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A Summarial History of Byzantine Crete Under Arap Occupiation


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    Andalusi Crete (827-961) and the Arab-ByzantineFrontier in the Early Medieal Mediterranean

    The island of Crete is among the oldest centers of civilization in the Mediterranean, located

    strategically between the Italian Peninsula, the Aegean Sea, Egypt, and the Levant. It also lies on

    a key sailing route between the eastern and western Mediterranean. Since the decline of Minoan

    civilization around 1500 B.C., control of the island had shifted between a series of Mycenaean

    and Hellenistic rulers until it was conquered by the Roman Empire in 69 B.C. Although highly

    valued for its resources, Roman, and subsequently Byzantine, Crete was gradually neglected and

    entered a long period of decline, and had been largely overshadowed by Sicily in terms of

    strategic importance.[1] One of the periods of Cretes long history that is generally overlooked by

    historians and researchers is the period of Andalus Muslim dominance of the island during the

    ninth and tenth centuries. On the eve of its conquest by Andalus Muslims in 827, Crete was a

    minor province of a much-weakened Byzantine Empire characterized by chaos, disorganization,

    and disunity. The island was not reconquered until 961 by a revitalized, resurgent, and militarily

    powerful empire. During its 135 year existence as an independent Andalus emirate, Crete played

    an important role in the Arab-Byzantine conflict in the ninth and tenth centuries. It was also

    important in its own right as a regional center of Islamic civilization and naval power.

    The story of Muslim Crete began not in the Eastern Mediterranean, but in the southern portions of

    the distant Muslim-ruled Iberian Peninsula, known as al-Andalus. In 818 A.D., in the Cordoban

    suburb ofArrabal del Sur(, a rebellion broke out against the rule of the

    Umayyadamrof al-Andalus, al-akam I (r.796822). This uprising was largely instigated by

    Hispano-Roman Muslim converts, known asmuwalladn, who had allied with Andalus

    Mlikfuqah(jurists), and threatened to engulf the Umayyad realm in civil strife.[1] In response to

    this rebellion, al-akam brutally suppressed all opposition, crucifying three hundred jurists

    fromArrabal del Sur, or al-Rabad, which was destroyed, and exiling twenty thousand of its

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    inhabitants.[2] Half of these exiles, including many artisans, were welcomed by the neighboring

    Idrsid dynasty and settled in Fez; indeed, the Andalusian quarter of the city still exists today.[3]

    The other ten thousand refugees, including many warriors and jurists, headed for the eastern port

    city of Alexandria, where they joined an earlier contingent of Andaluss who had lived in the city

    since the early 800s.[4] A few years after arriving in Alexandria, the exiles placed themselves

    under the leadership of fellow Andalus Ab afUmar al-Ball (d. 861), one of the exiled

    leaders of theArrabal del Suruprising, rebelled against the local wl (governor) and ruled the city

    for several years.[5] In 825, the Abbasid Caliph al-Mamn (r. 813-833) sent an army against

    Alexandria, effectively ending Andalus control of the city, and forcing Ab afs and his followers

    to seek refuge elsewhere.[6]

    The island of Crete was the ideal destination for the exiles, since they had heard about its riches,

    known of its vital strategic location, and raided it on several occasions.[7] In 824 or 827the date

    is uncertainthe Andaluss landed on the island, overpowered its Byzantine garrison and

    conquered it with little difficulty, primarily due to the lack of fierce resistance as well as local

    collaboration. They subsequently established their capital at Chandax/al-Khandaq, modern-day

    Heraklion (Gr. ), in the northern part of the island, which looked towards the isles of the

    Aegean Sea.[8] From their base at Chandax, the Andaluss raided Asia Minor, the Peloponnese,

    the Cyclades, and the Aegean Sea, devastating a large number of islands.[9]

    Their victory over a Byzantine fleet in 829 allowed them to continue their activities in the Aegean

    virtually unchecked.[10] Furthermore, the Andaluss of Crete, taking advantage of the chaotic

    situation in the Italian Peninsula, established bases at Brundisium and Tarentum, from where they

    harassed Byzantine shipping in the Adriatic Sea, besieged Ragusa/Dubrovnik, on the Dalmatian

    coast, in 868 and even sacked Venice in 875.[11] The military and naval defeats inflicted on

