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Muslim Navy |

Muslim Navy is drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 251, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The desert Arabs’ fear of salt water gives way to practical military considerations, and in half a century Muslim fleets effectively control most of the Mediterranean

Muslim Navy - ‘This unfaithful and cruel sea’

Muslim Navy - ‘This unfaithful and cruel sea’

Perhaps the greatest Muslim triumph in Islam’s century of conquest was not won on land but on water, something of which the desert-born Arabs had a pathological fear. They handily overcame it, however, and in a series of encounters with the Byzantine fleet, scored what some describe as the most decisive victory of them all. They claimed the Mediterranean Sea for Islam.

For more than eight hundred years–from the Roman destruction of Carthage in 146 b.c.–the Mediterranean had been mare nostrum, “our sea,” to the Romans. Maritime trade was the source of much of the empire’s wealth, and the sea was its highway. When Rome became Christian, it became, in effect, a Christian sea.

At the close of the seventh century a.d., however, much of the Mediterranean fell to the Muslims. For the next hundred years, the Byzantines would contest the issue, but in Muslim hands it would largely remain.

For the Muslims, intent on bestowing Islam upon the world, control of the Mediterranean was not a matter of choice, but of necessity. As long as the coastal cities of Syria, Palestine, Egypt and North Africa could be easily supplied by the Byzantine fleet, taking them was difficult and holding them impossible. Alexandria had fallen and been recaptured from the sea. So had Carthage.

However, the whole suggestion of risking his armies on the uncertainties of the sea was unthinkable to the caliph Umar. “Better to hear the flatulence of the camels than the prayers of the fishes,” says an old Bedouin proverb. But Umar’s provincial officialdom was less timorous. Even before the Muslim armies had extended their reach through North Africa, the Arab governor of Syria, Mu‘awiya, had lobbied the caliph for permission to launch an attack on Cyprus, the large and strategically important island a mere fifty miles off the Syrian coast. “The isles of the Levant are so close to the Syrian shore,” he wrote, “you might almost hear the barking of the dogs and cackling of the hens. Give me leave to attack them!”

Umar’s response was unequivocal: “I will never let any Muslim venture on the sea. . . . How can I permit my soldiers to sail upon this unfaithful and cruel sea! By God, a single Muslim is dearer to me than all the treasures of the Greeks. Do not try and dissuade me now that I have made known my wishes. Remember the fate of al-Ala. . . .”1

So when Amr, the Arab governor in Egypt, planned to make the great port city of Alexandria his capital, Umar quickly scotched the idea. “I do not wish any water to lie between me and the Muslims, either in summer or in winter.” Amr established a new capital on the Nile, near the desert fortress known as Babylon. It would eventually become Cairo.2

Soon, however, necessity dictated policy. Clearly, some form of naval organization was necessary, if only to defend the conquered coastal territories. Therefore, Umar’s successor, Uthman, permitted Mu‘awiya to carry out naval operations, but with the curious stipulation that commanders take their wives on naval campaigns–presumably to prevent rashness. Thereafter, the Muslim fleet grew rapidly.

In 648, Mu‘awiya successfully raided Cyprus, and over the next half-dozen years, Muslim vessels struck across the Mediterranean as far as Sicily (attacked by a fleet of two hundred ships in 652). The important Aegean islands of Cos and Crete were comprehensively pillaged. The Byzantines found an attack on the large island of Rhodes particularly galling. The raiders dismantled what remained of the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the wonders of the ancient world, and sold it for scrap!3

Conquest soon succeeded raiding. In 653, Mu‘awiya landed on Cyprus again, plundered it for forty days, established a garrison of twelve thousand men, and permanently occupied it. The following year, a huge Byzantine fleet (at least seven hundred ships) set out from Constantinople and met a smaller Muslim squadron in battle. It was the first great sea engagement between the upstart Muslims and the dominant sea power of the Mediterranean–and the result was a humiliating defeat for the Christian forces.

Uneasy at first, the Muslim commanders put many of their troops ashore and sailed out to meet the Byzantines with half-manned ships.4 Since they considered themselves far better soldiers than sailors, they lashed their ships together with chains, creating a floating battlefield, then laid into the Byzantine marines with sword, spear and dagger. A bloody business, it lasted a day and a half, and became known as the Battle of the Masts. Unable to maneuver against the tightly packed mass of Muslim vessels, individual Byzantine ships closed with the enemy and were picked off one by one–until most of their fleet was destroyed. An estimated twenty thousand Christian sailors and marines perished.

