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Siege of Ctesiphon (637)
Part of the Muslim conquest of Sassanid empire
DateJanuary–March, 637
LocationCtesiphon, Iraq
Result Decisive Rashidun victory
Ctesiphon occupied by Rashidun Caliphate
Sassanid Persian empire Rashidun Caliphate
Commanders and leaders
Yazdgerd III
Sa`d ibn Abī Waqqās
Zuhra ibn Al-Hawiyya
Abdullah ibn Al-Mutim
Shurhabeel ibn As samt
Khalid ibn Arfatah
Hashim bin Utba
Unknown 15,000[1]-60,000[2]
Casualties and losses
Unknown Unknown

The successful Siege of Ctesiphon (Persian: تیسفون‎, also known as 'Al-Mada'in المدائن in Arabic) by the Rashidun army lasted about two months, from January to March 637. Ctesiphon, located on the east bank of the Tigris, was one of the great cities of the Persian Empire, an imperial capital of the Arsacids and of their successors, the Sassanids. Soon after the conquest of the city by Muslims, Sassanid rule in Iraq ended.

Ctesiphon is located approximately at Al-Mada'in, 20 miles southeast of the modern city of Baghdad, Iraq, along the river Tigris. Ctesiphon measured 30 square kilometers.[3] The only visible remnant is the great arch Taq-i Kisra located in what is now the Iraqi town of Salman Pak.

March to Ctesiphon

After the decisive victory at Battle of Qadisiyyah, Caliph Umar decided to capture the Sassanid Persian capital city of Ctesiphon, because as long as the Sassanids held their capital at Ctesiphon, there was always a possibility that sooner or later they could mount another counter-attack. Umar accordingly ordered Saad, the Muslim commander in chief in Iraq, to march against Ctesiphon.

In December 636, Saad marched with a Muslim army of 15,000 towards Ctesiphon. The Sassanian Emperor Yazdgerd III feared that Muslims would next march against Ctesiphon. As he received the intelligence of preparation of Muslims' march against Ctesiphon he deployed detachments of whatever troops he had at capital on the main stages to the route to Ctesiphon, so that necessary arrangement could be done for the defense of the capital city. Meanwhile he hastily concentrated the survivors of the Battle of Qaddasiyyah at Ctesiphon.

Saad, when he came to know about the Sassanid detachments on the main route to Ctesiphon, decided to subjugate them. He accordingly organized a strong advance guard to overpower the Sassanid detachments; the main army would join the advance guard shortly afterwards.

For ease in movement he divided the rest of his army into four corps. Under the commanders Abdullah ibn Mutim, Shurahbeel ibn As Samt, Hashim bin Utba and Khalid bin Arfatah. Saad himself moved with the corps of Khalid bin Arfatah.

From Qadisiyya, the main stages on the route to Ctesiphon were Najaf, Burs, Babylon, Sura, Deir Kab, Kusa, Sabat. The advance guard comprising all of the cavalry was put under the charge of Zuhra ibn Al-Hawiyya. Zuhra was directed to move to the main stages on the route to Ctesiphon and deal with the Sassanid detachments; in case of encountering any large concentration of the Sassanid army, he was directed to wait until the main army arrived. The rest of the Muslim army was to move behind the advance guard at a comfortable pace.

The corps of Zuhra set off as the advance guard. It occupied Najaf and stayed there till the other corps reached Najaf. Then Zuhra with his corps crossed the Euphrates and proceeded on the road to Ctesiphon. He reached Burs on the western bank of the Hilla branch of the Euphrates, where a small Sassanid force resisted; the contingent was overpowered and retreated towards Babylon.

Location of Ctesiphon in Iraq.

Zuhra stayed at Burs waiting for main army to join him,. The next stage was Babylon, a fortified city where, it was learned, there was a large concentration of Sassanid forces. Babylon lay on the far bank of the Euphrates. It was also a place of strategic importance and was the gateway of the Suwad, the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris. Some time in the middle of December 636, the Muslims crossed the Euphrates and camped outside Babylon. The Sassanid forces at Babylon are said to have been commanded by Feerzan, Hormuzan, Mihran and Nakheerzan. It appears that there was disunity among the Persians, and they could not put up a stiff resistance against the Muslim charge. Hormuzan with his forces withdrew to his home province Ahwaz. On his withdrawal, the other generals also pulled back their forces and withdrew northward.

After the Persian forces had left, the citizens of Babylon formally surrendered. They were afforded protection under the usual terms of payment of jaziya. Some volunteered to cooperate with the Muslims in their fight against the Sassanid regime. They furnished a good deal of useful information about the disposition of the Persian forces. Some Babylonian engineers are said to have been employed for the construction of roads and bridges. While the main Muslim army remained at Babylon, Zuhra was commanded by Saad to pursue the Persians who had retreated from Babylon, before they could concentrate effectively at some other place to give a combined resistance. The Muslim advance guard under Zuhra followed the Persians, and caught the Persian rear-guard at Sura, where the Sassanid forces were routed; they retreated towards Deir Kab. Zuhra next marched to Deir Kab and defeated the Sassanid detachment again there. After which Deir Kab was occupied by the Muslims, and the people were afforded protection under the usual terms. Zuhra waited until the main army joined him at Deir Kab. Early in January 637, the Muslim advance guard under Zuhra reached Kusa, ten miles from Ctesiphon, where Sassanid Persians were to make their last stand to delay the Muslim advance as much as they could. The Sassanid detachment there was commanded by Shahryar, who was killed in a duel with one of Muslim Mubarizun. The rest of the Sassanid army hastily withdrew to Ctesiphon, whereupon the Muslims occupied Kusa on the usual terms. After the victory, Zuhra stayed at Kusa for some time. In the meantime main army reached Kusa. Kusa was a place of historic importance to Muslims who believed that here Nimrod imprisoned the Prophet Abraham, who was thrown in burning fire, out of which he had emerged unharmed. Saad wrote a detailed account of the march towards Ctesiphon. In the second week of January 637, the Muslim advance guard reached Sabat, four miles from Ctesiphon. It was a Persian cantonment, but there was no garrison there. The residents were given protection on the usual terms of payment of jaziya. Now the entire land up to the very gates of Ctesiphon belonged to the Muslims.

Siege of Bahrseer

Ctesiphon the capital of Persia was not one city; it was a conglomeration of several cities. Indeed the Arabs called Ctesiphon Al-Madain, meaning the cities. The main city lay on the eastern bank of the Tigris. The part of the city on the western bank of the Tigris was known as Bahrseer. The Muslim advance to Ctesiphon was delayed by the detachments placed on the route to Ctesiphon. That gave enough time to the Sassanids to arrange for the defense of the city, as Yazdgerd III planned. The Muslims were expected to follow the traditional route to Ctesiphon and expected to appear before Bahrseer; for this purpose, Bahrseer had been well prepared for defense, and a deep ditch had been dug round the perimeter of the suburb. As the Muslim advance guard approached Bahrseer, the Persian garrison within the fortified city hurled stones at the Muslims through ballistas and catapults. The Muslims pulled back beyond the range of the projectiles and laid siege to the city. The siege began in January 637, and dragged on for two months. The supplies from the countryside on which Bahrseer depended were entirely cut off; however it continued getting supplies from Ctesiphon across the Tigris. It was here that Muslims first used siege equipment made for them by the Persian engineers who had accepted the Muslim rule. Some time in March 637, the Sassanid garrison called forth from the city in the determined effort to break the siege. Muslim chronicles record an interesting duel between a lion and Muslim commander Hashim, it is said that the Sassanid forces were led by a fierce lion which had been specially trained for war. The lion rushed at the Muslim front, and the Muslim horses bolted. Hashim bin Utbah is said to have rushed at the lion and delivered such a well directed blow that it fell dead. Saad the Commander-in-Chief of the Muslim forces stepped forward to kiss Hashim on the forehead as a mark of admiration for his act of unparalleled heroism. Exactly who commanded the Sassanid army there is not certain, however Muslim chronicles record that the Sassanid commander was killed in a duel by Zuhra. Later that evening Zuhra was stuck by an arrow and the hero of the march to Ctesiphon, died. He was buried with full military honors. After the break in fighting, a Persian emissary came to the Muslim camp to convey a message from the Persian emperor. The Persian emissary is reported to have said:

"Our emperor asks if you would be agreeable to peace on the condition that the Tigris should be the boundary between you and us, so that whatever is with us on the eastern side of the Tigris remains ours and whatever you have gained on the western side is yours. And if this does not satisfy your land hunger, then nothing would satisfy you."

