Ted Thornton
History of the Middle East Database
High Middle Ages
1095 - 1500
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View from the Alhambra, Granada

1095 Pope Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade to liberate Christian holy places from the Muslim "infidels."

Looking at Europe in the Middle Ages and specifically at the French Chansons de Geste ("Songs of Heroic Deeds"), Mark Skidmore (“The Moral Traits of Christian and Saracen as Portrayed by the Chansons de Geste,”  Colorado College Publication, Colorado Springs, CO, January, 1935, pp. 1-58)  tells us that the medieval chansons de geste are oral poetic traditions that reflect the struggles and shared feelings of Christians and Muslims in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Descriptions of  Muslims in these Christian epic poems or the countries inhabited by Muslims contained many slanderous, stereotypical inaccuracies.  Often in the chansons, Christian beliefs and practices (including the drinking of wine, use of divining arrows, and casting of lots - all practices explicitly prohibited by the Qur’an) are ascribed to Muslims. In the Roland, Muslims are depicted as treacherous and deceitful violators of international law.  They are unjust and cowardly on the battlefield.  The poet declares ruefully that the “Saracen” knight could become brave if he converted to Christianity.   The Gormand et Isembert, possibly the oldest of the chansons, relates the story of a pagan English army led by Gormand on a campaign into France.  Gormand, either an Englishman or a Dane, is referred to in the piece as an “Oriental” and an “Arabian.”  His troops are called “Saracens.”  Isembert is a renegade Christian turned “Saracen” who is now Gormand’s lieutenant.  He rallies the “Saracen” troops after Gormand is slain by King Louis.  Isembert himself is mortally wounded and returns to Christianity as he dies.  In this account any enemy of the French is represented as a Muslim. 

In a similar vein, William Wistar Comfort (“The Literary Role of the Saracens in the French Epic” PMLA, Vol. 55, No. 3, Sept. 1940, 628-659) tells us, “Epic poetry from the Roland down to the fifteenth century is the happy hunting-ground for Saracens.” (p. 628)    But, the most widespread understanding of the term in the medieval mind was any people whose religion was not Christian.  Generally speaking, Comfort says, “Christians thought of Saracens as ethically or culturally inferior to themselves  (p. 633).”   Muhammad is depicted as an authentic prophet of Christianity who went astray and betrayed his faith establishing a Christian heresy which denied that Jesus was the Son of God.  (pp. 638-639)   The author of Aiol  (lines 10085-92) wrote:

“‘It is true that God sent Mahomet in the first place to preach in the land and to spread his law; but he was so presumptuous that he violated the command of God.” (p. 639)

In Le Couronnement Louis (lines 847-849), we read,

“‘As everyone knows, Mahomet was a prophet of Jesus, the omnipotent, and went preaching through the land.’”  (p. 639)

Finally, in Les Narobonnais (lines 5762-68) we see some of the most widespread slurs against Muslims:

“‘No one ought to hold Mahomet in esteem.  It is true that our Lord held him very dear, and sent him forth with the prophets to preach and to teach our law.  But he drank a gallon of strong wine, then lay down upon a dung hill, where the swine devoured him.’”  (p. 639)

Saracen princesses are depicted as insatiably attracted to Christian knights.  In Gaufrey, the beautiful Flordépine spurns the advances of her Saracen lover but promises Christians she will do anything to win Bérart as her lover! (p. 657) (See also "Wars of Words and Images")

1100 Omar Khayyam composed the Rubaiyyat.

1111 Death of Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, one of the greatest Muslim theologians of the middle ages.

1125  By this date, a rival Berber movement, the al-Mohads (Ar. al-muwahidun, "those who stand for oneness") began challenging the al-Moravids in northern Africa.  The founder of the al-Mohads was Muhammad Ibn Tumart (ca. 1080-1130), a preacher of strict Muslim fundamentalist piety. An elaborate administrative structure was instituted to enforce piety including the office of mizwar, a keeper of morals whose duties included destroying musical instruments and punishing people who consumed alcohol. (The later Wahhabis also called themselves muwahidun.)

