Friday, June 10, 2011

The emirate of Crete: Foundation and Byzantine reconquest

It is strange that Islamic studies are not so much interested in the history of the Emirate of Crete especially if we consider how much it affected the Byzantine empire and the whole Eastern Mediterranean region.
For historians the Byzantine campaign for reclaiming Crete under the leadership of Nicephoros Phocas labels the begining of the so called second period of Byzantine Crete.
The area of the Aegean sea. Crete is the big island at the bottom.

The first period had been abruptly stopped by the Arab invasion and occupation of the island. According to recent research by historians the emirate of Crete is presented as a civilised muslim state and not as a pirate nest as it was considered by historians of older times.

The emirate of Crete(Ikritis in the Arab sources) was founded approximately in 823 AD and it marked the begining of a new Arab thalassocracy. It's first Emir and founder was Abu Hafs( Αποχαψ Apohaps in Byzantine sources) who along with other muslims was driven out of Andalusia after an unsuccesful uprising. However before occupying Crete Abu Hafs and his people seized Alexandria for a short time.
The arab expansion over Byzantine lands(in red)
According to the superstitious Byzantine sources the occupation of Crete and Sicily were a god's punishment for the sins of the population in the Eastern themata(provinces) A rational explanation is that the occupation of Crete was an opportunity for the muslims because there was a civil war in Byzantium after an uprising ignited by Thomas the Slav.

The capital city of the emirate was founded by Abu Hafs in an area which had no natural harbor or fortifications and it was located a little bit to thenorth of Knossos the citandel of Minoan civilization. Abu Hafs chosen this location because it was seeing towards the Aegean islands and coasts which were raid targets.
The city was named Chandakas. It was named after the ditch that surrounded the city fortifications.Nowadays in the site is located the capital of the Cretan periphery which was renamed Herakleion in 1822  .

From 823 and for 100 years the Cretan Saracens were conducting raids in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean sea. The Byzantine fleet was unable to deal with them because of internal conflicts.  As a result all the economic activities in the Aegean collapsed, the population was reduced  and in 904 Thessalonica the second biggest city of the Byzantine empire fell after a combined siege by Cretan and Syrian Arabs.
Siege of Chandakas by the Byzantines

Before Nicephoros Phocas' expedition there were several unsuccesful attempts of the Byzantines to retake the island. During the 10th century there are also diplomatic contacts between Byzantium and the emirate. In a letter sent by the patriarch to the Emir of Crete about the release of Byzantine prisoners the patriarch Nikolaos Mystikos calls the emir a honourable man and praises his administration . He also adds that the Cretans and Romans can live side by side even though they have many religious differences.
Byzantine Trebuchet

The reconquest of Crete began with the siege and occupation of Chandakas in 961. A crucial point for the success of the Byzantines was that the Cretan Arabs weren't able to secure assistance from neighbouring muslim factions.

Siege constructions on ships

Naval siege tower
The Byzantine force was consisted of 2.000 Chelandria(large warships equiped with Greek fire) 1,000 Dromons (Fast warships) and 360 transport ships which carried siege equipment and supplies.The Byzantine author Leo Diaconos describes the siege engines that were used. The most notable except the Greek fire were a Catapult that was throwing large rocks and Helepolis, a siege tower which had a metallic Ram on it and it was built over a Warship.

The victorious general Nicephoros Phocas like the Roman generals of the past, transferred the prisoners to Constantinople for a triumphant parade and public display. The emperor Romanos II cautious of Nicephoros' intentions attemted to undermine the festivities . Eventually many of those prisoners were christianised and some of them became prominent members of the Byzantine society. One of those converts was named Al-Numan and it is mentioned that he achieved to join the prestigious military regiment of the Athanatoi(immortals) even though his father had never converted to christianism.
Cretan Saracens punished(maybe a rechristianisation process)
The reconquest of Crete was very important historically. Trade activity in the Aegean was re enacted and gave a boost to the collapsing Byzantine economy.The Cretans were rechristianised by a missionary who was nicknamed "Nikon the Repent" because of his zeal to convert the population. Historians however believe that Nikon's activity was mainly to organise the hierachy of the church and reestablish the bonds with the patriarchate . Historians assume that it would cause unstability if the Arabs attempted to convert the  population of the island and they were rather tolerant with the christians.

source: Historical issues magazine(Ιστορικά θέματα) issue:40 Translation made by me.

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