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How did Europe begin?

Judith Herrin
3 July 2001

George W Bush had a pretty mixed reception during his recent tour of Europe, but in one venue he was greeted with warm applause. This was in Warsaw, where he addressed a university audience stressing the common roots of Americans and Poles, with numerous references to John Paul II and Poland’s heroic struggle during the second world war.

There are several notable features of this speech that seem to have been ignored. It appeared, for example, to regard the European Union and Nato as one and the same thing. It claimed that not only do "we" share a civilisation and a culture, "from Jerusalem and Athens to Warsaw to Washington", but, while constantly reassuring Moscow that America is a friend of Russia, "we" must be particularly sensitive to the problems of the Ukraine, now trying to forge its own links with the west.

All European democracies, "from the Baltic to the Black Sea", must have "the same chance to join the institutions of Europe". And later: "The Europe we are building must include Ukraine" (my emphasis) while only being "open to Russia". This is quite simply an attempt to drive a wedge between Ukraine and Russia, two Christian countries that share many historical features.

The speech was accompanied by a total silence about Nato’s important ally, Turkey. This overwhelmingly Muslim society has also applied to join the queue for European Union membership. In a speech redolent with soothing notions of United States-European Union cooperation, Bush praised the European opening to the east while also apparently trying to direct it to serve America’s purposes.

I leave it to others to engage with the politics and strategy of the new administration in Washington. It is as a historian that I wish to respond. The gaps revealed by the president and his staff in understanding how Europe came into existence should be firmly restated, to correct their abysmal grasp of a history which has done much harm as well as good.

The origins of "Europe"

The word Europa comes to us from the Greek, and all are familiar with the Greek myth of how Europa was swept away by Zeus in the form of a bull. While Greece is the origin of many things, including that civilisation which Bush claims that "we all share", it is not the starting-point for Europe.

Indeed, despite the profound influence of classical Greece and Rome on European government, on ideas of democracy and on the rhetoric of government from the Renaissance onwards, that "rebirth" should not mislead us into thinking that Europeans today are their geographical inheritors. On the contrary, to understand the historical meaning of the term Europe, we need to recognise that its emergence came about with the final, shattering end of the Roman empire and its political legacy.

There can be no doubt that the empire of Rome suffered a long decline and fall brilliantly documented by Edward Gibbon and many who have followed him. The "barbarian" tribes responsible for this collapse gradually replaced imperial structures by establishing their own kingdoms in the west. In the east Mediterranean, however, a new capital of the Roman world was established at what is today Istanbul, then Byzantium, renamed Constantinople in 324 ce (common era).

The city of Constantine was inaugurated in 330 as New Rome. It became the "queen city", the stupendous centre of the known world, which continued to identify itself as the Roman empire. While the capital moved, the sea that was the true centre of the Empire remained the same: the Mediterranean. The Roman empire was a Mediterranean empire. Its granaries were in north Africa, Sicily and the Nile valley of Egypt. They fed the concentrations of population in both Romes. And emperors were drawn from the African as much as the Italian or Adriatic coasts.

The move to Constantinople combined with the end of religious persecution as Constantine I granted toleration to all faiths. Christianity had spread rapidly from its birthplace in the near east, and again, the Christian empire remained a Mediterranean one. St Antony, the first of the desert fathers who inspired monasticism, lived in the depths of Egypt and spoke Coptic; St John Chrysostomos, "golden-mouth", came from Antioch; St Augustine, the founder of Latin Christian theology, was from Carthage. This world was inspired by the holy places of the near east and its spiritual leaders lived in the great cities of antiquity: Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, as well as the two Romes.

The Arab advance

In the early 7th century, a new force bent upon its conversion emerged in the east: the Arabs, inspired by Islam. From their base in Saudi Arabia they rapidly conquered the Holy Land, all of Egypt, north Africa, and under their leader Tarik, with the support of Bedouin tribesmen, would enter Spain in 711. By that time three of the five patriarchs had come under their sway – never to return to Christian rule.

The first and main objective of the Arabs was the queen city itself, Constantinople. While the origins of Islam remain much disputed, it is clear that the Arabs had drawn upon a transformed version of the other two monotheistic religions – Christianity and Judaism – and worshipped the same true god. That is to say, the Arabs regarded themselves as the followers of the true prophet of that God and constituted themselves as a legitimate successor to the Christian Mediterranean empire. Their claim to this effect is written in their script around the Dome of the Rock on the holy mount of Jerusalem, a dome built by Byzantine craftsman.

Had the Arabs captured the eastern capital, its population would have been similarly converted and their energies released to enhance the expansion of Islam. Only with the enormous resources of the great city, its unrivalled location, harbours and dockyards, its wealth, commerce and skills, would the forces of Arab Islam have been able to overwhelm Greece, the Balkans and Italy. The Roman Mediterranean empire might then have renewed itself once again, only this time under the green flag.

The Arabs were stopped at the great walls of Constantinople. Its strategic location, the use of Greek fire, the luck of the weather (a particularly hard winter which exposed the ill-clad Arabs to snow and forced them to eat their own dead camels) and above all the resources invested in a city of unparalleled strength and size, ensured the survival of the Byzantine capital. After a year’s siege the Arabs were forced to retreat in 718.

The result was the preservation of a much reduced eastern Roman empire. Strong enough to last nearly a thousand years to 1453 as a medieval state, but never able to marshal the resources to re-conquer its former granaries or the seats of Christian patriarchy. It was too entrenched and determined to be overrun but unable ever to mount a return challenge for Mediterranean domination against a now wealthy and well organised Islamic polity.

