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The story of the Saracens, from the earliest times to the fall of Bagdad online

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calls us. It carries us back to a period several cen-
turies before the Norman invasion of England ; to a
time when our ancestors were bowing their heads to
Woden; but it introduces us to quite a different world,
— it shows us a Semitic instead of an Aryan type of
social life. It interests us, people of another race
of humanity, for the reason that it is new.


Hundreds of years before our story begins Greece
had fallen before Alexander, and Rome had become
master of it and of Macedonia too. Rome had
passed through its age of myth, its heroic and its
golden ages, — had been a kingdom, a republic, and
an empire by turns, and at last, after all its conquests,
had been humbled by the army of barbarians which
poured into it from the land of the H}'perboreans. For
two hundred years, indeed, she had mourned the ruin
wrought by Alaric, Attila, and Genseric ; and now
the very sceptre had been removed from the Tiber
to the Bosphorus. There, on the shores of the
Golden Horn, the emperor of Constantinople stood
over against the king of Persia, dividing, as he
thought, the empire of the earth with him, and ever
and anon making incursion into his territories. Thus
was continued a struggle which lasted seven centuries;
as Gibbon says, — " from the death of Crassus to the
reign of Heraclius," — the emperor hoping that some
day he might grasp the whole vast realm of Chosroes
and sit monarch in his very palace.

One day, when forced to flee from his own king-
dom, a Chosroes found asylum in the dominions of
the Emperor Maurice ; but the kind treatment he
received did not insure peace. When the hospitable
Maurice was killed by a usurper (a. D. 602), the
Persian pretended a desire to avenge the crime, and
the next year entered upon the most deadly war that
was waged between the two peoples. After the
fighting had been going on a few years, Heraclius
overcame the usurper Phocas, put him to death, and
gracefully yielded to the popular entreaties that he


should assume the purple (A. D. 6io). He then
took up the war with Chosroes, ventured far into the
Persian country, won a decisive victory at Nineveh
on the river Tigris (a. D. 627), forced the Persian
king to flight, and celebrated triumphs both at Con-
stantinople and Jerusalem.*

Before this time Europe had been overrun by the
Huns, who, for a while, fed their flocks on the pas-
ture-lands of Southern Russia, in Poland, and in
Hungary ; the Vandals, the Goths, the Burgundians,
and the Franks had also formed a portion of the
seething mass of fierce humanity which had surged
through the regions watered by the Rhone, the Rhine,
the Seine, the Danube, the Po, and the Dnieper.

The sovereign who held his seat at Constantinople
was not a Greek emperor ; the Roman power had
simply been joined to that of the East at the time
(a. D. 476) when it is customary to say that the
Western empire " fell." Our story will bring us
also into contact with the hordes of shifting tribes
that had been for generations, all unknown to other
peoples, strengthening their sinews and increasing
their numbers on the northern plains of Asia, and
throughout the mountains and valleys of Turkestan,
and the regions beyond.

* It is to be remarked that at the moment when Heraclius was
enjoying these triumphs his troops were cut to pieces at a small town
in Southern Syria by some Saracens (see chap, xx.); and that when,
in 711, the dynasty which he established was extinguished at Con-
stantinople, the then insignificant Arabian tribe ruled from Damascus
its most extensive dominions (see chap, xxxiii.). For an interesting
account of the relations between Heraclius and Chosroes II., see
Gibbon's " Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," chapter xlvi.


In the Bible, we have the history of a nation that
dwelt quite near the people of whom we are writ-
ing. The Jews of Palestine were curiously con-
nected with the men of the deserts, and yet, in most
respects, they were strangely separate in their busi-
ness, their religion, and their lives. Through Isli-
mael, the Saracens looked back to the same ances-
tors, and many among the inhabitants of the
Arabian deserts worshipped the God of Abraham ;
yet the religious faith and customs of the larger
number of them were very different, though their
habits of life were in many respects the same. In
early times, people of influence from among the
" Scriptural People," the " People of the Book," as
the Jews were called by the Arabians, had left their
homes in Palestine to find new ones in the city of
Yathrib, the Medina of after-times. In the sixth
century of our era, a whole tribe living in the far
south of Arabia had been led to give its allegiance to
the faith of the children of Israel, and, according to
their strange traditions, the people of the deserts be-
tween that region and Palestine had seen a sight, a
thousand years before Christ, the story of which im-
pressed the People of the Book very deeply upon
the Arabians all along the shores of tlie Red Sea.

