New College of the Humanities

Byzantium and the Abbasids: Best of Enemies

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.

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