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Battle of Yarmuk, 636

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The Battle Of Yarmuk
The Battle Of Yarmuk, 636
by Dan Fratini 

Introduction

Islam. From the Atlantic coast of North Africa to the Pacific Isles of Indonesia this faith holds sway. As one of the world's great religions Islam has had an immeasurable impact on the human race, not only in those regions populated by Muslims, but, throughout history, in areas such as Spain, Portugal, India, Israel, Sicily, Greece, Bosnia, Serbia, and even the United States. As all religions, as all people, Islam has had its share of victories and defeats, rising to heights of shining glory and sinking to the darkest depths. In its infancy Islam was a conquering faith, storming out of the vast Arabian deserts intent on world conquest. The first major threat Islam faced took the form of the ancient and equally historically important Roman Empire. The Roman Empire, at the time based in Greece, and soon to be known to history as the East Roman Empire or Byzantine Empire, would confront the forces of Islam on the battlefield of Yarmuk, in the year 636 A.D. Here Islam would fight for its life. Victory for the Muslims would mean survival and the chance to storm the globe, defeat would mean an end to the Islamic faith only a few scant years after the Prophet's death. 

Prelude

The year 622 A.D. saw the Hegira, when the Prophet Muhammad (570-632) fled from Mecca to Medina to escape the pagan Arab Qurayshites, rulers of Mecca. From 624-630 the Prophet and the followers of the new religion of Islam warred against the Qurayshites, seizing Mecca in a bloodless invasion in January of the year 630. From that date until the present Mecca has been the holiest city in all Islam. Following the Prophet's death in 632 came the Riddah Wars, a military conflict which from 632-633 saw all of Arabia under the sway of the Islamic Caliphate. As early as late 633 the forces of Caliph Umar Ibn Al Khattab (581-644) were pushing north into present day Israel and Jordan. As the Muslim armies surged forth all who they met were given three choices, convert to Islam, pay the jizyah, a tax, or die by the sword. Such an uncompromising philosophy and utter religious devotion soon brought the Muslims into conflict with the great Middle Eastern power of the day, the Roman Empire.

By the year 636 A.D. the Roman Empire was hardly recognizable to that of earlier centuries. Based in Constantinople, formerly known as Byzantium, the Roman Empire was metamorphosing into a Greek Empire, and would soon be known to history as the East Roman or Byzantine Empire. This changing Roman Empire had in common with the days of old a vast involvement in the Middle East. Constantinople ruled over not only Egypt and Asia Minor, but also present-day Israel, Lebanon, and portions of Jordan and Syria. Roman influence extended to the borders of Arabia, tribal Arabic sheiks being in the pay of Constantinople. The East Roman-Persian War of 603-628 had seen the ancient enemy of both Rome and Greece, Persia, soundly defeated in a brutal and prolonged conflict. Roman Emperor Heraclius (575-641) had at long last forced the submission of Rome's oldest foe. Emperor Heraclius had no concept of what was soon to face him from the sands of Arabia.

The Muslim advance into Roman territory began slowly at first, taking the form of minor battles and skirmishes against Roman garrisons and allied Christian Arabs. As the armies of Islam advanced they set their sights on capturing cities, on establishing themselves permanently in the Roman Middle East. In 634 separate Muslim forces were launching more than raids into Roman Palestine and Jordan, capturing Areopolis and Busra, and defeating Roman garrisons and their Arab allies at battles such as Dathin, Marj Rahit, and Pella. Arab raids into Roman territory were not unheard of, and at first Emperor Heraclius did not fully grasp the magnitude of what he faced. The threat of Islam became clear on the 4th of September 635 as the Muslims conquered Damascus, one of the finest cities in all the Roman Empire.

With the fall of Damascus Emperor Heraclius realized that this new foe of the Arabian deserts must be soundly crushed. He set about raising an army to drive the Muslims from Roman ground. A vast force, perhaps 50,000 strong set out to destroy the incipient Islam. Faced with overwhelming numbers the Muslims abandoned Damascus and their other conquests, retreating south with the Romans in pursuit. The southward march took both armies to a site northeast of Jerusalem, the Yarmuk River. 

Army Composition  

Not yet the incredibly organized themal military of later days, nor the nearly unstoppable legions of the past, the East Roman army of 636 was still one of the most professional military forces on the Earth. A polyglot force composed of Greeks, Armenians, Copts, Christian and pagan Arabs, Slavs, Goths, and even Persian defectors, the East Roman army was partially a standing force, partially a mercenary unit. Within the capital of Constantinople, and in garrisons throughout the empire there were regular, paid troops, with an officer corps as well structured as anything found in the present day. During a military campaign the standing units could be further augmented by paid mercenaries, such as Christian Arabs, in particular the Ghassanid tribe, Persian heavy cavalry cataphracts, Gothic heavy cavalry, the precursors of Western European knights, and Slavic infantry.

