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Palestine under the Umayyads and the Arab Tribes

FOR ALL THAT ISLAM was meant to transcend the ancient tribal loyalties of the Arabs, the tribes still survived, and with them tribal jealousies and feuds. Moreover, rivalry between the tribes and their component clans and families went right to the very heart of the caliphate. In 656 insurgent Arab troops murdered Uthman, the third caliph, who was a member of the powerful Umayyad family of Mecca. Ali put himself forward as the natural inheritor of the caliphate, basing his claim on his marriage to Mohammed’s daughter Fatima, as well as on his considerable religious learning. But Ali was opposed by Aisha – Mohammed’s favourite wife and the daughter of Abu Bakr, the first caliph – along with many of Mohammed’s surviving companions, the very people who had stirred up the murderous rebellion against Uthman. Ali took to arms and won his first battle, but opposition against him only hardened when he dismissed many of those whom Uthman had appointed. Among these was Muawiya, Uthman’s nephew and governor of Syria, who demanded vengeance for his uncle’s murder. In 657 Ali and Muawiya met in battle at Siffin, near Raqqa, on the Euphrates, which ended in negotiations that weakened Ali’s position and ultimately led to his assassination by a disaffected follower in 661. Muawiya’s brother had commanded the Arab tribes that conquered much of Palestine and Syria; they subsequently gave their loyalty to Muawiya as governor of Syria and received many rewards from him, and now they were his power base when Muawiya was acclaimed caliph in Jerusalem, made Damascus his capital and established the Umayyad dynasty as masters of the growing Arab empire.

After consolidating his authority, Muawiya turned his attention to new wars of territorial expansion with their rewards of plunder, expropriation and taxation, and which also had the benefit of diverting tribal frictions into struggles for the faith. Attacks against the Byzantine Empire were resumed. Arab armies ravaged Asia Minor nearly every summer, Cyprus and the Aegean islands were laid waste, and in 670 an Umayyad fleet landed at Cyzicus, on the Sea of Marmara, from where the Arabs launched annual summer sieges of Constantinople for seven years. Under the energetic resistance of the emperor Constantine IV the city repelled the Arab attacks. The most potent weapon in the Byzantine armoury was Greek Fire, a secret compound of sulphur, naphtha and quicklime which burst into flames on impact with enemy ships and could burn even under water, the invention of a Christian Syrian refugee. Eventually the Byzantines drove the Arab army out of Asia Minor and forced Muawiya into paying a tribute in return for a negotiated peace. Not for the last time a Byzantine victory saved not only themselves but all Europe from Muslim domination.

But elsewhere the Umayyads had greater success. In North Africa the last outpost of Byzantine rule in the region of Carthage was destroyed by the Arabs in 667. The resistance of the Berbers, who were Christians, to the Arab armies was repaid with terrible raids and devastation. Those who eventually submitted to Islam became part of the further expansion of the Muslim armies towards the Atlantic, while the more Latinised population of North Africa, heirs of a classical and Christian civilisation that had produced such figures as the theologian Augustine of Hippo, author of The Confessions and The City of God, and himself of Berber origin,1 emigrated to Italy and Gaul.

The wave of Muslim expansion was checked by the outbreak of prolonged and savage warfare between the Arab tribes. In 684 Ibn al-Zubayr, the nephew of Aisha and the grandson through his mother of the first caliph, Abu Bakr, rejected the Umayyad claim to the caliphate and declared himself caliph at Mecca, winning the support of tribes in Arabia and those occupying Egypt and Mesopotamia and, most worrying of all, even some in Palestine and Syria. A battle at Marj Rahit, east of Damascus, secured Syria for the Umayyads in that same year, but the wider struggle was inherited by Abd al-Malik, who succeeded to the Umayyad caliphate in 685, and was decided only in 692 with the defeat of al-Zubayr at Mecca.

