The Phases, History, and Legacy of the Arab Conquests (632-750 CE)

After the death of the Prophet Muhammed, his followers carved out one of the largest empires in history. Discover the history of the Arab Conquests.

May 29, 2023By Robert C. L. Holmes, MA Ancient & Medieval History, BA Archaeology

arab conquests history legacy

 

The Arab Conquest of the 7th and 8th Centuries CE was rapid and far-ranging, as it resulted in an empire that spanned three continents and stretched from the Indus River to the Atlantic. It was also one of the most consequential, as its legacy is still being felt to this day. While the reasons for the success of the Arab consequences are debated, most argue that it was the result of a state formation in Arabia coupled with ideological coherence and mobilization. Yet the Arab Conquest did not happen all at once. Rather it occurred in a series of often overlapping phases across a vast area. When it was over, the old order had been irrevocably overthrown, and a new world power had emerged.

 

Before the Arab Conquest

Map of Byzantine and Sassanian Empires, via Wikimedia Commons

 

When the Prophet Muhammed died in 632 CE, he left behind a new Arabian polity united by a shared Islamic faith that possessed an experienced and battle-hardened army. Driven by a desire to both spread the faith and amass booty, the leaders of the Muslim community looked beyond their borders. Before the Prophet Muhammed began to spread the Islamic faith, the Arabs were dominated by their more powerful neighbors, the Sassanian Persians and the Byzantines. However, these superpowers were just in the process of emerging from the great Byzantine-Sassanian War of 602-628 CE. This conflict had left these empires militarily, politically, and economically exhausted. They were also faced with widespread discontent among their minority populations and civil war.

 

Arab raids into both empires began almost as soon as the war ended but were briefly interrupted following the death of the Prophet Muhammed. As a result of the Prophet’s death, a number of Arab tribes rose in revolt in what became known as the Ridda Wars 632-633 CE. Once the rebels were subdued, the Arabs turned their attention to the weakened Byzantine and Sassanian Empires. Contrary to popular belief, during this period, the Arabs fought largely on foot. They arrayed their infantry in a solid formation with archers on the wings to fight a defensive battle. Their strategy was to allow the enemy to exhaust themselves through repeated attacks. When the enemy was worn out and disorganized, they would launch a massive charge to sweep them from the battlefield.

 

Fall of Persia (633-651 CE)

Plate with a hunting scene, Sassanian 600-800 CE, via the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art

 

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

The Arab Conquest began with raids into southern Mesopotamia, followed by the conquest of towns and villages. This provoked a response from the Sassanian King Yazgerd III (r.632-651), who raised an army to confront the Arabs. At the Battle of al-Qadisiyyah 636 CE, which lasted for several days, the Sassanian army was annihilated. With this victory, the Arabs were able to take control of all of Mesopotamia, including the Sassanian capital of Ctesiphon. Over the next few years, the Sassanians attempted to retake their lost territory to no avail. By 642 CE, the Arabs had crossed the Zagros Mountains into the Iranian plateau and won another great victory at the Battle of Nahavand. The Arab victory at Nahavand sealed the fate of the Sassanian empire and forced Yazgerd III to flee to the east.

 

Torso of a Royal Figure, Sassanian 250-650 CE, via the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art

 

After Nahavand, the Arabs slowly advanced into Persia along three axis points. Though the Sassanian army was destroyed, there were still a number of powerful Persian principalities and city-states that they had to conquer one by one. They would also face a major rebellion in 644 CE, which for a time threatened to roll back the Arab Conquest in Persia. While the assassination of Yazgerd III by a local satrap in 651 CE effectively brought this phase of the conquest to a close, it did not bring an end to Persian resistance. Guerrilla fighting and rebellions would continue for decades before the region was fully brought under the control of the Caliphate.

