History of the Emirate of Crete

The history of the Emirate of Crete begins around 825 A.D. when a group of Andalusian (Arab Muslims from Spain) rebels were exiled by the ruling Emir of Cordoba, al-Hakam I.

The history of the Emirate of Crete is an interesting one. Although it had little long-term repercussions on the region, the political integrity of the state was an incredibly important issue of the day, specifically of the 9th and early 10th Centuries. Due to the strategic position of Crete, often thought of as a gateway to the Aegean, the island could be used, and was used as, an important staging ground for numerous raids throughout the Eastern Aegean, from Thessaloniki to Alexandria during both the Arab and Byzantine periods. Control of the island was often analogous to naval dominance of the Aegean, Cilician, and Palestinian coastlines, and without control of the island, it has historically been nearly impossible to maintain control of Eastern Mediterranean maritime affairs, both commercial and militant, from the Byzantine Empire to the Ottoman Empire to Nazi Germany.

Founding of the Emirate

The history of the Emirate of Crete begins around 825 A.D. when a group of Andalusian (Arab Muslims from Spain) rebels were exiled by the ruling Emir of Cordoba, al-Hakam I. Some of the exiles settled in Fez (Morocco), but many continued on as pirates under the leadership of Abu Hafs, around 10,000 of them. They first landed in and captured Alexandria, where they were besieged and expelled, but then they traveled to the nearby island of Crete, quickly defeating the Byzantine garrison there and founding a new capital fortress-city, Chandax, on the northern side of the island. Chandax is still the regional capital of Crete today, although it is now known by its Greek name: Heraklion. From Crete the Arab pirates prospered as a sovereign state, although they did formally recognize the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad. The Byzantine army was largely preoccupied with larger conflicts at the time, namely the revolt of Thomas the Slav and the Aghlabid Muslim conquest of Sicily, although the emperor, Michael II, still managed to send three expeditions from 827-829, but they all failed to retake the island, and Abu Hafs slowly consolidated his reign.

Byzantine Attempts at Reconquest

The first major attempt by a Byzantine general to reclaim the island was undertaken in early 843 by the commander Theoktistos. He actually managed to quickly recover most of the island, save for the city of Chandax, however, false rumors reached him of a coup in Constantinople, and he quickly returned home leaving his lieutenant Sergios Niketiates in charge of the siege. Niketiates, however, was quickly routed by Muslim forces and killed in the battle, ending the 843 campaign. In the spring of 866, Bardas, a former high ranking minister under Michael II, and co-emperor with Basil I under Michael III, made another attempt to reconquer Crete. He gathered an army in Constantinople and set out for Miletus to organize the fleet. However, on 21 April, 866, Bardas was assassinated by Basil and the expedition subsequently collapsed.

Basil I also attempted to retake the island in the 870s, without success. In 911, the admiral Himerios embarked on an expedition to Crete with a force of 177 Dromons and 43,000 men, only besiege Chandax for six months and be forced to recall due to the impending death of the emperor, Leo VI, in Constantinople. However, as he was passing the island of Chios, he was ambushed by Leo of Tripoli and Damian of Tarsus, and his fleet was destroyed. Upon his return to Constantinople, he was dismissed from his position by the new emperor Alexander III for the disgrace. One attempt in 949 also failed disastrously, undertaken by Constantine Gongyles, whose camp was surrounded and massacred in an Arab ambush. The expedition had consisted of 9,000 soldiers and 20,000 mariners, however, Gongyles assumed its size would intimidate the Muslims and did not enforce discipline or caution among his men. The next and final attempt to retake Crete would be organized by the emperor Constantine VII in an attempt to avenge the embarrassment of the 949 disaster. However, he died of natural causes before the expedition was undertaken, and so it did not see fruition until the reign of Romanos II in 960.

The Expansion of the Emirate and Internal Events

Unfortunately, the internal politics of the Emirate are largely lost to history. Most of what we know about the state come from Byzantine sources, and so we really only have knowledge of those events which effected Byzantium. For example, in the Battle of Thasos, the Muslims managed to destroy a Byzantine fleet and, over the coming years, invaded parts of the Eastern empire including Lesbos, however, they were heavily defeated around the coast of Thrakesion, one of the themes of western Anatolia. Cretan raids heightened in the 860s and reached their peak in the early 870s, punctuated by an Arab fleet which managed to make its way inside the Sea of Marmara, the first time since 718 a Muslim fleet had gotten so close to Constantinople. However, the fleet was destroyed upon its return to Crete at the Battle of Kardia. This marked a turning point in the history of the Emirate, which lost two successive battles against the Byzantines, one at the Gulf of Corinth around 873, and one at Chalcis around 883, and the Emir of Crete, then Shu’ayb b. Umar, even agreed to pay tribute to Byzantium for around ten years from 873.

