Chapter 33: The Conquest of Emessa
"It is said that the Companions said a takbir (Allahu Akbar - Allah is the Greatest!) one day during the siege of Homs (Emessa), by which the town shook, such that some of its walls split asunder. Then they said another takbir, upon which some houses collapsed. Hence the public went to their leaders and said, "Do you not see what has befallen us, the situation in which we are? Will you not make peace with them for us?" So they made peace with them upon terms similar to those of Damascus …"1
In early March 635 (early Muharram, 14 Hijri), Abu Ubaidah and Khalid set off from Fahl to carry the war to the north. They had waited at Fahl while Shurahbil was dealing with Baisan and Tabariya, in case a large scale battle should develop necessitating their participation. Once Tabariya was taken, the possibility of such a battle in Jordan vanished and they were free to depart.
A few miles west and south west of Damascus stretched a grassy plain known in Muslim history as Marj-ur-Rum, i.e. the Meadow of Rome, and towards this plain Abu Ubaidah and Khalid moved with the intention of bypassing Damascus and continuing the advance to Emessa. Yazeed was still in peaceful occupation of Damascus and would remain there a few months yet, before receiving orders from Umar to operate against the Mediterranean coast. At Marj-ur-Rum, Abu Ubaidah again made contact with sizable Roman forces.
On hearing of the Muslim operations at Baisan and Tabariya, Heraclius surmised that the Muslims had chosen Jordan and Palestine as their next strategic objectives and were not interested in Northern Syria. He also heard that only a weak corps of the Muslim army remained at Damascus, and this corps was showing no sign of aggressive intent. He therefore determined to retake Damascus rapidly. With this object in view he sent a Roman force under a general named Theodorus to fight and defeat the Muslim garrison in Damascus and re-occupy the city. This force set off from Antioch, and moving via Beirut, approached Damascus from the west. This movement, however, had hardly begun when Heraclius was informed that Abu Ubaidah and Khalid had left Fahl and were moving north again. They would arrive at Damascus at about the same time as Theodorus, and the Romans would then not have a chance to retake the city. To strengthen the Roman force, Heraclius ordered the detachment of a part of the large garrison of Emessa to reinforce Theodorus. This detachment, under the command of Shans, marched from Emessa on the direct route to Damascus.
The Muslims arrived at Marj-ur-Rum to find Theodorus waiting for them. On the same day Shans also arrived from Emessa and the two armies deployed in battle formation facing each other. In this deployment Abu Ubaidah stood opposite Shans while Khalid stood opposite Theodorus. The strength of the Roman forces here is not known, but it may be assumed that it amounted roughly to two strong corps. It could not have been much less otherwise it is doubtful if the Romans would have accepted battle with the two Muslim corps facing them. For the rest of the day the two armies remained in their battle positions, each waiting for the other to make the first move.
As night fell, Theodorus decided to carry out a skilful strategical manoeuvre. Leaving Shans to face the Muslims, he pulled back his corps under cover of darkness, moved it round the flank of Khalid and by dawn on the next day arrived Damascus. His intention was to keep the main Muslim army busy at Marj-ur-Rum with the corps of Shans, while with his own corps he quickly destroyed the Muslim garrison of Damascus. It was a very clever plan, and the movement was carried out with such perfect organization that it was not until the latter part of the night that the Muslims came to know that half the Roman army facing them was no longer there.
At Damascus, Yazeed's scouts brought word at dawn of the coming of the Romans. On receiving this news, Yazeed immediately deployed his small corps outside the fort facing south-west. Feeling more at home in the open and unused to being besieged in a fort, the Muslims preferred to fight in the plain rather than in the city. Just after sunrise began the battle between Theodorus and Yazeed and soon the Muslims found themselves hard pressed, for the Roman force vastly outnumbered them. But they held their own till about mid-morning. Then, just as the situation had become desperate for Yazeed, the Romans were struck in the rear by a furious mass of Muslim horsemen. This was the corps of Iraq, spearheaded by the Mobile Guard. In a very short time Khalid and his fearless veterans, attacking from the rear, had chopped the Roman corps to pieces. Few Romans escaped the slaughter, and Khalid killed Theodorus in a duel. A large amount of booty, mainly weapons and armour, fell into Muslim hands and was shared by the warriors of Khalid and Yazeed, except for the usual one-fifth reserved for Madinah.
