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When History becomes a fable: The incredible great Muslim military conquest – Part 1

According to our History, while the Middle East was the scene of the clash between the Byzantines and the Persians, this sowing disorder from Egypt to Mesopotamia, and while these Persian troops conquered Damascus and Jerusalem in 614, and Egypt in 620, Muhammad converted his tribe, the Quraych, to monotheism. In 622, he abandoned Mecca for Medina (the Hegira, which is the starting point of the Muslim calendar) and took over the city unopposed in 632. The same year, Muhammad died but left behind a completely Muslim Arabia, and a whole army nourished by his teachings, ready to literally conquer the world. In 635, they already held dominion over Syria. In 637, it was Ctesiphon’s (current Iraq) turn, and Jerusalem. The very same year, the Arabs entered Afghanistan! In 639, all of Palestine was conquered, and the Muslims were rendered masters of Mesopotamia in its entirety, but also had time to start flattening Persia in 636. In 640, this otherworldly army had subjected the populous Alexandria and the very rich Egypt and went on to occupy Tripoli in 642, and to finish conquering Persia in 651, and the Maghreb in 711. That same year the conquest of Spain begun, which would last 7 years, and that of India, which would be completed in the 16th century. Shortly after subjugating Hispania, this legendary army occupied Narbonne from 719 until 759 (after Charles Martel halted their progress around 732). So according to our historical chronology, in just 100 years, the Muslim armies had conquered an area 15000 km long. This incredible expansion – where successively powerful, warlike cultures like the Byzantine Empire where Persia were swept – is unique in history, yet has never received any critical objection from historians. Only General Bremond and Oswald Spengler have tentatively ventured on this path which we will now take, a path that is nevertheless studded with clues and indications that beg us to follow it until its end.

The real cradle of a legendary army

It is known that between the fourth century and the sixth century, the previously fertile peninsula of Arabia was abandoned by Byzantine and Persian claimants after environmental degradation turned it into an arid land. Faced with this change, camel breeding was developed and nomadic Bedouin societies dominated (and racketed) sedentary societies, once masters of the place. At the time when Mohammed’s monotheism was exploding in the region, this desert country did not have the environment to feed a large population capable of generating an imposing army. Yet it is this ground that would nurture an army capable of conquering lands much more populated and rich, like Egypt and Persia, according to our History.

The myth of the Arabian pureblood

To try to explain the fabulous victories of a Bedouin battalion over the greatest armies of the time, historians point to the famous Arab cavalry, claiming they shifted the balance, crushing the opposing troops, like the revolutionary columns of tanks of Nazi assaults marching on twentieth-century Europe. The belief in the myth of the Arabian pureblood comes from the Quran, which evokes it several times, but we have seen that the Arabian Peninsula was already a vast desert, and know that the horse is unsuited to this terrain. Drinking about 40 liters of water a day, the horse was quite a luxury product in the region at this time, and these Koranic allusions are no doubt a reference to a better standard of living – one that everyone desires – not testimonials of everyday life. In fact, at this time, the best-known purebreds are the Libyan or Numidian horses, known for their velocity, according to Isidore of Seville in the seventh century. Arabia could not be a great producer of horses, due to the natural absence of meadows and pastures. The region that traditionally produces horses is then Mesopotamia.

Fables from the first battles

Yet according to some Arab sources and Jean Jacques Emmanuel Sédillot, during the second campaign of the Prophet against Damascus in 630-632, the Muslim forces were as follows: 10,000 horsemen, 12000 camels, and 20000 infantrymen. General Brémond, who liberated Arabia from Ottoman rule during the First World War, thought that such a large number of horsemen was asking for too much water (400,000 liters of water a day) for this to be plausible: “It would have been impossible, especially at that time, to maintain 30000 men and 20000 animals. In 1916-1917, we were able to provide for the 14000 men assembled in front of Medina, only for a little more than eight days, in spite of the considerable resources which came to us from India and Egypt by steamboats. In addition to this exorbitant number of Muslim soldiers supposedly present in Damascus around 631, the composition of this army presents another great improbability: It is a fact that horses and camels, who do not live in the same climates and are very different species, can not live together artificially. The smells of the one irritate the other, and vice versa. It is, therefore, difficult to conceive of the coexistence and cooperation of masses of these animals for the sake of a common and orderly task. It is as if one were to put regiments of cats and dogs on the same front to fight the enemy.

