Syria: A Short History/8

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Syria: A Short History by Philip Khuri Hitti


Two episodes of late classical times surpass all others in significance: the migration of the Teutonic tribes which resulted in the destruction of the western part of the Roman empire and the eruption of the Moslem Arabian tribes which annihilated the empire of the Persians and stripped the Byzantine of its fairest provinces. Of the two the Arabian episode was the more phenomenal. At the time of its occurrence Persia and Byzantium were the only world powers; the Arabians were known merely as a hopelessly fragmented desert people whose only importance outside their own uninviting peninsula was as unreliable allies of the two great antagonists and as middlemen in the spice and incense trade.

Their unification, the indispensable prelude to their triumphal emergence, was accomplished in the brief span often years (622-632) by the Meccan prophet Muhammad, founder of the Islamic faith and father of the Arabian nation. During Muhammad's lifetime little was heard of him in Syria, despite a few attacks on border towns south and east of the Dead Sea. The first of these, in 629, seemed to the natives to be merely another of the frequent bedouin raids to which they were all too accustomed. In perspective, however, it was the opening skirmish in a struggle that was not to cease until Byzantium itself had surrendered and the name of Muhammad had replaced that of Christ on its cathedrals.

In the following year a few of these border settlements submitted to the Moslem columns. Their people were granted security and the right to retain their property and profess their religion on condition that they paid an annual tribute. These terms, formulated by Muhammad himself, set the pattern followed by his successors in treating with conquered populations. The prevailing notion that Moslems offered Christians only a choice between conversion to Islam and death by the sword has no basis in fact ; they much pre- ferred to hold such peoples under their rule and collect tribute, which normally ceased once the conquered accepted Islam.

By 633, the year after Muhammad's death, the dissident Arabian tribes had been subdued and the whole peninsula north of the Empty Quarter had been consolidated and unified under the leadership of one man, the first caliph abu-Bakr (632-634). The momentum acquired in these internal wars had to seek new outlets, especially since the new religion had supposedly converted its adherents into one brotherhood. The martial spirit of the tribes, to whom raids had been a sort of national sport from time im- memorial, was not weakened by Islam; on the contrary it was redirected and intensified.

Viewed in its proper perspective, the Islamic expansion was the last in the long series of migrations which took the surplus Semitic population from the barren peninsula to the bordering fertile regions and the more abundant life they offered. The Islamic movement, however, did possess one distinctive feature — religious impulse. Combined with the economic, this made the movement irresistible and carried it far beyond the confines of any preceding one. Islam provided a battle-cry, serving as a cohesive agency cement- ing tribes never united before. But while the desire to spread the new faith or to attain paradise may have moti- vated some of the bedouin warriors, the desire for the comforts and luxuries of settled life in the Fertile Crescent was the driving force in the case of many more of them.

Several considerations directed this martial energy Syria- ward. The Arabian tribes domiciled there were expected to collaborate with their invading kinsmen, as the annual subsidies which for years they had been receiving from Heraclius for guarding the frontiers had recently been sus- pended as an economy measure. The forts along that southern border had also been neglected and stripped of their garrisons to enable concentration in the north in face of the Persian danger. This does not mean, however, that this invasion or the simultaneous attack on Mesopotamia were the result of purposeful planning. They were surely designed as casual raids for booty, with no thought of permanent conquest, though this was the outcome to which the logic of events inexorably led.

In 633 one column invaded Syria by the coastal route, two followed the inland caravan route north, and one under Khalid ibn-al-Walid penetrated Mesopotamia. Each de- tachment was approximately 3000 strong at first, but rein- forcements more than doubled this strength as they moved north. Two engagements sufficed to clear southern Palestine of Byzantine troops, and fruitful raiding followed. The emperor Heraclius organized a fresh army at Horns and dispatched it under his brother Theodorus, while abu-Bakr ordered Khalid and his column to join their co-religionists in Syria. This Khalid did by an epic eighteen-day march across the desert, appearing with dramatic suddenness directly in the rear of the improvised Byzantine army. He defeated the Christian Ghassanid forces and pressed through Transjordan to Palestine, where the four reunited detach- ments won a major victory in July 634.

