Siege of Emesa

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Coordinates: 34°43′23″N 36°42′52″E / 34.723185°N 36.714462°E / 34.723185; 36.714462

Siege of Emesa
Part of the Muslim conquest of Syria
(Arab–Byzantine Wars)
Date December 635–March 636 A.D
Location Emesa, Syria
Result Emesa Captured by Rashidun Caliphate.
Belligerents
Rashidun Caliphate Byzantine empire.
Commanders and leaders
Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah
Khalid ibn al-Walid
Harbees
Strength
15,000 8000
Casualties and losses
235 4,900

The Siege of Emesa was laid by the forces of Rashidun Caliphate from December 635 up until March 636. This led to the Islamic conquest of Emesa, which was a major trading city of the Byzantine Empire in the Levant.

Background[edit]

After a decisive victory at the Battle of Ajnadayn, the Muslim army conquered Damascus after a long siege in September 634 AD. The army continued their march northward and in late 635 AD, Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah sent Khalid ibn Walid with his mobile guard to begin the siege of Emesa and later joined him along the main body of the army. The Byzantine garrisons of Emesa and Qinnasrin made a truce with the Muslim army. It was agreed that Emessa would pay 10,000 dinars and deliver 100 robes of brocade and in return, the Muslim army would not attack Emessa for one year. If, however, any Roman reinforcements arrived to strengthen Emessa's garrisons, then the truce would become defunct. The gates of Emessa were opened as soon as the truce was signed, and thereafter there was free movement of Muslims in and out of the markets of Emesa, advancing the economies of major Byzantine towns. The garrison of Qinnasrin (the ancient Calchis) made the truce on the same terms. However, the governors of Emesa and Qinnasrin made the truce for reasons of expediency. Both hoped that their garrisons would be reinforced by Emperor Heraclius, and as soon as that happened they would repudiate the extortion of the Muslims.[1] Muslim armies raided many cities in northern Syria, as well as the major towns of Hama Shaizar, Afamia (known today as Qalatul-Muzeeq) and Al Ma'arra (now Ma'arrat-un-Numan). One by one, each city and town that fell to the Muslim army surrendered in peace and agreed to pay the jizya.

It was while the Muslims were at Shaizar that they heard of Byzantine reinforcements moving to Qinnasrin and Emesa. This, naturally, led to the invalidation of the truce established by the city of Emesa. The arrival of winter gave the Byzantine garrison a further assurance of success. In their forts they would be better protected from the cold than the Muslim Arabs, who were not used to intense cold, and with only their tents to give them shelter would suffer severely from the Syrian winter.[2] Heraclius wrote to Harbees, the military governor of Emessa, "The food of these people is the flesh of the camel and their drink its milk. They cannot stand the cold. Fight them on every cold day so that none of them is left till the spring."

The siege[edit]

Abu Ubaidah decided to take Emesa first, and thus cleared his rear flank from the enemy before undertaking more serious operations in northern Syria. Consequently, the Muslim army marched to Emesa with Khalid's mobile guard in the lead. On arrival at the city, a short battle was fought between Khalid ibn Walid's mobile guard and the Byzantine garrison of Emesa. The Muslims drove the Byzantine guard back, which forced the Byzantines to withdraw into the fort and close the gates. Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah arrived with the rest of the army and deployed it into four groups opposite the four gates of Emesa:

  1. Masdud Gate (to the southwest)
  2. Tadmur Gate (to the north-east)
  3. Duraib Gate (to the east)
  4. Hud Gate (to the west)

Emesa was a fortified circular-shaped city with a diameter of less than a mile, and it was surrounded by a moat. There was also a citadel atop a hillock inside the fort. Outside the city stretched a fertile plain, broken only on the west by the Orontes River.[3] Abu Ubaidah himself, together with Khalid and his mobile guard, camped on the north side, a short distance from the Rastan Gate. Abu Ubaidah left the siege in the hands of Khalid, who thus acted as the virtual commander of the Muslims for this operation. It was now late November or early December, and the winter was at its peak. The siege continued and every day there was an exchange of archery, but no major action took place which could lead to a decision either way. The Byzantine expectations that the Muslims would not be able to withstand the cold of Emesa proved to be correct to some extent, but not as they imagined.[4] It was about the middle of March 636 when the worst of the winter was over, that Harbees decided to make a surprise sally and defeat the Muslims in battle outside the fort, as the Byzantine hope of the cold driving the Muslims away vanished. Supplies were running low, and with the coming of spring and better weather the Muslims would receive further reinforcements and would then be in an even stronger position. Early one morning the Rastan Gate was flung open and Harbees led 5,000 men into a quick attack on the unsuspecting Muslim army facing that gate. The speed and violence of the attack took the Muslims by surprise, and although this was the largest of the four groups positioned at the four gates, it was driven back from the position where it had hastily formed up for battle.[5] A short distance back the Muslims reformed their front and held the attack of the Byzantines, but the pressure became increasingly heavy and the danger of a break-through became clearly evident. Abu Ubaidah sent Khalid ibn Walid to restore the situation. Khalid moved forward with the mobile guard, took the hard pressed Muslims under his command and redisposed the Muslim army for battle. After all these defensive measures Khalid took the offensive and steadily pushed the Romans back, though it was not till near sunset that the Romans were finally driven back into the fort. The sally had proved unsuccessful.

Conquest of Emesa[edit]

The following morning Abu Ubaidah held a council of war and expressed his dissatisfaction with the manner in which the Muslims had given way before the Roman attack, whereupon Khalid remarked, "These Romans were the bravest I had ever met."

Abu Ubaidah asked Khalid for his advice and Khalid told him his plan. The next morning they would make a fake withdrawal of the army from Emesa giving the Byzantines the impression that the Muslims were raising the siege and were withdrawing to the south. The Byzantines would surely attack the rearguard of the withdrawing Muslim army and at that moment the army would turn back, encircle the Byzantine army and annihilate them.[6]

According to the plan, early the following morning, the Muslims raised the siege and withdrew to the south. Viewing it as a brilliant military opportunity, Harbees immediately collected 5,000 Byzantine warriors and led them out of the fort to chase the Muslims. He launched his mounted force into a fast pursuit to catch up with the retreating Muslim forces and strike them down as they fled. The Byzantine army caught up with the Muslims a few miles from Emesa. The leading elements of Byzantine cavalry were about to pounce upon the 'retreating Muslims', when the Muslims suddenly turned and struck at the Byzantines with ferocity. As the Muslims turned on the Byzantines, Khalid shouted a command at which two mounted groups detached themselves from the Muslim army, galloped round the flanks of the surprised Byzantines and charged from the rear. Steadily and systematically the Muslims closed in from all sides. It is said that Khalid with a small group of elite mounted warriors of mobile guard reached the centre of the Byzantines army and there he saw Harbees still fighting. Khalid made for Harbees, but was intercepted by a giant Byzantines general, who was killed by Khalid after a duel. At the time when the Muslims started their attack on the encircled Romans, a group of 500 horsemen under Ma'az ibn Jabal had galloped back to Emesa to see to it that no escaping Roman got into the fort. As these horsemen neared Emesa, the terrified inhabitants and the remnants of the Roman garrison which had not joined the pursuit hastily withdrew into the fort and closed the gates. Ma'az deployed his men in front of the gates to prevent the Byzantines in Emesa from coming out and the Byzantines outside Emesa from getting in.[7] It is recorded that only about a hundred Byzantines got away. The Muslims, on the other hand, lost about 235 dead in the entire operation against Emesa, from the beginning of the siege to the end of the last action. As soon as this action was over the Muslims returned to Emesa and resumed the siege. The local inhabitants offered to surrender on terms, and Abu Ubaidah accepted the offer. This happened around the middle of March, 636. The inhabitants paid the Jizya at the rate of one dinar per man, and peace returned to Emesa.[8]

Aftermath[edit]

Soon after the surrender of Emesa, the Muslims set out once again for the north, intending to take the whole of Northern Syria this time, including Aleppo and Antioch. They went past Hama and arrived at Shaizar. Here a Roman convoy taking provisions to Qinnasrin and escorted by a small body of soldiers was intercepted and captured by Khalid. The prisoners were interrogated, and they provided the information regarding the plan of Heraclius, and concentration of a large Byzantine army at Antioch. The Byzantine army met the Muslims in August 636 on the plain of Yarmuk where the Muslims won a decisive victory against the Byzantines in the Battle of Yarmuk.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Akram, A. I. The Sword of Allah: Khalid bin al-Waleed, His Life and Campaigns. Rawalpindi: National Publishing House, 1970. ISBN 0-7101-0104-X
  2. ^ Tarikh al-Tabari, Vol. 3, pp. 96-97.
  3. ^ Charles Greenstreet Addison. Damascus and Palmyra: A Journey to the East. Adamant Media Corporation.
  4. ^ Chronology of the Saracen Conquest of Syria and Egypt
  5. ^ The Byzantine And Early Islamic Near East By Hugh N. Kennedy, Published by Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.
  6. ^ Waqidi, p. 103.
  7. ^ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 5: Chapter LI: Conquests By The Arabs. Part V
  8. ^ Waqidi, p. 104.