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Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean Worldby Stephen Oshea
Synopses & Reviews
The long, shared history of Christianity and Islam began, shortly after Islam emerged in the early seventh century A.D., with a question: Who would inherit the Greco-Roman world of the Mediterranean? Sprung from the same source--Abraham and the Revelation given to the Jews--the two faiths played out over the course of the next millennium what historian Stephen O'Shea calls "a sibling rivalry writ very large." Their cataclysmic clashes on the battlefield were balanced by long periods of co-existence and mutual enrichment, and by the end of the sixteenth century the religious boundaries of the modern world were drawn.
In Sea of Faith, O'Shea chronicles both the meeting of minds and the collisions of armies that marked the interaction of Cross and Crescent in the Middle Ages--the better to understand their apparently intractable conflict today. For all the great and everlasting moments of cultural interchange and tolerance--in Cordoba, Palermo, Constantinople--the ultimate "geography of belief " was decided on the battlefield. O'Shea vividly recounts seven pivotal battles between the forces of Christianity and Islam that shaped the Mediterranean world--from the loss of the Christian Middle East to the Muslims at Yarmuk (Turkey) in 636 to the stemming of the seemingly unstoppable Ottoman tide at Malta in 1565. In between, the battles raged round the Mediterranean, from Poitiers in France and Hattin in the Holy Land during the height of the Crusades, to the famed contest for Constantinople in 1453 that signaled the end of Byzantium. As much as the armies were motivated by belief, their exploits were inspired by leaders such as Charles Martel, Saladin, and Mehmet II, whose stirring feats were sometimes accompanied by unexpected changes of heart.
"In this elegant, fast-paced, and judicious cultural and religious history, journalist O'Shea, author of The Perfect Heresy, provides a remarkable glimpse into the origins of the conflicts between Christians and Muslims as well as their once peaceful coexistence. He focuses on seven military battles — Yarmuk A.D. 636), Poitiers (732), Manzikert (1071), Hattin (1187), Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), Constantinople (1453) and Malta (1565) — between Christians and Muslims as the high-water marks of their attempts to shape the Mediterranean ('sea of faith') world of the Middle Ages. O'Shea vividly captures and recreates not only the enmity between the two religions but also the sectarian rivalries and political intrigues within each religion. Yet the relationship between Christianity and Islam was marked not only by bloody Crusades and wars of conquest. As O'Shea so eloquently points out, Christians and Muslims also experienced long periods of rapprochement, signaled by the long peace at Crdoba in the early Middle Ages and in the intellectual and social flourishing at Toledo and Palermo in the 11th century. O'Shea's marvelous accomplishment offers an unparalleled glimpse of the struggles of each religion to establish dominance in the medieval world as well as at the strategies for living together that the religions enacted as they shared the same territory. (June) " Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"For anyone who has traveled the shores of that pocket sea, the cradle of civilization, John Julius Norwich's history of the Mediterranean is a cause for celebration. This traveler, historian and master stylist has already given us superbly readable histories of Byzantium, Sicily and Venice. 'The Middle Sea' is a summation of his knowledge, as well as a demonstration of his unrivaled narrative skills.... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) He is an amateur historian but an amateur only in the original sense, a writer effervescing with insight and affection; many 'professional' historians might envy the wit and vigor of his storytelling and his profound engagement with his subject. Or subjects: Norwich's Mediterranean is not so much a single stage as a glorious fair, with countless booths and sideshows to be visited in the company of this master showman. This is the Grand Tour of the great civilizations that rose and fell on the shores of the Mediterranean, and Norwich constantly adjusts his focus, pushing off from a description of some grand battle to a discussion of theology or art, sweeping up ancient Egypt in a few pages and devoting almost two chapters to Napoleon. Vivid characters animate this story at every turn. Between 'Akhnaton (1367-50 BC) — instantly recognisable by his long, narrow, pointed face, stooping body and huge thighs' and Greek Prime Minister Venizilos, 'a strange medley of charm, brigandage, weltpolitik, patriotism, courage, literature,' 'The Middle Sea' sustains a cast of thousands. There's scarcely a corner of that wondrous sea that isn't illuminated, at some stage in the narrative, by a confrontation, an abduction, a coronation or a seduction — and no one planning a simple vacation by the wine-dark sea can afford to leave this book at home. Stephen O'Shea has set himself a grimmer task. 