[citation needed]

Saad, however insisted on the usual term, jaziyah or the sword. Sassanid accepted the sword.

With Ctesiphon prepared for defenses, Sassanid forces and residents of the Bahrseer withdraw to the main city the next day, destroying all bridges on the Tigris behind them. They had also taken away all the boats from the western bank of the Tigris, and anchored them on the eastern bank. Ctesiphon was guarded from its southern end by a natural barrier, river Tigris and by now a ditch had been dug surrounding rest of the suburbs. With these arrangements Yazdgerd felt satisfied that he could resist Muslims until he managed to get sufficient reinforcement from other provinces to break the siege. The Muslim forces occupied Bahrseer; the town was empty.

Capture of Ctesiphon

After the occupation of Bahrseer, only the Tigris, half a mile wide, lay between the Muslims and Ctesiphon. The river was in flood and there were no means with the Muslims to cross it. In their withdrawal from Bahrseer the Persians had taken away all the boats. The Sassanid forces in Ctesiphon were commanded by Generals Mihran and Khurrazad, brother of General Rostam who had been killed in the Battle of Qaddisiyyah. Thanks to the Persian volunteers who had accepted the Muslim rule, who showed a site downstream where the river could be forded. Saad saw the site, but was not sure whether it was fit for crossing. The next morning Saad asked for volunteers who could cross the river on horseback. First a band of six hundred volunteer horsemen under Asim ibn Amr plunged into the river to cross over to the other bank. A detachment of Sassanid cavalry was sent to intercept the approaching Muslims, and Sassanid horsemen also plunged in the river to hold back the Muslims from crossing the river. A river battle ensued. The Muslims cavalry however successfully overpowered the Persian cavalry and routed them and landed on the eastern bank of the Tigris. The first band of volunteers was immediately followed by other cavalry regiments. The infantry was probably brought to the eastern bank by the boats anchored on the shore. Sassanid forces were too few to offer an effective resistance against Muslims and thus evacuated Ctesiphon. From the river bank the Muslim forces marched to the city of Ctesiphon, led by the column of Asim ibn Amr. The Muslim columns marched through the heart of Ctesiphon. All business premises were closed. No Persians were seen, and the Muslims met no resistance. The Muslims reached the White Palace, the seat of the Persian government, and occupied it. The capital City of Sassanid Persian Empire was thus captured by the Rashidun army without any major battle.


After occupying the city, Saad announced amnesty to all Persians who were in the city. A delegation of the representatives of the people waited on Saad. They sought terms, and the usual terms of jaziya were imposed. A regular peace pact was drawn up, and the citizens were called upon to follow their normal avocations. Sa'ad moved into the White Palace and established his headquarters there. The great courtyard of the palace was converted into a mosque. Emperor Yazdgerd had retreated to Hulwan. While withdrawing the Persian emperor carried away as much of the imperial treasure and other valuable possessions as he could carry. Saad next sent out columns in several directions to deal with the Persian stragglers. A massive booty fell into the Muslim hands. Muslim forces conquered the Persian provinces as far as Khuzistan. The conquest however was slowed by a severe drought in Arabia in 638 and the plague in southern Iraq and Syria in 639. After this Caliph Umar wanted a break to manage the conquered territories and for then he decided to suspend the offensive. Umar is reported to have said:

"I wish there were a mountain of fire between us and the Persians, so that neither could they get to us, nor we to them."

[citation needed]

The Sassanids continued the struggle to regain the lost territory. Thus a last standing Persian force was crushed at the Battle of Nihawand, fought in December 641. The last Persian emperor Yazdgerd III was killed in 651AD during the reign of Caliph Uthman. With his death Sassanid Persian empire ceased to exist.

See also

References and notes


  • Rosenthal, Franz, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History By Ibn Khaldūn, N. J.. Dawoodb, 1967

Further reading

  • Ashtiani, Abbas Iqbal and Pirnia, Hassan. Tarikh-e Iran (History of Iran), 3rd ed. Tehran: Kayyam Publishing House, 1973.
  • at-Tabarī, Abū Ja`far Muhammad. The Battle of al-Qādisiyyah and the conquest of Syria and Palestine. Edited and translated by Yohanan Friedmann. SUNY series in Near Eastern studies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

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