The land of the Saracens lies four square, and com-
prises a territory about eight times as large as the
islands of Great Britain. On its western coast roll
the w^aters of the Red Sea; to the South is the In-
dian Ocean, which sweeps also along the Avestern
coasts of India and distant Australia ; on the east are
the Persian Gulf, the Euphrates, and the Tigris;


while on the north is a broad belt, over which the
wild sands whirl and drive eternally. The outside bor-
der of this great territory is the only portion which,
so far as we certainly know, is generally inhabited.
Towards the middle country the land rises, and there
vast table-lands and lofty mountains frown upon all
attempts at colonization.* In a riverless land, water
is scarce, and wherever a spring rises to the surface
to refresh the parched earth the inhabitant rejoices
and pitches his tent with thankfulness. In imitation
of the Greeks, we call such a green spot an oasis, but
it is better named a wady, which is, in the mind of
an Arab, a place watered by a river or a spring that
is likely at any time to sink from sight.

In our day commerce finds that broad continents
are not so favorable for the transportation of mer-
chandise as boisterous oceans ; but it was not always
so, and in the early days, when ships were small and
compasses were not known, goods were sent from
country to country across the deserts. In the land
of the Saracens they were carried from wady to
wady, the merchants finding grass for their beasts
and shade for themselves at those green spots that
were watered by springs or brooks. The unwieldy
camel was the beast upon which the burdens were
carried, and it was able to plod over the sands with
its freight at the rate of some sixteen miles a day.
Patiently it bore its rider in the face of the pitiless-

* The table-lands lying between Yemen on the south, Hejaz on the
west, and Irak on the northeast, are known as Nejd. According to
Palgrave," the name signifies "highlands." See "A Pilgrimage to
Nejd," by Lady Anne Blunt, pp. xviii.-xxvii. Hejaz is the region
about Mecca and Medina,


simoon, and under the heat of the burning sun,
enabHng him to traverse vast stretches of territory,
and to exchange the myrrh, frankincense, gold, and
precious stones of Saba and Ophir * for the purple
of Tyre and the sword-blades of Damascus. The
long lines of camels and horses would sometimes
journey from the shores of the Indian Ocean to the
eastward, skirting the Persian Gulf, and would bring
their weary march to an end on the banks of the
Tigris. On other occasions they would start to the
north, and, halting from day to day in a succession of
convenient wadies by the side of the Red Sea, they
would make the acquaintance of a different sort of
Semitic civilization from their own in the borders of
Palestine. By this route they would pass very near
to wondrous Petra, and to Mount Hor, on the top
of which Aaron, brother of Moses, breathed his last.
Yemen was the name of the southern portion of
Arabia, but the Greeks called it Happy Arabia, on
account of the fertility. Saba was the name of a
city there of great importance in early times. In
that region Joktan, the mythical great-grandson of
Noah's son Shem, became father of a people living
in rich and pojDulous cities of commercial importance.
A thousand years before Christ the rich King Solo-
mon was reigning at Jerusalem, and wondrous were
the stories told about him, — stories that travellers
slowly carried along the shores of the Red Sea, so
tradition asserts, until they got quite down to the
Indian Ocean, where they reached the ears of Balkis,

* It is not necessary to enter upon the vexed question of the geo^
graphical position of Ophir ; it may have been in Arabia.


the queen in Saba.* Her people were Sabeans;
they stood on their rich wadies and on their lonely
sands, and gazed up to heaven in wonder, as the
stars, the sun, and the moon shone out upon them,
and they thought that such bright lights must be
gods. Then they bowed their heads and worshipped
the hosts of heaven.