1. Ibn Kathir, Al-Bidayah wan-Nihayah, Dar Abi Hayyan, Cairo, 1st ed. 1416/1996, Vol. 7 P. 65.
Late in the preceding night, when he discovered that half the Roman army had left Marj-ur-Rum, Khalid had correctly guessed that it had gone to Damascus to fight Yazeed. Fearing that Yazeed might not be able to hold out for long, he proposed to Abu Ubaidah that he take his corps to Damascus to help Yazeed while Abu Ubaidah dealt with the remaining Romans under Shans. Abu Ubaidah agreed and early in the morning, Khalid left Marj-ur-Rum to save Damascus, as has just been described. While Khalid was liquidating the corps of Theodorus, Abu Ubaidah attacked the Romans on the Meadow of Rome. Abu Ubaidah killed Shans in a duel, and the plain was littered with Roman dead, but the bulk of the Roman corps got away and withdrew in haste to Emessa.
This action was fought some time in March 635 (Muharram 14 Hijri), and is known as the Battle of Marj-ur-Rum.
Some time was spent at Marj-ur-Rum and Damascus, dealing with the captives and spoils of war and making arrangements for the wounded Muslims. Once these matters had been attended to, Abu Ubaidah sent Khalid with his corps on the direct route to Emessa, while he himself advanced to Baalbeck. The garrison of Baalbeck surrendered peacefully, and Abu Ubaidah proceeded to Emessa to join Khalid, who had laid siege to the fort. 1
Within a few days of the commencement of the siege a truce was agreed upon. Emessa would pay 10,000 dinars and deliver 100 robes of brocade, and in return the Muslims would not attack Emessa for one year. If, however, any Roman reinforcements arrived to strengthen Emessa, the truce would become invalid. The gates of Emessa were opened as soon as the truce was signed, and thereafter there was free movement of Muslims in and out of the market of Emessa, the inhabitants of which were pleasantly surprised to find that the Muslims paid for whatever they took!
The people of Qinassareen (the ancient Calchis) now heard of the peaceful way in which the citizens of Emessa had avoided battle with the Muslims, and decided to do the same. A truce was not as dishonourable as a surrender and was a convenient way of postponing a difficult decision. Consequently an envoy was sent to Emessa by the governor of Qinassareen, who made a similar truce with Abu Ubaidah for one year. But both governors, of Emessa and Qinassareen, made the truce for reasons of expediency. Both hoped that their garrisons would before long be reinforced by Heraclius, and as soon as that happened they would resume hostilities against the Muslims. The common man in the region, however, was completely won over by the kindness and fair dealing of the Muslims and the absence in them of the arrogance and cruelty which had characterised Roman rule over Syria.
Having temporarily solved the problems of Emessa and Qinassareen, Abu Ubaidah despatched the bulk of his army, in groups, to raid Northern Syria. Muslim columns travelled as far north as Aleppo, and leaving the District of Qinassareen unmolested, raided any locality through which they passed and brought in captives and booty to the Muslim camp near Emessa. Thousands of these captives, however, begged for their freedom and all who agreed to pay the Jizya and pledge loyalty to the Muslims were freed, with their families and goods, and allowed to return to their homes with a guarantee of safety from Muslim raiding columns.
This went on for some months and most of the summer was spent in this manner. Meanwhile Umar was getting impatient at Madinah. The campaign was progressing satisfactorily in Palestine, but in Northern Syria, i.e. in Abu Ubaidah's sector, there seemed to be a lull. Consequently, some time in the autumn of 635, Umar wrote a letter to Abu Ubaidah in which he hinted that the general should get on with the conquest of Syria. On receipt of this letter Abu Ubaidah held a council of war, at which it was agreed that the Muslim army should proceed north and conquer more territory. Emessa and Qinassareen could not be touched as they were secure under the terms of the truce; but for other places there was no such truce, and they could be attacked and taken.
