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What is the secret of the Arab Muslim conquests?

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"When they appeared before Jalut (Goliath) and his army, they said:: "Our Lord! Pour out patience on us, strengthen our feet, and help us to overcome the unbelieving people."
(The Qur'an. Surah two. The cow (Al-Baqarah).

Even the Roman emperors made it a rule to recruit auxiliary detachments of light cavalry from the Arabs, residents of the Arabian Peninsula. After them, this practice was continued by the Byzantines. However, repelling the attacks of nomads in the north, they could hardly have imagined that in the first half of the seventh century, numerous armed groups of Arabs, moving on camels, horses and on foot, would break out of Arabia and become a serious threat to them in the south.

In the late seventh and early eighth centuries, a wave of Arab invaders invaded Syria and Palestine, Iran and Mesopotamia, Egypt, and parts of Central Asia. In their campaigns, the Arabs reached Spain in the west, the Indus and Syr Darya Rivers in the east, the Caucasus Range in the north, and in the south, they reached the shores of the Indian Ocean and the barren sands of the Sahara Desert. In the territory they conquered, a state emerged, united not only by the power of the sword but also by faith – a new religion that they called Islam!
Muhammad (on horseback) receives the consent of the Bani Nadir clan to leave Madinah. Miniature from the book of Jami al-Tawarih, written by Rashid al-Din in Tabriz, Persia, 1307 AD.

But what was the reason for such an unprecedented rise in military affairs among the Arabs, who in a short time managed to create a power greater than the empire of Alexander the Great? There are several answers here, and all of them, in one way or another, stem from local conditions. Arabia is mostly desert or semi-desert, although there is also extensive pasture land suitable for horses and camels. Despite the fact that there is not enough water, there are places where sometimes it is only necessary to rake the sand with your hands to get to the subsurface waters. In the southwest of Arabia, there are two rainy seasons every year, so sedentary agriculture has been developed there since ancient times.

Among the sands, where the water broke through to the surface, there were oases of date palms. Their fruits, along with camel's milk, served as food for nomadic Arabs. The camel was also the Arab's main source of livelihood. Even killing was paid for with camels. A man who was killed in a fight had to pay as much as a hundred camels to avoid a blood feud with his relatives! But the horse, contrary to popular opinion, did not play a significant role. The horse needed good food and, most importantly, plenty of clean, fresh water. True, in conditions of lack of food and waterlessness, the Arabs taught their horses to eat anything-when there was no water, they were given milk from camels, and fed them dates, sweet cakes, and even ... fried meat. But Arab horses never learned to eat camel food, so only the very wealthy could keep them, while camels were available to everyone.

The entire population of the Arabian Peninsula consisted of separate tribes. Like the northern nomads, they were led by their own leaders, who were called sheiks by the Arabs. They also had large herds, and in their tents, covered with Persian carpets, you could see beautiful harnesses and precious weapons, beautiful utensils, and delicious treats. Tribal enmity weakened the Arabs, and especially the merchants, whose essence of life consisted in caravan trade between Iran, Byzantium, and India, had a particularly bad time. Ordinary Bedouin nomads plundered caravans and settled peasants, which caused the rich Arab elite to suffer very large losses. Circumstances demanded an ideology that would smooth out social contradictions, put an end to the prevailing anarchy, and direct the pronounced militancy of the Arabians to external goals. That's what Muhammad gave me. At first, derided for his obsession and surviving the blows of fate, he managed to unite his countrymen under the green banner of Islam. This is not the time to discuss this respected man, who openly admitted his weaknesses, renounced the glory of a miracle worker, and understood the needs of his followers, or to talk about his teachings.

Muhammad's army fights the Meccan army in 625 AD at the Battle of Uhud, in which Muhammad was wounded. This miniature is from a Turkish book circa 1600.
For us, the most important thing is that unlike other, earlier religions, including Christianity, Islam turned out to be much more specific and convenient, first of all, because it first established the order of life on earth, and only then promised someone paradise, and someone afterlife torments in the next world.

The moderate tastes of the Arabs were also matched by the rejection of pork, wine, gambling, and usury, which ruined the poor. God-pleasing activities were traded and, which was very important for the militant Arabians, " holy war "(jihad) against infidels, i.e. non-Muslims.

