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

Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Swaying Struggle - Battle for the Middle East Part VII

Roman soldiers 6th and 7th century
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The Muslims March North
Battle for the Middle East Part VII

Here we are at Part VII 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.

Part VI  -  After a siege lasting for six months Damascus falls to Muslim invaders who lacked any siege equipment. Traitor Christians inside the city opened the gates and allowed the Muslim troops to enter the city. Damascus was sort of a great victory for the Arabs. After months of a siege the Muslims could not carry the city's defenses and needed Christian traitors within the walls to win the day.

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 and Tripoli. 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.

Bedouin Warrior. The Romans may have faced troops much like this man.

Map from The Great Arab Conquests (1964)
As the Muslims 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.

The Massacre at Maraj-al-Debj (September, 635)

Thomas, the Roman commander-in-chief and governor of Damascus and son in law of Emperor Heraclius, after hearing that Muslim troops had entered Damascus at the Eastern gate, wisely tricked the Muslim corps commanders at the other gates by suing for peace. The peace offer then was accepted by them. 

After the trick was unveiled the Muslim commanders advised Khalid ibn Walid that the peace agreement should be kept, because if the Romans in Syria heard that the Muslims had given a guarantee of safety and then slaughtered those whose safety had been guaranteed, no other city would ever surrender to the Muslims, and that would make the task of conquering Syria immeasurably more difficult. 

Khalid pretended that he agreed. But he immediately dressed his troops in the garb of local Arabs to hide their movements from any Romans they encountered and set out to attack the fleeing army.

The 10,000 fleeing Damascus Romans included soldiers, women, children and other civilians along with all their worldly possessions.

One historian says the Muslims caught up with the convoy a short distance from Antioch, not far from the Mediterranean Sea, on a plateau beyond a range of hills called Jabal Ansariya, in Northern Syria.

Due to a heavy downpour, the Roman convoy had dispersed on the plateau, seeking shelter from the weather, while their goods lay all over the place. So many bundles of brocade lay scattered on the ground that this plain became known as Marj-ud-Debaj, i.e. the Meadow of Brocade, and for this reason the action described has been named the Battle of Marj-ud-Debaj, or the Battle of Meadow of Brocade.

But it would be generous to call this a "battle". It was more of a massacre of helpless people in a quest for revenge and loot. 

There was a financial incentive. Each Roman captured as a slave was money in the bank for the Muslims plus there were all the personal possessions the refugees had with them. Attacking the Romans was about cold hard cash - - - with a dash of "religion" as a fig leaf.

Muslim scouts established the location of the convoy without being spotted and they brought back sufficient information for Khalid to plan his attack. Khalid arranged a skillful plan of attacking the Byzantines from four different sides. First a cavalry regiment of 1000 warriors would attack the Byzantines from their rear in the south, subsequently followed by an attack of a cavalry regiment 1000 warriors from the east, north (thereby blocking their retreat to Antioch) and finally from the west to encircle them completely.

The Romans received their first indication of the presence of the Muslim army when a regiment of 1000 cavalry came charging at them from the south, along the road from Damascus. Half an hour later another cavalry regiment of 1000 warriors led by Raafe bin Umair, appeared from the east and struck the Byzantine's right flank. Within the span of half an hour another cavalry regiment of 1000 warriors from the north, struck the Byzantines at the rear thus blocking their way to retreat north towards Antioch. After about another half an hour later the final Muslim cavalry of 1000 warriors led by Khalid ibn Walid appeared from the west and attacked the Byzantine's left flank.

The Romans were totally encircled by the Muslim's cavalry.

Khalid personally killed Thomas (Son in Law of Emperor Heraclius) in a duel. After some more fighting, Roman resistance collapsed. Since the Muslims were too few to completely surround the Roman army and the fighting had become confused as it increased in violence, thousands of  Romans were able to escape and make their way to safety. 

But all the booty and a large number of captives, both male and female, fell to the Muslims.

Maneuver of Muslim army (in red) against the Byzantine convoy (in blue).
(Graphic Wikipedia)

Roman soldiers 6th and 7th century
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Siege of Homs (December 635 - March 636)

The city of Homs was an important center of Eastern Christianity and Roman administration. Starting in 634 the Emperor Heracilus made Homs his forward command post to better direct operations against the invading Muslim armies.

