A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, July 22, 2013

A Forgotten Reconquest: The Byzantines in Syria in the 10th Century, Part I

I'm on vacation. As I've done in recent years, I've prepared a number of posts on topics of historical and cultural interest ahead of time, posts unlikely to be overtaken by events. There will be one or more of these per day, and I may drop in to comment on current developments as required.

After the Arab Conquest of Syria in the 630s AD, the Emperor Heraclius of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire is said to have stared back while departing Syria and bid farewell to the country. Both Arab and Byzantine sources tell of him bidding it farewell in words along these lines:
Farewell, a long farewell to Syria, my fair province. Thou art an infidel's (enemy's) now. Peace be with you, O' Syria – what a beautiful land you will be for the enemy hands.
In the mental narratives of most people, I suspect, that is the end of Imperial Byzantine rule in Syria. But not quite. I suspect most Westerners, other than those very odd people who minored in Byzantine history (yes, I admit to it), and most Syrians, and for that matter all but the most well-read Greeks, have never heard of Nicephorus Phocas, John Tzimisces or Basil Bulgaroktonos, but those three Byzantine emperors managed to reconquer major parts of Syria in the 10th century, though they never reached their goal of taking Jerusalem (though they held Damascus, Beirut, Nazareth, and Caesarea, for a short while). It was a sort of proto-Crusade, a bit over a century before the actual First Crusade, but it was an evanescent recovery at best.

Since the Arab conquest of Syria, Arabs and Byzantines had fought along the frontier, and the frontier warrior became in fact a heroic figure in both cultures: the ghazi in Islam, akritas (plural akritai) in Greek. The Byzantines sought to defend a border roughly along the Taurus range, roughly along or a bit north of today's Turkish-Syrian border. Arab raiders sometimes penetrated deep into Anatolia; sometimes Byzantium raided into Syria, but the Empire long relied on defense along the Taurus or at the Cilician Gates to the west (below).
The Border Zone and Fortresses (Wikipedia)

By the mid-900s, however, there was a growing vacuum of power in the Levant. The ‘Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad still claimed the Caliphate, but had lost effective governing power over many of their provinces; from the late 800s Samanids and Tahirids exercised real power, and Tulunids and Ikhshidids in Egypt; in 945 a Persian (and Shi‘ite) dynasty known as the Buyids even occupied Baghdad itself, recognizing the Caliph's suzerainty but controlling the state.

In the early 900s Syria and Northern Iraq came under the control of the Hamdanids, another Shi‘ite dynasty, with Nasir al-Dawla (ruled 935-967) ruling from Mosul and his younger brother Saif al-Dawla (945-967) ruling from Aleppo. The latter is the main Arab protagonist in this tale.

While the Hamdanids provided a base of resistance to Byzantine incursions, Egypt was essentially a power vacuum until the Fatimid Dynasty from North Africa took Egypt and founded Cairo in 969 AD, by which time the Byzantine offensive was well under way The Buyids who ruled Baghdad were more concerned with their Persian base. The Hamdanids were more or less alone for the moment.
The Middle East in 970 AD (Wikipedia)
Phocas' Siege of Chanax on Crete
Enter the Byzantine general and later Emperor Nicephorus II Phocas (Nikephoros II Phokas). As a general under Emperor Romanus II Lecapenus, Phocas led an expedition that reconquered Crete from Islam in 961 AD.

Turning back to land, he campaigned in 962-963, taking Cilicia and invaded Hamdanid territory, briefly capturing Aleppo, sacking it and confiscating its treasures, the first great success in Syria. His nephew, John Tzimisces, campaigned with him. They did not seek to annex Hamdanid territory, merely to break Saif al-Dawla's power on their frontier.

In March of 963, Emperor Romanus died at age 26, possibly poisoned by his Empress. The eldest heir (the future Basil II) was only five, and the Empress Theophano, now regent, turned to Nicephorus Phocas and proclaimed him Emperor; he married the widowed (though perhaps not grieving) Empress. (Hey, why do you think we call that sort of scheming "Byzantine"?).

Nicephorus II Phocas
Now Emperor, Phocas campaigned in Cilicia in 964-966 and raided into Hamdanid Syria, while a Byzantine fleet reconquered Cyprus from the Arabs. In 968 he raided as far as Tripoli in Lebanon, and sought to besiege Antioch; he garrisoned a fort at Baghras between Antioch and Alexandretta (Antakya and Iskenderun). The local commander took Antioch against orders.

Phocas' campaigns elsewhere, against Bulgaria and Sicily, were less successful than his campaign against Saif al-Dawla, and his domestic policies generated opposition.

Meanwhile, Empress Theophano had married Phocas to retain power for her sons; Phocas is said to have been unattractive and to have taken a vow of chastity after his first wife's death. For whatever reason, the Empress had (allegedly) begun an affair with her husband's nephew and co-general John Tzimisces, and they began to plot against Phocas. (They're Byzantines, remember?) You can read the details in Wikipedia, but in the end Phocas was assassinated by his nephew/lieutenant/wife's lover John Tzimisces, who became Emperor John I. An inscription on Phocas' tomb reads, "You conquered all but a woman."

Phocas had campaigned deeper into Syria than any Byzantine general since the Arab Conquest, and had earned the soubriquet "White Death of the Saracens," but his successor Tzimisces would see even further successes. I'll deal with that in Part II on Wednesday (an Egyptian post tomorrow for July 23). But first: what about Theophano? Tzimisces wanted to marry her to further legitimize his rule, but the Patriarch of Constantinople denounced the idea and the Empress' reputation was already sullied; Tzimisces apparently decided the Orthodox Patriarch was a more useful patron than the Empress who may have plotted against both her husbands, so she was exiled to a convent on the island of Prinkipo in the Marmara (Büyükada today), where deposed Empresses traditionally were sent. (Yes, the Byzantines deposed enough of their Empresses to need a special convent for them.)

On Wednesday, in Part II: the Campaigns of John Tzimisces and Basil II in Syria.


Ioannis Grigoriadis said...

Thanks for your very interesting and insightful comment, Dr. Dunn.
I have only one point to make: Isn't it a bit preposterous to call the Byzantine reconquest of Syria a 'proto-Crusade', a very 'dirty' word in today's literature? It sounds like one equates the cause of the Byzantine Empire's reconquest of Syria and Palestine with that of the Crusaders.
As you point yourself out, Syria was not foreign to Byzantines -or Eastern Romans- or at least not less foreign than to Arabs in these years.
While against Crusaders, Arab rule could put a claim of legitimacy and autochthony, this could not really stand against the Eastern Roman Empire. Against them, Arabs were the invaders, and Christians still comprised a large part of the population of the region.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Certainly a valid point. Nor do I seel to re-ignite any holy wars. Thanks.

Ioannis Grigoriadis said...

In fact, I have read that Nicephorus Phocas attempted to have the Christian equivalent of a "jihad fatwa" issued by the Patriarchate hoping that the promise of paradise would raise the morale of his soldiers in the battlefield against the Arabs. Yet the religious authorities of the time repeatedly refused to do so to the dismay of the Emperor, arguing that the concept of "Holy War" was alien to Christian theology.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Pope Urban II differed with the Patriarch a few decades later, obviously.