The Muslim Empire Goes To Sea

by Daniel Russ on August 25, 2010

Alphonso of Castile

The prophet Muhammad died in 632 AD and there began a scramble and intensely fought struggle for who would lead the nations of Islam. Ali, Muhammad’s son in law claimed the caliphate. Thus began the Shiite sect that felt only a direct relative or descendant of Muhammad could rightfully become the leader of Islam. The Sunnis believed that this was unnecessary and a man who was sufficiently studied and righteous could also lead Islam. The progenitor to the Sunni movement was Mu’awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan, once an enemy to Muhammed, he later became a convert and a fervent promoter of jihad. Sunni’s killed Ali and Ali’s son claimed the caliphate. Mu’awiyah later paid Ali’s son a tribute and then Mu’awiyah took real power. Sea warfare was new to the rising Arab power in the seventh century, and to a people who had for so long subsisted on land, and adapted to the hard rules of the desert, the sea was a place to avoid. An Arab historian Fahmy once said to Arabs, “The flatulence of camels is better than the prayers of fish.” It as Mu’awiyah who first convinced the imams that if Islam would become a force for good, it needed a navy.

Dromon Warship Attack On Tyre. Dromons Often Carried Seige Towers

But ancient regimes living along the Mediterranean could neither ignore the riches and value of a strong merchant marine fleet nor deny the necessity to learn to fight there. Since long before Muhammad, empires rose and fell in the Mediterranean by warships. In the seventh century, the powerful belligerents in the Mediterranean were the Byzantines, the Spanish and the Arabs. The Byzantine empire had a huge navy comprised of over 400 ships. The Byzantines millennium of  rule was accomplished with a robust navy and the most advanced shipbuilding technology around Europe. They rubbed against the expanding Muslim empire primarily from the Aegean and Adriatic Seas to the coast of Syria. On land, the southeastern portion of the Mediterranean was in Arab hands. The northwestern shores were easily under Byzantine control. Muslims were expanding their empire on a religious fervor to conquer Christendom and convert everyone to Islam. That said, they were looking to find ways into Europe and the easiest land routes were limited to the Strait of Gibraltar and the Dardanelles. Mu’awiyah put pressure on the caliphate to give him permission to go to Syria and take control of the Levant shipbuilders because he saw the Mediterranean as an open highway that would limit the need to invade through the only other two points.

The advanced warship at the time was the dromon. Dromons were about 100 feet long and had two rows of rowers, and a metal spike under the bow for ramming. Often they had square or triangular lateen sails on three masts to give more speed. The dromons were about 15 to 20 feet wide and so were built for speed. Typically there were two ways to fight on the sea. Ramming and artillery. Artillery at the time was arrows, incendiaries, rocks, darts, really anything that caused damage. Once the ships closed distance, crews boarded and fought other at close range.

Mu’awiyah was pushing to bring the Arab fleets to water because the Byzantines were conducting long term raids on Muslim holdings along the coast of the Mideast. After the Byzantines sacked Alexandria Mu’awiyah was given the green light to start building. In 653, Muslim fleets took Cyprus and established a garrison there. They attacked Rhodes and Crete and Kos and finally the Byzantine emperor Constanc II could no longer ignore the Arab advance. He took a 500 ship strike force south from Constantinople into the Aegean Sea to hunt for the Arab fleet. Like many arrogant military leaders, Constanc assumed he would overrun the Arab fleet with his own that was twice their size. Thus began the Battle of the Masts in 655, named so because the fleets were so entwined all one could see were masts. Whatever advantage the Byzantines had was squandered when the Byzantines rushed into the battle out of formation and allowed the Arab fleet to close distance. Hand to hand fighting put the Arabs in the winning column. Two hundred Arab boats smashed Constanc’ navy and he literally had to be secreted aboard a ship dressed as a peasant to escape.

Eventually the Arab fleets made their way up the coast lines of the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Beirut, Cyprus, Finike, Crete, Kos, Rhodes, Corsica, Balearic Islands, Marseilles, Dubrovnik, Bari, Naples, even Rome felt the might of the burgeoning Muslim navies in the next century as Islam surrounded the Mediterranean sea to become the dominant empire for centuries.

Islamic Empire

A see-saw battle of raids between the Arab and Byzantine fleets were often more about looting and revenge than they were about God and freedom, but they kept each other on the defensive constantly. Spain became a Muslim stronghold in the eighth century and a trading center. From 700 AD to about 1000 AD Arab fleets were as strong as the Byzantine fleets. They had strongholds and ports everywhere sailed with impunity in western Mediterranean. By the late tenth century, Byzantine fleets began showing up in Seville, Sardinia and Sicily. At the time, the Muslim world was locked in intramural battles of control. The Franks and other barbarian tribes flooded Europe from Central Asia, they also began taking coastal territory. It was all too much mayhem for the Arab world and thus started the Reconquista, or the retaking of Muslim lands for Christendom that we have written about before. In 1085, when Alphonso of Castile conquered Toledo, this was the beginning of the waning of the Muslim empire. Muslim raiders made gains over time but could never put back together the amount of territory the jihad had garnered.

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