Seventh-century Muslim desert warriors built powerful new fleets and set out to conquer Europe – and destroy Christianity
In ad 655 the emperor Constans II confronted a new and surprising threat to his Byzantine Empire. For years, armies of Arabs had overrun the empire’s southern provinces in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. Having defeated the Sassanid Empire, they dominated the Middle East and had even reached the gates of Constantinople before being driven back. But now these desert warriors had taken to the sea. Word reached Constans that Arab ships had attacked the islands of Rhodes, Kos, and Crete in the southern Aegean. Clearly, they meant to sail up the Aegean, through the Dardanelles, and into the Sea of Marmara. Constantinople, Constans’s home and the Byzantine capital, was being threatened again, this time from the sea. The emperor set out to destroy these upstarts once and for all. His navy of 500 ships was the greatest in the Mediterranean, its galleys crewed by the finest sailors and marines in the empire. When it caught the Arab fleet of 200 ships north of Cyprus, near the modern Turkish port of Finike, Constans attacked without hesitation. The emperor did not bother to bring his ships into formation. The Arabs knew nothing of naval warfare, and he expected to crush them in a single assault. Sailing straight into the Arabs, the Byzantines engaged so closely the clash was called the Battle of the Masts. The fighting lasted more than a day; according to one account, “the sea ran with blood and the waves piled up the bodies on the shore.
Though outnumbered, the Arabs cut the Byzantines to pieces. Constans escaped only by putting on the garb of an ordinary seaman and having himself thrown bodily onto another ship. As the Byzantines fled, a storm decimated what remained of their shattered fleet.
It was a major victory for the fledgling Arab navy, and not the last. The followers of Muhammad were just beginning what would be a centuries-long assault on Christendom. While their notoriously fierce armies carried out jihad on the ground, the new fleets would take the battle to Constantinople, Rome, Seville, and other great Mediterranean cities. If these strongholds fell, nothing would stand between the fanatic warriors of Islam and the heart of Europe.
The Prophet Muhammad died in 632, and within 20 years, armies of Bedouins stormed across the lowlands of the Middle East, blowing down age-old empires in the name of Allah and Islam. They believed their sacred mission was to subjugate the world to their God. The first Muslim armies found success in Asia and Africa. But Christian Europe lay behind the barricade of the Mediterranean Sea, with only two points of land where armies could cross: Constantinople, and the short hop across the Strait of Gibraltar. To the Arabs, this proved a formidable obstacle. The first caliphs—Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al Khattab, and Uthman iba Affan—were desert tribesmen with a “natural horror” of the sea, according to historian Aly Mohamed Fahmy. The Arabs, wrote Fahmy, were known to say: “The flatulence of camels is more pleasing than the prayers of the fishes.
Yet to one man, Mu’awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan, the Mediterranean offered an ideal way to attack Christian Europe. Selected in 640 by Umar as governor of the newly ?conquered province of Syria, Mu’awiyah reasoned that if the Arabs controlled the sea, they could turn the water into a highway to Europe.
Mu’awiyah (pronounced moo-AH-we-yuh) was the son of one of Muhammad’s first and worst enemies. His father had submitted to Islam only when he had no other choice. Mu’awiyah, although opposed to the faith initially, became a passionate Muslim committed to jihad. During Umar’s caliphate, Mu’awiyah looked for new opportunities to expand the reach of Islam. His gaze fell on the Byzantine islands of Cyprus and Rhodes, which he said were so close to the Syrian shore that “you might almost hear the barking of the dogs and the cackling of hens.” He asked the caliph for permission to build a fleet. Umar turned him down. Mu’awiyah persisted. He understood military power and recognized that as master of Syria, he controlled a key war-making industry: the shipbuilders of the Levant.
Since men first pushed logs into the water and tried to ride them, the people living along the coast of the Levant had built boats, a craft to which they brought considerable ingenuity. They lived at a hub of world trade routes that both inspired and financed their work.
The design of warships was evolving in the seventh century. The swift, agile dromon was replacing plodding, heavily armored galleys. [See “Ships of Speed,” p. 75] Naval tactics changed as well. Instead of ramming enemy boats, galleys now jockeyed for position at a distance until they could close and board. Engagements began as soon as the ships moved within range of the archers and slingers. Dromons featured tall wooden castles high above their water line, an ideal perch from which to rain arrows down onto the enemy and ?pelt his decks with caltrops, rocks, pottery jars full of scorpions and snakes, and incendiary bombs. Once the crew was sufficiently disabled, the galley could close, grapple on, and fight hand to hand.
