Conquest of Syria

A 9th-century Description

This passage is from Theophanes, a 9th-century Christian who wrote a history in Greek. Here, he describes the Battle of Yarmuk in 636. “Baanes” is Vahan, the Armenian general who led the Byzantine troops for the emperor Heraclius.

In this year the Saracens—an enormous multitude of them—(setting out from) Arabia, made an expedition to the region of Damascus. When Baanes had learnt of this, he sent a message to the imperial sakellarios, asking the latter to come with his army to his help, seeing that the Arabs were very numerous. So the sakellarios joined Baanes and, setting forth from Emesa, they met the Arabs. Battle was given and, on the first day, which was a Tuesday, the 23rd of the month Loos, the men of the sakellarios were defeated. Now the soldiers of Baanes rebelled and proclaimed Baanes emperor, while they abjured Heraclius. Then the men of the sakellarios withdrew, and the Saracens, seizing this opportunity, joined battle. And as a south wind was blowing in the direction of the Romans, they could not face the enemy on account of the dust and were defeated. Casting themselves into the narrows of the river Hiermouchthas, they all perished, the army of both generals numbering 40,000. Having won this brilliant victory, the Saracens came to Damascus and captured it as well as the country of Phoenicia, and they settled there and made an expedition against Egypt.

Source, pp. 469-70.

An 8th-century Description

This passage is from Azdi, an 8th-century Muslim who wrote a conquest narrative about Syria in Arabic. This snippet purports to preserve a letter between Vahan, the Armenian general who led the Byzantine troops, and the Byzantine emperor Heraclius.

Regarding the matter at hand: O Emperor, we ask God for [bestowing] victory upon you, upon your soldiers and upon the inhabitants of your empire as well as for [bestowing] glory upon your religion and upon the people under your reign. You dispatched me [in command] of [such] a [large] number [of soldiers] that only God could count. I came to the people [=the Muslims], sent [a messenger] to them and frightened them off but they do not frighten; I aroused their greed, but they are not greedy; [then] I scared them but they are not scared; [after that,] I asked them [to make] peace [with me on certain conditions], but they did not accept [them]; and [finally,] I offered them a reward in return for their departure, but they did not [agree to] do it[, either]. Your soldiers are extremely scared of them and I fear that frustration will have overwhelmingly befallen all of them and terror will have entered into their hearts. However, I know some of them [=the Emperor’s soldiers] who are not escaping from their enemy, who are not doubtful about their religion and who will never flee [from a fight] until they become either triumphant or killed when they face them [=the Muslims]. [Thus,] I gathered the decision makers from among my companions and the advisors for our reign and for our religion. They are unanimous that they should all rush to [fight] them [=the Muslims] on one single day and should not quit [fighting] them until God judges between us and them.

Source, pp. 220-1.

A 9th-century Description

This passage is from Baladhuri, a 9th-century Muslim who wrote a conquest narrative in Arabic.

[The Byzantine emperor] Heraclius gathered large bodies of Greeks, Syrians, Mesopotamians, and Armenians numbering about 200,000. This army he put under the command of one of his choice men and sent as a vanguard Jabalah b. Ayham al-Ghassani at the head of the [Christian] Arabs of Syria of the tribes of Lakhm, Judham and others, resolving to fight the Muslims so that be might either win or withdraw to the land of the Greeks and live in Constantinople. The Muslims gathered together and the Greek army marched against them. The battle they fought at Yarmuk was of the fiercest and bloodiest kind. Yarmuk is a river. In this battle 24,000 Muslims took part. The Greeks and their followers in this battle tied themselves to each other by chains, so that no one might set his hope on flight. By God’s help, some 70,000 of them were put to death, and their remnants took to flight, reaching as far as Palestine, Antioch, Aleppo, Mesopotamia, and Armenia. In the battle of Yarmuk certain Muslim women took part and fought violently. Among them was Hind, daughter of ʿUtbah and mother of Muʿawiyah b. Abi Sufyan, who repeatedly exclaimed, “Cut the arms of these ‘uncircumcised’ with your swords!” Her husband abu-Sufyan had come to Syria as a volunteer desiring to see his sons, and so he brought his wife with him. He then returned to al-Madinah where he died, year 31, at the age of 88. Others say he died in Syria. When the news of his death was carried to his daughter, umm-Habibah, she waited until the third day on which she ordered some yellow paint and covered with it her arms and face saying, “I would not have done that, had I not heard the Prophet say, ‘A woman should not be in mourning for more than three days over anyone except her husband.’” It is stated that she did likewise when she received the news of her brother Yazid’s death. But God knows best.

