Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

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- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Fall of Damascus - Battle for the Middle East

Members of the Bedouin camel cavalry near Damascus, Syria, 1940.
Margaret Bourke-White—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Image.
The Arab forces facing the Romans might have looked much like these soldiers.

The Fall of Damascus
Battle for the Middle East Part VI

Here we are at Part VI of the titanic Battle for the Middle East.

Where Eastern Roman military history is addressed at all there are casual references to the Battle of Yarmouk in 636 AD. "Historians" effectively say the Arabs just magically showed up one day at Yarmouk and defeated a weak Roman Empire.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  This series details a Roman-Muslim slug fest taking place over many years and many battles over a huge geographical area.

In 629 AD the Roman Empire was enjoying a much deserved period of peace after a brutal 26 year long war of all wars with the Persian Empire.  Finally there was peace.  No one in Constantinople had any idea that a fresh invasion from the southern deserts would happen in a matter of months.

Part I  -  In Part I of this series we saw the first military contact between Romans and Muslim Arabs at the Battle of Mota (Mu'tah) in the Roman province of Palaestina Salutaris.  In 629 AD a force of Romans and their Christian Arab allies mauled the invading Muslim army forcing them to return to Medina.

Part II  -  In Part II we saw the Muslims turn their attention to a weakened Persian Empire. Muslims defeated the Persians in a series of battles. In 634 the Muslims marched up the Euphrates River through Persian Mesopotamia finally coming within 100 miles of the Roman frontier at Firaz. Firaz was at the outermost edge of the Persian Empire but it still contained an undefeated Persian garrison. There the Persians joined forces with the local Roman garrison and with Christian Arabs to take on the invaders. They were soundly defeated.

Part III  -  In Part III we have the Emperor Heraclius organizing the defense of Palaestina Salutaris.  Muslims made a wide flanking movement of hundreds of miles through waterless deserts to threaten Damascus.  

The Romans held their own in eastern Syria against this attack and effectively defeated the Arabs at the Battle of Marj Rahit in 634. They drove the Arabs south away from Damascus. The Romans had also dug in at the Daraa Gap fortifications in eastern Palestine and held their positions against Arab attacks. 

But the Romans were defeated in southwest Palestine allowing Muslim forces to fan out reaching as far north as Lydda and Jaffa.

Part IV  -  Battle of Ajnadayn 634. The Romans were dug in at Daraa in Syria and were successfully holding off the invading Muslim army. Emperor Heraclius sent a second army down coastal Palestine with the support of the Roman Navy. The goal was to defeat the smaller Muslim army at Beersheeba and then block the lines of communications to Mecca of the Muslim army at Daraa forcing them to retreat back to Arabia.

Part V  -  1st Battle of Yarmouk (634 AD).  In a huge multi-day battle the Roman Army is pushed out of their prepared defenses at the Daraa Gap. The Romans began to withdraw and made an orderly retreat north to Damascus and other walled cities. 

The door to Syria had been forced open.

The Muslims may have opened the door to Syria, but victory was a long way off. There were Roman armies operating all over Palestine and Syria and holding walled cities such as Jerusalem, Caesarea, Tyre, Tripoli and Damascus. The coastal cities could also be resupplied and reinforced by the Roman Navy.

The Emperor Heraclius had not given up. More troops were being raised for yet another counter attack.

Late Roman-Byzantine Cavalry

The Battle of Pella (January, 635)

The Muslims had over run the Roman defensive positions at Yarmouk in September, 634. This was a defeat but not a total disaster. The Roman forces retreated in an orderly manner to Damascus, Jerusalem, Caesarea and other walled cities.

With multiple Roman armies at their rear the Muslims could not just march straight to Damascus. They needed to protect their lines of communication to the south.

The Fortress of Pella in modern Jordan was of particular importance. It had been a Greek city since the days of Alexander the Great. Under Alexander and later in the seventh century Pella stood on the main military road from Damascus south to Palestine going through Deraa, Pella and Beisan. The road was blocked by the Yarmouk position.

To slow down the Arab operations the Romans partly flooded the Jordan Valley near Pella.

The Arabs met the Romans outside the city, perhaps in the flooded areas, and defeated them. Some Byzantine soldiers fled to Beisan.

