Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Middle East: Worlds in Collision

You need to understand what is prophesied to yet happen in the Middle East. Whether you realize it or not, or understand it or not, events there are destined to affect the lives of every person on earth.

imageWhy does the Middle East dominate the headlines so often? One obvious answer is oil, the lifeblood of modern economies. Without oil to run factories, heat homes, fuel transportation and provide energy and raw materials for thousands of uses, the economies of many nations would grind to a halt. The crucial importance of oil alone ensures that the Middle East will remain in the headlines for years.

But there's more that keeps the Middle East in the news. It is the birthplace of the world's three great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Too often it has not been just their birthplace, but their battlefield, with adherents warring against each other for control of territory they consider holy.

Nowhere are these conflicts more obvious than in Israel, and specifically in Jerusalem. If you've never been to Jerusalem, it's hard to imagine how so much history, religion and culture can collide and stand in literal heaps. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Temple Mount, flash point for many a conflict over the centuries.

The site first came to the attention of Israel's King David, who bought a threshing floor and built an altar on it, intending it for the site of the temple (1 Chronicles 21-22). The Temple Mount is so named because it is the location of the temple built by David's son Solomon (destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.) and its replacement built by Zerubbabel and later enlarged by Herod the Great (ultimately razed by the Roman general Titus in A.D. 70).

Here Jesus of Nazareth worshipped, taught and confronted the money changers, scribes, Pharisees and other religious authorities. After His death and resurrection, Christianity was born in the temple's shadow. His followers continued to worship and teach there for several more decades until the legions of Rome crushed a Jewish rebellion and carted away most of the Jewish population they hadn't killed. A later Jewish rebellion, in 132-135, led to a Roman decree that no Jew was to set foot in Jerusalem on pain of death.

Centuries later, in 638, Muslim Arabs took the city. In 691 Muslims built the Dome of the Rock on that same Temple Mount, enclosing the spot from which, Muslims believe, Muhammad ascended to heaven. Today Muslims consider it the third-holiest site in Islam, after Mecca, where Muhammad was born, and Medina, where he found refuge and died.

Several more centuries passed before the Crusaders captured Jerusalem, slaughtered Muslim and Jew alike and converted the Dome of the Rock into a church. Their hold on the city lasted less than a century before Muslims recaptured it. Jerusalem changed hands three more times before Muslims took control of the city and held it from 1244 until 1917, when the Ottoman Empire lost its hold in World War I and the city came under British administration.

In 1948 the modern state of Israel was born, and in the 1967 war the Israelis gained control of all of Jerusalem, though leaving the Temple Mount under Islamic authority.

Today one can watch Muslims praying at the Dome of the Rock atop the Temple Mount, Jews praying at the Western Wall barely a stone's throw below and Christians praying along the Via Dolorosa and at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher a few hundred yards to the north and west. And all around one sees the rubble of the centuries of conflict over this holy place.

The Sons of Abraham

It's impossible to understand the present Middle East without a knowledge of the three great religions that emanate from the area—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These three faiths all trace their spiritual roots back to the same individual, Abraham. The towering historical figures behind these three religions—Moses, Jesus Christ and Muhammad—were all direct descendants of Abraham.

imageAbraham, born in the Mesopotamian city of Ur, was the son of Terah, a descendant of Shem, a son of Noah. Born almost 4,000 years ago, Abraham's impact on the Middle East is still with us to this day. As a descendant of Noah's son Shem, Abraham and his descendants were a Semitic people. In Genesis 11 we see that Shem's great-grandson Eber (verse 14-16) was a direct ancestor of Abraham, and it is from Eber that the term Hebrew comes.

Called "the father of the faithful" (compare Romans 4:11), Abraham obeyed God's instruction to leave his native Ur and move to Haran. As Stephen, the devout first martyr of the Christian era, put it: "The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, 'Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you'" (Acts 7:2-3).

Both Ur and Haran were cities in Mesopotamia, which refers to the area between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Haran was a natural stopping-off point for Abraham and Sarah, who were about to be sent by God to a new land, a significant turning point in the history of the region.