    Byzantine fleets and the threat posed to imperial interests by the Andaluss led to several serious

    attempts to dislodge the Muslims from Crete in the ninth and early tenth centuriesmost notably in

    866, 912 and 949none of which were successful.[12] By 840, just over a decade after its

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    conquest by the Muslims, Crete was transformed from a relatively backwater province of

    Byzantium into a major base of naval operations against the Empire. The situation was so dire

    that around 839 the Byzantine emperor, Theophilos (r. 829-842) was forced to send diplomatic

    envoys seeking assistance to Abd al-Rahman II (r. 822-852), the Umayyad emir of al-Andalus,

    and to Louis the Pious (r. 814-840), ruler of the Carolingian empire, to seek aid against theCretans. Although both embassies led to the establishment of significant diplomatic contacts with

    these two western kingdoms, they failed to secure the much-needed aid.

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    Exacerbating the situation for the Byzantines was the fact that the raids in the Aegean were

    contemporaneous with the Aghlabid conquest of Sicily, a campaign in which many Andalussactively took part.[13] The conquest of Sicily was initiated in 827 by the anaf jurist Asad ibn al-

    Fur, who launched an assault on the island with ten thousand Arab cavalrymen and thousands

    of infantry units on behalf of the AghlabidamrZydat Allh.[14] This meant that Byzantine naval

    policy became a matter of imperial priority in order to maintain supremacy in the central

    Mediterranean. In this regard, the conquest of Crete was a major blow to Byzantine naval power

    and gave the Andaluss control of the major sailing route from the eastern Mediterranean to the

    West, not to mention the route between Constantinople and the Mediterranean, and greatly

    impeded Byzantiums ability to relieve Sicily, which ultimately fell to the Aghlabids in 902.[15] As

    subsequent events would demonstrate, however, things were to deteriorate further for the Empire.

    The most devastating attack involving the Cretan Muslims was the sack of Thessaloniki in 904 by

    the Greek renegade and Abbasid admiral Leo of Tripoli.[16] The destruction of the Byzantine

    Empires second largest city and the enslavement of twenty-two thousand Greeks struck a major

    blow against Byzantiums power and prestige, and alerted the Empire to the necessity of

    reconquering Crete from the Muslims.[17] The participation of Leo of Tripoli and another Greek

    convert to Islam, Damian of Tarsus (d. 924), in the raids against Byzantium within the Aegean

    further highlights the manner in which various political and military figures exploited the weakness

    of the Empire during this period in order to wreak havoc and enrich themselves. It is alsoparticularly interesting to note the Christian origins of both Leo and Damian since it underscores

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    the fluidity of the military-political frontier between Byzantium and the Islamic world during this

    period and the relative ease with which a renegade of humble origins from one side could easily

    rise to become a major political player on the other.

    Despite multiple Byzantine attempts, involving major military and naval campaigns, to conquer

    Crete it was not until 961 that this was accomplished. It took the command of a Byzantine general

    (and, subsequently, Emperor) of the the caliber of Nicephorus Phocas, for the island to finally be

    restored to imperial authority. Nicephorus assaulted Crete with at least 77,000 men, including

    some of the most elite units in the Byzantine army, which is indicative of the resolve with which

    this campaign was undertaken.[18] According to both the Arabic chroniclers and Greek sources,

    in spring 961, when Chandax finally fell to Nicephorus besieging army, the citys mosques were

    destroyed or transformed into churches, the Muslim scriptures burnt, two hundred thousand

    Cretans killed and a similar number enslaved, while those who remained were converted to

    Christianity.[19] Admittedly, these figures are probably much exaggerated, but they reflect the

    major destruction which followed the conquest and the vigor with which the Byzantines sought to

    eradicate the Muslim presence on the island.

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    Based on the fact of the raids and attacks of the Cretans it would be easy to reduce the history of

    Andalus Crete to a pirate base that plagued the Aegean for nearly 150 years. Indeed, this is

    precisely how the Byzantine chroniclers and some modern scholars have characterized the

    emirate. However, unsurprisingly, the historical reality is much more complex. Ab af and his

    successors, utilizing the title of emirs, were virtually independent rulers, but found it expedient to

    acknowledge the authority of the Abbasid Caliph al-Mamn, who was engaged in a war with

    Byzantium and recognized the strategic value of the island.[23] Ab af and his descen