A siege of the fortress-city itself was begun. I suspect the city was short on manpower or supplies. Feeling a new Roman Army was not going to show up anytime soon the inhabitants negotiated their surrender.  The agreed to pay a poll-tax and a land-tax to the Muslims.  In return the Muslims guaranteed their lives, property and agreed not to demolish the city or its walls.

With their lines of communications more secure the Muslims starting moving north.

The Battle of Marj As Suffar (February, 635)

Historian and Lieutenant-General John Bagot Glubb, known as Glubb Pasha, commanded the British Arab Legion and campaigned over the very ground where these battles were fought.

He says after Pella the Arabs moved north towards Damascus and that the Romans sent out yet another force to stop their advance.

The two armies met at Marj as Suffar about 20 miles south of Damascus. Glubb states this was approximately the same location where in 1941 the Vichy French offer battle against the invading British. He says there is a natural defensive position there that was used by both the French and earlier by the Romans.

Again an important battle takes place and we have no detail at all of events.

Glubb says the two sides met in February, 635. We have no idea of the size of either force. There was a hard fought and costly battle. The Romans withdrew.  Not a slaughter, but withdrew. There was no boasting by Arab histories of a huge Roman loss. We can assume the Romans again retreated to Damascus or other walled cities.

By mid-March 635 the Muslims had finally arrived at Damascus.

Maps from The Great Arab Conquests (1964)
As the Muslims moved north into Syria they were still leaving active Roman armies behind them in Jerusalem and in coastal cities like Caesarea, Tyre, Sidon, Beirut and Tripoli.

A War on Two Fronts
As the Muslims advanced into Syria they were at the same time fighting armies of the Persian Empire to the east. 

In Part V of my series the Muslims overran the Roman defensive positions at the Daraa Gap and pushed north to Damascus.

A view of Damascus, Syria, 1940.
Margaret Bourke-White—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Image

Siege of Damascus (March - September 635)

The fortifications of Damascus matched its importance to the Empire. The main part of the city was enclosed by a massive 11 m (36 ft) high wall. The fortified city was approximately 1,500 m (4,900 ft) long and 800 m (2,600 ft) wide.

At the time of the Syrian campaign, the Roman Commander of Damascus was Thomas, son-in-law of Emperor Heraclius. A devout Christian, he was known for his courage and skill at command, and also for his intelligence and learning.

The Roman garrison in the city might have numbered 15,000 troops. There would normally be no reason for so many soldiers to be stationed in the city. So I suspect most of the troops fled there from Palestine and from the Roman retreat from Yarmouk.

The Muslims showed up in March with about 20,000 men under assorted commanders and began the siege.

Seventh-century Muslim armies had no siege equipment, and typically employed siege tactics only when there were no other options. Without the necessary siege equipment, armies of the early Muslim expansion would surround a city, denying it supplies until the city's defenders surrendered.

To isolate Damascus, Muslim commander Khalid ibn al-Walid cut the lines of transportation and communication to northern Syria.

Meanwhile Muslim commanders were instructed to repel any Roman attack from the respective gates, and to seek assistance in the case of heavy attack. A corps of 2,000 horsemen formed a mobile guard to patrol in the empty areas between the gates at night and to reinforce any corps attacked by the Romans.

Roman Relief Column

Due to a lack of any real histories written at the time the dates of events are all over the map. I have chosen to follow Lieutenant-General Glubb's dates and timeline.  Glubb has the siege lasting about six months from March to September 635.

The very hands on Roman Emperor Heraclius had established his headquarters in Syria itself at Homs to personally direct operations. Heraclius had spent time in Palestine and Syria and knew the provinces.

At some point during the siege (early? middle?) the Emperor gathered an an army to relieve Damascus. Some accounts claim the army was 12,000 strong. Maybe. Damascus was certainly an important city and deserved a serious effort. But the force could have been smaller and hoped to join with the troops inside Damascus to then outnumber the Muslims.

Scouts posted on the road from Emesa to Damascus reported the approach of a Roman army. Upon hearing this news, Khalid sent Rafay bin Umayr with 5,000 troops. They met 20 miles north of Damascus at Uqab Pass (Eagle Pass) on the Damascus-Emesa road. That force proved insufficient and soon surrounded by the Roman troops. However before the Roman could defeat the Muslim detachment, Khalid arrived with another column of 4,000 men and routed them.

The Muslim siege forces had been weakened by the withdrawal of 9,000 men to repel the relief force. If the Roman garrison had sallied out against the Muslim army, historians suspect the defenders would have broken through the Muslim lines and lifted the siege. Understanding the danger of the situation, Khalid hurriedly returned to Damascus.

