The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan.
When we last left Frankopan’s history of the Silk Roads at the time of the middle of the seventh century, Christianity was on the eastward march. There was soon to be a new sheriff (or is that Sharīf) in town.
But first, the bubonic plague. The year is 541:
It moved like lightning, so fast that by the time panic set in, it was already too late. No one was spared. The scale of death was barely imaginable.
This is known today as the Plague of Justinian:
The Plague of Justinian (541–542) was a pandemic that afflicted the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, especially its capital Constantinople, the Sassanid Empire, and port cities around the entire Mediterranean Sea. One of the deadliest plagues in history, this devastating pandemic resulted in the deaths of an estimated 25 million (at the time of the initial outbreak that was at least 13% of the world's population) to 50 million people (in two centuries of recurrence).
The plague is believed to have begun in China; it was brought west through trade – grain ships carrying rats, etc. (And Americans complain about the devastation brought on by NAFTA!) In addition to death, the plague brought chronic economic depression; returning to Frankopan:
…fields denuded of farmers, towns stripped of consumers and a generation scythed down in their youth naturally altered the demography of late antiquity, and caused a severe contraction of the economy.
A Byzantine treasury already depleted before the plague could not withstand the demands after the plague. Justinian was left with the option of buying off his neighbors, as he did not have the means to fight them off. His successors decided on a different approach. The new Emperor, Justin II, sent the Avars – who were looking for their customary payment of tribute – away with a message:
“Never again shall you be loaded at the expense of this empire, and go on your way without doing us any service; for from me you shall receive nothing.”
A powerful alliance of Türk nomads felt Constantinople could be a worthwhile partner in support of their ambition to destroy Persia. The Roman attack failed, and the Türks felt that they chose an unreliable partner. This episode, however, brought on a period of two decades of fighting between the Romans and Persians.
The result would be devastating for both sides, especially for the Persians; further, the fighting would make the soil fertile for a new enemy, one to arise from the deserts of the south.
At one point, after the Persians successfully penetrated deep into Asia Minor, the Romans successfully ambushed the Persian army. The queen was taken prisoner along with the royal golden carriage; the Persian sacred fire – considered greater than any other fire – was captured and thrown into a river; the Zoroastrian high priest and a “multitude of the most senior people” were drowned.
These were seen, as you might imagine, as aggressive and provocative acts, meant to belittle the Persians and their religion. At the same time, the Roman army embraced an ever more religious tone.
The details of the battles, the ebbs and flows, the intrigue, the diplomacy…too much for this post. By 626, the Persian army was camped within site of the walls of Constantinople. Heraclius, the Roman Emperor of Armenian descent, felt this would be a fight to defend the Christian faith.
Just as all seemed lost, the walls held and the assaults were beaten away. The Avars – allied in this battle alongside the Persians – gave up first; the Persians soon had to follow, given reports of attacks in the Caucasus by the Türks.
Heraclius did not leave it at this; he organized a swift counter-attack, making an alliance with the Türks. After crushing a large Persian army, the Persian leadership cracked under the pressure. Heraclius led a ceremonial entry into Jerusalem. Jews in the city were forcibly baptized; Eastern Christians, whose doctrinal positions did not match those of the Orthodox Church, were forced into conforming.
In the meantime, a new threat to both Romans and Persians was rising up from the south…
It was in this region, as war raged to the north, that a trader named Muḥammad, a member of the Banū Hāshim clan of the Quraysh tribe, retreated to a cave not far from the city of Mecca to contemplate.
Muḥammad was not alone in this region with a new preaching about a single god; there were others who rose in this region during this time, a region experiencing acute economic contraction as a result of the Perso-Roman Wars. Yet, it is Muḥammad who advanced.
Those who followed his teachings were promised fruitful land, economic rewards, paradise, and receipt of the lord’s forgiveness; those who did not would see their crops fail, face doom, disaster and damnation.
Anyone who waged war on his followers would suffer terribly and receive no mercy. They were to be executed or crucified, lose limbs or be exiled: the enemies of Muḥammad were the enemies of God; truly they would suffer an awful fate.