Aftermath of War: A Lesson in History
By Nick Robertson
PORTLAND, Oregon, 3 March 2003-Suppose Islam lost a great war. What would the consequences be? Some believe it will cause terrorism to erupt, disrupt the globe's largest reserves of oil-the life-blood of the modern age-and plunge the Arab world into an age of fanaticism and darkness. But as we verge on a controversial war with Iraq, there is a fascinating-and surprising-lesson to be learned from another great battle in history.
On May 28, 1453, two of the greatest armies in the world ended an epic 52-day battle on the border of Europe and Asia. On one side the 100,000-man army of Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire and the forces of Islam were attempting to capture one of the world's greatest cities-Constantinople (now Istanbul). On the other side, behind the supposedly impenetrable walls of the city, were the defensive forces of the west-the 10,000 man force led by Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI.
Dragases. The battle for Constantinople is considered one of the greatest and most important confrontations in history.
Constantinople was one of the most vital possessions of the Christian world. The city was the capital of the East Roman-or Byzantine-Empire ever since the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great selected it as his new capital in 324 AD. Constantinople was the gateway between Europe and Asia, Christianity and Islam.
The city rested by the Bosporus, a watery straight which was the most important artery of international trade. Trade ships from Venice, Genoa, England, France, and much of Europe traveled past Constantinople to the eastern Black Sea ports which connected the European continent to the major trade centers of India and China. The wealth that traveled on this route built the economic power of the Western world-a 15th century version of today's globalization of trade.
As the battle for Constantinople began, the Ottomans unleashed man's newest weapon, artillery, to breach the city's massive walls. Shortly after the shocking breakthrough, the Ottomans accomplished what had been deemed impossible for over a millennium-the fall of Constantinople. There was horror and disbelief as the forces of Islam routed the Western army. Panic swept across Europe. The vital trade routes to the East were now under enemy control, and an alien army with strange beliefs threatened to march through Europe.
Was this the end of the Western world? Quite the opposite. What seemed at the moment a knockout punch to Europe ended up causing great change. It literally forced the discovery of a new world.
Constantinople had been Europe's center for intellectual studies for centuries. Its leaders promoted and encouraged classical studies and art. Many who lived inside the city's walls devoted their lives to studying and preserving history's classical past. When the Ottomans conquered the city, many of these intellectuals fled to Italy. This flight from war was directly responsible for the acceleration of one of the most important periods in Europe's history, the Renaissance.
Classic ideas, locked inside the walls of Constantinople for centuries, broke free and spread out across Europe. Isolated city-states began to gradually dissolve. For the first time in history, nation states-like Spain and Portugal-emerged. The Renaissance brought Europe into an age of light after an age of darkness.
It also changed the shape of the world.
Since Constantinople's fall blocked overland trade routes to the spice markets of South and East Asia, the emerging nation states needed new routes to the riches of the East. The Great Age of Exploration began. Brave men such as Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and Magellan circumnavigated the globe to find new routes across vast, unknown oceans. In the process they discovered the world-and many of its secrets, treasures and mysteries.
Now we face another important battle. Hopefully it can be avoided. But in the long run the result of a victory for the US and its allies may not cause havoc and a new dark age in the Arab world as many fear. As with the battle for Constantinople, it may in fact cause the opposite.
If liberated from their intellectual and physical imprisonment, the Iraqi people may well take full advantage of their new-found freedom. Iraq has the potential to become the center of a Renaissance for the Middle East. With a new regime focused on human rights and freedom, and with the financial security of 100 billion barrels of oil beneath their desert, a new Iraq can lead the Islamic world into an age of cultural and intellectual renewal. From repression can emerge an age of ingenuity and invention worthy of a country that was once the cradle of civilization.
Repression creates anger. Anger with little hope of change creates radicalism. Radicalism can destroy civilizations. The liberation of Iraq could break this dangerous cycle. Like the movement of Constantinople's intellectuals coming into Italy in 1453, a liberated Iraq's influence on the people throughout the region could be tremendous.
As with Europe in the 15th century Renaissance, Iraq's people could begin to focus on the freedom, dignity and worth of the individual, man or woman. These ideals would spread through the Arab world.
The fall of Constantinople triggered some of the greatest changes in human history. Though both sides suffered great human loses, defeat at the hands of the Ottomans ushered in Europe's great age of reason and the exploration of the world. The same might well occur in the Middle East as a post-Saddam Iraq leads the exploration of a brave new world of human freedom.
Nick Robertson is a 17-year-old junior at Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon, US. He can be contacted at: Narobertson@aol.com
. This article was reprinted with permission.