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Arab Conquest of North Africa

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The first invasion

The first officially organized invasion of North Africa by the Caliphate began in 647. After leaving Medina, 20,000 Arabs joined in Memphis (Egypt) with another 20,000 soldiers. The Arabs were commanded by Sheikh Abdallah ibn Sa’d. The Carthaginian Exarch, Gregory, declared the independence of his Exarchate from the Byzantine Empire. He gathered troops and fought with the Muslims. But he was defeated in the battle of Sufetula (a city 220 km south of Carthage). With the death of Gregory, all of Egypt submitted to the Caliphate and paid tribute to the Arabs. The Muslims soon made this territory their vassal. The campaign lasted another fifteen months, but in 648, Abdullah’s troops returned to Egypt.

In all the Muslim possessions, civil war soon began, caused by clan civil strife in the Arab elite. The war led to the assassination of Caliph Uthman in 656. Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was also killed in 661, replaced him.

Second invasion

After the civil war, the Arabs continued their conquests in North Africa. In 665, a new military invasion of the African Exarchate began. In 689, the new North African military campaign was over. The army of the Byzantines (30,000 soldiers) was defeated in the course of this campaign. By the 40,000 Muslims who started this war, another 10,000 Arabs soon arrived, led by the Arab commander Uqba ibn Nafi. Coming out of Damascus, the army passed through almost the whole of North Africa. In 670, the Arabs founded the city of Kairouan (present-day Tunisia ) which became a strong fortress and the basis for further military operations. This city became the capital of the Islamic region of Ifriqiya (the Arabic name of Tunisia). The fortress city covered the coastal areas of what is today Western Libya, Tunisia, and Eastern Algeria. After the settlement of Kairouan, the Arabs again continued the conquest of the Maghreb (the so-called Arabs of northwestern Africa). In the process of conquering the Maghreb, Uqba ibn Nafi captured the coastal city of Bugia and reached Tangier. Both cities were once part of the Roman Mauretania.

Uqba could not hold the conquered lands for a long time. In the rear of his army rebellion broke out. Soon he was called back along with his army to suppress this uprising. In one of the battles against African rebels, Uqba ibn Nafi was killed. In its place came the new commander Zuhayr ibn Qayn. He achieved a number of significant successes, but also died in the fight against the rebels. Constantinople had already managed to send a large army to Africa.

The Berber resistance to the Arab conquerors was led by Kusaila, and after his death, the legendary queen Kahina. She fought with the Arabs until 703 and died in battle.

Meanwhile, a new civil war broke out in Arabia and Syria. The conquest of the Arabs was again suspended.

The Third Invasion

The new conquest of North Africa began with the re-capture by the Arabs under the command of Hassan ibn al-Nu’man. But the Byzantine Empire quickly redeployed troops from Constantinople. The Byzantines were joined by soldiers from Sicily and a strong contingent of Visigoths from Roman Hispania. This has forced the army to retreat to Kairouan. The following spring, the Arabs launched a new offensive. Soon they defeated the Byzantines and their allies at the battle of Carthage. In 698, the Arabs entered Carthage. Its stones served as material for the construction of the city of Tunisia. Another battle took place near Utica, and the Arabs won again, forcing the Byzantines to leave North Africa. At the beginning of the 8th century, the Arabs seized almost the whole of North Africa and later on these lands were divided into three areas: Egypt with the center in Fustat, Maghreb (modern Morocco and Algeria ) with the governor in Fez and Ifriqiya with the center in Kairouan.

The successor of Hassan ibn al-Nu’man Musa ibn Nusayr was a talented administrator and commander. He engaged in the conquest of the Far Maghreb and the spread of Islam among the Berbers in the conquered lands. During the Berber campaigns, Musa and his two sons captured 300,000 prisoners. Almost all the captives were sold into slavery and the proceeds from their sale went to the public treasury. Another 30,000 prisoners were forced to do military service. Musa was also forced to repel the frequent raids of the Byzantine fleet. To fight him, Musa built his own fleet. Moving deep into the Maghreb, his troops captured Tangier in 709.

Completion of the conquest

By 709, the whole of North Africa was under the control of the Arab Caliphate. The only exception was the city of Ceuta. The conquest of North Africa allowed the Arabs to prepare a springboard for an attack on Hispania. For several years, Musa prepared this invasion by military and diplomatic means. In 711, the Berber commander Tariq ibn Ziyad was sent by Musa to conquer Hispania.

Unlike many other conquered places, the Arabs were able to settle in North Africa, where they still constitute the majority of the population.


A. Benabbès. “Les premiers raids arabes en Numidie Byzantine


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