In the first chapter of this series, we looked at how Christianity shaped and expanded. Of the two bifurcated parts of the Roman Empire, the Eastern one flourished more. In the later years of the 1st millennium, it came to be known as the Byzantine Empire.
At its peak, the Empire expanded its wings in the Mediterranean Sea, North Africa and the Middle East. By them being a formidable political and military force, Christianity also expanded. It had made a foothold in the pre-Islam Arab world as well.
Initial interaction between Prophet and Christians
Historians state that Prophet Muhammad first met Christians during his Caravan to Syria. Later on, it became a tradition for him to meet a Christian Monk named Bahira. In fact, the Prophet’s mission is said to have been confirmed by a Christian Scholar named Waraqa Ibn Nawfal.
Waraqa was a cousin of the Prophet’s wife Khadija. Waraqa is believed to have said, “There has come to him the greatest Law that came to Moses; surely he is the prophet of this people.”
Islam and Christianity had philosophical differences, but their adherents remained largely peaceful for a decade or so. Christians from Najran, Saudi Arabia used to visit the Prophet in Medina. On the other hand, the Prophet also used to return the favour by sending letters to the Byzantine emperor Heraclius and the Negus of Axum, as well as the Sasanian emperor Chosroes.
This was the time when both Byzantines and Sasanians were getting tired of their 2 century-long wars. Additionally, the bubonic plague forced them to go slow on each other. However, emperor Heraclius was able to secure one strategic victory by regaining lost territories and restoring True Cross to Jerusalem in 629. True Cross is the cross on which Jesus is said to have been crucified.
Around the same time, Prophet Muhammad had managed to bring the whole Arab world under one umbrella. He used both conquests as well as alliances to achieve this. The inherent tribal nature of unified Arabia meant that within a few months of the restoration of the cross, Arabs launched an offensive against the Byzantines.
The instant cause of this battle was the murder of Muhammad’s ambassador at the hands of the Ghassanids. Ghassanids were an Arab tribe whose kingdom was a vassal state of Byzantine. The Battle of Mu’tah was largely inconclusive in the big picture as Muhammad’s Army had to retreat due to the death of their 3 key leaders. On their part, the Byzantines did not go ahead with the full-fledged attack on the retreating party.
Turns out, it was a significant and history-changing blunder. 3 years later, Muslims returned and beat the Byzantines in the Expedition of Usama bin Zayd. Prophet Muhammad had sent Usama to avenge the killing of his father and Prophet’s adopted son by Byzantines in the Battle of Mu’tah.
Muhammad trusted Usama so much that his young age of 20 years was not a barrier for him. When the Prophet died after declaring him as leader of the expedition, Usama gained support from Abu Bakar, who was one of Muhammad’s successors.
The successful expedition by young Usama opened the floodgates. Muslim rulers started to target the southern provinces of the Byzantine Empire (Syria and Egypt).
In 634 AD, Arabians launched an attack on Syria and Roman Palestine. Heraclius had fallen ill and was incapable of leading the army. Rashidun Caliphate forces cruised through and registered a decisive victory in the Battle of Ajnadayn. Soon they went after Damascus (Syria) and seized it for a brief period. It is then that the Byzantines showed some sign of revival.
By that time, Heraclius had recovered and sent troops to reverse the siege. Muslims pushed back and took 2 years to recuperate. In 636, Byzantines foolishly fell into the trap of a pitched battle with Arabians. The Arab Army used the deep valleys and cliffs to cause havoc on the Byzantines. Damascus was finally lost. It was the first big Christian city to fall into the hands of Arabs.
Its impact was huge. In the words of historian Joannes Zonaras, “[…] since then [after the fall of Syria] the race of the Ishmaelites did not cease from invading and plundering the entire territory of the Romans.”
The momentum of this conquest helped them to capture Jerusalem, Gaza, Mesopotamia and Antioch in a two-year time frame. By the end of the 630s, Byzantine Mesopotamia and Byzantine Armenia were under their control and now they eyed Egypt. In 642 AD, the Caliphate captured Egypt and Tripolitania.
Conquest of Africa and Iberian Peninsula (Spain)
After getting hold of Egypt, Muslim Army strived to get hold of North Africa. In 644 AD, they had eastern Libya under their command. Meanwhile, a civil war erupted in the Arab world, following which the Umayyads came to power.
