On this day in A.D. 636 (if you lost) or A.H. 15 (if you didn’t)
In the news reports from Iraq, if you still bother to pay attention, you would have heard of the Yarmouk Hospital. It is that dilapidated, pathetic locale for hapless Iraqi civilians to get some facsimile of healthcare. So, who was this namesake Yarmouk? An outstanding physician? A generous (or guilt-ridden) philanthropist?
In fact, Yarmouk was a battle. (So much for Iraqi charm. Wouldn’t you want to go to a hospital named for Iwo Jima?) Of course, Yarmuk was an Arab victory and–however obscure it may be to you–it was one of the most significant battles in history. But for Yarmouk, the Middle East might still be Christian.
Until 636, Islam was still confined to Arabia. The Caliph of the new religion had sent large raiding parties to plunder the infidel neighbors; and the affluent Byzantines certainly had lots worth stealing. In fact, given the lethargic Byzantine defenses, the Arabs burglarized the entire city of Damascus. That heist finally got Constantinople’s attention. (We’ll have to postpone this theological debate over whether or not the Christ child was born potty-trained.) The Emperor Heraclius ordered the army to stop the Arab incursions.
The approach of perhaps 80,000 Byzantines convinced the Arab expeditions to make a prudent exit from Syria. Having one third as many men, the Arab forces retreated as far south as the Yarmouk River valley, which forms the border of modern Syria and Jordan. There they took up defensive positions and awaited the Byzantine attack. And waited and waited and waited. The Byzantines had stopped on the other side of the valley, and began a three-month-long staring contest.
During that three months, the Byzantines made several attempts to negotiate. Considering the Imperial forces’ numerical superiority, the Arab Commander must have been impressed with the Byzantines’ generosity or stupidity. Had the situation been reversed, he would not have hesitated to attack. However, under the circumstances, he was willing to negotiate if only to stall for reinforcements. They arrived, but he still had half as many men as the Byzantines. So the staring contest continued until the Byzantines blinked.
They had no choice in the matter; they were downwind of a sandstorm. And they soon found themselves downwind and under the Arab cavalry. Taking advantage of Allah’s gift of weather, the Arabs attacked. At least half of the Byzantine army was annihilated, the survivors were in disorganized flight. Syria and Palestine were defenseless; the Arabs’ strategy was no longer smash and grab. They were there to stay, and they soon found that Egypt and North Africa were easy pickings as well.
So on this day in 636, Byzantine incompetence lost half of an empire, gave the Arabs the Middle East and left us with the consequences.