 

The Levant (634-641 CE)

Gold Solidus with bust of Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine, Byzantine 610-641 CE, via The British Museum

 

After some initial raiding, the Arab Conquest of the Levant began in earnest in 634 CE. As Byzantine armies amassed to drive out the invaders, command of the Arab forces was given to Khalid ibn al-Walid. Perhaps the greatest commander of the Arab Conquest, he led his forces on a forced march through the desert to strike the Byzantines in the rear. In 636 CE, Khalid ibn al-Walid and his forces faced off against a Byzantine led by the emperor Heraclius (r.610-641 CE), who had defeated the Sassanians in the war several years early. At the Battle of Yarmouk, a misunderstood command through the Byzantines into disorder, allowing the Arabs to win a great victory. In the aftermath of this defeat, Heraclius ordered Byzantine forces to evacuate Syria and establish a more defensible position in Anatolia.

 

Plate with the Battle of David and Goliath, Byzantine 629-630 CE, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

The evacuation of Byzantine forces did not lead to an immediate surrender of all of the towns and cities in the Levant. Several continued to resist bitterly. Damascus fell to the Arabs for a second time in 636 CE, along with Baalbeck, Homs, and Hama. Jerusalem was besieged for two years before its garrison was finally starved into surrender. Caesarea Maritima, which could be resupplied by sea since the Arabs had no navy, held out until 640 CE when it was taken by storm. The last cities in the region were conquered by 641 CE, but fighting continued for some time after. The Byzantines adopted a policy of supporting guerrilla fighters in the hills and mountains while also launching seaborne raids. Control of mountainous Anatolia would swing back and forth between the Arabs and Byzantines until the arrival of the Turks in the 11th Century.

 

Egypt (639-642 CE)

Pendant of the Virgin Mary, Byzantine Alexandria 6th-7th Century; with Grave Stela, Byzantine-Coptic 5th-7th Century, via The British Museum

 

The Arab Conquest of Egypt was the swiftest and most complete of all their conquests. This wealthy and strategic region was well known to the Arabs. Egypt served as the breadbasket of the Byzantine Empire as well as being a major source of tax revenue and guarding the way into Africa. Arab forces were led by ‘Amr ibn al-‘As (c.573-664 CE), who began the invasion on his own initiative in 639 CE. Byzantine forces in the province consisted mostly of militia, which was intended for more of a policing role. After crossing the Sinai, the Arabs captured the fortress city of Pelusium, which had long guarded the entrance into Egypt. A Byzantine counterattack was swept aside, and the Arabs marched on the major fortress of Babylon, located near modern Cairo. Arab victories at the battle of Heliopolis in 640 CE and Babylon in 641 effectively divided Egypt in two.

 

With the death of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius in 641 CE, the Byzantine defenders of Egypt despaired of ever receiving reinforcements. The Arabs meanwhile turned north and entered the Egyptian delta. Here, their advance was slowed by the river and a lack of boats. The last major city to fall to the Arabs was Alexandria, which capitulated in 642 CE. The Byzantines briefly regained control of Alexandria in 644 CE through an amphibious attack but were, driven out. The conquest of Egypt crippled the resources of the Byzantine and ensured the future prosperity of the Caliphate. As such, this was perhaps the most consequential phase of the Arab Conquest.

 

Conquering the Maghreb (647-709 CE)

The Great Mosque of Kairouan, 7th Century, pictures by Martin Gray and Jean-Jacques Gelbert, via UNESCO World Heritage Convention

 

The Arab Conquest of the Maghreb, or North Africa, lasted for the better part of a century and took place in stages. The region was split between two groups, with the Byzantines controlling the large coastal cities and surrounding areas while the Berbers held the rest. After a period of raiding, the initial invasion of Byzantine Cyrenacia and Tripolitania (modern Libya) began in 647 CE. Count Gregory, the local Byzantine governor, had declared independence and attempted to halt the Arab invasion. Though he was killed in battle, his successor managed to secure an Arab withdrawal in exchange for tribute. The invasion was not resumed until 665 CE, now at the command of the new Umayyad Caliphate (661-750 CE). This force was led by Uqba ibn Nafi (d.683 CE), who established the city of Kairouan, near modern Tunis, as the capital of the Islamic province of Ifriqiya and reached the Atlantic Ocean.

