Khalid ibn al-Walid's life had taken a full 360 turn.
Throwing family tradition aside he'd embraced Islam and helped Muhammad smash the old idols he had once worshipped.
He was quickly becoming The Prophet's favoured general, who gave him the title Sayfullah (The Sword of God).
But the newly minted army of Islam was about to face a monumental challenge. Peeking over the northern border of The Caliphate sat the two largest empires in the known world: Rome and Sassanid Persia.
The rapid spread of Islam had shocked them into an alliance, and now the full military might of these ancient juggernauts was about to bought down upon Khalid and his army.
In the fertile fields of the Yarmouk gorge world history was about to be made...
Listen in to learn how Islam rose to become one of the largest religions in the world!
ʿAhlan my friends, my name is Elliot Gates, the host of the Anthology of Heroes podcast. And you've tuned into part two of the story of the brilliant Arab commander Khalid ibn al-Walid ibn al-Mughira al-Makhzumi, the Sword of Allah. In part one, we covered… what didn't we cover,we talked about Khalid's early life of privilege as a member of the Meccan elite, his lust for battle and women, as well as his extreme resistance to Muhammad's teaching.
We talked about his relationship with Umar, both boys of the Mecca and upper crust who were, even as teenagers, beginning to move in different directions. We went through Khalid's rise to fame following his conversion to Islam and the role he played in subduing traitorous Arab tribes who renounced Islam after the death of Muhammad. We covered a few of the weird and wonderful false prophets that rose up after Muhammad's death. Like the master of the arse. I just love saying that one.
And we concluded the episode with a letter that was supposedly sent to the Roman Emperor Heraclius from Muhammad, inviting him to join Islam or else. There was a lot in the first episode that leads into this episode, so if you haven't listened to that one, I'd advise you to start there. Otherwise, here we go for part two, the final part of the story of Khalid ibn al-Walid, the Sword of Allah….
As Abu Bakr mulled over his growing empire, his first concern was his northern borders. As a reminder, Abu Bakr was one of the first converts to Islam, a close friend of Muhammad who had become the new leader or caliph after the Prophet's death.
The northern borders were held by an Arab tribe allied with The Sassanids. They would always be a threat to them and they had to go.
Unlike the Roman Empire, which had stabilized after the long war between the two powers, the Sassanid court was in absolute tatters. Kings and queens ruling for a few weeks or even days before being assassinated, before being replaced by someone from a rival faction and being assassinated repeat.
Khalid with an army of volunteers headed north and blitzed through the first towns that offered any resistance. Muhammad had been very clear in his teachings people must first be offered a chance to convert before the hammer is brought down on them. Either that, or they pay the jizya, a tax that was imposed on all non Muslims for the right to practice their religion in peace. So Khalid sent out messages to all the Persian rulers known as satraps and told them:
“In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate and Merciful.
Khalid ibn Walid sends this message to the satraps of Persia.
Peace will be upon him who follows the guidance.
All praise and thanks be to God who disperses your power and thwarted your deceitful plots.
On the one hand, he who performs our prayers facing the direction of our Qiblah (thats - the direction toward the Kaabaa)
to face the sacred Mosque in Mecca and eats our slaughtered animals is a Muslim. He has the same rights and duties that we have.
On the other hand, if you do not want to embrace Islam, then as soon as you receive this message, send over the jizya and I give you my word that I will respect and honor this covenant.
But if you do not agree to either choice, then, by God, I will send to you people who crave death as much as you crave life.”
To the Arab border tribes, Khalid’s seal at the bottom of the letter was a terrifying thing. His no nonsense approach to warfare was well known, if he said he was coming, he meant it. If you said you were next, you were next.
While the Sassanid government was in tatters, its military was still state of the art. Its commanders were the same one that had so recently bought the Roman Empire to the brink of extinction. Khalid and his army had now crossed the Euphrates River, an act that had really never been done before by any Arab raiding party. Punching up the Arab client states of The Sassanids one thing, but his river may as well have been The Rubicon.
It was completely uncharted territory from here onwards, where one mistake could spell the end. In the first few engagements, he was sure to keep the desert behind his army. He and his men were Arabs. They knew the desert like the back of their hand. In the event of a disaster, they could retreat, knowing the Sassanid forces would not dare follow them. On the battlefield Khalid was like a whirlwind. Initially, he would oversee the battle from behind the lines, waiting for an exposed flank or a division, looking a bit shaky. And then, as if out of nowhere, The Sword of Allah would appear through the fog of battle, he and a core group of his best bodyguards would cut into the lines of the enemy. If there was a duel, it was Khalid himself who would fight. According to a Muslim account, he once broke seven swords in a single battle.
And once the battle was done, he and his army would disappear and turn up in the most unexpected places, forcing the heavily armored Sassanid army to trudge exhaustingly to a new city.
As Khalid began to set up a new Muslim administration in the conquered cities, the Sassanid government had finally stopped murdering each other and had settled on a man or boy that they disliked the least. His name was Yazdegerd III, and at the time of his coronation, he was about eight years old.
Earlier in the campaign, the Sassanid government had decided, or hoped, I suppose, that this attack was just an Arab raid, a huge Arab raid, but a raid nonetheless, one they could pay off after the looting finished.
