The Umayyad Caliphate: A Powerful Dynasty

The Umayyad Caliphate: An Overview

The Umayyad Caliphate was the second of the four major Islamic caliphates, established after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD. It was led by the Umayyad dynasty and was the first Islamic empire to rule from a capital city, Damascus. The Umayyads, who were Arab, played a vital role in the Islamic expansion and their rule marked the beginning of the Arabization of the conquered territories.

During the Umayyad period, the Islamic empire expanded rapidly, conquering much of the Byzantine and Sassanid empires. The Umayyads were able to conquer large territories, including present-day Iraq, Iran, Egypt, North Africa, Spain, and Central Asia. The Umayyad Caliphate was one of the largest empires of its time and its borders stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indus River.

The Umayyads were able to maintain a centralized administration over their vast empire and divided it into provinces governed by governors appointed by the caliph. They also introduced a new coinage system and developed a sophisticated bureaucracy. They also played a key role in spreading the Islamic culture and religion throughout the empire.

The Umayyads were known for their patronage of the arts and sciences and their capital, Damascus, was a center of learning and culture. They also made significant contributions to architecture and built some of the most iconic Islamic monuments of the time. The Umayyad Caliphate was an important period in Islamic history, marked by its military conquests, cultural achievements, and political developments.

 

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Umayyad, Abbasid and Ottoman Caliphates - Islamic Empire by Professor Beaver
Umayyad, Abbasid and Ottoman Caliphates - Islamic Empire by Professor Beaver

Early Military campaigns

The Defeat of the Sassanids 
The battle between Nowzar and Afrasiab from the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp, Folio 102

The battle between Nowzar and Afrasiab from the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp, Folio 102

The Sassanid Empire, which had been one of the most powerful empires in Late Antiquity, had significantly declined by 632 CE. The death of King Khosrow II at the end of the Byzantine-Sassanian War, which lasted from 602 to 628 CE, led to a civil war that lasted from 628 to 632 CE. This civil war resulted in the rise and fall of multiple potential kings, leaving the empire in a state of political, military, and economic turmoil. Furthermore, a plague had greatly reduced the population and local control had replaced central authority. The last stroke was ultimately their defeats by Arab invaders in a number of significant battles commencing in 633.

In the 6th century, Muhammad, a member of the Hashimite clan of the Quraysh tribe in Mecca, claimed to be a prophet and began gathering followers for the monotheistic faith of Islam. A year after Muhammad’s death in 632, the region was secure enough for his successor, Abu Bakr, to launch an offensive against the Byzantine and Sassanid empires. 

In 633, the Umayyads began the campaign to conquer Iraq and Iran. These regions were part of the Sassanid Persian Empire and were known for their wealth and strategic importance.

Abu Bakr’s began his first Islamic incursions into Iraq in 634, when an army of 18,000 Arab tribesmen led by the brilliant general Khalid ibn al Walid, known as “The Sword of Islam”, reached the Euphrates Delta’s boundary. The Sassanid Persian occupying force was stronger in numbers and techniques but was tired from their ceaseless campaigns against the Byzantines and fought ineffectively due to insufficient reinforcements. The first fight of the Arab campaign was called the Battle of the Chains because Sassanid soldiers were shackled together so they could not retreat.

Khalid issued an ultimatum to the Iraqi populace, giving them the choice to accept the faith or pay tribute, or face the consequences of being surrounded by a population that loved death as much as they loved life. At the time, most of the Iraqi tribes were Christian, and decided to pay the tax (jizya) required to be paid by non-Muslims.

Rustam, the Iranian national leader, attempted to lead a rebellion against the Arab invaders at Al Hirah, but was defeated. The next year, in 635, the Arabs also won the Battle of Buwayb against the Sassanid Persians. In May 636, Rustam was killed in Al Qadisiyah, a village near the Euphrates south of Baghdad. Despite having six times more soldiers than the Arabs, the Iranians were still defeated. The Arabs then moved on to capture Ctesiphon (Madain), the capital of the Sassanid Empire.

