James Heneage: Our Debt to Byzantium

James Heneage: Our Debt to Byzantium

A soldier hacked to death on a Woolwich street raises all over again our fears of Islam. It is nothing new.

At the end of the 14th century it seemed likely that the tide of Islam would wash all the way to the Atlantic. The Ottoman Sultan Bayezid had just defeated the flower of Christian chivalry on the field of Nicopolis in Bulgaria, and had boasted that he’d water his horses at St. Peter’s in Rome. That’s when The Walls of Byzantium, the first book in the Mistra Chronicles, begins.

Bayezid’s ferocity had shocked all who’d heard of it. After the battle, he’d lined up two thousand Christian knights and told his religious advisors to execute them. The knights had been slowly hacked to death by old men who could barely lift their swords.

Constantinople was all that stood in his way, and at stake was the Renaissance, taking shape in the city states of Northern Italy. It seemed doomed to an Islamic future. But, as my chronicle describes, in fact it survived for a crucial 50 years because of the brilliance of Byzantine diplomacy. And because it survived, we had the growth of scientific enquiry that led to discovery, colonization, the enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Because it survived, we’ve had 500 years of western prosperity.

But it could so easily have been different.

East vs West

In 1400, the east was far richer, more populous and more advanced than the west. The largest city in Europe was Paris with 90,000 inhabitants. Tabriz in Persia had a population of a million and annual revenues greater than the king of France.

It had always been thus. In the 11th century in Abbassid Caliphate of Baghdad there lived 800 doctors and, in the lunatic asylums, music and fountains played to sooth the mad. The west was seen as barbaric and it was Christianity that had often been the more ferocious religion. After all, it was the Christian crusaders that had slaughtered the entire population of Jerusalem when it fell to them in 1099.

Genghis Khan

The Mistra Chronicles will tell of how the resilience of the dying Byzantine empire allowed the Renaissance to take root in the west while, in the east, a monster called Tamerlane continued the destruction of whole civilisations begun by his Mongol predecessor, Genghis Khan. Timur-the-lame (as he was then called) razed Delhi, Herat, Aleppo, Damascus, Baghdad and countless other cities, slaughtering everything that moved and building towers of skulls to terrorize the cities to come. He made sure that the prosperity of the east came to an abrupt halt and that no comparable renaissance would rise from its ruins.

Meanwhile, in China, the new Ming dynasty that had driven out the Mongols began its own renaissance of Chinese culture. Vast ‘treasure fleets’, with ships as big as football pitches, sailed the world, bringing Chinese trade and technology even as far as Venice. But the exercise bankrupted the empire and allowed the conservative Mandarin class to seize control from the swash-buckling eunuchs. In 1436, the Chinese renaissance ended and the empire closed its doors for 500 years.

And then the Portugese Vasco da Gama rounded Africa and the land trading routes that had built the east’s prosperity, the Silk Road, were suddenly made redundant. The age of western dominance had begun.

Learning from conflict

So when the debate is joined on Islam today, it’s worth considering the events across the world at the turn of the 15th century and in the decades that followed that may have made it so. In the east there was destruction on a colossal scale of civilisations that were far more sophisticated than the west. And China, by far the most advanced civilization of its time, would close its doors to the rest of the world right up to the modern era.

Meanwhile in the west, the Christian religion was subjected to all the tempering effects of Renaissance humanism. It was hauled, kicking and screaming, into the world of Darwinism and scientific discovery. Religious dogmatism was tempered by reason. In the process, Christianity lost much of its ferocity.

The story of this shift in world gravity as written about in The Walls of Byzantium is a story of momentous and seismic change, a story where truth is stranger than fiction.


The Walls of Byzantium by James Heneage is published by Quercus on 4th July.