By Alejandro Moreiras
Ashams, the area called Suriya by the Byzantines, was conquered by the Arabs in the mid-seventh century, much of the fighting being over by 650.
It was an ancient land, a land of plenty. The Arabs had known Syria as the southeastern semiarid desert plateaus of that country run into the harsh, dry deserts of Arabia, in a continuity not unknown to the traveling Arabian tradesmen, pilgrim, and Bedouin. But the land was not predominantly Arab, although there were Arabs. Its population was, as it has always been, impressively heterogeneous. Its countryside sprinkled with monasteries of different church orders, whether Monophysite or Diophysite, Syriac, Latin, or Orthodox. Christianity, in its many forms, was the majority religion. But there were also Jews, Samaritans, Pagans, Armenians, Aramaens, and of course, the traveler—merchant or pilgrim—who could have been of any religion or nationality. The Byzantine Empire—the Muslim’s arch-enemy—with a capital in what is now called Istanbul, considered Syria its southern jewel. A cradle of civilization. The Holy Land.
Damascus is the capital of ashams. Even in the seventh century it had long been a great city. Known since antiquity for its fruits and wines, it was well situated on the ancient trade route between Iraq in the east and Egypt to the south. By the time the Arabs arrived, however, hard times had befallen the natives. In the hundred years prior to the conquests, people of Byzantine Syria and its provinces (including Syria Paleastina) suffered the perils of continuous warfare and incessant plague. In less than fifty years political sovereignty had violently passed between empires that each bore a different religion and culture no less than three times. The citizenry of these lands have been no strangers to destruction wrought in foreign politics, then as now. But the fighting between Persia and Byzantium in the first few decades of the seventh century was especially paralyzing; combined with the horrors of the Black Death, devastating. By the time of the arrival of the waves of Muslim conquerors around 630, which caught both the Persians and the Byzantines by surprise, much of the area was too weak to repel the tide. Pouring in from the southern deserts came the warriors of Islam to change the course of history.
Many of Syria’s cities made arrangements with the unstoppable Arabs, while others fought. Either way, subjugation was swift and total. The Arabs embraced Syria as their first campaign as soon as the consolidation of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula was complete, in the late 620s. The mobilization of the rough and rugged Bedouin population in the Peninsula created a force that proved powerful enough to topple empires. War was a way of life in this harsh desert, and now a foreign arena was needed for these warriors banned by their religion from warring on each other. Islam’s potency was too much to bear for the unprepared world’s rivals. It was natural for the motivated, restless Arab armies to use their momentum and invade their historic, weak neighbors.
The Muslims wasted no time, and with great force spread their conquests east, west, and north, subjugating Egypt, Iraq, north Africa, Iran, Transaxonia (central Asia), and Spain. They did all this in one hundred years. The Islamic Empire, if taken as a whole, which we concede can only be done for reasons associated with intellectual exercise, proceeded to grow with no calamitous interruption for the next 700 years. The growth of lands subjugated by an Islamic empire did not end with the destruction of Byzantium in 1453. In fact the Muslims, at this point firmly under Turkish rule, reached as far as Vienna in 1529. An irony of history is that although these events were indicators of the immense power and global reach of the Islamic empire at the time, they are often seen by the historian in parallel as a turning point. The capture of Byzantine capital city, the deathblow to the Muslim’s first and greatest nemesis-counterpart, the Byzantine Empire, was one of the Islamic Empire’s great victories. It was also one of the last.
Lands in dar alIslam were first lost in the far west, however, at the hands of the reconquistadores who destroyed the independent Umayyad caliphates of Spain at the end of the fifteenth century. Some three hundred years later the Ottomans, who ran the last Islamic Empire the world has yet seen, experienced another milestone loss with the Russian capture of lands in the Crimean. This marked the end of Muslim geopolitical control in the Black Sea area. Even after these losses the Ottoman Empire remained an impressive global power right up until the end of the First World War. It is interesting to note that the world’s first modern Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, was founded by Egyptian Sheikh Hassan alBanna a scant five years after the disintegration of the Islamic Empire.
This piece considers the historical effects, local and international, of that first Muslim campaign into Syria that marked the rise of the Islamic Empire, a continuous presence on the world scene until modern times. It is true that throughout history there were different Islamic empires that competed and even warred against one another. But, from the dawn of Islam in the seventh century up to the moment when the Turks abolished the Caliphate of Istanbul on March 3, 1924, it was a religion of empires. We investigate the state of affairs in seventh century Syria (first century ashams in the Arab Muslim tradition) to better understand what ideas, political and theological, developed in this formative period and endured in future Islamic empires regardless of the political agents and social circumstances that ruled them.
Equally as important to our thesis, the period of Islam’s Levantine honeymoon under the Umayyads left a Syrian mark on the religion as a whole, much as the religion made Syria thoroughly Islamic. By the eighth century the land, Byzantium’s former southern Jewel, had become ashams, even if it did take another few centuries for the majority of the population to become Muslim.
Alejandro Moreiras is a graduate student in Religious Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and teacher of languages and International Studies at Carolina Friends School and Camelot Academy in Durham, NC. He holds a BA from Hampshire College with a Five College Certificate in Middle Eastern Studies. Questions and comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org To read more work by Alejandro Moreiras visit: http://rumynations.wordpress.com/.