1135 - 1204    Life of the Jewish philosopher Abu-Imran Musa Ibn-Maymun, "Maimonides." (See Umayyad Spain)  He and his family were forced out of Cordoba about 1165 during a persecution conducted by the Muslim al-Mohad rulers of that city and moved to Cairo where Maimonides became court physician to Salah al-Din

1143 At the French abbey of Cluny, under the direction of its abbot, Peter the Venerable, work was completed on a Latin translation of the Qur'an which bore the title Lex Mahumet pseudoprophete (The Law of Muhammad, the Pseudo-Prophet). The translator was Robert of Ketton. As the title suggests, the motive was largely polemical: i.e. to provide arguments for Christian theologians in their mission to prove Islam a false religion. A few decades later, Mark of Toledo published another Latin translation of the Qur'an regarded by some as more literal and less polemical. (See "Wars of Words and Images")

1144 Edessa was retaken by the Turks. The crusaders were ejected.

1147  The al-Mohads under their ruler Abd al-Mumin (1145-1163) defeated the al-Moravids and took over much of northern Morocco including Marrakesh. Between 1147 and 1157, Christians under Alfonso VII tried to exploit the confusion in the south (al-Andalus) created by the change in Muslim ruling dynasties, but al-Mumin moved in to secure Muslim rule there which lasted until 1212. 

1147 - 1148 The Second Crusade, in response to the Muslim resurgence in Asia Minor, culminated in disastrous defeat.

1154 Construction began on the Chartres cathedral in France heralding the great age of Gothic architecture. The pointed arch had appeared for the first time in the Great Umayyad mosque in Damascus.

1163 Construction began on the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

1169 Nur al-Din, a Sunni leader, from his power base in Damascus, forced the Shiite Fatimid dynasty in Egypt into submission.

1171 Salah al-Din, or "Saladin," Kurdish nephew of Nur al-Din's best general, Shirkuh, became sultan (al-sultan , "the power") in Egypt and Syria, founding the Ayyubid dynasty which lasted until 1249.   Salah al-Din's accession  marked the formal end of the Fatimids.

1175 - 1192  The Turkic Muslim Ghurids conquered India.  One of their generals, Qutb al-Din Aybeg, conquered Delhi and began a dynasty known as the Delhi sultanates (1206-1526). The Delhi sultans included a woman, one of the few in Islam to attain this rank:  Razziya Sultana, who ruled from 1236-1240 (Egypt's Shajrat al-Durr was another prominent female Islamic ruler). Weakness in the later Delhi period led to the intervention of Babur in the sixteenth century and the onset of the Mughal Empire. 

1176 Salah al-Din ("Saladin") began the fortifications in Cairo which came to be called, "the Citadel" on a spur in the eastern Muqqatim hills. 

1178 - 1229   Life of the geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi.  Born into a Greek family in Asia Minor, Yaqut was sold into slavery in Baghdad as a boy.  His master treated him kindly and educated him.  He began traveling while working for his master's business.  His best known work is Mu'jam al-Buldan ("Dictionary of the Countries"). 

1187 Salah al-Din (Saladin) captured Jerusalem from the crusaders. See also Crusades)

1189 - 1192 The Third Crusade, this one to recover Jerusalem.

1193  Death of Salah al-Din (Saladin). The dynasty he started, the Ayyubids, ruled Egypt down through Shajrat al-Durr ("Tree of Pearls") in 1250, one of the the only women to attain the rank of sultana and rule in Islam (Razziya Sultana, who ruled from 1236-1240 during the Delhi Sultanate, was another). The name of the dynasty was actually taken from Shajrat al-Durr's first husband, the Sultan Ayyub (1240 -1249).

1198 Death of the philosopher Averroes.

1202 Genghis Khan defeated the Tartars. Mongol armies invaded southeast Asia.

1202 - 1204 The Fourth Crusade.

1212 The Fifth Crusade, the so called "Children's Crusade."  Also in 1212, the Battle of Navas de Tolosa took place in southern Spain (al-Andalus).  The Muslim al-Mohads were soundly defeated by Christian forces which rapidly went on to capture nearly all the major cities of Andalusia: Merida (1231), Cordoba (1236), Valencia (1238), Seville (1248), Murcia (1261), and Cadiz (1262). Only Granada managed to hold off the Christians until it, too, fell to them in 1492

1215 Genghis Khan captured Peking. The Magna Carta was signed in England.

1219 Genghis Khan launched his first attacks on Muslim territories. He defeated the Khwarizim Turks and moved into Khurasan.

1228 - 1229 The Sixth Crusade.

1232 In Provence, the books of Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages, were burned.

1233 The Papal inquisitions began under Gregory IX.

1236 Spanish Christians from Castille recaptured Cordoba from the Muslims.

1238 Construction of the Alhambra (above) by Muslims began in Granada (Spain). (More on Muslim Spain). 

1240   Gunpowder (invented in China and exported by the Mongols) was introduced into Europe.

1243 The Mongols defeated the Seljuks at Kose Dagh (in Azerbeijan).

1244 Jerusalem was recaptured from the Crusaders by the Mamluks.

1248 - 1254 The Seventh Crusade, directed against Egypt, was repelled by the Mamluks.

