Terrain would have a major impact on the course of the battle.
The Yarmouk plateau is predominantly an undulated flat plain, dotted with rocky outcrops.
Rivers Yarmuk, Ruqqad, ‘Allan and Harir slice deep into the level plateau, creating
deep gorges with steep cliffs.
The grassy plain offered enough fodder and several springs to supply both armies.
And the Byzantines were not in a rush.
Vahan was instructed by the emperor to try and pay off the Muslims to go back to Arabia,
or at the very least to stall negotiations until the Sassanians were ready to attack in Iraq.
Jabalah and Gregory did much of the mediation,
but as the talks dragged on for up to three months,
reinforcements sent by Umar began arriving.
Concerned that he might lose the numerical advantage, Vahan took matters into his own
hands and asked to negotiate with Khalid in person.
By his own words, the Armenian general regarded the Arabs as nothing more than "impoverished,
hungry, wretched Bedouins" and he offered Khalid food and gold to leave Byzantine lands.
Unimpressed by Vahan's condescendence, Khalid responded: “It is not hunger that brought
us here…”, calling on the Christian general to embrace Islam in exchange for peace, adding:
"If you refuse there can only be war between us... and you will face men who love death
as you love life".
Enraged, Vahan fired a warning: “Better men tried to take our lands but were all defeated.”
Negotiations were over…
Vahan positioned the main Byzantine camp near al-Yaqusah from where one of the main Roman
roads connecting Egypt and Syria could be defended.
He anchored his battle line to the gorge in the south and arrayed his troops along the
‘Allan river, stretching to the town of Jabiyah in the north.
On his left flank he placed the Slavic infantry, commanded by Qanatir, a Slavic prince.
In the center, Jabalah commanded the Ghassanid contingent, while Dairjan led the Armenians.
Gregory commanded the experienced Greek infantry on the right flank.
It is said that the last Roman legion, the Macedonian 5th, was under his command.
Archers were mixed with the infantry.
Cavalry contingents were supporting each of the four divisions of infantry.
Byzantine army numbered around 40,000.
Across the field, Khalid stretched his infantry to match the length of the Byzantine line,
with the left flank anchored on the gorge in the south, while his right flank reached
the vicinity of the town of Nawa.
He placed Amr in charge of the right flank, Shurahbil and Abu Ubayda in the center, and
Yazid on the left, with archers mixed in with the infantry.
Cavalry contingents were positioned to prevent breakthroughs, while Khalid took command of
the handpicked cavalry reserve.
Arab army was around 25,000 strong.
The long battle line, stretching around 10km across the plain, would test the leadership
of commanders on both sides.
Early on August 15th, the two armies stared each other down.
One Arab warrior came forward, dropped his shield and removed his armor, crying out:
“I am the death of the Pale faces, I am the killer of Romans, I am the scourge sent
upon you, I am Zarrar Ibn al-Azwar!”
Several Byzantine officers challenged the Muslim champion.
In a matter of minutes Zarrar cut them down in single combat.
More Muslim champions stepped forward, and as the dueling spectacle continued Byzantine
troops witnessed the slaying of many of their officers.
Then, at noon, Vahan ordered the army to advance.
Using his numerical advantage to extend the front, he forced Khalid to stretch his infantry
thin, and he planned to probe the Muslim line for any weak spots that he could punch through.
As the Byzantine army closed the distance,
Vahan ordered a third of his infantry to advance on the enemy.
The fighting was not too intensive, as both sides tested each other’s resolve.
Nevertheless, Vahan was surprised by the determination of Arab troops.
He observed that the deep gorge to the south would restrict cavalry maneuvers and offer
some protection to the Muslim left flank, while the terrain to the north was open, leaving
the Muslim right exposed.
Khalid was also aware of this problem and he positioned himself slightly closer to the
right wing so that he could reinforce it quickly, if necessary.
As the day began drawing to a close, Vahan broke off the attack and ordered his troops
back into position on the ‘Allan river.
During the night both commanders contemplated their next move.
Khalid knew that a frontal assault against a better equipped and more numerous enemy
would be dangerous, especially when supported by contingents of Byzantine heavy cavalry.
Vahan, meanwhile, was ready to attack and break the Muslims.
