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Byzantine Empire - Invasion of the Muslims

Posted in Ancient Greece  by antiques

byzantine-empire-muslimsAlmost all of Byzantine energy over the next centuries would be focussed on Islam. The Muslims very quickly conquered Byzantine territory in Syria and Egypt largely because of disaffected populations of Christians and Jews who had been persecuted since the time of Justinian. The patriarchal caliphs and later the Umayyad caliphs, however, really had their sights on Byzantine territory—in fact, the conquest of Byzantium itself. They easily conquered all the Persian territories, but they could never quite conquer the heart of Byzantium itself. In 670, they attempted this conquest with a large fleet; in 717, they tried again with a land and sea operation against the city.

This operation, however, turned the tide away from the Muslims. Under the emperor Leo the Isaurian (717-741), the Muslim invasion was turned back and the Byzantines began to hold their own against Islamic incursions.

As the centralized Islamic government under the caliph began to disintegrate in the ninth century, the Byzantines began to reassert their dominance over Asia Minor. By the middle of the tenth century, they reconquered most of Syria and were once again and powerful and influential empire stretching from Greece to Arabia.

In 1071, however, the Seljuk Turks conquered the Byzantine army at Manzikert in Asia Minor—after this victory, the Seljuks quickly overran all of Byzantine territory in the east.

The Crusaders

The Byzantines, however, turned to Europe for help against the Muslims—the Byzantine emperor, Alexius Comnenius, called upon the European states to push back the Muslim conquerors. While Byzantium and the Europeans had drifted apart culturally, they still shared a common religion, and the European states complied. They had, however, designs of their own on Byzantine territories. While they successfully pushed back the Seljuks and returned territory to the Byzantines, the western Europeans also carved out kingdoms of their own in Syria and Palestine. This wasn’t quite enough for them—in 1204, the Crusaders attacked, conquered, and pillaged the city of Constantinople, a goal that the Muslims had been trying for for centuries.

The amazing thing about this event is that it did not spell the end of the Byzantines. For a few decades, the Byzantine imperial government continued to function in Greece—in 1261, they returned to Constantinople and retook the city! But the Byzantine Empire was no longer an empire after 1261, but rather a small kingdom centered around Constantinople. In 1453, the city was finally and permanently conquered by the Ottoman Turks and renamed Istanbul. Byzantine culture, law, and administration came to its final end.

Byzantine Christianity

Byzantine Christianity was a substantially different religion and cultural practice than Latin Christianity. One of its predominant characteristics was the role of the emperor in matters of faith. The Latin church had battled emperors for control of the church and with the disintegration of centralized authority in Europe and the proliferation of European kingdoms, the primacy of the Pope in matters of faith was relatively solidified.

The Byzantines, however, inherited the Roman idea that the emperor was near divinity and practiced a form of Christianity where enormous ecclesiastical and theological authority was vested in the emperor. This would eventually create a permanent breach in the world of Christianity between west and east and the event that would produce this breach was the Iconoclastic controversy.

The Iconoclastic theologians believed that the worship of images, or icons, was a fundamentally pagan belief. Products of human hands should not be worshipped, they argued, but only Christ and God should be the proper objects of veneration. The movement was inaugurated by Leo the Isaurian. It was Leo, remember, that turned the tide against the Muslim in 717. Islam is itself opposed to the worship of images, icons, and idols—one of the founding acts of Islam is Muhammad’s destruction of all the idols and images in the sacred Ka’aba in Mecca. There is no doubt that the Iconoclasts were in part inspired by the religious purity of the Islamic faith. There is also little doubt that Iconoclasm would help the Byzantines regain territory conquered by the Muslims since it made Christianity more in line with the Islamic faith.

Iconoclasm, however, was fiercely opposed by the papacy which saw it as a threat not only to Latin ecclesiastical practices, but to the authority of the pope himself. When Leo’s son, Constantine V even more zealously carried out the Iconoclastic program during his reign (740-775), the breach between the Latin and Byzantine church became permanent. Eventually, Iconoclasm would be abandoned in the ninth century—the breach, however, would never be healed.

The most significant result of the Iconoclastic controversy was the adoption of a strict traditionalism in the Byzantine church. The eastern church had long been characterized by speculation and innovation, but the Iconoclastic controversy was too disorienting. Almost overnight, the Byzantine church became averse to innovation and speculation. This created a more or less static religious culture and it also permanently ended the intellectual dynamism of Byzantine life. - Inspired by

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