The battle of Yarmuk and the loss of Syria to the Muslims – One of the most bitter events in Roman History

“After Heraclius smashed the Persian army and Emperor Chosroes was killed, he set up a program to rebuild Persia as a friendly but independent nation. Chosroes successor, Siroes was paranoid that another member of the royal family would usurp his new crown and so murdered all his competition. It was to no avail as “Siroes himself was murdered after a reign of only eight months. This sent Persia into another crises since all the male members of the royal family had been put to death, no legitimate successor to the Crown could be found”.

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In 632, the Persians were in no state to be fighting another war. The Muslims, on the other hand were rampaging. Mohammad died that year and many tribes had revolted and committed apostasy. Mohammad’s successor, or Caliph, was Abu Bekr. Abu Bekr immediately launched forces toward each of the rebellious tribes and quickly brought them all back in order. The general sent to the border with Persia was none other than Khalid ibn al-Walid again. He suppressed the apostasy there and then immediately moved on to convert the Arab tribes in southern Iraq.

It was not long before the “Arabs overran the rich agricultural country east of the Euphrates”. Khalid quickly learned that the “Persians were unable to operate in the desert” and would retreat to the desert every time the Persian army threatened to defeat him. The “Arab strategy was based on the fact that they were secure in the desert and could raid settled areas as they liked”. It began to seem that the Arabs acted with impunity while the Persian forces were impotent.

Khalid caused some tribes to convert and won several battles against the Persians. He was preparing for a new season of raiding in the Euphrates area when Abu Bekr ordered him to Syria. Khalids efforts would pave the way for other generals to conquer all of Persia in the next few years, but in 633, Abu Bekr was orchestrating a concerted effort to bring all the Arab tribes in Syria into the fold.

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Dathin

In the early spring of 633, Amr ibn al Aasi was dispatched to Palestine, an “area with which he was familiar from his commercial travels before the rise of Islam”.

His mission was to negotiate the conversion the Ghassanids and other Arab tribes in the area. He held negotiations with the local commander but engaged the local forces with vengeance when the talks broke down.

The local Byzantine commander gathered his forces and moved to drive the Muslims out of Palestine. Amr ibn al Aasi “engaged and defeated a Byzantine force at Dathin on track between Aila and Gaza”. It was the first defeat of a Byzantine force by the Muslims. It was not the last.

After Dathin, the Muslims won a string of small victories against local forces. They raided towns and ransomed civilians. In hopes of stopping this chaos, a force of 5000 Byzantine and auxiliary troops from Caesarea led by a commander named Sergius marched southward to meet the Muslims. Sergius and his force were defeated at Araba. Amr, not willing to let the defeated army retreat, began “pursuing the retreating enemy, he overtook them again and inflicted further casualties including Sergius himself”.
Another force, under Abu Ubayda, was active in the Golan region and seized a town called Ma’ab. Shortly thereafter, Amr ibn al-Aasi subjugated the Arab tribes in the Negev. Muslim armies moved at will through the deserts and struck where they wanted.

At first, the Muslims avoided major cities. They were focused on consolidating control over the Arab tribes in the Byzantine area most of whom lived in the hinterland. The Caliph kept sending reinforcements to Syria to support the consolidation over the next year, and the Muslims continued to be a menace.

The Byzantines became alarmed as the raiding parties became armies and started attacking towns. It was not long before Abu Bekr found himself involved in major operations in Syria and Palestine. He “wrote Khalid ibn al Waleed to come from Iraq and reinforce the Muslims”. Khalid received the order in March 634. He immediately gathered the best of his soldiers and made an epic eight day march across the desert with no supply train. It was a risky move, but when Khalid arrived near Palmyra it was a complete surprise to the Byzantines. Khalid then “moved southwards toward Damascus” and launched an attack against a Byzantine force at Marj Rahit, which was repulsed, but the movement of his army forced the Byzantines to evacuate a critical defensive position near the town of Deraa on the Yarmuk river.

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Yarmuk

The Muslim forces in Syria began to have a telling effect. The local Arabs began to convert and actively aid the Muslims in there raids and attacks. The attacks continued to become more brazen under the leadership of Khalid. Finally, Heraclius ordered a force out of Caesarea to envelop and destroy the army of Amr ibn al Aasi which was currently in Beersheba. Khalid again took his army across the desert and destroyed the Byzantine force at the battle of Ajnadain, in July 634, before it could reach Beersheba.

Following Ajnadain, the Byzantine army concentrated on defending the Deraa gap near the Yarmuk river since any invasion of northern Syria would have to come through that gap. The Muslim forces and Byzantine forces fought several battles for this terrain but all were inconclusive. Khalid concentrated his efforts here and finally pushed the Byzantines back. On the day he was finally successful, he received news of the death of Abu Bekr in August of 634. The new caliph, Umar had Khalid replaced by Abu Abaida, a man more known for piety and loyalty than Khalid.

