October 10, 2008

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


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 is the second half of a post (the first half is located here), the eighth in my series about Hugh Kennedy's book, The Great Arab Conquests.

Previously, we looked at a basic overview of the conflict between Persia and Byzantine Rome, and the problems Byzantium faced after the war had ended. In this section, from pages 101-03, we look at the aftermath to the Sasanian Empire after their defeat by Heraclius.


The great war between the Byzantines and the Persians which had so damaged the Roman Empire in the first three decades of the seventh century had also been a disaster for the Sasanians. At first Persian arms had been almost entirely successful. In 615 the Persian army had reached the Bosporus opposite Constantinople, and in 619 Persian troops entered Alexandria and completed the conquest of Egypt. The tide began to turn in March 624 when the emperor Heraclius took his fleet to the Black Sea and began the invasion of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Persians were now outflanked and were forced to withdraw their army from Anatolia to face the emperor, who was now attacking from the north. In 627 he swept through north-western Iran, before descending to the plains of northern Iraq and defeating the Persian army at Nineveh (12 December 627). It was the greatest military disaster that the Sasanian Empire had ever suffered. Chosroes retired to the capital at Ctesiphon, leaving his palace at Dastgard to be sacked by the Romans. Here he began the search for scapegoats to blame for the spectacular reversal of fortunes that had occurred. He seems to have decided on the execution of his most important military commander, Shahrbarāz, but before he could act there was a coup. Chosroes was assassinated early in 628 and his son, who had agreed to his father's murder, ascended the throne as Kavād II.

Kavād immediately set about negotiating a peace with Heraclius in which all prisoners were to be released and the pre-war frontiers restored. And all might yet have been well had the new king not died within the year, probably of the plague. He was succeeded by his infant son, Ardashīr III, but the general, Shāhrbarāz, refused to accept this and in June 629 siezed the throne. This was the first time in four centuries that a man who was not a member of the Sasanian family had tried to take the throne, and there was considerable resistance. After just two months, he, too, was murdered and, since Chosroes II had left no other sons, the throne passed to his daughter, Būrān, who, although apparently an effective ruler, died, of natural causes, after a year. There then followed a bewildering succession of short-lived rulers until finally Yazdgard III, a grandson of the great Chosroes, was elevated to the throne in 632.

The details of these intrigues are not in themselves important. The overall effect was decisive, however. The Sasanian Empire had been ravaged by an invading army and any idea of its invincibility had been destroyed. Archaeological evidence suggests that many settlements in the richest part of Iraq were abandoned as a result of the war. Furthermore the house of Sasan, the mainstay and raison d'être of the state, had been torn apart by feud and murder. It is more than likely that Yazdgard, if he had been given time, would have restored royal control and prestige. But the year of his accession was the year of the death of the Prophet Muhammad: Arab tribes were already taking advantage of the chaos to make inroads on the settled lands of Iraq, and Khālid b. Al-Walīd, the Muslim general, was on his way. In these circumstances, it is surprising not that the Persians were defeated by the Arabs but that they fought with such determination.

This last section, from pages 367-68, looks at the damage the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires inflicted upon each other and how neither were prepared for the oncoming Arab conquests.

Along with these long-term factors, there were the short-term effects of war and the dislocation it caused. There had been many conflicts between the Roman and Iranian empires since Crassus and his forces were defeated by the Parthians in 53 BC, but the war that broke out after the assassination of Emperor Maurice in 602 was the most far reaching and destructive. The effects of the Persian sweep through the lands of the Byzantine Empire affected society at many levels. It destroyed Byzantine imperial control over the lands of the Near East, it severed the links with Constantinople; governors were no longer appointed, armies were no longer dispatched and taxes were no longer paid. The Chalcedonian Orthodox Church lost its imperial patronage and became one Christian sect among many others. Many churchmen and other members of the elite fled to the comparative safety of North Africa or Italy. Archaeological work has suggested that, in Anatolia at least, the advance of the Persian armies did enormous damage to urban life and that people abandoned the spacious cities of the plains to take refuge in mountain-top fortresses. The restoration of Byzantine imperial control came only a year or two before the Arab armies marched from Medina, and in many areas there may have been no Byzantine military and political structures in place at all.

A distinguishing feature of this "last great war of antiquity" was that it devestated both of the great empires with even-handed brutality. Heraclius's invasion of the Persian Empire was as destructive as the Persian invasions of the Byzantine Empire had been; the great fire-temple at Shiz, where the Sasanian shahs had been inaugurated, was destroyed and the royal palace at Dastgard sacked. More crucially, the great king Chosroes II (591-628) was killed by his own generals. The Sasanian Empire, unlike the Byzantine, was formally a dynastic state; Heraclius's assault undermined the prestige of the dynasty and the confidence of the Persian ruling elite. Infighting among the members of the royal family caused a period of great instability. By the time that Yazdgard III (632-51) was wide accepted as shāh, the Arab armies were already attacking the Iraqi frontier.

The success of the conquest was also aided by the succession disputes that paralyzed the Byzantine state after the death of Heraclius in February 641. The power struggle at the Byzantine court seems to have been directly responsible for the otherwise inexplicable failure to mount an effective operation to defend Egypt. If Heraclius had been succeeded by a strong and energetic new emperor, the Byzantines might well have been able to mount a counter-attack in Syria or along the Mediterranean coasts, especially during the very disturbed period that followed the assassination of the caliph Uthmān in 656. The Muslims had a generation in which to consolidate their power and their hold over the lands won from the Byzantines.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Taq-i Kisra, the Great Arch of Ctesiphon; this is the only remaining visible structure of the Sasanian palace complex at Ctesiphon, in what is now Iraq. This photo was taken in 2007.

1 comment:

Jon W. said...

very cool stuff thanks for posting on my blog, I have read a few of these articles. I will have to purchase that book as well.

Thanks!