We read of this move in Genesis 12:1-4, following the death of Abraham's father, Terah. Again, notice his example of unquestioning obedience: "Now the LORD had said to Abram [this being his original name, which was later expanded to Abraham]: 'Get out of your country, from your family and from your father's house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing ...' So Abram departed as the LORD had spoken to him ..." Hebrews 11:8 adds: "And he went out, not knowing where he was going."

God was working with Abraham to establish him and his descendants in the land of Canaan (later called the Promised Land and often referred to as the Holy Land). At the crossroads of Asia, Africa and Europe, this area was ideal for God's chosen people, who were to be an example to the rest of the world (Deuteronomy 4:5-8).

On arriving in the new land, God promised Abraham that He would give the land to his descendants (Genesis 12:7). "And the LORD said to Abram,... 'Lift your eyes now and look from the place where you are—northward, southward, eastward, and westward; for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever'" (Genesis 13:14-15).

imageGod added: "And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered" (verse 16). Significantly, God later changed Abram's name to Abraham (Genesis 17:5). His earlier name meant "high (exalted) father." God renamed him "father of a multitude," saying, "I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you" (verse 6).

At the time these prophecies must have seemed ironic to Abraham, for his wife Sarah was barren. Her infertility was to be very significant in the development of the modern Middle East.

God promised Abraham in Genesis 15:4 that he would have an heir: "one who will come from your own body." Impatient, Sarah told Abraham to take her Egyptian handmaid Hagar and to produce a child by her. This took place "after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan" (Genesis 16:1-3).

Abraham's first son is born

"So he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress became despised in her eyes" (Genesis 16:4). The relationship between Sarah and Hagar quickly deteriorated and Hagar fled.

But a divine message was given to Hagar, telling her to return. It also reassured her that her son would have many descendants—but descendants with traits that would be evident throughout their history: "I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count ... You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael ['God hears'], for the LORD has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers" (verses 10-12, New International Version).

This description of Hagar's descendants is significant because many of today's Arabs are Ishmaelites—descendants of this same Ishmael, whose father was Abraham. Muhammad, the founder and prophet of Islam, was descended from Kedar, one of the 12 sons of Ishmael (Ismail in Arabic). Today 22 nations in the Middle East and North Africa are Arabic nations, most of whose people are adherents of Islam. An additional 35 countries are members of the Islamic Conference, most of them with Islamic governments, but whose people are of different descent.

Even before Ishmael's descendants arrived in the area, the term arab was used to denote the peoples of the Arabian peninsula. With the spread of Islam, Arabs and the Arabic language today encompass a vast region.

The divinely prophetic words spoken to Hagar are still of great significance today. The prophecy that Ishmael "will be a wild donkey of a man" is not meant as an insult. The wild donkey was the aristocrat of the wild beasts of the desert, the preferred prey of hunters. The prophecy is a reference to how Ishmael's descendants would emulate the lifestyle of the wild donkey, leading a free and noble existence in the desert.

"His hand will be against everyone, and everyone's hand against him" similarly refers to this independent lifestyle. Ishmael's descendants have always resisted foreign domination. "He will live in hostility towards all his brothers" is a reference to the enmity that has historically existed among the Arabs and between the Arabs and the other sons of Abraham.

Abraham's second son

Fourteen years after the birth of Ishmael, God blessed Abraham with another son, this time by his wife Sarah. He told them to name their son Isaac (meaning "laughter" for the incredulous reaction they had when told they would have a son at their advanced age as well as the joy that he would later bring to his parents, Genesis 17:17, 19; 18:10-15; 21:5-6). Isaac in turn fathered Jacob, also named Israel, the father of the Israelites. Ishmael's and Isaac's descendants are therefore cousins.

"So the child [Isaac] grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the same day that Isaac was weaned. And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, scoffing. Therefore she said to Abraham, 'Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, namely with Isaac'" (Genesis 21:8-10).

This displeased Abraham, who had grown to love Ishmael. "But God said to Abraham, '... Whatever Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice; for in Isaac your seed shall be called" (verse 12). God further reassured Abraham: "Yet I will also make a nation of the son of the bondwoman [Ishmael], because he is your seed" (verse 13). "So God was with the lad; and he grew and dwelt in the wilderness ..." (verse 20).