But as city after city fell, it became clear that this was no raid. These guys were here to stay. I mean, you've really got a feel for the Sassanid empire at this point. The longest war in the empire's history had just ended. A civil war had followed. While that civil war was ongoing, raiders came flooding over from the east and the west and brought with them a plague that had wiped out most of the army.
And now, for the first time in history, the Arab tribes to the south had been united under one ruler and were streaming unopposed through their southern borders. I mean, rough times, right?
Apparently, things were so bleak that the courtiers spoke openly about the collapse of their world in a final stage of grief type of way. And as everything began to collapse, the Roman Emperor Heraclius noticed the same thing. As a reminder, Heraclius was a Roman emperor who had usurped power from an extremely unpopular emperor. He had slowly reconquered all the Roman territory lost to the Persians, which was now being threatened by the Caliphate.
Despite being their historical enemies, the Sassanids were an evil that Heraclius knew and recognized. Territory had gone back and forth over centuries, but both sides kind of relied on the other to maintain a status quo. The Arabs from the south were a complete unknown. And in a show of desperation, Heraclius and Yazdegerd’s Council agreed on a royal marriage and a military alliance.
For the first time ever, these ancient Titans were putting their differences aside. This is how big the threat was. It was during this invasion that Khalid really came into his own element.
In two enormous battles, the Sword of Allah virtually wiped the Sassanid army off the face of the earth. The armies he faced were two to five times the size of his, but he relied on his troops to follow his orders explicitly. And because they did, he was able to pull off some very complex maneuvers, the most stunning of these being the full envelopment, where the commander instructs the front line of his own troops to slowly give ground until the line becomes a kind of crescent that slowly wraps around the opposing forces who were eventually encircled.
If they manage to pull it off, the enemy is packed in so tightly that they can barely lift their arm to swing a sword. It's an incredibly complex maneuver, and to pull it off is a real calling card of a master general. There's this kind of perception in the west when someone brings up Khalid’s victories to dismiss them as luck, or it was because the Persians were in such bad shape beforehand, that kind of thing. While this is true, the Sassanid forces were probably the most elite soldiers in the world. If you remember the Persian Immortals from the movie 300.
Some of these battles that Khalid was involved in had 10,000 of these against him, the best of the best. And Khalid and his men chewed them up and spat them right back out. The fact of the matter is, the army of the early Caliphate was a corps of incredibly hardy and zealous warriors. Put that behind a man like Khalid and you're going to get results. Luck had nothing to do with it.
With the mighty Persian Empire completely broken, Khalid received orders from Abu Bakr. He was to withdraw from Iraq and head to Syria to spearhead the invasion of the Roman Empire. Unlike the Sassanids, who were caught off guard and had to throw everything together at the last minute, the Romans had time to put some defense together. They knew they were next and they were as ready as they’d ever be. But would it be enough to sheath the sword of Islam?
Back in Medina, Khalid's string of victories were welcome news to the aging Abu Bakr. Jewels, swords, slaves and gold flowed back in droves. Khalid even sent back an elephant, which no one had ever seen before. Abu Bakr, though interested, had no real idea of how to care for the animal. So he sent them back to Khalid.
But on the back of the loot came gossip. Gossip about Khalid's lavish lifestyle. He usually gave away most of his share of loot to his men, and having this reputation really helped him gather more recruits. But he was also nothing if not lustful. He married many women, wedding them, bedding them, and usually not having much to do with them after. Abu Bakr was prepared to look the other way. But, Umar wasn't. Since the death of Muhammad, Umar had become more conservative in his views. He was the type of guy who might dress someone down in the street if he thought they weren't following one of Muhammad's rules to the letter.
His dislike of Khalid's party boy lifestyle was probably more than just jealousy. I mean, how could he expect the everyday folk of Medina to follow the astute lifestyle he tried to promote when prominent Muslims like Khalid did the complete opposite? But as he watched the wealth of the largest empire on earth flow through the streets of Medina, a city that just two years ago was an insignificant trading town, Umar's concerns were brushed aside. As Khalid finished setting up administration in Iraq, he started to plan his route to Syria. Abu Bakr had made it clear timing was of the essence. The Caliphate's forces there were barely keeping their head above water.
Heraclius wanted to send these guys packing back to the desert. Syria was one of, if not the most economically valuable territory in the entire Roman Empire. Grapes, dates, olives and other money crops grew in abundance in the region's fertile soil. The lucrative silk dying industry was centred in Damascus and luxury goods from the Far East passed through its ports. All this added up to big figures on Heraclius’ balance sheet. Syria had to be held at all costs. The usual caravan route into Syria was well known to both the Caliphate and the Romans. It was a long southern loop bristling with well stocked Roman garrisons. It simply wouldn't do. Khalid probed his men for alternative routes until one man stepped forward. A desert Nomad. He confessed that, yes, he knew a route for one person, or at most a couple. An almost direct route through the desert, six days long, and it would take them to the edge of Syria. But it would be suicide to take an army through.
There was virtually no water available at any point, save for a small spring that he had only visited once as a boy. But Khalid was one of those never tell me the odds type of guy, and you can guess what happened next. As preparation for the desert march began, the older man who had shared his route, a guy called Rafe, tried desperately to talk Khalid out of it. “You cannot traverse this desert with an army. By Allah, even a lone traveler would attempt his journey at the peril of his life!” But Khalid shot back, quote “woe to you, O Rafe. By God, if I knew another route to get to Syria, I would take it. Proceed as I have ordered.” End quote. He then ordered as many camels as he could find to be forcibly filled with as much water as they could drink before sowing their lips up, so the beasts could not eat food to spoil the water inside of them, essentially turning them into big, smelly, portable water tanks. And so, with the Sword of Allah leading them, the grim column set out through the tortured waterless waste. On and on they marched. Dune after dune. The camels that they had bought to be slaughtered were killed periodically. The parched Arabs eagerly gulped up the murky brown water of their stomach contents. By the start of the third day, all the camels had been killed.
As the agony of thirst and dehydration began to set in, perhaps the men remembered a favorite verse of the Quran: “sufficient for us as Allah, and what a good protector he is”. At the front of the column, there was an even more immediate danger. Rafe, the expedition's guide, was going blind… Apparently an pre existing issue that had been made far worse through the desert heat.
He now had to guide the expedition from memory… As the column stopped and started, based on his vague memories, Rafe finally instructed the scalps to look for two hillocks that were shaped like breasts. Excitedly, they returned, saying that they had located them. The blind guide then sent the back, telling them to look out for a thorn tree shaped like a sitting man.
Hours later, they returned again, but this time without finding anything. You can imagine the panic of these men, now on the verge of death, guided only by a blind old man. Desperately, Khalids insisted they look again. Hours later, one of the men returned. He led the convoy to the stump of a thorn tree, the closest thing he could find. As the dying men manically dug around the sand at the tree, they began to feel the unfamiliar sensation of water. They had found it against all odds. The old blind guide had led him to the spring he had visited 30 years ago.
The expedition was saved. Stumbling out of the desert came Khalid's ragged army. Parched and burnt but alive. The Muslim army that they were there to reinforce was just as happy to see them as they were. The local commander was no slouch. He had already beaten the Romans in a pitched battle a few months earlier. But as reinforcements streamed in from Heraclius, they were now dangerously overexposed. The Muslim forces were still seriously undermanned, but had no choice to fight. Khalid and his men were all that they were going to get in the way of reinforcements, and Heraclius was sure to keep new men sliding into the Roman army as the days began to drag on. He was probably hoping the Arabs may eventually just leave if a big enough army was shadowing them. But it wasn't to be.
In a battle we know almost nothing about. Khalids again led the Arabs to victory against an army that at least doubled his own in size. The battle commenced with a plan to kidnap Khalid. But the Muslims caught wind and slaughtered the would be kidnappers before anything could happen. Just like the Persians, the Roman army lost many, many men in the slaughter that took place after almost the entire army completely annihilated, men that Heraclius could not replace easily.
Khalid's men took what they wanted from the countryside. Any city without walls was sacked. All that remained was the jewel of Syria: Damascus. Heraclius had left Damascus in the hands of his brother in law, Thomas. We know very little about Thomas, but we know he's a man that Heraclius felt he could trust implicitly, as their fates were linked by blood.
When Khalid's army arrived at Damascus, he had only just enough means to blockade the city's gates. Heraclius, who was further north, sent 12,000 men south to break the siege. When Khalid heard of this, he spread his troops further still and assembled an army to meet and repel the Roman advance. If Thomas and his forces inside had rode out and attacked a few troops still holding the siege, it's likely they could have broken out. But that's hindsight for you, I guess. Thomas sat tight and Khalid's hastily assembled forces rebuffed the Roman ones, scattering them to the wind.
Damascus was on its own.
Thomas attempted a few sorties, gathering his forces and sailing out of the gates, hoping to catch certain divisions off guard. But Khalids always seemed to be one step ahead, always managing to scramble troops to reinforce whatever front Thomas attacked on. Thomas, though he's now just a footnote in history, was an undoubtedly brave man, losing an eye in one of the sorties, but still pushing onwards as the siege dragged on, though, every fight from Thomas became weaker and weaker.
Khalid and his men drank and ate comfortably, the rich countryside providing them all they needed, all while the townsfolk of Damascus starved with rations, getting more and more meager with each passing day.
One bloke in town was more put out by the siege than anyone else, or at least he felt like he was. A man called Jonah was just about to be married before the siege started, and now he had to reschedule it until it finished. Unmarried and miserable, Jonah reached out to Khalid and let him know of a Christian holiday coming up. When the walls would be almost unguarded. Khalid took advantage of it and rushed the walls during the night. As the Arab troops poured over, Thomas knew the city was lost, and from the other side of the city, he quickly approached one of Khalid's sub commanders to offer surrender. The man was known for his clemency, and even though the city had pretty much already fallen, he promised a safe passage for Thomas and his men. Khalid was furious, but a promise was a promise. He gave Thomas five days' head start to leave, and after that, all bets were off.
Damascus, the jewel of Syria, conquered by Roman General Pompey the Great in 64 BC, was now in the hands of the Caliphate. Heraclius, now in his 50s, was on his way out of the mortal world. He had lived a hard life taking the throne in a coup. He had to earn his legitimacy and give the people of Rome a reason to love him. And he had made mistakes. Hell, he'd made a ton of mistakes. But from the depths, he dragged Rome back to its former glory, only to have the rug pulled immediately out from him again.
