Wednesday, March 30, 2011

1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West, by Roger Crowley


An excellent and extremely informative book . . . and fun, to boot. Crowley takes a while to get going (lots of--admittedly necessary but nonetheless rather dull--set up and backstory and what-have-you), but once he finally hits his stride, he produces a fascinating tale.

The presentation is (understandably) a bit biased toward the Western defenders--Crowley is, like many of his readers, a child of Western culture. I freely admit that some of the pro-Western bias may be my own sympathies coloring my perspective. Americans tend to harbor a certain amount of natural empathy for the scrappy, outmatched underdog fighting to defend what is his. Such a cause is, for us, higher than the outsider's goal of conquest and domination. And of course, it is hard to read with complete neutrality the harrowing tale of a war between two religions if you identify yourself with one of them.

Still, Crowley tries to remain even-handed, and identifies and dispels much of the misinformation about the "barbaric" Turks. He notes that many of the atrocities decried as evidence of the Turks' ruthless barbarism actually occurred in "Christian" campaigns as well, and some--such as the extremely disturbing practice of impaling opponents--may have even been learned by the Turks from their previous encounters with Christian nations. Even the ultimate barbarian, Mehmet II, was not quite the villain the Western popular press (such as it was) made him out to be--he dealt mercifully with many who opposed him, and practiced a level of religious tolerance that frustrated his more orthodox Muslim counterparts.

Crowley's account is compelling, disturbing, and a little heart-breaking. Lovers of epic fantasy literature will inevitably be reminded of Tolkien's account of the battle at Helm's Deep--though this time there is no last minute rescue, no valiant force descending to save the day. From the Western Judeo-Christian perspective, might conquered right.

Still, the real surprise in this story is not that the 8,000 troops in Constantinople were defeated by a Muslim horde at least 80,000 strong, but how close the defenders came to victory--and with little help from their fellow "Christian" allies. Indeed, the way Crowley tells it, an Islamic victory was not a forgone conclusion. The defenders might well have won the day . . . were it not for one forgetful soldier, an open door, and the ill-timed wounding of the siege's most visible hero.

Of particular interest is the religious faith and fervor of the warring peoples. Though it is not clear to what degree he personally believed, Mehmet certainly used Islamic prophecies to spur his troops toward victory. Within the walls, the defenders sought refuge in prayer and icons as often or more often than in arms and strategy. It is touching (and sad) to read the accounts of the doomed defenders crying out to God, though in this case their prayers did not achieve the ends they so desperately sought. All of which is to say, I'm not entirely sure how God won glory for Himself through this situation--though of course He works all things for His glory whether we understand the method or not.

All in all, a great book, and well worth the time and energy slogging through to opening chapters to get to the action that follows.

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