Click to View




12-13 A.H.   /   633-634 A.D.

Khalid ibn Sa'id posted on Syrian border, 12 A.H. 633 A.D.

THE campaign in Syria opened under a very different Khalid son of Sa'id, at least according to Seif, one of the oldest authorities. An early convert, and as such an exile to Abyssinia, he held high place as a confessor of the Faith. Employed as envoy in the south, he was forced to retreat in the turmoil following the Prophet's death, and now claimed fresh command. Although 'Omar (whom, to be sure, he had maligned) doubted his fitness, Abu Bekr overcome by importunity, sent him to rally the friendly tribes on the Syrian frontier; but unless attacked he was to take no forward step. The Greeks, in the hope of capturing his camels, summoned their Bedawi allies and assumed a threatening attitude. Khalid was thereupon permitted to advance, yet cautiously and so as to allow no danger in his rear. Proceeding onwards to the Dead Sea, he routed there a Syrian column under the Byzantine general Bahan (Baänes); but finding himself so far away, he called urgently for reinforcements.

'Ikrima sent to his support.

Just then the Muslim troops, having crushed apostasy in the south, were returning in great numbers to Medina, and so were available for any other service. 'Ikrima, son of Abu Jahl and Al-Welid ibn Okba, were despatched in haste to support Khalid in the north, whilst a Holy War was proclaimed at Medina, and other Emirs appointed over the levies, for (according to this narrator) it was now that Abu Bekr first thought of conquering Syria.


Khalid ibn Sa'id defeated at Merj Soffar, near Sea of Tiberias.

Emboldened by these reinforcements, Khalid ibn Sa'id hastened in the early spring to gain the first laurels of the campaign. Forgetful of his Master's caution, he was in his eagerness decoyed by Bahan towards Damascus. He had reached as far as Merj as-Soffar to the east of the Sea of Tiberias, when the enemy closed in upon his rear and cut off his retreat. His son Sa'id was amongst the slain, and Khalid fled with the remnant of his army for Medina.

Variant accounts.

This expedition of Khalid ibn Sa'id rests, as has been said, upon one authority, that of Seif. This Seif, however—he lived in the latter half of the eighth century A.D.—has rather a weakness for ascribing doughty deeds to the fathers in the Faith, and Khalid, who was one of these, was of the same mind. But it is difficult to believe that the Muslims penetrated to Damascus on this occasion, and there may be some confusion with a battle fought there later. Moreover, the other authorities give a different account of the affair. They say that the oppositions of 'Omar was such that Khalid did not leave Arabia, but was superseded in his command, his place being taken by Yezid, a son of Abu Sufyan.

Divisions of army.

The army was in three divisions of 5000 men each, the commanders of two of these being Shurahbil son of Hasana (his mother) and the redoubtable 'Amr ibn al-'As. The last, if any, was commander-in-chief de facto if not de jure. To each of these divisions one of the districts of Syria was assigned as its field of operations. 'Amr was to make for Ayla, at the head of the Gulf of Akaba, and thence invade southern Syria or Palestine. Yezid and Shurahbil were to make first for Tebuk, whence the latter was to invade central Syria, whilst the former pushed on towards Damascus1. Mu'awiya, the future Caliph, bore the standard of his brother Yezid—a presage of the higher dignity which awaited him. Khalid ibn Sa'id is said to have joined as

1 Syria, under the Muslims, perhaps from the time of 'Omar, was divided into five military districts, each called a jund viz.- Kinnasrin (Chalcis), Hims (district of Emesa), Damascus, El-Urduun or the Jordan (on either side of that river down to the Dead Sea), and Filastin or Palestine, in the south and west up to Carmel. These names are used proleptically by the Arab historians in speaking of the earliest period.


a volunteer Shurahbil's detachment. The nomination of the three was made in the second month (Safar) of the year 13 A.H., April 634 A.D.

Abu 'Obeida.

As fresh volunteers arrived in Medina, they were sent on to the support of the three commanders. Abu 'Obeida the son of Al-Jarrah appears to have been at the head of one of these supporting columns; and the dislike to regard a companion of such eminence as second in command may have given rise to another account according to which there were in all, not three, but four columns sent to the invasion of Syria, Abu 'Obeida being even regarded as holding supreme command over the others. However that may be, the invading army soon amounted to 24,000 men. This included a corps of observation under 'Ikrima.

