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500 – 1000

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  • In Babylonia under the Sassanid Empire, the Talmud was completed about 600, the academies were flourishing, and the Exilarch was recognized as governor of the semi-autonomous Jewish community. A Yemenite tribe adopted Judaism. From 502 to 630 the Sassanid Empire fought a series of mutually devastating wars with the Byzantine Empire. One effect of the prolonged hostility was that virtually all continuous communication (including acquaintance with the Talmud) was cut off between the Aramaic-speaking Jewish community in Babylonia and the Greek and Latin-speaking Jewish communities in the Mediterranean area. When the Sassanids captured Judea from the Byzantines (614-629), presumably opening the possibility of return to Jerusalem, the rabbis in Babylonia took little notice of the event. With the Talmud, the rabbis had created a self-contained portable world that functioned wherever Jews lived, with no reference to events in the host countries.
  • Mohammed (571-632), living in Mecca, began about 610 to declare himself a prophet of God. He was forced by local authorities to flee from Mecca to Medina (the Hegira) in 622. With a growing force of followers he returned to capture Mecca in 630, and in 631 he united all Arabia under Islam. Loyal followers of Mohammed established the Rashidun Caliphate in Medina (632-661). The Arabs were able fighters, having served both the Romans and the Persians as mercenaries. With both the Byzantine and Sassanid empires weakened by their wars over more than 100 years, the Arabs were able to capture Judea, Syria, and Egypt from the Byzantines from 633 to 639 and Iraq (Babylonia) from the Sassanids in 648. In 651, the Arabs overthrew the Sassanids and captured Persia. The new rulers continued to recognize the Exilarch as the head of the Jewish community. Zoroastrianism, previously the majority religion in Persia but primarily limited to Persia, declined rapidly after the Arab conquest. Nestorian Christianity continued to expand in Persia, and from the 8th century to the 14th century was one of the largest Christian denominations in the world.
  • By 661, the entire Mediterranean coast of North Africa was captured by Islam. The Rashidun Caliphate was succeeded by the Damascus-based Umayyad Caliphate, which maintained power from 661 to 750, despite a series of Arab civil wars. The Dome of the Rock (691) and Al Aqsa Mosque (715) were built in Jerusalem by the Umayyads. In 711 Muslims (Moors) captured Spain from the Visigoths, with active assistance from the Jewish community who understandably were happy to see the defeat of the Visigoths. The expansion of the Arab territories ended with defeats by the Byzantines at Constantinople in 718 and by the Franks at Tours (central France) in 732. The effect of the Arab conquests was to split the Mediterranean world north and south, with Arab dominance of Spain and the southern and eastern shores, and the Roman Empire successor countries the northern shore.
  • Following the third Arab civil war (744-746), the Abbasid Caliphate gained control (the origin of the Sunni/Shiite split) and established their capital in the new city of Baghdad (founded 762). The Abbasids initiated what has been referred to as “The Golden Age of Islam,” for example with translations of Greek works and the Hebrew Bible into Arabic. Great Jewish banking houses were established in Baghdad. With Baghdad as the intellectual and trading capital of the south Mediterranean world, the influence of the Babylonian Jewish academies and the Talmud spread throughout North Africa and Spain. Jewish communities prospered in Egypt and in Tunis, and via these communities the Talmud was transmitted to Italy and then to the Rhineland. By the middle of the 10th century, the caliph in Baghdad began to lose effective power, and independent caliphates arose in Spain (Cordoba Caliphate), and Tunis/Egypt/Israel (Fatimid Caliphate). In parallel with the changes in the relative influence of the caliphates, the influence of the Babylonian Jewish academies and the Gaonim (heads of academies) peaked with Saadia Gaon (928-942), and thereafter academies in Egypt, Tunis, Spain, and Tiberias asserted their independence. The Masoretes in Tiberias completed editing the Hebrew Bible about 1000.
  • In western Europe, Clovis I (466-511) assumed leadership of the Franks, a Germanic tribe based in the area of modern Belgium. In successive campaigns against the remnant Roman Empire, the Visigoths, and other tribes, he extended the power of the Franks to include essentially all of present day France. Although his kingdom fragmented after his death, his lasting legacy was his conversion in 500 from Arianism to Roman Catholicism, which with the Visigoth conversion in 587 greatly enhanced the position and power of the Roman Church in western Europe. The conversion of most of the other North German tribes to Roman Catholicism was accomplished from 700 to 900. In 800, the Frankish king, Charlemagne, whose territory included most of western Europe except Spain, was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III. Charlemagne’s empire split after his death. In 962, a descendant of Charlemagne, Otto the Great of Germany, was crowned by the pope Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, which later historians characterized as “not holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” In eastern Europe, the prevailing powers, Poland and Hungary, adopted Roman Catholicism, Poland in 966 and Hungary in 1001.
  • The Khazar Empire, roughly in the location of the present Ukraine, rose to prominence as a power in the 7th century. Its capital, Atil, was a great trading and commercial center. Situated between Arab Persia and the Orthodox Byzantine Empire, the Khazar Empire adopted Judaism in 740, possibly to avoid aligning too closely with either of its neighbors. In addition to the rulers and nobility, a significant portion of the general population adopted Judaism. Frequent contacts with Jews in Spain and with Saadia Gaon in Babylonia are recorded. The Khazar Empire was conquered by the Orthodox Kievan Rus State in 968. The subsequent fate of the Khazar Jews is a matter of dispute.