1249 - 1250 Rule of Sultana Shajrat al Durr. This marked the end of the Ayyubid era and the beginning of the Mamluk period.

1256 The Mongols under Hulegu captured a Hashasheen ("Assassin") stronghold in western Iran.

1258 Baghdad fell to Hulegu and the Mongols. 800,000 citizens of the city were slaughtered. The Sunni Abbasid caliphate came to its end. Sunni legend had it that a Shiite vizier named Ibn al-Qami betrayed the city by opening its gates to the invaders.

1260 Battle of Ayn Jalut in Palestine. The Mongol advance was stopped by the Mamluks led by Baybars. Syria fell under the control of the Mamluks.

1260 - 1277 Reign of the Mamluk Baybars. In 1261, he invited a descendant of the Abbasid caliphs to come to Cairo and reign as caliph. Thus, began the new Abbasid caliphate, a series of figurehead caliphs who wielded no real power, but functioned as the puppets of the Mamluks.

1263 - 1328  Life of Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya, the most prominent Hanbali theologian of his time.  Ibn Taymiyya's thought inspired the Wahhabi reform movement in Arabia and many late twentieth century Islamist revival movements.

1265 Baybars conquered Caesarea.

1265 - 1321 Life of Italian poet Dante Alighieri. Dante put “Mahomet,” as he called him, in that circle of hell reserved for those who commit the sin of seminator di scandalo e di scisma (“begetter of scandal and schism” – Inferno, Canto 28).  Dante’s imagery repeated a pattern well worn by his day of depicting Muhammad as a source of violence, schism, and illicit sexuality. (More: "Wars of Words and Images")

1268 Baybars conquered Jaffa and Antioch.

1270 The Eighth Crusade.

1273 Death of Jalal al-Din Rumi, poet and founder of the "whirling dervishes."

1275 - 1292 The travels of Marco Polo in China.

1279 - 1290 Reign of the Mamluk Qalawun in Cairo.

1280 The Mongols conquered China and established the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). Nine provincial governors were Muslim.

1284 Work was completed in Cairo on Sultan Qalawun's madrassa.

1288  Death of Ibn an-Nafis, Egyptian discoverer of pulmonary circulation. About the same year, Osman (died 1326), the first of thirty-six Turkish sultans and the man after whom the "Ottoman" Empire was named, established his principality. The first capital was Bursa, followed in 1402 by Adrianople (Edirne).

1291 End of the Crusades.

1293 - 1294, 1298 - 1308, 1309 - 1340 The three reigns of al-Malik al-Nasir Muhammad, son of Qalawun, and Mamluk ruler of Egypt.

1305 The papacy was transferred to Avignon (France). It was returned to Rome in 1377.

1324   Mansa ("Chief") Musa, Muslim king of Mali, went on pilgrimage to Cairo and Mecca. His kingdom was renowned throughout both Islam and Christendom for its wealth, brilliance, and artistic achievement. The University of Timbuctu was at its height at this time. Mali had become a Muslim region when its king converted to Islam in 1050.

1325 - 1354 Travels of Ibn Battuta as recorded in his book, Tuhfat al-Nuzzar fi Ghara'ib al-Amsar wa-'Aja'ib al-Asfar ("A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling"), more commonly know as Al-Rihla ("Travels").

1337 The Hundred Years War began between England and France.

1349 Muslim missionaries reached Nigeria.

1362 The Ottomans captured Adrianople (in modern Turkey). In the same year, the Chinese recaptured the throne from the Mongols and established the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

1369 - 1405 Reign of Timur Lang (Tamerlane), conqueror of central and southwest Asia, founder of the Timurid dynasty (until 1506). He sacked Baghdad in 1401 and blocked Ottoman expansion.

1389 The Battle of Kosovo took place on June 15 as the Serbs attempted to stop the advance of the Ottomans. Thus ended the Serbian Empire.

