Chapter 32: The Battle of Fahl
"The plotting of Evil surrounds only its own plotters."
More will be said in a later chapter about the character and abilities of Heraclius and the strategy he used for his attempt to crush the Muslim invaders of his Empire. Here it may just be noted that as an enemy, Heraclius was a man to be reckoned with-not one to give up the struggle while the least hope remained. His next move after the affair of Abul Quds was to put another army in the field, consisting of fresh contingents from Northern Syria, the Jazeera and Europe. This army included the survivors of the Meadow of Brocade. Part of the army gathered at Antioch, while part landed by sea at the Mediterranean ports in Syria and Palestine.
The concentration of this army at Baisan, west of the Jordan River, began in late December 634 (early Dhul Qad, 13 Hijri). From here the army would strike eastwards and cut Muslim communications with Arabia. According to this plan-which was typical of Heraclius-he would avoid a head-on clash with the Muslims at Damascus, put them in a position of strategical disadvantage, and force them to evacuate Damascus. Fahl, just east of the Jordan River, was already occupied by a Roman garrison of moderate size which was engaged by a Muslim cavalry detachment under Abul A'war.
The Muslims received intelligence of the movement of Roman contingents from local agents; and before the concentration of the Romans at Baisan was complete, they knew that the strength of this new army would be about 80,000 men, and that its commanders was Saqalar, son of Mikhraq. It was evident that this force would move eastwards and place itself astride the Muslim lines of communication. A council of war was held by Abu Ubaidah, and it was decided that the Muslims should move and crush this new Roman army, leaving behind a strong garrison to hold Damascus against any threat from the north and west. By now the Muslims had fully rested after their heroic labours. Soon after Abul Quds, more reinforcements had been received from Arabia, while a large number of those who had been wounded in earlier battles had rejoined the Muslim ranks as fit soldiers. This raised the strength of the army to something like 30,000 men, organised in five corps of varying strength.
Now the command arrangement made by Abu Bakr and confirmed by Umar came into effect in a rather unusual way. Yazeed was the commander and governor of the Damascus region, and was consequently left in Damascus with his corps. Shurahbil was the commander appointed for the district of Jordan in which lay Baisan and Fahl. Hence Abu Ubaidah, carrying out the Caliph's instructions to the letter-farther than was probably intended-handed over the command of the army to Shurahbil for the forthcoming operation. In about the second week of January 635, the Muslim army, leaving behind the corps of Yazeed, marched from Damascus under the command of Shurahbil, with Khalid and the corps of Iraq forming the advance guard. In the middle of January the Muslims arrived at Fahl to find the Roman garrison gone, Abul A'war in occupation of the town, and what looked like a marsh stretching on both sides of the Jordan River. 1
As soon as the Roman garrison of Fahl had heard of the advance of the Muslim army from Damascus, it had left the place in haste, and withdrawing across the river, joined the main body of the Roman army at Baisan. Immediately after, the Romans, not wishing to be disturbed at Baisan before their preparations were complete, dammed the river a few miles south of the Baisan-Fahl line and flooded the low-lying belt which stretched along both banks of the river. The flooded area was determined by the contour line and in places was up to a mile from the river. There were some routes across this inundated area, but they were known only to the Romans. The Muslims knew the desert; they had come to know the hills; but this belt of water and mud which stretched along their front was a new experience and left them nonplussed. However, they decided to attempt a crossing.
1. Fahl is below sea level, and from the town the hillside slopes even further down to the bed of the Jordan Valley. In this area the Jordan River is about 900 feet below sea level.
Shurahbil deployed the army at the foot of the slope below Fahl, facing north-west, with Abu Ubaidah and Amr bin Al Aas commanding the wings. Dhiraar was appointed commander of the Muslim cavalry, while Khalid with his corps was placed in front to lead the advance to Baisan. In this formation the Muslims advanced. But they had not gone far when the Advance Guard got stuck in the mud and had considerable difficulty in extricating itself. Cursing the Romans for this stratagem, the Muslims returned to Fahl and waited. Thus a whole week passed.
Now Saqalar, the Roman commander, decided that the time had come to strike. His preparations were complete and he hoped to catch the Muslims off guard since the marsh would give them, he hoped, a false sense of security. His guides would lead the army through the marsh which the Muslims regarded as impassable. Soon after sunset on January 23, 635 (the 27th of Dhul Qad, 13 Hijri), the Roman army formed up west of the river and began its advance towards Fahl, intending to surprise the Muslims in their camps at night.
