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Life on the Byzantine-Arab Frontier

By Michael Goodyear

For miles, the earth lay barren. Soldiers and the occasional daring soul were the only ones that crossed this zone of lifelessness. This could easily describe the Western Front in the First World War, but it was also the reality along the Byzantine-Arab frontier for not just four years, but centuries. The Byzantine Empire and the Arab Caliphates and successor states bordered each other in eastern Anatolia. This boundary between the two leading powers of the day, the beleaguered defender of Christianity and the nascent house of Islam, became a constant zone of conflict for three centuries and fundamentally changed Byzantium.

Before Islam, the Byzantine Empire had settled down into a long, normally cold – sometimes hot – war with its then superpower rival, the Sassanid Empire of Persia (224–651). The border between the two superpowers in Mesopotamia was largely stagnant for the Sassanid Empire’s entire existence, and was agrarian with no real natural border. Byzantine-Persian relations included regular contact and dedicated trade towns for merchants from the two empires. The Byzantine seventh-century historian Theophylact Simocatta emphasized the importance of maintaining the bipolar world of Byzantium and the Sassanid Empire. It was all those living in either empire had known for generations and the status quo was respected.

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However, in the early seventh century, the Persians launched a massive campaign into the Byzantine Empire, which captured large swaths of territory. The Byzantines eventually triumphed and restored their empire, but both empires were extremely weakened. This opened a power vacuum into which stepped the Arabs, recently united through Muhammad’s proselytization of Islam. The swift and hardy Arab armies destroyed the Persian army at the Battle of Qadisiyyah in 636/37, removing Byzantium’s long-time neighbor from existence. The Arabs similarly thrashed the Byzantine army at the Battle of Yarmuk in 636. In the aftermath, the Arabs captured Byzantine territory up to the Taurus Mountains in Cilicia, behind which the Byzantines retreated to shore up what remained.

Adjusting to a new world

Unlike the Byzantine-Persian relationship, the Byzantines were constantly on the defensive against the Arabs. The Arab Umayyad Caliphate twice launched an all-out assault on the Byzantine capital at Constantinople in 674–678 and 717–718. However, Constantinople, with the most famous walls in history, was impregnable and turned away the would-be Arab conquerors.

Map of major conflicts between the Byzantines and the Arabs – Wikimedia Commons

The Arabs, giving up hope of taking the fortress-city of Constantinople, settled into a war of attrition with the Byzantines. The Byzantine-Arab border wrapped around the mountains and hills in eastern Anatolia, but despite this natural boundary, the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750) and its successor, the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258), forcibly made it a permeable border. The caliphs led annual raids into Byzantine Anatolia, causing the Byzantines living in the countryside to flee for protection. The Byzantine population had already been reduced by several bouts of plague during the sixth and seventh centuries, as well as the Persian invasion, and was now put under continuous pressure by the Arab raids. While these raids were usually smaller and focused on taking captives and loot from the country, the Umayyads and Abbasids occasionally led grand campaigns that struck deep into the heart of Anatolia, such as those in 782, 806, and 838.

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In earlier centuries, Byzantine Anatolia had been a prosperous and heavily urbanized landscape. Under the onslaught of Arab raids, Byzantine towns declined in size and transformed into heavily fortified bases. While Byzantine farmers remained, they also became militarized under the theme system, which allotted land to soldiers in exchange for military service. The border was depopulated, left barren, and fortified to watch for approaching Arab armies.

From a peaceful and prosperous province to a fiery theater of war, Byzantine Anatolia was now practically unrecognizable. The borderlands became semi- lawless, with the Byzantines giving authority to the akritai, border guards who protected against the Arabs. The Byzantines developed a yearly routine in response to Arab raids where Byzantine farmers would retreat into the fortified towns while soldiers tracked the invading Arabs. The Byzantines, reduced in strength, were hardly a match for the Arabs in the open field, so the Byzantines would track the invading force, let them pillage the countryside, and then, when they were weighed down with their booty, they would strike in the mountain passes and fight them off. These yearly skirmishes were life on the frontier from the seventh through the mid-ninth centuries.

The Byzantines strike back

After the reign of the great Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid (r. 786–809), of Arabian Nights fame, the Abbasid Empire began to decline. The Byzantines took advantage of this weakness and a series of strong Byzantine emperors began to challenge the Arabs on a more even footing. Despite a devastating sack of the major Byzantine city of Amorium in 838 by the Abbasids, Basil I (r. 867–886) strengthened the frontier by capturing Tephrike, capital of the heretical sect known as the Paulicians, which was backed by the Abbasid Caliphate.

