Neighbouring Empires before the Caliphate
At the start of the Arabian Conquest there were three other major empires . The Persian Empire immediately to the north-east and the Roman to the north west. Together these two had been kept the balance of power in this region for many centuries. Further to the east the Chinese Empire, however this wasn’t as warlike as the other two and concentrated largely on its internal economic and governance affairs. In between lay India (sometimes including what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan) however, they never evolved into an empire similar to China or Rome. The Arab Conquest made a huge dent in the Roman Empire, overtook the Persian Empire, conquered India and Afghanistan and – at the battle of Talas (modern day Kazakhstan) – was finally stopped by the T’ang general Kao Hsien-Chih.
While Christianity and the emergence of the Barbarian kingdoms in Europe are clearly seen as a legacy of the Roman Empire, less well discussed is the Arab legacy. By the time of the Conquest, the western part of the Empire had already been lost and the parts that the Arabs had to deal was became later on known as the East Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire. The Roman Empire is extensively covered in a separate section.
At this time what is now north-western Europe was a backwater. The colder and wetter weather made it more difficult to grow the sort of commercial crops that were so readily available around the Mediterranean. In comparison to the lifestyle that they enjoyed the Germanic tribes did it much tougher and was more or less the developing world of their times. By the time the Arab Conquest started north western Europe was ruled by the Merovingians, whose major way of life still evolved around plunder.
Preceding Persian Empires included those of the the Sumerians (6000 – 2000BCE), they were the first to establish true city states in Mesopotamia (Iraq). Most likely because of over exploitation of the land, salinity occurred and this led to the decline of city states and the center of power started to move northwards. Over exploitation of natural resources would from this time onwards be a permanent feature of all following agriculture-based cultures.
The Assyrian Empire was the next in line, they started to arrive in the 2nd millennium BCE and their rule lasted til 6th century BCE when the Medes became the ruling power and the dominant force on the Iranian Plateau, only to be overthrown by the Persian king Cyrus the Great half a century later. It was arguably the largest empire on earth at that time From the Aegean Sea, the Indus River and the Sudan to the River Danube). They were successful is subjugation the people of Media, Babylonia, Lidia, Armenia, Syria and Cappadocia, through a rather soft approach – leaving them largely alone in exchange for military services. Between 546 and 339 BCE they started to attack the Greek colonies along the Aegean coast. In 520 BCE they also attacked the Scythians north of the Danube, however they were unable to conquer them.
It was also during these times that a rather small tribe of hunters and gatherers settled themselves as farmers in the fertile area in the region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Dead Sea, they conquered the local Canaanite people around 900BCE. Two hundred years later they were overrun by the Assyrians and later on by the Babylonians.
It briefly had another period of Independence between 141 BCE and70BCE after which the Romans invaded their lands and established here the Province of Palestine. Two thousand years later their 3rd period of independence starter after the State of Israel was formed in 1948.
Many wars and conflicts were fought out there were East meet West. Already during Greek times such clashes were evident, perhaps starting with battle of Troy. More formal clashes followed with the Persians (under the leadership of Cyrus the Great and Xerxes the Great) he undertook two major military campaigns into Greece; but they lost them both.
Alexander the Great made the largest inroads into the East, nearly reaching the Chinese boarder. But after his death his Empire crushed but the various conquered territories remained under Hellenistic influence in some cases for centuries to come. Often led by Greeks settling in these new territories, this was a period of great freedoms in travel, personal expression and religious tolerance. Alexandria in Egypt – named after Alexander became the leading city in the world with it enormous library and its famous lighthouse, until the Eiffel Tower was built it had been the tallest building ever built. With free travel this also was the period that Indians started to travel and brought Buddhism to the West.
Back to Persia where the Parni tribe (south-east of the Caspian Sean) gradually established the Parthian Empire (247BCE – 224AC) by replacing the Greek influence (Seleucids) in the regions. However, they retained large parts of the Hellenistic structures. They were able to control the very lucrative Silk Road and this became the major income of the Empire. When the Parthians expanded further west (Armenia) the clashed with the Romans and several Parthian wars severely weakened the Parthians. This played into the hands of internal rivals and in 224 the Parthians were overthrown and replaced buy the Sassanids.
They greatly expanded the empire encompassing all of today’s Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, the Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Dagestan), southwestern Central Asia, part of Turkey, certain coastal parts of the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf area, and areas of southwestern Pakistan, even stretching into India. The Persian Empire came to a very abrupt end when it was completed destructed by the armies of the Islam between and 646 and 651 AC.
After their own violent centuries, China, during Roman times, had built up an unrivaled bureaucratic system that kept their large area rather peaceful and under control. There was occasional official contact between the Roman and Chinese Empires but the main contact was trade (in particular silk), whereby the the Parthians and the Persians were the main middlemen. Also the nomadic dessert tribes profited from this trade through raids and protection money – it has been mentioned that the Huns evolved from these tribes. It were these Huns that created both havoc in the Roman and the Chines Empire.
It was probably the relentless pursuit of the Huns under the Chinese Emperor Wu Du that saw the start of the Huns moving further west. They followed earlier east-west migrations that had been taken place during the previous 2,000 years, using the endless steppes that made travelling through this region a relative easy expedition. The Huns were probably the most formidable of all the barbarian nations, whoever stood in their way, eventually had to make way and move on for them; 2,000 years later their name is still linked to death and destruction. In the 2nd century the Roman and Chinese Empires had a similar size population of around 60-80 million people, together they accounted for roughly half of the global population.