But the Muslims had not relaxed their guard. Shurahbil was a watchful general and had deployed the Muslim camp to correspond to the battle positions of the corps, and kept a large portion of each corps in its battle positions during the night. He had also placed a screen of scouts along the marsh to watch and report any movement by the Romans towards Fahl. Thus, as the Romans neared Fahl, they found an army, not resting in its camp, but formed up in battle array. Immediately on contact the battle began.
The two armies fought all night and the whole of the next day-January 24, 635. The Muslim army remained on the defensive and beat off all attempts by the Romans to break through, during one of which Saqalar was killed. By the time darkness had set in again, the Romans decided that they had had enough. They had suffered heavily at the hands of the Muslims, who had stood like a wall of steel in their path; and this wall had not been breached at a single place. Under cover of darkness the Romans disengaged and began to withdraw across the marsh towards Baisan.
This was the moment that Shurahbil was waiting for. He had fought the Romans until they were exhausted, and suffering from the adverse psychological impact of repeated repulses, had started to withdraw. Now was the time to launch the counterstroke. Shurahbil ordered the advance; and in the darkness, the desert-dwellers leapt upon the backs of the Romans!
This time the Roman 'traffic control plan' failed. Thousands of them were lost in the marsh, and as the screaming masses of the Muslims came after them, they gave way to panic and lost all order and cohesion. The Muslims set to with gusto to finish this army and played havoc with their terrified enemy. About 10,000 Romans perished in the Battle of Fahl, which is also known in Muslim history as the Battle of Mud. 1 Some of the Romans arrived safely at Baisan while others, fleeing for their lives in total disorder, dispersed in all directions.
With the defeat of this Roman army, the Muslim army also broke up. Abu Ubaidah and Khalid remained at Fahl, whence they would shortly set out for Damascus and Northern Syria. Shurahbil, with Amr bin Al Aas under command, crossed the marsh and the river, routes through which had now been found, and laid siege to Baisan. After a few days the Romans in the fort made a sally but were slaughtered by Shurahbil. Soon after this sally Baisan surrendered and agreed to pay the Jizya and certain taxes. Shurahbil then went on to Tabariya, which also surrendered on similar terms. This last action was over before the end of February 635 (Dhul Haj, 13 Hijri). There was now no opposition left in the inland part of the District of Jordan.
With the beginning of the fourteenth year of the Hijra, Amr bin Al Aas and Shurahbil turned their attention to Palestine. Here again a change of command took place. Palestine was the province of Amr, and consequently he assumed command of the army, while Shurahbil served under him as a corps commander. But it was some time before this small army of two corps entered Palestine.
1. Most early historians have said that the bulk of the Roman army was destroyed in this battle. Balazuri, however, has placed Roman losses at 10,000 (p. 122); and this is here accepted as the most conservative estimate.
While still in Jordan, Amr had written to the Caliph and given him the latest intelligence about Roman dispositions and strengths in Palestine. The strongest Roman force was at Ajnadein. Umar gave detailed instructions to Amr about the objectives which he was to take, and also wrote to Yazeed to capture the Mediterranean coast. In pursuance of these instructions the Muslim army, excluding the corps of Abu Ubaidah and Khalid, operated against the Romans in Palestine and on the coast as far north as Beirut. The corps of Amr and Shurahbil marched to Ajnadein, and with Amr as army commander, fought and defeated a Roman army in the second Battle of Ajnadein. Thereafter the corps separated. Amr went on to capture Nablus, Amawas, Gaza and Yubna, thus occupying all Palestine, while Shurahbil thrust against the coastal towns of Acre and Tyre, which capitulated to him. Yazeed, with his brother Muawiyah playing an important role under him, advanced from Damascus and captured the ports of Sidon, Arqa, Jabail and Beirut.
The place which took the longest to capture was Caesarea. Umar had given this as an objective to Yazeed; and he and Muawiyah laid siege to it, but Caesarea, reinforced and supplied by the Romans by sea, could not be captured in spite of their best efforts. The siege was raised when the Muslims had to regroup for the Battle of Yarmuk, but was resumed after that battle and continued until the port fell in 640 (19 Hijri).
By the end of 14 Hijri (roughly 635 A.D.), Palestine, Jordan and Southern Syria, with the exception of Jerusalem and Caesarea, were in Muslims hands.