Other Emperors would sent out orders from distant Constantinople without any first hand knowledge of events, of the people or of the geography. Heracilus was a front line commander who had spent considerable time in Syria and Palestine.

One has to wonder how events would have turned out if the Emperor's poor health had not prevented him from commanding Roman troops in person. The destroyer of the Persian Empire might have crushed the Muslim invasion way back in July 634 at the Battle of Ajnadayn.

But with Muslim troops moving on Homs the Emperor retired back just a bit to Antioch to set up his new command post.

After the fall of Damascus most of the Muslim corps returned to their original areas of operations. Amir ibn al Aasi marched back to Palestine and laid siege to Jerusalem which he was still unable to assault. Shurahbil ibn Hasana returned to Jordan and accepted the surrender of Beisan and Tiberias. Abu Ubaida moved north receiving the capitulation of Baalbek, Homs and Hama.

Only Jerusalem and Caesarea still held out in Palestine. Further north the coastal cities of Tyre, Sidon, Beirut and Tripoli were able to hold out because the Roman Navy could provide troops and supplies.

Roman Emperor Heraclius
Crowned Caesar in 610. Latin was still the official language of the military and government. The Emperor faced invasions by Persians, Avars, Spanish Visigoths and Muslim Arabs. The Emperor personally commanded Roman troops in an invasion into the heart of Persia.  He crushed their Empire and forced Persian troops to evacuate the conquered Roman provinces of Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia.

In late 635 AD, Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah sent Khalid ibn Walid with his mobile guard to begin the siege of Homs and later joined him along the main body of the army. The Roman garrisons of Homs and Qinnasrin made a truce with the Muslim army. It was agreed that Homs would pay 10,000 dinars and deliver 100 robes of brocade and in return, the Muslim army would not attack Homs for one year. If, however, any Roman reinforcements arrived to strengthen Homs' garrisons, then the truce would become defunct. The gates of Homs were opened as soon as the truce was signed.

The governors of Homs and Qinnasrin made the truce for reasons of expediency. Both hoped that their garrisons would be reinforced by Emperor Heraclius, and as soon as that happened they would repudiate the extortion of the Muslims. Muslim armies raided many cities in northern Syria, as well as the major towns of ArethusaHamaShaizarApamia. One by one, each city and town that fell to the Muslim army surrendered in peace and agreed to pay the jizya.

It was while the Muslims were at Shaizar that they heard of Roman reinforcements moving to Qinnasrin and Homs. This, naturally, led to the invalidation of the truce established by the city of Homs. The arrival of winter gave the Roman garrison a further assurance of success. In their forts they would be better protected from the cold than the Muslim Arabs, who were not used to intense cold, and with only their tents to give them shelter would suffer severely from the Syrian winter. 

Heraclius wrote to Harbees, the military governor of Homs, "The food of these people is the flesh of the camel and their drink its milk. They cannot stand the cold. Fight them on every cold day so that none of them is left till the spring."

The Roman garrison at Homs was perhaps 8,000 men. The coming Muslim armies had perhaps 15,000 men.

This sample photo of a fortress shows what the Muslims were up against. The Arabs were fast moving raiders who longed for battle in the wide open deserts. They were helpless when faced by the walled fortifications and moat of Homs. The Roman garrison should have stayed in safety inside the walls awaiting reinforcements.

Abu Ubaidah decided to take Homs first, and thus cleared his rear flank from the enemy before undertaking more operations in northern Syria. The Muslim army marched to Homs with Khalid's guard in the lead. On arrival at the city, a short battle was fought between Khalid and the Roman garrison. The Muslims drove the Roman guard back, which forced the Roman's to withdraw into the fort and close the gates.

Homs was a fortified circular-shaped city with a diameter of less than a mile, and it was surrounded by a moat. There was also a citadel atop a hillock inside the fort.

The winter siege continued and every day there was an exchange of archery, but no major action took place which could lead to a decision either way.

It was about the middle of March 636 when the worst of the winter was over, that Harbees decided to make a surprise sally and defeat the Muslims in battle outside the fort, as the Roman hope of the cold driving the Muslims away vanished. Supplies were running low, and with the coming of spring and better weather the Muslims would receive further reinforcements and would then be in an even stronger position.