Syrian army.

The force thus brought together differed altogether in composition from the army of Al-'Irak. That in the main consisted of Bedawi tribes, which flocked in thousands to the banners of Al-Muthanna and Khalid; the men of Mecca and Medina amongst them were comparatively few; for most had returned to their homes after the battle of Al Yemama. In the Syrian army, on the contrary, there are reckoned at least a thousand "Companions," i.e. men who had seen and conversed with the Prophet, and no fewer than a hundred of the famous 300 of Bedr. These enrolled themselves at pleasure under the chief of their choice; but once enrolled, they yielded to that leader implicit obedience; while he, on his part, was bound to consult their views and wishes on all occasions of importance. Sheikhs of renown who but a few years before had wielded the whole power of Mecca, and haughty chieftains of high descent, now joined with alacrity the column of anyone into whose hands the Caliph was pleased to present the banner of command, however young or inferior to themselves in dignity. And the whole force, thus formed in separate detachments, held itself at the absolute disposal of the Commander of the Faithful.

The send-off.

Duly sensible of the gravity of the enterprise—nothing short of measuring swords with the Emperor—the Caliph strained every nerve to meet it. He had thrown down the gauntlet, and was waging war at one and the same time with the Potentates both of the East and of the West. The brigades now formed for this great venture were pitched one


after another on the plain of the Jurf at a little distance from Medina on the track leading to the North; and as each was ready to march the Caliph went on foot by the side of its mounted leader, and gave him thus his farewell commands:—

"Men," he would say1, "I have ten orders to give you, which you must observe loyally: Deceive none and steal from none; betray none and mutilate none; kill no child, nor woman, nor aged man; neither bark nor burn the date palms; cut not down fruit trees nor destroy crops; slaughter not flocks, cattle, nor camels except for food. You will fall in with some men with shaven crowns; smite them thereon with the sword. You will also meet with men living in cells; leave them alone in that to which they have devoted themselves."

Instructions of a more general character were given to the leader,—to promise good government to the invaded people, and to keep his promise; not to say much at a time and always to be straightforward; to respect ambassadors, but not to detain them long lest they became spies; to preserve secrecy where necessary; to make the round of sentinels by night and by day; and never to be slack.

Favouring circumstances.

The entrance of the Muslims into Syria was much facilitated by a circumstance which had occurred shortly before. The Byzantine Emperor had been in the habit of remitting to the Arab tribes in the south of Palestine an annual subsidy; but from motives of economy, rendered necessary by the expenses incurred in the war with Persia, this had but lately been withdrawn. The tribes, therefore, considered themselves free from their allegiance and threw in their lot with the invaders. The people of Syria, too, apart from the religious persecution to which they had been subjected, suffered from increased taxation, and in consequence remained passive spectators of the invasion of their country, hoping more, indeed, from an occupation by the Arabs, who abstained from pillage, and whose rule

1 One account makes Abu Bekr address these words to Usama (see p. 9), another to Yezid. In one the two last clauses—the injunctions to slay monks and spare hermits—are omitted. As to the other points, cf. Deut. xx. 14, 19.


was mild and tolerant, than from the continuance of the status quo.

The first encounter.

The first encounter apparently took place in the 'Araba, or valley between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Akaba, and ended in the defeat of a force of 3000 Greeks. On hearing of the invasion, Sergius, the governor of Palestine, hastened from Cęsarea with a small force of three hundred men. He fell in with 'Amr at a point not far from Gaza, an his little company was cut to pieces and he himself slain. These victories were the fruits of surprise, and the cautious 'Amr, instead of pushing on, fell back to the 'Araba, sending Yezid, Abu 'Obeida, and Shurahbil into the Belka and the Hauran, whilst he himself waited for reinforcements from Medina.

Khalid transferred to Syria.

To Abu Bekr the invasion of Syria was of much more importance than that of Al-'Irak; he therefore resolved to transfer Khalid from the latter to the West. This mandate disconcerted Khalid at the first. He set it down to 'Omar, who, envying him the conquest of Al-'Irak, would the snatch it from his hand. There was reason for the fear. But had Abu Bekr lived, it had been otherwise, for his instructions were:—"Take with thee half the army and leave Al-Muthanna half. When the Lord shall give thee victory in Syria, then thou shalt return to the command in Al-'Irak." Reconciled by the assurance, and loyal to his Chief, Khalid began by selecting the Companions and flower of the force which should accompany him to Syria. Al-Muthanna insisted that the division should be equal, and was at last conciliated by securing a good portion of the Veterans. The strength of either moiety was about 9000. Al-Muthanna accompanied the great General whom he had served so loyally, to the border the desert, and taking a last farewell, retraced his steps Al-Hira.