The new style of sea warfare helped offset the Arabs’ inexperience as sailors. Their warriors were bred for battle. Mu’awiyah believed that once a sea battle moved to hand-to-hand combat, his men would win. The emir again asked to take the jihad to the water. Eventually Uthman, who succeeded Umar as caliph, agreed, possibly because the Byzantine fleet retook Alexandria for a while in 646 and pillaged much of the Nile delta. Given permission, Mu’awiyah began building ships in Tripoli, Sidon, and Acre on the Levantine coast.
In 648, seven years before the Battle of the Masts, Mu’awiyah sailed from Acre with his first fleet, his wife, and several Companions of the Prophet, men who had known Muhammad. Ships joined him from Egypt, where the Byzantines had persecuted Coptics, the native Christians. Together, they overran and looted Cyprus. Mu’awiyah exacted a tribute, made the Cypriots promise to support him against the Byzantines, and left.
In 653 he returned with 500 ships. The Cypriots fled into the hills, and the Arabs plundered the island, built a fortified city with a mosque, and left a garrison of 12,000 men. Cyprus now belonged to Islam.
The next year, the Arab fleets attacked Crete, Kos, and Rhodes, assaults that drew Constans out of Constantinople and led to his humiliating defeat in 655 in the Battle of the Masts. Afterward, there was no doubt that the Muslim navy was heading up the Aegean toward the riches of Thessaloníki on the western coast, then on to Constans’s golden-domed capital city on the Bosporus. If Constantinople fell, the caliph and his armies would invade Europe from the east, and in the seventh century there was no force in Christendom capable of stopping them.
It would be years, however, before Mu’awiyah could take advantage of his victory in the Battle of the Masts. The caliph Uthman was murdered in 656, and Islam fell into turmoil. Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali claimed the caliphate, but Mu’awiyah, boosted by his naval victories, challenged him. Their armies fought to a draw in the battles of Siffin in 657. When Ali agreed to negotiations, many of his followers turned against him and began a rebellion. In 661, he was assassinated by one of the rebels. After paying Ali’s son to abandon his claim to the throne, Mu’awiyah became caliph.
This crisis split Islam in two—the Shia, who remained loyal to Ali, and the Sunni, who accepted Mu’awiyah as the caliph. It foretold the dissolution of the caliphate and has divided Islam ever since.
Mu’awiyah could not have foreseen this. Capable and determined, he greatly expanded the caliphate in Asia and Africa. He preferred diplomacy to blunt force, and his generosity and broad-mindedness won over even his enemies. Once he asked a friend, “How great is your cunning?” The friend replied, “I have never entered into anything but that I got out of it.” Mu’awiyah said, “And I have never entered into anything that I wanted to get out of!” He was the last caliph to rule over the whole of Islam; he had no rival.
Certainly Mu’awiyah was committed to jihad. Though it took him years to consolidate his power and build his great fleets, he never took his eyes off the prize: the conquest of Christendom. In 667, 12 years after the Battle of the Masts, the Levantine fleet attacked Rhodes again to bring the island under Muslim control. Five years later two Arab fleets entered the Aegean and raided as far as Izmir, halfway up the coast of Asia Minor, where they wintered. In 670 they sailed through the Dardanelles and took the coastal island Cyzicus, in the southern Sea of Marmara, and connected it by a mole to the mainland. Mu’awiyah’s son Yazid brought up an army by land and occupied Chalcedon, across the Marmara from Constantinople.
For the next several years the Arab fleets tried to close the siege on the imperial city. But with Constans’s son Constantine IV to lead them, the Byzantines rose to the challenge. The city’s gigantic double walls, built by Emperor Theodosius, protected the landward side. Although the seawalls facing the Golden Horn were vulnerable, the furious currents of the Bosporus kept the Arab fleets at bay.
Every winter the Arab fleets retired as far south as Rhodes to rest and resupply. Every spring they hurled themselves again at Constantinople. Finally, the Byzantines surprised them with a relatively new weapon. Among the usual forecastles packed with marines, some of the Byzantine dromons carried brass tubes that jutted well forward of their prows. When the Arab ships attacked, these long pipes fired a gelatinous substance that caught fire when it left the nozzle or burst into flame when it made contact with the enemy boats. Near Eastern armies had long used “Greek fire”—combustibles soaked with petroleum—but the Byzantines had come up with a device that could, much like a siphon, propel the liquid fire over short distances. This proved lethal for wooden ships. Water did not extinguish the fire; it burned even under the waves. Men who leapt overboard were consumed in the sea’s flames. Three of the four Muslim fleets were destroyed. The fourth, limping back down the Aegean, sank in a storm. Yazid’s army, meanwhile, retreated across Anatolia.
