There are very few issues today more important or divisive than the continued mass migration of Muslims into Europe. With some cheering this development as the path towards a better more diverse future, and others seeing it as nothing short of an invasion. What far too few on either side of this debate realize, however, is that there is an indisputable real legacy of Islam attempting to invade and conquer Europe. One that stretches all the way back to the earliest years of the Islamic faith.
Given his continued influence today it may surprise many to learn that Islam’s founder Muhammad only had a public career of around 10 years, spanning from 622 to 632. His untimely death however hardly impacted the early expansion of the faith, with his many successors quickly setting about continuing the work of their dearly departed leader. That work being the blood-soaked forced expansion of Islam.
In these early days where the core tenants of the faith were still being hammered out, a belief sprang into existence that whoever captured the legendary city of Constantinople would have all his sins forgiven. It is perhaps unsurprising that Constantinople quickly became an object of Islamic desire given that at this time it remained the capital city of the decaying Byzantine Empire, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire. In this role, it also served as the heart of Orthodox Christianity in the world. From a more practical and strategic standpoint, the city also served as the gateway between Western Europe and the rest of Eurasia, including the Middle East.
Between the holy promise of sins being wiped clean and the more real-world prizes likely to be taken as loot, Constantinople soon found itself under siege from all corners of the early Islamic world. In fact, between the years of 674 and 678 multiple small-scale attempts to take the city were made by Muslim forces. Most of these attacks were done under the direction of Caliph Muawiyah, who repeatedly found his armies unable to breach the cities famous double walls. These unsuccessful early attempts would eventually lead to peace for a time. With the Byzantine Emperor even managing to force Muawiyah into paying annual tribute from Damascus to Constantinople.
With the city seemingly impenetrable, Islam would look elsewhere for places to expand for the next 30 or so years. Pushing ever deeper into the Middle East and even into parts of modern India as well. As the gateway into Europe proper, however, Constantinople always remained a tempting potential target. With that in mind, it’s of little surprise that in the year 717, the forces of Islam amassed again, this time fully committed to crushing all resistance and breaking through into Europe.
Unfortunately for Europe, the Byzantine Empire was not in the state it was during the previous attacks. A series of lackluster Emperors and infighting had weakened an already past its prime Empire. In fact, the city might indeed have fallen had an amazing turn of events not played out just before the siege began in earnest.
Knowing both that an attack was imminent and that the current Emperor simply lacked the character to successfully lead the city in its defense. A high ranking general managed to pull off a quick and successful coup. This turned out to be quite the lucky break for both the city and its inhabitants, as the newly self-crowned Leo III quickly began making defensive preparations. These wisely included bringing into the city as many provisions as possible from the countryside, to feed Constantinople’s over half a million inhabitants during what was expected to be a potentially long siege.
On the Islamic side of things, their forces were led by a man named Maslama who headed an army of some 80,000 men. This grand land army was aided by a fleet of some 1,800 ships carrying an additional 80,000 men under another general named Sulayman. It was his job to blockade the port city and allow no aid to enter the via the water. By July 717, both the army and navy had arrived, and Constantinople officially found itself under attack.
Displaying eagerness but not perhaps solid military tactics, Maslama ordered an attack against the walls almost immediately upon his arrival at the city. Just as had happened over thirty years prior, the assaulting forces found the cities double walls impossible to penetrate head on, and soon began taking heavy losses. With Maslama finally convinced a full frontal assault was indeed futile, he ordered his army to pull back and begin settling in for a long siege. His forces even going so far as to dig trenches around the city to prevent any attempts at a breakout.
Just as the land battle was shifting towards a protracted stalemate, things started to heat up on the water. The Byzantines soon took notice of the fact the enemy fleet was struggling in the unfamiliar currents. Believing this to be their best chance to go on the offensive, a quick lighting assault was ordered. The harbor gates were briefly opened and out of them poured a vast number of small and fast Byzantine ships all armed with the now legendary Greek Fire. This ancient weapon absolutely ravaged the enemy ships it came in contact with, and in the chaos of the ensuing flames the Byzantine craft were able to slip back behind the safety of the harbor gates, having suffered only minimal losses on their end. This surprise naval attack was so effective that it even caused Sulayman to pull his ships back for a time as he feared the further destruction of his fleet. This, of course, left the gate unguarded during this period, allowing for crucial fresh supplies to enter the city.