Umayyads were a bit more planned in their approach. They took their time. Meanwhile, they strengthened their forces by developing a Navy of their own. Their navy registered a surprising victory against the Byzantines in 655 AD. The victory opened up the Mediterranean for the Arabs.
The Byzantines could not fully recover from the loss. The loss turned them into a raid party rather than a full-fledged Army. They began small skirmishes against Arabs in Africa and other regions. Umayyads used Egypt as a launch pad for Africa. From there, they launched a raid on Anatolia in 663AD. From 665 AD to 689 AD, Byzantines and Arabs kept fighting in North Africa.
To their credit, the Byzantines were able to reverse a few key gains made by the Arabs. For instance, they did not let them win Constantinople for a long time in 678 AD. But they could not seize the day by capitalising on it. Why would they? Their emperor was old and feeble. He made a truce with the Arabs.
Under Justinian (II), the last ruler of the Heraclian dynasty, the Arabs plundered Byzantine territories at their will. He lost his capital as well. Justinian did come back to power in 705 AD, but the Arabs only strengthened their hold under him.
5 years after Justinian’s stint ended, the Arabs launched the siege of Constantinople but were unable to secure the victory. Despite that, the Arabs had seized a large part of Africa, Sicily and the East.
Meanwhile, the Arabs’ hunger for territories was not ending. They aspired for more and now it was time for the Iberian Peninsula to fall. In the Iberian Peninsula, Count Julian, a local revolutionary reached an agreement with Musa, an Arabian governor, to launch a joint invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. Count Julian was leading a Visigoth faction, which was discontent with the usurpation of the power by Roderick.
The invasion was successful but Count Julian had underestimated the Arabs’ greed for territories. Between 710 and 714, Musa captured the whole of the northeast, northern mountain and the west and east of the peninsula.
By the time he was recalled by higher authorities in 714 AD, most of the Peninsula was under their control, except for a small hilly area. The people living there kept fighting with the Islamists for more than 5 centuries and were ultimately successful.
The fall of Jerusalem
In the Byzantine part of the world, a virtual truce had been achieved. Both empires established diplomatic relations by recognising each other. But not everything was hunky-dory.
The Church, which was a powerful political entity during those times, was especially discontent with the way Jerusalem was treated under the Arabs. For the first century of the conquest, Jerusalem’s sanctity was maintained by Muslim rulers who kept their anarchist sections in check.
The Arab world was getting decentralised and the lack of Muslim-Christian war was compensated by intra-Arab conflicts. Religious fanatics got hold of political power. They felt a moral obligation to convert all non-Muslims to Islam. Earlier only pagans were punished while Christians were allowed to practise their religion by paying Jizya.
Things changed after 725 AD. Now, Christians were told to either convert or die. The wealth of Jerusalem started to drain towards Baghdad for the benefit of the Caliphs. The anti-Christian policy was formalised with the destruction of the walls of Jerusalem. Arabic became the language of the government.
At that time, Christians were somehow learning to reside with their Muslim neighbours. They had taught the Arabs to translate Greco-Roman literature into Arabic. Many Christians gained a prominent place in the Arab world and vice-versa.
The fact that the Arab Navy was stronger than the Byzantine’s owed mainly to them hiring Monophysite Christian Copt and Jacobite Syrian Christian sailors in their ranks. The Jerusalem incident forced Christians to rethink their positions. They started regrouping to resuscitate old Byzantine glory in the guise of a truce.
Officially, the truce continued till 863 AD. In that year, the Byzantine general Petronas gained a lead by registering a victory in the Battle of Lalakon. News of the sudden defeat sent Baghdad and Samarra into riots. Anxiety had spread and the subsequent loss of Armenia did not help the cause either.
The Byzantines continued with their offence for the next 100 years or so. They were assisted by the internal fights of the Arab Empire and the reestablishment of the Byzantines into a regional force by Basil I.
His successors followed in his footsteps and through conquests and alliances, went on a winning spree. In 995 AD, Basil II launched a massive campaign against the Arabs. He relieved Aleppo, won Syria, took over Orontes valley and went further South.
According to the British historian Piers Paul Read, “by 1025, Byzantine land stretched from the Straits of Messina and the northern Adriatic in the west to the River Danube and Crimea in the north, and to the cities of Melitene and Edessa beyond the Euphrates in the east.”
The Byzantines held this territory until 1078. However, Jerusalem was still out of their reach. This very fact became the reason behind 3 crusades. In the next part of the series, we will look at the Crusades, their reasons and how they shaped the history of Christianity.
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