(41) Arabia - History. Era of Mahomet (Mohammed). Islamic Expansion.
The 7th century had now commenced, and before long the wonderful successes of Mahomet, or, in more correct orthography, Mohammed, 622-632 A.D., while they closed in one great centralizing effort the era of Arab progress and development within the land, opened a marvelous phase of new activity and almost boundless extension without. The story of the great prophet and of his book, the obstacles he encountered and overcame, his labours, his reverses, his wars, his final and decisive success, belong to the separate article that bears his name. Here it may suffice to state that at his death, 632 A.D., the eleventh year of the Islamitic era of the Hejrah or flight, which he himself had founded, Mahomet left the entire Arab peninsula, with the sole and transient exception of the tribe of Tameem, and a few Yemenite clans, who for a short while preferred the revelations of his rival Moseylemah, the "false prophet" of Nejd, united under one scepter, and in one creed.
Election of Abu Bekr
After the disputes which might naturally be expected from a general election and turbulent electors, and which, fomented by the ambitious and intriguing Ali, nephew and son-in-law of the prophet, ran so high between the "Ansar," or chiefs of Medinah, and the "Mohajireen," or those of Mecca, as to threaten the premature disruption and extinction of the Islamitic empire, Abu Bekr, father of Ayeshah, the favourite wife of Mahomet, was chosen to be the great mans caliph, -- "Khaleefah" is the Arab word -- or successor. His reign lasted only two years; but it sufficed for the subjugation of the rebel tribes of Nejd and Yemen, the conquest of Damascus, and the commencement of the long career of victory that carried the arms, the language, and the institutions of Arabia over half the old world, from the banks of the Indus to the shores of the Atlantic, and from the burning sands of the mid-African desert to the green vineyards of pleasant France. These events we will now pass in cursory review.
Fall of Damascus
Syria, distracted by long sedition and the bitter rivalry of ecclesiastical sects, fell a fist and comparatively easy prey to the hardy invaders. Led by Khaled, the boldest and most talented among the early Mahometan generals, the Arab troops occupied Bosrah, overran the region of Hauran, and advanced against Damascus. The Byzantine army hurriedly sent by the Greek emperor Heraclius to the relief of the besieged town, was defeated with tremendous slaughter on the plains of Eznadin, where fifty thousand men are said to have fallen on the Christian side alone; and Khaled, following up his victory, instantly invested the capital of southern Syria. After a seventy days siege, and in spite of the brave defence made by the Christian garrison under the leadership of Thomas the patrician, son-in-law of the emperor himself, Damascus was taken, half by storm, half by capitulation, on the 3d of August, 634 A.D., 13 A.H.; and amid all the vicissitudes of succeeding centuries has remained ever since, not only a Mahometan, but an Arab city.
Battle of Yamook
Heraclius, who, unaware at first of the importance of the crisis, had hitherto remained almost inactive in Antioch, his north-Syrian residence and capital, now, roused to exertion, collection an army of 80,000 men, the greater number of whom, reinforced by 20,000 auxiliaries from among the Ghassanide Arabs, were led at first by the emperor himself, then by Manuel, a tried Byzantine general, to meet the ever-advancing Mahometans. These last, under the standard of Khaled, had already added Homs or Emesa, Baalbee or Heliopolis, and Hama, the Hamath of Scripture, to their list of conquests. They now fell back on a strong position behind the windings of the Yermook or Hieromax, a small stream issuing from the southern slopes of Mount Hermon, which now bears the name of Jebel-esh-Sheykh. The battle, in which Manuel took the offensive, Khaled the defensive part, raged for several says, and ended in the total defeat of the Greeks, 636 A.D., who are said to have lost upwards of 100,000 men, including Manuel himself, while at least 5000 of the victors remained on the field.
Conquest of Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia
Syria was now open to the Arabs; and Jerusalem, which, with the difficult and mountainous district of south-eastern Palestine, had hitherto been prudently neglected by Mahometan strategy, capitulated, 637 A.D., to the calip Omar, who, apprehensive lest Khaled, if left to himself in Syria, should establish a semi-independent principality of his own, came thither in person to receive the keys of the holy city. Aleppo, and Antioch itself, soon followed; last the sea-coast, with Jaffa, Beyrout, Tropoli, and its many other towns and ports, was overrun; and within six years from the death of Mahomet the entire Syria region, from Mount Taurus to the Red Sea, had become what, so far as language and usages are concerned, it has never since ceased to be, and Arab province. Within a short time after, Mesopotamia underwent the same fate; and the conquets of tarsus and Diar-Bekr brought the Arabs in immediate contact with the uplands of Armenia and Koordistan, which for all succeeding times remained the ultimate limits of their permanent occupation.