Early next morning, the Byzantine commander committed all of his troops forward.
He intended to catch the Muslims unprepared during their morning prayers.
But Khalid expected this.
During the previous night he ordered the construction of outposts in front of his line to prevent
any surprise attacks.
Despite losing the element of surprise, Vahan remained confident in his drilled veterans.
The Byzantine commander planned to apply steady pressure against the Muslim center in order
to tie down as many of Khalid’s troops as possible, while focusing the main thrust of
his attack on the flanks where he expected to overwhelm and drive the enemy from the
field with his superior numbers.
As the two armies clashed, Khalid’s men held their ground in the center against the
stalled Byzantine advance.
But for his troops on the flanks, the situation was different…
Qanatir attacked Khalid’s right flank in force.
The outnumbered Muslim infantry held fast but were pushed back.
Amr ordered his cavalry to check the Byzantine advance in order to buy time for the infantry.
The cavalry counterattack blunted the Byzantine charge, but Qanatir kept pushing the Muslims
back toward their camp.
Women from the camp rallied, and some joined the fighting.
They hobbled the camels around the camp, thus providing additional protection.
A desperate struggle ensued as the Byzantines could not dislodge the determined Muslim fighters.
Qanatir’s heavy cavalry bogged down as their horses balked at the smell of aggressive camels,
refusing to respond to the commands of their riders.
In close quarters the legs and bellies of the partially armored Byzantine horses now
became exposed and many of the heavily armored riders were pulled down from their saddles.
Qanatir could not sustain the attack any longer…
… With Vahan’s attack against the Muslim right flank broken, Khalid seized the moment
to exploit the gap that had opened up between Qanatir and the Byzantine center.
He ordered Amr to send his cavalry regiment and attack Qanatir’s flank from the north.
With incoming cavalry support Amr ordered a general advance.
The three-pronged attack forced Qanatir to abandon his advanced position and retreat
towards the main Byzantine line.
By timing his flanking maneuver to perfection Khalid managed to push the Byzantines back
with fewer troops.
Had it not been for the disciplined retreat of Qanatir’s experienced Slavic infantry
the Byzantine flank could’ve collapsed entirely.
But the situation on the Muslim left was considerably more serious…
… With much of Khalid’s mounted units currently on the right flank, Yazid’s position
was being overrun.
Byzantine cavalry broke through the ranks and pushed towards the Muslim camp.
Gregory’s infantry slowly ground their way forward as Yazid’s outnumbered infantry
could not stop them.
As they fell back to the camp, Yazid’s troops were met with a barrage of insults and rocks
thrown at them by the ferocious Arab women who urged them to not let the enemy defeat
them, with some of the women taking part in the defense of the camp.
Yazid was finally able to stabilize his line near the camp,
temporarily stemming the Byzantine assault.
Just as Vahan’s plan appeared to be succeeding on the Muslim left, Khalid again
showed his ability to adapt quickly.
With the right flank stabilized he dashed across the battlefield to aid the embattled Yazid.
He detached a cavalry contingent under the command of Dharar ibn al-Azwar, ordering him
to round the Byzantine center.
This decision proved crucial, for when Dharar struck the flank of the Byzantine center,
he fixed them in place, preventing reinforcements from reaching Gregory to support his push
against the Muslim left.
But most importantly this maneuver gave the impression to the Greeks that they were being
outflanked, damaging their morale.
Further on the left flank Khalid came to Yazid’s aid, hitting Gregory’s division.
The Greeks gave ground under pressure, suffering particularly heavy casualties.
During the fighting in the center, Dharar’s troops killed the Byzantine commander Dairjan,
who fought with his troops in the front.
Finally, as dusk approached the two exhausted armies ceased hostilities for the day.
For Vahan, losing one of his key lieutenants was an enormous blow and the speed of Khalid’s
counterattacks exposed weaknesses in his plan, forcing him to change tack.
The battle resumed with the Byzantines again advancing on the Muslim line.
This time, however, Vahan focused mainly on Khalid’s right flank where the Byzantine
heavy cavalry could do more damage.
Bitter fighting ensued as the Byzantine heavy cavalry charge outmatched Arab light mounted units.
Amr’s division fell back, followed shortly by Shurahbil.
