Battle of Azaz (1030)
The Battle of Azaz was an engagement fought in August 1030 near the Syrian town of Azaz between the Byzantine army, led by Emperor Romanos III Argyros (r. 1028–1034) in person, and the forces of the Mirdasid Emirate of Aleppo under Emir Shibl al-Dawla Nasr (r. 1029–1038).
Aleppo had long been a flashpoint between Byzantium and its Arab neighbours, with the Byzantines claiming a protectorate over the city. In the aftermath of a defeat inflicted on the Byzantine governor of Antioch by the Mirdasids, Romanos launched a campaign against Aleppo. Despite his own inexperience in military matters, Romanos decided to lead the army in person, leading contemporary Byzantine chroniclers to point to a quest for military glory as the emperor's primary motivation, rather than the preservation of the status quo. At the head of his army, Romanos arrived in Antioch on 20 July 1030. Confident of success, the emperor rejected both Mirdasid peace overtures and his own generals' advice urging him to avoid action in the hot and dry Syrian summer.
The Byzantines advanced to Azaz, where they set up camp. The Mirdasids ambushed and destroyed a Byzantine reconnaissance force, and started harassing the imperial camp. Unable to forage, the Byzantines began suffering from thirst and hunger, and attempts to break out were defeated. Finally, on 10 August, the Byzantine army commenced its withdrawal to Antioch, but it soon collapsed into a chaotic affair. The Arabs used the opportunity to attack the disordered Byzantines, and the ensuing engagement resulted in a rout for the Byzantines; Emperor Romanos himself only escaped thanks to the intervention of his bodyguard. The scattered remnants of the imperial army gathered at Antioch. Romanos returned to Constantinople, but his generals managed to recover the situation afterwards, putting down Arab rebellions and forcing Aleppo to resume tributary status in 1031.
The Emirate of Aleppo had been a Byzantine vassal since the days of Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963–969), but in the years before the death of Basil II (r. 976–1025), its emirs had come under the suzerainty of the Fatimid caliphs of Egypt. By the time the Mirdasid dynasty (1025–1080) gained control of the city, Byzantine influence over Aleppo and northern Syria in general had declined considerably. After the Mirdasid emir Salih ibn Mirdas was killed by the Fatimids at the battle of al-Uqhuwanah in Palestine in 1029, he was succeeded by his young sons Nasr and Thimal. The katepano of Antioch, Michael Spondyles, used the inexperience of Salih's successors as an opportunity to establish a protectorate over the Mirdasid domains. Moreover, Spondyles was provoked by the construction of fortresses by Muslim families in the coastal mountains and confessional clashes between Muslims and Christians in Maarrat al-Nu'man. Without notifying Emperor Romanos III Argyros, Spondyles dispatched a Byzantine force against the Mirdasids, but they were annihilated by the Banu Kilab[a] at Qaybar in July 1029.
There are varying accounts regarding Romanos III's motivation for attacking the Mirdasids. According to medieval Arabic chroniclers Yahya of Antioch (d. 1066) and Ibn al-Adim (d. 1272), Romanos resolved to avenge the defeat of his governor in Antioch, whom he dismissed. However, the contemporary Byzantine historians John Skylitzes and Michael Psellos hold that the impending campaign was motivated by Romanos's quest for glory. Despite, or rather because of, his complete lack of military experience, Romanos was eager to imitate the deeds of Basil II and his predecessors; according to Psellos, he wanted to emulate the ancient Roman emperors such as Trajan and Augustus, or even Alexander the Great. The modern historian Suhayl Zakkar suggests that all of the above versions should be treated with caution, and asserts that Romanos most likely acted to ensure Aleppo's independence from Byzantium's main Arab enemy, the Fatimids, who he believed could conquer the city and its emirate in the wake of Salih's death. This is indicated by the presence in Romanos's entourage of Mansur ibn Lu'lu', the former ruler of Aleppo, whom Romanos likely sought to install in the Mirdasids' place. Moreover, in a letter he sent to Nasr and Thimal, Romanos expressed concern that the Mirdasid emirs' "enemies ... might wrest the city from them" due to their "youthfulness" and requested they hand over Aleppo to him in exchange for a payment.
In March 1030, Romanos departed Constantinople, leading in person the campaign against Aleppo. According to Psellos, Romanos was so confident of his success that he prepared special crowns for his triumph to come, and staged a grandiose entry into Antioch, which he reached on 20 July.
Nasr, learning of the Byzantines' approach, sent envoys, led by his cousin Muqallid ibn Kamil, and offered to recognize Byzantine suzerainty and to restart the payment of tribute. According to Psellos, Nasr's envoys "declared they had not wanted this war, nor had they given him [Romanos] any pretext for it", but "seeing that he was now adopting a policy of threats, and since he insisted in parading his strength" they would prepare for war should Romanos not change direction.
Though Romanos was encouraged by the Jarrahid chieftain Hassan ibn Mufarrij of the Banu Tayy to continue his march, Romanos's generals counselled him to accept Nasr's offer so as to avoid the hazards of campaigning in the arid Syrian desert in the summer, especially as their troops were unaccustomed to such conditions and were encumbered by their heavy armour.
