Political Milestones: 700AD to 800AD
The 700’s began with no slowing down in the avalanche of Islamic conquest across North Africa. In the very first year of the century they conquered the strategic city of Carthage, now called Tunis. In 702AD they conquered Tangiers in Morocco and slaughtered a great number of Coptic Berber Christians and Visigoths who refused to convert or surrender. In 707AD they captured Ceuta after its Byzantine governor betrayed the locals. Islam was now in control of the straits of Gibraltar.
In 711AD the inevitable Islamic invasion of Europe began, in what must have seemed to many at the time as an inevitable conquest of Europe. The Iberian Peninsula fell quickly as many preferred to flee than fight. The Visigoths were filled with dread of rape and death at the hands of blood thirsty Islamic armies.
Meanwhile, over in the Byzantine realm, Constantinople came under siege yet again in 717AD. After 20 years of constant attack, the Muslim armies were in full preparation for the final assault on the city. However when it came to the final battle, the Muslims suffered a complete naval defeat, while disease later ravaged their army. They withdrew once and for all. Constantinople would remain undefeated until 1453AD and form an impenetrable barrier for the never-ending Islamic desire for the conquest of Christendom.
Back on the Iberian Peninsula, the Muslim march through Spain was so fast that, by 732AD, they were a mere 350km south of Paris. The Mayor of Paris, Charles Martel, saw the writing on the wall. He attacked the 80,000-strong Muslim army with just 30,000 knights in the battle of Tours. In what must have seemed like divine intervention at the time, Charles Martel completely routed the much larger Muslim army, driving them back into the south of France. This battle, and the lifting of the siege on Constantinople, completely changed the course of history in Europe. True Christianity in this part of the world would, like sleeping Beauty, lie dormant but safe, for the next thousand years.
In 744AD the Turkic speaking Uigher peoples conquered the Gok Turk Empire in Central Asia, expanding their territory from Lake Balkash to Lake Baikal. They set up their capital in Kara-Balgasun, 350km west of Ulan Bator in Mongolia. This led to the development of the Mongolian alphabet, still in use today, and to an increased evangelisation of China by Nestorian Christians. Hard on their heels, the Muslims invaded and defeated forces around present day Kyrgyzstan, beginning their push up into Central Asia.
Islam itself was not immune to war and power plays during this time. In the decade of the 740’s the Berbers in North Africa successfully wrestled power from the Umayyad Caliphate in Damascus. In 750AD the Umayyad Caliphate itself, which had ruled Islam since the time of Muhammad, was completely eliminated by the Abbisads, another branch of Muhammad’s extended descendants.
In 771AD Charlemagne took over the Frankish throne and began a series of conquests that would eventually see Lombardy, Saxony, Italy, Central Europe and Bavaria come under his control. Charlemagne, like the Muslims before him, insisted on conversion to Catholicism or death in his conquests. In recognition of his achievements, the Pope crowned him Emperor of the “Holy Roman Empire” on Christmas day 799AD. It was Charlemagne who developed the terrible system of caste, land ownership and hierarchical power that we now call Feudalism.
Over in England the Vikings began a series of incursions of the east coast of the island in 787AD. This would later lead to full scale invasion.
Spiritual Milestones: 700AD to 800AD
The great point of advance for true Christianity during the 700’s was once again at the edge of the Christian world, both with the Celts and the evangelisation of China.
The Celtic church released thousands of missionaries and pilgrims into Scotland, England, France and northern Europe. Their calling was to evangelise the non-Latin, non-Catholic parts of the continent. Their style was to use local languages and local cultures as a bridge for the Gospel. They converted individuals, rather than kings. They persuaded rather than coerced. They educated rather than ritualised. Their success was astonishing. Perhaps their best known feat during this time was the felling of Thor’s tree in 724AD by the missionary Boniface.
Unfortunately Catholic Europe, under Charlemagne, developed a completely different model of expanding their faith. They used force, coercion, money and political power. They bludgeoned their subjects into a foreign religion that ignored their local languages in favour of Latin, and ignored their local culture. As an example, in 774AD Charlemagne slaughtered 4,500 Saxons who refused to convert to Catholicism. Sadly, this was to be the Catholic modus operandi or many centuries to come.
Over in Asia the Nestorians, under the wise and missionary-hearted leadership of Patriarch Timothy The First, were busy adapting to life under Islam, debating with their new overlords and reaching the Chinese. In 750AD the Nestorians finally responded to the rise of Islam by producing a Bible in Arabic, but it was too little too late. Their efforts in China bore much fruit, though most of their converts were expatriate Central Asians rather than Chinese. Their insistence on Syriac as the language of worship meant Christianity was to stay a foreign religion. Toward the end of the century Nestorian missionaries reached Tibet and the first bishop was appointed in 790AD.
Three different church systems: three completely different approaches to the expansion of our faith: three different results in history. Sadly, both the Celtic and Nestorian churches were eventually absorbed, by force, into the dominant and intolerant cultures around them.
Once conquered and subdued, Islamic persecution of Christians in the Middle East was relatively light during this century in comparison to the Persians and Romans of past centuries. Muhammad had insisted that religious minorities be largely left alone as long as they paid their religious taxes. This does not take away from the fact that over a 100,000 Coptic Berbers perished defending themselves in North Africa and tens of thousands Coptic Christians in Egypt died in three uprisings between 739 and 772AD.
The number of Christians in the world stagnated during the Seventh Century: Christianity under Charlemagne, the Byzantine Empire and the Nubian kingdoms of the upper Nile was completely stagnant, politicised and an arm of the state. Personal faith in these realms was a thing of the past. Christians under Muslim rule began to drift by the millions into their oppressor’s religion for economic and social reasons. This decline was being counter-balanced by new believers coming into the faith in England, Scotland, Germany, the Slavic communities of Eastern Europe, Central Asia and China.