The next few months were largely uneventful in comparison, though during this period the Islamic army did receive the disheartening news that their leader the Caliph had passed away back home, a development that was taken as a very bad omen by many of the rank and file troops. This sense of dread was likely only strengthened by the fact nature itself had seemingly turned on the attackers as well. With a colder than normal winter having left a rare for the area snow cover on the ground. Normally a light snow would be no disaster in itself, but for a Muslim army from Arabia and Egypt who had never before seen snow, it was widely taken as an unnatural act that could only mean their god was unhappy. On the more practical side of things, the weather also caused serious delays in their supply lines. With shipments of warmer clothes for the men not arriving before thousands had already died from the cold.
Despite these setbacks, however, by the next spring Islamic forces looked to retake the initiative, armed with a fresh fleet and 50,000 plus reinforcements newly arrived from Egypt. Perhaps even more than the fresh troops it was these new ships who helped turn the tide back in favor of the invaders. As shortly upon their arrival, they managed to successfully sneak past the Harbor gate and once more close the city off to all outside aid.
Fortunately for the self-crowned Byzantine Emperor, this new enemy navy was largely powered by a slave force of Coptic Christians pressed into service by their Muslim masters. Upon learning of this fact, Leo once again ordered his navy out to attack with their Greek Fire. In the chaos that followed almost all the Christian crews of the Islamic navy deserted and joined the welcoming Byzantine forces. With the blockading fleet rendered useless a now seemingly permanent passageway for provisions was opened to the city. This new development casting real doubt on any potential long-term success for the siege, as by this point the plan had become to simply try and starve the city into submission.
Wanting to seize on this new momentum, the Emperor soon hatched an even more ambitious plan. Making use of some, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” style diplomacy. Leo convinced the Bulgarian King, a man who had attacked Constantinople himself back in 712, to attack the Muslim army from the west where they were not expecting it. This surprise attack left a reported 22,000 casualties among the Muslim forces. A shockingly high number for a single engagement, by the standards of the day.
Following these turn of events, the will to continue fighting was quickly draining from the remaining invader forces. The final breaking point for the attack coming in the form of a rumor which began circulating, that a large Frankish army was on its way from Western Europe to assist their fellow Christians in lifting the siege. Deciding it was unwise to risk his army by staying to find out if the rumor had any truth to it, the new Caliph ordered his forces to retreat. Thus in August of 718 more than a year after the siege began, the Muslim armies turned away from Europe and started their long march home.
History is often broken down into a series of key turning points that forever altered the path of human civilization. The siege of Constantinople in 717 AD is likely one of those turning points. Their defeat at the hands of European Christians was the first real major loss the armies of Islam had ever suffered. Until this point, no enemy had been successful in halting their military-backed expansion of the faith. But at the very entrance into Europe itself, the forces of Islam met their match for the first time. Thus denying them entry into the continent for well over another century
Had the siege gone differently, however, history would have certainly taken a very different path. This is largely because if the city had fallen, there was virtually nothing guarding the rest of Eastern Europe. Meaning that the entire area would have almost certainly found itself placed under Muslim rule, and as was standard practice at the time, slowly been forcibly converted into the Islamic faith. Thus spelling the end for the Christian Orthodox Church at a minimum. As for the physical city itself, most historians agree it would have most likely been remade to serve as the new political center of a multi-continental Islam.
Of course, in reality, the siege of Constantinople was nothing short of a total disaster for the would-be invaders. One chilling statistic is that out of the almost a quarter million men who made up the attacking army, it is reported that only around 30,000 of them ever saw their homeland again. It was no better for the navy, with supposedly only 5 token ships ever arriving back into friendly ports from a fleet that had once numbered over 2,000. These results forced the Islamic military machine to go under a lengthy period of rebuilding, which also meant that expansionist offensives elsewhere were tabled for a time. While the failed siege of Constantinople didn’t completely obliterate Islamic military might, it prevented it from possibly becoming the dominant religion in Europe, and thus the world.
It’s hard to imagine what the Europeans of old would make of our modern leaders who welcome this same religion in with open arms. Thousands died in the name of keeping Islam out of Europe and protecting Western civilization. What would these brave men say when confronted with the increased Islamification of Europe? As Western culture, identity, and heritage are increasingly pushed aside in the name of progress and diversity, it only becomes all the more important we don’t forget our past.
Sources / Suggested Readings
Oman, Charles. The Byzantine Empire
Fuller, J.F.C. A Military History of the Western World Vol. 1
Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Vol.6
Davis, Paul K. 100 Decisive Battles: From Ancient Times to the Present
Hawting, G.R. The First Dynasty of Islam: The Umayyad Caliphate, AD 661–750