The East Roman army had the two basic divisions of cavalry and infantry. The infantry fell into two main categories, the skutatoi and psiloi. The skutatoi were the front line infantry. These troops were armed with spear, long or short sword, and axe. Defensively they carried a circular or oval shield, wore chainmail or padded leather shirts, and a segmented helm, often with a crest, to identify their unit. The psiloi were the missile troops, armed with javelin and most importantly composite shortbow, their armor being the same or slightly less than the skutatoi. On the attack the psiloi could weaken the enemy with a barrage of arrows, followed by a charge of spearmen and swordsmen to break the enemy formation. Defensively the skutatoi could form a shield wall, interlocking their shields and presenting their spears en masse, with the psiloi stationed to the rear and still capable of launching volleys into the enemy ranks.

The East Roman cavalry was based on the cataphract, a cavalry type originating in Persia and nearly as old as that civilization. The cataphract would be armored in the same fashion as the skutatoi, save that some cataphracts also wore a chestpiece of lamellar armor, small square or rectangular iron plates sown onto a leather backing, and they replaced the larger oval or circular shields with a small circular target shield, often attached to the left arm. The cataphract's weapons consisted of lance, composite shortbow, and longsword. Whether they wore stirrups or not is still a matter of contention, the stirrup appearing in the Middle East, at the earliest, in the 600s. The cataphract on the attack would weaken the enemy flank with arrow volleys, followed by a charge to the enemy flank or rear, destroying the enemy formation and/or pining the enemy in place, allowing the skutatoi to charge and finish the battle. Defensively the cataphracts would protect the Roman flanks and rear from enemy cavalry attacks, both by arrow volleys and close range combat.

In overall command of the East Roman army was Vahan the Armenian (???-636?). Vahan was the highest ranking officer in the Roman Middle East, second only to Emperor Heraclius himself. The ethnically mixed army under Vahan's command possibly numbered as many as 50,000, its exact numbers being unknown but all sources agreeing it was larger than the typical East Roman expeditionary force of 20,000.

Facing the Romans were the Muslim Arabs. Unlike their foes, the Muslims were ethnically united, with perhaps the exception of a small number of Persian defectors. Driven by a religious fervor the world has rarely known, the single greatest advantage of the Muslims was their mastery of desert travel. Riding camels and horses, the Muslims were intimately acquainted with the Middle Eastern deserts, giving them a strategic mobility that allowed them to appear out of the desert as if from nowhere, much like the Viking raiders of the 800s and 900s would appear on their victims' shores. This desert raiding ability had served the Muslims well from 634-635, allowing independent forces to attack Roman garrisons and allied Arabs with little warning. The Muslims not only knew the locations of vital desert oases, but also traveled with the camel, an animal evolved for the hot sands, and moved with camp followers in a logistic role, including the wives of the Islamic commanders.

Recruited from their tribes and commanded by emirs the Muslim army fell into the two basic categories of infantry and cavalry. The Arab cavalryman, the faris, was armed with lance and sword, his main role being the attack of the enemy flanks and rear. Armor was relatively light, often consisting of a chainmail shirt and segmented helm. Unlike later Middle Eastern field armies the early Muslims relied heavily on their infantry. Muslim infantrymen were armed with spear, shortsword, and composite bow. Defensively the Muslim infantry were equipped with chainmail shirts, segmented helms, and large wooden or wickerwork shields. On the attack Muslim infantry would weaken the enemy with arrow volleys, followed by a spear/sword charge, pining the enemy in place for a cavalry attack on the flanks and rear. Defensively the Muslim spearmen would close ranks, forming a protective wall for archers to continue their fire.

In command of the Muslim army at Yarmuk was Khalid Ibn al Walid (???-642). Khalid was an experienced military commander, though he had once been an opponent of the Prophet he was now known as the Sword Of God. Under his command were the combined Muslim units that had been raiding into Roman territory since 633, a force numbering roughly 25,000, quite large for a Muslim army of the day, though still leaving Khalid heavily outnumbered. 

The Battle  

The Battle of Yarmuk took place from the 15th-20th of August, 636 A.D. After years of raids, skirmishes, counterattacks, and negotiations the assembled armies of the East Roman Empire and the Islamic Caliphate met on the field of battle.

The Roman army was arranged with the Wadi Allan gorge to their right, the Wadi Ruqqad to their left. The East Roman right consisted mainly of infantry and formed a base for the center and left. The center, composed mostly of Armenians, was commanded by Vahan, while allied Arabs took position on the far left. The Muslim infantry covered the front, with cavalry behind the center and flanks, an additional cavalry unit in the rear. The East Romans had established a base camp at Yaqusah, northwest of Yarmuk, the Muslims camped immediately behind the battle lines.

