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

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

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

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Battle for the Middle East - Muslims Invade Roman Palestine

The Arab Legion in 1948
The last thing either the Persian or Roman Empires expected was invasion from the south by desert-wise soldiers infused with fanatical religious doctrine.

Part III
The Coming Maelstrom
Putting The Chess Pieces in Place

The Middle East has always been a bubbling cauldron of war, terrorism, conquest, hate and insanity. But the period from the start of the last Persian-Roman War in 602 AD to the end of the initial Muslim conquest in 638 was epic insanity on the most grand of scales.

For 26 years the Roman and Persian Empires had been in the death grip war of all death grip wars.  The 700 years of war between the two empires came down to this one life and death conflict.  Only one empire would survive the encounter and it was Rome.

There may have finally been "peace" between Rome and Persia, but it was a disastrous peace.  The Persians sank into dynastic anarchy while the Romans were financially, militarily and politically exhausted.

The two great empires of the world were at their weakest point at just the moment a militant and militaristic Islam appeared.

Late Roman Empire Cavalry
The basic look of the Roman cavalry during the Arab invasions would have not changed all that much. The heavy Cataphract units would have more armor and other units would have less for better mobility. The armored cavalry would act as the mailed fist of any Roman field army.
(Roman Empire.net)

After consolidating his base in Arabia we saw Mohammad in 629 send a force of 3,000 men to the Roman province of Palaestina Salutaris to punish the Christian Arabs who killed Muslim emissaries.

A Roman Army of 10,000 men defeated this initial Muslim assault at Mota (Mu'tah). The Arabs were mauled, but retreated in an orderly manner. On the other side, the Romans did not just call it a day and go home. They continued aggressive contact with the Muslims over several days. This was a solid Roman victory.

Meanwhile at the other end of the Middle East we see the Persian Empire was imploding. 

The Persians who faced the invading Arab Muslim armies were bankrupted from the long war, militarily exhausted and still had Roman troops still in their country. Political anarchy existed with 10 kings and queens in just a 4 year period.

The Muslims took advantage. Muslim commander Khalid ibn al-Walid had at best 3,500 warriors available to him. More troops may have come from Arabia as time went on.

In battle after battle Khalid marched up the Euphrates River through Persian Mesopotamia finally coming within 100 miles of the Roman frontier at Firaz.

There a combined army of Persians, Romans and Christian Arabs joined forces to face the threat of Khalid. Sadly the allies were defeated at the Battle of Firaz.

With the Persians largely knocked out of the war, we see Arab forces massed for an invasion of Roman Palestine.

Muslim commander Khalid ibn al-Walid won a string of victories against the Persians along the Euphrates River front. Then in January 634 orders came for Khalid to join in the battle for Roman Palestine. He took his troops on a brutal march of 600+ miles across the waterless Arabian desert up through Palestine and into Roman Syria in order to flank entrenched Roman troops at Derra.

Organized into three columns Arab forces invade Roman Palestine from the south while Khalid's troops from the Persian front try to draw Roman troops from their prepared positions on the Yarmouk River.


In 632 General Muhammad (prophet if you like) died. After a short time of "reorganization" the new Caliph ordered an invasion of Roman lands.

The Caliph appealed to the tribes around Mecca, Medina and Taif for recruits. He then appointed three commanders and in the tradition of Muhammad gave to each a banner.

The three commanders were Amr ibn al Aasi, Shurahbil ibn Hasana and Yezeed ibn abi Sofian. It is not clear why the army was divided into three columns. Perhaps the lack of water in the desert forced them to move in separate detachments. Also with no system of supply this could have made it easier to live off the land. Dividing the army might have meant harassing raids rather than invasion, but Arab warfare was wild and unpredictable in this period.

Column one under Amr ibn al Aasi was instructed to advance into southern Palaestina Salutaris through Aila (Aqaba) in the direction of Gaza. Column two under Yezeed ibn abi Sofian was to march up the east side of the Dead Sea . Column three under Shurahbil ibn Hasana was to march even further east in the direction of Busra and Damascus. If any column met strong opposition the other two columns were to come to its assistance.

How many Arab troops were sent? We do not know. We know that Khalid initially attacked Persia with perhaps 3,500 men.  It is fair to say the Arabs would not have mounted this major attack on Rome with less men than that, and the army might have been much higher.

Battle of Dathin  (634 AD)

With the Muslim invasion of Persia one would think Roman troops would have been active and in place on the Palestine border. But no.

It appears the Dux Sergius located 125 kilometers away up on the coast in Caesarea heard about the first Arab column and was the only Roman official to react.

Sergius gathered what troops he could find in the immediate area and marched south. How many men he had we do not know. We can assume his quickly assembled strike force was numerically inferior to the invading Muslims.

A swift march of 125 kilometers would have exhausted his men and horses. So we have a smaller worn out army taking on a larger invading army. As one would expect it did not turn out well.

The two forces met at the village of Dathin outside of Gaza on February 4, 634.

Sergius was driven back and pursued by the Muslims. Overtaken again Sergius himself was killed along with 300 of his men. How many escaped we do not know.

