The Arab conquests: 7th century
One of the most dramatic and sudden movements of any people in history is the expansion, by conquest, of the Arabs in the 7th century (only the example of the Mongols in the 13th century can match it). The desert tribesmen of Arabia form the bulk of the Muslim armies. Their natural ferocity and love of warfare, together with the sense of moral rectitude provided by their new religion, form an irresistible combination.
When Muhammad dies in 632, the western half of Arabia is Muslim. Two years later the entire peninsula has been brought to the faith, and Muslim armies have moved up into the desert between Syria and Mesopotamia.
Muslim North Africa: From 642
The Arab conquest of Egypt and North Africa begins with the arrival of an army in640 in front of the Byzantine fortified town of Babylon (in the area which is now Old Cairo). The Arabs capture it after a siege and establish their own garrison town just to the east, calling it Al Fustat.
The army then moves on to Alexandria, but here the defences are sufficient to keep them at bay for fourteen months. At the end of that time a surprising treaty is signed. The Greeks of Alexandria agree to leave peacefully; the Arabs give them a year in which to do so. In the autumn of 642, the handover duly occurs. One of the richest of Byzantine provinces has been lost to the Arabs without a fight.
The Arabs continue rapidly westwards along the coast of North Africa, capturing Cyrenaica in 642 and Tripoli in 643. But these remain largely ineffective outposts. For nearly three decades the Arabs make little progress in subduing the indigenous Berber inhabitants of this coastal strip.
The turning point comes in 670 with the founding of a new Arab garrison town at Kairouan, about sixty miles south of the Byzantine city of Carthage. From this secure base military control becomes possible. Carthage is destroyed (yet again) in 698. By the early 8th century northwest Africa is firmly in Arab hands. In 711 an Arab general takes the next expansionist step. With a Berber army he crosses the straits of Gibraltar and enters Spain.
The north African coast remains from now on in Muslim hands, but it proves impossible to exercise effective control over it from the centre of the caliphate – whether in Damascus or Baghdad. Instead various local Berber dynasties win power.
These include the Idrisids (established from 790 in Fez) and the Aghlabids (ruling from 800 in Kairouan). But by far the most powerful are the Fatimids, of the Ismaili sect. Early in the 10th century they organize an uprising against the Aghlabid dynasty in Kairouan.
The Fatimid dynasty: 909-1171
An Ismaili leader, Ubaydulla, conquers in 909 a stretch of north Africa, displacing the Aghlabids in Kairouan. He founds there a dynasty known as Fatimid – for he claims to be a caliph in the Shi’a line of descent from Ali and Fatima his wife, the daughter of Muhammad (see The Shi’as).
Sixty years later, in 969, a Fatimid army conquers Egypt, which now becomes the centre of a kingdom stretching the length of the north African coast. A new capital city is founded, adjoining a Muslim garrison town on the Nile. It is called Al Kahira (‘the victorious’), known in its western form as Cairo. In the following year, 970, the Fatimids establish in Cairo the university mosque of Al Azhar which has remained ever since a centre of Islamic learning.
At the height of Fatimid power, in the early 11th century, Cairo is the capital of an empire which includes Sicily, the western part of the Arabian peninsula (with the holy places of Mecca and Medina) and the Mediterranean coast up to Syria.
A century later the authority of the Ismaili caliphs has crumbled. There is little opposition in 1171 when Saladin, subsequently leader of the Islamic world against the intruding crusaders, deposes the last of the Fatimid line. And there is no protest when Saladin has the name of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad included in the Friday prayers in Cairo’s mosques. After a Shi’a interlude, Egypt is back in the Sunni fold.
The Almoravids: 1062-1147
From the mid-11th century Berbers are moving north, from the western Sahara up past the Atlas mountains. Known as the Almoravids, they are fired by a new zeal for Islam, the result of a pilgrimage to Mecca by their chieftain in 1040. In 1062 they establish a base at Marrakech, from which during the next twenty years they conquer the whole of northwest Africa.
The Almoravid territory in north Africa stretches along the coast as far as Algiers. Spain, across the narrow Straits of Gibraltar, is a natural extension. And in 1085 the Almoravids receive a request for help from the Spanish Muslims, who have recently suffered a series of defeats at Christian hands.
The Almoravids – with armies of their own Berber tribesmen – arrive in Spain in 1086 and rapidly overrun the territories recently gained by the Christians. Only on the east coast do they meet their match in the buccaneering El Cid, who captures Valencia in 1094.
Though stricter in religion than the Umayyads, the Almoravid sultans continue the traditions of Muslim Spain; indeed they introduce its architecture to the other half of their empire, in north Africa. But they soon begin to lose control in both regions. The Christian reconquest in Spain begins anew with the capture of Saragossa in 1118. Meanwhile Marrakech, the Almoravid capital in Africa, falls in 1147 to a more puritanical dynasty of Berbers, the Almohads.
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