The Umayyads, under the leadership of Caliph Umar, began their campaign to conquer Iran in 634. The Sassanid army, led by the last Sassanid king Yazdgerd III, put up strong resistance and the Umayyads faced several setbacks in the initial stages of the campaign. However, the Umayyads were able to adapt their tactics and slowly gain ground. The turning point of the campaign came in 637 when the Umayyads were able to defeat the Sassanid army in a decisive battle near the city of Qadisiyyah, which is located in present-day Iraq. This victory opened the way for the Umayyads to advance towards Ctesiphon, the Sassanid capital, which they captured in the same year.

Islamic law prohibited the raping and killing of certain groups of people, including women, children, religious leaders, and non-combatants. This law was enforced on Muslim warriors who were participating in a jihad, or holy war. These warriors were focused on conquering and establishing Islamic rule in a new land, and had no motivation to unnecessarily plunder or destroy the area.

The capture of Ctesiphon marked the end of the Sassanid Empire and the establishment of the Umayyad Caliphate as the dominant power in the region. The Umayyads were able to occupy and control the Persian territories, and they quickly established a new administration system that was based on the one they had built in the conquered lands of the Byzantine Empire. The Umayyads’ victory in Iran also represented a major cultural, economic and political shift, as the Arab-Islamic culture came in contact with the rich Persian culture, and the two civilizations influenced each other.

The caliph Umar established two cities, Kufah and Basra, to protect the newly conquered territory in Iraq. He also organized the administration of the conquered Iranian lands by continuing the use of the Sassanid institution of the divan, which was used for record keeping and centralizing administration. He kept the dihqans, or minor revenue collection officials, in their positions for assessing and collecting taxes. However, the Arabs did not like the tax collectors in Iraq and replaced Persian as the official language with Arabic, which gradually became more commonly used. Iraqis also began to intermarry with Arabs and convert to Islam.

By 650, Muslim armies had conquered all the Sassanid domains, up to the Oxus River. The groups in power then focused on maintaining the existing power structures, while those who were not part of the major power structure engaged in political and religious rebellion. These rebellions were often motivated by religious disputes or underlying nationalistic or cultural dissatisfactions, which were often couched in religious terms. These disputes frequently arose from differences in interpretation of religious doctrine, but more often were used as a justification for underlying issues.

The Conquest of Egypt
The Umayyad Caliphate - The conquest of Byzantine Egypt

The conquest of Byzantine Egypt

The conquest of Egypt gave the Umayyads control over one of the most prosperous regions of the Byzantine Empire. Egypt was a strategically important region, with its fertile Nile Valley providing rich agricultural resources, and its strategic location on the Mediterranean coast makes it an important center of trade and commerce.

In December 639, Amr ibn al-‘As led an army of 4,000 soldiers into Egypt, with a significant portion of the troops being from the Arab tribes of Ghafik and Ak, as well as some converts from the Roman and Persian empires. However, the Muslim caliph, Umar, had second thoughts about the plan to conquer Egypt with such a small force and ordered Amr to return. Amr received the letter from Uqbah ibn ‘Amr at Rafah, just outside the Egyptian border and decided to proceed with the invasion after receiving the letter on Egyptian soil. 

The Muslim army then marched to El Arish, a small town without a garrison, and took control of numerous towns, slaughtering all inhabitants including men, women, and children. All of Egypt’s cities then experienced a panic, and all of their residents fled to Alexandria.

John of Nikiû, a historian who lived during the Arab conquest of Egypt provides an eyewitness account of the events that took place during the invasion. According to John, the Arab invaders showed no mercy to the residents of the towns they conquered, slaughtering men, women, and children. He also states that the Muslims plundered the property of the fleeing Christians, considering the servants of Christ to be enemies of Allah. John’s accounts depict the Arab conquest as a brutal and violent invasion that resulted in widespread devastation and loss of life. His accounts are a valuable historical source that provides insight into the events that took place during the Arab conquest of Egypt.

The Fall of Pelusium and Belbeis

The daughter of Cyrus of Alexandria, named Armenousa, was the intended bride of Constantine III. She was part of a grand wedding procession that included 2,000 horsemen, slaves, and a caravan loaded with treasures that served as both dowry and tribute after Constantine accepted the marriage proposal. However, while on her way to Constantine in Caesarea, she learned of the approaching Arab army and sent a regiment of her guards to defend the garrison city of Pelusium. Despite her efforts, the city fell to the Muslim army in February 640. Afterwards, the Muslim forces marched to Belbeis where they besieged the city and ultimately overcame the Byzantine resistance. Armenousa was captured during the siege but was later returned to her father, Cyrus. The Muslim leader, Amr ibn al-‘As, tried to persuade the native Egyptians to support the Arabs, but the siege continued until the city fell in March 640.

