Chapter 30: The Conquest of Damascus
"Damascus is one of the most blessed cities of al-Sham (Syria, Jordan, Palestine)."
[Prophet Muhammad (SAWS)]1
Damascus was known as the paradise of Syria. A glittering metropolis which contained everything that makes a city great and famous, it had wealth, culture, temples and troops. It had history. The main part of the city was enclosed by a massive wall, 11 metres high, 2 but outside the battlements lay some suburbs which were not protected. The fortified city was a mile long and half a mile wide and was entered by six gates: the East Gate, the Gate of Thomas, the Jabiya Gate, the Gate of Faradees, the Keisan Gate and the Small Gate. Along the north wall ran the River Barada, which, however, was too small to be of military significance.
At the time of the Syrian campaign, the Roman Commander-in-Chief at Damascus was Thomas, son-in-law of Emperor Heraclius. A deeply religious man and a devout Christian, he was known not only for his courage and skill in the command of troops but also for his intelligence and learning. Under him served, as his deputy, a general by the name of Harbees about whom little is known except that he was there.
The general who was in active command of the garrison, however, was Azazeer, a veteran soldier who had spent a lifetime campaigning in the East and had acquired fame in countless battles against the Persians and the Turks. He was acknowledged as a great champion and was proud of the fact that he had never lost a duel. Having served in Syria for many years, he knew Arabic very well and spoke it fluently.
Azazeer's garrison consisted of no less than 12,000 soldiers, but Damascus as a city had not been prepared for a siege. Although its walls and bastions were in good order, nothing had been done for the storage of food and fodder-a task which, for a garrison and a population so large, would take weeks and months. The Romans can hardly be blamed for this neglect, for ever since the final defeat of the Persians by Heraclius in 628, there had been no threat of any kind to Syria; and it was not until the Battle of Ajnadein had been fought that the Romans realised the full extent of the danger which threatened them.
Heraclius, working from his headquarters at Antioch, now set about the task of putting things right and preparing Damascus for a siege. Having ordered the remnants of the army of Ajnadein to delay the Muslims at Yaqusa, he sent a force of 5,000 soldiers from Antioch to reinforce the garrison of Damascus. This force was placed under a general named Kulus, who promised the Emperor that he would bring the head of Khalid on a lance. 3 Kulus arrived at Damascus at about the time when the battle of Yaqusa was fought. The strength of the garrison at Damascus was thus raised to 17,000 men; but Kulus and Azazeer were professional rivals and there was little love lost between them. Each wished to see the downfall of the other.
Thomas worked feverishly to prepare the city for a siege. Provisions were rapidly gathered from the surrounding countryside to sustain the garrison and the inhabitants in case the lines of supply were severed by the besiegers. However, not enough could be gathered for a long siege. Scouts were sent out to watch and report on the movement of the Muslims; and the bulk of the army, leaving strong guards and a reserve in Damascus, was ordered to prepare to fight a battle outside Damascus. The idea was to defeat and drive back the Muslims before they could invest the city; but it was with mounting anxiety that the Damascenes awaited the arrival of Khalid.
1. Abu Dawud, Ahmad and Hakim from Abu Darda. Sahih Al-Jami' Al-Saghir No.2116.
2. Damascus City has risen 4 metres since then, so that the wall is now only 7 metres above ground level.
3. Waqidi: p. 20.
Khalid had by now organized a military staff-a simple beginning of what later in military history would emerge as the General Staff. He had collected from all the regions in which he had fought-Arabia, Iraq, Syria and Palestine-a small group of keen and intelligent men who acted as his 'staff officers', mainly functioning as an intelligence staff. 1 They would collect information, organize the despatch and questioning of agents, and keep Khalid up to date with the latest military situation. Intelligence was one aspect of war to which Khalid paid special attention. Ever watchful and ever ready to exploit fleeting opportunities, it was said of him that "he neither slept nor let others sleep, and nothing was concealed from him." 2 But this was a personal staff rather than the staff of an army headquarters; wherever Khalid went, this staff went with him.
Khalid had also made a notable change in the organisation of the army. From his army of Iraq, which after Ajnadein numbered about 8,000 men, he had organised a force of 4,000 horsemen, which the early historians refer to as 'the Army of Movement'. For want of a better translation, it shall here be called the Mobile Guard. This force, like the army of Iraq, which now comprised just one corps of the Muslim army, was kept under his personal command by Khalid, and was earmarked as a mobile reserve for use in battle as required. The Mobile Guard was undoubtedly the finest body of men in the army-a corps d'elite.
From Yaqusa, Khalid marched with his corps of Iraq in the lead. This was followed by the other corps and the women and children. By now the families of the warriors from Iraq, which had been sent to Madinah before the Perilous March, had also joined the Muslim army in Syria. After three days, of marching along the Jabiya route, the leading elements arrived at Marj-us-Suffar, about 12 miles from Damascus, and discovered a large Roman army barring their way. This Roman force, consisting of about 12,000 soldiers and commanded by Kulus and Azazeer, had been sent forward by Thomas to fight a battle in the open and drive the Muslims away from Damascus, or if that were not possible, delay the Muslim advance and thus gain more time for the provisioning of the city. For the night the leading Muslim corps camped about a mile from the Roman position, while the other corps were still some distance behind.
Marj-us-Suffar (the Yellow Meadow) stretched south from Kiswa, a small town 12 miles from Damascus on the present road to Dar'a. At the southern edge of the town ran a small, wooded wadi and from this wadi stretched southwards the Marj-us-Suffar. Just west of the town rose a low ridge, and the Roman position was in front of this and south of the wadi. 3
The following morning, on August 19, 634 (the 19th of Jamadi-ul-Akhir, 13 Hijri), Khalid moved up his corps; and the Muslims and the Romans marshalled their forces for the Battle of Marj-us-Suffar. The rest of the Muslim army was rushing to the battlefield, but it would be another two hours or so before it arrived. The leading corps, which was now deployed for battle, would act as a firm base on which the whole army would form up on arrival. The Romans appeared to remain on the defensive since they made no move to engage the Muslims. In the mean time Khalid started a phase of duels that would keep the Romans occupied until the arrival of the remaining Muslim corps.
This phase was rather like a tournament with gallants displaying their courage and skill, except that a good deal of blood was shed. The Romans played the game sportingly, for they too had champions as gallant as any; and among these the two generals, Kulus and Azazeer, were considered the bravest and the best. The rank and file of the two armies stood by as spectators and cheered their 'players'.
Khalid started this bloody tournament by calling forward a number of his stalwarts, including Dhiraar, Shurahbil and Abdur-Rahman bin Abi Bakr. All these cavaliers rode out from the Muslim front rank, galloped about the space between the two armies and threw their individual challenges. Against each of them a Roman officer emerged, and the champions paired off for combat. Practically every Roman was killed. After killing his opponent the Muslim champion would gallop across the front of the Roman army, taunting and challenging; and on getting a suitable opportunity, would even strike down one or two men in the front rank before retiring to the Muslim army.
1. Waqidi: Vol. 2, p. 47.
2. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 626.
3. The town, the ridge and the wadi are still there, and the plain is still yellowish in appearance.
As in earlier encounters, Dhiraar, naked above the waist, did the most damage and slew the largest number of Romans, thrilling the spectators with his daredevilry.
When this had gone on for an hour or so, Khalid decided that it was time for the 'heavy?weight bout'! He called back the Muslim officers and rode forward himself. As he got into the centre of the battlefield, he called:
I am the pillar of Islam!
I am the Companion of the Prophet!
