630 AD to 650 AD, Psalm 79: The Arab Conquest.

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Stich, Abbildung, Zeichnung, gravure, drawing, dessin, engraving - 1882 Year 1637This generation is that of the 630s and 640s

The [1] counter-offensive of Heraclius against the Persians is a success. In 627, he walked on Ctesiphon, then capital of the Persian empire. This defeat of the Persians led to the dismissal and execution of King Chosroes and the decline of the empire in the succession struggle that ensued.

Cherub_plaque_Louvre_MRR245_n2In 628, Heraclius is at its peak when he brings back the sacred relics of the true cross to Constantinople. Byzantium had just been permanently sheltered from the Persians. Unfortunately for Byzantium, the removal of this threat is not a guarantee of lasting peace, because at the same time, the Arab troops took the opportunity to build behind the barrier of Islam and this generation sees the real beginning of their conquests

St-helena-heraclius-gates-of-jerusalem-true-cross-jimenez-bernalt-spain-1480sMeanwhile, Heraclius reported in 629 the true cross in Jerusalem, which proved a bad choice when the Arabs began to invade Syria in 634, the Byzantine army sent to stop it is destroyed. Arab armies then seize Damascus and besiege Jerusalem. Heraclius tried to resist once more by sending an army of eighty thousand men to meet them.

Yarmouk river rogne ירמוך9

Repulsed near the Yarmouk River in Galilee, in favor of a sandstorm, Muslims resume the offensive and decimate the Byzantines. Follows the surrender of Jerusalem in the autumn of 637 and the triumphal entry of the Caliph Omar into the city in 638.
Weakened by illness, Heraclius only managed to subtract the true cross during the siege of Jerusalem to bring it back to Constantinople. He died in 641, leaving the empire torn apart in succession struggles. It is finally Constant II who takes the reins of the empire in 641 (until 668) and contains the Arab pressure. In 642, he lost Alexandria and at the same time the richest of the Byzantine provinces. North Africa follows with the fall of Carthage in 647.
Qadisiyyah rogne
If the Byzantine Empire survives the battering of Arab armies, this is not the case of the Persian empire:
  • A first clash [2] takes place in Qadisiya, near Hira; Sassanid troops are led by Rostam, a valiant commander-in-chief supported by a strong army. But it is crushed by the Arab cavalry, and Rostam himself dies on the battlefield. Shortly after, the city of Ctesiphon falls into the hands of the invaders and delivers them a fabulous booty. On the plateau, the resistance is organized around the sovereign. In 642, in the plain of Nahavan, south of Hamadan, Yasdegerd’s troops Abu_Bakr_dyingagain confronted the Muslim army, and the battle ended in a new Sassanid defeat. The king fled to the east, accompanied by his court; then, like the last Achaemenid, he was murdered in the vicinity of Marv in 651. Iran is now a province of the young Muslim state.
So to this generation, the third emerging power, the Muslim empire is being created. Mohammed died in 632.

In the face of the succession struggles that lie ahead and for which he is not yet ready, Omar has named as the first Caliph (of the Arabic Khalifah: successor – of the prophet) Abu Bekr the stepfather of Muhammad. Because of his age, he could not fear that he would drag for a long time in power. He blocked the way among others to Ali, the nephew of Muhammad who would have been a logical successor.

The calculation of Omar is judicious, because Abu Bekr succumbs in 634 naming Omar to his succession who becomes the second Caliph. Oman died in 644 after having assured the Muslim empire of many conquests including in particular Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Arabische_Rijk annote

