Saturday, May 26, 2018


For the approximately one hundred and thirty five years, Crete, an island that is in the Greek popular consciousness, inextricably linked to the foundations of civilization and Greece itself, was one of the major foes of Byzantium. Commanding the sea lanes of the Eastern Mediterranean and functioning as a forward base and haven for pirate fleets that ravaged the Byzantine-controlled shores of the Aegean Sea, Crete was able to achieve considerable prosperity, not just through naval plundering but also, through more mainstream agriculture and trade. Moreover, its rulers did not speak Greek. Instead, for just over a century and a quarter, in the ninth century AD, the island of Crete was Arab speaking and formed an integral part of the Islamic world.

Though parts of Crete were temporarily occupied during the reign of the Caliph al-Walid I in approximately 710AD, it was, according to Arab legends, a revolt against Emir al Hakam I of Córdoba in Islamic Spain that caused a mass exodus of rebels to Alexandria in 818. Numbering over 10,000, they took over that city and held it until 827. Expelled in that year, according to Muslim sources, they landed, most probably on the north of the island, in 828, during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Michael. In time, they would come to found a city and main fortress near their landing place, to which they gave the name Chandax, from the Arabic “rabḍ al-kḫandaq,” meaning Castle of the Moat, a name that persisted until modern times, when the city was renamed Heracleion.

The leader of the Arabs, Abu Hafs, known in Byzantine sources as Απόχαψις, set about defeating a number of Byzantine attempts to reconquer Crete, commencing with an expedition under Photeinos, strategos of the Anatolic Theme, and Damianos, Count of the Stable, in which Damianos was killed. A year later, a Byzantine armada of seventy ships under the strategos of the Cibyrrhaeots, Krateros successfully landed on the island, but was then routed in an Arab night attack. Krateros managed to flee to Kos, but there he was captured by the Arabs and crucified.
Byzantine efforts to reconquer Crete were hampered by the Arab invasion of Sicily, where the Aghlabid Arabs set about establishing a polyethnic, sophisticated, multicultural and religiously tolerant regime in which the Sicilian Greeks played a key role, and the revolt of Thomas the Slav, which took place in Asia Minor. Unlike their counterparts in Sicily, the Cretan Arabs seem to have treated the land they conquered, at least in the early years as merely a base from which to conduct piratical expeditions, though this was to change. Consequently, the Arab conquest transformed the naval balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean and opened the hitherto secure Aegean Sea littoral to frequent raids. 
The Cretan Arabs thus were able to occupy several of the Cyclades islands, destroyed a Byzantine fleet off Thasos, raiding and pillaging Euboea, Lesbos, north western Asia Minor, the Peloponnese and Mount Athos. So devastating were the Cretan raids upon the Byzantine Empire that in 829, the Emperor Theophilos was compelled to send an embassy to Arab Emir Abd ar-Rahman II of Córdoba proposing a joint action against the erstwhile Andalusian rebel Cretans, though this proved fruitless. In an early exercise of global warfare and proving just how extensive the Arab world had become at this time, in 853, the Byzantines attacked the Egyptian naval base of Damietta, capturing weapons intended for Crete.
During the early 870s, the Cretan raids against the Byzantine intensified, aided as they were, by Byzantine renegades who adopted Islam. One such raid in 873 under the renegade Photios penetrated into the Marmara Sea and unsuccessfully attacked Proconnesos, near Constantinople. Though many of these raids were repulsed, the Cretan Arabs returned again and again, often reinforced by the Arab North African and Syrian fleets. As a result, the islands of Patmos, Karpathos and Sokastro came under Arab Cretan control, with Cretan Arab rule extending as far north as Aegina in the Saronic Gulf, and to Elafonisos and Cythera off the southern coast of the Peloponnese, while Naxos, Paros and Ios, was forced to pay the poll-tax or jizya, prescribed as payable by subject Christians to Muslim rulers. The impact of this wave of Arab raids from Crete, caused some Aegean islands to be deserted altogether, and many other coastal sites were abandoned for inland locations. It also appears that Athens may have been occupied between 896–902, by Cretan Arabs while in 904, Cretan Arabs took part in a Syrian expedition that sacked Thessalonica, the Byzantine Empire’s second most important city. 

