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The Arab-Islamic Period

The Arab-Islamic Period

In 614 the Persians took Jerusalem and massacred its inhabitants. The Byzantine Emperor Heraclius waged a veritable holy war against them, retook Jerusalem in 629, and forced them to abandon Palestine and Syria,

     But the Arab conquest had already commenced, shortly after the birth of Islam in 622 and under the impetus of the successors of the Arab prophet Mohammed. As early as 633, Moslem troops appeared on the frontiers of Syria. Three years were sufficient for them to conquer the whole country (battle of Yarmouk, 20 August 636). In 637 the Caliph Omar took possession of Jerusalem. Some years later, all the surrounding countries were subjected in turn, including Armenia and Persia.

     During an initial period (632-660), the first Caliphs who succeeded Mohammed were appointed by election; they were both religious and political leaders, commanders of the faithful and guides of the Arab people.

     During a second period, the political Caliphate succeeded the religious Caliphate. The office of Caliph was hereditary; temporal interests predominated, and the successors of Ali were not so much pontiffs as kings. The Omayades transferred their capital of Arabia to Syria, because the latter was a veritable crossroads of the ancient world and was by far the best central position from which to run their immense empire.

     The Arab dynasty of the Omayades was a powerful one. The cedars of Lebanon provided them with a navy, as they had done in former days for the Phoenicians. This navy served to capture the islands of the eastern Mediterranean: Cyprus, Crete, Cos and Rhodes. To the East, the conquests of the Omayades extended as far as Sogdiana and the banks of the Indus and to the West as far as Spain and Gaul

Damascus became one of the holy cities of Islam and at the same time the centre of a flourishing society. Trade and industry prospered there (damask fabrics, damascene weapons). Science, philosophy, mathematics and medicine were studied there, and history and poetry were cultivated.

Syria then enjoyed a development of civilization analogous to that, which had heralded the Roman period. Arab architects built palaces and mosques there, which can still be admired today. Never had the soil been so fertile, thanks to a judicious distribution of water. Never had the reputation of Syria craftsmen and the fabrics or metal or glass objects made by them, been so soundly established.

     At the end of the century, the authority of the Omayade sovereigns declined. At that time the powerful Abbasside family, who were descended from Abbas, an uncle of Mohammed, carried a black standard, in contrast with the white flag of the Omeyades. After a battle on the boundary of Persia, on the banks of the Zab, the black standard triumphed.

But an Omayade Prince, Abdul-Rahman, fled to Spain, where the royal legion of Damascus, loyal to his family, founded an independent Caliphate in Cordoba. The Omayades continued to reign in the West for several centuries, but in the East they were definitively supplanted by the Abbassides.

     The Abbassides soon left Damascus, doubtless considering that a new dynasty called for a new capital. The second Abbasside, Al-Mansour (the Victorious), who was Caliph from 754 to 775, chose a spot in Mesopotamia not far from Babylon and Seleucia, near the ruins of Ctesiphon. This was Baghdad.

     The Abbasside dynasty, which lasted more than five centuries, was nevertheless unable to prevent the vast empire, which it controlled from falling apart. Egypt became independent with the Tunulides (868-905), while Persia came into the hands of local dynasties. In Baghdad itself, the Caliphs had no more than nominal authority, having relinquished their power to foreign Sultans in 908. The Seldjoukide Turks took over the Western provinces of Anatolia, Syria and Palestine, sometimes clashing with the Egyptian Fatamides in the South and the Hamdanites in the North, who were at war with Byzantium. During this struggle Nicephore Phocas, the Byzantine Emperor, succeeded in reoccupying Aleppo (967-975) and reconquering the Mediterranean coast as far as Beirut and inland as far as Baalbeck. It is in this context that we must place the Crusades, of which more later