I am the noble warrior,
Khalid bin Al Waleed! 1
Since he was the commander of the Muslim army, his challenge had to be met by a top ranking Roman general. Kulus had by now lost some of his zest for battle, because he had been intimidated by the sad fate of all the Romans who had come forward to duel with the Muslims this morning. It appears that he was unwilling to accept the challenge of Khalid; but egged on by the taunts of his rival, Azazeer, he rode out from the front of the Roman army. On getting near Khalid he indicated that he wished to talk; but Khalid paid no heed to his sign and attacked him with his lance. Kulus parried the thrust, showing uncommon skill in doing so. Khalid charged at him again, but the thrust was parried.
Khalid decided not to use the lance any more. He came near his opponent, dropped his lance and grappled with him with his bare hands. Catching Kulus by the collar he jerked him off his horse, whereupon the Roman fell to the ground and made no effort to rise. At this Khalid signalled for two Muslims to come to him. When they came forward, he ordered them to take Kulus away as a prisoner, which they did.
While the Romans were dismayed by the sight of this encounter, Azazeer was secretly pleased and hoped that the Muslims would kill Kulus. Now he came forward, and regarding himself as a greater fighter than Kulus, had no doubt that he would soon make short work of Khalid. But he would first amuse himself by making fun of the Muslim commander. Azazeer stopped a few paces from Khalid and said in Arabic, "O Arab brother, come near me so that I can ask you some questions."
"O enemy of Allah" replied Khalid. "Come near me yourself or I shall come and take your head." Azazeer looked surprised, but urged his horse forward and stopped at duelling distance. In a gentle, persuasive tone he continued: "O Arab, brother, what makes you come to fight in person? Do you not fear that if I kill you, your comrades will be left without a commander?"
"O enemy of Allah, you have already seen what a few of my comrades have done. If I were to give them permission, they would destroy your entire army with Allah's help. I have with me men who regard death as a blessing and this life as an illusion. Anyway, who are you?"
"Do you not know me?" Azazeer exclaimed. "I am the champion of Syria! I am the killer of Persians! I am the breaker of Turkish armies!"
"What is your name?" asked Khalid.
"I am named after the angel of death. I am Israel!"
At this Khalid laughed. "I fear that he after whom you are named seeks you ardently... to take you to the abyss of hell!"
Azazeer ignored this remark and went on in an unconcerned way: "What have you done with your prisoner, Kulus?"
1. Waqidi: pp. 41, 48.
"He is held in irons."
"What prevents you from killing him? He is the most cunning of the Romans."
"Nothing prevents me except the desire to kill both of you together."
"Listen," said the Roman, "I shall give you 1,000 pieces of gold, 10 robes of brocade and five horses if you will kill him, and give me his head."
"That is the price for him. What will you give me to save yourself?"
"What do you want of me?"
This enraged Azazeer, who said, "As we rise in honour, so you fall in disgrace. Defend yourself, for now I kill you."
These words were hardly out of the Roman's mouth when Khalid assailed him. He struck several times with his sword, but Azazeer, showing perfect mastery over the art, parried every blow and remained unharmed. A cry of admiration rose from the Muslim ranks at the skill with which the Roman was defending himself against their commander, who had few equals in combat and those only among the Muslims. Khalid also stopped in amazement.
The face of the Roman broke into a smile as he said, "By the Messiah, I could easily kill you if I wished. But I am determined to take you alive, so that I may then release you on condition that you leave our land."
Khalid was infuriated by the cool, condescending manner of the Roman general and his success in defending himself. He decided to take the Roman alive and humble him. As he moved forward to attack again, however, to his great surprise, Azazeer turned his horse and began to canter away. Believing that the Roman was fleeing from combat, Khalid pursued him and the spectators saw the remarkable spectacle of two generals galloping, one after the other, in the no-man's-land between the two armies. Several times the riders galloped round the field; and then Khalid began to lag behind, his horse sweating and winded. The Roman was better mounted, and his horse showed no sign of fatigue.
This apparently was a pre-determined plan of Azazeer, for when he saw Khalid's mount exhausted, he reined in his horse and waited for Khalid to catch up. Khalid was now in a most unforgiving mood, since in this race his opponent had got the better of him, and it did not help his temper to hear the Roman mock at him: "O Arab! Do not think that I fled in fear. In fact I am being kind to you. Lo, I am the taker of souls! I am the angel of death!"
Khalid's horse was no longer fit for combat. He dismounted and walked towards Azazeer, sword in hand. The Roman gloated at the sight of his opponent approaching on foot while he himself was mounted. Now, he thought, he had Khalid just where he wanted him. As Khalid got within striking distance, Azazeer raised his sword and made a vicious sideways swipe to cut off the Muslim's head; but Khalid ducked to let the blade swish past harmlessly inches above his head. The next instant he struck at the forelegs of the Roman's horse, severing them completely from the body, and horse and rider came tumbling down. Now all courage left Azazeer. He got up and tried to run, but Khalid sprang at him and catching him with both hands, lifted him bodily off the ground and hurled him down. Next he caught Azazeer by the collar, jerked him up and marched him back to the Muslim army, where he joined Kulus in irons. 1
This grand duel was hardly over when two more Muslim corps, those of Abu Ubaidah and Amr bin Al Aas, arrived at the battlefield. Khalid deployed them as the wings of his army; and as soon as the battle formation was complete, ordered a general attack.
1. The description of these duels and the dialogue are taken from Waqidi: pp. 19-21.
The Romans stood firm for an hour or so, but could not hold the Muslims longer. The loss of a large number of their officers, including the two top generals, had had a depressing effect on their spirits; and the fact that Damascus stood just behind, beckoning to them to come and be safe within its walls acted as a temptation to withdraw. So they retreated, in good order, leaving behind a large number of dead. The Roman army arrived at the city and entered its walls, closing the gates behind it.
The Muslims spent the night on the plain, and the following day marched to the city. Here, on August 20, 634 (the 20th of Jamadi-ul-Akhir, 13 Hijri), Khalid launched the Muslim army into the siege of Damascus. 1
Khalid had already left behind a mounted detachment at Fahl to keep the Roman garrison occupied and prevent it from coming to the aid of Damascus or interfering with the movement of messengers and reinforcements from Madinah. Now he sent out another detachment on the road to Emessa to take up a position near Bait Lihya, about 10 miles from the city, 2 and instructed its commander to send out scouts to observe and report the arrival of Roman relief columns. If unable to deal with such columns himself, the detachment commander would seek Khalid's help. Having thus arranged a blocking position to isolate Damascus from Northern Syria, which was the most likely region whence relief columns could approach Damascus, Khalid surrounded the city with the rest of the army (See Map 17 below).
Damascus now held a Roman garrison of about 15,000 to 16,000 soldiers, a considerable civil population comprising the permanent inhabitants and a large number of people from the surrounding region who had taken refuge in the city. The Muslim strength at Damascus is not recorded, but must have been quite a bit less than in the preceding month. Muslim dead in the three battles just fought - at Ajnadein, at Yaqusa and at the Marj-us-Suffar - undoubtedly ran into four figures; and thousands more must have been wounded in these battles and rendered unable to participate in the siege. Moreover, a group had been sent out as a blocking force and a detachment left at Fahl. In view of all this, I estimate the Muslim strength at Damascus at about 20,000 men. With this strength Khalid besieged the city.