1. There are other versions of how Baalbeck was taken, including Waqidi's, according to which a great battle was fought by Abu Ubaidah before Baalbeck surrendered to the Muslims. Other historians, however, have said that Baalbeck surrendered peacefully, and I too feel that this is, what happened.
About early November 635 (middle of Ramazan, 14 Hijri), the Muslim army marched from Emessa to Hama, where the citizens came out of their city to welcome the Muslims. The city surrendered willingly, and the army marched on. One by one the cities of Shaizar, Afamiya (known today as Qalatul-Muzeeq) and Ma'arra Hims (now Ma'arrat-un-Numan) surrendered in peace to the Muslims and agreed to pay the Jizya. (See Map 28). At some places the Muslims were received by musicians playing instruments as a sign of welcome. In these areas now, for the first time in Syria, large-scale conversions took place among the local inhabitants. The personality of the gentle, benevolent Abu Ubaidah played an important part in these conversions to Islam.
It was while the Muslims were at Shaizer that they heard of reinforcements moving to Qinassareen and Emessa. The truce was thus violated by the Romans. The arrival of these reinforcements put fresh courage in the hearts of the Romans at Emessa and Qinassareen, and the arrival of winter gave them a further assurance of success. In their forts they would be better protected from the cold than the Muslim Arabs, who were not used to intense cold, and with only their tents to give them shelter would suffer severely from the Syrian winter. In fact Heraclius wrote to Harbees, the military governor of Emessa: "The food of these people is the flesh of the camel and their drink its milk. They cannot stand the cold. Fight them on every cold day so that none of them is left till the spring." 1
Abu Ubaidah decided to take Emessa first, and thus clear his rear of the enemy before undertaking more serious operations in Northern Syria. Consequently the Muslims marched to Emessa with Khalid and the corps of Iraq in the lead. On arrival at the city Khalid found a strong Roman force deployed across his path, but with a quick, violent attack his corps drove it back into the fort. These Romans had followed Heraclius' instructions to "fight them on every cold day", but after their experience in this first clash with Khalid, they decided to let winter do the job! As the Romans withdrew into the fort and closed the gates, Abu Ubaidah arrived with the rest of the army and deployed it in four groups opposite the four gates of Emessa.
Emessa was a circular fortified city with a diameter of rather less than a mile, and it was surrounded by a moat. There was also a citadel atop a hillock inside the fort. Outside the city stretched a fertile plain, broken only on the west by the River Orontes (now Asi).
Abu Ubaidah himself, together with Khalid and his Mobile Guard, camped on the north side, a short distance from the Rastan Gate. 2 The Muslim strength at Emessa was about 15,000 men against which the Roman garrison consisted of something like 8,000 soldiers. Abu Ubaidah left the conduct of the siege in the hands of Khalid, who thus acted as the virtual commander of the Muslims for this operation. It was now late November or early December (about the middle of Shawal), and the winter descended like a heavy blanket over Emessa.
For more than two months the siege continued with unbroken monotony. Every day there would be an exchange of archery, but no major action took place which could lead to a decision either way. The Romans gloated over the exposed situation of the Muslims, and felt confident that the cold itself would be sufficient to destroy the desert-dwellers or drive them away to warmer climes. The Muslims undoubtedly suffered from the cold but not as severely as the Romans imagined. There was no slackening in their guard and no weakening in their resolve to take Emessa, no matter how long they had to wait.
1. Tabari: Vol. 3, pp. 96-97.
2. The only gate which still exists is the Masdud Gate, to the southwest. The visitor to Emessa today is shown the sites of three other gates: Tadmur (north-east), Duraib (east) and Hud (west); but while the present inhabitants of the city have heard of the Rastan Gate, its location is not known. It was no doubt somewhere in the northern wall, because it faced Rastan, which lies on the road to Hama. Early historians have named the Rastan Gate as one of four, and we do not know which one of the present four gates, as named above, did not then exist. The moat too is still there in many places.
