byzantine army


The Guns that Brought Down Constantinople,

By the mid 15th Century, the might Eastern Roman Empire had suffered under centuries of conquest by Arab and Turkish invaders, resulting in the empire stretching no father than the ancient capitol of Constantinople itself. The great city was no better off than the empire as a whole, its population reduced from a million inhabitants to less than 50,000, while the Byzantine Army could muster little more than 7,000 men. In contrast the Ottoman Empire completely surrounded the city, and was amassing a force of 50,000 - 80,000 men to complete the final conquest of Byzantium.

The last hope of the Byzantines were a series of large walls and fortresses which had successfully defended Constantinople since ancient times.  The city walls had fended off many invaders in the past, and Constantinople was considered the most heavily fortified city in Europe at the time. Storming Constantinople would certainly not be easy, however the Ottomans had an ace up their sleeves.

In 1452 a Hungarian military engineer named Urban offered his services as a cannon maker to the Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI.  The Emperor had neither the money to pay Urban, nor the resources to craft the cannon which Urban offered. As a result, Urban went to the Emperor’s rival, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, who certainly could pay Urban and had the technology and resources to produce his cannons.

To bring down the walls of Constantinople Urban directed the casting of several large bronze siege guns.  The largest was a massive cannon that fired massive 25 inch stone balls.  Weighing 19 tons, it took 2-3 hours to load and had to be transported by a team of 60 mules.

The Siege of Constantinople began on the 6th of April 1453.  Over the next 53 days, the Ottomans pounded the city walls with Urban’s guns. After nearly two months of constant bombardment, the walls of Constantinople could no longer hold out against the attack resulting in several breeches. On May 28th, the Ottoman Army stormed the city, easily overwhelming the outnumbered Byzantine defenders.

With the exception of the short lived Empire of the Trebizond, the Ancient Roman State had fallen for good. Mehmed II made Constantinople the new capitol and quickly sought to take on the mantle as emperor of a new Roman Empire, declaring himself Kayser-i Rum (Caesar of Rome), and declaring the Ottoman Empire as the “Third Roman Empire”.


Crusade Fail —  The Peasant’s Crusade

In the early Middle Ages, Islamic forces had conquered most of the Middle East, overruning the Holy Land, at the time territory of the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire). By the end of the 11th century the Seljuk Turks had conquered Anatolia (Turkey) threatening the heart of the Byzantine Empire. In desperation the Byzantine Emperor Alexios Komnenos sent to the West for help hoping that the Pope would send an army of Western Europe’s best to drive back the invaders.  Instead what he got was an army of Western Europe’s worst.

In response to Komnenos’ plea, on November 27th, 1095, Pope Urban II gave a speech calling on the nobility of Europe to combine their military forces and march against the Muslims in a great Crusade to reconquer the Holy Land.  As an incentive for the Crusade, Urban offered an absolution of all sins and guaranteed place in Heaven for those who answered his call.  In response, Urban raised a 35,000 man international army composed of knights and professional soldiers as intended. What he didn’t expect were the tens thousands of peasants and commoners who would likewise heed his call.  In 1096 a man named Peter the Hermit began preaching the crusading call to the common people, raising a massive army of over 40,000 people.  These were not knights or professional soldiers, but peasants and commoners including women and children.  Supposedly Peter the Hermit was a priest or monk from Amiens, but there is no evidence that he actually took up Holy Orders. Obviously a charismatic man, he claimed to be in direct communication with God, even carrying a letter he claimed had been written by Jesus Christ himself, giving him the authority to organize and lead a Crusade. He was also helped by a meteor shower, a lunar eclipse, the appearance of a comet, and a possible outbreak of ergot poisoning which drove many Crusaders to believe that God was behind their cause, driving them into religious zealotry and fury.

In April of 1096 the peasant crusaders set out for the Holy Land and promptly became a scourge to everyone excepts the Turks.  A large band of ill disciplined peasants, the army was more like an unruly mob than a proper army.  As they passed through Central Europe, despite strong condemnation from the Catholic Church, they attacked and murdered thousands of German Jews, committing some of the worst pogroms in history up until the Holocaust. Other victims included people accused of witchcraft, and any other non-christians and non-believers. Lacking food and supplies, the peasant Crusaders often plundered and raided the lands they traveled through as they made their way to Holy Land, leaving lands empty of food and crops.  The worst hit was modern day Serbia, where the peasant crusaders looted the country of it’s food supplies like locusts, resulting in a deadly famine..  In late May, the peasant Crusaders arrived in Belgrade.  When a dispute occurred over the price of shoes, a riot ensued which led to the pillaging and burning of the city. The Crusaders then clashed with Byzantine forces outside of Nis who were sent to stop them.

