18 May 2006

Arab Conquest, the Roman perspective.

Arabic conquest of Roman territories has been skipped over by apologists for that religion, who point to the fact that there were few recorded pitched battles and imply that as Roman administration was shaky, the Muslims sort of moved into a power vacuum with no opposition. This was due to a 20 year war with Persia which had devastated the Empire and during which Egypt, Palestine, and Syria were occupied for years. The Emperor Heraclius defeated the Persians decisively, but the Empire was badly shaken, and the invasion of Arabs was something which apparently took the Empire by surprise. Arab raids were nothing new, they were why the Roman paid the Gassanids to patrol the border. Narrations of St. Nilos and Ammonios reflect the prevailing Roman view of Arabs as ‘barbaroi’ who live a ‘beastly and blood-thirsty life’. In this can be read no more than a sedentary culture’s disdain for nomads who live by pastoralism and raiding.

The Arab invaders obviously intended not merely to carve of pieces of the Empire, but to overthrow it completely. Constantinople itself was first attacked in 669 and again from 674-680. This is shortly after the Arabs got organized post-‘Ali, with the first Umayyad caliphate at Damascus. Anatolia was the subject of annual raids for the entirety of the history of conflict between Islam and the Roman Empire, ending only with the fall of the last Roman possession in Asia. For a variety of reasons, the Muslims seemed to regard the Roman Empire as the primary enemy of the Islamic faith and of their particular political entity in particular. The first author to mention Islam was the Patriarch Sophronios of Jerusalem. In a sermon delivered in 634, he refers to the “sword of the Saracens” as “Beastly and barbarous. . . filled with every diabolical savagery.” The Arabs had by this point conquered Bethleham and the Patriarch’s traditional celebration of the Feast of the Nativity in Bethleham was prevented by fear of the Saracens. Sophronios likened the state of the Christians in Palestine to that of Adam expelled from Paradise, and their sorrows paralleled his sorrows. The Arabs are described as “Godless foreigners” who threaten massacres and destruction. This was relatively early in the 5 year process of conquering Palestine. Another sermon from 637 describes the advancing troops of the Saracens leaving behind a train of destruction and havoc, bloodshed everywhere and abandoned bodies devoured by wild birds. The “villainous and God-hating Saracens” run through places and capture cities, destroy the crops of the fields, burn down towns, set churches on fire, attack monasteries, and defeat Roman armies. He makes the claim that this is the natural result of the sins of his flock and calls them to repentance. In a synodal encyclical to Patriarch Sergios of Constantinople, Sophronios speaks again of the Arabs as “furious and brutal” and “godless and impious”.

The other Roman author of the 7th century wrote an apocalypse which is attributed to Methodius, Bishop of Patra. This is not certain, of course. It speaks of previous Arab victories, and speaks of the eventual decline of the Arabs and the ends of the world. It describes a catalog of horrors in what is probably hyperbolic language. All these are eschatological signs of the impending end of the world, according to this author.

Anthonios Chozebites, in his life of St. George Chozebites (who reposed ca 638 AD) writes of the Persian invasion of Palestine, and briefly mentions a ‘Saracen’ raid on the Lavra of Chozeba which ended in the murder of several monks.

St. Maximos the Confessor does not directly mention the name of Islam, but refers to the Arabs as barbarians who overrun civilized lands as if they were their own. He writes that they have the form of men but behave like wild and untamed beasts. St. Anastasios Sinaites refers to the Arabic capture and burning of Palestinian cities, and destruction in Egypt. He also delivered a sermon which has been preserved and refers to the Roman defeats at Yarkmouk and Dathemon, the fall of Palestine, the conquest of Egypt, and the capture and enslavement of Christians in Anatolia. He attributes this to the impiety of the Emperor Constans II who favored Monothelitism.

Blaming Constans II’s theological irregularities for misfortunes is the theme of a life of St. Theodore of Edeessa which refers to Arabs conquering Christian lands, defiling Christian churches, and oppressing Christian populations.