The horseshoe and stirrup appeared only from the 9th century onwards, so one can also wonder how this fantastic army traversed such great distances on this exceptional conquest. For example, 1400 km as the crow flies separates Mecca and Damascus, and this is desert. Before the arrival of the horseshoe, when one wanted to cross a dangerous terrain on horseback or by camel, one wrapped his feet with leather to protect them. Brémond said on this subject: “I have here another unfavorable condition which opposes the myth of the invasion of North Africa by an Arab cavalry, sprung out of the deserts of Arabia. They would have traveled 3000 km with non-ferrous horses. These horses would have worn their hooves to the calf.”

If all these data are taken into account and a Muslim historical source (1) claims that the Last Prophet attacked Damascus around 631 with 30,000 men and 20,000 horses and camels (with their natural aversion to one another) we do not can only conclude that in this account of the composition of the army, we are at best witnessing the imagination of a Muslim chronicler, riveted with the legendary origins of Islam. To try to better understand what would have really happened, and even as we shall sometimes return to other relevant topics and histories, we will focus much more from now on the Muslim conquest of Spain, and to a lesser extent dwell on the conquest of the Maghreb.

The conquest of Tunisia, then of the Maghreb

The conquest of this region would have been the result of five stages, or Muslim incursions, from 642 to approximately 701, although it remains unknown how the last one was completed:

– In 642, it is the exarchate Gregory who governed this region, which belonged to the Byzantine Empire. For obscure reasons (without doubts religious ones), it is independent of the Emperor Constant II. Hoping to take advantage of this favorable situation, Abd Allah Ibn Said, governor of then Muslim Egypt, tried his luck westward and invaded Tunisia with 20000 men, this being situated 3000 km from Alexandria and separated by desert regions, to plunder there (or perhaps for other, unknown reasons) and later returned to the banks of the Nile.

– In 665 there was another expedition of which we know nothing, which did not change the situation.

– In 670, Oqba Ibn Nafi Al Fihri enters the scene. He is generally presented as the conqueror of North Africa, which is inaccurate. He was an adventurer who actually participated in an expedition to the Maghreb, one that was fatal to him. According to Georges Marçais in 1946: “having defeated Koceila, leader of the powerful Awraba tribe close to Tlemcen, he converted his enemy from the Christian faith to Islam, eventually becoming his friend and ally. In 670, Oqba established a military base in Kairouan which would become the most important city in the region. Enlightened by his success, Oqba traveled to the West, and it is said that he reached the center of the Maghreb, or even the Atlantic Ocean. But since he did not seem to be comfortable in these hostile areas, he made his way home. During this time animosity was restored between him and Koceila, as Koceila had seriously humiliated him by renouncing Islam. An ambush was laid near Biskra, in which the conqueror lost his life, Koceila then took control of Kairouan, which he ran from 683 to 686.

– A lieutenant of Oqba who had escaped the disaster, Zohair Ibn Qaïs, succeeded in assembling his troops and confronting the Berber leader. Around 686, Koceila fell in a fight, and the Arab soldier moved on to Egypt. Arriving near Barca in Cyrenaica, he encountered Byzantine forces that had just landed. He was probably taken by surprise, and he and his army were decimated.

– In 693, the caliph Abd Al Malik sent Hassan Ibn Numan and 40000 men (other sources indicate 140 000 men!!). An absurd inconsistency from these chroniclers. Knowing the problems familiar to Montgomery even with tankers, such a large amount of troops would be quickly exhausted by thirst and hunger. Yet in 698, Carthage is conquered. Without much more explanation from Arab sources, it is said that the Muslim troops definitively took the country in 701 after crushing the Berbers in a battle, the details of which are unknown.

Do not yet wonder if this version of events is factual or not, for this incredible army had not reached the end of their efforts. It still had all the rest of the Maghreb to conquer, and barely 10 years after the final conquest of Tunisia, in 711, it was already on the beaches of Andalusia. We saw that the distances separating the old big cities of North Africa and the Middle East were enormous. 2000 km separated Carthage from Tangier. According to the former geographer El Bekri, it took 40 days to travel from Kairouan to Fez, and far longer if one chose the coastal route, which was a necessity if one desired to reach the Strait of Gibraltar, and the Spanish lands. We are to believe that in barely 10 years, Moussa Ibn Noçaïr managed to seize control of this immense region with difficult orography, populated by warriors who have demonstrated throughout history their effectiveness. According to Marçais, a specialist in North African Berber and Muslim history, the situation in the region was still not the most glamorous for Muslims: “Initiated in 674, we can consider the annexation of this region as more or less completed in 710. It took nothing less than 53 years to obtain a result, and a precarious one at that. The time of difficulty would last until the beginning of the 9th century; that is to say, more than 150 years of open struggles and hostilities, a century and a half during which the Arab invasions suffered bitter failures. The future of Islam in the West was questioned. As far as we know, at least twice, last during the second half of the 8th century, the country was reconquered by the Berbers. The conquest had to begin anew… It can be said that at the end of the 8th century, the record of the Muslim conquest of North Africa was very bad. One hundred and fifty years ago, a Sidi Oqba, a Moussa Ibn Noçaïr, had crossed the country like conquerors from Kairouan to the Atlantic. In 763, the governor El Aglab, wanting to drive towards Tlemcen to reach Tangier, had to abandon the expedition because of the officers of his personal guard who mutinied. The Abbasid caliphs had renounced the control of three-thirds of Barbary and its leaders were much more concerned with pacifying their territory than expanding their borders.”

