Chapter 34: The Eve of Yarmuk
Mahan: "We know that it is hardship and hunger that have brought you out of your lands. We will give every one of your men ten dinars, clothing and food if you return to your lands, and next year we will send you a similar amount."
Khalid: "Actually, what brought us out of our lands is that we are a people who drink blood, and it has reached us that there is no blood tastier than Roman blood."1
The Syrian theatre of operations was like an arena entered by the contestants from opposite sides. Beyond each entrance stretched a sea which was the home ground of the contestant entering from that side. On the west of Syria and Palestine lay the blue expanse of the Mediterranean which was a 'Roman Lake'. On the east and south stretched the desert in whose wastes the Arab was master. The Romans could move with freedom over the Mediterranean in fleets of ships without interference by the Muslims, while the Muslims could move in the desert on fleets of camels with a similar freedom from interference by the Romans. Neither could the Muslims venture into the sea of water nor the Romans into the sea of sand. Within the total arena both sides could manoeuvre with ease.
Thus, for the purpose of fighting a battle in this arena, the ideal location for each side was its home bank where it could deploy with its back to its sea and withdraw in safety in case of a reverse, while at the same time, if victorious, it could pursue and destroy its opponent before he could escape to his refuge. But this advantage favoured the Muslims more than the Romans, for the former could give up the theatre of operations and withdraw to the edge of the desert without loss of face or wealth or territory. The Romans could not give up the theatre of operations as it was their Empire and had to be defended. And this strategical advantage which the Muslims enjoyed, of being able to fight on their home ground, was very much in the mind of Heraclius when he planned the next and greatest operation of this campaign.
Heraclius had come to the throne in 610 when the affairs of the Eastern Roman Empire were at their lowest ebb and the Empire consisted of little more than the area around Constantinople and parts of Greece and Africa. At first he had had to swallow many bitter pills, but then fortune smiled on him, and over a period of almost two decades he re?established the Empire in all its former greatness. He defeated the barbarians of the north, the Turks of the Caucasus and the highly civilised Persians of the Empire of Chosroes; and he did this not only with hard fighting, but also-and this was more important-by masterly strategy and superb organization. Heraclius was a strategist to the fingertips, and it was only his extraordinary organizational ability which made it possible for the Romans to create and put into the field a vast but closely knit imperial army consisting of more than a dozen nations from the Franks of Western Europe to the Armenians of the Southern Caucasus.
Now Heraclius was again being made to swallow bitter pills, and what made the pills still more bitter was the fact that they had been thrust down his throat by a race which the Romans had detested and scorned and regarded as too backward and too wretched to constitute any kind of military threat to the Empire. All the manoeuvres against the Muslims, though strategically flawless, had ended in defeat. The first concentration of the Roman army at Ajnadein, whence it was to have struck in the rear of the Muslims, was destroyed by Khalid in the first Battle of Ajnadein. Heraclius' attempt to limit Muslim success by a stout defence of Damascus had failed in spite of his best efforts to strengthen the beleaguered garrison. His next offensive manoeuvre, the concentration of a fresh Roman army at Baisan, whence it was again intended to strike in the rear of the Muslims, had also failed, his army being trounced by Shurahbil. Thereafter not only had his attempt to retake Damascus been defeated by Abu Ubaidah and Khalid, but his other defences also crumbled as the Muslims went from victory to victory and took almost all of Palestine and Syria as far north as Emessa.
1. Ibn Kathir, Al-Bidayah wan-Nihayah, Dar Abi Hayyan, Cairo, 1st ed. 1416/1996, Vol. 7 P. 14.
Heraclius decided to organize a massive and overwhelming retaliation. He would raise such an army as had never been seen in Syria, and with this army he would bring the Muslims to battle in such a way that few, if any, would escape his clutches. This was to turn defeat into a glorious triumph.
