Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

6. Islamic Conquests |
Persia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt fall before Islam

Islamic Conquests is drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page , of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

As the great empire of the Sassanids disintegrates, the Muslims turn West, destroy Byzantium’s armies, and biblical Antioch and Jerusalem bow to the Qur’an

Islamic Conquests - Persia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt fall before Islam’s slashing swords

Islamic Conquests - Persia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt fall before Islam’s slashing swords
In the middle of the seventh century, the lightly armed and mobile Arab armies erupted out of Arabia to attack the soft underbelly of the two greatest powers in the world, Christian Byzantium and the empire of the Sassanian Persians. In this nineteenth-century engraving, Arab cavalry flood into the plain of Syria’s Orontes River to attack the provincial capital of Antioch.

Muhammad would speak no more. No longer would Arabia’s affairs turn on every new revelation uttered by its Prophet, conqueror and heaven-appointed master. The Prophet’s body, still warm, lay in A’isha’s quarters, where his wives beat their faces in wild lamentation. Grief and confusion also convulsed the crowd milling outside in the courtyard, as through the throng shouldered the towering figure of Umar ibn al-Khattab, one of the earliest stalwarts of the faith. Approaching the pallet—bier, this impulsive warrior gazed intently upon the beloved face, serene and seemingly lifelike. Exultation mounting within his loyal heart, Umar cried, “The Prophet is not dead! He has only swooned away!”

Al-Mughira ibn Shu’ba, the man who had hewn down the great Arabic idol al-Lat two years earlier, tried to convince him that Muhammad was indeed dead. “You lie!” Umar thundered, “. . . the Apostle of God is not dead. Your own treacherous spirit has suggested that imagination. The Prophet of the Lord will not die until he has rooted out every hypocrite and unbeliever.” Haranguing the crowd, Umar insisted that Muhammad was just visiting the Creator; he would return in due course, and would surely chop off the hands and feet of any faint hearts who prematurely accepted his demise.

Many onlookers began to waver. Their leader had indeed appeared cheerful at prayers that very morning, looking so much stronger that Abu Bakr had sought permission to visit an oasis outside Medina. Now he raced back to the sun-dried mud complex that was mosque and home to the Prophet. A slight, stooped, unassuming man, Abu Bakr slipped through the multitude listening to the nearly delirious Umar. Inside the living quarters, the devout disciple raised the striped sheet that covered the recumbent body, and kissed his master’s face. “Sweet were you in life and sweet you are in death,” he murmured. Closely examining the rigid features, Abu Bakr recognized the truth.

Outside, he called for silence from the confused assembly and most obeyed, for the Prophet himself had designated him their prayer leader. Although Umar continued to rant, Abu Bakr proclaimed, “Let anyone who worships Muhammad know that Muhammad indeed is dead. But whoever worships God, let him know that the Lord lives and does not die.” Those sobering words–a well-known warning from Muhammad himself–once more reduced the audience to weeping, while even Umar collapsed, trembling in horrified acceptance.

The news had not paralyzed everyone in Medina, however. A messenger hurried up to inform Abu Bakr that crowds of citizens were already congregating in a hall belonging to the Banu Saida clan, to select a new leader from among themselves. Quickly Abu Bakr and Umar led their followers to that meeting, paramount in their minds the need to maintain unity within the whole community of Islam.

Arabs had always been deeply divided by tribe and clan, personal bloodlines being a matter of indelible pride. Medina’s dominant tribes, the Aus and the Khazraj, had willingly accepted Muhammad as a refugee, and possibly as a peacemaker for faction-riven Medina, but had soon begun to resent this imperious outsider and his Quraysh clansmen from Mecca. With the Prophet dead, they could regain their autonomy. “Let the Muslims have their own chief. As for us, we will have a leader from ourselves,” cried supporters of Saad ibn Abada, a Khazraji sheikh.

Against this Medinian pride, Abu Bakr, about sixty years old and one of Muhammad’s first converts, pitted his characteristically humble diplomacy. There was no question, he said, that Medina aristocrats deserved high renown, but other Arab tribes would in fact follow only the Quraysh, the traditional keepers of Mecca’s holy places. “We are the noblest of the Arabs,” Abu Bakr gently asserted–but personal aggrandizement was not his aim. Let the people choose between two other Quraysh: Umar and Abu Ubaida ibn al-Jarrah (selected by Muhammad to lead the Muslims into Mecca).

Umar proved equally self-abnegating. “Did not the Apostle of God choose you to lead the prayers when he was ill?” he demanded of Abu Bakr. “We swear allegiance to you!” Gigantic Umar then seized his diminutive colleague by the hand in token of his submission. Deeply moved, Meccans and Medinians followed his example, filing by to swear fealty to the Prophet’s devoted Companion. Thus on June 8, 632, these customarily fractious Arabs managed to maintain their unity, a crucial victory for the Muslim faith. As title, Abu Bakr chose “caliph,” simply meaning “successor.”

This unity was nevertheless frail; the Quraysh themselves were far from perfectly united, a fact that Muslims would come to rue. Abu Bakr was of the Banu Taim, a relatively minor clan, while Muhammad and Ali were of the Banu Hashem, longtime rivals to the Banu Umayya in Mecca. Their squabbling, quiescent under the Prophet’s rule, now reemerged. When Abu Bakr was selected, Ali was preparing his foster father’s body for burial beneath A’isha’s chambers. Not for six months would he accept the new caliph; some hold that he himself coveted the succession. In any case, the clash between his clan, the Hashemites, and the Umayyads would later convulse Islam–and thereby help save a beleaguered Christianity.

