Chapter 19: The Battle of Chains
"We did trample Hormuz with fury restrained..."
[ Al-Qa'qa' bin Amr, commander in Khalid's army]1
On receiving the orders of the Caliph, Khalid at once undertook preparations to raise a new army. His riders galloped far and wide in the region of Yamamah and in Central and Northern Arabia, calling brave men to arms for the invasion of Iraq. And brave men assembled in thousands, many of them his old comrades of the Campaign of the Apostasy who, having visited their homes, decided to return to his standard for fresh adventure and glory. Khalid's name was now a magnet that drew warriors to him. Fighting under Khalid meant not only victory in the way of Allah, but also spoils and slaves ... in fact the best of both worlds! Within a few weeks an army of 10,000 men was ready to march with Khalid. 2
There were four important Muslim chiefs with large followings in North-Eastern Arabia, Muthanna bin Harithah, Mazhur bin Adi, Harmala and Sulma. The first two of these have already been mentioned in the preceding chapter. The Caliph had written to them to muster warriors and operate under the command of Khalid. Now Khalid wrote to all four of them, informing them of his appointment as commander of the Muslim army and of the mission which he had received from the Caliph. He ordered them to report to him, along with their men, in the region of Uballa. It is believed that Muthanna, who was at, Khaffan at the time (a place 20 miles south of Hira) 3 was displeased with the arrangement. He had hoped that the Caliph would give him a large independent command in Iraq, as he certainly deserved; but he came as ordered, and placed himself and his men at the disposal of Khalid. He was to prove the best of subordinate commanders.
Each of these four chiefs brought 2,000 men. Thus Khalid entered Iraq with 18,000 warriors 4 -the largest Muslim army yet assembled for battle.
In about the third week of March 633 (beginning of Muharram, 12 Hijri), Khalid set out from Yamamah. But before doing so he wrote to Hormuz, the Persian governor of the frontier district of Dast Meisan:
Submit to Islam and be safe. Or agree to the payment of the Jizya, and you and your people will be under our protection, else you will have only yourself to blame for the consequences, for I bring a people who desire death as ardently as you desire life. 5
Hormuz read the letter with a mixture of anger and contempt, and informed the Persian Emperor Ardsheer of Khalid's threat. He made up his mind to teach these crude Arabs a lesson that they should never forget.
Khalid began his advance from Yamamah with his army divided into three groups. He did this in order not to tire his men or waste time by having too many troops in the same marching column. Each group set off a day apart. Thus each group was a day's march from the next, far enough for ease of movement, and yet close enough to be swiftly concentrated for battle if required. Khalid himself moved with the third group on the third day-D plus 2. The whole army would concentrate again near Hufair 5 ; and before leaving Yamamah he promised his men a great battle with Hormuz.
1. Ibn Kathir, Al-Bidayah wan-Nihayah, Dar Abi Hayyan, Cairo, 1st ed. 1416/1996, Vol. 6 P. 425.
2. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 554.
3. Musil (p. 284) places Khafran 20 kilometres south-east of Qadissiyah. It was at or near the present Qawam which is six miles west of Shinafiya.
4. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 554.
5. Ibid: Vol. 2, p. 554.
6. Ibid: Vol. 2, p. 555.
Hormuz was the military governor of Dast Meisan. An experienced veteran and a trusted servant of the Empire. Hormuz was given this district to govern and protect because of its vital importance, which was both political and economic. It was a frontier district and lately had had a good deal of trouble with the Arab raiders of Muthanna. It was also a wealthy district in natural produce and commerce. Its chief city, Uballa, was the main port of the Persian Empire and thus vital to its commercial prosperity. Uballa was also a junction of many land routes-from Bahrain, from Arabia, from Western and Central Iraq, from Persia proper, which gave it a decisive strategical importance. It was a gateway, which it was the job of Hormuz to govern as an administrator and defend as a general.