Early one morning the Rastan Gate was flung open and Harbees led 5,000 men into a quick attack on the unsuspecting Muslim army facing that gate. The speed and violence of the attack took the Muslims by surprise, and although this was the largest of the four groups positioned at the four gates, it was driven back from the position where it had hastily formed up for battle. 

A short distance back the Muslims reformed their front and held the attack of the Romans, but the pressure became increasingly heavy and the danger of a break-through became clearly evident. 

Abu Ubaidah sent Khalid to restore the situation. Khalid moved forward with the mobile guard, took the hard pressed Muslims under his command and redeployed the Muslim army for battle. After all these defensive measures Khalid took the offensive and steadily pushed the Romans back, though it was not till near sunset that the Romans were finally driven back into the fort. The sally had proved unsuccessful.

Colorized photo of a Bedouin warrior holding a spear / lance, late 1800s to early 1900s.

The following morning Abu Ubaidah held a council of war and expressed his dissatisfaction with the manner in which the Muslims had given way before the Roman attack, whereupon Khalid remarked, "These Romans were the bravest I had ever met."
Abu Ubaidah asked Khalid for his advice and Khalid told him his plan. The next morning they would make a fake withdrawal of the army from Homs giving the Romans the impression that the Muslims were raising the siege and were withdrawing to the south. The Romans would surely attack the rearguard of the withdrawing Muslim army and at that moment the army would turn back, encircle the Roman army and annihilate them.
According to the plan, early the following morning, the Muslims raised the siege and withdrew to the south. Viewing it as a brilliant military opportunity, Harbees immediately collected 5,000 Byzantine warriors and led them out of the fort to chase the Muslims. He launched his mounted force into a fast pursuit to catch up with the retreating Muslim forces and strike them down as they fled.

The Roman army caught up with the Muslims a few miles from Homs. The leading elements of Roman cavalry were about to pounce upon the 'retreating Muslims', when the Muslims suddenly turned and struck at the Romans with ferocity.

As the Muslims turned on the Romans, Khalid shouted a command at which two mounted groups detached themselves from the Muslim army, galloped round the flanks of the surprised Byzantines and charged from the rear. Steadily and systematically the Muslims closed in from all sides.

At the time when the Muslims started their attack on the encircled Romans, a group of 500 horsemen had galloped back to Homs to see to it that no escaping Roman got into the fort. As these horsemen neared Homs, the terrified inhabitants and the remnants of the Roman garrison which had not joined the pursuit hastily withdrew into the fort and closed the gates. Muslim troops deployed in front of the gates to prevent the soldiers inside Homs from coming out and the Romans outside Homs from getting in.

As soon as this action was over the Muslims returned to Homs and resumed the siege. The local inhabitants offered to surrender on terms, and Abu Ubaidah accepted the offer. This happened around the middle of March, 636. The inhabitants paid the Jizya at the rate of one dinar per man, and peace returned to Homs.

It was said that only about a hundred Romans chasing the Muslim army got away. The Muslims claimed to have lost about 235 dead in the entire operation against Homs, from the beginning of the siege to the end of the last action. That very low number is highly doubtful. 

But no matter how the real numbers broke down this was a major victory for the Muslims with yet another large Roman army eliminated from the war.


Soon after the surrender of Homs, the Muslims set out once again for the north, intending to take the whole of Northern Syria this time, including Aleppo and Antioch. They went past Hama and arrived at Shaizar

Here a Roman convoy taking provisions to Qinnasrin and escorted by a small body of soldiers was intercepted and captured by Khalid. The prisoners were interrogated, and they provided the information regarding the plan of the Emperor Heraclius, and concentration of a large Roman army at Antioch. 

The Emperor had not been idle. Heraclius directed the Roman garrisons in Syria and Palestine to stand their ground.

While these units kept the Muslims busy, the Emperor was gathering troops in northern Syria from all over the Roman Empire for a major counter attack. Heraclius was bringing in Roman regiments from the Balkans and Asia Minor. In addition he collected a large force of Christian Arabs and Armenians to join in the march south.

But more of this in Part VIII.

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


(Great Arab Conquests)    (Maraj-al-Debaj)    (Conquest of the Levant)