At this point the Arab force fanned out over southern Palestine reaching as far north as Lydda and Jaffa.

Dealing with Arab Cavalry
Starting in September, 629 AD the Eastern Roman Empire came in contact with an enemy like none they had faced before: rapidly moving fanatic Islamist armies from the deserts of Arabia.  
Unlike the slower moving conventional armies of the Persian and Roman Empires, the Arab cavalry forces were extremely nimble and moved swiftly over the harsh conditions of the Roman-Persian desert frontiers.

The Muslim Blitzkrieg and Terrorism

Now the Muslim commander in Persia started his lightning march to help the invading Arab armies in Palestine.

Khalid ibn al-Walid's rapid movements are easily compared to Blitzkrieg warfare created by Heinz Guderian in World War II.  The slower moving conventional armies of the Persians and Romans were at a distinct disadvantage.

Khalid first moved south to the desert town of Duma to put down a revolt against the Caliph. Khalid quickly captured the town. The leaders of the revolt were put to death, one Arab chief was crucified and the prisoners massacred.  The surviving women and children were shipped off to Medina.

Islamic terrorism as a weapon was nothing new to Khalid. After an early victory in Persia the ruthless Khalid ordered that all enemy prisoners be beheaded. Arab historians claim that thousands were butchered over a three day period.

Khalid now moved northwest into the Batn as Sirr Valley taking him within a 5 to 6 day march of Arab forces already operating in the Jordan Valley. He could have easily joined them. He did not do so because they were being held up by a Roman army which was manning prepared defenses near the town of Daraa.

The two Arab columns under Sofian and Hasana had joined forces to confront the Roman army but were unable to dislodge it. The two sides were deadlocked.

The prepared Roman positions in the Daraa Gap were protected on the left by the deep gorges created by the Yarmouk River and on the right by the lava mountains of Jebel Hauran.

Click map to enlarge

"The Daraa Gap"

The Arab and Roman armies deadlocked in what could be called the "Daraa Gap" is a good place to stop and ask the question: "Why?"

The Holy Grail of this war is a book written in 1964 by Lieutenant-General Sir John Bagot Glubb called The Great Arab Conquests.  The maps on this page are from his book.

The book is a military historian's gold mine. Glubb Pasha was fluent in Arabic, served as commander of the Arab Legion in Jordan and personally campaigned over the very ground the Romans and Arabs fought over.

His observations on the geography and forces involved concluded that the Emperor Heracilus had drawn up a brilliant battle plan to crush the Muslim invaders.  It is worth quoting him at length below.

Glubb Pasha:   "The records of the fighting which occurred between the Arabs and the Byzantine army in Syria are extremely confusing. Our sources are virtually restricted to the Arab historians who wrote more more than a century after the events . . . and who themselves were obviously ignorant of, or indifferent to, the course of the military operations. It was purely by accident that I discovered what appears to me now to be the key to the comprehension of the Arab campaigns in Syria, namely the narrow defile between the Yarmouk River and the Jebel Druze at Derra. . . .
Glubb Pasha

In July 1941 . . . it was feared that the German army, which had seized the Balkans, would attack Turkey and move southwards through Syria and Palestine to Egypt. . . . It was important to discover all the available narrow defiles, where armoured mechanized forces would be at a disadvantage . . . . to hold up German mechanized columns. . . . I myself was employed to examine the area round Deraa.

The Yarmouk River . . . . has cut a deep gorge down which it falls into the Jordan valley . . . . This gorge begins near the town of Deraa. East and northeast of Deraa lies a large group of mountains formed by extinct volcanoes, all the slopes of which are strewn with large black boulders of lava. In place, movement in this area is difficult even to men on foot, while horses and camels are almost immobilized and wheels entirely so. The lava-strewn spurs run down into the plain very nearly to the point at which the Yarmouk becomes an impassable gorge. . . . In 1941, we named this narrow defile the "Deraa gap". We decided to dig an anti-tank ditch across it and to build an entrenched position for an infantry brigade to close the gap.

All the European historians of the Muslim conquest of Syria complain of the vagueness and inaccuracy of the Arab records. Again and again the rival armies are reported to be facing one another on the Yarmouk. Then they disperse again without result. Were there several encounters on the Yarmouk, and why does that name keep recurring? It was only when I myself reconnoitered the area for a military purpose that, all of a sudden, the veil fell, as it were, from my eyes. Useful as this defile would be to prevent a German attack from the north, it was obvious to me that it would be  of even great importance in resisting an army coming up from the south. In so far as invasion from Arabia was concerned, the Deraa gap would be the Thermopylae of Syria.

In 1941, the Germans were invincible at their lightning mechanical warfare. . . . The only way to oppose these mechanized-avalanche tactics was to fight in close country, in mountains, in passes in narrow gaps . . . .

The Muslims were extremely light and mobile, and their tactics consisted of a wild charge . . . retreat and turning movements, cutting communications and supplies. In the open plain, the heavy slow-moving Byzantine troops could not compete with this mobility. But the Arabs could not fight a close-order infantry battle, by push of pike as it were. They had not sufficient body-armour, they were not trained to fight in close, well disciplined ranks. More over they had no heavy support weapons. A cloud of arrows was their only covering fire. Thus they easily overran the deserts and plains of Trans-Jordan and southern Palestine but were afraid of the mountains and defiles.

