Saracens In Syria, Parts I and II

Saracen Conquest Of Syria
Author: Ockley, Simon

Part I.


Abu-Bekr was chosen caliph, or khalif (signifying successor) to Mahomet,
but died after a reign of two years. His successor, Caliph Omar, continued
with unabated ardor the efforts for the spread of Islam which Abu-Bekr had
initiated by sending an invading expedition into Persia, and another into the
Roman provinces of Syria.

The victorious armies of the Crescent were by this time far advanced
beyond the frontiers of Arabia, and with fanatic zeal endeavoring to obey the
prophet's injunction to Islamize mankind. "Allah il Allah!" ("God is God!")
was their inspiring war-cry, and "Mahomet is the prophet of God" their
watchword. With cimeter and Koran in either hand they offered the conquered
"Infidels" "Islam or the sword."

The Oxus, which alone separated Saracen territory from that of Syria,
was easily passed. Damascus was conquered, and the impetuous spirit of the
Moslems led them rapidly on to Heliopolis, then to Hems or Emesa. In
subtlety they were no less practised than they were well proved in courage,
and by many arts they succeeded in creating diversions among their
adversaries, and often in enlisting them under the Saracen standard. By
making the Syrians understand something of their language, customs, and
religion, they prepared them for assimilation when once subjected. In some
cases dissensions among the Syrians led them to invoke the intervention of
those who came to subjugate them.

In less than two years the Saracens had conquered the Syrian plain and
valley, but still they reproached themselves for loss of time, and with
redoubled zeal pressed on to new victories. The forces arrayed against them
were greatly augmented both from Asia and Europe, but the disciplined
veterans of the Roman emperor Heraclius, and the recruits from the provinces,
vainly confronted the Arabs, whose valor was of the nature of religious
frenzy, which no assault could cause to quail. They won, at fearful cost to
themselves, but with greater loss to their enemies at the battle of Yermouk,
and there caused the Roman army to abandon active warfare against them.

It was then open to the victors to select their own objective among the
Syrian cities, and following the counsel of Ali, they entered at once upon
the siege of Jerusalem, although they held that city next to Mecca and Medina
in veneration.

After a siege of four months Jerusalem capitulated, her defenders having
no rest from the ceaseless assaults of the besiegers. Hard work still lay
before the Saracens in Syria; but after the reduction of Aleppo, which cost
several months' siege, with great loss of lives to the invaders, they passed
on to Antioch and other strongholds, until, one by one, all had been subdued;
the surrender of Caesarea completing the great conquest and the subjection of
Syria to the rule of the Caliph.

Heraclius, wearied with a constant and uninterrupted succession of ill
news, which like those of Job came every day treading upon the heels of each
other, grieved at the heart to see the Roman Empire, once the mistress of the
world, now become the scorn and spoil of barbarian insolence, resolved, if
possible, to put an end to the outrages of the Saracens once for all. With
this view he raised troops in all parts of his dominions, and collected so
considerable an army as since the first invasion of the Saracens had never
appeared in Syria - not much unlike one engaged in single combat who,
distrustful of his own abilities and fearing the worst, summons together his
whole strength in hopes of ending the dispute with one decisive blow. Troops
were sent to every tenable place which this inundation of the Saracens had
not as yet reached, particularly to Caesarea and all the sea-coast of Syria,
as Tyre and Sidon, Accah, Joppa, Tripolis, Beyrout, and Tiberias, besides
another army to defend Jerusalem. The main body, which was designed to give
battle to the whole force of the Saracens, was commanded by one Mahan, an
Armenian, whom I take to be the very same that the Greek historians call
Manuel. To his generals the Emperor gave the best advice, charging them to
behave themselves like men, and especially to take care to avoid all
differences or dissensions. Afterward, when he had expressed his
astonishment at this extraordinary success of the Arabs, who were inferior to
the Greeks, in number, strength, arms, and discipline, after a short silence
a grave man stood up and told him that the reason of it was that the Greeks
had walked unworthily of their Christian profession, and changed their
religion from what it was when Jesus Christ first delivered it to them,
injuring and oppressing one another, taking usury, committing fornication,
and fomenting all manner of strife and variance among themselves. The
Emperor answered, that he was "too sensible of it." He then told them that
he had thoughts of continuing no longer in Syria, but, leaving his army to
their management, he purposed to withdraw to Constantinople. In answer to
which they represented to him how much his departure would reflect upon his
honor, what a lessening it would be to him in the eyes of his own subjects,
and what occasion of triumph it would afford to his enemies the Saracens.
Upon this they took their leave and prepared for their march. Besides a vast
army of Asiatics and Europeans, Mahan was joined by Al Jabalah Ebn Al Ayham,
King of the Christian Arabs, who had under him sixty thousand men. These
Mahan commanded to march always in the front, saying that there was nothing
like diamond to cut diamond. This great army, raised for the defence of
Christian people, was little less insupportable than the Saracens themselves,
committing all manner of disorder and outrage as they passed along;
especially when they came to any of those places which had made any agreement
with the Saracens, or surrendered to them, they swore and cursed and reviled
the inhabitants with reproachful language, and compelled them by force to
bear them company. The poor people excused their submission to the Saracens
by their inability to defend themselves, and told the soldiers that if they
did not approve of what they had done, they ought themselves to have come
sooner to their relief.

The news of this great army having reached the Saracens while they were
at Hems, filled them full of apprehensions, and put them to a very great
strait as to the best course to pursue in this critical juncture. Some of
them would very willingly have shrunk back and returned to Arabia. This
course, they urged, presented a double advantage: on the one hand they would
be sure of speedy assistance from their friends; and on the other, in that
barren country the numerous army of the enemy must needs be reduced to great
scarcity. But Abu Obeidah, fearing lest such a retreat might by the Caliph
be interpreted cowardice in him, durst not approve of this advice. Others
would rather die in the defence of those stately buildings, fruitful fields,
and pleasant meadows they had won by the sword, than voluntarily to return to
their former starving condition. They proposed therefore to remain where
they were and wait the approach of the enemy. But Kaled disapproved of their
remaining in their present position, as it was too near Caesarea, where
Constantine, the Emperor's son, lay with forty thousand men; and recommended
that they should march to Yermouk, where they might reckon on assistance from
the Caliph. As soon as Constantine heard of their departure, he sent a
chiding letter to Mahan, and bade him mend his pace. Mahan advanced, but
made no haste to give the Saracens battle, having received orders from the
Emperor to make overtures of peace, which were no sooner proposed than
rejected by Abu Obeidah. Several messages passed between them. The
Saracens, endeavoring to bring their countryman Jabalah Ebn Al Ayham, with
his Christian Arabs, to a neutrality, were answered that they were obliged to
serve the Emperor, and resolved to fight. Upon this Kaled, contrary to the
general advice, prepared to give him battle before Mahan should come up,
although the number of his men - who, however, were the elite of the whole
army - was very inconsiderable, urging that the Christians, being the army of
the devil, had no advantage by their numbers against the Saracens, the army
of God. In choosing his men, Kaled had called out more Ansers ^1 than
Mohajerins, ^2 which, when it was observed, occasioned some grumbling, as it
then was doubted whether it was because he respected them most or because he
had a mind to expose them to the greater danger, that he might favor the
others. Kaled told them that he had chosen them without any such regard,
only because they were persons he could depend upon, whose valor he had
proved, and who had the faith rooted in their hearts. One Cathib, happening
to be called after his brother Sahal, and looking upon himself to be the
better man, resented it as a high affront, and roundly abused Kaled. The
latter, however, gave him very gentle and modest answers, to the great
satisfaction of all, especially of Abu Obeidah, who, after a short
contention, made them shake hands. Kaled, indeed, was admirable in this
respect, that he knew no less how to govern his passions than to command the
army; though, to most great generals, the latter frequently proves the easier
task of the two. In this hazardous enterprise his success was beyond all
expectation, for he threw Jabalah's Arabs into disorder and killed a great
many, losing very few of his own men on the field, besides five prisoners,
three of whom were Yezid Ebn Abu Sofian, Rafi Ebn Omeira, and Derar Ebn Al
Alzwar, all men of great note. Abu Obeidah sent Abdallah Ebn Kort with an
express to Omar, acquainting him with their circumstances, begging his
prayers and some fresh recruits of Unitarians, a title they glory in, as
reckoning themselves the only asserters of the unity of the Deity. Omar and
the whole court were extremely surprised, but comforted themselves with the
promises made to them in the Koran, which seemed now to be all they had left
to trust to. To encourage the people, he went into the pulpit and showed
them the excellency of fighting for the cause of God, and afterward returned
an answer to Abu Obeidah, full of such spiritual consolation as the Koran,
could afford. Omar commanded Abdallah, as soon as ever he came near the camp
and before he delivered the letter, to cry out, "Good news!" in order to
comfort the Mussulmans and ease them in some measure of the perplexing
apprehensions they labored under. As soon as he received this letter and
message, together with Omar's blessing, he prepared to set out on his return
to the army; but suddenly he remembered that he had omitted to pay his
respects at Mahomet's tomb, which it was very uncertain whether he should
ever see again. Upon this he hastened to Ayesha's house (the place where
Mahomet was buried), and found her sitting by the tomb with Ali and Abbas,
and Ali's two sons, Hasan and Hosein, one sitting upon Ali's lap, the other
upon Abbas'. Ali was reading the chapter of beasts, being the sixth of the
Koran, and Abbas the chapter of Hud, which is the eleventh. Abdallah, having
paid his respects to Mahomet, Ali asked him whether he did not think of
going? He answered, "Yes," but he feared he should not get to the army
before the battle, which yet he greatly wished to do, if possible. "If you
desired a speedy journey," answered Ali, "why did not you ask Omar to pray
for you? Don't you know that the prayers of Omar will not be turned back?
Because the apostle of God said of him: 'If there were a prophet to be
expected after me, it would be Omar, whose judgment agrees with the book of
God.' The prophet said of him besides, 'If an [universal] calamity were to
come from heaven upon mankind, Omar would escape from it.' Wherefore, if
Omar prayed for thee, thou shalt not stay long for an answer from God."
Abdallah told him that he had not spoken one word in praise of Omar but what
he was very sensible of before. Only he desired to have not only his prayers
but also those of all the Mussulmans, and especially of those who were at
the tomb of the prophet. At these words all present lifted up their hands
to heaven, and Ali said, "O God, I beseech thee, for the sake of this chosen
apostle, in whose name Adam prayed, and thou answeredst his petition and
forgavest his sins, that thou wouldst grant to Abdallah Ebn Kort a safe and
speedy return, and assist the followers of thy prophet with help, O thou who
alone art great and munificent!" Abdallah set out immediately, and
afterward returned to the camp with such incredible speed that the Saracens
were surprised. But their admiration ceased when he informed them of Omar's
blessing and Ali's prayers at Mahomet's tomb.

