Islamic conquest of the Levant

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The Islamic conquest of the Levant took place in the first half of the 7th century and refers to the area called Bilad al-Sham , Levant or Greater Syria . Muslim armed forces had already advanced into this area during the lifetime of the Islamic prophet Mohammed , which led to the Battle of Mu'ta in 629 . The actual conquest, however, began in 634 under the caliphs Abū Bakr and Umar ibn al-Chattab with Chālid ibn al-Walīd as the most important leader.

Eastern Roman Syria

The Roman province of Syria was founded in 63 BC. Founded in BC and had been affected several times by Sassanid military operations in the seven centuries of its existence . During the last of the Roman-Persian Wars , the Persians under Chosrau II succeeded in conquering Syria, Palestine and Egypt from 611 before they were subject to the Eastern Roman Emperor Herakleios and had to make peace in 628 after the Battle of Nineveh . Therefore, on the eve of the Islamic conquest, the Eastern Romans were busy regaining full control over the reclaimed areas, some parts of which had been out of their control for around 20 years. Administratively, the area was divided into two units: The province of Syria stretched from Antioch and Aleppo in the north to the Dead Sea . To the west and south of the Dead Sea was the province of Palestine , which contained the holy places of the three Abrahamic religions . Syria was partly settled by Arabs, especially in the eastern and southern parts. The Arabs had lived in the area since pre-Roman times; they had adopted Christianity in the course of the Christianization of the Roman Empire in the fourth century.

The Arabs of Syria remained politically sidelined until the tribal association of the Ghassanids emigrated from Yemen to Syria and founded a semi-autonomous empire. The Ghassanids became respectable royal allies of the Roman Empire, their king ruling from the capital Bosra over the Arabs along the Jordan. The last Ghassanid king was Jabala ibn al-Aiham.

After his reconquest of Syria, Emperor Herakleios built a line of defense from Gaza to the southern end of the Dead Sea. However, these lines were only strong enough to protect the lines of communication from bandits. Most of the Eastern Roman troops were concentrated in northern Syria to keep their ancestral enemies, the Sassanids, at bay. This defense concept made it possible for the Muslim troops from the south to advance as far as Gaza without resistance from the East. The 7th century was a century of rapid military change for Byzantium. The empire was no longer on the verge of doom as it had been a few years before, but it failed to respond with an effective strategy.

The rise of the caliphate

After the death of the Islamic prophet Mohammed in June 632, Abu Bakr was declared caliph and political successor in Medina . Shortly thereafter, several Arab tribes revolted against this new rule (the so-called Ridda Wars , i.e. wars against the apostates). After the suppression of the insurgents in March 633, all of Arabia was subject to the authority of the caliph.

Whether Abu Bakr planned to conquer a world empire is not historically certain; under his rule, however, the foundations were laid for one of the greatest empires in history, initiated by a conflict with the Sassanids under General Chālid ibn al-Walīd .

Expedition to Syria

The Muslim conquest of the Levant.

After successful campaigns against the Sassanids and the almost complete conquest of Iraq by them, Chalid built his power base there. Simultaneously with the ongoing fighting against the Persians, the conflict with the Arab Ghassanids flared up. In all parts of the Arabian Peninsula , new troops were therefore recruited from among the tribes - initially with the exception of those who revolted against Islam during the Ridda Wars.

The resulting army divided Abu Bakr into four parts, each with its own commander and its own tasks:

Since the exact position of the Eastern Roman army was not known, the troops should stay in contact with one another and support one another if necessary. In the event that all parts of the army had to unite for a major battle, Abū ʿUbaida was intended as the commander of the entire army. In the first week of April 634, the Muslim armies set out from Medina . Yazid's army marched first, followed by Sharhabil, Abū ʿUbaida and Amr, each one day apart.

Islamic conquest of Syria

Ruins of ancient Petra , one of the first cities to fall to the Muslims.

