From Temple to Mosque
The Great Mosque of Damascus represented the cultural amalgamation that had taken place in parts of what had once been the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Built on the remains of what had once been a temple to the pagan gods—to the Syriac Hadad, and then to Jupiter, the patriarch of the Roman pantheon—a Christian Church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist represented the conversion of the Empire to Christianity. Following the fall of Damascus to the Muslim forces, the Church of St. John was converted to an Islamic mosque. One of the sacred relics associated with the old church was retained in the midst of the abstract symbolism of Islam.
Although the eastern half of the Roman empire did not fall to Germanic tribes, it had severe problems. Political factions—the Blues and Greens—associated with rival parties in the Hippodrome created instability in the capital. The population of the eastern empire was divided into many ethnic groups. The urban centers of the East began to decline in favor of the agricultural countryside. Finally, the great metropolitan bishops of Christianity constantly squabbled over political supremacy and the questions of religious orthodoxy.
Justinian and the Creation of the Byzantine State
The emperor Justinian temporarily restored the fortunes of the Byzantine state. Justinian mounted a reconquest of parts of the empire lost to the Germanic tribes. The generals Belisarius and Narses took back northern Africa from the Vandals, Italy from the Ostrogoths, and a part of Spain from the Visigoths. The enormous expense of Justinian’s ambitious military policy was passed on in taxes to the residents of the empire. Justinian is also credited with codifying the Roman legal system, and his code has provided the model for many European legal systems. The magnificence of Justinian’s achievements were matched by the strain on the treasury. Bankrupt successors were unable to deal with renewed assaults on the borders of the empire. The Sassanid Empire, a successor state of the Seleucid Empire, captured Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. The emperor Heraclius recaptured the eastern territories from the Sassanids, but the weakened Byzantine state could not defend its easternmost regions from the Muslims indefinitely.
Emperors and Individuals
Byzantine society was characterized by the direct relationship between an all-powerful emperor and citizens of all ranks. The emperor, sometimes assisted or even replaced by his spouse, was the sole source of authority in Byzantium. All other members of Byzantine society venerated the emperor in the eastern tradition. An enormous bureaucracy carried out the actual tasks of administration. The most important bureaucratic positions were in the hands of enuchs. After Justinian, the empire was divided into about twenty-five military districts or themes governed by military commanders called strategoi.
Families and Villages
The success of the civil and military administration left no room for the establishment of aristocratic political elites. Social organization devolved to the level of the nuclear family. In the countryside, the highest level of political organization was the village. Even agricultural organization was based on the household rather than on cooperative communal effort. Mountainous geography contributed to regional isolation. Of the cities, Constantinople dwarfed the others in population and as a commercial center. The empire’s cities were industrial centers, particularly as producers of silk.
A Foretaste of Heaven
The common denominator of Byzantine culture was Orthodox Christianity. After the rise of Islam in the seventh century, the divisive squabbles among metropolitan bishoprics came to an end as Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem fell under the rule of the caliphs. In the Byzantine empire, the patriarch of Constantinople assumed primacy in the Orthodox Church. The emperors, also resident in Constantinople, appointed and dismissed patriarchs at will and were the true heads of the Church. The liturgy of Eastern Orthodoxy came to reflect the political order of Byzantium. The empire also promoted the christianization of the Slavs. In the ninth century Sts. Cyril and Methodius spread Christianity to Moravia. Soon the Bulgars also accepted Christianity and the Russians followed in the tenth century.
The monasteries retained their political independence against the interests of the episcopacy and the emperor. Icons, religious images thought to have mystic powers as intermediaries of the saints, strengthened the religious appeal of the monks. Beginning with Emperor Leo III, emperors sought to suppress the worship of icons. The attack on the images, iconoclasm, was a thinly veiled assault on monastic independence. Persecution of those who kept icons, iconodules, was carried out systematically until the end of the eighth century and then sporadically until the middle of the ninth century. Renewed acceptance of icons after 843 restored the influence of the monasteries.
The Rise of Islam
Islam incorporated elements of Judeo-Christian and traditional Arabic worship. Similarly, Muslim society merged Arab, Roman, Hellenistic, Persian, and Jewish societies.
