Islam in the Mediterranean During the Early Middle Ages

Article discusses the arrival of Islam in Mediterranean region with a focus on Istanbul and Turkey. The relationship to the merchants of Venice and the crusades should also be considered in this period of change. Join a Odyssey Traveller small group educational tour for senior couples and mature solo travellers to learn more.

13 May 22 · 12 mins read

Islam in the Mediterranean During the Early Middle Ages

In the early 7th century, a religious and political power emerged that would transform the early medieval Mediterranean world. Although it was not born in the Mediterranean region, Islam interacted it from its earliest days through trade, conquest, and conversion.

Muslims believe that Islam was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (670-632) in 612 in Medina. From then on, he would dedicate the rest of his life to spreading the faith, serving as a political leader and religious guide to the Islamic people. The aim of the Muslims during this time was to convert the pagan peoples of Arabia and submit or convert the Arabian Jewish tribes.

After Mohammad’s death in 632, his successors rapidly and extensively expanded the religion, creating caliphates occupying a vast geographical area. From its origins in the the Arabian Peninsula (in the cities of Mecca and Medina), the religion spread to North Africa, West Africa, to the Middle East, and south to Somalia. Moving across the Mediterranean, Muslim forces took control of the Iberian Peninsula in 711, with conquests and raids into Sicily and Southern Italy following from the 800s.

By the middle of the 9th century, the religion had expanded to dominate the eastern, southern, and western shores of the Mediterranean sea. At both ends of the sea, and in the islands and peninsulas between, the boundaries between the Christian and Muslim worlds had been established.

This article explores this expansion of the Islamic Mediterranean during the Early Middle Ages as background reading for Odyssey Traveller’s tours of the Mediterranean. We offer various small group tours for senior and mature travellers to locations across the Mediterranean, including Spain, Italy, Malta, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, and Greece. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Much of the information from this article is drawn from David Abulafia’s The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean and Hugh Kennedy’s ‘The Mediterranean frontier: Christianity face to face with Islam, 600–1050’.

Landscape with Atrani town at famous Amalfi coast, Italy, the Mediterranean.

The Eastern Mediterranean

Following his death in 632, Mohammad’s successors – the early ‘deputies’, or Khalifas (caliphs) – immediately began the Muslim conquests of the Christian lands of the eastern Mediterranean. Already by the end of 636, the Khalifas’ armies had successfully captured Damascus and much of Syria and Palestine, with the fall of Jerusalem following soon after. Caesarea, the last major city of the eastern shore of the Mediterranean to fall to the Muslim armies, was taken in 641.

Early Islam was able to win converts among the Christians of Syria because many were disaffected members of Monophysite churches persecuted by the Greek Church. Many adherents of eastern Christian sects recognised the familiarity of aspects of Islam, resulting in their steady assimilation into the new religion. The Muslims accepted Jesus, or Isa, as the greatest prophet after Muhammad, and accepted the Virgin Birth, while also insisting that Isa was only human. Other features of Islam recalled Jewish practices, notably the ban on eating pork, regular daily prayer (five times in Islam, three times in Judaism) and the lack of a priestly caste in charge of religious rites.

The Muslim view was that the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament were corrupted texts out of which the foretelling of the arrival of the greatest prophet had been edited. On the other hand, it was recognized that Jews and Christians, the ‘Peoples of the Book’, worshipped the same God as the Muslims. What emerged from this was the concept of the dhimmi: Christians and Jews, in return for the poll-tax, or jizyah, were guaranteed the right to worship, so long as they did not attempt to convert Muslims to their faith.

The furthers Islam political control expanded in the eastern Mediterranean was into the base of the Anatolian peninsular, what is now southern Turkey. Despite repeated and very damaging raids, the Muslims were never able to establish a permanent presence north of the Taurus Mountains and, indeed, they only made very sporadic attempts to do so. The attempts that were made to seize Constantinople, with sieges taking place in 669, 674-80, and in 716-17, were all unsuccessful.