It cannot be said that Ishmael hated Isaac. But after 14 years as an only child, Isaac's arrival fundamentally changed Ishmael's relationship with his father, Abraham. Afterward, Ishmael felt envy and rivalry toward his half brother, feelings that tribally have survived down through the centuries and which affect the politics of the Middle East today.

Isaac's two sons

Further family complications were ahead. Isaac, in turn, had two sons, Jacob and Esau, twins by his wife Rebekah. Even before they were born, "the children struggled together within her" (Genesis 25:22). God explained: "Two nations are in your womb, two peoples shall be separated from your body; one people shall be stronger than the other, and the older shall serve the younger" (verse 23). Both brothers were to father great nations, a blessing from God to Abraham's grandsons.

Normally the firstborn would receive the birthright, but here it was to be different. The Bible records that Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew (verses 29-34), showing how little it meant to him. Sometime later, Jacob tricked his father into giving him the birthright blessing (chapter 27). For this, "Esau hated Jacob" (verse 41).

Again, the consequences of this are with us to this day.The descendants of Esau (also called Edom, Genesis 25:30) intermarried with Ishmael's descendants, their bitterness and resentment against Jacob's descendants intensifying through the centuries. Esau's grandson Amalek (Genesis 36:12) was the father of the Amalekites, who became bitter foes of the descendants of Jacob, the 12 tribes of Israel. A prophecy about Amalek foretold endless war between them "from generation to generation" (Exodus 17:16). Some scholars believe that many of today's Palestinians are largely the descendants of the Amalekites.

The Coming of Islam

The descendants of Ishmael lived in relative obscurity throughout the period of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah and the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman Empires. They mostly kept to themselves in the Arabian Peninsula where desert life was hard, frequently fighting among themselves. But this changed early in the seventh century, less than 600 years after the time of Jesus Christ, when the most famous of Ishmael's descendants came on the scene.

Until the early 600s the Arabs were idol worshippers. The great temple in Mecca had 365 idols (one for each day of the year) and was a source of considerable revenue for local merchants who relied on pilgrims visiting the site for their income.

This religious landscape was to change dramatically with the prophet Muhammad and the religion he founded, Islam.

Muhammad (sometimes spelled Mohammed or Mahomet) was of the Hashemite family (in Arabic, Beni Hashim) of the powerful Koreish (or Quraish) tribe, which controlled the pagan temple in Mecca. According to Islamic belief, it was near Mecca, at Mt. Hira, that the archangel Gabriel first appeared to Muhammad in A.D. 610, revealing wisdom from God. This and subsequent revelations form the Koran (or Quran), the holy scriptures of Islam, a book roughly the length of the New Testament.

Muhammad, whose name means "highly praised," became a courageous and determined preacher of monotheism, the belief in one God, a belief that threatened the commercial prosperity of other members of his tribe. Their attempts to have him killed failed, and in a short time Muhammad brought an end to the polytheistic idolatry of the area, replacing it with Islam (literally meaning "surrender" or "submission" to the one true God, Allah).

Muhammad's preaching achieved something that had eluded Ishmael's descendants from the beginning—unity, thereby enabling them to become a great nation that could spread out and influence other nations.

From these lowly beginnings in the desert of the Arabian Peninsula, Islam has spread throughout the world. Today 57 countries are in the Islamic Conference, comprising more than a quarter of all the nations on earth.

Although 22 of them are Arab nations, many of which are populated with descendants of Ishmael, another 35 nations also are either exclusively or significantly Islamic. These range geographically from West Africa across the center of the world to Indonesia, a wide belt of nations that identify with each other as followers of Islam.

In addition, millions more Muslims, followers of Islam, live in North America and Western Europe. The religion continues to expand rapidly due to a high birthrate and aggressive proselytizing.

imageToday Islam (pronounced Is-LAM, with the emphasis on the second syllable) has around 1.3 billion followers. They all worship Allah (similar emphasis on the second syllable), whom they consider to be the one true God. They worship in mosques, with Friday as their chosen day of worship, though it is also permissible for adherents to work on that day.

