Ted Thornton
History of the Middle East Database
Benchmarks in Islamic History

Origins of Key Geographical Terms


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622 C. E. (Year 1 in the lunar Muslim calendar).  During the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, seventy three men and two women swore an oath of allegiance to the Prophet Muhammad that came to be known as the "Second Aqaba." This oath included for the men a pledge to fight and defend the Prophet (the women were excused from actual fighting). The oath was followed in the same year by the Hijra ("migration"): Muhammad and his followers, failing to gain acceptance in Mecca, were invited to move north to the city of Yathrib, henceforth called al-Medina ("the city"), where they established the first Muslim community.  (Click for more on Muhammad and the founding of Islam)

632 Muhammad died in Medina and was buried there.  The period of the Muslim conquests dates from this time.  Muhammad's successor Abu Bakr sent Muslim armies into Syria and Iraq. 

638  The "Covenant of Umar," a pact between Umar Ibn Khatib and the Christians of Jerusalem was concluded on the occasion of the conquest of that city by the Muslims. Umar decreed that Muslims should forever thereafter guarantee Christians freedom of religion, use of their churches for worship, and the right to visit holy places. In another version, Umar rescinded the Roman decrees which had banished Jews from Jerusalem and accorded Jews all the rights granted Christians.

641 Egypt was conquered by the Muslim general, Amr, who built a new capital, Misr al-Fustat, ("city of the tent"): the future Cairo.

656   "Battle of the Camel," Islam's first fitna ("civil war").

656 - 661 Caliphate of Ali Ibn Talib, cousin of the prophet, also son-in law by virtue of his marriage to Muhammad's daughter, Fatima. Ali moved the Arab capital from Medina to Kufah in southern Iraq.  His sons were Husayn (martyred in 680), and Hasan (who died in 669). During Ali's caliphate, the split in the Muslim umma intensified over this question:  should a direct familial descendant of Muhammad, or a selected leader from his tribe become caliph?  The two chief factions in Islam appeared at this point: the Shiites ("partisans") i.e. partial to the caliph Ali and his descendants through Husayn) favoring the first option (today only 15% of all Muslims), and the Sunni ("orthodox") favoring the second path.

Ali angered the Kharijites when, following an inconclusive military engagement with the Umayyads (the Battle of Siffin in 658), he agreed to submit his dispute with the Umayyads to arbitration, a contest that was decided in favor of the more powerful party, the Umayyads.  The enraged Kharijites responded by murdering Ali in Kufah in 661. 

661 - 750   The Umayyad Caliphs ruled from Damascus. 

680    Martyrdom of the Shiite Imam Husayn at Karbala in Iraq at the hands of Umayyad assassins.

711   The Umayyad conquest of Spain began. Islam reached India (Indus river). Christian decrees against the Jews in Spain were reversed by the Muslim conquerors. Jews living in the region began were invited by the Arabs to join in the creation of what became one of the most glorious cultures of the Middle Ages. (more)

c. 675 - c. 749   Life of John of Damascus (Yahnah ibn Mansur ibn Sargun), an Arab Christian.  In his Concerning Heresies, he catalogued one hundred and three heresies that in his view had departed from the Christian faith. Islam is listed as number "101" in the sequence. The idol worshipping Arabs, John says, were converted by "a false prophet named Mohammed."   John's writings constitute the earliest Christian anti-Muslim polemic on record.  

750 - 1258   Period of the Abbasid Caliphs who built Baghdad, the world's first truly Muslim city, constructed according to Islamic architectural principles.  The Abbasids launched Islam's first "revolution" in their successful struggle to overthrow the Umayyad dynasty.  In doing so, they relied for propagandistic purposes upon their own versions of the history of Muhammad's struggle against his enemies in Arabia.  In these, the earliest histories of Islam's origins on record, the Abbasids argued that their ways were more faithful to the tradition of Muhammad's original community of believers than those of the Umayyads.  Under the Abbasids, Baghdad rose to world prominence as a center of cultural and scientific achievement

After 945, the Abbasids began a lengthy period of decline.  By this time, a new Shiite dynasty (the Buyids) had taken over the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, while rival caliphates were set up in Tunis (the Fatimids), and Cordoba (the Umayyads).  

1055 Seljuk Turks from Central Asia, non-Muslim cousins of the Mongols, captured Baghdad and ruled on behalf of the Abbasid caliphate. They converted to Islam and become Sunni Muslims. So began a Sunni revival in Baghdad after a century of Shiite rule. Paradoxically, in one of Islam's darkest political times the Islamic faith itself scored one of its greatest victories (a paradox repeated in the cases of the Mongols of the thirteenth century and the Ottoman Turks of the fourteenth). The Seljuk ruler, Tughril, called himself al-sultan ("the power"). Thus was born the office of the sultanate which lasted until 1924 when it was abolished together with the caliphate by Turkey's first president, Mustapha Kemal (nicknamed "Ataturk," "Father of the Turks.").