After he had taken his predetermined route behind Tabuk, Yazid's army met a small army of Christian Arabs , which withdrew after a skirmish with the Muslim vanguard. Yazid now marched through the valley of Arava to its foothills near the Dead Sea . Around the same time, ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀs reached Eilat. Although both troop leaders were able to defeat a Byzantine unit during their advance into Palestine , they did not achieve their intended goals. Abū ʿUbaida and Sharhabil in turn continued their march and arrived in May 634 in the area between Bosra and al-Jābiya . Emperor Herakleios now received news from his Arab allies about the march of the Arabs and began to plan countermeasures. The emperor ordered the garrisons of the Syrian cities to unite at Ajnadain. From there, they could attack Amr's division and at the same time get into the rear of the other Muslim armies that were in Jordan and Syria. In the third week of April 634, Abū ʿUbaida in turn informed the caliph of the movements of the Eastern Romans. Since Abū ʿUbaida had no experience with such a military situation, Abu Bakr Chalid ibn Walid sent to Syria and gave him command of the Muslim troops.

Campaigns of conquest under Caliph Abu Bakr

Detailed map of the path taken by Khalid ibn Walid during his invasion of Syria.

Halid marched with half his force (about 8,000 men) from al-Hira in June 634 for Syria. There were two classic routes for an army from Iraq to Syria: one led via Daumat al-Jandal, the other through Mesopotamia past ar-Raqqa . Since he was short of time, Khalid avoided the conventional route via Daumat al-Jandal, as it was the longest and took two weeks. He avoided the route through Mesopotamia because there were many Eastern Roman garrisons there, which he had no time to besiege. Chalid therefore chose a third route straight through the Syrian desert , which could be dangerous for an army. His army reportedly marched without a drop of water for two days until they reached an oasis. So Khalid entered Syria and surprised the East Romans on their right flank. This unpredictable move upset the Eastern Roman defenders.

Conquest of southern Syria

Sawa, Arak and the ancient city of Palmyra were the first to fall to Khalid. as-Sukhnah , al-Qaryatain and Hawarin were conquered after the Battle of al-Qaryatain and the Battle of Hawarin . After subjugating these cities, Chalid moved towards Damascus , passing a mountain pass called Thaniyyat al-'Uqab (Uqab Pass) (named after the standard of the Chalid). Then he turned to Bosra , the capital of the Ghassanid Empire, a vassal of the Eastern Roman Empire. He also ordered other nearby Arab forces to go to Bosra. At Marj ar-Rahit, Khalid defeated a Ghassanid army in a quick battle ( Battle of Marj ar-Rahit ). At the same time, Abū ʿUbaida ibn al-Jarrāh, who led the southern Muslim armies, had ordered Sharhabil ibn Hasana to attack Bosra. According to orders, the latter had attacked Bosra with a small detachment of 4,000 men. The eastern Roman / Ghassanid garrison of the city estimated this group as the vanguard of a larger Muslim army on the march and decided to attack Sharhabil's small division. Just as they carried out the sortie against Sharhabil and had surrounded him on all sides, Khalid reached the scene with his troops and drove the sortie back. The combined armies of Chalid, Sharhabil and Abū ʿUbaida now besieged Bosra , which surrendered in mid-July 634. With that the Ghassanid kingdom and dynasty came to an end.

Now Chalid officially took over command of the Muslim armies of Abū ʿUbaida, as the caliph had ordered. At Ajnadain, massive Eastern Roman forces were gathered together to drive the Arabs back into the desert. Chalid now let the Muslim associations advance to Ajnadain, where the battle broke out on July 30, 634. Early Muslim sources report 90,000 Eastern Roman soldiers. Today's historians doubt this number, but see the battle as the end of Eastern Roman rule over Syria.