He positioned the corps of Iraq, which included elements of the Mobile Guard, at the East Gate. He placed the bulk of this corps under Raafe, and himself stayed a short distance away from the East Gate with a reserve of 400 horsemen from the Mobile Guard. He established his headquarters in a monastery which, as a result, became known as Dair Khalid, i.e. Monastery of Khalid (and it is believed that the monks living in this monastery helped the Muslims in various ways, including the care of the Muslim wounded). 3 At each of the remaining gates, he deployed a force of 4,000 to 5,000 men whose commanders were as follows (See Map 18 below):
Gate of Thomas : Shurahbil,
Jabiya Gate : Abu Ubaidah,
Gate of Faradees : Amr bin Al Aas,
Keisan Gate : Yazeed,
Small Gate : Yazeed.
To the corps commanders Khalid gave instructions to the effect that they would: (a) camp outside bow-range of the fort; (b) keep the gate under observation; (c) move archers up to engage any Roman archers who appeared on the battlements; (d) throw back any Roman force which sallied out from the gate; and (e) seek Khalid's help in case of heavy pressure. Dhiraar was placed in command of 2,000 horsemen from the Mobile Guard, and given the task of patrolling the empty spaces between the gates during the night and helping any corps attacked by the Romans.
With these instructions the Muslim corps deployed, and the siege began. Tents were pitched, and Dhiraar started his patrolling. Every main avenue of relief and escape was closed, but this applied only to formed bodies of men. Individuals could still be lowered from the wall at many places during the night, and thus Thomas was able to keep in touch with the outside world and with Heraclius at Antioch.
1. For an explanation of the details of the Battle of Marj-us-Suffar, see Note 10 in Appendix B.
2. Bait Lihya no longer exists, and its exact location is not known. It was a small town in the Ghuta (Yaqut: Vol. 1, p. 780), and I have placed it at the outer edge of the Ghuta because to position a blocking force nearer the city would be militarily unsound.
3. This monastery, which was also known as Dair-ul-Ahmar (the Red Monastery), no longer exists, but its general location is known. About a quarter of a mile from the East Gate, stretching eastwards, stands a garden. The monastery was in this garden, and according to Waqidi (p. 43), was less than half a mile from the gate.
On the day following the arrival of the Muslims, Khalid had Kulus and Azazeer brought in irons near the East Gate where they could be seen by the Romans on the wall. Here both generals were offered Islam, and both rejected the offer. Then, in full view of the Roman garrison, the two generals were beheaded, the executioner being none other than Dhiraar.
For three weeks the siege continued with no major action except for a few half-hearted Roman sallies which the Muslims, had no difficulty in repulsing. During the day the two sides would keep up a sporadic exchange of archery, though no great damage was suffered by either side. This was to be a siege to the bitter end. Damascus would, if necessary, be starved into submission. 1
Soon after Heraclius heard of the defeat of the Roman army at Marj-us-Suffar by Khalid and the commencement of the siege of the city, he undertook measures to raise fresh forces. The recent blows suffered by the Empire were serious enough; but the successful advance of the Muslims had now created an even more critical situation, and Damascus itself was in danger. If Damascus fell, it would be a staggering blow to the prestige it could not recover without mobilizing the entire military resources of the Empire-a task not to be undertaken except in the direct emergency. And Damascus was in danger of falling not because of insufficient troops in the city but because of insufficient supplies. It had not been provisioned for a long siege.
Within 10 days of the start of the siege, Heraclius had raised a new army of 12,000 men drawn from garrisons in various parts of Northern Syria and the Jazeer. 2 This army was launched from Antioch with a large baggage-train carrying supplies, and the commander was instructed to reach Damascus at any cost and relieve the beleaguered garrison. The relief column marched via Emessa, made contact with Muslim scouts between Emessa and Damascus, and from here onwards was prepared for battle at a moment's notice.
On September 9, 634 (the 10th of Rajab, 13 Hijri), a messenger came galloping into Khalid's camp to inform him that a large Roman army of undetermined strength was advancing rapidly from Emessa, and in a day or so would make contact with the blocking force deployed at Bait Lihya. Khalid was not surprised to hear this, for he had guessed that Heraclius would do everything in his power to relieve Damascus; and it was for this reason that Khalid had placed the blocking force on the main route by which a relief column could approach the city.
He immediately organised a mounted force of 5,000 men and placed it under Dhiraar. He instructed Dhiraar to proceed with all speed to the area of Bait Lihya, take command of the regiment already deployed there and deal with the relief column approaching from Emessa. He cautioned Dhiraar against being rash and instructed him to seek reinforcements before committing his force to battle in case the enemy strength proved too large. Such words of caution, however, were wasted on Dhiraar; if there was one quality which he did not possess it was caution. With Raafe as his second-in-command, Dhiraar rode away from Damascus and picking up the blocking force, moved forward to a low ridge a little short of Saniyyat-ul-Uqab (the Pass of the Eagle) and deployed his force in ambush.
Next morning the Roman army appeared in sight. The Muslims waited. As the head of the Roman column got close to the ambush, Dhiraar ordered the attack. His men rose from their places of concealment, and led by their half-naked commander, rushed at the Romans. But the Romans were prepared for such a contingency. They deployed so quickly in battle formation that the action became a frontal engagement, with the Muslims attacking and the Romans standing firm in defence on higher ground in front of the Pass of the Eagle. The Muslims now realised the full strength of the enemy, which amounted to twice their own. But this did not matter to Dhiraar. Assaulting furiously in front of his men, he got far ahead of his comrades and before long was completely surrounded by the Romans. His enemies recognised him as the Naked Champion; and decided to take him alive and show him as a prize to their Emperor. Dhiraar was wounded by an arrow in the right arm but continued to fight as the Romans closed in. At last, however, after he had suffered several wounds, he was overpowered by the Romans, who then sent him to the rear.
1. According to Tabari (Vol. 2, p. 626) the Muslims also used catapults at this siege; but this is unlikely because the Muslims had no siege equipment, nor did they know much about using it.
2. Jazeera literally means island, and this name was used to designate the region between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris in present day North-Eastern Syria, North-Western Iraq and South-Eastern Turkey.
The loss of Dhiraar had a depressing effect on the Muslims, but Raafe was a worthy successor to the dashing Dhiraar. Taking command, he launched several attacks to get through to Dhiraar and rescue him; but his efforts proved fruitless, and the action turned into a stalemate. Raafe realised that there was nothing that he could do to break the Roman force deployed in front of him; and in the afternoon he sent a message to Khalid telling him about the engagement, about the enemy strength and about the loss of Dhiraar-probably still alive as a prisoner.
The sun was still well above the horizon when Khalid received news of this engagement. He realised that the Roman strength at Bait Lihya was too large for Raafe to tackle on his own. And this placed Khalid in a serious dilemma. The Roman relief column had to be defeated and driven back towards Emessa, and this could be done quickly only if Khalid himself took command at Bait Lihya with a sizable reinforcement from Damascus. Failing this, the Roman relief column would have every chance of breaking through the Muslim blocking force, and this could have a disastrous effect on the Muslim siege of Damascus. But there was also the problem of timing. If an immediate move were made to reinforce Raafe, the Roman garrison would observe the move and sally out to break the grip of the weakened besieging force. The relieving Romans at Bait Lihya had to be beaten; yet the besieged Romans in Damascus had to be kept in the dark about the movement of Muslim reinforcements from Damascus. Khalid decided to risk a delay and carry out on move till the latter part of the night, by when the beleaguered garrison would be less likely to discover the move.