The spread of Islam and the unification of the Arabs took place very quickly, and troops were already being equipped to march on foreign countries when the Prophet Muhammad died in 632. But the undeterred Arabs immediately chose his "deputy" - the caliph, and the invasion began.

Already under the second Caliph Omar (634-644), the holy war led Arab nomads to Asia Minor and the Indus Valley. Then they invaded fertile Iraq, and western Iran, and established their dominance in Syria and Palestine. Then came Egypt – the main breadbasket of Byzantium, and in the early eighth century the Maghreb, its African possessions to the west of Egypt. After that, the Arabs conquered most of the kingdom of the Visigoths in Spain.

In November 636, the Byzantine army of Emperor Heraclius attempted to defeat the Muslims in the battle of the Yarmouk River (a tributary of the Jordan) in Syria. It is believed that the Byzantines had 110 thousand soldiers, and the Arabs only 50, but they attacked them several times in a row decisively, and finally broke their resistance and put them to flight (See for more details: Nicolle D. Yarmyk 630 AD. The Muslim conquest of Syria. L.: Osprey, 1994)
The Arabs lost 4030 people killed, but the losses of the Byzantines were so great that their army practically ceased to exist. The Arabs then laid siege to Jerusalem, which surrendered to them after a two-year siege. Along with Mecca, this city has become an important shrine for all Muslims.

One by one, the caliphs ' dynasties succeeded each other, and the conquests continued and continued. As a result, by the middle of the eighth century, a truly grandiose Arab Caliphate* was formed – a state with a territory many times larger than the entire Roman Empire, which had significant territories in Europe, Asia and Africa. Several times the Arabs tried to take Constantinople and kept it under siege. But the Byzantines managed to repel them on land, while at sea they destroyed the Arab fleet with "Greek fire" – a combustible mixture that included oil, which made it burn even on water, turning the ships of their opponents into floating bonfires.
It is clear that the period of victorious wars of the Arabs could not last forever, and already in the VIII century, their advance to the West and East was stopped. In 732, at the Battle of Poitiers in France, an army of Arabs and Berbers was defeated by the Franks. In 751, near Talas (now the city of Dzhambul in Kazakhstan), the Chinese defeated them.

Caliphs for a special tax guaranteed the local population not only personal freedom but also freedom of religion! Christians and Jews were also considered (as adherents of Monotheism and "people of the Book", i.e., the Bible and the Koran) quite close to Muslims, while pagans were subjected to merciless persecution. This policy proved to be very reasonable, although the Arab conquests were mainly promoted not so much by diplomacy as by force of arms.

Arab warriors should not be thought of only as horsemen, wrapped from head to toe in white, and with curved sabers in their hands. To begin with, they didn't have any curved sabers at all back then! All the Muslim warriors depicted in the Arabic miniature of 1314 – 1315 next to the Prophet Muhammad during his campaign against the Jews of Heybar are armed with long and straight double-edged swords. They are narrower than the modern swords of Europeans, they have a different crosshair, but they are really swords and not sabers at all.

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Almost all the first caliphs also had swords, which have been preserved up to the present time. However, judging by the collection of these blades in Istanbul's Topkapi Palace Museum, the Prophet Muhammad still had a saber. It was called "Zulfi-kar", and its blade was with yelmanyu – located at the end of the blade broadening, the weight of which gave the blow much greater force. However, it is believed that it is not actually of Arab origin. One of Caliph Uthman's swords also had a straight blade, although it has a single blade, like a saber.

Interestingly, the banner of the Prophet Muhammad at the very beginning was also not green, but black! All other caliphs, as well as various Arab tribes, had banners of the same color. The first was called "live", the second - was "paradise". One and the same leader could have two banners: one – his own, the other – tribal.

We will also not see any protective weapons, except for small round shields, on the above-mentioned miniature among the Arabs, although this does not mean anything at all. The fact is that wearing protective armor under clothing was even more widespread in the East than in Europe, and the Arabs were no exception. It is well known that Arab craftsmen were famous not only for their edged weapons, which they produced from Indian damask but also for their chain armor, the best of which was made in Yemen. Since Islam forbade images of people and animals, weapons were decorated with plant ornaments, and later in the XI century – with inscriptions. When Damascus became the main city of the Muslim world, it also became a center for the production of weapons.

