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Better written P.R. than most.
on September 19, 2005
Living in Istanbul and working as a journalist, as I did for years, and living on Turkey's Mediterranean Coast as I do now I've run across individuals such as Mr. Crowley -- although I've never met him to my knowledge. Europeans -- oddly, particularly Brits -- who are attracted to Turkey and its history, its people and culture and self-generated mythology and who seek to, in some way, identify with it, or at least appoint themselves its expositors to more benighted cultures, such as (fill in home country).
Mr. Crowley's a good writer, let's be clear about that. He does take what could be a dry subject and write in clear, easy prose without condescending to his reader. Thankfully he avoids the novelist's style, which is inappropriate to the subject and which in my estimation rarely adds lucidity or "readability" to military history, he does well to avoid it here. Think William Manchester or Barbara Tuchman for the style.
But he's clearly not a scholar. Not that you have to be to take up a pen to write history, William Shirer wasn't a scholar yet his history of Nazi Germany has not been improved upon. What Mr. Crowley is, however, is an apologist for the Turkish-Islamic cultural myth.
It's clear by about page 20 that Mr. Crowley has no patience for the Byzantines, their religion, culture or empire. He speaks of them with barely-concealed contempt, and writes admiringly, almost fawningly of the Islamic armies which defeated them. At times his lack of objectivity is embarrassing -- he uses the term "martyr" to describe Muslims who die in combat, and he unquestioningly repeats the discredited canards that Balkan and European peasantry preferred Islamic to Christian rule. He adopts only the most superficial and derogatory to the West interpretation of the Crusades, and is clearly unfamiliar with Bernard Lewis, Bat Ye'or or Paul Fregosi's scholarship -- an unforgiveable omission for someone sitting down to write a history of 1453.
At times his almost dewy-eyed admiration for the Islamic armies at the heart of the Turkish Islamic myth overwhelms his good sense -- page 32: "The laws of Islam required mercy to conquered peoples [Right, like the laws of America require adherence to a speed limit]... No attempt was made to convert Christians, who formed the bulk of the population, to Islam..." Page 33: "A levy of Christian youths was taken [by the Islamic sultan] at regular intervals, converted to Islam..."
Later on the same page: "But to Christians watching the process from afar, it evoked rigid horror... the prospect of turning captured Christian children against Christians was fiendish and inhuman. It was to form a powerful ingredient in the myth of the Savage Turk."
I'd say "fiendish" and "inhuman" are pretty accurate adjectives for the practice of forcing slaves to go to war for their captors, yes.
Note that, the "myth" of the savage Turk, which as Mr. Crowley correctly notes was the shorthand for the Islamic forces conquering the historically Christian lands. Again, Mr. Crowley unavails himself of some less "mythological" reasons why Europeans might have considered the Islamic armies savage:
Muslim historian Ibn al-Athir (1160-1233) in his The Complete History, on the Islamic invasion of Spain and France in the eighth and ninth centuries, writes "In 177 [17 April 793] Hisham, [Muslim] prince of Spain, sent a large army... into enemy territory, and which made forays as far as Narbonne and Jaranda [Gerona]... For several months [the army] traversed this land in every direction, raping women, killing warriors, destroying fortresses, burning and pillaging everything..."
Bat Ye'or, in the highly-respected 1996 book The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam writes "Sophronius [Bishop of Jerusalem]... bewailed the destruction of churches and monasteries, the sacked towns, the fields laid waste, the villages burned down by the [Muslims] who were overrunning the country. In a letter the same year to Sergius, patriarch of Constantinople, he mentions the ravages wrought by the Arabs. Thousands of people perished in 639, victims of the famine and plague that resulted from these destructions."
I could go on and on -- Ye'or reproduces an eyewitness to the Islamic armies conquering the Egyptian Christian town of Nikiou: "They seized the town and slaughtered everyone they met in the street and in the churches - men, women and children, sparing nobody. Then they went to other places, pillaged and killed all the inhabitants they found..."
The pattern was repeated, as Constantinoplians had good reason to fear, when their city was taken in 1453. Steven Runciman, the preeminent historian of the Crusades, reports that Muslim soldiers hewing to the by now well-established pattern "slew everyone that they met in the streets, men, women and children without discrimination. The blood ran in rivers down the steep streets from the heights of Petra toward the Golden Horn."
All this is carefully airbrushed out of Mr. Crowley's book, in which the final taking of the city is described in the most bloodless yet gloating terms possible, and here he can't even pretend to keep his bias under wraps -- on page 239 he laments that the fall of the city "was just the start of a huge renewal of anti-Islamic sentiment." This is so ludicrous, to blame the victims of military conquest for being "anti" their bloody conquerors, as to beggar honest belief.
In the end the book is useful only insofar as someone is curious about what a pro-Islamic, anti-West non-scholar would daydream what happened in 1453, with noble, benevolent Islamic heroes, some of whom were cruelly martyred by the evil Western Christians opposing their glorious destiny, marching in to succor a city wracked by Christian malfeasance and ignorance... you can write the rest, can't you?