The peasant Crusaders arrived in Constantinople in August of 1096, and Emperor Alexios Komnenos was shocked to find an army not of professional knights and soldiers, but a mob of poorly armed and equipped peasants driven to religious mania.  After receiving word of the destruction wrought by the peasant crusaders on their journey to Constantinople, Comnenos refused to allow them in the city and ordered that they be sent on their way as quickly as possible. He ordered the Crusaders shipped across the Bosphorus to Turkey, most likely knowing that he was sending them off to their doom. He didn’t care, he just wanted to be rid of them. The “army” marched to Nicea, the provincial capital of the region, plundering and pillaging the local towns and villages on the way. By then the army was reduced to half its size, with 20,000 peasant Crusaders dying of disease, hunger, and from the many clashes on their journey so far. On the way to Nicea, they were ambushed by the Turks near a town called Dracon.  Against the well trained and heavily armed Turkish soldiers, the peasant crusaders didn’t stand a chance, and after a single volley of Turkish arrows the army was disbursed in a panicked rout.  Most of the Crusaders were cut down by Tukish cavalry as they fled in terror.  Three thousand were able to take refuge in an abandoned castle where they remained under siege until they were rescued by a Byzantine Army.  Of the 40,000 peasant Crusaders who set off from Europe, only around 2,000 survived.

Viking Graffiti in the Hagia Sophia

Two runic inscriptions are found in the Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia. They are believed to be carved by Vikings in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) during the 9th century AD, long before the Varangian Guard – an elite Viking unit of the Byzantine Army – was first formed under Emperor Basil II in 988 AD. Who were the Vikings leaving evidence of their visit?

In 1964, the first runic inscription was discovered on a parapet on the top floor of the southern gallery. Only parts of the first name Halfdan is legible as -alftan. “NN carved these runes” was very common in Viking Age runic inscriptions, and it is possible that the inscription in Hagia Sophia followed this template.

In 1975, a second inscription was discovered in a niche in the western part of the same gallery as the first. Experts on runes have interpreted the inscription as Árni, i.e. Arne, as a simple signature or tag.

Khawlah bint al-Azwar

Muslim Mulan (seriously)

1. Born sometime in the seventh century, Khawlah was well known for her leadership in battles of the Muslim conquests in parts of what are today Syria, Jordan, and Palestine.

2. Known for her skilled swordsmanship (swordspersonship?)

3. Also a mastered poet

4. In the Battle of Adnajin, Khawlah had accompanied the Muslim forces to provide medical attention to wounded soldiers.

5. However, her talent was first noted during the Battle of Sanita-al-Uqab in 634, fought during the Siege of Damascus, in which her beloved brother Zirrar (or Deraar) was leading the Muslim forces and was wounded and taken prisoner by the Byzantine army. Khalid ibn Walid took his mobile guard to rescue him. Khawlah accompanied the army and rushed on the Byzantine rearguard all alone. 

Khawlah took a knight’s armor, weapons, and mare, wrapping herself in a green shawl. She fought the Byzantine battalion, who were attacking Muslim soldiers. Khalid bin Walid, the leader of the Muslim forces, ordered the soldiers to charge the Byzantine. In her armor and typical loose dress of Arabian warriors she was not recognized as a woman.

Many of the Muslim soldiers thought that Khawlah was Khalid until Khalid appeared. The Muslims defeated the Byzantines, who fled the battlefield. When Khalid found Khawlah, she was covered in blood. He asked her to remove his veil. After refusing several times, Khawlah revealed her identity. Khalid then ordered his army to chase the fleeing Byzantines, with Khawlah leading the attack. 

6. In another battle, Khawlah was captured after falling from her horse. After being taken to a camp with other women prisoners, Khawlah was to be taken to the leader’s tent for pleasure. Instead, Khawlah roused the other prisoners, who used the tent poles as weapons and attacked the Byzantine guards. According to Al Waqidi, they managed to kill thirty Byzantine knights with Khawlah taking credit for five, including the Byzantinian who that insulted her.

The hearts cry unspoken tears.
Tell thy soul, indeed the help of Allah is ever near!

With all the tragic happenings in Gaza and the rest of the world, our hearts are suffering from such indescribable pain.

Seeing all these dead pictures just burn the heart to a level of intense pain, anger, hatred and all these yet we find such comfort only from Allah Azza Wa Jall. Alhamdulillah.

Indeed, I’ve been away and really having a hard time, but Alhamdulillah today I decided to write something after I encountered this post that spoke about the women of Gaza.

In this place we do find lots of stories, bombings, death, losing a beloved person, child molested, all of these but sometimes we only direct ourselves on these and forget that these people are actually wake up callers to us, that they actually embody such bravery, courage that we only saw once during the lifetime of the Sahabah Radiyallahu Anhum and the great Muslims before us.

