• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

The Road from Heraklios to Islam



“Since the days of Scipio, no bolder enterprise has been attempted than that which Heraclius achieved for the deliverance of the empire.”

E. Gibbon

The emperor’s triumph was well planned. On the first day of the spring equinox, 630, the True Cross (saved from Iranian captivity) was handed to him on the Mount of Olives (on the eastern side of Jerusalem where Christ had ascended to heaven). Heraklios carried it across the Kidron valley into the city.

The most direct route to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre would take him past an octagonal sanctuary known as the Tomb of Mary in Gethsemane, followed by the vast esplanade of the destroyed Temple. The logical point to cross the city walls in between them is marked by the now walled-up Golden Gate, a Herodian construction that symbolically connected the Temple Mount with the exterior of the city.[1] Ezekiel had once announced:

“This gate shall be closed and must not be opened and no one can enter through it. For the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered through it and it has to be closed. But the Commander will sit inside it, and he will eat bread before the lord; he will enter by way of the porch and exit the same way.”[2]


The imagery of a Roman emperor who conquers the world and then goes to Jerusalem to cede all power to God would proliferate in apocalyptic texts. Christian onlookers, however, may have been wary of Heraklios falling into the same trap of hubrism as his defeated rival Khosrau II. Two centuries later (in the German city of Fulda) such fears manifested as prejudices when the Frankish monk Hrabanus Maurus claimed the emperor would only dismount and show proper humility (taking off his imperial regalia for instance) at Jerusalem’s gates when an angel appeared to open the walled gate to the holy city.[3]


Islamic chroniclers framed the visit in a different manner, making the emperor’s time in Jerusalem the perfect occasion for a dream in which he realised the imminent fall of his power to a “circumcised race,” a people he initially suspected might be the Jews.[4] Though religion played the primary motifs, antiquity’s end was wrapped up in secondary themes that were no less enigmatic: a Roman emperor – whose name echoed that of a renowned pagan hero – conquered Iran (like Alexander) before carrying the Cross of Christ from its own Babylonian captivity. It all read like a great tying together of loose ends.



Beneath the great pulse of history, however, anodyne matters burbled. Back in the capital few forgave Heraklios for marrying his niece, Martina. Indeed, the senate even tried to tamper with the succession after his death for this reason. And in Jerusalem the new patriarch, Sophronios, openly opposed the compromises (monothelitism) that the emperor tried to foist on orthodoxy. Instead of triumphalism, History began to sound more doleful notes. After all, God did not show up on 21 March, 630, and none of Heraklios’ successors would ever retrace his footsteps through the Golden Gate, which was walled in 810.[5] A Jewish convert to Christianity in Carthage was obviously anxious about the future when he scribbled


“From the Ocean, from Scotland to Britain, Spain and France, Italy, Greece and Thrace, to Antioch and Syria, Persia and Anatolia, Egypt and Africa, and beyond, were the Roman lands until today. Once it seemed the foundations of this empire were made of bronze and marble… but now we see Rome weakened.”[6]


As Arabs rose up to play executioners, the Jews openly disputed their claims:


“Speaking to an old man well-versed in the scriptures, I said to him: ‘What do you say about the Prophet who has risen from among the Arabs’ And he said to me, while groaning deeply, ‘Nonsense. Do prophets come armed with sword and chariot? These are the works of anarchy.’”[7]


Indeed, the sentiment made sense when Arabs were framed in biblical terms as “Hagarenes” and “Ishmaelites” (in addition to the more common “Arabs” and “Saracens”) an ancestry that implied all Arabs sprang from the loins of Ishmael, Abraham’s first son with the handmaid Hagar, whose destiny God had described in the following manner:


“He will be a wild man: his hands will be against everyone, and the hands of everyone will be against him.”[8]


Some such as Maximos the Confessor (d. 662) couldn’t help but keep their Roman hats on (despite his persecution by the state) and focus on the geopolitical upheaval. He despaired at how “a barbarian desert people… wild, reckless beasts, human only in their appearance” had “overrun a land where they do not belong.”[9] Others – with their Christians hats on – wondered at the purity or sincerity of their religious message (and its source) or pondered whether a decent message had gone awry in the irredeemable nature of the Arabs. Sophronios was among the first notables to flip the formula and claim the source of Islamic power was the Christians themselves:


“These villains would not have been able to do this if we had no first debased our dowers and defiled ourselves, thus angering Christ, the giver of all things… We are the reason for all this.”[10]



Indeed, the same Sophronios requested a peace treaty from the amir al-mu’minin ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab. Perhaps (if we write-off Umayyad imitation of Roman norms as civilizational infancy rather than true accommodation) nothing symbolises the end of antiquity more than the patriarch of Jerusalem’s missal. In less than a decade, the hopes of an old superpower were in smithereens and yet those of the Islamic occupiers had not been properly elaborated.


An old Roman order was displaced by an even older simplicity. Gone were the airs and graces of Constantinople’s courts, now an Arab approached Jerusalem from the south. He rode a donkey and entered with a small following. They headed to the old Jewish Temple Mount to pray. Umar met with Sophronios but chose to pray outside the basilica of Constantine the Great. Indeed, one of his first acts was to commission a prayer hall on the spot of the later Aqsa mosque.[11] Its name, meaning “the farthest” refers to Mohammad’s night journey (hinted in the seventeeth sura, though hadiths have him visiting mosques that didn’t exist in Roman Jerusalem). A new state had been born and it had created far too few martyrs for it to be easily cast in binaries.


[1] According to the Jews, it is the Sh’ar haRachamim (the Gate of Mercy) where the Shekhinah (divine presence) used to appear, and will appear again when the Messiah comes (Ezekiel 44:1-3). Later, Christians added that Christ entered the city via this gate on Palm Sunday while riding a Donkey in fulfilment of the prophecy about the Messiah (Zechariah 9:9). Muslims refer to it as the Bab-al-Dahariyeh (Gate of Eternity) and believe it will form an important chapter in the Last Judgment.

[2] Hez. 44:1–3.

[3] Hrabanus Maurus, “Homiliae de Festis Praecipuis etc.” ed. Migne, PL 110 (1864) 131ff.

[4] Tabari, Tarikh ar-rusul wa l’muluk, ed. de Goeje (1901) I: 1561–2.

[5] Though reopened by crusaders in 1102, it was walled by Saladin in 1187. The current gate was rebuilt with the circuit of walls by Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520-1566) but ultimately walled up by the monarch.

[6] Doctrina Iacobi, ed. Bonwetsch (1910) III:9.

[7] DI V.16.

[8] Genesis 16:12

[9] Maximos Confessor, “Epistolae,” 91:540-541.

[10] Sophronios, Logos eis to hagion baptisma, ed. Papadopoulou-Keramos (1881) 166-7. Sophronios doesn’t shy from dismissing Arabs as an evil, however. In passages he notes how all they do is blaspheme God because they follow their master the devil.

[11] Arculf described is as a “rectangular prayer-house built from wooden beams,” big enough for “three thousand people” (Arculf, “De locis sanctis,” 781b).

653 views0 comments