Beginning of Muslim Africa - Battle of Sufetula 647 DOCUMENTARY
Few other battles in the history of warfare can claim to be as iconic as Charles Martel’s clash against the Umayyad Caliphate at Tours in 732. But to get to it, we must examine just how the Arabs managed to get all the way from Egypt to Gaul, when hostile kingdoms stood in their way at every step. The very first step in that process was the Caliphate’s expansion into North Africa. Welcome to the final episode in our second season on the Early Muslim Expansion.
In it, we’ll conclude by detailing how the Caliphate’s forces embarked on the first major invasion of the Roman Exarchate of Africa, and the decisive Battle of Sufetula in 647. And if you are looking for more documentaries to watch, the sponsor of today’s video MagellanTV has a great offer for you! MagellanTV is a documentary streaming service, run by filmmakers, that has over 3,000 documentaries on a variety of topics, including Science, True Crime, Nature, Art and culture, and most importantly of historical titles. new documentaries are added all the time, it is like a rabbit hole! If you want to learn more about Africa, MagellanTV has you covered.
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In the north, Rashidun forces reached the Caucasus Mountain barrier, enclosing the once insurmountable Byzantine Empire within its Anatolian heartland in the process. Now that all major battles against Rome and Persia were at an end, Islam’s armies began seeking another direction in which to conquer. Once Constans II’s counterattack against Egypt was decisively repelled, Caliph Uthman’s foster brother Abdullah ibn Sa’d began launching raids into the Roman-Berber lands west of his new province.
These small expeditions quickly proved a stunning success, returning with vast quantities of slaves, cattle, and other riches. Judging that Roman Africa would yield an easy and generous bounty if squeezed, the Egyptian governor wrote to Uthman, asking for permission to launch a major campaign to the west. Uthman agreed with Abdullah’s assessment and decreed the formation of a 10,000 strong force in Arabia composed of warriors from various tribes. It was a relatively young army, and in its ranks marched one son of Amr, two sons of Umar and two sons of Umayyad chief Al-Hakam - one of whom was the future Marwan I. The freshly mustered Arab force was ready for war in early 647 and marched for Egypt2, joining Abdullah ibn Sa’d at Fustat a few weeks later. There, the 10,000 newly arrived Arabic fighters were merged with a further 10,000 from the governor’s Egyptian army, resulting in a total strength of 20,000.
With this mostly camel and horse-mounted invasion force at his back, Abdullah marched west. This part of the Mediterranean seaboard bore witness to some of the ancient world’s most dramatic events during the course of several centuries. Emperor Heraclius’ father had previously served as ruler of this sizeable ‘Exarchate of Africa’ before his son’s ascension to the Byzantine throne in 610, upon which the elder governor died. Close to the emperor’s death in 641, Heraclius himself appointed as Exarch a patrician known as Gregory, However, dynastic chaos following the death of Heraclius, and Constans II’s inability to repel Muslim attacks, particularly in nearby Egypt, were all too much for Gregory.
In 647, as Uthman’s army was in the process of readying to attack him, the Exarch declared independence from Constantinople amid a surge of popular support from Romanised Africans and native Berbers alike. Abdullah ibn Sa’d meanwhile, crossed the Nile from Fustat and took his army up the west bank until he neared Alexandria, at which point he drove northwest and cut across the desert as a shortcut. After a few more days, the viceroy’s 20,000 hit the Mediterranean coastal road and marched along its course until, finally, after a six-week journey, Abdullah reached Barca - the city which his predecessor Amr seized years before. The Muslims then marched a further seven hundred miles along the Mediterranean coast around the Bay of Sirte, enduring the scorching privations of a North African summer. The Arabs were used to such arid conditions and thrived in them, an advantage which helped them conquer the Near-East. When the Rashidun army finally reached Tripoli, closer to the heart of Gregory’s realm, its warriors found the heavily fortified city barred against them, contrary to the friendly reception they’d received in Cyrenaica.
As Amr did half a decade earlier, Abdullah blockaded Tripoli on its landward flank and placed it under siege. In order to slow or prevent any resupply or reinforcement by ship, Abdullah stationed artillery at both points where the city wall met the water, They were ordered to strike any enemy vessel which attempted to enter the harbour and effectively rendered the seaport unusable. Gregory, who was readying the main Exarchate army at his inland capital of Sufetula, had a naval reinforcement armada dispatched from Carthage to Tripoli.
However, rather than disembarking at the port on arrival as they would have liked, the transport ships were forced to disgorge their human cargo on segments of the beach which were outside of Abdullah’s artillery range and outside the wall’s protection. Although this prevented Rashidun catapults and ballistae from carving bloody holes into their ranks, it made the tired and disorganised soldiers easy prey for Muslim infantry, which charged at them from two different angles. Exhausted from the long sea voyage and without any time to deploy adequately, Gregory’s reinforcements were scythed down to a man on the beaches of Libya. Remaining vigilant against any further attempts to prop Tripoli up, Rashidun forces nevertheless were unable to breach the well-provisioned, nigh impregnable fortress. As his army languished outside the walls, Abdullah ordered riders to scout in the direction of Sufetula to observe any military activity going on there. A few weeks later two things were clear to the Muslim governor.
