This series has twelve easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Byzantines Assemble Powerful Army.
When Omar ascended the throne of Caliph in 634 (the third person to hold that office including Mohammad himself), the victorious armies of the Crescent were by this time far advanced beyond the frontiers of Arabia, and with fanatic zeal endeavoring to obey the prophet’s injunction to Islamize mankind. “Allah il Allah!” (“God is God!”) was their inspiring war-cry, and “Mohammad is the prophet of God” their watchword. With scimitar and Koran in either hand they offered the conquered “Infidels” “Islam or the sword.”
Editing Note: Modern names for the Islamic people and culture have been substituted for the archaic names Ockley used. We did this in order to make the material easier to understand for today’s readers. The author’s very lengthy paragraphs were broken up into smaller ones for the same reason. We did not make any other changes to the text.
This selection is from History of the Saracens by Simon Ockley published in 1718. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Simon Ockley (1678-1720) was the Adams Professor of Arabic at Cambridge University.
Heraclius *, wearied with a constant and uninterrupted succession of ill news, which like those of Job came every day treading upon the heels of each other, grieved at the heart to see the Roman Empire, once the mistress of the world, now become the scorn and spoil of barbarian insolence, resolved, if possible, to put an end to the outrages of the Saracens once for all. With this view he raised troops in all parts of his dominions, and collected so considerable an army as since the first invasion of the Saracens had never appeared in Syria — not much unlike one engaged in single combat who, distrustful of his own abilities and fearing the worst, summons together his whole strength in hopes of ending the dispute with one decisive blow.
[* The Byzantine Emperor – JL]
Troops were sent to every tenable place which this inundation of the Saracens had not as yet reached, particularly to Caesarea and all the sea-coast of Syria, as Tyre and Sidon, Accah, Joppa, Tripolis, Beyrout, and Tiberias, besides another army to defend Jerusalem.
The main body, which was designed to give battle to the whole force of the Saracens, was commanded by one Mahan, an Armenian, whom I take to be the very same that the Greek historians call Manuel. To his generals the Emperor gave the best advice, charging them to behave themselves like men, and especially to take care to avoid all differences or dissensions. Afterward, when he had expressed his astonishment at this extraordinary success of the Arabs, who were inferior to the Greeks, in number, strength, arms, and discipline, after a short silence a grave man stood up and told him that the reason of it was that the Greeks had walked unworthily of their Christian profession, and changed their religion from what it was when Jesus Christ first delivered it to them, injuring and oppressing one another, taking usury, committing fornication, and fomenting all manner of strife and variance among themselves. The Emperor answered, that he was “too sensible of it.”
He then told them that he had thoughts of continuing no longer in Syria, but, leaving his army to their management, he purposed to withdraw to Constantinople. In answer to which they represented to him how much his departure would reflect upon his honor, what a lessening it would be to him in the eyes of his own subjects, and what occasion of triumph it would afford to his enemies the Saracens. Upon this they took their leave and prepared for their march.
Besides a vast army of Asiatics and Europeans, Mahan was joined by Al Jabalah Ebn Al Ayham, King of the Christian Arabs, who had under him sixty thousand men. These Mahan commanded to march always in the front, saying that there was nothing like diamond to cut diamond. This great army, raised for the defense of Christian people, was little less insupportable than the Saracens themselves, committing all manner of disorder and outrage as they passed along; especially when they came to any of those places which had made any agreement with the Saracens, or surrendered to them, they swore and cursed and reviled the inhabitants with reproachful language, and compelled them by force to bear them company. The poor people excused their submission to the Saracens by their inability to defend themselves, and told the soldiers that if they did not approve of what they had done, they ought themselves to have come sooner to their relief.
The news of this great army having reached the Saracens while they were at Hems, filled them full of apprehensions, and put them to a very great strait as to the best course to pursue in this critical juncture. Some of them would very willingly have shrunk back and returned to Arabia. This course, they urged, presented a double advantage: on the one hand they would be sure of speedy assistance from their friends; and on the other, in that barren country the numerous army of the enemy must needs be reduced to great scarcity.
But Abu Obeidah, fearing lest such a retreat might by the Caliph be interpreted cowardice in him, durst not approve of this advice. Others would rather die in the defense of those stately buildings, fruitful fields, and pleasant meadows they had won by the sword, than voluntarily to return to their former starving condition. They proposed therefore to remain where they were and wait the approach of the enemy. But Kaled disapproved of their remaining in their present position, as it was too near Caesarea, where Constantine, the Emperor’s son, lay with forty thousand men; and recommended that they should march to Yermouk, where they might reckon on assistance from the Caliph.
As soon as Constantine * heard of their departure, he sent a chiding letter to Mahan, and bade him mend his pace. Mahan advanced, but made no haste to give the Saracens battle, having received orders from the Emperor to make overtures of peace, which were no sooner proposed than rejected by Abu Obeidah. Several messages passed between them. The Saracens, endeavoring to bring their countryman Jabalah Ebn Al Ayham, with his Christian Arabs, to a neutrality, were answered that they were obliged to serve the Emperor, and resolved to fight.
[* Son of the Byzantine Emperor. – JL]
Upon this Kaled, contrary to the general advice, prepared to give him battle before Mahan should come up, although the number of his men — who, however, were the élite of the whole army — was very inconsiderable, urging that the Christians, being the army of the devil, had no advantage by their numbers against the Saracens, the army of God. In choosing his men, Kaled had called out more Ansers than Mohajerins, which, when it was observed, occasioned some grumbling, as it then was doubted whether it was because he respected them most or because he had a mind to expose them to the greater danger, that he might favor the others. Kaled told them that he had chosen them without any such regard, only because they were persons he could depend upon, whose valor he had proved, and who had the faith rooted in their hearts.
[1: Those of Medina are called by that name because they helped Mohammad in his flight from Mecca.]
[2: Those that fled with him are called Mohajerins; by these names the inhabitants of Mecca and Medina are often distinguished.]
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