ORB Online Encyclopedia

Overview of Late Antiquity--The Seventh Century

Section 4: The Impact of the Arabs

Steven Muhlberger

The Arab conquest of the Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Persia has both constructive and destructive aspects.

The positive results were the laying of the foundations for a new Semitic-speaking culture that took in the entire Fertile Crescent and the two great countries, Iran and Egypt, that bordered it. This culture, unified by religion and by the use of a new sacred and literary language, Arabic, had a great future before it, and is still important in our own time. (Iran has often stood somewhat apart from the Arabic speaking countries, since it has its own language and a strong literary tradition, both Islamic and pre-Islamic, but the importance of Islamic Iran in world history cannot be doubted.)

Three hints of this future greatness might have been noticed by an alert seventh-century observer. First would have been the large migration of Arabs into the Fertile Crescent. Such migration had started much earlier, under the auspices of the competing empires, but far more Arabs followed the armies, and they came to stay. The dominance of the Arabic language in this region today is in part due to the infiltration of Arabic speakers into area where Semitic languages had long been dominant. In future centuries, languages like Syriac and Greek would be lose ground to one spoken not only by the rulers of society but also by many peasants, traders, and nomads.

A second and more obvious sign of Arab power was the foundation of new cities in the Fertile Crescent, and at a later date, outside of it. The Arab occupiers of Syria and Iraq were reluctant to base their armies and governments in established cities, but rather camped outside them. Very quickly these encampments became new cities: not simply military encampments, but thriving communities in which were concentrated the loot of some of the oldest and richest countries on earth.

ILLUSTRATIONS: The Umayyad mosque of Damascus.

Once again it is useful to compare the Arab empire to the empire of Alexander. Alexander realized that his control of his diverse empire depended on the establishment of secure bases, from which the countryside could be taxed and policed. Therefore he and his successors established throughout their territories a multitude of Greek city-states, which he populated with his soldiers, Greek immigrants, and members of the native populations who were willing to throw in their lot with the new rulers. These colonial cities made possible the Greek domination of much of the Middle East for a thousand years. The Arabs were in much the same position, and used the same tactics. To nail down their empire, they had to plant new Arab communities in strategic places.

The third sign of Arab power would have been the clearest to a contemporary. That was the vigor and prowess of the Arab armies which unstoppably gobbled up city after city, country after country, suffering hardly a set-back. Arab success was undoubtedly due to the willingness of the great mass of the conquered population to make a deal with the Arab armies, thus ridding themselves of their old imperial masters and making things much easier for the new ones. The toughness of the Arab soldiers and their mastery of the camel contributed to their victories as well. But the sheer confidence of the Muslims in themselves and their mission was perhaps the most important element. They were both conscious of being God's Chosen People, and inspired by the esprit de corps of the warlike, tribal Arabic society. Both Islamic and non-Islamic factors alike underlined the distinctiveness of the Arab Muslims. They were constantly made aware that they had taken on the entire world and taken control of it, and done so because they knew who they were and relied on themselves and on their God. Their confidence and awareness of their own distinctiveness were able to survive two civil wars between competing Caliphs, and before a century was over these traits took the conquerors twice to the gates of Constantinople, to the borders of modern France, and to the frontiers of the Chinese empire.

Yet for all this, the Arab-speaking Muslim culture of the future was hardly born in the seventh century. It was perhaps clearer that the Muslim Arab advance had gutted two long-established empires and changed the environment in which Middle Eastern Christians and Jews would live.

The Persian empire of the Sassanids disappeared forever after its defeat by Rome and its conquest and occupation by Muslim armies. The Persians and other Iranian peoples who had supplied the core personnel and set the religious and cultural tone of the imperial establishment did not disappear. But lacking any unoccupied territory where they could regroup and resist Muslim rule, the Persians lost their position as a ruling people. In the future, Persians desiring a share of political power could do so only by joining the conquerors, by becoming part of the Muslim establishment. The long-term consequences of this fact are indicated by the disappearance of the Persian national religion from Iran. Persians, to take part in politics at the highest level, had to abandon what had once been one of the most important parts of their national identity, and without the support of rich and influential people, the Zoroastrian religion withered away in its homeland (it still survives in parts of modern India).

The Christian Roman empire did not disappear. This is due in large part to the foresight of Roman emperors in relocating themselves on the site of old Byzantium, which, properly fortified and supported by a fleet, was nearly impregnable. All the resources of the Muslim armies were thrown against Constantinople twice, in 673-78 and 717-18. The fall of Constantinople on either occasion would have destroyed the imperial Roman regime, but both times the city survived, and with it the empire.

