Battle of Yarmūk Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Muslim forces besieged and captured the holy regions of Syria and Palestine from the Byzantine Empire and continued their conquest and expansion of the Middle East.

Summary of Event

In 628, the Byzantine emperor Heraclius Heraclius successfully concluded a war against the Sāsānid Dynasty Sāsānian Empire[Sasanian Empire] of Persia. This Persian War, waged since 603, left both empires exhausted just when a new and soon to be powerful Islamic state was rising to the south. Islam, which means “submission to God,” was the new religion created by the Prophet Muḥammad Muḥammad (the Prophet) . A follower of Islam is called a Muslim, “one who submits.” [kw]Battle of Yarmūk (August 15-20, 636) [kw]Yarmūk, Battle of (August 15-20, 636) Yarmūk, Battle of (636)[Yarmuk, Battle of (636)] Syria;Aug. 15-20, 636: Battle of Yarmūk[0360] Israel/Palestine;Aug. 15-20, 636: Battle of Yarmūk[0360] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 15-20, 636: Battle of Yarmūk[0360] Heraclius Khālid ibn al-Walīd Theodore Trithourios Abū ՙUbaidah Vahān Jabala bin al-Ayham

After Muḥammad died in 632, his successors (caliphs) began to expand the borders of the state in a series of jihads (holy wars). The town-based Muslims needed to control their Arab cousins to the north; if not consolidated, these independent nomads, who were such an integral part of the region’s economy and culture, would threaten the survival of the state. The Muslims were also drawn north because they considered Syria and Palestine to be holy regions; Muḥammad was the last and greatest Prophet of Islam, but the religion also counted Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus as early Prophets. The fact that the region contained rich trading cities was a further and perhaps greater inducement.

Heraclius.

(Library of Congress)

Syria, Palestine, and Egypt had been part of the Greco-Roman world for centuries but enjoyed only a thin Hellenistic veneer. Greek- and Latin-speaking Europeans dominated the westward-looking coastal cities, but the green agricultural belt and desert fringe beyond were dominated by Jews, Arabs, and other minorities. They spoke Semitic languages and were at odds with the Orthodox Christianity of the Byzantines.

The southern borders of Byzantine Syria and Palestine were protected by the Ghassānid tribes. These Arab bedouin allies, like the Lakhmid tribes who protected the southwestern flank of Iraq for the Persians, were ruled by “client kings.” At the time of the Muslim invasion, Heraclius was rebuilding the Ghassānid Ghassānids[Ghassanids] tribal coalition destroyed during the Sāsānian occupation of 611 to 630.

Arab and Byzantine sources are sketchy concerning the campaigns in Syria. Nevertheless, scholars have been able to reconstruct the basic sequence of events. Muslim raids into Byzantine territory had begun in 629, but in 633, Abū Bakr Abū Bakr (first Islamic caliph) , Muḥammad’s father-in-law and successor, launched four Arab armies totalling twenty-four thousand men into southern Syria and Palestine. In the spring of 634, Heraclius, in northern Syria keeping an eye on the Persians, sent sizable reinforcements down the coast under his brother Theodore. In response, Abū Bakr ordered his best general, Khālid ibn al-Walīd Khālid ibn al-Walīd , campaigning in Iraq, to cross the desert to Syria. Khālid’s small but elite force came in behind Theodore’s army in May, joined the other Muslim columns, and met the Byzantines head on for the first time on July 30, west of Jerusalem at Ajnadain. Theodore, abandoned by the local Arabs and outnumbered two to one, was routed after a bloody two-day battle. Some Byzantine forces were chased into the fortified coastal cities while others retreated northward.

