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

Saturday, March 27, 2021

The Fall of Jerusalem and Antioch Ends Rome in the Middle East


Artwork by Alexander Groznov
Eastern Roman Soldier

The Roman Middle East Ends
The Arab Consolidation
Battle for the Middle East Part X

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

Where Eastern Roman military history is addressed at all there are casual references to a single 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.

After years and years of fighting the Muslims the Romans finally lost Syria and Palestine due to a freak sand storm at the The 2nd Battle of Yarmouk.

The Fighting Goes On and On

Yarmouk did not end the fighting. The Romans fought on for another two years doing their best to hold off the invasion and even drive the Muslims back.

The problem is a near total lack of any detailed information on the campaigns. 

So I am using Part X of this series to rapidly wrap up the final Muslim conquest and consolidation of the Roman Middle East.

Map from The Great Arab Conquests (1964)
The initial problem for the Muslims was as they moved north into Syria they were leaving active Roman armies behind them in Jerusalem and in coastal cities like Caesarea, Tyre, Sidon, Beirut and Tripoli.

Roman troops were in short supply after their defeat at the 2nd Battle of Yarmouk. So the Emperor Heraclius ordered a general redeployment of his remaining soldiers from Syria and Palaestina Salutaris to the Taurus Mountains region to better defend Anatolia. 

The Roman garrisons holding out in the coastal cities had been supplied by the Roman Navy. Those troops were slowly withdrawn to the north. The port city of Caesarea was put under a Muslim siege. However Caesarea would not be taken until 640 (four years after Yarmouk), when at last, the garrison surrendered to the Muslim governor of Syria. 

The 6 Month Siege of Jerusalem

After the 2nd Battle of Yarmouk the Muslim commanders held a council of war in early October 636 to discuss future plans. Opinions of objectives varied between the coastal city of Caesarea and Jerusalem. The Muslim commander Abu Ubaidah could see the importance of both these cities, which had resisted all Muslim attempts at capture. Unable to decide on the matter, he wrote to Caliph Umar for instructions. In his reply, the caliph ordered them to capture the latter. The Muslims arrived at Jerusalem around early November, and the Roman garrison withdrew into the fortified city.

Jerusalem had been well-fortified after Heraclius recaptured it from the Persians. After the Roman defeat at Yarmouk, Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, repaired its defenses. 

The Muslims had so far not attempted any siege of the city. However, since 634, Saracen forces had the potential to threaten all routes to the city. Although it was not encircled, it had been in a state of siege since the Muslims captured the towns of Pella and Bosra east of the Jordan River. After the 2nd Battle of Yarmouk, the city was severed from the rest of Syria, and was presumably being prepared for a siege that seemed inevitable. 

When the Muslim army reached Jericho, Sophronius collected all the holy relics including the True Cross, and secretly sent them to the coast to be taken to Constantinople. The Muslim troops besieged the city some time in November 636. Instead of relentless assaults on the city, they decided to press on with the siege until the Romans ran short of supplies and a bloodless surrender could be negotiated.

After six months, the Patriarch Sophronius agreed to surrender, on condition that he submit only to the Caliph. According to tradition, in 637 or 638, Caliph Umar traveled to Jerusalem in person to receive the submission of the city.

This 19th Century Arab warrior might have looked much like the Muslims fighting the Romans.

Battle of Hazir  (June 637)

Marching into northern Syria Muslim Generals Abu Ubaidah and Khalid moved towards Chalcis, which was strategically the most significant Roman fort in the area. Through Chalcis the Romans would be able to guard Anatolia, Heraclius' homeland of Armenia, and the regional capital, Antioch. Abu Ubaidah sent Khalid with his mobile guard towards Chalcis.

The virtually impregnable fort was guarded by Roman troops under Menas, reportedly second in prestige only to the Emperor himself. Menas, diverting from conventional Roman tactics, decided to face Khalid and destroy the leading elements of Muslim army before the main body arrived.

The battle began on a plain three miles east to the east. Khalid deployed his Mobile Guard into its fighting formation for battle. Menas arranged his army in one center and two wings and was himself in the front ranks leading the army like Khalid. Soon fierce clashes broke out at Hazir. The battle was still in its early stages when Menas was killed. 

As the news of his death spread among his men, the Roman soldiers went wild with fury and savagely attacked to avenge their leader's death. Khalid took a cavalry regiment and maneuvered from the side of one of the wings to attack the Roman army from the rear. Soon the entire Roman army was encircled and defeated.

Abu Ubaidah soon joined Khalid at Chalcis, which surrendered some time in June. With this strategic victory, the territory north of Chalcis lay open to the Muslims.

Aleppo’s Citadel
Aleppo The "Jewel of Syria"
The Citadel is a focal point of the entire city, it was a fortress used to protect the city and all of it’s inhabitants. The design of the walls allowed archers to fire their arrows down into any mass of troops.

Siege of Aleppo  (August–October 637)

The Muslims marched northward deeper into Syria. After taking many small and large cities, both Abu Ubaidah and Khalid met and marched to Aleppo. 

There a strong garrison under a Roman general named Joachim held the fort. Aleppo consisted of a large walled city and a smaller but virtually impregnable fort outside the city atop a hill, a little more than a quarter of a mile across, surrounded by a wide moat.

Rather than stay inside this powerful fortress the Roman commander Joachim, met the Muslim army in the open outside the fort. He was defeated and hastily retreated back inside. He boldly launched many sallies to break the siege but failed every time. Joachim received no signs of any help from the Emperor Heraclius (who could indeed send none). Consequently, around October 637, the Romans surrendered on terms according to which the soldiers of the garrison were allowed to depart in peace.

