in agricultural science improving the yield of all kinds of crops, allowing Spanish lives to be longer and less hungry.

This whirlwind of scientific and mathematical development and cultural growth was brought on a by a mix of factors. Mainly a religious motivation to search for knowledge, a cultural desire to integrate information from conquered societies, substantial government sponsorship of scholarly research and the discovery of paper helped fuel this incredible methodical empire. Here is a quick rundown of some of the achievements of the Abbasid Caliphate and how they still impact our modern world:

  • The Aristotelian philosophy that we have today is thanks to Muslim scholars who loved to translate him into Arabic. This was very important as the European scholars of the time had little interest in recording anything unless it was about Christ or Christian theology.
  • Algebra, sine waves and Arabic numerals were all Islamic innovations. The Muslims put these new mathematical concepts to good use in their architecture: a prime example being the beautiful Alhambra palace in Spain.
  • The poet Rumi created beautiful Persian poetry while Islamic art was at the top of its game. Some of the finest glassware, lusterware, metalwork, textiles, woodwork and manuscript of the era were coming out of Islamic Persia.
  • Early iterations of the scientific method stemmed from Islamic medical scientists of the era. There is even a suggestion that one brave polymath, Abbas ibn Firna, attempted flight by covering himself in feathers and jumping from height… unsurprisingly he found that it did not work particularly well.
  • Islamic scientists had a basic understanding of why evolution was a thing and how the heart and the nervous system worked.
  • Some of the first proper hospitals, as we know them today, began to spring up across the Islamic world during this Golden Age. Similarly the Islamic world gave us some of the first universities and the oldest continually operating university, the University of Karueein, was founded in 859 in Morocco.


China’s Golden Age

As all of this was happening in the western world, China too was experiencing something of a Golden Age of its own. The Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) made China’s government more meritocratic and ruled over 80,000,000 people across a vast 4,000,000 square miles. They may have went on to conquer all of Central Asia too if they had not been stopped at the Battle of the Talas River by the Abbasid Empire and their Tibetan allies in 751. This largely unknown (in the west at least) battle was a huge deal in the eighth century and marked the end of Tang westward expansion and defined who had cultural influence in the area. Control of the region was economically beneficial for the Abbasids because it lay on the Silk Road.

Despite this minor setback in the west of their empire, the Tang were still able to produce incredible artwork that was traded all throughout Asia. Many of the more famous sculptures from the Tang period of Chinese history feature figures who are distinctly not Chinese demonstrating the diversity of their Empire.

The Tang Empire also provided the sufficient conditions to produce the “Golden Age of Chinese Poetry” with the likes of Du Fu and Li Bai, who it is said took traditional poetic forms to new heights.

Historians generally regard the Tang as a high point in Chinese civilisation and a Golden Age for cosmopolitan culture; the Tang capital at Chang’an (modern Xi’an) was the most populous city in the world in its heyday. Like all good things though, the Tang Dynasty came to an end. A series of natural disasters, upstart military governors and agrarian rebellions finally saw to it that the Tang Dynasty lost the Mandate of Heaven in 907.

The Tang were followed by the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period and it was just as messy as it sounds! Thankfully this period of political upheaval did not last too long (around a generation) before the Song Dynasty (960 – 1258) restored order. By the eleventh century, Chinese metalworkers were producing as much iron as the whole of Europe would be able to produce in the eighteenth century. Some of this iron was put to use in the new ploughs which enabled agriculture to boom and therefore support further population growth: the good times had returned.


Porcelain was of such high quality during the Song Dynasty that it was shipped throughout the world and that is why in the west we call it China. The manufacture of porcelain became so highly organised that some kilns excavated from this period were able to fire over 100,000 pieces at one time. There was so much trade occurring during this time that the Chinese actually ran out of metal for coins which led to yet another innovation: paper money. If the volume of porcelain being created is representative of the booming economy of Song Dynasty China then it is no wonder that they were forced to be innovative on the money front.

By the eleventh century the Chinese were writing down recipes for a mixture of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal that we now know as gunpowder, paving the way for modern warfare and fireworks to light up the night sky. So, perhaps the Dark Ages were not that that dark after all.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
  15. The Rise of Islam

The Human Story – The Rise of Islam

Like Judaism and Christianity, the religion of Islam was birthed and grew up on the coast of the eastern Mediterranean. Unlike Christianity and Judaism, Islam is terribly misunderstood in the western world.

