Sunday, February 27, 2011

Great Byzantine defeats - Part II - The Battle of Yarmouk

The Battle of Yarmouk (August, 636)

Until the first decades of the 7th century, Arabs, who have been neighbors of the Byzantine Empire for centuries, were not a very significant political factor. But then, Muhammad united this large group of people, made them a state and brought them Islam. On the wings of the new faith, Arabs have, several years after the prophet's death, started their conquests.

First to be affected were Byzantine Empire and Persia, who just emerged from a long and exhausting war with each other. While Persia succumbed quickly, the Byzantine Empire resisted the invasion of Arabs for a long time.

The fact remains that since their first conflict, in 634, and all the way to the Arabian siege of Constantinople (674-678), therefore almost half a century, Byzantium didn’t have any significant victory.

One of the most important events in that period was the famous battle near the Yarmouk River in August 636, in which the Arabs completely crushed Byzantine army.

After several defeats suffered by Theodore, brother of emperor Heraclius (ruled from 610-641), the emperor sent great but diverse army led by Theodore Trithyrius. In this army there were Armenians, Persians, even Arabian mercenaries.

According to the chronicler Theophanes, each of the two armies had 40,000 troops, but some modern researchers, after reading all the available resources, claim that the Byzantines and their allies were much more: apparently, about 100,000.

The day was warm, a real summer day. The humidity was pressing down while the wind carried the clouds of sand and dust to the one of the driest places in the desert that Arabian military leaders have cleverly chosen.

Aware that, for the first time, they are facing numerous and serious army, the Arabs have shown that they are up for it. Leaving aside the former mutual rivalry, the military leaders have chosen the most competent person among them to be their Commander in Chief of the Muslim army. They have chosen Khalid ibn al-Walid, who, with his intellect and courage, proved to be better than the others were. 

The Battle of Yarmouk was one of the bloodiest in history of Arabian wars.

Under pressure from the Byzantine cavalry, the Muslims had to withdraw three times, but they always returned to the battle because the women who stood behind them didn’t allowed them to flee.

Eventually, Khalid managed to cut the enemy's cavalry from the infantry, and strike with all forces the Byzantine camp, set between the river and nearby hills. With unstoppable rush and thunderous cry "Allahu Akbar" (Allah is the Greatest), which echoed all around, "the sons of the desert" completely shattered the Byzantine troops.

Neither crosses nor chants of Byzantine priests, who were singing church hymns, helped raising the morale of Roman soldiers. Some sources mention and disunity in the colorful Byzantine army, and that in the decisive moment the Arabian mercenaries changed sides.

Christians defeat was complete, since one part of their soldiers drowned in the river, while others were killed by Muslim sword.

With the victory that was won on the Yarmouk river, the Arabs have secured success in the subsequent conquest.

Heraclius, who was already in his sixties and didn’t participate in this battle, was aware of what this defeat means. This confrontation with the Arabs was in fact a battle for Syria, one of the most important Byzantine provinces. With dignity in defeat, in the moments when he saw that his life's work is breaking apart –  just a few years before he succeeded to recover the province from the Persians – the emperor Heraclius had enough strength to utter the proud pathos " Farewell, a long farewell to Syria, my fair province. Thou art an infidel's (enemy's) now. Peace be with you, O Syria – what a beautiful land you will be for the enemy"

Soon most Syrian cities surrendered themselves to the victorious Arabian troops, almost without a struggle, and the very capital Antioch fell into the hands of a new master.

The greatest temptations of Byzantium begin from here.

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