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

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Battle for Africa - Siege of Babylon, Egypt

The Beginning of the End 
for Roman Africa, Part I

The collapse of Roman authority

The centuries of Roman rule in Egypt began in 30 BC. 

But that Roman rule was shaken to the core by the a 26 year long knock down war to the death of Rome vs. the Persian Empire from 602 to 628AD.

The Persian Sasanian conquest of Egypt started in 618 when the Persian army defeated the Roman forces in Egypt and occupied the province. The fall of Alexandria, the capital of Roman Egypt, marked the first and most important stage in the Sasanian campaign to conquer this rich province.

The Persian shah, Khosrow II, had taken advantage of the internal turmoil of the Roman Empire after the overthrow of Emperor Maurice by Phocas to attack the Roman provinces in the East. By 615, the Persians had driven the Romans out of northern Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine

Determined to eradicate Roman rule in Asia, Khosrow turned his sights on Egypt, the Eastern Roman Empire's granary.

In 617 or 618 the Persian army headed for Alexandria, where Nicetas, Emperor Heraclius' cousin and local governor, was unable to offer effective resistance.

After the fall of Alexandria, the Persians gradually extended their rule southwards along the Nile.

The Persians did not try to force the population of Egypt to renounce their religion and practice Zoroastrianism. They did, however, persecute the Byzantine Church whilst supporting the Monophysite Church. The Egyptian Copts took advantage of the circumstances and obtained control over many of the Orthodox churches. 

There were numerous Persian stations in the country, which included Elephantine, Herakleia, Oxyrhynchus, Kynon, TheodosiopolisHermopolisAntinopolis, Kosson, Lykos, Diospolis, and Maximianopolis. The assignment of those stations was to collect taxes and get supplies for the military. 

Several papyrus papers mention the collection of taxes by the Sasanians, which shows that they used the same method of the Byzantines for collecting taxes. Another papyrus mentions an Iranian and his sister, which indicates that some Persian families had settled in Egypt along with the soldiers.

Egypt and parts of Libya would remain in Persian hands for 10 years, run by general Shahrbaraz from Alexandria. As the Roman Emperor, Heraclius, reversed the tide and defeated Khosrow, Shahrbaraz was ordered to evacuate the province, but refused. In the end, Heraclius, trying both to recover Egypt and to sow disunion amongst the Persians, offered to help Shahrbaraz seize the Persian throne for himself. 

An agreement was reached, and in the summer of 629, the Persian troops began leaving Egypt and a fleet from Constantinople arrived at Alexandria to garrison the country with Roman troops.

Egypt Was Conquered by Persia
Centuries of Roman rule in Egypt, Palestine and Syria came to a violent end with Persian armies invading and the lands being absorbed into the Persian Empire. For over 10 years the locals looked to Persia for their economy, laws, religious freedom and security. Constantinople and ties to Rome faded in the minds of an entire generation. 

Click to enlarge
The Diocese of Egypt 
Egypt was a province of the later Roman Empire from 381AD. It incorporated the provinces of Egypt and Cyrenaica. Its capital was at Alexandria, and its governor had the unique title of praefectus augustalis ("Augustal Prefect", of the rank vir spectabilis; previously the governor of the imperial 'crown domain' province Egypt)

The Muslim Invasion

Roman authority in Egypt had been undermined by the 10 year rule of Persia and the religious freedom that came with it.

The Emperor Heraclius appointed the Orthodox Bishop Cyrus from the Caucasus Mountain region to be both Patriarch of Alexandria and Governor of Egypt. 

Cyrus began an active persecution of Monophysite "heretics". Menas, the brother of the Coptic Patriarch, was seized. His body was burned with torches and his teeth were pulled out. He was placed in a sack weighed with sand and rowed out to sea. Menas was offered his life if he accepted the Orthodox version of worship. When he refused he was thrown into the ocean.

Imperial soldiers were sent to Monophysite monasteries to torture or imprison the abbots who would not obey. Many Copts pretended to submit or fled the cities. It is likely that these events severed the last shreds of loyalty to Constantinople.

When the Muslims crossed into Egypt the local Coptic population was not very interested in defending an Empire that was crushing their freedom.

Click to enlarge
Map from The Great Arab Conquests (1964)
by Lieutenant-General Sir John Bagot GlubbKCBCMGDSOOBEMC

Roman Egypt was a direct threat to the Muslim conquests in Syria and Palestine. The Roman Amphibious Attack to recapture Antioch in 638 had been executed by naval and ground forces based out of Egypt. Caesarea, the last remaining Roman city in Palestine, was being reinforced and supplied by the navy out of Alexandria, Egypt.

