Gripping account of Christianity and Islam’s first tortured millennium of combat and coexistence.
O’Shea (The Perfect Heresy, 2000, etc.) centers his narrative around the Mediterranean, which acts as a neutral witness to the historic events unfolding on its diverse shores. His sweeping tale covers nearly a thousand years and takes the reader back and forth from the Holy Land to Iberia, starting in an age of swordsmen and archers and ending with the use of cannons and firearms. Folded among the battles were periods of peaceful coexistence during which trade and culture flourished. The author attempts to focus readers on the importance of this convivencia, the practice of Muslims and Christians living together in harmony. However, as meaningful as convivencia was to history, his account cannot ignore the brutal warfare that more dramatically shaped the Mediterranean basin. O’Shea looks closely at seven major battles, each a turning point in its own right: Yarmuk (636), Poitiers (732), Manzikert (1071), Hattin (1187), Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), Constantinople (1453) and Malta (1565). He stresses each side’s culpability and points out that Christian-on-Christian and Muslim-on-Muslim violence were often meted out in addition to interfaith warfare. Specific personalities—brutal warriors, incompetent princes, zealous religious leaders—take center stage in individual chapters. Augmenting the historical account are firsthand descriptions of the battlefields, towns and buildings today, often starkly contrasting the slaughter of medieval battle with the bucolic tranquility of these sites in modern times. However, though O’Shea is obviously conscious of the impact of Christian-Muslim conflict on modern politics, he does not dwell on these connections; readers searching for such analysis will have to look elsewhere. Vivid vocabulary, tasteful touches of humor and a traveler’s-eye-view of the Mediterranean enrich the history.
An engaging glimpse into the events that shaped the Mediterranean basin as we know it today.