Τετάρτη 28 Αυγούστου 2013

The Battle of Yarmuk, then and now

Nikos Biniaris

The month of August is, according to the history of the Arab nation, the turning point in its history. It is the month of the battle on the area of the river Yarmuk tributary of Jordan River between the Imperial Byzantine army and the Arabs from the Peninsula who had very recently become Moslems. The year is 636 BCE or the 14th of Hegira. The forays against Syria had started when Prophet Mohamed was still alive but continued after his death and succession by Abu Bakr the first of the elected four Caliphs. Syria as well as Palestine, Egypt and North Africa at that time were part of the Byzantine Empire which has just come victorious out of a life and death struggle with Imperial Persia. The city states of ancient Hellas were at war with Imperial Persia since 490 BCE. Alexander the Great finally took over the Persian Imperium and due to his sudden death various Hellenistic kingdoms were established, all of which later on became Roman provinces. The split of the Roman Empire to Eastern and Western resulted in the Eastern Roman Empire-Byzantium founded 325 ADE by Constantine the Great. Since then, Rome was sacked several times by Germanic tribes, and Byzantium itself was under constant attacks by consecutive waves of Slavs, Avars, Turkish tribes, Bulgarians, Petzenegs, and a host of migrating Asiatic people to the Balkans. The war between Byzantium and Persia ended in 628 and a year later the Persian army withdrew from Egypt. In 630 Emperor Heraclius entered Jerusalem restoring the true Cross and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
As Heraclius was going to Jerusalem he had four problems in his mind: the rebuilding of the ruined holy places which involved raising money out of a destroyed economy, the Christological disputes of the Church, the Jewish problem in Syria and Palestine, and the arrangements for the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. He would solve none of these. In the small city of Mutah, just a year ago, a foray of Arabs was repulsed. It was an insignificant event one amongst the many in the area.
“…but actually was the first gun in a struggle not to cease until the proud Byzantine capital had fallen (1453) to the latest champions of Islam and the name of Muhammad substituted for that of Christ on the walls of the most magnificent Cathedral of Christendom, St. Sophia.”[1]
The economic reconstruction of the Empire after the loss particularly of Egypt was addressed much later by a lesser Byzantium. All the same modern West after its long wars and profligacy is in dire economic condition. The Christological dispute: the problem of Christ’s nature and the subsequent heresies (?): (Arians, Nestorians, Eutychians) was never resolved since it couldn’t by definition receive a coherent non-contradictory ontological answer. Today, this dispute is as if it never existed. Christendom is back to its paganist tradition: the idolatry of the flesh.  The Jewish problem at the time of Heraclitus; massacres between Jews and Christians due to the presence of the Persians in the area was left to the Arabs to settle. Today the same problem is still present in the same area and with the same ideological vehemence. The Jews actually were always present in the area. Now they have a state. As for the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, after the Holy City capitulated to Caliph Omar Byzantium had no much to say about it. Today the Hellenic Orthodox Patriarchate is just an entity that struggles to survive amongst the Israeli state and a sea of Moslems.  
The two Empires the Persian East and the Byzantine West were totally exhausted, economically, militarily and in terms of internal administrative structure. They were both trying to recuperate. The Arab onslaught which befell on both totally destroyed the Persian Imperial entity and forced the Byzantine to retrench to Anatolia, the Balkans and the Black Sea area. Byzantium survived due to its geostrategic positioning, a population which was distinctively Hellenized and Christian and because the structures of the remaining parts of the Imperial rule were well accepted institutions by the people.
The battle was fought in a terrain suitable to the Arab invaders. The Byzantine army was assembled in the spring of 636 by Armenian, Hellenic, Christian Arab, the Ghassanid tribe, and perhaps some Persian troops. The generals were Hellenes, Armenians, the Arab Ghassanid king, and the Persian Niketas.  “The battle’s final decisive combat took place on August 20th but it was a battle not of this one day but possibly of month and a half duration.”[2] The armies were trying to outflank but also to bribe generals and tribes away from their alliances. The actual number of troops from either side was no more than 20,000 far away from the reported numbers by historians of the later period as 200,000 from the Byzantine side and 3,000-20,000 from the Arab one. The Arabs had also several leaders but it was Khalid-ibn-al-Walid whose star rose to become one of the greatest generals in history. What was quite remarkable was that after the Byzantines retreated many surrendered to the Arabs. However the victors instead of taking them as hostages for ransom, which was the usual practice at the time, slaughtered them. This indicates the resolution of the invaders to pursue their policy of conquest by eliminating enemy forces for any future engagement: “the Byzantine troops caught unaware…gave way under the impact and were massacred almost to a man.”[3]
When the outcome of the battle was communicated to Heraclius who had set his base in Antioch he immediately ordered a retreat to the Taurus Mountains exclaiming as tradition has it: “Syria, what a beautiful country I leave to my enemy.”
The historians and chronicle writers of this historical event come from Hellenic sources: Theophanes, Nikephorus, Armenians: Sabeos, and Arabs: Al-Baladhuri, al Tabari and several others. There are serious problems for the historian to reach an accurate description of the events for the histories were written two centuries after the events. The histories are based on traditions and actually one writer draws some material from the other without critical study. On the other hand Professor David Woods has argued that there has never been a battle at the river Yarmuk but rather that the Byzantine army was annihilated before the battle by bubonic plague in 637 at Gabatha near Emmaus.[4]
The legacy of the battle