Within an incredible short period of time the Arabs – under the leadership of Muhammad’s successors – were able to conquer all of the former parts of the Roman Empire in the Middle East, North Africa, Malta, Sicily and Spain (as well as all of the Persian Empire). Like their barbarian counterparts in northern Europe the Arab tribes were also heavily involved in raids and violent feudal wars. (see also Crusades).
It is amazing that this Arab force started in one of the fringe areas of the antique world, among the Bedouins, the nomadic tribes of the northern part of the Arab desert, one of the most inhospitable places on earth, with no permanent running rivers, no lakes, no forests and no grasslands. Key settlements such as Medina, Taif and Mecca were important stopovers on the caravan trade routes for spices and incense in the mountainous region along the Red Sea.
Very similar to all other tribal societies also the Arab tribes had an extensive and rich pagan belief system as well as elements of ancestor worship.
It is remarkable that Islam – that put religion before family, unquestioned authority above tribal consultation and strict monotheism instead of ingrained polytheism that existed in many of the conquered areas – was able to quickly spread through such large and diverse territories. Once converted to Islam the person became part of the umma – the community of believers – this umma functioned as an umbrella organisation for the tribes and the clans. Within the umma marriage, business, ownership, conflicts, politics, judgement and other issues were addressed. This community was not based on blood relationships but on the believe in Allah.
Unlike the Christians, the Muslims accepted other (monotheistic) beliefs, this might have partly be the reason of their success as within two generations most of them had converted to Islam.
Muhammad was born in 570 or 571. He was orphaned at a young age, his father dying before he was born and his mother Amina dying when he was six. He was cared for by his grandfather and later his uncle Abu Talib, leader of the Bani Hashim clan of the Quraysh tribe. The Quraysh, who controlled Mecca, the Kaaba, and the Zamzam Well.
At 25 Muhammad married Khadijah, his older employer. They had four daughters and two sons. After her death, he married 11, possibly 13 women. The most well known of these is Aisha who came to play a significant role in early Islam. One of Muhammad’s later wives, the Coptic Christian slave girl, Maria al-Qibtiyya, also bore a son. The sons died in infancy, but the daughters married associates of Muhammad. Uthman, the third caliph, married two of Muhammad’s daughters. Shi’a Islam holds that only one daughter, Fatima, was the biological daughter of Muhammad, and that the other three were Khadijah’s daughters from a previous marriage. This is a crucial point in the Sunni-Shi’a divide, since Fatima was married to the fourth caliph, Ali, from whom Shi’as argue the succession continued.
Islam evolves around 5 pillars – All Islamic doctrine falls under iman (articles of faith), ihsan (right conduct) and ibadat (religious duty).
- Shahada (testament of faith) – examination of doctrines concerning God and discussion of the prophet Mohammed – declaring that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet (usually in the presence of two Islamic witnesses)
- Salat – prayer five times per day
- Sawn – Fasting and abstaining from sexual intercourse and smoking between dawn and dusk in the month of Ramadan
- Zakat – Paying of alms – linked to Islamic law
- Hajj – Pilgrimage – most elaborate and distinctive of the Muslim rituals
A sixth pillar – Jihad – is sometimes added – a political/military perspective; the religious driver behind the conquest, but in its origin it didn’t involve violent conversion.
- their holy day became Friday,
- he declared himself as the last prophet,
- he disallowed any images of himself or Allah,
- he allowed tribal law to look after marriage and property affairs but prohibited feuds.
- He established religious courts and this is a distinct differences with Christianity where secular and religious courts are separated.
His first converts were won through the network of influence of his wife Khadijah. With the exception of the Christian Waraqa and his uncle Abu Talib, their household converted. Slaves were freed as an incentive to commit to the new faith. From its inception Islam was conceived practically, as a doctrine which would translate into a way of life for the community (umma). It was a rather easy religion to follow, with not than many burdens and this was certainly a key aspect in its appeal to ordinary people. Other early converts include the later caliphs Abu Bakr and Uthman. After four years there were about forty Muslims.
The Arabian unification
The Quraysh were worried about the political consequences of Muhammad’s new religion and they attempted to restrict the Hashimites (Muhammad’s clan) to a small geographical area of Mecca. Some of his followers went to Ethiopia to practice their faith more freely. Khadijah died, and Muhammad was bereft. Shortly after, his uncle Abu Talib (unconverted but always loyal) also died. Muhammad began seeking another town from which to operate. His first choice was Taif, but the negotiations stalled. Then during a period of truce in 620 CE six men from Yathrib approached Muhammad and asked him if he would move to Yathrib and establish an Islamic society to heal the town of the after effects of blood feuds.
With his success in Medina, Muhammad struck out against a Meccan caravan to try his strength, then the Meccans retaliated. In the first battle Muhammad had the better of it but in the second similar event the Meccans were successful. But these were mere skirmishes. In 627 the Meccans marched ten thousand against Medina, but Muhammad had a ditch dug around the city, and the Battle of the Ditch was a Medinan victory. Three years later he marched against Mecca with ten thousand people. Mecca, whose trade routes had by now been severed by the Muslims, surrendered. Muhammad proclaimed a general amnesty and went reverently to the Kaaba. He honoured the Black Stone and rode seven times round the shrine then ordered the destruction of the idols and the removal of the murals from the wall. This is now the holiest site in Islam. Mecca had already been a religious centre with the Kabaa and its idols. He also sanctioned the use of the Zamzam Well and restored the sacred boundary markers around Mecca. All of this made it also much easier for the local people to accept the new faith.