Muslim’s Failure to Capture Babylon

Despite initially believing that Egypt would be a simple conquest, Amr soon discovered that the task was more difficult than he had anticipated. Even at the outposts of Pelusium and Belbeis, where the Muslims faced prolonged sieges, they encountered strong resistance. As they approached the larger and more significant city of Babylon, they expected even greater resistance. The Romans had fortified the city, digging a ditch and stationing a large force outside of the walls. The Muslims laid siege to the city, but despite the strength of their 18m tall fortifications with walls over 2m thick and a force of around 4,000 men, the Byzantine defense was able to repel their assaults for two months.

In an effort to conquer other cities, Amr sent a detachment to raid Fayoum, but they were unsuccessful and retreated to the Western Desert to plunder for cattle and animals. They then attacked Oxyrhynchus, and massacred the entire population. However, the death of the Roman general John, Duke of Barca, at the hands of the Bedouins and the reinforcement of the garrison at Babylon by Anastasius and Theodosius led to the failure of the Muslim’s mission to capture the city.

In July, ‘Amr requested additional troops from Umar, however, Umar had already sent 4,000 soldiers, mostly experienced in Syrian battles, to assist Amr’s troops. Despite these reinforcements, ‘Amr was still not successful, so by August, Umar assembled another 4,000 soldiers consisting of four divisions of elite soldiers each.

Zubayr ibn al-Awwam, a renowned warrior and commander, a veteran of the Battle of Yarmouk, and a former member of Khalid ibn al-Elite Walid’s mobile guard, was appointed as the leader of the army. Umar also offered Zubayr the command of Egypt and the governorship, but Zubayr turned it down.

Miqdad ibn al-Aswad, Ubaidah ibn as-Samit, and Kharijah ibn Hudhaifah were appointed as leaders of the divisions. The reinforcements arrived in Babylon in September 640, bringing the total Muslim force to 12,000, which was still relatively small. A Coptic soldier, upon seeing the size of the Muslim force, reportedly expressed astonishment that such a small force could stand against the Emperor’s army, to which another soldier replied that Arabs could not yield and would either emerge victorious or perish to the last man. In a separate anecdote, some Roman soldiers refused to fight, claiming, “We have little chance against the men who have defeated Chosroes and Caesar in Syria.”

Capture of Heliopolis

When Zubayr arrived at the location, he informed Amr that the city of Heliopolis, which was being guarded by Roman troops, was in close proximity and that soldiers from there could potentially lift the Siege of Babylon. In order to prevent this potential threat, Amr sent about half of his army to Heliopolis.

In July of 640, the Muslim army reached the city, which was located 15 kilometers (10 miles) away from Babylon. Heliopolis was known for its Sun Temple of the Pharaohs, as well as other grand architectural structures and educational institutions. A cavalry battle ensued near the neighborhood of Abbasiya, but it did not result in a clear victor. However, the Muslims were able to capture the fortress located between the current neighborhoods of Abdyn and Azbakeya. The defeated Byzantine troops retreated to either the Babylon Fortress or the Nikiû Fortress.

Zubayr and some of his most trusted soldiers climbed an unguarded section of the Heliopolis city wall and, after overcoming the guards, opened the gates for the army to enter. Following the capture of Heliopolis, Amr and his companions returned to Babylon.

The Muslim Conquest of Fayoum and Babylon

When reports of the Muslim victory at Heliopolis reached Fayoum, the governor and his soldiers fled without alerting the citizens of Fayoum and Abuit. Upon hearing of this, Amr sent troops across the Nile to invade and capture the entire province of Fayoum, massacring its inhabitants. The Byzantine army at Babylon attempted to attack, but were unsuccessful.

The Muslim commanders then came up with a plan and surrounded the Byzantine forces, causing heavy casualties. The Byzantines retreated back to the fort and were forced to negotiate with the Muslims. The Byzantine general Theodorus moved his headquarters to the Isle of Rauda, and negotiations began with the Muslim leader, Cyrus of Alexandria. On December 20th, a group of Muslim warriors led by Zubayr entered the city, and the following morning the Muslims captured it. Theodorus and his army were able to escape to the island of Rauda and continued to fight the Muslims.

