One factor was clearly the demise of the Roman empire, creating a political vacuum among formerly united peoples. Another was the elimination of deep rooted pagan religious ties in that area in favor of another Abrahamic religion with its roots in Semitic peoples: Christianity, which is itself an sect of Judaism historically.
The Plague of Justinian
Another lesser known circumstance that made the areas it conquered ripe for conquest was the Plague of Justinian, caused by the same pathogen as the Black Death that afflicted Europe in the Middle Ages, brought to Europe and the Near East via invaders from Central Asia (perhaps the Turkic Huns who have origins in Northeast Asia) or Silk Road traders, and ultimately from China. New genetic evidence from ancient DNA published in Nature Genetics shows that the "first outbreak of plague occurred in China more than 2,600 years ago before reaching Europe via Central Asia's "Silk Road" trade route." The date would coincide with the Spring and Autumn period of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty in China although I can't find any reference to an outbreak (other than a locust plague) in this well documented historical time and place.
The Plague of Justinian was a pandemic that afflicted the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire), including its capital Constantinople, in the years 541–542. . . Modern scholars believe that the plague killed up to 5,000 people per day in Constantinople at the peak of the pandemic. It ultimately killed perhaps 40% of the city's inhabitants. The initial plague went on to destroy up to a quarter of the human population of the eastern Mediterranean. New, frequent waves of the plague continued to strike throughout the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries CE, often more localized and less virulent. It is estimated that the Plague of Justinian killed as many as 100 million people across the world. Some historians such as Josiah C. Russell (1958) have suggested a total European population loss of 50% to 60% between 541 and 700.
After 750, major epidemic diseases would not appear again in Europe until the Black Death of the 14th century.
This had a powerful effect on the fate of the Byzantine Empire:
Byzantine Emperor Justinian I had expended huge amounts of money for wars against the Vandals in the Carthage region and the Ostrogoth kingdom of Italy. . . .As the disease spread to port cities around the Mediterranean, it gave the struggling Goths new opportunities in their conflict with Constantinople. The plague weakened the Byzantine Empire at a critical point, when Justinian's armies had nearly wholly retaken Italy and the western Mediterranean coast; this evolving conquest could have credibly reformed the Western Roman Empire and united it with the Eastern under a single emperor for the first time since the year 395. The plague may also have contributed to the success of the Arabs a few generations later in the Byzantine-Arab Wars. . . . When the plague subsided, [Justinian] retook Italy, but could not move further north. The eastern empire held Italy for the remainder of Justinian's life, but the empire quickly lost all territory except the southern part after he died. Italy was ravaged by war and fragmented for centuries as the Lombard tribes invaded the north.
The forcible end of pagan religious practice and unorthodox Christian practice, also left communities with thin traditional ties to their current religion (Christianity), leaving more room for mass conversion to a new faith. Christianity was officially tolerated in the Roman empire during the reign of Emperor Constantine 306-337 AD, who convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 to establish what was orthodox Christian doctrine. All dissenting Christian views were banned and forcibly rooted out in the reign of Emperor Theodosius I (378-395) and it is largely to him that we owe the destruction of most Gnostic and pagan texts and religious relics and temples (including those not destroyed in the first sack of the library of Alexandria by Julius Caesar in 47 BC), and the decline of those faiths within the Roman Empire.
In the Byzantine Empire, a new schism between orthodox Christianity and Monophysitism (which was labeled a heresy and drifted in the direction of gnosticism). Monophysitism was strongest in Syria and Egypt, and disappeared when these areas came under Islamic control in the mid-600s CE. Thus, the hold of the Orthodox Church on the areas that were invaded by Islam was already weakened and the subject of political tensions.
The Timing Is Right
How does this coincide with the rise of the Islamic empire?
In 597, Muhammed was an unknown man in his 20s. Around 622, when he left Mecca, his movement was starting to gather steam. By 632, at his death, Islam was a force to be reckoned with.
Caliph Omar had conquered Alexandria in 640 AD but the library was nothing but an ancient ruin, although Islamic rule further suppressed pagan practice that has survived persecution by Roman Christians. Syria and Egypt had both fallen to Islam by 655, followed by the Shiite and Sunni split in the form of a civil war from 655-661. All of North Africa had been conquered by the 690s.