The Zamzam Well is situated 20 metres east of the Kaaba. It is believed to be a miraculous source of water first provided thousands of years ago by Allah for Abraham’s son, Ismael. (Abraham’s wife Sarah had not borne any children so she suggested that Abraham should have sex with her Egyptian slave girl, Hagar. Ismael was thus the son of Abraham and Hagar. The story is also recounted in the book of Bereshith in the Hebrew Tanakh. In the Christian Bible, this is Genesis 16.)
By the time of Muhammad’s death in 632 he was well on the way to unifying the Arab tribes under a theocracy ruled by Allah. He died without a male heir. There were several interest groups groups in early Muslim society which wanted to influence the direction of the post-prophetic leadership.
The next four Caliphs
The next four Caliphs and their constituents all played a key role in the succession immediately after the death of Muhammad. They were:
- the Muhajirun, or Emigrants, who were early Meccan converts and were often from the Banu Hashim (Muhammad’s own clan), represented by Abu Bakr – 632
- the Ansar or Helpers, who were from Medina, represented by Umar ibn Al-Khattāb – 634
- recent Meccan converts who were mostly from the Umayya enemy clan, represented by Uthman – 644
- the supporters of Ali (the embryonic form of the Shi’a, from Shiat Ali, ‘the party of Ali’) – 656
Caliph Abu Bakr
The aged Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law (the father of Muhammad’s favourite wife in old age, Aisha), was appointed head of the Community (umma) . However, Ali’s supporters believed that Muhammad had designated Ali (the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, husband of Muhammad’s daughter Fatima) as his successor, and objected to Abu Bakr.
The first crisis after Muhammad’s death was the Ridda (Apostasy), in which Abu Bakr acquitted himself well. He displayed all the marks of a cool and vigorous leader. His powers as Caliph were new and undefined; he would not claim any religious authority, believing as he did that the stream of divine revelation had ceased with the death of Muhammad, but he was prepared, like a tribal shaikh, to assume responsibility for the military defence of his community. He summoned all able-bodied Muslims to take up arms against the rebels. For several months there was fighting over the greater part of Arabia; at last unity triumphed over discord, and the victory of Khalid at Akraba in 633. He decided not to disband the armies, but to attack neighbouring powers to the north. The following year sent out three groups of warriors:
- The first division went into Syria,
- the second under Khalid went into Iraq,
- and the third entered Palestine.
There was the Byzantine Empire (which was Christian) and the Persian Empire (which was Zoroastrian). The Persian Empire was weaker; it had a long war with Rome (603-628 CE), there was religious dissatisfaction and the Sassanids ruled from Ctesiphon in Iraq, which was a Semitic area and there would be no native Persian resistance. The Byzantine Empire was stronger, with a navy that ruled the Eastern Mediterranean, but it had troubles with its provinces in Egypt and Syria, there were religious disputes, and the Imperial house was unpopular.
The end of the conquest
Key dates in the Conquest
- Defeat of the Persians – 637
- Capture of Jerusalem – 638
- Capture of Akka (Acre) – 639
- Fall of Ctesiphon and Mosul – 641
- Alexandria was conquered in 642
- Kabul fell in 664
- Carthage in 698
- Crossed the Hindu Kush and took Sind in 708
- Gibraltar fell in 711
- Constantinople was unsuccessfully besieged in 676 and again in 716
- Samarkand fell in 712
- Indus Valley (Pakistan) was conquered by 713
Why was Islam so successful?
There are a number of reasons that can be brought forward which all had an influence on its success:
- It was a rather quick conquest, it was relative painless and was not a destructive religious war.
- New frontiers became linked with new ideas, knowledge and information namely from India, Central Asia and Afghanistan.
- The were able to establish linguistic unity
- From the conquerors: to protect rather than to destroy, confident in their new religion but no zealots.
- From the conquered: they saw the benefits of protection and prosperity, no religious persecution of ‘heretics’
Sunnies and Shi’its
Most current Sunni states are still ruled by monarchs and non of the Shi’a states. This conflict led to the permanent split in the Islam between the Sunni (Umayyads) and the Shi’ats (litteral: followers of Ali). The Shi’a consisted mainly of those people who had converted to the Islam and thus not the Arabs who claimed a special relationship because of the origins of Islam; Muhammad was an Arab from Arabia.
Shi’s Beliefs and Practices
|Reject the practice of revering saints||They belief intermediaries between man and God are vital for salvation|
|‘Take the Qur’an literally||They believe there is a hidden meaning within the text given by the Prophet Muhammad to Ali’|
|SUuse … the Qur’an,
||They have their own system of law and differ legally over inheritance and marriage’|
The Abbasid Caliphate
The rapid conquest of the Arabs of the Middle East and North African parts of the Roman Empire as well as the Persian Empire resulted in a significant shift in political, religious, military, administrative and scientific developments away from the Mediterranean towards the eastern parts of the Middle East.
After the failed siege of Constantinople in 717 and the Battle of Poitiers in France in 732, the conquest had come to a hold and the Caliphate reached its largest size. This led to a more inwards orientation of the Caliphate and at the same created a sharp divide between them and the rest of the Meditation and this in turn – together with other developments – led to a her-orientation of Europe, moving northwards to the lands of the Franks.
By that time the de-Arabisation had already started with the capital being moved from Medina to Damascus (old capital of the Roman province of Syria) and rapidly the majority of the Muslims would be converted people (muwali) rather than Arabs. This of course led to tension and conflict and also boiled over into the ruling Umayyad family. Rebel forces from the muwali, with the support of the Shi’ites overthrew the Umayyad during the civil war of 743-750.
