That is just rood.

True-Cross-and-Templars

Jerusalem marches behind the true cross: Kingdom of Heaven directed by Ridley Scott

For Good Friday here is the oldest known Christian poem written in English.  The “rood” is the name given to the Cross of Christ, the holy relic found by Empress Helena, Mother of Constantine the Great.  This was in 328 AD a mere 295 years after the events central to the Christian faith.  Helena found 3 crosses, that of Jesus and the two thieves.  It was “revealed” to her by divine inspiration which was the true cross.

In 614 AD the Sassanid Persian Emperor Khosrau II sacked Jerusalem and brought the relic back to his capital as part of the spoils of war.  The Byzantine emperor Heraclius defeated Khosrau in 628 AD and brought the reliquary back to Constantinople.  There is much debate about what was in the reliquary when it returned to Christian lands.  By the time it was returned to Jerusalem two years later the rood had returned to its rightful place.

The “True Cross” was lost again during the crusades, taken by the Victorious Saladin at the battle of Hattin and brought to Damascus.  It was never seen again.  Or was it?

From “The Dream of the Rood
Anglo-Saxon, 8th century, trans. Richard Hammer (1970)

The Rood speaks:

“It was long past – I still remember it –
that I was cut down at the copse’s end,
moved from my root. Strong enemies there took me,
told me to hold aloft their criminals,
made me a spectacle. Men carried me
upon their shoulders, set me on a hill,
a host of enemies there fastened me.

“And then I saw the Lord of all mankind
hasten with eager zeal that He might mount
upon me. I durst not against God’s word
bend down or break, when I saw tremble all
the surface of the earth. Although I might
have struck down all the foes, yet stood I fast.

“Then the young hero (who was God almighty)
got ready, resolute and strong in heart.
He climbed onto the lofty gallows-tree,
bold in the sight of many watching men,
when He intended to redeem mankind.
I trembled as the warrior embraced me.
But still I dared not bend down to the earth,
fall to the ground. Upright I had to stand.

“A rood I was raised up; and I held high
the noble King, the Lord of heaven above.
I dared not stoop. They pierced me with dark nails;
the scars can still be clearly seen on me,

the open wounds of malice. Yet might I
not harm them. They reviled us both together.
I was made wet all over with the blood
which poured out from his side, after He had
sent forth His spirit. And I underwent
full many a dire experience on that hill.
I saw the God of hosts stretched grimly out.
Darkness covered the Ruler’s corpse with clouds
His shining beauty; shadows passed across,
black in the darkness. All creation wept,
bewailed the King’s death; Christ was on the cross….

“Now you may understand, dear warrior,
that I have suffered deeds of wicked men
and grievous sorrows. Now the time has come
that far and wide on earth men honor me,
and all this great and glorious creation,
and to this beacon offers prayers. On me
the Son of God once suffered; therefore now
I tower mighty underneath the heavens,
and I may heal all those in awe of me.
Once I became the cruelest of tortures,
most hateful to all nations, till the time
I opened the right way of life for men.”

Yarmouk

 

Heraclius was a Byzantine emperor who rose to greatness and then had the sad misfortune to live too long.  He took power in Constantinople in 610 AD when the Byzantine empire was on its knees and under siege by the Sassanid Empire of Persia.

He reformed and rebuilt the army and campaigned successfully against the Persians.  Then he triumphed at the Battle of Nineveh in 627 AD and the Persians withdrew from all their Byzantine conquests.  To add to his legend Heraclius recovered the Christian Cross from the Persians and returned it to Jerusalem.  Some Western Christians even called him “the First Crusader”.

The Persian Empire served as the cork which held the Arabic tribes contained in the Arabian Peninsula.  With the collapse of power in Persia, and the newfound impetus of the Arabs united by Muhammad under the banner of Islam, the game in the middle east changed completely.

As the Arab armies exploded out of the peninsula into Persian lands they began to threaten Byzantine Syria.  Heraclius responded by sending a huge army to the Levant to smash the desert peoples, who they knew of old as raiders and rustlers.

As the massive Byzantine army approached the smaller Arabic forces withdrew to the plains around the Yarmouk River the largest tributary of the Jordan and a natural barrier between Syria and Arabia.

On August 15th 636 AD the Byzantines met the armies of the Rashidun Caliphate and began a series of battles.  In what might be called the “First Six-Day War” the muslim forces did not simply defeat the Byzantines.  They decisively shattered the Byzantine forces and drove them out of Syria, Palestine and Lebanon entirely.

The Battles of Yarmouk are a textbook example of an inferior force decisively defeating a superior force through better generalship.  The hero of the hour was the Arab General Khalid ibn al-Walīd, a companion of Muhammad and a man almost unknown in the west.

Heraclius lived until 641, long enough to see all the lands he regained from the Sassanids lost to the Arabs.  In Arabic and Islamic telling Heraclius was viewed as a wise and learned king who recognised that Islam was the true faith.  He tried to convert his people to Islam but they resisted and he failed.  As a result he was defeated in battle.