Medina was secure, but at the news of the Prophet’s death another revolt blazed through Arabia, whose tribes Muhammad had subdued, but in no sense tamed. For him, the nomads and oasis-dwellers had mouthed submission to God, and even grudgingly paid a tax, but now the Bedouin gladly resumed their ancient cycle of raiding and feasting, celebrated with poetry (much of it excellent) in praise of daring heroes and luscious women. Amid this rebellion–labeled “the Apostasy” by Muslim historians–only a few lucky tax collectors escaped with their lives. The less fortunate were buried alive, burned, stoned, thrown over cliffs or used for target practice.

But Abu Bakr was undeviating in his fidelity to the Prophet’s wishes. For example, Muhammad had planned an expedition against Syria, to revenge his previous defeat by Byzantine forces at Mu‘ta in Palestine. His grandson, Osama ibn Zayd, was to command it, and Abu Bakr’s determination to proceed with it seemed imprudent to practically everyone. With a full-scale Arab revolt in progress, how could he leave the heart of Islam wide open, while sending the cream of his forces far away under an untested twenty-year-old youth? But Abu Bakr was adamant. “Even if wild dogs rove around the feet of the wives of the Messenger of Allah,” insisted the caliph, pale yet resolute, “I would still dispatch the army of Osama as ordered by the Prophet.”

Very soon, with Arab rebels at Medina’s very gates, two northern Bedouin tribes offered to continue in adherence to Islam, provided the much-hated tax be withdrawn. Again Abu Bakr refused to temporize. Never would their taxes be reduced, he bluntly informed the insurgents–not by the value of “an old piece of rope.” Within days, a Muslim force was scratched together to back him up. The undisciplined rebels, taken by surprise in a dawn attack, were utterly routed.

Two months later, the Syrian expedition returned, rich with plundered herds. Moreover, the inexperienced leader had managed to avoid Byzantine regulars, perhaps by wisely heeding the advice of the shrewd Khalid ibn al-Walid, who had quietly served as a volunteer in his ranks. Now Abu Bakr commissioned this redoubtable officer to recover all rebellious Arabia for the faith. His first task: to deal with the Banu Asad, headed by one Tulaiha, a self-proclaimed prophet and Muhammad imitator. Little is known about the Battle of Buzakha that followed, except that Khalid’s sparse force of four thousand captured the would-be prophet and scattered his followers. Then Abu Bakr freely pardoned the streams of surrendering rebels, executing only individuals known to have killed Muslim tax collectors.1

Khalid next turned east toward the Persian Gulf. With heavy reinforcements he entered the territory of yet another self-styled prophet, Musailama, who had once offered to split the world with Muhammad. Retorting that the Creator disposes of his creation as he sees fit, Muhammad had branded Musailama “the liar.” But Musailama had acquired a following among the Banu Bakr federation, whose grazing lands extended to the Euphrates River, border of the mighty Persian Empire. The Battle of Yemama against this formidable foe was the fiercest yet. With a wild charge across a sandy plain, the Banu Bakr almost shattered Khalid’s force, even plundering his own tent. But Zayd ibn al-Khattab, Umar’s brother, bore forward with the banner of Mecca’s Emigrants, while another general advanced with the revered emblem of the Helpers from Medina. Both died in a maelstrom of slashing swords and hot-blowing sand that went on for hours, but finally the Banu Bakr broke and retreated to a nearby oasis, taking shelter within a walled enclosure of date palms.

Onto that wall the Muslims hoisted two men, according to the tradition, who leaped down among their adversaries. One died almost instantly. The other, fighting with the blade Muhammad had used at Uhud, reached and opened the gate. His comrades poured into the compound, later aptly renamed the Garden of Death. Amid the palm trunks, the trapped warriors of the Banu Bakr fought to the last man. One javelin thrust permanently ended the prophetic career of Musailama.2 The Muslim account puts the total dead and wounded at Yemama at ten thousand. This may be an exaggeration, but so many Companions of Muhammad died there that Abu Bakr reportedly feared the Qur’an could not survive much longer as an oral tradition. He therefore ordered that the testimony of witnesses still alive be recorded. (See page 63.)

Admiration for Khalid was not universal, however, in part because of one ugly incident. Surrender was such a bitter pill for the proud Bedouin that some clans just drifted away into the desert, although if challenged they would profess Allah. Khalid sent out patrols to round up such fugitives, one of which netted Malik ibn Nuweira, a renowned chief and poet of the Banu Tamim. Malik and some supporters, under guard in Khalid’s camp, were put to death that same night, and within twenty-four hours Khalid took possession of Malik’s exceedingly beautiful widow. Scandalized gossip spread. Malik had seemingly not merited execution, and Umar, suspecting the obvious, demanded justice, but Abu Bakr accepted Khalid’s story that the guards had misinterpreted his orders. “I will not sheathe a sword which God has drawn for his service,” the caliph ruled.

Muslim ambition meanwhile shifted southward, and with every victory, fresh tribal levies rallied to the cause. In the southeast, Oman yielded after just one significant battle. Thence Islamic warriors thrust west along the coast of the Arabian Sea into Yemen, while another offensive drove south from Mecca. The disunited Yemenis put up little resistance, except for a determined stand by the largely Christian Kinda tribe, in its fortress at Najran, which ended in the massacre of almost the entire garrison.

By mid-633, the Muslims had completely suppressed the Apostasy throughout Arabia, imposing unity on a people never previously united. But Arab culture remained as warlike as ever, a characteristic they fully shared–as had the Prophet himself, for that matter. The eyes of the faithful, ever searching for worthy prizes, now turned toward the wealthy empires of Byzantium and Persia.

Few Islamic leaders could read. They kept no treasury records. Abu Bakr, head of government, found time to milk the family goats. The caliph’s counselors, seated on rough rugs or the dusty ground of Medina, understood almost nothing about these two great powers. They surely knew, however, that population alone must pose a gargantuan obstacle to the propagation through war of their new faith. Historian Pringle Kennedy (Arabian Society at the Time of Mohammed) estimates Arabia’s population at six million in Muhammad’s lifetime. Persia’s dominions, stretching three thousand miles from the Euphrates River to India, encompassed at least fifty million souls, and the Byzantine Empire roughly thirty million.