It was all starting to take its toll. He was frequently bedridden with dropsy, which is an old timey coverall description for painful swelling.
He was also probably suffering from PTSD. His years of endless campaigning and dodging assassinations had left his body in a permanent state of stress.
But even on death's door, Heraclius was a phenomenal ruler. It's easy to imagine the stooped monarch hunched over old maps and finance ledgers, his exhausted eyes scanning the pages, thinking desperately, how am I going to get us out of this?
Pulling money from anywhere he could, he sold off imperial titles for quick cash. He leant heavily on the church mortgaging or melting down church relics to be turned into gold or silver. Any old border disputes in Europe, he settled quickly, with relaxed terms and putting aside any ego or gloating, he reached out to the Sassanid court, resulting in the two bruised superpowers signing a treaty of friendship. He was down, but not out yet. He could not let his legacy be the man who reconquered half of the Roman Empire just to lose it again.
As both sides gained strength, khalid took the time to take a pilgrimage to Mecca. Although the Kaaba was now dedicated to a single god, this had not stopped the string of pilgrims. In fact, they were more than ever. It had been some time since he had returned to home for any real length of time. The sleepy trading point he left had turned into a flood of humanity. Far flung tribes of the Persian Gulf who recently converted from Zoroastrianism and people from all walks of life now made their journey to see the holy Kaaba.
While they still retain the old practice of circling the structure. The recipient of the people's prayers were no longer a mystery. There was no Manat or Hubal inside. There was only one God, Allah. Medina too had changed completely. Wealth that flowed in from the recently conquered territories had transformed the city and with it, its inhabitants. Abu Bakr was now an old man. At 60 years old, his small, shrunken body, wispy beard and trembling hands hinted at his impending mortality. He was getting his affairs in order as he prepared to meet his old friend and Prophet in the next world. The most pressing of these affairs was who would be his successor?
In his two years of ruling, he had strengthened the realm Muhammad had left him. But someone needed to carry it on. Vast territories had been won, yes, but now they had to be held. They had to be governed fairly, tax efficiently and if required, reprimanded harshly. Remind you of anyone? Umar was to be the new caliph.
Though he was not exceedingly popular with other advisers due to his strictness, Abu Bakr had made up his mind. Like him or dislike him, Umar was a fair man, at least according to the principles of the Quran. While Khalid was referred to as Saifullah, the sword of God, muslims called Umar, ‘al-Farooq’, the one who distinguishes between right and wrong.
One night, just after Khalid had left to head back to the front, Abu Bakr slipped into a kind of fever. When it became clear he wasn't going to last a night, one of his companions urged him to rethink his successor. Asking him (and I'm paraphrasing here( when you meet the Lord and he asks you who you left the Caliphate to, what are you going to say? Please rethink your choice.
Unwavering, Abu Bark asked for his tends to set him up so he can look at his companion in the eyes and tells him, quote “When I meet God my Lord, and He questions me, I will say, 'I have left the best of your people as a successor in charge of your people..". After that, Abu Bakr, the first caliph, slipped away, leaving no uncertainty as to who would follow him.
But first, a quick message from one of our friends of the show.
Hello friends. My name is Patrick Little, host of a Little History podcast. If you'd like to learn about history, a little differently than the Little history podcast has you sorted. Nothing is off limits as we tackle some of the well known and not so well known stories from various mythologies and folklore from around the world. So drink them if you got them and join us for a bit of shit talking and a lot of fun. My name is Patrick Little, and this is a little history podcast. It's our history, but like you've never.
Love him or hate him, Umar's mind worked like a Swiss clock. The second caliph wasted no time in pushing through reforms and changes he probably had rolling around in his head for many years. He started a welfare program to help the poor, based on guidance in the Qur'an. But the army was what changed most. It was turned from a patchwork of tribal levies to a permanent standing army. Unlike the Persian or Roman standing armies, who may have been paid in land grants or tax collection rights, the troops of the caliph will be paid regularly in cold, hard cash. And that cash could only come from the state. So if the men wanted to get paid, their loyalty would also be towards the state. Tribal boundaries were again dashed when he set guidelines that promotions would be based on merit, not all tribal rankings. This meant that only the brightest and the best rose to the top. Commanders were now nominated for a specific battle or war, and after that, they were to return to their regular ranks. There was no more of these demigod generals who strutted from province to province on their own whims. That last line… sound like anyone we know? Up north solidifying his conquests, the sword of Allah received a frantic message. Abu Bakr, peace be upon him, had died, and Umar was the new caliph.
It was in this moment everything hung in the balance. Khalid had with him the most veteran army in the caliphate, and most were loyal to him above all others. All knew that there was no love lost between the men. It would take only a few words to start a civil war. As his council waited and bated breath, Khalid put the message aside and said simply, quote, “If Abu Bakr is dead and Umar is caliph, then we hear and obey” End quote. And that was that.
But back in Medina Umar wasn't finished. There was one more change that needed to be made, one that he knew would be an unpopular one. Striding confidently towards the crowds of Medina, Umar took his stand on a podium, and the Muslims got their first look at their new caliph. Where Abu Bakr was thin and hunched, Umar was stout and muscular. Where Abu Bakr's eyes were warm and kind, umars were determined and piercing. Through a patchy black beard with reddish tinned mustaches, he addressed his flock. He told them that he would continue to take them on the right path and they should have no fear. Perhaps he told them of his plans for the welfare of poor Muslims.
But at the very end he announced to his people that he would be replacing Khalid Ibn Al Walid. He would sheath the sword of Islam.
You could have heard a pin drop in the crowd.
It was common knowledge that Umar wasn't Khalid's biggest fan. But to fire him and at the height of his success? Many Muslims would have remembered the huge celebrations and the fabulous riches Khalid bought through the streets of his triumph. Would Islam even have existed if it wasn't for Khalids brilliance?
One teenager couldn't hold his tongue and broke the silence: “do you dismiss a man in whose hand Allah has placed a victorious sword and with whom Allah has strengthened his religion? Allah will never forgive you, nor will the Muslims for sheathing the sword!” The new caliph dismissed the comment. But the next day doubled down. Aware of the crowd's reaction, he realized a change this big could not just be swept under a rug telling them look, Khalid is a great commander for sure, but he spends too lavishly. Money that could be given to the poor he throws away on poets and warriors. But don't worry, I've replaced him with a commander who is just as worthy.
And up north that man had just arrived at Khalid camp. He was a guy named Abu Ubaidah. Abu Ubaidah was known to Khalid. In fact he had served beneath him in several campaigns. Remember the Siege of Damascus? Well, Abu Ubaidah was the other commander who the Byzantine general Thomas managed to secure a surrender from despite Khalid's troops breaching the walls. He was a handsome dude, tall, slim, with a bright face. He was humble, courteous, kind and lived modestly, inspired by Muhammad himself. When he met his old commander and told the news, he seemed almost embarrassed. Both men knew that Khalid was the superior commander. Not to discredit Abu Ubaidah, but Khalid had always just been in a league of his own. The sword of Islam was shocked by the letter. Almost on his own, he had bought down two titanic empires in the name of Islam. And Umar, from his cushy seat in the capital, sacks him…?
Head full of emotions, Khalid retreated to his tent and wept for the death of Abu Bakr knowing full well if he still lived, none of this would have occurred.
The army under Abu Ubaidah was a very different beast than it had been under Khalid. Khalid's lightning flash tax had kept the enemy guessing. But Umar expected, demanded I guess, to be more involved in the command of the army. Many decisions needed to be deferred to Umar himself. And the army sat idle as they awaited orders to be carried up from Medina. Khalid's bold, all or nothing scrums were replaced with calculated and deliberate set piece battles. Even then, Abu Ubaidah deferred regularly to his old commander and Khalid, despite the demotion, was only too willing to lend his expertise. Though Abu Ubaidah was in the command of the army, on paper, all knew it was Khalid who was in real command. Behind the scenes. Despite Umar's tendency for micromanagement, the Muslims slowly ground down city after city. Heraclius urged the defendants to hold out as he desperately scraped together an army to try and stand against the invaders. From province to province, recruiters went. The Roman levy system, honed over centuries since the times of Caesar, was cranked into overdrive.
From the coastal towns of the Black Sea to the high mountain forts of Epirus came streams of men answering the call to meet the enemy. But Khalids reputation preceded him. A wizened old monk hobbled over to one of the recruiters and warned him ominously quote “Is the standard of this army a black one? Is the commander of this army a tall, powerfully built, broad shouldered man with a large beard and a few pock marks on his face? Then beware of fighting this army…..”
InApril 634. The armies of Islam roared out of the Arabian desert, heading again for the Roman Levantine coast that's modern day Israel Jordan. But this time, Heraclius was ready. You see, the Muslim raids worked best in smaller groups. When I say small, I mean five or 7000 men. Heraclius' huge army was determined to crush each one of the raiding groups one at a time. Meanwhile, he had an agreement with the Persian Shah to launch simultaneous attacks into the caliphate, while Rome held down the bulk of the Islamic enemy. Whatever forces the Persians had left would do as much damage as they could with raids and skirmishes. Abu Ubaidah first heard of this strategy after capturing Byzantine prisoners who spilled the beans. Khalid, noticing that the individual armies were facing much stiffer resistance than usual, called all the groups back and grouped everything he had into one army for a pitched battle. It was exactly what Heraclius didn't want, but he didn't have a choice.
In a fertile green gorge near the Yarmuk valley, one of the most decisive battles in world history was about to take place.
Here It would be determined if Islam would go global or it would remain a local cult. In the Arabian peninsula, the Romans lined up a 13 kilometer battle line that spanned across the gorge. They probably had around 25,000 troops, while the Muslims had around half of this.
The cool wind blew across a truly multiethnic army. Armenians, Christian Arabs, Anatolian, Greeks, and all kinds of nationalities stood shoulder to shoulder in the Roman lines, while over on the other side, they were one people following one man worshiping one god. Khalid Ibn Al Walid stood behind the long, thin battle line. Standing with him were a reserve of his best and most loyal men, veterans of his earlier campaigns. The Roman army waited for the morning prayer of the Muslims to start and then charged.
