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HISTORY OF THE ARABS
 
 


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The Arab conquests: 7th century

One of the most dramatic and sudden movements of any people in history is the expansion, by conquest, of the Arabs in the 7th century (only the example of the Mongols in the 13th century can match it). The desert tribesmen of Arabia form the bulk of the Muslim armies. Their natural ferocity and love of warfare, together with the sense of moral rectitude provided by their new religion, form an irresistible combination.

When Muhammad dies in 632, the western half of Arabia is Muslim. Two years later the entire peninsula has been brought to the faith, and Muslim armies have moved up into the desert between Syria and Mesopotamia.
 









The great Christian cities of Syria and Palestine fall to the Arabs in rapid succession from635. Damascus, in that year, is the first to be captured. Antioch follows in 636. And 638 brings the greatest prize of all, in Muslim terms, when Jerusalem is taken after a year's siege.

It is a moment of profound significance for the young religion, for Islam sees itself as the successor of Judaism and Christianity. The city of the people of Moses, in which Jesus also preaches and dies, is a holy place for Muslims too. Moses and Jesus are Muhammad's predecessors as prophets. A link with Muhammad himself will also soon emerge in Jerusalem.
 






Muslim Persia: 637-751

Persia falls to the Arabs as a consequence of the battle of Kadisiya, close to the Euphrates, in 637. After their victory the Arabs sack the city of Ctesiphon (carefully sharing out the famous Spring Carpet). The last Sassanian emperor, Yazdegerd III, is five at the time. He and his court escape to the east, but he is eventually assassinated, in 651, at Merv. His name remains, even today, in use in the chronology of the Parsees. They number their years from the start of his reign in 632.

Meanwhile the Arabs win another victory over Persian forces at Nahavand in 641. They capture Isfahan in 642 and Herat in 643. Persia becomes, for a century, part of the Umayyad caliphate.
 









The final push eastwards for Islam, in the central Asian plateau, is in more difficult terrain and is more protracted. Throughout the second half of the 7th century there is fighting in and around the Hindu Kush, but by the early years of the 8th century the Arabs control the full swathe of territory from the Arabian Sea in the south (they enter Sind and move into India as far north as Multan by 712), up through Kandahar and Balkh (either side of the Hindu Kush) to Bukhara and Samarkand in the north, beyond the Amu Darya.

At this northern extreme they are neighbours of the T'ang Chinese. The eventual clash between these two powers, an encounter won by the Arabs, comes in 751 at the Talas river.
 






Muslim North Africa: from642

The Arab conquest of Egypt and North Africa begins with the arrival of an army in640 in front of the Byzantine fortified town of Babylon (in the area which is now Old Cairo). The Arabs capture it after a siege and establish their own garrison town just to the east, calling it Al Fustat.

The army then moves on to Alexandria, but here the defences are sufficient to keep them at bay for fourteen months. At the end of that time a surprising treaty is signed. The Greeks of Alexandria agree to leave peacefully; the Arabs give them a year in which to do so. In the autumn of 642, the handover duly occurs. One of the richest of Byzantine provinces has been lost to the Arabs without a fight.
 









The Arabs continue rapidly westwards along the coast of North Africa, capturing Cyrenaica in 642 and Tripoli in 643. But these remain largely ineffective outposts. For nearly three decades the Arabs make little progress in subduing the indigenous Berber inhabitants of this coastal strip.

The turning point comes in 670 with the founding of a new Arab garrison town at Kairouan, about sixty miles south of the Byzantine city of Carthage. From this secure base military control becomes possible. Carthage is destroyed (yet again) in 698. By the early 8th century northwest Africa is firmly in Arab hands. In 711 an Arab general takes the next expansionist step. With a Berber army he crosses the straits of Gibraltar and enters Spain.
 






Arabs in Spain and France: 711-732


The short journey across the water from Africa, bringing an army into Spain in 711, begins the final thrust of Arab expansionism in the west. In a frequently repeated pattern of history the invaders, invited to assist one side in a quarrel, rapidly take control and suppress both squabbling parties. Within a few months the Arabs drive the Visigoths from their capital at Toledo.

Soon governors appointed by the caliph in Damascus are ruling much of Spain. The Arabs press on northwards. Their armies move into Gaul, and here at last they are halted - near Poitiers in 732.
 









The Arabs and Constantinople:674-717

In the overwhelming assault on the Byzantine empire by the Arabs during the 7th century, only one campaign is consistently unsuccessful. This is their frequently repeated attempt to capture Constantinople itself.

The city is first unsuccessfully attacked, by sea and land, in669. The last of several expeditions ends in disaster for the Arabs in 717, when a fleet of some 2000 ships is destroyed by a storm and the army straggles homewards through a wintry Anatolia. From the mid-670s the Byzantines have one strong psychological advantage - a mysterious new device in their armoury which becomes known as Greek fire.
 








Greek fire: 674

In674 a Muslim fleet enters the Bosphorus to attack Constantinople. It is greeted, and greatly deterred, by a new weapon which can be seen as the precursor of the modern flamethrower. It has never been discovered precisely how the Byzantine chemists achieve the jet of flame for their 'Greek fire'. The secret of such a lethal advantage is jealously guarded.

Contemporary accounts imply that the inflammable substance is petroleum-based, floats on water, and is almost impossible to extinguish. It can be lobbed in a canister. But in its most devastating form it is projected, as a stream of liquid fire, from a tube mounted in the prow of a ship. Sprayed among a wooden fleet, its destructive potential is obvious.
 








Arabs and Muslims: 8th century

During the explosive first century of Arab expansion, the relationship subtly changes between two concepts - Arab and Muslim. At first they are inseparable. The Muslim armies are made up entirely of Arab tribesmen, and it is taken for granted that only Arabs can be Muslims. Between campaigns the Arab armies stay together in winter camps or garrison towns. They are an occupying force, having little link with the inhabitants of the conquered territories.

But by the early 8th century, when the Muslim expansion has reached something approaching its peak, there are not enough Arabs to provide the troops.
 









Out of necessity, people of other groups begin to be received into Islam, fighting alongside the Arabs. Berbers do so in the west, and Persians in the east. Inevitably there are resentments. Non-Arabs often feel they are treated as second-class Muslims, particularly when it comes to sharing out loot after a campaign. And the conversion of outsiders to Islam brings a financial burden. Non-Muslims are charged a poll tax, which is not paid by believers. The spread of the faith is a drain on the treasury.

These various tensions, and the inevitable difficulty of controlling the vast new empire, result in a rebellion in 747 against the Umayyad caliph.
 






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