Preparations wore made accordingly. The command at Damascus was taken over by Abu Ubaidah who would see to the siege operations during Khalid's absence. After midnight a detachment of 1,000 Muslim warriors under Maisara bin Masruq took up positions at the East Gate and some other readjustments were made at the other gates. Then, some time between midnight and dawn, Khalid set off with his Mobile Guard of 4,000 horses. The Guard moved swiftly through the remainder of the night and early the following morning arrived at the scene of battle between Raafe and the Romans. The fighting was continuing on this second day of battle with no decision in sight. Indeed the Muslims were now tired of attacking the Romans who stood like a rock against the Muslim assaults.
As Khalid approached the battlefield he suddenly saw a Muslim rider flash past him from behind and gallop off towards the Roman front. Before Khalid could stop him, he was gone. A slim, lightly-built person, dressed in black, this rider wore a breastplate and was armed with a sword and a long lance. He sported a green turban and had a scarf wrapped around his face, acting as a mask, with only his eyes visible. Khalid arrived on the battlefield in time to see this rider throw himself at the Romans with such fury that everyone present thought that he and his horse must both be mad. Raafe saw this rider before he saw Khalid and remarked, "He attacks like Khalid, but he is clearly not Khalid." 1 Then Khalid joined Raafe.
Khalid took a little time to organize Raafe's group and his own Mobile Guard into one and deploy it as a combined force for battle. Meanwhile the masked rider treated the Muslims to a thrilling display of horsemanship and attacks with the lance. He would go charging on his own, strike the Roman front atone point and kill a man; then go galloping away to another part of the front, again strike someone in the Roman front line and so on. A few Romans came forward to tackle him but all went down before his terrible lance. Marvelling at this wondrous sight, the Muslims could still see nothing more of the warrior than a youthful figure and a pair of bright eyes shining above the mask. The rider appeared bent on suicide as with his clothes and lance covered with blood, he struck again and again at the Romans. The example of this warrior put fresh courage into the men of Raafe, who forgot their fatigue and went into battle with renewed high spirits as Khalid gave the order to attack.
The masked rider, now joined by many others, continued his personal war against the Romans as the entire Muslim force attacked the Roman front. Soon after the general attack had begun, Khalid got near this rider and called, "O warrior, show us your face." A pair of dark eyes flashed at Khalid before the rider turned away and galloped off into another assault at the Romans. Next, a few of Khalid's men caught up with him and said, "O noble warrior, your commander calls you and you turn away from him! Show us your face and tell us your name so that you may be properly honoured." Again the rider turned away as if deliberately trying to keep his identity a secret.
1. Waqidi: p. 27.
As the masked rider returned from his charge, he passed by Khalid, who called to him sternly to stop. The rider pulled up his horse, and Khalid continued, "You have done enough to fill our hearts with admiration. Who are you?"
Khalid nearly fell off his horse when he heard the reply of the masked rider, for it was the voice of a girl! "O commander, I only turn away from you out of modesty. You are the glorious commander, and I am of those who stay behind the veil. I fight like this because my heart is on fire."
"Who are you?"
"I am Khaulah, sister of Dhiraar. My brother has been captured, and I must fight to set him free."
Khalid marvelled at the old man, Al Azwar, who had fathered two such dauntless fighters, a boy and a girl. "Then come and attack with us", he said. 1
The Muslim attack continued in force and at about midday the Romans began to withdraw from the battlefield in good order. The Muslims followed, keeping up a steady pressure, but there was no sign of Dhiraar, dead or alive. Then, as good luck would have it, some local Arabs came to the Muslims with the information that they had seen 100 Romans riding to Emessa with a half-naked man in their midst, tied to his horse. Khalid at once guessed that Dhiraar had been sent away from the battlefield and ordered Raafe to take 100 picked riders, move wide around the flank of the Romans, get to the Emessa road and intercept the escort taking Dhiraar to Emessa. Raafe at once selected 100 stalwarts and set off, accompanied, of course, by Khaulah bint Al Azwar.
Raafe got to the Emessa road at a point which the escort had not yet reached and waited in ambush. When the 100 Romans arrived at this point, Raafe and his men assailed them, killed most of the soldiers and set Dhiraar free. The Naked Champion and his loving sister were happily reunited. The party again made a wide detour to avoid the Roman army, and rejoined Khalid who was very, very grateful to Raafe for rescuing Dhiraar.
Under the unrelenting pressure of the Muslims, the Romans increased the pace of their retreat. As the Muslims struck with greater ferocity, the retreat turned into a rout, and the Romans took to their heels and fled in the direction of Emessa.
Khalid could not pursue the fleeing enemy because he had to get back to Damascus. The Muslim forces investing the city had been weakened by 9,000 men with the departure of first Raafe's detachment and then the reinforcement of the Mobile Guard. In case the Romans should attack in strength against any Muslim corps, there would be a serious danger of their breaking through. Consequently Khalid sent only a mounted regiment under Samt bin Al Aswad to follow the Romans to Emessa. Samt got there in due course and found that the Romans had withdrawn into the fort. The local inhabitants of Emessa, however, approached Samt and let it be known that they had no desire to fight the Muslims, with whom they would make peace and even feed any soldiers quartered in their city. After a friendly exchange of messages, Samt returned to Damascus.
Meanwhile Khalid had rejoined the Muslim army at Damascus. He resumed command and re?established the Muslim dispositions as they had been before the appearance of the Roman relief column.
The news of the sad fate of the relief column spread among the inhabitants of Damascus, and it was a grievous blow indeed. The Damascenes had pinned their hopes on Heraclius sending such a force to save them. Heraclius had in fact done his best, but the hopes of the city had been shattered by Khalid's action at Bait Lihya. Heraclius could no doubt raise more forces, but that would take time. Meanwhile the supplies were running low and there was no fresh ray of hope to brighten the horizon and give assurance and strength to the people of Damascus.
1. Waqidi: p. 28.
A number of questions were raised wherever people assembled. Even if Heraclius raised a fresh column-and this was unlikely in the near future-what assurance did they have that it would achieve better success than the last one? If the Muslims could do what they did to an army of 90,000 men at Ajnadein, what chance did the relatively small force at Damascus have of avoiding a military defeat and the plunder and captivity which would doubtless follow? How much longer would the supplies last? Would it not be better to make peace with, the Muslims on whatever terms were offered, and in this manner avoid total destruction? Spirits fell and discontent rose in Damascus, especially in the non-Roman section of the population. The situation was becoming increasingly more desperate, and the tension increasingly more unbearable.
Then a delegation of prominent citizens approached Thomas. They apprised him of their fears and suggested that he consider the possibility of making peace with Khalid; but Thomas assured them that he had sufficient troops to defend the city, and would soon take the offensive to drive the Muslims away. Special services were held in the churches and prayers offered for deliverance from the peril which threatened the city. Thomas decided to attempt a powerful sally from the fort. He was a brave man, and as long as there was some chance of success, he would not surrender.
The following morning, early in the third week of September 634, Thomas drew men from all sectors of the city and formed a strong force to break out through the Gate of Thomas. His immediate opponent here was Shurahbil with his corps of about 5,000 men. Thomas started the operation with a concentrated shower of arrows and stones against the Muslim archers in order to drive them back and get more room for debouching from the gate. The Muslims answered the Roman salvos with their own volleys of arrows. At the very beginning of this exchange several Muslims were killed, one of whom was Aban bin Saeed bin Al Aas-a man who had only recently got married to an unusually brave woman. As soon as she heard that she had become a widow, she took a bow and joined the Muslim archers, seeking revenge. On the wall of the fort, near the Gate of Thomas, stood a priest with a large cross, the sight of which was intended to give added courage to the Romans. Unfortunately for this priest, the young Muslim widow chose him as her target. The arrow she shot at him drove through the man's breast; and priest and cross came tumbling down to the foot of the wall, to the delight of the Muslims and the dismay of the Romans. However, in this exchange the Romans got the better of the Muslims; and after a while the besiegers were driven back to a line out of range of the Roman archers and slingers.