A life of St. Andrew, Archbishop of Gortyn and all Crete mentions an attack on Crete which is undated, but presumably refers to the same raid that al-Baladhuri refers to as being made duringthe caliphate of Al-Walid (705-715). According to the life, the Roman troops defeated the Arabs at the fort of Drimeos, which prevented any serious attempts to take Crete until the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid, which eventually resulted in the conquest of Crete in either 827 or 828.

The first author to treat Islam seriously as a religion was St. Theophanes the Confessor. He wrote in the first quarter of the 9th century. He ripped Mohammed and his doctrines. He was aware of Islamic ethical teachings, referring to injunctions for the faithful to have sympathy for each other and to assist those who suffer from injustice. But he stresses the negative aspects of Islam and spends more than a little time mocking the hedonistic, purely physical nature of Islamic paradise. He relates the conquest of Syria and Palestine, albeit in fairly general terms. He emphasized the greed, barbarism, and cruelty of the conquerors. After the fall of Damascus, when the Arabs moved against Egypt, Patriarch Kyros of Alexandria offered a huge tribute, which bought a mere three years of breathing space.

The Arab conquest of Egypt was just as brutal. Their persecutions were somewhat cyclic, based upon their relations with the Empire. During the reign of Tiberios II (698 – 705) the Arabs were hammered, and as a result Abd-al-Aziz, brother of the Caliph Abd-al-Malik began vigorously persecuting Christians in Egypt in 704. Mobs set upon Christians and murdered them with impunity. He ordered that all crosses be removed from Christian churches and “Mohammed is the Great Apostle of God” and “God is neither born nor does He give birth” were written on the doors. The ecclesiastical administration of the Orthodox patriarchate of Alexandria was abolished for 91 years, and during that period the Coptic patriarchate also had difficulties electing patriarchs, resulting in prolonged vacancies.

John, the Monophysite bishop of Nikiu, speaks of the invasions of the Arabs are merciless and brutal. The invaders massacred the garrison of Bahnasa, and “they put to the sword all that surrendered, and they spared none, whether old men, babes, or women.” They engaged in acts of violence which spread panic through the province. “A panic fell on all the cities of Egypt, and all their inhabitants took flight.” He refers to the Arab conquest as “heavier than the yoke which had been laid on Israel by Pharaoh.”

Elsewhere, the massacre of the inhabitants of Dara in 940 AD is attested to by both Theophanes and the much later historian/emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitas. Caesarea held out for years, but 7,000 remaining inhabitants were massacred when it fell in 643. Cyprus was ravaged 650 when it fell to the Arabs, and the city of Arados on the island of the same name was utterly destroyed by fire. The invasion of Isauria in 650 resulted in the death of “many” inhabitants and the taking of 5,000 slaves back to Damascus.

The first attempted Armenian genocide was perpetrated in 705, when all the magnates and nobles the Arabs could get their hands on were burned alive.

When the Arabs captured Tyana in 708, they put many of its inhabitants to the sword after offering conversion to Islam. The Caliphs al-Walid I and Suleiman were notorious. Suleiman commanded his tax collector, Usamah b. Zayd, to burn brands into the bodies of Christians who paid taxes. If a Christian was found without the sign, his arms were cut off and then he was beheaded. Omar II discontinued some of these practices, but started a serious program to convert Syrians to Islam. The incentive was, as usual, the avoidance of death. Theophanes writes of these things and his account is confirmed by Michael Syrus and Bar Hebraeus.

In these times we also see the first persecutions of religious pilgrims. 70 youths from Iconium traveled to Jerusalem, but where then arrested and taken the governor of Caesarea and accused of being spies. They were tortured, and 7 apostasized. The other 63 died as martyrs. Sixty visitors from Amorion were put to death by crucifixion in Jerusalem in 723. Even travelers which were obviously not spies were accused as such. Willibald, an English pilgrim, was arrested, imprisoned and held for some time in 754. What possible motive an Englishman would have for spying in that time period I cannot imagine.

