"Damascus is one of the most blessed cities of al-Sham (Syria, Jordan, Palestine)."
[Prophet Muhammad (SAWS)]1
Damascus was known as the paradise of Syria. A glittering metropolis which contained everything that makes a city great and famous, it had wealth, culture, temples and troops. It had history. The main part of the city was enclosed by a massive wall, 11 metres high,2 but outside the battlements lay some suburbs which were not protected. The fortified city was a mile long and half a mile wide and was entered by six gates: the East Gate, the Gate of Thomas, the Jabiya Gate, the Gate of Faradees, the Keisan Gate and the Small Gate. Along the north wall ran the River Barada, which, however, was too small to be of military significance.
At the time of the Syrian campaign, the Roman Commander-in-Chief at Damascus was Thomas, son-in-law of Emperor Heraclius. A deeply religious man and a devout Christian, he was known not only for his courage and skill in the command of troops but also for his intelligence and learning. Under him served, as his deputy, a general by the name of Harbees about whom little is known except that he was there.
The general who was in active command of the garrison, however, was Azazeer, a veteran soldier who had spent a lifetime campaigning in the East and had acquired fame in countless battles against the Persians and the Turks. He was acknowledged as a great champion and was proud of the fact that he had never lost a duel. Having served in Syria for many years, he knew Arabic very well and spoke it fluently.
Azazeer's garrison consisted of no less than 12,000 soldiers, but Damascus as a city had not been prepared for a siege. Although its walls and bastions were in good order, nothing had been done for the storage of food and fodder-a task which, for a garrison and a population so large, would take weeks and months. The Romans can hardly be blamed for this neglect, for ever since the final defeat of the Persians by Heraclius in 628, there had been no threat of any kind to Syria; and it was not until the Battle of Ajnadein had been fought that the Romans realised the full extent of the danger which threatened them.
Heraclius, working from his headquarters at Antioch, now set about the task of putting things right and preparing Damascus for a siege. Having ordered the remnants of the army of Ajnadein to delay the Muslims at Yaqusa, he sent a force of 5,000 soldiers from Antioch to reinforce the garrison of Damascus. This force was placed under a general named Kulus, who promised the Emperor that he would bring the head of Khalid on a lance.3 Kulus arrived at Damascus at about the time when the battle of Yaqusa was fought. The strength of the garrison at Damascus was thus raised to 17,000 men; but Kulus and Azazeer were professional rivals and there was little love lost between them. Each wished to see the downfall of the other.
Thomas worked feverishly to prepare the city for a siege. Provisions were rapidly gathered from the surrounding countryside to sustain the garrison and the inhabitants in case the lines of supply were severed by the besiegers. However, not enough could be gathered for a long siege. Scouts were sent out to watch and report on the movement of the Muslims; and the bulk of the army, leaving strong guards and a reserve in Damascus, was ordered to prepare to fight a battle outside Damascus. The idea was to defeat and drive back the Muslims before they could invest the city; but it was with mounting anxiety that the Damascenes awaited the arrival of Khalid.
1. Abu Dawud, Ahmad and Hakim from Abu Darda. Sahih Al-Jami' Al-Saghir No.2116.
2. Damascus City has risen 4 metres since then, so that the wall is now only 7 metres above ground level.