15–20 August AD 636: Thousands die at Yarmouk

A Muslim army puts Roman forces to the sword


It is 15 August AD 636, and on the southern border of present-day Syria one of the most decisive battles in world history is about to begin. For two years the armies of Islam, sweeping north from the deserts of Arabia, have been ravaging the Eastern Roman empire. Now the Romans have come for revenge. Sweltering in the punishing heat, tens of thousands of soldiers wait for the signal to attack. In the next six days, the destiny of the entire Middle East will be decided.

For historians, the battle of Yarmouk is one of the most frustrating showdowns imaginable. We do not even know how many men were involved: estimates for the Roman army veer from just 15,000 to an unlikely 400,000. What does seem likely, though, is that the Romans outnumbered their adversaries. The imperial troops were a mosaic of ethnicities: their field commander, Vahan, was an Armenian, while many soldiers were Arabs and Slavs. Their Muslim opponents were fewer but more united, and their commander, Khalid ibn al-Walid, has gone down as one of the greatest generals in history.

From dawn on the 15th, when Vahan sent his most seasoned champions to attack the Muslim lines, the battle took six gruelling days. It must have been a desperate, bloody business: day after day the Roman infantry pounded at the Arab lines, straining for a breakthrough that never came. Even on the fourth day, when the Muslim right almost broke, Vahan never managed to press home his advantage. Two days later he paid the price. Overnight, Khalid moved 500 horsemen to the Roman rear; meanwhile, he used the rest of his cavalry to push his opponents back towards a ravine. By the end of the day, Vahan’s army had fallen apart, hundreds falling to their deaths, thousands more stream- ing desperately towards Damascus.

Yarmouk was a turning point. Roman power in the east was broken; the way was open for the Muslim conquest of the Levant. But Syria was merely the beginning. Within seven years Egypt, for centuries the empire’s richest province, had fallen, and by the end of the century the Arabs had taken north Africa too. Today, there are more than 1.5bn Muslims across the world. But it could have been a different story. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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