With the Sword will I wash my shame away.
—ABU TAMMAM, ninth-century Arab poet
The hot desert wastes of the Arabian Peninsula seemed neither particularly inviting nor threatening to the Byzantines, and there seemed no reason to suspect that they ever would. Populated by squabbling nomadic tribes, the region hardly seemed likely to pose a serious threat to anyone, much less the huge Byzantine state. In 622, however, the deserts were beginning to stir with a new energy as a man named Muhammad fled from Mecca to Medina and began hammering together the tribes of the interior. Infusing his followers with a burning zeal, Muhammad divided the world between Dar al-Islam (the House of Islam) and Dar al-Harb (the House of War). Their duty was a holy jihad, to expand the House of Islam at the point of a sword. Within five years, the Muslim armies were unleashed, and they exploded out of the desert with frightening speed. The timing of the invasion could hardly have been better. Hungry for conquest, the Arab armies arrived to find both great empires of the region exhausted and near collapse. The crippled Persians could put up little resistance. Their king Yazdegerd III appealed to both the Byzantines and the Chinese for help, but neither could offer any real assistance, and his fall was swift. Within a year, his tired armies were defeated, and he spent the next decade fleeing from one location to another until a local peasant killed him for his purse.
Muhammad died in 632 of a fever, but nothing seemed able to slake his army’s desire for land. Not even pausing to digest the Persian Empire, by 633 they had crossed the deserted Byzantine frontier, and there they found a land ripe for the picking. Constantinople had never really been able to stamp out the Monophysite heresy, distracted as it was by the war with Persia, and when the Muslims arrived, they found the local populations eager to welcome them in. For the oppressed Monophysites, Islam, with its strict monotheism, was perfectly understandable, and the Arabs were at least Semites like themselves. Better to be ruled by their Arab cousins than the distant heretical emperors in Constantinople, especially since it was always easier to despise a heresy than a different faith. Putting up only token resistance, they watched as the Muslim army poured into Syria, sacked Damascus, and besieged Jerusalem.
In earlier days, the mighty emperor who had broken Persia would have come rushing to Palestine’s defense, but Heraclius was no longer the man he had once been. He was already suffering from the disease that was to kill him, his broad shoulders were prematurely stooped, his golden hair was reduced to a few gray strands, and—like his empire—he was near physical and emotional collapse. Having risen to such heights of glory, he now had to endure the agony of watching as his life’s work unraveled.
Slipping into Jerusalem, the emperor removed the True Cross from where he had placed it in triumph only six years before and headed for Constantinople, leaving the doomed city to its fate. While the patriarch carried out the odious task of surrendering the Holy City, the emperor made a pathetic last entrance into his capital, tormented by the belief that God had abandoned him. The citizens of Constantinople were inclined to agree with this view and were quick to point out why. The cause of all the imperial misery, they whispered, was Heraclius’s incestuous marriage to his niece, Martina. Of the nine children she bore her husband, only three were healthy—the rest either died in infancy or were deformed. Clearly, God had removed his favor, and Martina, never popular, became one of the most hated women in the city. Heraclius, who had delivered the empire in its hour of need, ended his days in misery, deserted by the friends and courtiers who had loudly sung his praises in the years of triumph. A few years after the fall of Jerusalem, he expired, and was interred next to the body of Constantine the Great, in the imperial mausoleum of the Church of the Holy Apostles.
Heraclius’s reign had ended on a sour note, and his subjects certainly didn’t mourn his passing. Under his watch, the empire had lost huge swaths of its territory to a bewildering new enemy, and the dying emperor had hardly bothered to resist them. The shocked Byzantines had looked to Constantinople for help, terrified by the catastrophe, but had found only an agonized defeatism from their broken emperor.
But as poor as the empire’s fortunes were at Heraclius’s death, without him they would have been immeasurably worse. If he hadn’t arrived to overthrow Phocas, the empire would have fallen easy prey to the Persians; and when the Islamic tide came rushing out of Arabia, there would have been nothing to shield Europe from the flood. Instead, by combining a touch of Justinian’s vision with more than a hint of Belisarius’s generalship, Heraclius had made Constantinople a bulwark against Islamic aggression, diverting the Muslim advance into the long wastes of North Africa and delaying its entrance into Europe. His early years had seen one glorious victory after another, and had he died after the overthrow of Chosroes II, with the Persian Empire defeated and the True Cross restored to Jerusalem, his subjects would have remembered him as one of the greatest emperors to sit on the Byzantine throne.
