By the early 600s, Roman and Persian armies had been trading blows for so many centuries that an eternal continuation of their Near East derby must have seemed a certainty. Here a raid into Mesopotamia, there a clash in the Taurus Mountains, border provinces shifting back and forth … countless dynasties had come and gone, world religions risen and fallen, and always there were the Romans and the Persians. It was the way of the cosmos ever since Carrhae.
Tribes boiling out of the Arabian desert were about to reorder the firmament.
After an exhausting and pointless struggle* stretching back generations, Byzantium under the emperor Heraclius had rallied in the late 620s to re-establish its formerly longstanding control of the Levant — incidentally pushing Persia’s Sassanid Empire to the brink of collapse.
Neither polity would enjoy much leave to lick its wounds.
The Byzantines’ first passing skirmish with Muslim warriors had occurred in 629, when the Prophet Muhammad was still alive. By the time of Muhammad’s death and the succession of the Caliphate in 632, Islam had all of Arabia firmly in hand and would begin the dazzling expansion destined within a single lifetime to carry the Quran from the Pillars of Hercules to the Indus valley — greatly facilitated by the scanty resistance offered by is battle-wearied neighbors in Constantinople and Ctesiphon.
-Words of Caliph Abu Bakr to his armies setting out for Syria in 634
After striking Mesopotamia (and crushing an internal rebellion), Caliphate armies pressed into Byzantine Syria and Palestine in 634 and soon controlled it — eventually delivering a decisive, nay world-altering, defeat to the Byzantine Christians at the Battle of Yarmouk in August 636.
The martyrology of Christians said to have been put to death on this date in 637 or 638 may be rated among the artifacts left to the shocked Romans; the victims would have numbered among the garrison in Gaza which would not fall to the Muslims until September 637.
The below is excerpted from Robert Hoyland‘s Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam. Although the author is skeptical of the account’s historicity — preserved as it was only by a centuries-later third-hand fragment — the traumatic cultural memory it speaks to can hardly be doubted.
A Vatican manuscript of the tenth or eleventh century preserves for us an account of the martyrdom of the Byzantine garrison of Gaza at the time of the Arab conquests. It is written in crude Latin, but many of its expressions reveal it to be a translation from Greek. It informs us that the incident occurred “in the Christ-beloved city of Gaza … in the twenty-seventh year of the God-crowned emperor Heraclius” (636-37), then continues:
It happened at that time regarding the godless Saracens that they besieged the Christ-beloved city of Gaza and, driven by necessity, the citizens sought a treaty. This was done. The Saracens indeed gave to them a pledge, except to the soldiers who were captured in that city. Rather, marching into the city and seizing the most Christian soldiers, they put them in prison. On the next day ‘Amr (Ambrus) ordered the Christ-holy soldiers to be presented. Once brought before him, he constrained them to desist from the confession of Christ and from the precious and life-giving cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Since they would not consent, ‘Amr ordered their wives, children and weapons to be separated from them, and again to put them in prison.
Thirty days later they were transferred to a prison in Eleutheropolis for two months, then to a prison in “Theropolis” for three months before being taken to Jerusalem. There they are urged by the patriarch Sophronius to stand firm and accept martyrdom. After a further ten months incarceration ‘Amr wrote to “Ammiras who was commander in the holy city,” recommending that he execute a number of them if they still refused to deny Christ. Finding them obdurate, Ammiras has their chief Callinicus and nine others beheaded on 11 Novebember 638 “outside the city in front of the gates,” where they are buried by Sophronius. The rest are sent back a month or so later to ‘Amr in Eleutheropolis and given a final chance to comply. Unanimously, however, they witness that they are “servants of Christ, son of the living God” and “prepared to die for him who died and rose for us,” thus sealing their fate. Their bodies were bought for 3000 solidi and the church of the Holy Trinity was erected over their burial place at Eleutheropolis. The date given for their martyrdom is Thursday 17 December (which tallies for 638), indiction 13 (639-640), year 28 of Heraclius (September 637-September 638).
Since the choice of conversion or death seems mostly to have been reserved for Arab Christians and apostates from Islam, one is immediately suspicious of this account. It may be that these soldiers were made an example of for some particular cause, but there are other reasons for being wary of this text. In the first place, its provenance is unknown, since the Vatican manuscript containing it is our only witness. Secondly, it is very likely that we have merely a summary of a much longer piece. The changes of venue occur at a bewildering pace and with no explanation or elaboration, ‘Amr’s identity is not indicated, and the manner of death of the 50 remaining soldiers is not mentioned at all, even though this is usually a subject of much interest in martyrologies. Furthermore, one would expect the impassioned exhortation to martyrdom by the revered Sophronius and the emotive scene of him burying the martyrs to be accorded more than the paltry eight lines found in our version.
Perhaps most likely of all is that the garrison was put to death simply for resisting the Muslims, a fate meted out to Byzantine soldiers elsewhere, and that this was taken up by a later writer and recasted as a tale of martyrdom. So a kernel of truth may well lie behind the text, but later reworking and crude translation into Latin has obscured it beyond recognition. The only feature still clear in our epitome is the apologetic intent. For example, ‘Amr is labelled as “impious,” “devil,” “hateful to God” and “most cruel,” and the Arabs themselves described as “impious” and “godless.”
* Robin Pierson covers these years of backstory in depth in his History of Byzantium podcast; he’s interviewed for an overview of the Byzantine-Sassanid War(s) in a premium episode of the War Nerd podcast here.