Today in Middle Eastern history: Antioch surrenders to the Arabs (637)

This will be short, since there’s very little to say about the Arab conquest of Syria after the Battle of Yarmouk in 636 shattered Byzantine resistance there. But Antioch was one of the great cities of the eastern Roman Empire, and its conquest was significant, if anticlimactic. The city itself put up almost no resistance to the Arabs and may simply have lacked the manpower to do so. Heck, by this point the residents may have welcomed the Arabs, since the Byzantines’ scorched-earth retreat from Syria had been very hard on the people still living there. Immediately preceding the surrender of Antioch there seems to have been a nearby battle between a Byzantine force and part of the Arab army called the Battle of the Iron Bridge, along the Orontes River, but we know almost nothing about that battle apart from the fact that it was an Arab victory.

Map - Islamic Expansion to 750
Caliphal expansion through 750, including Antioch (look closely)

The one thing that we do know about Antioch’s surrender to the Arabs is that it didn’t go so well for the city. It found itself close to the new front line in what became a kind of cold war between the Caliphate and the Byzantines, a state of affairs that lasted until the Turks finally punched their way into Anatolia in 1071. As you might imagine, frontier Antioch stopped being the kind of place where wealthy urban types wanted to live. It was eventually captured by the First Crusade in 1098 and saw a bit of a resurgence as a Crusader kingdom, but that ended when the city was sacked and burned by the Mamluks in 1268. Over the next century or so, it gradually began to empty out, until by the early 15th century it contained only a few hundred inhabitants. It only finally regained prominence in the 19th-20th centuries during the tail end of the Ottoman period. Today Antakya is the capital of Turkey’s Hatay Province, and, sadly, new development there frequently results in the destruction of parts of the old city.

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