Two Decisive Battles You Never Heard Of

by Fred Ray on July 29, 2006 · 0 comments

Getting back off the road, just in time for a historical foray…

Much of the western military history canon revolves around battles fought in Europe (and specifically, the western part of that continent), yet many really decisive events happened elsewhere that greatly affected how history played out in the western peninsula of Asia.

One mega-event was the Arab conquests following the death of Mohammed in 632 AD. It’s hard to realize now that what we call the Near East, including Anatolia (now Turkey), the Levant, Egypt and North Africa were once culturally and politically part of Europe.

In Arabia, however, changes were brewing – the Prophet Mohammed had founded a religion called Islam and for the first time had united the disparate tribes of the region. Shortly after his death, in 634, these tribes irrupted on the civilized world (that being at the time the East Roman and Persian empires). This was nothing new – they had been raiding and serving as auxiliaries and mercenaries since for many, many years. This time, however, they were united by faith and formed into an army of their own under a man who had found a field marshal’s baton in his saddlebags, Khalid ibn al-Walid, or the Sword of God.

Walid conducted a three year campaign into Persia and the Roman East that culminated in the battle of the Yarmuk in 636 AD, near the modern Golan Heights. I came across a nice account of the battle and the participants by Dan Fratini in military history online, which will give you the particulars. Suffice it to say that a ragtag Arab army managed to decisively defeat a Roman army twice its size, opening up the conquest of Syria and Palestine to the Arabs. Another Arab army under Amr ibn Al As conquered Egypt shortly afterward, and soon all of North Africa fell under their sway, and eventually Spain as well. This permanently wrenched these lands from the West to the East, where they remain today.

Still, the Romans managed to rally and defend the line of the Zagros Mountains, which allowed them to retain Anatolia. Thus, the Byzantine Empire, as the Eastern Roman Empire came to be known, held the line against Islam for some 800 years. What would European history have been like if the Eastern Roman Empire had collapsed (as the Persians did), allowing Arab armies into to Anatolia, Greece, and Eastern Europe?

This did happen eventually, thanks to another decisive battle fought in 1071, five years after the battle of Hastings. At Manzikert some new converts to Islam, the Seljuk Turks, defeated a Byzantine army. Even though the defeat was not nearly as decisive as the Yarmuk, it set off a chain of events that led to the loss of central Anatolia, the heart of the empire. Deprived of that region’s tax revenue and manpower, the empire gradually shriveled, its power waning as that of the Turks waxed. The end finally came in 1453 when the capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul), fell to Sultan Mehmed II in 1453.

With the buffer of Byzantium gone, the Turks surged into eastern Europe, overrunning Greece, the Balkans, and most of what is now Hungary. In 1529 and again in 1683, they laid siege unsuccessfully to Vienna, the farthest penetration into Europe of any Islamic conqueror.

Battles most of us have never heard of, but which had a very big effect on the development of Europe and thus the Americas. Thanks to Byzantium, we were largely spared unspeakable and unpronounceable horrors.


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