Conquest of Persia
With so much fighting on their hands to the west of the Euphrates, the Arab conquerors had for a while refrained from attacking the great Persian empire to the east of that river, except by a few desultory and for the most part unsuccessful raids. Nor did the battle of Hira, in which the Arab armies under Jereer destroyed a large body of Persian troops, and avenged the previous losses of their countrymen, more than restore the apparent balance between the two empires. But Yezdegird, the last of the Persian monarchs, rashly provoked the extreme chances of a decisive war by sending his best general, Rustum, across the Euphrates with an army of 120,000 men, to offer battle to the Arabs, then commanded by Saad, a native of Yemen, in the open plains of Kadeseeyah or Cufa, not far from the site of ancient Babylon. After four days hard fighting, the Persians gave way, having lost the greater number of their men, besides the imperial standard, once the apron, so traditional said, of an Ispahan patriot blacksmith, and for many ages the palladium of Iran. The Arab general, profiting by the utter discomfiture of his opponents, crossed the Euphrates and the Tigris, took possession, almost without resistance, of the royal capital of Medain or Ctesiphon, where spoils of immense value were found, and pushed on to the more ancient metropolis of Susa, in Chusistan. But the completion of the work of conquest was reserved to his successor in the field, Nooman Ebn-Mekran, who in the battle of Mahavend, 641 A.D., near Ecbatana or Hamadan, destroyed the last hopes of Persian independence. Yezdegird fled, to fall soon after by the hand of an obscure assassin; and his daughters, carried away captive, was taken in marriage by Hasan, the son of Ali-an ill-omened marriage, that, by its dower of Persian pretentions and sympathies, contributed not a little to the disunion and subsequent downfall of the Arab empire. The whole of Persia, from the Caspian and the Euphrates to the Indian Ocean, now received the religion and the rule, though not the language, of Arabia; Khorasan, Kerman, Mekran, Seistan, and Balkh, were next subdued, and for a while the Oxus became the eastern limit of Arab dominion. Thus before a century had elapsed the entire region west of the Indus obeyed the Arab and Mahometan caliph of Damascus.
Conquest of Egypt and Africa
Westerly the first Arab conquest was Egypt. This important acquisition was made by Amroo, a man alike distinguished as a general and a stateman, during the reign of the caliph Omar. Farmah, or Pelusium, the easterly key of Egypt, was first reduced, and the conquerors, proceeding inland, assured their communications with Arabia and the Red Sea by the occupation of the Delta and Cairo. Thence, after much hard fighting, they reached and invested the city of Alexandria, and a fourteen mouths siege was rewarded by the capitulation of the city, December 22, 640 A.D., No further resistance was offered; the Coptic population gladly exchanged the polished but heavy Greek yoke for the barbarous but lighter rule of the Arabs; and Egypt, the Syria, has remained socially, though not politically, a dependency of Arabia to the present day. The subjugation of northern Africa, including Tripoli, Carthage, Tangier, and the entire coast from the Nile to the Atlantic, occupied sixty years more; but in the battle of Utica. 698 A.D., the last remnants of the Byzantine empire were obliterated from the southern shores of the Mediterranean, and Africa was no less closely and permanently annexed to the Arab empire than Syria and Egypt had already been.
Conquest of Spain
At last, at the opening of the 8th century, Musa, the talented and ambitious administrator of these vast provinces, received the well-known message of the traitor, Count Julian, that brought on the invasion of Spain. At the order of Musa, his lieutenant, Tarik, crossed the straits which yet bear his name, 711 A.D., and soon after disembarking in Andalusia, met and defeated the armies of Spain in the decisive battle of Xeres, where Roderick, last of the Gothic kings, lost his crown and life. Tarik, 16,000 of whose soldiers are said to have remained on the field, requested and received fresh troops, with which he speedily reduced Malaga, Granada, Cordova, Seville, and finally the Spanish capital, Toledo, itself. Musa now followed in person, took the command somewhat abruptly from his lieutenant, received the submission of Saragossa and Barcelona, reached the Pyrenees, and reduced the whole of Spain, Galicia excepted, to an Arab dependency. His own recall and disgrace, the result of court intrigue and royal ingratitude, stayed awhile the further spread of the Arab torrent.
