[The Battleground: Syria and Palestine, the Seed Plot of Religion by Hilaire Belloc. Ignatius Press.]
Hilaire Belloc, one of my favorite authors, was exceedingly prolific. He wrote one hundred fifty three books of poetry, essays, history, religion, politics, and economics, as well as hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles. His life (1870-1953) was long and fascinating, and even had him serving for a time in the French army. He was, in fact, born in France of a French father and an Irish mother. Later, he moved to Britain and served in Parliament. A brilliant and witty Catholic, he was largely responsible for his friend G. K. Chesterton’s conversion to the Faith.
While I have not come close to reading all of his vast output, I have read quite a number of his books, especially those on history and Catholicism. Belloc’s name on the author line of a book is all I need to convince me that it is worth reading.
The Battleground is probably the most unusual and fascinating of his books that I have read thus far. It begins with the pre-history of the Middle East (as we westerners call it) and describes in vivid terms of its geography: its seacoast, islands, mountains, rivers, valleys, and — the most fearsome feature — its deserts. Belloc’s claim is that in this land God planted and nurtured the true religion. He begins his history with a small, obscure, but obstinately unique tribe who called themselves His Chosen. After surviving countless attempts by their surrounding enemies to annihilate or scatter them, Syria (the larger, or Greater Syria, not the truncated area we call Syria today) and later Israel, produced the pivotal Event of history — the birth and death of the Savior of the world.
Lack of habitable land, because of the scarcity of rainfall, was and still is an all-important factor in this area. This fact also prevented easy migrations because water was never within a day’s journey, unless one took one of two narrow routes — down the coast into Egypt or across a fertile area near the valley of Mesopotamia watered by the Euphrates. Definitive records begin to appear about 2000 BC of the peoples we call “Semitic” both from their languages and their racial characteristics. Among the many things these various groups of peoples had in common was a religion that was sacrificial. True, their particular sacrifices are repugnant to us, but the important thing is that sacrifice was indeed part of their religious practices. Evidence of the false god — “BL” — is found all over this region. Although he was not the only god, he was the chief one to whom all the idolaters gave worship.
In turn, Belloc takes us through Egypt (which had less of an influence than one would expect), Phoenicia, Israel, Assyria, Persia, Greece, and on to Rome, with a chapter devoted to the Maccabees. Each of these is a lengthy and detailed account of each civilization’s activities and contributions to the Battleground.
Of the early groups, Israel is, of course, of paramount importance, not only to its immediate geographical area, but to Europe and to the rest of the world. “Bene Israel,” as they called themselves, were the descendants, the children of Israel, twelve closely connected clans called after the twelve sons of Jacob. Their record, which we call the Old Testament, is the only written set of documents surviving at the time period between 1200-900 years before Our Lord. Moses, who was inspired to write the first five books of the Bible, lived around 1500 years before Christ. What distinguished the Israelites from their fellow Semitic peoples was their insistence on their spiritual supremacy. They were the chosen of God, not just their god, but of The God, the One and Only God.
This claim is what set Israel apart. It is also the claim that made them the pariah of the outsiders and nearly got them annihilated more than once. But God had plans for this special people, because through them, would He bring His Son to save the world.
About halfway through the volume, we come upon a stunning and beautiful chapter that completely changes the tone and temper of the book. It is called “The Climax.” In this chapter we meet a young Rabbi of Jerusalem. It is about the year 33 AD. His name is Yakoub, and he is a student of Divinity in Israel. He is profoundly taken by a teacher named “Jesus,” a miracle worker whom some claimed to be the Messias, while others said that He was a criminal and a traitor. He follows this controversial Man on the fringes of the crowds, only once meeting His gaze, but that gaze pierces Yakoub’s soul. He hears this Jesus claim to be God’s Son. The reader, too, follows Jesus through the eyes and thoughts of Yakoub who wrestles with his soul — should he believe this Man or return to the rabbinical circle? We, then, follow along in Yakoub’s footsteps as he sees Jesus arrested, tried, and executed. Finally, we see Yakoub turn to Cephas when he hears news of the Resurrection, and through Cephas, the young Rabbi believes completely.
Yakoub, of course, is a fictional character, but his story is told so beautifully as we follow with him our Lord and Savior in His last days, that he is totally believable. Belloc shines brightly in this chapter.
After the Resurrection
In the ensuing chapters, Belloc covers the ascendancy of the Christian Church, from its days in the catacombs until, at the time of Emperor Constantine, it is finally victorious and able to function openly. Most interesting is his treatment of the Jews and the peoples under whom they lived in the Roman and Greek worlds after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year seventy. During the terrible siege of the city and the battle that followed, more than a million were killed by the Roman Army under Titus. Those Jewish inhabitants who did not die were deported to various parts of the Mediterranean world, never to return to their holy city. This we know from the eyewitness accounts of the Jewish historian Josephus. What is lesser known is the retaliation toward gentiles in at least two parts of the Empire — Cyrene, in North Africa, and Cyprus — wherein the Jews rose up and mercilessly massacred the Christian populations of those areas.
Birth and Growth of Islam
Finally, in a chapter poetically titled “The Return of the Desert,” Belloc treats of Islam. Interestingly, it is his opinion that Islam is really a Christian heresy, not a new religion. “Its appeal was its simplicity, the relaxation of the both intelligence and the restraint over the appetites of man.” Its spread was lightning fast. A final short chapter deals with the Crusades and why they were doomed to fail from the beginning. The author contends that they had too few soldiers, who were too far away from their home base. Further, he stresses the crusaders strategic mistake of ignoring the Muslim stronghold of Damascus.
Belloc wrote in 1936. His fear of the re-emergence of the power of Islam was prescient. He seemed to foresee a future rise in the spread of the armies of Allah. An enervated post Christian civilization must deal today with what Belloc foresaw seventy years ago.