As Jabalah’s flank slowly became exposed, Khalid sprang into action at this critical
moment, charging into the gap towards the Ghassanid flank.
Finally, Amr managed to rally his forces and re-engage.
Shurahbil too reorganized after taking some losses and went on the offensive.
The fighting developed into a bloodbath as the outflanked Ghassanids took a heavy beating
and retreated in disarray.
Seeing Jabalah disengaging, Qanatir too withdrew in good order.
Khalid’s well timed flanking attack again stopped the Byzantines.
The next day, Vahan persisted with the same battle plan.
Qanatir lead the Slavs against Amr’s division.
Jabalah’s Ghassanid division, now reinforced by Vahan’s Armenians, advanced on Shurahbil.
As soon as they met the Byzantine charge, the Muslims were hard-pressed.
Arab light cavalry was especially having trouble holding the push of the Imperial cataphracts.
Meanwhile, Vahan ordered the Armenians and Greeks forward, at a slower pace.
Khalid now feared a general Byzantine assault along the entire line.
He understood that, considering the losses on the previous day, he no longer had the
numbers to repulse a general advance by Imperial troops, and his cavalry reserve would not
be able to reinforce both flanks at the same time.
To avert disaster, Khalid sent Abu Ubayda and Yazid forward, aiming to stall Vahan’s
advance and buy some time for his troops on the right.
He then hastily rushed towards the gaps that opened between Shurahbil and Amr, as their
lines started buckling under the weight of the Byzantine attack.
Meanwhile, the Muslim left held the initial Byzantine push, but Vahan reinforced the attack
with horse archers, subjecting the Arabs to ceaseless barrages of arrows.
The point-blank volleys caused such losses to Abu Ubayda’s and Yazid’s divisions
that the incident became known as the “Day of Lost Eyes”.
Unable to withstand the storm of arrows, the Muslim left retreated to get out of range
of Byzantine archers.
On the other side of the battlefield Amr rallied his forces and halted Qanatir’s advance,
while Khalid shored up Shurahbil’s ranks and pressed Jabalah’s division.
The Ghassanids fought stubbornly, but having taken heavy losses they slowly gave ground.
Now that he was committed on the right, Khalid’s worst fear was realized - Gregory ordered
the general advance of his division, sensing that the Arabs were shaken by the losses they
took from Byzantine arrow volleys.
Sure enough, Yazid’s battered division gave way,
with Abu Ubayda barely holding Vahan’s Armenians.
With the Rashidun left in dire straits, Arab women from the camp picked up weapons and
joined the fighting.
The desperate last stand of the women inspired the Muslims to hold their ground against all odds.
Meanwhile on the right, the Byzantines finally retreated after several hours of fighting,
and the rest of Vahan’s line soon followed.
The fourth day of the battle was devastating for the Arabs, particularly the left wing.
But incredibly they managed to hold back the Byzantines.
Next morning, Vahan unexpectedly sent an emissary, offering a truce.
Arab commanders met for an impromptu war council.
Some argued to accept the truce, seeing it as a victory after fighting a much larger
army deep within enemy territory, while others noted that the men are tired, wounded and
The consensus was to leave and come back to fight another day.
Khalid listened to his comrades, then stood up saying: “The past four days tested our resolve."
"Now is not the time to concede, now is the time to be decisive!”
He argued that the strategy was to be on the defensive, wear out the enemy,
then counter attack.
And now he sensed that the Byzantines lost heart and that Vahan was trying to buy time
to raise morale of his troops.
The time to attack is now! There would be no truce...
During the night Khalid inspected the troops.
Wounded soldiers leaned on each other, but even in the face of such overwhelming odds
their spirit never wavered.
Determined to go on the offensive, the Muslim commander sent Dharar with 500 riders on a
wide flanking maneuver to capture a key bridge across the Raqqad gorge that served as the
main line of communication between the Byzantine army and their camp…
The fightback has begun…
As the sun rose on the next day, from the Byzantine line a hulking figure trotted out
on his war horse into the no man's land.
It was Gregory, the commander of the Byzantine right flank, reputed to be a formidable fighter.
Abu Ubayda answered the challenge.
