This week in history, a large fleet transporting tens of thousands of jihadists across the Sea of Marmara was either drowned in a vicious sea-storm or engulfed in flames from a volcanic eruption.
Far from dying in anguish, one year earlier, in August 717, these selfsame jihadists were part of one of the largest (200,000 fighters) and most confident Islamic armies ever to invade and seek to conquer Constantinople, the capital of Eastern Christendom.
Although the caliphs had conquered thousands of square miles of Christian territory—from Syria in the east to Spain in the west—they were discontent; for their prophet, Muhammad, had, in the guise of a “prophecy,” personally called for the conquest of Constantinople—promising paradisiacal rewards beyond imagination (which is saying much) for the one who would accomplish it.
While headed towards Constantinople, and devastating every other Christian village on the way with, to quote a chronicler, “both sword and fire,” emir Maslama, the caliph’s brother, vowed that he would “enter this city knowing that it is the capital of Christianity and its glory; my only purpose in entering it is to uphold Islam and humiliate unbelief.”
Due to a succession crisis and the jihadist storm approaching Constantinople, the people acclaimed Leo the Isaurian, a seasoned war veteran, as emperor. For a while, this proved to be a smart move; the emperor—who knew Arabic and Muslims well, having fought them for years along the frontier—ably defended the city. But the determined Muslims would not let up and bombarded Constantinople’s walls day and night.
One year later—after its walls were much crumbled, and after Maslama’s vast fleets had completely blockaded the city through the Bosporus—the emir began to make preparations for a final, all-out assault.
But then, right before he could do so, on August 15, delivery came—and from the least expected source: the crews manning the caliphate’s fleets were not Arab Muslims but Egyptian Christians (Copts). Because the caliphate’s fighting men had been spread thin, with many dying including from starvation over the past year of the siege, the caliph had no choice but to rely on forced infidel conscripts.
Much to Maslama’s chagrin, these Egyptian sailors “took counsel among themselves, and, after seizing at night the skiffs of the transports, sought refuge in the City and acclaimed the emperor; as they did so,” the chronicler continues, “the sea appeared to be covered with timber.”
Not only did the Muslim war galleys lose a significant amount of manpower, but the Copts provided Leo with useful information concerning Maslama’s imminent plans and formations. With this new intelligence, Leo ordered the ponderous chain that normally guarded the harbor cast aside, and before long, “the ministers of destruction were at hand”: the emperor had sent forth the “fire-bearing ships” against the Islamic fleet, which was quickly set “on fire,” writes the chronicler: “some of them were cast up burning by the sea walls, others sank to the bottom with their crews, and others were swept down flaming.”
Before long, Maslama had no choice but to lift the siege and flee aboard the remainder of his fleet with the remainder of his men. But, as seen, the Muslims’ troubles were far from over: a terrible storm swallowed up many ships in the Sea of Marmara; and the ashes from a volcanic eruption on the island of Santorini set others aflame.
Indeed, of the 2,560 ships retreating, only ten survived—and of these, half were captured by the Christians, leaving only five to reach and tell the tale to the caliph.
Having failed to subdue the infidels across the way, the vindictive caliph was quick to project his wrath on the infidels under his authority. According to another chronicler, he “set about forcing the Christians to become converted; those that converted he exempted from tax [jizya], while those that refused to do so he killed and so produced many martyrs.
That Constantinople was able to repulse the hitherto unstoppable forces of Islam—which six years earlier had conquered Spain and were planning on reaching Constantinople from the west, thereby placing it in a pincer movement—is one of Western history’s most decisive moments. As historian John Julius Norwich once explained, “Had the Saracens captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than the fifteenth, all Europe—and America—might be Muslim today.”
The earliest chroniclers knew this and referred to August 15, the day the siege was lifted, as an “ecumenical date”—that is, a day for all of Christendom to rejoice.
Muslims also knew this and never forgot the disgrace. More sieges were forthcoming, until May 29, 1453, when Muhammad II, the Ottoman sultan, finally conquered Constantinople, for long, eastern Europe’s bastion against Islam.
As an inspiring reminder of Islam’s destiny to rule the world, that supreme jihadist victory—which, as a reflection of how Islam bides its time, came more than seven centuries after Leo and his people were confident they had seen the last of the jihad—continues to be celebrated in Turkey till this day.
Meanwhile, in the West, which suffers from an acute bout of historical amnesia—particularly concerning those things that demonstrate continuities it seeks to deny—Constantinople’s victory against the jihad in 718 is at best a footnote in a meaningless history.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Raymond Ibrahim