Next the gate was opened and the Roman foot-soldiers covered by the archers and slingers on the wall, rushed through the gate and fanned out into battle formation. As soon as the deployment was complete, Thomas ordered the attack against the corps of Shurahbil, which had also formed up a few hundred yards from the gate. Thomas himself led the assault, sword in hand, and according to the chronicler, 'roared like a camel!' 1
Very soon there was heavy fighting between the two bodies of men. Shurahbil's corps was outnumbered but held its ground, not yielding an inch, and Roman losses began to mount. Thomas now noticed Shurahbil and guessing that he was the commander of this Muslim force, made for him. Shurahbil saw him coming, and with a blood-covered sword in his hand prepared to meet him. But before Thomas could reach Shurahbil, he was struck in his right eye by an arrow, again fired by the widow, and fell to the ground. He was quickly picked up by his men and carried away, while at the same moment the Romans began to fall back to the fort. Thus, under pressure from swordsmen and under the punishing fire of Muslim archers deployed on the flanks, the Romans returned to the fort, leaving behind a large number of dead, several of whom had fallen to the arrows of the widow of Aban.
Inside the fort the surgeons examined the eye of Thomas. The arrow had not penetrated deep, but they found that it could not be extracted. They therefore cut off the shaft where it entered the eye, and Thomas, instead of being depressed by the loss of his eye and the pain of his wound, showed himself to be a man of extraordinary courage. He swore that he would take a thousand eyes in return; that he would not only defeat these Muslims but would follow them into Arabia, which, after he had finished with it, would be fit only for the habitation of wild beasts. He ordered another great sally to be carried out that night.
1. Waqidi: p. 46.
Meanwhile Shurahbil was not a little worried. He had lost quite a large number of men, killed and wounded, and feared that if another determined sally were made by the Romans, they might succeed in breaking through his corps. He consequently, asked Khalid for reinforcements; but Khalid had no men to spare. He could not weaken the other corps, because the Romans could attack at any gate, and might well choose another gate for their next sally. He instructed Shurahbil to hold on as best he could, and assured him, that Dhiraar with his 2,000 men would get to him in case of heavy pressure. If need be he himself, with his reserve, would come and take over the battle at the Gate of Thomas. Shurahbil prepared for another sally by the Romans, quite determined to hold on to the last man.
For the sally of the night, Thomas again selected the Gate of Thomas as the point of main effort in order to exploit the damage which he had undoubtedly caused to the corps of Shurahbil. But he planned to make sallies from other gates also. The locations of the various Muslim corps and their commanders, were known in detail to the garrison. To keep the Muslim corps at other gates tied down, so that they would not be able to come to the aid of Shurahbil, Thomas ordered sallies form the Jabiya Gate, the Small Gate and the East Gate. For the last he allotted rather more forces than for the others, so that Khalid would be unable to move to Shurahbil's help and take command in that decisive sector. Attacking from several gates also gave more flexibility to the operation. Thus, if success were achieved, in any sector other than the Gate of Thomas, that could be converted into the main sector and the success exploited accordingly.
In his orders Thomas emphasised the need for swift attacks, so that the Muslims would be caught unawares and destroyed in their camps. No quarter would be given. Any Muslim wishing to surrender would be killed on the spot-any, that is, but Khalid, who was to be taken alive. The moon would rise about two hours before midnight. Soon after, on the signal of a gong to be struck on the orders of Thomas, the gates would be flung open and the attacks launched simultaneously.
In the moonlight the Roman attacks began as planned. At the Jabiya Gate there was some hard fighting, and Abu Ubaidah himself entered the fray with drawn sword. The Son of the Surgeon was an accomplished swordsman, and several Romans fell under his blows before the sally was repulsed and the Romans hastened back to the city.
At the Small Gate Yazeed had fewer troops than were positioned at the other gates, and the Romans gained some initial success. But luckily Dhiraar was nearby and joined Yazeed with his 2,000 warriors. Without a moment's delay Dhiraar hurled his men at the enemy, whereupon the Romans reacted as if they had been assailed by demons and hastily withdrew to the fort with Dhiraar close upon their heels.
At the East Gate the situation soon became more serious, for a larger Roman force had been assigned to this sector. From the sounds of battle Khalid was able to judge that the enemy had advanced farther than he should have been allowed to; and fearing the Raafe might not be able to hold the attack, went into battle himself with his reserve of 400 veterans from the Mobile Guard. As he got to the Romans, he gave his personal battle cry: "I am the noble warrior, Khalid bin Al Waleed." This battle cry was by now known to all the Romans, and had the effect of imposing caution upon them. In fact it marked the turning point in the sally at the East Gate. Soon the Romans were in full retreat with the Muslims cutting down the stragglers. Most of this force was able to re?enter the city and close the East Gate behind it.
The heaviest fighting, however, took place at the Gate of Thomas, where Shurahbil's corps, having fought a hard action during the day, had to bear the brunt of the fighting of the night. The moonlight helped visibility as the Romans rushed out of the gate and began to form up for battle. In this process they were subjected to withering fire from Shurahbil's archers, but in spite of some losses, they completed their deployment and advanced to battle. For two hours the fighting continued unabated with Shurahbil's men struggling desperately to hold the Roman attack. And hold it they did.
Shortly after midnight Thomas, who was himself fighting in the front rank, singled out Shurahbil. The Muslim commander could be easily identified by the orders that he was shouting to his warriors. The two commanders paired off and began to duel with sword and shield.
For some time while the rest of the soldiers were locked in wild, frenzied combat, the duel of the two champions continued with no success to either. Then Shurahbil, seeing an opening, struck with all his might at the shoulder of Thomas; but his sword landing on the hard metal shoulder-pad of the Roman's breastplate, broke into pieces. Shurahbil was now at the mercy of Thomas. Luckily for him, at that very moment two Muslims, came up beside him and engaged Thomas. Shurahbil pulled back, picked up the sword of a fallen Muslim and again returned to combat. But Thomas was no longer there.
By now the Romans had had enough of battle. Seeing that there was no weakening in the Muslim front, Thomas decided that to continue the attack would be fruitless and would lead to even heavier casualties among his men. He ordered a withdrawal, and the Romans moved back at a steady pace. The Muslims made no attempt to follow, though their archers did a certain amount of damage. Again the young widow used her bow with deadly effect.
This was the last attempt by Thomas to break the siege. The attempt had failed. He had lost thousands of men in these sallies, and could no longer afford to fight outside the walls of the city. His soldiers shared his disillusionment. They would fight to defend the city, but would not venture to engage the Muslims outside the fort. Thomas now gave more authority to his deputy, Harbees, delegating to him several of the functions of command which hitherto he had himself exercised.
After the failure of the nocturnal sally, the despair of the Damascenes knew no bounds. The dark clouds which threatened the great city had no silver lining. There was widespread grumbling among the people who now wished for nothing but peace; and in this desire they were joined by Thomas, who had fought gallantly in defence of the city and answered the call of honour. He was prepared to make peace and surrender the fort on terms, but was Khalid prepared to make peace? He was known as a man of violence who looked upon battle as a sport; and since he undoubtedly knew the internal conditions prevailing in Damascus, would he accept anything less than an unconditional surrender, by which they would all be placed at his mercy?