Their one-sentence creed, called the shahadah ("testimony") is only eight words in Arabic—La illaha ila Allah, wa Muhammadun rasul Allah—meaning "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet." A solemn and sincere recitation of these words is the sole requirement for being a Muslim. The word Muslim (or Moslem) means "one who submits (to Allah)."

Muslims date their years from the hijrah (sometimes spelled hejira or hegira), Muhammad's flight from Mecca to Medina in A.D. 622. As the Muslim year is set according to the lunar calendar, there are 354 or 355 days in each year, which means that their year is about 11 days shorter than a year in the Western world, which is based on the Gregorian solar calendar. This means that Islamic festivals fall on different days each year according to the Gregorian calendar and gradually work their way back through the Gregorian year.

Muhammad died on June 8, A.D. 632, leaving no male heir and no designated successor. The result was chaos and confusion throughout the Islamic Empire, which after only a decade had already grown to one third the size of the present 48 continental United States.

Only one child by his beloved first wife Khadija had survived him, the beautiful Fatima. She grew to adulthood, married and bore children who also survived. It is through Fatima that all Muhammad's present descendants, called sharifs and sayyids, trace their ancestry. Fatima's husband, Ali ibn Abi Talib, first cousin and adopted son to Muhammad, was also his first convert after Khadija. Ali and Fatima had two young sons at the time of Muhammad's death.

As the nearest blood relative, many thought that Ali should be Muhammad's successor as their leader. After a great deal of argument, he was rejected in favor of a wealthy Meccan cloth merchant who had been an early convert and Muhammad's companion on his famous camel-back flight 10 years earlier. His name was Abu Bakr. He was also the father of Muhammad's favorite wife, Ayesha, and had been appointed to take the place of the prophet leading public prayers at the time of Muhammad's last illness.

The revelations had been to Muhammad, so Abu Bakr was not fully succeeding Muhammad. However, he was given authority over the secular political and administrative functions of the empire, with the title "Khalifah rasul Allah" meaning "Successor to the Messenger of God." In English the title is usually shortened to "caliph" and is given to the head of state in Muslim-governed countries. The office of Islamic Caliphate remained an Islamic institution right down to the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1924, when it was abolished by the secular government of Kemal Ataturk.

imageAlthough the transition following the death of Muhammad was sudden and unexpected and caused some bad feeling among the followers of Ali, Fatima's husband, the tribes remained united under Abu Bakr.

Rapid expansion of the Islamic Empire

Before he died Abu Bakr appointed Omar ibn al-Khattab as his successor. Caliph Omar (or Umar) was the first caliph to assume the illustrious title Amir al-Muminin, meaning "Commander of the Faithful." It was during his 10-year reign that the first great wave of Islamic territorial expansion occurred as the children of Ishmael pushed outward in all directions from their ancient desert homeland.

Caliph Omar was an able commander of his troops and proved a formidable foe to the two great superpowers of his day, the Byzantine and Persian Empires. The former was the Eastern Roman Empire, which had developed out of the older Roman Empire after Constantine, in the fourth century, established a new capital in Byzantium (renaming it Constantinople, after himself)—now Istanbul, Turkey. It controlled Asia Minor, the Aegean Peninsula, much of North Africa and the Near East.

To the northeast of the Arabian Peninsula lay the Persian, or Sassanid, Empire. The Persian and Byzantine Empires were constantly fighting each other, weakening them and making them vulnerable to the new, vigorous, zealous and youthful Islamic Empire coming out of Arabia. The Sassanid Empire fell, but the Byzantine remained as a continually threatened and shrinking empire, finally falling to Muslim Turks in 1453.

To cries of Allahu Akbar ("God is Great!"), the Islamic call to arms, the camel- and horse-mounted Arab warriors were formidable opponents, defeating all the forces that were sent against them. Not since the days of Alexander the Great had there been such a force, conquering all before it so quickly. A century of conquest lay before them. Syria and the Holy Land were taken in 635-6; the area of Iraq, the following year; Egypt and Persia, four years later.

Jerusalem was their greatest prize, captured in 638. Called Al-Kuds in Arabic, meaning "the Holy," Jerusalem remains the third-holiest city of Islam, after Mecca and Medina. Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended to heaven on his winged steed Burak from the rock that is visible inside the Dome of the Rock, built in the late seventh century and one of the most architecturally magnificent buildings on earth.