1095    Pope Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade to liberate Christian holy places from the Muslim "infidels."  The Crusades were fought off and on until 1291. 

1098    A Christian state was established in Edessa by the Crusader king, Baldwin I. In December of this year, Crusader forces led by Raymond de Saint Gilles, Count of Toulousse, and Bohemond, the Frankish governor of Antioch massacred the entire population of the Syrian town of Ma'arra al-Numan (10,000 people).  The starving crusaders cannibalized some of their victims.  Go to First Crusade for more. 

1258 Baghdad fell to Hulegu and the Mongols. 800,000 citizens of the city were slaughtered. The independent, medieval caliphate ended.  The Christian West was at first jubilant at the advance of the Mongols whom they expected would convert to Christianity and apply pressure on the Muslim empire from the East.  To the horror of the Christians, the Mongols converted to Islam instead.

1260 Battle of Ayn Jalut in Palestine. The Mongol advance was stopped by the Mamluks led by the Egyptian Mamluk general Baybars. Syria fell under the control of the Mamluks.

1453 The Ottomans under Sultan Mehmet II (nicknamed "Fatih" - "Conqueror") stormed Constantinople ending the Byzantine Roman empire.

1469 The marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon to Isabella of Castille permanently united two chief kingdoms of Spain. Mass expulsions of Jews from Spain began. Muslims were forcibly converted to Christianity (the conversos). Muslims, and Jews, too, fled or were arrested by the Inquisition.

1498 Vasco da Gama reached India. This marked the beginning of European incursions into Far Eastern trade at the expense of Muslim commerce.

1517   The Ottomans captured Egypt and Syria. Mamluk rule came to an end.  An Ottoman protectorate was established over the holy places in Arabia. Palestine fell under Ottoman control until 1917. The beginning of the Ottoman Empire dates to this time.  

1571   The Battle of Lepanto marked the first defeat of an Ottoman force at the hands of Christians.  After the Ottomans failed in their attempt to capture Vienna in 1683, their empire began a long and steady period of decentralization and decline ending formally with their defeat in World War I in 1918.  

1735 The Wahhabi movement to purify and reform Islam began in Arabia.

1798    Napoleon invaded Egypt (more). However, in the same year the British fleet under the command of Horatio Nelson destroyed the French fleet in the harbor of Aboukir, east of Alexandria, cutting off Bonaparte's supply lines.  Bonaparte headed back for France leaving his expeditionary force in the East to fend for itself.

1799    Napoleon's coup d'├ętat  in France. Muhammad Ali at the head of an Ottoman expeditionary force of Albanian troops tried unsuccessfully to drive Napoleon's forces out of Egypt.  He succeeded, with British help, two years later.

1830   Algiers fell to the French.

In the late 1800s  European colonial activity in the Middle East peaked.  (Go to Colonialism in Africa and the Middle East for more.) 

1857     The Sepoy Mutiny in India paved the way for the creation of Dar-ul-Uloom ("The House of Knowledge) in Deoband, India in 1866.  It grew to become the world's second largest center of Islamic learning (after Cairo's al-Azhar). Deobandi learning spread throughout Asia, especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the twentieth century.  Deobandi madrassas (religious "schools") graduated scholars who founded Afghanistan's Taliban ("student") movement which ruled Afghanistan through the middle 1990s.  

1911 On October 3, the Italian fleet shelled Turkish forts in Tripoli (Libya). The aerial bomber was born in Libya on November 1 when an Italian pilot threw a hand grenade out of the cockpit of his plane at tribesmen.

1912 The Ottomans ceded Libya to the Italians.

1914-1918      World War I.  The British promised independence for Arabs if they rose up against the Ottoman Empire, which had aligned itself with Germany. 

1917 Following the surrender of the Turks to the British during World War I, Great Britain and France divided up the domains of the former Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence called "mandates."  From 1917 until 1948, Palestine was governed by a series of British High Commissioners. Britain was caught in the middle between Jews who had begun immigrating into Israel in great numbers, and the Arab inhabitants. Ninety percent of the population in Palestine at this time was Arab. (see Balfour Declaration, 1917)

France administered the affairs of Syria and Lebanon throughout much of this period, although not without resistance.  Their practice of playing factions off against one another in order to facilitate French control was responsible for destabilizing the political life of the fledgling nations (leading, for example, to a series of coups in Syria after World War II and to devastating civil wars in Lebanon in 1958 and again from 1975 until 1989). 

