Nowadays we’d like to think we’re modern, open-minded people, far removed from the kinds of horrors seen across Europe in the Middle Ages (and in the American colonies): the persecution of the followers of other religions, particularly of Jews, and the persecution of heretical (or unlucky) Christians by the Inquisition. We look at people in other countries enduring this kind of misery today and think it can’t happen here … surely …
My novels are set in the thirteenth century when your religion was a matter of life or death.
Ironically, the Western European kingdoms were the worst when it came to intolerance. In Islamic countries and across Asia, where the Mongols held sway, tolerance of other religions was not only much greater but also official.
In the Middle East, Muhammad’s revelations included official protection of “People of the Book,” i.e. Christians and Jews. They each had their own districts in large cities, surrounded with protective walls. Of course there were incidents, humiliations, and random harm done, but compared with Europe the Islamic countries were both more tolerant and more enlightened. This attitude took a beating when the Crusaders turned up, slew people, stole their treasures and land, and set up little personal states.
However, Islam developed a major problem, a great divide between two main branches: the Sunni and the Shi’a. The Sunni were conservative and literal, and for the most part were Arab. The early Sunni considered theirs the original and only legitimate form of Islam, and themselves to be superior to those who converted to it either peacefully or by force.
The other major branch of Islam, the Shi’a, tended to be conquered peoples who felt that the universal message of Muhammad had been twisted into an Arab-over-others caste system. In addition, the Shi’a, or Shi’ites developed a more mystical outlook, favoring a more esoteric interpretation of the Quran. The Shi’a soon split into many different variations where mystical leaders, Imams, founded lineages and gathered followers, each claiming to be the true line of Muhammad. As well, empires rose and fell; a Shi’a dynasty, the Fatimid, appeared in Egypt, flourished, and eventually collapsed. This is when the most infamous Shi’a splinter group arose: the Nizari. We know them as the Assassins, famed for their fanaticism and their political murders. The Nizari were feared and hated by just about everyone, including leaders of the Christian states.
Meanwhile in Asia, the Mongols, who had conquered most of it, didn’t care what anyone believed. There were Christians, Muslims, shamanists and so on amongst the leadership, and one policy for everyone: all religions are like fingers on the hand of God, and thus all must be not just tolerated and respected but officially supported. This policy gave them control over their subject peoples, and it lasted until they reached the Middle East, where Christian, Muslim and Jew were embroiled in deep enmities that were evidently contagious. One of the reasons the Mongol storm did not sweep across Europe and into Egypt was because the Mongol elite went to war with each other over religion: the old policy of obliterating resisting cities meant that the center of Islam, Baghdad, was destroyed. That enraged a newly converted Muslim Khan, and civil war ensued.
All these complex relationships are the background for my second and third novels, Solomon’s Bride and Consolamentum (soon to be released). It’s part of a trilogy, The Tiger and the Dove, which is based on the fictional memoirs of a young Kievan princess, Sofia. Her story begins with the first novel, The Grip of God, and tells of her capture and enslavement by the invading Mongols. But in Solomon’s Bride, having escaped with a price on her head, Sofia finds herself in just as strange and challenging a world: that of Persia and the Crusader states. She confronts conflicting forces, always pursuing her goal of love and home, perhaps in Constantinople. But love and safety seem always just beyond her grasp until …