Battle of Yarmuk

Byzantine troops in Battle of Yarmuk
Byzantine troops in Battle of Yarmuk

The Battle of Yarmuk (a tributary of the Jordan River), close to the present-day border of Syria and Jordan, was a decisive battle between the Byzantine Empire and the rapidly expanding Arab Islamic empire. In the 630s as Arab forces advanced out of the Arabian Peninsula into Iraq in the east and greater Syria in the northeast they encroached deep inside Byzantine territory.

When they lay siege to Damascus and other major cities, the Byzantine emperor Heraclius (r. 610–641) grew alarmed and raised a large army of Greek and native Arabs in the eastern Mediterranean to defeat the Muslim army. However the Arab Islamic forces of Bedu tribespeople were often joined by Arab volunteers, many of them Christians, who had become disaffected by Byzantine policies and high taxation.

The able Arab commander Khalid ibn al-Walid had already achieved major military victories in the Arabian Peninsula and was a keen strategist. The Arabs also enjoyed the advantages of a new dynamic religious faith, mobility, and a willingness to fight in the heat of the midday with scant water supplies.

The Arab forces only numbered about 25,000; although the commonly given number of 90,000 Byzantine troops is an exaggeration, the Byzantines clearly outnumbered the Arabs. In August 636, when the Arab and Byzantine forces met along the Yarmuk River, which is traversed by deep ravines, the forces were spread out over several kilometers. The fighting lasted for six days and several times seemed to shift in favor of the Byzantines.

Muslim troops defending their position
Muslim troops defending their position

In keeping with Arab tradition, women and children accompanied the forces in wartime and on several well-documented occasions the women urged the men forward and even marched toward the Greeks armed with swords and tent posts. Fifty-year-old Hind Bint Utba, who had already earned a reputation as a formidable force in the Islamic community, marshaled troops in defense of their positions.

Allegedly, the Greeks were so startled by the sight of armed women that some jumped over a cliff at the edge of the battlefield. By the end of the sixth day of fighting the Arabs were clearly victorious and, with no backup plans, the Byzantine forces retreated into the Anatolian Peninsula.

The victory at Yarmuk paved the way for the conquest of Damascus and then Jerusalem in 638. The inhabitants of Jerusalem handed the city, considered sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, directly to Caliph Omar. The newly gained territories of the eastern Mediterranean were consolidated under the Umayyad Caliphate led by Caliph Muaw’iya, Hind’s son, and Damascus was made the new capital.

Battlefield of Yarmuk nowdays
Battlefield of Yarmuk nowdays

Arab forces also went on to conquer Egypt and North Africa. The new Arab Islamic empire assimilated many Byzantine cultural and architectural styles and many of the Arab Christians, who were not forced to convert, gradually adopted Arabic as the primary language.

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