Islamic Empire – Caliphates during the Middle Ages
- Rashidun Caliphate (632–661)
- Umayyad Caliphate (661–750)
- Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258)
- Fatimid Caliphate (910–1171)
- Ayyubid dynasty (1174–1342)
- Mamluk Sultanate (1250–1517)
After the civil war a new Arab dynasty entered the scene that of the Abbasids (founded by Abu’l Abbas, a descendant of Muhammad’s youngest uncle). They belonged to the early followers of the Prophet but had not been active participants in the conquest. Much to the dismal of the Shi’ites, the Abbasids continues the monarchical structure and further elaborated on it, complete with the rich court life and other trappings of wealth.
They also significantly extended and improved the administrative and military systems which together with the local nobility was securely submitted to the Caliph. A well oiled tax system made it possible to create wealth without the warfare and plunder this clearly set them aside from for example their contemporaries, the Merovingian kingdom in Europe.
However, old habits also didn’t die with the Arabs, during a banquet in 750, organised to reconcile with the Umayydas, the Abbasids massacred them, only one was able to flee and arrived in Spain where he was able to convince the Bedouin Arabs to accept him as their leader in order to not upset the Caliph, he called himself the Emir of Córdoba.
Back in the new Arab heartland a new capital was build by the Abbasids, Baghdad, 50 kms from the old Persian capital Ctesiphon. This brought the centre of the Empire even further east closer to important new converted areas such as India and Afghanistan. The Empire had become more eastern oriented and had moved away from its Mediterranean origin. Religiously there were now more Shi’its than Sunnies in these new territories.
The Abbasid Empire became – during its heydays in the late 8th and early 9th century – the greatest state of the world and Baghdad the wealthiest city on earth.
Under Islam, knowledge is seen as something that pleases Allah and education was seen as an essential element of Islamic life. Under the leadership of the Caliph culture, education and science were funded. In 830 the House of Wisdom was opened. Under a treaty with Byzantium Greek and Roman writings were lend to the Caliph. They were translated at the House of Wisdom. At the same time this institute conducted its own research and greatly expanded the knowledge of the ancient civilisations. They were most interested in science and thanks to the Indian influences, maths in particular started to be developed more or less to the system that is still in place today. The Hindi numerals started the replace the Roman ones, the zero was added and decimal points added. The sextant arrived via India, the compass via China and (Arab) navigation maps started to make its entry in the world. From the Arab world (at that stage Spain) science, knowledge and philosophy were also reintroduced back into Europe.
Palace city Bagdad
In the late 9th century we see the development of the so called palace city. This started in the temporary capital of the Caliphate, Samarra; north of Bagdad. However, it reached it summit in Bagdad when under Caliph al-Mu’tadid in 892 – along the river Tigris – a large number of palaces, other buildings, mosques, market, houses for officials and workers – each within their own quarters – military barracks, gardens and menageries were built and walled, the complex was totally self sufficient.
While similar palace complexes also started to arrive in Europe around the same time – e.g. Bruges – there is hardly any comparison. A main differences was the the sheer size of the complex in Bagdad. However, shortly after the start of Abbasid Caliphate in 750, palace culture moved to a new level of sophistication which expressed itself in architectural and cultural development as well as the significantly larger administration force of the caliphate. At Bagdad hundreds of salaried bureaucrats – they nearly all came from the families of the large landowners – were employed in tens of departments (dïwᾱns). The head of the Administration was the powerful Vizier.
The court also employed a significant number of scholars, scientists and poets.
The army consisted of slaves and freed slaves, they were therefore less influenced by the local elite and more directly linked to the Caliph. A permanent army was stationed at the palace under the command of hᾱjib. The latter was also in charge of all palace staff and operated as the Chamberlain.
The palace culture was luxurious, rich and lavish, formal and steeped in Persian traditions, there was lots of protocol and ceremony, there were palace guards, eunuchs and a harem. The Arab palace culture rapidly became a legend throughout the known world of those days; a palace culture that only finally disappeared after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1917.
During the first seventy years after Muhammad the Caliphs had been reasonable accessible to his subjects. However, by the time of al-Mu’tadid access had become near impossible and this resulted in serious internal power struggles, intrigues and corruption involving the very small circle of courtiers who did have access to the Caliph, apart from family and personal advisers and scholars, the Vizier and the Chamberlain. During the 20 year reign of al-Mu’tadid there were no less than 15 Viziers. There is strong evidence the Caliph never went outside the palace complex, except once, on the last day of his life, when he appeared before revolting soldiers outside the gate of the palace, where he was instantaneously killed. [1. Het luisterend oor van de kalief, Maaike van Berkel, Madoc #4 – 2012]
Decline of the Caliphate
With the fall of the Abbasids the Caliphate, as it flourished under this dynasty, ended. Ongoing religious tension between the Sunnies and the Shi’its; internal feuding within as ell as imperial over stretch were all reasons for the decline.
Territories started to split off, after Spain, Egypt followed. Also linked to over-stretch is the running out of money which leads to higher taxation and as a consequence of that popular unrest.
The collapse of the Caliphate however, didn’t mean a collapse of the Islam, Arab culture, language, science, etc continued and the splendor of the Persian focused Caliphate moved on to Spain where it continued for the next few centuries – be it gradually in a smaller and smaller territory.
By the middle of the 11th century Arab power in Europe had been drastically reduced. The Normans had taken over most of the Arab territories in the Mediterranean (Malta, Sicily, Italy). And the Caliphate of Córdoba had disintegrated through internal fighting into many mini fiefdoms. From the north the Reconquista had started, putting further pressure on the Caliphate.