All Palestine now lay open before the invader. For six months random raids were launched in all directions. Another Byzantine army was routed and sought refuge behind the walls of Damascus. Khalid pursued it, isolated the city for six months and in September 635 gained pos- session of it through treachery. With the fall of the metro- polis, total victory was assured. Baalbek and Horns were occupied in 635, and Aleppo, Antioch, Hamah and others early in 636. Only Jerusalem, Caesarea and a few ports held out in expectation of aid from Heraclius.

Heraclius did not intend to disappoint them. He mustered from the vicinity of Antioch and Aleppo an army of some fifty thousand, mostly Armenian and Arab mer- cenaries, and again put it under the command of his brother Theodoras. Realizing the numerical superiority of this army, the Arabian generals immediately abandoned Horns, Damascus and other cities to concentrate about 2500 men on the Yarmuk river east of Lake Tiberias. After a period of skirmishing, the desert tribesmen on August 20, 636, forced a showdown during a dust storm which gave them a decisive advantage. Before the Moslem onslaught the Armenian and Syro-Arab mercenaries could not hold their own. Some were slaughtered then and there; others were driven relentlessly into the river; still others deserted and were caught and annihilated on the other side. Theodorus was one of the victims. The fate of Syria was sealed, as even Heraclius reluctantly admitted.

Damascus and the other cities previously occupied now received the conqueror with open arms. 'We like your rule and justice', declared the natives of Horns, 'far better than the state of tyranny and oppression under which we have been living.' Farther north Aleppo and Antioch were soon reduced. Only the Taurus mountains, natural boundary of Syria, finally halted the uninterrupted advance of Arabian arms. Along the coast Acre, Tyre, Sidon, Beirut, Byblus and Tripoli were taken. Jerusalem held out until 638 and Caesarea, reinforced and supplied by sea, until 640. In seven years (633-640) the entire country was subdued.

This easy conquest of a strategic province of the Byzantine empire is not difficult to explain. The military structure of that empire had been as effectively undermined by the Persian incursions of the early seventh century as the spiritual unity of its society had been disrupted by the Monophysite schism of the middle fifth. Last-minute efforts to effect a religious compromise only made matters worse. The bulk of the Syrians held on to their church. To them it was more than a religious institution ; it was an expression of a sub- merged, semi-articulate feeling of nationality.

At no time after Alexander's conquest did the people of Syria, as a people, lose their national character, their native tongue or their Semitic religion and identify themselves wholeheartedly with the Greco-Roman way of life. At its thickest Hellenistic culture was only skin-deep, affecting a crust of intelligentsia in urban settlements. The bulk of the population must throughout that millennium have con- sidered their rulers aliens. The alienation between rulers and ruled was no doubt aggravated by misrule and high taxation. To the masses of seventh-century Syria the Moslem Arabians must have appeared closer ethnically, linguistically and perhaps religiously than the hated Byzan- tine masters.

Once conquered, Syria became the base for Arab armies fanning out in every direction. Between 639 and 646 Mesopotamia was subjugated, and Persia lay open to attack. Between 640 and 646 Egypt was subdued and the way cleared to North Africa and Spain. From northern Syria, Anatolia was vulnerable to devastating incursions which were mounted intermittently for almost a century. All these conquests, however, belong to the category of systematic campaigning rather than the casual raiding to which the seizure of Syria belonged. But it was this first victory which gave the nascent power of Islam prestige before the world and confidence in itself.

In historical significance the Moslem conquests of the seventh century rank with those of Alexander as the principal landmarks in the political and cultural history of the Near East. For a thousand years after Alexander's conquest the civilized life of Syria and its neighbouring lands was oriented westward, across the sea; now the orientation turned east- ward, across the desert. Links with Rome and Byzantium were severed; new ones with Mecca and Medina were forged. Strictly the latest orientation was a reversion to an old type, for the Arab Moslem civilization did not introduce many original elements. It was rather a revivification of the ancient Semitic culture. Thus viewed, Hellenism becomes an intrusive phenomenon between two cognate layers.