The Persian society of the time had an imperial and aristocratic character. As is inevitable in such societies, it had an elaborate system of ranks to indicate a man's social and official position at the court. The outward symbol of rank was the cap; as a man rose in rank, his cap became more costly. The highest rank below the Emperor carried a cap worth 100,000 dirhams, which was studded with diamonds and pearls and other precious stones. Hormuz was a 100,000 dirham-man! 1
A true imperialist, he was of a proud and arrogant nature and held the local Arabs in contempt, which he did nothing to conceal. He was harsh and highhanded in his treatment of the Arabs, who in return hated and feared him. In fact his heavy hand became the cause of a saying amongst the Arabs: More hateful than Hormuz. 2
Soon after receiving the letter of Khalid, which he knew came from Yamamah, Hormuz informed the Emperor of the imminent invasion of Iraq by Khalid and prepared to fight this insolent upstart! He gathered his army and set out from Uballa, preceded by a cavalry screen.
The direct route from Yamamah to Uballa lay through Kazima (in modern Kuwait) and thither went Hormuz, expecting Khalid to take this route. (See Map 11 below) On arrival at Kazima, he deployed his army facing south-west, with a centre and two wings, and ordered that men should be linked together with chains. So deployed, he awaited the arrival of Khalid. But of Khalid there was no sign. And the following morning his scouts brought word that Khalid was not moving towards Kazima; he was making for Hufair. 3
Khalid had, already before he left Yamamah, arrived at a broad conception of how he would deal with the army of Hormuz. He had been given the mission of fighting the Persians, and a defeat of the Persian army was essential if the invasion of Iraq was to proceed as intended by the Caliph. With the Persian army intact at Uballa, Khalid could not get far. The direction given to him by the Caliph, i.e. Uballa, was by itself certain to bring the Persians to battle, for no Persian general could let Uballa fall.
Khalid knew the fine quality and the numerical strength of the Persian army and the courage, skill and armament of the Persian soldier. Heavily armed and equipped, he was the ideal man for the set-piece frontal clash. The only weakness of the Persian soldier and army lay in their lack of mobility; the Persian was not able to move fast, and any prolonged movement would tire him. On the other hand, Khalid's troops were mobile, mounted on camels with horses at the ready for cavalry attacks; and they were not only brave and skilful fighters, but also adept at fast movement across any terrain, especially the desert. Moreover, thousands of them were veterans of the Campaign of the Apostasy.
Khalid decided to use his own mobility to exploit its lack in the Persian army. He would force the Persians to carry out march and counter-march till he had worn them out. Then he would strike when the Persians were exhausted. Geography would help him. There were two routes to Uballa, via Kazima and Hufair, whose existence would facilitate his manoeuvre. (See Map 11)
1. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 556.
2. Ibid: Vol. 2, p. 555.
3. Kazima was on the northern coast of the Kuwait Bay, as shown on Map 11, 5 miles from the present Basra-Kuwait road. It was a fairly large city, over a mile in diameter, of which nothing remains but some castle-like ruins on a tongue of land jutting into the sea. These ruins may, however, be of a later period than Khalid's. No trace remains of Hufair nor is there any local tradition regarding its location. According to Ibn Rusta (p. 180) it was 18 miles from Basra on the road to Madinah. Since the old Arab mile was a little longer than the current mile, I place it at present-day Rumaila, which is 21 miles from old Basra. (Some later writers have confused this Hufair with Hafar-ul-Batin, which is in Arabia, 120 miles south-west of Kazima.)
Having written to Hormuz from Yamamah, Khalid knew that the Persian would expect him to advance on the direct route from Yamamah to Uballa, via Kazima, and would make his defensive plans accordingly. Khalid decided not to move on that route, but to approach Uballa from the south-west so that he would be free to manoeuvre on two axes-the Kazima axis and the Hufair axis-thus creating a difficult problem for the less mobile Persians. With this design in mind he marched to, Nibbaj, dividing his army into three groups as already explained, and took under command the 2,000 warriors of Muthanna, who, along with their intrepid chief, were awaiting Khalid at Nibbaj. 1 From Nibbaj he marched in the direction of Hufair, picking up the other three chiefs on the way, and approached Hufair with 18,000 men.
