Chapter 22: The River of Blood
"Allah watered the dead with the relentless Euphrates,
And others in the middle areas of Najaf."
[ Al-Qa'qa' bin Amr, commander in Khalid's army]1
The third great battle with the Persians had been won, and Khalid was nearer his ultimate objective-Hira. But he still had far to go and had no illusions about the journey. It was unlikely that the proud Persians would withdraw from his path. Much blood must yet be shed.
In spite of his masterly manoeuvre and his best efforts, a few thousand enemy warriors did manage to escape from the Battle of Walaja. They were mainly Christian Arabs from the tribe of Bani Bakr (Muthanna's tribe-those elements which had not accepted the new faith and had clung to Christianity). Much of this tribe lived in Iraq, as Persian subjects. They had responded to the call of Andarzaghar and with him they had fought and suffered at Walaja.
These Arab survivors of Walaja, fleeing from the battlefield, crossed the River Khaseef and moved between it and the Euphrates (the two rivers were about 3 miles apart, the former being a branch of the Euphrates). Their flight ended at Ullais, about 10 miles from Walaja (see Map 10). Here they felt reasonably safe, as the place was on the right bank of the Euphrates, and on the other side of Ullais ran the Khaseef, which actually took off from the Euphrates just above Ullais. Ullais could only be approached frontally, i.e. from the south-east. 2
For a few days Khalid rested his exhausted troops and himself remained busy with the distribution of the spoils and preparations for the onward march. Knowing of the existence of Bahman's army, he could appreciate that another bloody battle would have to be fought before he got to Hira. Since the centre of gravity of the campaign in Iraq had now shifted from the Tigris to the Euphrates, he recalled the Muslim detachments which he had left on the lower Tigris.
Khalid knew from his agents about the presence of hostile Arabs at Ullais; but since they were only the survivors of Walaja he did not consider them a military problem. In any case, he did not wish to over-strain his men by rushing them into another battle before they had recovered from their great trial of strength with Andarzaghar. But when about 10 days later he was informed of the arrival of more Arab forces at Ullais, it became evident that he would have to deal with a complete and almost new army. The hostile concentration was large enough to promise a major battle. As soon as his detachments from the lower Tigris had joined him, Khalid set off from Walaja with an army whose strength, as at the time of its entry into Iraq, was 18,000 men. 3 Since there was no way of getting to Ullais from a flank because of the two rivers, Khalid had no option but to cross the Khaseef and approach his objective frontally.
The annihilation of the army of Andarzaghar, following close upon the heels of Kazima and the River, shook the Empire of the Chosroes to its foundations. There appeared to be an unearthly quality about this Army of Islam which had emerged like an irresistible force from the desert. Any Persian army that opposed its relentless march vanished. For the proud Persian court, accustomed to treating the dwellers of the desert with contempt, this was a bitter pill to swallow. Never before in its long history had the empire suffered such military defeats, in such rapid succession, at the hands of a force so much smaller than its, own armies, so close to its seat of power and glory.
For the first time the Persians found it necessary to revise their opinions about the Arabs. It was clear that there was something about Islam which had turned this backward, disorganised and unruly race into a powerful, closely-knit and disciplined force of conquest. And it was clear also that there was something about this man Khalid-whose name was now whispered with fear in Persian homes-that added a touch of genius to the operations of his army. But a grand empire of 12 centuries is not beaten with three battles. The Persians were a race of conquerors and rulers who had lost battles before and risen again. The mood of dismay which had gripped Ctesiphon at the first reports of Walaja passed, and was replaced by a single-minded determination to crush this invading army and fling it back into the desert whence it came. Persia picked herself up, dusted herself, and prepared for another round.
1. Ibn Kathir, Al-Bidayah wan-Nihayah, Dar Abi Hayyan, Cairo, 1st ed. 1416/1996, Vol. 6 P. 425.
2. According to Tabari (Vol. 2, P. 560), Ullais was at a junction of the Euphrates. Musil (p. 193) places it at Ash-Shasi, which is now known as Al Asi and is 4 miles west-north-west of Shinafiya. Even now the place can only be approached from between the two rivers, unless one uses a boat to cross one of them.
3. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 562. There is no record of reinforcements, but the Muslim losses must have been made up by either reinforcements from Arabia or local volunteers from Iraq.
Meanwhile messengers from the surviving Christian Arabs of the Bani Bakr arrived at Ctesiphon and informed the Emperor of their situation. They had sought the help of their fellow-Arabs inhabiting the region between Ullais and Hira; in response thousands of Arabs were even now marching to join the Bani Bakr at Ullais where they would fight a do-or-die battle with Khalid. Would not the Emperor help by sending another army of Persian warriors to join hands with his loyal Arabs subjects and save the Empire?
The Emperor would. He sent orders to Bahman who was still north of the Euphrates. On hearing of Walaja, Bahman had stopped in his tracks and decided not to move until he received further instructions. Now he got the Emperor's order to proceed with his army to Ullais, take under his command the Arab contingents assembled there, and bar Khalid's way to Hira.
