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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 26 May 2018
24 THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 26 MAY 2018 DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM Fighting between Byzantines and Arabs depicted in The Illustrated Chronicle of Ioannes Skylitzes, late 13th century CE. Byzantine Emperor Theophi COMMONS The battle for Arabic Crete DEAN KALIMNIOU For approximately 135 years, Crete, an island that is, in the Greek popular consciousness, inextricably linked to the foundations of civilisation 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 a period in the ninth century CE, after years under Roman then Byzantine rule, Crete was Arabic-speaking and formed an integral part of the Islamic world as the Emirate of Crete. EMIRATE OF CRETE CA 827–961 CE Though parts of Crete were temporarily occupied during the reign of the Umayyad Caliphate Al-Walid I in approxi- mately 710 CE, it was, according to some reports, a cleric 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, the Andalusian exiles took over that city and held it until 827. Upon expulsion, they landed, most probably on the north of the island, in 828, during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Michael II. Abu Hafs Umar, who had been expelled from Al-Andalus by Emir Al-Hakam I, known in Byzantine sources as Απόχαψις, defeated a number of Byzantine attempts to reconquer Crete, commencing with an expedition under commander Photeinos, stratēgos (military governor) of the Anatolic Theme (a central administrative division of the empire, grown from military settlements), and Damianos, Count of the Stable, in which Damianos was killed. In time, the Andalusians founded a city and main fortress near their landing place, to which they gave the name Chandax, from the Arabic rabd al-khandaq meaning Castle of the Moat, a name that persisted until modern times, when the city was renamed Heracleion. A year later, a Byzantine armada of 70 ships under the command of stratēgos Krateros of the naval Theme of the Cibyrrhaeots successfully landed on the island, but was routed in an night attack. Krateros managed to flee to Kos, but was captured and crucified. Byzantine efforts to reconquer Crete were hampered by the Muslim conquest of Sicily, where the Aghlabids 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 Andulsians 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 Saracean conquest transformed the naval balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean and opened the hitherto se- cure Aegean Sea littoral to frequent raids. The Arabs on Crete thus were able to occupy several of the Cyclades islands, and destroyed a Byzantine fleet off Thasos, raiding and pillaging Evia, Lesvos, north western Asia Minor, the Peloponnese, and Mount Athos. The Cretan raids upon the Byzantine Empire were so devastating that in 829CE, Emperor Theophilos was compelled to send an embassy to 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 had 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 Andalusians of Crete returned again and again, often reinforced by North African and Syrian fleets. As a result, the islands of Patmos, Karpathos, and Sokastro came under their control, with Islamic rule extending as far north as Aegina in the Saronic Gulf, and Elafonisos and Cythera off the southern coast of the Peloponnese, while residents of Naxos, Paros and Ios, were forced to pay a poll tax (jizya), prescribed as payable by subject Christians to Muslim rulers. The impact of this wave of 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 896–902CE, by the Arabs of Crete, while in 904, they took part in a Syrian expedition that sacked Thessalonica, the Byzantine Empire's second most important city. While they ravaged the Byzantine Empire, we know little of prevailing social conditions on the island itself. Apart from a few place names recalling their presence, there is little surviving archaeological evidence attesting to their long rule. Byzantine sources, unsurprisingly, given the amount of devastation caused, are extremely negative and this has traditionally influenced western scholars' attitudes towards Arabic rule in Crete. From contemporary Muslim chroniclers, however, we can glean references to the Empire of Crete as being an orderly state with a balanced economy 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 standardised weight attest to state regulated commerce, with the capital Chandax described as a significant Islamic cultural centre. It is also considered that Arab rule saw an agricultural boom in Crete, with sugar cane introduced to the island during this time. The fate of the Christian population of Crete during Arab rule is also a matter of debate.
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