The same era of Chinese history that first encountered the plague also gave rise to the crying wolf tale of China from the 700s BCE:
The case of King Youwang 周幽王 gives nourishment to the Confucian writers who blame him to have followed the words of his consort Baosi, thus making him equal to King Zhou (Zhow) 商王紂 of the Shang Dynasty and tyrant Jie 夏王桀 of the mythical Xia Dynasty. King You had established a warning system of towers that had to light a fire when the barbarians would attack. Baosi abused this system just for fun. When the Quanrong nomads 犬戎 (i.e. Xuanyuan) really attacked, nobody hurried to the weapons.
"Monophysitism was strongest in Syria and Egypt, and disappeared when these areas came under Islamic control in the mid-600s CE"
Nit: Copts remained strong, if not a majority, in Upper Egypt until the middle of the last millennium. Even today, one of the 25 governors of Egypt is a Copt.
Re. what Malak says: Christianism was not automatically removed by the expansion of Islam. In fact a key factor in Islamic expansion was sympathy between Monophysite Christians and Islam, and the (correct) impression by Christians that (early) Muslims were more tolerant towards their faith than Trinitarian Byzantines, who sought forced homogenization. The Arab Christan Ghassanids, who guarded the desertic border of the Levant for Byzantium, were particularly critical in the Muslim victory.
Early Islam anyhow was based on the principle that Muslims did not pay taxes (infidels did). That prevented early Caliphs from promoting conversion too actively, conversion was considered a matter of personal spiritual choice, even if the state was a Muslim theocracy. While centuries later conversion was more encouraged (specially as Muslims began to be taxed), tolerance towards "the book's religions" remained high in most of the Islamic area (a major exception was North Africa in the Almohad/Almoravid rule but even then only against Christians, Jews remained protected).
In general, while conversion to Islam has gradually decreased the number of Christians and Jews, to date rather large Christian minorities remain in nearly all West Asian countries and Egypt.
In general religious "cleansing" (forced conversions, expulsions, local democides) seem to have happened by pulses of increased repression rather than as systematic policy. Examples are the expulsion/forced conversion of Muslims and Jews from Iberia in in the 1490s or the genocide of Greeks (where Greek means Anatolian Christian of Greek language) and Armenians by Turkey in the late WWI and post-war. Ironically enough, the expulsion of Greeks was promoted within a secularist context and on ethnic premises.
As for the main subject, I am under the impression that the hit (not yet demise) to the Byzantine Empire by Islamic expansion and others, underlines the weakness of the brief Byzantine re-expansion under Justinian within the context of the decline of all the Roman Empire since the Hellenistic reform, mostly under Christian rule.
This Hellenistic reform, directly related to the Christian Coup, implied that Rome stopped being Rome and became Greece. The displacement of the capital to the East totally destroyed the economical premises on which the Roman Empire had been founded, which was that the Hellinistic provinces footed the bill and Rome (Italy) ruled overall and reaped at least some of the benefits.
With the move of the capital to Byzantium (Nea Roma, Constantinople), the Western part of the Empire stopped being important and soon became prey of disintegrating forces, internal and external. Once the division of the Empire was institutionalized, the Western Empire was too poor and weak to stand for long and, excepted to some extent Italy, Africa (Tunisia) and maybe Iberia, the Eastern Empire had no interest in it (not in Gaul not in Britain). So the Germanic states became a meaningful alternative for the locals, specially the local early feudal elites.
Justinian could not hope to take back all the former Western Empire: it was a pointless endeavor for such a Hellenistc "Rome", what he and his generals achieved was surely near the very limit of what was possible and desirable.
Back to Byzantium, a key factor that is often mentioned is that this and its rival Persia had become exhausted in endless and mostly fruitless wars. This is maybe more important to understand that, simultaneous to the loss of the Levant and Egypt by the Romans, all Persia succumbed too. By comparison Byzantium did pretty well resisting at the Anatolian border.
It seems to be a clear case that long wars are never useful and that they bring disasters.
In this context the plague was probably just a co-factor, maybe even partly a product of the overall exhaustion, as often happen with diseases, which thrive much more easily in already damaged, weakened bodies.
First, I don't think you made this assumption, but the Monophysites were a heretical sect within Orthodox Christianity, rather than Copts.
Second, I'm fuzzy over how far up the Nile the Islamic empire penetrated in this time frame. I do think it is fair to say that Islam dealt a blow to Coptic Christianity in Lower Egypt (in addition to virtually destroying the Coptic language as anything but a liturgical language), but Coptic Christianity probably is one reason that Ethiopia remained relatively free of foreign influence for so much of his history relative to its neighbors and the Ethiopian power base is probably one of the reasons that Upper Egyptians were able to sustain themselves.
