Empires: Byzantine

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The Byzantine Empire, which spans the period from 330 to 1453, grew gradually from the old Roman Empire. The first reference to the Byzantines in the Islamic sources occurs in the Qur˒an (surat al-Rum) in conjunction with the Byzantine-Persian wars that exhausted the Byzantine Empire and allowed for the conquest of its richest and most prosperous areas by the nascent Islamic community. The Byzantine Empire was, nevertheless, to remain a main political and ideological rival to the Islamic empire. In Arabic-Islamic writings, the Byzantine Empire became the only real "House of War" and the war against it the very model and prototype of jihad.

The first period marked the greatest Byzantine influence on the developing Islamic civilization. The Arabs borrowed abundantly from Byzantine institutions. Byzantine influence was reflected in the retention of the Byzantine civil service; the use of Byzantine administrative, legal, and numismatic traditions; and language. Another striking legacy of the imperial heritage is furnished by the Umayyad policy of erecting imperial religious monuments. Indeed, it was the presence of imposing Christian monuments in Greater Syria that encouraged them to construct the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Umayyad mosque in Damascus. Umayyad caliphs are said to have requested Byzantine help in the decoration of the mosques in Medina and Damascus.

The ambition of the first-century caliphs seems to have been directed toward the establishment of their power in Constantinople. The repeated failed attempts to conquer Constantinople, together with the transfer of the capital to Iraq after 750, distanced the center of the Islamic empire from the Byzantine frontiers and made the idea of the conquest of Constantinople a distant dream rather than a goal toward which forces and efforts were directed in a continuous and organized fashion. Predictions of a future conquest waned and were replaced by apocalyptic expectation.

Arab-Byzantine warfare settled now into episodic warfare and raiding. In the course of the eighth century, Islam reached its limits and gradually recognized a pause in the expansion of the Muslim state and faith. The practice of making two or three expeditions a year against Byzantine territory became so established in the ninth century that officials soon laid down a schedule for these operations. Under the late Umayyads and the early Abbasids, the frontier line between Arabs and Byzantines was formed by the great ranges of the Taurus and Anti-Taurus (the northeast extension of the range across the Seyhan River). Here, a line of fortresses, called al-thugur, marked and guarded the frontier. Behind this line was a second-line district containing the strongholds known as al-˓awasim, fortresses where the warriors would seek refuge. Economically, these invasions resulted in a diminution in agricultural, commercial, and industrial activity for the Byzantine Empire. Demographic changes took place as a result of the massive displacement of population. The chronicles paint a picture of devastation and abandonment of the more exposed settlements in favor of the less accessible sites. Life in these areas, which were regularly plundered, meant yearly raids, constant insecurity, and frequent flights. A certain symbiosis, nevertheless, took place along the frontier region. The result of the interpenetration between the two populations was not only the diffusion of military techniques, material goods, and methods of economic production but also the diffusion of political ideas and general cultural aspects. This period, thus, witnessed the transmittal of classical and Hellenistic scholarship, via the Byzantines, to the Arab Muslim world.

Indeed, the relationship between the Muslim and Byzantine empires was interspersed with diplomatic, cultural, and commercial relations. While no permanent diplomatic posts were maintained in either capital, embassies were frequent on both sides, either to congratulate a new ruler, or to conclude a treaty, or to negotiate an exchange of prisoners. Commercial relations and cultural exchanges are attested in an almost continuous fashion throughout the history of the Byzantine Empire.

Whereas in the eighth and ninth centuries the Byzantines had been on the defensive, the tenth century witnessed a Byzantine military revival. Increasing Byzantine consolidation was paralleled with Muslim weakness and division. The Byzantine Empire's successes in the tenth century have to be seen against this background of Muslim disunity and collapse. The rivalries between the Abbasid state, the Umayyad state of al-Andalus, and the newly founded Fatimid state in North Africa colored to a considerable extent the bilateral relations these competing states had with Byzantium.

The whole period of the Macedonian dynasty between 867 and 1025 was a brilliant time in the political existence of the Byzantine Empire. It was now the turn of the Muslim lands to suffer repeated incursions accompanied by looting and devastation. The Hamdanid principality of Aleppo rose to the occasion but the victories of its prince Sayf al-Dawlah were short-lived and soon the emirate of Aleppo and other parts of the Islamic caliphate were to feel the weight of Byzantine invasions. The main events of these wars found an echo in the poems of one of the greatest poets of the Arabic language, al-Mutanabbi.

The late eleventh century contrasted with the early part of the century when Byzantium had been powerful and wealthy. Internal difficulties in addition to the appearance of the Turks in the Near East accelerated the decline of the Byzantine state, leading to the crushing Byzantine defeat at Manzikert in 1071. This marked the collapse of Byzantium as a great political power and the beginning of the Turkification of Asia Minor. The appearance of the Crusaders and the establishment of Crusader states in the Near East revolutionized relations between the Byzantines and their Muslim neighbors. Following the conquest of Constantinople by the Latins in 1204, relations between the Byzantines and the Mamluk sultans of Egypt steadily improved in the late thirteenth century. The existence of threats common to both states, including the Mongol threat, led to the establishment of privileged relations between them. In the fourteenth century, the Byzantine empire systematically lost ground to the Ottoman Turks. In 1453 the Ottoman sultan, Mehmed II, conquered Constantinople, thus spelling the end of the Byzantine Empire.

See alsoChristianity and Islam ; Expansion .


Bosworth, C. E. "Byzantium and the Arabs: War and Peace between Two World Civilizations." Journal of Oriental and African Studies 3–4 (1991–1992): 1–23.

El Cheikh, Nadia Maria. "Surat al-Rum: A Study of the Exegetical Literature." Journal of the American Oriental Society 118 (1998): 356–364.

Gibb, H. A. R. "Arab Byzantine Relations under the Umayyad Caliphate." Dumbarton Oaks Papers 12 (1958): 219–233.

Kennedy, Hugh. "Byzantine-Arab Diplomacy in the Near East from the Islamic Conquests to the Mid-Eleventh Century." In Byzantine Diplomacy. Edited by Jonathan Shepard and Simon Franklin. Aldershot, Hampshire, U.K.: Variorum, 1992.

Vryonis, Speros. The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh Century Through the Fifteenth. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971.

Nadia Maria El Cheikh