CAMPAIGN IN SYRIA. TAKING OF DAMASCUS
13-14 A.H. / 634-635 A.D.
THE country in which the Muslims were now encamped,"the land beyond Jordan on the east,"differed from any of they had previously known. Away to the south were the pastoral tracts of the Belka, and again to the north of these the pasture-lands of Jaulan. Between the two lay the hills and dales of Gilead with fields of wheat and barley, dotted here and there with clumps of shady oak, olive, and sycamore, and thickets of arbutus, myrtle, and oleander. It was emphatically "a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains of depths that spring out of valleys and hills." The landscape, diversified with green slopes and glens, is in season gay with carpeting of flowers and melody of birds. From the green high lands above the Yarmuk may be descried the blue waters of the Sea of Galilee sparkling in the west, and away in the north the snow-capped peaks of Lebanon and Hermon;striking contrast to the endless sands and stony plains of Arabia. Not less marked is the contrast with Chaldęa. There the marshy Delta displays a tropical luxuriance, while the plains abound with desolate sites of cities that flourished in early cycles of the world, strewn with fragments of pottery and bricks of strange device, mysterious records of bygone kingdoms. Here the pride of the Byzantine Empire was yet alive. Skirting the Jordan were busy cities founded by the Romans that boasted Church and Theatre and Forum. Even naval contests of the Naumachia might be witnessed in the land of Gilead. The country was populous and flourishing, inhabited by a mongrel race, half Arab, half Syrian, who aspired to the
privileges and aped the luxurious habits, without the chivalry or manliness, of the Roman citizen. It was altogether a civilisation of forced, and of exotic, growth. No sooner was the western prop removed than the people returned to their Bedawi life, true sons of the desert; the chariot and waggon were banished for the camel; and nothing left of Roman rule but columns and peristyles, causeways and aqueducts great masses of ruined masonry,which still startle the traveller as if belonging to another world. But, at the time we write of, the age of so-called civilisation was still dominant there. Such was the beautiful country, strange to the southern Arab both in natural feature and busy urban life which was now traversed by the invading armies, and soon became the beaten highway between Syria and the Muslim shrines.
The course of Muslim victory in Syria advanced with little let or hindrance. Persia's struggle was not for a limb, but for life itself. Here it was otherwise. Syria, indeed contained the Holy Places and what was dear to the Greeks as the cradle of their faith. But after all, it was, though fair and sacred, but an outlying province of which a supine and selfish Court could without vital injury afford the loss. There were no such mortal throes in Syria as on the plains of Chaldęa.
Damascus, the most ancient city in the world, has, ever since the days of Abraham, survived through all vicissitudes, the Capital of Syria. The great plain on which it stands is watered by streams issuing from adjoining mountain ranges; and the beautiful groves and rick meadows around have named it (with more reason than the Chaldęan delta) the "Garden of the world." An entrepōt of commerce between the east and west, it has been from age to age with varying fortune, ever rich and populous. The city wall, twenty feet high and fifteen broad, still contains stones of cyclopean size that must have been builded in ages before our era. Over the gates and elsewhere there are turrets for defence, all of venerable structure. The traveller entering at the eastern gate may even in the present day pass through the narrow "street which is called Straight," as did St Paul 1800 years ago. The Cathedral of St John the Baptist still rears its great Dome, towering above all other buildings;
and besides it there were, at the time of which we write, fifteen churches in the City and its suburbs. Not long before, Damascus had suffered severely from the alternating fortunes of the Persian war; but had now, in great measure, recovered its prosperity.
Such was the Capital of Syria, "Queen of Cities," which in all its radiance, surrounded far off by lofty mountains tipped with snow, now burst on the gaze of the Arab warriors. Some amongst them may perchance have visited it trading to the north; but as a whole, the army had heard of it only by report; and in beauty, richness, and repose, fancy could hardly have exceeded the scene now stretched before them.
It was on the 16th of Moharram of the year 14fifteen days after the reverse of Merj as-Soffar, that the siege of Damascus began, and it lasted, with variations of fortune, for six months. The Arabs had no skill or experience in the art of besieging walled towns; and Damascus was strongly fortified and, it seems, well provided with the means of resistance. The besiegers, on the other hand, were continually obliged to send out foraging parties to replenish their commissariat, as well as to repel attacks from parties of the enemy who attempted to relieve the City. At last Khalid had to summon to his aid Shurahbil from the Jordan province, and Amr from "Palestine," and it was only as a result of treachery from within that the City was eventually taken.
How little is certainly known about the history of Palestine at this time is shown by the fact that not even the name of the governor of Damascus during this memorable siege is certain. One authority calls him the Bishop, but without naming him; another states that he was Bahan; whilst a third calls him the patrician Nestas (Anastasius).
One of the numerous encounters between the besiegers and the relieving forces took place between Beit Lihya and Thaniyat al-'Okab, overlooking the City, some four leagues to the north-east. It was the crag on which Khalid had planted a flag on the occasion of his famous desert march. The relieving force retired by the easterly route, as being safer, to Emesa from which it had come. The Muslims pursued, but on their arrival at Emesa they found that the enemy had fled.