So in December 639, 'Amr ibn al-'As left for Egypt with a force of 4,000 troops. Taking the same ancient caravan road used by the Persian Army only a few years earlier, the Muslim forces reached the fortified town of Pelusium. The Persians has captured the town without much trouble. But the Muslims lacked heavy siege weapons and were unable to take it.

The Muslims blockaded the town for a month. Then one day there was an unsuccessful sally by the garrison and the Arabs were able to enter one of the gates with the retreating soldiers. Shipping in the port was burned, the churches pulled down and the fortifications dismantled. Amr destroyed much of the town because he did not have enough men to garrison the fortress, and he did not want the Romans to land troops from the sea and reoccupy the fortress which would be in his rear on his supply lines.

After the fall of Pelusium, the Muslims marched to Belbeis, some 40 miles from Memphis via desert roads. The Arabs had reached Nile Delta. 

The famous Roman General Aretion came out of the city to negotiate with Amr. Aretion had been the Governor of Jerusalem and had fled to Egypt when the city fell to the Muslims. Amr gave them three options: convert to Islam, pay the jizya, or fight. They requested three days to reflect and then requested two extra days.

At the end of the five days the general decided to reject Islam and the jizya and fight the Muslims. The battle resulted in a Muslim victory during which Aretion was killed. Amr subsequently attempted to convince the native Egyptians to aid the Arabs and surrender the city, based on the kinship between Egyptians and Arabs. When the Egyptians refused, the siege resumed until the city fell around the end of March 640.

The siege of Belbeis had delayed the Muslims another month. 

Meanwhile Cyrus, the Governor of Egypt, and Theodore, commander-in-chief of the Roman Army in Egypt, established themselves in the Fortress of Babylon.

General layout of the fortress of Babylon, Egypt

in the first century AD. (Sheehan, 2015)

Remains of the Babylon Fortress

It is believed that the original Babylon Fortress was built during the 6th century BC by the Persians. It was located on the cliffs near to the Nile River, next to the Pharaonic Canal which effectively connected the Nile River to the Red Sea.

Boats and other river craft making their way up and down the Nile would have paid tolls at the fortress, and when the Romans seized control of the area, they continued to use the original Babylon Fortress, but only for a relatively short period of time.

While the Romans appreciated the strategic importance of the fort due to its original location, efficient water distribution was difficult, and the Roman emperor Trajan gave the orders to move Babylon Fortress closer to the river in order to make water distribution within the fortress grounds easier and more efficient. At the time when Babylon Fortress was moved to its new location, it was right next to the Nile River.

The Siege of Babylon (September 640 to April 641)

Babylon was a fortified city, and the Romans had indeed prepared it for a siege. Outside the city, a ditch had been dug, and a large force was positioned in the area between the ditch and the city walls. The fort was a massive structure 59 ft high with walls more than 6.6 feet thick and studded with numerous towers and bastions and manned by a force of some 4,000 Roman soldiers.

For the timeline of these events I am using those of General Sir John Bagot Glubb and his book The Great Arab Conquests.

Amr may have arrived in the Babylon area in the Spring of 640, but he was in a tough situation. His troops were basically lightly armed tribal desert raiders. They had no heavy siege equipment to take on Babylon. With no easy targets at hand or reinforcements coming from Medina, the morale of Amr's men would go down. He needed action and a victory of some type.

Amr skirmished for some weeks in the neighborhood with no results. Finally he captured a small outpost north of Babylon with a harbor and boats. Using the boats he ferried himself and his troops over the Nile to the West bank and marched about 50 miles south to the fertile district of Fayoum

This was a risky move. Amr was on the West bank of the Nile. Any reinforcements from Arabia would be on the East bank of the Nile. The Roman garrison in Babylon would be between them. If Theodore, the commander of Babylon, took action he might be able to defeat the two separated Muslim armies in detail.

So around May, 640 Amr marched south to Fayoum. The Romans had anticipated this and had therefore strongly guarded the roads leading to the city. They had also fortified their garrison in the nearby town of Lahun. When the Muslim Arabs realized that Fayoum was too strong for them to invade, they headed towards the Western Desert, where they looted all the cattle and animals they could. A smaller town in the province was attacked and all of the men, women and children were massacred. 

A 19th century Bedouin warrior
The Arab forces facing the Romans would look much like this soldier.

John, the Roman commander of the Fayoum district, set out with 50 men to make a personal reconnaissance of the area. Amr received a report of his presence. He immediately sent a force, surrounded John and killed the entire patrol.  Then receiving word that the reinforcements he asked for were arriving, Amr's army returned to Lower Egypt down the River Nile.

The Caliph had dispatched 4,000 men to reinforce Amr in Egypt. These were mostly veterans of the Syrian campaigns. Even with the reinforcements, Amr was unsuccessful and so, by August, 'Umar had assembled another 4,000-strong force, consisting of four columns, each of 1,000 elite men. The reinforcements arrived at Babylon sometime in September 640, bringing the total strength of the Muslim force to 12,000 up to perhaps 15,000 men, still quite modest.

The Muslim reinforcements of 10,000+ troops under Zubair ibn al-Awam gathered to the north of Babylon. 

The Roman commander Theodore had gathered a "large force" around Babylon. . . . . whatever that might mean. We have no numbers. It might have been equal to or greater than the Muslims. Theodore had a chance to attack Zubair to the north before Amr and his troops could return from Fayoum, but Theodore remained inactive. Meanwhile in July Amr re-crossed the Nile with his army and joined Zubair 10 miles north of Babylon near the city of Heliopolis.

Faced with a united and larger Muslim army Theodore somehow felt now was a good time to march out of Babylon and take on the Arabs. So in July 640 he marched north out of the fortress and out on to the plain to attack at Heliopolis

I will deal with the battle at Heliopolis in a future article. Suffice it to say, the Romans were ambushed and fled back to the safety of Babylon and closed the gates.

With no Roman army in the field the Muslims scoured the countryside for supplies and plunder. The Roman forces who had successfully defended Fayoum abandoned the province. They took to ships and sailed down the Nile going past Babylon (offering no help) and sailed 45 miles north to the town of Nikiou. 

Amr immediately dispatched a force which took Fayoum by assault and massacred the inhabitants. The whole province then surrendered without resistance.

The Arabs occupied towns up to 35 miles north of Babylon. Amr continued to act towards the Egyptians with considerable ruthlessness, either because he had a cruel nature or because he made terrorism into policy to discourage resistance. 

Having subdued the provinces of Misr and Fayoum the Muslims were in a good position to gather supplies for their army.

Meanwhile August had come and the Nile was rising soon to flood a great part of the Delta rendering further operations difficult. Amr decided to reduce Babylon before proceeding further.

Remains of Babylon Fortress
The fortress was surrounded in flood season with a moat made up of the Nile River.

The Siege of Babylon Begins

The great fortress consisted of an irregular quadrilateral of walls upwards of 6.5 to 8 feet thick and upwards of 60 feet high, built in alternate layers of brick and stone. Two towers rose considerably higher. In plan it was about 1,000 feet long by 500 feet wide at one end, tapering to 300 feet wide at the other end.

The River Nile washed one of the long sides. A small harbor for river boats lay at the foot of the wall by the south gate. The whole of the fortress was surrounded by a moat filled with water from the Nile. 

Opposite the main fortress was the island of Raudha which lay in mid-stream. It also was fortified and garrisoned. The two fortresses were able to maintain communications by boat. To capture such a fortress presented a formidable task to Muslims who had found it difficult to even seize a town like Pelusium.

The Patriarch Cyrus, the Governor of Egypt, was himself besieged inside Babylon. The Roman garrison may have consisted of 5,000 to 6,000 men. They were well supplied with food and warlike stores.

The siege probably began in earnest in September 640.

The strong fortress of Babylon would have no trouble resisting the Muslims for months. But Cyrus must have been aware of the hatred felt for his regime in the country. He would also know that because the Empire had its hands full trying to keep the Arabs out of Anatolia, he could expect little to no help from Constantinople. 

An interesting observation. Where was Roman Carthage during the invasion of Egypt? 

In 608, Heraclius the Elder in Carthage renounced his loyalty to the Emperor Phocas, who had overthrown Maurice six years earlier. The rebels issued coins showing both Heraclii dressed as consuls, though neither of them explicitly claimed the imperial title at this time. Heraclius's younger cousin Nicetas launched an overland invasion of Egypt; by 609, he had defeated Phocas's general Bonosus and secured the province. Meanwhile, the younger Heraclius gathered a fleet and sailed eastward to Constantinople via Sicily and Cyprus finally being crowned Emperor in 610.

Troops in Carthage were available to invade Egypt in 609. So why were there no reinforcements from Carthage going to bolster Roman forces in Egypt? History is silent on the subject.

The Siege of Babylon
There were more Roman troops than would fit inside the fortress. So the extra troops entrenched themselves outside the walls behind a ditch they dug which was flooded by the waters of the Nile.  But in General Glubb's book he says the moat surrounded the fortress. No doubt the troops continued the trench around the fortress and let the Nile fill it to the top.
Graphic from Kings and Generals

With apparently no help coming from Constantinople or Carthage, in October 640 Cyrus was ferried over to the island of Raudha. From there a mission was sent to Amr to negotiate. Negotiations were conducted from the island so as not to depress the morale of the garrison inside Babylon.

The emissaries from Amr were told they could not resist Roman power over the long run, and they were offered a cash payment to leave Egypt. The Muslim reply was the standard one: submit to Islam, pay tribute and be 2nd class citizens under Muslim rule or fight.

Cyrus appeared to be inclined to accept payment of tribute, but a number of officers strongly protested. Perhaps these officers were residents of Egypt, whereas Cyrus was an outsider who had been sent to Egypt from the Caucasus Mountains region.

Amr offered Cyrus three days to consider his offer. When the three days ended the Romans lowered on of the drawbridges and sallied forth to attack the Arabs. After heavy fighting the Romans were repulsed and driven back inside the fortress. This reverse depressed those who had advocated resistance and strengthen the hand of Cyrus who wanted submission.

Negotiations were reopened. A treaty was drawn up in the usual form of tribute and submission. Christians were to be granted freedom of religion under the "protection" of the Muslims. A clause was added that the treaty was subject to approval of the Emperor. Pending agreement the military situation would remain unchanged.

Cyrus immediately sailed down the Nile to Alexandria. Once there is wrote a dispatch to Heraclius explaining why he had been compelled to submit and begging the Emperor to ratify the treaty. Heraclius was now an old and sick man, but he could not stomach the defeatism of Cyrus. He ordered Cyrus to report at once to Constantinople.

The Emperor received his Governor of Egypt with angry and bitter reproaches which were not unjustified. For Cyrus had alienated the loyalty of the great majority of Egyptians. He was accused of betraying the Empire to an enemy, was dismissed from his post and sent into exile.

Late Roman cohort reenactment group

When the Emperor's refusal to ratify the treaty became known hostilities reopened. At this point, certain Egyptians (Copts perhaps) began to assist the Muslims. However the garrison continued to carry out sallies and inflict casualties on the besiegers.

Gradually the winter dragged on. As the Nile flood subsided the protective moat almost dried up. The Muslims had not been able to make any impression on the walls of the fortress. The best they could do was blindly shoot arrows over the walls and hope they might land on someone.

In late winter Amr receiver news that a Roman force was gathering in the Delta. Leaving a small detachment at Babylon he set out to attack the Romans. The Muslims became entangled in the canals and irrigation ditches of the Delta and were roughly handled by Roman attacks forcing them to withdraw back to Baylon.

Then in March 641 news reached Babylon of the death of Emperor Heraclius. The garrison was depressed and the Arabs shouted for joy. 

Encouraged by the news the Muslims prepared for an assault. In some places they had almost succeeded in filling in the moat. Scaling ladders were prepared and Zubair headed up the assaulting column. Under the cover of darkness Zubair and a handful of followers made it to the top of the wall. 

There was still time for a determined counter attack to cut them down and throw them into the moat. But after a seven month siege from September 640 to April 641 the garrison had had enough. 

As dawn broke the garrison commander offered to parley. Amr immediately accepted and a form of capitulation was drafted. After three days the garrison was to retire, embark in ships on the Nile and leave the fortress intact with all its stores. 

On April 9, 641 the garrison withdrew and the great fortress of Babylon was occupied by the victorious Muslims.

Roman Emperor Heraclius
Crowned Caesar Flavius Heraclius Augustus 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 Syria and Palestine, many of the local Christian Arab tribes had fought at the side of the Romans to the very end. That was not the case in Egypt.

Cyrus was largely responsible for the weakness of Egypt in the face of Arab invasion. The Copts were the large majority in Egypt and had experienced religious freedom under Persian rule. Then they saw ruthless religious persecution when the Romans returned. When the crisis came the only truly loyal groups supporting the Empire would have been the Greek speaking Orthodox people and a smaller number of Egyptians who adhered to the Orthodox Church. 

The Copts might not have welcomed the Muslims, but they knew that in Syria the Muslims gave religious freedom to the local Christians as long as the tribute was paid. Their choice was to be slaves of the Romans or slaves of the Muslims. So why fight?

Babylon was a huge loss to the Empire. Rome had now lost control of central and upper Egypt. The Muslims were free to gather supplies and concentrate their forces on Alexandria.

Battle for the Middle East

For more go to Part X of my series on 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.  My series details a Roman-Muslim slug fest taking place over many years and many battles over a huge geographical area.

Go To:

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

(Sasanian Egypt)    (Sasanian conquest of Egypt)    (Babylon fortress)