Arabia Before the Prophet
Arabia remained until the seventh century on the periphery of the Byzantine and Sassanid empires. The Bedouin nomads of the Arabian deserts were, like the Germanic tribes before entry into the Roman empire, organized in kinship groups and depended on the feud to settle disputes. Authority, such as it was, was limited to kinship heads. The kinship groups supported themselves by herding, commerce, and raiding. Goods were held in common by all members of the kindred. Although there were some Christians and Jews among the Arab tribesmen, most Arabs were pagans who worshipped various tribal deities. Sanctuaries, haram, where feuding was forbidden, grew up around designated holy sites. One of these sanctuaries was located in the city of Mecca where the Quraysh tribe guarded the Ka’bah, a sacred black rock. With its neutrality guaranteed, Mecca grew into a major trade center for all Arabs, although the Quraysh regulated the commerce.
Muhammad, Prophet of God
Muhammad was born a member of a less distinguished family of the Quraysh. He made a successful marriage to Khadijah, a wealthy widow, and entered the ranks of the Quraysh merchants of Mecca. In 610, Muhammad received his first revelation that he was Allah’s messenger. His complete revelations were recorded in the Qur’an (Koran). Muhammad began to carry his message to the Arabs of Mecca. The governing elite not only refused his message, but became increasingly hostile to Muhammad’s insistence on obedience to the word of Allah as it appeared in the Qur’an. In 622 Muhammad abandoned Mecca for Medina, a smaller trading city that called on him to help the Medinans end civil strife.
The Triumph of Islam
The emigration to Medina, called the Hijra, marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. At Medina, Muhammad united the Arabs in a new religious community, the Umma, that superseded tribal and clan affiliations. The Jewish clans and all those who refused to recognize Muhammad’s leadership were expelled in the name of Allah. With Medina consolidated under his command, Muhammad moved against the Quraysh of Mecca. First he destroyed the Meccan trade network, then took the city itself in 629. From Medina and Mecca, the message of Islam spread rapidly throughout the Arabic tribes. Believers were attracted to the new religion through vivid descriptions of the delights of heaven and the pains of hell. There were also economic incentives. Mecca, its Ka’bah converted to an Islamic sanctuary, regained its centrality in Arabian trade, and the Quraysh rushed to accept Allah as the sole god. Converts to Islam were permitted to participate in the holy wars that forcibly brought other tribes into the Umma.
The Spread of Islam
Muhammad’s death in 632 disrupted the solidarity of the Umma. The Prophet had established no order of succession after his death, and disputes over political leadership arose between his immediate family, his earliest converts, and the traditional leading clans of the Quraysh in Mecca. In addition, many tribes felt only a personal loyalty to Muhammad, not to his successors. To maintain the Umma, the orthodox caliphs, Muhammad’s immediate successors, called for a holy war against tribes that had recanted their faith in Islam. Muslim armies gained control of all of Arabia, then extended their campaign to conquests of the neighboring Sassanid and Byzantine empires. Internal disruption within the Byzantine empire, particularly over religious disputes, paved the way for the Islamic invasion. Many Christians and Jews in Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and northern Africa viewed the Muslims as liberators from Byzantine impiety. Islamic armies reached the outer walls of Constantinople on two occasions.
Authority and Government in Islam
The creation of an Islamic empire created enormous constitutional difficulty for the Arabs. The Qur’an was silent on secular government. Two opposing traditions of government arose. In the first model, the Umma represented simply a new type of tribe, subject to traditional patterns of secular leadership provided by tribal leaders such as the Quraysh. The second model was more rigorously religious in outlook. According to the second view, only a member of Muhammad’s immediate family had sufficient moral purity to direct the affairs of the Umma. The Arabs initially left the administrative and economic networks untouched. Elites continued to govern without disruption. Only state property was confiscated for the Umma. Private property was largely undisturbed. Unequal division of the spoils of conquest caused dissatisfaction with the orthodox caliphate. The disagreement created a serious division between those who favored an immediate relative of the Prophet—represented by ‘Ali, Muhammad’s nephew—and those who desired continued government by major clan leaders. Although ‘Ali was named caliph, relatives of Uthman in the Umayyad clan who commanded the military in Syria refused to recognize ‘Ali. In 661 the Umayyads killed ‘Ali and established a caliphate with a new capital at Damascus in the Umayyad stronghold of Syria. ‘Ali’s partisans refused to recognize the purity of the Umayyad claim to authority and founded an opposition party, Shi’ism.