Marches across the Syrian desert.

The authorities differ as to the route which Khalid followed, but on two points there is general agreement, the first, that his starting point was 'Ain at-Tamr, in the desert to the west of the Euphrates and due south of Hit; second, that the latter half of the journey was from Arak or Urak (near Palmyra), Tadmor (Palmyra), and Karyatein (Cariatein) to Merj Rahit: (the meadow just outside of


The route followed

Damascus). The point in dispute is whether he passed from 'Ain at-Tamr to Arak via Dumat al-Jandal (as Sir William Muir, following Ibn al-Athir, believed), or by a direct north-westerly march (as M. de Goeje, after weighing the evidence of the various sources, concluded). This much is certain that the untraced part of the route included a long march through waterless desert—between two points called respectively Korakir and Suwa, of which, however, the sites are not known. Ibn al-Athir thus describes this daring achievement:—Khalid reached Korakir (a watering-place belonging to the Kelb tribe) and bethought him how he should proceed to Suwa, a desert journey of five days. He found a guide whose name was Rafi', son of 'Omeira, of the tribe of Tai', who warned him that to travel with horses and baggage was impossible. "For, by Allah, even single horsemen fear to follow this track." Khalid replied: "There is no other way, if we are to fetch a compass round the Greeks and not let them cut us off from succouring our friends." So he ordered the leader of each company to take water for five days, and to deprive a sufficient number of the best camels of water, and then let them drink once and again until they could hold no more. Next they must tie up the camels' ears and bind their lips so that they should not ruminate. So haply might the water last. At each stage across the wilderness, ten such camels were slain for each troop of a hundred lances. The water drawn from their bodies was mixed with their milk for the horses. On the fifth day the supply was at an end. When they had reached the neighbourhood of Al-'Alamein (the two waymarks), where water should have been, the guide cried in despair: "Look if you see the box-thorn; it is about the height of a man sitting." They replied that they could not see any. Then he cried: "To God we belong and unto Him do we return. You are lost, by God! and I am lost along with you" (for his sight had become affected). "Look again, ill be upon you!" So they looked and found one tree. It had been cut down, so that only the root remained. Then they shouted, Allahu Akbar—God is most great. So they dug and found a spring and all drank. "By God!" said the guide, "I never came before to this spring except once with my father when I was a boy."


The truth of this incident is vouched for by two verses of poetry:

How excellent are the two wells of Rafi', and how well he was guided.
He crossed the desert from Korakir to Suwa.
In a five days' march, which, when an army makes, it weeps. Never before you had there made it visible mortal.

And effects junction with Syrian army, iv. v. 13 A.H. June, July 634.

On coming within sight of Damascus at a point some four leagues to the north-east on the track leading from Emesa under the eastern declivities of Anti-Libanus, Khalid paused for a moment to wave a banner, a symbol of the speedy occupation of the country to which he confidently looked forward. The eminence on which he stood still bears the name Thaniyat al-'Okab—the Pass of the Banner1. It was the very spot from which the Arabian Prophet some fifty years earlier had obtained his first and only view of the Green City.

Passing under the walls of Damascus, to the astonishment of some Ghassanid tribesmen, who were celebrating a festival—either Easter or Pentecost—and having, it is said, had some communication with the Prefect or Bishop of the City, Khalid was not long in reaching Bosra, where he joined Yezid, Shurahbil, and Abu 'Obeida. The capitulation of Bosra was accepted on the verbal promise of the governor, and the four generals moved southwards to join 'Amr, who had meantime remained stationary in the 'Araba.

The two armies compared.

Sir William Muir gives the following description of the opposing forces:—The Byzantine army numbered 240,0002, of whom a portion were felons released for the occasion, and others chained in line that they might not fly, or in token rather of resolve to die. Such are the exaggerated, and it may be fanciful, rumours handed down as, no doubt, current in the Muslim ranks. But whatever abatement is made from them, so much we may readily accept, that the army with which Heraclius sought to stay the surging tide of Saracen invasion must needs have been very large. We may also believe that though devoid of union, loyalty, and valour, was well appointed, and elated by its achievements in the Persian war. In discipline and combined movement, and

1 Or the Eagle's Pass. On Baedeker's map (after Wetstein) it is named Teniyet Abu 'l-'Ata.

2 One of the oldest Arab authorities gives l00,000.


also in equipment, the Byzantine must vastly have surpassed the Arab force. But the Bedawi horse excelled in celerity and dash. Their charge, if light, was galling, and so rapidly delivered that ere the surprise was over, the troop itself might be out of sight.

The Greek army,

The Byzantine army, it is true, had Bedawi auxiliaries as numerous, perhaps, as the whole Muslim army. But their spirit widely differed. The fealty of the Syrian Arab was lax and loose. Christian in name, the yoke of his faith sat lightly on him. Indeed, throughout the empire, Christianity was eaten up of strife and rancour. With reinforcements came a troop of Monks and Bishops, who, bearing banners, waving gold crosses, and shouting that the faith was in jeopardy, sought thus to rouse the passion of the army. The passion roused was often but the scowl of hatred. Bitter schisms then rent the Church, and the cry of the Orthodox for help would strike a far different chord than that of patriotism in the Eutychian and Nestorian breast. Lastly, the social and ancestral associations of the Syrian Bedawi, alien from his Byzantine masters, were in full accord with his brethren from Arabia; and of such instinctive feeling, the invaders knew well to take advantage.

and the Muslims.

With this lukewarm and disunited host, compare the Muslim in its virgin vigour, bound together as one man, and fired with a wild and fanatic fervour to "fight in the way of the Lord," winning thus at one and the same time heavenly favour and worldly fortune. For the survivors there were endless spoil, captive maidens, fertile vales, houses which they builded not, and wells which they had not digged. Should they fall by the sword, there were the Martyr's prize of paradise, and black-eyed "Houries" waiting impatiently for the happy hour. The soldiers' imagination was inflamed by tales of heaven opened on the very battlefield, and the expiring warrior tended by two virgins wiping away the sweat and dust from off his face, and with the wanton graces of paradise drawing him upwards in their fond embrace. Of an army, nerved by this strange combination of incentives, divine and human,—of the flesh and of the spirit, faith and rapine, heavenly devotion and passion for the sex even in the throes of death,—ten might chase a hundred of the half-hearted Greeks. The 40,000 Muslims were stronger far than the 240,000 of the enemy.


The Battle of Ajnadain 28 v. 13 A.H. 31 vii. 634.

The Byzantine army was under the command of Theodore (Tadharik), brother of the Emperor; and the two hosts met on the fatal field of Ajnadain, between Ramleh and Beit Jibrin (Eleutheropolis), on Saturday, the 28th Jumadą I., in the year 13 A.H. (31st July 634 AD.). This date may be regarded as certain. It is otherwise with the situation of Ajnadain, which is variously stated to be in the Hauran on the east of the Jordan, or nothing but another name for Lejjun (Megiddo); for Lejjun is the Latin Legionum, and Ajnadain is from the Arabic jund (army). The latter supposition would imply that the south of Palestine had already been won and that the combatants were now fighting for central Palestine—what was later called the Jordan province; whilst to the former the main objection is that the Greeks would not have devoted such an immense host merely to defend outlying districts peopled for the most part by nomads. It was evidently destined to protect a vital part of the Imperial dominions. The position of Ajnadain, as lying in Palestine between Ratnich and Beit Jibrin, is required by the military situation at the moment, and is confirmed by some contemporary verses, according to which the fugitives after the battle fled for shelter to the walls of Jerusalem1.

One early Arabic author (Al-Biladhuri, d. 279 A.H., 892 A.D.) gives the number of the Greeks in this engagement as 100,000, which may be exaggerated. Theodore, the Emperor's brother, was in supreme command, but Artaban (Aretion) the commandant of Palestine is also mentioned, for example, in the verses referred to above, as well as some others. Almost all the Arabic authors mention an incident of the defeat, which they considered very curious. One of the generals, determined not to survive the defeat, covering his head with his mantle, awaited his end. Theodore fled to Emesa where the Emperor was. He was

