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<b>The Saracens (613 On)<b>

The name Saracen applied originally to nomadic desert peoples from the area stre
tching from modern Syria to Saudi Arabia. In broader usage the name applied to a
ll Arabs of the Middle Ages. These desert nomads erupted suddenly in the seventh
century and established a far-reaching empire within a century and a half. Thei
r conquest was fueled by faith and high morale. Following the teachings of the p
rophet Mohammed, their intent was to change the religious and political landscap
e of the entire planet.
By 613 the prophet Mohammed was preaching a new religion he called Islam. Largel
y ignored in his home city of Mecca, he withdrew to Medina, built up a strong fo
llowing there, and returned to attack and capture Mecca. Following his death in
632, his teachings were collected to form the Koran, the Islamic holy book. In 6
34 his followers began their jihad, or holy war. Within five years they had over
run Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. Their tolerance of Jews and Christians eased th
eir conquest because these people had been suffering some persecution under the
Byzantines.
In the next 60 years, both North Africa to the west and Persia to the east fell
to Islam. In the early eighth century, Saracens from Tangiers invaded the Iberia
n Peninsula and conquered the Visigoth kingdom established there after the fall
of Rome. In Asia they took Asia Minor from the Byzantines and attempted to captu
re Constantinople with a combined attack from land and sea. The great walls of t
he city frustrated the land attack and the Saracen fleet was defeated at sea. In
the west, Charles Martel of the Franks stopped a Saracen invasion of modern Fra
nce in 732 at Poitiers.
Frustrated in the west, the forces of Islam turned east. By 750 they had conquer
ed to the Indus River and north over India into Central Asia to the borders of C
hina.
In 656 the Muslim world fell into civil war between two factions, the Sunnites a
nd the Shiites. They differed on several points, including who should be caliph
and interpretation of the Koran. The result of the 60-year war was that the Isla
mic state broke into pieces, some governed by Sunnites (the Iberian Peninsula) a
nd others by Shiites (Egypt and modern Iraq). The new Islamic states acted indep
endently, thereafter.
Muslim Spain developed into one of the great states of Europe during the early M
iddle Ages. Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together in relative harmony, an
d a rich culture rose out of these multiple influences. There was a flowering of
the arts, architecture, and learning. By 1000, however, Muslim Spain had divide
d into warring factions. This civil war facilitated the slow reconquest of the p
eninsula (the Reconquista) by the emerging states of Castile and Aragon, complet
ed finally in 1492.
Asia Minor and the Middle East were conquered by Muslim Turks in the early eleve
nth century. In response to a call for aid from the Byzantines, a series of Crus
ades was launched from Europe to regain Palestine from the Turks. The independen
t Muslim states in the area lost Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean coast t
o the First Crusade. In the last part of the twelfth century, the great Saracen
leader Saladin succeeded in uniting Egypt, Syria, and smaller states, and he ret
ook Jerusalem.
The Muslim states remained independent long after the Middle Ages and eventually
developed into the modern Arab nations of the Middle East and North Africa. The
y went into economic decline, however, when the European nations opened trade ro
utes of their own to Asia in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.