Umayyad and ‘Abbasid Caliphates
The Umayyads tried to convert the Islamic conquests into a secular state. The Umayyad caliphs extended the territories of Islam to the walls of Constantinople, the borders of China, and along the southern coast of the Mediterranean to Spain. The Umayyads attempted to maintain a strictly Arab elite within their state. As the number of non-Arab converts to Islam grew, dissatisfaction with the concept of Arab—especially Quraysh—dominance festered. Demands for greater equality among all Muslims coalesced with reformers’ claims into a broad movement that unseated the Umayyads. Distant relatives of Muhammad, the ‘Abbasids, were recognized as rightful successors. In 750 the ‘Abbasids replaced the Umayyads as rulers everywhere but in Spain. At the outset, the ‘Abbasids represented the reform movement and set out to govern according to strict religious principles. Arabs lost their control of Islamic government which was opened to all Muslims. The ‘Abbasids created a new capital in Baghdad, a recognition of the new importance of Iraq and Persia in the new government. The ‘Abbasids claimed absolute rights of government based on the righteousness of their claims to power. The caliphs created a centralized bureaucracy on the model of the eastern empires. Slave soldiers replaced the originally Arab armies. By the tenth century, the ‘Abbasid caliphs lost absolute control over Islam. Local military commanders, emirs, took over provincial governments. Various Shi’ite movements successfully established separatist governments. The most important Shi’ite revolution resulted in the creation of the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt. A third caliphate arose in Spain under the Umayyad, ‘Abd ar-Rahman III. External invasion led to the final collapse of the ‘Abbasids. Seljuk Turks conquered Baghdad in 1055, while much of northern Africa fell to Moroccan Berbers. The invasions disrupted the commercial and economic systems of the Islamic empire.
The Islamic conquest, far from destroying the conquered territories, at first brought about agricultural recovery and commercial revival. Unlike the Germanic invaders of the western half of the Roman empire, the Arabs avidly adopted the culture of Byzantium and Persia. Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman works of science, mathematics, and medicine were discovered and expanded. In philosophy, the Arabs translated the works of both Plato and Aristotle. Arab commentators such as Ya’qub al-Kindi, Ibn Sina, and Ibn Rushd sought to accommodate Greek philosophy to Islamic theology. The Arabs thus became the conservators of much of ancient culture lost in the Germanic West.
The Byzantine Apogee and Decline, 1000-1453
In the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Byzantine empire was able to regain temporarily its ascendancy in the eastern Mediterranean. Armies of the Macedonian dynasty regained footholds in Italy, Syria, and Asia Minor. Missions from the Orthodox Church carried Byzantine religion and culture to the Balkans and to Russia. Military successes brought with them a brief economic and cultural rebirth as well. Byzantine literature, in the main, remained fixed on Hellenistic models.
The Disintegration of the empire
After the Macedonian dynasty, serious problems once again threatened the Byzantine empire. Foremost among the difficulties was the increasing dominance of the aristocratic elite in control of both real property and the military. As the aristocracy began to intervene between the imperial administration and the peasantry, they became sufficiently powerful to initiate revolts against the government in Constantinople. At about the same time, foreign merchants, particularly Italians, began to monopolize Byzantine commerce to the detriment of the state’s finances. Finally, the empire faced more serious threats of foreign invasion. The Normans of southern Italy, under Robert Guiscard, menaced the western frontiers, while the forces of the Seljuk Turks invaded Asia Minor. In 1071 the Turks defeated the Byzantines and captured the emperor at the battle of Manzikert.
The Conquests of Constantinople and Baghdad
The Comnenian dynasty of Byzantium temporarily halted the decay within the empire by aligning itself with the aristocracy. External threats, however, remained serious. From the West, both the Normans and the bishop of Rome presented challenges to Byzantine supremacy. In 1054 a formal break between the obediences of the Orthodox Church and the Roman Church occurred. Following Manzikert, the Comneni were willing to embrace an alliance with the military powers of the West in order to stem the advance of the Turks. In response to Byzantine requests, the bishop of Rome called the First Crusade. Reckless freebooters entered the empire on the way to the Holy Land. By 1099 the crusaders successfully established the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem. At first overjoyed, the Byzantines came to fear the growing presence of westerners in the East. In 1204 Byzantine fears were realized when a “crusade” actually captured Constantinople. Although a Byzantine emperor was crowned again in 1261, the empire was fatally weakened. Like Byzantium, the ‘Abbasid empire fell to external invaders. In 1221 the Mongols from the steppes of Asia, under the leadership of Genghis Khan, smashed the remnants of Islamic unity. In 1258 Baghdad fell to the horde, and the last ‘Abbasid caliph was executed. The Mongols disrupted the disorganized Seljuk territories but faltered before the defenses of Egypt. When the Mongols withdrew, one of the Seljuk principalities, the Ottomans, began to overwhelm its neighbors. In the middle of the fifteenth century, Constantinople finally fell to the invaders.
And for the contrast… that would be the “differences” (or the things that are different) between the two Empires…
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