After Ajnadain, Heraclius sent Theodore back to Constantinople in disgrace while the Arabs ravaged the countryside of southern Palestine. Theodore Trithourios Theodore Trithourios , the sakellarios (state treasurer) and probably magister militum per Orientem (master of the soldiers in the East), was then put in charge of the retreating Byzantines. Following the death of Abū Bakr, the new caliph ՙUmar I ՙUmar I (r. 634-644) replaced Khālid in regional command with Abū ՙUbaidah Abū ՙUbaidah , a pious and more conciliatory man. Khālid continued to lead the field army and pressed the Byzantines northward, defeating them near Pella in late January of 635 and again at Marj al-Saffar in February. Greeted as liberators for the most part, the victorious Muslims confined the Byzantines to a small coastal strip after they took Damascus in September and Emesa (Homs) in November.

Heraclius, though suffering from dropsy (edema), began amassing a new army at Antioch. Elite troops from the capital, which included men from the Balkans, Anatolia, and Germanic Lombards from Italy, were combined with local forces, various Armenian contingents, and allied Arab tribes to form a large but eclectic mercenary force. Heraclius was probably able to gather seventy thousand for the defense of Syria, forty thousand of whom would be available to oppose the Muslims. The Byzantine army, like the Muslim, was two-thirds infantry armed with bows, spears, swords, and shields. Byzantine mounted troops, mostly Arab auxiliaries, were augmented by an elite core of heavily armored cavalrymen known as cataphracts. Field operations against Khālid were given to Vahān Vahān , an Armenian who had commanded at Emesa and knew the area best. Outnumbered and fearful of being flanked by Byzantine seaborne forces, the Muslims abandoned Emesa and Damascus in the spring of 636 and settled that summer near the Yarmūk River, a strong defensive position a day and a half’s march south of Damascus. The Yarmūk anchored their left and the Harra, a vast lava rock plain, protected their right. The population there, mostly Arabs and Jews, was anything but friendly to the Byzantines and the position afforded Khālid a clear route to the safety of the desert in case of a defeat.

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The Muslims, inspired by their new faith, proved impervious to the usual Byzantine attempts to bribe enemy leaders and sow dissension in their ranks. In fact, it was the Byzantine army that was suffering from desertions and infighting among its different ethnic groups. When he realized that his army was getting weaker and Khālid’s was receiving reinforcements from Arabia, Vahān decided to attack. The armies, probably very close to equal by then, faced each other on a plain north of the Wadi Yarmūk. (A wadi is a deep stream bed or gorge that remains mostly dry except during the rainy season.) Vahān entered the plain from the west by crossing the Wadi Ruqqad, a tributary of the Yarmūk, via the old Roman bridge on the road to Damascus. He divided his army into four main divisions; his left, consisting of the Christian Arab Ghassānid contingent under their “king,” Jabala bin al-Ayham Jabala bin al-Ayham , stretched north. His left-center was led by the buccinator Ibn al-Qanātir Ibn al-Qanātir and consisted of Byzantine units stationed in Syria before the Muslim invasion. (Buccinator was an old East Roman military title revived by Heraclius and given to local officials.) Vahān commanded his right-center division of mostly Armenians, and Gargīs (George) commanded another Armenian division that anchored the right. Khālid formed his men into four infantry and four cavalry divisions, one cavalry division behind his left, right, and center and a larger one in reserve under Zarrar, a young and fearsome cavalry leader.

The first day of the battle, August 15, saw the infantry of both sides spar inconclusively until sunset. On the second day, the Byzantines caught the Muslims at dawn prayers and drove back both wings. Muslim legend has it that the Arab retreat was halted and the front stabilized when their womenfolk rushed from the camps, abused their men for running, and helped repel the Byzantines by using tent poles and rocks.

After a similar engagement on day three, the fourth and decisive day began with the Byzantine center and Ghassānid cavalry pushing back the right-center Muslim division under Shurahbil. Khālid countered with his mounted reserve, striking the Byzantine flanks and separating their infantry from their cavalry. While the Byzantine center and right unsuccessfully assaulted the camps again, Zarrar chased the Ghassānid cavalry north, turned Vahān’s left flank, and seized the old Roman bridge over the Wadi Ruqqad. After resting a day, the Muslims, now facing south, started to force the Byzantines into a corner formed by the deep gorges of the Yarmūk and the Ruqqad. Vahān tried to open an escape route by driving north to regain the bridge, but his army panicked after Gargīs was killed on the right and the left of the buccinator was driven in on the center. Some tried to surrender, but the Muslims, after their own heavy losses, were in no mood to take prisoners; some fell to their deaths in the deep gorges while others scrambled to safety. Of the Byzantine leaders, only Jabala escaped. Overconfidence had caused the Byzantines to forget their usual caution in dealing with invaders. They gambled all on a decisive battle and lost.