At their most extended point in the west, the Arabs were unable to penetrate beyond the Pyrenees. Near Poitiers, Abd-al-Rahman al-Ghafiqi was defeated by Carolus martellus "the hammer" (733). Similarly, the extreme northwestern tip of the Spanish peninsula was never subdued, and there the Christians of Asturias and Galicia clung to their own faith.

Unifying the west

This standoff shattered the unity of the Mediterranean world that had been forged by ancient Rome. A stalemate, whose central axis was the border between Byzantium and Islam, permitted a weak and parcellised northern world to survive. This, the northern residue of the great battle in the east, was united, in so far as it was united, by a single, highly organised religion, based on Latin Christian texts. This was the world that began to think of itself as Europe, a geographical entity distinct from the Mediterranean.

Europe, then, as we know, begins with the rise of Islam. Its founding moment was the Byzantine check on Islamic expansion into the peninsula of Europe from the east, the moment when the threefold division of the Mediterranean world began – in the 8th century. The division became a settled one between 800 and the end of the first millennium as Carolus, later called the great, Karl der Grosse, Charlemagne, unified the largest part of the European peninsula under his personal rule, allied with the pope, and established a permanent capital at Aachen, Aix-la-Chappelle. Not without justification did Alcuin, his skilful adviser who came from York, call him Europae pater.

Carolus was to divide his territories between his sons, who squandered his legacy in fratricidal competition. But the notion of a government of European dimensions survived both the northern raids and eventual settlement of the Vikings and Danes, as well as the southern raids of Saracen pirates established in Provence. And the papacy supported the Christianisation of all newcomers in the European area.

Converting the east

Meanwhile, in the east, Constantinople continued to develop as a major centre of culture and commerce, attracting scholars who made possible the almost peaceful conversion of the medieval Slavs and Russians to Christianity. Under the patronage of Photios, two brothers, Saints Cyril and Methodios, devised a new alphabet to represent the Slavonic spoken in the 9th century and translated the Christian scriptures, liturgies, sermons from the Greek original. Eventually Roman law, ancient histories, Greek novels and poems were also made available in Slavonic. Christianity became the dominant religion in southeastern Europe, visible in the numerous churches dotted over Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and the regions of Yugoslavia.

One hundred years later, under Basil II (976-1025), Prince Vladimir of Kiev was converted to Christianity and married the emperor’s sister, who began to establish the first monasteries and churches in the Ukraine. Christians from Kiev who went north to Novgorod in turn met up with Scandinavian missionaries loyal to Rome and the papacy, who were converting the Baltic states and central Europe.

East and west against Islam

In this way, eastern Christendom contributed greatly to the conversion of Europe and the civilising of areas which had never been touched by the Greco-Roman traditions of the Mediterranean. Nor were the differences between what we now call orthodox and catholic so marked that the Christian forces of east and West could not combine against their common enemy, Islam. The faithful throughout Christendom mounted the first crusade and succeeded against all the odds in forcing the Fatimid governor, of Jerusalem, Iftikhar ad-Dawla, to surrender the city.

The crusading movement, however, also gave birth to the first documented pogroms against Jewish communities in the Rhineland and led in 1204 to the sack of Constantinople, a disaster even greater than the final fall of the city in 1453 in many respects. In a similar way when the Moors were driven from Spain, the Jews were also expelled. The narrow and intolerant determination of Europe may also be traced back to the western – but not the eastern – counter-assault upon the Arabs. For good or ill, awareness of the "other" was always present and it regularly took the form of a hostility to the Muslims.

This is why President Bush’s neglect of Turkey is striking. For his speech assumes that all those who should now join the EU share the same heritage – a Christian civilisation. But for Europe to grow and strengthen its own traditions, it must embrace the Muslims who have for centuries lived on its soil. Turkey thus represents a test case for EU expansion. As the conqueror of the eastern Roman empire, the Ottoman inherited many elements of its civilisation, though it reformed them in a Muslim mould.

That this represents a profound challenge to the development of a fully democratic state that embraces human rights, especially with respect to the Kurds, and learns to live at peace with its neighbours, is clear. In its different way Ukraine is hardly immune from the same strictures. The point is rather that clear statements of principle and intention from our political leaders assist the processes, which must be the condition for full membership of a union such as Europe’s.

The European Union that stretches from Scandinavia to Iberia is now poised to embrace the states of central Europe. A defining element of this welcome transition will be whether or not – on both sides – it will prove possible for Turkey to be engaged as well in the process of enlargement. I hope it will be. I look forward to a time when I can travel from London to Istanbul, and my friends and colleagues in Istanbul can come to London, without passports.

In order to assess whether this is possible, we need to look back at the history of Europe. What do we see?

A continent born out of political fragmentation and conflict

A continent that combines many traditions, with exceptional linguistic variety and cultural vitality, encouraged by the weakness of any centre with imperial pretension.

A continent whose best is its inner development and whose worst is its attempt at forcible expansion and the imposition of its values on others.

The attempt to transform this legacy, in a peaceful fashion, into a new and lasting arrangement should not underestimate how great a change this is, how difficult it will be and what deep forces will need to be confronted in achieving it. A profound respect for conflicting traditions and histories is called for. Not least with respect to the two great orthodox Christian countries of the east, Russia and Ukraine. Any superficial attempt to expand Europe’s military and political commitments to the Crimea while remaining "open" to Russia is playing with division, not overcoming it. Reversing the historical separation of east and west, Christian and Muslim Europe, is an admirable and serious ambition. This is no longer the time for divide and rule.

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