The queen of Saba (we still follow tradition) medi-
tated upon the wonders that travellers told of the
great northern king, and in spite of the threescore
and more of stages that the camels would have to
make before reaching that far-off land, she determined
to go herself and see and hear what Solomon could
do and say. It was no small labor to prepare for
such a journey. It would take but a few days to
accomplish the distance in our country, but there
and at that time circumstances were different. The
queen was going to visit a powerful potentate ; the
richest, the wisest of whom she had ever heard ; a
king so great, indeed, that even her wildest Arabian

* The capital of Yemen, the seat of the Himyaritic dynasty to
which the queen of Saba is said to have belonged, was Mareb, two
days' journey northeast of a city called Sana, and great numbers of
finely cut stones, inscriptions, coins, and jewels still give evidence
that a city of importance once stood there. Balkis is represented to
have been descended from one Afrikis, who, according to tradition,
gathered the remnants of the Amalekites after Joshua overthrew that
people, and led them to the other side of the Red Sea, where they
multiplied and were known from their barbarous dialect as Berbers.
Magreb (western), the country in which legend makes this mixed
people to have settled, may be said to have extended from the Red
Sea to the Atlantic. See Caussin de Perceval, " Essai sur V Histoire
des Arabes" vol. i., pp. 67, "]$-!! , etc. De Slane's " Histoire des
Berberes " yo\. i., pp. 168, 186.



imagination could not depict his glories. She could
not take a camel and start off alone ; she would be
obliged to take many camels, and scores of men, be-
sides numbers of women to attend upon her, and she
was obliged also, according to the customs of her
country, to take rich presents to offer to the great

Let us imagine her starting from the city of the
sons of Joktan with her long train of camels and
their drivers ; with their tents for covering by night
as she encamped in the wadies by the way, and with
her precious gifts. Day after day we follow her, and
night after night we see her resting beneath the clear
and cloudless sky of that wondrous land. A week
passes, and she has but begun her tedious journey;
still the train pushes forwards. Another week passes
and another and another ; seventy days and more
she holds persistently to her purpose. She had
travelled as long as Columbus took to cross the broad

At last the gilded turrets of the temple come in
sight, and in time the curious queen is in the
presence of the wise king. She connects his name
with a knowledge of the great Jehovah, and she
brings hard questions for him to answer, such, per-
haps, we imagine, as those which Job and his friends,
discussed in their truly Arabian manner. Probably
she asked him to solve riddles, for her people loved
such sportive queries ; but surely she had besides
more serious matters about which to speak, for she
talked " of all that was in her heart "; and she
listened in admiration to Solomon's words, confessing


that in spite of the exaggerations of travellers, the
half of what she saw and heard had not been carried
to her far-away land.*

No wonder that stories of Solomon increased in
number and in marvellousness in the land of Joktan's
sons ; no wonder that he was there said to wear a
ring by means of which he could get any information
that he wanted ; no wonder that it was believed that
his temple was the foundation of all architectural
knowledge, and that he was himself thought to effect
his wonders through the agency of the jinns, or genii,
inhabitants of the mountain of Kaf in Jinnestan or
fairyland, over which he was said to have had com-
plete sway. No wonder that the people of Arabia,
from Saba to the northern deserts, naturally looked
upon Palestine as a land of a civilization far beyond
theirs, and willingly received legends and religious
inspiration from its people.

* An account of this legendary visit of the queen of Sheba to Solo-
mon is to be found in the Koran, the Arabian Bible (Sura xxvii.).
The word Koran means " reading," and a sura is a chapter, a con-
tinuous portion, like a brick in its course in a wall.



The Arabs were an imaginative people ; they lived
in a wonderful land, and they found something strange
wherever they looked ; were it into the clear blue of
the starlit heaven, or over the desert, often start-
lingly illuminated by the marvellous mirage ; they
saw a fairy, a ghost, a goblin, a spook, a genius of
some sort in the rock and the flower, in the tree and
the stream, — everywhere they felt that supernatural
agents were above and around them. Out of this
nature grew up in process of time a mythology, — out
of the nature of this active, meditative, enthusiastic,
deep-hearted people, these Frenchmen of the East.
At what times it was put into the form in which it
appears to us, and how much of it was known in the
earliest days, we are not able to determine. One of
the most thorough students says,* that we can but
guess at the state of the Arabian belief in those
days, but that " from what broken light is shed by a
few forlorn rays, we may conclude this, that they
worshipped, to use that vague word, the Hosts of
Heaven " ; that others seemed to have ascribed
every thing to nature, and that some worshipped
* Emanuel Deutsch, in the London Quarterly Review, Oct., 1869.


stones and other fetiches; while the Phantoms of
the Desert, the Fata Morgana, angels and demons
and the rest of embodied ideas or ideals, formed
other objects of pious consideration.