In late 635, while Emessa was under siege, Heraclius began preparations for this great manoeuvre. Entire corps were gathered from all parts of the Empire and these were joined by princes and nobles of the realm and dignitaries of the church. By May 636, an army of a 150,000 men had been put under arms and concentrated in the area of Antioch and in parts of Northern Syria. This powerful military force consisted of contingents of Russians, Slavs, Franks, Romans, Greeks, Georgians, Armenians and Christian Arabs. 1 No people of the Cross living in the Byzantine Empire failed to send warriors to the new army to fight the invaders in the spirit of a Christian crusade. This force was organised into five armies, each of about 30,000 soldiers. The commanders of these armies were: Mahan, King of Armenia; Qanateer, a Russian prince; Gregory; Dairjan; and Jabla bin AI Eiham, King of the Ghassan Arabs. Mahan2 commanded a purely Armenian army; Jabla had an exclusively Christian Arab force under him; and Qanateer commanded all the Russians and Slavs. The remaining contingents (all European) were placed under Gregory and Dairjan. 3 Mahan was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the entire imperial army.
At this time the Muslims were split in four groups: Amr bin Al Aas in Palestine, Shurahbil in Jordan, Yazeed at Caesarea, and Abu Ubaidah and Khalid at Emessa and to the north. In this dispersed situation the Muslims were so vulnerable that each of their corps could be attacked in turn without the least chance of fighting a successful battle. And this situation was fully exploited by Heraclius in the plan which he put into execution.
Caesarea was reinforced by sea and built up to a strength of 40,000 men. This force was to tie down Yazeed and his besieging corps so that he would be unable to move to join his comrades. The rest of the imperial army would operate on the following plan:
a. Qanateer would move along the coastal route up to Beirut, then approach Damascus from the west and cut off Abu Ubaidah.
b. Jabla would march from Aleppo on the direct route to Emessa via Hama, and hold the Muslims frontally in the Emessa region. The Christian Arabs would be the first to contact the Muslim Arabs, and this was probably in the fitness of things. As Heraclius said to Jabla: "Everything is destroyed by its own kind, and nothing cuts steel but steel." 4
c. Dairjan would move between the coast and the Aleppo road and approach Emessa from the west, thus striking the Muslims in their flank while they were held frontally by Jabla.
d. Gregory would advance on Emessa from the north-east and attack the Muslims in their right flanks at the same time as they were struck by Dairjan. 5
e. The army of Mahan would advance behind the Christian Arabs and act as a reserve.
Thus the Muslim army would be swallowed up at Emessa by a force perhaps 10 times its size, attacking from all directions, with its escape routes severed. (See Map 19 below) This would be more than even Khalid could handle! After the annihilation of the Muslims at Emessa, the imperial army would advance south while the garrison of Caesarea would advance from the coast and in several battles the Roman armies would attack and destroy each Muslim corps in turn, concentrating against each corps in overwhelming strength.
Special services were held all over the Empire for the victory of the imperial army. Generals and bishops exhorted the men to fight in defence of their faith and save their land and its people from the alien invaders. And on this masterly design the imperial army was launched from Antioch and Northern Syria some time in the middle of June 636.
1. Waqidi: p. 100.
2. This monarch's name has also been given as Bahan.
3. Waqidi: p. 106.
5. Waqidi (p. 107) gives the route of Gregory as "from Iraq". Since most of Western Iraq was now in Muslim hands, this could only mean such an approach as I have suggested.
When the leading elements of Jabla's army arrived at Emessa they found no Muslims. The army of Qanateer hit Damascus from the west in joyful anticipation of the destruction of the Muslims thus trapped in Damascus and the north. But there was not a single Muslim soldier in Damascus and the north. The birds had flown!
It was at Shaizar, through Roman prisoners, that the Muslims first came to know of the preparations being made by Heraclius. The Muslims had established an excellent intelligence system in the land, and no major movement or concentration of enemy forces remained concealed from them. In fact they had agents within the Roman army. As the days lengthened into weeks, the pieces of intelligence brought in by agents were put together like a jigsaw puzzle, and the movement of the Roman armies had hardly got under way when the Muslims knew of it and of the directions taken by the armies. Even the reinforcement of Caesarea and its strength were known.
