The Battle of the Pass: An Umayyad Military Disaster

By Adam Ali

An Umayyad army, marching posthaste through mountainous terrain to relieve the besieged city of Samarqand, was ambushed in a pass by the Turgesh Khaqan and his army. The ensuing battle resulted in the decimation of the powerful Umayyad army in the eastern provinces of the caliphate, significant territorial losses, and the weakening of Umayyad power and sovereignty during the last two decades of the dynasty’s rule.

The Battle of the Pass, also referred to as the Battle of the Defile, was fought during the summer of 731. It was a military engagement that took place in Transoxiana between the Umayyads and the Turgesh Turks and their allies, namely some of the local rulers, princes, and magnates of Transoxiana. The Umayyads were able to achieve their objective of relieving the besieged city of Samarqand, but they suffered such heavy losses that their eastern field army was no longer viable for military operations. The caliph had to send heavy reinforcements, both men and materials, before the army could take the field again. Umayyad losses in Transoxiana and on the other military fronts on which the Umayyad Empire was operating (the most important of which were the Byzantine frontier, the Caucasus, Sijistan, North Africa, India, and the Frankish front) sapped the strength of the imperial armies. It also put strains on the wealth and resources of the caliphs and the central treasury, which was one of the several factors that led to the collapse of the Umayyads and their overthrow by the Abbasids in 750.

Background: The Arab Conquest of Khurasan and Transoxiana

The Arab thrust toward Transoxiana began in the early 7th Century when they clashed with the Sassanian Empire. After having subjugated the Arabian Peninsula, the armies of the Rashidun caliphs faced off with the forces of the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire in Syria and the Sassanians in Iraq. The Arabs fought a series of battles and skirmishes against the imperial armies of the Sassanians and their allies, defeating them in all but one encounter, the Battle of the Bridge (634). The military campaign culminated in a major clash between the two sides at the Battle of Qadisiyya (dated to 636 or 637), where an army of around 6,000-12,000 Arabs defeated 30,000-40,000 Sassanians. Higher figures are sometimes given in some sources such as 30,000 for the Arabs and over 200,000 for the Sassanians, but these are most probably exaggerations as neither the Arabs nor the Sassanians had the capability of mobilizing and fielding such numbers at this time.

After the victory at Qadisiyya, the Arabs took the Sassanian capital, Ctesiphon, and conquered Iraq. They then continued their push eastward and defeated another large Sassanian army at the Battle of Nihavand in 642. The Arabs now gained access to the Iranian plateau and occupied the region that is mostly makes up modern-day Iran.

The Arabs were able to conquer and pacify Iraq and Iran with little resistance, but as they advanced farther east, they were challenged more seriously. The regions that compose the modern nation-states of Iraq and Iran were firmly under Sassanian control and with the fall of the ruling dynasty, most of the resistance ceased. The only real losers in this area were the royal family, the high nobility, and the religious Zoroastrian elite. Not much changed for the subjects who were now only paying taxes and tributes to a new master. However, Eastern Khurasan and Transoxiana were on the peripheries of the Sassanian Empire and the kingdoms, principalities, and city-states of this region were autonomous or semi-autonomous. The caliph’s armies had to contend with several petty kings, princes, and ruling oligarchies that were fiercely independent. Central Asia or Transoxiana was especially difficult for the Muslims to conquer.

This region was inhabited by the Sogdians, an Iranian people. They were mostly a settled population living in the cities that thrived off the trade routes (primarily the Silk Road) and the rich agricultural regions around the Amu Darya (Oxus) and Syr Darya (Jaxartes) Rivers. There were also a large number of nomadic Turkic tribes inhabiting this region. This made conquering Transoxiana (or ma wara’ al-nahr i.e. “that which is beyond the river”) a much more challenging undertaking for the Arabs. They lost the region multiple times due to both revolts and to infighting within the caliphate and many parts of this area had to be reconquered several times before they were pacified.

Arab armies first crossed the Oxus River in the year 654 marking the beginning of the conquest of Transoxiana. However, the early incursions were little more than raids. Some regions of Central Asia were conquered, but the caliphate was hard-pressed to hold onto their gains due to rebellions and stiff resistance from the local princes and nobility and from the Turkic tribes. It was especially difficult to hold onto some of these new territories due to the vast distances from the caliphal centers of power and also due to the First Civil War (or the First Fitna, 565-661), which diverted the political and military attention of the Muslims to the internal struggle that saw the rise of the Umayyads as the ruling family with the beginning of Mu‘waiya’s reign in 661. With the restoration of order, the Muslims had to reconquer large swaths of Khurasan and Transoxiana, which had slipped out of their control during the years of internal conflict.

During the next two decades, the Arabs made further forays into the east. They reduced Bukhara and Samarqand to tributary status and occupied large parts of Central Asia. It seemed as though the region would finally fall, but the Second Civil War (or the Second Fitna 680-692) broke out in the center, putting a halt to all progress and even resulting, once again, in some territorial losses. The problems continued even after the conclusion of the Second Civil War due to tribal infighting among the Arab troops stationed in Khurasan. The enmity between two large tribal groups, the Qays and the Qalb/Yaman (tribes originating from Northern and Southern Arabia respectively), threatened to undermine the Caliphate’s position in the east.

Al-Hajjaj, the viceroy of the eastern “super province” (including Iraq, Khurasan, and Transoxiana), was determined to resolve the situation one way or another. Although he belonged to the Qays group, al-Hajjaj, was above tribal politics and his main concern was to maintain his position and further the political and economic interests of the Caliphate. He removed Yazid ibn Muhallab, the governor of Khurasan, from his position. Yazid belonged to the Azd tribe, which belonged to the Yamani Southern faction. He replaced him with Qutayba ibn Muslim whose Bahila tribe was neutral and as such, he was a more acceptable governor to both the Qays and Qalb tribal groups. Additionally, since Qutayba did not have a large tribal backing, he was dependent on his master, al-Hajjaj, for support and power.

The real conquest of Transoxiana occurred during the governorship of Qutayba ibn Muslim (705-715). Qutayba was able to conquer and consolidate most of Central Asia. His ten-year governorship was a long slog against the local regional rulers and princes, whom he had to reduce one by one because of their lack of prior assimilation into a single empire. He conquered Tukharistan, the principality of Bukhara, Khwarazm, and Samarqand to establish complete control over the region of Sogdiana and the Oxus valley. He then moved into the Jaxartes provinces and the region of Ferghana during the final years of his governorship. Qutayba was a shrewd tactician and a daring leader. He avoided military action when he could, achieving as much as possible through negotiations.

Map of the region and principal localities of Transoxiana in the 8th century. Image by Cplakidas / Wikimedia Commons

However, he did not shy away from using his army and brute force when necessary. For example, after defeating the Sogdians and conquering Paykand, Qutayba left a small garrison behind. The inhabitants of the city, believing that Qutayba’s foray was just a raid expelled the garrison, which forced Qutayba to turn around. He took the city and exacted a terrible revenge, “in accordance with medieval practice” (as said by H. A. R. Gibb) the rebel city was sacked, many of its men put to death and many of the women and children were enslaved. The message was clear, this was the fate of those who reneged on their agreements with Qutayba, while those who abided by them were treated with lenience. A practice that Qutayba introduced was to recruit local Iranians into his forces in large numbers for the first time. These levies greatly increased the manpower of his armies and the scope of his operations. The new levies were eager to win fame, victories, and take spoils in the future conquests.

Qutayba’s career and life ended abruptly. The death of al-Hajjaj in 714 and the caliph, al-Walid, the following year left Qutayba bereft of his primary supporters and patrons. There was bad blood between Qutayba and the new caliph, Sulayman (r. 715-717). Both al-Hajjaj and Qutayba had opposed Sulayman’s accession to the throne in favor of another candidate, ‘Abd al-Aziz ibn al-Walid ibn ‘Abd al-Malik. When Sulayman was named the caliph, Qutayba naturally feared for his position. The new caliph confirmed Qutayba as the governor of Khurasan and even separated the province from Iraq, making him independent of the governor of Iraq, who, up to this point, had been the superior of the governor of Khurasan. Despite a seemingly smooth transition and the caliph’s reassurances, Qutayba was still suspicious and fearful. He was especially concerned about the former governor of Khurasan, Yazid ibn Muhallab, who was his rival and who had the ear of the new caliph.

Al-Tabari recounts that Qutayba sent three letters to the caliph. In the first letter Qutayba congratulated Sulayman on his accession and confirmed his continued support, advice, and allegiance to the caliph provided he was not removed from his position in Khurasan. In the second letter he informed the caliph of his conquests and ferocity against the enemy. He also disparaged Yazid ib Muhallab and his family. In the last letter he proclaimed that if Yazid ibn Muhallab was appointed to the governorship of Khurasan he would throw off his allegiance and rebel against Sulayman. The messenger who delivered these letters to the caliph was one of Quutayba’s fellow tribesmen from among the Bahila. He instructed the messenger to give the caliph the first letter and to wait. If Yazid ibn Muhallab was present and if the caliph handed the letter to him the messenger was to give the second one to him. He was only to hand the caliph the third letter if he handed the second one to Yazid as well.

According to another account the third letter contained the following: “If you do not confirm me in my present position and if you do not grant me a writ of safe conduct, I will renounce my allegiance to you as quickly as one removes a shoe, and I will fill the earth around you with horsemen and foot soldiers.” Sulayman did hand the first two letters to Yazid and when he read the third one, the caliph kept it to himself.

Despite the threats, he confirmed Qutayba in his position. However, Qutayba knew very well that his days were numbered, and that the caliph was only playing for time and awaiting his chance to get rid of him. He was not wrong, the caliph had ordered Qutayba to release all those whom he had imprisoned and to pay his army and disband it, allowing those who wanted to return to their homes to leave. Acting on the advice of his brothers and fellow tribesmen, Qutayba revolted and tried to raise the army of Khurasan in a mutiny against the caliph. The Arab warriors of the Qays and Yaman factions, tired of constant campaigns and being subordinates of someone from an inferior tribe, quickly abandoned Qutayba. However, the rebellious governor was confident of the support of his Iranian troops, who numbered in the thousands. The leader of these troops, Hayyan al-Nabati, was paid off by some of the anti-Qutayba factions and he too withheld his support, leaving Qutayba all but abandoned. Most of the troops he had led to victory in countless campaigns and battles deserted him and only his relatives and his personal retainers, a bodyguard of Sogdian princes, remained loyal. Qutayba and many of his supporters were killed battle. His family was decimated. In addition to Qutayba’s death, seven brothers, his son, and three of his nephews were also killed; all their corpses were crucified. Only two of Qutayba’s brothers escaped the slaughter.

Coin of the Türgesh Kaghans. Early–mid 8th century AD. Image by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

Qutayba’s death had an almost immediate impact on the situation in the east. Muslim expansion eastward halted. The new governor, Yazid ibn al-Muhallab, only launched a few minor campaigns. He lacked the Qutayba’s prestige and did not inspire awe among the Sogdians and the others whom his predecessor had subdued. In fact, almost all the gains made by Qutayba were lost through revolts and incursions by the Turgesh Turks who would become the main enemies of the Muslims in the region for several decades.

The Turgesh: A New Opponent in Transoxiana

The West Turkish Khaganate was defeated and destroyed by the Chinese in 657. The Turgesh were one among several Turkic tribes inhabiting the western regions of the Eurasian steppe. They rose to dominate the other tribes and to form a new steppe empire that endured from 699-766. They were led by Sülü or Sulu/So-Lu (r. 716-738), who was their Khaqan/Khagan (or Khan/ supreme leader), at the time when they clashed with the Umayyads in Central Asia.

The Umayyads were oblivious of the growing Turgesh threat in the east because the Turks were occupied in a struggle with the Tang rulers of China and their proxy ruler, Ashina Xian (r. 708-717). It was not until after 719 that Sülü was able to assert his independence from the Tang. It was in the early 720s that Sülü was able to dedicate the manpower and resources to fighting the Umayyads in Transoxiana. As mentioned earlier, this region was only recently conquered by the Arabs, not fully pacified, and very volatile. The local Sogdian rulers of the recently conquered cities and regions of Central Asia were ready to rebel against their new Umayyad overlords. They sent appeals to the east for aid and Sülü was more than happy to oblige, seeing this as an opportunity to expand his power in the west, having faired poorly in his efforts to expand eastward at the expense of China. In 719 he sent a small expeditionary force into Transoxiana under one of his commanders, Köl-chur. With the arrival of military support in the form of the Turgesh, the clash with the Umayyads became inevitable. The governor, Sa‘id, was taken by surprise to find the entire region up in arms against him. The Turgesh force was supported by most of the local rulers and magnates, who rose in rebellion. As a result of these developments, the Umayyads had to face the two threats in Transoxiana, that of the new Turkish presence in the region in addition to their recently conquered rebellious subjects.

The Turgesh presented a new type of enemy that the Umayyads had never faced in the past. Köl-chur’s expedition was a taste of future hardships in the struggle against the Turks, a martial and tribal people unlike the others they had faced in the past. The Turgesh had no major settlements or cities. Their forces were typical of those of the steppes of Inner Eurasia, composed primarily of highly mobile cavalry that did not have to defend fixed borders, forts, or towns. In 720 the Turgesh surprised and besieged the small fort of Qasr al-Bahili, near Samarqand. A relief force was able to break through the siege lines and evacuated the garrison with much difficulty. This operation, even though successful in achieving its objective of rescuing the garrison, was humiliating to the Umayyads who were driven out of one of their frontier forts. The Muslims pushed back immediately. The new governor, Sa’id ibn ‘Amr al-Harashi, launched a counterattack. He put down a Sogdian revolt and advanced all the way to the Jaxartes (Syr Darya) River. By 722, he reoccupied all the territories conquered by Qutayba, with the exception of Farghana.

Syr Darya River – photo by Ninara / Flickr

Despite his success, Sa’id was replaced in 723 with Muslim ibn Sa’id al-Kilabi, because he was not forwarding enough taxes to Iraq and Syria. The new governor crossed the Jaxartes in 724. Many of his troops were less than eager to fight under his command due to tribal rivalries. He belonged to the northern Qays faction and many of those who opposed him were of the southern Yaman group. Four thousand Yamanis even refused to mobilize and march with the commander.

While Muslim besieged the city of Farghana, his army ran into a large Turgesh force. The ensuing battle was a major disaster for the Umayyads. The Muslims, demoralized and exhausted, fled the superior Turgesh army. The flight to the Jaxartes took eight days during which the mobile Turkic horsemen constantly harassed the Umayyad army of Khurasan. The Muslims burned their baggage train (reportedly goods worth a million dirhams were destroyed) to prevent it from falling into the hands of the enemy and to allow them to march with more speed. They, therefore, suffered not only from the constant Turkish attacks on their lines, but also from heat, thirst, and hunger, which is why this event has gone down in the Arabic histories as the “Day of Thirst.”

The march west was a running battle between the retreating Muslims and the Turks, who continuously attacked their columns. The Turgesh picked off stragglers and at one point even cut off a detachment of mostly Iranian soldiers, who were only able to beat them off after suffering heavy casualties. Upon reaching the Jaxartes the Muslims found an army of Sogdians and Turks blocking their path on the opposite bank. Trapped between two armies, the Muslims had no choice but to launch an attack on the enemies lining the banks of the river. After a desperate fight, they broke through, not without suffering heavy casualties. The remnants of the Umayyad army in Khurasan limped back to Samarqand.

Early medieval depiction of a Turkic warrior – Wikimedia Commons

The “Day of Thirst” not only damaged the caliphate’s prestige but also put the Muslims on the defensive in Transoxiana. They would not restore their position in the region for two decades until 740. Khurasan had three governors from 724-730. These followed a mixture of policies that vacillated between conciliation and military campaigns and punitive measures. Taxes were lifted and then reimposed, prompting the Sogdians to rise in rebellion and once again to call upon the Khaqan for help. In 728 Sülü personally led his armies and occupied Transoxiana, reversing, in the process, all Qutayba’s conquests. Only Samarqand, Kamarja, and al-Dabusiyya remained in Umayyad hands. Bukhara was only recovered after a series of hard-fought battles in which the Muslims, once again, suffered heavy casualties. The Turks simply withdrew and besieged Kamarja, which, like Qasr al-Bahili, had to be evacuated. Therefore, by 730, the situation along the eastern frontier was precarious for the Umayyads, who had lost most of Transoxiana and had been unable to recover any territory, with the exception of Bukhara, which was achieved with much difficulty and at a high cost.

The Battle of the Pass

Al-Junayd al-Murri was appointed as the governor of Khurasan in early 730. He was an experienced military commander and governor. He was the former governor of Sind and had successfully conquered large regions of Northern India. He was now put in control of Khurasan and Transoxiana (or at least those parts still under Muslim control) and charged with directing the defense of the eastern frontier and with the reconquest of the lands lost to the Turgesh and their Sogdian allies in the previous decade. It was under his leadership that the Umayyad army in Khurasan would suffer the catastrophe that went down in history as the Battle of the Pass/Defile.

Junayd had to fight the Turgesh immediately upon his arrival in Transoxiana. At the time of his appointment, Juayd’s predecessor, Ashras al-Sulami, was campaigning in Bukhara and Sogdia. Junayd had to make his way to Ashras to take control of the army. He arrived at the Oxus River with a guard of 500 men but refused to cross until Ashras sent a large escort of 7,000 horsemen. His caution was justified. Twelve kilometres from Baykand (southwest of Bukhara) the Turks attacked Junayd and his escort. The Muslims were victorious in the encounter, but only after a very difficult and hard-fought battle. After taking control of the army from Ashras, Junayd conducted his summer campaign. He defeated the Khaqan at Zarman (northwest of Samarqand), captured the prince of Shash and the Khaqan’s nephew, and drove the Turgesh back. Junayd’s first summer campaign in 730 was a success. He was able to relieve the garrisons in the cities of Transoxiana still in Muslim hands and cleared the road between Khurasan and Samarqand. Satisfied with his progress, the governor marched back the provincial capital of Khurasan, Marw (or Merv), to spend the winter and to give his men a chance to return to their homes and rest.

Shah-i Zinda memorial complex, 11th–15th centuries in Samarqand – photo by Vaurien / Wikimedia Commons

Junayd once again mobilized the army of Khurasan at the end of winter in early 731 to deal with some rebellions that had broken out in Tukharistan, a region previously pacified by the Muslims. He marched to Balkh where he set up camp as a base of operations. He detached 28,000 men, roughly half his army, and divided them into smaller units, and sent them out to quell the uprisings in the various districts of Tukharistan. While Junayd was campaigning against the rebels in the south, the Turgesh, led by Sülü, attacked Samarqand in the north and besieged the city. Samarqand’s garrison commander, Sawra ibn al-Hurr al-Abani, sent a message to Junayd urgently asking for help.

Junayd was presented with a difficult decision. He could march immediately with whatever forces he had under his command, or he could wait for the 28,000 men who were operating against the rebels in Tukharistan whom he had recalled. Fearing the city might fall, Junayd decided to march to Samarqand’s relief immediately. Several of his officers counselled him to await the return of his scattered forces. Al-Tabari quotes on of these officers, an important Khurasani Arab, saying:

“The Turks are not like others; they neither meet you in a battle line nor marching slowly in readiness…The holder of Khurasan should not cross the Oxus with less than fifty thousand men…”

This statement shows that the Turks, like other steppe nomads, often resorted to irregular mobile warfare and indicates the perilousness of such a military undertaking without the appropriate number of soldiers. It also bespeaks the experiences and difficulties of the veterans of the Khurasani army who had been fighting the Turks since 720.

Junayd ignored the advice of his commanders and the reluctance of his soldiers and commanded the army to cross the Oxus. He had decided that saving Samarqand was the priority and pushed forward with all speed. The Turgesh got wind of his advance when he arrived at Kishsh (south of Samarqand) and poisoned all the wells and watering holes along the road between Samarqand and Kishsh. At this point, Junayd once again took council with his officers. There were two ways to Samarqand, a longer one wound through grasslands and woods and a short one over a steep pass through the mountains. He was advised by most to take the longer, and less treacherous, route. However, one officer interjected and stated that the lands along the road had not been cultivated for a long period of time and that the grass, trees, and other vegetation had become overgrown. He said that if the Khaqan got wind of their approach along that road, all he had to do was to set the grass and vegetation on fire and they would all perish in flames and smoke.

Junayd opted to take the quicker route through the mountains. He hoped to get to Samarqand as quickly as possible without alerting the Turks. The Khaqan’s forces had interposed themselves on the main road between Kishsh and Samarqand and Junayd gambled that by marching through the mountains he could surprise them and avoid having to fight his way to the besieged city. It is at this point that the real problems started. As the army wound its way through the mountain pass, several soldiers, tired of campaigning and disillusioned by their leader, started to desert. The rest of the army pushed forward. The advance guard was only four farsakhs (an Iranian unit of distance roughly equal to about 6-6.5 kilometres or 4 miles) from Samarqand when it was attacked and driven back by a large Turgesh force. The two sides fought to a standstill.

As more units of Turks arrived, Junayds forces were surrounded and hemmed in. Parties of Turks also attacked the baggage train and the rearguard, which was still near Kishsh, causing heavy casualties and loss in material. The beleaguered Muslims were forced to set up entrenched camps in the passes and defiles of the mountains. They took up defensive positions, many of the horsemen also dismounting and digging ditches and trenches to forestall the Turgesh horsemen. The right wing of the Muslim army suffered the brunt of the Turk attacks because it was encamped in the wide space that allowed for cavalry maneuvers. On the other hand, the left wing, which was positioned in a narrow space, was only harassed lightly. Junayd’s army consisted of units of heavy and light cavalry in addition to infantry. The Arabs probably had more armoured shock troops (although the Turks were known to field some units of heavy cavalry too, usually an elite force of nobles, chiefs, and their personal retainers).

The accounts of the battle indicate that the Turks used the time-tested tactic of feigned retreat. For instance, a group of Arab heavy cavalry attacked some Turks who scattered and took flight at the impetuous charge, only to regroup and surround their would-be pursuers and cut them down to a man. The right-wing, under a constant and sustained heavy attack, was driven back. Even the camp followers and slaves (the practice of training and recruiting professional elite units of military slaves had not yet been established), armed with staves and other weapons, were forced to fight the advancing Turgesh. The struggle in the mountain passes was so fierce and the casualties so high, that both sides had to refrain from fighting on multiple occasions to regroup and rest. Having learned from earlier blunders, the Arabs now stopped charging into the traps and ambushes of their foes. Instead, they awaited the Turgesh to come to them, many of them dismounted and kneeled holding out their lances and spears, with bowmen safely discharging arrows from behind them; this was probably one of the most effective ways to fight given the circumstances.

Junayd, trapped in the pass with what was left of his army and surrounded by enemies, had few choices to extricate himself from his predicament. He and his men had been fighting for two days. He could not stay in his entrenchments. His exhausted troops lacked food and other necessary supplies to survive for long. He could attempt to fight his way through to Samarqand. However, there was a great risk to this action. The Turgesh outnumbered his tired and demoralized forces, and he was also aware that if his army was destroyed Samarqand would inevitably fall. He, therefore, opted to follow the more prudent, but less “honorable” and “heroic,” course of action. He sent messages to the commanders at the rear of his army ordering them to stop in the district of Kishsh and to hold back any of the infantry, stragglers, and what remained of the baggage train. He then sent a message to Sawra in Samarqand commanding him to ride out and attack the Turgesh as a decoy to allow Junayd and the main army to reach Samarqand. Sawra initially refused to comply, but after a second threatening message he marched out of the city with 12,000 men, leaving behind a small garrison. Sawra had been ordered to take the way by a river and to reinforce Junayd that way, however he opted, like Junayd had earlier, to take the quicker way through the mountains.

