Holy War: The Year the Muslims Took Rome

ROMA, January 5, 2006 – A book published recently in the United States lifts the veil on a crucial aspect of Islam, one which too many understand poorly and know too little about: jihad, the holy war. It is an aspect that meets with widespread silence, as if it were a taboo. Even among Christians, there are wide gaps on this topic in the general awareness of Church history.

An example? Many recall what happened in Rome, at St. Peter’s Basilica, the night of Christmas Day of the year 800. After the Mass, pope Leo III solemnly placed upon the head of Charlemagne the crown of the Holy Roman Empire. That night, the basilica of St. Peter gleamed with breathtaking brilliance. A few years earlier, Leo III’s predecessor, pope Hadrian I, had covered the entire floor of the sanctuary with plates of silver; he had covered the walls with gold plates and enclosed it all with a balustrade of gold weighing 1,328 pounds. He had remade the sanctuary gates with silver, and had placed on the iconostasis six images also made of silver, representing Christ, Mary, the archangels Gabriel and Michael, and saints Andrew and John. Finally, in order to make this splendor visible to all, he had ordered the assembly of a candelabrum in the form of a huge cross, on which 1,365 candles burned.

But less than half a century later, none of this remained. And what happened remains generally unknown among Christians today. What happened is that in 846 some Muslim Arabs arrived in a fleet at the mouth of the Tiber, made their way to Rome, sacked the city, and carried away from the basilica of St. Peter all of the gold and silver it contained.

And this was not just an incidental attack. In 827 the Arabs had conquered Sicily, which they kept under their dominion for two and a half centuries. Rome was under serious threat from nearby. In 847, the year after the assault, the newly elected pope Leo IV began the construction of walls around the entire perimeter of the Vatican, 12 meters high and equipped with 44 towers. He completed the project in six years. These are the “Leonine” walls, and significant traces of them still remain. But very few today know that these walls were erected to defend the see of Peter from an Islamic jihad. And many of those who do know this remain silent out of discretion. “Bridges, not walls” is the fashionable slogan today. The source in full ....

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