Early on, it seemed the heavily armored Byzantine Sipahi cavalry would overwhelm the Muslim lines. But nothing got past Khalid's Hawkeye's. And his personal bodyguard came screaming in to reinforce the faltering lines for the Muslims that had already started to flee. The women of the camp chased after them, swearing at their husbands and showering them with stones and beating them with tent poles, shaming many of them into returning.
For three days it went on like this, Khalid's timely intervention bolstering the positions at just the right moment. But even so, the Muslims were losing men faster than the Romans. One day of the battle was nicknamed by the Muslims as the Day of the Lost Eyes. Due to so many injuries from the dominating Byzantine horse archers.
With an army that was half the size of the Roman host, Khalid knew he was running out of time. On the fifth day, as the predictable Byzantine charge pushed back the left wing, Khalid again reinforced the line, taking with him a much larger contingent than usual. Pulling away from the thinly spread line, he gambled that with enough of a punch he could route the Byzantine wing. But his lines on the right had to hold. As he did so, timing was everything, and Khalid was in his element. As the Byzantine shot cavalry drove deeper and deeper, he charged into their flanks, routing the overextended army and forcing a full withdrawal. The Byzantines managed to salvage a retreat, but the day was undoubtedly won by Khalid. After this alarming tactical victory, one of the Christian commanders wanted to discuss terms with Khalid, but his counterpart refused, sensing that the Muslims were on the edge of breaking just one more coordinated charge, and that would be the end of them. Over on the other side of the field, Khalid, too, felt that victory was near, and he set about one of his biggest gambles yet. Under the cover of darkness, he commanded a group of 500 warriors to circle around the Byzantine army and secure the small crossing out of the gorge. This was a serious gamble, and it left the Muslim army severely undermanned.
These 500 men could be the difference between victory and total defeat. Only a man like Khalid had the grit to give an order like this. On the 6th day, the two ragged armies stared down each other from across the plains, the fertile green gorge now stained with the decaying bodies of men and horses. The stench must have been unbearable. The Romans had kept their standard formation, but overnight Khalid had made drastic changes on his side of the field. On his right flank, he mustered all his remaining cavalry, leaving only a wafer thin line of infantrymen to resist the Roman charge. As the battle started, Khalid wasted no time. Led by the sword of Allah himself, every Muslim horseman still standing skirted around the right flank of the Roman army. The Christian commanders noticed a huge body of troops and desperately tried to peel off men from their front lines. But it was too late. The army of the Caliphate peeled behind the Romans, cutting them down. As the lines desperately tried to reorganize, the men began to rout and their commanders knew that they were lost. But they had a contingency. Once they were out of the gorge, the exhausted Muslim army would lose coordination and give up the chase. Shortly, with as much coordination as they could have expected from men running from their lives, the broken Roman army made their way to the pass…. and ran headfirst into Khallid's men!
His gamble had paid off. Tenfold. The Romans were sealed in with nowhere to go. In desperation, the only Roman commander still standing, tried to form up a defensive battle line.
But it was too little, too late. Trying everything they could to escape their imminent mortality, men tried to scale the gorge or swim across. But they all met the same fate either smashed against the rocks of the Yarmuk River or picked off by Khalids men. The scale of Roman losses was staggering. The Empire probably hadn't seen deaths on this scale since the time of Hannibal and Scipio.
Modern estimates put the death toll around one and two. Or said differently. 50,000 men. 50,000.
Almost all of the high command included. The Battle of Yarmouk was Khalid's crowning achievement. It's this reason that Khalid ibn Alwali is today remembered as one of the most brilliant tactical battlefield commanders of all time.
The Roman commanders showed little creativity and repeated the same tactics day after day, relying only on their superior numbers, while the Sword of Allah deployed his troops creatively. And his battlefield sixth sense meant he knew exactly where he needed to be at exactly the right time before disappearing and reappearing somewhere else.American history writer George Nafziger said on the Yarmak quote “Although Yarmouk is little known today, it is one of the most decisive battles in human history...... Had Heraclius' forces prevailed, the modern world would be so changed as to be unrecognizable” end quote. I want to let that sink in for a second: “The modern world would be so changed as to be unrecognizable”. Can you imagine if Khalid lost? What then? Umar and the ever cautious Abu Ubaidah were pretty risk adverse guys. Would they have called it a day and formalized a border with the Byzantine Empire? Then what? Damascus remains a Christian city and Islam is contained to the Arabian Peninsula. I mean, I'm just spitballing here, but the ramifications of this battle are incredible to think about. The world in which we live in right now would look very different as a result of one man's initiative 1400 years ago! It's a crazy thought, isn't it?
Heraclius received the disastrous news in a city just a little north of Damascus. The aging emperor looked to the heavens for salvation. He fasted for several days and thought upon what he had done to anger God, eventually settling on his incestuous marriage to his niece.
As the Muslim army advanced north, it was becoming dangerous for him to still be in the area. It was time to leave. With tears in his eyes, the man who had reconquered all of the Levantine coast just to lose it again, looked back on the fertile plains of Syria. Syria, annexed by Pompey the Great over 700 years earlier, was gone.
The Roman Empire would never be in a position to take it back. As the last of his possessions were loaded up on board, his ship pulled away from the coast towards Constantinople. As the shoreline faded, the elderly Emperor said his farewells, quote “farewell along farewell to Syria, my fair province thou art, and infidels now. Peace be with you, O Syria. What a beautiful land you will be for the enemy's hand…”
The back of Roman resistance had been broken.Abu Ubaidah and Khalid proceeded north, formalizing the conquest of the new province. Later that year, they received a surprise visitor, The caliph himself! Strutting in boldly, came Umar, wanting a first hand look at all the new additions to his empire. If Khalid thought that maybe he was going to get a pat on the back, or maybe a “nice job on that insanely thorough victory” then he was very much mistaken.
Seeing Khalid and his sub commander dressed in fine silken robes, the austere caliph scooped up a handful of stones and pelted them at Khalid. Quote “shame on you that you greet me in this fashion! It is only in the last two years that you have eaten your fill! Shame on what abundance of food has brought you to by Allah! If you were to do this after 200 years of prosperity, I should still dismiss you and appoint others in your place!” end quote.
Umar eventually calmed down after Khalid flashed his saber, hid under his fancy clothes, telling him “hey look, they're just robes, we're still as hard as ever”. But still he stood in stark contrast next to Abu Ubaidah, who greeted the caliph in the same simple cotton robes that he favored. The meeting was just another further confirmation to Umar that his childhood rival spent lavishly and was too proud. With the wealth he gained from the Yarmuk Khalid threw lavish parties, showering money on anyone in his revenue, he married several more times and had dozens of children, all of which further increased the operating cost of his household. He rewarded poets who wrote tales of his victories and generals who made them happen. In a way, Khalid needed these victories as much as Islam did, just to keep up his lifestyle.
As one of his biographers put it, “wealth slipped through his fingers like sand”. And you can bet that none of this was lost on the ever scrupulous Umar, who, despite being thousands of miles away, continually lambasted The Sword of Allah. One furious letter blasted him. After learning that he had taken a bath containing an alcohol based solution, Khalid was quick to point out that the Quran said nothing against using alcohol for external uses such as this, but it was clear his days in the limelight were numbered.
As the memory of Abu Bakr faded, Umar had well and truly stamped his authority on the Caliphate. As Khalid and Abu Ubaidah continued to mop up any remaining Roman garrisons, khalid was summoned to a meeting with a high ranking Muslim sent by Umar himself. Perhaps, Khalid thought, his talents would be put to use again. Did Umar wish him to deliver the final blow to Sassanid Persia, or even to march on Constantinople itself? But it was nothing of the sort. Khalid was accused and sentenced for embezzlement. Remember the poem we mentioned that Khalid had paid to have written about his victories? Well, Umar had heard that Khalid had paid an obscene amount of money for this poem to be written. But more glaring was the fact that he had paid it using a share of the booty that was earmarked for the Caliphate. We have no way of knowing which of the events are true, but after a huge victory like the Yarmuk, Khalid would have been pretty flushed with cash. It doesn't seem like he would have needed to dip into the Caliphates share.
The accusation came as a shock to Khalid, who insisted that the money had come from his share. But the messenger was not there to preside over a court case. He was just there to deliver a message. Khalid was stunned, humiliated. After everything he had done for Islam, after his legendary desert march and a flawless victory at the Yarmuk, this is how his career was meant to end? Over a minuscule technicality?
With little else to do, Khalid rode to Medina for an audience with his old rival. But by chance, he met Umar in the streets before he found him at the palace. The two young boys whose lives had taken the most dramatic view turns sized each other up. The greatest warrior Islam had ever produced against the most powerful man in the Empire. Umar broke the silence, piously stating, quote “you have done and no man has done as you have done, but is not people who do is Allah who does” End quote.
Khalid, who was in no mood for academics shot back quote "I protest to the Muslims against what you have done. By Allah, you have been unjust to me, O Umar."..
When pressed as to where he had acquired his wealth, Khalid spat back at Umar that everything he owned was his share of the loot that he had gained over a career fighting for Islam.
But this was still not enough for Uma, who confiscated more of Khalid's gains, reducing his household to 600,000 dirhams. For reference, khalid was said to have paid 100,000 dirhams for the poem earlier.
The sword of Allah had his answer reduced even further in stature. There was nothing he could do. I feel like I should take a moment to highlight Umar's motives, because we've kind of made him seem like this bad guy and that's really not what I'm trying to do. Umar was by no means a selfish man. He wasn't trying to pinch Khalid's money to get himself a new palace or a fancy sword. I mean, the guy lived a very aesthetic lifestyle that was truly admirable for a man of his position. As I mentioned before, he created one of the first welfare states in world history. So there's no reason not to assume that the money confiscated truly went to the good of the Muslim people. But it was Khalid himself who had personally bought in all of this wealth. If it wasn't for him, Umar would have had much less to distribute to the poor.
All across the Caliphate, there were grumblings of Umar's shabby treatment of The Sword of Allah, but he was unwavering. When pressed to returned Khalids property, he retorted piously quote, “I do not trade on the property that belongs to Allah and the Muslims”, end quote. And adding quote “I have not dismissed Khalid because of my anger or because of any dishonesty on his part, but because people glorified him and were misled. I feared that people would rely on him. I want them to know that it is Allah who does all things; and there should be no mischief in the land” End quote.
Khalid ibn Al Walid, the sword of Islam, the destroyer of Apostasy, the scourge of the Romans, returned home a broke and embittered man. His passion for adventure and battles had been ripped away from him, and at the prime of his life. He moved his family to Homs in Syria, a city that was already swelling with an Islamic population that Khalid himself had conquered. He settled down there with his family and got by on a modest income. There were no more triumphs or lavish celebrations, with Khalid likely being worse off than he was prior to his rise to fame. Not long after, a plague hit, killing many of his sons and old friends.
A year or so later, Khalid received a surprise visitor. Stooping into his modest house came Umar. It seemed as if time and the relative security the Caliphate now held on the world stage had, to an extent, mellowed the stern Caliph. The two old rivals talked. No threats of loss of command or confiscation of property. Just two middle aged men, perhaps reminiscing on the bizarre course of their lives that had led them to this point.
Khalid forgave Umar.
Perhaps now far from the battlefield, he could fully appreciate what Umar had done for the people of Islam. Perhaps now, having read the Quran in full, he empathized with Umar's dislike of flashy materialism. Whatever reason, Khalid would later tell another visitor, quote “praise be to Allah, who took Abu Bakr away. He was dearer to me than Umar. Praise be to Allah, who appointed Umar in authority. He was hateful to me, but I grew to like him” End quote.
Khalid wrestled with his legacy to his dying day. When visitors entered his impoverished manner, they noted that the only possessions he still had were his sword and his armor that gathered dust in the corner. A mean reminder of his glory days, now long past. Not long after, he contracted an illness, and all knew that he would soon go to meet his beloved Abu Bakr in paradise. As a string of old friends flocked in to say their final goodbyes, Khalid flashed to them his arms, his legs and his chest, pointing out bitterly that there was not a single space that was not covered in scars from battle, lamenting that he had missed his chance for martyrdom. As the shadows gathered, he lamented over his final sentence, quote “I die even as a camel dies, I die in bed in shame. The eyes of a coward do not close, even in sleep” The tortured Khalided Ibn Ali closed his eyes for the last time.
Elliot: The news of Khalid's death reverberated throughout the Caliphate. Barely four years after being dismissed from command, The Sword of Allah died from, well, depression, ashamed and alone.
When the news reached Medina, there was wailing in the streets. Many had known Khalid personally, and those that didn't properly knew of his generosity. Umar forbid the weeping, saying that no one should cry for someone who has entered paradise. And he meant it. Anyone caught weeping could find themselves subject to the tail end of Umar's whip. But when the stern-faced Caliph caught his own daughter quietly sobbing, he hung it up.
Khalid ibn Ali was buried in a modest tomb in Homs, which was later upgraded and built into a mosque by the legendary Sultan Saladin, and then again by the brilliant Egyptian conqueror Baybars.
Centuries later, as the Central Asian warlord Timur raped and pillaged his way through Syria, he ordered his troops not to disturb the tomb of the great Khalid under the pain of death.
Only a few months before his passing, Emperor Heraclius, the man who had reconquered Syria just to lose it again, died. He left behind a depleted treasury and an identity crisis that his empire would wrestle with for years as they came to terms with the permanent loss of some of the most valuable provinces in the east.
The Sassanid court tried desperately to hold back the tide of Islam. But it wasn't enough. The last emperor, Yazdegerd III, spent his short reign fleeing further and further east.
As Umar's army plowed through Persia. The eternal fires of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion, were snuffed out. A couple of decades later, his grandson would return, of all things, an army of Tang Chinese troops to try and reclaim his land. But nothing came of it. As for Umar, he would meet Khalid in paradise much sooner than he expected. Only two years later, he would be murdered by a Persian slave,after the Caliph refused to lift a tax that had been imposed on him by his Arab owner.
Today, Khalid's legacy is very different between Sunni and Shia Muslims. While most Sunni's reverb is one of the greatest early warriors Islam ever produced, Shias draw attention to his execution of a fellow Muslim in order to bed his wife. Love him or hate him, though his victory at the Yaruak and so many other key battles, all against such severe odds, is what puts him in the same league as Scanderberg, Alexander the Great, Subutai and the like.
It's a bold claim to say one man changed the world, but in my opinion, Khalid is worthy of the distinction.
I'll take us out with a vivid description of Khalided entering the fray from a biography written by Ala Akram, who I've drawn heavily on for this episode:
The Leader gallops ahead of the Muslims.
A large, broad-shouldered, powerfully-built man, he is mounted on a magnificent Arab stallion and rides it as if he were part of the horse.
The loose end of his turban and his cloak flutter behind him and his large, full beard is pressed against his chest by the wind.
His fierce eyes shine with excitement-with the promise of battle and blood and glory- the glory of victory or martyrdom.
His coat of mail and the iron tip of his long lance glint in the clear sunlight, and the earth trembles under the thundering hooves of his fiery charger.
Just before the Mobile Guard hurls itself at the Romans in a shattering clash of steel and sinew, the roar of Allah-o-Akbar as it issues from the throats of the Faithful and rends the air.
And rising out of this roar, he hears the piercing cry of the Leader:
I am the noble warrior; I am the Sword of Allah
Khalid bin Al Waleed!
“Hell was a more beautiful sight to behold.”
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