Two thousand years before Adam was created,
according to the stories of the myth-makers of this
people, Allah made a different order of beings from
man. They were known as jinns; and were not
formed of clay, but of pure fire unmixed with smoke.
They moved from place to place without being seen ;
they loved and married ; they had children and they
died, just as the creatures of clay did and still do.
Some of them were good and some bad ; and they
were divided into classes in respect to other traits.
Some of them haunted ruins, and markets and
cross-roads ; some dwelt in rivers and oceans ; and
some were found in baths and wells ; but their
chief resort was a mysterious mountain named
Kaf, which, in the imagination of the Arabs,
was founded upon an immense emerald and en-
circled the world, so that indeed the sun rose and
went down behind it. When they wished to speak
of the entire earth, they said " from Kaf to Kaf."
It was this emerald, they thought, which gave
its azure tint to the sun's rays ; it surrounded the
earth as a ring surrounds a finger, and, in some way
that we do not understand, it was connected with
the earthquakes which, in accordance with the orders.
of Allah, shook Arabia.

All the jinns were once good, and had their laws,
prophets, religion, and regular government ; but long
before the time of Adam, they became uneasy under


a monotonous and regular life, and tried to over-
turn the original condition of things. They rebelled
against the prophets, who, we must remember, were
not persons who foretold future events, but, like
those of their neighbors, the Jews, were preachers,
and expounders of the will of heaven. Allah sent
against them legions of creatures who were still more
spiritual than they, angels, who had been created not
from clay, not even from smokeless fire, but from
pure light. Was it not a bright thought of someone
in those early ages, that of peopling space with such
creatures as these, made of fire and light ?

Well, the angels went forth and made consterna-
tion among the jinns, scattering them to the islands
and mountains, and to all sorts of out-of-the-way
places, but also capturing many of them. The evil
jinns were known by several names, one of which
was Ifreet or Efreet. Some accounts says that one
of those that the angels frightened became an angel
himself, and was named Azazil, or Iblis; but no one
knows what the original belief was, and it is well
enough for us to think of Iblis as at first an angel who
rebelled against Allah, at the time of the creation of
Adam, and became an evil demon corresponding
with our idea of Satan. Like Satan, he was proud
in his first estate, and was called the Peacock of the

When an Arabian whirlwind was seen carrying
sand and dust over field and desert, it was said that
some evil jinn was riding forth with sinister intent,
and the beholder was wont to cry out : " Iron ! Iron !
thou unlucky ! " for the jinns were cowed by the fear


of iron ; or they exclaimed : " Allah is most great ! "
as if thinking that Allah, thus complimented, would
protect them from the threatened harm. So when
they ventured to sea in their little boats, and saw a
waterspout, they thought that a jinn was abroad,
against whom they needed protection.

The angels were deemed quite different from
jinns ; they never disobey Allah, nor are they
troubled by the bad passions that stir jinns, and, it
must be confessed, stir men, also ; some did join in
the rebellion against Allah, but since that time all
find their food in celebrating his glory, their drink
in proclaiming his holiness, and their pleasure in his
worship. They were supposed to have different
forms ; but as they are made of pure light, it would
of course, take sharper- eyes than those of the creat-
ures of clay to tell what their beautiful shapes are.
Four are archangels : Gabriel, the faithful spirit, who
reveals the will of Allah ; Michael, guardian of the
Jews; Azrael, the angel of death; and Israfil, the
angel of the trumpet, who is at the end of the world
to blow a blast which will kill all creatures, and
another which will raise them all for judgment.

One angel was supposed to stand ever at the right
side of each man to record his good deeds, and an-
other at his left to write down his evil acts. At
every man's death Nakir and Munkir, two of the
creatures of light, examine him in his grave concern-
ing his faith. If he acknowledge Allah to be the one
God, they permit him to rest in peace, but otherwise
they pound and beat him until he roars so loudly that
he is heard, by all but men and jinns, from Kaf to Kaf !