Muslims also believe this is where Abraham came to sacrifice his son—the son, however, being Ishmael rather than Isaac as the Bible attests (Genesis 22:1-14). Built on the great platform of the Temple Mount constructed centuries earlier by Herod the Great, the Dome of the Rock and the surrounding area is today the most bitterly contested piece of real estate on earth.

Within a century after the death of Muhammad, the Arab Empire stretched from the Middle East across North Africa to Spain in the west and eastward across Central Asia to India. One of their advances even reached the gates of Paris before being halted by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours near Poitiers in 732, exactly 100 years after Muhammad's death.

Rapid Muslim expansion now halted until the 12th century, when another great expansion of Islam took place under the Sufis (Muslim mystics) who spread Islam throughout India, Central Asia, Turkey and sub-Saharan Africa. Muslim traders helped spread the religion even further, to Indonesia, the Malay Peninsula and China.

"Islam's essential egalitarianism within the community of the faithful and its official discrimination against the followers of other religions won rapid converts," notes the Encyclopaedia Britannica (15th Edition, Vol. 9, p. 912, "Islam"). Although Jews and Christians, as "people of the Book" were tolerated, they had to pay a special tax called jizyah. However, "pagans ... were required to either accept Islam or die" (ibid.).

Following the assassination of the Caliph Omar in November 644 while leading prayers in the mosque of Medina, a body of electors once again bypassed Ali when choosing a successor. The caliphate was bestowed on Othman ibn Affan, who had been an early convert to Islam and a close companion of the prophet.

During his period of rule the Koran was completed in its present form. Previously, most of its contents had simply been memorized in the heads of Muhammad's followers (Muhammad, himself illiterate, had never written them down). These were now collected by a team of men authorized to put the sacred writings together, under the leadership of the Islamic scholar Zayd ibn Thabit.

Muslims believe the Koran is the literal word of God (Kalimat Allah), not the words of Muhammad. The first words of the Koran are Bism'illah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim, meaning "In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate."

Islam splits over succession

imageOthman ruled 12 years (644-656) before being assassinated in Medina. His assassination heralded open religious and political conflicts within the Islamic community that continue to this day.

After Othman's death, leadership of the community finally fell to Ali, Fatima's aging husband, who had been living in retirement as a scholar. To his followers, Ali was the first and only lawful caliph. Most Muslims accepted him as the fourth caliph, but many were bitterly opposed to his rule.

The empire was to suffer continual political and religious strife, uprisings and rebellions. Five years later Ali, too, was assassinated. Before any of his sons could be appointed as successor, Othman's nephew, head of the Umayyad (or Omayyad) branch of the Koreish tribe, assumed control, bringing the dispute between the factions to a head.

Ali's followers believed that all caliphs must be descended from Ali as Muhammad's closest blood relative. This group was called the "party of Ali" (in Arabic, the Shiat Ali, or Shiites). The majority believed that anybody could be appointed caliph, regardless of lineage. This group was called the Sunni Muslims, sunna being the "path" or the "way" of the Prophet. In contrast to the Shiites, the Sunnis have generally accepted the rule of the caliphs.

Violence followed in 680 when Ali's son Hussein, a grandson of Muhammad, was killed along with 72 of his relatives and companions at Karbala in what is now Iraq. The Shiites now had a martyr. They grew in numbers and resolve and were increasingly embittered at the dominance of the Sunni Muslims. This animosity continues to the present day.

The majority Sunnis make up about 85 percent of all Muslims, and the Shiites (or Shia) constitute the remainder. Although they agree on the fundamentals of Islam, political, theological and philosophical differences have further widened the gap between the two. Complicating things even further has been the tendency among the Shiite Muslims to break up into various sects.

Today, the Shiites are the dominant force in Iran and the biggest single religious community in Lebanon and Iraq. Remembering the fanaticism of the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the shah in 1979, many people think Shiites are inclined toward terrorism. However, most anti-Western terrorists come from the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam, which originated in Saudi Arabia in the 18th century.