But Bahman did not himself go to Ullais. He sent the army under his next senior general, one named Jaban, to whom he passed on the instructions of the Emperor. And Bahman added, "Avoid battle until I join you, unless it is forced upon you." 1 As Jaban set off with the army, Bahman returned to Ctesiphon. We do not know the purpose of his journey to the capital, we only know that he wished to discuss certain matters with the Emperor. He arrived at Ctesiphon to find Emperor Ardsheer very ill and remained in attendance on his master.
Jaban moved with his army to Ullais and found a vast gathering of Christian Arabs who had come from the region of Hira and Amghishiya. All had by now realised that Khalid's mission was to take Hira, and felt that Khalid's success would mean more bloodshed and enslavement. To prevent this, they had come to fight Khalid and, if necessary, die fighting. Jaban assumed command of the entire army, the Christian Arab part of which was commanded by a chieftain named Abdul-Aswad, who had lost two sons at Walaja and was burning for revenge. Persian and Arab camped side by side with the Euphrates to their left, the Khaseef to their right and the river junction behind them.
According to the early historians there was a river here which came into prominence as a result of actions taken on conclusion of the Battle of Ullais, as we shall shortly see. This river may once have been a canal, for it was dammed at its junction with the Euphrates just above Ullais, but at the time of the battle the river was dry, or almost dry, because the dam was closed. The Muslims referred to this river as just the river. I place this river as the Khaseef (which is now a fair-sized river), for there is no space at Ullais for another river or canal. Since, however, the name Khaseef may not have been in use at that time, it is hereafter referred to as The River.
Before the arrival of Jaban and the Persians, Muthanna and his light cavalry had appeared at Ullais and made contact with the Christian Arabs. Muthanna informed Khalid of the enemy position, strength and apparent intention to fight. Khalid increased his pace, hoping to catch the Christian Arabs before they were reinforced by other Persian forces. But Jaban beat him to Ullais, perhaps by a few hours; and again Khalid was faced by an enormous army. Again he determined to kill as many enemy warriors as he could lay his hands on, so that fewer would appear against him in the next battle. He also decided to fight the very same day; for the longer battle was delayed the more time the Persians would have to get organised and co-ordinate their plans. It was now the middle of May 633 (end of Safar, 12 Hijri).
Khalid stopped just long enough on the march to array his army in battle formation, appointing Adi bin Hatim and Asim bin Amr once again as the commanders of his wings, before he started the advance towards Ullais. This time no outflanking movements were possible, and he would rely for victory on the speed and violence of his attack rather than on manoeuvre. The Muslim advance to battle continued for some time before Jaban came to know that he was about to be attacked.
1. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 560.
This information reached Jaban a little before midday, when it was mealtime for the Persian army. The cooks had prepared the soldiers' food, and the Persian soldier, like soldiers of all races and all ages, preferred a hot meal to a cold one and was reluctant to fight on any empty stomach. The Arab auxiliaries, however, were ready for battle.
Jaban looked at his soldiers and the tempting pots of food being brought from the kitchens. Then he looked in the direction from which the Muslims were rapidly approaching in battle array. The soldiers also saw the Muslim army. They were brave men; but they were also hungry men. "Let us eat now", they said to Jaban. "We will fight later."
"I fear", replied Jaban, "that the enemy will not let you eat in peace." 1
"No!" said the Persians, disobeying their commander. "Eat now; fight later!" The meal-cloths were spread on the ground and steaming dishes were laid out upon them. The soldiers sat down to eat. They thought they had time. Meanwhile the Arab auxiliaries, less sophisticated in their eating habits, had formed up for action.
The Persians had eaten but one or two mouthfuls when it became evident that the Muslims were about to assault. If they delayed battle any longer, a full belly would be of no use to them, for they would be slaughtered anyway. Hurriedly they left their dishes; and as hurriedly Jaban deployed them on the battlefield along with the Arabs. He was not a minute too soon. He used the Christian Arabs to form the wings of his army, under the chiefs Abdul-Aswad and Abjar, and massed his Persian troops in the centre.
The battlefield ran south-east of Ullais between the Euphrates and The River. The Persian army was deployed with its back to Ullais, while in front of it was arrayed the army of Islam. The northern flank of both armies rested on the Euphrates and their southern flank on the river. The battle front was about 2 miles from river to river.
It was a very hard battle. The Battle of Walaja had been the fiercest battle of the campaign so far, but his was fiercer still. This became a battle that Khalid would never forget.
We do not know the details of the manoeuvres and other actions which took place in the battle. We know that Khalid killed the Arab commander, Abdul-Aswad, in personal combat. We know that the imperial army, though losing heavily in men, would not yield before the assaults of the Muslims. If ever an army meant to fight it out to the last, it was the imperial army of Ullais. The Arab auxiliaries were indeed fighting a do-or-die for if this battle were lost then nothing could save Hira. The Persians fought to vindicate the honour of Persian arms.
For a couple of hours the slogging continued. The fighting was heaviest on the bank of the river, where a large number of Persians fell in combat. The Muslims-tired, angry, frustrated-could see no opening, no weakening of the Persian and Arab resistance. Then Khalid raised his hands in supplication and prayed to Allah:
"O Lord! If You give us victory, I shall see that
no enemy warrior is left alive until their river runs with
their blood!" 2
The Muslims renewed their assaults with greater fury; and Allah gave them victory. Early in the afternoon the imperial army was shattered and its soldiers fled from the battlefield. Thousands lay dead, especially in, and on the bank of, the river whose sandy bed was red with their blood.
As the Persian army fled from the battlefield, Khalid launched his cavalry after it. "Do not kill them", he ordered the cavalry. "Bring them back alive." 3 The bed of the river was soaked with blood ... but the river was not "running with blood" as Khalid had pledged!
1. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 561.
2. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 561.
The Muslim cavalry broke up into several groups and galloped out in pursuit of the fugitives who had crossed the Khaseef and were fleeing in the direction of Hira. Parties of desperate Persians and Arabs were isolated from one another, surrounded, overpowered, disarmed and driven back to the battlefield like flocks of sheep. As each group was brought back, it was herded to the river, and every man was beheaded in the river bed or on the bank whence his blood ran into the river. The pursuit by the Muslim cavalry, the capture and return of the Persian and Arab warriors, and their killing in the river went on for the rest of that day and the whole of that night and the whole of the next day and part of the next. 1 Every vanquished warrior who fell into the victors' hands was decapitated. Khalid was keeping his pledge! Not till sometime on the third day was the last man killed.
Once the killing had stopped, a group of officers gathered around Khalid on the river bank. They looked upon a messy sight. Qaqa turned to Khalid and said, "If you kill all the people of the earth their blood will not flow as long as this river is dammed. The earth will not absorb all the blood. Let the water run in the river. Thus you shall keep your pledge." 2
Others added, "We have heard that when the earth absorbs some of the blood of the sons of Adam, it refuses to accept more." 3
Khalid ordered that the dam be opened. As it was opened the water rushed over the bed of the river and the blood lying in pools on the bed flowed with the water. This river then became known as the River of Blood.
As night fell after the day on which the battle was fought, while the Muslim cavalry was out bringing in the fugitives, the army of Khalid sat down to eat the food of the Persians, laid out upon the meal?cloths. The desert Arab marvelled at the fine fare on which the Persian soldier was fed.
The Battle of Ullais was over. An enormous amount of booty fell into Muslim hands and included the families of the defeated imperial warriors. According to Tabari, 70,000 Persians, and Christian Arabs were killed by the Muslims including those beheaded in the river. 4 But Jaban escaped.
On the following day Khalid entered into a pact with the local inhabitants of the district. They would pay the Jizya and come under Muslim protection; but this time another clause was added to the pact: the local inhabitants would act as spies and guides for the Muslims.
The episode of the River of Blood has been twisted and exaggerated beyond all limits by certain writers who have been unable to resist the temptation of resorting to sensationalism. This has led to some misconceptions which it would be well to correct.
These writers tell us that the river actually ran with blood; that there was a mill downstream of the battlefield powered by the water of this river; that so much blood flowed in the river that for three days the mill was grinding not with water but with blood!
This is a fantastic untruth. Balazuri makes no mention at all of any mill. Tabari, coming to the end of his account of this battle, mentions the mill, "…as related by Shuaib, who heard it from Saif, who heard it from Talha, who heard it from Mugheerah." According to Mugheerah, there was a mill down-stream, powered by the water of this river; this mill was used for grinding corn for the army of Khalid for three days; and the water was red. 5
In so far as this report may be correct, it still says nothing about the mill being run by blood. And there is no other mention in the early accounts of the mill. The facts are as they have been narrated above. When the dam was opened, on Qaqa's advice, the water naturally turned red and remained so for quite some time. But to run a mill with whole blood for three days would require the lives of millions of men. The story of the river running with blood for three days can be accepted as something from the Arabian Nights; it is not history.
Furthermore, to call what happened a "killing of prisoners" is an oversimplification. Normally they would have been killed in the pursuit, as had happened before and would happen again, with no questions asked. In this battle Khalid had pledged to make the river run with blood, so those thousands of men, instead of being killed in the pursuit, were brought to the river and killed. And that is all that there is to the episode of the River of Blood.
Of the battles which he had fought in the time of the Holy Prophet, the Battle of Mutah had a special place in the memory of Khalid. Nowhere else had he had to take command of so disastrous a situation and save the Muslims from the jaws of death. Of the battles fought in Iraq, the Battle of Ullais was similarly engraved upon his memory.
One day, after the campaign had been fought to a successful conclusion, Khalid sat chatting with some friends. He said, "At Mutah I broke nine swords in my hand. But I have never met an enemy like the Persians. And among the Persians I have never met an enemy like the army of Ullais." 6
Coming from a man like Khalid, there could be no finer tribute to the valour of Persian arms. But the Persian court was now down and out. Ardsheer lay dying, and the empire would send no more armies to face the Sword of Allah. Ullais was the swansong of Ardsheer, great-great-grandson of Anushirwan the Just.
1. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 561.
2. Ibid: Vol. 2, pp. 561-2.
5. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 562.
6. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 569.