The Turgesh, learning of the new threat to their rear turned to face the relief force from Samarqand. Sawra and most of his men perished in the ensuing fight. Of the 12,000 that had left Samarqand, less than 1,000 men returned. According to the accounts describing the fight, the Khaqan held his troops back until midday when the sun was hottest making it more difficult for the heavily armoured soldiers from Samarqand to fight. The Turks also set the grass on fire, driving smoke into Sawra’s ranks and blocking all access to water. Dehydrated and hot in their armour, Sawra and his men charged the Turgesh lines. They drove them into the very fires where thousands of Turks and Arabs perished. In the confusion of the melee the Muslims became scattered and when the dust settled, they were set upon by the Turks and slaughtered only six kilometres from Junayd’s lines.

Sawra’s sacrifice gave Junayd the opportunity he needed. With many of the Turks distracted, he ordered his army to advance on Samarqand. Despite the ongoing battle between Sawra and the Turgesh, Junayd still had to fight his way through to the city with every step contested by the Turgesh. The slaves fought especially fiercely having been promised freedom and the right to spoils if they joined in the fighting. With Junayd’s entry into the city, the Battle of the Pass/Defile was over.

The Aftermath

The Battle of the Pass was a military disaster for the Umayyads on their eastern frontier. The fighting lasted for three days. Junayd had achieved his objective, which was to make it to Samarqand and to relieve the city. However, if this was a victory, then it was certainly a pyrrhic one overshadowed by the disaster of the decimation of the army of Khurasan. Various sources state that the Umayyads lost 20,000-48,000 soldiers in the fighting (including the 12,000 men of the garrison). It is most likely that the losses were in the neighbourhood of 20,000-30,000 men because the caliph, Hisham (r. 724-743), upon hearing of the disaster, sent 20,000 Iraqi Arabs to Khurasan and commanded Junayd to recruit 15,000 Khurasanis to bolster his forces. He also sent weapons, money, and supplies to equip and pay the new soldiers.

Despite the debacle of the Battle of the Pass, Junayd marched out of Samarqand in pursuit of the Khaqan, who was now besieging Bukhara. This bold and impetuous decision seemed suicidal. He defeated a small force of Turgesh near Karmimiya. The next day Sülü attacked him with his entire force. However, Junayd had been forewarned about the attack and was ready for it. The Turgesh were beaten back at the Battle of Tawawis and with the onset of winter on the horizon, they withdrew to their homeland. Junayd entered Bukhara and secured it. The Umayyads only held Bukhara, Samarqand, and Kishsh in Transoxiana. Losses on both the Muslim and Turgesh side must have been very heavy and even though Junayd was able to accomplish his military objectives, his victories left Transoxiana with less men to defend it against future attacks.

The Battle of the Defile and Junayd’s ensuing military campaigns in Transoxiana left the Umayyads in shaky position in the east. The frontier had been, for the most part, pushed back to the Oxus River. The Khurasani army was partially destroyed and had to be bolstered by re-militarized Iraqi Arabs, some of the Umayyad dynasty’s fiercest internal opponents. Umayyad fiscal and military resources were spread thin along this frontier and others, where the Umayyads were also facing difficulties. However, the events along the eastern frontier were by far the most important regarding the fate of the Umayyad caliphate and had more significant historical repercussions than events in other arenas at the time, especially regarding the internal history of the caliphate. Although Transoxiana was reconquered by the middle of the 8th century, the dissatisfaction and anger with Umayyad rule and the misrule of their representatives in the east grew. It was disaffected Arab and Iranian soldiers and their descendants in the east, the Khurasanis, who rose in revolt less than two decades after the Battle of the Pass. In what was to become known as the Abbasid (or Hashemite) Revolution the frontier soldiers and men of the eastern provinces overthrew the Umayyads in support of a new dynasty, the Abbasids.

Adam Ali is a lecturer at the University of Toronto. Click here to read more from Adam.

Top Image: Ptolemy’s Seventh map of Asia (Caspian Sea and east) – 15th century – now held at the New York Public Library 

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