In this context, one may wonder if the Arabs were in a condition to invade Spain in 711, when it took them more than a century to settle permanently in North Africa. But historians have never questioned it. Be that as it may, according to the history books on these Muslim conquests, it can be said that this Arab army has repeatedly shattered some of the very pillars of the art of war – one of which says not to launch offensives too far from its bases, and to consolidate other bases to imbue one’s movements with a certain margin of safety. Without having recovered the energy spent on previous efforts, the Arab army immediately embarked on a new adventure. They arrive in Tunisia, and immediately launch to Morocco. They barely saw the waves of the ocean before turning to embark for Spain. They do not stop, not even to rest, or even to profit from the spoils, or to savor the women of the conquered place. They are in a hurry to jump on the Pyrenees to seize Aquitaine and Septimania. These conquerors do not seem to have any objective…

Spain, another incredible conquest

And so it is very normal that the Arabs managed to cross the Strait of Gibraltar and that they were able to conquer – though they probably did not have maps – the Iberian Peninsula in but a few years, or 584,192 square kilometers of the most mountainous region in the Europe. The Muslim chronicles reveal with a great minutia the number of invaders: 7000 men were enough for Tariq Ibn Ziyad to crush the army of Rodéric during the battle of Guadalete. Later, Moussa Ibn Noçaïr sent 18,000 reinforcements (other sources indicate a figure of 12000), which gives the total presence of 25000 men, each of whom then apparently dominated 23 square kilometers in total conquest of the peninsula. This did not prevent these heroes from hurling themselves hurriedly on France.

After this extraordinary first great battle, in a very short period of time, Latin was replaced by Arabic, Christianity gave way to Islam, monogamy was transformed into polygamy (without any protest from women). Christian creeds were repeated one day, and one woke up a few years later speaking the Hejaz language, dressing in a different way, with different customs. This is not a joke, since historians agree that the number of Christians living under Muslim domination, called Mozarabic, was very small.

In Volume 1 of the History of Muslims in Spain, published in 1950, Levi-Provençal, without being surprised by this miraculous conquest, writes about the internal struggles between Arabs just after having crossed Europe. All the tribes are supposed to be present, their rivalries and their ancestral hatred are ferocious: They betray one another, kill one another, torture one another with pleasure; the struggle is terrible, and the territory is rife with disorder.

But the sources of this conquest contradict each other, knowing that Islam finally prevailed in North Africa during the ninth century, and that Levi-Provençal affirmed the following: “At the moment when Roderic succeeds the throne of Toledo ( 710), the Arabs finished consolidating their position in northern Morocco, and completed the conquest of the center of the country. ” At the time of the Arab invasion, it is estimated that the population of the Iberian Peninsula laid between 15 and 20 million inhabitants. How did 25,000 soldiers maintain control of this number of people in Hispania at this time? There has probably been no genocide, a killing the inhabitants of the country one by one, as some Latin chronicles have assured. Meanwhile, the valleys of Asturias, described by other sources as a place of refuge for the Iberians, would be unable to receive such a population.

And on the other hand, according to Muslim chronicles, the conquering troops were composed of a minority of Arabs. The rest were adventurers of other origins: Syrians, Byzantines, Copts and especially Berbers. The texts insist that they made up the vast majority of invaders. Spain would have been invaded and Arabized by people who did not speak Arabic, since we did not yet know this language in the Maghreb, and Islamized by preachers ignorant of the composition of the Quran for the same reasons.

Be that as it may, the passivity of some dozen million inhabitants of Hispania – at this moment, faced with 25000 dark-skinned soldiers, who in addition fought internally after having submitted them, and who did not all hail from the same culture – will remain yet another question, inexplicable and unexplained by our historians. 300 years it took for the Roman Empire to conquer Hispania. For the Arabs, only 7.

