Hospitals, grand public buildings and numerous public endowment based charities characterised the generosity of Damascus. These institutions inspired the innovations and new learning which developed there.

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Figure 1. A Mamluk governor and his retinue prepare to receive Venetian consul Niccolò Malipiero in Damascus in 1511. The cupola of the Great Umayyad Mosque is in the background. (Source)

In the year 633, the 18th century historian Gibbon, narrates, Caliph Abu Bakr (Caliph 632-4):

Ascended the hill, reviewed the men, the horses, and the arms, and poured forth a fervent prayer for the success of their undertaking.  In person, and on foot, he accompanied the first day's march; and when the blushing leaders attempted to dismount, the caliph removed their scruples by a declaration, that those who rode, and those who walked, in the service of religion, were equally meritorious.  His instructions to the chiefs of the Syrian army went:

Remember that you are always in the presence of God, on the verge of death, in the assurance of judgment, and the hope of paradise.  Avoid injustice and oppression; consult with your brethren, and study to preserve the love and confidence of your troops.  When you fight the battles of the Lord, acquit yourselves like men, without turning your backs; but let not your victory be stained with the blood of women or children.  Destroy no palm-trees, nor burn any fields of corn. Cut down no fruit-trees, nor do any mischief to cattle, only such as you kill to eat.  When you make any covenant or article, stand to it, and be as good as your word.  As you go on, you will find some religious persons who live retired in monasteries, and propose to themselves to serve God that way: let them alone, and neither kill them nor destroy their monasteries….."[1]

Figure 2. Damascus, general view at night (Source)

Gibbon dwells on the Muslim campaign to wrest Syria, providing exquisite details, unfortunately not the place to go into here. And like many of the old sources, much of what he writes remains unmatched, but also contains many errors with names, dates, and facts. Any reader/researcher is advised to use him just like all old sources, due to the first class material that can be found in them and cannot be found today, but with a great measure of caution. Whilst today’s sources can be quite dour in style in most places, and very poor in terms of content (huge amounts of knowledge completely disappeared from them), when it comes to accuracy of details they are much superior to the old sources. In words, to be able to write a decent historical essay, always combine the old with the new; use one without the other at your own loss.

In regard to Muslim primary sources, we have many dealing with the Muslim campaign in Syria.[2] First to cite is the source everyone keeps referring to: Al Waqidi’s (748-822) Futuh al Sham. Although the work contains interesting stuff, it also shows very clearly that many insertions had been made into it by second and third hands. The events that the author, al Waqidi, describes make no sense at all in places, are often contradictory, and he mixes the names of the people involved in many military or other operations. There is great confusion about the Byzantine generals as well. As a rule it is very prudent to use him with the maximum degree of caution.

Figure 3. Al-waqidi (d. 822-23 ad): kitab futuh al-sham (Source)

The reliable source of early Muslim history is definitely al Tabari.[3] The reader can easily see the logic of his narration. The reader can also notice how Al Tabari is very careful to give his sources, quite many of them for nearly every event. At times this can stretch one’s patience, but this is a remarkable proof of the high degree of both honesty and meticulousness of the author.

One can, of course, dwell on other early sources of the history of Syria but this is not the prerogative of this article. Neither is it its prerogative to dwell on secondary sources. So only brief mention is made of the latter, most particularly the phase relating to the Muslim conquest of the country, including Damascus. From a truly military aspect, nothing can beat Glubb’s works on the subject of Muslim advance/conquests.[4] Glubb, an army general by profession, a great scholar, too, had qualifications which other authors do not have: he lived and worked as a military officer in the region for many years. Hence he combined his military knowhow, his excellent scholarly erudition and style, with a perfect geographical knowledge of the region. That gives him the superiority over any other author on the subject. The other great merit of his works, for there are a few of them, is that in each of them he provides an abundance of maps, so clearly, so neatly drawn that even a non erudite can easily understand any military campaign or battle fought by Muslims.

Besides Glubb, there are a couple of excellent authors dealing with the early Muslim conquests: Gabrieli, Donner, and Hugh Kennedy.[5] By far, though, in respect to the Muslim-Byzantine conflict, it is Walter Kaegi who heads the list.[6] It would seem nothing to do with Byzantine history escapes him; his bibliography and the sources he uses are by far the richest of all, and again, he did spend a great deal of time on the ground, and hence can deliver first class analyses, all combined with a meticulous approach and love for the extremely important details. However, for anyone seeking a quick, entertaining, but still scholarly full history of Damascus and Aleppo, there is nothing better than Ross Burns’ works.[7]

Readers are hence directed to these sources, and only one modern Muslim source is worth looking into: Akram’s book on Khalid ibn Waleed, a truly excellent work despite its lacuna (but all books bear weaknesses and defects except the Qur’an of course).[8] Akram’s work highlights the immense role played by this great Muslim general (Khalid) in the Muslim conquests as no other work has been able to. The reader is advised to ignore Akram’s unfavourable opinions of Omar ibn al Khattab as well as some of his own personal involvement in the story, at times imagining dialogues and episodes (such as the dialogue between Iqrimah and Abu Sufyan, or Khalid and Byzantine generals), which never took place as he describes them. The reader is instead advised to focus on Akram’s great strength: his immense, and in most places unique military skills in depicting Khalid’s military operations, and in his first class description of the battle of Al Yarmuk (636) (again setting aside dialogues and other peripheral events.)  