The Muslims were staggered by the reports, each of which seemed worse than its predecessor. The horizon became darker and darker. Khalid, however, with his unerring sense of strategy at once saw the design of Heraclius and realized how terribly vulnerable the Muslim army was at Emessa and Shaizar. The soundest course was to pull back from North and Central Syria, as well as from Palestine, and concentrate the whole army so that strong, united opposition could be put up against the Roman juggernaut, preferably not far from the friendly desert. Khalid advised Abu Ubaidah accordingly and the Army Commander accepted the proposal. He ordered the withdrawal of the army to Jabiya, which was the junction of the routes from Syria, Jordan and Palestine. Moreover, exercising his authority as Commander-in-Chief in Syria, he ordered Shurahbil, Yazeed and Amr bin Al Aas to give up the territory in their occupation and join him at Jabiya. Thus, before the Romans reached Damascus, Abu Ubaidah and Khalid, with elements of Yazeed's corps, were at Jabiya while the other corps were moving to join them. They had safely extricated themselves from the jaws of death.
The remarkably generous treatment of the populace of Emessa by Abu Ubaidah, when the Muslims left that city, throws light on the sense of justice and truth of this brave and noble general. On the conquest of Emessa, the Muslims had collected the Jizya from the local inhabitants. This tax, as has been explained before, was taken from non-Muslims in return for their exemption from military service and their protection against their enemies. But since the Muslims were now leaving the city and were no longer in a position to protect them, Abu Ubaidah called a meeting of the people and returned all the money taken as Jizya. "We are not able to help and defend you", said Abu Ubaidah. "You are now on your own." To this the people replied, "Your rule and justice are dearer to us than the oppression and cruelty in which we existed before." 1 The Jews of Emessa proved the most loyal in their friendship, and swore that the officers of Heraclius would not enter the city except by force. Moreover, not content with doing total justice in the matter of the Jizya in his own province, Abu Ubaidah also wrote to the other corps commanders in Syria to return the Jizya to the people who had paid it, and this was done by every Muslim commander before he marched away to join Abu Ubaidah at Jabiya. 2 Such an extraordinary and voluntary return by an all-conquering army of what it has taken according to mutually arranged terms, had never happened before. It would never happen again.
In the middle of July 636, the forward elements of the imperial army, consisting of Christian Arabs, made contact with Muslim screens between Damascus and Jabiya. Abu Ubaidah was now deeply worried. A battle was certain, and one that would decide the fate of the Muslims in Syria. The enemy strength, believed by the Muslims to be 200,000, seemed like a horrible nightmare. Abu Ubaidah worried not for himself but for the Muslim army and the Muslim cause. He called a council of war to brief the officers about the enemy situation and get ideas.
The officers sat in silence, weighed down by the forbidding prospect which faced them. One spoke in favour of a withdrawal into Arabia where the army could wait until this Roman storm has passed and then re-enter Syria, but this proposal was rejected as being tantamount to abandoning all the Muslim conquests in Syria and exchanging the good life of this land for the hardship and hunger of the desert. Others spoke in favour of fighting "here and now", trusting to Allah for victory, and most of the assembled officers favoured this proposal. The mood of the council, however, was not of happy enthusiasm but of grim determination to fight, and if necessary, go down fighting.
1. Balazuri: p. 143.
2. Abu Yusuf: p. 139.
Khalid remained silent while this discussion was in progress. Then Abu Ubaidah turned to him and said, "O Father of Sulaiman! You are a man of courage and resolve and judgment. What do you think of all this?"
"What they say is good", replied Khalid. "I have different views, but shall not oppose the Muslims."
"If you have other views, speak", said Abu Ubaidah, "and we shall do as you say."