 

However, the Berbers and Byzantines rose in revolt and managed to kill Uqba and wipe out his army in an ambush. The second invasion now ground to a halt outside of Carthage in 689 CE when Byzantine reinforcements destroyed another Arab army in 688 CE. The third and final invasion began after the Arabs captured Carthage in 695 CE. Another powerful Byzantine force was dispatched to retake Carthage and managed to hold the city until 698 CE, after which the Arabs laid waste to the city to discourage the Byzantines from returning. This was followed by a Berber rebellion, led by their Queen Kahina, which drove the Arabs out of the Maghreb. The rebellion was met with brutal force, Kahina was killed in battle in 703 CE, and by 709 CE, the Arabs had once again reasserted their authority across the Maghreb. By this point, only the small Byzantine stronghold of Ceuta remained, under the command of Count Julian. Friction between the Arabs and Berbers would continue and ignite into open revolt as the Arabs viewed the Berbers as inferior and saddled them with heavy taxes.

 

Arab Conquest of Transoxiana (673-751 CE)

Ceramic Horse and Rider (left), with fragment of Scale Armor (right), Tang 8th Century, via The British Museum

 

The Arab Conquest of Persia carried them into Transoxiana, modern Central Asia, a vast region nominally part of the Sassanian Empire. Here the Arabs faced stiff resistance from the local peoples, Sassanian remnants, and Turkic tribes who were supported by the Tang Dynasty of China (618-907 CE). The Chinese viewed this region as falling within their sphere of influence and wanted to protect the vital trade routes of the silk road. Arab attacks began in earnest in 673 CE and were directed at the principalities of Bukhara and Samarkand in Sogdiana. These cities would be conquered and reconquered several times. Most of the region was conquered between 705 and 715 CE by Qutayba ibn Muslim al-Bahili (669-716 CE). However, in 719 CE, local princes petitioned their nominal Turkic overlords, the Turgesh, for aid. With Turgesh military assistance, the Sogdians rose in revolt.

 

The Sogdian revolt was not finally put down until 738 CE after a massive expenditure of blood and treasure. A major contributing factor to the Arab victory was the murder of the Turgesh khan and their descent into civil war. As a result of the revolt, much of the Sogdian culture and heritage was destroyed, and tens of thousands were deported to the Middle East. During the conflict, the Arabs made inroads into the Fergana valley, which provoked a stronger response from the Tang Chinese. They had also allied with the mighty Tibetan Empire, which threatened Tang control of the Tarim Basin and the wealthy cities and trade routes within it. The Arab and Tang armies clashed at the Battle of Talas in 751 CE. The resulting Arab victory consolidated their control over Transoxiana, though the spread of Islam in the region would take many years.

 

The Conquest of Sindh (711-714 CE)

Sculptures of Ganesha and Kattikeya god of War, 6th-7th Century Hindu, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

The first large-scale invasion of Sindh, modern Pakistan and India, during the Arab Conquest, was led by Muhammad bin Qasim. He marched his forces along the coast from Makran in Persia to the Indus Valley. Most of the towns and cities of the Indus Valley submitted to the Arabs through peace treaties, in return for their local elites maintaining their positions of power. This region was ruled by the Brahmin Dynasty of Sindh (632-724 CE), which is also known as the Chacha dynasty. When the Arabs conquered the city of Brahmanabad on the Indus, Muhammad bin Qasim reaffirmed the rights and privileges of the Brahman elite, paving the way for most of the region to submit to Arab rule. However, the Brahmans used their influence to continue their persecution of the Jats, an ethnic minority of pastoralists and farmers.