By now the Romans had come to know the Muslim generals very well. They knew that Abu Ubaidah was next in command after Khalid, and wished he were the first in command. The Son of the Surgeon was essentially a man of peace-gentle, kind, benevolent-and looked upon war as a sacred duty rather than a source of pleasure and excitement. With him they could make peace, and he would doubtless be generous in his terms. But Abu Ubaidah was not the army commander. For two or three days this dilemma continued; and then the matter was taken out of their hands by Jonah the Lover.
Jonah, son of Marcus, was a Greek who was madly in love with a girl, also Greek. Actually she was his wife. Just before the arrival of the Muslims they had been married, but the ceremony of handing over the bride to the husband had not been completed when the Muslims arrived and laid siege to Damascus. Thereafter Jonah asked her people several times to hand over his bride to him but they refused, saying that they were too busy fighting and that this was a matter of survival; and how could Jonah think of such things at a time like this? Actually Jonah could think of little else!
Just after dusk, on or about September 18, 634 (the 19th of Rajab, 13 Hijri), Jonah lowered himself with the aid of a rope near the East Gate, and approaching the nearest Muslim guard, asked to see Khalid. As soon as he was ushered into the presence of the commander, he narrated his sad story and explained the purpose of his visit. Would Khalid help him get his bride if he gave intelligence which would lead quickly to the capture of Damascus? Khalid would. He then informed Khalid that in the city this night the people were celebrating a festival in consequence of which there was revelry and drunkenness everywhere, and few sentries would be found at the gates. If Khalid could scale the wall, he would have no difficulty in opening any gate he chose and forcing an entry into the city.
Khalid felt that he could trust the man. He appeared sincere in what he said. Khalid offered him Islam, and Jonah accepted it. During the past few years he had heard much about Islam and was favourably inclined. At the hands of Khalid, Jonah now accepted the new faith, whereafter Khalid instructed him to return to the city and wait, which Jonah did.
As soon as the Greek had departed, Khalid ordered the procurement of ropes and the preparation of rope ladders. There was no time to make a co-ordinated plan of attack for the whole army; and so Khalid decided that he would storm the fort by the East Gate, with just the corps of Iraq which was positioned there. The moon would rise at about midnight, and soon after that the assault would begin.
According to Khalid's plan, 100 men would scale the wall at a place near the East Gate, where it was known to be the most impregnable. Here certainly there would be no sentries. At first three men would climb up with ropes. Then rope ladders would be fastened to the ropes and hauled up by the three to be used by the rest of the picked hundred to get to the top. Some men would remain at the top, while others would descend into the fort, kill any guards found at the gate and open the gate. Thereupon the entire corps would rush in and start the attack.
The three leaders who were to scale the wall were Khalid, Qaqa and Maz'ur bin Adi. The ropes were thrown up, lassoing the epaulements on the wall, after which these three indomitable souls climbed up hand by hand. There was no guard at the top. The rope ladders were drawn up, and on these others began to climb in silence. When half the group had arrived at the top, Khalid left a few men to assist the remaining climbers, and with the rest descended into the city. A few Roman soldiers were encountered on the way down and put to the sword. Thereafter the party rushed to the gate, where two sentries stood on guard. Khalid killed one while Qaqa killed the other. But by this time the alarm had been raised and parties of Romans began to converge towards the East Gate. Khalid knew that it was now touch and go.
The rest of the Muslim party hastily took up a position to keep the Romans away while Khalid and Qaqa dealt with the gate, which was locked and chained. A few blows shattered both lock and chain, and the gate was flung open. The next instant the corps of Iraq came pouring in. The Roman soldiers who had converged towards the gate never went back; their corpses littered the road to the centre of the city.
All Damascus was now awake. The Roman soldiers rushed to their assigned positions, as per rehearsed drills, and manned the entire circumference of the fort. Only a small reserve remained in the hands of Thomas as Khalid began his last onslaught to get to the centre of Damascus, killing all who stood in his way-the regiments defending the sector of the East Gate.
It was shortly before dawn, and now Thomas played his last card-brilliantly. He knew that Khalid had secured a firm foothold in the city, and it was only a matter of time before the entire city would lie at his feet. From the absence of activity at the other gates, he guessed that Khalid was attacking alone and that other corps were not taking part in the storming of the fort. He hoped-and this was a long shot-that the other corps commanders, especially Abu Ubaidah, would not know of the break-in by Khalid. Thomas acted fast. He threw in his last reserve against Khalid to delay his advance for as long as possible, and at the same time sent envoys to the Jabiya Gate to talk with Abu Ubaidah and offer to surrender the fort peacefully and to pay the Jizya.
Abu Ubaidah received these envoys with courtesy and heard their offer of surrender. He believed that they had come to him because they were afraid to face Khalid. At the distance at which he was placed from the East Gate, if he heard sounds of battle at all, he must have assumed that it was a sally by the Romans; for it could not have occurred to him that Khalid would scale the wall with ropes. Abu Ubaidah had no doubt in his mind that Khalid also would agree to peace to put an end to the bloodshed and ensure a quick occupation of Damascus. Consequently he took upon himself the responsibility of the decision and accepted the terms of surrender. Damascus would be entered peacefully; there would be no bloodshed, no plunder, no enslavement and no destruction of temples; the inhabitants would pay the Jizya; the garrison and any local inhabitants who wished to do so would be free to depart from the city with all their goods. After this the Roman envoys went to the corps commanders at the other gates and informed then that a peace had been arranged with the Muslim commander and that the gates would be opened shortly, through which the Muslims could enter in peace. There would be no resistance.
Soon after dawn Abu Ubaidah, followed by his officers and the rest of his corps, entered Damascus in peace from the Jabiya Gate, and marched towards the centre of the city. He was accompanied by Thomas and Harbees and several dignitaries and bishops of Damascus. Now Abu Ubaidah, walking like an angel of peace, and Khalid advancing like a tornado, arrived simultaneously at the centre of Damascus, at the Church of Mary. Khalid had just broken through the last Roman resistance. The other corps commanders had also entered the city and were moving peacefully towards the centre.
Abu Ubaidah and Khalid stared at each other in amazement. Abu Ubaidah noted that Khalid and his men held dripping swords in their hands, and he guessed that something had happened of which he was not aware. Khalid noticed the peaceful air surrounding Abu Ubaidah and his officers, whose swords were in their sheaths and who were accompanied by Roman nobles and bishops.
For some time there was no movement. Then Abu Ubaidah broke the tense silence. "O Father of Sulaiman," he said, "Allah has given us this city in peace at my hand, and made it unnecessary for the Muslims to fight for it."
"What peace!" Khalid bristled. "I have captured the city by force. Our swords are red with their blood, and we have taken spoils and slaves."
It was clear that there was now going to be a terrible row between these two generals, which could have serious consequences. Khalid was the commander and had to be obeyed; what is more, he was not a man who would take any nonsense from his subordinates. Furthermore, his towering personality and his unquestioned judgement in military matters made him difficult to argue with, especially on this occasion, when he was determined to regard the conquest of Damascus as a consequence of the use of force and not of peaceful negotiation. Abu Ubaidah, on the other hand, had none of the military stature or operational genius of Khalid, and would be the last person to assert otherwise. But as a Muslim he was in the topmost class, one of the Blessed Ten, the Trusted One of the Nation. He was the Al Asram, the One without the Incisors-and no one could forget how he had lost his front teeth.