Abu-Sufyan ibn-Harb was one-eyed. He had lost his eye in the battle of at-Ta’if. In the battle of al-Yarmuk, however, al-Ashʿath ibn-Kais, Hashim ibn-ʿUtbah ibn-abi-Wakkas az-Zuhri (i. e. al-Mirkal) and Kais ibn-Makshuh, each lost an eye. In this battle ʿAmir ibn-abi-Wakkas az-Zuhri fell a martyr. It is this ʿAmir who once carried the letter of ʿUmar ibn-al-Khattab assigning abu-ʿUbaidah to the governorship of Syria. Others say he was a victim of the plague ; still others report that he suffered martyrdom in the battle of Ajnadin; but all that is not true.

Abu-ʿUbaidah put Habib ibn-Maslamah al-Fihri at the head of a cavalry detachment charged with pursuing the fugitive enemy, and Habib set out killing every man whom he could reach.

Jabalah b. Ayham sided with the [Muslim] Ansar saying, “You are our brethren and the sons of our fathers,” and professed Islam. After the arrival of ʿUmar b. al-Khattab in Syria, year 17 [of the Islamic calendar], Jabalah had a dispute with one of the Muzainah and knocked out his eye. ʿUmar ordered that he be punished, upon which Jabalah said, “Is his eye like mine? Never, by God, shall I abide in a town where I am under authority.” He then apostatized and went to the land of the Greeks. This Jabalah was the king of Ghassan and the successor of Harith b. Abi Shimr. According to another report, when Jabalah came to ʿUmar b. al-Khattab, he was still a Christian. ʿUmar asked him to accept Islam and pay a Muslim alms tax but he refused saving, “I shall keep my faith and pay the alms tax.” ʿUmar’s answer was, “If you keep your faith, you should at least pay poll-tax.” The man refused, and ʿUmar added, “We have only three alternatives for you: Islam, tax, or go where you like [away from here].” Accordingly, Jabalah left with 30,000 men to the land of the Greeks [Asia Minor]. ʿUbadah b. Samit gently reproved ʿUmar saying, “If you had accepted alms tax from him and treated him in a friendly way, he would have become Muslim.”

When Heraclius received the news about the troops in Yarmuk and the destruction of his army by the Muslims, he fled from Antioch to Constantinople, and as he passed Darb he turned and said, “Peace unto you, O Syria, and what an excellent country this is for the enemy!”-referring to the numerous pastures in Syria.

The battle of Yarmuk took place in the month of Rajah, year 15.

Hubash loses his leg. According to Hisham b. al-Kalbi, among those who witnessed the battle of Yarmuk was Hubash b. Qays al-Kushayri, who killed many of the “uncircumcised” and lost his leg without feeling it. At last he began to look for it.

When Heraclius massed his troops against the Muslims and the Muslims heard that they were coming to meet them at Yarmuk, the Muslims refunded to the inhabitants of Hims the kharaj [tax] they had taken from them saying, “We are too busy to support and protect you. Take care of yourselves.” But the people of Hims [in Syria] replied, “We like your rule and justice far better than the state of oppression and tyranny in which we were. The army of Heraclius we shall indeed, with your governor’s help, repulse from the city.” The Jews rose and said, “We swear by the Torah, no governor of Heraclius shall enter the city of Hims unless we are first vanquished and exhausted!” Saving this, they closed the gates of the city and guarded them. The inhabitants of the other cities – Christian and Jew – that had capitulated to the Muslims, did the same, saying, “If Heraclius and his followers win over the Muslims we would return to our previous condition, otherwise we shall retain our present state so long as numbers are with the Muslims.” When by God’s help the “unbelievers” were defeated and the Muslims won, they opened the gates of their cities, went out with the singers and music players who began to play, and paid the kharaj [tax].

Source, p. 207-10.