In less than two centuries Islam went from, simply, not existing to becoming both the religious and political organising principal of one of the largest empires that the world has ever known.

Birth of a Religion

The story of Islam begins near the beginning of the seventh century in 610 when the angel Gabriel appeared to an Arabic caravan trader in his early forties named Muhammad ibn ʿAbdullāh. The angel recited the words of god to this merchant who, in turn, began to preach them publically, proclaiming that “God is One” (Tawhid). Muhammad also claimed that he was a prophet sent to present and confirm the monotheistic teachings preached previously by God’s other prophets, including Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus.

Before we go any further though there are several things to acknowledge about the pre-Islamic world that Islam entered into:

  1. Muhammad’s society was intensely tribal and he was born in the city of Mecca into the Quraysh tribe. These tribal ties and loyalties were extremely important to the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula.
  2. Arabia had never come under the control of either the Roman or Byzantine Empires and instead remained fiercely independent. This lack of imperial overlordship allowed the natives to happily live their lives within these tribes and cities whilst also facilitating a religious melting pot in the region of Arabia.
  3. Most tribal Arabs worshipped gods similar to the pantheon of Mesopotamian gods and by the time of Muhammad many cult statues of various gods had been collected in his hometown of Mecca and housed in a temple like structure known as the Kaaba. This Kaaba acted as a Holy magnet for Bedouin tribesmen of the area who would make a pilgrimage to Mecca and worship at the Kaaba once a year.
  4. In addition to these older gods of polytheistic religions the Arabian Peninsula was also home to monotheistic religions like Abrahamic Judaism and Christianity as well as the Persian Zoroastruism. Muhammad and his contemporaries would have been aware of these religions and so the idea of monotheism would not have been as surprising to Muhammad as it would have been to say Abraham.
  5. Finally, the northern part of Arabia was sandwiched between the two great empires of the age, the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanian Empire, who were in a state of near constant warfare.

At its core Islam is what we could describe as a radical reforming religion: just as Moses and Jesus sought to restore Abrahamic monotheism after what they perceived as the people straying, so too did Muhammad. Muslims believe that God sent Muhammad as the final prophet to bring the people back to the one true religion which involves the worship of and submission to a single and all powerful god.

Islam’s Holy Book, the Qur’an, acknowledges that there were other prophets before Muhammad but it is very different from the Hebrew and Christian Holy Scriptures. For one thing, it is far less narrative and instead focuses on the revelations provided to Muhammad by God. Therefore, the Qur’an is not written from the point of view of people but rather seen as the written record of the actual word of God.

The Qur’an is a broad ranging text but it continuously returns to a couple of important themes. Firstly, is the strict adherence to monotheism and submission to the one true god. The second matter that the Qur’an deems significant enough to return to is for the reader to take care of the less fortunate. The Qur’an says that the good person:

“spends his substance – however much he himself may cherish – it – upon his near of kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and the beggars, and for the freeing of human beings from bondage.” Qur’an 2:177

The revelations found in Muhammad’s teachings radically increased the rights of women and orphans, which is one of the reasons that the Quraysh tribal leaders were not terribly fond of him and his disciples.

There are five basic acts considered obligatory, at least by Sunni Muslims, and these are known as the Five Pillars of Islam and every Muslim should strive to live his or her live by these tenets:

  1. Shahada – The profession of faith – There are two Shahadas: “There is no god but God” & “Muhammad is the messenger of God”.
  2. Salat – Ritual prayer five times a day. The prayers are performed at dawn, noon, afternoon, evening, and night.
  3. Zakat – Alms giving – Muslims are expected to deduct a certain amount of their income to support the Islamic community, and it is usually about 2.5% of an individual’s income.
  4. Sawm – Month-long fast during the month of Ramadan during which Muslims do not eat or drink during daylight hours. The reason for fasting during Ramadan is to remind Muslims that all individuals are similarly needy upon the assistance of Allah and that there are less fortunate individuals who are in need of their assistance.
  5. Hajj – Pilgrimage to Mecca which Muslims should attempt to fulfil at least once in their life. This ritual consists of making the journey to Mecca wearing only 2 white sheets so that all of the pilgrims are identical and there is no class distinction amongst them.