[Footnote 1: Those of Medina are called by that name because they helped
Mahomet in his flight from Mecca.]

[Footnote 2: Those that fled with him are called Mohajerins; by these names
the inhabitants of Mecca and Medina are often distinguished.]

Recruits were instantly raised in every part of Arabia to send to the
army. Said Ebn Amir commanded them, having received a flag of red silk at
the hands of Omar, who told him that he gave him that commission in hopes of
his behaving himself well in it; advising him, among other things, not to
follow his appetites, and not forgetting to put him in hopes of further
advancement if he should deserve it. Said thanked him for his advice, adding
that if he followed it he should be saved. "And now," said Said, "as you
have advised me, so let me advise you." "Speak on," said Omar. "I bid you
then [added the other] fear God more than men, and not the contrary; and love
all the Mussulmans as yourself and your family, as well those at a distance
as those near you. And command that which is praiseworthy, and forbid that
which is otherwise." Omar, all the while he spoke, stood looking steadfastly
upon the ground, leaning his forehead upon his staff. Then he lifted up his
head, and the tears ran down his cheeks, and he said, "Who is able to do this
without the divine assistance?" Ali bade Said make good use of the Caliph's
advice and dismissed him. Said, as he marched toward the army, lost his way,
which turned out very unfortunate for the Christians, for by that means he
fell in with the prefect of Amman with five thousand men. Said having cut
all the foot to pieces, the prefect fled with the horse, but was intercepted
by a party which had been sent out under Zobeir from the Saracen camp to
forage. Said at first thought they had fallen together by the ears, and were
fighting among themselves, but when he came up and heard the techir, he was
well satisfied. Zobeir ran the prefect through with a lance; of the rest not
a single man escaped. The Saracens cut off all their heads, then flayed
them, and so carried them upon the points of their lances, presenting a most
horrible spectacle to all that part of the country, till they came to the
army, which received fresh courage by the accession of this reinforcement,
consisting of eight thousand men.