In 678 Mu’awiyah was forced to agree to peace and a humiliating tribute. He died two years later at the age of 78, his work undone. His dynasty would strike Constantinople once more in 717. An Arab land army managed to cross into Europe, but the soldiers got no farther than the Theodosian Walls, where they dug in and suffered through the worst winter in decades, starving, freezing, and dying. Once again, Greek fire destroyed the Muslim fleet.
That failure shattered the caliphate. The Muslim community, never wholly unified, disintegrated into rivalry and rebellion. Within a century, rival caliphs divided the Muslim world into warring splinters.
Jihad itself continued, however, with the Islamic navy controlling the eastern Mediterranean. Mu’awiyah’s Arab armies had been campaigning in Africa for decades, meeting their match in the Berbers of the Mahgreb. But in 698, just before the fall of the caliph, the armies of Musa ibn Nusair, an Arab governor representing Mu’awiyah in Egypt and later Tunisia, took the ancient city of Carthage. Across a lagoon from Carthage was the village of Tunis, which was more sheltered from the sea. Musa, a former slave, lame in one leg, who had risen to power by wits and warfare, saw possibilities here. He ordered Carthage razed, a new city built where Tunis stood, and a canal dug joining it to the sea.
To this new harbor the governor of Egypt sent a thousand Coptic shipwrights. There they built the first of the fleets that would challenge for dominion over all four parts of the Mediterranean: the Aegean; the eastern Mediterranean south of Crete between the Levantine coast and Sicily; the Adriatic; and the western Mediterranean.
Until the rise of the Arab navies, the Byzantines had ruled this blue expanse. But after the disaster of the Battle of the Masts and as their holdings in western Europe dwindled, they chiefly concentrated on defending the Aegean.
In 904, Leo of Tripoli, a pirate in the service of the caliph, briefly challenged Byzantine supremacy there. Born a Christian but a convert to Islam, Leo was a brilliant seaman who raided city after city in the Aegean and battered a Byzantine fleet sent to destroy him. Capturing Thessaloníki and enslaving most of its residents, he seemed for a time to flaunt Muslim power in the heart of Christendom. But without land forces to complement the terror he brought by sea, the Aegean remained under Byzantine control until the 13th century and was the epicenter of the recovery under the Macedonian dynasty (867–1081), when the Byzantines were at their peak in power, influence, and culture.
Along the southern Mediterranean, Arabs held the coast and the deserts inland. While the Byzantines mounted occasional raids on Alexandria and Damietta in Egypt, they never again established a permanent presence there.
In the Adriatic and Ionian seas, the Arabs made a few memorable attacks, but most of their forays were stymied by the various Christian princes, republics, and pirates, many of whom could match the Muslims’ seafaring skills.
It was the western Mediterranean that the Arabs came to dominate. The last few Byzantine strongholds in Africa were dependent on the sea, but those cities withered as the new Arab fleets built at Tunis drove back imperial ships that dared venture past Malta. Arab control in the region expanded in the first half of the eighth century when Visigothic Spain fell to the Muslims. The caliphate in Baghdad was just disintegrating and across the conquered lands power was up for grabs. Abd al-Rahman, a scion of Mu’awiyah’s house, fled west and made himself emir in Spain. His Umayyad dynasty ruled memorably for three centuries, its kingdom a pinnacle of Islamic civilization.
Under its young, shrewd, and ambitious new ruler, the city of Seville on the Guadalquivir River became an Arab naval center, churning out dromons and jihadi sailors. Flowing into the Gulf of Cadiz just beyond Gibraltar, the river gave access to both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
Establishing strongholds on the shorelines and islands was key to controlling the Mediterranean. Fleets had to travel along coasts or hop between islands and put into harbor every few nights to take in fresh water. A single ship required hundreds of gallons for its crew. With small drafts, the light galleys also could not tolerate adverse weather and ran for cover whenever a storm brewed. As a result, whoever held the coastlines, the important islands, and the good harbors could dominate huge swaths of the sea.