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The Byzantine frontier remained strong under Basil’s successors, and was then used as a springboard by a series of some of the greatest military commanders in Byzantine history during the tenth century. By this time, the Abbasid Caliphate’s authority barely stretched outside of the walls of its capital at Baghdad. The Byzantines were now engaging with smaller, more centralized Muslim successor states along its eastern frontier.

This situation fostered the most famous piece of fiction in Byzantine history, the tale of Digenes Akritas. Digenes was a border lord who served the Byzantine Empire, regularly interacted with Byzantines and Muslims, and protected the border from Muslim incursions. The prominence of Digenes’ tale demonstrates the importance of the Byzantine-Arab border in Byzantine memory.

The Byzantine general John Kourkouas (fl.915–946) gained the first major blow against the Muslims in the 930s, when he conquered the powerful emirate of Melitene in southeastern Anatolia. Kourkouas built up a powerful offensive army rather than the mostly defensive force of the theme armies. It was his successors in the east, the future emperors Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963–969) and John I Tzimiskes (r. 969–976), who would build on this progress and end the war of attrition between the Byzantine Empire and the Muslims in Anatolia.

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The 940s to 960s were dominated by battles between the leading Muslim ruler, Sayf al-Dawla (916–967) of Aleppo, and the powerful Byzantine Phokas family, led by Bardas Phokas and later his son Nikephoros II. Nikephoros and Sayf faced off in an epic rivalry of giants of their time. Sayf al-Dawla was an honorific meaning “Sword of the Dynasty” while Nikephoros received his epithet, “White Death of the Saracens,” from his Arab enemies. Nikephoros launched a calculated multi-pronged offensive against Sayf, pushing the long-held border back at three separate points. Nikephoros’ attacks completely reversed the reality of the past centuries; the Byzantines were no longer enduring, but were now the ones striking annually into enemy territory. Nikephoros’ assault whittled away at Sayf’s emirate and authority.

The epic battle between the heroes of Byzantium and Islam was effectively finished after Nikephoros sacked Sayf’s capital of Aleppo in 962. When Sayf died in 967, the Muslims of Syria splintered and Nikephoros and his successor, John I Tzimiskes, pushed completely into Syria all the way down to modern Lebanon and turned Aleppo into a vassal state. By the time the Byzantine Empire reached an apogee under Basil II (958–1025), the centuries-long war of attrition between Byzantium and the Arabs was in the past and the Byzantine Empire, for the moment, stood alone at the top.

Border war no more

It was almost with unbelievable speed that Byzantium fell from these dizzying heights. In 1071, the Seljuk Turks, having only recently arrived in the Middle East, crushed the Byzantine army at the Battle of Manzikert. Byzantine political intrigue turned a bad defeat into an irreversible one.

The old Byzantine defensive structure that had existed against the Arabs was gone. After the Byzantines began their offensives against the Arabs, the theme system lapsed, the border zone was settled, and the Byzantine population of Anatolia returned to a mostly peaceful way of life. When Seljuk raiders poured over the frontiers, there was neither a border to defend, nor a Byzantium capable of defending it. By 1090, the Byzantines were practically driven out of Anatolia all together.

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While the Byzantines retook some of Anatolia following the First Crusade, they were never able to establish the same staunch border they had held during their conflict with the Arabs. The Seljuk Turks now held the mountains and plateaus that were the basis of Byzantine defenses. The Byzantine-Arab conflict established a harsh new system of life along the border, but this structure allowed the Byzantines to maintain Anatolia and eventually build up enough strength to regain lost lands. By extending beyond the border and letting it fall into disrepair, the Byzantines allowed the Turks to strike a deep blow from which the Byzantine Empire would never fully recover.

Michael Goodyear is a lawyer, having received a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School. He has an A.B. in History and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Byzantine history. He has been published in a variety of academic and general-interest publications, including Le Monde diplomatique, Ancient History Encyclopedia, and the Vanderbilt Historical Review.

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Top Image: Byzantines and Arabs in battle, depicted in the Chronicle of John Skylitzes, Madrid National Library cod. Vitr. 26-2, fol. 73v

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