Eastern Roman Reenactors

Roman Attack

Word reached Thomas, commander of Damascus, that the relief column had been turned back. Realizing that no reinforcements would not be coming soon he decided to launch a counter offensive.

We must be impressed by Thomas’ skillful handling of such a difficult situation. Typically, the defeat of the relief army is enough to force a besieged city to surrender but Thomas was able to scrape up enough morale from the city’s garrison to sally out, nearly defeat the Arabs and break the siege.

So perhaps in September 634 Thomas drew men from all sectors of the city to form a force strong enough to break through the Gate of Thomas. He was there faced by a corps of about 5,000 Muslims. The Roman attack began with a concentrated shower of arrows against the Muslims. The Roman infantry, covered by the archers on the wall, rushed through the gate and fanned out into battle formation. Thomas himself led the assault. During this action, Thomas was struck in his right eye by an arrow. 

Unsuccessful in breaking the Muslim lines, the Romans retreated back to the fortress. The wounded Thomas is said to have sworn to take a thousand eyes in return. He ordered another great sortie for that night.

Wall of Damascus at the Thomas Gate. 

2nd Roman Attack

This time Thomas planned to launch simultaneous sorties from four gates. The main sector was to be again the Thomas gate, to take full advantage of the exhausted Muslim corps stationed there. The attacks from the other gates—Jabiya Gate, the Small Gate and the Eastern Gate—were intended to tie down the other Muslim corps so that they could not aid the corps at the Thomas gate.

At the Eastern Gate, Thomas assembled more forces than at the other gates, so that Khalid would be unable to move to assist in the decisive sector. Thomas' attack at several gates also gave more flexibility to the operation: if success were achieved in any sector other than the Gate of Thomas, such success could be exploited by sending troops to that sector to achieve the breakthrough. Thomas ordered Khalid to be taken alive.

After some hard fighting at the Jabiya Gate, commander Abu Ubaidah and his men, repulsed the sally and the Romans hastened back to the city. The battle was intense at the Small Gate, which was guarded by fewer troops but the 2,000 cavalry of the Mobile Guard came to help. The cavalry attacked the flank of the Roman sortie force and repulsed the sally.

At the East Gate, the situation also became serious, for a larger Roman force had been assigned to this sector. The Muslims were unable to withstand their attacks. The timely arrival of Khalid with his reserve of 400 veteran cavalry and his subsequent attack on the Roman flank, marked the turning point in the sally at the Eastern Gate.

The heaviest fighting occurred at the Thomas gate, where Thomas again commanded the sally in person. After intense fighting, Thomas, seeing that there was no weakening in the Muslim front, decided that continuing the attack would be fruitless and would lead to even heavier casualties among his men. He ordered a withdrawal and the Romans moved back at a steady pace, during which they were subjected to a concentrated shower of arrows by the Muslims. This was the last attempt by Thomas to break the siege. The attempt had failed. 

He had lost thousands of men in these sallies, and could no longer afford to fight outside the walls of the city.

Remains of the Eastern Gate. Khalid's troops entered Damascus through this gate.

The Fall of Damascus - Traitors Within The Walls

What records there are do not talk about starvation in Damascus.  In fact on September 18th the Romans were holding a festival - - - no doubt food and drink would be provided. Knowing the Muslims were coming Thomas may have stripped the countryside around the city of everything not nailed down to lay in supplies for the siege.

There also appeared to be no serious problems for Muslim Arabs outside the walls. But if the surrounding lands had been cleaned out then as winter approached the Arabs might not be able to feed a large army this far from their home base.

The Emperor was forming a new army in northern Syria to march south.  So if the walls held then time could be on the side of the Romans.

But then there are the traitors from within.

It appears that during the summer Khalid began a correspondence with the Christian Bishop of the city. The Bishop was almost certainly a Monophysite who would have opposed the Orthodox central government in Constantinople.

The reports of the fall of Damascus differ in details. According to the most generally accepted, the Bishop sent a messenger to Khalid telling him of the coming night of celebration in the city. He said the Eastern Gate would be left virtually unguarded. There was a monastery outside the Eastern Gate presumably under the jurisdiction of the Bishop. The monastery supplied the Arabs with two ladders and a little before dawn these were placed against the wall near the Eastern Gate.