Dreading the Arab blitzkrieg, the Byzantine army in 634, like the British army in 1941, established an entrenched camp near Deraa in the gap between the Yarmouk's gorge and the lava beds. The Arabs would sometimes skirmish in front of this camp and sometime withdraw, but their lack of military science made it difficult for them to assault it. Khalid's operations round Palmyra and Damascus would thus have the object of persuading the Byzantines to withdraw from Deraa, a result, however, which they failed to achieve."

T E Lawrence and the Arab Revolt 1916 - 1918.  Camel mounted Arab troops on the march in the desert near Jebel Serd. The Romans would have faced similar forces during the battles in Palestine and Syria.

Khalid Marches North

Once you have read Glubb Pasha's books you become physically ill when so-called "historians" wave their hand and say how the Romans gave up the Middle East without a real fight. The polar opposite is the truth. The Battle for the Middle East was a seven year long slugfest from 629 to 636 AD involving multiple battles, sieges and huge armies operating over hundreds of square miles from the Persian front on the Euphrates to Gaza.

As we have seen above the Arab forces came to a standstill when faced with the entrenched Roman army in the Daraa Gap.

Doubtless with the agreement of the other Arab commanders at Daraa, Khalid executed a wide flanking movement of hundreds of miles through waterless desert to threaten Damascus and force the Romans to withdraw from Daraa to protect the city. This action was both daring and extremely dangerous. There are no permanent wells through most of that area. 

It is claimed Khalid took 9,000 men with him on the march. This can be considered to be the usual military inflation. No doubt he took a strong force. Perhaps several thousand men, but this was not a march of conquest. It was an overgrown raid to try and draw Roman troops away from their positions and open Syria to invasion.

Wells were vital in waterless desert warfare.

He watered at Qaraqir, a well which still exists today. Before leaving Khalid adopted a Bedouin device. A number of camels were starved of water and then allowed to drink their fill. With full bladders camels could be slaughtered along the way for their water and meat. In the desert lack of water was a more feared enemy than soldiers, and Khalid had many men and their horses to water daily.

The army advanced in March 634 finally coming to a place called Suwa. After five days of marching all the water was gone and all the water-carrying camels slaughtered. Both the men and horses were failing fast. A guide told Khalid of a hidden desert well marked by a thorn bush. They searched and searched, and the entire force was in danger.

Finally the bush was found and in digging the Muslims discovered a hidden water supply.

With his army saved Khalid went on the attack and captured Palmyra. Turning west he sacked Qaryatein.

The march through the desert was not detected by the Romans. Khalid's arrival in the Palmyra area would thus have been a complete surprise. But as he moved closer to Damascus the Romans reacted.

Battle of Marj Rahit  (Easter Sunday, 634)

About 15 miles east of Damascus Khalid engaged the Ghassanid Christian Arab allies of Rome.

The town was filled with refugees fleeing the Muslims, and they were in the middle of Easter celebrations.

It was claimed the Ghassanids had 15,000 men. No doubt that was far too many just like the 9,000 men of Khalid. I would easily cut both numbers by 50% or more.

The Ghassanids had positioned a strong screen of warriors in front of the town, but it was shattered by a determined Muslim cavalry charge. The Ghassanids pulled back. The Muslims then raided the town collecting booty and captives. They then retreated back to their camp.

Arab historians naturally claimed a "victory" at Marj Rahit. That is doubtful. A raid for booty is hardly a victory. And the fact of the matter is Khalid immediately left the battlefield. We do not know why but the Ghassanid army may have been reforming and local Roman troops might have been getting ready to join them. We do see that Khalid was not eager to stick around to find out who he would have to fight. . . . a sign of weakness.

The Romans and their allies, not the Muslims, were in possession of the field of battle. If Khalid had truly been victorious at Marj Rahit he could have pressed an attack on Damascus and forced the Roman army to withdraw from Daraa to protect the city.

But there was no Arab attack on Damascus and the Romans were still holding the Daraa Gap. Khalid's wide flanking march through the desert had failed. So he abandoned his efforts and rejoined the other Arab forces at Daraa.

Roman Emperor Heraclius
Crowned Caesar in 610 Heraclius had saved the empire from total collapse. Now he organized a major counter attack against the Muslim invaders.

The Chess Pieces Are in Place

So here we are at about April of 634 and there is a stalemate on the Palestine front.

The Roman army has totally blocked the Muslims at Daraa from moving north. Plus the Muslim column in the Gaza area is not strong enough to make any significant advances north.

We see the hand of the Emperor Heraclius in these movements. A frontline commanding general himself, the Emperor had personally spent time in Palestine and Syria and knew the land. The army at Daraa was obviously assigned to its position in order to block the invaders.

While holding the Muslims in Palestine the Emperor had gathered to him a second large army as well as the Roman navy.

All the pieces are now in place. The Roman counter attack begins.

See you later in Part IV.

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

(Dathin)      (Khalid)      (Marj Rahit)