One of the appeals of Islam is the emphasis on Ummah or community. "Though there have been many Islamic sects and movements, all followers are bound by a common faith and a sense of belonging to a single community" (ibid., p. 912). This sense of community has only been strengthened in the last 200 years during the period of Western supremacy. Achieving Arab and Islamic unity is very much a desire of Muslims in today's world.

Ishmael becomes the prophesied "great nation"

After Ali's death the Umayyads turned the caliphate into a hereditary office, ruling from Damascus for almost a century until 750. During this time most of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) was conquered along with what was left of North Africa. To the east, Islamic armies swept over Central Asia toward India and China. Before the end of their period of rule, the Muslims built an empire that was larger than Rome's, converting millions to Islam.

The Umayyads were replaced by the Abbasid dynasty, whose 37 caliphs ruled from Baghdad for five centuries (750-1258). At this time, while much of Europe was still in the Dark Ages (isolated in no small part by hostile Muslims along its borders), the Islamic world was a great civilization, preserving the literature and learning of the ancient world, leading the world in knowledge and understanding of mathematics, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geography and medicine.

As had been divinely promised to Abraham and Hagar concerning their son so many centuries earlier, Ishmael truly did become a "great nation" (Genesis 17:20; 21:18)—one of the greatest empires the world has ever known.

Like all civilizations, however, the Abbasid dynasty came to an end after falling into a slow decay and decline. During this period, as central authority waned, the unity of Islam was shattered, a problem that impedes Muslims to this day. The deathblow for the empire came when the Mongol hordes descended on Baghdad in 1258, killing the last caliph, slaughtering the city's inhabitants and ending the empire.

The Crusades: Battle for the Holy Land


During the reigns of the Abbasid caliphs, a major clash occurred between Islam and Catholic Europe. With the expansion of Islam into the Iberian Peninsula and the attempt to conquer France, there had already been conflict between the two, but the wresting of Jerusalem from the forces of Islam on July 15, 1099, was the beginning of a long and protracted period of rivalry between the two religious forces.

The European Crusaders pillaged, raped, murdered and enslaved the peoples of Jerusalem in a frenzy of carnage that both Jews and Muslims remember to this day. The sacred Dome of the Rock was taken over and turned into a church, with the Christian cross replacing the Islamic crescent. Muslims were incensed and vowed to retake the city from the infidels (meaning "unbelievers," originally a Latin word used by Catholics to label Muslims).

Not until Oct. 2, 1187, were Islamic forces able to take back control of Jerusalem, under the leadership of Saladin (Salah ad-Din, meaning "Righteousness of the Faith"), the sultan of Egypt and Syria. Saladin proclaimed jihad (holy war) to retake Palestine from the enemies of Islam.

The golden cross at the top of the Dome of the Rock was replaced by the Muslim crescent, but Saladin did not seek revenge on his opponents. Instead, he treated both enemy soldiers and the civilian population with mercy and kindness—a stark contrast to the Europeans who had slaughtered tens of thousands when they took the city.

There were to be more Crusades for another century, briefly retaking Jerusalem from 1229 to 1239 and 1243 to 1244, but the forces of the cross eventually had to leave the Holy Land to Muslims. Not until 1917, during World War I, were Western Christians again able to retake Jerusalem, and then they kept control of the city for only three decades.

The rise of the Ottoman Empire


The next great power in the region was that of the Ottoman Turks, who seized control of Constantinople in 1453, finally destroying the collapsing Byzantine Empire founded by Rome more than a millennium earlier. The Turks, an Islamic but non-Arab people, took control of Jerusalem in 1517 and were to dominate the Middle East for the following four centuries.

The Ottomans expanded rapidly into southeastern Europe and on to the gates of Vienna before being pushed back toward the end of the 17th century. A period of decline followed in the 19th century with nations throughout the Balkans and North Africa breaking away from Ottoman rule.

The Arabs resented Turkish control and waited patiently for an opportunity to regain their independence and the former days of glory.

Ishmael's sons would be heard from again.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Gaza City: a scene of destruction as ceasefire signals end of Israeli offensive

The elderly Palestinian man mouthed some words but nothing came out.

The sight yesterday of what had once been a four-storey family home in the Gazan town of Beit Lahiya shocked Mustapha Saqar, 59, into speechlessness.