Christians living under the new rulers existed at their sufferance, which would be revoked at a whim. When the Metropolitan Peter of Damascus argued against Islam in the caliphate of Walid II, his tongue was cut out and he was exiled to South Arabia and eventually murdered. Peter, bishop of Maiuma, denounced the “pseudo-prophet” Mohammed and was beheaded for his troubles. During the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid, the mosastaries of Palestine, including that of St. Sabbas, were raided and many monks were murdered.

And as seems to be a typical pattern for the rest of Muslim history, any time there was a problem or disorder in the Caliphate, the Christians suffered. From 786-796, a Harun al-Rashid’s authority was challenged by Bedouins and factions in Palestine which spent much time raiding Christian communities. Ascalon, Gaza, and Sariphaia were devastated, and the city of Eleutheropolis was utterly and permenantly destroyed. Monastaries such as the Lavra of Chariton and the Great Lavra of St. Sabbas were a favorite target of bandit gangs who would torture monks to death at random. By 797, Harun al-Rashid had gained effective control and replaced the depredations of bandits with a series of persecutions. He destroyed churches and imprisoned bishops. According to both Greek and Muslim sources, thousands of churches were destroyed in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere. And of course, it was utterly illegal to rebuild or repair churches.


Blogger tychecat said...

One area that was conquored by the "Sword of Islam" was the area where you are today. It was part of the Sassanid Empire -( which I did not hear of until grad school, despite being a history teacher). This was the last vestige of ancient Persia. The religion was mostly Zororastianism but there were fairly sizable Jewish and Christian groups - Christian Armenia was an example.
The Sassanids were finally conquored by the Arabs in 651, after years of struggle. Most of the art and literature (including the calligraphy) of the Arabs was part of the so-called "Northern Renassiance" and was taken from Sassanid culture. I think its interesting and ironic that much of the art and decoration in the Arab world was actually the art of an empire few people have even heard of.
This is the part of the world that appears on ancient maps as the land of "Prester John". While the Orthodox Church had had relations with them, they were pretty much cut of from the West and have only legendary mention in the Catholic Church literature of later centuries

7:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


It is still schocking to know that you still feel Islam was a cruel religion, dont forget that when Spain was under Muslim rule it was one of the best part of the then known world while London was still a small village.

Further Islam was not spread with a sword, because there are still Coptic Christians in Egypt, Iraq, Palestine & Syria and tell me which Muslim army went to conquer Malaysia, Indonesia & Brunei??? these pockets hold one of the largest pockets of Muslims.

To say the least when Byzantine & Sassanid Empires were deafeted they were still powerful as they had the resources and techniques while Muslim armies numbered from a few thousand the opposing armies had more than 100,000 soldiers who were armed to the teeth &were battle hardened soldiers

1:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Muslims were barbarians from Arabia who ravaged their way through lands. No different from peoples previous to them but the difference being Muslims preach they are peaceful when in fact history and their religious doctrine proves otherwise

Islamic Spain was at times peaceful because in fact Jews and Christians were bought to construct by Muslims to build and administrate the land under a Muslim ruler. Spain was previously under ROMAN rule and Muslims simply adopted what was not theirs by conquer called CRUSADING. London may have been smaller but was not incompetent and London is now one of the greatest cities and almost the new Rome. However, using Spain as an example does not prove that Islam and Muslim are peaceful

Byzantine Roman Empire was dying slow since the arrival of the first Christian crusades to Constantinople. After being devastated by warring with Persians and Crusader hooligans Byzantine Rome was on a decline especially with Arabic raiders constantly picking at her wounds.

The MINORITY of Christians in Egypt, Syria and other ex Christian lands...repeat..EX CHRISTIAN LANDS does not prove Islam was not spread by the sword...it proves it as there was a 99% Christian rate before the Muslims came with their sword

To not know the reality of Islamic past is what is shocking, To support it is pitiful and to defend is as a Muslim is biased

12:32 AM  

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