It is not for nothing that blades made of specially patterned high-quality steel were colloquially called "Damascus", although they were often produced in a variety of places. The high quality of Damascus steel was explained in the East not only by the technology of its manufacture but also by a special way of quenching the metal. The master took a red-hot blade out of the forge with a pair of tongs and handed it to a rider who sat astride a horse at the door of the workshop. Taking the blade clenched in the tongs, the rider, without wasting a second, let the horse run at full speed and raced like the wind, letting the airflow around it and cool it, as a result of which hardening took place. Weapons were richly decorated with gold and silver notches, precious stones, and pearls, and in the VII century even in excessive quantities. The Arabs were particularly fond of turquoise, which they obtained from the Sinai Peninsula, as well as from Persia. The cost of such weapons was exceptionally high. According to Arabic sources, a well-crafted sword could cost up to a thousand gold denarii. If you take into account the weight of a gold denarius (4.25 g), it turns out that the cost of the sword was equivalent to 4,250 kg of gold! In fact, it was a fortune.

The Byzantine emperor Leo, reporting on the army of the Arabs, mentioned only one cavalry, consisting of horsemen with long spears, horsemen with throwing spears, horsemen with bows, and heavily armed horsemen. Among the Arabs themselves, horsemen were divided into al-Muhajirs-heavily armed and al-Sansars – lightly armed warriors.

However, the Arab army also had infantry. In any case, at first, the Arabs were so short of horses that in 623, during the Battle of Badr, two people sat on each horse, and only later did the number of horsemen increase. As for heavy armor, it is unlikely that anyone among the Arabs wore them constantly, but the entire stock of protective weapons was used in battle. Each horseman had a long spear, a mace, and one or even two swords, one of which could be a konchar – the same sword, but with a narrow three-or four-sided blade, most convenient for hitting the enemy through ringed armor.

Having become familiar with military affairs among the Persians and Byzantines, the Arabs, like them, began to use horse armor, as well as protective shells made of metal plates that were connected to each other and put on over chain mail. Interestingly, the Arabs did not know stirrups at first but very quickly learned to use them, and they themselves began to make first-class stirrups and saddles. The Arab cavalry could dismount and fight on foot, using their long spears as pikes, like the Western European infantry. During the Umayyad dynasty, the Arabs ' tactics were similar to those of the Byzantines. Moreover, their infantry was also divided into heavy and light, consisting of the poorest Arab archers.

Cavalry became the main striking force of the caliphate's army during the Abbasid dynasty. It consisted of heavily armed horse archers in chain mail and lamellar armor. Their shields were often of Tibetan origin, made of well-tanned leather. Now, most of this army was made up of Iranians, not Arabs, as well as natives of Central Asia, where at the very beginning of the IX century an independent Samanid state was formed, breaking away from the caliphate of the rulers of Bukhara. Interestingly, although by the middle of the tenth century the Arab Caliphate had already broken up into a number of separate states, the decline of military affairs among the Arabs did not occur.

Fundamentally new troops emerged, consisting of ghouls – young slaves specially bought for use in military service. They were carefully trained in military affairs and armed with funds from the treasury. At first, Ghulams played the role of the praetorian guard (personal bodyguards of the emperors of Rome) at the person of the caliph. Gradually, the number of Ghulams increased, and their units began to be widely used in the army of the Caliphate. Poets who described their weapons noted that they glittered as if " made up of many mirrors." Contemporary historians have noted that it looked "like the Byzantine one", i.e., it was called the Byzantine Empire. people and horses were dressed in armor and blankets made of metal plates (Nicolle D. Armies of the Caliphates 862-1098. L: Osprey, 1998. P. 15).