The crossing to the Tariq mountain

If one were surprised by the rapidity of the Muslim conquest, one might also wonder how an army of nomads could easily cross the Strait of Gibraltar (whose name comes from the name of the first Arab officer treading Spain). They did not have a navy, which is quite normal for a Bedouin people. Let’s be realistic; they would have had to have been able to consolidate a large number of boats and could never have their 7000 men cross over without the help of experienced native sailors. This portion of the sea is one of the most dangerous in the world, because two contrary currents of great power are facing each other. One at a speed of 4 to 6 miles, and the other 2 miles. Beholden to the tides, a phenomenon unknown to the navigator of the Mediterranean, these currents change their flow. Then, to complicate matters, this place is always buffeted by strong winds, whose bursts are so unpredictable that the place is reckoned today a cemetery of boats.

According to the sources, Count Julien, governor of the coast, lent 4 boats with which the landing was done. If each of them could carry 50 people with the crew (a theoretical maximum) it would have taken 35 trips to ferry the 7000 men of Tariq Ibn Ziyad. On average, you have to budget one day of crossing and two for the return trip. 70 days would therefore have been necessary for the entire operation; that is to say more than three months if one accounts for days when the sea might prove difficult to navigate, this being very frequent on this portion of impassable sea in winter. Were this an invasion, the small number who landed first would have been slaughtered without the need for more troops to defend the coastline. But no one noticed the landing that would have happened over 3 months, according to the writings of the 9th century Ibn Abd El Hakem: “The people of al Andalus did not notice the va-et-vient boats, thinking that it was commercial boats.” In order to make a truly credible landing of the 7000 men of Tariq, at least a hundred boats would have been required. And even in this era of great maritime decadence, such was not easy to find. The Berbers, as far as we know, did not have a fleet. Only a people native to this area would have been able to make this crossing; the gaditans. But how could they aid these invaders in submitting them? How could a governor even lend some boats to invaders and let them invade his province for a while, as the later Arab chronicles insist? If it is a trick or a misunderstanding, as history tells, how is it that this kind of mystification of the invaded people is found again and again in the sources for other events of this world? Providential world conquest? We are not faced with a civilizational and technological “shock”, for example, which enabled the easy invasion of Cortez on the Aztecs. The Iberian Peninsula was at this time better developed than Arabs of the same time, yet in spite of everything its inhabitants were still “fooled” by other ambushes and traps set by these invaders who were not only very powerful, but also apparently very clever when that suited them more. Unless the only fools are the historians who accepted word for word the fabrications of the Muslim chroniclers who are always divorced in time by at least 100 years from the facts they are trying to describe…

Africa from Gibraltar

Following the wonderful invasion of the country of hams

It can not be said otherwise, without falling into familiarity: According to Arab sources, these Iberians are sacramentally naive, so too in the continuation of the story of this conquest of Tariq. Just after defeating an army at least four times more numerous in Guadelete, Abd El Hakem says that “immediately Tariq was heading towards the corridor of Algeciras and then to the town of Ecija” as if these were places close to each other. It is strange to see an invading army enter a cretaceous canyon so narrow, dominated by imposing cliffs where such a force would easily be trapped or ambushed, as in some places the width is equal to that of a narrow street. More than 160 km separate the small village of Jimena de la Sierra at the end of this corridor, and Ecija. On the way, the invaders should have crossed important cities like Ronda and Osuna, whose foundations are older than the Romans, and yet these are not mentioned by these chronicles.

These conquerors came without knowledge of what to do or where to go. It is the Christians who give them some ideas, acting almost as employees of a travel agency offering excursions to future tourists. Not joking, Abd El Hakem describes it: “Moussa Ibn Noaïr, aware of the exploits of Tariq Ibn Ziyad, and envious, came to Spain with 18000 men. When they landed at Algeciras, he was told that they were following the same path as Tariq and replied: “I do not feel like it”. Then the Christians who served him as guides told him: “We will lead you by a better way than his, by which there are cities of greater importance than those which he conquered, and of which, God willing, you can make yourself master.” We have never seen a people under attack be so welcoming, except for the conquest of Cortez.

And the famous horses?

In spite of the plague of Justinian, which was fervent in the Iberian Peninsula but also in North Africa and the Middle East, the civilization in Hispania was better developed than the Arab civilization could be at that moment, the very Arab civilization which would come to dominate the West culturally but a few centuries later. However, according to the historians, what would have made the difference for the invaders was their famous cavalry which apparently leveled all that stood in their path, like an armored division. The domesticated horse is represented in Spain on rock paintings, and several sources indicate that this region was the main supplier of horses for the Roman Empire.