The final Muslim assault occurred on April 6th, 641, and by Easter Monday the Roman troops had evacuated and were marching to Nikiû. The Romans were given several days to evacuate in order to observe Easter. Many Copts who had been imprisoned in Babylon were released by the Romans, but some were punished by having their hands cut off.

The siege of Babylon lasted for seven months. According to al-Tabari, some Coptic soldiers were surprised by the appearance of the Arabs during the fall of Babylon and regretted not continuing the conflict. Amr invited some of them to a feast and made a point to show that the Muslims would not give up the city easily. He advised them to either accept Islam or pay tribute and return to their villages.

Siege of Babylon: Cyrus’ Surrender to Arab Leader Amr

During the siege of Babylon, according to Al-Maqrizi, Cyrus sent ‘Amr an envoy, which included the Chalcedonian Bishop of Babylon, with the message that they were vastly outnumbered by the Romans and should consider surrendering before it was too late. Amr presented three options to them: conversion to Islam, payment of tribute and protection with an inferior status, or war until God decided the outcome.

When the envoy returned to Babylon, they reported back to Cyrus about the Arab camp and their leader, Amr. Later, Amr sent ten officers, including a black man, Ubadah ibn al-Samit, to speak with Cyrus. Ubadah explained that they fought for God and did not care about material possessions. Cyrus ultimately chose to surrender and pay tribute, but many of his Coptic companions were not willing to do so and launched a final attack on the Arab camp. When they were defeated, Cyrus was presented with the same three options and chose to surrender and pay tribute.

The treaty was contingent on the approval of Emperor Heraclius, but Cyrus stipulated that he and the Egyptians would honour its terms even if Heraclius rejected it. Heraclius ultimately sent a letter filled with insults to Cyrus.

Byzantine Plan to Repel Muslim Invasion of Alexandria in 641

The Byzantine leaders, who were fully cognizant that Alexandria would be the next target of the Muslims, came up with a plan to push back the Muslims by carrying out continuous sorties from the fortress or at least to wear them out and lower their morale through a strategy of attrition.

In February 641, Amr led his troops from Babylon to Alexandria, encountering several defending regiments along the way. The Muslims’ vanguard encountered a Byzantine detachment at Tarnut on the west bank of the Nile on the third day of their march. The Byzantines were not able to cause significant casualties, but they were able to delay the advance by one day. The Muslim commanders decided to stop the main army at Tarnut and send a cavalry vanguard to clear the way. Domentianus and his soldiers were in Kebrias of Abadja when the Muslims arrived. He fled the city in a small boat while leaving his soldiers to their fate. They tried to follow him, but many of the soldiers were left stranded when the boatmen fled to their home provinces in a panic. When the Arabs arrived, the soldiers threw their weapons into the water in an attempt to be spared, but they were all killed instead. According to John of Nikiu, the only survivor was a man named Zacharias, who was a “brave warrior.”

The Muslims then passed by Sais and, upon discovering Theodorus’ family there, executed them all. Now 30 kilometers away from Tarnut, a Byzantine detachment that had withdrawn from Tarnut the previous day joined another detachment that was already at Shareek, and both attacked and routed the Muslim cavalry.

The following day, before the Byzantines could completely destroy the Muslim vanguard, the main Muslim army arrived, causing the Byzantines to retreat. The next day, the entire army advanced without a vanguard. The Muslims arrived in Sulteis, where they met a second Byzantine detachment. The Byzantine resistance soon crumbled, and they withdrew to Alexandria after fierce fighting. The Muslims stopped for a day at Sulteis, still two days’ march from Alexandria.

After another day of marching, the Muslim forces reached Kirayun, 20 kilometers from Alexandria. There, an approximately 20,000-strong Byzantine force halted the Muslim advance on Alexandria. For ten days, the resulting action remained indecisive. On the tenth day, however, the Muslims launched a fierce assault that forced the defeated Byzantines to retreat to Alexandria. With the path to Alexandria clear, the Muslims reached the outskirts of the capital in the month of March.

