Today in History: December 23-25
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December 23, 962: A Byzantine army under the empire’s eastern military commander, Nikephoros Phokas, enters and sacks the city of Aleppo. Once an important Byzantine city, Aleppo was captured by the invading Arabs in 637. This 962 sack was emblematic of the Byzantine Empire’s military resurgence in the 10th century and is arguably the most dramatic of Nikephoros’s many victories. More than any of those other victories, this is the one that helped propel him to the throne the following year.
December 23, 1916: Britain’s ANZAC forces defeat the Ottomans at the Battle of Magdhaba in the Sinai. The British victory secured its earlier capture of the city of Arish and began (slowly), their advance northwards along the eastern Mediterranean coast.
December 24, 1144: The governor of the cities of Mosul and Aleppo, Imad al-Din Zengi, conquers the city of Edessa, capital of the Crusader County of Edessa. Count Joscelin II, who found himself without allies thanks to internal struggles within both the Byzantine and Jerusalem courts, made friends with the Muslim ruler of Diyarbakır, Kara Arslan, against the increasingly powerful Zengids. He brought his army out of Edessa to come to Kara Arslan’s aid…at which point Imad al-Din slipped in behind him and besieged the city in late November. His forces took Edessa after undermining its walls. The capture sent a panic through Christendom that spawned the Second Crusade, which… didn’t go very well. In case you were wondering, Joscelin abandoned the city when he learned it was under siege and tried to hold on to what was left of his county. He briefly retook Edessa in 1146 after Imad al-Din’s death but lost it in a matter of weeks to the latter’s son and heir, Nur al-Din Zengi. The Zengids finally took him prisoner in 1150 and he died in 1159 after several years in captivity.
December 24, 1814: The US and UK sign the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812 and restoring everything to status quo ante bellum. On the one hand, the war achieved nothing and cost thousands of people their lives and thousands more their livelihoods. On the other hand, the United States got a national anthem out of it. So overall I guess you could say it was a wash.
December 24, 1951: A unified Libya declares its independence under King Idris I. Libya’s three provinces—Cyrenaica, Fezzan, and Tripolitania—were still technically Italian colonies at the time, but they’d come under British and French administration in the wake of World War II. Commemorated annually as Libyan Independence Day.
December 25, 336: The first recorded celebration of Christmas in Rome. This is not to say it was the first Christmas, or the first time Christmas was celebrated on December 25, or even the first time Christmas was celebrated on December 25 in the city of Rome. But it is the earliest record of a Christmas celebration by what could be considered the official Christian Church.
December 25, 800: As you might expect, a lot of Christian monarchs over the centuries have chosen Christmas as their coronation date. Perhaps the most famous of these occurred in 800, when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne “Emperor of the Romans” during Christmas mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. Traditionally it was believed that Leo did this as a surprise, in order to butter up the Frankish king (who ironically wasn’t particularly happy about being crowned). But this seems like a stretch, and most scholars nowadays tend to believe that Charlemagne knew what was coming and feigned surprise in order to appear humble.
December 25, 1100: We don’t need to get into all the various Christmas coronations, like William the Conqueror’s in 1066, but one other of interest happened in 1100, when Baldwin of Boulogne was crowned King Baldwin I of Jerusalem at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Baldwin was the brother of Godfrey of Bouillon, who was in every meaningful way king of Jerusalem but who eschewed the title of “king” in favor of “defender of the Holy Sepulchre,” arguing that Christ was the only true king of Jerusalem. High-minded religious rationales aside, Godfrey probably turned down the title in an attempt to soothe resentments among the other leaders of the First Crusade. Baldwin had no such concerns, so he accepted the title and therefore was, in an extremely technical sense, the first Crusader king of Jerusalem.
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