1406 Death of Ibn Khaldun, one of Islamic civilization's greatest historians.  Regarded by some as the "father of historiography" and by others as "the father of sociology," he became best known for his Muqaddima ("Introduction") to his major historical work, Kitaab al-Ibar ("Book of Examples").  In the Muqaddima, Ibn Khaldun laid out the principles for what he called a "new science" of human societies, an approach that included examination not only of historical events but of economics, philosophy, and culture as well.  His aims included identifying the underlying forces fueling historical trends such as the tension between nomadic and sedentary peoples and patterns of solidarity - asabiyya -  in social groups. In his beliefs that environment and diet played roles in shaping human character Ibn Khaldun anticipated such later thinkers as Montesquieu and Durkheim in the West. His heavy reliance on Aristotelian logic has led one contemporary historian to whimsically dub him "the last Greek historian" (see Stephen Frederic Dale, "The Last Greek and first Annaliste Historian, International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 38, no. 3, August, 2006, 431ff.).

1421-1423  Voyages of the Chinese eunuch admiral Zheng He, a Muslim also known as Sin Bao, or more familiarly in legend as "Sinbad the Sailor."

1450 Height of the Muslim Songhai Empire in West Africa.

1453 The Ottomans under Sultan Mehmet II (nicknamed Fatih,"Conqueror") conquered Constantinople, which had been a Christian city for more than a thousand years and a capital of Eastern Christendom since the sixth century. This event sent shock waves throughout Christian Europe, which began bracing itself for Muslim attacks (against Vienna, for example).  The Hagia Sophia (Gk., "holy wisdom"), one of the largest churches in the world (built by the Emperor Justinian I in 537), was immediately converted into a mosque and the four minarets you see below were added ( Ataturk would convert the building into a museum in 1934). Historian Roger Crowley writes:  "Like the assassination of Kennedy or 9/11 it is clear that people throughout Europe could remember exactly where they were when they first heard the news." (1453: The Holy War of Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West (New York: Hyperion, 2005), 239).  A new chapter in the war of polemical attacks between Christians and Muslims was opened.


Hagia Sophia Istanbul
Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia), Istanbul

Usage of the name "Istanbul" dates at least to this time and probably goes back to Byzantine times (origins of the name).  The name Constantinople continued to be used until March 28, 1930 when Turkey's president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk changed it legally to Istanbul. Mehmet's conquest marked the end of the Byzantine Roman Empire.

The seat of the Ottoman Empire became known as the "Sublime Porte" after the gate to the headquarters of the Grand Vizier, which later became the Foreign Ministry and in contemporary times the office of the governor (Vali) of Istanbul Province. 

"Sublime Porte," Istanbul

Also in 1453, coffee (from Arabic, qawa) was introduced into Constantinople by the Ottomans.

1469 The marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon to Isabella of Castille permanently united two chief kingdoms of Spain. Mass expulsions of Jews from Spain began after this. Muslims were forcibly converted to Christianity (the conversos). Muslims, and Jews either fled or were arrested by the Inquisition. The Christian conquest of Spain was made possible largely because of the fragmentation of Muslim unity throughout Andalus.  In the eleventh century, the Umayyad caliphate in Cordoba had disintegrated  (see also Cordoba at its height) into a series of smaller kingdoms. (see Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1991), 84f.) 

1475 The world's first coffeehouse ( kiva han ) opened in Constantinople.

1480 -1481 The Ottomans occupied southern Italy.

1481-1488   Seven hundred "conversos" were burned at the stake in Spain.

1486 A Latin translation of al-Razi's Arabic Medical Encyclopedia appeared in Europe.

1488 Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope in search of sea routes to the East.

1490 The first Catholic missionaries reached the Congo.

1492  In the Iberian Peninsula, Christians captured Granada and expelled Jews and Muslims who then migrated into North Africa and into Ottoman domains where they found refuge. This marked the end of Arab civilization in what we today call Spain. The same year, Queen Isabella funded Columbus' journey to America. And, Antonio de Nebrija published the first dictionary of a modern European language: Spanish. This marked a new attitude toward language:  as a practical tool, an instrument rather than an object of veneration. As Nebrija himself put it, "'Language has always been the companion of empire.'"  (Tzevtan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, trans. by Richard Howard (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), 123).

1498 Vasco da Gama reached India via Africa's Cape of Good Hope. This marked the beginning of European incursions into Far Eastern trade at the expense of Muslim commerce.

1499 Cardinal Ximenez de Cisneros, Queen Isabella's confessor, ordered the burning of all Arabic manuscripts in Granada. A policy of forced conversion was  instituted. Those "Moriscos," as Spanish Muslims were called, who refused to convert were either banished (some three million Muslims between this time and 1610) or executed. Those who fled went mostly to Africa.

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Last Revised: December 24, 2008