The Sword of Allah - Khalid Bin Waleed (Ral)

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Chapter 18: The Clash with Persia

 Part III: The Invasion of Iraq


Page: 3

The Euphrates and the Tigris have been known to change their course more than once since the time of Babylon. The maps in this book indicate the course which these rivers followed in the early days of Islam. The main difference from today is in the course of the Tigris. In pre-Islamic times it had flowed in what is its present channel, which is known as Dijlat-ul-Aura (the One-Eyed Tigris), but then it had abandoned this channel and adopted a new course from Kut downwards, along the Dujaila (the Little Tigris) and the Akhzar, to enter a region of lakes and marshes comprising an area about 100 miles square, just north-west of Uballa. The old bed of the river had then become a dry, sandy bed. The marshes extended much farther north than they do today (the area shown as marshland in Map 10 below is not exact); and the Tigris picked its way through these marshes to rejoin the bed of the One-Eyed Tigris in the region of Mazar (the present Azeir), whence it flowed south and south-east into the Persian Gulf. 1 But the Tigris changed its course again in the Sixteenth Century and returned to its old bed, the one marked on all maps now as the Tigris. This, however, is not the largest branch of the Tigris, for the Gharraf, taking off from Kut and joining the Euphrates at Nasiriya, is larger. The Dujaila, which in the early days of Islam was the main channel, is now a modest river-the third largest branch of the Tigris, after the Gharraf and the One-Eyed Tigris.

map 1 chapter 18

The Euphrates followed a clear course down to the present Hindiya, whence it split into two main channels as it does today-both sizable rivers: the Hilla branch and the main Euphrates. The main branch (the western one) again split up, flowing generally in one large and several subsidiary channels, which over the centuries have changed course several times, though not as drastically as the Tigris. The two main branches reunited at Samawa, whence the Euphrates flowed towards the region of lakes and marshes. While some of the water of the river lost itself in the marshes, one clear channel marked on today's maps as the Euphrates retained its distinct identity as it flowed eastwards to join the Tigris at Qurna. The marshes were drained by a large river known as Maqil, which emptied into the Tigris a little north of Basra; and from this junction all these waters flowed into the Persian Gulf as one great river, known today as the Shatt-ul-Arab. (See Map 10 above).

Many changes have taken place in the bends and twists of these rivers. I have not shown these details on the maps as there is no way of knowing how they appeared then. Hence, only the main branches of these rivers are shown on our maps, and without all the twists and turns which must undoubtedly have existed.

This then was how Iraq stood politically and geographically, when the Caliph launched Khalid on it. It was a land occupied by Persians and Arabs, and ruled by the Persian court. The Empire had begun to decline politically, but it would be wrong to imagine that it had declined militarily. The military effectiveness of an empire may remain at a high level for decades after its political disintegration has set in. And so it was with the Persians in the year 633.

The Persian army, including its Arab auxiliaries, was the most formidable and most efficient military machine of the time. Led by experienced and dedicated veterans, it was a proud, sophisticated and well?tried force which gloried in its past achievements and its present might. The Persian soldier was the best-equipped warrior of his day. He wore a coat of mail or a breast-plate; on his head rested a helmet of either chain mail or beaten metal; his forearms were covered by metal sleeves, and his legs, were protected by greaves (like leg-guards covering the front part of the leg). He carried a spear, lance or javelin, a sword, and either an axe or an iron mace (the latter was a favourite and much-feared Persian weapon). He also carried one or two bows with 30 arrows and two spare bowstrings hanging from his helmet. 2 Thus, powerfully equipped and armed was the Persian soldier. But, and this was inevitable, he lacked mobility. In the general, set-piece battle he acknowledged no equals; and in this he was right, until Khalid's lightly armed and fast-moving riders came along.

It all started with Muthanna bin Harithah. A tiger of a man who later died of wounds suffered in battle with the Persians, Muthanna was a chief of the tribe of Bani Bakr, which inhabited the north-eastern part of the Arabian peninsula and southern Iraq. It is not certain that Muthanna had become a Muslim during the time of the Prophet. He probably had, because a delegation from the Bani Bakr had travelled to Madinah during the Year of Delegations and had accepted Islam at the hands of the Prophet. But there is no actual record of Muthanna's conversion.

1. Ibn Rusta: pp. 94-5. At Mazar (Azeir) today only a small river flows into the Tigris from the west-certainly too small to form the bed of the old Tigris. The old bed has probably silted up and ceased to be discernible.
2. Dinawari: p. 73.