Regardless of whether or not you perceive the continued mass migration of Muslim’s into Europe to be an invasion. It is important to note that there is an indisputable real history of Islam attempting to invade and conquer Europe. To explore this history we must go back to the very beginnings of the Islamic faith.
Perhaps surprisingly given his continued influence today, the alleged prophet Mohammed only had a public career of around 10 years, spanning from 622 to 632. Following his death his successors quickly went about continuing the work of their dearly departed leader. That of a violence and force driven expansion of the faith.
In these early days of Islam, where the core tenants of the faith were still being hammered out a belief sprang into existence that whoever captured the capital city of Constantinople would have all his sins forgiven. At this time Constantinople remained the seat of power for the decaying Byzantine Empire, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire. It also served as the heart of Orthodox Christianity in the world, and more importantly as the gateway between Western Europe and the rest of Eurasia, including the Middle East.
Between the years of 674 and 678, multiple small scale attempts to take the city were made by the Muslim forces of Caliph Muawiyah, but the famous double walls of Constantinople held firm. Following these unsuccessful early attempts there was peace for a time, and the Byzantine Emperor even managed to force Muawiyah into paying annual tribute from Damascus to Constantinople.
During the next 30 years or so, Islam looked elsewhere to expand its reach, mainly deeper into Arabia and even India. But as the gateway into Europe proper, Constantinople always remained a tempting potential target. In 717, the forces of Islam amassed again, this time fully committed to breaking through into Europe.
The official borders of the Empire in 717 just before the siege.
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 what actually ended up being quite the lucky break for the city and its inhabitants. Shortly before the enemy army arrived a high ranking general knowing of the current Emperor’s incompetence staged a quick and successful coup. Following this the newly self-crowned Leo III quickly began bringing in as many provisions as he could from the countryside to prepare the city of over half a million people for the siege he knew was imminent.
On the Islamic side the forces were led by a man named Maslama, who headed an army of some 80,000 men toward Constantinople. This 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 siege.
Artist Depiction of the 717 Siege of Constantinople
Showing the stereotypical signs of Islamic aggression Maslama ordered an attack against the walls almost immediately upon his arrival at the city, but this was easily beaten back. Finally convinced a full frontal assault was indeed futile, the attacking army began settling in for a long siege. Even going so far as to dig trenches around the city to prevent any attempts at a breakout.
With the land army unable to attack, most of the real early fighting occurred on the water. Noticing the Islamic fleet was struggling in the unfamiliar currents, a quick lighting assault was ordered. In this case the harbor gates were briefly opened allowing for a number of small Byzantine ships armed with the now legendary “Greek Fire” to come out and destroy a large number of enemy vessels before returning past the gates to safety. This attack proved so effective that Sulayman opted to leave this gate unguarded for some time. As he feared the further destruction of his fleet, but which more importantly kept open an avenue for supplies into the city.
Greek Fire Gave the Smaller Byzantine Navy a Fighting Chance
The next few months were largely uneventful, minus the Islamic army receiving the bad omen from home their leader the Caliph had passed away. Nature itself soon turned against the attackers as well, as a colder than normal winter hit the area leaving a rare snow cover on the ground. To this Muslim army from Arabia and Egypt, this was an unnatural act that could only mean their god was unhappy. More practically the weather caused delays in their supplies including warmer clothes for the men, leading to thousands of death in the besieging soldier’s ranks.
Despite these setbacks however, by the next spring the Islamic forces looked to retake the initiative, armed with a fresh fleet and 50,000 more reinforcements from Egypt. This new fleet had also managed to sneak pass the Harbor gate, and successfully closed off the city completely once more. Plugging the water passage that had allowed aid in through the winter.
Fortunately for Emperor Leo, this new enemy navy was largely powered by a large 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 destroyed a new now seemingly permanent passageway for provisions was opened to the city. This fact casting real doubts on any potential long term success of the siege, as they were unlikely to penetrate the city’s walls by brute force anytime soon.
Sensing weakness in the enemy, and employing 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.
Following these latest setbacks the will to continue fighting was quickly draining from the remaining invader forces. The final breaking point for the siege 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 stay and find out if this rumor had any truth to it, the new Caliph ordered his army home. Thus on August 718 more than a year after the siege began the Muslim armies turned away from Europe and started the long march home.
The 717 Arab Siege of Constantinople, as Depicted in a 14th-Century Bulgarian Historical Text
The defeat at Constantinople at the hands of the European Christians was the first real major loss the armies of Islam had ever suffered. Until this point the militaristic expansion of the faith had largely been unable to be held back by any force they had encountered. But here, upon the very entrance into Europe itself the armies of Islam met their match for the first time.
Of the almost a quarter of a million men who made up the invading army, it is reported that only around 30,000 of them ever saw their homeland again. Possibly even worse off for the military might of Islam at the time is the fact that of over 2,000 ships, only 5 supposedly made it back to their home waters.
Had the siege gone differently however, history would have likely taken a very different path. This is largely because if the city had fallen, there was virtually nothing guarding the rest of Eastern Europe. Thus there is no reason to believe that Eastern Europe wouldn’t have quickly fallen under complete Muslim control, and as was the practice at the time, slowly been forced converted into the Islamic faith.
The Christian Orthodox Church would have disappeared, and Constantinople would likely have become the new political center of Islam. The waters too would have belonged solely to Islam, as none of the western European powers had any noteworthy navy as of yet.
Furthermore had Constantinople and Eastern Europe with it fallen in 718, it is unlikely that the Frankish victory over Islam that more permanently closed the door for Islam in Europe 15 years later would even have occurred or had the same effect. While the failed siege of Constantinople didn’t obliterate completely Islamic military might, it prevented it from possibly becoming the dominant religion in Europe, and thus the world.
Today as we look at a Europe in which Islam is invited in with open arms by our leaders, it’s hard to imagine the Europeans of old shed blood to shield us from this menace. As we look to find new ways to preserve Western Culture and identity, looking back to the successes of the past is not a bad place to start. If nothing else, it’s just important to remember that the tensions that exist today between Islam and the Western world are almost as old as Islam itself.
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Interested in learning more on the topic?
Sources I used in preparation for this column are below.
Oman, The Byzantine Empire
Fuller, A Military History of the Western World Vol. 1
Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Vol.6
Davis, 100 Decisive Battles From Ancient Times to the Present