His reign saw the great turning point for much of the Middle East. For a thousand years, these lands had been Hellenized, ruled by a Roman Empire at first pagan and then Christian. They had contributed much to classical civilization, providing some of the finest emperors, theologians, saints, and poets of the classical world. After the Arab invasions, however, all that changed. Arabic replaced Greek as the lingua franca, and Islam replaced Christianity. Wrenched out of the Mediterranean orbit, these lands began to look to Damascus, then Baghdad, instead of Rome or Constantinople. A way of life that had more than a millennium came to a violent and abrupt end. Life in the Middle East would never be the same again.
Of the next five emperors who succeeded Heraclius, only one was older than sixteen when he gained the throne, and all were crippled by the struggles of powerful factions to assert control. Each defeat further diminished their authority and crippled their ability to fight back. Had a stronger ruler than the dying Heraclius been on the throne to confront the Muslims in 633, the subsequent history of the entire Middle East would have been radically different, but he was a sick man, and the imperial teenagers who succeeded him couldn’t grab hold of power firmly enough to effectively oppose the Islamic advance. By the middle of the century, the opportunity to contain the threat had passed, and the Arab conquest picked up an irresistible momentum. Frightened Byzantine citizens paraded their holy icons around the walls, invoking divine aid, but still the Muslim tide rolled on, destroying centuries of Roman rule and leaving the empire profoundly shocked in its wake. To many, it must have seemed a terrible divine judgment, and the emotional trauma seemed to paralyze Byzantium.
The unwieldy imperial army was marshaled to defend the long frontier, but the Arabs seemed impossible to contain. The impenetrable desert had always offered a feeling of safety for the Byzantines, but now it was a terrifying weakness. Using the stars to navigate across the featureless landscape, the Arabs slaughtered the camels they rode to consume their water, and emerged unexpectedly behind imperial lines. Whenever the Byzantine army did manage to confront them, the Arabs simply melted back into the desert, only to erupt somewhere else. Only once did an imperial army try to follow them. In 636, it pursued a Muslim army to a tributary of the Jordan River and suffered an appalling defeat. Those who survived the initial fighting tried to surrender but were massacred on the spot. The watching Mediterranean world was put on terrible notice: For those who resisted the Islamic sword, there would be no mercy.
Unnerved by the speed and ferocity of the attack, the East virtually threw away its defenses. Eight years after conquering Jerusalem, the Arabs entered Egypt, and at the sight of the Muslim forces, Alexandria, seat of one of the five great patriarchates of the church, voluntarily surrendered. The dissident Christians who had invited the invaders in soon found their new masters to be considerably less tolerant than the orthodox regime they had swept away, but by then it was too late. A popular uprising ejected the Muslim garrison, but it returned with an army at its back. Battering their way inside, the forces of Islam razed the walls, burned what remained of the library, and moved the capital to Al-Fustat—a small village in the shadow of the pyramids that would later become Cairo.*Only the waters of the Mediterranean seemed to form a barrier capable of checking the desert-dwelling Arabs, but they learned quickly. Navigating at sea was not so different from navigating in the desert, and within a decade, they had constructed a navy and inflicted a crushing defeat of the formerly invincible Byzantine navy.
Faced with the unrelenting attack, the government at Constantinople panicked and moved to Sicily, abandoning the East to its fate. This less-than-inspiring action left most Byzantines feeling bewildered and bitter, but, thankfully, the Arab assault was halted by a civil war.† The Islamic world was further distracted by the conquest of Afghanistan, but by the time a Byzantine emperor cautiously took up his residence in Constantinople again, the Muslim victor of the civil war had announced a pledge to annihilate the Roman Empire, and the conquest resumed. The Sicilian city of Syracuse—so recently the capital of the Roman world—was brutally sacked in 668, and the next year an Arab army virtually annihilated the Byzantine forces in North Africa, leaving the entire province open to invasion.
