Columbus’s Fourth Voyage: To the Aztec Empire and the Isle of Dread

No, I’m not confusing Columbus with Cortes, or mistaking the Isle of Dread for a real place. I just decided to have some creative fun with this D&D classic. What, I asked myself, if the Isle of Dread was set in a world of voyaging Spaniards and Aztec sacrifice? In an alternate 16th-century world where magic exists, but is a capital offense punished by the Inquisition? Where, sixteen years before the arrival of Cortes and his conquistadors, Emperor Moctezuma II sits fresh on his throne, wasting no time in taking measures to centralize his empire and make the Aztecs invincible? The following adventure is what I came up with.

The year in this alternate world is 1503 AD, and the adventure starts in Mexico, where Christopher Columbus has been forced to beach after a destructive storm. The PCs are part of his crew — the crew of his fourth voyage — but they’re on the run from the Spanish Inquisition and have joined his expedition under false pretenses, intent on putting many miles as possible between them and Spain. If Columbus found out their real identities — a sodomite, a blasphemer, a Jew sorcerer, an apostate ex-priest (now a druid), a warlock, and an assassin — he would be in a towering fury. He might try to have them hanged, or chained to be shipped back to the Inquisition. More likely, however, is that he will (after getting over himself) choose to ally with them. He will need their skills and powers to have a hope of surviving the Aztec empire and the Isle of Dread, and to obtain gold and wealth from these perilous lands. All of his voyages have been driven by that overriding imperative: to acquire enough wealth to finance the Last Crusade, liberate Jerusalem from the Muslims, and hasten the end of the world. As Columbus proved on his earlier voyages, he is capable of turning a blind eye to those he morally despises for sake of his Grand Cause. And by the time of his fourth voyage, he is convinced more than ever that the apocalypse is imminent.

The PCs, for their part, have gotten way more than they bargained for. They’ve leaped out of the Inquisitional frying pan into the Aztec fire, and things will get disastrously worse on the Isle of Dread. They will have to decide how much of their true identities they wish to keep secret, and for how long, assuming that they even can. The Isle of Dread will force them to show their true colors, especially once they start casting spells. But first things first: the background leading up to the arrival at Mexico.

The Background: Columbus’s Fourth Voyage and the “Panama Canal”

Columbus had left Spain with four ships on May 11, 1502, and eventually reached the coast of Honduras in late July. The purpose of this voyage was to find a strait linking the lands in the Caribbean (which Columbus still believes to be part of Asia) with the Indian Ocean. This strait has been known to exist since Marco Polo traversed it on his way back from China. So in effect, Columbus was looking for the Strait of Malacca (which is really near Singapore) in the region of Central America.

He explored down the coast of Central America until coming to Panama in mid-October, where he learned two important things from the Ngabe natives: (1) that there was another ocean just a few days march to the south, which convinced him that the strait was indeed nearby; (2) that the natives had shitloads of gold. He soon found out, however, that the “strait” was an isthmus and not a water channel. He decided to find a suitable spot to set up a trading post, and in January found a safe harbor at the mouth of the river Belen. He built a garrison fort there in January, making it his headquarters for exploration, until months later in April, the Indians — finally fed up with his presence — attacked the Belen fort, and over a ten-day period (April 6-16) killed some of his men, forcing him to leave and abandon one of his mired ships (the Gallega). On Easter Day (April 16, 1503), retreating from the attacks, Columbus took his three remaining ships, badly leaking from shipworm, and started to sail back home.

It’s at this point that Columbus’s trajectory takes a radically different turn in the alternate D&D world.

In our world, from the point of April 16, 1503, Columbus abandons the Vizcaina (leaking so badly it’s falling apart) at Porto Bello, and then sails the two remaining ships (the Capitana and Bermuda) up to Cuba, where he is caught in a storm so violent that he’s forced back south to beach at Jamaica, where he is marooned for a whole year (June 25, 1503 – June 29, 1504), his ships unusable and irreparable in an unsettled land. After finally being rescued by men from Hispaniola, he makes his way back to Spain, returning on November 7, 1504. He will never sail again, and his fourth voyage ends a dismal failure, having failed to find a strait to the western waters. (To add insult to injury, he failed to make contact with a significant tribe of peoples, the Maya of Yucatán, by the narrowest of margins, by sailing south instead of north when he had reached Honduras.)

In the alternate D&D world, Columbus’s fourth voyage becomes a smashing success — though whether he and his remaining crew (and the PCs) will live to tell the tale is another question. In the D&D world, the Panama Canal already exists naturally as a strait; it doesn’t need to wait for the elaborate engineering of the 20th century. The Indians lied to Columbus, or at least they hadn’t told the whole truth. The strait is accessible every other month — in February, April, June, August, October, and December — when the land mass sinks. During the other months the land rises, blocking the water passage between the two oceans. (It’s a bit like the Sinking Lands in the world of Lankhmar, except on a monthly timetable instead of a daily one.) At the start of every January, March, May, July, September, and November, submerged gases build up beneath masses of rock which rise to the surface and block the water passage. A month later the land sinks, allowing boats and ships to sail through the “Panama Canal” for the duration of those months (February, April, etc.).

Columbus learns the truth of this toward the end of the ten-day battle at Belen (April 6-16), when the Indians simply tell him the truth in hopes that it will make him abandon the garrison and depart their land. With praises to God on his lips that’s exactly what he sets out to do, since the strait is accessible in April. He and his men (and the PCs) board the three remaining ships — the Capitana, the Bermuda, and the Vizcaina — and sail through the canal. He soon abandons the Vizcaina (falling apart, like in our world), on the south side of Panama, and then sails the Capitana and Bermuda up to the coast of Mexico, where he is caught in a storm just as terrible as the one in our world that marooned him at Jamaica. The Bermuda is utterly pulverized at sea by the hurricane, claiming the lives of 37 men and boys, while the others make it to shore in longboats. The Capitana is able to anchor but will need serious repairs before it can sail again.

This region of Mexico is under Aztec control, and Columbus and his men and the PCs are soon captured by Aztec warriors and brought before the King of Soconusco, who — astonished, having never seen white Europeans before — orders them marched north to the capital at Tenochtitlan, the heart of the Aztec Empire, to be dealt with by the emperor, Moctezuma II. From there, the D&D adventure officially begins: an unrelenting nightmare that pits them against bloodthirsty Aztecs, and then a voyage to the Isle of Dread to search for a legendary Black Pearl of the Gods.

The Aztecs: Horror at Tenochtitlan and the Legend of the Black Pearl

Of the original 133 men that sailed from Spain in four ships, 79 (including Columbus and the PCs) made it to the shores of Mexico, crammed into one ship. When they are marched into Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), they are at first treated like gods, as the Aztecs have never seen white people before. But it soon becomes clear that they are inferior barbarians when they show a loathing for godly things (refusing to eat blood, prizing gold over valuables like feathers, etc). 39 of Columbus’s crew are sacrificed at the temple of Huitzilopochtli, their hearts ripped out by the emperor himself (the highest priest in the land), and their bodies cast down the pyramid steps. Five of them are retained as hostages: Columbus’s brother Bartholomew, his 14-year old son Ferdinand, and three random cabin boys. The remaining 35 (including Columbus and the PCs) are sent to the Isle of Dread to obtain the legendary Black Pearl of the Gods. Communication is conducted through Xiuhcoatl, the high priest of Quetzalcoatl, who has the equivalent of a tongues spell.

The DM should convey the paradox of Aztec sacrifice — that it’s a hideous way to die, but not performed out of cruelty or as a brutal display of power. Sacrifice keeps the world alive. The Aztecs believe that the sun will die without ongoing sacrifice. If Columbus is trying to hasten the apocalypse, the Aztecs are doing everything to prevent the apocalypse from happening. They consider it an honor to be sacrificed, and that’s part of what makes it so troubling. It’s hard to persuade a culture to give up its “necessary evils” when it isn’t even perceived that way. Sacrifice is a mark of civilization. Unlike, say, Islamic jihadis, the Aztec priests have a deep respect for life, which is all the more reason they consider sacrifice benevolent: the sacrifice of a life helps preserve many lives.

Even the Aztec war code is “enlightened”, since Aztecs (unlike Muslim Islamists, or the Spaniard conquistadors who came after Columbus) have no interest in dominion per se. They don’t impose their religion or government on any conquered areas. As a people of war their intent is not to subjugate, only to collect tribute and sacrifices — tribute for the benefit of the empire, sacrifices for the benefit of the world. The universe continues to exist only because sacrifice nourishes the divine sun. Killing a foe in war is thus not as good as capturing the foe for the altar.

Aztecs: Empire of the Dying Sun summarizes the worldview:

“The heavens are burning with fire and the gods are filled with wrath. Four of the five suns that once reigned over the world are no extinguished, and the Aztecs stand on the edge of eternal darkness. Only sacrifice will keep the fifth sun in the sky, and that means there must be prisoners to kill for the sake of the sun’s power. As brutal as it may seem to the other tribes of the Mexican lands, the Aztecs are trying to save the world. They do not need approval or acquiescence. They only need blood and sacrifice. Their cause is noble even if their means are savage.”

Everything in Aztec culture revolves around the bloody sacrificial cult. The Great Temple at Tenochtitlan (the two temples to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc) has over 5000 priests, each of whom daily sacrifice some of their own blood. That doesn’t even count the other temples. With a total population of 320,000, the priesthood comprises about 2% of it. The highest priest is the emperor, though the emperor only leads sacrifices on special victims — and Columbus’s crew is one such case: the extraordinary white-colored men who came from the ocean. The next highest priests are those of Huitzilopochtli (god of sun and war) and Tlaloc (god of rain and agriculture), both equal in rank. And so forth down the line. There are many more gods, with temples to most of them: Quetzalcoatl (god of wind and knowledge, who is the highest ranking god in the city of Cholula); Huhueteotl (god of fire), Mictlantecuhtli (god of death), Tezcatlipoca (god of night and sorcery), Tlazolteotl (goddess of lust and “eater of sins”, to whom the Aztecs confess their trangressions), Xochiquetzal (goddess of love and flowers and songs), and more. A small town might sacrifice 30 people in a year, while large cities might sacrifice hundreds or even thousands. The 39 people from Columbus’s crew are sacrificed at the temple of Huitzilopochtli over a three day period: 13 victims each day, as 13 is the Aztec holy number.

Columbus and his family are obviously excluded from sacrifice, since Columbus is the leader. The PCs are excluded too, since the emperor and his high priests sense their skills and spell powers which will be necessary to survive the Isle of Dread (which is what the Aztecs call it), and obtain the Black Pearl of the Gods. When Xiuhcoatl explains the reason why the PCs were among those spared, Columbus is stunned, and demands that the PCs explain who they really are, once they are left alone in their cells after the first round of sacrifices. The PCs reveal their true identities (see capsules further below), and Columbus is aghast that he has taken heretics and criminals into his crew. But he realizes he has little choice but to work with them.

As for the Black Pearl, Xiuhcoatl has known of its existence for 26 years now. In 1477 AD (his fourth year as the high priest of Quetzalcoatl) he received a telepathic vision from his brother Chimalli, who was blessed by the deity to have been flown to the Isle on the back of a flying snake. Some priests say the snake was a manifestation of Quetzalcoatl himself, but at the very least it was a servant of the wind god. Chimalli had been specially chosen, and was filled with dreams of a Black Pearl of the Gods hidden somewhere on the mythical Isle. He was unable to find it after over two months of searching the Isle; or perhaps he found it and was killed. The snake was to have returned Chimalli to Tenochtitlan whether or not his quest was successful, but the divine serpent was never seen again in Mexico. Chimalli did however send a telepathic vision to Xiuhcoatl on his 65th day on the Isle, in which he stated that he thought he was getting “very close” to finding the Pearl. He also supplied his brother with facts and rumors about the island, that he had either experienced first hand or was told about from the natives. (They are listed four paragraphs below.) His vision also included an aerial map of the Isle that reflected what he saw upon arrival, circling high over the island on the back of the snake. Xiuhcoatl afterwards put himself into a trance that allowed him to draw his brother’s map of the Isle with remarkable precision. (Also shown below.) The map has been guarded closely by the Quetzalcoatl priesthood ever since. The names of seven villages are scrawled in the southeastern peninsula, and Xiuhcoatl believes that these are probably the areas Chimalli began his quest, in asking the local natives about the Black Pearl.

Twenty-six years later (and now 59 years old), Xiuhcoatl still desperately wants the Black Pearl, as does Moctezuma, both believing it has the power to make the Aztec empire utterly and expansively invincible, and thus the means to an endless supply of human sacrifices. (Which isn’t precisely true: the Black Pearl is indeed very powerful but in a different way, allowing its wielder to control the weather, plant life, and wild animal life over vast regions of land and water. The Pearl is also cursed, so it comes with a price.) But the Aztecs have no ships or seafaring skills, they are terrified of the ocean, and no one is counting on the miracle of another flying snake. Xiuhcoatl persuades Moctezuma and the high priest of Huitzilopochtli (Camaxtli) that the arrival of Columbus’s ocean crew is a godsend. After “honoring” these strange visitors with the three-day sacrifice, they imprison the five hostages and “ask” the remaining 35 survivors to sail to the Isle of Dread (the name they gave it after the loss of Chimalli) and get the Black Pearl — and also to bring back Chimalli if by some slim chance he’s still alive and they find him. They are free to keep whatever gold and treasure they find there, which according to Chimalli (see rumors below) seem to be in abundance. Moctezuma gives Columbus a special gift: a blanket of ultra-protection, which confers an armor class of -7 on its wearer; it is light as a shirt and has the texture of cloth, but its deep enchantments ward against most attacks as effectively as magic steel. Columbus will certainly need this blanket when he gets to the Isle; he’s no fighter, and he’s old and ill, subject to being killed by a single attack.

Besides taking the hostages, Moctezuma, Xiuhcoatl, and Camaxtli have another fail-safe to make the party comply: any of the 35 men who (a) avoid sailing to the Isle, (b) do not return to Mexico when they depart the Isle, or (c) fail to obtain the Black Pearl, will be cursed and die of withering — aging five years per day from the point at which they deviate from their objective. Camaxtli is the one who puts the curse on them. (It takes a remove curse cast by someone at least 13th level to free all 35 victims; 11th level to free two thirds of them, and 9th level to free a third of the party. Cast by a spell user below 9th level, remove curse will be useless.)

The gist of what they are told is that somewhere in the ocean 2000 miles southwest of the Aztecs, lies a dreadful island populated by natives, exotic creatures, dinosaurs, and lost temples of an ancient race. There’s treasure to be found, but it doesn’t come easy, and Columbus’s men wouldn’t last more than a few days on the island without skilled characters like the PCs. Xiuhcoatl gives Columbus the aerial map of the Isle (who will give it to Felice, the PC serving as Columbus’s cartographer; see further below), and also supply the following facts/rumors conveyed by Chimalli — who either experienced them first hand, and/or was warned about them from the natives, but wasn’t able to confirm in the vision which ones were actually true. (Most of them are. Only 3 and 7 are false.)

1. The Isle is inhabited by huge animals and dinosaurs, and there is lots of treasure.

2. There are friendly tribes of natives on the southeastern peninsula. They are protected by a huge wall and can provide some helpful information about the Isle.

3. Hidden in the steamiest jungles of the Isle is a forgotten ruined city of the gods, with streets paved of pure gold.

4. A great and ancient evil slumbers under the Isle.

5. The dead walk the Isle at night.

6. The shoals around the Isle are infested with sharks and worse. But the oyster beads are full of pearls.

7. Many of the dinosaurs are dim-witted and can be easily frightened off with displays of showy magic.

Xiuhcoatl strongly advises making contact with the friendly natives on the southeastern peninsula to start with, and asking about the Pearl, what they told Chimalli years before, and what Chimalli set out to do from there.

The crew of the Isle of Dread: Between the losses at the Battle of Belen in Panama (17 killed), the hurricane off the coast Mexico that destroyed the Bermuda (37 killed), and the victims sacrificed at Tenochtitlan (39 killed), and those to remain at Tenochtitlan (5 hostages), there are 35 left of the original 133 who will sail to the Isle of Dread in the Capitana:

1 admiral (Christopher Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea)
1 captain (Ambrosio Sanchez, Master of the Capitana)
17 sailors (from the original total of 45 sailors on all four ships)
2 carpenters (from The Capitana and Bermuda)
1 gunner (from the Capitana)
1 cooper (from the Bermuda)
1 chaplain (from the Vizcaina)
5 cabin boys (from the original total of 50 cabin boys on all four ships)
6 player characters (see below)

The Player Characters: the Sodomite, the Blasphemer, the Jew-Demon, the Apostate, the Warlock, and the Assassin

Here are the PCs. They obtained passage on Columbus’s fourth voyage either as a paid crew member or paying passenger. They did not reveal their true names and identities until Columbus’s crew went under Aztec sacrifice and it was made clear that the PCs were being spared for their skills and spell powers.

1. “The Sodomite”: Sergio Suarez. 5th level ranger. Chaotic good. Between the 1480s and the 1530s, many sodomites were stoned, castrated, and burned by the Spanish Inquisition, and Sergio’s lover (Diego Morales) was tortured for a hideously long time before being burned in a public square. Sergio has vowed vengeance on the Inquisition, but isn’t yet in a position to do that. He has excellent shipping skills, and Columbus hired him a sailor on board his flagship, the Capitana, agreeing to pay him 1000 maravedis a month. Columbus now knows that he’s a skilled ranger but not that he’s a homo. If he were to learn that, he would consider having Sergio hanged. He went by the name San Jacinto before revealing his true identity.

Stats: Strength 15, Intelligence 16, Wisdom 11, Dexterity 17, Constitution 14, Charisma 15, Comeliness 16. Hit points: 45. Armor class: 4 (studded leather). # of attacks/round: 1/1. Damage/attack: 3-10 (long sword +1), 1-6 (arrows from long bow). [Long bow has an effective range of 150 feet, up to 600 feet with -2 penalty per 200 feet.] Also has a whip, which does no physical damage, but Sergio is skilled enough that on a successful hit, the opponent must make a dexterity save or be yanked to the ground, losing a round of attack.

Magic items: (1) Long sword +1. (2) Ring of water elemental command: water walking (unlimited use), create water (unlimited use), lower or raise water (2x/day; up to 24 feet deep, in a 120′ x 120′ area), water breathing (1x/day), assume liquid form (1x/day), wall of ice (1x/day), part water (1x/week; 36 feet deep by 12 feet wide by 240 yards long, for a two-hour duration), tsunami (1x/month; a wave 60 feet high and 120 feet long, traveling 500 mph on the open sea, 40 mph on land, that lasts for a duration of 2 turns).

Ranger abilities: extra damage to “giant class” creatures; surprise on 1-3 (d6); surprised only on 1 (d6); tracking skills, indoor and outdoor; identify plants and animals.

Languages: Spanish (Castilian), Portuguese, Galician.

2. “The Blasphemer”: Alejandro Sosa. 6th level fighter. Neutral. He’s wanted for defiling and vandalizing a church in Valladolid, and for declaiming the Eucharist as a cannibalistic rite. Alejandro considers himself a Christian, but he’s obviously a heretic, and wanted fervently by the Spanish Inquisition. He’s a former soldier in the Castilian army, and skilled in gun use and siege engine warfare. Columbus hired him as one of the two gunners on his second ship, the Bermuda, agreeing to pay him 1000 maravedis a month. He went by the name Elias Chavera before telling Columbus who he really is, and Columbus was appalled to learn that he had taken the infamous Alejandro Sosa on board his ship.

Stats: Strength 17, Intelligence 9, Wisdom 11, Dexterity 15, Constitution 16, Charisma 7, Comeliness 10. Hit points: 60. Armor class 1 (plate mail + helm). # of attacks/round: 3/2. Damage/attack: 5-12 (battle-axe +2), 2-16 (bullets from matchlock rifle). [Matchlock rifle fires once every two rounds, and has an effective range of 650 feet.]

Magic items: (1) Battle-axe +2. (2) Helm of underwater action (crystal clear sight, normal breathing, and normal movement under water).

Languages: Spanish (Castilian).

3. “The Jew Demon”: Isaac de Barros Basta. 7th level mage. Neutral good. On the run from the Spanish Inquisition, Isaac has a huge price on his head: 300,000 maravedis. He barely escaped the Inquisition months ago in Toledo, where his parents and younger sister were tortured, convicted of Jewish witchcraft, and then burned in an auto-da-fe. (His sister Esther had been a 3rd level mage.) He vowed vengeance on the Inquisition but knew he wasn’t nearly equipped to take on the institution, and fled Europe to dodge the bounty, using his alter self spell when exposing himself in risky public areas. Isaac has mending skills, and Columbus agreed to hire him as a caulker on board his second ship, the Bermuda, agreeing to pay him 500 maravedis a month. He went by the name Emiliano Casal before revealing his identity, and Columbus is doubly horrified at having made common cause with a sorcerer (bad) who is a Jew (worse).

Stats: Strength 12, Intelligence 18, Wisdom 16, Dexterity 15, Constitution 16, Charisma 11, Comeliness 9. Hit points: 35. Armor class 7 (ring of protection +2). # of attacks/round: 1/1. Damage/attack: 1-6 (quarterstaff).

Magic items: (1) Ring of protection +2. (2) Eye of discord (when wearing the monocle, the user’s gaze causes a victim within 25 feet to save or become utterly contrarian, unable to agree with any idea or statement or action of anyone; if used more than once a day, the user must also make a save, at a cumulative -1 penalty each time, or be inflicted with a nasty migraine for 1-4 hours that gives him -3 to hit, damage, and save). (3) Wand of shelter (26 charges): casts a “tiny hut” spell that includes a nice full meal for up to nine people.

Spells: magic missile (x2), mend (x2), ventriloquism; alter self, ESP, hypnotic pattern, invisibility; clairvoyance/clairaudience, tongues (x2); phantasmal killer, polymorph other.

Languages: Spanish (Castilian), Portuguese, Hebrew, Latin.

4. “The Apostate”: Enrique Vidal. 6th level druid. Neutral good. A former priest at the Mezquita of Cordoba, Enrique abandoned Christianity in 1499 and has worshiped the forest god Silvanus ever since. He is wanted by the Inquisition for spiritual subversion and instigating mass defects to the druid faith — wanted so badly that a bounty of 200,000 maravedis is on his head. He barely eluded capture months ago, when his hideout in Aragon was discovered. Hearing of the native cultures discovered on Columbus’s three voyages, he decided to flee to these “Indie” lands and counter Columbus’s evangelical missions with his own — by slyly piggy-backing on the admiral’s fourth voyage. He had some money saved over the previous three years, and so payed his way as a passenger aboard the fourth ship, the Vizcaina (for 8000 maravedis). When that ship fell apart and had to be abandoned, Enrique hopped over to the Bermuda. He went by the name Juan Ramirez before telling Columbus who he really is. Of all the PCs, Enrique is the most difficult one for Columbus to choke down, as he is an apostate, his soul beyond redemption.

Stats: Strength 10, Intelligence 15, Wisdom 16, Dexterity 9, Constitution 13, Charisma 18, Comeliness 12. Hit points: 42. Armor class 5 (studded leather +2). # of attacks/round: 1/1. Damage/attack: 3-8 (staff of woodlands), 1-8 (scimitar).

Magic items: (1) Studded leather +2. (2) Extra-healing potions (three). (3) Staff of the woodlands (28 charges): functions as a quarterstaff +2 (0 charges); pass without trace (0 charges), detect snares & pits (0 charges), charm animal (1 charge), speak with animals (1 charge), barkskin (2 charges), summon swarm (2 charges), wall of thorns (3 charges), commune with nature (3 charges), animate plants (4 charges).

Prayers (spells): calm animals, create food & water, cure light wounds (x2); flaming sphere, fog cloud, hold animal, spider climb; cure disease, neutralize poison, water breathing.

Languages: Spanish (Castilian), Latin, Portuguese, Italian (Tuscan), English.

5. “The Warlock”: Felice Monterosso al Mare. 5th level mage. Chaotic good. Of the six PCs, Felice is the only non-Spaniard. He is Genoese (like Columbus) and a skilled cartographer who vaguely knew Columbus in the early 1470s. He’s been living in the port city of Malaga since 1496, where he began secretly studying magic. The Inquisition recently smoked out his mentor (the wizard Hilario De Noia), and burned him alive, and feeling the heat, Felice sought out his “old friend” Columbus when he heard that he was soon sailing again for the Indies. Columbus hired him as a cartographer on board the flagship, the Capitana, to map the new lands of the fourth voyage (agreeing to pay him 2000 maravedis a month). Columbus had no idea that Felice had become a magic-user and was livid when Felice revealed that. He is the only PC not wanted by the Inquisition, but he can’t be sure of that. For all he knows, Hilario gave the Inquisition his name under torture (Hilario did not in fact do this).

Stats: Strength 9, Intelligence 18, Wisdom 7, Dexterity 16, Constitution 10, Charisma 13. Comeliness 15. Hit points: 15. Armor class 5 (cloak of protection +3). # of attacks/round: 1/1. Damage/attack: 1-4 (dagger).

Magic items: (1) Cloak of protection +2. (2) Rod of fire extinguishing (22 charges). (3) Glasses of magic reading (as per read magic spell, unlimited use), (4) Bag of holding (up to 1000 pounds, or 50,000 coins [50 gp weigh a pound])

Spells: comprehend languages (x2), identify (x2); knock (x2), minor image; dispel magic, fireball.

Books: In addition to his spellbook, Felice carries around six books in his bag of holding: Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio, (not Paradiso which he disdains), Boccacciio’s The Decameron, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Mallory’s The Death of King Arthur, and the Bible.

Languages: Italian (Ligurian & Tuscan), English, Spanish (Castilian), Portuguese.

As the cartographer of the Capitana, Felice is entrusted with the aerial map of the Isle of Dread.

6. “The Assassin”: Lucia Alvaro. 4th level assassin. Chaotic neutral. Hunted by the Spanish Inquisition for recently assassinating the bishop of Jaen, she has disguised herself (per assassin ability) with new haircut, clothing, etc. Aside from Enrique, she’s the only PC who has money to speak of (from assassination jobs) and paid her way as a passenger on board Columbus’s fourth ship, the Vizcaina (for 8000 maravedis). When that ship fell apart and had to be abandoned, she hopped over to the Capitana. She went by the name Carmen Urias before telling Columbus who she is. Ridiculed at first as a woman, a sailor tried to rape her the second day out from Spain, and got his throat slit for his efforts. Columbus, despising rapists, approved the killing entirely. Now that he knows she’s Lucia Alvaro the bishop assassin, he loathes her. But like the rest of the crew, he gives her wide berth.

Stats: Strength 13, Intelligence 17, Wisdom 12, Dexterity 18, Constitution 16, Charisma 7, Comeliness 14. Hit points: 28. Armor class 5 (leather), Damage/attack: 4-11 (rapier), 1-6 (arrows, short bow). [Short bow has an effective range of 60 feet, up to 250 feet with -1 penalty per 50 feet above 50.]

Magic items: (1) Arrows of venom (six; save or die). (2) Rapier of paralysis (+3 rapier, on a natural roll of 20 paralyzes the opponent for 1-4 rounds).

Poison: 4 doses of type B ingestive poison (after 2-5 rounds of swallowing, 15 hp of damage if save, 30 hp of damage if no save).

Assassin abilities: assassination, if the opponent is surprised; pick pockets (45%), open locks (37%), find/remove traps (35%), move silently (33%), hide in shadows (25%), climb walls (88%), spy (base 65%), disguise (base 98%).

Languages: Spanish (Castilian).

The uneasy alliance between the PCs and Columbus is born of need: Columbus needs their ranger, warrior, mage, and rogue skills to obtain the Black Pearl (and whatever gold and treasure he can for his own quest), while the PCs need Columbus to captain the ship and keep the rest of the crew from turning on them. The crew won’t take orders from the PCs, and certainly not if they learn that these PCs are morally “beyond the pale”. They could try taking over the Capitana, but for all their high levels and skills, they would be outnumbered and have to worry constantly about mutiny (especially when they sleep). Working with Columbus is an unpalatable but realistic course of action. But it will be a tense and volatile alliance that could end at a moment’s notice on the Isle. It all depends on how the PCs play it.

Role-playing Columbus

The DM should have fun role-playing Columbus, and if done right the players will get a taste of a somewhat different man than his legacy suggests. Columbus wasn’t the greedy colonizer of left-wing screeds. He had no use for money personally and dressed like a dirt-poor friar in spite of his wealth. His relentless search for gold wasn’t a commercial expedition but an apocalyptic mandate. Like many late fifteenth-century Christians (after the fall of Constantinople to Islam), he believed the end of the world wasn’t far off, and that conditions had to be fulfilled before Christ’s second coming: the Turks had to be defeated, Jerusalem liberated from Muslim control, and the world evangelized. A crusade was necessary, and this “Last Crusade” — which Queen Isabella strongly supported — needed shitloads of money to be financed.

By 16th-century standards, Columbus was actually a decent enough human being. Throughout his voyages he tried to treat the natives well, unlike many of his men who defied his orders (or even rebelled), raping and plundering with abandon. He hanged some of the Spaniards who defied him, though much of it was beyond his control. He sent natives to Spain for enslavement, but only under acceptable conditions. It was standard papal policy to permit enslavement of those who (a) were captured in a “just war”, (b) resisted Christianization, or (c) went against the “law of nature”. The Caribs he encountered on his second voyage, for example, appeared to fit all three requirements. They had (a) brutalized and enslaved the peaceful native tribes (whom Columbus freed and returned to their homes), (b) resisted all peaceful overtures made to them, and (c) were sodomites and cannibals.

Slavery is repugnant, but Columbus can’t be judged immoral on this basis as an individual, anymore than American presidents who served before the Civil War. Even the friar Bartholomew de las Casas, who began as a slave-owning colonizer in 1502, and then after 1514 spent decades as a repentant radical — ferociously fighting slavery and the colonial abuse of indigenous peoples — viewed Columbus kindly in hindsight, describing him as morally just, in contrast to the governors who supplanted him (Bobadilla and Ovando) and the conquistadors (Cortes, etc.) who came after.

All that being said, the PCs will have little reason to like Columbus. It’s precisely his piety and religious motives that get in the way. The PCs hate the church and loathe the Spanish Inquisition — which was founded by Columbus’s benefactor Queen Isabella — and plan to make war on the holy office at some point. After only 20 years the Inquisition in Spain has done more harm than the medieval inquisitions in Europe (which had been under papal control) did over any period three times as long. Columbus stands tall for the church and his queen, and so that pretty much makes him a de facto enemy in the PCs’ eyes.

Columbus’s stats are as follows:

“The Admiral of the Ocean Sea”: Christopher Columbus. 8th level seaman. Lawful good.

Stats: Strength 7, Intelligence 15, Wisdom 8, Dexterity 7, Constitution 5, Charisma 12, Comeliness 6. Hit points: 10. Armor class 10 (or -7, from magic blanket given to him by the Aztecs). Damage/attack: 1-4 (dagger).

(He used to be a more capable and charismatic man than the above scores suggest. The stress of his voyages and increased illnesses have taken their toll. For example, at the start of the first voyage in 1492 his scores were: Strength 10, Intelligence 15, Wisdom 14, Dexterity 9, Constitution 11, Charisma 17, Comeliness 9.)

Languages: Italian (Ligurian), Latin, Greek, Spanish (Castilian), Portuguese.

In short, Columbus is no greedy imperialist, but he is an apocalyptic zealot, and he’s only gotten worse since his ignominious return in chains from the third voyage. Once sharp and wise, he now sees biblical prophecy under every rock; holy purpose on every land sighting. He pushes to dig for gold even when his ships are all but falling apart. When breaking for camp he will have his nose in his Bible and self-authored Book of Prophecies, sniffing out divine commentary on his present whereabouts. Once pleasant company, he’s now ill tempered, and he resents those who don’t appreciate his exegetical genius. Those who question his Book of Prophecies will be answered rudely; those who critique it will be dismissed hostilely. He suffers terribly from rheumatoid arthritis and irritable bowel syndrome. He avoids combat scenarios, as he is not a fighter. Most encounters on the Isle of Dread would kill him and he will have to rely on the PCs for protection.

Gold and Currency

The Black Pearl of the Gods is obviously the party’s main objective (and to retrieve Chimalli if he is still alive). If they leave the Isle without obtaining the Pearl, they fall under the Aztecs’ curse. But it is gold and monetary treasure that drives Columbus’s voyages more than anything (not for wealth, but to finance the Last Crusade that will herald the end of the world). So it’s important to understand its value in this world. The currency mirrors that of 16th-century Spain in our world.

The common unit of currency is the maravedi. The average person’s annual labor is worth about 2000 maravedis. So the sailors whom Columbus pays ~660 maravedis a month are being paid decently for the risks and hardships they take.

The real is the common silver coin of Spain. 1 real = 34 maravedis.

The ducat is the gold coin of Spain. I ducat = 375 maravedis.

The peso is the new gold coin coming from the new world discovered by Columbus. It has more gold than the ducat (4.18 grams instead of 3.485 grams). 1 peso = 450 maravedis.

Assume that all gold pieces found in the Indies (and on the Isle of Dread) are the equivalent of gold pesos. Assume that copper pieces, silver pieces, and platinum pieces convert to the gold/peso exactly as they do in D&D. So a silver piece found on the Isle of Dread is 1/10 of a peso. A platinum piece is worth 5 times a peso. Etc.

In our world, the Spanish crown started to receive a lot of revenue from the Indies (new world) when the conquistadors landed in Mexico. (To put it in perspective, throughout the 1520s-30s, estimates range that the crown received anywhere between 50,000 – 150,000 gold coin per year from the Indies.) In this world, Columbus and the PCs will be in a land (the Isle of Dread) that has as much wealth as Mexico, if not more. What they do with all the wealth they can carry (Felice has a bag of holding) will be largely up to the PCs. They will almost certainly not let Columbus claim it all for the Spanish crown they detest so much, but how they negotiate the details will be determined in the role-playing.

Journey to the Isle of Dread

Geographically, the Isle of Dread sits right on the equator, between 0° North Latitude and 2° South Latitude. Because of its almost central location on the globe, there are about 12 hours of daylight year-round. There are only two seasons that the Isle experiences. The dry season goes from June to September; the wet season goes from October through May and brings with it hotter temperatures, higher humidity, and rain. The party will be landing on the Isle probably sometime in September, towards the end of the dry season, and will be staying long enough to put them well into the wet season, and possibly even beyond the sailing season, into November (see the global graph below), though they could conceivably complete their quest by the third week of October. Depending on how their quest goes, they might have to wait until the following May to leave the Island safely. (See the next two posts for the time frame of the adventure path.)

The fully repaired Capitana will probably travel 96-144 miles per day (4 miles per hour with moderate winds, 6 mph with strong winds). The distance from the Soconusco coast to the Isle is about 1300 miles, so figure about a 9-13 day voyage. Ideally, if Columbus and the PCs start sailing on August 24, they might arrive as early as September 2, or as late as September 6.

Note that without an experienced seaman commanding/piloting the ship — like Christopher Columbus or Ambrosio Sanchez — the Capitana will have little hope of reaching the Isle of Dread. Also, commanders and pilots under 4th level (Columbus is an 8th level seaman, Sanchez 5th level), are able to make a ship like the Capitana travel 72-120 miles per day to get to their destination, rather than 96-144.

The Capitana‘s stats are as follows:

Hull points: 103
Length: 70 feet
Width: 25 feet
Masts: 3, for 3 sails, and 2 yardarms per mast
Normal sail: 4 mph (based on a wind force of moderate breezes, 8-18 mph)
Maximum sail: 6 mph (based on a wind force of strong breezes, 19-31 mph)
Guns: 2 swivel cannons (fore), 1 heavy cannon (stern)

Regarding cannon. It takes one round to load/reload a cannon, a second round to aim it, and the third round to fire it.

Any large target of a swivel cannon is treated as armor class 7. The ten-pound ball causes 4-40 points of damage. It fires at a range of 30-200 feet (no penalty), 200-400 feet (-1 penalty), 400-600 feet (-2 penalty), and 600-1200 feet (-4 penalty).

Any large target of a heavy cannon is treated as armor class 3. The twenty-pound ball causes 6-60 points of damage. It fires at a range of 30-600 feet (no penalty), 600-1200 feet (-1 penalty), 1200-2400 feet (-2 penalty), and 2400-4800 feet (-4 penalty).

To determine the “to hit” roll required, treat the gunner as a fighter at half his level. Add two levels if the gunner has an assistant helping him load and aim the weapon (it doesn’t matter what level the assistant is; but that assistant must be proficient with siege weapons). Add another two levels for every four levels of seamanship that the commanding officer/pilot has, who is steering the ship and giving orders.

So, for examples: (1) The PC Alejandro Sosa (who is a 6th level fighter) has the other gunner (Mario Lopez) assist him, with Columbus (8th level seaman) steering the ship and giving orders. Alejandro will shoot as a 7th level fighter (6/2 + 2 + 8/4). (2) The NPC gunner Mario Lopez (who is a 3rd level fighter) shoots a cannon without any assistance, with Abrosio Sanchez (5th level seaman) steering the ship and giving orders. Mario will shoot as a 2nd level fighter in this case (3/2 + 0 + 5/4).

Regarding hull damage. Generally, it takes one day to repair a hull point of damage at sea, and one day to repair 4 hull points of damage if docked. The rate of success is 60% per hull point without a carpenter, and 95% per hull point if a carpenter is part of the crew. All of this assumes that there is material available for the repairs. Without enough crew, hull repairs are halved (a half a hull point per day at sea, and 2 hull points per day when docked). Repairs can be done at sea as long as the ship has at least half of its hull value. If it falls under a half, it needs to dock in order to make repairs that bring it at least up to half the hull value. From that point it can make more repairs at dock or at sea. A ship can of course keep sailing until it reaches 0 hull points (at which point it sinks). But its damage can’t be repaired at sea when the damage becomes too great.

To find out what the winds are like during the sail to the Isle, roll 3d6 at the start of every day:

3 — Calm (0-1 mph winds)
4-6 — Light Breeze (2-7 mph winds)
7-12 — Moderate Breeze (8-18 mph winds)
13-15 — Strong Breeze (19-31 mph winds)
16 — Near Gale (32-38 mph winds)
17 — Gale (39-54 mph winds)
18 — Violent Storm (55-72 mph winds) (75%) or Hurricane (73-125 mph winds) (25%)

For a strong gale, violent storm, or hurricane, the following five checks need to be made every six hours, or until the winds subside (for a near gale, there is a 50% chance of having to make the five checks as a strong gale):

Capsizing — 1% (strong gale), 20% (storm), 40% (hurricane)
Torn sail — 20% (strong gale), 45% (storm), 70% (hurricane)
Broken mast — 5% (strong gale), 25% (storm), 45% (hurricane)
Beam damage — 10% (strong gale), 35% (storm), 50% (hurricane)
Man overboard — 10% (strong gale), 40% (storm), 70% (hurricane)

A capsized ship takes 1-20 hull points of damage and throws 1-6 men overboard.
A torn sail results in 2-4 points of hull damage, and the sail rips or blows out, or a yardarm snaps, rendering the sail useless. The ship’s movement is reduced by a third until the sail is mended or replaced.
A broken mast results in 2-12 points of hull damage, and tears away the rigging and sails on that mast. The ship’s movement is reduced by a third until the mast is repaired.
Beam damage results in 3-24 points of hull damage.

Note that when a ship falls to less than 50% of its hull points, its base movement rate is reduced by 50%, and when it falls to less than 20%, its base movement is 20%. (When it reaches 0 hull points, it sinks.)

This assumes travel during a sailing season. For travel outside of the sailing season, the daily 3d6 roll is modified as follows:

3 — Calm (0-1 mph winds)
4 — Light Breeze (2-7 mph winds)
5-7 — Moderate Breeze (8-18 mph winds)
8-12 — Strong Breeze (19-31 mph winds)
13-14 — Near Gale (32-38 mph winds)
15-16 — Gale (39-54 mph winds)
17 — Violent Storm (55-72 mph winds)
18 — Hurricane (73-125 mph winds)

On top of winds, of course, there are wandering sea creatures that might happen along and attack the ship.


Pulling everything together, here’s what the timeline might look like in the D&D world, from the point of divergence with our world on April 16, 1503:

April 22-24. Columbus sails his three wounded ships through the “Panama Canal”.

April 25. He is forced to abandon the Vizcaina on the other side of the strait.

June 23. Off the coast of Mexico, he is hit a storm so violent that the Bermuda is destroyed at sea. Many of the crew die, and the survivors row to the Capitana in longboats. Of the original crew of 133 who sailed from Spain, 79 remain.

June 25. He anchors the Capitana off the Mexican coast and goes ashore. He and his crew and the PCs are captured by the Aztecs of Soconusco. The king orders them marched to Tenochtitlan.

July 16. They arrive in Tenochtitlan.

July 17-19. Three-day sacrifice. Each day, 13 men from Columbus’s crew are sacrificed (39 total).

July 20. Emperor Moctezuma and High Priest Xuichoatl explain the Black Pearl legend.

August 10. Back at Soconusco. Columbus’s crew begins repairing the Capitana.

August 24. Columbus and his crew and the PCs (now numbering 35 total) set sail for the Isle of Dread.

September 2-6. Arrive at the Isle of Dread.

When they arrive at the Isle, the reincarnated Isle of Dread module should be used. It’s enhanced and greatly expanded from the original classic, and easily retrofitted to first-edition D&D rules. In a future post, I will flesh out some of the encounter areas on and around the Isle as they apply to the adventure scenario I have outlined for this alternate world.


Appendix — Timeline of events: Columbus’s voyages, and the rise of the Aztec Empire and Spanish Inquisition

The following timeline may be more information than most DMs need, but the history is helpful to know, and may help guide the DM in role-playing Columbus based on things he has done in the past.

1345. Tenochtitlan founded by the Aztecs, fleeing Colhuacan and the wrath of the Acolhua empire (for sacrificing and flaying the Acolhua princess after the Acolhuas agreed to let her marry the Aztec ruler).

1358. Tlatelolco founded as a sister-city to Tenochtitlan. The two cities become tributaries and mercenaries of the Tepanec empire. Tlatelolco concentrates on trade and commerce while Tenochtitlan concentrates on war.

1428. The fall of the Tepanec empire (based at Acapotzalco). Beginning of the Aztec Empire, AKA the Triple Alliance: the city-states of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. Each of the three allied kings leads a group of lesser kingdoms that coincide with the three major ethnic components and political powers of previous times: the Colhulas (Tenochtitlan), the Acolhua-Chichimecs (Texcoco), and the Tepanecs (Tlacopan).

Over the next nine decades, under six Aztec emperors, the empire will continue expanding its rule in the Valley of Mexico (click on the colored map below) until the combined forces of the Spanish conquistadors and their native allies under Hernán Cortés defeat them in 1521.

1453. Constantinople falls to the Ottoman Turks. The land route to Asia becomes closed to Europeans, as non-Muslim travelers are either taken hostage, enslaved, forcibly converted to Islam, or killed.

1473. The Battle of Tlatelolco. Axayacatl, sixth Tlatoani (King) of Tenochtitlan and third Huey Tlatoani (Emperor) of the Aztec Empire, conquers the city of Tlatelolco (the commerce-oriented sister-city of Tenochtitlan) on the pretext of being offended by the insulting behavior of its citizens. Tlatelolco is made subject to Tenochtitlan.

1478. The Spanish Inquisition is established by King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, intended to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in the Spanish realm. Unlike the earlier inquisitions throughout the rest of Europe, the Spanish Inquisition is under secular rather than papal control, with particular focus on the “heresies” of Judaism and Islam, though other offenses too (sodomy, heresy, sorcery, etc).

1480. On the island of Porto Santo, Columbus begins planning to find a seaward route to Asia in order to fulfill apocalyptic expectations. Many Christians in the late 15th century believe that the apocalypse isn’t far off (especially since the fall of Constantinople to Islam in 1453), and that conditions must be fulfilled before Christ can come again: the Turks must be defeated and Jerusalem liberated from Muslim control once and for all. Columbus knows that another crusade is necessary, and that there is enough gold in the east to finance a crusade. He needs a seaward route, since the land route to Asia has been closed to Europeans since 1453. He intends to find a way to the east by sailing west around.

February 6, 1481. The first auto-da-fé is held in Seville, with six people burned alive in a public square. From this point the Inquisition grows fast throughout Castile, and over the next ten years, tribunals form in eight Castilian cities: Ávila, Córdoba, Jaén, Medina del Campo, Segovia, Sigüenza, Toledo, and Valladolid.

1483. Ferdinand and Isabella establish a state council to administer the Inquisition with the Dominican Friar Tomás de Torquemada acting as Inquisitor-General. The Jews are expelled from all of Andalusia. For the next 50 years the Spanish Inquisition will be extremely and efficiently active. Sodomites are stoned, castrated, and burned.

1486. Columbus petitions Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand for a western expedition to the east. He knows from the writings of Marco Polo that if the Great Khan could be converted, it would mean a reliable eastern flank to converge on Jerusalem at the same time European crusaders attacked from the west. Isabella loves his idea but is consumed with liberating Granada from the Muslims.

August 3, 1492. With the Muslims defeated in Granada, Columbus is finally granted his expedition by the Spanish monarchs, and sails from Palos de la Frontera on his first voyage, with 87 men aboard three ships: the caravel Niña (56 feet long, crew of 20 men), the caravel Pinta (56 feet long, crew of 26 men), and the carrack Santa Maria (75 feet long, crew of 41 men). In return for bringing gold to finance the Last Crusade, he is promised 10% of the profits, governorship over the lands that he finds, and the title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Columbus pays his crew as follows: masters and pilots, 2000 maravedis (4.4 gp) per month; able seamen, 1000 maravedis (2.2 gp) per month; ordinary seamen and ship’s boys, 666 maravedis (1.5 gp) per month. Total payroll was 250,180 maravedis (555 gp) per month. (1 gold piece/pesos = 450 maravedis).

October 12, 1492. Columbus touches down on San Salvador. He trades red caps and glass beads with the Arawak natives. When he leaves San Salvador, he takes several of the natives to serve as guides. Columbus plans to take six of the natives back to Spain so they can learn Spanish and so that his own family can learn Indian.

October 28, 1492. Columbus reaches Cuba and names it Juana. He tells his men that if the natives flee at their approach, they must not take anything from their homes. There should be trade (like beads and bells for needed food supplies), not stealing. Columbus becomes so impressed with Cuba that he intends the whole of Christendom to do business with these lands, and to eventually set up a trading post.

November 21, 1492. The Pinta vanishes into the darkness off the coast of Cuba. In his journal Columbus accuses Pinzón of separating the Pinta from the other ships in order to beat the admiral to rich sources of gold.

December 5, 1492. Columbus reaches Haiti and names it Hispaniola. They give a young woman gifts and return her ceremoniously to her village, and she returns with natives who bring food and parrots. Columbus orders that the Indians be treated courteously. Throughout the rest of the month he becomes annoyed at his men’s greed and disorderly conduct, and he compares them unfavorably with the generosity and dignity of the natives.

December 24-25, 1492. The Santa María drifts onto a bank, and then heels over and sinks. Columbus establishes good relations with Chief Guacanagari, and considers the natives in this area to be “Christians at heart”, ripe for conversion. When Guacanagari tells him that there is much gold on the island, Columbus decides to make a settlement where he is stranded and call the place Navidad (the “Christmas Port”). He plans to return to Spain for more ships and supplies and to take some men home, and leave behind 39 men at Navidad. Over the next few days Guacanagari gives Columbus some worked pieces of gold, including a mask. Columbus gives the chief beads, a cape, shoes, and a silver ring.

January 4, 1493. Columbus sets sail in the Niña in search of the Pinta, which has been absent for six weeks now. Two days later, he finds the Pinta, and he and Pinzón head back to Spain.

March 15, 1493. Columbus returns from his first voyage.

May 20, 1493. With the success of his first voyage — as promised, he had found a new route to the east, gold and spices, and many people to be converted to the one true faith — the crown spares no expense in financing a second voyage, and appoints Columbus captain general, conferring him as “Viceroy and Admiral of the Ocean Sea and the Indies”, or “Admiral of the Ocean Sea”, just as the monarchs had promised him.

September 25, 1493. Columbus sails from Cadiz on his second voyage, with 1200 men aboard seventeen ships. Two of the ships are carracks: the Mariagalante (also known as Santa Maria, the namesake of the original sunk on the first voyage) and the Galician. The other fifteen are caravels.

November 4, 1493. Columbus’s fleet comes to Guadalupe, and encounter the Caribs, whom they distinguish from the other Indians, as the Caribs appear to be cannibals and also to practice the “accursed vice” and “extreme offense” of sodomy. Columbus captures many of the Caribs to be sent back to Spain as slaves, while returning to their homes the gentle natives the Caribs had enslaved.

November 28, 1493. Columbus returns to Navidad and finds that the 39 men he had left are all dead, killed by the Indians. He soon realizes they deserved to be slaughtered by the natives for defying his instructions and doing everything he told them not to do — going on raiding parties, pillaging, raping women and taking them back to Navidad as concubines. They were also hoarding gold and not reporting it for the Crown. Columbus manages to preserve his friendship with Chief Guacanagari. His own men start to hate him for refusing to take revenge against the natives.

January 6, 1494. Columbus founds La Isabela to the east of Navidad, and begins to build a settlement there. His men become increasingly problematic, unaccustomed to manual labor and refusing to work. They expect Columbus to give them Indians as servants to work for them.

February 2, 1494. Columbus sends twelve of the seventeen ships back to Spain in order to obtain food and other supplies for the new settlement at La Isabela. He sends back cinnamon, pepper, cotton, parrots, sandalwood, and some gold nuggets in the ships, and also sends 26 Caribs for enslavement. [It was standard papal policy to permit enslavement of those who (1) were captured in a “just war”, (2) resisted Christianization, or (3) went against the “law of nature”. The Caribs appeared to fit all three requirements.]

April 10, 1494. The twelve ships return to Cadiz, under command of Antonio de Torres, carrying letters from Columbus to the monarchs, as well as the cargo and Carib slaves.

April 24 – September 29, 1494. Columbus explores Cuba and discovers Jamaica. He leaves his brother Diego in charge of La Isabela. During his absence, his stepbrother Bartholomew arrives and the Tainos revolt against the behavior of Columbus’s men.

March 24, 1495. Columbus, allied with Chief Guacanagari, marches against the other native chiefs, and kills or captures many of them, including the principal chief Caonabo (who had been responsible for the Navidad massacre). Many of the natives commit mass suicide. Caonabo is sent to Spain as a prisoner. By now, only 630 of the original 1200 Spaniards remain, most of them sick.

March 10, 1496. Columbus abandons La Isabela. He instructs Bartholomew to establish a new city at the mouth of the Ozama River (what will become Santo Domingo). He leaves Francisco Roldan in charge of La Isabela, which becomes a ghost town.

April 20, 1496. Columbus sets sail for Spain with 225 of his men (leaving the remainder behind) and 30 natives.

— Of the ~300,000 Indians in Hispaniola in 1492, about 100,000 of them have died between 1494-1496, half of them from mass suicide.

June 11, 1496. Columbus returns from his second voyage. To everyone’s surprise, he debarks at Cadiz looking like a Franciscan friar, barefoot and wearing a coarse brown habit with knotted cord. He continues to dress like this for the rest of his life, having become disgusted at the greed of his men that had brought down so much slaughter and calamity. He is ravaged by illness, and looks more like 55 years old than 45. His hair has gone white, his vision troubles him, and he suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. Knowing that his time on earth is limited, he is convinced more than ever that he needs to voyage more and acquire as much gold as possible to finance the Last Crusade.

— The Spanish monarchs are ready to plow on, but there are troubling questions now. Columbus insists that the lands he found are at the edge of India, but skeptics and rival seamen start to claim that he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And it’s not clear how the natives should be viewed on whole; these so-called Indians range between friendly to hostile to even preferring suicide rather than co-existing with Spaniards.

February 1497. Two relief ships are sent to Hispaniola, under the command of Pedro Fernandez Coronel.

April 23, 1497. Isabella and Ferdinand issue an order for Columbus to prepare for a third voyage. Able-bodied seamen and artisans will receive wages of 30 maravedis a day; soldiers, laborers, and cabin boys would get 20 a day. Those prepared to stay and cultivate the land would earn 6000 maravedis a year. It takes about a year to get the financial backing he needs for the voyage (2,824,326 maravedis) and all the provisions, sail, and costly supplies.

May 30, 1498. Columbus sails from Sanlucar on his third voyage, with 330 men aboard six ships. Three of the ships are sent directly to Hispaniola under the command of people Columbus knew well. He takes the other three ships — the Santa Maria (his flagship), El Correo (“the Courier”), and La Vaquenos — further south, believing that the equator contains more valuable discoveries.

— The 330 men aboard the six ships consist of: the captains and leaders plus 40 squires, 100 foot soldiers, 30 sailors, 30 cabin boys, 20 gold washers, 50 farm workers and gardeners, 20 skilled tradesmen of different types, and 30 women. Whether these women were wives, domestic servants (to make native servants unnecessary), or concubines (to deflect the rape of native women) is unclear.

Late July 1498. The three ships arrive at Hispaniola to find that Francisco Roldan, the island magistrate (and city magistrate of La Isabela) whom Columbus had left in charge, is now leading a rebellion against Columbus and his brothers in Xaragua. Roldan is in defiance of Bartholomew (based at Santo Domingo) and the Colombus brother’s rules of monastic rules of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Roldan promises settlers food, women, and freedom to do whatever they want, and to collect gold for themselves. They plunder the native villages in Xaragua and rape the native women.

Meanwhile, southeast of Hispaniola, Columbus sights Trinidad, and people in canoes. He is puzzled that they are not Chinese; he is stressed from the voyage and suffering severe aches and pains.

August 1, 1498. Columbus comes to the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela and believes it is the Garden of Eden. He becomes convinced that he has discovered the entrance to Paradise. He spends a few days exploring along the Paria peninsula, and west past Cumana, and then reluctantly departs for Hispaniola on August 5, before the food aboard his ship spoils.

August 14, 1498. Columbus reaches Margarita island, sighting Tobago and Grenada further east.

August 31, 1498. Columbus comes to the new colony of Santo Domingo to find that many of the Spanish settlers of the new colony are in rebellion against his rule, following Francisco Roldan, who all claim that Columbus has misled them about the supposedly bountiful riches they expected to find. A number of returning settlers and sailors have lobbied against Columbus at the Spanish court, accusing him and his brothers of gross mismanagement. Columbus has some of them hanged for disobedience.

1499. Throughout the year, conflict escalates between Columbus and Roldan on Hispaniola, with half-resolutions and nothing solved.

May 18, 1499. Amerigo Vespucci joins an expedition licensed by Spain (the red journey on the map). The intention is to explore the coast of a new landmass found by Columbus on his third voyage and in particular investigate the rich source of pearls that Columbus reported. Two ships sail toward modern Venezuela, while the other pair of ships head south with Vespucci aboard. He assumes they are on the coast of Asia and hopes that by heading south they would, according to the Greek geographer Ptolemy, round the unidentified “Cape of Cattigara” and reach the Indian Ocean. They pass two huge rivers (the Amazon and the Para) and continue south for another 150 miles before encountering a current which they cannot overcome and then head back.

May 21, 1499. Isabella and Ferdinand have by now heard the many complaints about Columbus reaching Spain (most of which is slander), and they decide to appoint Fancisco de Bobadilla (a knight of the Order of Calatrava) as the new viceroy (governor) of the Indies.

February 3, 1500. Columbus returns from the interior to Santa Domingo, where he makes plans to sail to Spain and present to the monarchs his version of the events of the past two years.

August 1500. Bobadilla arrives in Santo Domingo to serve as judge and viceroy. He arrives as Diego is overseeing the execution of two Spanish rebels (Columbus is away suppressing a revolt at Grenada). Columbus had ordered their execution for their rebellion against him, and for crimes against the Indians, and had intended their deaths to (a) serve as an example to the rest of the colonists, and (b) to show the Indians that the rule of law applies no less to Spaniards.

October 1500. Columbus and Diego are put in chains by Bobadilla and sent home to Spain. Back at home they are imprisoned.

December 12, 1500. The king and queen order the Columbus brothers released and summon them to their presence at the Alhambra palace in Granada. Their freedom is restored, but Columbus never regains his stature. For the next year and a half he lives in the Carthusian monastery of Santa Maria de la Cuevas (near Seville), leading an austere hermit-like existence in a solitary cell. During this time he writes the Book of Prophecies — a literary gauntlet thrown down urging that the end of the world is imminent. Far from being dampened, Columbus’s passion for the conquest of Jerusalem revs up even higher. He becomes increasingly viewed as an eccentric by the members of the royal court, because of his extreme apocalyptic views, and for continuing to dress like a barefoot friar, rather than the wealthy man he has become.

May 1501 – February 1502. Amerigo Vespucci joins an expedition licensed by Portugal (the green journey on the map). The intention is to investigate a landmass far to the west in the Atlantic Ocean encountered unexpectedly by Pedro Álvares Cabral on his voyage around Africa to India. That land would eventually become present-day Brazil. The Portuguese king wants to know the extent of this new discovery and determine where it lay in relation to the line established by the Treaty of Tordesillas (that divided the world between what Spain and Portugal could conquer). On August 17 the expedition reaches Brazil and encounter a hostile band of natives who kill and eat one of the crew. Sailing south along the coast they find friendlier natives and are able to engage in some minor trading. At 23° S they find a bay which they name Rio de Janeiro (because they arrive on January 1, 1502). On February 13, they leave the coast to return home.

September 3, 1501. Nicolás de Ovando y Cáceres appointed the new governor of the Indies. Columbus retains the title of admiral, but on whole his honor has taken a pounding.

September 27, 1501. A royal mandate orders Bobadilla to return Columbus’s possessions.

February 13, 1502, Ovando sails from Spain with a fleet of thirty ships, the largest fleet up to that point that had ever sailed to the New World.

April 1502. Ovando’s fleet lands at Santo Domingo, and begins ruthlessly suppressing the natives — even worse than Bobadilla ever did (and that’s saying a lot).

May 11, 1502. In spite of his worsening illnesses, Columbus sails from Cadiz on his fourth voyage, with 133 men, on four ships. (1) He and his 13-year old son Ferdinand sail in his flagship, La Capitana, but because of his illness it is captained by one of his former shipmates, Diego Tristan, whom Columbus pays the going rate of 4000 maravedis a month. Abrosio Sanchez serves as master of the ship, and his brother Juan as chief pilot, each receiving 2000 maravedis a month. They supervise a crew of 34, including 14 sailors (1000 m. a month each), and 20 cabin boys. In addition, there are seven specialists: a cooper (to protect barrels holding water and wine), a caulker (to glue the seams of boats), a carpenter, a pair of trumpeters (to sound alarms and perform music), and 2 gunners (on the ship’s two cannon at bow and stern). Added to Columbus and Ferdinand, the total number of people on this ship is 43. (2) His stepbrother Bartholomew serves as the unpaid captain of the Santiago de Palo (also known as the Bermuda). The comptroller Francisco de Porras is given the title and pay (if not the role) of captain (at 3666 maravedis a month) and his brother Diego de Porras is the chief auditor and representative of the crown (at 3000 m. a month). The crew on this ship consists of 11 sailors, a boatswain (in charge of the crew and equipment), a dozen cabin boys, a cooper, a caulker, a carpenter, one gunner. This ship also includes Diego Mendez, a good friend of Columbus’s and six volunteers. Total number: 38. (3) La Gallega is captained by Pedro de Terreros (paid the going rate of 4000 maravedis a month), who had been on every one of Columbus’s voyages. The ship’s master is Juan Quintero (paid 2000 m. a month), who had been the boatswain on the Pinta of the first voyage. A complement of [12] sailors, a boatswain, [11] cabin boys, and one volunteer make up the rest. Total number: 28. (4) The smallest ship, the Vizcaína, is captained by a fellow Genoese, Bartholomew Fieschi. The ship carries [6] other Geneose, [8] sailors, [7] cabin boys, and two paying passengers. Total number: 24. Columbus is given strict orders by the crown not to stop at Hispaniola, given how low he has fallen in the eyes of the settlers. The purpose of this voyage is to find a strait linking the Indies (which Columbus still believes to be part of Asia) with the Indian Ocean. This strait is known to exist, since Marco Polo traversed it on his way back from China. So in effect, Columbus is looking for the Strait of Malacca (which is really near Singapore) in Central America.

June 15, 1502. Columbus arrives in Martinique.

June 29, 1502. Columbus arrives in Santo Domingo (despite his orders to stay away from Hispaniola) and requests that he be allowed to enter the harbor to shelter from a hurricane. His request is treated with contempt by Ovando, who denies Columbus’s request. Columbus finds shelter for his ships in a nearby estuary. Meanwhile, a fleet of 30 ships departs for Spain, and 20 of them are destroyed in the storm, with others broken. Columbus’ archenemy Bobadilla and the rebel Roldan are killed (so they never have to defend themselves in court). Very oddly, only one of the ships makes it Spain — the one that just happens to be carrying Columbus’s gold (4,000 gold pesos = 1,800,000 maravedis).

July, 1502. Ovando rebuilds Santo Domingo, which had been demolished by the hurricane.

Late July, 1502. Columbus arrives at the coast of Honduras at the end of the month.

— Around this time, in mid or late 1502, Moctezuma II becomes the ninth Tlatoani (King) of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) and the sixth Huey Tlatoani (Emperor) of the Aztec Empire. He will be the last Aztec emperor, reigning for 18 years until the empire falls to Hernan Cortes and the Spanish conquistadors (in 1519-1521).

August 14 – October 16, 1502. Columbus explores down the coast of Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, beset by more storms and headwinds. Arriving at Panama in mid-October, he learns two important things from the Ngabe natives: (1) that there is another ocean just a few days march to the south, which convinces him that he is near enough to the strait that he is looking for; (2) that the natives have shitloads of gold. He soon finds out, however, that the “strait” is an isthmus and not a water channel. He has no intention of leaving ships behind to go on a hiking trip, and decides to find a suitable spot to set up a trading post.

1503. Sometime this year the Mundus Novus pamphlet is published, which describes Amerigo Vespucci’s voyage to Brazil in 1501–1502. It becomes popular throughout Europe. Within a year, twelve editions are printed including translations into Italian, French, German, Dutch and other languages. Many in Europe start to suspect that the “Indies” are actually an unknown “New World”, and not Asia as Columbus keeps insisting.

January 6, 1503. On Epiphany Columbus finds safe harbor at the mouth of the river Belen in western Panama. He makes it his headquarters for exploration and builds a garrison fort there.

April 6, 1503. A large number of Indians attack the garrison at Belen. Diego Tristan (captain of the Capitana) is killed.

April 16, 1503. On Easter Day, retreating from the attacks, Columbus takes his three ships (badly leaking from shipworm) and starts to sail home, leaving the Gallega stuck in the estuary at Belen. He now has three ships and 116 men. Seventeen of his men that sailed from Spain with him have been killed by this point. He gives command of his flagship the Capitana to Diego Mendez.

At this point, historical events unfold differently in the alternate world. In our world Columbus abandons the Vizcaina (which is leaking so badly it’s falling apart) at Porto Bello, and then sails the remaining two ships up to Cuba, where he is caught in a storm so terrible that he’s forced back south to beach at Jamaica for a whole year (from June 25, 1503 – June 29, 1504), his remaining two ships now unusable and irreparable in an unsettled land. After being rescued in June 1504, he will make his way back to Spain, returning there on November 7, 1504. He will never sail again, and his fourth voyage ends a dismal failure. He has failed to find a strait to the western waters, and to add insult to injury, he has failed to make contact with the Maya of Yucatán by the narrowest of margins, by having sailed south instead of north when he reached Honduras.

In the alternate D&D world, Columbus’s fourth voyage is a smashing success — though whether Columbus and his men (and the PCs) will live to tell the tale is another question. In this world the Panama Canal already exists naturally as a strait; it doesn’t need to wait for the elaborate engineering of 1904-1914. The Indians had lied to Columbus, or at least they hadn’t told the whole truth. The strait is accessible every other month — in February, April, June, August, October, and December — when the land mass sinks. During the other months the land rises, blocking the water passage between the two oceans. Columbus learns the truth of this toward the end of the ten-day battle at Belen (April 6-16), when the Indians reveal the truth in hopes that it will make him abandon the garrison and depart their land. With praises to God on his lips that’s exactly what he sets out to do, since the strait is accessible in April. He and his men (and the PCs) board the three remaining ships — the Capitana, the Bermuda, and the Vizcaina — and sail through the canal. He soon abandons the Vizcaina (falling apart, like in our world), on the south side of Panama, and then sails the Capitana and Bermuda up to the coast of Mexico, where he is caught in a storm just as terrible as the one in our world that marooned him at Jamaica. The Bermuda is utterly pulverized at sea by the hurricane, claiming the lives of 28 men, while the others make it to shore in longboats. The Capitana is able to anchor but will need serious repairs before it can sail again.

From this point on, the PC are in the Aztec Empire, and will soon be departing for the Isle of Dread (on which see the post above this appendix).

Why Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue

For reasons seldom heard: to prepare the world for the Last Judgment and finance the Last Crusade.

Strange we don’t often hear that.

It took me years to get around to Carol Delaney’s Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem (2011), mostly because I kept forgetting that it was squeezed into the end of my bookshelf. It’s a solid treatment of Columbus that takes his millenarian beliefs seriously, which surprisingly many scholars have not done. It’s common to suppose that Columbus was driven by greed, but as Delaney shows, it’s misleading to equate the material goal with the personal motive. Columbus’s search for gold wasn’t a commercial expedition; it was all but an apocalyptic geas.

We don’t know exactly when Columbus originally developed his plan to cross the ocean, but Delaney suggests that it was on the island of Porto Santo (where he had gone to live with his wife in 1480) when the pieces started falling into place. Many fifteenth-century Christians believed that the apocalypse wasn’t far off (especially since the fall of Constantinople to Islam in 1453), and that conditions had to be fulfilled before Christ could come again: the Turks had to be defeated and Jerusalem liberated once-and-for-all from Muslim control. Columbus knew that another crusade was necessary, and he knew there was enough gold in the east to finance a crusade. He needed a seaward route, since the land route to Asia had been closed to Europeans since 1453. His intent was to find a way to the east by sailing west around.

He also knew (from the writings of Marco Polo) that if the Great Khan could be converted, that would mean a reliable eastern flank to converge on Jerusalem at the same time European crusaders attacked from the west. He presented his plan to Queen Isabella in 1486, which she liked but wouldn’t run with until the conquest of Muslim Granada was over six years later. The rest is famous history. What’s not well known is the religiosity that continued to drive Columbus: by discovering new islands and evangelizing “savage” peoples, Columbus would prepare the world for the Last Judgment, and acquire the necessary riches to finance the Last Crusade.

Columbus’ religious zeal can be seen in the primary sources (his diary, his letters, his “Book of Prophecies”, etc). For example, during the sail back from his first voyage, he wrote to Isabella and Ferdinand that, “Within seven years I shall give Your Highnesses enough money to pay for 5,000 knights and 50,000 foot soldiers for the conquest of Jerusalem” (letter dated March 4, 1493, which surfaced in 1985). In another letter he said that gold wasn’t primarily a medium of exchange but a medium of redemption: “Gold is a metal most excellent above all others and of gold treasures are formed, and he who has it makes and accomplishes whatever he wishes in the world and finally uses it to send souls into Paradise.”

The Garden of Eden

Delaney offers an interesting commentary on Columbus’s first sight of South America (on August 1, 1498) during his third voyage. When he saw the Orinoco River and other parts of present day Venezuela, he became convinced that he found the Garden of Eden — the place where Creation itself began. (Remember, he believed that Cuba and Hispaniola were in the Asian region, having sailed far enough west to come back east to the area of Marco Polo’s adventures.) He didn’t go ashore to explore the region (he had to get back to his colony at Santa Domingo with supplies that were already spoiling), but his mind was churning with excitement. Delaney writes:

“Columbus did not try to enter the Terrestrial Paradise, but he could not stop thinking about what his discovery might mean. The widely held belief that the Terrestrial Paradise would be found only near the end time was part of the medieval Christian interpretation of the story of Enoch and Elijah. These two figures from Genesis were associated with the two witnesses in Revelation (11:3), thought to be waiting in the Garden until the end time, when they were prophesied to fight the Antichrist. Having found the Terrestrial Paradise must have confirmed Columbus’s belief that the end was nigh, and that his enterprise was the beginning of the fulfillment of prophecy. The extraordinary discovery of the Terrestrial Paradise was the first step in the apocalyptic drama. He hoped this event would spur the Spanish sovereigns to take the next steps.” (p 174)

Shortly after, Columbus wrote to the Spanish sovereigns, explaining that he found a new continent and the location of the Terrestrial Paradise (Garden of Eden). He reminded them of the real achievements of his voyages which were being overshadowed by mundane logistical concerns, saying, “Your Highnesses have won these vast lands, which are an Other World, in which Christendom will have so much enjoyment and our faith in time so great an increase, and in the end of your days you will have the glory of Paradise”.

Not a hero, but not really a villain either

Delaney also shows how Columbus tried to treat the natives decently, time and time again throughout all his voyages, unlike some of the men he led, many of whom defied his orders or even rebelled. Isabella herself made some bad appointments that undermined Columbus’s command, the worst being when she chose Knight Commander Francisco de Bobadilla. When he arrived in Santa Domingo in 1500 he saw two Spaniards hanging from a gallows, executed by Columbus for their rebellion and crimes against the Indians. Columbus had intended their deaths to serve as an example to the rest of the colonists, and also to show the Indians that the rule of law applied to his own men. Upon arrival, Bobadilla immediately put Columbus in chains and imprisoned him. Then he sent him back to Spain in disgrace, while releasing all the rebel prisoners Columbus had jailed, and making common cause with them.

Columbus won back some measure of approval from the Spanish monarchs — thanks to Isabella who liked him — but he never fully recovered his standing after the outrage of the third voyage. Yet he became the symbol of all that went wrong in the Indies, while true monsters like Bobadilla, and his even worse successor Ovando, have been largely passed over. Governor Ovando’s massacre of Queen Anacaona and the Taino people (during Columbus’s fourth voyage) was especially treacherous. In the fall of 1503, the queen had welcomed Ovando with a feast, and Ovando responded to this honor by burning the Taino alive, running their children through with lances, and hanging Anacaona. Almost a year later, when Columbus returned to Santa Domingo (after being marooned on Jamaica for over a year), Ovando freed mutineers and punished all those who were loyal to Columbus. Columbus once again returned to Spain powerless over awful men who had displaced him.

Even the friar Bartholomew de las Casas, who began as a slave-owning colonizer in 1502, and then after 1514 spent decades as a repentant radical, actively fighting slavery and the colonial abuse of indigenous peoples, viewed Columbus kindly in hindsight, and as a far better and just person than Bobadilla or Ovando or any of the governors and conquistadors who came after.

The Book of Prophecies

In the time between his third and fourth voyages (1501-1502), as he worked to clear his name from the Bobadilla episode, Columbus also devoted himself to writing the Libro de las profecias (the Book of Prophecies). Scholars tend to dismiss the book, as it disrupts their traditional view of Columbus as the “first modern man”, but Delaney gives it the spotlight it deserves: it shows what truly motivated Columbus.

There are massive amounts of quotes in the Libro from the Old Testament prophets, but also from the New Testament, Josephus, Augustine, and other church fathers. The Libro is nothing less than the “explicit and extensive expression of Columbus’s quest for the liberation of Jerusalem and the way he thought about his discoveries and his role in the fulfillment of Christian prophecy” (p 190). But it wasn’t published until 1892, and only in 1984 was the Latin translated into Spanish; only in 1992 were English-speaking translations made available.

It puts beyond doubt that from Columbus’ view, his (1) discovery of the islands and (2) conversion of the Indians had made possible two of the conditions necessary for Christ to return, but the third most important one — (3) the conquest of Jerusalem — remained the ultimate goal. In February 1502, he wrote a letter to Pope Alexander VI, saying that he (a) had located the Garden of Eden on his third voyage, (b) needed more priests to be sent to the new world to spread God’s word, and (c) must remind His Holiness that the whole enterprise had been taken with the purpose of obtaining gold to restore the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem to the church.

In Delaney’s view, the Libro was

“a kind of literary gauntlet thrown down to the Spanish sovereigns with the hope that they would be persuaded by the logic of the signs that the end of the world was imminent. Columbus’s passion for the conquest of Jerusalem never ended. While his passion was most explicit in the Libro de las profecias, it had been there from the beginning, even if he had not quite understood how it would unfold. But once he had crossed the ocean and understood his discoveries within the wider Christian prophetic tradition, his passion grew stronger and more emphatic. It was a vision that would occupy him to the end of his life.” (p 201)

And it’s no wonder that Columbus felt betrayed upon returning from his fourth journey. He came back to find that Isabella had died (in November 1504), and with it all the friendship he had at the royal court. King Ferdinand (who never liked Columbus) stripped away most of Columbus’s privileges and hereditary titles that the crown had bestowed on him in 1492 (and had reinstated after the Bobadilla affair of the third voyage). The friar Bartholomew de las Casas, who began as a slave-owning colonizer in 1502, and then after 1514 committed his life to fighting slavery and colonial tyranny, wrote this (sometime in the 1520s or 1530s) of the king’s treatment of Columbus:

“As for King Ferdinand, I do not know why he was not only ungrateful in words and deeds but actually harmed Columbus whenever he could. It was believed that if, in good conscience and without losing face, he could have violated all the articles of the privileges that he and the Queen had justly granted him for his services, he would indeed have done so. I have never been able to ascertain the reason for this dislike and unkingly conduct toward one whose unparalleled service no other monarch ever received. Perhaps he was unduly impressed by the arguments and false testimonies of Columbus’s enemies and rivals.” (History of the Indies, pp 138-140)

But the king really knifed Columbus in the back by reneging on the quest for Jerusalem. He had never shared the apocalyptic zeal of Columbus or his wife, and so, with Isabella gone, instead of organizing a crusade he simply asked the Islamic sultan to protect the holy places in Jerusalem for Christian pilgrims. Columbus was outraged and — whatever we think today of crusades and apocalyptic dramas — rightly so.


This book changed some of my feelings for Columbus, but not by a great deal. I still think his legacy is overrated and that there’s no need for a holiday in his name. But I do appreciate him more as a man of his times, and as someone who has studied the crusades extensively, I join the chorus of endorsement of Delaney’s thesis. No scholar of the crusades thinks that crusaders were driven primarily by greed or colonial ambitions, and this book extends that idea based on Columbus’s clear passion for a “crusade that would end all crusades”.

That passion soon fizzled out. Soon after Columbus’s death (1506) came the Protestant Reformation and with it new spiritual battles. Apocalyptic hopes receded in Catholic thought, while in Protestant churches they revved up in new ways that had nothing to do with crusades. Columbus’ vision mutated; America, not Jerusalem, was now the place of redemption, and it would be around a long time for the plundering. Columbus is remembered more for the mutation of his vision, and Delaney’s book is a sort of Albert Schweitzer-like portrayal of the original man who “comes to us as one unknown”.

The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629

I wouldn’t want to live in sixteenth century France unless I was a fly on the wall. Reading Mack Holt’s book may be the next best thing. The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629 puts you through the bloodbaths of 16th-century France, at the safe distance of scholarly exposition and inquiry. There are many books on the Catholic-Huguenot wars, but this is the best I’m aware of, and there are three things especially I like about it.

The first is that the author cuts against the grain of foolish fads, and argues that religion played a central role in these wars. That’s right: religion played a key role in the wars of religion. Never take the obvious for granted, for it’s precisely the obvious that many prefer to deny. If you’ve heard it said enough times that jihad terrorism has nothing to do with Islam (despite jihadists’ candid admissions that it has everything to do with the Islamic religion), then perhaps it’s not terribly surprising to learn that scholars have sought to explain the Catholic-Huguenot conflicts in just about every possible framework except a religious one.

Which isn’t to say that Holt downplays the impact of other factors, like politics, economics, and social forces. Quite the contrary, those are weighed where appropriate. He has simply restored a crucial piece of the puzzle that had been missing for too long when he wrote the first edition of this book (in 1995).

The second thing I like is that there are no implied heroes or villains in these bloodbaths, save what readers may choose to make for themselves. Histories of Catholic-Protestant conflicts are too often written by anti-establishment types who portray the Protestant cause as the “right” one, standing against abusive power and superstition. I was half-expecting to see the Huguenots depicted as oppressed martyrs to “true Christianity”, or liberty-seeking folks who just wanted to be left alone. I was wrong and pleasantly surprised.

If anything, one might be misled into thinking that the author sides with the Gallican (French Catholic) point of view. He doesn’t, but what he does do is immerse the reader in the Gallican worldview and the particulars that were taken for granted. In France there was a special relationship between church and state that wasn’t duplicated elsewhere. The ecclesiastical nature of the French kingship went beyond those of the western monarchies. While it’s true that popes recognized other monarchs for their special service to God (like Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain), French kings relied on an older and unassailable tradition. Every single French king was Rex Christianissimus, the “Most Christian King”, not just ordained by God, but a god himself, (according to the Assembly of the French Clergy). The French kings were effectively god-kings who had a sacred duty to fight heresy and keep France pure of it. Their word was absolute and not to be questioned, but there was at least one thing that might provoke legitimate defiance: if the king refused to defend his kingdom from heresy. Thus after each of the wars, when Charles IX (after wars 1-4) and then Henry III (after wars 5-7) drew up compromises with the Huguenots, there was a growing outrage that the king was failing his sacred duty to eradicate heresy from the land.

So for example, when Charles IX toured the entire nation (in 1564-66) in order to excoriate the city Parlements in person, demanding the immediate and unconditional registration of the Edict of Amboise (1563) that he signed to end the first war, he was only grudgingly obeyed. Many of the judges and magistrates viewed his provisions for the Huguenots to be a severe breach of his royal prerogative — the oath he took to defend France from heresy. The resentment would eventually explode in the fourth war (1572-73) with the massacres of St. Bartholomew. In the case of Henry III, his breaches snowballed into schism, with Catholic hard-liners declaring that he had lost his right to the throne, triggering the eighth (and nastiest and longest) war that lasted from 1584-98. The pacification edicts of Charles IX and Henry III called forth what could be described as quasi-crusades against the Protestants in France.

This brings me to the third thing I like, the implied alignment of the French wars with the crusades. To be sure, they were not actually crusades, and Holt does not say they were. For all the variety of crusading theaters throughout the 11th-16th centuries (whether in Palestine, Spain, the Baltic region, northern Africa, or even the interior of Europe), the French wars of religion were not among them. A crusade had to be sanctioned by the pope and given the official penitential benefits (the remission for penalties of confessed sins), and the popes never blessed the wars against the French Protestants in this way.

Nevertheless, in my view, the fourth and eighth wars unfolded effectively as crusades, a “popular crusade” dominating the fourth war (1572-73), and the “inquisitional crusade” of the Holy League carrying the eighth (1584-98). That’s not exactly how Holt puts it in his book, but I think it’s essentially what he ends up describing.

The Popular “Crusades” of the Fourth War: The Massacres of St. Bartholomew’s Day

It’s worth citing Holt’s lengthy analysis of the massacres of St. Bartholomew’s Day that ignited the fourth war. But first the lead-up: the third war (1568-70) had represented a departure from the first two wars (1562-63, 1567-68), which were dominated by siege warfare in a few towns north of the Loire. The first two wars were grounded in religious conflict, to be sure, but they were not characterized by religious zeal. Nor was the third war. But the third war did involve the mobilization of large numbers of troops over large distances throughout the center and south of the kingdom, exposing the rural population to the costs of war they hadn’t previously known: murder, rape, pillage, the sacking of homes, theft of livestock, disruption of agricultural production, and peasants fleeing for their lives.

All of this inflamed the religious zeal of the masses, and holy confraternities sprang up everywhere in the wake of third-war atrocities. One pamphlet published in 1568 called on Catholics to “spill your blood for God, even to the last drop” against the Protestants. Outbreaks of popular violence, grounded in religiosity, began to erupt. Catholics started pursuing a New Jerusalem ideal cleansed of the infidel. Sermons urged them to heed God’s will to eradicate infidels within the kingdom, and this would all finally explode in an extended fury of popular violence in the fourth war — when all of the political decision-making of the court nobility receded into the background, as Catholics across the kingdom made a concerted effort, indeed, to spill Protestant blood “to the last drop”:

“The Huguenots not only had to be killed, but humiliated, dishonored, and shamed as the inhuman beasts they were perceived to be. They had to be dehumanized — slaughtered like animals — since they had violated all the sacred laws of humanity in Catholic culture. Moreover, death was followed by purification of the places the Huguenots had profaned. Many Protestant houses were burned, involving the traditional purification of fire for all heretics. Many were also thrown into the Seine, invoking the purification by water of Catholic baptism. The grisly deaths of hundreds of Protestants in Paris on St. Bartholomew’s night and after reveal distinct patterns of what Professor Natalie Davis has called the ‘rites of violence’. Many of the participants in the massacre saw themselves as carrying out clerical roles of priests and purifiers and magisterial roles of judges and executioners. The violence of the massacres was the result of something more than the unconscious fears, the uncontrolled rage, or the random violence so endemic to the period. The violence was not random at all, but patterned on the rites of the Catholic culture that had given birth to it. Despite the efforts by the king and many other notables to stop the spread of the violence, it continued off and on in the capital for nearly three days, resulting in as many as two thousand deaths.

“What had caused this unusually bloody outburst of violence, far more lethal than any previous incident in the Religious Wars of France (1562-1563, 1567-1568, 1568-1570)? And why did it go unchecked for so long? Two related points must be stressed if any sense is to be made of these ‘rites of violence’. First, the sources make it very clear that many of the participants fully believed that they were carrying out the will of the king [even though they were wrong in that belief]. It was a mistaken perception — that the king had condoned the killing of all the Protestants in the capital — that led many Catholics who were otherwise law-abiding citizens to seize the moment and take part in the spree of killing. Private passion against Protestantism was transformed into public duty… Second, the participants in the massacre also felt that extermination of the Huguenots was God’s will. The escalating rhetoric of Parisian pamphleteers and preachers after the Edict of St. Germain (in 1570, after the third war, which granted more favors and rights to Protestants than any previous edict) was a main factor in this perception. Heresy was a putrid infection of the social body that would contaminate the whole if not eradicated. Thus should heretics be exterminated by a “bitter death”… So convinced were the Parisians that God was growing ever more angry with them for continuing to allow the pollution of heresy, that every severe storm, occurrence of hail or sleet, flood of the Seine — even the solar eclipse on St. Michael’s Day in 1571 — were all perceived as signs of God’s anger.

“All the surviving evidence suggests that the popular massacre that broke out on Paris on St. Bartholomew’s night was neither planned nor condoned by the king’s council. The king himself issued orders as soon as the popular violence broke out for everyone in the city to return to their homes. And apart from the radical fringe of the city militia who did encourage and even led the populace in many of the attacks, the bulk of the king’s and the city’s forces seem to have been trying to maintain order rather than participating in the murders. Even Henry, duke of Guise, who personally took charge of the murder of [the Protestant Admiral] Coligny, made efforts to prevent the unnecessary deaths of other Protestants in the capital. All the Protestant sources claiming that the king, the Queen Mother, Henry of Anjou, or Guise had ordered the general massacres — which many historians have simply taken at face value — need to be balanced by the evidence of the strength of popular religious feeling in the capital at the time of the attempted assassination of Admiral Coligny.” (pp 87-90)

That was just in Paris. After the massacres in the capital, sacred violence broke out in the following cites: Orleans, La Charite, Meaux, Bourges, Saumur, Angers, Lyon, Troyes, Rouen, Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Gaillac. About 3000 Protestants total were killed in those dozen cities (in Paris alone the body count was 2000). All twelve (like Paris) once had very significant Protestant minorities. They were towns where sizeable Huguenot communities existed and thus had raised the same specter of heretical contamination. And seven of them — Rouen, Orleans, Lyon, Meaux, Bourges, Angers, and La Charite — had actually been taken over by Protestant minorities during the first war. They had returned to Catholic control, but with feelings of hostility and tensions similar to that in Paris.

And as in Paris, the chief agents of the violence were the local populace, who believed they were acting on behalf of the king and in full accordance with the divine will. They enacted the same kind of ritualistic murders (mutilation of corpses, killers roaming the streets singing and playing lutes and guitars), driven by religious zeal. This kind of holy violence did not erupt in cities under Huguenot control (like La Rochelle, Montauban, and Nimes) or in Catholic places where Protestant communities were too small to have created much division (like Dijon).

The “Inquisitional Crusades” of the Eighth War: The Holy League and the Sixteen

Each of the first seven wars lasted anywhere between six months and two years. The eighth war lasted a whole 14 years (June 1584 – April 1598), and was ignited when Henry III’s younger brother Francis died, thus making his brother-in-law, the Protestant Henry of Navarre, next in line for the throne. The mere thought of a Protestant as king of France was an abomination, and the holy screeds and pamphleteer sermons of 1570 suddenly gained new relevance. If Henry of Navarre became Henry IV, that would not only end the French monarchy, but all of French Catholic culture. It was cried out that, “The death of Francis is the ruin of France”, and that actually proved quite true, as his death spawned the most devastating, and inquisitorial of the French religious wars.

The fact that the threat of a Protestant king — and the threat made real in 1589 — could trigger so much bloodbath shows the degree to which France revered its “Most Christian King”. As I read the religio-politics of the time period, to have a Protestant on the French throne would be like having a President of the United States burning the American Constitution and declaring it null and void. In this light, what unfolded isn’t terribly surprising. Immediately upon Francis’s death in 1584, Catholic nobles (led by the Guises) gathered to form the infamous Catholic League (or Holy League). The nobles were from various confraternities, and their stated mission was the full eradication of Protestantism from France, the replacement of Henry III (who had been “too soft” on Protestants at the end of wars 5-7), and to find a suitable electable king now that the House of Valois was no longer bearing fruit.

The League thus certainly perceived their fight against the Huguenots as a crusade against heresy. Their polemic followed two general arguments, as Holt says: (1) that the law of Catholicity takes priority over Salic Law (the laws of dynastic succession), and (2) that it is legitimate to oppose the authority of a king who defies God and his coronation oath (in order to protect the most Catholic kingdom against heresy). In France at this time, the specter of a Protestant king was like the specter of a nuclear bomb in the modern world. The League was terrified, and ready to fight tooth and nail.

In following year (1585) came the even more notorious organization, when groups of lay Catholics — lawyers, merchants, royal officers, and curates — began to organize in private homes and chapels throughout Paris. This Paris cell became known as the Sixteen (because it established a committee in each of the 16 quarters of Paris) and managed to channel the overwhelming orthodox feelings of the masses into a political machine that was independent of the nobles and elites, and of the city municipal authorities, and even of the crown. It was mostly a middle-class movement that appealed to the lower classes. Its announced intention was to keep France pure and the monarchy Catholic.

The Guises and other aristocrats would often clash with the Sixteen, when their interests and methods differed, but as Holt demonstrates in the book, they were all bound together as a League by their hard-line Catholic religiosity.

The tide turns against Henry III

With such zeal propelling the League, Henry III didn’t stand much chance. 1588 was the critical year, when he was forced to flee Paris. A popular uprising had raised barricades on the streets in support of the Henry, the Duke of Guise. The Sixteen then took complete control of the government, while the Guises protected the surrounding supply lines. By this time, the League was in control of a handful of towns outside Paris (notable ones being Sens, Troyes, and Auxerre).

Soon after, in July, Henry had little choice but to accept almost all the League’s demands: reaffirming the Treaty of Nemours (1585), which had stripped Protestants of every single thing they gained in the previous seven edicts. Protestantism was now banned completely. It was illegal to even be Protestant, no matter how loyal to the crown. All Protestants had to renounce their faith within six months or be exiled.

Being outplayed — and kicked out of his own capital — Henry III retaliated in a very rash manner. On December 23 he summoned Henry, Duke of Guise, and his brother the Cardinal of Guise, to his chamber in the castle at Blois. He murdered the Guises the next day, hacked their bodies to pieces, burned them to ash, and then proceeded calmly to Christmas Eve mass. If he thought he was making an effective strike against the League by killing their top-dog leaders, he was drastically mistaken.

In the immediate wake of the Guise murders, shitloads of towns rose up in support of the League, crying for the king’s blood. Even those which had previously rejected the League now embraced it: Agen, Amiens, Bourges, Dijon, Issoire, Le Mans, Nantes, Poitiers, Rouen, Toulouse, and many, many more. On top of that, the Sixteen began a purge of the Paris Parlement and other courts, replacing judges with extreme radicals. Anyone even suspected of being a moderate or having royalist sympathies was publicly hanged throughout the capital.

Henry III then resorted to something he surely never thought he would do, making a truce with his brother-in-law, Henry of Navarre. The Catholic king and Protestant heir stunningly agreed to suspend their differences for one year in order to wage war on the League that was turning France into an inquisitional bloodbath. The following year, in August 1589, both the crown (under Henry III) and the Huguenots (under Henry of Navarre) moved on Paris, but Henry III was assassinated just west of the capital before that could happen.

So Henry of Navarre was suddenly Henry IV — the first Protestant king of France. He was absolutely rejected by the League and the overwhelming majority of French citizens. It would take him five years, and renouncing his Protestant faith, before he was crowned and entered Paris, finally accepted as Rex Christianissimus. (in March 1594). During those years the League conducted a reign of inquisitional terror. The Sixteen became so extreme that during Henry IV’s siege of Paris (in 1590, which failed), some of them began to cry for overturning the monarchy altogether and establishing a Catholic republic. Most of them, however, looked to Philip II of Spain, who sent Spanish troops to keep Henry IV at bay, and to keep martial law inside of Paris.

The Edict of Nantes

After kicking Spain’s ass (1595-1598), Henry IV finally put an end to the religious wars that had ravaged France for 36 years. Holt’s discussion of the Edict of Nantes (signed on April 13, 1598) is important and counters a lot of misconceptions about the edict’s supposed provision for “religious toleration”. The edict did not introduce such a policy. It allowed for temporary religious co-existence. The provisions for Huguenots (such as allowing them to remain armed and in possession of many fortified towns) would expire in eight years. Its goal was provisional religious unity, not the toleration of differing confessions.

As Holt emphasizes, Henry IV wasn’t a modern secularist or ecumenist interested in playing “fair ball” to both sides. He was, in the end, committed to the French Gallican monarchy of his predecessors — that is, the restoration of “one king, one faith, one law”. The idea that his conversion to Catholicism was skin deep — that he was a manipulator or hypocrite for abjuring his Protestant religion — is without foundation. His subsequent efforts in encouraging nobles to return to Catholicism speaks to his sincerity. He crafted the Edict of Nantes to establish a provisional compromise, so as to put an end to bloodshed, but without giving up the principle of Catholic primacy in the long run.

Other stuff: Who were the Protestants?

Holt’s book is full of interesting information, and he starts at the beginning, in the year 1516, not 1562, to provide all the background that led up to the wars. The chambre ardente (“fire chambers”) that sent Protestants to be burned at the stake (during the reigns of Francis I and Henry II in the 1540s) is a particularly colorful account, with solid data as to the numbers of victims burned vs. those who received lighter punishments.

But who were the French Protestants to begin with? In what regions did they especially grow at the start of the 16th century, and why? When they reached their high point between 1560-1570, there were about 1200 Protestant churches in France, for a total of maybe 1,800,000 members, or roughly 10% of the population. They weren’t evenly distributed throughout the kingdom. There were a significant number north of the Loire, especially in Normandy, but most of them spanned the southern arc, from La Rochelle, down to Bordeaux and Toulouse, then over to Montpelier, and up to Lyon. This crescent of strength in Guyenne (Acquitaine/Midi Pyrenees), Languedoc, Provence, and Dauphine (Rhone-Alpes) — often broadly called the region of the Midi — was where most of the Huguenots were. (Click on the map to the left. The red and pink areas are the Protestant heavy areas.) But they never achieved more than 10% of the total population.

Protestants were especially absent in Auvergne, Burgundy, Champagne, Picardy, and Brittany — another arc which is all over the place. So obviously geography, or proximity to Geneva, had nothing to do with it. Burgundy was very close to Calvinist Geneva, yet it remained hard-core Catholic. Towns with printing presses also had nothing to do with it, despite what we often hear. With the exception of Lyon, most of the printing industry was in the north, not the south, and the hotbed of Protestantism was in the south.

Holt argues that the social geography of French Protestantism hinged more on local factors and traditions than any mono-causal determinant like language, literacy, social class, or proximity to Geneva.

For example, in Languedoc, regional autonomy seemed to play the key role. Languedoc was one of the pays d’etats provinces that had the right to convoke provincial estates to assist the crown in assessment and collection of royal taxes. (Burgundy, Brittany, Dauphine, and Provence were the other pays d’etats.) In Languedoc, the estates were in the game of expropriating church land and clerical wealth to help meet the fiscal demands of the crown. Thus, the autonomous struggle with the crown for lower taxes and fewer fiscal demands became linked to Protestantism when local bourgeois saw their survival and that of the new religion having common cause.

In the pays d’etat of Burgundy, on the other hand, the opposite happened. In that province the provincial estates, the Parlement of Dijon, and the city councils all came to perceive their regional identity as tied to the Catholic church. Burgundian economy thrived on the wine industry, and many of the lands with vineyards were owned by, or had ties to, local cathedrals, abbeys, and monasteries. The fruits of these labors were chosen by God to become Christ’s blood, and so in Burgundy’s case, unlike Languedoc’s, the regional autonomy became linked to Catholicism.

Scholars have nonetheless persisted in seeing social class as the determinant factor, parroting Henry II’s disdain for Protestant “low-life rabble” as if it were actual fact. The real fact is that in its initial stages, French Protestantism was largely an urban movement of the educated and literate.

As Holt points out, certain trades seemed to have attracted disproportionate numbers of Protestant converts: printers, booksellers, painters, jewelers, goldsmiths, manufacturers of silk cloths. In other words, trades in which literacy was an essential skill, or involved new technology or a certain amount of prestige. Meanwhile, very few were converted from the unskilled classes (butchers, bakers, vinters, weavers, etc.) Well-educated and high-status artisans were — at least initially — over-represented in the Protestant movements of cities like Rouen, Montpelier, and Lyon.

But here again, there were exceptions. In a city like Amiens (in Picardy), Protestantism was not a movement of self-assertive and literate middle classes, but rather, indeed, of the frustrated, exploited, and economically oppressed. In Amiens the bedrock of Protestantism was the city’s textile workers (especially the wool-combers and weavers), whose lives were controlled by cloth merchants. Their position was precarious, unlike the prosperous print workers in Lyon or merchants and artisans of Rouen. The reason is that Amiens was a textile center where the bulk of all artisans worked in the textile trades. Due to the size and importance of their profession to the local economy, authorities didn’t allow them to follow the normal path of corporate organization and control practiced by other craftsmen in the city. In other words, textile workers in Amiens didn’t enjoy the autonomy to regulate themselves, and so they appeared to have sought for such an identity in the reformed religion of Protestantism.

In sum, people became attracted to the Protestant movement and its doctrines based largely on provincial factors.


Holt’s book is fantastic and an essential reading for the French wars of religion. And as a post-script, he does not stop the story where most historians do, at 1598. That’s admittedly a convenient cut-off date, but there was more fighting between Catholics and Protestants that went on until 1629.

More importantly: to end the story at 1598 fuels the misleading perception that the Edict of Nantes was intended to establish a permanent settlement of co-existence between Catholics and Protestants, with significant religious toleration on both sides. To reiterate, Henry IV wasn’t so modern-thinking as that, and his intentions with the edict were actually quite the opposite. Ridding the kingdom of heresy was far more important than “playing fair ball”. The edict was a temporary settlement. The king, per his Gallican mandate, sincerely hoped that more Huguenots could be persuaded to abjure the Protestant faith, just as he had. That may not make Henry IV the most relevant hero for our time, but it makes him a very realistic hero in the 16th century.

Paul’s Holy War in Dune: Jihad or Crusade?

“There’s a crusade coming.”

Paul Atreides says that at the start of the Dune trailer, and some fans (including myself) are in varying degrees concerned. Has Denis Villeneuve pulled a “Sum of all Fears”, and catered to woke culture by censoring the idea of jihad from Frank Herbert’s story? Add to this that no Arabs were cast for the Fremen characters (Stilgar played by Javiar Bardem is Hispanic, and Chani played by Zendaya is African American), and one might wonder if Villeneuve is trying to keep Dune‘s holy war free of any implied Muslim and/or Arab association. (Which would be ironic, since other fans have been complaining about the lack of Arab representation among the cast; you can’t win with the woke crowd.) After all, it’s perfectly PC to portray barbaric warfare and devastation as the result of crusades. But leave the jihad out of it, you bigot!

In Herbert’s novels, of course, the Fremen are close analogs to Muslim Arabs. They’re a patriarchal warrior culture of the desert; they have a monopoly on a prized commodity (spice instead of oil); and their religion derives from an amalgam of religions emerging out of old Earth, the most influential being Sunni Islam. Under Paul’s messianic leadership they rise against the oppressive Corrino empire (and the Harkonnen lackeys) to lead a jihad across the galaxy — slaughtering over 60 billion people and sterilizing all life on over 90 planets. It’s a monstrous holy war that Paul agonizes over, and then rationalizes as a necessary or lesser evil, but few readers seriously buy that. The jihad results in devastation and a uniformly oppressive way of life that is far worse than anything experienced under the previous 10,000 years of Corrino rule.

By turning Paul’s jihad into a crusade, and (perhaps) leaving Arabs completely out of the cast, it looks as if Villeneuve could be trying to make a Dune adaptation that will pass the PC litmus test. If this turns out to be the case — that he has removed all references to jihad in his film for fear of stereotyping Muslims — then I will join the chorus of condemnation. But I think this is probably not the case. In Herbert’s books the term “crusade” is actually used as a loose equivalent of the jihad on a couple of occasions. Maybe the trailer just happened to include Herbert’s rare phrase instead of his common one.

But before going any further with the Dune universe, let’s review the differences and similarities between the Christian crusades and the Islamic jihad in our real world, since in reality “crusade” and “jihad” are not interchangeable.

The Christian crusades vs. the Islamic jihad

Here are the differences:

  • The crusades emerged (in the 11th century) as a response to the Islamic jihad and had no basis in the tenets of Christianity. It was a hijacking of the Christian religion. Reactively (defensively), the crusades were a long overdue counter to 300 years of jihadist warfare which had ripped away two-thirds of the Christian world, and was still pushing deeper into Christian lands. Proactively (offensively), the crusades introduced (what was for Christianity) a radical concept of sacred violence, effecting the remission of a knight’s sins for killing infidels. The profession of medieval knighthood didn’t allow for peace, and knights had been taught by monks that they led an inherently sinful life; now they were taught they could channel that sinful aggression into a sacred cause.
  • The jihad, on the other hand, under Islamic law, is derived from the Qur’an and has always been mandatory on all able-bodied male members of the Muslim community. This remains true to this day, in all four schools of Sunni Islam (Hanbali, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanafi) and Shi’ite schools as well. Unlike the crusades, the jihad takes two forms, the greater (al-jihad al-akbar) internal struggle to achieve personal purity, and the lesser (al-jihad al-asghar) military struggle to subjugate infidels (and eventually the whole world) under Islamic law. Both jihads are obligatory, the lesser as much as the greater. Unlike the Christian crusades of the medieval period, which were voluntary and non-essential to the faith, the Islamic jihad has always been a faith fundamental.

What the crusades and the jihad do have in common is the drive of religious zeal. For whatever strange reason, modern academics have difficulty accepting that people find holy war attractive on the strength of religiosity — that ideas about martyrdom and paradise can be in and of themselves psychologically rewarding, irrespective of social or economic factors. Rational people are capable of believing things which a lot of us consider crazy, especially when it comes to beliefs about the afterlife. Specifically:

  • Claims that the crusaders were mostly disenfranchised second sons disaffected with their lot in life, or that crusaders in general were colonizers intent on acquiring land abroad, are the products of dated and uninformed scholarship. Many crusaders were wealthy first-born sons, and most crusaders expected to be bankrupt by the cost of crusading, and to return home to Europe immediately after. Simply put: one did not improve one’s lot in life by going on crusade; just the opposite. Crusaders believed in the virtues of sacred violence for its own sake (despite and against the long-standing tradition of their savior’s pacifism). Holy war was a penitential act offering the warrior a way to bypass purgatory on his way to heaven. Medieval Christians were anxious about suffering in purgatory, however silly that seems to us.
  • Claims that jihadists are mostly poor and uneducated are PC fantasies. There is no correlation whatsoever between poverty and jihad. No evidence supports the idea that jihadists are unusually maladjusted, poor, or badly schooled. For jihadists, slaying infidels is a fundamental guarantee to paradise. To many Muslims — wealthy as much as poor — that is a psychologically appealing belief.

There hasn’t been a crusade in centuries. The Christian holy wars were foreordained to pass, never having a proper grounding to begin with. They had always cut against the pacifism of the New Testament, and the church knew it. Europe became more globalized and cosmopolitan, and it’s hard to do business with people while slaughtering them. (Capitalism has its faults, but religious war-mongering isn’t one of them; warfare is engaged rather for economic advantage.) In the secular state, crusading seemed archaic to secularists, religiously wrong-headed to religionists, and anti-Christian to Christians.

Jihadists, on the other hand, have remained routinely active since the 7th century, because of beliefs endemic to Islam. But no one likes to admit that for fear of stereotyping Muslims, and Islamic groups like CAIR have made a career of lobbying the movie industry to remove portrayals of jihad. Especially since The Sum of all Fears.

The Sum of all Woke Fears: Portraying Jihadists in Film

Hollywood bends over backwards for busybody groups like CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations. In 2002 the jihadist plot of Tom Clancy’s Sum of All Fears was, absurdly, turned into a neo-Nazi plot under pressure from CAIR. Obviously there are no neo-Nazis running around Europe blowing things up like Islamic jihadists are. The film was made acceptable to Hollywood sensibilities and the Arab lobby, but it was silly and unrealistic. Once you subordinate artistry to politics, you may as well quit your job as a filmmaker (Bob Kruger writes plenty about this). I never read The Sum of all Fears, but my father did, and I remember seeing the film with him, and he couldn’t believe how ridiculously the plot was changed for fears of prejudice. (And my father was a very liberal guy.)

Whether or not Villeneuve has pulled a “Sum of All Fears” in Dune is difficult to predict at this time. For now I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt. For one, he has proven himself to be a damn good filmmaker, uninterested in genuflecting at the woke altar. His masterpiece Blade Runner 2049 pissed off the PC-police for supposedly objectifying women with “porno” images and the hologram character Joi. Commendably he never flinched. I suspect we’re going to get plenty of the jihad in Dune.

But the fact is, I’m just not sure. Even the best director can bend under too much pressure, and Villeneuve has already made one casting choice that I find bewildering: the character of Liet-Kynes, who has been turned into a female, which makes no sense at all (unless you’re just trying to score woke points). Liet-Kynes is the leader of the patriarchal Fremen; making a gender swap with this role is weird to say the least.

Even if Herbert used the term “crusade” as a rare equivalent with “jihad”, it was the latter term that so obviously summed up the spirit of his epic. That’s why he used it. From the desert planet comes the jihad, sweeping across the galaxy, waged by a people whose harsh culture and beliefs mirror those of Islamists. That doesn’t make Dune a signpost to bigotry anymore than a novel like Shogun is.


Update, 10/22/21: My fears were justified. The jihad was discarded and the generic “holy war” substituted instead. On top of that, the film is a lackluster affair and underwhelming to say the least.

The Twelve Children of Paris

U.S. publishers wouldn’t touch this book, but I never understood the fuss. The Twelve Children of Paris (2013) is hyperviolent like its predecessor The Religion (2006), but in a Quentin Tarantino-like way that’s hard to take too seriously.

Tim Willocks is a serious writer though. His narratives move like juggernauts and are weighted with philosophy, and he has a gifted command of language. If his hero has a superhuman complex, the author uses it effectively to examine the worst of human nature — represented by the worst in himself.

That hero is Mattias Tannhauser, a former jihadist who left Islam to become an opium and arms merchant, and then, of all things, a crusader — a Knight of St. John fighting against the Muslim hordes at the famous Siege of Malta (1565). That story was told in The Religion. In this book he enters Paris during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572), which began as a royal stab against an elite group of Protestants but quickly degenerated into a full-blown massacre of Protestant civilians by the Paris militia.

Tannhauser has come to Paris for his wife, but learns that she has been abducted for unknown reasons. As carnage ensues, he goes on a slaughter-mission of his own, tearing up the city to find her. He still wears the cross of St. John (see book cover above), but he’ll decapitate Catholics as often as Protestants, thank you. His personal moral degeneration matches the city’s, and as a result he becomes a more believable character than the “superman” of The Religion. Most of the opposition he faces are poorly trained city militia, everyday thugs, and politically appointed knights hardly worthy of the title. In the first book he beat up his own size, or generally those who deserved it, and he joined forces against invading Muslim hordes. Now he kills without second thought people who scarcely get in his way.

His salvation, if he deserves any, comes from a group of children he rescues along the way. Some have been abused horribly, others are starving and destitute, and two are Protestant girls whose father has been burned on a pyre outside their home. The innocence of children is the thin ray of light in a city that’s become hell on earth.

If you liked The Religion, you should love The Twelve Children of Paris. What makes it controversial is what makes it a superior sequel.

The History of Jihad: A Review

This is the release week for Robert Spencer’s History of Jihad, for which I wrote an advance review back in May. I’ll repeat that preface here and then follow it with more details. The book represents the crown and summit of Spencer’s work, which he describes as follows:

“I’ve written a guide to the Qur’an and a biography of Muhammad, and with this book, the case is complete — that is, the case that there are elements within Islam that pose a challenge to free societies, and that free people need to pay attention to this fact before it is, quite literally, too late. It is necessary for me to repeat yet again that this does not mean that every individual Muslim, or any given Muslim, embodies that challenge and is posing it individually, but as this book makes clear, the Islamic jihad imperative remains regardless of whether or not any Muslim individual decides to take it up.”

History of Jihad’s value lies not only in its scope — it covers every single jihad theater, from Arabia to Persia, North Africa to Europe, Spain to India, Tel Aviv to New York City — but also its explanatory power. Spencer relies heavily on primary sources and the words of contemporary witnesses, so the reader gets a good impression of how it was to experience the jihad. Repeating without fail are cycles of brutality and piety, and the clear religious motives of the Muslims. Jihadists have always been candid about their reason for waging war — to subjugate infidels under the rule of Islam — but people in the 21st century have a hard time accepting this, and have grasped at every possible explanation except the obvious one. Studies have proven that there is no correlation between Islamic terrorism and poverty; there are as many middle-class and well-to-do jihadists as poor ones. Unlike most of human warfare, holy war is waged primarily for spiritual reward, and it operates irrespective of rational purpose. It takes the guardrails off civilization and can’t be reasoned with. This makes Spencer’s book a horror drama as much as an historical one.

It’s rare to see myths about Islam debunked so thoroughly, though we got another one recently from Dario Fernandez-Morera in The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise (2016). The reality of Islamic Spain is that there was no fruitful cooperation between faiths. The Muslims were less friendly to Jews and Christians than American Southern whites were to blacks before civil rights. In Spencer’s book, the same conclusion is drawn in all times and places:

“There is no period since the beginning of Islam that was characterized by large-scale peaceful coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims. There was no time when mainstream and dominant Islamic authorities taught the equality of non-Muslims with Muslims, or the obsolescence of jihad warfare. There was no Era of Good Feeling, no Golden Age of Tolerance, no Paradise of Proto-Multiculturalism. There has always been, with virtually no interruption, jihad.”

That may not be a controversial point to competent historians, but it’s not what most people believe or are willing to say. Pointing out that Islam is toxic wins you no friends in an age that is less concerned with truth and more with peoples’ wishes and feelings. There is also the problem of funding. Universities with departments of Islamic Studies often receive their support from places like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Muslim nations, and when you factor in the politically correct climate on campuses, scholars are almost guaranteed to promote the usual myths. Spencer’s book, like Fernandez-Morera’s, is free of those pressures. It’s the best available book now on the Islamic jihad. The only other top-notch treatment I know of is Alfred Morabia’s Le Gihad dans L’Islam Medieval (1993), but an English translation is hard to come by.

For all the attempts to isolate jihad as an inner spiritual struggle, it has always carried the unconditional requirement for sacred warfare against unbelievers. Warriors of jihad are promised the property and women of the vanquished enemy if they live, and virgins in paradise if they die. This is true in all schools of Islamic jurisprudence, as cited by Spencer in the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali sources, which in turn rely on the Qur’an and Hadith. There was never a time when the “greater” (spiritual) jihad was divorced from the “lesser” (military) one. They’re inseparable.

I’ll go through each of the book’s ten chapters and cover the highlights. That makes for a long review, but keep in mind I’m only scratching the surface of the grand opera that is The History of Jihad. Read the whole book and learn from it.

Chapter 1: The Battles of Muhammad (622-632)

There were twenty-seven Muslim battles during the time of Muhammad, but Spencer focuses on the biggies in which the Prophet was directly involved. It should be stressed that the historicity of these battles is irrelevant. They are reported in the Qur’an, the Hadith, and/or the Life of Muhammad, and to whatever degree they have been embellished (or invented, as Spencer himself believes), the fact is that most Muslims believe they happened, and all schools of Islam maintain that Muhammad is the warrior exemplar as he is portrayed in the accounts.

The prophet’s most famous jihad is the Battle of Badr (March, 624). It was the turning-point for the Muslim community, fought against Muhammad’s tribe of the Quraysh. Many Qur’an passages draw crucial lessons from it: piety is what brought the military victory (Qur’an 3:13); the angels would always help the Muslims in battle and strike terror into the hearts of their enemies (Qur’an 8:9, 12–13); the Muslims were Allah’s passive instruments at Badr (even the pebbles Muhammad threw toward the Quraysh were not thrown by him, but by Allah) (Qur’an 8:17); and future victories were guaranteed to pious Muslims even if they faced odds more prohibitive than the ones encountered at Badr (Qur’an 8:65–66). “Thus were first enunciated,” says Spencer, “what would become recurring themes of jihad literature throughout the centuries to today.”

The Muslims were then crushed in the Battle of Uhud (December, 624), but again this was spiritually instructive: it wasn’t Allah’s fault. Allah takes ownership of victories like Badr. Failures like Uhud are the result of the Muslims’ lack of courage and their lust for the things of this world (Qur’an 3:152). Allah reminded the Muslims of his help given to the them in the past when they were outnumbered, and that their piety is essential for winning battles (Qur’an 3:123–127). “The lesson was clear,” says Spencer: “the only path to success was Islam, and the cause of all failure was the abandonment of Islam. Allah promised that the Muslims would soon be victorious again, provided that they depended solely on him and rejected all accord with non-Muslims.“ (Qur’an 3:149–151)

Other jihads are covered in similar detail. The Battle of al-Khandaq (January-February 627) became known as “The Battle of the Trench”, and the Battle of Qurayza (February-March, 627) was Muhammad’s massacre of the Jews for allying with the Quraysh in the previous battle. At this point Muhammad controlled Medina, but he continued to be challenged, not least by the tribe of al-Mustaliq (Arabs related to the Quraysh), and so he led the Muslims out to crush them in the Battle of al-Mustaliq (December 627). He was victorious, and Allah granted him the wives, children and property of the slain men as booty.

Next year came the Battle of Khaybar (May-June 628), in which Muhammad subjugated the Jews near Medina. As Spencer notes, “to this day, Muslims warn Jews of impending massacres by chanting, ‘Khaybar, Khaybar. O Jews, the army of Muhammad will return’.” Muhammad finally returned to his stomping grounds in the Occupation of Mecca (January, 630), where the Quraysh people finally embraced Islam, willingly or not. He proceeded to the Kaaba and smashed the pagan idols of the city, heralding, “the Truth has come and falsehood gone” (Qur’an 17:81). The occupation was followed by two more battles which gave Muhammad complete control of Arabia.

With Arabia dominated, Muhammad planned to take jihad to the world — against the Byzantines and Persians. He wrote to Heraclius in Constantinople, threatening that if the emperor wanted to remain safe, then he should convert to Islam. Heraclius declined and the Byzantines would reap the jihad onslaught. Muhammad sent a similar letter to the Persian emperor Khosrau, who tore it to pieces. When Muhammad learned this, he called upon Allah to do the very same — to tear Khosrau and his followers to pieces. He promised Muslims that they would enjoy the fruits of jihad victories over the Byzantines and Persians: “When Khosrau perishes, there will be no more Khosrau after him, and when Caesar perishes, there will be no more Caesar after him. By Him in Whose hands Muhammad’s life is, you will spend the treasures of both of them in Allah’s cause.” (Sahih al-Bukhari  vol. 4, bk. 61, no. 3618). In 631 he sent the first raids into the Byzantine Empire, at Tabuk, and it was at this point that Allah gave Muhammad revelations scolding the Muslims who declined to go on these raids, reminding believers that those who refused to wage jihad would face terrible punishment (Qur’an 9:38-39).

Spencer then explains the jizya, or the poll tax, which is important in Islam. From this point on, Jews and Christians (the People of the Book) could be spared slaughter if they accepted Islamic rule by paying the special tax and submitting to regulations that would ensure their subordinate position: they must “pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued” (Qur’an 9:29). The jizya evolved as a matter of practicality, giving the Muslims’ their chief source of income as they waged jihad on the world, but it was also a way to keep the People of the Book “subdued” throughout the centuries, along with other humiliations. Jews and Christians could not hold authority over Muslims; they could have only menial jobs; they could not build new churches/synagogues or repair old ones (which could never be higher than the Islamic mosques in any case); they would have to make way if a Muslim approached on the street, and in some cases even wear an insignia like the Jews in Nazi Germany. While nominally protected, Jews and Christians would in practice often be abused by Muslims with impunity. Jizya was by no means a benign practice, as some myth-making histories insist. It was a mafia racketeer form of “protection”.

Chapter 2: The Great Conquests (632-711)

The era of the four “Rightly-Guided Caliphs” — Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali — is considered the first Islamic Golden Age (632-661), and a model of what an Islamic state ought to be. But as Spencer demonstrates, this age was anything but peaceful, and if these caliphs were “rightly guided”, then that’s a pretty damning indictment.

When Abu Bakr (632-634) became the first caliph he told the Muslims, “Abandon not jihad; when the people hold back from jihad, they are put to disgrace.” (Akbar Shah Najeebabadi, The History of Islam, Vol. 1; Darussalam, 2000, 276). When members of the Arabian tribes abandoned Islam after Muhammad’s death, Abu Bakr declared, per Muhammad’s instructions, that “whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him” (Sahih al-Bukhari, vol. 9, bk. 88, no. 6922; cf. vol. 4, bk. 56, no. 3017). He sent his best warrior, Khalid ibn al-Walid, to subdue the apostates and bring them back to the Islamic religion, and to kill those who refused. Then the caliph sent Khalid to conquer Iraq (at the time part of Sassanid Persia), and in May 633 Khalid told the Sassaniad governor to accept Islam, or pay the jizya, or “we will bring against you a people who love death more than you love drinking wine” (Al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, vol. 11, The Challenge to the Empires; State University of New York Press, 1993, 6). As Spencer says, this triple choice — conversion to Islam, subjugation under the rule of Islam, or war — is still the way of Islamic law today. Khalid defeated the Persians in many jihads, and praised Allah for granting him the victories.

Then came Umar (634-644), who made the Arabs into a global jihad force. By his death in 644, the Muslims had demolished the Sassaniad Empire and weakened the Byzantine. The jihad began in Syria in 636, with Muslims reciting the eighth chapter of the Qur’an known as “The Spoils of War”. Then they expelled Christians in Yemen from Arabia, fulfilling Muhammad’s dying words, “If Allah wills, I will expel the Jews and the Christians from the Arabian peninsula.” They attacked the Persians, with Umar justifying it on grounds of making Islam triumph over all other religions (Qur’an 9:33, 48:28, 61:9) (Al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, vol. 11, 173). When the Persians asked why the Muslims had come to attack them, one warrior said, “If you kill us, we shall enter Paradise; if we kill you, you shall enter the Fire, or hand over the poll tax.” (Al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, vol. 12, The Battle of al-Qadisiyyah and the Conquest of Syria and Palestine; State University of New York Press, 1992, 32). They finally took the Persian capital of Ctesiphon, and replaced the emperor’s throne with a pulpit, declaring there was no god but Allah. The Arabs also took Jerusalem in 636, and Umar made a pact with the Jerusalem patriarch, in which the Christians were not allowed to build new churches, carry arms, or ride on horses, and had to pay the jizya in order to receive “protection” (in the mafia sense, of course) to practice their religion. The jihad then continued in Egypt in 639, leaving calamities in its wake. Then Armenia in 642. By 644, the Arabs controlled much of Syria and the Levant, and most of Persia and Egypt. In all cases, as Spencer shows, “the ability to gain and retain political power was directly tied to one’s obedience to Allah and Islam.” It was holy war all the way.

Uthman (644-656) took the jihad to the high seas. One of his commanders Muawiya invaded Cyprus in 649, defeated the Byzantines on the island, and imposed the jizya; then they invaded and subjugated Rhodes as well. Muawiya was then appointed governor of Syria by Uthman, and he wrote to the Byzantine emperor Constantine “the Bearded” in 651, calling on him to renounce Christianity “or else”. Revolts in Africa were crushed, and it was during this time that Uthman compiled the Qur’an as we know it today. He began the process in the early 650s after a Muslim named Hudhaifa bin al-Yaman warned him that Muslims were in danger of becoming like the Jews and Christians (Sahih al-Bukhari, vol. 6, bk. 65, no. 4784). Uthman was assassinated in 656 by some Muslims who rebelled against his rule, accusing him of the sin of bid’a (innovation), in other words changing some of the Muslim practices.

The last “Rightly Guided” Caliph was Ali (656-661), who came under attack from an internal jihad, launched by Muhammad’s favorite wife Aisha. She hated Ali, because when Muhammad was alive she had been accused of adultery, and Ali had advised Muhammad to have her stoned to death. Aisha now organized an armed revolt against the caliph, enlisting the help of Muawiya, the jihad exemplar under Uthman. She demanded of others who were also enraged by Uthman’s assassination: “Seek revenge for the blood of Uthman, and you will strengthen Islam!” (Al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, vol. 16, The Community Divided; State University of New York Press, 1997, 39). She was defeated at the Battle of the Camel in Basra (656), leading her jihad from the back of a camel.

Muawiya (661-680) founded the Umayyad dynasty, and as caliph he basically continued where he left off under Uthman’s rule, ordering the construction of a fleet to sail against Constantinople in 670. The Arabs had demolished the Persian Empire, and they were hell-bent on doing the same to the Byzantines. Muhammad had promised that “the first army amongst my followers who will invade Caesar’s city [Constantinople] will be forgiven their sins.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, vol. 4, bk. 56, no. 2924). As Spencer says, this statement was obviously put into Muhammad’s mouth long after the siege of Constantinople, but there is no doubt it reflected a sacred aspiration that those early jihadis shared. And the jihad proceeded elsewhere — in Crete, North Africa, central Asia, and into Afghanistan.

By making the caliphate into a family dynasty (the Umayyads), Muawiya set off a civil war which came to a head when his son Yazid (680-683) became the caliph. The second son of Ali, Husayn, refused to accept Yazid’s authority, and led a revolt against Yazid’s forces. Both sides justified their fighting by declaring the other not Muslims, which remains the tactic to this day for Muslims who wage jihad on their own kin. Husayn was killed, but his followers still refused to accept Yazid’s authority, and the split in the Muslim community became permanent: the Sunnis (under Yazid) and the Shi’ites (who had revolted under Husayn) went their separate ways forever, and would wage jihad on each other with the same zeal they dished out on non-Muslims.

Jihad efforts continued over the next 30 years, primarily in North Africa. Then came two momentous campaigns which took the jihad to Spain and India, in the same fateful year of 711.

Chapter 3: The Jihad Comes to Spain and India (711-900)

Islamic history has been especially distorted in Spain (Al-Andalus), and Spencer’s corrective is a gale of fresh air. The complete corrective, as I mentioned at the start, is found in The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise. That book was written (shockingly) by a Harvard scholar, Dario Fernandez-Morera, who utterly demolished the idea that al-Andalus was some kind of multicultural paradise where Jews and Christians lived in fruitful harmony with their Muslim overlords. Jews and Christians were pariah, like blacks in the American South before civil rights. Al-Andalus was a violent society for everyone; Muslims killed each other for power and treated Jews and Christians like dirt.

We’re often told there is little difference between the Muslim invasion of Spain in the eighth century and the Visigoth takeover of Spain in the fifth — or for that matter, between any of the Muslim conquests and “typical” military invasions that happened anywhere. But there’s a big difference. The Visigoths hadn’t been driven by their religious faith to conquer Spain; they didn’t force people to convert or submit and pay a tax designed to humiliate them as second-class citizens; they didn’t spread their Arian Christian religion at all. Like the other Germanic tribes in Europe, the Visigoths did everything in their power to preserve Roman civilization, where the Arabs destroyed it (as they had in places like Alexandria) in religious fervor.

Spencer describes that fervor, and the brutal treatment of the conquered people. Christians retained small dominions in the north, and the ongoing battles between them and the jihad invaders would become legendary. In 732 the jihad pressed into France led by the al-Andalus governor, and confronted Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours. Some historians judge this to be the most important battle in world history, because Martel’s victory probably stopped the complete Islamization of Europe. Spencer points out the one European who was disappointed by this outcome: Adolf Hitler. The Fuhrer declared:

“Had Charles Martel not been victorious — already, you see, the world had fallen into the hands of the Jews, so gutless a thing was Christianity! — then we should in all probability have been converted to Mohammedanism, that cult which glorifies heroism and which opens the seventh heaven to the bold warrior alone. Then the Germanic races would have conquered the world. Christianity alone prevented them from doing so.” (Hitler’s Table Talk 1941–1944, translated by Norman Cameron and R. H. Stevens; Enigma Books, 2000, 667)

(For Hitler, Islam was a “religion of men”, and much more suited to the Germanic spirit than the “Jewish filth and priestly twaddle of Christianity”.)

But if things went badly for the jihad in France, they escalated back home in Spain when the Umayyad dynasty at Baghdad fell to the Abbassids in 750. The Umayyad prince Abd al-Rahman fled for his life and came to al-Andalus, founded the Emirate of Cordoba, and continued jihad warfare against the Christians in northern Spain.

Spencer also covers India, which is nice since the Hindus tend to get ignored in holy-war histories. The Hindus (and Jains and Buddhists) suffered tremendously under Muslim rule. The jihad commander Muhammad ibn Qasim brought slaughter and forced conversions and the destruction of Hindu temples over a four year period, until he was killed by the Abbasid caliph in 715.

The reason Ibn Qasim was killed is rather hilarious, though there are two different accounts: one in the Chachnama (a history of India written in the 7th-8th centuries), the other from Al-Baladhuri (a 9th century historian). The former has him killed by Caliph al-Walid for daring to send al-Walid sex slaves that he had already raped himself; the latter has him killed by al-Walid’s successor Sulayman for daring to dispute Sulayman’s right of succession. Spencer follows the earlier account, which is probably the more reliable: After decimating regions in the Sindh (today’s eastern Pakistan) and massacring Hindus, Ibn Qasim sent treasure and booty from the temples back to the caliph, along with two choice sex slaves (the daughters of the Sindhi king Dahir). As al-Walid was about to rape one of the girls, she panicked and told him that she had already been raped by Ibn Qasim. Al-Walid was enraged that his own general had dared to send him sloppy seconds, and immediately ordered that Ibn Qasim — despite his massive victories in India for the glory of Allah — be sewn up into a rawhide sack and shipped back to his court. By the time the sack arrived, the general was suffocated, which was probably just as well for him, given the caliph’s fury.

The upshot of this is that the jihad was put on hold in India because its general had the audacity to rape the slaves he sent as a gift to the caliph. But the respite wouldn’t last. The jihad in India later resumed, and would carry on for over 1100 years.

There’s plenty more in this chapter — there were jihads galore throughout the 8th and 9th centuries — not least the second siege of Constantinople, launched in 717 (the first was Muawiya’s in 670). Later under the Abbasids, Caliph Harun al-Rashid waged no less than eight jihads against the Byzantine empire, though as Spencer notes, we never hear of these because this caliph has been hyper-romanticized for patronizing the arts and medicine: “History does not record how many Christians and other non-Muslims this most enlightened of caliphs subjected to lives of slavery and degradation, or to immediate death. No one at his opulent court looked askance at this: It was the will of Allah.”

Chapter 4: Consolidation (900-1095)

The jihad was relatively quiet during the 900s, but as Spencer emphasizes, this wasn’t because there was any Islamic reform or reconsideration of Muhammad’s commands. It was simply because the Muslims were preoccupied with fighting among themselves and lacked the resources for lengthy campaigns abroad. Noteworthy is the Shi’ite Fatmid dynasty that came to power at this time, taking over Algeria and other places in the early 900s until they established the seat of the Shi’ite caliphate at Cairo in 969. The Sunni Abbasids at Baghdad weren’t pleased.

But there was one place in the 10th century where the jihad didn’t stop: Spain. That wonderful “multicultural paradise” (so we’ve been told) saw a revving up of jihad, when the Umayyad rulers (who had come in 750, fleeing the Abbasids) decided to upgrade their emirate into a caliphate of their own. The Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba would last until 1031, and the first caliph, Abd al-Rahman III (929-961), wasted no time launching a jihad against Christians in the north.

Spencer describes Abd al-Rahman III as a “scrupulous doctrinaire Muslim ruler”, and cites a contemporary historian, who indeed paints a ruthless portrait. The caliph punished the slightest innovation in Islamic doctrine, and filled the mosques with his spies in order to “penetrate the most intimate secrets of the people, so that he could know every action, every thought, of good and bad people”. He carried out an inquisition (long before the Christian inquisitions started in the 1180s) to terrify and punish wayward Muslims. He tortured and killed Christian prisoners for dramatic effect, in one case lining up 100 captives in the orchard of the Cordoba castle, where they were decapitated one by one, so that the Muslims in attendance felt empowered by Allah. In another instance, he crucified 300 of his own officers for their failure in a jihad against the Christians. As Spencer reminds us, the Qur’an prescribes crucifixion as a punishment for those who “make war on Allah” (5:33), and Abd al-Rahman III thought his officers had “made war on Allah” by incompetently mismanaging the jihad and giving the Christians an easy victory.

And yet Abd al-Rahman III wasn’t the worst ruler of this period. Almanzor (981-1002) showed him up by waging almost 60 jihads, and was known for commanding that the dust on his clothes be collected after each battle against the Christians so that he could be buried under the glorious dust when he died. Spencer describes his activities at length, and they make for some ghastly reading.

Then he discusses the Jews of al-Andalus, who often had it even worse than Christians. The myth of Jewish privilege in Islamic Spain has become entrenched in academia. It’s true that there were “favored” Jews who were appointed as court physicians and viziers, because Muslim rulers found them easy to control as dhimmis (second-class citizens). This sort of thing happens in many other times and places. Hernando Cortes exploited the Tlaxcalan Indians in his struggle against the Aztecs, and yet no one ever dreams of trying to pass off Cortes’ policy as a Christian Spaniard “tolerance” for the Tlaxcalan way of life or their religious beliefs or even relative good will. Nor should we resort to fantasies about a supposed Islamic tolerance for the Jews of al-Andalus. The caliphs never called their Jewish physicians and viziers “allies” in any case, but rather “servants”, since the Qur’an demonized Jews even worse than Christians. The Muslim masses demonized them too, which is why pogroms and assassinations broke out in al-Andalus — in 1013 (when the Jews were expelled from Cordoba), 1039 (when the Jewish vizier of Zaragoza was assassinated by a Muslim mob), and in 1066 (when the Jews of Granada were killed).

That last slaughter was brought on because of the favors shown to Samuel ibn Naghrila, a Jew who had become an extremely powerful vizier of Granada. He was allowed to command Muslim armies — the direst of blasphemies. Samuel Ibn Naghrila is the classic case held up by liberals to promote the multiculturalist theory of the Andalusian paradise, which is absurd since he was the exception proving the rule. As Spencer says, the Muslims in Granada knew Islamic law perfectly well, and their resentment eventually built to the point that they took to the streets and killed 4000 Jews, crucifying Samuel’s son Joseph Ibn Naghrila.

Spencer then turns to the final chapter of 11th century Spain: the invasion of the Almoravids. When the caliphate fell in 1031, al-Andalus broke up into small taifa kingdoms, and the elite courts of the kings into a decadent lifestyle decried by the Muslim clerics. When King Alfonso VI of Castile and Leon captured Toledo in 1085, the taifas desperately called for help from the Almoravid Muslims in North Africa, which was a rather stupid move. The Almoravids were a fundamentalist Berber dynasty, and they hated the taifas as much as they hated the Christians they were being called on to crush. No matter: they would bring jihad to al-Andalus and dominate the taifas so that pure Islam would reign supreme. And while they succeeded in doing this, and stopping the Christian momentum — taking control of the southern half of Spain in a series of battles between 1086-1094 — the Christians also took back more territory in the north that they hadn’t controlled since prior to the jihad invasion of 711. Spencer is right that this whole situation was unprecedented:

“The forces of jihad had never had this much trouble holding a territory they had conquered for Islam, and seldom, if ever, would again. Even as the Almoravids united the taifas under their rule and continued to wage jihad against the Christians, the Muslims were still on the defensive. The Christians were determined not to let Spain be Islamized, and they kept pushing against the Muslim domains.” (p 129)

The figure of El Cid became a particular thorn in the Almoravid side, and the Spanish reconquest foreshadowed the crusades which were a breath away.

Spencer doesn’t have much to say about the Almoravid hatred for the taifas, and he omits one of my favorite accounts, that of Al-Mu’tamid, the taifa king of Seville. When warned by his courtiers that the Almoravids were the greater of two evils — that they would treat the taifa kings far worse than the reconquering Christians would — Al-Mu’tamid retorted that he would “rather be a camel driver in Morocco than a swineherd in Castile”. And for his loyalty to Islam he was “rewarded” by being made captive by the Almoravids and tortured. No camel driving career for him.

The chapter also gives heavy attention to India, starting with Mahmud of Ghazni, who transformed the city of Ghazna into the capital of an empire that covered most of today’s Afghanistan, eastern Iran, and Pakistan. He did this by waging relentless jihad against the Indian subcontinent and plundering its wealth over a 30-year period. When the Abbasid Caliphate recognized him in 999 and granted him the title of sultan, he had pledged to wage a jihad against India every year; it ended up being seventeen lengthy and brutal jihads. Contemporary historians paint a grim picture of the way he terrorized non-Muslims, and Spencer cites one who wrote that Mahmud converted thousands of Hindu temples into mosques to demonstrate the superiority of Islam, and paraded captive Indian rulers through the streets of vanquished cities so that “the fear of Islam might fly abroad through the country of the infidels”. According to another, Mahmud and his jihadis were completely merciless, such that blood filled the rivers so no one could drink from them, and this was a sign of Allah’s favor on the Muslims: “Victory was gained by God’s grace, who has established Islam forever as the best of religions.”

When Mahmud died in 1030, he had made huge gains for Islam in the Punjab and Sindh, and also some in Kashmir and Gujarat. His son Masud picked up where he left off, but in 1037 his jihads were interrupted when the Seljuk Turks came to power and attacked Masud’s western domains. Naturally, the setback would only be temporary.

Speaking of those Seljuks, there were two critical events occurring in 1054 and 1055. In the first year, the Latin and Greek churches excommunicated each other, and as Spencer says, their disunity would make things much easier on the jihad warriors in centuries to come. In the second year, the Seljuks took Baghdad and made virtual puppets of the Abbasids, who granted the Seljuk leaders the title of sultan, just as they had granted Mahmud of Ghazni the title back in 999. And when the Seljuks pressed into modern day Turkey, defeating the Byzantines at the disastrous battle of Manzikert in 1071, the Greeks appealed in desperation to the Latins… who made a shocking and unprecedented response.

Chapter 5: Opposing the Jihad: The Crusades (1095-1291)

Spencer’s treatment of the crusades is better than most, and his views align more closely with scholars who write about the crusades than most people (especially politicians) who speak about them. His picture isn’t complete, but it’s certainly not wrong.

We often hear that the crusades were the starting point of the world’s Christian-Muslim conflict (thus Bill Clinton), and that they were as morally reprehensible as the jihad (thus Barack Obama). Neither is true. Muhammad was the starting point of the world’s Christian-Muslim conflict, when he looked beyond Arabia and set his sights on subjecting the world; his “Rightly Guided” Caliphs made good on that vision, bringing jihad to the Christian empire. As for the crusades being equivalent to the jihad, the comparison fails. Jihad has always been mandatory in Islam (in all four Sunni schools, and Shi’ite too); the crusades were voluntary and never essential to Christian faith. Jihad is a core tenet; the crusades were a radical development and transitory, and the pacifism in Christ’s teachings made them hard to justify theologically. Like the jihad, the crusades were holy wars — divinely approved wars that earned spiritual reward — but that says nothing as to the reasons they were waged.

Spencer is no blind apologist for the crusades. He doesn’t soft-peddle crusader atrocities, especially when it comes to the Jewish pogroms. (Which were a perversion of crusading in any case: the church never proclaimed or endorsed crusades against Jews.) He notes that warfare never allows any side to claim a moral high ground, even a side with better intentions. But there were in fact better intentions on the Christian side. As Spencer’s chronicle makes clear, the crusades were defensive counters to to the jihad threat, and resulted in a great achievement: from the time Pope Urban II called the First Crusade in 1095 to the fall of the Crusader states in 1291, there were no jihad forays into Europe; the Reconquest in Spain continued to reduce the size of Islamic al-Andalus, on the strength of the crusading ideal. Spencer’s point has made by secular historians:

“If the Crusades had never been attempted at all, it is quite possible that the warriors of jihad would have overrun all of Europe, and the subsequent history of the world would have taken a drastically different course. Instead, Europe experienced the High Middle Ages, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, and the foundations of modern society were laid.”

There is however an important dimension to the crusades lacking in Spencer’s treatment, and one that would have strengthened his case. Yes, the crusades were defensive wars, and in that sense reactive; but they were also the outcome of frustrated reformist agendas, and in that sense proactive. After all, the Latins could have easily responded to the Byzantine plea with the standard military aid. Why the crusades? Why holy war? Why the radical step — so radical it contradicted everything fundamental about Jesus’ teachings and Christian theology — of making warfare sacred, and not simply to fend off invasion but take back Palestine?

The crusades only make sense in the context of the medieval papal reforms. The 10th century had been the most tumultuous in French history, with nobles warring on each other, sometimes right next door. The church addressed this problem by proclaiming the Peace of God in the late 980s, and then reinforcing it with the Truce of God in the 1020s. The Peace required knights to protect the weak and the poor and the defenseless, while the Truce prohibited them from any fighting period on Thursdays and Fridays, and special feasts and holy seasons. Violations of either the Peace or Truce carried the threat of excommunication. These were very commendable pacifist strategies, but telling a warrior not to fight was like telling a monk not to pray — an epic fail. The Peace and Truce movements saw revivals throughout the eleventh century, especially in the 1080s, always to failure though not for lack of trying. The church fought violence tooth and nail, in view of its savior’s pacifism, but the profession of a medieval knight couldn’t accommodate it.

Urban II’s call for holy war in 1095 thus came as a godsend to Christian knights. It accomplished what the Peace and Truce movements tried in vain. It was the antidote to Augustine’s theory of a just war (which was “justified but evil”) which only exacerbated knightly guilt. By reversing the morality of violence — by making bloodshed sacred under the right conditions — knights could freely be themselves. As warriors they could “kill for Christ” and have their sins remitted, enabling them to bypass suffering in purgatory. “If you must have blood,” said Urban, “bathe in the blood of the infidels. You who have been the terror of your fellow men, go and fight against the Muslims.” Urban exported knightly violence abroad, in a defensive service, and in the words of a medieval preacher, “By this kind of warfare, people make their way to heaven who perhaps would never reach it by another road.” Perverse theology, but perhaps a necessary evil in a period of encroaching jihadis and undisciplined Christian knights.

I often say the crusades wouldn’t have happened if not for these intersecting factors — centuries of Islamic invasions, decades of knightly guilt, and a particularly ambitious pope who saw a way to exploit the former to solve the latter. Remove any of the three legs, and no crusades. They cut entirely against the grain of Christian thought, and it’s a wonder they were born at all. I’m not saying that Spencer would object to what I’m saying here, only that the full picture doesn’t quite emerge in his treatment of the crusades.

But nothing he says is wrong. His assessment of Saladin is bang on: “Saladin is to individual Muslims what al-Andalus is to Muslim polities”, a figure who has become whitewashed for modern consumption. He cites contemporary views of the Assassins, and how the Old Man of the Mountain got his recruits high on hashish to make them experience paradise. And he covers other exciting stuff up to Latin Kingdom’s final days in 1291.

Then he brings us back to Spain, where we find the Almohads ousting the Almoravids in 1147 — just as the Almoravids had done to the taifa kings in the late 11th century. Like the Almoravids, the Almohads were fundamentalist Berbers, but they were even more hard-core. Not only did they wage jihad, they established inquisitions to smoke out apostates, kidnap Jewish children and raise them as Muslims. It’s no accident that the Catholic inquisitions (starting in the 1180s) were launched in the wake of trials and tortures committed by the Islamic Almohads. That doesn’t excuse the church (unlike the crusades, the inquisitions are a complete stain on Catholic reputation), but it does suggest a causal connection: Muslims had the first inquisitions, and the church might not have otherwise gotten the idea for their own. By a century later, however, in 1249, the Reconquest had expelled the Almohads from everywhere except Granada.

Over in India, meanwhile, we see the jihad revived between 1191-1202 under Sultan Muhammad Ghori, who massacred the Rajputs and other Hindus out of fervor against Hindu idolatry. A contemporary describes Ghori’s reign thus: “He purged by his sword the land of the Hind from the filth of infidelity and vice, and freed the whole of that country from the thorn of God-plurality and the impurity of idol worship.” The jihad went on to the end of the 13th century, and Spencer’s documentation makes clear, as always, the driving motivation for the slaughter and destruction being religious zeal.

Chapter 6: The Jihad Advances into Europe (1291-1492)

This chapter focuses on the decline and fall of the Byzantines. They were by now essentially vassals of the Muslims who pressed the jihad and seized more territory — Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Crotatia, etc. — and of course, finally, Constantinople in 1453.

The highlight of the chapter comes in watching the Latins and Greeks, rather incredibly, making themselves so helpful to the encroaching Muslims. In 1339, the Byzantine Emperor Andronicus III sent a monk to meet Pope Benedict XII and appeal for an ecumenical council to heal the schism between the churches, and for a new crusade against the invading Ottomans. It was an elegant and moving appeal, but the pope sent back an insulting refusal, evidently unfazed by the prospect of the Byzantines getting their asses kicked and jihadis advancing deeper into Europe. Spencer opines that “not until the days of Pope Francis would the See of Rome have an occupant more useful to the jihad force than Benedict XII.”

Exactly a century later (1439) it was the Greek’s turn for stupidity. A council convened in Florence for another attempt to reunite the Latins and Greeks. The Byzantine delegation was so desperate for help against the Muslim assaults, that it caved in on every single theological issue that had divided the churches since 1054, and agreed to accept the authority of the pope. But one of the Byzantine bishops rebelled, and since he spoke for most of the Byzantines back east, the resolution at Florence essentially went nowhere. It was the Byzantine megadux (commander in chief of the navy), Lukas Notaras, who summed up the popular opinion: “Better the turban of the Sultan than the tiara of the Pope.” He would regret that idiotic statement in more ways than one. Not only did the Muslims sack and conquer Constantinople 14 years later, Lukas Notaras himself was cruelly victimized by the jihadis: as the city was smoking, the Sultan Mehmet demanded Notaras’ 14-year old son for sexual favors; Notaras refused, enraging the sultan so much that he beheaded Notaras’ son, and also his brother in law and father, and had all three heads placed on his banquet table. One could safely assume that Notaras would have given anything at that moment for the “tiara of the Pope”.

In hindsight it seems baffling that the Christians could be this suicidal, but inter-familial fighting often blindsides people to the greater threats from outsiders. We see this today, for example, when western people denounce each other for daring to use the wrong pronoun in referring to a transgendered person, or for expressing mild degrees of homophobia, but then fall completely silent when it comes to the Islamic killing of gays (for fear of sounding “Islamophobic”) and even go so far as to call people racist when they speak out against such hard-core homophobia.

The chapter has a good section on the Janissaries, the sultan’s elite troops formed in 1359, consisting of young men who had been seized as boys from their Christian families, enslaved, and forcibly converted to Islam. As much as twenty percent of the Christian children in areas of the Ottoman Empire filled this crack fighting force. The boys who chose Islam (if they didn’t, they were slain) got rigorous military training, and became invaluable to the jihad effort. All of this, as Spencer notes, was in full accordance with Islamic law.

Spencer also relates the account of Vlad Dracula (as how can a horror-history be complete without him?), the infamous ruler of Wallachia who in 1461 had commendably refused to pay the jizya and rejected Ottoman rule. Not so commendably, he invaded Bulgaria and impaled 23,000 Turks on stakes. The Sultan Mehmet marched to the Wallachian capital — and found 20,000 more of his impaled Turks waiting for him. Enraged, he eventually drove Vlad into exile. It remains a colorful chapter in history of the jihadis getting a dose of their own bloodthirsty medicine.

The chapter proceeds to the relentless jihad assaults in India, as the few remaining Hindu temples were demolished in various regions; ruthless oppression was the norm throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. And it ends appropriately in Spain, in the year 1492, when the last Muslims were expelled from Granada; after 781 years, the most successful large-scale resistance to jihad had succeeded. And Christopher Columbus sailed west, commissioned to search for a new westward sea route to Asia. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 had made the trade routes to the East too dangerous (European merchants were being enslaved and killed by the Muslims), and Columbus’ voyage was an attempt to find a western sea route to India and China.

Chapter 7: The Ottomans and Mughals in Ascendance (1492-1707)

Inter-Christian fighting often aided the jihad cause, and one of the lead offenders was the lead reformer. Martin Luther hated the Catholic church so much that he said the papacy was worse than the Ottoman caliphate, and that “to fight against the Turk is the same thing as resisting God” (On war against the Turk, 1528). Spencer cites Luther at length:

“The Pope, with his followers, commits a greater sin than the Turk and all the Heathen. The Turk forces no one to deny Christ and to adhere to his faith. Though he rages most intensely by murdering Christians in the body, he after all does nothing by this but fill heaven with saints. The Pope does not want to be either enemy or Turk. He fills hell with nothing but ‘Christians’. This is committing real spiritual murder and is every bit as bad as the teaching and blasphemy of Mohammed and the Turks. But whenever men do not allow him to practice this infernal diabolical seduction, he adopts the way of the Turk, and commits bodily murder too. The Turk is an avowed enemy of Christ. But the Pope is not. He is a secret enemy and persecutor, a false friend. For this reason, he is all the worse!” (Works, Weimar ed.)

As Spencer notes, “Luther’s broadside was one of the earliest examples of what was to become a near-universal tendency in the West: the downplaying of jihad atrocities and their use in arguments between Westerners to make one side look worse.” Indeed, modern liberals take a page out of Luther’s playbook when they downplay elements of Islam (jihad, sharia, female genital mutilation, etc.) to make western arrogance and imperialism the so-called “greater evil”.

Rude reality, however, makes at least some people come to their senses, and to his credit, Luther eventually approved the crusades against the Ottomans. The jihadists went on their usual offensives, seizing the island of Rhodes (1522), and then moving against Hungary (1526) with clear designs on Austria (Vienna) which they failed to take. Spencer covers all the jihads throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as the crusades which countered them, like the famous Battle of Lepanto in 1571 which saw a rare victory for Christian Europeans. More jihads came against Cyprus, Shi’ite Persia, Hungary again, Crete, and Poland. Finally, in 1683, Mehmet IV set the jihad against Vienna, but thanks to the intervention of the Polish King Jan Sobieski, the jihadis were defeated. After this, the jihad wouldn’t return to the heart of Europe for a long time.

Meanwhile in India, the Mughul Empire brought the Delhi sultanate to its knees in 1526, and would stay for three centuries. The Hindus had it just as bad as before, and Spencer details the horrors throughout the 1500s and 1600s. The most colorful and revealing part of this section is the reign of Akbar the Great (1556-1605), who became apostate. He started by abolishing the jizya (a radical departure from Islam), which the Hindus loved him for, and then in 1580 started banning the mention of Muhammad in public prayers. He still favored the expression Allahu Akbar, but only because “Akbar” was his own name; from that point on, the phrase took on a double meaning: “God is greater”, and “Akbar is Allah” — people were to prostrate themselves to Akbar himself. He then proclaimed his new Divine Religion (Din Ilahi), introducing practiced derived from Hinduism, Jainism, and Christianity. The jihads stopped, and the Hindus could breathe. Other Muslims howled in fury and declared Akbar an apostate who should be killed, but his military might kept him safe. When he died in 1605, his new (and obviously much more benign) religion died with him, and the jihad returned.

What makes the case of Akbar so striking, as Spencer says, is that it took a sultan’s departure from Islam to give the Hindus any respite from jihad attacks and ruthless oppression. That speaks volumes.

Chapter 8: Deterioration (1707-1900)

As the Ottomans in Europe and the Mughuls in India both weakened, jihad declined. But they still did what they could for “the glory of Allah” throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. As late as 1894, the Ottomans led a particularly nasty jihad against the Armenians, massacring the population, killing even the children, and burning the Armenian villages.

Spencer explains the key date of 1856, when events dovetailed to result in the best case scenario for Jews and Christians living in Muslim lands. The weakened Ottoman Empire needed help in its conflict with Russia over Crimea, and the British and French governments agreed to help them, but only if the sultan agreed to abolish the dhimma — the “contract of protection”, or mafia-racketeer practice, for Jews and Christians living under Islamic rule, which had been the way of Islam since the seventh century. In return for the privilege of practicing their religion, Jews and Christians accepted the discriminatory and humiliating regulations: they had to pay the jizya, they could not hold authority over Muslims, they could have only menial jobs, they could not build new churches/synagogues or repair old ones, they had to step off a sidewalk if a Muslim approached, and in some cases even wear distinctive dress. If they did all this and they were lucky, they wouldn’t be harmed or abused.

The Ottomans agreed to abolish the dhimma in 1856, which was a momentous step. Jews and Christians were still not equal citizens (this remains true to this day: there is no Muslim-majority country in which Jews and Christians have equal rights with Muslims.) But after 1856, Christians in Turkey did attain a measure of improved living conditions. This soon led to the abolition of the dhimma in Egypt, and then later in the 20th century to the secular Arab nationalist regimes that followed the collapse of the Ottoman empire after World War I; these were also better in general for Jews and Christians. But Islam was never reformed, and whenever the secular Arab nationalist regimes were later toppled (like in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt), Islamic law became enforced, and the same dhimma provisions came into play again. Christians found themselves suddenly persecuted, required to pay the jizya and live in a state of subordination; and if they resisted or rebelled, then they were infidels at war with Islam and should be legally killed.

That’s what’s deceptive. Getting rid of the dhimma in 1856 didn’t equate to any reform. The Ottomans were forced to get rid of it by western powers, but it remained mandatory in all schools of Islamic law. And it’s much easier to reassert what’s still in force than to reform the odious practice when it is reasserted.

Over in India, the Hindus were attacked sporadically throughout these centuries, until in 1857 (one year after the abolition the dhimma in Ottoman lands), the British captured Delhi and ended the Mughul Empire, and Islamic rule in India, for good. Though even now there were dying gasps of the jihad, as Muslim clerics issued fatwas against the British colonials, which went on until 1883.

But as the Ottomans and Mughuls deteriorated, the jihad broke out in two other theaters. First was the Wahhabi revolt in Arabia in the 1740s, a fundamentalist reform movement like the earlier Almohads in North Africa and Spain. Spencer describes the jihads led against local authorities in Arabia, and the Wahhabi advances made throughout the two centuries, until, like the Ottomans and Mughuls, their fate intersected with the British — but in their case, to their advantage. The British saw the Wahhabis as a means to destroy the Ottomans, and so in 1865 put the Saud family on the imperial payroll. This would spell consequences in the future, and as Spencer says, “once again, the short-sighted calculations of non-Muslim politicians practicing realpolitik ended up aiding the global jihad”.

Second were the Barbary Wars, of which the newly formed United States got an unpleasant taste. American trade ships sailing into the Mediterranean were suddenly assaulted by Muslim pirates, and those taken hostage were tortured and wrote letters home begging the U.S. government and family members to pay the ransoms. Thomas Jefferson (at that time a delegate to Europe, before his presidency) was stunned at the unprovoked attacks, and demanded to know why the Barbary States were doing this. Tripoli’s (Libya’s) response came from Sidi Haji Abdrahaman Adja (the administrator of Tripoli’s ambassador) in 1786, when he met in London with Jefferson and John Adams. Spencer cites Abdrahaman’s response:

“Tripoli was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, and written in their Qur’an, that all nations who should not have answered [Islamic] authority were sinners, that it was the Muslim right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Muslim who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”

In other words, they were just doing as Muhammad commanded: Muslims are obligated to wage war on all nations who don’t acknowledge Islamic rule, and to make slaves of their prisoners; and Muslims who die in battle for this cause are guaranteed the rewards of paradise. All those reasons sound exactly like modern ISIS or Al-Qaeda manifestos, and they may as well be. But this was in the days when America didn’t even have a foreign policy yet, never mind a foreign policy that could piss off Islamic nations enough to “bring jihad down on itself”. The frequent claim that jihad is born of political grievances is refuted by examples like this. Jihadists may well have political grievances in some cases (whether real or imagined), but they never need them to follow the Islamic imperative.

So in this era, the British crippled the Ottomans and ended the Mughuls, and exploited the (even more dangerous) Wahhabis to what they thought was their advantage. And the U.S. got its first taste of Islam.

Chapter 9: Resurgence (1900-2001)

“The twentieth century,” says Spencer, “was the age of the defensive jihad.” With no more caliphate after 1924 (when the Ottomans finally gave up the ghost), the jihad was now carried out by individuals and small groups on a scale never seen before. (Though before the Ottomans went away, they carried out the Armenian genocide of 1915, killing over a million Armenians in a way that would inspire Hitler’s extermination of the Poles in 1939.) Many of the states that had been created by the British and French in the late 1800s began to adopt Arab nationalist secular governments, so that by around the middle of the 20th century, most Muslims didn’t live under sharia. And as Spencer says, for true believers this was an affront to Allah that couldn’t be allowed to stand.

Hasan al-Banna was one who made sure it wouldn’t stand. He founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, with the intention of restoring the caliphate. Al-Banna called everyone to Islam, and cited the Qur’an like any proper Muslim: “fight the unbelievers until there is no sedition, and worship is for Allah” (2:193). He summoned Muslims around the globe to make Islam into a great caliphate again, urging the reconquest of Spain, Sicily, and former Ottoman territories in the Balkans. The Brotherhood expanded far beyond Egypt, and by 1944 it had over 1500 chapters in many countries. Everyone was hearing the call to “prepare for jihad and be lovers of death”. Such was the Brotherhood’s message — that “Islam is faith and worship, a Qur’an and a sword” — and in accordance with Islamic law.

The Brotherhood didn’t waste time trying to unmake Israel in 1948. The section on the Jewish state takes up a third of the chapter, and is obviously a topic that arouses passion. The Brotherhood and their Arab allies were certainly passionate. Al-Banna said, “All Arabs shall arise and annihilate the Jews. We shall fill the sea with their corpses.” The mufti of Jerusalem Hajj Amin al-Husseini cried, “I declare a holy war, my Muslim brothers! Murder the Jews! Murder them all!” These sentiments weren’t the ravings of fringe fanatics, but of Muslims who were following the example of Muhammad and Islamic law. There was obviously no way the Arab leaders could have accepted the United Nations’ partition. They readied for jihad.

The question Spencer doesn’t ask is whether the state of Israel should have been established, given this inevitable result. Spencer has made a career of showing strong support for Israel and so he would presumably answer yes. My view is that the creation of Israel was one of the worst foreign policy blunders of the 20th century. The Jewish people deserve a homeland, but what the Allies should have done was carve out a section of Germany (the nation responsible for the Holocaust), instead of uprooting and inciting Arabs for sake of a religiously inspired “Promised Land” — an idea that has no more place in the 20th century than the Islamic jihad. Many Jews hadn’t lived in Palestine for two millennia, and they certainly didn’t have a rightful claim on the land after all this time. (Over the 50 years prior to 1948, Jews had purchased about 7% of Palestine, mostly from absentee Arab landlords.)

What’s curious is that Spencer implicitly faults Franklin Delano Roosevelt for refusing to support the Zionist project, based on the president’s response to rabbis who were trying to persuade him. Roosevelt said, “Do you want to be responsible for the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives? Do you want to start a holy jihad?” Says Spencer: “FDR demonstrated far greater awareness of history and Islam than many of his successors, but about their same level of resolve to confront it.” But how should Roosevelt have confronted the Islamic threat? By settling in hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives right next to the jihad beast? That’s hardly wise. It seems to me that Roosevelt’s awareness of history and Islam steered him well on this point. Truman’s decision was the disastrous one, not FDR’s. (And for the record, I’m no fan of FDR.)

Spencer is largely correct about the reason peace negotiations have always failed between Israel and Palestine. “The answer,” he says, “lies in the Islamic doctrine of jihad. ‘Drive them out from where they drove you out’ is a command that contains no mitigation and accepts none.” But Zionism can be just as unyielding. The idea of a divinely ordained Promised Land doesn’t leave much room for a meeting of the minds — another reason the creation of the Jewish state, I believe, was misguided. When Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) emerged in 1988, as a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, it became clear beyond doubt that the existence of Israel would never be accepted by the Muslims in any form. Spencer accurately describes Hamas’ activities as “a jihad of the pen and the tongue combined with that of the sword, wielded as much in the court of public opinion as in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and other areas of Israel”. And he’s right that it’s a travesty so many liberals sympathize with an organization like Hamas.

Before leaving Israel, I should make clear that though I wish it had never been established, I’m not saying the Israeli Jews are the moral equivalent of surrounding Muslims who are upfront about genocidal and jihad intentions. I find far more to criticize in the Jewish state than Spencer does, but I admit that the condemnation heaped on it by leftists is often out of proportion to the crimes. The political charter of Hamas invokes the Qur’an in praying for the day when the earth will cry out for Jewish blood, and the trees and the stones will say, “Oh Muslim, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.” Palestinian factions have made clear what they would do if the balance of power were reversed. Yet people today are strangely unable to believe the worst about groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, even when those groups declare the worst of themselves. In this sense Spencer is right. A theocracy of intolerance in line with the caliphates of old is not the moral equivalent of the state of Israel.

Spencer covers post World-War II India, which was partitioned into the Hindu majority area (India), and the two Muslim majority areas (Pakistan). Pakistan and India have been in a state of war since the partition, thanks to the Pakistani jihad — with 9,471 outbreaks of violence since 1947.

In the section on Iran, we see the Shah making the mistake of dismissing Khomeini and other ayatollahs and their followers as “a stupid and reactionary bunch whose brains have not moved and who don’t want to see Iran developed.” But as Spencer says, that “stupid and reactionary bunch” didn’t give up, and they eventually won. Since 1979, Iran has been a sharia backwater and it became a major financier of global terrorism. “Stupid reactionaries” who go against nationalist Arab regimes aren’t stupid at all, nor are they trying to revive archaic ways of thinking. They are reviving the official doctrine of Islam. And that doctrine, declared Khomeini, has no use for human rights, which is “a Judeo-Christian invention” and “inadmissible in Islam”. Khomeini said that fighting is an eternal Islamic duty, and those who claim that Islam is a religion of peace are “witless.” Witless, yes — and ignorant of history and the Muslim sources.

Last is the section on Al-Qaeda, where Osama Bin Laden steps on to the stage fighting the Soviets in the ’80s, and bombing American embassies in the ’90s. And it was at the tail end of this period, on the eve of 9/11, that people in the west started losing their minds.

Chapter 10: The West Goes Crazy (2001-present)

The final chapter is actually titled “The West Loses the Will to Live,” but I think Spencer is being too polite. The 21st century has been a crazy age of alternative facts (long before Trump ascended) and manufactured bigotry. It’s the book’s longest chapter, though it covers the least amount of time (17 years); there’s certainly no shortage of insanity to fill the pages.

That insanity is all the more extraordinary when it trails the previous nine chapters, because the reader is struck by the sudden disconnect with reality. 9/11 triggered something unprecedented, as people started blaming the victims of jihad more than the jihadis, and saying that terrorists were “hijacking” Islam rather than doing as Islam had always taught. Spencer cites numerous politicians and religious spokespeople, and I’ll cover just a few:

First is George W. Bush, right after 9/11:

“These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that. The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.”

Bush continually dissembled about Al-Qaeda’s motivating ideology, and Spencer finds the explanation in the Saudi influence in Washington, including the Bush administration itself. That was surely a factor, but I think there is also the more simple reason. To be fair to Bush (much as I loathe the man), it was reasonable at the time to worry about anti-Muslim backlash in the wake of a monstrous event like 9/11. This was all new to everyone, and even I was applauding Bush for saying what he did. Though what he should have said is that most Muslims are peaceful, rather than misrepresent the religion Islam as peaceful.

But that was then. Worries about anti-Muslim backlash have proven to be unfounded. The backlash almost never occurs. Since 9/11 to this day, there have been over 30,000 jihad attacks worldwide. In all that time there has been only one instance of Muslims killed in retaliation by bigoted “Islamophobes” (the Finsbury Mosque attack in June 2017). 30,000+ jihad attacks vs. a single hate-crime attack is a sad excuse to keep misplacing our priorities. In the wake of jihad attacks, the proper response of Muslim leaders is to work against jihadis and Islamists in their own community rather than constantly playing the victim card; and the proper response of western leaders is to work proactively against the jihad threat, instead of piling on platitudes about peaceful Muslims.

Next is Barack Obama, during his visit to Cairo in 2009:

“I know that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President, John Adams, wrote, ‘The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.'”

Well, John Adams was as bad as Obama on the subject of jihadists. As we saw in chapter 8, Adams and Thomas Jefferson had been told point blank by the ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman that Tripoli was founded on the Laws of Muhammad and the Qur’an, that all nations who didn’t acknowledge Muslim superiority were sinners, and that it was the right and duty of Muslims to wage war on such sinners (like the Americans) wherever they could be found — exactly as Tripoli had just done, by making unprovoked attacks on peaceful U.S. trade ships. Unlike Jefferson, Adams didn’t take the proper lesson from this. At any rate, Obama continued:

“I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed. That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t. And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”

First of all, it is not the chief executive’s Constitutional duty to defend Islam or any religion. And if it were — if Obama truly wanted to base a partnership with America on the basis of “what Islam is, not what it isn’t” — he’d have to endorse a sharia-based state.

John Brennan, assistant to the president on national security, said the following in 2010:

“There is nothing holy or legitimate or Islamic about murdering innocent men, women and children. Indeed, characterizing our adversaries this way would actually be counterproductive. It would play into the false perception that they are religious leaders defending a holy cause when in fact, they are nothing more than murderers, including the murder of thousands upon thousands of Muslims.”

As Spencer says, all the jihad warriors throughout history would have obviously disagreed with Brennan. So for that matter would all the Muslim clerics who have enforced, and continue to enforce, what Islamic law actually teaches.

I’ll end with Pope Francis in 2013. This one’s a whopper:

“Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Qur’an are opposed to every form of violence.”

“This statement,” says Spencer, “is remarkable for the dogmatic confidence with which its false claim was made.” Indeed, the pope’s declaration is as false as the statement that the sun sets in the east. Authentic Islam and the Qur’an enshrine violence. Personally I like Francis, but on this issue he’s clueless. He should stick to making pronouncements on authentic Catholicism.

The chapter covers much more, including details on how the Obama administration purged all mention of Islam from counter-terror training, and refused to allow high-ranking law enforcement and intelligence officials to study the religious ideology of the terrorists, which is obviously necessary to understand and counter them. Amidst all the craziness, jihad efforts have only strengthened in the twenty-first century. Muslims have attacked Orlando, San Diego, London, Manchester, Paris, Toulouse, Nice, Amsterdam, Madrid, Brussels, Berlin, Munich, Copenhagen, Malmö, Stockholm, Turku (in Finland), Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Beslan, among other places. They have strengthened, in no small part, because western authorities have been urging people to respect Islam rather than understand it and call for its reform.

That’s our state of affairs. We admire a fantasy Islam and smear as bigots people who point out the real thing — people like Robert Spencer, David Horowitz, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Sam Harris. We wage counter-productive wars to bring down Arab dictators, when we should know by now that jihad and sharia groups are waiting in the wings to fill their place. We stay married to Saudi Arabia, despite its clear ties to terrorism and its unabashed exporting of Islamism to every corner of the world. And when cartoonists of Muhammad are attacked or killed, we blame those cartoonists more than their Muslim attackers. Our moral confusion is staggering, and sadly, we deserve Spencer’s indictment:

“As the fourteen-hundred-year Islamic jihad against the free world continues to advance, the best allies the warriors of jihad have are the very people they have in their sights.”



The History of Jihad is a ride you won’t forget and long overdue. I can’t stress enough that it’s not just a history of warfare of a particular group of people (though it is that too), but a particular kind of warfare, holy war, that has remained entrenched in one particular religion, and pursued relentlessly down the centuries. The ride is certainly not an indictment of all or most Muslims. It is a guarantee nonetheless, that without a religious reform, significant numbers of Muslims will continue on the twisted path of jihad.

The reason is simple. Jihad isn’t just terrorism. It’s legitimized terrorism backed by core Islamic teachings. Jihad is to Islam as passover is to Judaism, and as the eucharist is to Christianity, and as meditation is to Buddhism. That may be hard as nails to swallow, but it’s a fact as clear as day.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5.

“No Separation of Church and State” in Medieval Europe: What it means and what it doesn’t

We’re often told there was no separation of church and state in medieval Christianity, and to an extent that’s true. Christian thought influenced political decision making. The church legitimated monarchs; secular kings granted lordships to bishops; popes claimed the right to depose monarchs, and there was an ongoing contest between the religious authority of the pope and the secular authority of the Holy Roman Emperor.

But — and this is a big but — there was a very clear divide between church law and civil law, which reflected a distinction between an individual’s spiritual well being on the one hand, and the person’s freedoms and responsibilities before the law on the other. In some Christian lands that distinction became so sharp you’d hardly guess this was the time before or during the crusades. In England, for example, common law derived from local judges, and no priest or church figures were involved in it. Or in Castile (the Christian part of Spain), where local tradition-based law was written down in the fueros (town’s rights), confirmed by the crown in royal charters, and administered by popularly elected local mayors — with again, no priestly or church involvement in the law’s creation or application.

Everywhere in Catholic Europe, civil law was administered by the laity. Priests stuck to their own law: canon law. That wasn’t true in the Islamic world, where sharia law was both religious and civil without distinction. Religion was the law (and still is today in many Islamic countries), which meant that Islam was the law. Sharia pervaded every aspect of life, from a the private to the public, and Muslim clerics ruled over the daily life of the Muslim population. The public spaces (in this so-called “golden age” of Islam) were regularly patrolled by religious functionaries who had the powers of a judge over the people’s personal, social, and commercial behavior. One looks in vain to find an equivalent judge in medieval Catholic Europe — that is, a dispenser of the law who was also an expert in the New Testament and could officiate, lead prayers, and deliver homilies. Such priest-judges did not exist. And because common law evolved independent of royal or priestly power, it could have a politically liberating effect (long before the Magna Carta), not least in the ideas of people’s freedoms and responsibilities before the law. Freedom, in this sense, was wholly antithetical to sharia law in the Muslim world.

Something to bear in mind, the next time you hear that “church and state were inseparable” in medieval Europe. As far as the statement goes, it’s true, but few people understand what that means and what it doesn’t.



Muhammad and Charlemagne

moh_and_cha_revisited“Without Muhammad, Charlemagne is inconceivable.”

Henri Pirenne wrote those words 80 years ago, against a flood of contemporary wisdom. What he meant was that without the Islamic invasions of the seventh century, the medieval world as we know it would not have appeared. There would have been no “Holy” Roman Empire. Western Europe would have remained fairly Roman under the continued influence and communication from Constantinople. The Viking raids wouldn’t have occurred, nor would there have been crusades or inquisitions. Without the Islamic example of slavery, contact with Indians in the new world would have probably unfolded differently, not to mention Europe’s relations with sub-Saharan Africa. It was a bold and well-argued thesis that received little support.

In Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited (2012), Emmet Scott affirms Pirenne with a firm eye on archaeological data. He shows that the barbarian invasions and fall of Rome in the fifth century didn’t cause the Dark Age. The barbarians preserved classical civilization and the empire effectively survived under new management. Christian monks preserved the literary inheritance of the ancient world, and gave to Europe centers of scholarship. The archaeological record is clear in this regard. There is no gradual decline in classical society from the fifth to seventh centuries, but instead a decline from the third to fifth, followed by a revival in the sixth and early seventh, which is then dramatically terminated sometime between 620 and 650. The lights went out, quite literally, with the Islamic conquests. People fled the coastline and began building hilltop castles to avoid slaughter and enslavement. The Mediterranean was no longer a highway but a frontier of piracy and plunder. The sea became a blockade, choking off trade and communication with Byzantium. Papyrus became a thing of the past, and literacy plummeted almost overnight to levels equivalent to those in pre-Roman times. By the mid-seventh century a “medieval” outlook had emerged, thanks mostly to Islam.

Even after 80 years Pirenne is resisted but usually on the basis of dated arguments that Scott critiques, and we’ll look at them now.

The “Debunking” of Pirenne

Pirenne’s work was supposedly debunked in 1982 by the work of Richard Hodges and David Whitehouse, Mohammed, Charlemagne, & the Origins of Europe, and Scott devotes a good portion of his book to debunking them in turn. It’s not a hard task. To “prove” that Western Europe was in an economic and cultural death-spiral before the appearance of Islam, Hodges and Whitehouse relied mostly on evidence from central Italy, the one place we would expect to find societal deterioration. The whole balance of power in the Roman Empire had shifted to the east: Constantinople was founded in 324, and by the beginning of the 400s Ravenna supplanted Rome as the capital of the western empire. Rome was then sacked twice, in 410 and then 455, with the western empire dissolving in 476. With all of that — a huge drop in the Roman aristocracy, population, and general fortune — we would (rather obviously) expect a dramatic drop in the wealth of the settlements around central Italy.

9780801416156-usThat’s not what happened elsewhere. Under the Visigoths in Spain, the Franks in Gaul, and the Vandals in Africa, society was reviving and flourishing, especially in the sixth and early seventh centuries. The evidence shows expanding populations engaged in vigorous trade within Europe and with the eastern Mediterranean; new territories being brought into cultivation; growth of cities both old and new; clear proof of dramatic technical and scientific innovation; advanced learning and scholarship of all kinds. This was almost a renaissance, let alone a revival, and it was abruptly terminated in the early seventh century with the Islamic invasions. Hodges and Whitehouse’s debunking of Pirenne is thus discredited on a basic level. They used the exception (of central Italy) to argue a non-existent rule — and an exception we would expect in advance. Even the loss of Italy’s inactive population didn’t effect its overall demographic health under the Ostrogoths. By the 590s and 600s, for example, new churches were appearing all over Italy, which is usually a good gauge of vitality, since that’s where communities invest any disposable wealth. For whatever strange reasons, people have difficulty believing the Germanic invaders were capable of civilization, but they were.

In the East, Hodges and Whitehouse again blame the wrong people, this time the Persians. It’s true that the Persian War in 614 started the eastern fall, but it was the subsequent Arab Wars that brought the lasting devastation. As Scott says, there had been wars between Persians and Romans before; it was the way of Roman life for seven centuries. How is it that this particular Persian war (supposedly) led to the end of classical civilization in the east? No matter how destructive, wars are normally followed by treaties of peace, and then the recovery of economic prosperity. It always happened between the Romans and Persians, but it didn’t happen this time, and Hodges and Whitehouse have no answer as to why.

The answer is self-evident: it was the Arabs, in the wake of the Persians, who laid the permanent waste. The religious concept of jihad was one of permanent religious war that made any kind of peace or genuine coexistence impossible. The annual obligation of jihad ensured ongoing war on Islam’s borders, while the provisions of sharia law meant that in lands taken over by Muslims, natives were provided no protection against bandits and herders who let flocks graze on and destroy the irrigated lands. Fertile areas became semi-desert, and cities became ghost towns.

So in the East…

The counter-narrative still prevails, however, that Islam saved the remnants of classical culture and through its “Golden Age” transmitted that learning to a benighted Europe. It’s true that some Arab rulers patronized universities and centers of learning, but it was only studies which had practical and utilitarian value — science and medicine. The Muslims had no use for literature, drama, painting, and narrative, and were often hostile to these. And even though science and medicine were supported, the only degree offered at an Islamic university was in religious law. Philosophy became a hobby for a select few and had no impact on daily life, which was the role of sharia in any case.

We also often hear that Jews and Christians enjoyed a protected dhimmi status in Islamic lands, but in practice they were not protected. Under sharia their rights were subordinate to Muslim rights, and they were often insulted, robbed, and killed with impunity. The dhimma system wasn’t one of benign taxation; it was a mafia-like extortion racket that kept Jews and Christians in humiliating servitude under degrading laws. Their protection could be revoked at a whim and often was.

While back in the West…

Pirenne had been saying that without the Islamic Caliphate, the Holy Roman Empire wouldn’t have been. Scott fleshes out Pirenne by showing that the impact of the Persian-then-Arab assaults on the Byzantine empire were so great, and the severance of western Europe from Constantinople so severe, that the Germanic kings of the west began asserting their independence in a reactive way. They started minting coins in their own image (under Clothar II, r. 613-629) and finally re-established the western empire under Charlemagne (r. 800-814) under a blooming theocracy that would come to mirror some of Islam’s worst elements. It would be the “Holy” Roman Empire whose authority no longer derived solely from its own military and economic strength (as in the time of the Caesars and Germanic kings) but increased dependence on church approval. For the first time ever, by the eleventh century, Christians began thinking in terms of holy war. The crusades were in defense against Islamic aggression to be sure (and I do think a necessary evil), but nevertheless in contradiction to the church’s one thousand year stand of religious pacifism. The culmination of “Charlemagne’s seed” came with Pope Innocent III (r. 1198-1216), who established the inquisitions to enforce absolute doctrinal conformity. This copied Islam’s inquisition 50 years before, to root out and torture its own apostates in Spain and North Africa.

Scott emphasizes that none of this excuses the medieval church. Everyone is responsible for their actions, and Islam can hardly be blamed on a moral level for Christian crimes against freedom of conscience. But there is causal if not moral blame, and we almost never hear of the causal connection between Islam’s inquisitions and those of the church. Until Innocent, tolerance had been the order of the day — for centuries in the Christian world. This was never true in Muslim lands, where religious dissent and apostasy was a capital offense. For Christians the use of force to enforce orthodoxy was condemned by the church fathers. Christians could be fierce in denouncing heretics, but only extremely rarely would a fanatic get violent about the matter, and when that happened the church spoke out. By the twelfth-thirteenth centuries, this had flipped 180 degrees: Catholicism now mirrored Islam in killing its own heretics.

The Appropriateness of the term “Dark Age”

Scott addresses this at some length, for the term has fallen out of fashion and for good reason. The Dark Age used to be understood as the period of the fifth to tenth centuries, and was characterized by the withering of intellectual life, with the church being the lead offender. It’s a myth that has been discarded to the extent that many historians dismiss the term “Dark Age” out of hand. Pretty much everyone now accepts that Christianity took the lead in preserving classical literature, encouraging literacy, and creating a more general humane environment. The Benedictines especially provided a network of model factories, centers for breeding livestock, halls of scholarship, and redress for social action — basically offering Europe a safety net of civilization to fend off the hordes of chaos. But who were the hordes? Many accuse the Germanic newcomers, and we’ve seen that to be wrong.

The term “Dark Age”, as Scott argues like Pirenne before him, actually is appropriate, but the period starts later — in the seventh century, not the fifth — and the culprits are the Arabs. Almost by definition, the Dark Age covers the 300-year stretch of barren archaeology that begins after the Persian War followed by the Islamic invasions: the early seventh to the early tenth centuries. Jihad brought the darkness, not the Germanic rulers.

Those “Missing” Centuries

This is something Scott keeps returning to. Between the early seventh and early tenth centuries, there is almost a complete absence of archaeology in both Europe and the Islamic world. How can society have produced virtually nothing — either pottery, coins, or artifacts of any kind — for three centuries? This problem has become acute and embarrassing that only crazy explanations are offered:

(1) Some natural or cosmic catastrophe destroyed huge portions of the populations sometime in the seventh century.

The problem, as Scott points out, is that no plagues, earthquakes, floods are mentioned in any surviving documents, and (even more importantly) the archaeological record shows no layer of destructive sediment between the seventh and tenth centuries. Just the opposite: the early seventh century material lies directly underneath that of the mid-tenth, and appears to be culturally closely related to the latter. This has prompted the even more extreme theory that —

(2) The missing three centuries never existed. Emperor Otto III and Pope Sylvester II wanted to legitimate the Ottonian kings in their claim to the imperial purple, and to live in the millennial year of 1000 AD, and so invented the Carolingian dynasty and inserted it and the years 614-911 AD into the calendar.

In other words, our history is 297 years off. Otto III really reigned in 699-705, and not 996-1002; the Norman Conquest happened in 769, rather than 1066, and the year we live in now is 1719, not 2016. While this conspiracy theory (known as the Phantom Time Hypothesis) is certainly amusing, and would admittedly resolve certain historical puzzles in Europe and the Islamic world, it collapses elsewhere. The Tang Dynasty of China (618-906) receives archeological confirmation, and it’s hard in any case to imagine someone from medieval Europe convincing the Chinese to create a fake dynasty with bogus archives. It’s also hard to believe that attested figures like Alfred the Great never existed.

Crackpot theories, however, only force the question everyone tip-toes around: why does archaeology stop in the seventh century and then suddenly resume in the tenth? The only thing we can say with confidence is that the Arab conquests of the seventh century were incredibly destructive in the regions they conquered (the Middle East, North Africa, and then Spain), and because of their stranglehold over the Mediterranean Sea cut off trade and communication with the eastern empire, plummeting Europe into a genuine Dark Age. The “Golden Age” of Islam supported by the archaeological record is a single century (between the tenth and eleventh) rather than four centuries (between the seventh and eleventh). And it was a Golden Age in terms of power and might only. It didn’t mean Islamic culture was more humane or enlightened, for it wasn’t.


Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited tells a story on the basis of evidence: The barbarian princes who took control of the western provinces in the fifth century were neither mindless destroyers nor ineffectual hold-outs. They adopted Roman civilization in due course and upheld the Roman institutions and customs, with the result that classical culture not only thrived but revived over against the previous deterioration of the third-fifth centuries. They continued to see themselves as functionaries for the empire, and minted coins with the Byzantine emperor’s image. This state of affairs wouldn’t change until the second quarter of the seventh century, when the lights went out. After this time, western cities no longer thrived Roman-style. Luxury products imported from the east disappeared, as did literacy. The only thing which could have terminated Mediterranean trade and western culture so rapidly and thoroughly at this time was the Arab invasions of the East, Middle-East, and North Africa. And from the ravages of Islam would rise Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire in response. It was a centuries long response that was usually more incidental than conscious, a lesson in cause and effect that prompts all sorts of interesting “what if?” questions.

Scott’s book is also a story of academic wrangling. Per the book’s subtitle, it’s the history of a controversy as much as history itself, and an unflinching look at how evidence is used, misused, or sidestepped to marshal our theories. Strongly recommend.

The Lions of Al-Rassan: The Passing of the “Golden Age” in Islamic Spain

les-lions-dal-rassanRead the following passages from a widely-loved novel. If you had to guess the historical period, you might not surmise a medieval nation under Islamic rule. A Christian and Muslim having wild sex out in the open, on the night of a holiday carnival. A jamboree of music and wine and cross-cultural gang-bangs, in flagrant violation of the sharia strictures of Islam.

The first passage describes the novel’s characters buying masks in preparation for the Carnival:

They had met on this mild, fragrant morning to buy masks for the night when torches would burn until dawn in the streets of Ragosa [Zaragoza]. A night when the city would welcome the spring with music and dancing and wine, and in other ways notably different from the ascetic strictures of Ashar [Islam]. And from the teachings of the clerics of Jad [Christ] and the high priests of the Kindath [Jews], too, for that matter.

Notwithstanding the clearly viced opinions of their spiritual leaders, people came to Ragosa [Zaragoza] from a long way off, sometimes traveling for weeks from Ferrieres [France] or Batiara [Italy] to join the Carnival. The return of spring was always worth celebrating, and King Badir, who had reigned since the Khalifate fell, was a man widely honored, even loved, whatever the wadjis [Muslim clerics] might say.

The next evening, at the Carnival itself:

They had been drinking since the first stars came out. There was food everywhere and the smells of cooking: chestnuts roasting, grilled lamb, small-bones fish from the lake, cheeses, sausages, spring melons. And every tavern, thronged to bursting, had opened its doors and was selling wine and ale from booths on the street. Ragosa [Zaragoza] had been transformed.

Alvar had already been kissed by more women than he’d ever touched in his life. Half a dozen of them had urged him to find them later. The night was becoming a blur already. Now he watched as the grey spider approached him slowly, came up, and kissed him on the lips. Twisting, he managed to free his arms in the press of people and put them around the spider. He kissed her back as best he could from behind his eagle mask. He was improving, he thought. He had learned a great deal since sundown.

The spider stepped back. “Nice. Find me later, eagle. She reached downwards and gave him a quick squeeze on his private parts.

Alvar never hooks up with the spider, but he is snared by a ferocious cat with a fetish for leashes, who leads him into an opulent upstairs bedroom:

Alvar moved with this woman, and upon her, and at times beneath her urgency. They had removed their masks when they entered the house. It didn’t matter: she was still a hunting cat tonight, whatever she was by daylight in the customary round of the year. He had raking scratches down his body, as if to prove it. With some dismay he realized that she did too. He couldn’t remember doing that. Then, a little later, he realized he was doing it again. They were standing, coupled, bending forward against the bed again.

“I don’t even know your name,” he gasped, later, on the carpet before the fire.

“And why should that matter tonight, in any possible way?” she had replied.

Some time afterwards she chose to blow out all the candles and leash him in a particularly intimate fashion. They went out together, naked, with the marks of their lovemaking on both of them, to stand on the dark balcony one level above the square teeming with masked crowds.

She leaned against the waist-high balustrade and guided him into her from behind. Alvar was almost convinced by then that something had been put into his wine. He ought to have been exhausted by this point.

The night breeze as cool. His skin felt feverish, unnaturally sensitive. He could see past her, look down upon the crowd. Music and cries and laughter came up from below and it was as if they were hovering there, their movements almost a part of the dancing, weaving throng in the street. He had never imagined lovemaking in such an exposed fashion could be so exhilarating. It was, though. He would be a liar to deny it. He might want to deny many things tomorrow, but he was not capable of doing so just now.

“Only think,” she whispered, tilting her head far back to whisper to him. “If any of them were to look up… what they would see.”

He felt her tug a little on the leash. He didn’t think he was going to be able to deny this woman anything tonight. And he knew, without yet having tested the limits of it, that she would refuse him nothing he might ask of her between now and dawn. He didn’t know which thought excited or frightened him more. What he did know, finally understanding, was that this was the truth at the heart of the Carnival. For this one night, all the rules were changed.

The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995) is an historical fantasy, or what Guy Gavriel Kay calls “history with a quarter turn to the fantastic”. It deals with the fall of Islamic Spain, or Al-Andalus (“Al Rassan”) and asks us to lament, with its characters, the passing of an enlightened age. The heroes of the novel are two men and a woman representing the Abrahamic faiths: Rodrigo Belmonte, a Christian warrior (based on El Cid); Ammar ibn Khairan, a Muslim assassin, advisor to the taifa king of Cordoba (based loosely on Muhammad ibn Ammar, who was vizier to the taifa king of Seville); and Jehane bet Ishak, a Jewish physician in Toledo. These men and woman become allies in a mercenary band until the Reconquest efforts of 1085 AD divide them. The character of Alvar in the above passages is part of that band, a Christian soldier from Rodrigo’s homeland.

It’s a story about unlikely friendships in hard times, and still after twenty years one of my favorite novels. But what, in Kay’s brilliant narrative, is fact-based? In some cases he goes off the rails in indulging the myth of Islamic Spain’s “golden age of tolerance” — that the three faiths of Islam, Christianity and Judaism supposedly co-existed under an enlightened Islamic hegemony — not least in the above festival. In some cases he can get away with it, because the genre excuses it; historical fantasy imposes less reality than historical fiction. In others Kay really does seem to be under false impressions about history that he wants to urge on the reader. Given how many people today believe in the myth of Islamic Spain’s multicultural paradise, it’s worth going through the novel and seeing what aligns with history and what doesn’t.

First things first: the setting

To set the stage: The alternate world resembles 11th century Spain, in the time of the taifa kingdoms (~1031-1094 AD), after the fall of the Cordoba Caliphate. (See the black-and-white map, and compare with the colored map of the actual Spain.) In this world, the taifa period lasts fifteen years, not sixty-three, and the story narrates events al-rassanthat take place during our year of 1085 (the Reconquest invasion and take back of Toledo), and ends with the fall of those petty kingdoms — to the Christian crusaders invading from the north, and to the Islamic fundamentalist “rescue operation” coming up from the south across the ocean. In our world, this fall happened in a series of battles between 1085-1094, but in Kay’s world it takes only two years, across the final chapters of the novel. The epilogue then forwards us twenty years later to show the Reconquest finally taking back all of Spain. In our world that process took over a century longer: most of Muslim Spain fell between 1212-1248, and Granada would hold out until even 1492.

In the fantasy world of Al-Rassan and Esperana, the Asharites represent the Muslims; they worship the stars. The Jaddites are the Christians, worshiping the sun. The Kindath are the Jews, worshiping the two moons (one silver, one blue) of this world. The celestial bodies of worship hold no significance or theological parallels to the faiths of our world, which is effective; since there are no analogies to the figures of Muhammad, Christ, and Moses, we are less predisposed to judge or favor any of the three faiths in advance. Across the sea, the Majriti Desert represents northwest Africa, where the Muwardis are parallel to the Almoravids — the fundamentalist Muslims who are planning to “rescue” their fellow Muslims in Al-Rassan against the efforts of the Christian Reconquest. As in our world, the Almoravid Muslims are far worse than the Christian crusaders, though as we will see, Kay doesn’t always have the best handle on the issue.

Kay has fun rearranging geography and cities, to remind us this is an evocative world and not an exact parallel. Cartada is based on Cordoba; Fezana is Toledo; Silvenes is Seville; Ragosa (the city he takes the most liberties with) is Zaragoza. Ruenda, Valledo, and Jalona are approximations of Leon, Castile, and Aragon, but with an historical reversal used to raise the stakes: King Ramiro of Valledo is based on King Alfonso VI of Leon and Castile, but the historical Alfonso reunited his father’s split three-way inheritance (of Galicia/Leon and Castile) before invading Al-Andalus, not afterwards; in the novel King Ramiro must deal with the machinations of the two sister Christian kingdoms on top of his invasion plans of Islamic Al-Andalus, which heightens the drama.


The “Golden Age” of the Caliphate

The only sense in which the Cordoba Caliphate (929-1031 AD) was a “Golden Age” was in terms of power and might. During the 10th and 11th centuries, Islamic Spain was wealthier and stronger than the Christian states, and it could hardly have been otherwise since it inherited the wealth from the province in 711 and built on its power base since. That doesn’t mean Islamic Spain was more humane or enlightened, and in fact it wasn’t. Required reading on this subject is Dario Fernandez-Morera’s The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, published this year. It’s sort of like a book that might be called The Myth of the Happy Slave in the Antebellum South. Are such proofs even necessary? Sadly, yes, and there are far more people who believe the former than the latter. I should emphasize that I don’t think Guy Gavriel Kay buys into the myth of the Andalusian paradise completely. There is enough reality evoked in The Lions of Al-Rassan to call it an historical novel, albeit one that takes license based on common misunderstandings.

Let’s start with Jehane — the Jewish heroine of the novel — as she reflects on the “Golden Age”:

The poets were calling the years of the Khalifate a Golden Age now. Jehane had heard the songs and the spoken verses. In those vanished days, however, people might have chafed at the absolute power or the extravagant splendor of the court at [Cordoba], with the wadjis [Muslim clerics] in their temples bemoaning decadence and sacrilege. Yet some among the Kindath [Jews] had risen high among the courts of the [taifa] kings. They paid the heretics’ tax, as did the Jaddites [Christians]. They were to practice their religion only behind closed doors. They were to wear blue and white clothing, as stipulated in [Islamic] law. They were forbidden to ride horses, to have intimate congress with Asharites [Muslims], to build the roofs of their sanctuaries higher than any temple of the Asharites [Muslims] in the same city or town. But there was a life to be found.

This sort of description actually isn’t too bad. Kay mentions the clerical hostility called forth by libertine caliphate, and the degrading laws imposed on the Jewish and Christian dhimmi. The dhimma system was not one of benign taxation; it was a mafia-like extortion racket that kept the Jews and Christians in humiliating servitude. The protection could be revoked at a whim and often was.

However, Kay also says “there was a life to be found”, which is about the equivalent of saying “there was life” for African American slaves in the antebellum south whose masters were known to make them “part of their family”. As Dario Fernandez-Morera bluntly puts it, “The celebrated Umayyads elevated religious and political persecutions, inquisitions, beheadings, impalings, and crucifixions to heights unequaled by any other set of rulers before or after in Spain” (Myth, p 120). And as other honest scholars have pointed out, in no other place in the Islamic empire was the daily influence of Muslim clerics as strong as in Islamic Spain. Clerics played a central role in the inquisitorial system of surveillance. Blasphemy against Muhammad or Allah was a capital offense. If “there was a life to be found” it was for a tiny few.

Sharia and Jihad

What needs stressing is that throughout the entire history of Islamic Spain — from the emirate following the conquest (711-929), to the Cordoba Caliphate (929-1031), to the taifa kingdoms (1031-1094), to the fundamentalist Almoravid (1094-1147) and Almohad (1147-1212) dynasties — through all these periods, Islamic religion was the law, and sharia pervaded every aspect of life, from the public to the private. Jihad was taken for granted. In fact, one ruler of the Caliphate “Golden Age” period, Al-Mansur (r. 981-1002), carried out close to 60 jihads and commanded that the dust on his clothes be collected after each battle against the Christians so that he could be buried under the glorious dust when he died. The Caliph whom today’s liberals love to cite, Abd al-Rahman III (r. 929-961), developed an Islamic inquisition to combat Greek philosophy.

And yet, for reasons that escape me, people are under a strange impression that the Almoravids and Almohads introduced, or re-introduced, sharia and jihad into the Islamic way of thinking, while the 711-1094 period was somehow free of these core doctrines. That’s completely false. The later fundamentalist dynasties objected to the rich, decadent, and lax lifestyles of the ruling caliphs and taifa kings; and they had stricter or different interpretations of sharia law. But sharia ruled the Muslim way of life in all periods, and it was always oppressive.

Of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence (Hanbali, Maliki, Shafii, Hanafi), the Maliki held authority in Spain, which is the second most strict of the four. The Maliki code forbade Muslims to socialize with Muslims of a different school of law, let alone share in good will with Christians and Jews. As in the other schools, there was no distinction between civil and religious law. In contrast to this, prior to 711 AD in Spain, the Visigothic code of law had combined Visigothic practices, with Roman law, and some Christian principles that, rather remarkably for its time, tried to limit the power of government like the later Magna Carta.

More generally on this point, as Fernandez-Morera explains, the frequent claim that there was no separation of church and state in Christian lands isn’t precise. It’s true that the distinction was blurred at the political level: Christian thought influenced political decision making; the church legitimated monarchs, while secular kings granted lordships to bishops; popes claimed the right to depose monarchs, and there was an ongoing contest between the religious authority of the pope and the secular authority of the Holy Roman Emperor. But what gets lost in this is the clear distinction between church law and civil law, which reflected a distinction between an individual’s spiritual well being on the one hand, and the person’s freedoms and responsibilities before the law on the other (Myth, p 93). This wasn’t true anywhere in the Islamic world — and certainly not in the supposedly enlightened paradise of Spain.


Muslim women were treated horribly in the “Golden Age”. Female circumcision was taken for granted, approved in religious law, and encouraged by the Maliki clerics. Muslim women caught in adultery were stoned. They were expected to stay home as much as possible and wear the veil in public. (Women who went out with loose hair and rich garments were usually sexual slave girls.) They couldn’t use the public baths. It’s no surprise that Kay avoids using Asharite [Muslim] female characters in The Lions of Al-Rassan. Even his fantasy revisionism can’t accommodate empowered Muslim women without huge suspensions of disbelief. Zabira is a proactive character, but she is the highest exception, being the favored concubine of a taifa king.

By comparison, the northern Christian kingdoms of Leon and Castile were relative “paradises” for women. A Catholic woman’s access to power in the public sphere was light-years ahead of any rights enjoyed by “free” Muslim women in Al-Andalus. It was a unique judicial system in the north, Castile especially, that grew out of independent peasant-soldiers in frontier territory, and according to scholars it may be the only medieval European analogy to English common law. Catholic women could own property and participate in local assemblies. They could work town businesses and own farmland. They could use public baths on certain days that were allotted to them.

That being said, the character of Miranda Belmonte in Kay’s novel is a bit hard to swallow. She is the analog for El Cid’s wife (the historical Jimena Diaz), who admittedly had a will of steel and ruled a city (Valencia) for him after he died. But Kay runs a bit wild with this figure. At one point she orders the servants and soldiers on the Belmonte ranch to restrain her husband returning home, tie him down, whereupon she proceeds to give him a tongue-lashing for his recent military decisions, and then sexually “assault” him before untying him. It’s entertaining fiction, but a bit over the top.

Any truth at all to the “Golden Age”?

The question presses: Is there any kernel of truth to the myth of Islamic tolerance in Spain? There are two points of contact.

First, the culture of the Islamic elite. It’s true that caliphs, and even more so the taifa kings, flouted religious law when it suited them and lived hedonistic lives according to their pleasure. But it’s also true that this is a banal observation. The elites of all cultures lived luxuriously and did what they wanted. The significant fact is that most Muslims in all periods of Islamic Spain were subject to clerical policing of detailed religious observance.

Second, the Jews. They had become allies with the invading Muslims in 711 AD out of political expediency, having suffered discrimination under Visigoth rule. The Islamic invaders exploited this, finding it convenient to employ Jewish officials since as dhimmi (second-class citizens) the Jews were dependent on royal favor and easy to control. In a similar way, Hernando Cortes exploited the Tlaxcalan Indians in his struggle against the Aztecs. No one ever dreams of trying to pass off Cortes’ policy as a Christian Spaniard “tolerance” for the Tlaxcalan way of life, or their religious beliefs, or even relative good will. Nor do we hear that the colonial Belgian authorities in the Congo were “tolerant” because they favored the minority Tutsis against other groups. Or that the United States was “tolerant” in working with the Montagnard Hmong against the Marxist-Leninists in Southeast Asia. (See Myth, p 178.) The Islamic conquerors were no more “tolerant” of Jews than any of these invaders or imperial powers — and in many ways they were worse. Caliphs and kings never called their Jewish physicians and viziers “allies” in any case, but rather “servants”, since the Qur’an demonized Jews even worse than Christians. The Muslim masses demonized them too, which is why pogroms and assassinations broke out, like in 1013 (when the Jews were expelled from Cordoba), 1039 (when the Jewish vizier of Zaragoza was assassinated by a Muslim mob), and 1066 (when the Jews of Granada were killed).

Thus, Kay’s portrayal of hedonistic taifa kings (Almalik of Cartada, Badir of Ragosa) and privileged Jewish physicians and advisors (Ishak ben Yonannon, Mazur ben Avren) — we will get to these figures in due course — is historically correct, and reflects a sliver of truth to the so-called “tolerance” of the “Golden Age” period. But that really amounts to nothing. It’s simply “a selective concentration on the remains of an elite culture, in conjunction with the relative and always precarious politically expedient favoritism shown to members of the Jewish community” (Myth, p 239). When Kay goes beyond these two superficial points to imply “there was a life to be found” in this age, he’s indulging revisionism.

The Day of the Moat

The event that ignites the plot in Chapter One is based on the historical Day of the Ditch (806 AD), when Emir Al-Hakam beheaded 5000 people in Toledo on suspicion of treachery. Of the around 5000, 72 were nobles singled out for massacre at a banquet, and then crucified and displayed in a ditch. In the novel, it is 139 people who are killed: the noble, elite, and merchants of Fezana [Toledo], invited to the palace by the visiting prince of another taifa kingdom, Cartada [Cordoba], sent by his father the king who has designs on annexing this one. The guests are attending the prince at a ceremony which is supposed to be the consecration of the palace’s new wing:

They were individually escorted by soldiers down that dark corridor. Approaching the end of it, each in turn could discern a blazing of sunlight. Each of them paused there, squinting, almost sightless on the threshold of light, while a herald announced their proffered names with satisfying resonance.

As they passed, blinking, into the blinding light and stepped forward to offer homage to the hazily perceived, white-robed figure seated on the cushion in the midst of the courtyard, each of the guests was sweepingly beheaded by one of the two soldiers standing on either side of the tunnel’s arch.

The soldiers, not really strangers to this sort of thing, enjoyed their labors perhaps more than they ought to have done. There were, of course, no wadjis [Muslim clerics] waiting in the courtyard; the castle wing was receiving a different sort of consecration.

The toppling bodies were swiftly seized by other soldiers and dragged to the far end of the courtyard where a round tower overlooked the new moat created by diverting the nearby Tavares [Tagus] River. The bodies of the dead men were thrown into the water from a low window in the tower. The severed heads were tossed carelessly onto a bloody pile not far from where the prince of Cartada [Cordoba] sat, ostensibly waiting to receive the most prominent citizens of the most difficult cities he was one day to rule, if he lived long enough.

This event is “historical” in the sense that it represents the kind of thing which happened in all periods of Islamic Spain — the Emirate (711-929), the Cordoba Caliphate (929-1031), the taifa kingdoms (1031-1094), and the fundamentalist Almoravid (1094-1147) and Almohad (1147-1212) dynasties afterwards. Muslim rulers slaughtered their own as much as they did the dhimmi Jews and Christians, for any number of reasons ranging from the ruthless to the paranoid to the petty. Kay is entirely realistic in this scene.

The Blinding and Silencing of Ishak ben Yonannon

There is the tragic backstory to Jehane’s father, who was rewarded and punished (the parts in bold) for saving a mother and her child during childbirth:

Ishak had performed the only recorded delivery of a child through an incision in the mother’s belly while preserving the life of the mother at the same time. Not Galinus himself, the source and font of all medical knowledge, nor any others, had reported successfully of doing such a thing, though they had noted the procedure and tried. No, it was Ishak ben Yonannon of the Kindath [Jews] who first delivered a living child in such a way, at the palace of Cartada in Al-Rassan in the second decade after the fall of the Khalifate. And then he had healed the mother of her wound and tended her after, so that she rose from her bed one morning, very pale but beautiful as ever, to reclaim her accustomed place in Almalik’s reception hall and his gardens and private chambers.

For this act of courage and skill, on a scale never before known, Almalik of Cartada had gratefully offered a quantity of gold and a gift of property such as to leave Ishak and his wife and daughter secure for the rest of their lives.

Then he had ordered Ishak’s eyes put out and his tongue cut off at the root, that the forbidden sight of an Asharite [Muslim] woman’s nakedness be atoned for, that no man might ever hear a description of Zabira’s splendor from the Kindath [Jewish] doctor who had exposed her to his cold glance and his scalpel.

It was an act of mercy, of a sort. The ordained punishment of a Jaddite [Christian] or Kindath [Jew] who feasted lecherous eyes on the unclothed figure of an Asharite [Muslim] woman who was bride or concubine to another man, was as everyone knew, the death between horses. And this woman belonged to a king, the successor to khalifs, the Lion of Al-Rassan. The wadjis [Muslim clerics] had begun demanding the death of Ishak the moment the story of the birth escaped the palace.

To my knowledge there has never been an Islamic law that stipulates punishment for an infidel who sees a naked Muslim woman, probably because the situation almost never arose. Islamic law does call for the death of infidel Jews and Christians who rape a Muslim woman. (A Muslim, on the other hand, who rapes a Jew or Christian free woman might only be lashed.) And there are plenty of laws and penalties that apply on the Muslim woman herself when she is seen naked or even partially exposed by non-family members, or even raped. Kay’s fiction is a logical complement of sharia law, and it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if one of the historical taifa kings did something like this. The Qur’an and Islamic law are obsessed with infidels and regulating women. Kay plausibly joins the two in a rather unique scenario involving a Jewish doctor using extraordinary skills to save a Muslim woman and her baby.

Christian Antisemitism: Queen Vasca

At a critical point in the story, Jehane challenges Rodrigo on the subject of bigotry in his Jaddite [Christian] faith:

“Do you remember,” asked Jehane, “what your Queen Vasca said of us [the Jews], when Esperana [Christian Hispania] was the whole peninsula, before the Asharites [Muslims] came and penned you in the north?”

“That was more than three hundred years ago, doctor,” said Rodrigo.

“I know that. Do you remember?”

“Of course I do. But–“

“She said that the Kindath [Jews] were animals, to be hunted down and burned from the face of the earth.”

“Jehane,” Rodrigo said. “I can only repeat, that was three hundred years ago. She is long dead and gone.”

“Not gone! You dare say that? Where is Queen Vasca’s resting place?”

“On the Isle. Vasca’s Isle.”

“Which is a shrine! A place of pilgrimage, where Jaddites [Christians] from all three of your kingdoms come, on their knees, to beg miracles from the spirit of the woman who said that thing.”

Actually, there was no Christian analog to Queen Vasca in our world who advocated genocide of the Jews. I suspect that Kay wanted to create an equivalent to the massacres Muslims committed on Jews and Christians in Islamic Spain (i.e. the Christian martyrs of Cordoba between 851-859, the Jewish thousands in Granada in 1066). It’s true that the laws of Visigoth Spain in the sixth and seventh centuries were antisemitic. Jews couldn’t hold public office or have any power over Christians; and Jew-Christian marriages were illegal. After 613 they were forced to be baptized, which resulted in emigrations and false conversions. The antisemitic theologian of this period was Saint Isidore of Seville (560-636), who authored On the Christian Faith against the Jews. But even Isidore, while he condemned the Jews for rejecting Jesus, explicitly opposed the state’s policy of forced Jewish conversions. So not even he comes close to being a parallel to Kay’s Queen Vasca, who called for a powerless people to be hunted down and destroyed.

Of course, Kay can do as he pleases in his fictional alternate world, and part of me actually likes the idea of a bloodthirsty queen whose shrine is revered on a sacred isle. But in today’s politically-correct culture that demonizes Christianity at every opportunity while whitewashing Islam, it’s helpful to point out that Queen Vasca is completely unhistorical.

The Jewish Prince: Mazur ben Avren

We’ve already seen the reason for Jewish privilege in Islamic Spain, which had nothing to do with Islamic “tolerance”. One might guess, however, that Kay pushes the envelope with the character of Mazur ben Avren — chancellor under a king who actually grants him military power.

The two men had known each other a long time. Badir had taken a huge risk at the very outset of his reign in appointing a Kindath [Jewish] chancellor. The Asharite [Muslim] texts were explicit: no Kindath [Jew] or Jaddite [Christian] could hold sovereign authority of any kind over Asharites [Muslims]. The penalty was death by stones. Of course, no one who mattered in Al-Rassan followed the texts. Not during the Khalifate, not after. The glass of wine in the king’s hand was the most current evidence of that. Even so, a Kindath [Jew] chancellor had been a very large thing. There was a chance that roll of the dice might have cost Badir his newly claimed crown and his life if the people had risen in righteous wrath.

In return for that risk taken, Mazur ben Avren had made Ragosa [Zaragoza] not only independent, but the second most powerful kingdom in Al-Rassan in the turbulent years after the caliphate’s fall. He had guided the city and her king through the dangerous shoals of a swiftly changing world, and had kept Ragosa [Zaragoza] free and solvent and proud. He had ridden with an army himself in the first years, in campaigns to the south and east, and had directed it in the field, triumphantly. His mount had been a mule, not a horse forbidden to infidels; Mazur knew enough to offer the wadjis [Muslim clerics] their necessary symbols of deference. Nonetheless, the simple truth was that Mazur ben Avren was the first Kindath [Jew] to command an army in the western world… Much could be forgiven if a war went well and an army came home with gold, and much had been forgiven — thus far.

Believe it or not, this extravagant character is historical. Mazur ben Avren is based on Samuel ibn Naghrela (993–1056 AD), who had become the most powerful Jew in the history of Islamic Spain. He was the only Jew to command Muslim armies — the direst of blasphemies. In our world, he was the vizier to King Badis of Granada; in Kay’s alternate world, he serves King Badir of Ragosa (our Zaragoza).

Samuel ibn Naghrela is the classic case held up by today’s liberals to promote the “Golden Age” theory of the Andalusian paradise, which is silly since he’s the exception proving the rule. As I covered above, the caliphs had found it convenient to employ Jewish administrators, merchants, and physicians, since (unlike high-born Muslims) they depended on royal favor and were easy to control. (The Jewish scholar Hasdai, who served Caliph Abd al-Rahman III, is another example.) When the Cordoba caliphate fell and the taifa kings carved out their own kingdoms, they were frequently at war with each other, which gave Jews even more opportunities. And for whatever reason, King Badis of Granada went the whole blasphemous nine yards in appointing a Jewish military commander. So the character of Mazur ben Avren aligns with the history of our world. Unlike the rest of what we find in Ragosa…

The City of Ragosa

Pretty much everything else about Ragosa is a psychedelic fantasy. But it’s very good fantasy, in my opinion, showcasing some of Kay’s best writing and character drama. At the top of the post I cited Alvar’s loss of innocence at the Carnival, which comes towards the end. Here is his first exposure to the city, when he arrives to serve as a mercenary under Rodrigo Belmonte (the El Cid character):

It was true, what he had been told: the [Muslims] of Al-Rassan inhabited an entirely different world than [his people in Castile]. Every second object in the palace or the gracious homes he had seen seemed to be made of carved and polished ivory, imported by ship from the east. Even the handles of the knives used at some tables. The knobs on the palace doors. Despite the slow decline of Al-Rassan since the fall of [Cordoba], Ragosa [Zaragoza] was a conspicuously wealthy city. Besides the celebrated workers in ivory there were poets and singers here, leather workers, woodcarvers, masons, glassblowers, stonecutters — masters of a bewildering variety of trades.

For the Christian Alvar, who has never been beyond the lands of Castile, these cosmopolitan wonders start to erode his blind hostility to the Muslim world. By contrast, the Islamic fundamentalist Yazir ibn Q’arif has a purely hostile view of his Muslim cousins in Spain, based on reports that he receives in the Majriti (the northwest Africa of Kay’s world):

Yazir’s soldiers and mercenaries sent home all their wages, and with these sums came tidings of affairs in Al-Rassan [Al-Andalus]. Some of it was comprehensible, some of it was not. He learned that there were courtyards within the palaces of the kings, and even in the public squares of cities, where water was permitted to burst freely from pipes through the mouths of sculpted animals — and then to run away again, unused. This was almost impossible to credit, but the tale had been reported too many times not to be true.

One report — this one a fable, obviously — even had it that in Ragosa [Zaragoza], where a Kindath [Jewish] sorcerer had bewitched the feeble king, a river ran through the palace. It was said that there was a waterfall in the sorcerer’s bedchamber, where the Kindath [Jewish] fiend bedded helpless Asharite [Muslim] women, ripping their maidenheads and laughing at his power over [Allah’s believers]. Yazir stirred restlessly within his cloak; the image filled him with a heavy rage.

With regards to the historical Zaragoza of our world, Yazir has the right of it. Kay’s depiction of the city is a complete fable. But as I said it’s a powerful one, and perfectly appropriate in historical fantasy. It’s not as if Kay wants us to believe (or at least I hope he doesn’t) that our real-world Zaragoza, or any of the taifa cities, hosted anything like the annual spring Carnival, where the people of all three faiths took to the streets in masks, sharing food and drink, cavorting to music, and having sex with complete strangers. He seems to be using an extreme vision to make a point about the potential of cross-cultural sharing that perhaps could arise in slightly less extravagant settings that he presumably believes existed, historically, in the taifa cities.

Alas, even that potential was hardly there. In all periods of Islamic Spain, including those of the Cordoba caliphate and the taifa kingdoms, cross-cultural sharing was a farce. Maliki jurisprudence forbade socializing with even Muslims of a different school of law, let alone “sharing” with Christians or Jews (Fernandez-Morera, Myth, p 115). The Christian diet of pork and garlic, not to mention wine, was an obstacle to sharing table-fellowship with Muslims, and when Muslims did have to interact among the dhimmi, they had to use their own utensils and eat “in parallel” rather than actual fellowship. As far as festivals, Maliki law prohibited musical instruments and singing, let alone booze. Clerics had authority to enter houses to break up strings and wind instruments if they even heard them playing. That some rulers and rich Muslims flouted these laws (their singers and musicians were usually slaves) doesn’t negate what dominated most of society. As for interfaith sex, it was entirely out of the question.

I wonder if Kay took some inspiration for his Carnival from the mistaken assumption (even among scholars) that Muslims in Cordoba were known to have “shared” in public Christmas celebrations. The problem with this is the timing. We have evidence of this only in the 13th century, after the Christians had taken back Cordoba in 1236. As Fernandez-Morera says, it makes no sense to point out what Muslims did in Christian-controlled cities as supposed evidence of religious harmony and tolerance in Islamic Spain! In Muslim controlled cities, Jewish and Christian festivals were never allowed to be celebrated in public, let alone “shared” with Muslims (Myth, p 114).

Nevertheless, I don’t begrudge Kay for inventing the idea of the Carnival and running wild with it. Literature often explores the theme of a common humanity across the ethnic divide. The following interaction takes place the day before the Carnival, between Alvar and Husari, dressed in the garb of the other’s faith:

“In the name of the moons, look at the two of you!” Jehane exclaimed.

Alvar was dressed in a wide-sleeve linen overshirt, ivory-colored, loosely belted at the waist, over hose of slightly darker shade and Asharite [Muslim] city slippers, worked with gold thread. He wore a soft cloth cap, crimson colored, bought in the market weeks before.

Husari ibn Musa wore a plain brown Jaddite [Christian] soldier’s shirt under a stained and well-worn leather vest. His horseman’s trousers were tucked into high black boots. On his head he wore a brown, wide-brimmed leather hat.

“My sadly departed mother would have been diverted, I hope,” Husari said. “She had a gift of laughter, may [Allah] guard her spirit.”

“Mine would be appalled,” Alvar said in his most helpful voice. Husari laughed.

Jehane struggled not to. “What would any rational person say, looking at you two?”

“I think,” Husari murmured, “such a person — if we could find one in Ragosa this week — might say we two represent the best this peninsula has to offer. Brave Alvar and my poor self, as we stand humbly before you, are proof that men of different worlds can blend and mingle those worlds. That we can take the very finest things from each, to make a new whole, shining and imperishable.”

“I’m not sure that vest of yours is the finest Valledo [Castile] has to offer,” Alvar said, “but we’ll let that pass.”

“And I’m not sure I wanted a serious answer to my question,” Jehane said.

Husari grinned. “Did I give you one? Oh dear. I was just trying my pendant’s manner. I’ve been asked to give a lecture on the ethics of trade at the university this summer. I’m in training. I have to give long, sweeping answers to everything.”

(A sidebar about the overpraised “universities” in Islamic Spain: they were actually schools for the study of religious texts and law. When the Arabs conquered the Christian world and took over the Christian Greek universities, it is true that they started teaching subjects like medicine and philosophy, and this was the case in Spain; but even at this point, the only degree you could get at these schools was in religious law. Philosophy was a hobby for the select few and had no impact on daily life, for that was the role of sharia. As for most of the arts — sculpture, painting, drama, narrative, and lyric — they weren’t taught at all, deemed unseemly if not blasphemous. See Fernadez-Morera, Myth, pp 65-68, 76-77.)

At certain moments, Jehane thought, in the presence of men like Husari ibn Musa, or young Alvar, it was actually possible to imagine a future for this peninsula that left room for hope. Men and women could change, could cross boundaries, give and take, each from the other… given enough time, enough good will, intelligence. There was a world for the making in [Leon/Castile/Aragon] and [Al-Andalus], one world made of the two — or perhaps, if one were to dream big, made of even three.

Jehane’s thought process may come across as unduly modern, and the scenario historically unlikely, but it works. And that sums up my feelings for the Ragosa chapters. They are unhistorical, even wildly so in the case of the Carnival, but as long as we’re under no delusions, they fulfill the ambition of good literature. Kay doesn’t use Ragosa to make angry statements about ethnic bigotry; he doesn’t preach. Rather, he engages the social drama of his (admittedly propagandist) world, and tests ideas by showing what happens when they naturally unfold. The results are ugly — the killing of Jehane’s servant being the painful climax of the Carnival — and the reader is left struggling, much like the novel’s characters, with timeless human dilemmas. That’s a huge score.

“Civilized” Al-Rassan vs. the Desert Tribes from Across the Sea

In the chapter set in northwest Africa, the prince of Cordoba begs aid from the desert warrior Yazir ibn Q’arif, whose character I relish:

The tribesmen of the desert would not be sparing any moments of prayer for the secular degenerate worse-than-infidel, King Almalik of Cartada [Cordoba], who had just died. As far as the Muwardis [Almoravids] were concerned, all of the kings of Al-Rassan merited approximately the same fate.

Yazir had long ago realized — and had tried to make his brother understand — that the softness of life in Al-Rassan had not only turned the men there into infidels, it had also made them very nearly women. Less than women, in fact. Not one of Yazir’s own wives would have been half so pathetic as this Prince Hazem of Cartada [Cordoba], his nose dripping like a child’s in the face of a little wind. And this young man, lamentably, was one of the devout ones. One of the true, pious followers of Ashar [Allah] in Al-Rassan. Yazir was forced to keep reminding himself of that. [The Qur’an] had taught that charity towards the devout was the highest deed of earthly piety, short of dying in a holy war.

Hazem had been corresponding with them for some time. Now he had come himself to the Majriti [North African coast], a long way in a difficult season, to speak his plea to the two leaders of the Muwardis [Almoravids], here on a blanket before flapping tents in the vast and empty desert. Cities and houses were what the soft men of Al-Rassan knew. Beds with scented pillows, cushions to recline upon. Flowers and trees and green grass, with more water than any man could use in his lifetime. Forbidden wine and naked dancers and painted Jaddite [Christian] women. Arrogant Kindath [Jew] merchants exploiting the faithful and worshiping their [false god instead of Allah]. A world where the bells summoning to prayer were occasion for a cursory nod in the direction of a temple, if that much.

Yazir dreamed at night of fire. A great burning in Al-Rassan and north of it, among the Jaddite [Christian] kingdoms of Esperana [Leon/Castile/Aragon]. He dreamed of a purging inferno that would leave the green, seductive land scorched back towards sand but pure again, ready for rebirth. A place where the holy stars might shine cleanly down and not avert their light in horror and what men did below in the cesspools of their cities.

Kay portrays the Almoravids of northwest Africa as fundamentalist Muslims who despise their “worse-than-infidel” cousins in Spain, which is historically accurate. But he also implies that the decadent dynasties of the taifa kings are an indication of a more enlightened or pluralistic society in Al-Andalus, which is false. Fundamentalist rhetoric paints such a picture, but that’s the nature of fundamentalism. When Kay writes in the same chapter that “Al-Rassan after the Khalifate’s fall, and even long before, had not been the most devout place in the [Muslim] world,” he’s essentially adopting the hostile fundamentalist perspective and treating it as truth.

In fact, as we’ve seen already, Al-Andalus was very devout. The idea that non-fundamentalist Muslims don’t believe in jihad and sharia law is like saying non-fundamentalist Christians don’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection.

The Reconquest: Proto-crusades

A strong advantage of the alternate-world genre is that it allows Kay to telescope historical events for simplicity and better effect. In this case, the Reconquest invasion of 1085 AD with the First Crusade to Palestine in 1096:

The High Cleric, Geraud de Chervales, announced: “Hear, then, news to cause all hearts to exult and offer praise: the king of Ferrieres [France] and both counts of Waleska [Germany], and most of the nobility of Batiara [Italy] have come together to wage war.”

What? Where?” said Constable Gonzales, the sharp words pulled from him.

The cleric’s smile grew even more triumphant. His blue eyes shone. “In [Palestine],” he whispered into the stillness. “In the desert homelands of the infidels, where Jad [Christ] is denied and cursed. The army of the god [the First Crusade] is assembling even now. Already, though, a first battle has been fought in this holy war; we heard the tidings before we left to come to you.”

“Where was this battle?” Gonzales again.

“A city called Sorenica [Salonica]. Do you know it?”

“I do,” said King Ramiro quietly. “It is the Kindath [Jewish] city, granted them as their own long ago, for aid given the princes of Batiara in peace and war. What Asharite [Muslim] armies were there, may I ask?”

Geraud’s smile faded. There was a coldness in his eyes now. The belated recognition of a possible foe. Be careful, Ramiro told himself.

The cleric said, “Think you the Asharites [Muslims] are the only infidels we must face?

Few people know that the Spanish Reconquest was the real “first crusade”. By as early as 1063, Pope Alexander I promised indulgences to Spaniards who drove out the Muslims. That was 30 years before Pope Urban II launched what we call the First Crusade in 1095. The Reconquest, of course, had been prosecuted on-and-off for over 300 years since the 720s, but by the 1060s popes began treating Reconquest efforts as a religious campaign equivalent with the emerging theology of holy war. Kay telescopes the retaking of Toledo in 1085 with the crusade to Palestine in 1096-1099 as being coordinated at the same time, allowing the theme of Christian holy war to resonate more strongly. That’s a smart use of the fantasy world.

Kay blunders, on the other hand, with the Jewish massacre that occurred during the First Crusade. He gives the Jews a special city where they govern in autonomy. Sorenica seems loosely based on Salonica/Thessaloniki, which had a large Jewish population, though obviously not exclusively Jewish, and they obviously didn’t have their own rule; and historically the Jews of Salonica got plundered in the Fourth Crusade, not the First. These adaptations are fine and harmless. But Kay makes the Jewish slaughter part of the church’s intent, which is a common myth. The Catholic church never, in the entire era of the crusades, preached a holy war against the Jews. When misguided crusaders slaughtered Jews, they were roundly condemned by popes and church authorities. Instead, Kay has the high priest practically salivating at the thought of killing Jews.

“A camel herder in the Majriti or a shepherd in Esperana?”

In other words, if you were a Muslim in Spain, would you want to join rival Muslims in Africa or be taken over by Christian crusaders? Ammar ibn Khairan chooses the former:

“Fezana [Toledo] will fall to [our crusaders],” said Rodrigo, “before summer’s end. And then [the Almoravid Muslims] will come across the straits to meet us. Al-Rassan is theirs, or it is ours, Ammar. You must see that. Fezana [Toledo], Cartada [Cordoba], Ragosa [Zaragoza], Silvenes [Seville], they cannot be saved. Even you cannot dance that dance between fires. And surely, Ammar, you must know –“

“I have to try.”


“Rodrigo, I have to try. To dance that dance.”

Rodrigo stopped, breathing hard, like a horse reined up too harshly. “Your faith means so much to you?”

“My faith? I would put it differently. I would say, my history. Not just [Al-Andalus], but [Palestine and Arabia], the desert of [Muhammad’s] homelands. The [Almoravids]?” Ammar shrugged his shoulders. “They are a part of that. Every people has its zealots. They are as most of the people of your north are today. Righteous, convinced, unforgiving, uncivilized. But I confess I find little of value in your cities of [Leon and Castile] either. The [African] desert is a hard place, harder than even your northlands in winter. [Allah] knows, I have no bonding of spirit with fundamentalists, but I share even less with those who venerate your fanatic saints. Would I rather be with the [Almoravids]? Again, put it a little differently, and then leave it, Rodrigo, as my last words, lest we quarrel before we part. I suppose I would rather, if [Al-Andalus] is to be lost, herd camels in [Africa] than be a shepherd in [Spain].”

“No! That cannot be the last word, Ammar!” Rodrigo shook his head vehemently. “How do I let you ride to them? Do you know what they will do to you?”

What they did to Al-Mu’tamid, in our world, was nasty. He was the taifa king of Seville, and the historical figure who said the words that Kay gives to Ammar — that he would “rather be a camel driver in Morocco than a swineherd in Castile”. And for his loyalty to Islam he was “rewarded” by being made captive by the Almoravids and tortured. No camel driving career for him.

Kay cops out of this history in favor of a happy ending. In the epilogue we learn that Ammar was pardoned by Yazir ibn Q’arif (despite the cries of Yazir’s people for Ammar’s slow and painful death), and is living with Jehane in Italy. For me, this is the worst part of the novel. Ammar deserved a tragic ending like Rodrigo.

It’s important to note the false equivalence Ammar makes between the Muslim fundamentalists and the Christian “fanatical saints”. In fact, as we’ve seen repeatedly, the Christians in the north were more enlightened than not only the fundamentalist Muslims from Africa, but also the Muslims of Spain. For all the laxity and decadence in the courts of the taifa kings, jihad and sharia law remained (as always) oppressive tenets of Islam, especially under the Maliki code of jurisprudence. The fundamentalist Almoravid tribes in Africa simply had differing interpretations of sharia law and zealous hatred for the cosmopolitan elite. Ammar is one of those elite (a court poet and assassin), and he could never achieve friendship with an Almoravid in the way he did with a Christian warrior like Rodrigo.

And yet aside from the false equivalence, Ammar’s stubborn allegiance to Islam — like the historical Al-Mu’tamid’s — is completely believable, and all the more disturbing for it. It’s not easy to let go of our heritage. As Ammar says, it’s less his faith (being a hedonist in the elite courts) and more his history, or cultural identity. I think this is a point for many liberal-minded Muslims today who get defensive when Islam is criticized as a system of toxic beliefs that is inherently more dangerous than other religions.

Ammar is my favorite character in The Lions of Al-Rassan, and his response to Rodrigo, “rather a camel herder in Africa than a shepherd in Spain”, is my favorite scene, precisely because it’s so realistic and misguided. History proved that with Al-Mu’tamid. I only wish that Kay had followed history all the way through, by giving Ammar an appropriate tragic ending.

The Passing of an Age

But what kind of age? Kay blends fantasy and historical realism, but the scales tip on the propagandist side. He really wants us to grieve for the fall of Al-Rassan, and view the northern and southern invaders about equally benighted. If I lived in 11th-century Spain, frankly, I’d be inclined to welcome the Reconquest. Kay’s propaganda is a success, because the fact is that I do keep grieving for Al-Rassan every time I read the novel — the story is so damn compelling. This scene from the final chapter chokes me up every time, when Ragosa is besieged, and the Jewish chancellor Mazur ben Avren offers to sacrifice himself to the outside mobs, so that his king might receive some clemency.

King Badir scowled. “We have been through this. Do not vex me again. I will not accept your resignation, your departure, your sacrifice… none of these things. What am I clinging to, so desperately, that I would allow myself to lose you?”

“Life? The lives of your people?”

Badir shook his head. “I am too old to clutch like that.” He gestured around the room. “We made this together, my friend. If it goes, one way or another, I will make an end drinking my wine with you. Do not speak of this again. I regard the subject as a… betrayal.”

Ben Avren’s expression was grave. “It is not that, my lord.”

“It is. We find a way out together, or we do not. Are you not proud of what we have achieved, we two? Is it not a denial of our very lives to speak as you are speaking now? I will not cling to some miserable form of existence at the price of all we have been. Are there not some things we have made here, some things we have done, that are worthy to have been in [Cordoba] in the Golden Age?”

And Mazur ben Avren, with a rare emotion in his deep voice, replied, “There has been a king here, at the least, my lord, more than worthy to have been a khalif in those most shining days.”

Another silence. “Then speak no more, old friend, of my losing you. I cannot.”

It could almost make me wonder if King Badis of Granada and his Jewish prince ever had such a deep friendship.

Nothing in my analysis has been intended to undermine the power of Kay’s novel. I consider The Lions of Al-Rassan inspired enough to constitute lasting literature, and because it’s so good it gets away with plenty of dramatic license. What I have tried to do is show where Kay’s world and ours intersect, and where they do not, for the historically curious. And as I finish writing this, I am about to start Kay’s latest novel, Children of Earth and Sky, set in the same alternate world but centuries later in the time of the Ottoman Empire…

Pulling Down the Veil: Myths, Illusions and the Taboo

The meme is as follows: ten books or bodies of research that either correct common myths or beliefs, engage taboo subjects, or illuminate the human condition in a surprising way. On my list the topics are drawn from the fields of biblical studies, rape fantasies, neuroscience, the crusades, lies and deceptions, drug addiction, and the wild west.

mythandalusianparadise_frontcover_final1. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, Dario Fernandez-Morera. 2016. The historical myth of our time is the medieval age of Islamic tolerance, especially in Spain where the three faiths of Islam, Christianity and Judaism supposedly co-existed fruitfully under an enlightened Islamic hegemony. The question is why this myth persists even among experts if it’s so thoroughly false. Jews and Christians were anything but protected under Islam. As dhimmis they were subject to a whole raft of degrading laws that made life barely tolerable. It was a society in which the abuse of non-Muslims, slaves, and women was written into law and sanctified by holy writ. Even at its most prosperous the Caliphate of Cordoba was never a tolerant or humane society. Perhaps, the author suggests, university presses don’t want to get in trouble by presenting an Islamic domination (of even centuries ago) as anything but positive, and that ongoing fears of “Islamophobia” paralyze academic research. But seriously, to promote the idea that Christian dhimmis were content under Islamic rule is as preposterous as saying American blacks were content as slaves in the antebellum south since their masters made them “part of their family”. Had there been no Islamic conquest and Visigoth Spain left to grow and interact with eastern Christianity, the Renaissance would have happened much sooner. This is the book we’ve been waiting for, and that it came from a Harvard PhD is quite a surprise.

bivona2. Rape Fantasies, Jenny Bivona. 2008-2012. The data accumulated on rape fantasies since the ’70s has been considerable, but the subject is so taboo that you can’t find a professional book about it. Jenny Bivona should write one. Her research in the last decade has put to bed common theories about rape fantasies — that they are supposedly pathological and can be blamed on rape-culture conditioning or guilt-ridden sexual repression. In fact, she finds, women who fantasize about being raped often have more positive attitudes toward sex and high self esteem. Bivona has considered no less than nine theories which have tried explaining the puzzling phenomenon. Puzzling because it’s usually not pleasant to imagine being harmed. I.e. To imagine getting into a car accident, or suffering from cancer, isn’t pleasant. But many women (31-57% of them) enjoy rape fantasies that would be traumatic and repulsive if they happened as imagined in the real world. The most plausible theories seem to be those of sympathetic activation (biological arousal resulting from negative feelings), and adversary transformation (psychological excitement provided by negative feelings), which combine and cause negative feelings to co-occur with, or convert into, good ones. Bivona’s research hints at bio-psychological paradoxes that specialists have only begun to grasp.


3. Waking Up, Sam Harris. 2014. It’s curious that an atheist of Harris’s reputation would co-opt the term “spirituality”, but you quickly see why. I doubt there is a better word for the experiences he covers in this book, which are attained by the meditation techniques of Buddhism (the safest way) though also the more risky highways of psychedelic drugs (like MDMA and LSD). These mind experiences are caused by changes in consciousness that are so severe they break the illusion of the self, and this, according to Harris, is the key to spirituality: the cessation of all thought. When we completely stop thinking — believe me, it’s much more difficult than it sounds — we can be happy without needing to become happy in the transitory way of fulfilling our various desires. Successful meditation dissolves the illusion of the “I” self and causes thoughts to appear as discrete objects while emotions are accentuated, like love — boundless love even for strangers. You no longer feel like there is an “I” perched in your head behind your eyes, looking out of a body you control. This isn’t new-age quackery, but secular spiritualism grounded in neuroscience. If meditation can produce egoless communion, good will, and improved mental health, that’s a skill worth honing.

paul and palestinian judaism

4. Paul and Palestinian Judaism, E.P. Sanders. 1977. I started reading this book for the fun of it (during a fateful ice storm in the winter of ’91), after a Christian relative told me, apropos Rom 7, why he thought the purpose of the law is to “break you and lead you to Christ”. I found that a curious explanation for moral regulations, but then I wasn’t raised Lutheran. Reading this book showed me what biblical scholars do when they’re at their best in understanding the ancients on their own terms. In the case of ancient Jews, what we think of as legalism was mostly alien to their way of thinking. In Paul’s case, he broke with Judaism by opposing the law and Israel’s special place in the divine cosmos, but not because of a supposed legalism or because Judaic religion was inherently problematic; and certainly not because Paul couldn’t keep the law himself (a practicing Pharisee he’d been perfectly righteous by the law). It was because Christ’s bizarre victory over evil made everything else so trivial that nothing was sacred anymore. As a result, Paul began digging himself into holes explaining why the sacred used to be — and then desperately out of these holes, the steepest slopes being those of Rom 7 and 11. This was the myth-breaker that hooked me in the field of biblical studies.

206285. Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, David Livingstone Smith. 2004. That 60% of people tell 3 lies for every 10 minutes of conversation is sobering, and if you’re reading this right now, you probably think you’re among the 40% who lie less often. That’s what the people in controlled studies thought too, and when they watched their taped conversations played back at them, they were flabbergasted. Thus writes David Livingstone Smith: “Deceit is the Cinderella of human nature; essential to our humanity but disowned at every turn. It is normal, natural, and pervasive. It’s not reducible to mental illness or moral failure. Societies are networks of lies and deceptions that would collapse under the weight of too much honesty.” We deceive others and ourselves all the time, because it’s advantageous to do so as a species. We have to fit into social systems and at the same time look out for ourselves above all others. Lying helps on both fronts. This has in view all kinds of lies: socially acceptable lies (normally not considered lies), blatant or bald-faced lies, lies of omission (silent lies), and other forms of deception, including self-deception. Since reading this book I’ve considered honesty the most overrated myth of our species.

gospel hoax

6. Gospel Hoax and The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled, Stephen Carlson, 2005, and Peter Jeffery, 2006. For a real-life conspiracy thriller, the story behind the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is pretty good, but that hoax was obvious from the start. The “Secret Gospel of Mark”, while always obvious to some, took decades to debunk, and it still has defenders. The two detectives, Carlson and Jeffery, published within a year of each other and with no knowledge of what the other was doing. Neither was a biblical scholar: one was a patent attorney (who has since become a biblical scholar) and the other a musicologist, and each used the insight of forgery experts that texts reflect the personalities and time periods of the forger. Carlson spotted the anachronism of Clement’s salt metaphor (which assumes the 20th-century invention of free-flowing salt) and the homoeroticism between Jesus and the young man tied to Gethsemane (which evokes the mid-20th century oppression against gay men in public parks). Jeffery saw other give-aways, like the baptismal symbolism of mid-20th century Anglican Catholicism (Smith had been an Episcopal priest), and a hilarious allusion to Oscar Wilde’s play Salome (Wilde was a gay martyr). Morton Smith was passionate about the church’s view of homosexuality, he was probably gay, and he wrote on the subject in a time when the subject was rarely discussed.secret mark unveiled His “discovery” of Secret Mark allowed him to claim that Jesus was gay, specifically that Jesus’ baptism ceremonies were used to enter a state of hallucination and ascend into heaven, while their spiritual union with Jesus was accompanied by a physical union of sex. But there’s more. Right before his “discovery”, Smith published an academic paper connecting both Clement of Alexandria and “the mystery of the kingdom of God” (in Mk 4:11) to sexual immorality (in T. Hagigah 2:1), which of course is exactly what Secret Mark is about. Also, Smith was intrigued by the 19th-century debate over whether Clement of Alexandria believed that lying was justified if it served the causes of the church. His “discovery” answers that very question: in the supposed letter, Clement says that one should tell bald-faced lies — indeed, should lie under oath — to those who are easily misled by the truth. I’ve always admired Morton Smith for his brilliance and humor, perhaps less so for his arrogance, but there’s no question that all came together in one of the most successful academic fakes of all time. Carlson and Jeffery show the pitfalls of trust when experts ignore red flags and persist under illusions of academic integrity.

seven myths7. Seven Myths of the Crusades, Alfred Andrea & Andrew Holt (editors). 2015. For ambitious readers I recommend Christopher Tyerman’s God’s War (2006), which is the definitive treatment of the crusades replacing a dated classic of the ’50s. But Tyerman’s 1000+ page tome can be rough going. Here’s the substitute for less committed readers who still insist on professional, peer-reviewed scholarship. It corrects longstanding myths about the crusades, like being greedy unprovoked attacks on a benign Muslim world (the Christian holy wars were defensive responses to Muslim conquests of Christian land, and they were economically suicidal expeditions), anti-Jewish (the church never preached a crusade against the Jews, though some crusaders turned things in this direction), or the western equivalent of the Islamic jihad (jihad is a permanent state of being, tied to the warlord authority of Muhammad; the crusades were unique events requiring the papal approval, voluntary, theologically problematic, and never seen as essential to Christianity). It’s an economical book that packs useful information in short space, with scholarly gusto, and people have thanked me for recommending it. My longer review is here.

Chasing-the-Scream8. Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari. 2015. This is a wake-up call to legalize drugs and reconsider what causes drug addiction. For years, opponents of the drug war have been making a case similar to Hari’s: that we ruin the lives of nonviolent drug users (especially nonwhites in poverty) by imprisoning them, and make room for them in prison by paroling dangerous offenders like murderers and rapists; that we make crime worse by empowering gangs and drug monopolies; that the solution to addiction isn’t incarceration but education and rehabilitative support networks. Hari appeals to the example of Portugal, whose population of addicts went down by half after ending its own drug war through legalization. As for the cause of addiction, the right-wing theory says it is caused by moral failure (hedonism and partying too hard), while the left-wing insists that the brain is hijacked by drug chemicals. Research shows that both theories are flawed; it’s neither our morality nor our brain, but our “cage” — a life full of isolation, stress, and/or misery — that makes drugs attractive to addicts. Which is why, for instance, people who take diamorphine (heroin) for long periods of time for medical reasons, like pain relief after a hip replacement, don’t become addicts. And why addicts isolated from society in prisons or rehab facilities usually continue using.


9. Sex, Wives, and Warriors, Philip Esler. 2013. More than any book I know, Sex, Wives, and Warriors probes the disturbing world of the Old Testament while making us feel connected to it whether we’re religious or not. In this sense Esler shatters the myth of the alien Other. For some people these stories will be repulsive, but you’ll certainly feel alive as Esler funnels them through the culture of the Mediterranean. The barrenness of Hannah, whose vicious co-wife shamed her at the shrine of Shiloh. The lies of Judith, which resounded to her honor as she decapitated a general with his own sword. (Is Judith a proto-Islamic jihadist?) The duality of David, whose insults, on the one hand, were as honorable as Judith’s flatteries, and whose vorpal sword like hers saved Israel against impossible odds; but whose ruthless banditry and mafia-like protection rackets cast an ugly shadow. The madness of Saul, who seems to have suffered panic attacks. His feelings of helplessness, not being in control, delusions of persecution, homicidal impulses, and spirit-possessed behaviors all describe an anxiety disorder to a tee, and make perfect sense of his repeated cycles of eyeballing David with envy, doing his damnest to kill him, then bewilderingly making amends and “becoming friends” again for brief periods before returning to murderous intent. Yet he ended in the bosom of the Lord. The rape of Tamar by her sadistic half-brother (Amnon), which made her spoiled goods. Forced to beg her rapist to marry her, she is refused and discarded. As part of the Judeo-Christian heritage, these stories force questions about our common humanity.

Bat10. Bat Masterson: The Man and the Legend, Robert DeArment. 1979. This one is a bit self-indulgent. Recently I was made aware that Bat Masterson (1853-1921) is a distant limb on my family tree, a cousin of my great-great grandmother, which my father never spoke of as he wasn’t pleased to be related to this “despicable” figure of the wild west. Bat’s notoriety, however, has been put to bed since the publication of DeArment’s research. This biography proves that Bat wasn’t the trigger-happy gunslinger of journalistic sensationalism, but rather the result of a joke played on a writer for the New York Sun in August 1881. The reporter was looking for tales of wild-west gunfighters to feed his readers in the east states, and Dr. W.S. Cockrell fed this reporter ridiculously wild fictions of Bat as a maniac who had killed 26 men, sometimes even cutting off their heads as trophies. The reporter wrote all this in the New York Sun, but it was printed in newspapers everywhere, and this “Bat Masterson legend” would persist for decades. Of the 26 people Bat supposedly killed, only two are factual, and they were justifiable homicides in self-defense and defending others. This is a riveting book that makes you live the danger of frontier towns like Dodge City in the 1870s, and I couldn’t put it down for that reason alone.