Men were thought to be not entirely at the mercy
of the jinns, but were permitted to command their
services, and even to gain from them some informa-
tion of future events through the medium of certain
invocations and tahsmans. One would think that
jinns could not know any more about the future
than ordinary mortals, but we are told that they
were eavesdroppers at the gates of heaven, and thus
gained a great deal of information about the doings
of the angels and the plans of Allah. Up to the time
of the birth of Jesus, so they say, they were allowed
to enter any of the seven heavens, but after that
they were excluded from three of them, and after
the birth of Mohammed they were forbidden the
other four; still, however, as they go as near the
lowest heaven as possible, they glean a great deal
that men cannot learn. When the Arabians saw
bright shooting-stars in the sky, they were wont to
say that the angels were driving these inquisitive
jinns from their positions near the gates of the low-
est heaven.

Solomon's seal-ring by which he was supposed to
control the jinns, was said to have been sent to him
from heaven. It was of iron and brass, and had
engraven on it the name of Allah. When he sent a
command to the good jinns, he stamped the letter
with the brass, and when the order was intended for
the evil ones, it bore the imprint of the iron, for the
reason that has been mentioned. By the power he
possessed over the jinns he forced them to assist in
building the temple at Jerusalem, and in many of the
other great works of his reign. The marvellous ring


gave him power also over winds, over birds, and even
over wild beasts. It is mentioned in the "Arabian
Nights," in the tale of the fisherman and the jinn, or
genii. It was truly a wondrous ring. By it the rich
owner converted many evil jinns to the true faith,
and confined others in strong prisons because they
would not yield. It were well if other mortals could
have owned such a ring, for the evil jinns worked a
great many wrongs upon men. They carried ofT
beautiful women ; they went upon roofs and threw
bricks and stones down upon passers-by, they stole
provisions, they haunted empty houses, some of
them, called ghouls, ate men and made their homes
in graveyards, and they did many other diabolical

Though we cannot tell at what time the different
portions of this weird mythology were taken up, we
know that the belief in jinns was an original portion
of it, though it is equally evident also that the heaven
of the Arabian imagination was a creation of after-
times. Mohammed conceived Paradise to be a place
where all the enjoyments grateful to dwellers in a
hot and barren land, — shade, rest, water, fruit, com-
panionship, and service, — were perennially furnished
to the faithful. Allah is the ruler there : he is eter-
nal and everlasting, without form or limit, including
every thing and included by nothing ; he is invoked
under ninety-nine attributes which represent him as
merciful and glorious, exalted and righteous; the
guardian and judge, the creator and the provider.

Heaven was to him in its seven-fold division, the
Garden of Beauty, the Abode of Peace, the Abode


of Rest, the Garden of Eden, the Garden of Resort,
the Garden of Pleasure, the Garden of the Most
High, and the Garden of Paradise.* Hell was like-
wise divided into seven parts : Gehenna, the Flam-
ing Fire, the Raging Fire that splits every thing to
pieces, the Blaze, the Scorching Fire, the Fierce Fire,
and finally the Abyss. In the first hell wicked Islam-
ites were confined temporarily ; in the second are
the Jews; in the third the Christians ; in the fourth
the Sabeans ; in the fifth the INIagians ; in the sixth the
idol-worshippers ; and in the bottommost, hypocrites
who have falsely professed some religion. This hell
in all its departments was a place which men accus-
tomed to the trials of a hot country would consider
an abode of direst miser}^

The ninth month of the Arabian year, called
Ramadan, is and was held to be a sort of Lent, during
the entire duration of which it was a sacred duty to
fast from the rising of the sun to the going down of
the same ; but when its setting was announced, ail
restrictions were off, and the hungry and thirsty
hastened to eat and drink to full content. During
the day they would even hold the hand before the
mouth should they chance to pass in the street a
man smoking, lest a whiff of the forbidden fragrance
should pollute them ; but when it was too dark to
distinguish a white thread from a black, they might
unrestrictedly enjoy their pipes. Some, of course,
did not observe this month with the religious faith

Online LibraryArthur GilmanThe story of the Saracens, from the earliest times to the fall of Bagdad → online text (page 2 of 32)