The present day references of the name Yarmuk is the Jamaat Yarmuk, a jihadist organization of the Kabardino-Balkaria province in North Caucasus which threatens with terrorist acts the Winter Olympics of Russia. Also we read this name in the fierce battles at the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camps in Syria which is strategically located to the southern corridor for the control of Damascus. Finally, Yarmuk is referred in a multitude of articles, books, studies and movies about the battle in Arabic and Muslim media and blogs. The battle for today’s Islam is still a historical event of emotional symbolism and inspiring visions for Islam’s triumph over its enemies.
The names, locations and people involved in the ongoing conflicts force our imagination to draw parallels and even make tentative predictions about the future. What is striking is that the ongoing battle of Yarmuk is Syria for the control of Damascus and the overthrow of Assad involves once again the Persian, or modern Iran. This time the ancient Imperial force is present as part of an ongoing Muslim force engaged in the struggle to redefine the Islamic world. Iran is trying to reassert its presence in its historical sphere of influence, the Mesopotamia and the eastern part of Mediterranean as it was for centuries.
The USA standing for Byzantium is trying to influence the outcome of the conflict through diplomacy, arms procurement for or against combatants. The West’s role in this ongoing clash is described as fraudulent and opportunistic. Actually it can be described by incomprehension and bewilderment.  On the other hand, Iran is well versed in the complexity and nuances of the local alliances, enmities, sects, tribes and nationalities. The West is incapable of understanding the deep roots and historical divides of the area. It is also incapable of understanding the aspirations and the planning of the various factions for the success of their designs. This places the West in the same position as the Byzantines who at that time had no inkling of the Arab drive for conquest. They miscalculated their aspirations and their drive for expansion and even today the traditional cause of all these, the force of the new religious faith, which is professed by Arab historians and by some Western analysts is highly suspect. The Syrian-Arab poet Abu-Tammam born Christian and converted to Islam writes:
“Not for Paradise didst thou the nomad life forsake; Rather, I believe it was yearning after bread and dates.”[5]
Religion is usually a convenient mantle to idealize and obscure other more vital causes for historical events that change the world. The drive of economic advantages and rich booty was a very telling factor of the drive of the ancient Arabs to attack Syria and subsequently Imperial Persia. Today the immense riches from energy sources and fight for transportation routes is another cause for both Western involvement in the area and intra Arab fighting for the allocation of these revenues which leave tens of millions out of the oil wealth.
Even if we look at the religious factor of the old and the new we can detect some analogies. The fervent newly enlightened Muslims of the ancient Arab world fighting with dedication and self-sacrifice for their faith appear to be close to today’s mujahedin who still are inculcated with the vision of a Muslim Paradise. The resurgence of the fanatical and extremist Islam is a reminder of the force emanating from the newly proselytized to a faith that promises eternal salvations and release from the insignificance of a life without meaning or personal fulfillment. This movement, funded and inculcated by Saudi Wahhabism, just one of the interpretations of Orthodox Sunni tradition, is analogous to the ancient spirit of the neophytes of Islam in the early days of its appearance on the scene of the Middle East out of Arabia. The angry messages of defiance and revenge against the Imperial West, which is considered the invader of Muslim lands and a threat to its way of life and holy traditions, are constantly repeated in various forms all over the Muslim world. Lately there was a peaceful demonstration, of all places, in Simferopol, the capital of the Ukrainian Black Sea region of Crimea by Hizb-ut-Tahrir (the Party of Freedom).[6] A woman was carrying a poster: “Stop U.S Imperialism Support a Caliphate”. It seems that the utopia of a Caliphate is also a remedy for the evil American Imperialism. What is a Caliphate? Isn’t it a certain political system which joins together diverse people, races, and ethnicities under a certain administrative structure? There is no difference between the political notion of Imperialism, American, Roman, Chinese, Arab, Persian and the notion of Caliphate.
The battle of Yarmuk created the Umayyad Caliphate in the Middle East and in Cordoba, and also the Abbasid, Fatimid, Mamluk and finally the suspect Caliphate of Constantinople, which was abolished in 1924.[7] All these political entities were by all means imperial. The political legacy of Byzantium and Persia passed on to the Arabs who reproduced an imperioum no different than any other imperium in history. Islam’s worldview that the Caliph is a representative of the Prophet and the defender of the faith is more or less similar to the Byzantine’s view that the Emperor is the defender of the Christian faith and equal to the Apostles (Isapostolos).
The battles fought after 9/11 were an exercise in futility. They have nothing to do with Yarmuk and its accomplishments thereafter: an Arab Imperium as an Islamic state, an Islamic culture and a vibrant civilization. What is trying to reemerge under the rubble of Syria, the bombed souks in Iraq and the maimed children in Afghanistan is at this moment too confusing and dangerous. Shortly after the demise of Byzantium, science, technology, progress, of all sorts, personal freedom and dignity became the guiding principles of our lives: Abrahamites, Hindus, Shamanists and atheists alike live and act according to these new gods’ demands. The ancient battle of Yarmuk is finished, even if some are still trying to refight it with selfimmolation, executions, humiliation of women and denial of education for children. As for the Imperial West, its fate is still a matter of coordination among the leaders of its various factions, something which the Imperial Byzantine army failed to secure. It must also attain an understanding amongst its politicians, intellectuals and economic planners so that it can make peace with itself and come up with some fresh ideas.

[1] Philip K. Hiti: History of the Arabs, McMillan, p. 147
[2] Walter E. Kaegi: Byzantium and the early Islamic conquest, Cambridge, 1992 p. 114
[3] John J. Norwich: Byzantium, the early centuries. Penguin, 1988, p.306
[4] David Woods: Jews, Rats and the Battle of Yarmuk, Symposium at Potenza Italy, 2005
[5] Abu-Tammam: Hamasah p. 795
[6] Al-Arabiya July 29 2013
[7] Hitti: ibid, p.705