The defeat of the Eastern Romans in the Battle of Ajnadain left Syria defenseless. Chalid decided to be the first to conquer Damascus, the eastern Roman capital of Syria. There Thomas commanded the local garrison; he asked the emperor, who was in Emesa, in writing for reinforcements. In addition, Thomas sent small contingents against the Arabs to disrupt the enemy advance. One of these divisions was defeated in the Battle of Yaqusa in August 634 on the Sea of ​​Galilee, about 120 km from Damascus. Another small army was defeated at the Battle of Marj as-Safar on August 19, 634. Meanwhile reinforcements reached the city after the emperor learned of the defeat at Ajnadain. Damascus was conquered (perhaps in September) 635 ; a siege, some of which is mentioned, very probably never took place. Herakleios eventually withdrew to Antioch . A peace agreement was reached, according to which the citizens of the city were obliged to pay annual tributes and the garrison was given a three-day head start to escape the Muslims. After this period, Khalid caught up with the retreating troops with his cavalry and destroyed them in the battle of Marj ad-Dibadsch . After Abu Bakr's death, Umar was elected as the new caliph. He released his cousin Khalid ibn al-Walid from his command and made Abū ʿUbaida ibn al-Jarrāh the new commander in chief of the Syrian troops.

Conquests under Caliph Umar

Conquest of the Middle Levant

The Muslim Advance into Central Syria
Greek temple in Idlib

Shortly after the appointment of Abū Ubaida, he sent small departments to the annual market in Abu l-Quds, today's Abla, east of Beirut. There was an Eastern Roman garrison nearby, the strength of which had been misjudged by the Arab scouts. Shortly before they could put down the Muslim troops, they were rescued by Chalid, whom Abū ʿUbaida had sent after them after the actual strength of the garrison became known. The garrison was defeated in the battle of Abu l-Quds on October 15, 634 AD. The Arabs captured many valuables in this market and took several hundred prisoners. The loss of central Syria broke the unified eastern Roman line along the Mediterranean and made communication between northern Syria and Palestine impossible. Abū ʿUbaida decided to march to Fahl , where another Eastern Roman garrison and surviving troops from the Battle of Ajnadain were staying. These blocked access to Palestine and had to be beaten. Chalid reached the place first and found that it was flooded because the East Romans had dammed the nearby Jordan . Nevertheless, the Eastern Roman army was defeated in the Battle of Fahl on January 23, 635 AD.

Conquest of Palestine

After the battle, Sharhabil and Amr advanced deeper into Palestine . Bet She'an and Tiberias surrendered in February 635. After receiving detailed information on the position and strength of the Eastern Roman defenders, Caliph Umar wrote instructions to his troops: Yazid should conquer the Mediterranean coast . The departments of Amr and Sharhabil separated. Amr set out to conquer Nablus , Amawas , Gaza and Yubna to complete the conquest of Palestine, while Sharhabil besieged the coastal cities of Acre and Tire . Yazid marched from Damascus to capture the port cities of Sidon , Arqa , Jubail and Beirut . In AD 635, Palestine, Jordan, and southern Syria, with the exception of Jerusalem and Caesarea, were in Muslim hands. On Umar's orders, Yazid next turned to Caesarea, which he had to give up in the run-up to the Battle of Yarmuk, only to resume it later until the city finally fell in 640.