Increasingly within the Muslim world rival groups fought for control and in 1037 a Turkish based group Sunni Muslims, the Seljuk. They founded their empire stretching from the Hindu Kush to eastern Anatolia and from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf . They in turn were from around 1092 to 1265 challenged by yet another Muslim group the Assassins. In 1092 the famous Seljuq vizier Nizam al-Mulk was murdered by an Assassin in Baghdad. All of this played a role during the Crusades where rival parties were used by each other to gain an advantage in their campaigns.
Other rival groups which were once part of the Seljuk Empire became more independent, the Mameluke were able to beat back the Mongols. They established the Mamluk Sultanate (1250–1517) in Egypt and Syria. They also fought the Crusaders effectively, driving them out of the Holy Land by 1291.
Another emerging Turkish power were the Osmans, who established in 1288 their own independent sultanate in northwest Turkey, they would take over the Mameluke and also conquer the rest of the Middle East, in North Africa they added Libya to their Ottoman Empire. In 1453 they successfully besieged Constantinople, which meant the final end of the Byzantine Empire. The Ottoman Empire was eventually dissolved in 1918, after World War I.
The Arab conquest
With the Merovingian Empire in disarray during the period of Clovis grand children and great grand children, the Visigoths in Spain took the opportunity to extend their power, they defeated the Suevi in the north and by 625 had sized all of the remaining Byzantine territories. They even conquered the till today fiercely independent Basques. They ruled Spain for 300 years and within that time the different people had grown into one society. However, this period was followed by one of those so typical for the Dark Ages ongoing internal infighting and civil war. Isidore of Seville lamented in 630 how little people knew and that most of it was based on superstition. Before the Justinian plague in the mid 6th century, the population was estimated at 6 million (this was reduced to 4 million after the event. All of this is indicative of the position Spain was in when the Moors arrived.
They were a partly Romanised, partly christianised and partly pagan culture at the far end of the Roman Empire in north west Africa. Most likely their name was given to them by the Romans who saw them no different from the people on the other side of their empire, and is derived from the word barbarian.
During the first wave of the Arab conquest their armies had reached as far as Kairouan (Tunisia), where they established the frontier capital. From here the Berbers were submitted, they had fiercely resisted the Arabs but lost their independence in 710. The Arabs had now reached the end of their journey as they had reached the Atlantic Ocean. The Arab fighters depended on booty and there was little alternative than start to look northward.
In 711, one of the warring Visigoth fractions sought help from outside and invited the Byzantine Governor of Ceuta in North Africa, he responded positively with an army of Berber Muslims from Mauretania (and hence called the Moors) under the leadership of Tariq ibn-Nusair they landed at a place the called Gebel at-Tarique (Gibraltar). Tarifa is named after Tariq it was here that he landed in 710 to raid the city.
The warring Spanish fractions were even not prepared to form a combined alliance to fight the invaders. Cordoba and Toledo had no defense at all and in Toledo the population with the exception of the Jews fled. For the rest of the Arab period the Jews would play a key role in the Toledo. The Visigothic king Roderic had an army of 24.000 – nearly all of them untrained peasants, he was defeated by a professional standing army of the Moors of 7,000. Roderic was killed at the Battle of Guadalete (near Cádiz).
It was also Charles Martel who finally was able to stop the invasion, at the Battle of Tours in 732. This allowed the Basque King Alfonso I of Asturias to extend the Asturian frontiers into Galicia, Lusitania and Viscaya.
The Arab leadership in Kairouan was not impressed that Tariq had taken the call from the Byzantines to conquer Spain, and Tariq was called back to Damascus, nevertheless the Arabs took control over the territory anyway.
Following the Muslim conquest Caliph Al-Walid I (711–750) established the the Umayyad Emirate of Al-Andalus (Islamic Iberia). The Moors brought with them the culture from Arabia and Syria. The newly conquered territory was divided into five administrative units, corresponding roughly to modern Andalusia, Galicia and Portugal, Castile and León, Aragon and Catalonia, and Septimania. They established their capital in the old Roman city of Córdoba in the fertile Quadquaivir valley.
During the reign of Al-Walid there were ongoing power struggles between the Berber Muslims from North Africa who had done the majority of the conquest and the Arab elite, this led to several battles and even wars.
Umayyad Emirate in the Al-Andalus (Islamic Iberia) (750–929)
Old Arabhabits hadn’t died; during a banquet in Damascus in 750, organised to reconcile with the Umayydas, the Abbasids massacred them, only one of the Umayyads, Abd al-Rahman I, was able to flee together with the remnants of the Umayyad followers and arrived in Spain where he was able to convince the Bedouin Arabs to accept him as their leader. In order to not upset the Abbasid Caliph in Damascus , he called himself the Emir of Córdoba. He built the mosque in exactly the same position as the one in Damascus, even if that meant that in Córdoba it was therefore south and not east facing. The Roman columns were used for this building and he used the Roman double story aqua-ducts as an example for the double story arches in the mosque. We visited this most unique monument in 2013.
The Moors made the same mistake as the Visigoths has done before, in one of the feuds they sought outside assistance in this case it was the Muslim ruler of Barcelona who in 777 asked Charlemagne for assistance. Charlemagne’s son Louis (the Pious) made great advances into Spain and conquered Barcelona. However, he had to retreat as he needed his army back in the north because the Saxons had used the opportunity to attack Cologne. The rear force of the Carolingian army was cut off and slaughtered by the Basques on the way back, among the dead was Hruodland, who later on became the hero in the famous Chanson de Roland. Charlemagne established three marches on the boarder of Spain: Mach of Gascony, March of Toulouse and the March of Gothia. In 801 Louis came back and was able to drive the Muslims out of Barcelona. A fourth March was established that of Hispanica, centred around the County of Barcelona and covering the central and eastern Pyrenees, this march had no less than 16 counties, each with their own military leader. While it would take over 200 years, from here finally the reconquesta took hold.