1 In the earlier editions of The Caliphate the battle or the Yarmuk was the first great battle fought in Palestine. This order of events is founded upon the narrative of the above-mentioned Seif (adopted by Ibn al-Athir), but it may be due to there being a place of similar name near Ajnadain. In consequence, there has been a good deal of confusion of the two battles. Certain Arab heroes are said sometimes to have perished in one battle, sometimes in the other.


sent to Constantinople in disgrace, from which he did not emerge again. Heraclius retired upon Antioch. For the Muslims a result of the victory was the reduction of Gaza and the surrounding towns. Abu Bekr lived to see the first great step taken towards the conquest of the province he most desired to see brought under the sway of the Arabs. It was the first-fruits of the wisdom he had shown in transferring Khalid from Al-'Irak to Syria. He died a month later on the 22nd Jumadą II.

Towns capitulate.

The death of Abu Bekr did not make much difference to the army in Syria. 'Omar, whom he nominated as his successor, had long had a large share in the supreme authority; and greatly as the first and second Caliphs differed in many respects, there was no break in the continuity of their foreign policy1. The capture of Gaza was followed by the siege of Sebaste (Samaria) and Neapolis (Shechem, Nabulus), the city of the Samaritans. Both of these capitulated; and other towns taken by the Muslims at this time were Lydda, Emmaus, Jaffa, and Beit Jibrin. The lives and goods of the inhabitants were spared; but the poll-tax was exacted from the men, and the land-tax (kharaj) imposed on the soil. Up to this point the Muslim army in Syria had acted as a unit, apparently under the chief command of 'Amr; but now their forces divided, and 'Amr remained to complete the conquest of Palestine (Filastin), whilst Khalid pushed forward into the province of the Jordan. Evidence of the success which waited upon the Muslim arms may be read in a sermon delivered by Sophronius, Archbishop of Jerusalem, on Christmas Day, 634, in which he bewails the inability of his people to make their wonted pilgrimage to Bethlehem on account of the country being in the hands of the Saracens, and the scene of the Nativity itself being (it was said) besieged by them.

Battles at Beisan and Fihl.

Meantime the wreck of Theodore's army, reinforced by fresh troops, had re-formed in the direction of Beisan (Bethshean, Scythopolis), in the Jordan valley south of the Sea of Galilee, having a bridge over that river in their ear. They attempted to stay the Muslim advance by damming up the numerous mountain streams which flow across the plain, thus turning the country into a swamp, so

1 See, however, p. 143 ff.


that the horses of the Arabs slipped or sank, and their main arms were put out of action. The stratagem, however, told against the Greeks themselves, for if the enemy could not advance, they themselves could not retreat. Details are wanting; but once more the Arabs, under the invincible Khalid, gained the upper hand, and the Greeks were driven across the Jordan and took up a fresh position at Fihl or Fahl, the ancient Pella, which lay on an eminence overlooking the River to the south-east. After a short investment this place also capitulated on the same terms as Sebaste and Neapolis had done. This happened about one month from the close of the year 131. The province of Gaulanitis (Jaulan or Decapolis) was quickly overrun, and the Muslim armies found themselves within two days of the Capital of Syria, Damascus. Here they seem to have rested for some time, awaiting fresh instructions from the Caliph. The country furnished abundance of fodder and supplies; and the people of the Arab kings of Ghassan were not the friends, even if they had been the dependents, of the Greek Emperor.

It may have been here that the Muslims suffered a reverse which, in the narratives of Seif and other ancient sources, is placed at the beginning of the conquest2. Khalid ibn Sa'id had ventured from the main body as far as Merj as-Soffar ('the Birds' Meadow'), one of the meadows lying outside Damascus, between that city and the Khaulan district. Here he was surprised by a force of 4000 Greeks. The fight was furious and fatal. The blood of the slain is said to have set the neighbouring mill-wheels a-going. Khalid ibn Sa'id himself was probably killed. He had just celebrated his wedding with the widow of 'Ikrima, who was killed at Ajuadain, and his bride is said to have joined in the fray and with a tent-post slain seven of the enemy. The date of the encounter is given as the first day (1st Moharram) of the year 14 A.H. (25th February 635)3.

1 The narrative of Seif (followed by Ibn al-Athir) places this battle after the capture of Damascus.

2 Cf. p. 62 ff. and p. 93

3 The date given by Seif (p. 63) is thus one year too early.

The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline, and Fall [Table of Contents]

Click to View