Aladaglar and Demirkazik Summit On Taurus Mountains at Turkey

Until the failure of the last expedition against Constantinople, the Christian-Muslim frontier itself was vague and largely demarcated. Byzantines and Arabs were separated by areas of what was essentially no-man’s land, only sparsely populated and rarely fortified. The failure to take Constantinople seems to have resulted in a significant change in policy. The late Umayyad caliphs and their early Abbasid successors made a conscious decision to fortify the frontier and establish garrisons and key points in the valleys and plains to the south of the main Taurus range.

Kennedy writes, “In the East, by the mid-ninth century, if not before, the Christian–Muslim frontier had reached a kind of stasis: hostility combined with a sort of mutual respect provided a sort of stability.”

Eventually, during the second half of the tenth century, the balance of power and initiative in the East began to shift in favour of the Christians. The main reason for this was the disintegration of the Abbasid caliphate from the 860s onward. This led to power in the frontier provinces being taken over by local lords. They could no longer rely on the fiscal and military support of the rulers of the Muslim world, and their own puny resources were completely inadequate for opposing the resurgent power of the Byzantine armies under the Macedonian dynasty.

North Africa

The Islam Khalifas moved into North Africa in the same way as the Eastern Mediterranean. From as early as 641, they began pouring into Egypt under the commander Amr ibn al-‘As. The fall of Egypt to an Arab army of perhaps 12,000 soldiers was rendered easier by the hostility of the local Christians towards Orthodox Byzantium. The religious community could still persist under an Arab Muslim domination more tolerant than that of Byzantium.

View of the Mosque Sultan Hassan in Cairo and pyramids

At first the Arabs looked from Egypt not towards the Mediterranean but southwards to Nubia, wanting to occupy lands close to the Red Sea in order to consolidate their hold on Arabia. It was only after they were rebuffed in Nubia that they turned west to Cyrenaica, entering the lands of the Berber tribe (the native population of North Africa).

This was an important move. While Cyrenaica and the province of Africa remained under Byzantine rule, there was always the danger that they would serve as bases for a war of recovery aimed at Egypt. To prevent this, the Arabs needed to gain control of the coastlines and harbours of the North African coast, and this was possible only with the help of large contingents newly arrived from Yemen, and of the newly converted Berbers themselves.

The first Muslim invasion of Byzantine North Africa commenced in 647, with the invading army taking Tripolitania (in present-day Libya). Then between 665 and 689, a second wave of invasions took place, with the Islamic armies gaining control of the towns of the old Roman province of Africa or, as they called it, Ifriqiya (today’s western Libya, Tunisia, and eastern Algeria). In 670, the Arab general and conqueror Uqba ibn Nafi established the city of Kairouean (in modern Tunisia) as the province’s capital to launch further conquests westwards. The invasion of Morocco followed in the 680s.

After initially being pushed back, a renewed invasion of Ifriqiya commenced in the 690s. In 698, hemmed in by land, and without adequate support from Constantinople, the major Byzantine city Carthage was besieged by an Arab army of 40,000 troops brought from Syria and elsewhere, joined by perhaps 12,000 Berbers. With this, they put an end to Byzantine Africa. By 703, Muslim forces had moved all the way westwards to take Tangier and reach the Atlantic Ocean. Their conquest of North Africa was complete.

View from hill Byrsa with ancient remains of Carthage and landscape
View from hill Byrsa with ancient remains of Carthage and landscape. Tunis, Tunisia.

Iberian Peninsula

The conquest of much of the Iberian Peninsula followed on from Africa from 711 to 716 under the (mostly Berber) troops mobilized by the Muslim general Tariq ibn Ziyad. Their arrival coincided with a period of internal disorder within the state and society established in the Iberian Peninsula by the German Visigoths, who had taken over the region from the Romans three centuries earlier. Seizing the opportunity, the Muslim army led brilliant campaigns to occupy the cities of Toledo (the Visigothic capital), Zaragoza, León, Pamplona, and Barcelona.

Just five years after Tariq disembarked, a large part of Hispania was under the control, albeit patchy, of the Arabs and Berber. The speed and relative ease with which the conquest proceeded was largely due to the skill of the Muslims. Using the same tactics as in the Orient in the seventh century, they offered their conquered highly favourable terms to live under them to ensure their rule was accepted.

View of the Alhambra, Granada, Spain, one of the most famous monuments of Islamic architecture and one of the best-preserved palaces of the historic Islamic world

By 720, the Muslim armies had gone on to conquer the southern and central regions of the peninsula as well. They then continued to raid further north, over the Pyrenees and into southern France. In 725, they occupied Narbonne, Nîmes, and Carcassonne, before proceeding up the Rhône valley to reach Bourgogne, whether they torched Autun. Their advances were eventually checked in 732 at Poitiers by the Franks under Charles Martel (732), forced to retreat to Narbonne.

In any case, Muslim control of the Languedoc (the area between the Pyrenees and the Rhône) was very tenuous, and the Franks were skilful enough to exploit an internal crisis in al-Andalus (the Muslim-ruled area of the Iberian Peninsula) in the middle of the eighth century to recover Narbonne in 759.

The great crisis of 740-755 in al-Andalus was caused due to inevitable conflict between the far-off state of Damascus and the conquerors. Berber revolts in the early 740s led to the collapse of the authority of Damascus over the western provinces of the Maghreb (north Africa) and al-Andalus, This was exacerbated by confrontation between those Muslim Arabs who had arrived in the region first and successive waves of immigrants. Conflicts over land ownership, and ethnic strife between different Arab groups, as well as Arabs and Berbers, erupted.

In 750, after the Umayyad dynasty was overthrown in Damascus by the Abbasids, the Umayyad Prince Abd al-Rahman I fled to Al Andalus. Here, he and his supporters quickly conquered Málaga and then Seville, before finally besieging the capital of Al Andalus, Córdoba, and creating a new Islamic state in the area. This was the start of a distinctly Spanish Muslim society, where large Christian and Jewish populations coexisted with an increasing percentage of Muslims.

Cordoba, Spain view of the Roman Bridge and Mosque-Cathedral on the Guadalquivir River.

Meanwhile, Christian armies started pushing back the Muslims southwards over the Pyrenees, until in 801 Charlemagne established the Spanish March. This was a military buffer zone stretching from Barcelona to present day Navarre that served as a defensive barrier between the Umayyad Moors of Al-Andalus and the Frankish Carolingian Empire. Over the next three centuries, the battle lines, and frontier between Muslims and Christians, swung back and forth in Northern Spain.

Sicily and Southern Italy

Although the invasion of Spain by Arab and Berber armies in 711 had involved few naval operations, the rest of the eighth century saw Muslim fleets gain in confidence in the western Mediterranean. Then from around 800, the safety of this region deteriorated seriously, with naval skirmishes erupting all over.

Muslim naval power was based on the exercise of piracy. From the coastal strips, which languished on the fringes of political control, numerous pirate expeditions set sail for the islands and coasts of the western Mediterranean throughout the ninth century. The expedition against the Balearic Islands (798 and 799), which possibly set sail from the eastern coasts of al-Andalus fits into this category. So do the incursions against Corsica and Sardinia (from 806 to 810), Pantelleria (806), Ponza, Ischia and Lampedusa (812), Civitavecchia (813), and so on.

Often, at first, the Muslim navies were more intent on grabbing booty (including captives, whom they would put on sale) than in trying to extend the dominion of Islam. But Muslim expansion did occur, first with the conquest of Crete in 827, where they founded an independent emirate which lasted until the Byzantine reconquest of the island in 961.

The Muslim conquest of Sicily also began in 827, with an expedition made up of Arabs, Berbers and Andalusians, and led by the prestigious jurist Asad ibn al-Fur ̄who set sail from Sousse in Tunisia. The conquest, however, was slow and laborious, with the old creek colony resisting the Muslims’ assaults for a further 75 years until the final fall of Taormina in 902. Muslim Sicily then remained a jihad state with a very underdeveloped administration until well into the 10th century.

Cefalu, Sicily.