When Omar died in 644, Otman was the third Caliphate until his assassination in 656.
Against the backdrop of the birth of Islam, this generation begins with a disillusionment for the Jews living in the land of Israel who initially see Byzantium still in conflict with the Persians:
  • In 622 [3], Heraclius engaged a happy counteroffensive against the Persians and entered 627/628 in Persian territory. When Chosroes was deposed and murdered in 628 by his own son, serious quarrels of succession broke out in the country. In such circumstances, Heraclius had the good fortune to deliver the occupied provinces and to obtain the return of the relics of the cross and the release of the Christian prisoners. On March 21, 629, he penetrated triumphantly to Jerusalem and replaced the relics of the cross in the church of the Holy Sepulcher. To the Jews of Palestine, he had promised an amnesty to Tiberias. But he could not respect his commitments. Under pressure from Christian leaders who had not forgotten the persecutions during the Jewish government from 614 to 627, he again banished the Jews from Jerusalem and had to accept that many of them were executed.
  • But the days of the Byzantine-Christian regime were also counted. In 632, the great Arab power in full formation began its expansion; in 636 Tiberias (and Galilee) fell; in 638 it was Jerusalem’s turn.
After a short parenthesis during which the Jews temporarily and partially resume sovereignty over Jerusalem, this generation reminds them once again that they are still at the heart of the night.
Jerusalem falls first in the hands of the Byzantines, representatives of the Christian world and the West, who transform the area of the temple into a landfill, then quickly fall into the hands of Arab armies, representatives of the Muslim world and the East.
These new incursions of the nations in Jerusalem come to continue the work of destruction of the Holy City given as an inheritance to David and Solomon and thus to all the Jewish people. Destruction already orchestrated by the East (Nebuchadnezzar) and the West (Rome).
This is what the psalmist evokes in the beginning of the psalm of this generation:

(extract of the psalm 79 associated to this generation, verses 1 to 3 )

  • A song of Asaph. O God! Nations have come into Your heritage, they have defiled Your Holy Temple, they have made Jerusalem into heaps.
  • They have given the corpses of Your servants as food to the birds of the heaven, the flesh of Your pious ones to the beasts of the earth.
  • They have spilt their blood like water around Jerusalem, and no one buries [them].
The Arab conquest marks an evolution in the management of Jerusalem by the nations.

Jerusalem_Saint_Peter_in_Gallicantu_model_of_the_Byzantine_city annote

Christians until now had taken possession of the city and had built many monuments and churches to mark their taking possession however without investing the site of the Temple of Jerusalem.
Perhaps because the sanctity of this place, which Jesus himself had trodden, impressed them, either to demonstrate to the world the definitive degradation of the “Old Testament” and its materialization (the temple or its ruins).

Civitas_Hierusalem annote _-_L.P

At first Omar allows the Jews to return to Jerusalem, but later, the Muslims appropriate the place and build their own mosque on the site of Solomon’s temple. This will be the Al Aqsa Mosque and the dome of the rock. These constructions, which will take place during the first century of the Islamic era, will be an obstacle to the return of the Jews to their land, and to the restoration of Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish people.

Soon enough, Muslims decree Jerusalem as the third holy place of Islam (after Mecca and Medina) – although Muhammad never declared it during his lifetime – relying on the narrative of the “night journey” and on an interpretation deviated from the Surah dedicated to it (Surah 17, “The Night Journey”, “al-isra'”,( الإسراء ), ,The surah is also known as “Glory, The children of Israel”).

Yet although Muhammad at the beginning of the Hegira directed his prayer towards Jerusalem, he quickly turned away to Mecca.
As for the night journey itself, if Muhammad passes by Jerusalem (physically or not according to the different Islamic commentators), all the ancient texts relating to this narrative mention the temple of Solomon or Herod and not the mosque of Al Aqsa which was built well after the death of Muhammad.
As for Sura proper, if we refer to an  classic translation we have the following verses:
  • Immaculate [5]  is He who carried His servant  (Muhammad) on a journey by night from the Sacred Mosque (Mecca) to the Farthest Mosque (Jérusalem) whose environs We have blessed, that We might show him some of Our signs. Indeed He is the All-hearing, the All-seeing.
Jacques Berque (French reference in the interpretation of the Koran) gives us the following translation of this verse (translation into French originally):
  • O transcendence [6] of the One who made night go, in an instant of the night, His worshiper of the consecrated Oratory (Mecca) to the ultimate Oratory of which We blessed the circumference, in order to discover him of Our signs !