Geographically, Persia and Byzantium shared the same vulnerable underbelly–a single sweep of nomad-haunted desert–but in more than a millennium neither empire had been seriously threatened from this direction. The military thinking of the desert tribes was primitive in the extreme: rob, rape, then run before imperial troopers showed up. The Bedouin had no more notion of actually farming the rich neighboring plow lands than a coyote aspires to ownership of a favorite chicken coop.

Byzantine and Persian commanders, accustomed to sneering at the Arab rabble, initially had little fear of rising Islam–and no wonder. The typical nomad bore an inferior sword and possessed little or no armor. Superbly equipped Persian soldiers, clad in steel from helmet to leg greaves, had spears, swords, axes or iron maces, bows, and thirty arrows. Trained in both infantry and cavalry maneuver, they made short and bloody work of any desert foe in head-to-head combat.

The Arabs were similarly primitive in military organization. Their chief battle tactic was a headlong charge; supplies were pirated along the campaign route. The Byzantines, by contrast, had books on military science that taught officers to contend with different types of foe and terrain. Armored cavalry with lances constituted the Greek-speaking empire’s most powerful punch, supported by massed archers on foot and horseback. A cart carrying a flourmill, trenching gear, and other equipment accompanied each platoon. Ships could bring supplies and reinforcements to the fighting brigades.

Additionally, the two frequently warring empires subsidized neighboring Arab dynasties to help protect their respective frontiers. The Christian Arabs of the Banu Ghassan tribe, allies of Byzantium, had long screened the approaches to Syria and Palestine. Their great rivals were the Lakhmid federation (including the partially Christian Banu Bakr), which protected the Persian borderland along the Euphrates. However, both emperors had contemptuously jettisoned their Arab satellites a generation before the Muslim onslaught.

During the Byzantine orthodox suppression of the Monophysites in 581, imperial troops had seized the ruling chieftain of the Banu Ghassan, and quelled an armed rebellion by his sons. The region nonetheless remained in political turmoil, and soon the Persian frontier also began seething with Arab aggression. In 605, the Persians reacted by executing the Lakhmid sovereign and trying to exert direct rule over the Lakhmid confederacy.

For a generation, the Banu Bakr continued their usual hit-and-run hostilities against Persia, easily fended off by Persian troops, but impossible to permanently eliminate. John Bagot Glubb, British general and historian, compares the Bedouin to Viking fleets. Their camel herds, numbering in the thousands, traveled the desert like ships on the sea, and because the imperial cavalry could not penetrate deeply into the sands, the nomads always could count on a safe retreat.

In early 633, however, the Banu Bakr faced disaster. Khalid’s Muslim army had appeared in their rear and annihilated a sizable portion of their manpower at the Battle of Yemama. Muthanna ibn Haritha, an important Banu Bakr chief and possibly already a convert to the new religion, realized that his people were now caught between the Persians and the Muslims. The desert, Muthanna recognized, was no protection from Islam’s ferocity. On the other hand, an alliance with these fellow Arabs would strengthen his tribe’s hand against the detested Persians. Khalid, short of troops, readily agreed.

So did Abu Bakr. After all, the caliph no doubt reasoned, the Persians could hardly launch an assault across the Arabian Peninsula against Medina itself. He and his colleagues were more interested in tackling the familiar realm of Byzantine Syria, long traversed by Mecca’s caravans. But what harm in also testing Allah’s will against the Zoroastrian fire worshipers? Thus did the Muslim campaign to subdue Arabia evolve haphazardly into an unforeseen attack on the Persian colossus.

The Persians, as it happened, were then extremely vulnerable. Not since 628, when they slaughtered Chosroes II, their King of Kings, along with eighteen of his sons, had they enjoyed stable rule. Chosroes’s one remaining son disposed of every other royal claimant he could, but he himself lasted only eight months. In the next four years, no fewer than nine individuals were enthroned and summarily disposed of, until finally one surviving royal scion, a sixteen-year-old boy named Yazdegerd, was discovered and crowned. He would enjoy a somewhat longer reign, about six years.

Meanwhile, local government carried on as usual under regional administrators called satraps, among whom none ranked higher than the thoroughly hated Hormuz, governor of the Persian Gulf coastal region. A virtual monarch in terms of personal authority, he wore a headpiece studded with diamonds and pearls worth one hundred thousand dirhams (the dirham being a silver coin roughly equal to the annual tax of an average family).

To Hormuz, tribesmen like Khalid and Muthanna were vermin best known for running away, but in his first encounter with upstart Islam the vermin outmaneuvered him, luring him into a strenuous round of march and countermarch through desert terrain. Muslim tradition says the heavily equipped Persian forces were exhausted by the time Khalid confronted them at Kadima, near the head of the gulf. But Hormuz had a trick up his own sleeve. Arabs liked to open a formal battle with an individual combat between champions from either side. The satrap, a skilled swordsman, decided to challenge Khalid to personal combat, and then have several Persians rush forward and murder him.

Fighting blade to blade, neither gained the advantage. Hormuz therefore proposed that they wrestle, and Khalid agreed. Dropping their swords, the pair seized each other. Immediately, as planned, three Persian soldiers rushed upon the now weaponless Khalid, but he–in mortal peril–picked up Hormuz and swung his body around in a great circle. In the brief respite thus gained, a Banu Tamim sheikh galloped up and beheaded the Persian troopers, while Khalid sank his dagger into the treacherous Hormuz.3

Whatever the veracity of this well-loved story, the Muslims unquestionably pulverized their enemy at Kadima and speedily advanced, exacting tribute from the key port city of Uballa and laying waste the lush countryside. After victory in a second battle, at Walaja, they cautiously retreated to the desert’s edge, but these triumphs must have further shaken the chaotic Persian court.

At the Euphrates River, Khalid met a geographic fact that would dominate the entire Persian war. On its easterly bank were irrigation ditches, plowed fields, and peasant villages. Arab light cavalry, if trapped by a superior Persian force among such obstacles, might be destroyed before it could retreat across the broad Euphrates to the desert. But on the open plains of sand and gravel along the western bank, the rapidly moving Arabs could maneuver effectively against armored Persian formations.

Muslim strength always lay in speed. Tens of thousands of men could be concentrated for a key battle, or dispersed in far-ranging sweeps to wreak brief havoc among the villages east of the river. Khalid and Muthanna proved masters at inflicting maximum pain with their highly flexible forces. As their nomad army moved northward, however, it encountered a mighty alliance of thoroughly alarmed Persians and Christian Arabs from the Syrian Desert.

A desperately fought clash took place at Ullais, on desert terrain. Muslim historians claim the tide turned for Islam only after Khalid lifted his arms and vowed to Allah: “If you give us victory, I shall see that no enemy warrior is left alive, until their river runs with their blood!” Caught on the inhospitable west side of the Euphrates, they say, thousands of the defeated Persians were beheaded in fulfillment of that grim pledge.

Khalid now proceeded to capture Hira, the former Lakhmid capital. Next to fall was Anbar, where the Arabs, lacking siege equipment to breach the powerful fortifications, filled the moat with slaughtered camels and swarmed over the walls. Most of Persia’s eastern frontier was now in their hands. Pagan Arabs were hunted down throughout the Syrian Desert and subjected to Muhammad’s terrorist choice: Islam or death.

What transformed flight-prone Arabs into warriors of such astonishing persistence? Two explanations seem obvious: They had always lived through their wits and raw courage at the edge of starvation, which breeds tough individuals, but now to this native hardihood were welded the assurances of Islam. Soldiers recounted visions of heaven opening before their eyes on the battlefield itself, with celestial virgins wiping the brows of dying heroes. And running away was no longer acceptable; any Muslim who fled from the infidel would suffer in hell’s eternal fires.4

To the riches of paradise were now added the riches of Mesopotamia, specifically the immensely productive belt of good soil between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The Prophet had spelled out how the booty of war must be divided (one-fifth to the Muslim treasury, originally administered by himself; the remainder divided among the victorious warriors), and any community that resisted was subject to unrestricted pillage. Mesopotamia, a cradle of human civilization, yielded extraordinary hauls of precious metals, weapons and tools, luxurious clothing and carpets, horses and other livestock, delicious foods, and women of dazzling beauty–all theirs for the taking.

The average Bedouin, having spent his life wearing a single coarse woolen garment, and munching a few dates on a good day, now found himself enriched beyond his wildest speculation. Islam, which promised sensuality and luxury in the world to come, was also delivering staggering quantities of those same blessings in this world. Such a win-win prospect drew swarms of warriors from the sands, where most adult males–slaves included–were potential soldiers. Entire clans migrated toward the front, families in train.

For the conquered, however, the arrival of Muhammad’s followers was an excellent approximation of hell on earth. The men were frequently slaughtered outright, their chiefs sometimes singled out for the grotesque agonies of crucifixion. Adult male survivors became slaves. Screaming women and children, dragged from homes and hiding places, were assessed, inventoried, and like everything else, parceled out among the victors. The majority probably ended up in slave markets, but first the prettier women and girls were often forced to copulate with the Islamic warriors who had just slaughtered their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. Muslims for many generations interpreted the Qur’an as specifically sanctioning the rape of women captured in battle.5 Equally relevant, the holy book limits Muslims to four wives, but puts no numerical restriction on female slaves.

To be fair, no vanquished people in the Middle East (or anywhere else, for that matter) then expected gentle treatment from conquerors, whoever they might be. Furthermore, Muslim leaders carefully balanced their terror policies. The agricultural peasantry, as well as any towns that voluntarily submitted, were generally spared pillage and rape. Instead, they received written guarantees of protection, in exchange for specified annual tributes–subjugation contracts that Islamic courts would faithfully honor for hundreds of years.

Such leniency exploited the social cracks running deep through both empires. Mesopotamia was governed by Persians, but the workers who tilled its fertile soil were descendents of the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians. The choice Islam presented them was: Resist and face terrible treatment, or submit to Islamic rule and be treated better than by the Persians. Nor were the Persian Zoroastrians forced to choose conversion or death, like the animistic polytheists of Arabia. (This distinction was arguably reasonable. The dualist Persian prophet Zarathustra–Zoroaster to the Greeks–taught that Ahura Mazda will ultimately subdue all evil and achieve universal harmony.)

With Yemen subdued and Persia on the defensive, the Islamic leaders turned toward Syria, long the prized possession of Rome, and now of Byzantium. One military column, led by Amr ibn al-Aasi, journeyed past the Gulf of Aqaba at the head of the Red Sea to destroy a Byzantine force at Dathin in southern Palestine. A second approached Syria via eastern Palestine, where it drove back troops led by the Byzantine governor Sergius, killing Sergius himself.

After that, however, both Muslim armies bogged down in rugged terrain. A worried Abu Bakr called on Khalid, who developed a daring plan. He would lead half of his army from Persia to the Byzantine front. Then, in an unprecedented military maneuver, he would drive north through the waterless desert east of Palestine and Lebanon, to capture the city of Palmyra. He could then slash into Syria, forcing the Byzantines to fall back from Palestine in order to defend Damascus and Antioch.

But how could thousands of men and beasts be fed and watered along that forbidding desert route? Why, by butchering ten of the best camels daily for every hundred lances. Water and milk drawn from their carcasses were mixed and fed to the cavalry horses. After five days, however, that supply was exhausted, and the chief guide still could not locate a certain crucial well, a tiny life-giving pinpoint in the burning plain. At the brink of total catastrophe, however, the well was found, the expedition saved and Palmyra fell, although Khalid failed to sustain his thrust toward Damascus.

The emperor Heraclius, now wholly alerted to the Muslim menace, replied with a sudden attack on the force devastating southern Palestine. Although this stratagem nearly succeeded, the Muslim leaders dispatched thousands of camel troops on a desperate dash toward the threatened region. Given free passage by the inhabitants of the mountains of Moab (almost certainly Monophysite), they reinforced the Muslims in Palestine just in time to thoroughly maul the imperial forces at the Battle of Ajnadain.

In August 634, Abu Bakr fell sick with a fever that would not break. After consulting with other Companions of the Prophet, he made a crucial announcement to the assembled faithful: The next caliph was to be Umar ibn al-Khattab. “We will obey, we will obey!” they promised in chorus. Before he died, Abu Bakr advised the passionate Umar to be more gentle and patient with people. How quickly Umar absorbed this advice is debatable, but the succession proceeded smoothly, and the new caliph took the additional title “Commander of the Faithful.”

He also developed a character that could forward plans of unprecedented dimensions while retaining much of his simple humanity. During a drought, tradition says, Umar carried flour to poor families at night, even helping one old woman cook her supper. The impetuous young warrior had been learning self-discipline and compassion, and Bedouin simplicity became his trademark as a ruler. The ninth-century Muslim historian al-Tabari describes him attending a festival barefooted. One dignitary encountered him herding camels, clad only in a loincloth, with a short cloak wrapping his head. He is said to have berated victorious generals for wearing bright cloaks over their chain mail, fearing that pride and luxury might destroy the Arab fighting spirit.

After Ajnadain, the demoralized Byzantines beat a general retreat. Damascus fell in 635; Muslim accounts hold that a Monophysite bishop and monks helped them scale the wall by night. In 636, however, the Byzantines counterattacked with their largest army to date. The Arabs retreated to the desert, and Theodorus, the Byzantine commander and brother to Heraclius, fortified a key pass along the Yarmouk River, barring them from Syria. Or so he hoped.

But Theodorus was at a disadvantage. Medina sent reinforcements, and Arab infiltrators wove through ridges and lava fields to the Byzantine rear. Furthermore, notes Princeton University historian Philip Hitti, the Yarmouk district is “one of the most torrid spots on earth,” highly uncongenial to the northerners among the Christian troops. Theodorus’s army also suffered internal disaffection, due to its high proportion of Monophysite Christian Arabs and Armenians. And to cap all, most of the local population was also Monophysite. No one knows how much his recruiting was hampered, nor to what degree intelligence efforts were thwarted, on account of Byzantium’s long, bitter, and futile campaign to enforce Christian unity.

The standoff on the Yarmouk continued four months until, on August 20, 636, Islam attacked, in an assault reportedly intensified by the confusion of a sudden sandstorm. Historical details are sparse, as always, but the traditions have a ring of truth. Amid a blizzard of hard-driven grit, the best-trained troops can become blind and deaf, and coordinated maneuvers impossible, but the Arabs were well accustomed to such maelstroms, and they had the wind at their backs. Out of searing clouds of sand erupted wave upon wave of shrieking fanatics, flooding every defense. The entire imperial force was annihilated, and Yarmouk would be recognized as one of history’s decisive battles.

Heraclius, learning at Antioch of the disaster, rode sadly over the Taurus Mountains toward Byzantium, crying out as he left: “Peace be with you, holy and blessed land! Syria, farewell. There is for me no more returning to you; nor shall any Roman visit you forever, but in fear and trembling, until the accursed Antichrist shall come.” Christians would long mourn their loss of the holy places: of Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus; of Nazareth, home to Mary and Joseph; of Jerusalem, where the Word of God perished and then rose triumphant over death; of the Damascus road where Paul was blinded that he might see; and of Antioch where the word “Christian” came into being. All was now lost to Christendom, just as Jerusalem had once been lost to Jewry. Not for some 450 years would Christians return there–as crusaders fighting to recover their loss.

Christian communities were offered similar terms to the Zoroastrians. They must pay a special tax. There must be no ringing of bells, no processions with crosses and other emblems. The Christian gospel must not be preached to Muslims, upon penalty of death. Death was also the penalty for any Muslim who became Christian. No new churches might be built, and existing ones sometimes were preempted as mosques. Islam must, in every public sense, visibly predominate over Christianity and Judaism. (See sidebar, page 176.)

When Umar himself visited Jerusalem following its conquest, its patriarch, Sophronius, conducted him around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Gazing at the rough clothing of his new Arab master, the sophisticated bishop whispered in Greek to a companion: “Surely this is the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the Prophet standing in the holy place!” But the visitor was not entirely abominable. When the time for midday prayer arrived, Umar’s servant started to spread the caliph’s prayer mat on the church floor. The conqueror stopped him, preferring to go outside to worship. “Otherwise,” he explained, “the Muslims would want to seize this church as a mosque.”

While the Byzantines were being driven back into what is now Turkey, other Islamic armies met in climactic battle with the Persians. Khalid had been transferred to Palestine and Muthanna, the Banu Bakr chief who had brilliantly seconded him, doubtless felt a claim to replace him on the Persian front. But Medina’s leadership, townsfolk all, felt the age-old distrust of their kind for the desert-dwelling Bedouin. Instead, Umar artlessly assigned command to Abu Ubayd ibn Masud, a young man with just one distinction: He was first to volunteer for Persia when most fighters preferred Syria.

That Muthanna, a proud sheikh in his own right, agreed to serve under this unknown neophyte demonstrates the power of Islam over men’s minds in its first flowering. In this case, however, faith proved misplaced. The inexperienced Abu Ubayd equated caution with lack of faith in Allah. Ignoring Muthanna’s contrary advice, he had a makeshift bridge constructed over the Euphrates and led the army into battle on Persian ground. When the Persian general broke the Arab formations with squads of elephants, a Muslim chief died slashing at one of the great beasts.

Abu Ubayd’s entire army would indeed have been lost at this Battle of the Bridge had not Muthanna managed to repair, and hold, that crucial structure during the headlong retreat. Following the debacle, Umar put the Banu Bakr chief back in charge. He also reinstated tribes previously forbidden to fight because of their rebellion during the Apostasy. Now they filled up the ranks, as did Christian Arabs (mostly Nestorian or Monophysite) who volunteered to fight the Persians alongside their Muslim Arab brethren.

The Persian commander was Rustem, a respected veteran who had engineered the crowning of young Yazdegerd. He boldly risked his forces across the Euphrates, and at the ensuing Battle of al-Buwaib, the Persians advanced in three columns, spearheaded by elephants. Muthanna pulled his beard in anxiety as the Arab line gave way, but it steadied up and he led a ferocious counterattack of Christian Arabs against the Persian center. At that point, a stripling soldier killed the field commander, Mihran, and the Persians broke and ran–but the Muslims had secured the bridge. Again Islamic forces obliterated a whole army.

Dying of wounds he had sustained earlier at the Battle of the Bridge, Muthanna now asked to be replaced, and this time Umar chose shrewdly. Saad ibn Abu Waqqas had reputedly been the first to draw blood for the Prophet, who was his close relative. Saad’s large, shaggy-haired head would prove capable of both caution and well-calculated daring. Short, stocky, and about forty years old, he first led perhaps four thousand reinforcements towards Persia.

The emperor Yazdegerd yearned for a decisive blow against the Arabs, but Rustem resisted court pressure and delayed month after month. Perhaps the Arabs would start fighting among themselves, he hoped, as so often before, but they did not. Instead, Saad used that rain-rich winter to collect and train troops in the tens of thousands.

By spring 637, Rustem could no longer resist his sovereign’s direct order. The King of Kings in turn may have been influenced by the agony of his people, so long subjected to large-scale Arab foraging raids. Once again, the Persians crossed the river to fight, this time onto a field known as Kadasiya. So important was the outcome of this battle that the royal banner of the Sassanid dynasty accompanied the army, as did Rustem himself.

On its eve, Saad became ill. Rather than plunge personally into the thick of the fight, he had to observe and direct it from the roof of a nearby building, causing deep suspicion among his officers. Even Muthanna’s widow, remarried to Saad, jeered him for lack of courage. “Oh, for an hour of Muthanna! Alas, there is now no Muthanna!” she reportedly wailed over and over, until the exasperated Saad slapped her.

Again the Persians initiated battle, their infantry formations led by thirty-three elephants. Arab swordsmen tried to rush under the huge animals and stab upward with their swords, but still they came on. For two days, the momentum seesawed back and forth; on the third, massive Muslim reinforcements arrived from Syria. One of their leaders dismounted, charged at an elephant on foot, and stuck a lance directly in its eye. The beast stampeded, and so did a second wounded elephant, wreaking havoc among the Persian formations, but still both sides held strongly.

That night, the frustration of the Bedouin boiled over, and they launched a surprise night attack. Town-bred leaders never employed this risky tactic, but the desert tribesmen, weaned under the stars, were as familiar as wolves with nighttime raiding in packs. The Persians, caught unaware, failed to organize effectively in the dark, and in Islamic lore, this became the “Night of Fury.” By the following day, the exhausted Persian center gave way, enabling an Arab warrior to kill Rustem himself.

Terrible disaster again followed for the Persians. Several regiments escaped across the river, but most died fighting or fleeing. Kadasiya proved as decisive in the east as Yarmouk in the west. Rustem was the last leader with sufficient stature to rally all Persia’s empire, which now began to fall piecemeal. Ctesiphon, the capital, bisected by the Tigris River, was first. The western portion of the city yielded with little fight; the remainder surrendered when Muslim forces found a downriver ford and traversed the Tigris.

In Syria, Heraclius used Byzantium’s control of the sea to suddenly reoccupy Antioch, rallying Christian Arabs to the cause, but on land, Islam seemed invincible. Antioch was soon lost again. In Persia too, the young King of Kings himself mounted a counteroffensive, but was defeated in a one-day battle. Late in 638, Yazdegerd escaped over the Zagros Mountains into northern Persia, where he organized yet another defense. It too failed, and with three more victories, the Muslim tide rolled relentlessly eastward, Yazdegerd fleeing before it.

His enemies painted the emperor as irredeemably and stupidly arrogant, alleging for example that when he took refuge with the satrap of distant Khurasan, south of the Caspian Sea, he was visited by the Khakan of the Turks, who asked for his daughter in marriage. The emperor coldly replied that no Turk ranked higher than a slave. The Turkish response was an immediate attack, forcing Yazdegerd to further flight. Finally, the last Sassanian sovereign was butchered near the city of Merv, and his naked corpse flung into a river.

The Persian Empire, dating back to the sixth century before Christ, had been annihilated, Zoroastrianism too all but disappeared,6 and for almost a thousand years, no native dynasty would govern Persia. Its Muslim conquerors would face sporadic regional rebellions, although never on a scale to threaten their overall grip. By mid-century, their war banners were on the Oxus River in central Asia, whence Islam would march eastward into China. Within half a century of Muhammad’s death, the cry of “Allahu Akbar!”–”God is great!”–was shouted by Islamic warriors in the Indus River delta, source of India’s Hindu civilization.

The next Islamic target was obvious, at least so far as Amr ibn al-Aasi was concerned. One of the victors in Syria and Palestine, Amr now resolved to invade Egypt, although the caliph Umar had grave doubts. Umar, knowing that the bountiful Nile Valley and Delta was Byzantium’s main source of grain, likely assumed that this economically crucial province, home to about nine million Christians, would be fiercely defended. How could Amr’s miniscule army of thirty-five hundred men possibly take the place? They would be annihilated.

Umar did reluctantly assent, however, perhaps because Amr cited two strategic advantages. Outside the fertile valley of the Nile itself, Egypt consisted mostly of desert, congenial territory for his nomads and inhospitable to Byzantine troops, and as with the Euphrates, so with the Nile. He could strike and withdraw, and wear down the enemy.7 Moreover, Alexandria and other cities were primarily inhabited by Greek-speaking orthodox Christians, but the bulk of the rural population were Coptic peasants, Monosphysite in faith, speaking the ancient tongue of the pharaohs, and resentful of the Greek overlords and their orthodox clergy. His Muslims would perhaps appear as their champions.

Amr led his camel-mounted horde against the fortified town of Pelusium at the easternmost point of the Nile Delta. He had no siege equipment, but a sortie by its garrison failed, and his hard-charging Muslims followed the retreating Christians through their gates. The town fell, and Islam had its Egyptian foothold, but seemingly insurmountable obstacles remained. Chief among them was Alexandria, with its million inhabitants, so easily reinforced from the sea as to appear impregnable to any attack. Further, the soggy ground of the Nile Delta’s perimeter, all 120 miles of it, was tough terrain for Muslim cavalry. Finally, a fortress called Babylon, at the strategic point where the Nile broadens into the Delta, possessed formidable walls eight feet thick and sixty feet high.8

These disadvantages were offset, however, by the Byzantines’ staggeringly incompetent defense. After winning an open battle at Bilbeis, Amr managed to bottle them up inside the Babylon fortress and hold them there. The defenders assumed that time was on their side, but it was not. Umar, encouraged by the astounding success of this small expeditionary force, dispatched an army of twelve thousand. Astonishingly, only after this did Babylon’s commander decide to come out and fight. At the Battle of Heliopolis in the open desert his regulars were cut to pieces; only a desperate fraction regained the safety of the fortress.

The fate of Byzantium in Egypt now lay in the hands of a man so inept as to be later suspected of outright treason against the emperor. Cyrus, patriarch of Egypt, had visited upon Egyptian Monophysites such brutal crackdowns that many of them would see the Muslims as much the lesser of two evils. (See sidebar page 144.) Cyrus now took it upon himself to negotiate with Amr for the surrender of Babylon, long before its garrison of five thousand had depleted its resources. Agreement in hand, he then hastened to Constantinople to seek imperial ratification.

The Arabs, Cyrus told the emperor Heraclius, were so willing to die and so indifferent to physical hardship as to be invincible. Heraclius, who did not believe him, had him arrested, tortured and exiled, and hostilities resumed at Babylon. But the emperor’s indomitable spirit was ebbing fast; he seemed to be having some sort of breakdown. Then one night, a Muslim assault party gained a foothold on the wall. The Byzantine garrison, rather than strongly parrying this modest incursion, capitulated on condition they be allowed to leave in safety.

Thereafter, Amr skillfully continued to present himself to the Copts as the docile champion of an essentially irenic religion. One widely circulated story told of a dove found nesting on his tent when it was about to be dismantled. Citing Bedouin rules of hospitality, the general allegedly abandoned the tent rather than disturb the bird. Moreover, Muslims could truthfully cite an injunction from Muhammad, whose Coptic concubine had borne him a son: “When you conquer Egypt, be kind to the Copts, for they are your protégés and kith and kin.” All this proved very persuasive.

Before advancing against Alexandria, says Islamic tradition, Amr taught the locals another lesson. He entertained a delegation of Copts at two successive suppers. The first evening, the diners sat down to a dish of camel meat boiled in salt water. The Arabs ate heartily; the Egyptians could scarcely choke the stuff down.9 At the second meal, Egyptian delicacies were served, which the guests eagerly ate. Amr then suggested that the tougher fiber of the Arabs enabled them to conquer their more delicately bred enemies.

The Copts got the message. Not many individuals initially converted to Islam, but many communities tamely surrendered. For any towns that resisted, terror was not neglected. At Nikiou, between Babylon and Alexandria, the Byzantine defenders finally panicked and fled, and the Muslims mass-slaughtered Copts throughout the city and environs. The imperial army lost several more rounds of heavy fighting before withdrawing into Alexandria.

The great city sprawled between the Nile Delta and the edge of the desert, which facilitated the Muslim approach, but victory was far from assured. Alexandria’s mighty fortifications were bounded by the Mediterranean, a lake, and a network of canals, leaving only a strip of dry land for an assault, and Constantinople could reinforce at will the already large garrison. Orthodox Christians dominated the population of Greeks, Italians, Jews, black Africans and many others. When Amr failed in his first assault, and sustained heavy losses, the Christian determination to resist grew stronger.

But Constantinople at that crucial time was roiling in political confusion (described in chapter 10). In the turmoil, the honey-tongued Cyrus, supposedly in disgrace, nevertheless managed to get reappointed as patriarch of Alexandria–and as its secular governor as well. He then pursued the policy that earned him a lasting reputation for what looks very like treason: He persuaded Constantinople that Alexandria should be surrendered immediately.

The Arab army had by then actually lifted its siege of the great port, and most of its soldiers had returned to Babylon. Morale within the Christian capital was high. Cheering orthodox crowds greeted the new governor’s ship when it docked in Alexandria on September 14, 641. Cyrus, without informing anyone, immediately initiated a personal parley with Amr. “God has given this country to you,” was this ecclesiastical bureaucrat’s pliant greeting to the Muslim commander.

Amr may have been startled, even dumbfounded, but he did not neglect to impose the usual humiliating terms of surrender. Riots broke out all over the city, the furious populace storming through the streets, but gradually the suave Cyrus made his case, persuading both the military commander and civic officials that submission was only sensible. With tears, he assured the Alexandrians that his work would save them, their children, and their churches from utter destruction. The disillusioned citizens, with no hope of succor, eventually accepted this rationale.

Why did Cyrus betray his religion, his empire, and common sense? Some argue that he was a frail and sentimental old man, a view difficult to reconcile with his unrelenting violence against the Monophysite Copts. The classic notion that bullies are usually cowards also suggests itself. But whatever the explanation, it was Cyrus’s final act. He happened to die even before the Arabs could occupy the city.

Five years later, a Byzantine fleet recaptured Alexandria and put its thousand-member Muslim garrison to the sword. A nine-month campaign then raged between imperial and Muslim armies, climaxing at Nikiou, from which Amr emerged victorious. He turned again to Alexandria, and for reasons never satisfactorily explained, this time the metropolis failed to withstand his siege. Reports of treachery from within remain unproven but plausible. When the Muslims did burst in, they vengefully destroyed half of the buildings and ripped down the landward portion of the massive walls.

Alexandria, founded a millennium earlier by Alexander the Great, was the most wondrous city they had yet captured, its palaces and statuary rivaling Constantinople itself. When it fell, the wide liberties enjoyed by its artists, and enthusiastically supported by the city’s affluent Byzantine citizens, withered.10 Although writers still wrote, Islam would be little inclined to idealize any concept of intellectual freedom. More positively, Hellenism’s remarkable scientific accomplishments (as when the Alexandrian philosopher Eratosthenes accurately measured the size of the earth, for example) would survive Muslim governance.

Under Islam also, Alexandria’s oft-heard voice within Christendom would be stilled. The city where the Septuagint translators first opened the Old Testament to the Gentiles, where Origen laid much of the foundation of Christian theology, and where Athanasius defied the world in his stubborn defense of the divinity of Christ, now became a city where the first concern of Christians was the very survival of their faith. The new Arab capital of Cairo was meanwhile becoming Islam’s most sophisticated center of theology and religious jurisprudence.

Christianity was not entirely wiped out. For centuries the Muslims would need educated Copts to administer the country, nor do they seem to have been particularly eager to convert the peasantry to Islam. But gradually Christianity was eroded by Muslim “soft persecution”–such measures as penalizing taxes, humiliating dress codes, and prohibition of any Christian preaching. Judaism faced the same curtailment, of course. Later, when Muhammad’s followers had become a majority, Muslim rulers and mobs would periodically instigate savage persecution of Christians, a pattern that still continues.

The faith would nevertheless survive in Egypt. The Copts, with a record of stalwart endurance through fourteen centuries of hostility, have proved themselves among the world’s toughest Christians. Trustworthy statistics regarding non-Muslim Christians cannot be obtained from its present government, but many Copts believe their numbers total roughly ten million within the country (approximately fifteen percent of the population), plus an emigrant community totaling some two million. If so, they are more numerous today than when Amr ibn al-Aasi’s nomad army first conquered them.

As for the Muslim steamroller, soon after the conquest of Egypt it would encounter its first serious setback, coming not from outside Islam but within. The emerging empire, largely lacking written accounts and other administrative tools, relied heavily on the faith, insight, and integrity of its leaders, and was not disappointed. Umar’s personal integrity was typically legendary.

Another strength was the direct contact between the early caliphs and their subjects. Supplicants seeking an audience with Umar would be told “Just talk to him in the street or at the mosque.” The Commander of the Faithful strode among the mud buildings of his capital with no pomp whatever, and even slaves made appeals directly to him. This of course carried danger, too. One such supplicant was Abu Lulu, a Persian captive who told the caliph that his master demanded too much of his pay when he rented him out as a carpenter. Umar listened carefully, did the mathematics, and shrugged. The deal seemed fair enough to him, he said, drawing a surly grumble from Abu Lulu.

But Abu Lulu did more than grumble. On November 3, 644, Umar made his way through the ranks of assembled Muslims to the front of the mosque in Medina to lead the prayers. With his back to the congregation, he lifted his hands in worship–and Abu Lulu, presumably in a demented frenzy, darted forward and stabbed him. Then the slave hurled himself into the crowd, slashing several more men before sinking his fatal blade into his own body.

Most Muslim historians view this murder as marking the end of their first truly golden age. “The good fortune of Islam was shrouded in the grave clothes of Umar,” declared the scholar Ibn Khallikan five centuries later, which morally and militarily makes excellent sense. Umar ibn al-Khattab rivaled Alexander the Great as the top single conqueror of all time, his armies overcoming two of the world’s most powerful civilizations during a caliphate that spanned less than ten years.11 In all history, only Genghis Khan would seize and hold more territory, and the Mongol chieftain’s thirteenth-century empire would be culturally sterile and short-lived, while Islam would move beyond mere force of arms to forge an enduring civilization.

From a non-Muslim perspective, Muhammad’s initial two successors actually surpassed the Prophet himself in terms of character. Abu Bakr and Umar apparently took fewer wives and concubines. There is no record of their “marrying” captive women or making them concubines. They reportedly indulged in even fewer luxuries. Leadership was clearly conferred upon them, not seized, and neither man exalted himself as an oracle. Their personal example of self-abnegation was crucial to the foundation of Islam, and to this day, millions upon millions of men and women tread faithfully in the footsteps of the first two caliphs. The same would not always be true of their successors, however, as the Muslim world was about to discover.

This is the end of the Islamic Conquests category article drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page , of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam. To continue reading more about Islamic Conquests from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at