In about a decade the Moslem conquests changed the face of the Near East; in about a century they changed the face of the civilized world. Far from being peripheral or ephemeral, they proved to be a decisive factor in the evolu- tion of medieval society. The Mediterranean became a Moslem lake, and sea trade routes were severed. This, coupled with the Arab occupation of the eastern, western and southern shores, replaced the late classical world with a new world, that of the Middle Ages.

Meanwhile in Syria the Arabians had awakened after the intoxication of the great victory to find themselves con- fronted with a new and colossal problem for which they were ill prepared, the administration of their new domain. In their past experience there was nothing on which they could draw. Clearly the laws of their primitive Medinese society were not adequate and those of their new Islamic society were not applicable, as the conquered people were not yet Moslems.

Umar, who had succeeded abu-Bakr as caliph in 634, was the first to address himself to this task. Details of his enactments are obscured by later interpolations, but certain principles are clear. First among these was the policy re- quiring that Arabian Moslems in conquered lands should constitute a sort of religio-military aristocracy, keeping their blood pure and unmixed, living aloof and abstaining from holding or cultivating any landed property. The con- quered peoples were given a new status, that of second-class citizens under a covenanted obligation to pay a tribute which comprised both land tax and poll tax, but they were entitled to protection and were exempt from military duty. Only a Moslem could draw his sword in defence of the land of Islam. Thus the principle of inequality between victor and vanquished was established as a permanent basis of policy.

Another principle said to have been enunciated by Umar was that movable property and prisoners won as booty belonged to the warriors as before, but that the land belonged to the Moslem community. Those who cultivated it had to continue paying land tax even after adopting Islam. This and other tax legislation traditionally ascribed to the initiative of Umar clearly resulted from years of experience. The first caliphs and provincial governors coufd not have devised and imposed a system of taxation and of finance administration; it was easier for them to continue with minor modifications the system of Byzantine provincial government already established in Syria. In the Moslem empire tribute varied from place to place according to the nature of the soil and the previously prevailing system. Poll tax was an index of lower status and was exacted in a lump sum. It was generally four dinars for the well-to-do, two for the middle class and one for the poor. Women, children, beggars, the aged and the diseased were exempt except when they had independent income.

Umar in 639 divided Syria for administrative purposes into four military districts — Damascus, Horns, Jordan (in- cluding Galilee) and Palestine — corresponding to the Byzantine provinces at the time of the conquest. A military camp south of Damascus served as the temporary capital; other military camps were set up in each district. To these camps Arabian soldiers, soon to become the new citizenry of the conquered province, brought their families; many of their wives or concubines were no doubt captured native women. As warriors and defenders they enjoyed rights and privileges which later immigrants from Arabia could not enjoy. At their head stood the commander-in-chief and governor-general, who combined in his person all the executive, judiciary and military functions. The govern- mental framework of the Byzantine system was preserved ; even the local officials who did not withdraw from the country at the time of conquest were left in their positions. Obviously the Arabians had no trained personnel to replace such officials. Besides, their paramount interests were to keep the captured province under control and to collect the taxes due from its people. In its primitive phases Arabian provincial government was military in form, financial in aim and flexible in method.

In 639 a terrible plague spread havoc among the troops. Some 20,000 of them are said to have perished, including the governor-general and his successor Yazid. Umar there- upon (640) appointed Yazid's brother Muawiyah governor. For twenty years Muawiyah was to dominate Syria ; for twenty more he would dominate the world of Islam as the first of the Umayyad family of caliphs. The policies he initiated as governor and pursued as caliph earned for him a permanent and prominent niche in the Arab hall of fame. He made the starting-point of his policy the cultiva- tion of his new Syrian subjects, who were still Christians, as well as the Arab tribes, such as the Ghassanids, who had been domiciled in the country since pre-Islamic days and were Christianized. Many of these tribes were of South Arabian origin as opposed to the new emigrants, who were North Arabians. For wife Muawiyah chose a Jacobite Christian girl of the Kalb, a South Arabian tribe. His personal physician, his court poet and his financial controller were likewise Christians. Arab chronicles stress the sense of loyalty which the Syrians cherished toward their new chief consequent upon his enlightened and tolerant policy.

