The Sword of Allah - Khalid Bin Waleed (Ral)

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Chapter 33: The Conquest of Emessa

 Part III: The Invasion of Iraq

 

Page: 3

About early November 635 (middle of Ramazan, 14 Hijri), the Muslim army marched from Emessa to Hama, where the citizens came out of their city to welcome the Muslims. The city surrendered willingly, and the army marched on. One by one the cities of Shaizar, Afamiya (known today as Qalatul-Muzeeq) and Ma'arra Hims (now Ma'arrat-un-Numan) surrendered in peace to the Muslims and agreed to pay the Jizya. (See Map 28). At some places the Muslims were received by musicians playing instruments as a sign of welcome. In these areas now, for the first time in Syria, large-scale conversions took place among the local inhabitants. The personality of the gentle, benevolent Abu Ubaidah played an important part in these conversions to Islam.

It was while the Muslims were at Shaizer that they heard of reinforcements moving to Qinassareen and Emessa. The truce was thus violated by the Romans. The arrival of these reinforcements put fresh courage in the hearts of the Romans at Emessa and Qinassareen, and the arrival of winter gave them a further assurance of success. In their forts they would be better protected from the cold than the Muslim Arabs, who were not used to intense cold, and with only their tents to give them shelter would suffer severely from the Syrian winter. In fact Heraclius wrote to Harbees, the military governor of Emessa: "The food of these people is the flesh of the camel and their drink its milk. They cannot stand the cold. Fight them on every cold day so that none of them is left till the spring." 1

Abu Ubaidah decided to take Emessa first, and thus clear his rear of the enemy before undertaking more serious operations in Northern Syria. Consequently the Muslims marched to Emessa with Khalid and the corps of Iraq in the lead. On arrival at the city Khalid found a strong Roman force deployed across his path, but with a quick, violent attack his corps drove it back into the fort. These Romans had followed Heraclius' instructions to "fight them on every cold day", but after their experience in this first clash with Khalid, they decided to let winter do the job! As the Romans withdrew into the fort and closed the gates, Abu Ubaidah arrived with the rest of the army and deployed it in four groups opposite the four gates of Emessa.

Emessa was a circular fortified city with a diameter of rather less than a mile, and it was surrounded by a moat. There was also a citadel atop a hillock inside the fort. Outside the city stretched a fertile plain, broken only on the west by the River Orontes (now Asi).

Abu Ubaidah himself, together with Khalid and his Mobile Guard, camped on the north side, a short distance from the Rastan Gate. 2 The Muslim strength at Emessa was about 15,000 men against which the Roman garrison consisted of something like 8,000 soldiers. Abu Ubaidah left the conduct of the siege in the hands of Khalid, who thus acted as the virtual commander of the Muslims for this operation. It was now late November or early December (about the middle of Shawal), and the winter descended like a heavy blanket over Emessa.

For more than two months the siege continued with unbroken monotony. Every day there would be an exchange of archery, but no major action took place which could lead to a decision either way. The Romans gloated over the exposed situation of the Muslims, and felt confident that the cold itself would be sufficient to destroy the desert-dwellers or drive them away to warmer climes. The Muslims undoubtedly suffered from the cold but not as severely as the Romans imagined. There was no slackening in their guard and no weakening in their resolve to take Emessa, no matter how long they had to wait.

1. Tabari: Vol. 3, pp. 96-97.
2. The only gate which still exists is the Masdud Gate, to the southwest. The visitor to Emessa today is shown the sites of three other gates: Tadmur (north-east), Duraib (east) and Hud (west); but while the present inhabitants of the city have heard of the Rastan Gate, its location is not known. It was no doubt somewhere in the northern wall, because it faced Rastan, which lies on the road to Hama. Early historians have named the Rastan Gate as one of four, and we do not know which one of the present four gates, as named above, did not then exist. The moat too is still there in many places.