When another few weeks had passed and there was no further retrograde movement by the Muslims, the Romans realised that their opponents had no intention of raising the siege. It was now about the middle of March 636 (the beginning of Safar, 15 Hijri), when the worst of the winter was over. The Roman hope of the cold driving the Muslims away vanished. Supplies were running low, and with the coming of spring and better weather the Muslims would receive further reinforcements and would then be in an even stronger position. Something had to be done quickly. The local inhabitants were all for peace, but Harbees was a loyal son of the Empire and sought glory in battle. He decided to make a surprise sally and defeat the Muslims in battle outside the fort; and with this decision of Harbees matters came to a head. The end was now in sight, though not the kind of end which Harbees had in mind.
Early one morning the Rastan Gate was flung open and Harbees led 5,000 men into a quick attack on the unsuspecting Muslims facing that gate. The speed and violence of the attack took the Muslims by surprise, and although this was the largest of the four groups positioned at the four gates, it was driven back from the position where it had hastily formed up for battle. A short distance back the Muslims reformed their front and held the attack of the Romans, but the pressure became increasingly heavy and the danger of a break-through became clearly evident.
Abu Ubaidah now asked Khalid to restore the situation. Khalid moved forward with the Mobile Guard, took the hard pressed Muslims under his command and redisposed the Muslim army for battle. The surprise of the morning had had a depressing effect on the Muslims, who had already been distressed by the discomfort of the cold; and they took some time to recover from it, but with Khalid present in their midst, they soon regained their spirits and began to give as well as they took. This situation continued till midday. Then Khalid took the offensive and steadily pushed the Romans back, though it was not till near sunset that the Romans were finally driven back into the fort. The sally had proved unsuccessful, but it had the effect of making the Muslims feel a special respect for Harbees and the Roman warriors of Emessa.
The following morning Abu Ubaidah held a council of war. The Muslim officers were in a restrained mood, and did not show their usual enthusiasm. Abu Ubaidah expressed his dissatisfaction with the manner in which the Muslims had given way before the Roman attack, whereupon Khalid remarked that these Romans were the bravest he had ever met. "Then what do you advise, O Father of Sulaiman?" asked Abu Ubaidah. "May Allah have mercy upon you!"
"O Commander", replied Khalid, "tomorrow morning let us move away from the fort and. . . ." 1
Early the following morning, the Romans saw hectic activity in the Muslim camps around Emessa. Tents were being struck and bundles packed to be loaded onto the camels. Before their eyes the main body of the Muslims began to march away to the south, leaving behind small parties to see to the movement of the families, the baggage and the flocks. Here was deliverance! The Muslims were raising the siege and withdrawing to the south. The winter had got them after all! The Roman soldiers rejoiced at this sight, but Harbees was not a man to be content with a drawn battle. His trained eye could see a military opportunity when it appeared; and such an opportunity had clearly presented itself. He immediately collected 5,000 Roman warriors and led them out of the fort to chase the Muslims. As the Romans approached the main Muslim camp, the few Muslim warriors who were there looked at them with horror and with cries of fear fled southwards, leaving behind the families and the flocks and the baggage!
Harbees decided to leave the camp alone for the moment. The camp could wait. He launched his mounted force into a fast pursuit to catch up with the retreating enemy and strike him down as he fled. He caught up with the Muslims a few miles from Emessa. His leading elements were about to pounce upon the 'retreating enemy' when the Muslims suddenly turned and struck at the Romans with such ferocity that they were taken aback and hard put to defend themselves. As the Muslims turned on the Romans, Khalid shouted a command at which two mounted groups detached themselves from the Muslim army, galloped round the flanks of the surprised Romans and met between them. The plan proposed by Khalid and universally accepted the day before at the council of war had worked; the Romans were now trapped in a ring of steel! Ruefully Harbees thought of the words of a local priest who had tried to warm him as he was leaving Emessa to pursue the Muslims. The priest had said, "By the Messiah, this is a trick of the Arabs. The Arab never leaves his camels and his family behind!" 2 But it was now too late.