The Arabs, however, were by now more interested in dealing a knockout blow to the empire than in further conquests of the desolate African coast, and the thrust of their attack was soon directed against Constantinople itself. Moving its capital to Damascus, the Arab caliphate launched yearly strikes at New Rome, probing its defenses. The land walls were virtually impregnable, but the city was vulnerable from the sea, and only the demoralized imperial navy guarded its harbor. The Arab fleet had repeatedly demonstrated its superiority, even managing to seize an island opposite Constantinople while the Byzantines glumly watched, and in 674 they took Rhodes—the proud possessor of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.* That same year, Tarsus—birthplace of Saint Paul—fell to the Muslims, and it seemed an awful confirmation that God had deserted the Byzantines.
Three Arab fleets converged on the capital, but great moments of crisis have a way of producing heroes from unlikely sources, and a Syrian refugee named Callinicus of Heliopolis saved Constantinople. He invented a devastatingly flammable liquid called “Greek fire,” which could be sprayed at enemy ships with terrifying results.† Water was useless against the horrible conflagration, serving only to spread the flames, and balls of cloth soaked in it could be hurled great distances, immolating anything they touched. The Arab fleet broke against the terrible new weapon, and the waters of the Golden Horn were choked with burning ships.*
Constantinople had been saved, but the rest of the empire was disintegrating fast. The Arab sword now turned against Africa, annihilating Carthage in 697 and using it as a springboard to attack Italy and Sardinia. By 711, Muslim forces had completed the six-hundred-mile trek across Africa, and an invasion force led by a one-eyed warrior named Tariq had crossed to Spain, landing in the shade of the huge rock that still bears his name.†
The Arab empire now had more land, resources, and wealth than the Byzantines, and awaited only the order to begin the final annihilation. In 717, the same year that a Muslim raiding party crossed into France, that order was given, and an immense army set sail in nearly two thousand ships to take Constantinople.
The capital again found an unlikely hero, this time in a Syrian shepherd named Konon. Slipping into the city a month before the Muslim invasion fleet, he adroitly used the political crisis to seize the throne and was crowned as Leo III. Equally fluent in Arabic and Greek, the new emperor had a keen mind and a lifetime of experience fighting the Arabs. Aided by the most ferocious winter in recent memory, Leo easily outmaneuvered the Muslim army while his fire-ships destroyed the Arab navy and the terrible cold froze livestock and humans alike. Starving and now unable to bury their dead in the frozen ground, the Muslims were reduced to consuming the flesh of their fallen comrades to stay alive. A thaw arrived with the spring, but that merely added the misery of disease to the unsanitary camp, and when Leo persuaded a tribe of Bulgars to attack the hapless Muslims, their commander gave up in despair. The entire campaign had been an unmitigated disaster for the forces of Islam. Less than half of the invading army managed to drag itself back to Damascus, and of the grand fleet, only five ships survived to see their home ports again.*
*The great library of Alexandria had been heavily damaged at least twice before—first when Julius Caesar had entered the city, and centuries later when a Christian mob tried to burn the section on necromancy and witchcraft. An impressive repository of the learning of the ancient world, it was probably only a shell of its former self by the time the Arabs arrived. The conquering caliph Omar gave it the coup de grâce, according to an apocryphal story, with the words “if the books of the library don’t contain the teachings of the Qur’an, they are useless and should be destroyed; if the books do contain the teachings of the Qur’an, they are superfluous and should be destroyed.”
†That war still splits the Islamic world today. An assassin loyal to the fearsome general Muawiyah assassinated the caliph Ali while he was praying in a mosque in central Iraq. Those who rejected Muawiyah and held that only a descendant of Ali could become caliph are known as Shiites, while those who accepted Muawiyah as caliph are called Sunni. Iraq remains largely a Shiite country to this day.
*The great Colossus, a magnificent statue of the sun god, lay where it had fallen during an earthquake nine centuries before, and the victorious Arab commander had it broken up and sold for scrap. There was so much bronze that it required nine hundred camels to haul away the pieces.
†The composition of Greek fire was considered a state secret and was guarded so effectively that even today we don’t know exactly how it was made. If, as suspected, it was a form of a low-density liquid hydrocarbon, like naphtha, it anticipated modern chemists by a good twelve centuries.
*The Golden Horn is an inlet of the Bosporus forming the great harbor on Constantinople’s northern shore.
†Jabal al’Tariq (the mountain of Tariq), better known as Gibraltar.
*The rest fell victim to Greek fire and winter storms, and a few met the horrendous fate of being burned by a volcano as they passed the island of Thíra.