As the overall strategic commander of Arab forces in Syria, before leaving he told Khalid:
"If I don't return you shall resume command of the army after the battle, until the Caliph
And with that the tall, slim figure of Abu Ubayda, a man in his 50's,
rode out to meet Gregory.
The two met in the middle, both excellent in single combat.
Circling each other they traded blows for several minutes, as both armies anxiously watched.
Then Gregory ran back towards his line - a trick designed to fool Abu Ubayda
into lowering his guard.
As the Arab general caught up with him, in a split second Gregory turned to strike, Abu
Ubayda ducked to evade the blow, striking the Greek general across the neck with his blade.
Gregory dropped his sword and slumped from his horse.
Moments later Khalid ordered the Muslim line forward!
Having spent most of the night reorganizing the troops, Khalid left a token force of cavalry
behind the infantry divisions, spreading their formations to make it appear to the Byzantines
like the disposition of the Arab army remained the same as it was during the previous days,
and he took all of the remaining cavalry, hiding it in the shallow dips of the plateau.
Some of the men in the Byzantine line could hardly believe that, despite such heavy losses,
the Muslim army went on the offensive.
As the clash in the center erupted, the Arabs pressed hard.
They were determined to drive the enemy back, but their substantial numerical disadvantage
meant that they could not sustain this battle of attrition for long.
Just as Vahan’s troops managed to slow the momentum of the Muslim advance, Khalid sprung his trap.
From the gentle dips in the terrain 8,000 riders galloped forward.
By amassing most of his cavalry Khalid planned to surround the Byzantine left flank.
Knowing that time was of the essence he urged his men to ride fast and without hesitation.
Speed would decide the outcome of the battle.
Busy with commanding the troops in the center, Vahan glanced to the left and saw the ominous
cloud of dust.
He scrambled to send his cavalry to cover the flank, realizing that the Muslim commander
has outwitted him.
In full gallop Khalid surged past Amr’s division and began to envelop Qanatir’s Slavs.
The rest of Arab riders followed their general as he guided them around Byzantine ranks.
Over his left shoulder Khalid could see the fierce fighting in the center as he pushed
his steed to go faster.
Qanatir’s and Jabalah’s line began folding, as they braced for the impact of the Arab cavalry.
As the Muslim riders smashed into Vahan’s left, Khalid pierced an enemy soldier, breaking
his lance in two.
He drew his sword, striking anyone in a red tunic.
The horses twisted and turned, wreaking havoc among the Byzantine infantry.
Jabalah and the Ghassanids disengaged and started fleeing.
But to their horror they realized that the bridge across the Ruqqad, their main escape
route, was blocked.
Jabalah’s troops dispersed as each man tried to save himself.
Qanatir fought on bravely, but the Slavic division was surrounded and stood no chance.
The entire Byzantine line began collapsing.
Shocked by Khalid’s rapid maneuver, the Imperial heavy cavalry tried in vain to stem the tide.
The noose was tightening as Vahan’s army was being pushed back towards the cliffs.
The Armenian general barked orders, and while some Byzantine units
kept their cohesion, others were in total disarray.
Unable to cope with the rapid movement of the Arab light cavalry, Byzantine cataphracts
were attacked on all sides.
Seeing that the situation was hopeless they fled, abandoning the infantry to their fate.
Khalid steadied his steed, closed his eyes and whispered a prayer of gratitude.
Though it was not immediately apparent, he knew that the battle was won.
Vahan’s army was cornered against the steep cliffs of the Raqqad and Yarmouk gorges, and
over the next several hours Byzantine troops were systematically killed.
Such was their desperation that hundreds, if not thousands of Imperial soldiers jumped
to their deaths from the cliffs to escape the wrath of Khalid’s troops.
On that day the Rashidun army achieved a victory that would change the course of history forever…
The Battle of Yarmouk was certainly the battle of the century and one of the most pivotal
battles in world history.
The juggernaut that was the Byzantine army was made up of disciplined warriors, who probably
thought they can easily outmatch the Arabic desert army.
Unfortunately for them, in Khalid ibn al-Walid they faced possibly the greatest military
mind of the age.
In just a few short years he restructured the rag-tag Arab forces into an army that
would conquer half of the known world.
On August 20th 636, at Yarmouk, after six grueling days only one side was left standing.
Islam stepped onto the world stage...