1. Waqidi: p. 103.
2. Waqidi p.104.
Steadily and systematically the Muslims closed in from all sides, striking with spears and swords. Heaps of Roman bodies began to accumulate on the bloody earth. At first the Romans fought with the courage of wild animals at bay, but as more and more of them fell, their mood turned to dismay and hopelessness. Khalid, striking left and right with his sword, got through with a small group to the centre of the Roman army; and here he saw Harbees still fighting, still refusing to give up. Khalid made for Harbees, but was intercepted by a huge Roman general. The Romans did not know that even if they escaped from this trap they would have nowhere to go. At the time when the Muslims started their attack on the encircled Romans, a group of 500 horsemen under Muadh bin Jabal had galloped back to Emessa to see to it that no escaping Roman got into the fort. As these horsemen neared Emessa, the terrified inhabitants and the remnants of the Roman garrison which had not joined the pursuit hastily withdrew into the fort and closed the gates. Muadh deployed his men in front of the gates to prevent the Romans in Emessa from coming out and the Romans outside Emessa from getting in. The Muslim camp was now safe.
Khalid and the Roman general squared off. This general has been described by eye-witnesses as a man 'roaring like a lion'. 1 Khalid was the first to strike, and brought down his sword with all his strength on the heavily-armoured head of the Roman; but instead of piercing the helmet, the sword broke and Khalid was left with the hilt in his hand. Before the Roman could strike, Khalid closed in and grappled with him. The two giants held each other in a pitiless embrace; and then Khalid did something that he had never done before: he began to crush the chest of the Roman in his arms. The Roman turned red in the face and was unable to breathe as Khalid's grip tightened. Gasping for breath, the Roman struggled frantically to break the steel-like grip of the Muslim, but the terrible grip only grew tighter. Then the Roman's ribs splintered and the jagged ends plunged into his own flesh. When all movement had ceased in the body of the Roman, Khalid relaxed his grip, and what fell to the ground was a lifeless corps. Khalid had literally crushed his adversary to death in his arms! 2 He now took the Roman general's sword and again his battle cry rang out over the battlefield.
When offering his plan for this feigned withdrawal, Khalid had promised Abu Ubaidah that the Muslims would "tear the Romans apart and break their backs". In this they were eminently successful. It is recorded that only about a hundred Romans got away. 3 The Muslims, on the other hand, lost only 235 dead in the entire operation against Emessa, from the beginning of the siege to the end of this last action.
As soon as this action was over the Muslims returned to Emessa and resumed the siege, but those who were in Emessa had now no stomach for fighting. The local inhabitants offered to surrender on terms, and Abu Ubaidah accepted the offer. This happened around the middle of March, 636 (beginning of Safar, 15 Hijri). The inhabitants paid the Jizya at the rate of one dinar per man, and peace returned to Emessa. No damage was done to the city and nothing was taken by the Muslims as plunder.
Soon after the surrender of Emessa, the Muslims set out once again for the north, intending to take the whole of Northern Syria this time, including Aleppo and Antioch. They went past Hama and arrived at Shaizer. Here a Roman convoy taking provisions to Qinassareen and escorted by a small body of soldiers was intercepted and captured by Khalid. The prisoners were interrogated, and the information they provided stopped the Muslims in their tracks!
The Muslims had fought and defeated every force that Heraclius had thrown against them-all the armies, all the relief columns, all the fortress garrisons. All had bowed before the superior military quality of the Muslim army. But what Heraclius now evidently planned was to unleash a veritable tornado against them, which, if they were not careful, would hurl them in pieces into the Arabian desert.
1. Waqidi: p. 102.
3. Waqidi: p. 104.