Collapse of the Umayyad empire
Regional-Syria, History, 4/29/1998
In spite of their organization, their palaces, their poetry, their enlightenment and the democratic touch of the desert, the Umayyads were doomed. They were a minority in a world where the bourgeois townsmen outside Syria (the Syrian townsmen were fanatically pro-Umayyad) were becoming progressively more hostile and more important.
Only the unity of the Bedouin tribes could have maintained their power, and the Umayyads could not preserve this unity. The succession of weak caliphs (rulers) after Hisham provided that opportunity for which orthodoxy had long been waiting. Respectable opinion, entrenched in the Persian cities and the sanctuaries of Arabia, and with astute Abbasid direction, was able to engineer an effective revolt.
Propaganda was easy. Umayyad skepticism was a convenient target which everywhere enabled religious feelings to be marshaled against them. As opposition grew, the religious issue obscured the more fundamental struggle -- the contest for empire between the dominant Arabs, basing their strength and organization in Hellenized Syria, and the Persianized civilization farther east.
After the defeat of the Umayyads in the field, death was given out to them with systematic thoroughness. No member of the house of Umayya on whom the Abbasids could lay their hands was spared. The treatment they received offered an ironic contrast to the clemency they themselves had shown their conquered opponents a hundred years earlier.
The last caliph, Marwan II, was captured and beheaded in Egypt, and over seventy members of the royal house, who could not be disposed of in any other way, were treacherously murdered by the appointed representatives of the Abbasid orthodoxy after having surrendered in an oath of indemnity. At Resafa (now a town in northern Syria), the corpse of Hisham was exhumed and the dead bones flogged.
Almost alone among the members of the great house, Marwan's grandson (Abdul Rahman al-Dakhil) escaped to found in Spain the kingdom and dynasty of Cordova.
The new Abbasid power was based in Iraq and Persia, and thus the capital of Islam was transferred from Damascus to Baghdad. This shift of power eastward had incalculable effects. It colored the whole future of the Islamic faith. Muslim dogma came to be interpreted in the light of Persian ideas, and the possibility of a fruitful union with classic thought gradually disappeared.
The free, priest-less, essentially practical faith of Arabia grew in the Tigris valley tortuous and restricting, and the oriental Abbasid court, with its luxury and its deaf-mutes, its veiled women modified the Islamic outlook.
In addition, the rise of the Abbasids meant the eclipse of Syria. The new rulers, jealous of the role that Syria had played and continually fearful that Umayyad sympathies might lead to revolt, did everything in their power to weaken and impoverish the country. No doubt was to remain in Syrian minds that they were again provincials. Syrians accepted the position grudgingly. Time and again the white banner of the Umayyads was raised, and time and again the Abbasids stamped out the revolts.
As the chances of effective insurrection grew less, the white banner became more and more the symbol, the almost mystical symbol, of Syrian independence. Around it, and around the person of the "Sufyani," the messianic representative of the House of Umayya who was to return and restore the country to its imperial glory, the hopes of Syria were centered.
Such hopes were a necessary tonic through the lean centuries that followed, when one foreign governor after another Abbasid, Fatimid, Ayyubid, or Ottoman misruled them from the old Umayyad capital, Damascus.
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