Today in Middle Eastern history: the Siege of Damascus ends (634)

The Arabs conquer their first great city and the main city in Roman Syria.

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Nearly two years before the Battle of Yarmouk broke Byzantine military power south of Anatolia pretty much for good, Arab forces captured the jewel of Roman Syria, Damascus. Looking at how they did so offers some important clues as to how they were able to take the rest of the Levant from the Byzantines so easily.

While obviously conditions there are not ideal these days, the city of Damascus is among the greatest repositories of human civilization on Earth. It's one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites on the planet, with evidence of settlement as far back as the 9000s BCE and of urban settlement as far back as the second millennium BCE. Its name first appears in Egyptian texts compiled under Pharaoh Thutmose III, who ruled from 1479 to 1425 BCE. Under Roman control from 64 BCE on, its importance as a marketplace for caravan goods from the east and south allowed it to prosper, and by the 7th century it was one of the most important cities in the Byzantine Empire.

However, along with the rest of the empire, Damascus’s defenses by the 630s had been drastically weakened by a double whammy of epic proportions. The first was plague, as in bubonic plague, which first hit the region during the 541-542 Plague of Justinian and recurred with some regularity for the next couple of centuries. While it’s hard to be definitive about anything that happened in the 540s, this incidence of plague may have been as devastating as the Black Death would prove to be centuries later, killing tens of millions of people across Asia and hitting the Byzantine Empire particularly hard. Then came the empire’s destructive 602-628 war with the Persian Sasanian Empire. The Sasanians actually controlled Damascus from 613 through the end of the war before the city reverted back to the Byzantines. The point is, Damascus, like the rest of the empire, was weary and ripe for the picking from a military standpoint.

As the entry point for Arab trade goods heading for Roman markets, Damascus would have been the “big” city most familiar to well-traveled Arabs (i.e., traders). So it’s no wonder that it was a target for the Arabs from the first moment their armies began marching out of Arabia. The first caliph, Abu Bakr, ordered an expedition against the city under the famous general Khalid b. al-Walid in April 634, but that attack fizzled out. After spending a couple of months weakening Byzantine defenses elsewhere in the Levant, Khalid returned and laid siege to Damascus again on August 21. Khalid’s men didn’t have any siege engines, so they surrounded the city and attempted to starve it into surrender while also exploring any surreptitious means they might find to get inside its walls. The opposing armies seem to have been pretty evenly matched, with the besiegers perhaps slightly outnumbering the besieged.

Khalid made sure to cover his bases by fortifying his supply routes back into northern Arabia and by sending out detachments of troops to watch for and, if possible, interdict any Byzantine relief armies. This paid off when one of those detachments spotted a column of Byzantine soldiers heading toward the city in the early part of September. Warned of its approach, Khalid led about half of his army into the field and routed the Byzantines. As it became clear that no other Byzantine relief force was going to arrive in time to keep people from starving to death, the garrison did eventually attempt two breakouts, first from the Gate of Thomas (on the eastern side of the city) and then from four different gates at once, but both of these were beaten back and in the process cost many Byzantine lives.

Now we get our glimpse (maybe, if the accounts are accurate) of another problem facing the Byzantines: sectarianism. Some sources relate that a Syrian priest approached Khalid one day to tell him that the Byzantines were planning a celebration for that night and that it might be a good time for the Arabs to try scaling the walls and attacking the city. If this is a real story and not a later invention of Muslim chroniclers, here’s a citizen of Damascus selling his city out to the besieging enemy. Why? Well, part of the reason may have been that the priest was a Monophysite.

Monophysitism is a subset of Miaphysiteism, a Christian denomination holding that Christ had only one nature (Monophysites usually say Christ had only a divine nature, while more moderate the Miaphysites may hold that Christ’s one nature was a union of human and divine). “Official” Christianity, as decided at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, holds that Christ had two natures (a human one and a divine one) in one person. You may be wondering why these differences could possibly matter to anyone, let alone matter enough that it could motivate someone to betray an entire city to an invading army. Well, my advice would be to just accept that people back in the seventh century really cared about this kind of thing and let it go.

The imperial Chalcedonian church looked on Monophysites as heretics and therefore as something akin to traitors, and generally treated them accordingly. So a Monophysite priest in a major Byzantine city may conceivably have felt that he’d be better off living under the Arabs (Islam was still coalescing at this point and at any rate would have been largely unknown to people living in the empire) than under the imperial authorities. The problem for the empire was that most Christians in the Levant and Egypt were Monophysites or Miaphysites of one flavor or another, and many of them may have failed to see much difference between the invaders, who weren’t Christian but might let them worship freely, and imperial authorities, who were Christian but likely wouldn’t let them worship freely. To be fair, most Miaphysites seem to have remained loyal subjects of the empire until they weren’t in the empire anymore. But the fact that we don’t hear about a lot of mass Christian uprisings following the Arab conquest suggests that they weren’t exactly scrambling to restore Byzantine rule.

Compounding this sectarian issue was the fact that many Damascenes were Arab, like the besiegers and, notably, not like the Greeks and Armenians in the city’s garrison. The story of the Monophysite priest may be accurate, or it may simply be some creative shorthand to explain the fact that much of the city’s population looked more favorably on the attackers than on their own defenders.

Anyway, whether he learned of the celebration from an inside source or just observed that a lot of guards seemed to be wandering off of the walls to go get drunk (accounts differ), Khalid was savvy enough to take advantage of the opportunity and order his soldiers to take their ropes and climb the city’s eastern walls. When he saw what was happening, the Byzantine commander, a fellow named Thomas—in a commendable display of quick thinking—raced to the western side of the city and promptly surrendered to the senior Arab officer there: Khalid's deputy, Abu Ubaydah. Why? Because cities that surrendered to the Arabs peacefully tended to fare much better than cities that resisted. Abu Ubaydah, who most likely had no idea what his boss was doing on the eastern wall, offered terms that spared the lives and property of the Damascenes in return for the payment of tribute to the Arabs.

When Khalid found out that Abu Ubaydah had cut a deal with Thomas he was livid, but the Arabs recognized that to abrogate the agreement would send a message to other Byzantine cities that they should fight to the death because there was nothing to be gained from surrendering. This was not a message the Arabs wanted to send. So Khalid honored the terms of the surrender and the city was spared severe violence. This paid off later, when the unsacked, still-thriving Damascus became the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate and reached new heights of wealth and importance. As a reward for his great success, Khalid was recalled to Medina by the new Caliph, Umar—Abu Bakr had died shortly after the siege commenced—and stripped of his command. The new caliph most likely saw the very successful and increasingly popular Khalid as a potential rival. Nevertheless, Khalid regained his stature at Yarmouk and is regarded as one of the greatest military commanders in Islamic history.