A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Byzantine Reconquest in 10th Century Syria, Part II

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.
Coronation of Tzimisces

My opening vacation posting, on Monday, introduced the situation in the Levant in the 10th century AD, when the splintering of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate weakened the defenses of the Islamic world against their Byzantine adversaries, and the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus Phocas waged several campaigns against the Hamdanid Amir of Aleppo, Saif al-Dawla. If you haven't read Part I, please do so before reading the rest of this.

We stopped at the coronation of the Emperor John I Tzimisces, who had just assassinated his uncle, Nicephorus Phocas. After Phocas' widow, and Tzimisces' reported lover, the Empress Theophano, had been duly packed off to a convent instead of being married to Tzimisces due to the Church's opposition, Tzimisces (the name is Armenian; his mother was a sister of Phocas), who had been one of Phocas' key generals, returned to the Syrian frontier.
But not immediately. After Tzimisces' coronation in 969, he had to spend 970-971 fighting off an incursion from Kievan Rus and otherwise securing his European frontier. In 972 he turned his attention to the Islamic world again. In that year he moved into Upper Mesopotamia.

Hamdanid power had been weakened by the campaigns of the Emperors Romanus and Nicephorus, and the powerful commander who had long controlled the frontier, Saif al-Dawla of Aleppo, died in 967. The growing Byzantine successes had provoked domestic rebellions, and he had taken ill and soon died. His son Sa‘d al-Dawla was soon driven from Aleppo by rivals. Meanwhile, as we saw last time, Antioch had been take by the Byzantines, and now even Aleppo agreed to pay tribute to Byzantium.

But also 969 was the year the Fatimids consolidated their power in Egypt, ending the weaker Ikhshidid rule and providing a major new counterweight to the Byzantines.

Meanwhile Saif al-Dawla's brother Nasir al-Dawla, ruler of the other Hamdanid state in Mosul, had endured problems of his own, fighting off challenges from rivals and seeing his capital captured by the Buyids who ruled most of Iran. Nasir al-Dawla recouped but was deposed in the same year his brother died, 967.

So Tzimisces' invasion of Upper Mesopotamia (the Jazira) in 972 found a weakened polity and met with a number of successes. In 975 he turned again to Syria, and this time advanced farther into the country than the Byzantines had done since the days of Heraclius, taking in turn Homs, Baalbek, Damascus, Tripoli, Beirut, Sidon, Damascus, Nazareth, Tiberias, and Caesarea. His goal was Jerusalem, but he was blocked by the rising Fatimid power. Most of these conquests were for the briefest of times and resulted in a tributary relationship, not Byzantine rule. In these campaigns, however, the much-weakened Hamdanids were reduced to Muslim vassals of Byzantium, which they accepted as a counterweight to the Fatimids. In 976, returning from this campaign, Tzimisces died suddenly. Poison was rumored. He was succeeded by his nephew and co-Emperor Basil II.

Basil II
Basil II is one of the best-known Byzantine Emperors, but he is primarily remembered by his nickname Bulgaroktanos, the Bulgar-killer. But in addition to his final conquest of the Bulgarians, he also campaigned in the East.

For the first decade of his reign, however, Basil had to cope with domestic rebellions, in part due to the long neglect of domestic imperial issues by his predecessors. The growing Fatimid power took advantage  of this preoccupation and regained much of the territory lost under the two previous emperors.  In 987 Byzantium signed a seven-year truce with the Fatimids. In 991, though, the Fatimids attacked the Hamdanids of Aleppo, who as we have seen were by now a Byzantine protectorate. When the Fatimids threatened to take Aleppo and Antioch, Basil took the field. Through the 990s the lines moved back and forth, and with the accession of the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim in 1000 a truce was established. This held despite the Fatimids' conquest of Hamdanid Aleppo (which continued to pay tribute to Constantinople) and even Hakim's destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in 1009, though that would ultimately lead to the Crusades.

During the Fatimid truce, Basil turned to the campaign that would ensure his fame, against Bulgaria. The border stabilized, with the main long-term gain being Antioch. It remained under a Byzantine duke until after the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, when the Seljuq Turks took eastern Anatolia from the Byzantines, taking Antioch in 1084. In 1098 they lost it to the Crusaders. The Byzantines initially saw the Crusaders as potential allies for the recovery of Jerusalem, though they were eventually disabused of that notion by the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade.

The Byzantine reconquests in Syria in the 10th century were mostly brief, the one major success being returning the ancient Christian Patriarchal city of Antioch to Christian rule for over a century.

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