A Special Observation - Ladders???? This one act shows how totally and completely unprepared the Muslims were to attack any major walled city. After months of laying "siege" to the city they had to be given two ladders by traitorous Christians to get into the city. One has to wonder. During the entire siege there are no reports of any meaningful attacks on the walls. So we can assume the Arabs spent all of their time sitting on their back sides doing nothing, watching the walls and eating up limited supplies. As long as food inside the city would hold out the Romans could have waited for the Emperor's new army to arrive.

Now with ladders in hand a number of Arabs crept silently up. Two men left on guard were quickly overpowered and the gate was opened from the inside. Just before sunrise the Arabs poured into the city, manned the walls, raising the cry of Allahu Akbar, laid on with sword and dagger.

Thomas saw that the rest of the Arab army did not move from the other gates, he assumed that the other corps commanders were unaware of this sudden attack. The Governor dispatched a messenger through southwest gate directly to the overall Muslim commander Abu Ubaida offering to surrender the city on terms.

The commander-in-chief appears to have been unaware that Khalid war already inside the city. If true that shows a lack of co-operation between different corps commanders. The Governor threw open the southwest gate to Abu Ubaida.

Abu Ubaida marched peacefully with his corps, accompanied by Thomas, several dignitaries, and the bishops of Damascus, toward the center of city. From the East Gate, Khalid and his men fought their way towards the center of Damascus, killing all who resisted. The commanders met at the Mariamite Cathedral of Damascus in the center of the city.

Khalid argued that he had conquered the city by force. Abu Ubaidah maintained the city had capitulated, through the peace agreement between him and Thomas.The corps commanders discussed the situation, and reportedly told Khalid that the peace agreement must be honored, which Khalid agreed to although reluctantly.

The terms of the peace agreement were that no one would be enslaved, no harm would be done to the temples, nothing would be taken as booty, every non-Muslim would pay a poll-tax of one dinar and one measure of wheat.  Some accounts say that certain houses and churches were to be divided in half between Muslims and non-Muslims. The great church of St. John was so divided by such a wall - it was now half church and half mosque.   

In addition that safe passage was given to Thomas and every citizen of Damascus who was not willing to live under Muslim rule. The peace agreement also stated that the peace would end after three days and that the Muslims could attack after these three days without violating the agreement.


Trust issues - it appears Khalid had no interest in the agreement or peace.

Leading a cavalry regiment, Khalid caught up with a convoy of Roman refugees from Damascus at the sea, near Antioch. The three-day truce had passed; Khalid's cavalry attacked the convoy during a heavy rain. In the subsequent battle, Khalid reportedly killed Thomas in a duel. All the Roman possessions and a large number of captives, both male and female, were taken by the Muslims as slaves.

Damascus was sort of a great victory.  After months of a siege the Muslims could not carry the city's defenses and needed Christian traitors to win the day.

In addition as the map above shows there were active Roman Armies behind the Arabs in the fortified cities of Jerusalem, Tyre, Sidon, Beirut and Tripoli. The coastal cities could easily be resupplied and reinforced by the Roman Navy.

Finally there was the Emperor Heraclius.  The Emperor's preparations began in late 635 and by May 636 Heraclius had a large force concentrated at Antioch in Northern Syria. He had assembled yet another Roman army consisting of SlavsFranksGeorgiansArmenians and Christian Arabs ready to march south and drive out the Muslin invaders.

But more of this in Part VII.

Lieutenant-General Sir John Bagot GlubbKCBCMGDSOOBEMC
As far as I am concerned Glubb Pasha's 1964 book The Great Arab Conquests is the Holy Grail on the Arab invasions. Glubb was fluent in Arabic and able to read the original documents. In addition he was commander of the British Arab Legion and personally campaigned on the very ground the Romans and Muslims fought over. Because the "history" of the early invasions is a jumbled mess I am using Glubb Pasha's dates and timeline for events.

Limitanei static frontier guard troops existed 
through the Persian Wars and the Arab Conquest.

The Battle for the Middle East
Read More:
Part I - Roman Empire vs Islam - First Contact
Part II - A Persian-Roman Army Fights Muslim Invaderskk

Part III - Muslims Invade Roman Palestine
Part IV - Battle of Ajnadayn
Part V - The 1st Battle of Yarmouk

(Damascus)    (theartofbattle.com)    (Great Arab conquests)

(themaparchive.com)    (Battle of Fahl)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

pretty colourfull