1922   Egypt gained nominal independence from Great Britain (subject to four stringent conditions) and Fuad I was crowned king. 

1923 - 1931    The Second Italo-Sanusi War was fought in Libya (the first had been fought as part of World War I between Ottoman troops and Sanusi tribesmen on one side and British and Italian forces on the other).  Benito Mussolini had risen to power in Italy in October of 1922. 

1924    In Turkey, Mustafa Kemal ("Ataturk") abolished the caliphate on March 3 bringing to an end the dynasty of Osman which had come to power in 1299.

1928   The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt. (more on Muslim militants and revivalists)

1931   The Second Italo-Sanusi War ended in Libya with the hanging of Libyan freedom fighter, Umar Mukhtar, who had led Sanusi tribesmen in their bid to win back their country from Fascist Italy.  His captor, Italian General Rodolfo Graziani, was convicted of war crimes and imprisoned after World War II.

1941    Founding of Jama'at al-Islami ("The Islamic Party") in Lahore, Pakistan by Sayyid Abu'l A'la Mawdudi and others. (more on Muslim militants and revivalists)

1948   Following the British pullout from Palestine, a United Nations plan to partition the country into Jewish and Arab states failed to win Arab acceptance (more on why).  Israel proclaimed its statehood and the first war erupted between the new nation and surrounding Arab states. 

1952   Revolution in Egypt resulted in the abdication of King Farouk and the beginning of rule by a committee of army officers under the complete control of Colonel Gamal Abd al-Nasser.

1956   Following Egyptian President Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal Company, Israel, France, and Great Britain attacked Egypt in what was known as the Second Arab-Israeli war.  

1967   The Third Arab-Israeli War began on June 5 when Israel attacked Egypt and ended after six days in a devastating defeat of the Arabs.  Egyptian President Nasser's dream of pan-Arab unity ended.  Israel occupied the Arab West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem and refused to abide by United Nations Resolution 242 demanding that Arab sovereignty over these areas be restored.  The hardest pill for Muslims to swallow, though, was Israeli control over all of Jerusalem including the third holiest site of pilgrimage in the Muslim world: the Mosque of al-Aqsa and the adjacent Dome of the Rock. Muslim response to this nakba ("catastrophe") as it came to be known led increasingly throughout the rest of the twentieth century to the embrace of Muslim values and a steady turning away from both socialist and modern Western lifestyles and modes of governing. 

1973 The Fourth Arab-Israeli War was launched against Israel by Egypt and Syria and led to a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel (the 1979 Camp David Agreement). 

1975 - 1989  Civil war ravaged Lebanon.  

1979   Revolution broke out in Iran.  Secular rule was replaced by an Islamic (Shiite) regime under the spiritual leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.  The American embassy in Tehran was seized by Iranian students (some of whom were graduates of American universities) with the full support of the revolutionary forces and 63 U.S. hostages were taken.  The success of Muslims in Iran inspired revivalist Islamic groups throughout the Middle East who yearned to replace the secular regimes in their countries with Islamic ones and who especially yearned to return Jerusalem to Muslim sovereignty.  (more on Muslim militants and revivalists)

1980-1988    The First Gulf War began when Iraq invaded Iran. The war left Iraq wracked with debt setting the stage for its invasion of Kuwait in 1990.  

1990-1991    The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq under Saddam Hussein ushered in the Second Gulf War by provoking an American-led campaign to liberate Kuwait.  Speaking in Alabama in April following the allied victory over Iraq, President George Bush (senior) proclaimed the beginning of a "new world order." 

2001    The suicide airliner attacks of September 11 on targets in the United States by militants alleged to be members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda ("The Foundation") network led to massive air and land assaults in October on Afghanistan where bin Laden was believed to be living under the protection of the ruling Taliban movement.  Within weeks, the Taliban were driven out and a new interim government was installed.  The United States began to increase pressure on Iraq to divest itself of weapons of mass destruction suspected to have been amassed there by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.  

2003   The Third Gulf War began in March with a U.S. and British invasion of Iraq aimed at deposing Saddam Hussein and ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction (weapons which were never found).

2005 Meeting in Mecca in December, the Organization of the Islamic Conference condemned Muslim terrorism.

2006 Proxy war in Lebanon between U.S. backed Israel and Iranian and Syrian backed Hizbullah indicated a new possible "cold war."


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Last Revised: December 9, 2008