However, their satisfaction was greatly lessened by the loss of the five
prisoners whom Jabalah Ebn Al Ayham had taken. Now it happened that Mahan
desired Abu Obeidah to send one of his officers to him for a conference.
This being complied with, Kaled proffered his services, and being accepted by
Abu Obeidah, by his advice he took along with him a hundred men, chosen out
of the best soldiers in the army. Being met and examined by the out-guards,
the chief of whom was Jabalah Ebn Al Ayham, they were ordered to wait till
the general's pleasure should be known. Mahan would have had Kaled come to
him alone and leave his men behind him. But as Kaled refused to hear of
this, they were commanded as soon as they came near the general's tent to
alight from their horses and deliver their swords; and when they would not
submit to this either, they were at last permitted to enter as they pleased.
They found Mahan sitting upon a throne, and seats prepared for themselves.
But they refused to make use of them, and, removing them, sat down upon the
ground. Mahan asked them the reason of their doing so, and taxed them with
want of breeding. To which Kaled answered that that was the best breeding
which was from God, and what God has prepared for us to sit down upon is
purer than your tapestries, defending their practice from a sentence of their
prophet Mahomet, backed with this text of the Koran, "Out of it [meaning the
earth] we have created you, and to it we shall return you, and out of it we
shall bring you another time." Mahan began then to expostulate with Kaled
concerning their coming into Syria, and all those hostilities which they had
committed there. Mahan seemed satisfied with Kaled's way of talking, and
said that he had before that time entertained a quite different opinion of
the Arabs, having been informed that they were a foolish, ignorant people.
Kaled confessed that that was the condition of most of them till God sent
their prophet Mahomet to lead them into the right way, and teach them to
distinguish good from evil, and truth from error. During this conference
they would argue very coolly for a while, and then again fly into a violent
passion. At last it happened that Kaled told Mahan that he should one day
see him led with a rope about his neck to Omar to be beheaded. Upon this
Mahan told him that the received law of all nations secured ambassadors from
violence, which he supposed had encouraged him to take that indecent freedom;
however, he was resolved to chastise his insolence in the persons of his
friends, the five prisoners, who should instantly be beheaded. At this
threat Kaled, bidding Mahan attend to what he was about to say, swore by God,
by Mahomet, and the holy temple of Mecca, that if he killed them he should
die by his hands, and that every Saracen present should kill his man, be the
consequences what they might, and immediately rose from his place and drew
his sword. The same was done by the rest of the Saracens. But when Mahan
told him that he would not meddle with him for the aforesaid reasons, they
sheathed their swords and talked calmly again. And then Mahan made Kaled a
present of the prisoners, and begged of him his scarlet tent, which Kaled had
brought with him, and pitched hard by. Kaled freely gave it him, and refused
to take anything in return (though Mahan gave him his choice of whatever he
liked best), thinking his own gift abundantly repaid by the liberation of the

Both sides now prepared for that fight which was to determine the fate
of Syria. The particulars are too tedious to be related, for they continued
fighting for several days. Abu Obeidah resigned the whole command of the
army to Kaled, standing himself in the rear, under the yellow flag which
Abu-Bekr had given him at his first setting forth into Syria, being the same
which Mahomet himself had fought under at the battle of Khaibar. Kaled
judged this the most proper place for Abu Obeidah, not only because he was no
extraordinary soldier, but because he hoped that the reverence for him would
prevent the flight of the Saracens, who were now like to be as hard put to it
as at any time since they first bore arms. For the same reason the women
were placed in the rear. The Greeks charged so courageously and with such
vast numbers that the right wing of the Saracen horse was quite borne down
and cut off from the main body of the army. But no sooner did they turn
their backs than they were attacked by the women, who used them so ill and
loaded them with such plenty of reproaches that they were glad to return
every man to his post, and chose rather to face the enemy than endure the
storm of the women. However, they with much difficulty bore up, and were so
hard pressed by the Greeks that occasionally they were fain to forget what
their generals had said a little before the fight, who told them that
paradise was before them and the devil and hell-fire behind them. Even Abu
Sofian, who had himself used that very expression, was forced to retreat, and
was received by one of the women with a hearty blow over the face with a
tent-pole. Night at last parted the two armies at the very time when the
victory began to incline to the Saracens, who had been thrice beaten back,
and as often forced to return by the women. Then Abu Obeidah said at once
those prayers which belonged to two several hours. His reason for this was,
I suppose, a wish that his men, of whom he was very tender, should have the
more time to rest. Accordingly, walking about the camp he looked after the
wounded men, oftentimes binding up their wounds with his own hands, telling
them that their enemies suffered the same pain that they did, but had not
that reward to expect from God which they had.

Among other single combats, of which several were fought between the two
armies, it chanced that Serjabil Ebn Shahhnah was engaged with an officer of
the Christians, who was much too strong for him. The reason which our author
assigns for this is, because Serjabil was wholly given up to watching and
fasting. Derar, thinking he ought not to stand still and see the prophet's
secretary killed, drew his dagger, and while the combatants were over head
and ears in dust, came behind the Christian and stabbed him to the heart.
The Saracens gave Derar thanks for his service, but he said that he would
receive no thanks but from God alone. Upon this a dispute arose between
Serjabil and Derar concerning the spoil of this officer. Derar claimed it as
being the person that killed him; Serjabil as having engaged him and tired
him out first. The matter being referred to Abu Obeidah, he proposed the
case to the Caliph, concealing the names of the persons concerned, who sent
him word that the spoil of any enemy was due to him that killed him. Upon
which Abu Obeidah took it from Serjabil and adjudged it to Derar.

Another day the Christian archers did such execution that besides those
Saracens which were killed and wounded in other parts there were seven
hundred which lost each of them one or both of their eyes, upon which account
the day in which that battle was fought is called Yaumo'ttewir, "The Day of
Blinding." And if any of those who lost their eyes that day were afterward
asked by what mischance he was blinded, he would answer that it was not a
mischance, but a token of favor from God, for they gloried as much in those
wounds they received in the defence of their superstition as our enthusiasts
do in what they call persecution, and with much the same reason. Abdallah
Ebn Kort, who was present in all the wars in Syria, says that he never saw so
hard a battle as that which was fought on that day at Yermouk; and though the
generals fought most desperately, yet after all they would have been beaten
if the fight had not been renewed by the women. Caulah, Derar's sister,
being wounded, fell down; but Opheirah revenged her quarrel and struck off
the man's head that did it. Upon Opheirah asking her how she did, she
answered, "Very well with God, but a dying woman." However, she proved to be
mistaken, for in the evening she was able to walk about as if nothing had
happened, and to look after the wounded men.

In the night the Greeks had another calamity added to their misfortune
of losing the victory in the day. It was drawn upon them by their own
inhuman barbarity. There was at Yermouk a gentleman of a very ample
fortune, who had removed thither from Hems for the sake of the sweet
salubrity of its air When Mahan's army came to Yermouk this gentleman used to
entertain the officers and treat them nobly. To requite him for his
courtesy, while they were this day revelling at his house, they bade him
bring out his wife to them, and upon his refusing they took her by force and
abused her all night, and to aggravate their barbarity they seized his little
son and cut his head off. The poor lady took her child's head and carried it
to Mahan, and having given him an account of the outrages committed by his
officers, demanded satisfaction. He took but little notice of the affair,
and put her off with a slight answer; upon which her husband, resolved to
take the first opportunity of being revenged, went privately over to the
Saracens and acquainted them with his design. Returning back to the Greeks,
he told them it was in his power to do them singular service. He therefore
takes a great number of them, and brings them to a great stream, which was
very deep, and only fordable at one place. By his instructions five hundred
of the Saracen horse had crossed over where the water was shallow, and after
attacking the Greeks, in a very little time returned in excellent order by
the same way they came. The injured gentleman calls out and encourages the
Greeks to pursue, who, not at all acquainted with the place, plunged into
the water confusedly and perished in great numbers. In the subsequent
engagements before Yermouk (all of which were in November, 636), the
Christians invariably were defeated, till at last, Mahan's vast army being
broken and dispersed, he was forced to flee, thus leaving the Saracens
masters of the field, and wholly delivered from those terrible apprehensions
with which the news of his great preparations had filled them.

A short time after Abu Obeidah wrote to the Caliph the following letter:

"In the name of the most merciful God, etc.

"This is to acquaint thee that I encamped at Yermouk, where Mahan was
near us with such an army as that the Mussulmans never beheld a greater. But
God, of his abundant grace and goodness, overthrew this multitude and gave us
the victory over them. We killed of them about a hundred and fifty thousand,
and took forty thousand prisoners. Of the Mussulmans were killed four
thousand and thirty, to whom God had decreed the honor of martyrdom. Finding
some heads cut off, and not knowing whether they belonged to the Mussulmans
or Christians, I prayed over them and buried them. Mahan was afterward
killed at Damascus by Nooman Ebn Alkamah. There was one Abu Joaid that
before the battle had belonged to them, having come from Hems; he drowned of
them a great number unknown to any but God. As for those that fled into the
deserts and mountains, we have destroyed them all, and stopped all the roads
and passages, and God has made us masters of their country, and wealth, and
children. Written after the victory from Damascus, where I stay expecting
thy orders concerning the division of the spoil. Fare thee well, and the
mercy and blessing of God be upon thee and all the Mussulmans."

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