The contemporary divide between Christians and Muslims runs roughly a North-South line about two-thirds of the way South across Sudan, roughly where the new country of South Sudan will be formed.
Perhaps because Europeans are mostly heirs to the Western Roman Empire, rather than the Byzantine, and are writing the history books, the extent to which the Western Roman Empire was a thinly governed, thinly populated frontier compared to the Eastern Empire is often understated.
Even at the empire's height, the predominant center of its population and economy was in the Levant, Anatolia, Greece and Egypt.
The point of mentioning the Plague is to suggest that maybe Justinian didn't overreach as much as it seems that he did in hindsight. I don't think that the Justinian Plague had anything to do with a weakened population. Its lethality was extraordinarily high and highly indiscriminate between the healthy and the weak, and the first time a disease hits a population, it is at its most potent because no one has immunity. Also, while the Medieval Black Plague may have been introduced as a biological weapon in Crimea, the Justinian Plague appears to have arrived in the capital via a grain boat from Egypt, and given our knowledge that it had its origins in China, presumably made its way there via Indian Ocean trade routes. That it happened at that time and place was probably nothing more than really bad luck for Justinian's empire.
I'm also increasingly coming to the conclusion that big historical migrations/invasions are more frequently driven by push rather than pull factors. This seems to be the case, for example, in the Uralic language group's incursion into Hungary, and the evidence that this is what was driving the Vedic expansion into India and Persia (i.e. the Saravasti River system's collapse forcing people to seek new homes) is also becoming clear, and the same climate change that dried up the Saravasti River was probably also responsible for the aggresive seeking out of new territory by Indo-Europeans in the Eastern Mediterrean and Balkans. The Vikings were on the receiving end of the Little Ice Age at its coldest part.
Sure, there are pull factors as well, but the pull driven cases (e.g. the Out of Africa expansion, settlement of the Americas and subsequent European colonization of them, the settlement of Oceania, Bantu expansion, and LBK expansion) seem mostly to involve what amounts to "virgin territory" not settled to nearly the density of the people moving in.
History doesn't tell us a lot about what may have been pushing the Goths and Turks into the Mediterrean, but my intuition is that there were events outside the historical record that were pushing them. Their invasions started centuries before the Roman Empire was actually weak.
"the Monophysites were a heretical sect within Orthodox Christianity, rather than Copts".
No, several oriental churches were and are monophysites, i.e. they don't recognize Jesus as God but as mortal, regardless of his holiness and miraculousness. And this includes Copts, which is the common name for the adepts to the Church of Alexandria (Egypt, Ethiopia...) but also the Church of Jerusalem (extinct) and that of Antioch (Syrian Christians), as well as others as Nestorians and Arianists.
It was the most common belief in the areas that are now Muslim, from Morocco to Iraq and even into Central Asia. AFAIK, Trinitarians are only, traditionally, the Churches of Constantinople and Rome (and their offshoots as Eastern European patriarchates and Protestant denominations). Check it up.
In this sense Islam was not much more alien to them than was European Trinitarian churches, even if they may share other elements.
"I'm fuzzy over how far up the Nile the Islamic empire penetrated in this time frame".
Just Egypt (to the first cataract). The Muslim conquest of Nubia (modern Sudan) belongs to the time of the Mamluks and early Ottomans, though there were clashes earlier. In turn Nubia was also where Isianism resisted for longer and they were forced to convert to Christianity by the Byzantines.
"but Coptic Christianity probably is one reason that Ethiopia remained relatively free of foreign influence for so much of his history relative to its neighbors and the Ethiopian power base is probably one of the reasons that Upper Egyptians were able to sustain themselves".
Not really. Axum or Abyssinia (Ethiopia is a modern name) was always in contact with their neighbors, specially Nubia and Yemen (once conquered by Axum in a war of religion between Christians and Jews) but not so much with Egypt. Copts have persisted in Egypt the same that other Christians have persisted in other Muslim countries: because they were normally well tolerated, even if with a second tier status.
However Nubians did attempt to ally with the crusaders at some point - can't recall the details though. Axum is mentioned in the Quran as a place that should be tolerated particularly because of some support they gave to Mohamed (again not sure of the details). In general the Quran is quite favorable to Christians, even if Mohammed claimed they had manipulated the New Testament, turning it partially invalid as divine revelation.