Muawiyah proceeded to organize the province on a stable basis. The raw material which constituted the Arab army he now whipped into the first ordered, disciplined military force in Islam. Its archaic tribal organization, a relic of patriarchal days, was abolished. There was no interference from Medina, especially since the new caliph Uthman, who succeeded Umar in 644, was a relative of Muawiyah, both being members of the aristocratic Umayyad branch of the Quraysh. Muhammad belonged to another clan of the same tribe. The army was kept in fit condition by semi-annual raids into the 'land of the Romans 5 — Asia Minor.

For the defence of a province bordering on the sea, Muawiyah realized that a body of disciplined, loyal troops did not suffice. In Acre he found fully equipped Byzantine shipyards which he developed into an arsenal second only to that of Alexandria. The new Moslem fleet, doubtless manned by Greco-Syrians with a long seafaring tradition, took Cyprus in 649 despite the reluctance of desert-reared caliphs to approve of expeditions across the alien sea. Rhodes was pillaged in 654 and in the following year the long-supreme Byzantine navy was virtually annihilated by the simple expedient of tying each Arab ship to an enemy vessel and converting the engagement into a hand-to-hand conflict.

Muawiyah, however, could not take full advantage of these exploits by his admirals and generals. Domestic dis- turbances leading to civil war were convulsing the Moslem world. In 656 Uthman was murdered by rebellious partisans of Ali, first cousin of Muhammad and husband of his only surviving daughter Fatimah. These partisans (Shiah) in- sisted that Ali was the divinely designated and therefore the only legitimate successor, and that his descendants were entitled to the caliphate by hereditary right. After some deliberation he was proclaimed caliph.

The caliphate of Ali was beset with trouble from begin- ning to end. The first problem was how to dispose of two rival claimants, Talhah and al-Zubayr, who with their fol- lowers in Hejaz and Iraq refused to recognize his succession. Both men were defeated and killed in a battle near Basra in December 656. Ali established himself in his new capital al-Kufah as the seemingly undisputed caliph. A second civil war, however, was not far off.

The usual oath of fealty was accorded the new caliph by every provincial governor except Muawiyah. The well- entrenched governor of Syria and kinsman of Uthman now came out as the avenger of the martyred caliph. Dramatically Muawiyah exhibited in the Damascus mosque the blood-stained shirt of Uthman and the fingers chopped from the hands of his wife as she tried to defend him. Care- fully keeping his own interests under cover, Muawiyah publicly confronted Ali with this dilemma: punish the assassins or accept the position of an accomplice. Punishing the culprits was something Ali neither would nor could do. But the basic conflict transcended personalities. The funda- mental question at issue was whether Iraq or Syria, Kufah or Damascus, should head the Islamic world. Medina clearly was out of the race. The far-flung conquests had shifted the centre of gravity to the north and relegated the former capital to a marginal position.

The army of Iraq led by Ali and that of Syria under Muawiyah met south of the Euphrates in July 657 for what should have been the decisive battle. Ali's forces were on the point of achieving complete victory after three days of bloody fighting when suddenly their foes lifted lances to which were fastened manuscripts of the Koran. This gesture was interpreted as meaning an appeal from the decision of arms to the decision of the Koran — whatever that might mean. Hostilities ceased. Ali, pious and simple-hearted, accepted Muawiyah's proposal to arbitrate and thus spare Moslem blood. The arbitration which ensued in January 659 has been embellished by legend, but apparently both principals were deposed, depriving Ali of a real office and Muawiyah only of a tenuous claim which he had not yet even dared publicly assert.

Two years later Ali was assassinated by a personal enemy and hastily interred outside Kufah at Najaf, where his shrine has become the greatest centre of pilgrimage in Shiite Islam. Deficient in the traits that make a politician, he was rich in those that, from the Arab point of view, constitute a perfect man. Eloquent in speech, sage in counsel, valiant in battle, true to his friends, magnanimous to his foes, he was raised by tradition to the position of paragon of Moslem chivalry. Proverbs, verses and anecdotes unnumbered have clustered around his name and even his sword. The youth movement in Islam, which developed later along lines parallel to those of the medieval orders of chivalry, took Ali for its model. Many dervish fraternities have likewise considered him their ideal exemplar and patron. To most of his partisans he has remained through the ages infallible; to the extremists among them he even became the incarnation of the deity.