The Siege of Alexandria and fall of Egypt in 641

In the year 641, the Muslim forces set their sights on the heavily fortified city of Alexandria. The city was well-protected with multiple walls and forts, and had access to the sea, which allowed for reinforcements and supplies to arrive from Constantinople at any time.

Despite this, there was a significant amount of tension among the Roman leaders in the city. Theodorus was the primary commander, but there were others such as Domentianus, Menas, and Philiades, who all held high-ranking positions and were at odds with one another. Theodorus and Menas joined forces against Domentianus, and Menas even recruited the local Greens to fight in the war.

The Muslims faced challenges in their attempt to conquer the city, as the Byzantine defenders had powerful catapults and were able to repel the Muslim attacks. Emperor Heraclius planned to lead a large army to Alexandria but passed away before the plan could be carried out. As the siege continued for six months, the Muslim leader, ‘Amr, grew frustrated and appointed ‘Ubaidah as the commander of the assault force.

Eventually, the Muslims were able to capture Alexandria, killing or capturing thousands of Byzantine soldiers and capturing vast amounts of wealth. The Byzantine general, Theodorus, and his troops eventually left for the island of Cyprus.

With the Muslim conquest of Egypt, the Mediterranean became a contested territory between the Muslim Caliphate and the Byzantine Empire.

The Conquest of Egypt and its Impact on the Mediterranean World

With the conquest of Egypt, the Umayyads gained control over a region that was rich in resources and had a large population. They quickly established a centralized administration, and the region became a key province of the Umayyad Empire. The Umayyads appointed governors to oversee the administration of the province, and they also established garrisons of Arab soldiers in the major cities to maintain control. They also imposed the Islamic religion on the population, and the process of Arabization and Islamization began.

The conquest of Egypt was a major milestone in the expansion of the Islamic empire and had a significant impact on the Mediterranean world. It marked the first major expansion of the empire outside of the Arabian Peninsula, and it established a strong Muslim presence in the eastern Mediterranean and Umayyad control over important trade routes. One of the most important of these routes was the Nile River and the Red Sea, which were the main source of transportation and communication in Egypt. The Umayyads established a system of tolls and taxes on the river, which generated significant revenue for the empire. They also built new ports and warehouses along the river, which helped to increase trade and commerce.

 

Recommended Books

https://amzn.to/3HBsT1x
The Umayyad Caliphate The History and Legacy of the Second Islamic Kingdom Established After Muhammad’s Death by Charles Rivers Editors
The First Dynasty of Islam The Umayyad Caliphate AD 661-750 by G. R. Hawting
The First Dynasty of Islam The Umayyad Caliphate AD 661-750 by G. R. Hawting
The Second Umayyad Caliphate The Articulation of Caliphal Legitimacy in al-Andalus by Janina M. Safran
The Second Umayyad Caliphate The Articulation of Caliphal Legitimacy in al-Andalus by Janina M. Safran
In God's Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire by Robert G. Hoyland
In God's Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire by Robert G. Hoyland

Featured Image

Amirdovlat Amasiatsi
Muhammad Conquers Mecca & Destroys Its Idols

Muhammad Conquers Mecca & Destroys Its Idols

The illustrated manuscript portrays’s the Muslim army’s conquest of Mecca, including the destruction of idols inside the Ka’aba. However, it should be noted that the Prophet Muhammad is not depicted in the manuscript as it is considered forbidden in Islamic tradition. This manuscript was created in 1808 CE in the region of Kashmir, India and is currently held in the collection of the National Library of France.

 

Sources

  • Iraq – THE ARAB CONQUEST AND THE COMING OF ISLAM. (2023). Countrystudies.us. http://countrystudies.us/iraq/14.htm

  • Robert. (2022, August 28). Fall of the Sassanid Empire: The Arab Conquest of Persia 633-654 CE. TheCollector; TheCollector. https://www.thecollector.com/fall-of-the-sassanid-empire-arab-conquest-persia/

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2022, December 24). Muslim conquest of Egypt. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muslim_conquest_of_Egypt

  • Unknown. (2019). World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/image/11528/muhammad-conquers-mecca–destroys-its-idols/

  • adil, M. (2020). World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/image/11677/muslim-conquest-of-egypt-640-642-ce/

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