Figure 4. Across the ravines lies the battlefield of Yarmouk (Source)

The Muslim Capture of Damascus and Syria

Following Abu Bakr’s farewell, the Muslim armies moved forth in the autumn of 633. The three detachments of about 3000 men each, led respectively by ‘Amr ibn al-’As (‘Asi), Yazid ibn-abi-Sufyan and Shurahbeel ibn Hasanah, began operations in southern and south-eastern Syria.[9] Yazid had as standard bearer, his brother Mu’awiyah, the future founder of the Umayyad dynasty.[10] The numbers of each detachment were later increased to some 7500 men.[11] Each of the Muslim generals had a specific objective.[12] ‘Amr ibn al-’As was asked to proceed through Aila (modern Aqaba) into southern Palestine, in the direction of Gaza.[13] The second column, under Yazid, was to move northwards through Tabuk and then up the east side of the Dead Sea, while Shurahbeel was instructed to keep further east, and to move towards Busra or Damascus.[14] In case the Byzantine army was massed in one group, they would all combine against it, each commander rushing to the support and the reinforcement of the other.[15] In the early days of Abu Bakr, when they would join forces, the commander-in-chief would be ‘Amr ibn al-‘As.[16] Then Abu ‘Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah was appointed commander in chief. When Abu Bakr found the Muslims involved in major operations in Syria and Palestine, he wrote to Khalid ibn al Waleed instructing him to leave Iraq and to reinforce the Muslims on the Byzantine front.[17] Subsequently (later in 634), under Caliph Omar, Abu ‘Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah assumed the chief command in the whole of Syria, and the commanders acknowledged him as their chief for war and peace on behalf of the Caliph.[18] The passage of power between these two great figures of Islam, Abu ‘Ubaidah and Khalid, was remarkable, as Glubb notes:

Figure 5. Map detailing the Rashidun Caliphate's invasion of the Levant (Source)

Personal jealousy is one of the principal flaws of the Arab character and a headstrong man like Khalid might well have been expected to retire in high dudgeon at his summary dismissal after so many great victories. But nothing of the kind occurred. Khalid readily surrendered the command to the mild and pious Abu ‘Ubaidah and agreed to serve on under his command. The two men-so different from one another in character-seem to have reached an intimate personal understanding and, as far as we know, no friction or jealousy ever occurred between them. Doubtless the modest Abu ‘Ubaidah was glad to accept the advice of his formidable subordinate on all military affairs, while the astounding victories which Khalid had already won for the Arab cause must have earned for him the universal respect of the Muslims, even if he were no longer their titular commander.[19]

The dual change of personalities: the Caliph in Madinah and the Commander in Chief in Syria (both taking place in the late summer of 634) was to have its effect on the conduct and pace of military operations. Omar, unlike Abu Bakr, would order specific objectives for each battle.[20]

After the Muslim victory at Ajnadayn in the Summer of 634, part of the Byzantine army was sent to strengthen Pella, from which position it threatened the communications of the Muslim army now moving northwards on Damascus.[21] Accordingly it appears that the Muslim commanders decided to seize Pella-known to the Arabs then as now by the name of Fahel-and thus protect their communications before advancing on Damascus.[22]

In mid-March 635, the Muslims arrived before Damascus, where they soon put the city under siege. Khalid, with a force of 5,000 men, camped outside the east gate. Abu ‘Ubaidah himself lay on the south-west of the city and the other commanders were each allotted a length of the walls.[23] Following the siege, Damascus fell to the Muslims late in the Summer of 635, probably in August or September.[24] The terms of surrender stipulated that every non-Muslim should pay a poll-tax of one Dinar and one measure of wheat per year for the maintenance of the army.[25] The cathedral was divided in half by a partition wall, the Muslims in future praying in one half, the Christians in the other. There was no killing or looting. These terms were of extraordinary generosity. Cities taken by storm in Europe were liable to be sacked, even as recently as the Napoleonic Wars (1790s-1815), notes Glubb.[26]