There is more to understanding Islam than just learning the Qur’an. There are also supplementary sacred texts, chief amongst which is the Hadith, a collection of sayings and stories about the prophet Muhammad. Much like Judaism and Christianity, Islam has a body of law known as Sharia Law. Although in the west we tend to think of Sharia Law as a single set of laws that all Muslims must follow, this is not the case. There are numerous competing ideas about Sharia, just as there is within any other legal traditions (think of lawyers who put forth their arguments to judges).

The people who embraced these ideas of Muhammad as the messenger of God, obeyed Sharia Law and followed the Five Pillars of Islam were called Muslims because they submitted to the will of God and became part of the Ummah, the community of believers. Being part of the Ummah trumped all other allegiances, including loyalties to the tribe. This concept got Muhammad into trouble with his tribal leaders and brings us full circle back to the historical Muhammad and the Islamic movement.

The Prophet’s New Nation

As Muhamad’s following in the city of Mecca grew, the Ummah began to arouse the suspicions of the most powerful tribe in the city: Muhammad’s own, Quraysh. It made little difference to the leaders that Muhammad was born into the tribe because he kept preaching about how there was only one true god which was really bad news for the Quraysh as they organised and managed the pilgrimage business in Mecca. Their whole business was facilitating polytheistic pilgrimage, and business was good. If all those gods were false, as one of their own kinsmen was proclaiming, then it would be an economic disaster for the tribe and the city of Mecca as a whole.

And so, the leaders of the Quraysh decided to force Muhammad and his band of followers from the city. In June 622, after being warned of a plot to assassinate their leader, the small band of Ummah, headed by Muhammad, travelled 320 km (200 miles) north to the city of Yathrib, later renamed Medina, and this journey, known as the Hegira is regarded as so important to the Islamic story that it marks Year 0 in the Islamic Calendar.


Whilst in Medina, Muhammad severed the religious ties of his new religion to those of Judaism, turning the focus of prayer away from Jerusalem and towards the wistful prophet’s home city of Mecca. Additionally, Muhammad widened the Islamic community and united the Medinan tribes under the Constitution of Medina which declared them as one nation separate from all peoples.

Whilst in Medina the Islamic community began to take a different form and began to look and operate more like a micro empire than a church, partly due to the framework of the Constitution of Medina which solidified Muhammad’s position as the absolute political leader. From almost the very beginning the prophet had a country to run and in addition to being an important prophet, it also turned out that Muhammad was a competent general and in 630 the Islamic community took back Mecca from the Quraysh. The Islamic army quickly destroyed the idols housed in the Kaaba and soon Islam became as powerful a political force in the region as it was a religious one. Because the political and religious traditions of Islam were shaped at the same time and co-existed from the beginning there is no separate tradition of civic and religious law like its counterparts in Judaism and Christianity.

The Islamic Schism

Soon after the conquest of his home city in 630, Muhammad died in 632. When he died there was no religious vacuum left behind as he was the final prophet and the revelations found in the Qur’an would continue to guide the Ummah throughout their lives. That being said, the community was in need of a new political leader: a Caliph. The first Caliph was Muhammad’s companion and father-in-law Abu Bakr, but this was quite a contentious appointment as many people would have preferred to have seen Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, lead the community. Although Ali would go on to lead the community as the fourth Caliph, the initial disagreement between the supporters of Abu Bakr and Ali began the divide between the two major sects of the religion: Sunni and Shia. Even to this day, Sunni Muslims believe that Abu Bakr was rightly elected as the first Caliph whilst Shia Muslims believe that it should have been Ali. This centuries old disagreement still stirs enough animosity to result in major and often bloody conflict within the Islamic world.

To the Sunni, the first four Caliphs: Abu Bakr; Umar; Uthman; and Ali are known as the “Rightly Guided Caliphs” and many of the Islamic conservative movements of today are focused on restoring the Islamic world to the “glory days” of the first, or Rashidun, Caliphate. Those who want to see a return to the Caliphate are most likely viewing it through rose tinted glasses as like most nostalgic “glory days” throughout history, the days of the Rashidun Caliphate were not really all that unequivocally glorious.


