Arab Siege of Constantinople, 717-718
As briefly described when we discussed the Battle of Yarmouk last week, history was forever changed in the 7th Century when, without warning, the mighty armies of Islam exploded out of the Arabian peninsula and embarked upon an astonishingly successful campaign of conquest. Less than a century after the death of Mohammed, the followers of Islam had subjugated the Byzantine territories in what is now Israel, Jordan, and Syria, destroyed Persia and incorporated it into the Islamic fold, taken control of Egypt and moved out across the vastness of North Africa. In the early 8th Century, Muslim armies even crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and began the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. This wave of Islamic conquest came crashing to a halt, however, against the legendary walls of Constantinople.
In the summer of 717 AD, an immense army of more than one hundred thousand Arab Muslims and more than two thousand ships laid siege to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire and the greatest city of the Christian world. They had not reckoned on two things, however. First, the massive walls which protected Constantinople (called the "Theodosian Walls" after the emperor who built them) were without question the strongest fortifications in the medieval world. Against them, the armies of Islam crashed in vain. Second, the Byzantines had a secret weapon, a mysterious substance known as "Greek Fire", a flammable liquid something like napalm which the Christian naval forces used to set aflame the Arab ships (the exact composition of Greek Fire remains unknown to this day). With their armies stymied and their navy wrecked, the Arabs were forced to abandon the siege in the summer of 718.
18th and 19th Century historians, including the great Edward Gibbon, have often pointed to the Battle of Tours in the year 732 as the event that halted the great Islamic advance into Europe. Notwithstanding its importance, the Byzantine victory at Constantinople in 717-718 was the true turning point. By turning back the heretofore irresistible Muslim tide, the Byzantines ensured that Southern and Eastern Europe would be safe from Islamic conquest until the advent of the Ottoman Turks, more than half a millennium later. By that time, the development of strong kingdoms and nation-states in Europe meant that Western Civilization was able to defend itself. Had the Arabs conquered Constantinople in the 8th Century, while Europe slumbered through the Dark Ages, there would have been nothing to prevent them from taking over the whole continent.
What the 8th Century Siege of Constantinople was for the Christian world, the Battle of Hattin in 1187 was for the Islamic world. In the late 11th Century, the Christian forces of the First Crusade had stormed into the Middle East and captured Jerusalem, subjecting its Muslim and Jewish population to a brutal massacre. In the wake of their victory, they had set up several Crusader states, carving out their own petty kingdoms along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, in the heart of what had long been Muslim territory.
The First Crusade had succeeded largely because the Islamic world was divided between the Shia Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo and the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. By the late 12th Century, however, the great Muslim leader Saladin had united the two halves of the Muslim world under the new Ayyubid dynasty and set his sites on the reconquest of Jerusalem.
The decisive battle between Saladin and the Christian armies of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, led by its inept king, Guy of Lusignan, took place on July 4, 1187, at a place with the sinister-sounding name of the Horns of Hattin. Saladin's military brilliance combined with an extraordinary amount of stupidity on the part of Guy produced an overwhelming victory for the Muslim forces. Saladin tricked Guy into halting his army in a position where water could not be obtained, then subjected in to concentrated attacks by mounted archers. The Crusader army fell apart, most of its men were massacred, and Guy of Lusignan himself was taken prisoner.
The Battle of Hattin effectively snuffed out the military strength of the Crusader states. In the months that followed, Saladin surged forward into Crusader territory, retaking city after city. On October 2, the Christian defenders of Jerusalem surrendered to Saladin. In contrast to the Christian capture of the city nearly a century before, there was no slaughter of innocent people; the Christian population was allowed to depart in peace, taking their property with them. Although more Crusades would follow, including the epic drama that was the Third Crusade, never again would the powers of Christian Europe threaten Muslim domination of the Middle East.
The European domination of Asia, which began during the Age of Exploration and arguably only came to a final end with the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997, began with the Portuguese conquest of the Indian city of Goa in 1510.
Portugal was a poor country at the fringe of Europe in the early 16th Century. Compared to the giants of Spain, England, or France, it was a pigmy. Yet it had something that no one else had: knowledge of the sea route from Europe to Asia. The 1497 voyage of Vasco de Gama, following in the wake of many other daring Portuguese explorers, had demonstrated the feasibility of sailing all the way around the southern tip of Africa from Europe to Asia, thereby opening up untold opportunities for trade. . . or conquest.
Knowing that they needed a sizable port city to serve as a base for their imperial ambitions in the East, the Portuguese turned to their great admiral Afonso de Albuquerque, known to his contemporaries as "The Lion of the Seas". In a series of battles, a tiny Portuguese army and a small but highly effective fleet defeated the Muslim rulers of Goa and secured it as a fortress. Portugal would continue to rule Goa until 1961.
The Portuguese conquest of the Indian port city of Goa in 1510 solidified the European presence in Asia. In their wake would come the Spanish, then the Dutch, then the English and French, and finally (very late in the game) the Germans. Over the next few centuries, almost all of Asia would be chopped up by the European powers into colonies, protectorates, and spheres of influence. This would have enormous long-term impact on Asia. The Philippines is a Catholic nation, the economic system of Hong Kong and the legal system of India are based on British models, cricket is the most popular sport in Pakistan, and the most popular beer in China is made in the German style. More fundamentally, of course, is the fact that, for centuries, the political destinies of millions of Asians would be decided in faraway places by people they would never see.
If the Portuguese capture of Goa in 1510 solidified the European hold on Asia for the ensuing centuries, the Spanish destruction of the Aztec Empire at Tenochtitlan in 1521 did the same for the European domination of the Americas.
The story of how Hernan Cortez conquered the mighty Aztec Empire with a pitifully small number of Spanish soldiers is well-known. Thanks to gunpowder and steel weapons, the frightening use of their horses, the deadly spread of smallpox, and the recruitment of Indian allies, Cortez was able to capture Tenochtitlan and destroy the Aztec Empire, replacing it with a Spanish dominion that would last for three centuries. Pizarro's conquest of the Inca followed upon the success Cortez had in Mexico, as did almost all colonial ventures in which the Spanish engaged in the New World.
But while history marvels at Cortez's victory, it often overlooks the fact that the Aztecs came close to crushing Cortez on more than one occasion. And having taken the measure of the Spanish, a victorious Aztec Empire might have been able to reorganize itself in order to present an effective defense against any future encroachments upon its territory. The Spanish victory over the Aztecs was not foreordained, for nothing in history is. Had events gone differently, the Aztec Empire might still be with us in the 21st Century and the course of history would have been very different.
As it was, though, the fall of Aztecs made it almost certain that the destiny of the New World would forever be determined by European peoples rather than native ones. Unlike Asia, the Europeans were never driven out.
Spanish Armada, 1588
Historians today tend to play down the importance of the Spanish Armada, denying that it was nearly as important as generations of British historians imagined it to be. These modern revisionists are wrong. The defeat of the Spanish Armada was a decisive turning point in world history and fully deserves a place among the fifteen decisive battles of the world. Along with Gaugamela and Poltava, it is one of three battles from Sir Edward Creasy's list that I think actually deserve a spot.
By the 1580s, the Reformation had swept over Europe, dividing the Continent between Protestant and Catholic. Religious disputes quickly morphed into political and military conflict. France descended into civil war, Germany plunged into chaos, and the Protestant Netherlands exploded in rebellion against Catholic Spanish rule. England, under the rule of Queen Elizabeth, had come firmly into the Protestant camp (despite much opposition from English Catholics) and made it a policy to assist Protestants fighting against Catholics on the Continent of Europe. This was especially true of the Netherlands, where a small English force played a major role in the fighting.
King Philip II of Spain determined to crush England and restore it to Catholicism. To achieve this, he assembled a powerful fleet, the titular "Armada". The plan was to take control of the English Channel, then transport a Spanish army from the Netherlands, under the command of the fearsome Duke of Parma, across the Channel to southern England. Once landed, the army would conquer the country. England's land army was weak and Philip II expected English Catholics to rise in rebellion against Elizabeth's rule the moment his men set foot on English soil.
It never happened. A combination of English pluck, outstanding seamanship, and incredible good fortune prevented the Spanish Armada from taking control of the Channel. Famous English sailors like Francis Drake, John Hawkins, and Martin Frobisher led their outnumbered but technically advanced and more agile ships against the Spanish. In a series of opening battles, the English sniped at the Spanish but were not able to inflict much damage. Then, an attempt to attack the Spanish with fireships, though it inflicted no real damage, disrupted the Spanish formation and caused many of the Spanish ships to cut their anchor chains. At the Battle of Gravelines on August 6, the English were finally able to attack effectively and the Spanish lost five ships. This was not a significant portion of the Armada, but its commander, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, lost heart and decided that his only recourse was to return to Spain by circumnavigating the whole of Britain. Much of the fleet was wrecked in storms on the coast of Ireland during the return voyage and thousands of Spanish sailors were drowned.
England had weathered the threat of invasion without the loss of a single ship. In retrospect, the defeat of the Spanish Armada would be recognized as a watershed of English history. It can be fairly said to date the birth of the British Empire, which had a greater impact on the history of the world than any other political entity. For all its mistakes and even crimes, the British Empire spread the concepts of representative democracy, free market economics, legal systems based on the common law, the philosophical concepts of the English empiricists and the Scottish thinkers of the Enlightenment and, as an added bonus, association football.
There would be many other battles that marked the rise of the British to their preeminent position: Blenheim, Plassey, Quebec, Trafalgar, Waterloo, and many others. But it all began with the glorious defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Had England lost, the British Empire would have been snuffed out of history before it had properly been born and the subsequent course of history would have been unimaginably different.