Invasion of France
But in 731 A.D. the celebrated Mahometan general, Abd-er-Rahman, at the head of a numerous army, crossed the Pyrenees, and by the victories, or rather massacres, of Arles and Bordeaux, reduced the whole of France south of the Loire. But at Tours be met the main French army, commanded by Charles Martel, mayor of the palace, and founder of the Carlovingian dynasty. Here, in a bloody battle of seven days, the tide was turned. Abd-er-Rahman himself fell, and his troops were dispersed, and fled, never to return. Not long after, 759 A.D., Pepin, son of Charles, delivered France from the lingering vestiges of Mahometan rule. Spain, however, remained for more than five centuries an Arab settlement; and her language, literature, and usages bear even yet the imprint of those who ruled her so long. Sicily too, Candia, Rhodes, Cyprus, Malta, Sardinia, and even Corsica, with other islands of less note in the Mediterranean, became each in turn, though none for long, Arab possessions. In Asia Minor, on the contrary, on the shores of the Black Sea, and east of Samarkand, the Arab invaders in spite of brave and reiterated attempts, two of which, 670 and 717 A.D., were directed against Constantinople itself, were never able to make good their footing.
Extent of the Arab Empire
But at the close of the Benoo-Omeyyah dynasty, 755 A.D., their empire comprised the whole basin of the Mediterranean, with the exception of its northern side; in Africa its only limits were the great central desert, in Asia the plateau of Kobi and the Indus, and throughout almost all these regions the Arab element either remained absolutely predominant down to our own time, or has at least left distinct traces of its existence.
Internal Organization of the Arab Empire
We must now give a brief glance at the internal condition and institutions of this vast empire, which were such as to afford from the very first no favourable omen of political stability. Mahomet, when dying, not only omitted to name a successor, but, worse still, designated no electors; and through all the centuries of Arab rule the conditions both elective and of hereditary right were never accurately defined. Hence the early rivalries, already alluded to, between the "Ansar" and the "Mohajireen;" and hence, not long after, the yet more dangerous contention between the family of Omeyyah, from which Othman, the third Mahometan caliph, descended, and the kindred house of Hashim, the more immediate relatives of the prophet. Meanwhile, within the ranks of Hashin itself, Ali, nephew of Mahomet, and husband of Fatimah, his only daughter, denying every right of free election, advanced his own special title to the throne by the presumed claim of nearness of blood, a title persistently urged by his descendants, and for centuries a constant source of dissension and weakness in the empire. Nor, whilst the nomination of the caliph himself, the centre and keystone of the Arab political edifice, was thus left undefined, were the remaining details of the construction at all preciser in their character. No accurate line of demarcation separated the executive from the judicial, or these again from the financial department; no municipal organizations were established or even acknowledged; absolute despotism was the only form of government, whether primary or delegated, in the capital as in the provinces; actual resistance and revolt the only remedies against its abuse. Such an empire might conquer, but could not govern, at least for long.
Internal History. The First Four Caliphs
These inherent evils manifested themselves by their unmistakeable bad effects from the very first. Once only, when Abu-Bekr died, 634 A.D., after only two years of reign, the elective accession of Omar, the austerest, but also the most capable of all early Arab rulers, was sanctioned by an almost unanimous approval; though even then the restless intrigues of the ambitious and unprincipled Ali made themselves manifest. After a glorious reign of ten years, the conqueror of Syria, Persia, and Egypt, perished, 644 A.D., assassinated by a Persian slave, Firooz by name; and Othman, son of Affan, of the noble family of Abd-Shems, was elected in his place. The twelve years of his administration were ceaselessly disturbed by the insubordination of Ali and his partisans, who at last, impatient of delay, broke into the residence of the ancient caliph at Medinah, and murdered him there, 656 A.D., Stained with blood, Ali usurped the throne; while Ayeshah, daughter of Abu-Bekr, and widow of the prophet, collected round her the avengers of the blood of Othman, and the first civil war of Islam was inaugurated by a hard-fought battle, known as the "Day of the Camel," near Bosrah, 656 A.D. Ayeshah was defeated; but the cause of Othman was soon after taken up by his talented kinsman, Muawwiyah, governor of Syria, who in the battle, or rather series of battles, fought near Sofeytn, on the upper Euphrates, 658-9 A.D., broke the strength of Alis faction. Driven from Syria, Egypt, and Arabia, Ali retired to Cufa, where an assassins dagger avenged on his own person the crime by which he had opened the way to ill-gotten and precarious power, 660 A.D.
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Arabia - Table of Contents