Now the Arab troops were an army of people who had the same faith, similar customs, and language but continued to maintain their national forms of weapons, the best of which were gradually adopted by the Arabs. From the Persians, they borrowed the scabbards of swords, in which, in addition to the sword itself, darts, a dagger, or a knife was placed, and from Central Asia-a saber…

In the Eighth Crusade, 1270 Louis IX's crusaders land in Tunis. One of the few medieval miniatures showing Eastern warriors with sabers in their hands. Miniature from the Chronicle of Saint-Denis. Circa 1332-1350. (British Library)

In battle, complex tactical formations were used, when infantry consisting of spearmen was placed in front, followed by archers and javelin throwers, then cavalry and (when possible) war elephants. The Gulyam cavalry was the main striking force of such a formation and was located on the flanks. In combat, the spear was used first, then the sword, and finally the mace.
Cavalry units were divided according to the weight of their armor. The horsemen had a monotonous armament, since warriors on horses with protective armor made of metal plates could hardly be used to pursue a retreating enemy, and felt blankets for lightly armed horsemen were not sufficient protection against arrows and swords during an attack against infantry.

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Indian shield (dhal) made of steel and bronze. The Mughal Empire. (Royal Ontario Museum, Canada)

In the Maghreb countries (in North Africa), the influence of Iran and Byzantium was less noticeable. Local weapons were retained here, and the nomadic Berbers of North Africa, although they had converted to Islam, continued to use light javelins rather than heavy spears.

The way of life of the Berbers, known to us from the descriptions of travelers of that time, was closely related to the conditions of their existence. Any nomad from faraway Mongolia would have found almost the same thing here as in his homeland, in any case, the rules there and here were very similar.

"The king ... gives the people an audience in the tent to deal with complaints received; around the tent during the audience are ten horses under gilded veils, and behind the king are ten young men with leather shields and swords decorated with gold. To his right are the sons of the nobles of his country, dressed in fine clothes and with golden threads woven into their hair. The ruler of the city sits on the ground in front of the king, and the viziers also sit on the ground around him. At the entrance to the tent are purebred dogs with gold and silver collars, to which many gold and silver badges are attached; they do not take their gaze off the king, protecting him from any encroachments. The royal audience is announced by a drumbeat. A drum called a "daba" is a long hollow piece of wood. Approaching the king, his co-religionists fall to their knees and sprinkle dust on their heads. This is their greeting to the king, " said one of the travelers who visited the Berber tribes of North Africa.

Black warriors of Africa took an active part in the Arab conquests, which is why Europeans often confused them with Arabs. Black slaves were even bought specifically to make warriors out of them. There were especially many such warriors in Egypt, where at the beginning of the X century they made up almost half of the entire army. They also recruited the personal guards of the Egyptian Fatimid dynasty, whose soldiers had an ornate pair of javelins and shields with convex plaques of silver.

In general, in Egypt during this time period, infantry prevailed over cavalry. In battle, its detachments were built on a national basis and used their own types of weapons. For example, the warriors of northwestern Sudan used bows and javelins but did not have shields. And other warriors had large oval shields from East Africa, which were said to be made of elephant skin. In addition to throwing weapons, the sabardarah (eastern halberd) was used with a length of five cubits, and three cubits were occupied by a wide steel blade, often slightly curved. On the opposite border of the Arab possessions, Tibetans fought with large shields made of white leather and in quilted protective clothing (See for more details: Nicolle D. The Armies of Islam 7th – 11th centuries. L.: Osprey. 1982.).

By the way, quilted clothing, despite the heat, was worn by the city's Arab militia, and also by many African soldiers, which is quite surprising. So, in the XI century, Islam was adopted by the inhabitants of the African state of Kanem-Bornu, located in the Lake Chad region. Already in the XIII century, it was a real "horse empire", numbering up to 30,000 mounted warriors, dressed... in thick quilted armor made of cotton fabrics and felt. These "knights of Africa" used quilted horse blankets to protect not only themselves but also their horses until the end of the 19th century. Warriors of the neighboring Begharmi people of Bornu also wore quilted armor, which they reinforced with rows of rings sewn on them. But the Bornu used small squares of cloth sewn on them, inside of which were metal plates, so that the outside of their armor resembled a patchwork quilt with a two-color geometric pattern. The horse's equine equipment included a copper headpiece lined with leather, as well as elaborate breastplates, collars, and tailpipes.