Khalid then gave his plan: "Know, O Commander, that if you stay at this place, you will be helping the enemy against you. In Caesarea, which is not far from Jabiya, there are 40,000 Romans under Constantine, son of Heraclius. 1 I advise you to move from here and place Azra behind you and be on the Yarmuk. Thus it would be easier for the Caliph to send reinforcements, and ahead of you there would be a large plain, suitable for the charge of cavalry." 2
Khalid did not specifically say so, but the inference was that Constantine, advancing from Caesarea, could attack the Muslims in the rear at Jabiya while they faced the imperial army from the north. The plan was accepted, unanimously and the move put into effect. Khalid, with the Mobile Guard of 4,000 horsemen, was left behind as a rear guard; and instead of staying at Jabiya, he moved forward and clashed with the leading elements of the Roman army. He struck at the head of the Roman column and drove it back towards Damascus. This imposed caution on the Romans, who thereafter made no effort to interfere with the retrograde move of the Muslims. A few days later Khalid rejoined the main body of the Muslim army.
The Muslims, having moved a few miles south-east, established a line of camps in the eastern part of what for want of a better name, we shall call the Plain of Yarmuk. The location of these camps is not known but they were probably south of the present Nawa-Sheikh Miskeen line with a north-west-facing front, so that the Muslims could deploy to receive a Roman attack from the north (Jabiya axis) as well as the north-west (direction of Qunaitra). Here Abu Ubaidah was joined by the corps of Shurahbil, Amr bin Al Aas and Yazeed. Some distance to the east of the Muslims sprawled the lava hills which stretch from north to east of Azra, and the mountains of Jabal-ud-Druz, north and east of Busra.
A few days later the Roman army, preceded by the lightly armed Christian Arabs of Jabla, moved up and made contact with Muslim outposts on the Plain of Yarmuk. The route of the main body of the Roman army is not recorded, but it was almost certainly from the north-west, because the Romans established their camps just north of the Wadi-ur-Raqqad. (Khalid's clash with the Romans on the Jabiya axis may have caused them to switch their axis.) The Roman camp was 18 miles long, and between it and the Muslim camp lay the central and west-central parts of the Plain of Yarmuk. 3 With the arrival of the Romans and the establishment of their camps, the direction of the Roman attack became obvious and Abu Ubaidah adjusted the Muslim camps to correspond to a battlefront running from the Yarmuk to the Jabiya Road. This is what Khalid had advised: the rear towards Azra and a flank on the Yarmuk.
Now the two armies settled down in their respective camps and began to make preparations for battle: reconnaissances, plans, orders, checking of equipment etc. To the Muslims the Romans looked like 'a swarm of locusts'. 4 Hardly had the Romans settled down in camp when a messenger arrived from Heraclius with instructions to the Commander-in-Chief, Mahan the Armenian, not to start hostilities until all avenues of peaceful negotiation had been explored. Mahan was to offer generous terms to the Muslims if they would agree to retire to Arabia and not come back again. Consequently Mahan sent one of his army commanders, Gregory, to hold talks with the Muslims. Gregory rode out to the Muslim camp, in front of which he held a discussion with Abu Ubaidah. The Roman offered to let the Muslims go in peace, taking with them everything which they had acquired in Syria, as long as they would give up all intention of invading Syria again. Abu Ubaidah's answer was in the negative, and the Roman returned empty-handed.
1. According to Gibbon (Vol. 5, p. 333) Constantine, commanding at Caesarea, was the eldest son of Heraclius.
2. Waqidi: p. 109.
3. According to Waqidi (p. 109), the Roman camp was near Jaulan (which is the area between the Wadi-ur-Raqqad and Lake Tiberius and the area to the north), and the distance between the opposing camps was approximately 11 miles (three farsakh. A farsakh equals 6000 meters.).
4. Waqidi: p. 118.
Mahan next sent Jabla, hoping that as an Arab he would have more success in talking the Muslims into leaving Syria in peace. Jabla tried his best to persuade the Muslims, but like Gregory, returned unsuccessful.
Mahan now realized that a battle was inevitable and nothing could be done to avoid it. Consequently he sent Jabla forward with the bulk of his Arab army to put in a probing attack on the Muslims. This was not so much an offensive as a reconnaissance in force to test the strength of the Muslim front. For such an action the mobile Christian Arab was better suited than his more heavily equipped comrades of the imperial army. This happened some time in late July 636 (middle of Jamadi-ul-Akhir, 15 Hijri).