With the Deraa gap open, the Muslim forces moved north and besieged Damascus. Khalid was ordered to take command of the four armies besieging the city by Abu Abaida. Khalid began negotiations with the disaffected monophysite bishop of the city. The bishop made arrangements to open a gate for the Muslims who poured in and began attacking the garrison. The city quickly sued for peace.

After the fall of Damascus, the Muslims laid siege to Jerusalem while Heraclius moved his headquarters to Antioch. The Muslims controlled all of Syria except the coastal cities of Tyre, Sidon, Beirut and Tripoli and the great city of Caesarea. Heraclius organized a new army to come drive the Muslims out of Syria. Two thirds of this new Byzantine army was made up of Ghassinid Arabs and Armenians. The Armenians seem to have been a completely independent force operating in conjunction but not under command of the Byzantine general. The other third of the force was Byzantine peasants from Asia Minor. As soon as this force took the field in 636, the Arabs abandoned all of their conquests of the last 12 months, including Damascus to avoid the risk of forces being isolated and picked off by the superior Byzantine army. Both armies moved, inevitably, back toward the Deraa gap.

The armies collided just north of Deraa on a four mile wide plain between a lava field and the chasm of the Yarmuk river. The armies faced each other across part of the chasm for four months. This stalemate was grating for the Byzantine side as the Arabs faced them “across the river chasm…prevented their using the heavy cavalry effectively”. The chasm did not inhibit Muslim archery though, which harassed the Byzantine lines incessantly. The whole situation was made worse by friction between the Armenians and the Byzantines. The Ghassanids were completely passive toward their fellow Arabs and the Armenians seem to have refused to follow Byzantine lead in any action. Meanwhile, Abu Abaida let Khalid take operational control of the Muslim forces at Yarmuk.

The battle started on 20 July 636 with a dust storm blowing into the faces of the Byzantine line. During the night, the Muslims had seized the only bridge crossing the
Wadi al Ruqqd, behind the Byzantine line and the only route out of the plain. The Arabs attacked. It is unclear exactly what transpired, and almost every account says something different. There are accounts of the Ghassanids retreating from the fight and of the Armenians refusing commands but fighting bravely. Most accounts are contradictory as is analysis by modern writers. One thing is clear, by the next morning, the Byzantine army had ceased to exist.

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Syrian cities after Yarmuk

After Yarmuk, “the ability of the Byzantines to offer coordinated resistance to the Muslims virtually collapsed”. Emperor Heraclius withdrew his few remaining field forces across the Taurus mountains. Without the threat of a major confrontation with a Byzantine army, the Muslims “separated into smaller forces that were active in different localities at the same time”.

Abu Abaida seized Hims and made the town the headquarters for the Muslims.
Khalid bin al-Walid was sent to “reduce Chalcis and Aleppo”. Amr bin al-As made treaties with Antioch, Cyrrhus, Manbij and other places.

The Muslims now used their de-facto control of the country-side to intimidate their opponents while using the promise of good treatment to encourage cities to capitulate. The “Muslims often tried to by-pass the enemy military commanders” since it was believed the professional military commanders were more loyal to Heraclius. “They wanted to encourage breakaway local officials and populations, who were willing to sever ties with the former imperial authority and now switch over to recognize the authority of the Muslims, although not necessarily convert Islam”. On the whole it was a very sensible strategy. After all, “towns in Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt had negotiated terms with commanders of invading Zoroastrian Sassanian armies”.

There was no reason to be surprised that the leaders of a number of towns again negotiated terms for surrender of their towns to the invading Muslims.

After the collapse of northern Syria, Abu Abaida returned south to “invest Jerusalem”. The Muslims quickly mopped up the towns in the interior, “the imperial government had striven to prevent private individuals from possessing arms, for the sake of public order and the avoidance of the creation of virtual private armies by large land owners”. This policy “prevented individuals from possessing the weapons and the experience with weapons that might have encouraged them to try violent resistance of their own against the Muslims”.

The coastal cities were another issue. They remained defiantly Byzantine and the Arabs deliberately campaigned against each of them. It was often a considerable time before the towns could be conquered definitively. This difficulty was a result of the powerful Byzantine fleet that still ruled the Mediterranean. The Byzantines could maintain contact by sea, “allowing them to raid and reestablish their lost authority” despite Muslim garrisons in the littorals. Caesarea, falling in 641, held against the Muslim siege for seven years and her “long resistance was made possible by regular Byzantine supplies reaching it by sea”. The city of Tripoli resisted until 644 for similar reasons.”

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(Source: ARAB-BYZANTINE WAR 629-644 AD, by LCDR David Kunselman)

Research-Selection: Anastasius Philoponus

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