Early Islamic Maritime History I


Jewel of Muscat was a remarkable project to reconstruct a 9th century Arab trading ship and sail her from The Sultanate of Oman to Singapore.

By the sixth century, the unity of the Mediterranean had been shattered; it was no longer mare nostrum, either politically or commercially. There have been attempts to show that the fundamental unity of the Mediterranean as a trading space, at least, survived until the Islamic conquests of the seventh century (culminating in the invasion of Spain in 711), or even until the Frankish empire of the incestuous mass-murderer Charlemagne acquired control of Italy and Catalonia. There have also been attempts to show that recovery began much earlier than past generations of historians had assumed, and was well under way in the tenth or even the ninth century. It would be hard to dispute this in the case of the Byzantine East, which had already shown some resilience, or in the case of the Islamic lands that by then stretched from Syria and Egypt to Spain and Portugal, but the West is more of a puzzle. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that some historians observe decline at the same moments as others detect expansion. To this one can sensibly answer that there was enormous regional variation; but the question remains when and whether the Mediterranean lost, and then recovered, its unity. Just as in antiquity the integration of the Mediterranean into a single trading area, and subsequently into a single political area, had taken many centuries, from the Dark Age of the tenth century BC to the emergence of the Roman Empire, so in the era of the ‘Third Mediterranean’ the process of integration was painfully slow. Full political integration was never again achieved, despite the best efforts of invading Arabs and, much later, Turks.

The loss by Byzantium of so many of its mainland possessions to the Slavs and other foes did leave the empire with several remarkable assets. Sicily, parts of southern Italy, Cyprus and the Aegean islands remained under Byzantine rule, and the empire drew wealth from gold and silver mines in several of these lands. Even Sardinia and Majorca were under Byzantine suzerainty, but it is unclear whether a functioning network of communication across the Mediterranean still existed. Constantinople maintained control over Egypt, the source of much of its grain supply, though the city had shrunk considerably. ‘Syrian’ merchants, along with Jewish ones, were mentioned in western European chronicles, attesting to the continued role of the descendants of the Phoenicians in trans-Mediterranean trade networks. The Byzantines realized that they were gravely threatened not just by the barbarian peoples of the North but by enemies in the East. But, despite the temporary Persian occupation of Jerusalem in the early seventh century, it was not the Persians who shattered Byzantine power in Syria and Egypt.

Far along the trade routes traversed by Syrian merchants in search of perfumes and spices for sale in the Mediterranean, beyond the lands of the desert-dwelling Nabataeans, a little way inland from the eastern shores of the Red Sea, a religious and political power was emerging that would permanently transform the relationship between the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean. In the time of Muhammad (d. 632) the aim of the Muslims was to effect the conversion of the pagan peoples of Arabia, and the submission or conversion of the Arabian Jewish tribes. The unification of the tribes under the banner of Islam (meaning ‘submission’ – if not to Allah then at least to those who worshipped Allah) was followed by a tremendous release of military and political energy under the early ‘deputies’, or khalifas (caliphs), who succeeded Muhammad, and whose armies captured Jerusalem and Syria within a few years of his death, before pouring into Egypt under the commander ‘Amr ibn al-‘As in 641. Typically, ibn al-‘As was already at odds with his master the caliph. The absolute unity of God was the central tenet of Islam, but the unity of its followers soon cracked.

Islam was not born in the Mediterranean but it interacted from the earliest days with the rival monotheistic religions of the Mediterranean, Judaism and Christianity (it also interacted with paganism, but in a negative way, since the Muslims refused to tolerate religions other than Judaism, Christianity and, in Persia, Zoroastrianism). Islam was able to win converts among the Christians of Syria because many were disaffected members of Monophysite churches persecuted by the Greek Church. The Monophysite treatment of Jesus not as an equal partner in the Trinity but as the Son of God generated within time may have made Islam more palatable to these Christians, for the Muslims accepted Jesus, or Isa, as the greatest prophet after Muhammad, and accepted the Virgin Birth, while also insisting that Isa was only human. Other features of Islam recalled Jewish practices, notably the ban on eating pork, regular daily prayer (five times in Islam, three times in Judaism) and the lack of a priestly caste in charge of religious rites, for this was something that had virtually disappeared from post-Temple Judaism. The Muslim view was that the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament were corrupted texts out of which the foretelling of the arrival of the greatest prophet had been edited; on the other hand, it was recognized that Jews and Christians, the ‘Peoples of the Book’, worshipped the same God as the Muslims. What emerged from this was the concept of the dhimmi, the subject Christians and Jews who, in return for the poll-tax, or jizyah, were guaranteed the right to worship, so long as they did not attempt to convert Muslims to their faith. Indeed, the taxes paid by the dhimmis became one of the pillars of the Islamic state. Exempted from military service, which was the preserve of the Muslims, the dhimmis sustained the military machine through their tax payments. Therefore the rapid conversion of all the Copts in Egypt or all the Berbers in North Africa would be problematic. It would erode the tax base of the caliphate. It made sense to adopt a tolerant attitude to the dhimmis, who were, as the eminent historian of the Middle East Bernard Lewis has said, ‘second-class citizens – but citizens’. In other words, they were seen as an integral part of society and were not regarded as alien minorities – indeed, outside Arabia they were, in the seventh and eighth centuries, majorities, all along the coast of Syria, in Egypt and in distant Spain, not to mention eastern lands such as Persia.