First: Tripoli was still a long way aways from opening its gates to him and remaining static outside its walls seemed pointless. Second: reports from his scouts made it apparent to Abdullah that the newly independent Roman Exarch was readying for a fight. Possibly convinced Tripoli was just a delaying action which only served to grind down his own army’s strength and will to push on, the Muslim governor lifted his siege and spirited away to the west. The Rashidun army and its thrifty commander plundered their way through the wealthiest region of Roman Africa, unmoored from any supply train and therefore unconcerned about the Tripoli garrison behind them. At Sufetula, Gregory was made aware of the Muslims’ location the moment they passed through Gabes and reacted to the news immediately, with the intent of engaging his enemy well away from his interim inland capital.
To do this, the Exarch ponderously shifted his heavily-equipped, primarily infantry-based army, which probably matched that of the Muslims in size, to a blocking position at Faiz - 30 kilometres from Sufetula - and set up a camp there. Part of the Exarchate’s army was placed slightly forward of the camp as a covering force. However, only a short time after Gregory’s force went into camp, the Rashidun light cavalry advance guard fell on its Roman counterpart, sending it reeling back to the main camp in flight. Unnerved by such strength of the Muslim mounted units, Gregory ordered his army to withdraw all the way to Sufetula, believing his position at Faiz was too vulnerable. About four miles east of his capital the Exarch turned and readied for battle. Such close proximity to its base granted the Roman army logistical supremacy, prevented wide flanking maneuvers from the mobile opposing army, and permitted them a safe retreat inside if they needed it.
The Muslims arrived soon after and made their own camp a short way from Gregory’s front line. One rejected emissary later, both sides deployed for battle on the arid plain about four miles from Sufetula. The Roman army’s posture was defensive, its line anchored to the north and south by two high ridges. Abdullah, realising the observation potential of these terrain features, successfully sent forces to occupy them.
Unlike his more iron-willed predecessor, Abdullah ibn Sa’d was considered personally weak by the warriors under his command, an accountant and bureaucrat rather than general or soldier. Lacking Amr’s bravery, Abdullah retreated to a safe position behind the line where he was not likely to suffer any personal threat once the army was deployed to his liking. Fortunately, Gregory was a kindred spirit in that he wasn’t a bold frontline commander either, choosing to oversee the clash from a throne inside the walls of Sufetula. Subordinates and lower-level officers fought the battle for him on a tactical level. At the dawn the next day, fighting commenced.
Details about the first days of Sufetula are unclear and sparse in our sources, but it is evident that the combat was incredibly fierce, uninterrupted, and bloody. Although the actual battlefield was a flat plain, the ridges on either flank prevented any outflanking maneuvers or fancy tactical flair. Moreover, the uninvolved nature of both army’s skittish commanders further paralysed the situation.
After a few days of such indecisive fighting, Gregory decided to attempt an assassination of the enemy leader in order to sever the head from the Muslim serpent, but obviously wasn’t going to do the deed himself. Instead, he offered to wed his legendarily beautiful, intelligent, and valiant daughter to the Roman warrior who killed Abdullah. Morale in the Exarch’s army skyrocketed at this news, with each warrior - whether they were Roman, Vandalic, Greek or Berber, steeling themselves with the aim of gaining the princess’ hand. Word of this also spread throughout the Muslim army and in particular to Abdullah himself.
Not at all comfortable with being a marked man, his confidence suffered an even further decline. To counter Gregory’s offer, the Muslim commander announced to his army that he would grant the Exarch’s daughter to any warrior who personally killed her father, before withdrawing to his tent. Still however, the next few days continued as a deadly stalemate of bitter violence, brought to a crescendo by the offer and counteroffer between generals. This continued without end until one of Abdullah’s officers - Zubayr - was approached by a Berber defector from Gregory’s army.
He told the Muslim captain that because fighting had until that point been quite far from the walls, the Exarch’s position, near Sufetula’s northern gate, was actually very thinly defended. Alerted to this crucial information and the best route which he should take in order to exploit the opportunity, Zubayr put forward his plan to the demoralised Muslim commander, and was granted leadership over the army’s mobile reserve - about 2,000 strong. The invaders’ spirits were buoyed due to the dynamism and boldness of this dashing young officer, who spent the remainder of the day setting his scheme into motion. Swarmed by warriors who desired to embark on the risky venture with him, the younger Zubayr eventually selected thirty of the fiercest, most capable, and valiant combatants his army could offer as an attack squad.
