Alternate History

Arab–Khazar Wars (Saracen Jihad)

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Arab–Khazar Wars
Saracen Jihad
Kaukasus 750 map alt de
Date 642–799
Location Ciscaucasia (esp. Dagestan), Transcaucasia (esp. Azerbaijan, Iranian Azerbaijan)
Result Transcaucasia falls under the control of the Caliphate
Khazar Khaganate Umayyad Flag Umayyad Caliphate
Commanders and leaders
Alp Tarkhan

Barjik †
Hazer Tarkhan †
Ras Tarkhan

Umayyad Flag Abd ar-Rahman ibn Rabiah

Umayyad Flag Maslama ibn Abd al-Malik Umayyad Flag al-Jarrah ibn Abdallah † Umayyad Flag Sa'id ibn Amr al-Harashi Umayyad Flag Marwan ibn Muhammad Umayyad Flag Yazid al-Sulami

The Arab–Khazar Wars refer to a series of conflicts fought between the armies of the Khazar Khaganate and the Umayyad Caliphate (as well as its Abbasid successor) and their respective vassals. The war is largely divided into two conflict, the First (сa. 642–652) and Second (ca. 722–737) Arab–Khazar Wars, but overall the Arab–Khazar military confrontation also involves several sporadic raids and isolated clashes, lasting over a period from the middle of the seventh century to the end of the eighth century.

The Arab–Khazar wars were a result of the attempts of the Umayyad Caliphate to secure control of Transcaucasia and the North Caucasus, where the Khazars were already established. The first Arab invasion was launched in the 640s and early 650s, which ended with an Arab defeat. The war continued again in the 710s when raids back and forth across the Caucasus, led by the distinguished generals al-Jarrah ibn Abdallah and Maslama ibn Abd al-Malik, captured Derbent and even the southern Khazar capital of Balanjar, but this had little impact on the nomadic Khazars, who remained able to launch devastating raids deep into Transcaucasia. This became readily evident when in 730 the Khazars defeated the Arabs at the Battle of Ardabil, killing al-Jarrah.

A period of relatively localized warfare followed until 737, when Marwan led north a massive expedition that reached the Khazar capital Atil on the Volga. After securing some form of submission by the khagan, the Arabs withdrew. The 737 campaign marked the end of large-scale warfare between the two powers, establishing Derbent as the northernmost Muslim outpost and securing Muslim dominance over Transcaucasia. The expensive and time consuming wars with the Khazars weakened the Umayyad army heavily, and contributed to the fall of the dynasty a few years later.


Second Arab-Khazar War

In the summer of 732, an army of 40,000 men advanced into Khazar lands under the command of Marwan ibn Muhammad. Marwan would spend time in the south raising troops from Ashot III Bargratuni in Armenia, while the Khazars strengthened their relations with the Roman Empire against their common enemy, marrying the son of the emperor, Leo III the Isaurian to the Khazar princess Tzitzak.

After the expedition of 732 led by Marwan, no serious expeditions into Khazar territory took place for some time. In 733 Sa'id al-Harashi replaced Marwan as governor of Armenia and Azerbaijan, but he too was unable to undertake any campaigns into enemy territory. In 735 al-Harashi lost his sight and Marwan was reappointed. Marwan would not lead any attacks against the Khazars until 735, when he assaulted three fortresses near the Darial Pass under the command of Tuman Shah, a North Caucasian prince who was captured during the campaign. Another Caucasian prince named Wartanis was also defeated and killed in 736. Despite these two victories the Arabs lacked the manpower to make any serious advances into enemy territory, and were largely stalled during this period.

The next large campaign did not come until 737, when the Arabs prepared a massive strike intending to end the war for good. Marwan persuaded Hisham in person to back the campaign and was provided with an army said to be 120,000 strong, to be assembled from regular troops in Syria and the Jazira, volunteers for the Jihad, Armenian troops under Ashot Bagratuni, and even armed camp followers and servants. With an army gathered, Marwan marched on the Khazars with the largest force ever gathered against them.

The Armenian factions hostile to the Arabs and their client Ashot were defeated by Marwan first to secure his rear, before marching against the Caucasian Iberians. The Chosriod rulerof the Iberians chose to seek refuge in the fortress of Anakopia on the coast of the Black Sea, located in the Byzantine protectorate of Abkhazia. The fortress was besieged by Marwan, but he was eventually forced to retreat after dysentery broke out among his forces.

Despite failure to capture Anakopia, the region of Transcaucasia was largely subdued. A two pronged offensive was devised by Marwan that would send 30,000 men under the command of Asid ibn Zafir al-Sulami, governor of Derbent, to advance north along the coast of the Caspian Sea. The second half of his forces would be let by Marwan himself, who would cross the Darial Pass. At Samandar the two armies met, where the continued toward the Khazar capital of Atil, known as al-Bayda, in the Volga River. 40,000 captives were said to be taken after the engagement of the Slavs, while 40,000 men under the command of al-Kawthar ibn al-Aswad al-'Anbari were sent across the river to pursue the Khazar forces. 10,000 Khazars were killed, including the tarkhan, and the Arabs took 7,000 captive, causing a massive defeat for the Khazars.

The Khazar khagan himself is said to have requested peace, promising he would convert to Islam and recognize the Caliph's authority. Marwan also took with him large numbers of Slav and Khazar captives, whom he resettled in the eastern Caucasus, including some 20,000 Slavs who were settled at Kakheti, while the Khazars were resettled at al-Lakz. Shortly after the campaign the Slavs rebelled and killed their Arab governor, prompting Marwan to send an army after the fleeing Slavs and slay them.

The most successful campaign against the Khazars thus far, ultimately Marwan's campaign did little to actually defeat the Khazars. Although the offensive may have discouraged the Khazars from further warfare, promised conversions and recognition of Islam were not carried out unless Arab troops were present, a force that was not present for long. The khagan's own conversion is disputed, and it was believed that a minor lord converted for him, who was placed in charge of the Khazars at al-Lakz. It is also believed that by this time the khagan was actually a follower of Judaism.

Warfare between the Arabs and the Khazars largely ceased for more than two decades after Marwan's campaigns of 737. Until 741 Arab activity in the area would continue, as Marwan launched several expeditions into the Caucasus against northern princes, most notably Tuman Shah. These campaigns were largely intended as raids, seizing plunder and extracting tribute to pay for the army's upkeep, rather than as actual conquests. Despite the establishment of a frontier at Derbent, in reality the Arabs were primarily limited to the lowlands and the coast, and much of the land they seized was too poor to compensate for the expenses of the war. Maintaining a large garrison at Derbent further overextended the Umayyads, and depleted the Syro-Jaziran army, the main pillar of the Umayyad army. The weakening of the Syrian army would be one of major contributing factors in the fall of the Umayyad dynasty during the civil wars of the 740s and the Abbasid Revolution that followed.

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