As for the Moors (as the Europeans called the Arabs who conquered Spain), their weapons began to resemble in many ways the weapons of the Frankish warriors, whom they constantly encountered in days of peace and war. The Moors also had two types of cavalry: light – Berber-Andalusian, even in the X century did not use stirrups and threw javelins at the enemy, and heavy, from head to toe dressed in a European-style chain hauberk, which in the XI century became the main armor of horsemen in Christian Europe. In addition, the Moors also used bows. In addition, in Spain, it was worn somewhat differently-over clothing, while in Europe it was worn with a surcoat (a short-sleeved velvet cape), and in the Middle East and North Africa – kaftans. Shields were usually round and were made of leather, metal, or wood, which were again covered with leather.

Of particular value in the Arab East were shields made of Damascus steel, cold-forged from iron and with high hardness. In the process of working, cracks formed on their surface, which were filled with gold wire in the form of notches and formed irregular patterns. Rhino skin shields, which were made in India and among African peoples, were also valued, and they were very brightly and colorfully decorated with paintings, gold, and silver.

These kinds of shields had a diameter of no more than 60 cm and had extreme resistance to sword strikes. Very small shields made of rhino skin, the diameter of which did not exceed more than 40 cm, were also used as fist shields, i.e. in battle, they could be struck. Finally, there were shields made of thin fig tree twigs, which were intertwined with silver braids or colored silk threads. The result was elegant arabesques, which made them look very elegant and were characterized by high strength. All-round leather shields were usually convex. At the same time, the fastenings of the belts for which they were held were covered with plaques on the outer surface, and a quilted pillow or cloth was placed inside the shield to soften the blows inflicted on it.

Another variety of the Arab shield, the adarga, was so widespread in the 13th and 14th centuries that it was used by Christian troops in Spain itself, and then spread to France, Italy, and even England, where such shields were used until the 15th century. The old Moorish adarga was shaped like a heart or two fused ovals and was made from several layers of very tough, strong leather. They wore it on a belt over the right shoulder, and on the left, they held it by the fist handle.

Since the surface of the adarga was flat, it was very easy to decorate, so the Arabs decorated these shields not only from the outside but also from the inside.
Along with the Norman knights, Byzantines, and Slavs at the beginning of the XI century, the Arabs used shields that had the shape of a "reverse drop". Apparently, this form turned out to be convenient for the Arabs, although they usually cut off the sharpest lower corner. We note the established exchange of weapons samples, during which the most successful forms of them passed to different peoples not only in the form of war trophies but through the usual purchase and sale.

The Arabs were rarely defeated on the battlefields. For example, during the war against Iran, it was not the heavily armed Iranian horsemen who seemed particularly terrible to them, but the war elephants, who snatched the warriors out of the saddle with their trunks and threw them to the ground at their feet. The Arabs had never seen them before, and at first, thought that they were not animals, but cunningly made war machines against which it was useless to fight. But they soon learned to fight elephants and were no longer as afraid of them as they had been in the beginning. For a long time, the Arabs did not know how to storm fortified cities and had no idea about siege-assault equipment. It was not for nothing that Jerusalem surrendered to them only after a two-year siege, Caesarea held out for seven, and for five whole years, the Arabs unsuccessfully besieged Constantinople! But later they learned a lot from the Byzantines themselves and began to use the same technique as they did, i.e., even in this case, they had to borrow the experience of an older civilization.

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The initial letter "R", representing the Sultan of Damascus Nur-ad-Din. Interestingly, the sultan is depicted with bare legs, but in a mail shirt and helmet. He is pursued by two knights: Godfrey Martel and Hugues de Luisignan, the Elder, in full mail armor and helmets similar to those depicted in the Maciejewski Bible. Miniature from the "History of Outremer". (British Library)

Thus, we see that the armies of the Arab East differed from the European ones in the first place not at all in the fact that some of the weapons were heavy, while others were light. Costumes similar to quilted caftans can be seen on the "canvas of Bayeux". But they were also among the mounted warriors of sultry Africa. Both Byzantine, Iranian, and Arab cavalrymen had scaly (lamellar) carapaces and horse blankets, and it was at that era when Europeans did not even think about all this. The main difference was that in the East infantry and cavalry complemented each other, while in the West there was a continuous process of displacement of infantry by cavalry. Already in the XI century, the foot soldiers who accompanied the knights were essentially just servants. No one tried to properly train them and arm them, whereas in the East, quite a lot of attention was paid to the monotonous arming of troops and their training. Heavy cavalry was supplemented with light detachments, which were used for reconnaissance and starting a battle. Both here and there, professional soldiers served in the heavily armed cavalry. But the Western knight, although he was at this time more lightly armed than similar warriors of the East, had much more independence, because in the absence of good infantry and light cavalry, he was the main force on the battlefield.

Arab horsemen, just like European horsemen, needed to be able to accurately strike the enemy with a spear, and for this they also had to constantly train. In addition to the European technique of attacking with a spear at the ready, Eastern riders learned to hold the spear with both hands at the same time, holding the reins in their right hand. Such a blow would even tear apart the two-layer chain armor, with the spearhead coming out of the back!

To develop the accuracy and strength of the blow, the game birjas was used, during which riders at full gallop struck spears at a column made up of many wooden blocks. Blows of spears were required to knock out individual blocks, and so that the column itself did not crumble.

But their similarity was not limited to weapons alone. The Arab knights, like, for example, their European counterparts, had extensive land holdings, which were not only hereditary, but also granted to them for military service. They were called ikta in Arabic and in the X–XI centuries. turned entirely into military fiefs, similar to the land possessions of knights of Western Europe and professional warriors of many other states in Eurasia.

It turns out that the knighthood was formed in the West and in the East almost simultaneously, but for a long time they could not measure their strength. The exception was Spain, where the border war between Christians and Muslims did not subside for a single moment.

On October 23, 1086, a few miles from Badajoz, near the town of Zalaka, an army of Spanish Moors met in battle with the royal knights of the Castilian King Alfonso VI. By this time, feudal fragmentation had already reigned in the lands of the Arabs, but before the threat from the Christians, the emirs of southern Spain managed to forget their long-standing enmity and called for the help of their African co – religionists-the Almoravids. These warlike nomadic tribes were considered barbarians by the Arabs of Andalusia. Their ruler, Yusuf ibn Teshufin, seemed a fanatic to the Emirs, but there was nothing to do, and they marched against the Castilians under his command.

The battle began with an attack by Christian cavalry cavalry, against which Yusuf fielded infantry detachments of the Andalusian Moors. And when the knights managed to overturn them and drive them to the camp, Yusuf calmly listened to the news and only said: "Do not rush to their aid, let their ranks thin out even more – they, like Christian dogs, are also our enemies."

Meanwhile, the Almoravid cavalry was waiting in the wings. It was strong both in numbers and, above all, in discipline, which broke all the traditions of knightly warfare with its group fights and duels on the battlefield. There came a moment when the knights were scattered all over the field in pursuit, and then Berber horsemen ambushed them from the rear and flanks. The Castilians, mounted on tired and sweaty horses, were surrounded and routed. King Alfonso, at the head of a detachment of 500 horsemen, managed to escape from the encirclement and with great difficulty escaped from the pursuit.

This victory and the subsequent unification of all the emirates under Yusuf's rule made such a strong impression that the Arab jubilation was never over, and Christian preachers across the Pyrenees immediately called for a crusade against the infidels. For a full ten years before the well-known first crusade to Jerusalem, the crusader army was assembled, invaded the Muslim lands of Spain and ... again suffered defeat there.

* Caliphate — a Muslim feudal theocracy headed by the caliph, a secular-religious ruler who was considered the legitimate successor of Muhammad. The Arab caliphate centered in Medina lasted only until 661. Then power passed to the Umayyads (661-750), who moved the capital of the caliphate to Damascus, and from 750 to the Abbasids, who moved it to Baghdad.

**The earliest mention of chain mail is found even in the Qur'an, where it is said that God softened the iron with the hands of Daoud and said: "Make a perfect shell out of it and connect it thoroughly with rings." This is what the Arabs called chain mail - the armor of Daoud.

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