The onset of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the first quarter of the fourth century AD gave rise to two major monotheistic empires around the Mediterranean basin, the Byzantines and the Muslims. Their expansions were fueled by the political power of their rulers and a common belief in one religion.
When Constantine moved the capital from Rome to Byzantium (later known as Constantinople), Christianity was the official and most predominant religion, and the arts attested to that. Between the fifth and sixth centuries, while the Byzantines ruled most of the eastern part of the Mediterranean and North Africa.their capital was the most splendid city of all. However, the seventh century was a troublesome one for the Byzantines. There was a theological dispute among the clergy, and the borders of the empire became battlegrounds for the powerful Sassanians, who ruled what is now Iraq and Iran, and the Visigoths who ruled from Spain and dominated the western part of North Africa. Even Egypt, which was under the direct dominance of the Byzantine emperor, was disturbed by theological schism.
In the middle of the seventh century, when both Byzantines and their enemies were exhausted, a new power appeared from the most unexpected location: the Arabian Peninsula, proclaiming a religion based on the same political and religious language heard throughout the east. Muhammad, the Muslim prophet, was calling the pagan Arabs to the concepts of the oneness of God and the solidarity of community. He introduced the ideas of equality and peace to warring Arabian factions.
After the death of the prophet Muhammad, the Arabs became relentless in their invasions of western Asia and North Africa; within a century they were at the gates of China in the east and southern France in the west. They decimated the Sassanians, and forced the Byzantines to defend what remained in their hands of Anatolia and the Balkans. Like all empires, Islam had a heyday as well as a period of fragmentation and decline. Islamic history survived the succession of many dynasties, experienced both unity and schism, and witnessed the interplay of many ethnicities. Throughout this expansive empire the focus shifted from western Arabia to Damascus in Syria, from Baghdad in Iraq to Cairo in Egypt, and from various cities in Persia and Anatolia to cities in Spain.
Meanwhile, new towns were built, many of them highly cosmopolitan. Distinctive styles in architecture and the arts were established, and scientific and philosophical studies based on the achievements of the Greeks, Pahlavis, and Indians were pursued. The predominant language was Arabic, the language of the holy Muslim book, the Koran, though there was an attitude of openness and respect for many of the achievements of ancient and local cultures that the Muslims dominated.
During the middle of the thirteenth century, the Mongol armies arrived from Central Asia, destroying many of the urban centers in Iran and Iraq, including the city of Baghdad, the center of cultural innovations. The fragmentation of the Islamic Empire had begun.
Abdallah Kahil, Lecturer, Fine Arls Department, New York University, New York City