Khalid was not in the least worried about the presence of the Persian Army at Kazima. Hormuz at Kazima posed no threat to Khalid, for the Persians could not venture into the desert to disrupt his communications, apart from the fact that a mobile force like Khalid's operating in the desert did not present particularly vulnerable lines of communication. Khalid made no attempt to rush through Hufair and make for Uballa, because with Hormuz's large army on his flank his forward movement beyond Hufair might spell serious trouble. Hormuz could fall upon his rear and cut his line of retreat. No Arab would ever accept interference, or even a threat of interference, with his route back into the friendly, safe desert where he alone was master. Hence Khalid waited in front of Hufair, while light detachments of his cavalry kept Hormuz under observation. He knew, that his presence near Hufair would cause near-panic in the mind of Hormuz.
This is just what happened. The moment Hormuz got word of Khalid's movement towards Hufair, he realised the grave danger in which his army was placed. The Arab was not so simple after all! As an experienced strategist, he knew that his base was threatened. He immediately ordered a move to Hufair, 50 miles away, and his army, weighed down with its heavy equipment, trudged along the track. The two days' march was tiring, but the tough and disciplined Persian soldier accepted his trials without complaint. On arrival at Hufair, however, Hormuz found no trace of Khalid. Expecting the Muslims to arrive soon, he deployed for battle as he had done at Kazima, chains and all; but hardly had his men taken up their positions when his scouts came rushing to inform him that Khalid was moving towards Kazima!
And Khalid was indeed moving towards Kazima. He had waited near, Hufair until he heard of the hurried approach of Hormuz. Then he had withdrawn a short distance and begun a counter-march through the desert towards Kazima, not going too far into the desert so as not to become invisible to Persian scouts. Khalid was in no hurry. His men were well mounted, and he took his time. He had no desire to get to Kazima first and occupy it, for then he would have to position himself for battle and his opponent would be free to manoeuvre. Khalid preferred to let the Persians position themselves while he himself remained free to approach and attack as he liked, with the desert behind him.
The Persians again packed their bags and set off for Kazima, for Hormuz could not leave the Kazima route to the Muslims. Hormuz could have fought a defensive battle closer to Uballa; but having experienced the terrible havoc wrought by Muthanna in his district, he was in no mood to let Khalid approach close enough to let his raiders loose in the fertile region of Uballa. He was determined to fight and destroy Khalid at a safe distance from the district which it was his duty to protect, and he rejoiced at the prospect of a set-piece battle against the desert Arabs. Moreover, armies act as magnets: they attract each other. Sometimes an area which is not otherwise strategically important becomes so through the presence of a hostile army. Now Hormuz was drawn to Kazima not only by the strategical importance of the place but also by the army of Khalid.
This time the forced march did not go down so well with the Persians and there was grumbling, especially amongst the Arab auxiliaries serving under Hormuz, who cursed the Persian for all the trouble that he was causing them. The Persians arrived at Kazima in a state of exhaustion. Hormuz, the professional regular soldier, wasted no time and at once deployed the army for battle in the normal formation of a centre and wings. The generals commanding his wings were Qubaz and Anushjan. The men again linked themselves with chains. (For a graphic illustration of march and counter-march see Map 12 below.)
1. The old Nibbaj is the present Nabqiyya, 25 miles north-east of Buraida. (See Maps 7 and 8)
Chains were often used by the Persian army to link their men in battle. They were normally of four lengths, to link three, five, seven or ten men, 1 and were supposed to act as a source of strength to the army. It would not be correct to say, as some critics have suggested, that the chains were used by the officers for fear that their men would run away. The chains were used as a manifestation of suicidal courage, confirming the soldiers' willingness to die on the battlefield rather than seek safety in flight. They also lessened the danger of a breakthrough by enemy cavalry, as with the men linked together in chains it was not easy for cavalry groups to knock down a few men and create a gap for penetration. And since the Persian Army was organised and trained for the set-piece battle, this tactic enabled it to stand like a rock in the face of enemy assault. But the chains had one major drawback: in case of defeat the men were incapable of withdrawal, for then the chains acted as fetters. Men chained to fallen comrades, lost all power of movement and became helpless victims of their assailants.
It was the use of chains in this battle that gave it the name of the Battle of Chains.