After their victory at Fahl, followed by the taking of Damascus, the forces of Abu ‘Ubaidah pushed on to seize Heraclius’ former base of operations at Hims, ancient Emesa.[27] Its capture threatened the rich Biqa’ Valley as well as the heart of Byzantine Syria, the Orontes Valley, and opened the way for expansion even further northwards.[28] As the army marched to Shaizar, Afamiya and Ma’arat an-Nu’man, all surrendered. The gentle nature of Abu ‘Ubaidah played an important role in these quick surrenders.[29] Following these successes only Jerusalem and Caesarea still held out in Palestine, while, further north, the coastal cities of Tyre, Sidon, Beirut and Tripoli, encouraged by the Byzantine command of the sea, still remained under Byzantine control.[30] Emperor Heraclius also retained a foothold in the district of Antioch in the northwest.[31] He now organised a new army, in the hope of re-conquering Syria in the summer of 636.[32] His plan was to crush the Muslim armies once and for all. This strong Byzantine response involved the collection and dispatch of the maximum number of available troops under leading Byzantine commanders.[33] When the army was ready to march, special services were held all over the Empire for its victory before it marched south from Antioch and Northern Syria some time in the middle of June 636.[34] As the Byzantines moved south, the Muslims had to evacuate all captured places, including Damascus. Following Caliph Omar’s instruction, they gathered at al Yarmuk, and there were soon joined by the Byzantines for the decisive battle at this site. The Battle took place approximately two days’ or one and a half days’ distance from Damascus.[35] The Byzantine initial strategy was to restore the Damascus-Jerusalem axis. With the loss of Pella (Fahl), it became, Ross Burns remarks, essential to block access to Syria from the south through the Dera’a gap, which lies between the gorges of the Yarmuk on the west of the lava fields of the Jebel Hauran to the east.[36] The Byzantines positioned themselves behind the town of Dera’a, on today’s Syrian-Jordanian frontier, a town which had traditionally controlled the southern doorway into Syria.[37] To the south, the Byzantines were hemmed in by the Yarmuk River, which today forms part of the border between Syria and Jordan.[38]

Figure 6. Troop deployment: Muslim Army (Red), Byzantine Army(Blue) (Source)

There are various descriptions of the Battle of Al-Yarmuk. Although these narrations agree on the main facts, they widely differ on the details. Some of these descriptions are far too short to give credit to a battle that has remained one of the most decisive in history. Kaegi’s narration, possibly the best, informs us that Drungarios commanded the Byzantine left, while Gargis of Armenia commanded the Byzantine right wing. The Byzantine left pushed back the Muslim right wing and approached the Muslim camp, which even women defended.[39] Likewise the Byzantine right forced the Muslim left to pull back on the centre and the Muslim camp. The Muslims counterattacked. The Byzantines broke ranks, and fled.[40] The Byzantine cavalry became separated from the Byzantine infantry, probably while attempting one of the complicated Byzantine manoeuvres identified with the “mixed formation” or “convex formation.”[41] Khalid noticed this gap in Byzantine forces and managed to interpose his cavalry between the Byzantine cavalry and infantry, whom his horsemen proceeded to slaughter. A dust storm unsettled the Byzantines and created an opportunity, which the Muslims exploited. In the meantime, many Christian Arabs who had been supporting the Byzantines fled.[42] The Muslim cavalry under the command of Khalid managed during the evening to capture the only bridge over the Wadi’l Ruqqad.[43] This effectively isolated much of the Byzantine forces between the steep and dangerous cliffs of the Wadi’l Ruqqad and the Wadi’l ‘Allan, both west of the Wadi’l Harir.[44] On 20 August, the battle reached its climax. Byzantine panic spread as soldiers learned that some Christian Arabs had deserted by simple flight or switching to the Muslim side and that the Muslim capture of their only route of escape, the bridge, had left them without options. Some Byzantine forces simply ceased to fight and were slain without resistance by the Muslims the next day. Other Byzantine troops and horses were destroyed when they fell down the deep ravine into the wadis while trying to escape. The outcome was the annihilation of most Byzantine forces and hot and thorough pursuit of those who managed to escape.[45] The Muslims pursued the Byzantines and then proceeded to besiege (a second time) Damascus, which they had abandoned following the Byzantine march south to Al-Yarmuk.[46] The Battle of Al-Yarmuk was the most disastrous defeat ever suffered by the Eastern Roman Empire, and it spelled the end of Roman rule in Syria. It is known that the Muslims lost 4,000 men in this battle, and those who did not carry wounds were few indeed; but the Roman casualty figures were considerable, albeit that they vary from one source to the other, rising from the realistic 10,000 or so casualties to the exaggerated 100,000 Romans killed according to the Pseudo-Wakidi.[47]

When the aged Heraclius heard at Antioch of the utter extermination of his army, he knew that the decision was irrevocable. Soon he would have to leave the Holy Land, which he had fought so long to win back from the Persians, only to lose it to the Muslims.[48] Riding northwards, on arrival at the border between Syria and what was known to the Muslims as ‘Rome’, he looked back towards Syria and, with great sorrow, lamented: