Genesis of the Arabic Golden Age
Rapid conquest is impressive. Building a civilization greater than the one conquered is even more impressive. The Ancient Arab civilization is known for its conquests, but in other ways it is misunderstood and underappreciated even by its progeny. There has never been an empire of this kind before or since. Its backbone was a social contract between its two leading castes. Its inception, the creation of the Arab fleet in AD 649. Its end, the dissolution of trust and the subsequent extermination of the majority caste.
It dawned on Muawiya, while he was the governor of Syria, that the security of his territories and the continual expansion of the Caliphate would never be possible unless the Byzantine fleet was checked. Otherwise, none of the territorial gains around the Mediterranean would ever be secure. Constructing a fleet is not an easy task. The Arabs had mastered the deserts and the plains, but their seafaring experience was limited to running merchant lanes through the Indian Ocean. It was not enough for Muawiya to construct a larger fleet. Each ship must stack up technologically to the average Byzantine vessel. Each must be sufficiently fast. The fleet must rely on well trained and disciplined crews containing as few slaves as possible. In naval battles, the margin for error is razor thin.
Muawiya knew he needed help in order to succeed, and he got it from an unexpected source. Assyrian Christians came to his aid. They were pejoratively labeled “nestorians” by the Byzantine Church and the Roman Catholic Church due to minor doctrinal disagreements that were largely linguistic and political in nature. The Byzantine Empire suppressed them and overtaxed territories in which they made up the majority of the population. When Muslim armies approached those territories, many groups of the Assyrian Christians switched sides without putting up a fight. After all, Muslims commonly treated them better than the Byzantines, and their taxes were lower. Assyrians had expertly operated ports and military ship construction for generations in places like Caesarea, Tyre, and Cyprus.
Assyrian Christians helped Muawiya reduce the reach of the Byzantine Empire. In addition to that, many were no longer content to live in a perpetual buffer zone, constantly wrecked by a protracted and bloody struggle between the remnants of Roman and Persian Empires. If Muslims gained the mastery of the seas, the wars will go west. It worked. Muawiya provided the troops and the materiel. Assyrians brought the skills and the specialists, including engineers and navigators. In the Battle of Masts (655) the balance of power was changed for 500 years, even more than it was altered after the Battle at the Yarmouk River. North Africa and Spain were both doomed.
When Muawiya established the Omayyad Dynasty, he remembered the help that he had received. Then, he ensured the primacy of his civilization by breaking precedent. Instead of enslaving and expelling Christians, he made them partners in his rule. He chose a Christian lady as his first wife. He moved his capital to the most christianized city in Asia, to Damascus. He installed Christians into his government and empowered them with reasonable autonomy. This arrangement will persist and blossom into the Arabic Golden Age under the Abbasid Dynasty reaching its zenith in the 12th century, when Baghdad will be the first city of the Earth.
Thus, the backbone of the Abbasid Empire became a unique social contract between Muslims and Christians, its two leading social castes. The Assyrian Christians made up the majority of the population in modern-day Syria and Iraq. They were generally exempt from military service in exchange for a special tax, and dominated many industries. They were not allowed to convert Muslims, but proselytizing from any other religion was fair game. They multiplied greatly, generated vast amounts of wealth through economic activity, and established a school system throughout Asia. At their peak, the Assyrian Christians numerically outnumbered the Roman Catholic and the Byzantine Christians combined.
In turn, the Muslims guarded the frontiers of the juggernaut with professional highly-skilled armies. In between conquests, raiding the coastal areas for slaves was their favorite past time.
It all went crashing down, when Mongols tore the very fabric on which this society was based. They destroyed completely that very trust that bound the two castes in social contract. The events that followed put civilization in reverse gear up to our present day. But that story is for another time.
At the end of remembering history, it is customary to sermonize. This time, let’s break with the precedent with two photos taken around the turn of the twentieth century. Two pictures can be worth two thousand words.
||St. Petersburg, ~1900