Battles for Emesa and Second Battle of Damascus

On the northern front, Abū ʿUbaida and Chalid marched into northern Syria with a relatively strong army. While the southern armies were busy at Fahl, Emperor Herakleios saw an opportunity to retake Damascus and dispatched a general to overpower the small Muslim garrison. But after winning the Battle of Fahl, the southern troops were now on the march to Emesa. The Eastern Romans met the Muslim army on the road to Emesa near Marjar-Rum. Under cover of night the Eastern Romans sent half their force against Damascus to take it. Chalid learned of this plan from a spy and rode after the Eastern Romans with the permission of Abū ʿUbaida. While Abū ʿUbaida defeated the Eastern Romans who remained behind in the battle of Marj ar-Rum , Chalid and his cavalry caught up with the other army group and destroyed them. A week later, Abū ʿUbaida left for Heliopolis , where there was a large temple of Jupiter . Heliopolis surrendered to the Muslims without resistance and accepted tribute payments. Abū ʿUbaida now sent Chalid straight to Emesa . Emesa and Chalkis offered him a one-year armistice. Abū ʿUbaida accepted to consolidate his rule over the already conquered area and to conquer Hama and Maarat an-Numan . Indeed, the peace treaties had been concluded on Herakleios orders, which needed time for further defensive measures in northern Syria. After he had gathered a sufficiently strong army in Antioch, he distributed it to strategically important cities in northern Syria, e.g. B. Emesa and Chalkis. The arrival of the reinforcements was a violation of the armistice treaty; Abu Ubadiah and Chalid immediately marched back to Emesa. The Muslims besieged Emesa, which they captured in March 636 AD after two months.

Battle of Yarmuk

Troop movements before the battle of Yarmuk

After the capture of Emesa, the Muslim armies moved north to conquer northern Syria. Chalid and his cavalry looted the regions of northern Syria in advance. At Schaizar he surprised a caravan that was bringing supplies to Chalcis. Questioning the prisoners brought to light Herakleios' ambitious plan to retake Syria. The prisoners reported an army of two hundred thousand men on the march. Chalid immediately returned to the main army with this news.

In June 636, Herakleios set troops in motion to keep Syria for the Eastern Roman Empire. Chalid proposed to Abū ʿUbaida in the council of war for fear of a fragmentation of the Muslim troops, to offer the Eastern Romans a great field battle. Abū ʿUbaida heeded this advice and ordered all Muslim garrisons to give up the conquered land again and to assemble at Jabiya instead . This thwarted Herakleio's plan, who was now exposed to the light Arab cavalry in the field. From Jabiya, the Muslim troops withdrew on Abū ʿUbaida's orders to the plain on the Jarmuk River, where cavalry could be effectively moved. While the army was positioning itself at Yarmuk, Khalid intercepted the Eastern Roman vanguard and drove them to flight. In July 636 the Muslim army was fully assembled on the plain. The eastern Roman troops arrived about two weeks later. The Eastern Roman commander, Vahan , sent some Ghassanid Arabs ahead to investigate the strength of the Muslims. But Chalid's cavalry surprised them too and defeated them. Negotiations between the two armies dragged on for the next month. Chalid met Vahan personally in the Eastern Roman camp. All along, the Muslims received reinforcements from Arabia.

Abū ʿUbaida handed over the command of the battle to Chalid. Finally, on August 15th, the battle of Yarmuk began . It lasted six days and ended in a catastrophic defeat for the East Romans. It is considered one of the decisive ones in history that would change the fate of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. After the defeat, the eastern provinces of the Eastern Roman Empire were open to the Arabs without protection.

The fall of Jerusalem

After the complete defeat of the Eastern Romans, the Arabs quickly reoccupied the previously conquered areas. Abū ʿUbaida and his council of war decided to take Jerusalem next . The siege of Jerusalem lasted four months before the city surrendered personally to the caliph. After the fall of the city, the Muslim army split again. Yazid's army reached Beirut via Damascus and conquered it. Amr and Sharhabil's part completed the conquest of Palestine while Abū ʿUbaida and Chalid set out with a 17,000-strong army to conquer all of northern Syria.