'Sea of Faith' treads the same boards as 'The Middle Sea,' but it is more narrowly concerned with tracing the thousand years of conflict and accommodation between Christianity and Islam in the Mediterranean world — a type of sibling rivalry, as he says, between two faiths claiming Jewish parentage. Christians, proselytizing and persecuted for generations, saw their faith officially adopted by the Roman Empire in the 4th century, from which emerged a Christian commonwealth across the whole of the Mediterranean world. In the 7th century, the prophet Muhammad received a new revelation from the angel Jibril in Arabia, which inspired the Arabs to break out of their desert strongholds. Within three generations their armies had overthrown much of the Christianized Roman Empire, sweeping through Persia, North Africa and Spain, as far as Poitiers in France. In the 13th century, they lost their hold on Spain, but in the east they succeeded to the Byzantine Empire: Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453. O'Shea forms his narrative around seven major battles between Muslims and Christians. The first took place in 636 at Yarmuk, in modern Syria, and spelled the end of popular Christianity in its Middle Eastern birthplace; the last of his battles is the great Turkish assault on Malta in 1565, which signaled the end of Islamic expansion in the Mediterranean world. In between, we travel to France, Spain, Sicily and Turkey, exploring a relationship that was sometimes bitter, sometimes encouragingly harmonious but always complex. O'Shea points out that the battles themselves grew out of shared circumstances, suggesting that we all have as much to learn from the periods of calm as from the episodes of conflict. Western knights, newly arrived in the Crusader kingdom of Outremer in Palestine, were horrified by the apparent laxity of the 'poulains,' the so-called 'kids,' descended from earlier Crusaders, who had been brought up in the Middle East. Itching to slaughter infidels, the newcomers were frequently restrained by their fellow Christians; they discovered that the Christian 'kings of Jerusalem wore burnooses and kaiffiyeh; hot water and soap held no terrors for them; dancing girls entertained them; professional mourners ululated at their funerals; and their villas, replete with colourful mosaics and a central fountain, resembled nothing so much as a typical Syrian mansion.' The mingling of faiths was not unique to Outremer. What the Spanish called convivencia, or living together, flourished. Similar, if short-lived, splendor could be found in 12th-century Sicily, where Norman militarism briefly fused with Greek culture and Islamic science; Muslim Cordoba, in the 10th century, was the greatest city in Europe; from Toledo, after the Christian conquest, Arabic transcriptions of Greek philosophy kick-started the 12th-century Renaissance. Convivencia was not modern multiculturalism — no one could ever doubt who was in charge; but even Ottoman Constantinople remained a Greek city in many ways, with the Orthodox patriarch appointed by his Muslim overlord, the sultan. O'Shea stops his narrative in 1565, shortly before the whole Mediterranean world was eclipsed by the conquest of the Atlantic, ahead of the perceived sidelining of Islamic civilization over the past four centuries. By taking us back to the medieval era, when the twin ideologies were more perfectly balanced, O'Shea alerts us to a sense of a common history. If it is possible for the peoples of the Book to live in relative harmony at various places and times, then the relationship between Islam and Christianity — between any faiths, for that matter — doesn't have to end in battle. As Norwich reminds us, many conflicts have been fought in the Mediterranean — some for faith, no doubt, but all of them certainly also driven by the age-old lusts for wealth, power and status. In the cockpit of the Mediterranean, O'Shea writes, 'sparks flew for many reasons, the greatest of which was the belief in war as the ultimate arbiter of politics and policy.' All that civilization — and plus ca change. Jason Goodwin is the author of 'Lords of the Horizons: a History of the Ottoman Empire.' His most recent novel is 'The Janissary Tree.'" Reviewed by Jason Goodwin, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Book News Annotation:
Taking ten times and places as illustrative, journalist and translator O'Shea explores relations between Muslims and Christians over nearly a millennium on and around the Mediterranean Sea. Writing to general readers and devoted to conveying the sense of the time, he forgoes such academic rigor as using original but obscure names of people and places, or Islamic dates along with those of the Common Era. Annotation ©2006 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
About the Author
STEPHEN O'SHEA: Toronto-born author and journalist Stephen O'Shea moved to France in the early 1980s. There, he took up journalism, shortly after completing postgraduate degrees in politics at the Université de Paris 1 (Pantheon-Sorbonne) and the prestigious Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris.
Stephen O'Shea currently lives with his wife, Jill Pearlman, and two daughters in Providence, Rhode Island.
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