In the meantime however, on the Moorish side, under Abd-al-Rahman II a formal bureaucracy was established in Al-Andalus with a Prime Minister and minsters (viziers). During his reign the Vikings sacked Seville in 844, however, they loved the place so much that they settled and converted to Islam. Seville was consequently fortified. and became a key naval basis. He also established Zaragosa as the major Muslim fortification in the north and Mérida in the southwest.
Around 850 the Pope established the cult of St James in Santiago de Compostela in the Catholic kingdom of Galicia, in the hope to create a warrior state against the Moors. In 859 the Emir faced a revolt of the Catholics in Córdoba but he was able to suppress this.
It was not until Abd-al-Rahman III ascended the throne m in 912, that the Umayyad power throughout al-Andalus was finally established and was even extended into western North Africa as well.
Abd ar-Rahman was born in Córdoba, the grandson of Abdullah, seventh independent Umayyad Emir of Al-Andalus. His parents were Abdullah’s son Muhammad and Muzna (or Muzayna), a Christian concubine. His paternal grandmother was also a Christian, the royal infanta Onneca Fortúnez, daughter of the captive king Fortún Garcés of Pamplona. Abd ar-Rahman was thus nephew in the half-blood of queen Toda of Navarre (Source Wikipedia). Nevertheless Rahman undertook 5 jihads against the northern kingdoms.
Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba in the Al-Andalus (929–1031)
After the collapse of the Abbasids in the Arab heartland in 929 Abd ar-Rahman proclaimed himself Caliph, elevating the emirate to a position competing in prestige not only with the Abbasid caliph in Damascus but also the Shi’ite caliph in Tunis—with whom he was competing for control of North Africa. Through this he stated that he accepted no overlord, no one had any rights over him. This was the beginning of the golden age of Córdoba.
This was the palace city, built at the outskirts of Córdoba, the complex was bigger than the city itself. Construction was started in 936 by Abd-ar-Rahman III al-Nasir and was finished in 940. It was the de-facto capital of al-Andalus, it included ceremonial reception halls, mosques, administrative and government offices, gardens, a mint, workshops, barracks, residences, and baths. It was demolished during the collapse of the Caliphate in 1016. Currently less than 10% of the city has been excavated and is now partly restored.
During this period we see a rise in cultural exchange and cooperation between Muslims and Christians. Christians were allowed to remain their faith under Muslim rule and were known as Mozarabs. Córdoba became a beacon of learning. It’s library was possible the largest in the world with over 400,000 books. It attracted scholars from both the Muslim and the Christian world including Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Averroes) Muḥammad Abū’l-Qāsim Ibn Ḥawqal, Michael Scot and the later Pope Silvester II. It also became the leading cultural and economic centre in both the Mediterranean Basin and the Islamic world. It created its wealth from irrigated citrus growing – in the fertile Guadalquivir River, linen cloth and paper manufacturing. With over 500,000 citizens it overtook Constantinople as the largest city in Europe.
The German secular canoness Hrotsvitha from the late 10th century mentioned that her Passio Sancti Pelagii is derived from an eyewitness to the martyrdom of Pelagius of Córdoba. In this she writes that Córdoba is the largest city in Western Europe and that it was “the ornament of the world”. It is amazing that this religious women writes so ravishingly over a Muslim city, further underlining the tolerant relationship between the two religions, this despite the ongoing controversies and wars.
Taifa (successor) kingdoms.
The centralised nature of the Córdoba Caliphate made it hard to govern and the Berber rivals were always lingering in the background. One of the court officials, the Muslim fundamentalist Almanzor imprisoned the heir of Caliph Al-Hakim II and after the death of the Caliph in 976 Almanzor seized now also official control. He brought many of his followers from North Africa to Córdoba and from there organised some 50 jihads again Christian cities and sacked Barcelona, Leon and Santiago de Compostela. Interestingly he married Abda, daughter of Sancho Garcés the Christian king of Navarra.
The Caliphate remained only in name. During 1009 and 1013, the various Berber contenders claimed or took control all so called in the name of the Caliph – not unlike the situation of the Merovingians several centuries earlier – and this led to a ruinous civil war however, it was not until 1031 that the Caliphate was finally abolished.
The collapse of central power allowed the various cities and regional areas to basically gain independence. This fragmenting led to some 30 minor states (taifa kingdoms).
Some of the taifa rulers however, were great sponsors of the art and of knowledge in particular the wealthy rulers of Seville and Córdoba – in the fertile Quadalquaivir valley and later on also Granada. Jews were held in great esteem and were often part of the court and military systems of these mini states.
For much of its history, Al-Andalus existed in conflict with the small and often internal warring Christian kingdoms to the north. However, slowly these kingdoms started to consolidate their powers and extending them more southwards. By the 10th century Navarre was able to extend its territory and absorbed Leon, Castille and Aragon, with the border being established by the river Ebro. However, they still accepted the suzerainty of the Caliph. But increased disunity among the Muslims allowed the Christian princes to slowly extend their territories and/or to obtain more independence.
The attacks from Almanzor on the northern Spanish kingdoms finally forced them to creating more unity (Ferdinand I combined Castile and Leon) and this became the starting point of what would become known as the reconquista. Without the threat of a united Muslim force, the northern kings were now able to demand tribute from some of the northern taifas and in 1085, Alfonso VI of León and Castile captured Toledo, starting a gradual Muslim decline.
