September 23, 2008

Ayat 30:1-6 and the Wars Between Byzantium and Persia (I)


Alif Lam Mim

The Roman Empire has been defeated-

In a land close by; but they, (even) after (this) defeat of theirs, will soon be victorious-

Within a few years. With God is the Decision, in the past and in the Future: on that Day shall the Believers rejoice-

With the help of God. He helps whom He will, and He is exalted in might, most merciful.

(It is) the promise of God. Never does God depart from His promise: but most men understand not.
-- The Romans (30): 1-6

For many of us Muslims, the first six verses of the surah called The Romans are familiar, but we probably don't know much about the wars between Byzantium and the Persians that described the Byzantine defeat in the mid- to late-610s and the prophecy regarding the Byzantine victory over the Sasanian Empire in 627. This post, the eighth in my series about Hugh Kennedy's book, The Great Arab Conquests, looks at three passages that describe what happened between these two empires.

This first passage, taken from pages 68-70, gives a basic overview of the conflict between Persia and Byzantine Rome, and briefly discusses the problems Byzantium had after the warfare had ended.


Relations between the Byzantine and Sasanian Persian empires were largely peaceful during the fifth and early sixth centuries. Both powers respected each other's borders and their zones of influence in the Syrian desert to the south and the mountains of Armenia to the north. In the mid sixth century, however, large-scale and very damaging warfare erupted between the two great powers. The Sasanian monarchs invaded Byzantine territory on a number of occasions. In 540 they sacked the great capital of the east at Antioch and in 573 they conquered the important provincial capital at Apamea. On both occasions they returned with a large amount of booty and transported large numbers of the population to new cities in the Persian Empire.

If relations had deteriorated in the sixth century, they became much worse in the seventh. In the year 602, the emperor Maurice and his entire family were assassinated by mutinous soldiers. Some years before, the emperor had given refuge to the young and energetic Sasanian monarch Chosroes II when he had been temporarily driven from his throne. Chosroes now used the death of his benefactor as an excuse for launching a devastating attack on the Byzantine Empire. His armies won a series of spectacular victories. In 611 Persian armies invaded Syria, Jerusalem fell to them in 614 and in 615 the Persians reached the shores of the Bosporus opposite Constantinople itself. In 619 they took Alexandria and all of Egypt was in their hands.

The Byzantine recovery was the achievement of the emperor Heraclius (610-41). He had been governor of Byzantine North Africa but in 610 sailed to Constantinople with his provincial army to seize the throne from the brutal usurper Phocas. His reign had been dominated by the struggle with the Persians. After many years, when Persian armies had seemed unstoppable, Heraclius had turned the tables dramatically when he launched an attack behind the enemy lines in 624. In a move of great daring and brilliant strategic vision, he had led an army from the Black Sea coast of Turkey, through western Iran and northern Iraq, sacking the famous fire temple at Shiz and the palace of Chosroes at Dastgard. With the death of his arch-rival Chosroes II in 628 and the subsequent divisions among the Persians as they struggled to find a new ruler, Heraclius was able to make a peace that re-established the old frontier between the two empires along the Khābūr river. In 629 he negotiated the withdrawal of Persian soldiers from Syria and Egypt and set about restoring Byzantine rule in the newly recovered provinces. On 21 March 630 he enjoyed his greatest moment of triumph when he returned the relics of the True Cross, taken by the Persians, to Jerusalem.

Although the Persians had been decisively defeated, the conquest of Syria and Palestine had a very damaging effect on Byzantine power in the Levant. Apart from the bloodshed caused by the warfare, it seems that many of the Greek-speaking elite emigrated to the security of North Africa or Rome. The fighting had been very destructive, especially in the towns, but perhaps more important was the loss of the tradition of imperial rule and administration. For most of the period of Muhammad's mission, Syria and Palestine were ruled by the Persians, not the Byzantines, and it was not until 630, a couple of years before the Prophet's death, that Byzantine control was re-established. Nonetheless, this control must have been very patchy, and there were probably many areas where Byzantine government hardly existed. Most younger-generation Syrians would have had no experience or memory of imperial rule, and no cause to be loyal to Constantinople. Even as Byzantine government was being slowly re-established, the religious differences that had divided Syria in the sixth century came to the fore again. The emperor Heraclius was determined to enforce religious conformity on a Christian population that in large measure rejected his doctrinal position.

Byzantine control over Syria had been established for more than half a millennium. If Islam had been born fifty years earlier, and the early Muslims had attempted to raid Syria and Palestine in the 580s not the 630s, there can be little doubt that they would have been seen off very quickly, as the provinces were firmly controlled by the government and the defenses well organized. The coincidence that the first Muslim armies appeared in the area immediately after the traumatic events of the great war between Byzantium and Iran was the essential prerequisite for the success of Muslim arms.

To be continued, insha'allah...

Photo Credit: Cardo Maximus, a street in the ruins of Apamea (Syria), sacked in 573 CE by Chosroes I, from Wikipedia/Bo-Deh

2 comments:

George Carty said...

Historically, the Sassanid Persian empire was completely destroyed by the Islamic conquests, while the Byzantines stopped the Muslim advance at the Taurus Mountains. This meant that future Islamic culture was strongly influenced by Persia.

I remember reading an alternate-history scenario on Usenet called "The Affair of the Necklace" (the divergence from real history was an alliance between A'isha and Ali) where Constantinople fell to the Arabs.

This made Islam profoundly different from in our own world, as it was heavily influenced by Greek, rather than Persian culture. (It was even hinted that perhaps Islam would not be iconoclastic in this world...)

Do you think this could have happened?

JDsg said...

Actually, George, Islam in the early years had been influenced to a degree by Greek philosophy, leading up to the formation of the Mu'tazilite school of thought. However, the Greek influence withered away after the publication of Al-Ghazali's The Incoherence of the Philosophers (which I haven't read yet).

(I'd have thought you'd have known of this by now.)