Abu Ubaidah was wrong in making peace without Khalid's knowledge and permission, but he was determined to see that the word of a Muslim was honoured and unnecessary bloodshed avoided. He respected Khalid's leadership and knew that he would have to be handled with great care. Abu Ubaidah was in fact the only man in Syria with high enough standing to question any decision of Khalid. Even Khalid would not raise his voice when speaking to Abu Ubaidah, no matter how great his anger. What made the situation less dangerous was the fact that these two men held each other in genuine affection and respect for the various qualities which made them great. Abu Ubaidah also knew that he could silence Khalid with a few words, for he was armed with an authority of which Khalid was unaware. But he decided not to use this authority except as a last resort, when all manner of persuasion had failed. In this he was being kind to Khalid, but more of that later.
"O Commander," said Abu Ubaidah, "know that I have entered the city peacefully."
Khalid's eyes flashed with anger, but he restrained himself; in a voice which was not without respect, he replied, "You continue to be heedless. How can they have peace from you when I have entered the city by force and their resistance is broken?"
"Fear Allah, O Commander! I have given them a guarantee of peace, and the matter is settled."
"You have no authority to give them peace without my orders. I am commander over you. I shall not sheathe my sword until I have destroyed them to the last man."
"I never believed," pleaded Abu Ubaidah, "that you would oppose me when I gave a guarantee of peace for every single one of them. I have given them peace in the name of Allah, exalted be He, and of the Prophet, on whom be the blessings of Allah and peace. The Muslims who were with me agreed to this peace, and the breaking of pacts is not one of our traits."
At this stage some of Khalid's soldiers, tiring of listening to the argument and seeing some Romans standing on one side, began to wave their swords and moved towards the Romans to kill them. Abu Ubaidah saw this movement and rushing past Khalid, ordered the men to desist until the discussion between him and Khalid was over. The men obeyed. Only Abu Ubaidah could have done this; and Khalid could do nothing but try and control his rising anger.
Now the other three corps commanders got together and began to discuss the situation. After a few minutes they reached agreement among themselves and conveyed their opinion, to Khalid: Let there be peace, 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.
The emotions of Khalid never interfered with his reason; and the reason of Khalid saw the military wisdom of the advice tendered by the generals. For a moment he glared at Thomas and Harbees. Then he said, "Alright, I agree to peace, except for these two accursed ones."
"These two were the first to enter my peace," Abu Ubaidah said to Khalid. "My word must not be broken. May Allah have mercy upon you!"
Khalid gave up. "By Allah!" he exclaimed, "but for your word I would certainly have killed them. Let them get out of the city, both of them, and may Allah's curse follow them wherever they go!"
Thomas and Harbees were nervously watching the altercation between the two Muslim generals while interpreters were translating their statements. Thus they understood all and breathed a sigh of relief as they came to know of the conclusion of the dialogue. They now moved to Abu Ubaidah with an interpreter and asked for permission to depart on any route they chose.
"Yes," said Abu Ubaidah. "You may go on any route you choose. But if we conquer any place at which you are residing, you will not then be under a guarantee of peace."
Thomas, fearing a pursuit by Khalid, then requested, "Give us three days of peace; then the truce would be ended. Thereafter if you catch up with us, do as you will-kill us or enslave us."
Here Khalid entered the talks. "Agreed, except that you may take nothing with you but food for the journey."
"This again would amount to a breaking of the pact," objected Abu Ubaidah. "My pact with them allows them to take all their belongings."
"Even to this I agree," said Khalid, "but no weapons."
Now Thomas protested: "We must have some weapons for our defence against other enemies than you. Otherwise we stay here; and you can do with us as you please." Thomas understood very well how important it was for these Muslims to honour their pacts, and was exploiting this sense of honour.
Khalid went so far as to agree that every man could take one weapon with him, either a sword or a lance or a bow. The last of the problems was thus settled. 1
Immediately after this, and it was now shortly after sunrise, a pact was drawn up and signed by Khalid. It read as follows -
"In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful. This is given by Khalid bin Al Waleed to the people of Damascus. When the Muslims enter, they (the people) shall have safety for themselves, their property, their temples and the walls of their city, of which nothing shall be destroyed. They have this guarantee on behalf of Allah, the Messenger of Allah, on whom be the blessings of Allah and peace, the Caliph and the Faithful, from whom they shall receive nothing but good so long as they pay the Jizya." 2
1. This dialogue between Khalid and Abu Ubaidah is taken from Waqidi: pp. 51-52.
2. Balazuri: p. 128.
The rate of Jizya was fixed at one dinar per man and a certain amount of food to be provided to the Muslims, the scale of which was also laid down.
Damascus had been taken. The greatest prize in Syria, with the exception of Antioch, was now in Muslim hands; but those who had conquered the city looked upon their victory with mixed feelings.
The Muslims had fought hard for this prize. While their casualties were much lower than those of the Romans, they had nevertheless paid a heavy prize for the conquest. They had struggled heroically for a month and given their blood and sweat for this victory. They had taken the city by the sword-especially the corps of Iraq, which had stormed it on the last night and crushed all resistance. But the fruits of their labour had been snatched away by the clever diplomacy of Thomas and the simple generosity and large-heartedness of Abu Ubaidah. The Son of the Surgeon had no business to do this; but he was, after all the Trusted One of the Nation, and not a word of censure was raised against him.
The Muslims gathered in groups to see the Roman convoy march out of the city. The convoy consisted of the garrison and thousands of civilians who preferred not to remain under Muslim rule and moved out of Damascus with their wives and children. Thomas's wife, the daughter of Heraclius, travelled with her husband. With the convoy went hundreds of carriages and wagons carrying all the belongings of the travellers and the merchandise of the city, including 300 bales of the finest brocade belonging to Heraclius. Some Muslims looked in anger, others in sorrow, as they saw Damascus drained of all its wealth. It was a bitter moment for the victors of Damascus.
Khalid stood with some of his officers and men, gazing at the saddening sight. It appeared that the Romans were leaving nothing of value in Damascus. There was pain in the heart of Khalid. He was the commander of the army; he had conquered Damascus by the sword; he had stormed the fort. And Abu Ubaidah had done this!
He looked at the others and saw faces red with anger. All this should have been theirs by right of conquest. All along the route stood groups of Muslims watching in silence. They could easily have pounced upon the convoy and taken what they wished, but such was the discipline of this army, and such its respect for the moral obligation of the given word, that not a single soldier stirred to interfere with the movement of the convoy.
Khalid fought to control his rage. Then he raised his arms, to heaven, and in an anguished voice prayed aloud: "O Allah! Give all this to us as sustenance for the Muslims!" 1 But it was hopeless. Or was it?
Khalid heard a respectful cough behind him, and turned to see Jonah the Lover, still as sad as he had looked the night before in Khalid's tent. Jonah, meeting his bride after the surrender, had asked her to come away with him, and at first she was willing enough. But when he had told her that he was now a friend of the Muslims and had accepted their faith, she recoiled from him and swore that she would have nothing more to do with him. She decided to leave Damascus, and was even now travelling in the convoy of Thomas. Jonah, still the distracted lover maddened by his passion for the girl, had come to seek Khalid's help.
Could not the Muslims take the girl by force and deliver her to him? No, they could not. She was covered by the guarantee of safety and could not be touched.
Could the Muslims not pursue and attack the convoy? No, they could not. The guarantee of safety for the convoy would last three days, and during that period no pursuit could be undertaken.
After three days then? It was no use. Going at the terrified pace which it had adopted, the convoy would be so far away after three days that the Muslims would never catch up with it.