In an unusual move Joachim converted to Islam. He would prove himself a remarkably able and loyal officer to the caliphate and would fight gallantly under various Muslim generals.

Click to Enlarge
A beautiful reconstruction of Roman Antioch

Antioch was the center of the Seleucid kingdom until 64 BC, when it was annexed by Rome and was made the capital of the Roman province of Syria. It became the third largest city of the Roman Empire in size and importance (after Rome and Alexandria) and possessed magnificent temples, theatres, aqueducts, and baths.

Battle of the Iron Bridge  (October 637)

Before marching towards the great city of Antioch, Khalid and Abu Ubaidah decided to isolate the city from Anatolia. They accordingly sent detachments north to eliminate all possible Roman forces and captured the garrison town of Azaz, some 30 miles from Aleppo.

The capture and clearance of Azaz was essential to ensure that no large Roman forces remained north of Aleppo, from where they could strike at the flank and rear of the Muslim army during the operation against Antioch.

After Azaz the Muslims moved on Antioch. The resulting battle took place about 12 miles from the city. Its name came from a nearby nine-arch stone bridge spanning the Orontes River which had gates trimmed with iron.

Again, we have ZERO real information on events so the claims of troop levels for both sides is largely a fantasy.

The Muslims are said to have had 17,000 troops. Who knows? The Romans perhaps 20,000. Again who knows? Certainly Roman troops from captured cities were allowed to leave. It is logical that most of them would end up in Antioch to bolster defenses.

Why did the Romans fight a major battle outside the city walls?  

At best this was an act of total and complete stupidity. These troops should have manned the the city walls which were partly protected by the Orontes River.

Khalid played a prominent role with his Mobile guard. The Roman forces suffered heavy losses and were defeated. The claim is that Roman casualties in this battle were the third highest in the Muslim conquest of Syria, only exceeded by the battles of Ajnadayn and the 2nd Yarmouk. The remnants of the defeated Roman force fled to Antioch. 

The Muslim army later moved up and laid siege to Antioch. The city surrendered almost at once on 30 October, 637. According to the pact the defeated Roman soldiers were again allowed to depart in peace.

Late Roman Reenactors

A Major Roman Counter Attack  (638)

Here is where historians are driven insane. Literally mountains of books have been written about Gettysburg and D-Day, but we have as close to ZERO information as possible about operations in northern Syria.

I will have to speculate.

Emperor Heraclius must have been super angry at his idiot general surrendering Antioch in spite of him having a fairly large Roman Army at his disposal. So I assume the Emperor planned this double attack on the Muslims on two different fronts - one attack the coast and another attack inland.

One was a Roman Amphibious Attack to recapture Antioch.  We see the Roman Navy landing an army on the coast in the Spring of 638 and march the 20 miles inland to take Antioch. 

The cleverness and power of this attack cannot be overstated. The navy landed what must have been a large Roman Army behind enemy lines to attack a major walled fortress. That means this was not just a raid. The army had to be large enough to not only defend itself but to attack and capture a large enemy held city. 

The navy might have consisted of several hundred troop transport and and supply ships bringing everything from soldiers, horses, weapons, food etc. The number of troops is only a guess. Certainly no less than 5,000 men and perhaps more. The mix of cavalry and infantry is unknown.

An enemy held city would not surrender to a small force. So this army had to be on the larger side.

The details are lost to us. It appears no meaningful battle was fought. The Muslims abandoned Antioch. The Romans walked into the city and restored their government.

In support of the coastal attack on Antioch we see Roman Christian Arab Allies attack the Muslims inland. The Christian Arabs assembled from Upper Mesopotamia and from Circesium and Hīt.

The Muslim commander Abu Ubaidah suddenly found himself between Christian Arabs moving toward Homs and a Roman army on the coast. 

Based on the actions of those involved the situation must have been serious. 

Abu Ubaidah withdrew all his forces from northern Syria to Emesa, and the Christians laid in a siege. In response the Caliph ordered 4,000 men to leave the active Persian war front and to march into Syria. Muslims attacked Hīt, which they found to be well fortified; thus, they left a fraction of the army to impose a siege on the city, while the rest went after Circesium. 

When the Christians received the news of the Muslim invasion of their homeland, they abandoned the siege and hastily withdrew there. At this point Khalid and his mobile guard came out of the fort and devastated their army by attacking them from the rear.

The Muslim column from the Persian front then moved north and "pacified" the Christian Upper Mesopotamian region ending Roman rule.

Seeing the defeat of their allies the Romans withdrew from Antioch. There are no reports of battles. I suspect the Romans simply boarded their ships and returned to the Taurus Mountains to bolster the defenses against Muslim invasion.

Reports are these operations ended by mid-summer. So the entire Roman campaign might have lasted 3 to 5 months.

The Middle East was now officially lost to the Empire.

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



Part IX - The 2nd Battle of Yarmouk

Click to Enlarge

Muslims Invade Roman Armenia
After the Roman collapse in Syria the Muslims push north taking the whole of Armenia up to Ararat and raided northern and central Anatolia.
 In 641 Emperor Constantine III decided to recapture Syria. A full-scale invasion was planned and a large force was sent to reconquer Syria. Muawiyah I, the governor of Syria, called for reinforcements and defeated the Roman army in Northern Syria.
In 645–646, Sufyan bin Mujib Al-Azdi managed to seize Tripoli and captured the last Roman stronghold on the Levantine coast.

(Great Arab Conquests)   (Muslim Conquest)

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