 

The Eastern Jats aligned themselves with Dahir, a ruler of Sindh, and attempted to resist the Arab Conquest. This resulted in significant fighting, in which the Arabs under Muhammad bin Qasim ultimately prevailed. Having secured the lower Indus Valley, an expedition of some 10,000 cavalrymen was sent upriver to receive the submission of the local rulers. Muhammad bin Qasim, meanwhile, led the rest of his army to the Kashmir frontier to subdue the rest of the region. In 715 CE, Muhammad bin Qasim was recalled by the Caliph but died en route. Later Arab advances were checked by the Gurjara (6th-12th Century CE) and Chalukya (543-753 CE) kingdoms, as well as the Rashtrakuta empire (753-982 CE), and Caliphs preferred a policy of religious conversion to outright conquest.

 

Hispania and Septimania (711-721 CE)

Gold Tremissis with busts of Egica and Witizia, c.695-702 CE, via The British Museum

 

The Arab Conquest of the Mahgreb brought them close to Visigothic Hispania. At that time, the Visigoths were experiencing a period of political turmoil and civil war between rival claimants for the throne after the death of king Witizia (c.687-710 CE). Much of the Arab Conquest of Hispania has been mythologized and romanticized over the centuries. Some claim that the invasion was launched at the request of one of the rival claimants or that the local Byzantine commander of Ceuta, Count Julian provided the ships. What can be said for certain is that in 711 CE, an Arab army consisting mostly of Berbers crossed into Hispania. Led by Tariq ibn Ziyad, this army defeated the Visigothic king Roderic (d.711) in battle. After the defeat, most of the cities in the region surrendered without a fight in exchange for retaining certain privileges. By 714 CE, almost all of Hispania had been conquered. Of note, however, is that Tariq ibn Ziyad was recalled to Damascus in the same year as the invasion had apparently been launched entirely on his own initiative.

 

Gold Tremissis with bust of Christ, c.695-702 CE, via The British Museum

 

By 716 CE, the Visigoths had been reduced to the province of Septimania, roughly the region of Languedoc-Roussillon in modern France. Raids into Septimania began in 717 CE and would continue over the course of the next several years as the region was slowly reduced. In 719 CE, Al-Samh ibn Malik al-Khawlani (d.721), the new Arab governor, conquered Narbonne, the capital of the region. In the same year, he also established permanent garrisons and incorporated the territory into Al-Andalus, formerly Visigothic Hispania. The next year in 721 CE, Al-Samh was killed during the Battle of Toulouse by Odo of Aquitaine (r.700-735 CE). This temporarily halted invasions of the region though the Visigothic nobility had essentially surrendered and agreed to live under Umayyad rule.

 

Legacy of the Arab Conquest

Umayyad Dinar in imitation of Byzantine Solidus, Umayyad c.690 CE, via The British Museum

 

The period known as the Arab Conquest is generally considered as having come to a close around 751 CE when the Umayyad Caliphate was overthrown by the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1517 CE). By this time, the number of non-Arab converts had risen dramatically, which increased their power and influence within the Islamic world. Non-Arab Muslims had, of course, played an important role in the Arab Conquest, but it was the Arabs who had figured most prominently. The Arabs would continue to make additional conquests across the Caliphate and would, for many years to come, constitute a major military force. They would not, however, conquer so much territory as rapidly as they did during the period of the Arab Conquest.

 

Map of Arab Conquest, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The Arab Conquest during the 7th and 8th Centuries CE was one of the most significant events in world history. It enabled Islam to spread rapidly beyond the Arabian Peninsula to become an influential world religion and lead to the creation of an Arabized and Islamized Middle East. The once mighty Byzantine and Sassanid Empires were swept away, by a new power. It was now possible to travel from the frontier of Tang China to the Atlantic Ocean without crossing the borders of any other kingdom. With time this new empire brought with it not only major religious and political change or upheaval but also new cultural, economic, and even scientific developments which truly changed the world.

Author Image

By Robert C. L. HolmesMA Ancient & Medieval History, BA ArchaeologyRobert Holmes has an MA in Ancient & Medieval History and a BA in Archaeology. He is an independent historian and author, who specializes in the Military History of the Ancient and Medieval World and has published over a dozen articles on related topics. Originally from Massachusetts, he now lives in Florida where he works doing public history leading tours, giving lectures, and educating people about the local history.