By 798 an Arab fleet from Andalusia was attacking the Balearic Islands (and may have gone on to sack Sardinia). When the Balearics were brought under control of the new Iberian caliphate, assault on the islands and shores of the western Mediterranean became relentless. Arab fleets from Spain and Africa pillaged Corsica and Sardinia almost yearly. Palermo fell in 831, and Arab colonists poured onto the great island of Sicily. By midcentury the Arabs controlled the Strait of Messina between Sicily and southern Italy, and fleets were raiding up the Adriatic, attacking the Byzantine port cities of Brindisi, Taranto, and Bari on Italy’s western coast as well as threatening Dubrovnik and Dyrrachium (modern-day Durrës in Albania). In 846, a Muslim fleet sailed into the Tiber and pillaged Rome. A little later the Arabs sacked the great Benedictine monastery at Montecassino, about 80 miles southeast of Rome.
France—which Muslim armies had threatened to conquer until Franks under Charles Martel turned them back at the Battle of Tours in 732—was also a target. How much systematic planning went into this is anyone’s guess. Mostly the Arab fleets behaved like hunting packs. In 838 Muslim ships raided Marseilles, then ruled by the Franks. Four years later, they hit Arles. Around midcentury, Islamic pirates from Spain established a base in the Camargue, the marshy delta of the Rhône. From there they ranged up and down the French coast, burning villages and carrying people off into slavery. Taking Muhammad’s message to the world seems to have become secondary to the lure of booty.
In 890 a band of Andalusian pirates landed in the bay of Saint Tropez and built a fortified camp on a hilltop midway between Marseilles and Monaco called Fraxinetum (modern Freinet). The pirates and their heirs stayed for a century, staging raids by sea on Marseilles and the northwest coast of Italy. They settled areas of modern Switzerland and raided as far north as Vienna. Two attempts by locals to dislodge them failed, but when the pirates attacked the caravan of the abbot Majolus of Cluny, one of the greatest churchmen in Christendom, they met their match. The monks paid a huge ransom to get Majolus back, but he then put together a grand alliance of forces from Turin, Provence, and the Byzantine Empire and drove the pirates out.
For nearly 300 years, from the early 8th century to the dawn of the 11th, Arab fleets moved largely at will on the western Mediterranean, hopscotching along their network of harbors and strongholds. Their control was not limitless. In 844 a Viking fleet attacked down the Atlantic coast of Iberia, reaching Seville. Another Viking raid ventured into the Mediterranean, where it rampaged for some time, at one point looting a city on the Italian coast thought to be Rome. The Arabs defended against these interlopers but could not destroy them or run them off.
Nor could they could maintain such strongholds as Fraxinetum or their Camargue base without land forces to conquer the country behind them. And Islam was no longer unified enough to field such armies. As the caliphate fragmented, the splinter groups fought each other with as much hatred as they showed the unbelievers. Meanwhile the Byzantines and the semi-barbarian princes of Europe grew better equipped to fight the Muslim threat. The rise of the feudal system and the mailed knight gave Europe new strength, and the Byzantines reorganized their tax structure, made their armies more efficient, and found allies.
The Arab window of opportunity against Christendom was closing. The Byzantines recaptured Rhodes in 944 and 945, then took Crete again, plus the Levantine coast as far south as Beirut, which fell in 975. Arabs in Egypt, meanwhile, were locked in a savage interdynastic rivalry. They managed to stop the Byzantine advance at Jerusalem and Tripoli, but the empire was expanding on all fronts. Imperial dromons, allegedly armed with Greek fire, joined the assault that uprooted the pirates at Fraxinetum in 972. The appearance of imperial ships in the far west showed both the new strength of Constantinople and the waning of Islam.
In 1085 Alphonso of Castile captured the city of Toledo, ancient capital of Spain, and the realm of Abd al-Rahman began to disintegrate. While the Christians retook ever-larger areas of Spain, the Byzantines made a bloody and costly effort to recapture Sicily. They failed, but the island later fell to a pack of Norman adventurers who would establish there the most brilliant court of the 12th and 13th centuries.
The tide of jihad was receding. The dromon itself was giving way to a faster, more powerful galley that fueled the rise of Venice, Pisa, and Genoa as sea powers. As Europeans reclaimed their coasts, their princes developed strong patterns of governance. At the end of the 11th century, the first Christian crusaders conquered the Levant and held parts of it for 200 years, making the Mediterranean so safe that Eleanor of Aquitaine could sail home from the Second Crusade with little fear of Arab attack. The struggle for the Mediterranean would continue for hundreds of years, with more Muslim assaults on Rhodes and Malta and the great confrontation at Lepanto in 1571, the last battle fought entirely between rowed galleys. But the moment had passed when the warriors from the desert could successfully carry their jihad onto the sea against an infant Europe.