Romanos rejected his generals' advice, detained Muqallid, and led his army towards Azaz (Azazion in Greek) on 27 July. Psellos commented on this decision that Romanos "thought war was decided by the big battalions, and it was on the big battalions that he relied". The Byzantine army encamped on a barren plain in the vicinity of Azaz and dug a deep defensive trench around their position. Meanwhile, Nasr and Thimal made their own preparations; they evacuated their families from Aleppo, mobilized the warriors of Kilab and other Bedouin tribes, particularly the Banu Numayr, and, under the call for jihad (holy war), the Muslim inhabitants of Aleppo and its countryside. The majority of the mobilized forces were commanded by Thimal, who safeguarded Aleppo and its citadel. The remaining troops, composed entirely of Kilabi and Numayri horsemen, were led by Nasr, who set out to confront the Byzantine force.
Arabic accounts of Nasr's troops vary: the Aleppine chroniclers Ibn al-Adim and al-Azimi recorded 923 horsemen, Ibn Abi'l Dam counted 700, the Egyptian al-Maqrizi (d. 1442) recorded 2,000, while Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1200) counted 100 horsemen and 1,000 infantry. The historian Suhayl Zakkar claims the latter figure is highly questionable as nearly all sources hold that Nasr's force was made up entirely of cavalry. The Byzantine army is estimated by modern scholars at some 20,000 men and contained many foreign mercenaries. In contrast to their precise counts of Nasr's forces, the Arabic chroniclers record the fantastical figure of 600,000 Byzantine troops.
The Byzantines set up a fortified camp near Azaz, and the Emperor dispatched the Excubitors, under their commander, the patrikios Leo Choirosphaktes, to reconnoiter the area. Choirosphaktes was ambushed, however, and taken captive, while most of his men were killed or captured. This success encouraged the Arabs, who began to harass the imperial camp and prevent the Byzantines from foraging. As a result, the Byzantine army began to suffer from hunger and especially from thirst. The patrikios Constantine Dalassenos then led an attack against the Arabs, but was defeated and fled back to the camp.
The Byzantines became demoralized, and an imperial council resolved to abandon the campaign and return to Byzantine territory. Romanos also ordered his siege engines to be burned. On the following morning, 10 August 1030, the army departed its camp and made for Antioch. Discipline broke down, with Armenian mercenaries using the withdrawal as an opportunity to pillage the camp stores. This caused further chaos among Romanos' troops, with soldiers guarding the trenches fleeing the camp for their personal safety. Nasr used this disorder to lead his Kilabi troops in a surprise dash against the retreating Byzantine force. Psellos wrote that the Arabs attacked in scattered groups, creating the illusion of great numbers, which demoralized the Byzantine army and induced panic in their ranks. As most Byzantine troops were worn out from thirst and dysentery, the imperial army broke and fled.
Accounts of the events differ in the Byzantine sources. According to John Skylitzes, only the imperial bodyguard, the Hetaireia, held firm, and their stand allowed Romanos, who was nearly captured himself, to escape. On the other hand, Psellos claims the imperial bodyguard fled and "without so much as a backward glance, they deserted their emperor". While Skylitzes wrote that the Byzantines suffered a "terrible rout" and that some troops were killed by their fellow soldiers in a chaotic stampede, the contemporary Yahya of Antioch reported that the Byzantines suffered remarkably few casualties. According to Yahya, among the higher ranking Byzantine fatalities were two officers, while another officer was captured by the Arabs.
The Arabs took great booty, including the imperial army's entire baggage train, which the Byzantines abandoned in their hasty flight. Among the spoils was the sumptuous imperial tent with its treasures, which allegedly had to be carried off on seventy camels. According to historian Thierry Bianquis, Nasr's Numayri allies alone captured 300 mules carrying gold coins. Only the holy icon of the Theotokos, which traditionally accompanied the Byzantine emperors on campaigns, was saved.
The failure by the emperor was partly offset by the victory of George Maniakes, governor of Telouch, against 800 Arabs returning from the Byzantine debacle. The Arabs, emboldened by their victory, demanded that he evacuate his province. Maniakes at first pretended to comply, sending food and drink to the Arabs, but then attacked and overwhelmed them. Maniakes's success was followed soon after by a sustained Byzantine campaign against the Arab border lords, who had risen up against Byzantine rule in the aftermath of Azaz. Romanos himself had departed for Constantinople, leaving behind Niketas of Mistheia and Symeon the protovestiarios as the katepano of Antioch and as Domestic of the Schools respectively. These two generals scored a number of successes, taking several fortresses, including Azaz after a short siege in December 1030. Over the next two years, they systematically took the hill forts of the local tribes and reduced them to submission, restoring the Byzantine position in Syria.
In the meantime, Nasr took sole control of Aleppo after ousting Thimal during the latter's absence. The consequent threat posed by Thimal and his supporters among the Kilab prompted Nasr to seek Byzantine forgiveness and protection. To conciliate his powerful neighbour, he sent his son 'Amr to Constantinople already in April 1031 to ask for a treaty whereby he returned to tributary and vassal status. The treaty entailed an annual tribute of 500,000 dirhams from Nasr to the Byzantines. The Byzantine resurgence in the east culminated in the capture of Edessa in 1031 by Maniakes.
- The Kilab, from which the Mirdasid dynasty sprung, were the most powerful Arab tribe of northern Syria and provided the core of the Mirdasid military.
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