Arguably they were not all that bad either though. After Muhammad’s death Abu Bakr stabilised the Ummah and began the process of recording the Qur’an in writing. He also began the military campaigns against the Byzantine Empire in the northwest and the Sassanian Empire in the northeast. These military campaigns kicked off a trend of armed conquest that allowed the Islamic Empire to expand from the Arabian Peninsula westwards across North Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula to the Pyrenees and eastwards across historic Persia to the Himalayas in under 120 years.

Abu Bakr did not reign long, however, and in 634 after only two years of leading the Ummah he fell ill and never recovered. Believing that he should nominate his successor so that the issue should not be a cause of dissension among the Muslims after his death he appointed Umar as his successor. As it turned out, Umar was a good choice as he was both an unusually fantastic general as well as a superb administrator. After a ten year tenure as Caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate Umar was assassinated in 644 leading to the Caliphate of Uthman who continued his predecessors’ tradition of conquering… and also assassination.

Now, in 656, twenty-four years after his supporters believed he should have been elevated to Caliph, Ali finally became the leader of the Ummah. However, his ascension was very controversial and led to civil war (Fitna) and the overthrow of the Rashidun Caliphate and the emergence of Uthman’s tribe, the Umayyad, as the dynasty which would rule over the ever-expanding Islamic Empire for nearly a century.

It is quite common to hear that Islam spread by the sword in the early years, and whilst this is partly true, it must also be noted that many people embraced Islam without the threat of military force. In fact, the Qur’an specifically says that the religion must not be an act of compulsion. There is one undeniable fact about the early Islamic Empire and warfare though and that is that it was really good at winning. Seeing as it was situated between two massively wealthy empires in the Byzantine and Sassanian there was plenty to fight for.

The first to fall was the Sasanian Empire in 651, the final non-Muslim successor to the Persian Empires whose history stretched back to 550 BCE with Cyrus the Great. The Persians were relatively easy to conquer as they had been worn down by three centuries of warring the Byzantine Empire and the populace and armies were struck by plague in the final years. The Byzantines faired longer than their Persian counterparts but in the early days, the Muslims were able to pry away some valuable territory like Egypt and the Holy Lands from the Byzantine Empire. The acquisition of Egypt allowed the Islamic Empire to push further west across North Africa and up through Spain where various Muslim dynasties entrenched themselves until finally being ejected in 1492.

As great as they were at war, it is still very tempting to chalk up Islamic Arabic success as the “Will of God”. Certainly, much of the people that the Caliphate conquered felt this way. After all, wars in that part of the world were about so much more than armies fighting one another; they also pitted their respective deities against one another too. So whilst the Islamic Empire did not require conquered subjects to convert to Islam, the striking successes convinced much of the people that this Allah being the one true God may be genuine. Perhaps the prime example of this was the Qurayshi leader, Abu Sufyan, adopting Islam after the Conquest of Mecca when being asked by Muhammad if he conceded that the Meccan gods had proved powerless and that there was indeed “no god but God”, the first part of the Islamic confession of faith. Abu Sufyan later played a supporting role in the Muslim army at the decisive Battle of Yarmouk against the Byzantines and one of his sons, Muawiyah, later established the Umayyad Caliphate in 661 after the death of Ali and the overthrow of the Rashidun Caliphate.

Islam’s Cultural Impact

So, in a period of time that was, historically speaking, both fairly recent and remarkably short a small group of people from an area of the world with little natural resources managed to create one of the great empires of the world as well as one of the great religions. In a strange twist, this rapid expansion and stunning success may be the very reason why people of western European descent remain largely ignorant of this period of history; it was not their glory days.

Not only were the Muslims great conquerors, they also spawned an explosion of trade and learning that lasted hundreds of years. They also saved many of the classic texts that formed the basis of so-called Western Civilisation at a time when Europe was ignoring them and paved the way for the Renaissance which lifted Europe from the Middle Ages.

While it is important to remember that much of the world between Spain and the Indus River was not Arabised, most of it was so comprehensively Islamised that these days it is impossible to think of the geographical region we call the Middle-East without thinking of it as Islamic. It is testament to the dominance of the religion that has its roots in Arabia that today in Egypt millions of people, five times a day, turn away from the ancient pyramids and towards the Prophet’s birthplace of Mecca. Egypt: home to one of the longest, continuous cultures on the planet is now the largest Arabic-speaking country in the world.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire