Arab-Byzantine War, 629-644 AD
By David E. Kunselman
Master’s Thesis, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 2007
Abstract: Islam arose out of a cataclysmic change in society and economics in the Arabian Peninsula during the early seventh century. The adherents of the new religion immediately launched a campaign against the Byzantine Empire, the military, cultural and economic superpower of the age. In the course of just a few years the Arabs had conquered the valuable territories of modern day Palestine, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon from the Byzantines who in turn withdrew to Anatolia after great losses. This was the first encounter between Islamic and Christian people and the aftermath set the stage for the Islamic conquest of North Africa, the Crusades and many other historical conflicts. The paper seeks to answer the question “Why did the Byzantine Empire fail in the defense of these territories” by looking at diplomatic, military, economic and social differences between the Arab and Byzantine sides. The research is based on a variety of secondary sources and several translated primary sources. The conclusion is that the Byzantines failed to recognize and address the great social changes that were taking place in the contested region while the Arabs expertly exploited the dynamic situation.
Introduction: In 629 AD, the prophet Mohammed sent letters to the Kings of Persia, Yemen and Ethiopia and to Emperor Heraclius, inviting them to accept Islam. Mohammed stated, “If you become a Muslim you will be safe, and God will double your reward, but if you reject this invitation of Islam you will bear the sin of having misguided your subjects”. It was an ultimatum, from an unknown holy man beyond the fringe of civilization to the most powerful rulers in the world.
Emperor Heraclius was the most powerful and successful ruler in the world. The Byzantine Empire controlled nearly all the land touching the Mediterranean, and had for nearly a century. Heraclius had defeated the only other significant power, the Persians, on their own land and had personally appointed the current Persian ruler. Constantinople and Alexandria were world-renowned centers of learning and art. Byzantine merchants traded from India to France. The relics of the True Cross were safe under Byzantine guard in Jerusalem. The seat of the Empire may have moved from Rome to Constantinople, the imperial language changed from Latin to Greek, but the empire of the Caesars was still great.
By 644 all this had changed. The mighty Byzantine war machine had been devastated and imperial forces driven from Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia by a small army of desert barbarians. The book industry in Alexandria was destroyed. The True Cross was in the hands of non-believers. The Muslims were building a new capital in Damascus and a new temple in Jerusalem while the Byzantines were fighting a last ditch guerilla war in their Anatolian homelands.