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Atlas of Jordan

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Myriam Ababsa

Chapter four - Islamic and Ottoman Times (629 AD - 1918)

The Rise of Islam and the Conquest of Bilad al-Sham

Denis Genequand

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1In his lifetime, the Prophet Muhammad tried to rally to Islam the main Arab tribes of North-Eastern Arabia and the Near East, but had little success. In AH 8/AD 629, a raid led by Muslim forces reached Mu’ta, in central Jordan. The conquest of Bilad al-Sham was initiated under Abu Bakr, his first successor, and completed during the reign of ‘Umar b. al-Khattab.

2Three phases of conquest can be distinguished. A first phase, between 12/633 and 13/634, saw incursions in rural areas of Bilad al-Sham, mostly devoted to rallying Arabic speaking tribal groups. The second phase, from 13/634 to 15/636, was the real military conquest, during which most towns of south and central Bilad al-Sham were taken. The arrival of more Byzantine troops led to some major battles won by the Islamic armies, amongst which Fahl (Pella) (AH 13/AD 635) and Yarmuk (AH 15 or 16/AD 636 or 637) in the territory of modern Jordan; these definitely marked the end of the eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire.

3The third phase, between 16/637 and 27/647-648, was one of consolidation and also involved the conquest of Northern Syria, the Mediterranean coast, as well as some important cities like Jerusalem (fig. IV.1).

4After the conquest, the whole Near East became one province divided into five military districts. North-East Jordan belonged to the jund of ‘Urdunn (capital Tabariyya/Tiberias), while the rest of the Jordanian plateau, down to Aqaba, was part of the jund of Damascus.

5In AH 41/AD 661, taking advantage of his position as governor of Syria, Mu‘awiyya b. Abi Sufyan, descendant of a cousin of the Prophet, succeeded in his claim to the Caliphate and moved the capital from Medina to Damascus. He is the founder of the Umayyad dynasty and made the Syrian province the centre of a rapidly growing Empire.

6The Islamic conquest of Bilad al-Sham did not involved massive migrations of tribes from the Arabian Peninsula. In the Umayyad period, the vast majority of inhabitants in cities and villages remained Christians. Nevertheless, some of the tribes present before the conquest converted quite rapidly to Islam and became the main supporters of the Umayyad caliphate. The Umayyad caliphs and princes did not stay long in their capital city of Damascus; their conception of power was based on mobility and regionalization, involving a strong presence in the different sub-provinces (ajnad) and in the countryside.

7Some cities, like Jerash, witnessed urban changes reflecting the new religion (construction of a congregational mosque in the city centre) and economic or commercial development likely to have been undertaken with caliphal sponsorship (a market area adjoining the mosque). These were incorporated into the general frame of the still inhabited late Antique city. New urban settlements with an administrative role were also created in Amman and Aqaba.

8In the countryside, especially in the steppe lands, the Umayyad period witnessed the construction of a number of wealthy residences usually known as the “desert castles”; eighteen of them are known in Jordan and some were real palaces. Most of them were part of much larger settlements comprising also mosques, baths, hydraulic and agricultural features, houses or even villages. They were built by the caliphs themselves or by their entourage. One should understand them as having first of all a political function, as monuments intended to affirm the new power and religion, as settlements showing the appropriation of Bilad al-Sham by the new ruling elite and as places allowing the interaction between the caliphate and the local aristocracies. They were also a form of investment in real-estate property and a number of them, including agricultural production units, had an economic role. The “desert castles” represent the major cultural heritage of the Umayyad period in Jordan.

9The main road crossed Jordan from North to South, linking Damascus to Amman and then Aqaba, along the fringe of the desert. It also became the road used for the pilgrimage to Mecca. Another road linked ‘Amman to the centre of the Arabian Peninsula, through the oasis of Azraq and the Wadi Sirhan (fig. IV.2).

Figure IV.1 — Islam expansion under the Umayyads.

Figure IV.1 — Islam expansion under the Umayyads.

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Title Figure IV.1 — Islam expansion under the Umayyads.
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