The fall of Toledo
This is one of those decisive events in history. After the fall of the Roman Empire and the dogmatic approach of the Catholic Church who entered the vacuum that was created, knowledge came to a standstill in Europe. It moved from Constantinople to Persia and was embraced by the Arabs who conquered Persia. With the cultural focus of the Arab world moving to Spain a lot of the old knowledge ended up in places such as Toledo, Seville and Córdoba.
When Toledo fell, the Muslims were allowed to stay and this knowledge became suddenly available again to the Europeans, who embraced it and it started to spread – during the 13th century – throughout the rest of Europe. This created the start of what is know the Early Renaissance. The Mozarabs played a key role in this process.
The Arabs were allowed to stay in Toledo (at least in the beginning) and had the protection of the Bishop of Toledo, he was also a great supporter of the cultural exchange that started to occur. So there was at several levels great cooperation between the Muslims and the Christians at that time, which led to the translation of most of the ancient works from Arab into into Latin. The Italian Gerard of Cremona for example translated 70 works from Arab into Latin. In 1142 Peter the Venerable translated for the first time the Quaran in Latin.
Almoravids (1086 – 1144)
Over the next 150 years, Al-Andalus became a province of invading Berber mercenaries. The focus was no longer on Al-Andalus but on their home lands in North Africa. This led to the implementation of the rule of the Berber Muslim dynasty of the Moroccan Almoravids on Al-Andalus. They were fundamentalist Muslims who wanted to go back to the basics and were appalled by the richness of the former Caliphs.
They led religious campaigns from Morocco aimed at the Christian kingdoms in order to restore Islam in Al-Andalus. It is estimated that they brought some 20,000 Berber fighters with them. They received the support of the taifas who had been forced to pay high tributes to the Christians. The initial campaign was so successful that this led to a financial crisis in the northern kingdoms, who started to rely on those handsome tributes. With the exception of the region around Zaragosa, Muslim rule was reestablished in Al-Andalus. The Berber fighters were split up over the various garrisons that were established in the taifas. Another successful campaigned happened in 1106, when the Muslims killed King Alphonso IV as well as his son, and lots of loot found their way south and in particular ended up in Granada.
But after that the rulers went back home to Marrakesh and the region fragmented again. Also the Berbers were good at hit and run attacks using the plains to disappear, but they were far less successful in siege battles and the northern kingdoms very rapidly fortified their cities and that further weakened the power of the Almoravids.
The fundamentalist attitude of the Almoravids prompted the Mozarabs and the Jews of Granada to ask for the assistance of King Alphonso of Aragon. During the same period the famous Jewish philosopher Maimonides was forced to leave Córdoba and he moved to Cairo. In 1147 Alphonso was able to force the Almoravids to pay tribute to him and this led to the collapse of their rule and this again led to the fragmentation of Al-Andalus.
Almohads (1147 – 1228)
Also in North Africa the Almoravids had lost power and they were ousted by the Almohads (whole ruled from Rabat). The new rulers were even more fundamentalist and had a strong urge to restore Muslim rule in Al-Andalus. In 1148 the took Seville at the very heavy loss of 30,000 fighters. The established very strict Muslin rule and made Córdoba their capital again, they fortified the city and did the same with Gibraltar (1160).
- We visited Gibraltar in 2013, coinciding with 300 years of British rule of the Rock.
This period also led to the flowering of Seville under the rules of several competent governors. This among other developments brought the famous Arab scholar Averroes to Seville.
There were several jihads launched during this period. The one in 1172 brought another 20,00 soldiers from North Africa to northern Spain, but Alphonso VIII successfully defeated them. However, in 1184, Ferdinando II was less successful and was defeated and in 1192 Alphonso VIII suffered a terrible defeat with 30,000 Castillans killed. He took revenge in 1212 and was able to chase the Almohads from the north and they would never reappear again here. Following this victory he built the famous cathedral of Toledo, one of Europe’s architectural masterpieces.
The defeat also created huge confusion in Marocco, there were no new troops available. Al-Andalus was no longer core to the Almohads, they ruled it from Rabat. There were often communications problems and there were regular problems with the supply line. Slowly but steadily the North African overlords lost grip on the governance of Al-Andalus, central control disappeared and and they were no longer able to collect taxes.
Córdoba fell in 1236 and Seville fell in 1248 to Fernando II. He gave the Muslims in Seville three days to leave the city and most moved to Granada.
The Emirate of Granada was now the only Muslim territory left.
Emirate of Granada 1238–1492
The ruler of Granada at that time was Muhammad I. He stayed after the Amohads had left and the people of Granada accepted him as their ruler. He was a modest and pious person and a good warrior. He had been an ally of Ferdinad III during the battle of Seville and in 1238 signed – as his vassal – a 20 year truth with him. He also accepted vassalage from Baghdad (bringing what was left of Al-Andalus back under direct control of the rulers in Baghdad). In reality that didn’t mean much as the Caliphate was also in its heartland under threat. In 1244 the Almohads were replaced by the Marinids in North Africa, who also supported the Emir of Granada. This created a safe and stable situation for Granada to prosper and flourish and they went through their own Golden Age in the 14th century under emirs Muhummad III and Yusuf I . This happened at a time when the rest of Europe started a sharp economic decline.
Granada had a natural mountain range border to the north that allowed it to maintain its independence. it was a difficult to conquer territory. The Sheikh had its own fortified palace village within the city; the Al-Hambra (the red one – named after the compacted red clay buildings). We visited this magnificent place in 2013.