For the Christians, it was a calamity, but politics prevented the Muslims from exploiting it. With Mu‘awiya’s attention focused on the Muslim civil war (see chapter 7) there were no further naval battles for a decade. The Byzantine emperor, Constans II, used the time well. He moved an army and fleet to Sicily, reestablished imperial control of much of southern Italy, and reinforced the Byzantine presence in North Africa and the islands of the western Mediterranean. (This last reunification of Byzantium’s far-flung possessions would stand for over thirty years, until the final, decisive Muslim assault on North Africa.)

Meanwhile, in the eastern Mediterranean, the end of the Muslim civil war meant a return to large-scale naval conflict. And from 669 on, the Muslims aimed at nothing less than Mediterranean conquest, says the historian Archibald R. Lewis (Naval Power and Trade). Their main interest now was Constantinople itself. Several expeditions were aimed at the imperial capital, including a testing raid that penetrated as far as Chalcedon, a stone’s throw away on the Asian side of the Bosporus. A much bigger operation against the islands of the Aegean followed. Crete was attacked and Rhodes overrun, all as the first necessary stage in a massive assault on the Byzantine capital.

In 673, a vast armada of Egyptian and Syrian naval vessels arrived to initiate what would become a seven-year blockade of Constantinople. The empire was heavily dependent on shipping for essential supplies from other parts of the empire. However, with some difficulty, the capital could be resupplied from the Black Sea, to the north, and via land routes on the European side of the Bosporus. As a result, ultimately the siege was ineffective, and the Muslim fleet withdrew.

Muslim hegemony in the eastern Mediterranean now seemed to be in retreat. After a thirty-year occupation, their garrison left Cyprus and the caliph was forced to accept a peace treaty and an annual tribute to Byzantium of three thousand pounds of gold, fifty captives and fifty horses. But by the century’s end a new Muslim initiative gave them undisputed control in both east and west.

The flash point this time was the ancient city of Carthage, taken by a Muslim army in 695, and regained by the Byzantines from the sea the following year. Back came the Muslims in 698, recapturing the city, and this time making their conquest permanent.

Since Carthage was vulnerable to Byzantine sea attack, the conquerors dug a canal connecting the sea to a nearby inland lake. There, with the help of one thousand Coptic shipbuilders sent from Alexandria, the Muslims built a new fleet of one hundred warships. This also gave birth to the city of Tunis, capital of modern day Tunisia.

With that, Carthage was abandoned, and the Muslim fleet, operating from its impregnable new base, gained complete mastery of the western Mediterranean. Never seriously challenged by the Byzantines, the Muslim navy launched massive raids against the strategic island of Sicily, and in the coming decade, they protected the flank of the Muslim armies in their conquest of Spain.

Not once did the Byzantines attack them.

1. Umar’s experience of the sea had been all bad. In 638, the Muslim general al-Ala landed troops on the farther coast of the Persian Gulf. Cut off from his ships by an enemy force, he had to be rescued by Umar. Three years later, Umar authorized a naval operation on the Red Sea to ward off attacks on Arab shipping and settlements. This, too, had turned into an unmitigated disaster, with most of the ships destroyed by weather or enemy action.

2. Amr himself was no fan of the sea, writes historian Aly Mohamed Fahmy (Muslim Sea-Power in the Eastern Mediterranean from the Seventh to the Tenth Century A.D.). In a letter to Umar, he sums up the traditional Bedouin attitude to salt water. “The sea is like a huge monster upon which innumerable tiny creatures climb; nothing but the sky above and the water beneath; when it is calm, the heart is sad, but when it is tempestuous, the senses reel. One must trust it little and fear it much. Those who sail it, like worms on a splinter, are now engulfed and now scared to death.”

3. The Colossus of Rhodes, built in 282 B.C., was a one-hundred-foot-tall bronze statue of the Greek sun god, Helios, standing astride the entrance to the harbor. An earthquake had toppled it in 226 B.C. but its impressive remains drew visitors for eight hundred years–until Mu‘awiya’s raiders dismantled it and sold it to a Jewish trader, who carried off the scrap on the backs of nine hundred camels. For many years, pieces of it turned up along the Asian caravan routes.

4. The Arabs adopted two main types of naval vessels, common in the eastern Mediterranean at the time. katenai were auxiliary transport ships, large and heavy, used mainly for hauling supplies, but which could also carry marines and be used as fighting vessels. The main “battleships” of the Arab fleet were dromons; sleek, two-story vessels with long banks of oars to supplement the sail. According to naval historian Admiral W. L. Rogers (Naval Warfare under Oars), they had a regular crew of two hundred rowers and forty or more fighting marines. In battle, there would have been a hundred or more troops packed on the dromon’s deck.

This is the end of the Muslim Navy category article drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 251, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam. To continue reading more about Muslim Navy from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at