The Arab auxiliaries, however, did not approve of these chains and never resorted to their use. When on this occasion the Persians chained themselves, the Arabs said, "You have bound yourselves for the enemy. Beware of doing so!" To this the Persians retorted, "We can see that you wish to be free to run!" 2
Now Khalid came out of the desert and approached the Persians. He had made up his mind to fight a battle here and now before the Persian army recovered from its fatigue. But the Muslim army had no water, and this caused some alarm among the men, who informed Khalid of their misgivings. "Dismount and unload the camels", ordered Khalid. "By my faith, the water will go to whichever army is more steadfast and more deserving." 3 Their confidence in their leader unshaken, the Muslims prepared for battle. They had not been at this for long when it began to rain, and it rained enough for the Muslims to drink their fill and replenish their water-skins.
Hormuz had deployed his army just forward of the western edge of Kazima, keeping the city covered by his dispositions. In front of the Persians stretched a sandy, scrub-covered plain for a depth of about 3 miles. Beyond the plain rose a complex of low, barren hills about 200 to 300 feet high. This range was part of the desert, running all the way to Hufair, and it was over this range that Khalid had marched to Kazima. Emerging from these hills, Khalid now moved his army into the sandy plain; and keeping his back to the hills and the desert, formed up for battle with the usual centre and wings. As commanders of the wings, he appointed Asim bin Amr (brother of Qaqa bin Amr) and Adi bin Hatim (the very tall chief of the Tayy, who has been mentioned earlier, in Part II). Some time in the first week of April 633 (third week of Muharram, 12 Hijri) began the Battle of Chains.
The battle started in grand style with a duel between the two army commanders. Hormuz was a mighty fighter, renowned in the Empire as a champion whom few would dare to meet in single combat. (In those chivalrous days no one could be a commanding general without at the same time being a brave and skilful fighter.) He urged his horse forward and halted in the open space between the two armies, though closer to his own front rank. Then he called, "Man to man! Where is Khalid?" 4 From the Muslim ranks Khalid rode out and stopped a few paces from Hormuz. The two armies watched in silence as these redoubtable champions prepared to fight it out.
Hormuz dismounted, motioning to Khalid to do the same. Khalid dismounted. This was brave of Hormuz, for a dismounted duel left little chance of escape; but on this occasion Hormuz was not being as chivalrous as one might imagine. Before coming out of the Persian ranks Hormuz had picked a few of his stalwarts and placed them in the front rank near the site which he had chosen for the duel. He instructed them as follows: he would engage Khalid in single combat; at the appropriate time he would call to the men; they would then dash out, surround the combatants and kill Khalid while Hormuz held him. The chosen warriors watched intently as the two generals dismounted. They felt certain that Khalid would not get away.
1. Tabari: Vol. 3, p. 206. According to Abu Yusuf (p. 33) the chain lengths were: five, seven, eight and 10 men.
2. Ibid: Vol. 2, p. 555.
4. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 555.
The generals began to fight with sword and shield. Each struck several times at his adversary, but none of the blows made any impression. Each was surprised at the skill of the other. Hormuz now suggested that they drop their swords and wrestle. Khalid, unaware of the plot, dropped his sword as Hormuz dropped his. They began to wrestle. Then, as they were locked in a powerful embrace, Hormuz shouted to his men, who rushed forward. Before Khalid realised what was happening he found himself and Hormuz surrounded by several fierce looking Persians.
Now Khalid knew. He was without his sword and shield, and Hormuz would not relax his iron grip. There seemed to be no way out of the predicament; but then, being a stronger man than Hormuz, Khalid began to whirl his adversary round and round, thus making it practically impossible for the Persians to strike at him.
A storm of sound arose over the battlefield as the two armies shouted-one with delight, the other with dismay. In this noise, their attention riveted on the wrestlers, the Persian killers did not hear the galloping hooves that approached them. They did not know what hit them. Two or three of them sprawled on the ground as headless trunks, before the others realised that the number of combatants in this melee had increased by just one more. The extra man was Qaqa bin Amr-the one-man reinforcement sent by Abu Bakr.