The city was rapidly expanding at that time with the large influx of refugees from Seville. In total it would have had approx 50,000 inhabitants. The mini state also included the port towns of Almería and Malaga; important trading hubs tightly integrated in the Mediterranean trading system. Key trading goods included citrus and silk. This in particular saw the emirate having close ties with the Genoese who had established themselves as the main traders of the western Mediterranean.
Relationships between the Spanish rulers and the Emirs of Granada were most of the time cordial. This already started with Alfonso VI of León and Castile (1077–1109). He protected the Muslims among his subjects and struck coins with inscriptions in Arabic letters. He also admitted to his court and to his bed the refugee Muslim princess Zaida of Seville.
Aphonso X (the Wise) of Castile (1252-1284) who established the Toledo School of Translation with mainly Jewish and Arab scholars. This became the start of the Spanish vernacular language (Catalan).
Pedro the Cruel (or the Just) – 1350-1369 – asked Muhammad IX of Granada to send his architects and craftsmen to Seville to rebuilt the famous Alcázar. There is also some evidence that these same craftsmen built the synagogue in Toledo. This highlights the high level of multiculturalism and religious tolerance of that time.
The downfall of Granada started in the early 15th century, with ongoing power battles within the emirate. This led to attack on neighbouring Spain who used the unstable situation to start extending their influence into the territory. In 1470 the marriage between Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon created a Spanish superpower, they were known as the “Catholic Monarchs. The Catholic Church used this opportunity to reinvigorate the reconquista and stimulated other European rulers to send troops to Granada to defeat the Muslims.
This also meant the end of religious and cultural tolerances – this threat had always lingered in the background but now became an important element again to establish superiority and a good reasons to extend political powers.
Finally, after a 10 year war, on January 2, 1492, Emir Muhammad XII surrendered the Emirate of Granada to the Spanish rulers. The surrender ended Al-Andalus as a political entity, within weeks all Muslims were expelled, nevertheless aspects of Muslim rule are still evident in the region.
The reconquista also saw Spain taking control of some territories in Northern Africa such as Ceuta and Melilla which, until the present day, remain under Spanish sovereignty.
In Spain new scapegoats were needed to become the enemy of the state which led to one of the most severe persecutions of Jewish people.
Arab invasion of Sicily, Italy and France
After the Arabs had conquered what is now Tunisia, in 652 they also attempted to conquer Sicily however, the invasion was short lived. From 700 onward more attempts were made but in general Byzantium could stop full blown invasion by providing access to ports, trading rights and settlement facilities. More serious invasions took place in 740 and 752 and a real mixture of Byzantine and Arab culture started to evolve on the island.
An internal dispute in 826 between the Byzantine Emperor and his commander of the Byzantine fleet in Sicily changed this situation. As a consequence the commander invited the Emir of Tunisia to invade Sicily. By 831 the island was conquered and Palermo became the Muslim capital. (Taormina positioned high on a rock not far from Mt Etna was able to hold out till 902).
View from the Greek Theatre in Taormina
However, ongoing resistance from Byzantine, the Papal State and other Christian allies (Geneva, Venice) made it impossible for Muslim Sicily to become as strong as Al-Andalus. By 1060 the Normans arrived and they soon ended Arab rule on the island.
From Sicily Southern Italy came within reach of the conquering Arabs. Naples, Gaeta and Amalfi were able to organise a common defence, but Rome temporarily fell. Arab communities were set up throughout southern Italy but the Arab population didn’t predominate.
In 719, the Saracens (sometimes Berbers, Moors or Arabs, or combinations) first successfully invaded Septimania (France) under Al-Samh ibn Malik, the governor-general of al-Andalus and set up his capital from 720 at Narbonne, which the Moors called “Arbuna”.
By 721 he was reinforced and ready to lay siege to Toulouse, however he was stopped by Duke Odo of Aquitaine. During the Battle of Toulouse (721), al-Samh was seriously wounded and soon died in Narbonne, the stronghold he was able to hang on to. Arab forces consequently conquered Carcassonne (725) and Autun (725).
In 731, the Berber lord of the region of Cerdagne Uthman ibn Naissa, called “Munuza” was an ally of the Duke of Aquitaine Odo the Great after he revolted against Cordova, but the rebel lord was defeated and killed by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, so opening Aquitaine to the Umayyads. The Arabs now pushed further northwards and captured Bordeaux. At this point the Frankish military leader Charles Martel led a military expedition south and in 732, was able to stop the invading forces somewhere between Tours and Poitier (as mentioned above). In 737 he unsuccessfully attacked Narbonne and went back, leaving the Arabs in southern France. Charles Martel’s successor Pippin attacked Narbonne again in 754, but he also left empty handed, however he was more successful five years later when the city finally capitulated.
Subsequent expeditions by Pippin and Charlemagne finally drove the Saracens from the lands of the Franks and Charlemagne established the Spanish Marches as the protection zone against the Arabs in Al-Andalus (see also above).
However within a century Arabs (most likely converted Spanish Christians) were back in another part of France. Around 889 they established an Arab stronghold in Fraxinetum (now St Tropez in the Provence) from where they raided the coast between France and Italy, sacked monasteries and hijacked merchant ships. However, there is also strong evidence that the town became an important trading centre between the Frankish land in the north and the Arabs in Spain and the Arab heartland itself.
The Arabs were also regularly called upon by the various Frankish lords in France and Italy to assist in intervening in the various feuds, in particular in southern Italy this allowed the Arabs to increase their local settlements. And once settled the newcomers were more interested in tiling their lands and in trading than in war and as such they played a key role in the developments of these lands as well as in opening up the northern Frankish lands to those around the Mediterranean. This Golden Arab Age ended with the arrival of the above mentioned Normans around 1060.