By Allah, there are people who embody such characters, and you find it among the people who suffer so much, who give so much, who protect so much, and to this point, I want to share to you, a piece of my heart that will always be for the Palestinian women.

As I was scrolling my feed, I read about this woman who spoke about her hijab and she reminded of me Khawla Bint Azwar Radiyallahu Anha, not because she was fiercer and want to battle, but her character is what made me think of the greatness of Khawla.

Khawla was one of the greatest female warriors that Islam ever had, she was from the Bani Assad tribe and was a sister of Zirrar Bin Azwar who was the legendary commander of the Rashidun army during the 7th Century Muslim conquest.

One of the highlights of her life was during the Battle of Saniyat al Uqab in 634, where her brother was held prisoner, when she knew this she went on and single handedly charged and fought against the Byzantine army, and she fought like a man and a great warrior that even Khaled Ibn Al Waleed Radiyallahu Anhu was amazed.

You may ask, what is the connection of Khawla Bint Azwar Radiyallahu Anha with these women, and I am saying women who wear the hijab for Allah.

Please feed your soul with this story:

[1] “The Muslim army looked at the rider pensively as if ’it’ was a red petal of a rose which was coloured in blood.

Khaled spoke loudly and said, “O person, you have given your life in the way of Allah, and have vented out your anger on our enemies, may Allah give you your due reward. It would be better if you opened up your face so that we may know who you are.”

The rider took no notice of these words of Khaled and before he had even finished his statement was trying to get away from him. The Muslim army surrounded the rider and said, “O slave of Allah, the ameer of the Islamic army is talking to you and you are not taking heed and ignoring him and fleeing from him. With all due respect you should go to him and tell him your name and lineage so that your status can be raised.”

But the rider gave no answer.

When Khaled could get no information from this rider, he himself went close to the rider. He said, “It is with great remorse that all the Muslims and I are restless to know more about you and you are totally unconcerned. Who are you?”

At this the rider spoke. It was a female voice that spoke.

“O Ameer, I was not intending to disobey you, when I did not answer you, but I was too shy to answer as I am of those who wear hijaab and live life in hijaab. However, I came here because of the pain in my heart and the grief which rose to the point that it brought me here.”

Khaled said, ‘Who are you?’

She replied, “I am the sister of the imprisoned Ziraar: Khawlah bint al Azwar. I was sitting amongst some women from the tribe of Mazhaj when I found out about the imprisonment of my brother, Ziraar. Instantly, I got on to my horse and I reached this place and whatever I have done, you have seen it.”

Listening to this, Khaled Ibn Waleed’s heart rose. He started weeping and said, ‘We should all do a joint attack and I am hopeful, Allah willing, that we will reach to where your brother is and we will free him, and we will surely be successful.’

Khawlah answered, “I too will participate in the attack, in sha Allah.”

Ziraar radiy Allah `anh was eventually freed.“

The point I’m making here is that these people had the same courage and stand with Khawla RA, it might not be same as in fighting in battlefield, but we all have our own battles and we arose where we pledge our loyalty and fear to Allah Azza Wa Jall.

By Allah, these (Palestinian) women said these lines are not afraid to die, rather they conscious of dying uncovered and without hayaa. Subhan'Allah.

How beautiful it is to find such women of hayaa, may Allah Azza Wa Jall truly grant these women safety and peace and if not then may Allah Azza Wa Jall raise their statuses among the rightly guided companions of His in Paradise, Jannatul Firdaus, Amin.

My dear brothers and sisters in islam, please reflect and ponder hard from these words of our sisters, our mothers, our children from Gaza.

And we truly pray that Allah doesn’t take us except in the state of Islam.



[1] Futooh al Shaam, Al Waqidi
[2] Photo by Johnny Barber, Gaza, palestine Spring

The Varangians were the elite forces of the Byzantine army- much like the Praetorian Guard of ancient Rome or the Ottoman Janissaries.  They were originally made up exclusively of Vikings (which the empire had been hiring as mercenaries since the 800s), but after the Norman Conquest of England a bunch of exiled Anglo-Saxons were added to the mix.  By the 1100s there were so many English that it was commonly being referred to as the ‘Anglo-Varangian’ Guard.  As the empire declined, the Varangians also fell on hard times.  By the middle of the 1300s they had largely ceased to function and the last mention of them is in the first decade of the 1400s.

The Madrid Skylitzes is a richly illustrated illuminated manuscript of the Synopsis of Histories (Σύνοψις Ἱστοριῶν), by John Skylitzes, which covers the reigns of the Byzantine emperors from the death of Nicephorus I in 811 to the deposition of Michael IV in 1057. The manuscript was produced in Sicily in the 12th century.

image: fol. 108r: Tsar Symeon I of Bulgaria defating the Byzantine army, led by Procopius Crenites and Curtacius the Armenian in Macedonia