Jabla moved up with his Arabs and found the Muslims arrayed in battle order. Cautiously the Christian inched his way forward wanting to get as close as possible before ordering a general attack; but before he could give such an order, he found himself assailed by powerful groups of Muslim cavalry operating under the Sword of Allah. After a certain amount of half-hearted resistance the Christian Arabs withdrew confirming Mahan's fear that battle with these Muslims would not be an easy matter.
Thereafter, for almost a month, there was no major action on the Plain of Yarmuk. The cause of this inactivity is not known. We can only guess that the Muslims were not strong enough to take the initial offensive, and the Romans did not feel brave enough to do so. The respite, however, proved beneficial to the Muslims, as during this period a fresh contingent of six thousand Muslims arrived to join them, the majority of whom were from the Yemen. The Muslims now had an army of 40,000 warriors, including 1,000 Companions of the Prophet, and these in turn included 100 veterans of the Battle of Badr-the first battle of Islam. The army included citizens of the highest rank, such as Dhulbair (the Prophet's cousin and one of the Blessed Ten), Abu Sufyan and his wife, Hind.
When a month had passed after the repulse of Jabla, Mahan felt strong enough to take the offensive, but decided to make one more attempt at peace. This time he would hold talks himself. He asked for a Muslim envoy to be sent to his headquarters, and in response to his request, Abu Ubaidah sent Khalid with a few men. Khalid and Mahan met in the Roman camp, but nothing came of these talks as the positions taken by the two sides were too rigid to allow for adjustment. Mahan threatened Khalid with his great army and offered a vast sum of money to all the Muslims, including the Caliph at Madinah; but this made no impression on Khalid, who offered the three alternatives: Islam, the Jizya or the sword. The Armenian chose the last. It appears, however, that as a result of this discussion, both commanders were favourably impressed by each other and the Muslims began to regard Mahan as a fine man except that, to quote Abu Ubaidah: "Satan has got hold of his reason!" 1
As the two leaders parted, they knew that henceforth there would be no parleys. The point of no return had been reached, and the following day the battle would begin.
The rest of the day was spent in feverish activity. Both sides prepared for battle. Plans were finalized and orders issued. Corps and regiments were placed in position so that everyone would know his place in the forthcoming battle. Officers and men checked their armour and weapons.
Both sides offered fervent prayers for victory, beseeching Allah for His help to 'the true faith', and of course they prayed to the same Allah! On the Roman side the priests brandished crosses and exhorted the soldiers to die for Jesus. Tens of thousands of Christians took the oath of death, swearing that they would die fighting and not flee from the enemy. Many of them would remain true to their oath.
The battlefield which stretched between the two camps consisted of the Plain of Yarmuk which was enclosed on its western and southern sides by deep ravines. On the west yawned the Wadi-ur-Raqqad which joined the Yarmuk River near Yaqusa. This stream ran north-east to south-west for 11 miles through a deep ravine with very steep banks, though less so at its upper end. The ravine was crossable at a few places but there was only one main crossing, at a ford, where the village of Kafir-ul-Ma stands today. South of the battlefield ran the canyon of the Yarmuk River, starting at Jalleen and twisting and turning for 15 miles, as the crow flies, down to its junction with the Wadi-ur-Raqqad, beyond which it continued on its way to join the Jordan River south of Lake Tiberius (Sea of Galilee). At Jalleen a stream called Harir, running from the north-east, flowed into, and became the Yarmuk River. On the north the plain continued beyond the battlefield, while to the east it stretched for a distance of about 30 miles from the Wadi-ur-Raqqad to the foot of the Azra hills. The western and central part of this plain was the battlefield.
1. Waqidi: p. 128.
The most significant feature of the battlefield was the existence of the two ravines-the Wadi-ur-Raqqad and the Yarmuk River. Both had banks 1,000 feet high, and while the steepness of the banks was sufficient to make the ravines serious obstacles to movement, they were made even more frightening by the precipices which lined the banks along most of their length. These precipices were sometimes at the bottom, sometimes at the top and sometimes half-way up the bank and created sheer, vertical drops 100 to 200 feet in height. Near the junction of the two ravines, the banks became steeper and the precipices higher-a fearful prospect for anyone who had to cross in haste.
The only dominating tactical feature on the plain of Yarmuk was one named on maps as the Hill of Samain, 3 miles southwest of the present village of Nawa. There was also the Hill of Jabiya, north-west of Nawa, but it lay outside the battlefield and was to play no part in the battle. The Hill of Samein, 300 feet high, so dominated the area around it, and gave such excellent observation over the entire plain, that no general would fail to occupy it should he be the first to deploy his forces on this part of the plain. As a result of this battle the hill was named the Hill of Jamu'a (gathering), because part of the Muslim army was concentrated on it. There was no other dominating ground on the plain of Yarmuk.
The plain itself was generally flat, sloping gently from north to south with a certain amount of undulation. One stream which formed an important tactical feature was Allan, running southwards across the plain to join the Yarmuk, and in the last 5 miles of its journey this stream also formed a ravine with steep sides though it was not such a serious obstacle as the bigger ravines. The battlefield was ideal for the manoeuvre of infantry and cavalry and, except for the southern portion of Allan, offered no impediment to movement.
Mahan deployed the imperial army forward of Allan. He used his four regular armies to form the line of battle which was 12 miles long, extending from the Yarmuk to south of the Hill of Jabiya. 1 On his right he placed the army of Gregory and on his left the army of Qanateer. The centre was formed by the army of Dairjan and the Armenian army of Mahan-both under the command of Dairjan. The Roman regular cavalry was distributed equally among the four armies, and each army deployed with its infantry holding the front and its cavalry held as a reserve in the rear. Ahead of the front line, across the entire 12-mile front, Mahan deployed the Christian Arab army of Jabla, which was all mounted-horse and camel. This army acted as a screen and skirmish line, and was not concerned with serious fighting except as its groups joined the army in front of which they were positioned.
The army of Gregory, which formed the right wing, used chains to link its 30,000 foot soldiers. 2 These chains were in 10-men lengths, and were used as a proof of unshakeable courage on the part of the men who thus displayed their willingness to die where they stood. The chains also acted as an insurance against a break-through by enemy cavalry, as has been explained in the chapter on The Battle of Chains. All these 30,000 foot soldiers had taken the oath of death.
Although the imperial army established a front of about the same length as the Muslim front, it had the advantage of having four times as many troops and Mahan exploited this numerical superiority by establishing a whole army (Jabla's) as a forward screen and achieving much greater depth in the solid, orderly formations. The Roman ranks stood 30 deep.
1. In terms of present-day geography, the Roman line started from about two miles west of Nawa, and went south-south-west to just west of Seel, then over Sahm-ul-Jaulan to the Yarmuk bank forward of Heet. Of course, these villages probably did not exist then as there is no mention of them in the narrative of this battle.
2. There is also talk of a deep ditch here, but I cannot place it or see its significance, as the Romans are said to have deployed forward of it rather than behind it. It may have been an anti-retreat measure.
Thus the magnificent army of Caesar was arrayed for battle.
When Khalid returned from his talks with Mahan, he informed Abu Ubaidah and the other generals that there would be no more talks, that the issue would be decided by the sword, that the battle would begin the next day. Abu Ubaidah took the news with his usual stoical acceptance of the will of Allah. As Commander-in-Chief he would organise the army for battle and conduct the operation according to his tactical judgement. His military skill was not, however, very great, and he knew it. Khalid knew it, and most of the officers of the army knew it. Abu Ubaidah would fight the battle in a sensible manner, and would react to changing tactical situations like the good, steady general that he was. But with the enemy four times superior in strength, soundness and common sense were not enough. A much finer quality of generalship was required for this battle, and Khalid decided to offer his services to act as the real commander in battle.
