Wednesday, August 19, 2015

When Syria Changed Hands

The population of Syria is currently about 60% Sunni and 13% Shia Muslim. 'Twas not always thus.

Map of ancient Syria, 1683 [source]
Syria joined the Greek-Macedonian Empire thanks to Alexander the Great about 330 BCE, taking it from Persian rule. It was from the Greeks that it gained the name Syria, confusing it with Assyria to the east. Later it was captured and occupied by the Armenians in 83 BCE, and by Pompey the Great in 64 BCE, joining it to the Roman Empire. The language in Syria was Aramaic, and its connection to the Roman Empire helped spread Aramaic-speaking Roman citizens farther afield than they might otherwise have traveled. There are Aramaic inscriptions on Hadrian's Wall, left there by Roman soldiers from Syria.

When the Roman Empire split, Syria became a province of the Byzantine Empire. There it might have stayed, except for Muhammad. He took 1000 men into Syria when he heard that tribes in Duma were preparing to attack Medina. This expedition in 626 set the stage for the Battle of Yarmouk in 636.

The battle lasted from 15 August to 20 August. Estimates put the Byzantine defending army between 80,000 and 150,000 and the Muslim army between 25,000 and 40,000. Our poor ability to estimate long-ago armies aside, it is clear that historians assume the Muslim army was much smaller. They prevailed, however, and the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius blamed his own personal failings (he had married his niece). He was in Antioch at the time and, having not enough resources to mount a campaign to re-take the territory, he retrieved a relic of the True Cross and retreated to Constantinople.

The Battle of Yarmouk was a tremendous victory for the Muslims and the beginning of their westward advance.

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