The Islamic World to 1600

Umayyad Territorial Expansion Title

North Africa

Map of Muslim Expansion in North Africa under the Umayyad Dynasty.

Until the mid-7th century, North Africa west of Egypt was under Byzantine control. Egypt, as we have already seen, was conquered during Umar's reign between 640 and 645. The Arabs soon sought to gain territory further west, into the region they called the Maghrib, literally, the West. This territory consisted of present-day Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, and was collectively known as the Byzantine province of Africa. The Byzantines controlled several significant trading ports on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, but they did not have adequate control over the Berbers of the North African interior. A major reason for the success of the Arab conquest of North Africa would be the ability of the Muslims to gain the loyalty of the Berbers.

  The Berbers

Byzantine influence in the region was wavering even before the first Arab invasion, and it was further weakened by the series of raids the Arabs conducted into the region immediately after capturing Egypt in 645. The Arabs' goal seemed to be more the protection of Egypt than making any new, permanent territorial gains, and thus no attempts at settlement were made at this point. The Arabs even succeeded in temporarily driving the Byzantines out of Tripoli in 645, but they did not follow that conquest with the establishment of a permanent Arab presence in the city.

Great Mosque at Kairouan
The Great Mosque of Kairouan
Courtesy of LexicOrient

No further raids were conducted until 661, when the new Umayyad dynasty under Mu'awiya ushered in a new era of Muslim expansion. An official campaign to conquer North Africa began in 663, and the Arabs soon controlled most major cities in Libya. Tripoli fell again in 666, and this time the Muslims ensured their control of their new lands by not immediately retreating to Egypt after the conquest. By 670, the Arabs had taken Tunisia, and by 675, they had completed construction of Kairouan, the city that would become the Arab base in North Africa. Kairouan would also become the third holiest city in Islam in the medieval period, after Mecca and Medina, because of its importance as the centre of the Islamic faith in the Maghrib.

From Kairouan, the Arabs were able to focus on the true "prize" of North Africa, the ancient city of Carthage, which was located just north of Kairouan. The Arabs first raided Carthage in 678, and by 695, they had conquered the former Roman and Byzantine city. With the Byzantine Empire defeated in virtually all its North African territories, the Arabs turned their attention to the conversion of the Berbers. By the early 8th century, 12,000 Berbers had been recruited into the Arab army, and with such Berber support, the Arabs were able to stretch their empire all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. By 710, Arab armies had taken Tangier under the command of a Berber, Tariq, who then led them into Spain in 711.


Map of Muslim Expansion into Spain. Click on map for larger image.

Before the Muslim invasion, the Iberian peninsula, which included present-day Spain and Portugal, had been a Christian territory, ruled by the Visigoths. The kingdom was weak in the early 8th century, plagued by internal strife. Tariq, a Berber who led the Muslim forces into Spain in 711, took advantage of these weaknesses when he led the invasion. Of particular advantage to Tariq and his army was a civil war that was raging over the kingdom's succession. Tariq's military success in Spain led the conquerors to name the now-famous rock on the southern tip of Spain, Jabal Tariq, or Mountain of Tariq. That name has since become "Gibraltar."

The disorganisation of the Spanish defenders proved to be their downfall, and the Muslims completed their conquest of most of the Iberian peninsula swiftly. The Muslims were so confident after conquering almost all of Spain that they continued to push northeast into present-day France. They crossed the Pyrenees and occupied several Frankish cities, including Bordeaux. In 732 they were finally defeated by the Franks at the Battle of Poitiers. After that, the Muslims remained on the southern side of the Pyrenees during their 700 years in Europe.

  An Arab Chronicle of the Battle of Poitiers

The Muslims set up their Spanish capital at Cordoba in 717 and named their new territory Al-Andalus. A southern region of Spain today retains that name, Andalucia. Much of the Muslim settlement in the region was accomplished by Berber converts from North Africa who crossed the Straits of Gibraltar into Spain to pasture their animals. As a province of the Umayyad caliphate, Spain was a great distance from Damascus, the Umayyad capital. This distance gave Muslim governors of Spain a great deal of independence, and it was not long after the conquest that the Umayyads began to realise the difficulty of governing such a distant territory. The inability of the Umayyads to effectively control their vast empire would be a great factor in their downfall in 750.

Central Asia

The third region that the Umayyads chose as the focus of their expansion, after North Africa and Spain, was the area of Central Asia stretching east to the Indus River. The area had been inhabited by a variety of Turkish communities, whose disunity made them an easy target for Muslim attack. The Muslims also wanted a route into China, to enable their participation in the lucrative silk trade. From Khurasan, a province in eastern Persia, the Muslims crossed the Jaxartes River into China and briefly occupied the town of Kashgar in 714. In 715, the Muslims took the Central Asian cities of Bukhara and Samarkand. These conquests mark the introduction of Islam to the Turks, who would later establish one of Islam's greatest empires under the Ottomans.

Meanwhile, Muslim forces also conquered new territory further south, in the Indus Valley. In 712, they invaded the Sindh, setting the stage for a further move into India in the future. These Muslim conquests in Central Asia were also significant because they gained much of the territory of present-day Pakistan for Islam. That region has been Islamic for over 1,200 years, as Pakistan remains a Muslim state today.

Map of Muslim Expansion into Central Asia under the Umayyad Dynasty. Click on map for larger image.

Proceed to the Collapse of the Umayyad Dynasty

The Islamic World to 1600 / The University of Calgary
Copyright © 1998, The Applied History Research Group