Conquest of Northern Syria

Muslim invasion of northern Syria

Since they had already conquered Emesa, Abū ʿUbaida and Chalid moved towards Chalkis , which was strategically most important for the Eastern Romans. By owning Chalkis, the Eastern Romans were able to secure Anatolia , Armenia and the metropolis of Antioch . Abū ʿUbaida sent Chalid with his cavalry. The city's fortress was guarded by Greek troops under a man named Menas. He decided to deviate from the usual Roman strategy and attack the vanguard of the Arabs in a field battle. The ensuing battle is known as the Battle of Hazir , in which Khalid even earned the praise of Caliph Umar. Abū ʿUbaida met Chalid in front of the actually impregnable fortress of Chalcis. The fortress surrendered in June 637. Now the area north of Chalcis was open to the Muslims for conquest. Chalid and Abū ʿUbaida advanced further north and besieged Aleppo , which fell in 637 despite fierce resistance from the desperate Eastern Roman garrison. The next goal of their conquest was the metropolis Antioch , the capital of the Asiatic possessions of the Eastern Roman Empire. Before they besieged the city, the Arabs decided to cut them off from Anatolia. Detachments were sent out to break any Eastern Roman resistance north of the city. They also conquered Azaz , a fortified city 30 km from Aleppo. At the gates of Antioch, a final battle was fought between the Eastern Romans and the Arabs for possession of Syria, known as the Battle of the Iron Bridge . All soldiers who had survived the Battle of Yarmuk and the other battles in Syria were gathered in the Eastern Roman Army. This army, too, was defeated by the Muslims, who then put a siege ring around the city. Since there was little hope of relief from the emperor, Antioch surrendered on October 30, 637 on condition that all Eastern Roman troops were granted free retreat to Constantinople. Abū ʿUbaida ordered Chalid to march north, he himself conquered Latakia, Jabla and Tartus and the coastal area west of Anti-Lebanon. Chalid, for his part, plundered the country in the north as far as the Halys River in Anatolia. Emperor Herakleios had left Antioch in good time before the conquest and had traveled to Edessa . He organized defense in Mesopotamia and Armenia , then retired to the capital, Constantinople . On his way back he narrowly escaped meeting Chalid, who, after conquering Marash , marched southwards towards Manbidsch . Herakleios hastily set out on the mountain paths to the Cilician Gate and escaped.

Due to the successive defeats and the previous heavy battles with the Persians, who had used up all resources, the Eastern Roman Empire was no longer capable of any major resistance. In order to gain time to consolidate his remaining empire, Emperor Herakleios had to keep the Muslims in Syria busy. He asked the Christian Arabs of the Jazira for help. These mustered a larger army and marched against Emesa , Abū ʿUbaida's base of operations. Abū ʿUbaida in turn withdrew all his troops from northern Syria and concentrated them at Emesa, which was now besieged by the Christian Arabs. Khalid pleaded for an open battle in front of the city, but Abū ʿUbaida first sent a letter to Caliph Umar. The caliph now ordered some Arab contingents fighting in Iraq to attack Jazira from three different directions. Another division under Qa'qa ibn Amr, a veteran of the Battle of Yarmuk, was summoned to Emesa from Iraq. Umar himself marched from Medina at the head of a thousand men. When the Christian Arabs heard of the siege of their capital, Jazira, they broke off the siege and withdrew. When they had turned to march, Chalid and his cavalry broke out and struck them in the back, scattering them.

In the same year the last bastions of the Eastern Roman Empire in the Middle East fell to the Caliphate. At the same time, Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas, the commander of the Muslim troops in Iraq, sent an army under Ayadh bin Ghanam to conquer the regions between the Euphrates and Tigris as far as Urfa. Almost all of Upper Mesopotamia surrendered without resistance and agreed to pay the jizya tax.

Campaigns in Armenia and Anatolia

Invasion route from Chalid ibn Walid and Ayaz ibn Ghanam in Anatolia

After the conquest of Mesopotamia (Jazira) was completed in AD 638, Abū ʿUbaida Chalid and Ayaz ibn Ghanam (the conqueror of Jazira) to conquer the eastern Roman provinces further north. They marched separately; on their way they conquered Edessa , Amida , Melitene and all of Armenia as far as the plain of the Ararat . They also devastated central Anatolia. Herakleios had already abandoned all fortresses between Antioch and Tartus in order to create a no man's land between the now Muslim-controlled Orient and Anatolia.

