Arab Campaign to Ctesphion

Ctesphion’s star ascended even further under Sasanian rule, and it was lavishly rebuilt and vastly expanded. It was made the capital of the empire and served as a royal palace (once again favoured as a winter residence), an administrative centre and commercial hub in the region. Its rich cultural diversity (including Jews, Christians, Arabs and Syrians to name but a few) drove trade and wealth into the city limits, while its network of waterways and verdant soil enabled the Ctesiphon to support itself indefinitely.

While the Parthians ultimately added very little of their own culture to the design and architecture of the city, the Sasanians had no such problem. Prior to the widespread use of concrete, mud brick was the chosen resource for erecting buildings of worth. So when the Arch of Ctesiphon was built towards the end of the Sasanian Empire during the 6th century, the arch was constructed entirely out of these oven-baked bricks. And while the Sasanians were Iranian by descent, their building techniques were still very much influenced by the designs and practices of Mesopotamian engineers.

Those techniques enabled the builders to create a huge archway without the need to rely on precarious scaffolding. Leading to a huge 30-metrehigh and some 43-metre-long audience hall, the Taq Kasra was constructed by using an ingenious angled brickwork concept. This enabled these ancient engineers to erect each course against its predecessor with only a simple wooden tower used to give the builders access to the incredible heights to which they built. To complete this iconic structure, the Sasanians used fa├žades decorated with blank arcading and pilasters to flank it. It created an awe-inspiring sight, one fit for royal residence – and it’s just as captivating now despite its ruined state.

As the Sasanian period continued, Ctesiphon started to evolve into more than a mere city, but rather a collection of them on both sides of the Tigris. To many, it was now thought of as `The Cities’ (al-Mada’in in Arabic and Mahoze in Aramaic). It was a sprawling metropolis so expansive that its many sides became vastly different in look, feel and purpose. The western side was known as `Veh-Ardashir’ and was home to some of the cities’ wealthiest denizens including both Jews and Christians (a cathedral was even erected in the city). The eastern side was one of the oldest sections of Ctesiphon, and played host to the `White Palace’ – the Sasanian royal residence.

Following years of conflict with the Muslim Arabs (and a number of attempts to occupy and hold the city by the Romans), the Sasanian Empire began to decline. Despite successfully defeating the Emperor Julian and his Roman forces in the Battle of Ctesiphon (363), Ctesiphon and its masters were no longer the great force of trade and power they once were. Its military exhausted and its allies dwindling, the grand cityscape of Ctesiphon soon followed.

Once again they turned east, marching through southern Iraq into the heartland of Sassanian Persia. For three years, Sasanian territories had been under constant attack, and at the Battle of al-Qadisiyyah in 636, the Muslim forces would rout their foes outright. Crossing the Tigris, they reached Ctesiphon, the Sassanian capital, and took it easily. At Ctesiphon, the desert warriors paused to gawk at the wonders of the Middle East’s most sumptuous city, its lavish palaces filled with shimmering tapestries and furniture, its storerooms brimming with gold. Some of the Arabs had never seen gold before, did not know its value, and traded their shares of it for equal volumes of silver. Mistaking camphor for salt, they flavored their cooking with the medicinal crystals. In time, they saddled up and moved on. Ahead of them lay the ancient strongholds of the Iranian plateau: Isfahan; Nihavand and Ecbatana in the old land of the Medes; and Istakhr, birthplace of the Sassanian empire. Each fell. In little more than a decade, the Muslims swept east to India.

By the time the Muslim Arabs reached Ctesiphon in 637, they found the city mostly deserted, the royal family having fled their long-standing home. Now under Muslim rule, the city began to rescind in prominence in the region, a process that only increased in severity when the Abbasid Caliphate established its capital in the nearby city of Baghdad during the 8th century. In fact, it would be the stones taken from the now dilapidated ruins of Ctesiphon that would help build Iraq’s longstanding capital

Between the Rivers – The Battle of the Bridge, 634

636 was not just a pivotal year for the future of Roman Syria. It also saw the decisive Muslim breakthrough in Persian Mesopotamia. By the time he left for Syria in late-633/early-634, Khalid had conquered virtually all Sassanid territory south of the Euphrates and safeguarded these conquests by establishing a series of garrisons. Ostensibly, these new Muslim territories were left under the command of Amr b. Haram, an early supporter of Muhammad, but, in reality, al-Muthanna, who had played such a large role in Khalid’s campaign, was the real authority around Hira. However, the constant threat of military reprisal from the Sassanids still remained and the Qadisiyyah garrison that had been Khalid’s next target was still unsubdued. Due to this threat, al-Muthanna sent repeated messages to Medina asking for reinforcements, perhaps going as far as to visit the Muslim capital to ask Abu Bakr in person once more.