The people of the town deserted by Heraclius, and astonished at the irresistible valour of the Muslims, remained passive spectators of events. The Muslims treated them well, and, in consequence, received from them supplies and forage. A colony of Muslims was founded upon the Orontesthe river which flows by Antioch, the town to which Heraclius had withdrawn. Whilst the army which was to sweep the invaders out of the bounds of the Empire was being organised, to Baanes the Armenian was committed the task of constantly harassing the Arabs, and so preventing, above all, the fall of Damascus. He is said to have driven back the Muslims from Emesa upon Damascus, and pitched his camp on the banks of the River of Damascusthe often-mentioned Baradą, the Abana of the Old Testament, within sight of the Cityonly, however, to retire again upon Emesa. The Muslims built a fort at Berza, the reputed birthplace of Abraham, at the foot of Jebel Kasiyun, about a league to the north of the City, in order to protect the besiegers from attack in that direction. An advanced post, under the brave Himyari Dhu'l-Kela' is said also to have been established at the Thaniyat al-'Okab, where the tracks leading to Damascus and to the Euphrates divide.
As regards the disposition of the Muslim forces before the town, Khalid's division was stationed to the east side, in such a way that his left wing faced the East Gate, at the extremity of the "street called Straight," whilst his centre lay between this gate and that of St Thomas, on what is now the great cemetery. Reminiscences of the siege are, it is true, to be found upon the north side also; there is the convent of Khalid, half a league outside the Gate of Paradise, Bab al-Faradis; this gate itself bears traces of fire, which may date from this time; and it is sometimes at the present day called Bab al-Karadisperhaps from the heap of corpses. On the other hand, the East Gate is the best preserved of all the gates of Damascus.
The divisions of Abu 'Obeida faced the Gate of Jabiya or West Gate, and that of Yezid the Bab as-Saghir or "Little Gate" at the south-west angle of the wall, or the stretch of wall between it and the Bab Kaisan at the south-east. The camp of 'Amr is said to have been pitched opposite the Bab Tuma, or Gate of St Thomas, at the
north-east angle; and that of Shurahbil near a gate called the River Gate which must have opened on the Baradąprobably the Gate of Paradise just mentioned. The City was thus completely surrounded, and skirmishes and sorties were of no avail to break through the cordon of hostile camps. The only hope of rescue was from without. But help, in spite of many valiant attempts, did not come; and after six months of investment, the Muslims entered the City from two points at the same moment. On one side they forced an entrance by assault, only to find that the Governor had capitulated and admitted their comrades-in-arms at the other. The two divisions met either in the Bazaar of the Coppersmiths or in that of the Oil Merchants, and here, after some disputation between the two parties, it was decided that the capitulation should hold good for the whole town. The treaty was drawn up in a church called the Maxillat, where that of St Mary now stands, at the meeting-place of the Bazaars; and the name which was inserted in it was that of Khalid ibn al-Welid. It was the month of Rejeb (the seventh month) in the year 14.
The terms of the treaty by which the Capital of Syria passed into the hands of the Muslims were as follows:
"This is the treaty which Khalid the son of Al-Welid deigns to make with the inhabitants of Damascus, upon his entry into this town. He secures to them their lives and goods, the retention of their churches and of the walls of their town. No house will be pulled down or taken away from its owner. This assures the alliance of God and the protection of His Prophet, of his Successor and of the Faithful."
Such is what appears to be the outline of the story of the taking of Damascus; but there are endless variants. These arise partly from the belief that the commander-in-chief was Abu 'Obeida, and that Khalid served under him as a volunteer, having, in fact, been removed from supreme command by 'Omar at the moment of his accession to the Caliphate; or that it was Khalid who took the eastern quarter of the City by storm only to find that Abu 'Obeida had granted terms, instead of the reverse of this being the case. Even down to the present day the Christian and Jewish quarters of Damascus form the eastern half of the
City, whilst the western is inhabited by Muslims. This clearly points to the western side, that is, the one on which Abu 'Obeida and Yezid were encamped, being the one which was taken by assault. The opposite account may have arisen from the fact that up to the time of the Umeiyad Caliph Welid the western half of the great Church of St John was used by the Muslim population as a mosque, the western continuing to be used as a church; from which it was inferred that the eastern half of the City must have been taken by assault. Those who hold that Khalid was deprived of his command during the siege, explain the fact of his name appearing in the treaty, by supposing that Abu 'Obeida kept back 'Omar's letter until the City was taken, so that Khalid might have all the credit. The same story is told with the battle of the Yarmuk for its scene.
The treaty made between Khalid and the people of Damascus, securing to them, as it does, their churches, appears to be in contradiction to the fact that one half of the Church of St John, if not of other churches, was until the Umeiyad Caliph Welid used as a mosque. M. de Goeje thinks that this partial occupation may date from the following year, when Damascus had fallen again for a moment into the hands of the Greeks and was retaken by the Muslims.
It is difficult to account for the entrance of the two generals into the town from opposite sides, one peacefully and the others by force, unless one supposes either that the governor made terms with the one because he perceived that the other was on the point of taking the place by force of arms; or that the forcible entrance of one of the generals was part of an arrangement in order to make the reddition appear inevitable in the eyes of Heraclius, and so save the traitor from deserved punishment.
The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline, and Fall [Table of Contents]
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