Jacques Berque , in his comments on this verse of this sura, first remark that “made night go” makes pleonasm with “an instant of the night” then on the rest of the verse:

  • «the ultimate Oratory »[7]; literal translation.
    • This precision of Berque is important, because today’s customary translation of Mosque falsely sanctifies the Al Aqsa Mosque built later whereas the Koran in this verse and the real tradition attached to it rather praises the Temple of Solomon rebuilt by Herod. Recall that the term associated with “mosque” or “oratory” in this verse does not impose that it is associated with a Muslim worship that did not exist at the time.
    • The traditional interpretation, which sees the remains of the Temple of Solomon, future site of the mosque built by ‘Abd al Malik b. Marwan (66 – 73 AH), is spread over several hadiths and the Koranic expression of “perimeter”, which can designate either the site or all Palestine. It was in this direction that the Muslim prayer was directed until sixteen months after the Hijra (exile of Mohammed in Medina). The poet Farazdaq (728 or 730) quotes a “house of God at the top of Iliyah” (Aelia was the Latin name of Jerusalem, still used in place of Quds – current name – given by the ancient Arabs).
Unfortunately the passage of Muhammad by Jerusalem if it does not cause immediate sanctification of this city by Muhammad and the Koran both confirming the final property to the people of Israel, it will not be the same for the Muslim generations who will follow one another.
At first, in the first decades of Islam, the constructions in Jerusalem and more particularly on the location of the Temple of Solomon cause an amalgam for Muslims between the Al Aqsa Mosque and the temple mentioned in the first verse of the Surah 17.
As a result, the sacralization of this place, until today, prevents the Jews from regaining real sovereignty over the promised land and from being able to open the doors of heaven to humanity of which they alone have the key.
As for Christians who reinterpreted the Gospels, long after the death of Jesus, to review the status of Jerusalem (and at the same time that of the people of Israel), Muslims in turn redefine the status of Jerusalem.
With the arrival of Islam, Jews naturally find protection in the new sharing of the world that is emerging and avoid disappearing as would have been the case in a unipolar world entirely Christian. But this survival has a price, the Jews had become outcasts in the West, in the Christian world, they will become also in the East Muslim world because they will have an inferior status: the status of dhimmi.
Like Christians in the Muslim world, Jews can practice their religion (without “excess”) but on the condition of accepting to become second-class citizens.
This new status associated with the confiscation, physical and ideological Jerusalem that the following Psalm evokes:

(extract of the psalm 79 associated to this generation, verses 4 to 10 and first part of verse 11 )

  • We were a disgrace to our neighbors, ridicule and derision to those around us.
    • This was true already in the West (and this is accentuated with Heraclius who resorts to forced conversions), but here it is the peoples of the East, who were classically the neighbors of the people of Israel when they were sovereign on their land, which in turn take over the Jews.
  • How long, O Lord? Will You be wroth forever? Will Your jealousy burn like fire?
    • At this stage of the night, the Jews could have hoped that the worst had passed. In fact the new geopolitical situation shows, on the contrary, that the night is far from over.
  • Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not know You and upon the kingdoms that did not call out in Your name.
  • For they devoured Jacob and made his dwelling desolate.
  • Do not remember for us the early iniquities; may Your mercies quickly come before us for we have become very poor.
    • Many Jews supported the Arab conquest, believing that the new empire would bring down Rome (the Christian world) which had destroyed the second temple. All the eschatological hopes linked to the expansion of the Arab world will be in vain: The Arab empire will not come to supplant the Christian empire, but is hatching at its side.
  • Help us, O God of our salvation, on account of the glory of Your name, and save us and atone for our sins for Your name’s sake.
  • Why should the nations say, « Where is their God? » Let it be known among the nations before our eyes the revenge of the spilt blood of Your servants.
  • May the cry of the prisoner come before You;
    • The psalmist signals his despair to God, because the Arab expansion did not allow to end the night as hoped despite the price paid by the Jews of Medina whether it was those who were executed or those who became captives.
This psalm centered on the capture of Jerusalem by the nations can not end without recalling that the people of Israel will return to Zion as prophesies Ezekiel:
  • So [8] says the Lord God: When I gather in the house of Israel from the peoples among whom they have been scattered, and I have been sanctified through them in the eyes of the nations, then shall they dwell on their land that I gave to My servant, to Jacob.
  • And they shall dwell upon it securely, and they shall build houses and plant vineyards and dwell securely when I execute judgments against all those who plunder them from all around them, and they shall know that I am the Lord their God.”
Thus the return of the people of Israel will not be smooth, but the peoples who oppose it will be defeated and somehow punished for not having given their inheritance to the people of Israel. On the one hand, the knowledge they had of them, and on the other hand the fact that in return for this inheritance, God had been particularly generous to them, as we can judge from the wealth of the territories held today by representatives of Esau (Christians) or Ishmael (Muslims).
This return of the people of Israel to their land is now underway, and if we look at the history of the young State of Israel, many conflicts with its neighbors have already occurred, among which we can mention:
  • Egypt,
  • Lebanon,
  • Jordan,
  • Syria,
  • Iraq,
  • Iran,
  • Palestinians.
That is seven neighbors who have all been defeated by Israel, with the exception of Iran, but the story is not over yet.
Similarly, if we list the conflicts, we have:
  • The war of independence of 1948,
  • The crisis of the Suez Canal in 1956,
  • The Six Day War in 1967
  • The Yom Kippur War in 1973
  • The Lebanon war in 1982,
  • The clash with Iraq (destruction of the Osirak nuclear power station in 1981 and scuds during the gulf war in 1991)
  • The clash with Iran, not yet completed, but which has already given rise to the 2006 Lebanon war against Hezbollah, under the control of Iran and the harassment of Hamas also under Iranian control.
That is seven hostile neighbors and seven conflicts that all led to the victory of Israel (direct or not) with the exception of the conflict with Iran (but the night is not over yet …).
It is by this vision that the psalm of this generation concludes:

(extract of the psalm 79 associated to this generation, second part of verse 11 and verses 12 and 13 )

  • according to the greatness of Your arm, set free the children of the mother who died. 
    • All of the conflicts mentioned take place after the Holocaust, when humanity could think that the fate of the people of Israel had definitely been settled by the Nazis. Instead, it has been stronger than it has ever been before.
  • And return to our neighbors sevenfold into their bosom, their reproach with which they reproached You, O Lord.
    • Seven hostile nations and seven conflicts, but all will fail.
  • But we, Your people and the flock of Your pasture, shall thank You forever; to all generations we shall recite Your praise. 
    • The psalmist concludes by thanking God once again, for despite the torments of the night, his people have never given up their trust.



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[1] According to: John Julius Norwich: “History of Byzantium” (French: « Histoire de Byzance » (p. 115 à 122) ).

[2] Yves Porter: “The Iranians” (French:  « Les Iraniens » (p.100) )

[3] Peter Schäfer: “History of the Jews in Antiquity”, this quote concludes Peter Schäfer’s book (with appropriate conclusion) (French: « Histoire des Juifs dans l’antiquité » (p. 223) ).

[5] The Kuran, CORAN, Surah 17, “The Night Journey”, “al-isra'”,( الإسراء ), ,The surah is also known as “Glory, The children of Israel”, verse 1

[6] The Kuran, CORAN, Surah 17, “The Night Journey”, “al-isra'”,( الإسراء ), ,The surah is also known as “Glory, The children of Israel”, verse 1, (following the -french- translation of Jacques Berque).

[7] Notes by Jacques Berque in his translation of “Qur’an / Surah 17 / verse 1”

[8] Yechezkel – Ezekiel – Chapter 28, verses 25 et 26