Yet it was not until after the accession of Umar in August 634 that this request was fulfilled with the dispatch of a force under Abu Ubayd b. Ma’ud. With a core of about 1,000 volunteers from his Thaqif tribe gathered at Medina, and picking up contingents from local tribesmen as he marched north, Abu Ubayd may have had about 4,000 men by the time he arrived at Hira. Joining forces with al-Muthanna and about 1,000 of his kin, these two began raiding across the Euphrates. A series of encounters between this Muslim column and Perso-Arab forces are recorded but the sequence and exact location, beyond being in the alluvial plains between Hira and Ctesiphon, of many of these raids cannot be established. What is known is that these raids proved enough of an irritant and close enough to Ctesiphon to provoke a sizeable Persian response, with Bahman marching from the Persian capital to the Euphrates.

Despite the claims of some sources and his success along the Euphrates, it is probable that Khalid had not faced a true imperial Sassanid army. Much like the Romans in Syria, Yazdgerd and his generals were slow to react to what they would have perceived as just another instance of Arabic raiding. The Persians will have been further encouraged to downplay the Muslim attack by their continued dealing with the aftermath of not just the invasion of their territory by the Romans and Turks but also the destructive period of civil war that had followed Shahrbaraz’s assassination. Therefore, it would be somewhat unrealistic to expect Yazdgerd to be able to recognise and react immediately to the emergent threat from Islam. Perhaps only the defeat at Walaja and the fall of Hira saw to it that Yazdgerd and his generals `began to take the business of the Arabs more seriously.’ Furthermore, after the defeats of Bahman’s congregating forces at Muzayyah, Saniyy and Zumail in late 633, it may have taken a year before Yazdgerd could field another army.

Whatever the circumstances, with Abu Ubayd’s force campaigning along the Euphrates and Bahman advancing south from Ctesiphon, a confrontation was inevitable. It appears to have occurred sometime in November 634 at a river crossing near the present day site of Kufa, variously recorded as Mirwaha or al-Qarqas. Situated on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, Bahman reputedly had up to 30,000 men to intercept the raiding Muslims, although the likelihood is that this is an exaggeration. As for the Muslim army, it is possible that the success of their raiding into Mesopotamia both in terms of prestige and material wealth may have bolstered the force of Abu Ubayd and al-Muthanna to as many 9,000. However, it is more likely that it remained closer to the 5,000 recorded at the time of Abu Ubayd’s arrival at Hira.

With the Euphrates dominating the battlefield, the focus of the subsequent fighting was the bridge that separated the two armies. Buoyed by previous successes and perhaps in search of personal renown, Abu Ubayd took an overly aggressive stance against Bahman and attempted to force a crossing of the river. However, while this crossing was successful, Abu Ubayd’s aggression was to prove disastrous. Bahman may have allowed the Muslims to cross the river before attacking to maximise casualties; however, accounts of the battle suggest that it was the presence of elephants in the Persian army that decided the outcome. The smell and clamour they exuded disrupted the Muslim cavalry and, when Abu Ubayd led an attack against them, he himself was trampled by a rampant white elephant. With their commander killed, a large part of the Muslim bridgehead collapsed. It was then that this Battle of the Bridge turned from a defeat into a disaster as the retreating Muslims were driven into the river itself, leaving 1,000 Muslims dead from combat and perhaps a further 3,000 carried away by the Euphrates. There is some suggestion that the bridge was in fact destroyed by a Muslim Arab to force his comrades to continue fighting rather than fleeing. The forces of al-Muthanna, who was wounded, do seem to have survived the battle largely intact, which could suggest that perhaps they formed the Muslim rearguard or were able to find another way across the river.

The Muslim army seems to have disintegrated in the aftermath of this defeat with al-Muthanna returning to his homelands at Ullais and Abu Ubayd’s Thaqif kinsmen returning to Medina. However, despite the totality of their tactical victory at the Battle of the Bridge, the lack of a Persian follow-up would appear to be something of a strategic blunder. Again, much like the Romans, the Persian hierarchy was demonstrating a lack of understanding about what the words, deeds and writings of the Prophet had done for the Arabs. In the past, such a devastating defeat would have broken any pretensions that Arab raiders might have had regarding Mesopotamia. They probably expected those settlements conquered by Khalid to simply return to their original Sassanid allegiance without having to intervene any further militarily, perhaps with al-Muthanna serving as a successor to the Lakhmid buffer state. Whatever the reasons, the failure of the Persians to press their victory over Abu Ubayd in November 634 was not the military anomaly that it would appear to be; the anomaly was the failure of the Muslims to capitulate in the face of such a defeat.