Arab Invasions: The First Islamic Empire

During the seventh century the Arabs invaded North Africa three times, bringing not just a new religion but a language and customs that were alien to the native Berber tribes of the Sahara and Mediterranean hinterland. Eamonn Gearon looks at the rise of the first Islamic empire.

The city of Alexandria, from the floor mosaic of St John's Church, Gerasa, Jordan, sixth centuryWhen Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, died in 632 the new religion had already gathered a number of impressive victories on the battlefield. The armies of Islam quickly and easily conquered the Arabian peninsula before moving on to take the homelands of their various neighbours. Marching out of Arabia in 639 they entered non-Arab Egypt; 43 years later they reached the shores of the Atlantic; and in 711 they invaded Spain. In just 70 years they had subdued the whole of North Africa, instituting a new order. This conquest, from the Nile to the Atlantic, was more complete than anything achieved by previous invaders and the changes it wrought proved permanent.

Before the arrival of the Arabs, in 533 the Vandals had, after a century-long residence, been beaten and expelled from North Africa by the partially resurgent Byzantines. However, Byzantium’s grip on the region was never as strong as that of Rome and, as a result, oppression, revolts and insurrections characterised Berber-Byzantine relations. This century of animus saw the slow collapse of Byzantine influence in the region. In the eastern Mediterranean and the lands beyond two decades of war between Byzantium and Sassanian Persia had left both sides exhausted and impoverished. Periodic outbreaks of the bubonic plague and, especially in Byzantium, divisive succession crises further weakened the old empires. The timing could not have been better for the emergence of a new conquering force that sprang unannounced from the city-free, plague-free deserts of Arabia.

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