Abd al-Malik countered these disorders not only on the battlefield but also with a variety of administrative measures aimed at asserting the unity of the empire, the authority of his caliphate and the supremacy of Islam. In the years following their conquests the Arabs could not have administered Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia or Egypt, and most importantly could not have collected taxes, without the services of experienced officials drawn from the local populations, which meant leaving Christian officials at their posts, just as Zoroastrians were left in place in Persia. In Syria and Palestine the language of administration had been Greek, while the everyday language of the population was Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Middle East for over a thousand years. The administration of Egypt was carried on in Greek by its native Christian population, the Copts (from ‘Aegyptos’, the Greek for Egypt), whose demotic language, Coptic, had evolved from ancient Egyptian; they also continued to manage the country’s vital irrigation system. But now Abd al-Malik made Arabic the mandatory language of government affairs throughout his empire. Likewise the coinage, which had continued to bear Christian and Zoroastrian symbols, was replaced by redesigned pieces inscribed in Arabic with the Profession of Faith (‘There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his Prophet’). The message of Muslim domination was perfectly suited to the system, for the economy was predominantly monetary and depended on exactions from the conquered people who paid their taxes in coin. Very few Arabs were productive settlers on the land, an activity they despised; a few were great landlords who used native tenants to cultivate their estates; but generally they were nomadic tribesmen, soldiers or officials, all of whom lived off thejizya (or poll tax) and the kharaj (or land tax) paid by the occupied peoples in return for the protection of their lives and property and for the right to practise their own religion. Because the jizyaand the kharaj could be imposed only on non-Muslims, the Arabs had little interest in making converts to Islam, a contributory reason why Syria, Palestine and Egypt would remain overwhelmingly Christian for centuries to come.

As Abd al-Malik Arabised and Islamised his administration, so he also turned to dominating the religious landscape of Jerusalem with the construction, starting in 688, of the Dome of the Rock atop the Temple Mount. Recent archaeological excavations suggest that the Dome of the Rock was the centrepiece of an ambitious plan to redevelop the eastern part of Jerusalem. The exterior of the Dome of the Rock is in the form of an octagon, its four portals facing the cardinal points and giving access to a domed circular interior enclosing the rocky outcrop like a shrine. Archaeologists think that the Dome of the Rock was meant as a tetrapylon, a four-gated monumental structure common in Roman and Byzantine cities, in this case marking the crossroads of a new Muslim city centred on the Temple Mount, while a new mosque, replacing the wooden structure built by Umar at the southern end of the Temple Mount, was part of this plan.2

As for the religious significance of the works atop the Temple Mount, early Muslim writers give various accounts. According to Ahmad al-Yaqubi, a Muslim chronicler and geographer writing two hundred years after these events, the rebellion of al-Zubayr was the spur to Abd al-Malik to build an alternative shrine of pilgrimage at Jerusalem, and certainly the Dome of the Rock, with its inner and outer ambulatories, suggests that it may have been intended to rival the Kaaba at Mecca, where walking round the shrine is part of the ritual. It follows from this argument that the Umayyads wanted to glorify their power base in Syria and Palestine at the expense of Mecca and Arabia, and certainly they devoted a great deal of effort and expense to glorifying Damascus and even more to exalting Jerusalem. But in the view of Mohammed ibn Ahmed Muqaddasi, a tenth-century Arab geographer born in Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock was built to put the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the shade: ‘Abd al-Malik, noting the greatness of the Dome of the Kumamah and its magnificence, was moved lest it should dazzle the minds of the Muslims, and hence erected, above the Rock, the Dome which now is seen there.’3 Early Islam was haunted by the fear that its adherents would abandon their faith for the attractions of Christianity, and such was the need to depreciate the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or the Anastasis as it is called in Greek, meaning the Resurrection, that the Muslims deliberately corrupted the Arabic for ‘Resurrection’, which is Kayamah (al-qiyamah), and commonly called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the Kumamah (al-qumamah), or ‘the Dunghill’,4 as Muqaddasi has done in his description.