Around the same time (870), the conquest of Malta, which had been overrun by the Muslims in the early ninth century, was finalized. Here the occupation was swift and absolute and the process of Islamization equally profound. The Arabic language, from which Maltese is derived, reigned supreme.

The Muslims also confronted the Christians on the mainland of southern Italy. Here they were aided by rivalries among Byzantines, the papacy, and Lombard dynasts, which set principalities and cities against one another. Thus, the Arabs were able to sack Taranto and Bari in 840 and Brindisi in 841, and the three cities then declared themselves independent emirates in 847. Thence from Bari thence, expeditions against the Italian and Greek coasts were launched, lasting until 781, when finally the Franks and the Byzantines learned to work together long enough to expel the Muslims. The death of the Emir Abrahim II of Ifriqiya in an unsuccessful attempt to take Cosenza in Calabria in 902 marked the end of any serious Muslima attempt to conquer southern Italy.

It did not, however, mark the end of raids or Christian-Muslim confrontation in the area. The most famous centre of conflict was the Muslim base established in about 881 at the mouth of the Garigliano River, where the community maintained itself by raiding far into the interior. It was not until 915, when the papacy was able to put together an alliance of Lombard and Byzantine forces and secure the neutrality of Gaeta and Amalfi, that the Muslim base was finally destroyed. Thereafter, there were occasional Muslim raids on southern Italy, such as the one which sacked Taranto in 928, but Muslim pressure became sporadic.

Peaceful Trade

Not all contacts between Christians and Muslims happened at the level of political conflict and the expansion and contraction of territories. Close trading links also developed with Constantinople, Asia Minor, and the Byzantine Aegean, and with several Italian ports that lay under loose Byzantine suzerainty, notably Venice and Amalfi.

From around 700, there was strong demand for goods either produced in the Muslim world or transported through it. Silks, for example, were coveted luxury items. Popes in the late eighth and early ninth centuries were particularly lavish givers of silks as rewards and diplomatic gifts. Spices like pepper and cinnamon were also highly valued, not just to flavour food, but as ingredients in medicines and potions. Some of the recipes for these potions were themselves of Muslim origin.

Perhaps the most distinctive import though was incense. Incense was very important in the rituals of both Carolingian and Byzantine churches and clearly large quantities were consumed. True incense, however, comes from a very restricted geographical area in south Arabia and the horn of Africa. It could only have been brought to the Mediterranean and thence to Christian lands by Muslim merchants.

Various kinds of popular incense : myrrh, frankincense, messer, copaiba, salvia apiana, borena, gowe – thiouraye, palo santo

Christendom, meanwhile, certainly exported products such as furs and timbers to the Islamic world. The main commodity, however, was slaves. From the mid-eighth century onward, there was an apparently endless demand for European slaves in the countries of the Islamic East, commanding a high price. Christian and Muslim merchants alike could make massive profits buying on the northern shores of the Mediterranean and selling in the south.

The main entrepot was Venice where Muslim merchants would come to purchase slaves from eastern Europe, but there was also more informal trading in other Italian ports like Naples and more simply on the beaches where people captured in local raids would be brought for sale. Many of the slaves who passed through Venice were Slavs from eastern Europe, captured or purchased there, and then sold in Venice. While the church made repeated attempts to prevent the sale of Christians into Muslim hands, many of the Slavs were pagan and so could be bought and sold with any easy conscience.

Tour of the Mediterranean

Odyssey Travellers conducts tours to various locations throughout the Mediterranean influenced by the Islamic presence during the Early Middle Ages. Our popular tours include:

Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983 with educational tours of the history, culture, and architecture of our destinations designed for mature and senior travellers. We specialise in offering small group tours partnering with a local tour guide at each destination to provide a relaxed and comfortable pace and atmosphere that sets us apart from larger tour groups. Tours consist of small groups of between 6 and 12 people and are cost inclusive of all entrances, tipping and majority of meals. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Cinque Terre

Articles published by Odyssey Traveller about the Mediterranean

The following articles may also be of interest:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

Links to External Sites About the Mediterranean

Learn more about the Mediterranean before you travel with these articles and links to external sites.

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