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Byzantium and the Abbasids: Best of Enemies

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Christian Byzantium and the Muslim Abbasid caliphate were bitter rivals. Yet the necessities of trade and a mutual admiration of ancient Greece meant that there was far more to their relationship than war, as Jonathan Harris explains.

John the Grammarian, ambassador to the Abbasid Caliph Ma'mun in 829, reports back to Byzantine Emperor Theophilos. 12th-century manuscript by John SkylitzesOsama bin Laden once declared that the world was divided into those who were with Islam and those who were with the ‘crusade’, the western imperialist oppression of Muslims. The stark division between them and us is what one would expect of a militant jihadist, yet bin Laden’s polarised language finds a curious reflection in the plethora of English-language books, films and television programmes that continue to be produced about the medieval crusades. With their retelling of the dramatic story of the struggle to control Jerusalem and the Holy Land between 1095 and 1291 comes an assumption, sometimes implicit, sometimes openly stated, that this confrontation between implacable and ideologically divided enemies was permanent and irreconcilable, even to the extent that it continues in the tension between Islam and the West today.

This assumption is a misleading one. Endless war is a phenomenon that is never found in human history. However bitter a conflict, if neither side can achieve a complete and swift victory (which they seldom do), sooner or later they will have to find some kind of accommodation, if only to mitigate the dire effects of conflict on everyday life. Medieval Christians and Muslims had to find some way of living alongside each other, just as they do today. In the process they occasionally discovered things to admire as well as to despise in the faith and culture of their hereditary enemies. This point comes across very forcibly when we examine the interaction between the Christian Byzantine Empire, also known as Byzantium, and the Muslim Abbasid caliphate between about 750 and 1050 AD.

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