With no major force left to oppose them, the Muslims besieged and captured the major cities in the region one by one. By 645, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt were firmly in Muslim hands. Most of the Arab population converted to Islam rather quickly, but the Christians and Jews were shown toleration, and life went on much as it had under the Byzantines. Syria became the staging area for attacks on Byzantine-held Asia Minor and the center of later Islamic expansion. The holy places of Christendom were in the hands of the Muslims and would remain so until retaken during the First Crusade in 1099.

Significance

The Byzantine defeat at Yarmūk and the subsequent loss of Syria heralded the beginning of a thousand-year struggle between Muslims and Christians. Had the Byzantines prevailed at Yarmūk, it is doubtful that the Arabs would have enjoyed their fantastic run of conquests that followed. Islam;Christianity and Christianity;Islam and From Damascus, armies of the Umayyad caliphs, mainly Arab and mostly Syrian, spread Islamic control to India and across North Africa into Spain by 750. Later Muslim armies would make serious inroads into the heart of Europe, threatening the very existence of Christian civilization. Despite being slowly pushed out of Spain after the eighth century and losing temporary control of the Holy Land to Western Crusaders between 1099 and 1254, Muslim armies remained a serious threat to Christian Europe through the seventeenth century. They destroyed the last vestiges of the Byzantine Empire when they took Constantinople in 1453 and surged up to the gates of Vienna in 1683.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bogle, Emory C. Islam: Origin and Belief. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998. A concise look at Islam and its expansion between 570 and 1517. Also includes discussion of Muḥammad and Islam’s beginnings. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Collins, Roger. The Arab Conquest of Spain, 710-797. London: Blackwell, 1994. This work focuses specifically on the eighth century in Spain, and is particularly valuable for its evaluation of original sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Donner, Fred McGraw. The Early Islamic Conquests. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981. A look into the origin and nature of the Islamic conquest movement and the conquest of Syria and Iraq. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haldon, John. Warfare, State and Society in the Byzantine World, 565-1024. London: UCL Press, 1999. An examination of the relationship between Byzantine society, its armies and warfare. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jandora, J. W. “The Battle of Yarmūk: A Reconstruction.” Journal of Asian History 19 (1985). An attempt to sort out anomalies of the battle concerning names, places, the size of the armies, and dates.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kaegi, Walter E. Byzantium and the Early Islamic Conquests. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. This work explores how and why the Byzantine Empire failed to contain Islam and how and why it lost many valuable provinces to the Arab conquests. Map, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nicolle, David. Warriors and Their Weapons Around the Time of the Crusades: Relationships Between Byzantium, the West, and the Islamic World. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate/Variorum, 2002. Presents a history of the weaponry of the Byzantines and the Muslims during the time of the Crusades, a period of ongoing tension precipitated by the seventh century battle at Yarmūk. Illustrations, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nicolle, David. Yarmūk 636 A.D.: The Muslim Conquest of Syria. Oxford: Osprey, 1994. An excellent volume in the Osprey series that provides an in-depth look into the background of the campaign, the fighting, and its consequences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sicker, Michael. The Islamic World in Ascendancy: From the Arab Conquests to the Siege of Vienna. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2000. Presents a history of the rise and expansion of the Islamic empire. Concludes with a chapter on the end of the ascendancy. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Treadgold, Warren. Byzantium and Its Army, 284-1081. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995. An examination of the Byzantine army’s role and structure within empire’s history. Maps, illustrations, bibliography, index.

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