"O Commander", said Khalid to Abu Ubaidah, "send for all the commanders of regiments and tell them to listen to what I have to say." 1
Abu Ubaidah got the point. He himself could wish for nothing better. He at once sent an officer to call the regimental and corps commanders to his headquarters; and the officer rode to all the commanders, conveying the message: "Abu Ubaidah commands that you listen to whatever Khalid says and obey his orders." 2 The officers understood the meaning of the message and gathered at the headquarters to receive the orders of Khalid. On this tactful note the command of the army was taken over by Khalid, and everyone was satisfied with the arrangement.
Abu Ubaidah remained the nominal commander and somewhat more than that. He continued to deal with matters of administration, led the prayers and saw to various other details of command. He also gave certain orders when his ideas did not clash with the plans and orders of Khalid. But for the purpose of battle, Khalid was now the commander of the Muslim army in Syria, and would remain so until this battle was over.
Khalid immediately set about the reorganization of the army into infantry and cavalry regiments within each corps. The army consisted of 40,000 men, of which about 10,000 was cavalry. This force was now organised by Khalid into 36 infantry regiments of 800 to 900 men each, three cavalry regiments of 2,000 horses each and the Mobile Guard of 4,000 horsemen. The commanders of the cavalry regiments were Qais bin Hubaira, Maisara bin Masruq and Amir bin Tufail. Each of the four corps had nine infantry regiments, which were all reformed on a tribal and clan basis, so that every man would fight next to well-known comrades. Much of Khalid's corps of Iraq was absorbed in the other four corps, while the best of it remained with him as the Mobile Guard.
The army was deployed on a front of 11 miles corresponding roughly to the front of the Roman army. The army's left rested on the Yarmuk River, a mile forward of where the ravine began, while it's right lay on the Jabiya road. 3 On the left stood the corps of Yazeed and on the right the corps of Amr bin Al Aas, and each of these flanking corps commanders was given a cavalry regiment under command. The centre was formed by the corps of Abu Ubaidah (left) and Shurahbil (right). Among the regimental commanders of Abu Ubaidah were Ikrimah bin Abi Jahl and Abdur-Rahman bin Khalid. Behind the centre stood the Mobile Guard and one cavalry regiment as a central reserve for employment on the orders of Khalid. At any time when Khalid was busy with the conduct of the battle as a whole, Dhiraar would command the Mobile Guard. Each corps pushed out a line of scouts to keep the Romans under observation. (For the dispositions of the two armies, see Map 20 below)
Compared with the Romans, the Muslim army formed a thin line, only three ranks deep, but there were no gaps in the ranks which stretched in unbroken lines from edge to edge. All the spears available in the army were issued to the front rank, and in battle the men would stand with the long spears at the ready, making it impossible for an assailant to get to grips without braving the frightening points of the spears. The archers, most of whom were Yemenis, stood interspersed in the front rank. On the first approach of the enemy the archers would open up and bring down as many of the Romans as possible. As the assailants clashed with the Muslims, they would be killed with spears, and thereafter the men would draw their swords.
1. Waqidi: p. 129.
3. In terms of present-day geography, the Muslim line started from about a mile west of Nawa and went south-south-west to over the Hill of Jamu'a, then between Seel and Adwan, then between Sahm-ul-Jaulan and Jalleen, to just short of the Yarmuk.
The flanking corps would use their own cavalry regiments as corps reserves to re-establish their positions in case they were pushed back by the Romans. Khalid with his Mobile Guard and one cavalry regiment would provide the local reserve for the two central corps and also be available as an army reserve to intervene in the battle of the flanking corps as required.
