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The Mediterranean world and the Middle East at the beginning of the 7th century

This map is part of a series of 7 animated maps showing the history of Origins of Islam and the Arabo-Muslim Empire.

At the beginning of the Middle Ages, two major empires, at war with each other for several centuries, dominated the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

The Eastern Roman Empire, which we now call the Byzantine Empire, covered Southern Europe, Northern Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. Its capital was Constantinople. Its literary and administrative language was Greek; and the dominant religion was Christianity. Following the Council of Chalcedon in 451, Christians were divided into the “chalcedonians”, also known as “diophysites”, who believed that Christ was both divine and human and the “monophysites” who believed that the Christ was solely divine. In addition, there were numerous Jewish communities in the Byzantine Empire.

The other great empire was that of Persia. Governed at this time by the Sassanid dynasty, it stretched from Mesopotamia to today’s Pakistan. Its capital was Ctesiphon. The main language was Persian. The official religion was Zoroastrianism, a monotheism which celebrated fire as a divine symbol. Many Jews and Christians also lived in the Persian Empire.

To the South, as the land gradually gave way to desert, the inhabitants were mostly nomadic or semi-nomadic Bedouins, although some tribes lived in the towns. They spoke an early form of Arabic. While most of the inhabitants were polytheists, believing in several gods, Christian and Jewish tribes could also be found in their midst. 

In order to strengthen their positions, the Byzantines and the Persians sought to establish alliances: both empires wanted the Arab tribes on their side and enlisted nomadic warriors in their armies.

In the first decades of the 7th century, war between the two Empires broke out once more. The Persian armies captured Syria and Palestine and then Egypt and went on to threaten Constantinople. Meanwhile, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius and his army invaded Mesopotamia and reached Ctesiphon, the heart of Sassanid power, before taking back control of territories previously lost to the Persians.

These wars greatly weakened both empires, especially Persia, and as a result, the Arab tribes launched raids along their southern frontiers.