To return to the Strait of Gibraltar, no mention is made of horses. On the other hand, it would have been very difficult for the sailors in the service of the Arabs to facilitate the crossing of their mounts, with the few boats they had. Embarking with horses has always been a difficult operation, due to their nervousness. Few armies attempted this venture, and when they did, it was with large galleys that sailed on the calm waters of the Mediterranean. The few copycats that would have survived a trip in Count Julien’s rowboats would have landed in poor condition.

When we follow these chronicles worthy of the Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, we later realize that it was after the Battle of Guadalete, according to Ajbar Machmua, that this infantry was able to boast of horses: “Tariq sent Moguit to the city of Cordoba with 700 horsemen, for no Muslim had found himself without mount.” Thus, this squad of 700 horsemen had achieved a unique feat in the annals of war: They had seized the most populous city of the peninsula, defended by important walls built at the end of the Roman Empire (some of which still stand today).

The thesis of the superiority of the Muslim cavalry withers at the first battle in Spain, since the 7000 Muslims who defeated the 100,000 soldiers of Rodéric in Guadalete did not have mounts when they arrived. This idea of a superiority of the Arab rider over the Numidian, Berber or Iberian rider undoubtedly stems from this sort of chronicle, and that of Cordoba, taken literally. How can one accept that only 700 horsemen were able to take the most populated and fortified city of the country?

An army mastering the art of bluffing and who can thus do without siege engines.

This mystification of the expansion of Islam, which makes it easy to fell in turns some of the largest cities in the world, the best fortified and defended, instilled doubt in the mind of General Brémond concerning the conquest of Alexandria by hordes from the desert. Overthrowing the fortifications of this city of about 600 000 inhabitants would have required catapults and other siege engines. This is military doctrine, established since ancient times. To construct them, transport them and put them in batteries would take great resources: Engineers, specialized workers and others. That is to say, finally, that an organization was needed which was probably absent from these nomads of the desert.

And when it comes to impregnable places like Toledo or Ronda… this last city later proclaimed independence for 50 years from the domination of the Cordovan emirs, who had incomparably more resources than Moussa and Tariq. To solve this constraint of the walled cities, the Arab chroniclers describe the use of subterfuges and stratagems that should not have fooled a child: According to the manuscript Akhbar Machmua, when Moussa is in front of the walls of Mérida, walls “like nobody” has never built, and negotiates with the besieged; “They saw white-bearded Moussa, offered demands that did not suit him, and left. They came out the day before the Titr’s feast, and as he had dyed his beard red, one of them said, ‘I believe he must be a cannibal, or else he cannot possibly be the same man we saw yesterday!’ Finally they came back to see him on the very day of the feast, when he had a black beard, and when they returned to the city, they said to the inhabitants, “Fools! You fight prophets who transform themselves as they please and regenerate. Their king who was old has became young. Go, and give him what he asks.” Thus fell the once important city of Merida – its inhabitants would have given the keys to the besiegers because they did not know that a beard can be dyed!

This type of trickery is found in many other episodes of the mythical Muslim conquest to explain the taking of difficult sites, in Spain or elsewhere – such as the taking of Emesa in Syria, where an earthquake supposedly collapsed the fortifications of the city as it did not surrender immediately and without fighting, the same as happened in Jerusalem. These fables are perhaps most common in Arabic sources from the 11th century. When attempting at this moment to portray 300 years of turbulent events, historians (employing logical descriptions) heed a miraculous past offered to believers by Providence, for the greater glory of Islam.

To be continued…

There are probably no contemporary Muslim historical sources to the mythical conquests of the 7th-8th century. The first sources dated from the Hegira begin tentatively in the 9th century.

or, if reinforcements sent by Moussa Ibn Noçaïr were already there as other sources claim, facing 100000 men

If modern historians like Marçais and Levi-Provencal contradict each other on these questions, we are dealing with a contradiction of historical sources. Marçais, to have a better understanding of what happened in Barbary, searched the old texts of the most reliable witnesses to confront them and find concordances. While Levi Provençal is studying the history of Spain, what has happened in Barbary does not interest him.

Considering, as the previous historical testimony confirms, that Moussa’s reinforcements arrived after the Battle of Guadalete

1 Comment

  • 7000 soldiers who face 100 000. Even if by a miracle they manage to win, there should not be more than two to shout victory … so how did they do to continue their presence in Spain and Arabize a people of 15 000 000?

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