The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline and Fall/CHAPTER XVII
CAMPAIGN IN NORTHERN SYRIA. BATTLE OF THE YARMUK
A.H. 15 / AD. 636.
As he had left 'Amr in Palestine and Shurahbil in the Jordan district, so now Khalid left Yezid to complete the conquest of the new province, whilst he himself with Abu 'Obeida pushed on towards the north. They followed the route through Coelo-Syria, and first Baalbek and at last Emesa were taken, and it is said they followed the Orontes for the greater part of its course. But the expedition was little more than a reconnaissance, and had to retire precipitately before the advance of a new Greek army.
Treatment of Syrians.
Had the Muslims ill-treated the people of Syria or persecuted their religion, their position would now have been desperate indeed; but their leniency towards the conquered, and their justice and integrity presented a marked contrast to the tyranny and intolerance of the Romans. The result was that when the new Roman army, after much preparation, appeared upon the scene, the Muslims were to all intents and purposes in a friendly country. The Syrian Christians enjoyed more civil and political liberty under their Arab invaders than they had done under the rule of Heraclius, and they had no wish to return to their former state. The people of Emesa, even including the Jewish element, determined to close their gates against the Greeks, and await the issue of the conflict, knowing that even if the issue should be a return to their former state, things could not be very much worse than they were before. The Muslims, when they withdrew, returned the taxes which they had collected, since they were no longer able to fulfil their part of the bargain in guaranteeing security of life and property. A Nestorian 128
bishop writes about the year 15 "The Taiites (or Arabs), to whom God has accorded in our days the dominion, are become our masters; but they do not combat the Christian religion; much rather they protect our faith; they respect our priests and our holy men and make gifts to our churches and our convents."1 Nothing could show more plainly how amicable were the relations between the Christian population and their Mohammadan conquerors, than the fact that devotees of both religions who shared the great Church of Damascus between them entered by one door.
Return of the Greeks.
The new army of Heraclius included Christian Arabs of the Ghassan under their "king" Jabala, as well as Armenians, Syrians, and Greeks. It was under the supreme command of Theodore the Sakkellarius, under whom were Baanes the Armenian, and Jerja (George). Their number is stated variously as one and as two hundred thousand: the number of Christian Arabs being about 12,000, and the Armenians the same number. The Muslims were no doubt less numerous. They had, since the beginning of the year 15, concentrated upon the City of Damascus; but as the Greek army advanced southwards, they abandoned that town and fell back through the Jaulan country until they rested upon the banks of the Yarmuk (Hieromax, now called after the local tribe Sheri'at al-Menadira), and here they awaited the approach of the Greek host. It arrived in the month of Jumadà II.
Battle of Yarmuk, 20th Aug. 636.
The opposing armies came face to face on Tuesday, the 12th of Jumadà II., of the year 15 (23rd July 636). The fierce and decisive battle which followed is variously named the battle of the Yarmuk—after the great river which divides the highlands of Jaulan from those of Ajlun, and flows into the Jordan at a point some five miles below the point where that river leaves the Lake of Tiberias—and the battle of Yakusa, from a tributary of the Yarmuk—which flows from the neighbourhood of Fik (Aphek), and joins the latter river from the north-west.
The village of Yakusa was rediscovered by Seetzen in 1806. On the day on which the two armies met, an engagement took place which resulted in favour of the Muslims; but after that, they remained facing one another for an
1 Assemani, Bibl. Orient. iii. 2, p. xcvi. 129
entire month, without either side striking a blow. During these weeks disaffection spread amongst the Greeks, several of the leaders intrigued with the enemy, and a quarrel arose between the commander-in-chief and the leader of the Armenian contingent. At last, on a day in the month of Rejeb when a strong south wind blew, and the Greeks were blinded by clouds of dust in addition to the scorching rays of an August sun, the Muslim army advanced to the attack. The Greeks had no fortune that day. Whenever they succeeded in penetrating the Arab lines, the women laid hold of swords and drove them back. Their cavalry sought refuge in flight across the plains. The infantry, roped together in companies to increase their steadiness, fell easy victims to the lances of the Arabs, or were hurled down the precipitous sides of the Wadi1. The heterogeneous host of the Greeks began to crumble up before the smaller but united army of the Arabs2. The Sakkellarius perished in the fight: Baanes, however, seems to have made good his flight. It is said that, fearing to face Heraclius, he found his way to Mount Sinai, where he was received as a monk and assumed the name of Anastasius3. He became the author of a homily on the sixtieth Psalm. When news of the disaster reached Heraclius at Antioch, he bade a last farewell to Syria "Farewell Syria, my fair province. Thou art an enemy's now"; and quitted Antioch for Constantinople.
The loss on the Muslim side was also considerable, but it was as nothing compared to what they gained by this battle. Many of the "Companions" lost their lives, and many bore the marks of wounds received there to their graves; but now Khalid could declare that "Syria sat as quiet as a camel." They could now for the first time call Syria their own.
The work of recovering the ground lost in the retreat of the Muslim lines to the Yarmuk did not take many weeks.
1 Hence, M. de Goeje thinks, the form of the name Wakusa from wakasa "to break the neck."
2 'Abdallab ibn Zubeir, who, though a mere boy, had accompanied his father to the wars saw Abu Sufyan and some people of Koreish holding aloof and watching how the battle went, much as did Rob Roy at the battle of Prestonpans; but this may be a later invention intended to blacken the face of the Umeiyad Caliphs who were descended from Abu Sufyan
3 Cf. p. 93 f. 130
Damascus was again in their hands in the same month in which the battle was fought, exactly twelve months after its first capture. As the Greeks retired, the country fell into the hands of the Arabs so naturally that this re-conquest is scarcely mentioned. But Khalid's occupation in Syria was gone. The country had been as good as won, and it was now a question of readjusting the relations of the governed to their new rulers, of fostering the resources of the country, and encouraging agriculture. The military chief had to give place to the civil functionary; the sword to the pen; Khalid to Abu 'Obeida. There is no occasion to seek for any ulterior motives which might lead 'Omar to replace Khalid by Abu 'Obeida. Least of all can personal dislike have influenced him. 'Omar was too great for that. He was, however, scrupulous to a fault in the management of public money, and Khalid appears to have grown rich at the expense of the State. This might have led 'Omar to recall him to Medina but the truth was, the soldiers of Al-'Irak had done the work for which they had been transferred to Syria. They were now required in the country of the two rivers, and were ordered home; and Khalid's lot was naturally theirs.
Completion of the Conquest.
Khalid, however, remained with Abu 'Obeida. 'Amr returned to Palestine, and set about the siege of Jerusalem, or as it was then called Aelia; Shurahbil returned to the Jordan and took Acca (Acre), Tyre, and Sepphoris. Yezid with his brother Mu'awiya captured Saida (Sidon), 'Irka, Jubeil, and Beyrout, on the sea-coast of the Damascus province; whilst Abu 'Obeida pushed northwards by Baalbek, Emesa, and Kinnasrin (Chalcis), to Aleppo and Antioch. Khalid set out with him, but soon left him in order to report himself at Medina; and Abu 'Obeida remained as governor of the whole of Syria, the northern limit of his conquests being a line drawn from Antioch due east to the Euphrates, and the southern the confines of Arabia and Egypt. It was not, however, until the Muslim rulers had begun to cope with the naval forces of the Mediterranean that their authority was established beyond dispute along the seaboard, as it had long been in the interior.
The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline, and Fall [Table of Contents] Answering Islam Home Page