While the Arabs of Crete ravaged the Byzantine Empire, we know little of prevailing social conditions on the island itself. Apart from a few place names recalling the presence of Arabs, there is little in terms of surviving archaeological evidence attesting to their long rule. Byzantine sources, unsurprisingly, given the amount of devastation caused by the Cretan Arabs, are extremely negative and this has traditionally influenced western scholars’ attitudes towards Arab rule in Crete.

From contemporary Muslim chroniclers, however, we can glean references of Arab Crete as being an orderly state with a balanced economy and enjoying extensive trading ties in the region, especially with Egypt and the rest of the Islamic world. Finds of gold, silver and copper coins of standardized weight attest to state regulated commerce, while it is believed that the Arab capital, Chandax, was a significant Islamic cultural centre. It is also considered that Arab rule saw an agricultural boom in Crete, with sugar cane first being introduced to the island during this time.

The fate of the Christian population of Crete during Arab rule is also a matter of debate. In the past, it was believed that the Cretans were either expelled, killed or converted to Islam in droves, a process that was repeated again during the Ottoman conquest. Careful analysis of the sources however, suggests that while large numbers of Cretans did convert to Islam especially in cities and along with the original invaders and other muslim migrants formed the majority of the population, Christians remained as a subject class, most particularly in the countryside. Theodosius the Deacon, for example, records that rural Christian Cretans, “inhabitants of crags and caves,” a metaphor that is reminiscent of Rhigas Pheraios’ “Thourion," almost a millennium later, descended from the mountains under their leader Karamountes during the siege of Chandax by Nikephoros Phokas to assist the besieged Muslim Arabs, against the Byzantines, their co-religionists. Further, in a surviving letter sent by the Patriarch Nikolaos Mystikos of Constnatinople to the Emir of Crete about the release of Byzantine prisoners the patriarch calls the emir an honourable man and praises his administration . He also adds that the Cretans and Romans (and it is noteworthy that the patriarchs considers the Cretans to be Arabs) could live side by side even though they have many religious differences. 
Eventually, successive Byzantine Emperors began a converted effort to rid the Empire of the Cretan menace for good. In 960, Emperor, Romanos II entrusted his general Nikephoros Phokas with a vast armada. In or July 960, Phokas landed on the island, and defeated the initial Muslim resistance. A long siege of Chandax followed, which endured until 6 March 961, when the Byzantines stormed the city. According to chroniclers, the Byzantines pillaged Chandax, and tore down its mosques and city walls. A massacre of its Muslim inhabitants took place, with many killed and others carted off to slavery, while Crete’s last Emir, Abd al-Aziz ibn Shu'ayb , known in the Byzantine sources as Kouroupas, and his son al-Numan, known as Anemas were taken captive and brought to Constantinople, where Phokas celebrated a triumph. Crete was converted into a Byzantine theme, and the remaining Muslims were converted to Christianity by such missionaries as St Nikon Metanoeite (meaning "Repent"), so called because his zeal in converting the population to Christianity. Among the Muslim converts was prince Anemas himself. He joined the Byznatine army and died at Dorystolon in 970, fighting against the Rus.

Capitalising upon his experience as the re-conqueror of Crete, Phokas went on to re-conquer Cilicia in Southern Asia Minor and Cyprus from the Arabs. His fame was so great, that he was able to utilise it in order to make an imperial marriage and propel himself to the Byzantine throne. Crete, on the other hand, thoroughly cleansed of one hundred and thirty five years of Islamic Arab rule, to the extent that little lasting legacy or memory remained of it, abided in Byzantine hands until 1204, when it was occupied by the Venetians. Today, all that remains to bear witness of the time when the Cretans were Arabs and the Arabs, Cretans, is a few scattered placenames: Sarkenos, Souda, Aposelemis (Abu Salim) and Choumeri. This is a battle for Crete that to all intents and purposes, has been  forgotten.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 26 May 2018