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Making Way for Islam: Empires at War

Constantinople's empire (the Byzantine empire) and the Sasanian empire (centered in Iran) were warring against each other. In 573 the Sasanians overran cities within Constantinople's empire, including Dara (today at the border between Turkey and northeast Syria). A Byzantine–Sasanian War would last until 628 (more than fifty years) and contribute to a weakened Byzantine Empire and help Islam spread from Arabia across Constantinople's territory in North Africa and into Iran.

The Byzantine-Sasanian War might have ended in the early 590s when the Byzantine emperor, Maurice, helped the Sasanian, Khosrow II, hold on to power in Iran. Khosrow II ascended the Sasanian throne in 590. Zoroastrian priests were opposed to Khosrow's tolerance of Christians, and a Sasanian general drove Khosrow into exile — to Constantinople — where he put himself at the mercy of Maurice. Maurice helped Khosrow return to power. A little tolerance allowed Maurice and Khosrow to see the war between their two empires as troublesome. Iran, moreover, was being invaded from the east by Turks. Maurice and Khosrow maintained peace between their two empires, with Khosrow marrying a Christian princess from Constantinople.

But for Maurice, trouble was ahead. Maurice's government was short of money, and he angered his soldiers by reducing their pay and obliging them to pay for their own arms and clothing. In 602, Maurice's army mutinied, a mutiny led by a non-commissioned army officer named Phocas. Phocas' army marched on Constantinople and seized the city. Civilians joined the revolt, aiming their hostilities not only against Maurice but also against anyone who was wealthy. Phocas sought the destruction of Maurice and his family. Maurice's five sons were butchered, one at a time in front of him while he prayed. Then Maurice was beheaded. The empress, her three daughters and many of the aristocracy were also slain, some of them after being tortured. In Italy, Pope Gregory had been in conflict with Christianity's authority in Constantinople, and he joyfully applauded Maurice's demise. Gregory described the coming to power of Phocas as the work of Providence. He called on Catholics to pray that Phocas might be strengthened against all his enemies.

Khosrow II, disturbed by the death of his friend Maurice and his family, moved to avenge those deaths — or at least he used the murders as a pretext to renew his empire's war against Constantinople, claiming his right to reconstitute the empire of the past's great Achaemenian kings, Cyrus and Darius. The Zoroastrian priesthood was pleased. As they saw it, their king was responsible for conquering the world in order to spread peace and the Zoroastrian faith. For them it was preparation for Armageddon — not the Christian one that motivated Justinian but the Zoroastrian Armageddon of the god Mazda victorious against Satan.

In 614, inside Constantinople's empire, Khosrow's forces sacked Jerusalem and massacred 90,000 Christians, burning to the ground many Christian churches and carrying Christian relics back to Iran. In 614, inside Constantinople's empire, the Avars sacked cities in Greece. And, in 616, Khosrow's forces invaded and occupied Egypt, meeting little resistance. In 617 the Avars neared Constantinople, while large numbers of Slavs were spreading southward and settling in Greece. In 623, Slavs ravaged the island of Crete. In 626, Avars, supported by Slavs, attacked the walls of Constantinople. A Sasanian force also assaulted the city. The Patriarch of Constantinople, Sergius, led a courageous defense of Constantinople and defeated the Avars. The Avars withdrew to Pannonia and never again threatened Constantinople. Unable to penetrate Constantinople's walls and facing Constantinople's superior navy, Khosrow II withdrew his forces from around the city.

For the Sasanians it was another instance of expansions producing weakness. Their move into Egypt, Palestine and Asia Minor were hollow victories. Constantinople exercised its naval power and sent ships into the Black Sea, disembarked troops behind the Sasanian armies, and these troops began marching toward the Sasanian capital, Ctesiphon, destroying what they could along the way. The fleeing Sasanian troops broke dikes to create floods in order to slow Constantinople's progress. They destroyed the old and great canal works in Mesopotamia, which were to fill with silt and remain neglected. However devoted the Sassanian troops were to their civilization, they were weakening it and making it more vulnerable to rivals — the upcoming Islamists.

Khosrow II fled Ctesiphon. His armies were angered by what they saw as their humiliation. Khosrow's generals joined with the old rivals of the monarchy, the nobles, and imprisoned Khosrow. They fed Khosrow bread and water and killed eighteen of his sons before his eyes. Then the generals, encouraged by his remaining son, Sheroye, executed Khosrow. Sheroye was crowned king, and he took the name Kavadh II.

In 630, Kavadh II signed a peace treaty that returned Egypt, Palestine, Asia Minor and western Mesopotamia to Constantinople. Prisoners of war were to be exchanged. Kavadh returned to Jerusalem relics that had been taken from there, including what were believed to be the remains of the cross of Jesus. The two sides recognized boundaries that had existed before the war. The years of war had gained nothing for either side.

Then, after less than one year as emperor, Kavadh died. His seven-year-old son, Ardashir III, succeeded him and ruled in name only until a general, Shahrbaraz, killed the boy and usurped the throne. In turn, Shahrbaraz' own soldiers killed him and dragged his body through the streets of Ctesiphon. Anarchy swept through the Sasanian empire, already exhausted by years of war. In the coming four years, nine men tried to gain the throne, and all disappeared through flight, assassination or death by disease. The Sassanian empire was disintegrating. Cities and provinces declared their independence.

The Christian empire centered at Constantinople was also weakened, while the neighboring force of Islam had been on the rise in Arabia and would be able to expand both at the Byzantine empire and into Persia.

CONTINUE READING: Islam's Rise from Cultural Diffusion

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