When asked what they were to do, Zubayr replied - “I am attacking, defend me against those who assail me from the rear and I shall defend you from the front!” During the near soundless hours of night, after issuing all necessary orders, Zubayr positioned himself, his 30 stalwarts, and the mobile reserve horsemen behind Sufetula’s northern ridge. Then when morning came, both armies closed with one another and fought as though nothing had changed. At noon, with an especially hot day weighing down on them heavily, both armies broke contact and withdrew - the Romans quickly, the Muslims suspiciously sluggishly.
Distracted by the din of war, Gregory, his attendants, and guards did not notice as Zubayr and his band of daredevils galloped into the city through what became known as the ‘gate of treachery’. Realising what was happening, the Exarch’s guard formed a hasty line, but the 30 Muslim warriors broke it and allowed Zubayr a clean run at the African ruler. In the confusion, Gregory initially believed this lone mounted figure to be an envoy, and so did not react.
Gregory was killed and his head sliced from his body. Word of their leader’s death quickly reached the retreating Roman infantry, causing terrible confusion and disheartening the soldiers. Then, at the perfect moment, Zubayr’s large mounted reserve crested the North Ridge, rode at a gallop and charged into the disorganised Exarchate army’s left wing with saber and lance before wheeling around the battlefield. Simultaneously, the bulk of the Muslim infantry turned about and advanced, locking their tenacious enemy into an unwinnable fight. Pressured from the front by Arab infantry and outmanuevered by swift Muslim horsemen all around, the Roman army collapsed and its soldiers scattered in all directions in their attempts to flee.
Zubayr’s cavalry reaped an especially bloody toll and, within a short time, the battered corpses of Romans, Berber, Vandals, and Greeks littered the plain outside Sufetula. Despite the slaughter, several thousand of Gregory’s soldiers managed to retreat intact towards the capital, believing its walls would grant them safety. It wasn’t their lucky day.
Zubayr, having handily dealt with the Exarch, sent small squadrons to hold each of Sufetula’s gates, preventing entry or exit. When the retreating columns of exhausted Roman soldiers reached the city therefore, they were viciously attacked by Muslim cavalry coming the other way and cut to pieces. The Rashidun triumph at Sufetula is frequently touted as the point at which Roman Africa was forever lost to the Empire, and while it was a back-breaking moment for the province, this is far from true. Once the vast quantity of captured silver, gold and cattle was accumulated and distributed, Abdullah ibn Sa’d moved on the Exarchate’s real capital - Carthage.
Upon putting the millennia old city to siege, the Muslim commander and local leaders within the city came to an impasse. There was no chance that the besiegers would be able to take Carthage with their overextended supply lines and barely functional siege train, but at the same time, there was no way for the inhabitants of Carthage to make them go away. However, with exaggerated reports of Gregory’s fate fresh in their minds, they asked for terms after only a few days. Always with income on his brain, Abdullah ibn Sa’d accepted a vast quantity of Roman gold as payment to leave Africa alone keeping only what they had so far conquered.
After a subsequent eastward journey of about three months, the Muslim army arrived back in Fustat by late 647, bringing with it a vast hoard of wealth which further swelled the treasury in Medina. Regardless of the gathered loot, Abdullah had effectively won a victory and then given up the ghost before the conquest was concluded. At about this time - late 648 - the governor of Syria Muawiya launched a naval expedition of unknown scale on Cyprus in order to neutralise any potential threat that it posed as a staging point for future Byzantine attacks. Muawiya landed on the Mediterranean island and seized it without opposition, exacting a tribute of 7,000 dinars annually.
With the North African front winding down, most expansionist movement within the Rashidun Caliphate came to a halt. Three years passed in relative quiet until Abdullah ibn Sa’d led another attempt to conquer Nubia in 652, failing once again due to the country’s ‘Archers of the Eye’ . Because the situation on land between Eastern Rome and the Caliphate had calcified at the Taurus Mountains, both sides began looking to the sea for an advantage. If Constantinople maintained its naval supremacy, it would have the ability to land a force in Syria, Egypt, or Africa at will. However, if the Caliphate usurped this control, they could make the Mediterranean a Muslim lake and even threaten the great imperial city. To that end, both the Egyptian governor and Roman emperor refocused their efforts on constructing vast fleets of ships with which to dominate the sea. In 654AD, the Arab and Roman fleets met off the Lycian coast at what became known as the Battle of the Masts.
Abdullah ibn Sa’d revealed himself to be a veritable sea wolf compared to his feeble reputation on land, crushing Constans II’s navy in the first true Muslim naval triumph and clearing the way for an attack on Constantinople. From the status of a subjugated, scorned, and irrelevant people of the desert, the Arabs burst forth from their ancient homeland in a manner akin to an irresistible sandstorm, blowing away everything in their path in the course of just two decades. Thus, concludes the second season of our series. In the third season we will cover the iconic battles like Guadalete, Tours, Constantinople, Talas and much more, so make sure you are subscribed and have pressed the bell button. Please, consider liking, commenting, and sharing - it helps immensely. Our videos would be impossible without our kind patrons and youtube channel members, whose ranks you can join via the links in the description to know our schedule, get early access to our videos, access our discord, and much more.
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