But there was the even greater need for the caliphs to impress their Christian subjects. When criticised for his shameless imitation of the Byzantine emperors, the first Umayyad caliph, Muawiya, had retorted that ‘Damascus was full of Greeks and that none would believe in his power if he did not behave and look like an emperor’.5 Not surprisingly, Abd al-Malik made a point of building the Dome of the Rock along familiar Christian lines, his borrowing so complete that it has been called ‘a purely Byzantine work’.6One obvious model for the Dome of the Rock was the ‘Dunghill’ itself, the Anastasis, the domed rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; the dimensions of its inner circle of piers and columns and their alternating pattern are exactly reproduced in the Dome of the Rock. Other Byzantine churches too were of this circular type, among them the church of St Simeon Stylites in northern Syria, the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, and interestingly the church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem, built round the spot identified by tradition as where Jesus ascended into heaven, leaving his footprint in the rock, where it can still be seen today – just as Muslim tradition later claimed that the rock beneath the Dome of the Rock bears the footprint of Mohammed from the time he was taken by the angel Gabriel for a glimpse of heaven during the Night Journey.

The tradition of the Night Journey tells of the isra, the journey itself, and the miraj, meaning ‘the ascent’. According to the account, when Mohammed was still at Mecca, and before the Hegira to Medina, he was miraculously conveyed by the angel Gabriel to the site of the Furthest Mosque (al-masjid al-aqsa) in Jerusalem, where he encountered various prophets before ascending from the Temple Mount through successive heavens until finally entering into the presence of God himself. But nothing in the Koran identifies the Furthest Mosque with the Temple Mount, nor is there any mention of Jerusalem: ‘Glory be to Him, who carried His servant by night from the Holy Mosque to the Further Mosque the precincts of which We have blessed that We might show him some of Our signs.’7 The Holy Mosque means the Kaaba at Mecca, but nothing in the Koran indicates the location of the Further Mosque – with some arguing that the Further Mosque most certainly refers not to Jerusalem but to the mosque which at that time was furthest from Mecca: that is, the mosque at Medina.8 Moreover the Koranic verse is about the journey but says nothing about an ascent, for which there are traditions that Mohammed ascended to heaven from the roof of his own house in Mecca, not from Jerusalem.9

The earliest source for the story of the Night Journey is Mohammed’s biographer Mohammed Ibn Ishaq, who died in about 767, although his original work is lost and survives only in various later edited versions, most notably that of Abdul-Malik Ibn Hisham, who died in about 833. What is more, Ibn Ishaq may never have written down his biography, so that what reached Ibn Hisham and others was an oral version. In other words, something like one or two centuries had passed since the death of Mohammed before the first known appearance of the story of the Night Journey. Had the tradition of Mohammed’s journey to Jerusalem and his ascent from there to heaven already been in place when Abd al-Malik built the Dome of the Rock, one would expect it to be commemorated among the shrine’s many inscriptions, yet the inscriptions make no mention of the Night Journey at all. Instead, the evidence suggests that the tradition of the Night Journey and its connection with Jerusalem arose some time after the construction of the Dome of the Rock, and that the tradition specifically connecting the isra and miraj with the Dome of the Rock is very much later still and was ‘perhaps not fully established until Mamluk times’10 – that is, after Saladin and the demise of his dynasty. In fact, far from commemorating the Night Journey, the Dome of the Rock seems to have generated the tradition.

Abd al-Malik himself announced his purpose in building his shrine atop the Temple Mount, leaving no doubt over its meaning or date. In what is the earliest surviving written Islamic text, his founder’s dedication was inscribed in gold mosaic along the arcade inside the Dome of the Rock. ‘This dome was built by the servant of God, Abd al-Malik Ibn Marwan, the Prince of the Believers, in the year 72’ – that being the year since the Hegira and corresponding to AD 691 or 692 – ‘May God accept it and be pleased with him. Amen.’ Then, borrowing from the Koran, the inscription continues with an emphatic warning to Christians and their belief in Christ and the Trinity:

        People of the Book, do not transgress the bounds of your religion. Speak nothing but the truth about God. The Messiah, Jesus the son of Mary, was no more than God’s apostle and His Word which he cast to Mary: a spirit from Him. So believe in God and his apostles and do not say: ‘Three’. Forebear, and it shall be better for you. God is but one God. God forbid that he should have a son! His is all that the heavens and the earth contain. God is the all-sufficient protector.11

Muqaddasi would write proudly in the tenth century: ‘At dawn, when the light of the sun first strikes the dome and the drum catches the rays, then is this edifice a marvellous sight to behold, and one such that in all of Islam I have not seen the equal; neither have I heard tell of anything built in pagan times that could rival in grace this Dome of the Rock.’12 By its location on the site of the Temple the Dome of the Rock announced that Judaism had been succeeded by the prophet of Islam just as its inscription and the magnificence of its architecture announced the triumph and dominance of Islam over the Christian East. As Abd al-Malik intended, the building acted like a magnet, attracting visitors from the expanding Muslim world who conferred a sense of Islamic veneration on the Mount. Chroniclers and Koranic commentators also made their contribution by elaborating an entire tradition of the Night Journey round the Dome of the Rock and also the nearby Aqsa mosque, completed in 715 but only much later acquiring its name, ‘the Furthest’, which linked it to the Koranic verse.13 So began the process of sanctification that over the coming centuries would turn Jerusalem, after Mecca and Medina, into the third most holy city in Islam.

By the time Abd al-Malik died, in 705, he had succeeded in imposing order on the Arab tribes and had concentrated yet further powers in the caliphate; and during the reign of his son Walid the wars of aggression in the name of Islam were resumed, raising the Umayyads to the high point of their power. In the East, the Arabs advanced beyond the Oxus into Central Asia, where they captured Bukhara and Samarkand in 715 and first encountered the Turks. Another army crossed the Indus and invaded Sind, beginning the long process of Islamisation in India. In North Africa the Arabs reached the Atlantic and in 711 crossed via Gibraltar into Spain, and within a decade they stood at the foot of the Pyrenees and occupied Languedoc.

The jihad against the great Christian enemy, the Byzantine Empire, began again, starting with seasonal raids into Asia Minor. Under Walid’s successor Sulaiman a massive combined naval and land force beleaguered Constantinople in 717–18. But the city did not fall, nor Asia Minor, that indispensable reservoir of men and resources, thanks to Heraclius, who a century earlier had created a system of defence in depth that would preserve the empire’s heartland for another four hundred years. He had organised Asia Minor into ‘themes’ – that is, regions in which inheritable land was given in exchange for hereditary military service – and the system proved successful: except in the border areas south of the Taurus mountains round Tarsus and eastwards round Edessa (present-day Urfa), Arab raids almost never led to Arab occupation. Defended by its farmer-soldiers, Byzantine Asia Minor maintained the continuity of its Graeco-Roman traditions and protected Europe long enough for it to reorganise after the barbarian invasions and the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West.

The commander of one of these themes in Asia Minor was Leo, who had been born in northern Syria. In 716 he fought a rearguard campaign from the Taurus mountains to the Sea of Marmara against the invading Arab army, arriving at Constantinople in time to impose himself as emperor and to stock the city’s granaries and arsenals in anticipation of the siege to come. Before the invention of gunpowder, Constantinople was impregnable as long as it could be supplied by sea. By daring sea and land sallies Leo III wore out the Arab army and hurled Greek fire at the Arab fleet – or rather a fleet constructed and manned by Syrians and Egyptians, as the Arabs had little knowledge of seafaring14 – and finally inflicted such a disaster upon the besiegers that out of the 2,560 galleys and the 200,000 men directed against Constantinople, only 5 galleys and no more than 30,000 men returned to Syria. The event has been compared to the failed Persian invasion of ancient Greece and Leo compared to Miltiades, the victor at Marathon.