The first day of this six day battle begin with dueling by champions of each side, a common event in battles of the time, with Muslim sources recording a string of victories. Vahan probed the Islamic lines with his infantry, the Muslim lines held, and both sides took the measure of the other.

On the second day dueling champions and probing attacks were forgotten as Vahan launched an attack across the Muslim front. Combined Roman cataphract and skutatoi formations, heavily outnumbering the Muslims, struck hard at the Muslim center, pining it in place while the Muslim flanks were charged. Roman cavalry and infantry broke the Muslim right flank, forcing Muslim infantry and cavalry back to their camps. Here the Muslim wives forced their men to hold their ground, using every tactic from singing songs to throwing rocks at them. The Muslim right held, and with cavalry reserves were able to drive the Romans back. The Roman skutatoi drove into the Muslim left flank and were similarly repelled, the Muslim wives forcing their men into combat. As the second day of battle closed neither side held any clear advantage, though both had suffered casualties.

Vahan focused his attention on the Muslim right flank on the third day of battle. Roman cataphracts, skutatoi, psiloi, and Arab allies charged into the Muslim right flank, which once again held, thanks to the efforts of the Muslim reserve cavalry and the wives.

The fourth day of combat again saw Vahan committed to breaking the Islamic right flank. Cataphracts and Arab faris allies charged the Muslim right. In response Khalid ordered a counterattack of the Roman center and right, leaving the Roman left flank dangerously exposed. The Muslims countered the Roman left flank, successfully forcing the Arab allied cavalry away from their supporting infantry. Cut off from the rest of the army the Arab allies fled, pursued by the Muslims to the Wadi Ruqquad, site of the bridge that lead to the main Roman camp at Yaqusah. The Roman left flank had lost its Arab contingent, and had failed to protect its main avenue of retreat to the Roman base camp.

The only saving grace for the Romans on the fourth day was on the Muslim left flank, where Roman psiloi and cataphract archers inflicted the Day of Lost Eyes on the Muslims. With the Muslim cavalry crushing the Roman left flank, the Muslim infantry of the left flank suffered heavy casualties holding the line against the Roman attack. The Muslims were able to hold, though this time several of the wives themselves fell to Roman blades.

The fifth day saw fruitless negotiations being carried out by both sides. With neither Roman nor Muslim willing to negotiate both sides used the fifth day to rest and regroup.

Khalid knew on the sixth day that victory was within his grasp. He sent his forces into a full attack on the Roman lines, concentrating on the weakened Roman left flank. The Roman left, cut off from its base camp and having suffered heavy losses on the fourth day, collapsed entirely. Following the collapse of the Roman left the center and right broke formation. Roman troops fled for their lives, the bloodied Muslims taking no prisoners and slaughtering any stragglers. Vahan himself was most likely killed in the disorganized retreat. Thousands of Romans, in small groups or individually, were able to escape the battlefield, fleeing south to Egypt or north to Emesa.

Aftermath

With their overwhelming victory on the battlefield of Yarmuk the Muslim army faced only small garrison units in the immediate future. By the year 640 the Muslim forces had conquered all of present day Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, and were invading Egypt. By the year 700 Islam would be permanently established in the Middle East, North Africa, Persia, and would be poised to invade Spain. Never again would the East Roman Empire, or any power, have such a chance as Yarmuk presented. The Muslims had concentrated the bulk of their offensive power at Yarmuk. Had they lost the battle the Roman army could've marched to the borders of Arabia. While a Roman invasion of Arabia seems unlikely, at the least Islam would've been confined to the Arabian peninsula. Whether the Muslims ever would've broken out of the Arabian deserts again is impossible to say, but if they hadn't the past 1,400 years of human history would've taken a completely different course.

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Sources

Kohn, George. Dictionary Of Wars, Anchor Press/Doubleday Book, 1986.

Akram, A.I. The Sword Of Allah: Khalid bin al Waleed, his Life and Campaigns, Karachi, 1970.

Mcgraw Donner, F. The Early Islamic Conquests, Princeton, 1981.

AL Baladhuri, Abu'l Abbas Ahmad. The Origins Of The Islamic State, New York, 1916.

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Copyright © 2006 by Dan Fratini.

Written by Dan Fratini. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Dan Fratini at:
nad497@hotmail.com.

About the author:
Dan Fratini is a lifelong military history enthusiast, focusing on the Medieval time period, in particular the Crusades, Mongol Empire, and Byzantine Empire. Dan hails from the Northeastern United States, having studied criminal law in college.

Published online: 04/01/2006.
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