Caliph Umar stopped his troops from penetrating deeper into Anatolia and instead ordered Abū ʿUbaida, now governor of Syria, to consolidate his control over the country.

Under the rule of the Caliph Uthman

The Islamic Caliphate under Caliph Uthman (654)

During the reign of Caliph Uthman , Constans II tried to recapture the Levant . A major attack was planned and a significant force was sent to Syria under the command of the magister militum per Orientem Valentinus . Muʿāwiya I , the governor of Syria at the time, asked the caliph for reinforcements and Uthman ordered the commander of Kufa to send a contingent which, together with the army in Syria, defeated the Byzantines in northern Syria.

Uthman also allowed Muawiyah to build a fleet. From their ports in Syria, the Muslims first conquered Cyprus in 649 , then (but only temporarily) Crete and Rhodes . The fleets then set out on annual raids on Byzantine coastal cities. In 655 the Battle of Phoinix took place , in which the Byzantines were defeated. Uthman ordered the equipment of a force that was to conquer the Byzantine capital Constantinople . Due to internal disputes in the caliphate, the plan was only carried out after the assassination of Uthman and several decades later under the rule of the Umayyad dynasty, but ended in defeat.

Administration by the early Caliphate

The new rulers divided Syria into four military districts ( jund ): Damascus, Homs, Jordan and Filastin (Palestine). The Arab garrisons were separated from the provincial population, for whom the new rule was initially little visible. The Muslims were quite tolerant towards certain religious communities such as the Nestorians , the Jacobites and Jews (followers of the book religions ), who had previously been partially persecuted by the Eastern Romans / Byzantines. Since the loyalty of the newly conquered regions was vital for the caliphate, taxes were initially kept relatively low. The only taxes that were levied were the Kharaj - an agricultural tax - and the jizya , which was paid by all non-Muslims. The tax pressure only increased later, as there were certain reprisals. The Eastern Roman / Byzantine administrative apparatus was initially retained for lack of an effective administration of its own; Greek remained the language of administration until the end of the 7th century.

The rise of the Umayyads

When a civil war broke out after the assassination of the caliph Uthman and the appointment of Ali as caliph, the Umayyad dynasty rose to become the new ruling family of the Islamic world at the end of the unrest . Her heartland was Syria, Damascus was to be the center of the Islamic world for the next 100 years.

The Arabic literature on the Islamic conquest of the Levant

The Islamic conquest of the Levant became the subject of a number of Arabic works bearing the title Futūḥ aš-Šām . In fact, only two of these works have survived: one, which is traced back to al-Wāqidī (st. 822) and is transmitted in numerous different manuscripts, and another, that of Abū Ismāʿīl Muhammad ibn ʿAbdallāh al-Azdī al-Basrī (early 9th century) was written. The work of al-Azdī also contains the report of a disputation between the Prophet's companion Muʿādh ibn Jabal and the Byzantine general Bāhān on the Trinity , Mohammed and the Koran . The report, however, is probably stylized : It resembles what is passed on about the dialogue that is said to have taken place in 781 between the Catholicos Timothy I and the Abbasid caliph al-Mahdi .


(Not evaluated for the article!)

  • Fred M. Donner: The Early Islamic Conquests. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1981, ISBN 0-691-05327-8 .
  • James Howard-Johnston : Witnesses to a World Crisis. Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century. Oxford University Press, Oxford et al. 2010, ISBN 978-0-19-920859-3 .
  • Walter E. Kaegi: Byzantium and the Early Islamic Conquests. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1992, ISBN 0-521-48455-3 .
  • Hugh Kennedy: The Great Arab Conquests. How the Spread of Islam changed the World we live in. Da Capo, Philadelphia PA 2007, ISBN 978-0-306-81585-0 .


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