The Multiethnic Origins of the Muslim Conquest

Episode 19: Islam and the Caliphates

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

In this lecture, Harl focuses mainly on the battle for control of the Muslim caliphate following the birth of Islam in the 7th century AD.

The key dates he cites are

622 AD – the prophet Muhammad migrates to Medina from Mecca owing to conflict with Mecca elites.

632 AD – Muhammad dies after returning to Mecca with his followers.

633 AD – Muslim armies conquer the Sassanid Empire (Persia).

634-634 AD – Muslim armies conquer the Middle East Byzantine provinces and the Levant. [1]

641 AD – Muslim armies conquer Egypt (where they are welcomed after seven centuries of oppressive Roman rule).

642 AD – Muslim armies march east across North Africa and west into lower Indus Valley (modern day Pakistan).

656 AD – Arab army mutinies in Egypt (over lack of pay), marches back to Medina and kills the reigning caliph Uthman, who they replace with Ali, a Shia [2] cousin of Muhammad. A civil war ensures, with the Sunni Ummayad caliphate eventually assuming power  and establishing Damascus as their capitol.

700 AD The Sunni Ummayad faces serious military (suffering defeat in their efforts to conquer Constantinople, the Khazars and the Turks in Transoxiana [3], political and fiscal challenges. Muslim soldiers (many of whom are nomad mercenaries) garrisoned in the steppes cities become increasingly independent and “rapacious.”

711 AD – Muslim armies cross into Iberian peninsular, smash the Visigoth kingdom and overrun most of Spain.

749 AD – Umayyad caliphate overthrown by a mixed army (many of whom identify as Shia) of Arab tribal regiments and Persian converts. Replaced by Abbasid caliphate (descended from Muhammad’s uncle), who move capitol to Baghdad. [4]

809 AD – New civil war results from the conflict between the brothers al-Amin and al-Ma’mun over the Abbasid Caliphate succession.

909 AD – organized Berbers sweep across North Africa to occupy Egypt where they set up a Fatima (Shia) caliphate which, in alliance with the Byzantine Empire, takes over Baghdad and much of the Levant, as well as the holy cities on the Arabian peninsula.

945 AD – Seljiud Turks who have converted to Islam invade from the East and restore power in Baghdad to the Abbassid caliphs.


[1] The Levant refers to a large ancient historical area on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

[2] Shia Islam, the second largest branch of the religion, holds that Muhammad designated his cousin Ali as his successor.

[3] Transoxiana is the Roman name for the central steppes region roughly corresponding to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and southern Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

[4] According to Harl, this move cements the caliphate in the Persian (Sassanid) cultural world and turns the empire from an Arab empire to a multi-ethnic Muslim empire. Ultimately 34 of the 37 Abbassid caliphs were sons of non-Arab Persian slaves.

Film can be viewed free with a library card at Kanopy.

https://www.kanopy.com/en/pukeariki/video/5694984/5695024

Mesopotamia: The Collapse of the Assyrian Empire

Episode 22: The Assyrian Empire, Warfare and Collapse

Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization

Dr Amanda H Podany

Film Review

At the time of its collapse the Assyrian empire, the largest the world had known, extended across Mesopotamia, Syria, Levant and parts of Anatolia.

Assyria became more unstable during the last century before its final collapse in 612 BC. Provincial kings had allowed provincial governors to become too independent, and civil rebellions were widespread. King Tiglath-Pilesur III (745-727 BC) temporarily increased the king’s power by making provinces smaller, appointing governors who directly accountable to the king and improved provincial communication (with horses and teams of rides). However he proved unable to prevent Assyria’s eventual downfall.

The province of Babylonia enjoyed special privileges under Assyrian rule (see The Special Status of Babylonia Under Assyrian Rule), with the whole empire adopting its language (Akkadian) and religion. In fact, it was common for either the king or his son to rule Babylonia directly. This changed after the death of Tiglath-Pilesur III, with the Babylonian throne changing hands 20 times in 100 years.

Under the reign of Sennacherib (704-681 BC), the Elamites supported a Babylonian revolt against Assyria and installation of their own king. Sennacherib’s army invaded to suppress the revolt and put his own son on the Babylonian thrown. A second invasion became necessary when the son was “disappeared” and a coalition of Babylonian. This time Elamite and Chaldean [1] forces fought Sennacherib’s army to a standstill.

In 689 BC, Sennacherib laid siege to the city of Babylon for 15 months, eventually decimating it palaces and temples. Worse still the the statue of the king of the gods Marduk was moved to the capitol of Assyria. Until it was returned in 668 BC, the annual reconsecration ceremony ceased to occur and Babylonia lacked (in the view of the population) a true king,

In 687 BC Sennacherib was assassinated by his sons, resulting in the first of many Assyrian civil wars.

In 671 Assyria conquered Egypt for the first time. They ruled the the country until 669 BC, when southern Egypt rebelled. Subsequent campaigns to retake southern Egypt were expensive and unsuccessful.

In 663 Assyrian king Asherbanipal (669 – 631 BC) [2] successfully conquered and occupied Elam.

Following his death, his son Ashur-etil-ilani became king of Assyria and installed his brother on the throne of Babylonia. Assisted by the Elamites, his brother led an uprising against Assyrian rule in 640 BC.

In 617 BC, the Babylonian king, with the support of Elamites and the Medes, [3] Babylonia invaded Assyria proper and conquered several regions west of the Euphrates.

In 612 BC, this coalition sacked Nineveh, [4] the new capitol of Assyria, with Babylonia taking control of much of Assyria – forming the Neo-Babylonian Empire.


[1] Chaldea was a small country that between the late 10th or early 9th and mid-6th centuries BC, whose population was assimilated into the indigenous population of Babylonia

[2] Ruled a loose coalition of city states in Media.

[3]See History of Assyria: Ashurbanipal’s Library and Gilgamesh

[4] Ashurbanipal moved the capitol of Assyria to Nineveh around 700 BC. At time it was sacked, it was the largest city in the world (est pop 230,000).

https://www.kanopy.com/en/pukeariki/video/5754238/5754282