You have to understand that in time of Mohamed Arabia was divided between many religious factions: Jews (in Medina and Yemen particularly), Christians, Arabian Pagans (Mecca), Zoroastrians (in the East). Mohamed had partial support from Jews and Christians because they perceived him as more akin (and vice versa). Originally Mohamed thought of making Jerusalem the holy city of Islam but after being betrayed by Mecca Jews he changed his mind and chose Mecca instead, what maybe helped his success, as he recycled a popular Pagan icon into the center of the new anti-Pagan religion.
Mohamed was a heretic Christian/Jew but a Christian/Jew after all. That's important to understand. The tolerance of Islam towards Christianity (not to other religions, except Judaism) has no counterpart among Christians, who consider him a barbarian heretic and little more than the leader of a horde.
"The contemporary divide between Christians and Muslims runs roughly a North-South line about two-thirds of the way South across Sudan"...
That's relatively modern. Christianity has made inroads in Pagan Africa in the last century or so but the modern "Christian" Sudan used to be Pagan (traditional ethnic religions) and still is largely. It's more similar in this to Nigeria than related to the Medieval history of the region.
"Europeans are mostly heirs to the Western Roman Empire, rather than the Byzantine"...
Western Europe is but Eastern Europe (most of the Balkans and former Russian Empire for this) is of Byzantine heritage, with some Muslim inroads from the Ottoman and Mongol rules.
"The point of mentioning the Plague is to suggest that maybe Justinian didn't overreach as much as it seems that he did in hindsight. I don't think that the Justinian Plague had anything to do with a weakened population".
It's difficult to judge such things: the documentation is just not enough to know for sure. I am of the opinion that epidemics feed on weakened populations, the same that illness preys predominantly on those that are less healthy for other reasons. I also think that a strong society can withstand almost any epidemic: Europe did not collapse with the Black Death for instance: a few generations later it was as dynamic as ever or even more. In fact, the loss of work force allowed peasants to achieve better status, as for some time there was just not enough work force and lords competed with each other offering the best conditions. The quality of life of the survivors surely improved a lot after the Black Death, which acted more as a cleanser than as a destructor force.
But it's a matter of opinion largely, I reckon.
"the Justinian Plague appears to have arrived in the capital via a grain boat from Egypt"...
IDK. I am familiar with the idea that the plague is endemic of Central Asia, at least that's what I have read regarding the Black Death. But there may be many other origins, including India (also high in the protective blood group B) or Congo.
"and given our knowledge that it had its origins in China, presumably made its way there via Indian Ocean trade routes".
The Silk Road went mostly through Central Asia, though there was also a sea route. Both could have brought anything from China to Egypt, Syria or directly to Byzantium. Also I must warn that the usage of the term Egypt by Byzantines in that period is confuse: think that Gypsy is a deformation of Egyptian... and what they meant was Syria or West Asia.
"I'm also increasingly coming to the conclusion that big historical migrations/invasions are more frequently driven by push rather than pull factors".
Both things matter: "pull" is a passive force: it just makes invasions easier by weakening the defenses, alienating the population... but if there is no "push" then nothing appears to happen... until it does. Rome suffered invasions before the ones that destroyed it but then the Empire was much more solid and could repeal them. Instead in the 5th century, the (Western) Empire was in disarray, as Rome tried to impose feudalism, triggering the Bagaudae, which in turn made Romans to hire some barbarians as mercenary governors (foederati) and the peoples of the Western Empire to allow other barbarians through (Vandals and such). At that time the power of Rome was clearly vanishing, the many invaders had it easy to poke holes through it all, and the locals often couldn't care less or even favored some times the invaders.
I do not understand well your examples in this matter: all them have pull and push factors as I see them.
"History doesn't tell us a lot about what may have been pushing the Goths and Turks into the Mediterrean, but my intuition is that there were events outside the historical record that were pushing them".
Considering the negligible genetic impact of either population, what is clear is that they were not large migrations but rather armed forces of semi-tribal nature which found weak spots where they could plunder first, attempt conquer later and most often end up as mercenary forces for one of several factions already fighting locally. The Visigoths became the legal government of Rome in SW Europe almost overnight, as Rome could not face the combined force of Bagaudae and Vandals and at the same time fight against Goths in Italy, the Turks instead thrived as warriors for the Mongols and Arabs, while Byzantium became unable to hold in inland Anatolia for its own internal reasons.
Both push and pull factors are at play: a push without a void is normally defeated.
Of course there are always factors such as individual leadership or genius that cannot be controlled but these do not last.
"Their invasions started centuries before the Roman Empire was actually weak".
But they failed because there was not yet a pull factor.
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