1. Waqidi: p. 52.
Oh yes, they could. He, Jonah, knew several short cuts which fast-moving horseman could use to overtake the convoy, while the convoy itself was bound to the roads and could not shorten its route. Still no use. Several Syrian forts-Emessa, Baalbeek, Tripolis-were close enough to reach in three or four days, and the convoy would be safely within the walls of any of these before the Muslims could catch up with it.
Oh no, it would not. The convoy was not going to any of these places. He, Jonah, knew that the convoy was making for Antioch and would take many days to get there. He, Jonah, would be the guide of the Muslims. All he wanted in return was the girl!
Khalid's eyes brightened. The possibilities which the proposal of Jonah opened up were like water to the thirsty. He beckoned to a few of his officers-Dhiraar, Raafe, Abdur-Rahman bin Abi Bakr. They would launch a pursuit after three days! Plans were formulated, orders issued, preparations made. When the three days' grace period was over, the Mobile Guard would dash out in pursuit and go at breakneck speed. On Jonah's suggestion it was decided that all would be dressed like local Arabs, so that any Roman units encountered on the way would mistake them for such and not intercept their movement. Hope stirred in the hearts of the Faithful!
On the morning of the fourth day, shortly after sunrise, at the exact time when the period of grace ended, the Mobile Guard galloped away from Damascus with Khalid and Jonah in the lead. Abu Ubaidah was left as commander at Damascus.
The route taken by the Mobile Guard is not recorded. It is stated by Waqidi that the Muslims caught up with the convoy a short distance from Antioch, not far from the sea, on a plateau beyond a range of hills called Al Abrash by the Arabs and Barda by the Romans. 1 Here there had been a heavy downpour, and the convoy had dispersed on the plateau, seeking shelter from the inclement weather, while the goods lay all over the place. The Romans had not the least suspicion of the thunderbolt that was about to strike them. So many bundles of brocade lay scattered on the ground that this plain became known as Marj-ud-Deebaj, i.e. the Meadow of Brocade, and for this reason the action described has been named the Battle of the Meadow of Brocade.
The weather had now cleared. Jonah and other scouts established the location of the convoy without being spotted, and brought sufficient intelligence for Khalid to plan his attack. He took a few hours to give his orders and position the Mobile Guard for its task. Khalid, the master of movement and surprise, here again showed his superb skill in the application of these military principles.
The Romans received their first indication of the presence of the Muslims when about a regiment of cavalry came charging at them from the south, along the road from Damascus, led by the half-naked Dhiraar. The Romans were surprised that Dhiraar had caught up with them, but seeing that he had only a small force, they decided to make mincemeat of him and then rest again. They formed up to meet the Muslim charge, and began to fight like the brave Romans that they were.
Half an hour later another body of Muslim cavalry, 1,000 horse led by Raafe, appeared from the east; and the Romans now realised the mistake that they had made in believing that only a regiment had caught up with them. The Muslims no doubt had two regiments. The first was a feint to draw the attention of the Romans, while the second delivered the main blow from a flank. But it did not matter; they would make mincemeat of two regiments instead of one. The Romans re-formed and received the charge of Raafe also.
Half an hour later, when another regiment of cavalry made its appearance from the north, i.e. from the direction of Antioch, under the command of Abdur-Rahman, the Romans were seriously alarmed. This was more dangerous than they had imagined. They were cut off from Antioch, and would have to deal quickly with these three regiments in order to break out to the north or retreat to the west, the latter being the only way left open to them. The Romans again re-formed though their spirits now were not so high. The Muslim regiments struck at the massed Romans with sword and lance and played havoc; but the Romans were able to hold their position, and the fighting proceeded fiercely for another hour.
1. This range was probably what is now known as Jabal Ansariya, the northern end of which stretches to the south of Antioch. Travelling across this range from Aleppo to Latakia one sees many stretches of level ground on the higher parts of the range.
Then from the west appeared a fourth Muslim regiment which charged at a gallop at the Roman mass. From the battle cry of its leader, the Romans knew who was the commander of this last group:
I am the noble warrior,
Khalid bin Al Waleed!
There was much slaughter-in the usual manner of Khalid. Khalid himself killed Thomas and Harbees in single combat, and at one time got so deep into the Roman army that he was separated from his comrades and surrounded by his enemies. He would not have come out alive but for Abdur-Rahman, who broke through with a party of horsemen and rescued him.
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. Jonah found his beloved. He moved towards her to take her by force; but she saw him coming, and drawing a dagger from the folds of her dress, plunged it into her breast. As she lay dying, Jonah sat beside her with silent tears running down his cheeks. He swore that he would remain true to the memory of the bride he was not destined to possess, and would not look at another girl.
When Khalid came to know of the loss suffered by Jonah, he sent for him and offered him another young woman who stood nearby-one who was both beautiful and rich, judging by the clothes and the jewellery which she wore. His first look at the young woman left Jonah dumbfounded. When he found his speech again, he informed Khalid that this woman was none other than the daughter of Heraclius, widow of Thomas. He could not possibly take her, for soon Heraclius would send either an army to get her back by force or envoys to arrange for her ransom.
The Muslims now marched back with spoils and captives enough to delight any conquering army. Their return route also is not recorded, but there was no mishap on the journey. When a day's march from Damascus, they saw a small cloud of dust approaching along the road from Antioch. As this cloud got nearer, it revealed a small party of riders, obviously not intending battle, since they were too few for such a purpose. From this party a Roman noble rode forth and approached Khalid. "I am the ambassador of Heraclius", he said. "He says to you, 'I have come to know what you have done to my army. You have killed my son-in-law and captured my daughter. You have won and got away safely. I now ask you for my daughter. Either return her to me on payment of ransom or give her to me as a gift, for honour is a strong element in your character'. This is what Heraclius says."
Honour was indeed a strong element in the make-up of Khalid. So was gallantry and so was generosity. Throughout his fife he had been generous in giving-a generosity which later would get him into serious trouble. Now he decided to be generous to Emperor of Roman. "Take her as a gift", he said grandly. "There shall be no, ransom." The ambassador took the daughter of Heraclius, and with profuse thanks, returned to Antioch.
Jonah remained inconsolable. Nothing would cheer him up. Khalid offered him a large reward from his own share of the spoils, with which he could procure another wife, by purchase if necessary; but Jonah declined. He would remain true to his promise of celibacy. He also remained true to his new faith and fought under the banner of Islam for two years until the Battle of Yarmuk, where he fell a martyr.
The return of the Mobile Guard loaded with spoils was greeted with joy by the Muslims at Damascus. The Sword of Allah had done it again! The force had been absent for about 10 days, and the Muslims had been seriously perturbed; but now all was well. Khalid at once sent off a letter to Madinah, addressed to Abu Bakr, informing him of the conquest of Damascus and how Abu Ubaidah had been 'deceived by the Romans'; of his pursuit of the Roman convoy, the killing of Thomas and Harbees, the capture of the spoils and captives; of the daughter of
Heraclius and her release. This letter was written on October 1, 634 (the 2nd of Shaban, 13 Hijri). 2
The messenger carrying this letter had not gone many hours when Abu Ubaidah called Khalid aside and told him that Abu Bakr was dead and Umar was now Caliph. He held out a letter which the new Caliph had written him (i.e. Abu Ubaidah). Hesitantly Khalid took the letter and began to read. The most important line seemed to stand out mockingly: "I appoint you commander of the army of Khalid bin Al Waleed..."
Khalid looked up from the letter ...
1. Waqidi: p. 58.
2. For an explanation of the dates of the siege and conquest of Damascus, see Note 11 in Appendix B.