But the empire was hardly the same. Having suffered greatly from Persian invasions at the beginning of the century, it was almost immediately subjected to further military incursions into its core provinces. Archaeology indicates that in the sixth century, many ancient cities of Anatolia were suffering from harsh taxation and from a long-term downward trend both in the economy and the population. The wars of the seventh century finished many of them off. Key towns like Smyrna, characterized by large civic building complexes and an active commercial life, were reduced to tiny military strongholds with no detectable civilian urban activity. Constantinople itself was reduced from being one of the largest cities in the world, with hundreds of thousands of people, to an impoverished capital of tens of thousands, in which entire neighborhoods had reverted to agricultural use. The main aqueduct of Constantinople was broken by Avar beseigers in the 610s, and never rebuilt. Restoration of such a major public utility was beyond the resources of the imperial capital, especially since the population no longer required the piped in water. The diminished stature of the city was such that one emperor, Constans II, considered moving his court permanently to Syracuse in Sicily, the one Byzantine province untouched by foreign invasion.

Had the empire permanently recovered Syria and Egypt, the situation of the empire might have been much different. The Muslims built an impressive new imperial establishment and supported an effective war machine on the taxes of these provinces plus Iraq. As it was, the Roman imperial tradition was lucky to survive, and it was clear to everyone that the empire was no longer the great superpower. Even before Phokas' revolt, ecclesiastical rulers in the western kingdoms had begun to lose the feeling that they had more in common, religiously and culturally, with the rulers of New Rome than with their own "barbarian" kings. The weakness of the battered Byzantium of the seventh century merely confirmed this trend.

Christians within the new Muslim empire also faced a new situation. These Christians were perhaps the majority of all Christians in the world: Egypt, Syria, and Iraq were far more populous than unconquered areas such as Gaul or Italy, and were old, established Christian countries. In some ways, the Christian communities of these areas, or of Iran, were not greatly affected by the Muslim conquest. It was not clear to the clergy that Islam was any more significant than other forms of incorrect belief; perhaps it was less significant, since it was mostly restricted to a small group of "barbarians" who, although they ruled and collected taxes, kept to themselves. Christianity did not lose its influence among the population as a whole. Indeed it grew: during the early Muslim period, pagans and Zoroastrians in Northern Iraq continued to become Christians.

One thing that did change with the conquest were relations with the rest of the Christian world, the Greek and Latin-speaking churches of the Mediterranean basin. Before Muhammed, the Nestorian and Monophysite churches of Egypt, the Fertile Crescent and Iran were usually on bad terms with the Roman emperor and the church of Constantinople. The success of Muslim armies gradually transformed chronic Christian disunity into isolation of the conquered churches from the unconquered ones. For two generations or more, the old doctrinal issues raised by the councils of the fifth centuries continued to occupy Middle Eastern bishops. There was even a remnant of a "Melkite" or imperial church fighting for the unpopular theology of Constantinople. But gradually the old links formerly maintained by common political concerns, personal contact, and common experience eroded. In the late seventh century, Syrian clerics, instead of refuting the errors of the western churches began to disregard them, showing an almost complete indifference to a connection that had once been vital, if never easy. A Syrian chronicler preserves the verdict of his church in the following dismissinve words:

Anyone with judgment who examines the case will see clearly and recognize precisely how the Chalcedonians have lapsed from the solid foundation of orthodoxy and allowed themselves to be perverted quickly and easily by every bad and heretical opinion which has presented itself to them....Now, habituated to corruption, they have become more and more depraved.

At home, Middle Eastern Christians faced the same challenge as Zoroastrians. Their beliefs, important and vital as they might be to their numerous followers, were no longer the beliefs of the ruling stratum. Christian communities, in making peace with the Arabs, had to accept that their religion and customs would be subordinate. Christians under Muslim rule could not aspire to the direction of society as a whole, but could only hope to maintain control of what they already had. Christians, in fact, were put in the same position that Jews had held in the Christian empire. At first, the acceptance of a formal subordinate status was no great sacrifice for Christians. In Iraq and Iran, where the rulers had never been Christian, it was no change at all. One could realistically hope that Arab domination would soon pass, and that the Christianization of Middle Eastern society would continue. This, however, was not what the future held.

Note on quotation.

Index, Overview of Late Antiquity.

Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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