(ISLAM, POWER and EMPIRE – continued)

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ISLAM, POWER and EMPIRE, to 677 CE (4 of 6)

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Muslim Conquests in Egypt and Iran

In the year 638 a general named Amr asked Umar for permission to invade Egypt – which was still nominally a part of Constantinople's empire. Amr described Egypt as rich and defenseless. Umar reluctantly approved, and in late 639 Amr made a swift raid into Egypt's Delta region to test the strength of Constantinople's defenses there. At the city of Heliopolis he routed Constantinople's forces. Then he overran open country. But without heavy siege weapons he was unable to take the city of Alexandria, and his army set up at a fortified camp six or seven miles northeast from Heliopolis, a spot that would eventually grow into the city of Cairo.

In Egypt, Constantinople's Catholic authorities had persecuted, flogged, tortured and executed Monophysite Christians, and the Monophysites saw the Arabs as liberators. So too did Egypt's peasants, who had felt oppressed by tyrannical, mostly Greek, landlords.

In 642 Alexandria finally fell to the forces under Amr, with Constantinople's troops and officials there fleeing Egypt, as did many merchants and landowners, who took with them what gold coins they could. Amr welcomed the return from hiding of Benjamin, the patriarch of the local Monophysite Christians, and he assured Benjamin that in the future his people would enjoy religious liberty.

Conquests were a source of wealth for the Arabs, and motivated by gain in wealth the Arabs invaded Armenia and Persia. They conquered Armenia in 642,  making the people there subjects of Umar, but in name only as the Armenians, protected by their mountainous terrain, remained virtually self-governing and zealously Christian.

In 645, Constantinople tried to regain control over Egypt, transporting an army across the Mediterranean Sea. But Constantinople's army, weakened by several decades of warfare, was easily defeated, with the native Monophysite Christians fighting alongside the Muslims.

By 646 the Muslims conquered all of Egypt, turning Egypt into a colony. The Muslims mitigated friction between themselves and local people by putting local administration and tax collecting into local hands and leaving the Egyptians with control over their agricultural lands.


For the Arabs, conquering Persia (Iran) was harder than previous conquests. Persians saw the Arabs as barbarians and enemies rather than as liberators. They saw themselves as a superior people, and they were willing to fight to defend their homeland. Arab warriors ran into resistance led by local Persian leaders. It would take decades to subdue all of the quasi-independent principalities that had been a part of the Sassanian empire.

In resisting the Arabs, the last of the Sassanid kings, Yazdegerd III, raised an army of 150,000 men. But with victory in Egypt, the Muslims were able to send reinforcements at a critical moment. At the Battle of Nihawand, 30,000 Muslims routed Yezdegerd's army, the Arabs catching and massacring the Persians in narrow gorges. Arabia's Muslim warriors saw this as their greatest victory, and it was decided that all of Persia should be subdued. Yazdegerd III, the last Sassanid king, fled eastward, and in 652, near Merv, he was murdered by local thieves for his jewelry. But it would be many years before Islam would be able to subdue Persia as far as its eastern border.

In Persia, Zoroastrianism was doomed as a great religion. In response to conquest by Islam's armies, the Zoroastrians would foment rebellions, and the conquering Muslims responded. In many provinces they forced Zoroastrians to convert to Islam, with many Zoroastrians adopting Nestorian Christianity instead. Here and there in Persia, Zoroastrians were to remain, but they were to be a small minority.


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