The fall of Egypt to an Arab army of perhaps 12,000 soldiers was rendered easier by the hostility of the Copts towards Orthodox Byzantium. The immediate effect on Constantinople was the sundering of the route carrying state grain from the Nile to feed the citizens of New Rome. Later, in 674 and 717, Constantinople would face Arab sieges, but for the moment the Arabs stayed within Africa, and they looked from Egypt not towards the Mediterranean but southwards to Nubia: the occupation of lands close to the Red Sea would enable them to consolidate their hold on Arabia. The main focus of Arab expansion immediately after the death of Muhammad was Iraq and Iran, since Persia was the greatest power in the region directly to the north of Arabia. Their initial aim was not, then, to create an empire that would stretch along the entire southern flank of the Mediterranean. Their Mediterranean conquests were a side-show. It was only after they were rebuffed in Nubia that they turned west to Cyrenaica, entering the lands of the Berber tribes.

This proved to be a sensible decision. While Cyrenaica and the province of Africa remained under Byzantine rule, there was always the danger that they would serve as bases for a war of recovery aimed at Egypt. To prevent this, the Arabs needed to gain control of the coastlines and harbours of the North African coast, and this was possible only with the help of large contingents newly arrived from Yemen, and of the Berbers themselves, the native population of North Africa who consisted of a combination of Romanized town-dwellers and rural tribesmen of several religious allegiances. The Arabs also required a fleet, and an ‘Arab’ naval victory against the Byzantines off Rhodes as early as 654 can only mean that they were successful in hiring local Christian crews: the sea battle probably consisted of a tussle between Greeks on one side and Greeks, Syrians and Copts on the other. Relations with the Berbers were not always easy: pagan Berber tribes converted to Islam, and then slid back to their own beliefs once the Arabs had disappeared over the horizon; one tribe is said to have converted to Islam twelve times.6 There were also large numbers of Christian and Jewish Berbers, and Queen Kahina, possibly a Jewish Berber, was remembered as a doughty warrior.7 The Islamization of Berber North Africa in the seventh century was rapid, light and impermanent, but it was sufficient to carry along Berber troops in search of booty, as the Islamic armies began to face their real targets around the Byzantine city of Carthage. From the 660s onwards, they gained control of the lesser towns of the old Roman province of Africa, or, as they called it, Ifriqiya, and they established a garrison city of their own, set back from the Mediterranean, at Qaywaran; they were more interested in its proximity to land where they could graze their camels than in exploiting the sea. In 698, hemmed in by land, and without adequate support from Constantinople, Carthage was besieged by an Arab army of 40,000 troops brought from Syria and elsewhere; they were joined by perhaps 12,000 Berbers. It was the Arab capture of Carthage, rather than the Roman conquest nearly 750 years earlier, that marked the end of its extraordinary history as a centre of trade and empire. The Arabs had no use for it and built a new city close by, at Tunis. Byzantium had lost another of its richest territories; the sliver of Spain conquered by Justinian had already been absorbed by the Visigoths in the 630s, leaving little more than loose authority over Ceuta, Majorca and Sardinia. Byzantine power in the western Mediterranean had to all intents vanished.

The Islamic conquests present a paradox to historians of the Mediterranean. In one view, it was these conquests that sundered the unity of the Mediterranean; and yet it was also Islam that provided the foundation for the creation of a new unity across the Mediterranean, though not across the entire sea, for the Islamic networks of trade and communication were mainly confined to its southern and eastern shores. Close trading links developed with Constantinople, Asia Minor and the Byzantine Aegean, and with several Italian ports that lay under loose Byzantine suzerainty, notably Venice and Amalfi, but the inhabitants of southern Gaul and of Italy mainly experienced Muslim sailors in the unappetizing form of slave-raiders. Slaves became the main commodity that passed between western Europe and the Islamic world, generally through the Mediterranean (there also developed overland routes carrying slaves from eastern Europe to Spain, by way of castration clinics in the monasteries of Flanders). The persistence of piracy might be taken as evidence that trade continued, for there is no profit in piracy when there is no one on whom to prey; but most of the victims of the ‘Saracens’ were probably landlubbers picked off the shores of southern Italy and southern France by the slave-raiders. Three other commodities, papyrus, gold and luxury textiles, have been singled out as absentees, after many centuries in which they had supposedly been major articles of trade. On the basis of their disappearance, the great Belgian historian Henri Pirenne argued that the seventh and eighth centuries marked the fundamental break from antiquity in the Mediterranean; trade slowed to ‘the merest trickle’.8 Since most papyrus was produced in Egypt, the disappearance of this ancient product from western Europe and its replacement by locally manufactured parchment might be taken to indicate that it was no longer being traded across the Mediterranean. The papacy was one of the few institutions to continue to use papyrus as late as the tenth and eleventh centuries, and Rome had the advantage of proximity to the still-functioning ports of the Bay of Naples and Gulf of Salerno, which enjoyed links both to Constantinople and to the Islamic lands.

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