Every room was gutted, the fa├žade was perforated with blast holes and the only things he had been able to salvage were a bedside table and a soggy mattress.

It was a scene played out repeatedly across the Gaza Strip as thousands of Palestinians used the ceasefire to emerge gingerly from the shelters where they had hidden for three weeks to find what remained of their homes.

In the Beit Lahiya district of Itwaam they had to leave their cars behind and walk through sandy ground churned up by the tracks of Israeli Merkava battle tanks.

Some of the more enterprising brought donkeys hauling carts over the deeply-rutted ground to recover what they could from destroyed homes.

"I have been to the house of my brother and this is all what was left," Auni Najar, 44, said pointing at a cart of blankets and curtains sodden with rain.

"He has no home now so he has come with his wife and nine children to live in my house, a house that I already share with my wife and three children.

"I don't know how we are going to survive." Among civilian families like the Saqars there was a terrible sense of helplessness and anger at both the Israeli armed forces and the militant fighters who had robbed them of a home.

"I don't know why the Israelis came here," Khadija Saqar, 57, said.

"Maybe there were some people firing rockets from here but they were not my people.

"All I know is that I no longer have a home." The Saqar home's position on the top of a sandy rise with views west to the Mediterranean meant it had been selected by Israeli troops as a suitable place for a base.

On the ground floor the troops had left stacks of uneaten pitta bread, wrappers from high-energy bars bearing Hebrew script and chewing gum not available in the shops of Gaza.

They had also punched a hole in the back wall to use as an emergency exit.

Getting into the Gaza Strip yesterday meant crossing a no-man's land on the fringe of the territory from where all local Palestinians had fled.

The first group of journalists allowed by Israel through the Erez crossing since the start of operation Cast Lead had only feral dogs, white donkeys and an Israeli tank for company as they trudged along the war-damaged road.

After reaching the relative safety of the built-up areas in northern Gaza the scale of Israel's assault on the infrastructure of the Gaza Strip became apparent.

There were bomb craters in road junctions flooded with foul-smelling water from broken sewage pipes, minarets perforated by shell blasts and great drifts of rubble across main thoroughfares bestrewed with fallen power cables.

At one site the blast had been so strong a tree had had all its leaves blown off leaving nothing but a skeleton.

The lack of electricity had plunged Gaza City back into the Dark Ages and young men gathering fire wood could be seen walking the tatty streets.

As night fell fires were being lit on pavements and pots of food were being heated.

Without street lighting the city had a post-apocalyptic air as shadowy figures emerged from among piles of collapsed masonry and puddles shattered glass spread across on the streets twinkled momentarily in the headlights of the occasional car.

Before darkness fell it was possible to get a sense of how Gaza City has become a city of monumental destruction.

The parliament building had been bombed repeatedly and its concrete floors teetered dangerously on partially-collapsed walls like an unconvincing house of cards.

The seraya compound had once been a proud possession of Hamas, a place where they showed how well they treated inmates in prison, had been blown to smithereens.

The foreign minister's office was simply gone. It had vanished in repeated strikes by laser-guided bombs.

The accuracy of the Israeli airstrikes might have been impressive but the targets chosen by the Israeli planners left some Gazans bemused.

Amani Kurdi, a 19-year-old girl first-year science student at the Islamic University giggled in disbelief at the claim made by Israel the university's science department was a site used to design rockets fired at Israel.

"I am shaking,'' she said as she looked through the gate at the six- storey building that used to house the science department where she studied.

Only the stair well remained upright like a chimney stack of doorways towering over the rubble of destroyed laboratories.

"I had heard that my department had been hit but we had no power in our house so I could not see any pictures on the TV and I wanted to come today and see with my own eyes.

"The laboratories were open 24 hours a day to all students and they were not secret places where rockets were designed.

"All I can think is that the Israelis don't want us to have an education and so they destroy this university simply because it has the name 'Islamic'.

"I don't know what sort of future I have now – only God knows my future after this.''

Parti Warisan Sabah janganlah Sampai dilabel ' Ibarat Melukut Di Tepi Gantang '

"Berputar pada sentimen kenegerian seperti yang hangat digempar gemburkan pucuk pimpinan parti secara idealnya dilepaskan pada ...