Qaqa had seen the Persian killers rush towards the two generals, and in a flash understood the perfidy of the enemy general and the peril which faced Khalid. There was no time to tell this to anyone; no time to explain or gather comrades to support him. He had spurred his horse into a mad gallop, and arriving in the nick of time, had set upon the Persians with his sword. Qaqa killed all of them! 1
Khalid, freed of the menace of the Persian killers, turned his entire attention to Hormuz. After a minute or two Hormuz lay motionless on the ground, and Khalid rose from his chest with a dripping dagger in his hand.
Khalid now ordered a general attack, and the Muslims, incensed by the treacherous plot of the enemy commander, went into battle with a vengeance. The centre and the wings swept across the plain to assault the Persian army. The Persians had suffered a moral setback with the death of their commanding general; but they were more numerous than the Muslims and, their iron discipline held them together. They fought hard. For some time the battle hung in the balance with the fast-moving Muslims assailing the front and the steady, chain-linked Persian infantry repulsing all assaults. But soon the superior skill and courage of the Muslims and the fatigue of the Persians began to tell, and after several attempts the Muslims succeeded in breaking the Persian front in a number of places.
Sensing defeat, the Persian generals commanding the wings-Qubaz and Anushjan-ordered a withdrawal and began to pull their men back. This led to a general retreat, and as the Muslims struck still more fiercely, the retreat turned into a rout. Most of the Persians who were not chained managed to escape, but those who were chain-linked found their chains a death trap. Unable to move fast, they fell an easy prey to the victorious Muslims and were slain in thousands before darkness set in to put an end to the slaughter. Qubaz and Anushjan managed to escape and succeeded in extricating a large portion of the army from the battlefield.
The first battle with the power of Persia was over. It had ended in an overwhelming victory for the Muslims.
The following day was spent in attending to the wounded and collecting the spoils-weapons, armour, stores, costly garments, horses, captives-of which Khalid distributed four-fifths among his men. The share of each cavalryman came to a thousand dirhams, while the infantryman's share was a third of that. This ratio was a tradition of the Prophet. The cavalryman was given three shares because he had to maintain his horse as well and was more valuable for the mobile, fast-moving operations which the Arabs loved.
One-fifth of the spoils was sent to the Caliph as the share of the state, and this included the 100,000 dirham cap of Hormuz. By right it belonged to Khalid, for in a duel all the belongings of the vanquished were taken by the victor; and for this reason Abu Bakr returned the cap to Khalid, who, preferring cash, sold it!
1. There is no record of the actual number of Persians who took part in this plot and were killed by Qaqa.
The Muslims appear also to have captured an elephant in the Battle of Chains, and this animal was sent to Madinah along with other spoils. The city of the Prophet had never before seen an elephant and there was tremendous excitement in the capital when the behemoth arrived. The people marvelled at this greatest of land animals; but Abu Bakr could not think of any use for the unfamiliar beast and returned it to Khalid. What happened to it thereafter we do not know.
While the families of the Persians and those of the Iraqi Arabs who had supported them were taken captive, the rest of the population of the district was left unmolested. This population consisted mainly of small farmers, peasants and shepherds, and they all agreed to pay the Jizya and come under Muslim protection.
For a few days Khalid remained busy with organisational matters. Then he set his army in motion towards the north. Ahead of the main body of the army he sent Muthanna and his 2,000 riders to reconnoitre the country and kill any stragglers behind by the retreating Persians.
Muthanna reached a small river just north of where Zubair stands today, on the bank of which stood a fort known as Hisnul-Mar'at, i.e., the Fort of the Lady, so called because a lady ruled over it. 1 Muthanna laid siege to the fort; but in order to avoid delay in his advance, he left his brother, Mu'anna, in charge of the siege operations with a few hundred men and himself proceeded north with the rest of his column.
Two or three days of siege operations were enough to convince the lady of the fort of the futility of resistance. The Persian army of Uballa had been defeated and she could expect no help from any quarter. Mu'anna offered to accept a peaceful surrender without bloodshed, without plunder, without enslavement. The lady agreed; the defenders surrendered. Mu'anna and the lady of the fort appear to have found much pleasure in their meeting with each other. First the lady became a Muslim, and then, without any further delay, Mu'anna married her!
Meanwhile Khalid was advancing northwards from Kazima with the main body of the army.
1. The river is still there and is known as the River of the Lady, but there is no trace of the fort.