In Western Europe an echo of the Byzantine victory came fourteen years later, in 732, during the caliphate of Hisham, when the Arab armies, after advancing deep into France from Spain, were hammered by Charles Martel between Poitiers and Tours, only 160 miles short of the English Channel. Charles Martel then went on to clear the Muslims from southern France, in the process establishing the Franks as the dominant people in Western Europe; his grandson Charlemagne laid the foundations for the Holy Roman Empire and was the first European leader to join the Reconquista against the Muslims in Spain.

These defeats brought Umayyad internal problems to a head. The cost of the expeditions had been enormous and was not recovered by tributes and taxes from newly conquered peoples. At Constantinople the complete destruction of the Umayyad fleet and army deprived the caliphate of the military basis of its power and undermined the perception of the Arabs as a legitimate ruling elite.

During this first century of Islam the terms Muslim and Arab were all but synonymous. To be an Arab was to be an Arabic-speaking, desert-dwelling tribesman, a nomad or of nomadic ancestry, which is the meaning of ‘Bedouin’, whose life centred on the camel. Some Arabs had become townsmen and engaged in trade, just as Mohammed had been a merchant, but their tribal relationships remained. These Arabs were now conquerors, members of the ruling class and recipients of its privileges, which included regular pensions as well as a share in the booty from newly conquered lands. Neither settlers nor farmers, they were a military aristocracy who lived deliberately apart from native populations and whose only obligation was to fight for their religion, the organising faith that justified their dominance and made them masters of an empire.

But somewhat disconcertingly to the Umayyad leadership, Islam began to attract converts, mostly to escape the oppressive restrictions imposed on non-Muslims. Such was the identity, however, between being a Muslim and an Arab that would-be converts had to be adopted as clients of an Arab tribe, at the same time severing themselves from their previous social, economic and national connections. Even then the Arabs treated these converts, mawali, as their social and economic inferiors. For an Arab woman to marry a convert brought shame upon her family; converts could serve in the army only as infantry and received less pay than Arabs; and mawalis who settled round the ansari, the Arab garrison towns, where they served as artisans and the like, were periodically driven away. Furthermore they were still subject to the same poll tax imposed on non-Muslims. But themawalis were becoming increasingly conscious of their growing numbers, their political and military importance, their cultural superiority – and now they were demanding social and economic equality with the Arabs.

Following the Constantinople disaster, the caliph Umar II tried to appease rising discontent by decreeing that converts were exempt from the jizya and that they should receive equal soldier’s pay. But the effect was to reduce the revenue coming into the treasury, and the shortfall was made up by treating the non-Muslim population, the dhimmis, all the more severely. Umar II is usually credited with formalising decrees determining the legal and social position of dhimmis. The basic position was that dhimmis were the People of the Book – that is, Christians and Jews whose prophets handed down the message that in its essence and its perfected form was recorded in the Koran. Therefore a certain tolerance and protection were owed to these people, to whom the Koran promised that the Muslims would not fight them on condition that they paid the jizya, a form of tribute. Christians and Jews stood outside the community; they were not allowed to carry weapons, or to bear witness against Muslims in courts of law, or to marry Muslim women. Adhimmi who attempted to convert a Muslim to his own religion paid with his life, as did any Muslim who apostasised. But a Muslim who killed a Christian or a Jew was subject not to the death penalty, only to a fine at most. Dhimmis had to be submissive and consider themselves inferior to Muslims and act and dress accordingly; they could not resemble Muslims in their clothing or the way they wore their hair. Christians and Jews were free to practise their religion, but in a subdued manner so as not to disturb Muslims; festivals and public expressions of faith were curtailed. They were not allowed to build new churches or synagogues, or to keep them in repair. If a place of worship was damaged or destroyed for any reason – earthquake, fire or mob action – it could not be rebuilt. After a time Zoroastrians of Persia and pagan Berbers of North Africa were also accepted as People of the Book. But no toleration was extended to those who were not People of the Book; to them the choice was Islam or the sword.

Despite these onerous and humiliating regulations, many Christians found an advantage in their condition. If the triumph of Islam had been enabled by the Byzantine Empire’s long and exhausting conflict with Persia, it had also been helped by the fierce theological disputes that for hundreds of years had disturbed the unity of the Christian world. And so it is fitting, if ironic, that an effect of the Muslim conquests was to protect and preserve a considerable variety of Christian beliefs considered unorthodox and even heretical under Byzantine rule. To the Muslims these controversies were of little account; Islam was the revealed and perfected faith, and as for the Christians, and also the Jews, as long as they submitted to Muslim rule and paid their taxes, they were permitted to conduct their own affairs according to their own laws, customs and beliefs.

Christian heresy therefore flourished in the Middle East under Muslim rule, or rather, what was regarded as heresy by the authorities in Constantinople and by the popes in Rome. But here in the Middle East all Christian sects were treated alike, so that heterodox and heretic Christians were now freed from persecution by Christian orthodoxy or the state. For example, at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 a majority decided that Jesus had two natures, the human and the divine, adding that these were unmixed and unchangeable but at the same time indistinguishable and inseparable. This is the view of almost all Christian churches to this day. But Nestorius, a fifth-century archbishop of Constantinople who had been born in Syria and was trained at Antioch, held that the human and divine natures of Christ were entirely separate, and for this he was called a dyophysite (from the Greek for ‘two natures’) and declared a heretic. Yet his adherents, who formed the Nestorian Church and were active missionaries, enjoyed a considerable following in the East, especially in Persia, where they contended against Zoroastrianism. In reaction to Nestorianism, and also in opposition to the orthodoxy put forward at the Council of Chalcedon, members of the Syrian Church, known as the Jacobites, and of the Egyptian Church, that is the Copts, while not denying the two natures, put emphasis on their unity at the Incarnation. For this the Syrians and Egyptians were called monophysites (from the Greek for ‘single nature’), and were charged with the heretical belief that Jesus’ human nature had been entirely absorbed in the divine.

These arguments were of supreme importance, quite literally a matter of life and death, for the nature of Jesus was directly relevant to the salvation of man. Pope Leo I, ‘the Great’, advanced the orthodox position that prevailed at the Council of Chalcedon: ‘God is believed to be both almighty and Father; it follows that the Son is shown to be co-eternal with him, differing in no respect from the Father. For he was born God of God, almighty of almighty, co-eternal of eternal; not later in time, not inferior in power, not dissimilar in glory, not divided in essence.’ Having asserted the divine and timeless nature of Jesus, he argued that being born of the Virgin Mary, ‘this birth in time has taken nothing from, and added nothing to, that divine eternal nativity, but has bestowed itself wholly on the restoration of man’. Man is the beneficiary of the divine Jesus also taking on the nature of man, ‘For we could not overcome the author of sin and death, unless he had taken our nature, and made it his own’.15

What exactly the parties to these disputes meant when they talked of the nature of Jesus Christ was affected by shades of language and culture as well as by ultimate principles. While the various Church councils hammered out the theological positions that became the orthodoxy of Rome and Constantinople, Christians in Syria, Palestine, Egypt and elsewhere often held to their views and found themselves in conflict with, and felt oppressed by, the universal Church. Sometimes it was more local than that, with the rural population of, say, Palestine following monophysite beliefs while the established clergy in Jerusalem was soundly orthodox. The arguments could be bitter and had a divisive effect within the Byzantine Empire and helped prepare the way for the coming of Islam. As one figure of the Jacobite Church said of the Muslim conquest: ‘The God of vengeance delivered us out of the hands of the Romans by means of the Arabs. It profited us not a little to be saved from the cruelty of the Romans and their bitter hatred towards us.’16

But soon Christians were regretting the welcome they gave the Arab invaders. Umar saw the danger of abusing the dhimmis, the source of Arab income, whom he compared to domesticated animals, as when he warned one of his governors:

        Do not destroy a synagogue or church nor a house of Zoroastrians whose existence has been ensured by the peace treaty; but also no synagogue [or church] or house of Zoroastrians shall be built anew. The sheep should not be dragged to the slaughter and one must not sharpen the slaughtering knife on the head of the cattle that is being slaughtered.17

But there were troubles nevertheless, as in 725–6, when Egypt’s native population, still overwhelmingly Christian, revolted against discrimination and the burden of taxation under Muslim rule. In one incident, after a census of the Egyptian monasteries the monks were taxed for the first time. But that was not enough, as the medieval Egyptian historian Al-Maqrizi wrote:

        Usama ibn Zaid al-Tanukhi, commissioner of revenues, oppressed the Christians still more, for he fell upon them, robbed them of their possessions, and branded with an iron ring the name of every monk on the monk’s own hand, and the name of his convent, as well as his number; and whosoever of them was found without this brand, had his hand cut off [. . .] He then attacked the convents, where he found a number of monks without the brand on their hands, of whom he beheaded some, and others he beat so long that they died under the lash. He then pulled down the churches, broke the crosses, rubbed off the pictures, broke up all the images.18

Sometimes the Arab tribes took matters into their own hands to compensate for the fall in their subsidies and pensions. Objecting to the tribes’ extortion of non-Muslims, the caliph Yazid III told them in 744, ‘I will not tolerate your behaviour which causes the poll-tax payers to exile themselves from their country and see no future ahead of them’19 – to which the tribes responded by accusing the caliph of being a heretic under the influence of Christianity. His successor Marwan II once again singled out the tribes of Palestine, saying, ‘You only want to rob the property of every dhimmi you encounter.’20

Towards the end of 744 the disaffection among the Arab tribes grew into a widespread rebellion that extended across Palestine and Syria. Damascus became unsafe, and Marwan II made Harran in northern Syria his capital instead. Edessa, Homs, Heliopolis (Baalbek in present-day Lebanon) and Damascus all rose in revolt and shut their gates to the caliph, who during the winter and summer of 745 sent his armies against them and drowned the rebellions in rivers of blood. Marwan himself commanded the bitter four-month siege of Homs, and afterwards, in the words of Theophanes the Byzantine chronicler, ‘he destroyed the walls of Heliopolis, Damascus and Jerusalem, killed many important people, and mutilated the people who remained in those cities’.21

The problems faced by the Umayyad caliphs with the tribes, the mawalis and the dhimmis were particularly acute in Persia and Mesopotamia, where other resentments had long been stirring. In 680 Hussein, the son of Ali, the assassinated fourth caliph, had led an uprising against Damascus, but he and his followers were massacred by the Umayyad forces at Karbala, in present-day Iraq. His supporters saw his death as a wound at the heart of Islam, for Hussein was Ali’s son by Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed, and so in a sense the Prophet’s own blood had been shed at Karbala. For the partisans, or Shia, of Ali, Hussein’s death was a martyrdom and also a stain on the Sunni, the orthodox Muslims, who constituted the greater part of Islam. From then on the Shia refused to accept as caliph any but Ali’s descendants, while the Sunni barred the caliphate to the Prophet’s descendants for all time. Although this issue was originally a theological and tribal dispute among the Arabs, it soon attracted disaffected mawalis, especially Persians, a proud and cultured people who resented being treated as inferiors.

Their sense of grievance, along with that of the Shia, was nurtured by the Arab family of Abbas, which claimed descent from an uncle of the Prophet Mohammed. In 746 rebellion broke out in eastern Persia; by 749 Mesopotamia had erupted in civil war; and in 750 the caliph Marwan II was defeated by the Abbasid leader Abu al-Abbas al-Saffah at the battle of the Zab, a tributary of the Tigris in northern Iraq, and was relentlessly pursued through Syria, Palestine and Egypt, where he was captured and beheaded. Other members of the Umayyad house were hunted down and murdered. Only one scion of the family, Abd al-Rahman, escaped the destruction of his dynasty by fleeing to Spain, where he established the Emirate of Cordoba.

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