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The Arab conquests: 7th century

One of the most dramatic and sudden movements of any people in history is the expansion, by conquest, of the Arabs in the 7th century (only the example of the Mongols in the 13th century can match it). The desert tribesmen of Arabia form the bulk of the Muslim armies. Their natural ferocity and love of warfare, together with the sense of moral rectitude provided by their new religion, form an irresistible combination.

When Muhammad dies in 632, the western half of Arabia is Muslim. Two years later the entire peninsula has been brought to the faith, and the Arab nomads are Muslim in the desert to the east of Palestine and Syria.

The great Christian cities of Syria and Palestine fall to the Arabs in rapid succession from635. Damascus, in that year, is the first to be captured. Antioch follows in 636. And 638 brings the greatest prize of all, in Muslim terms, when Jerusalem is taken after a year's siege.

It is a moment of profound significance for the young religion, for Islam sees itself as the successor of Judaism and Christianity. The city of the people of Moses, in which Jesus also preaches and dies, is a holy place for Muslims too. Moses and Jesus are Muhammad's predecessors as prophets. A link with Muhammad himself will also soon emerge in Jerusalem.

Muslim North Africa: from642

The Arab conquest of Egypt and North Africa begins with the arrival of an army in640 in front of the Byzantine fortified town of Babylon (in the area which is now Old Cairo). The Arabs capture it after a siege and establish their own garrison town just to the east, calling it Al Fustat.

The army then moves on to Alexandria, but here the defences are sufficient to keep them at bay for fourteen months. At the end of that time a surprising treaty is signed. The Greeks of Alexandria agree to leave peacefully; the Arabs give them a year in which to do so. In the autumn of 642, the handover duly occurs. One of the richest of Byzantine provinces has been lost to the Arabs without a fight.

The Arabs continue rapidly westwards along the coast of North Africa, capturing Cyrenaica in 642 and Tripoli in 643. But these remain largely ineffective outposts. For nearly three decades the Arabs make little progress in subduing the indigenous Berber inhabitants of this coastal strip.

The turning point comes in 670 with the founding of a new Arab garrison town at Kairouan, about sixty miles south of the Byzantine city of Carthage. From this secure base military control becomes possible. Carthage is destroyed (yet again) in 698. By the early 8th century northwest Africa is firmly in Arab hands. In 711 an Arab general takes the next expansionist step. With a Berber army he crosses the straits of Gibraltar and enters Spain.

The Arabs and Constantinople:674-717

In the overwhelming assault on the Byzantine empire by the Arabs during the 7th century, only one campaign is consistently unsuccessful. This is their frequently repeated attempt to capture Constantinople itself.

The city is first unsuccessfully attacked, by sea and land, in669. The last of several expeditions ends in disaster for the Arabs in 717, when a fleet of some 2000 ships is destroyed by a storm and the army straggles homewards through a wintry Anatolia. From the mid-670s the Byzantines have one strong psychological advantage - a mysterious new device in their armoury which becomes known as Greek fire.

Greek fire: 674

In674 a Muslim fleet enters the Bosphorus to attack Constantinople. It is greeted, and greatly deterred, by a new weapon which can be seen as the precursor of the modern flamethrower. It has never been discovered precisely how the Byzantine chemists achieve the jet of flame for their 'Greek fire'. The secret of such a lethal advantage is jealously guarded.

Contemporary accounts imply that the inflammable substance is petroleum-based, floats on water, and is almost impossible to extinguish. It can be lobbed in a canister. But in its most devastating form it is projected, as a stream of liquid fire, from a tube mounted in the prow of a ship. Sprayed among a wooden fleet, its destructive potential is obvious.

Iconoclasm: 726-843

In726 the Byzantine emperor Leo III issues a dramatic order. Above the bronze gates leading into his imperial palace there has been, since the time of Justinian, a vast golden image of Jesus Christ - the partner and the source of the authority of Byzantine emperors. Leo sends a body of troops to destroy this great icon (from eikon, Greek for 'image').

Local outrage is so great that the crowd kills the officer in charge. The event begins a century and more of the so-called Iconoclastic Controversy, which racks the empire and contributes considerably to the developing split between Rome and Constantinople.

Leo has the support of many in the eastern provinces of the empire, and he has strong arguments on his side. Icons are greatly venerated within the Byzantine church, in unmistakable disregard of God's second Commandment (prohibiting 'graven images'). Islam, taking the same prohibition with the utmost seriousness, has been for almost a century a neighbouring source of rebuke. A majority of Christian leaders in the east (the region most affected by Islam) support Leo's policy.

Undeterred by widespread popular unrest following the first iconoclastic act of 726, Leo goes further down his chosen route. In 730 he declares the possession of icons to be illegal, and orders their destruction.

The battle between the iconoclasts (klastes, Greek for 'breaker') and the iconodules (doulos, 'servant' and thus 'worshipper') is a political one with violent consequences for early Byzantine art. But Pope Gregory III in Rome will have none of it, and Roman Catholics have always remained passionate iconodules.

In the eastern empire there is an interlude from787, when iconodules win power, but iconoclasm is restored as imperial policy in 814. The controversy lasts until 843. In that year Theodora, the widow of the emperor Theophilus, officially sanctions the veneration of icons - an event still celebrated each year in the eastern church as the Feast of Orthodoxy.

From843 icons recover their special position in Greek Orthodox Christianity, never again to lose it. The screen between the nave and the altar sanctuary in an Orthodox church is dedicated to the display of holy images - as its name iconostasis specifically states.

As other regions are converted to the Greek religion, in the Balkans and in Russia, the veneration of images spreads. Indeed to many people nowadays, after a millennium of the rich tradition of Russian Orthodox Christianity, the word 'icon' suggests first and foremost a Russian religious painting. And Russian icons, still being painted today, preserve much of the ancient Byzantine style.

Byzantine revival: 10th century

During the 10th century the fortunes of Byzantium undergo a remarkable revival. Control is re-established over much of the Balkans when the Slavs are brought within the empire - first by their conversion to Greek Orthodox Christianity, then by treaties and alliances. Beyond the Danube the Russians also are converted to the faith, and are from time to time kept friendly by intermarriage with the imperial family in Constantinople.

At the same period Byzantine armies recover Anatolia, Syria and northern Mesopotamia - extending the imperial frontiers in a manner unprecedented since the eruption of Islam in the 7th century.

Even in Italy the Byzantine territory is enlarged in the south, where eviction of the Arabs brings the entire coastline of heel and toe (Apulia and Calabria) back under imperial control. Sicily at the same period is lost to the Arabs, in a prolonged struggle from the fall of Palermo in 831 to the loss of the last Byzantine stronghold in 965. But overall, at the time of the first Christian millennium, the prospects for the Byzantine empire seem brighter than for many years.

They are to be darkened again in the next century by the emergence of a new enemy on each flank - the Normans in the west, the Seljuk Turks in the east.

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