The situation of the two armies with regard to flanks was similar. Each had its southern flank on the Yarmuk and this flank could not be turned. The northern flank of both armies was exposed, and on this side outflanking movements were possible. The difference in the situation of the two armies lay in their respective rears. Behind the Muslims stretched the eastern extension of the Plain of Yarmuk, beyond which rose the broken Azra hills and the Jabal-ud-Druz; and into this region the Muslims could withdraw in safety and be invulnerable in case of a reverse. Behind part of the Roman position, however, lay the forbidding ravine of the Wadi-ur-Raqqad-deep and precipitous. As a discouragement to retreat this was fine and would probably make the Romans fight more desperately; but in case the Romans were worsted in battle and cut off from the northern escape route, the ravine would prove an abyss of death. Against it they would be caught like mice in a trap. However, the Romans had no intention of losing this battle.
This topographical situation was uppermost in Khalid's mind when he formulated his plan of battle. Initially the Muslims would stand on the defensive and receive and hold the Roman attack until it had lost its impetus and the enemy was worn out. Then the Muslims would go on to the offensive and drive the Romans towards the Wadi-ur-Raqqad. The terrible ravine would be the anvil on which the Muslim hammer would fall, crushing the Roman army to powder! At least, so Khalid planned!
The women and children were placed in camps stretching in a line in the rear of the army. Behind the men of each regiment stood their women and children. 1 Abu Ubaidah went round the camps and addressed the women: "Take tent poles in your hands and gather heaps of stones. If we win all is well. But if' you see a Muslim running away from battle, strike him in the face with a tent pole, pelt him with stones, hold his children up before him and tell him to fight for his wife and children and for Islam." 2 The women prepared accordingly.
As the army formed up in its battle position, Khalid, Abu Ubaidah and other generals rode round the regiments and spoke to the officers and men. Khalid gave a set speech before each regiment: "O men of Islam! The time has come for steadfastness. Weakness and cowardice lead to disgrace; and he who is steadfast is more deserving of Allah's help. He who stands bravely before the blade of the sword will be honoured, and his labours rewarded, when he goes before Allah. Lo! Allah loves the steadfast!" 3
While Khalid was going past one of the regiments, a young man remarked, "How numerous are the Romans and how few are we!" Khalid turned to him and said, "How few are the Romans and how numerous are we! An army's strength lies not in numbers of men but in Allah's help, and its weakness lies in being forsaken by Allah" 4
Other commanders and elders, while exhorting the men to fight, recited verses from the Quran, the most popular one being: "How many a small group has overpowered a large group by Allah's help, and Allah is with the steadfast." [Quran: 2:249.] They spoke of the fire of hell and the joys of paradise, and quoted the example set by the Holy Prophet in his battles. For good measure they also reminded the soldiers of the hunger of the desert and the good life of Syria!
The night that followed was hot and sultry. It was the third week of August 636 (second week of Rajab, 15 Hijri.).5 The Muslims spent the night in prayer and recitation of the Quran, and reminded each other of the two blessings which awaited them: either victory and life or martyrdom and paradise. The Holy Prophet had established a tradition after Badr of reciting the chapter of Al Anfal from the Quran before battle, and all night the verses of this chapter could be heard wherever Muslims sat, singly and in groups.
The fires in the two camps burned merrily the whole night and could be seen for miles like twinkling stars descended to earth. But there was no merriment in the hearts of those who sat in the light of these fires. The thought of the ordeal that awaited them had driven all joy from their minds. They were brave men, these soldiers who awaited the morrow, these Romans and Arabs, these Europeans and Asians, these Christians and Muslims. They were lions and eagles and wolves. But they were also human beings and thought of their wives and children to whom they would bid farewell in a few hours-perhaps for the last time.
This was the eve of Yarmuk …. the greatest battle of the Century…. one of the decisive battles of history .... and perhaps the most titanic battle ever fought between the Crescent and the Cross.
1. According to some reports, the families were put on a hill well to the rear. This, as we shall see from the course of battle, could not have been so.
2. Waqidi: pp. 129-30.
3. Ibid: p. 137.
4. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 594.
5. The only thing recorded in the early accounts about the date of this battle is the month-Rajab, 15 Hijri. My statement recording the week in which the battle began is the result of calculations made from the timing of earlier events narrated in this chapter.