Following the end of the tribute, Cretan piracy underwent a great resurgence, and the Arabs even made some temporary conquests: the islands of Naxos, Ios, Paros, Patmos, Karpathos, Elafonisos, and Cythera, as well as much of the Saronic Gulf. The raids conducted from both these islands and from Crete had devastating effects on the Aegean coast. Some islands may have been abandoned all together and Athens may even have been occupied from 896-902. In 904, a fleet lead by Leo of Tripoli sacked Thessaloniki with devastating consequences, taking over 22,000 prisoners, bringing them to Crete to be sold as slaves, although Syria was the origin of the raid: the loss of Crete also opened the gateway for raids directed from numerous other Muslim regions.

The Siege of Chandax and Reemergence of Byzantine Crete

The larger Byzantine force sent to Crete in 960 was largely able to be mobilized due to the relative internal stability brought on by recent victories on the eastern frontiers and a longstanding peace with the Bulgarians. Command of the fleet, (50,000 men, 27,000 oarsmen, and 308 transports), was given to the general and future emperor Nikephoros II Phokas, who mustered the navy south of Ephesus. Nikephoros soon arrived at Crete, disembarking east of Chandax and defeating a defending Muslim force quickly.

Following this, Nikephoros initially attempted to capture Chandax by storm, but this failed, and so he settled for a long-term siege, constructing a fortified encampment in front of the city, and placing his fleet in a secure anchorage nearby in an attempt to blockade the city so that the Arabs would not try to deliver provisions or reinforcements to the defenders. Phokas then instructed Nikephoros Pastilas, the ”strategos” of the Thrakesion theme and a distinguished veteran of the wars against the Arabs in the east, to take a contingent of soldiers and undertake a raid into the Cretan countryside to scout out the situation and gather supplies. Perceiving the countryside to be relatively safe, Pastilas and his men roamed carelessly, indulging on food and wine. The Muslims, who were carefully hidden and observed their progress from the heights, saw this as an excellent opportunity, and assembled for battle. Although drunk, the Byzantines put up a good fight, until Pastilas himself, after being wounded by many arrows, fell. Then the Byzantines’ discipline collapsed, and they were cut down, with only a few men surviving to report of the disaster to Phokas.

After hearing of the news of his slaughtered battalion, Phokas resolved to move quickly and establish a firm siege of the city. He inspected the walls of the city and found them to be extremely strong. As a result he ordered his men to begin constructing a line of fortifications from coast to coast in front of landward side of the city wall. However, Pastilas’ misfortune also demonstrated to Phokas that he would have to secure his rear before focusing on the siege, lest he have to face a battle on two fronts. He selected a small group of soldiers and led them out the camp at night in secret. The Byzantines took a few prisoners, from whom they learned that a relief force, purpordedly some 40,000 men, were assembling on a nearby hill to attack the Byzantine encampment. Phokas allowed his men to rest during the next day, and only set off again when evening had fallen, guided by locals (probably native Christian Cretans). Quickly and quietly, his men surrounded the Arab encampment. Phokas then ordered the trumpets blown and charged the sleeping Arabs. Taken by surprise, the Arabs gave no thought to resisting, but tried to flee, only to run into other Byzantine troops, be slaughtered.

As the Arab relief army was annihilated, Phokas instructed his men to cut off the heads of the fallen and take them with them as they returned to their base, again moving only during the night. On the next day, he had his men impale some of the heads in view of the city wall, and hurled others with catapults into the city itself. The sight caused great consternation and lamentation among the inhabitants, who saw their family and friends dead; they remained determined to resist, and threw back an attack led by Phokas soon after. Phokas employed archers and throwing machines against the defenders while attempting to scale the wall using ladders. The fortress held, however, under the pressure of the bombardments, and the ladders were crushed. Phokas soon called off the siege. He now decided to blockade the city for the winter while his engineers began to design and construct more significant siege engines. It was around this point that the Emir of Crete, Abd al-Aziz, appealed to many of his fellow Muslim rulers, most notably the Fatimid Caliph Al-Mu’izz, for aid, but his requests were denied.

The second assault on Chandax took place in March 961. This time the Byzantines used much more effective siege machines against Chandax, but they were still unable to gain a foothold in the city. Meanwhile, the Muslims kept just out of range of the Greek archers so that they could still attend the walls but not be annihilated by the bombardment. Phokas soon employed the use of a battering ram on the walls, but this was a feint. While the Muslims were focusing on the battering ram, miners dug underneath the walls and planted explosives and flammable materials underneath the weak points. Soon, they managed to destroy a huge section of the wall, where the Byzantine army began to pour into the city. The defenders quickly formed a line within the city, but it was too late. The Muslims were soon routed and fled back into the streets. The soldiers were allowed the traditional three days of plunder before the army again set off, and the city was in Byzantine hands.

With the capture of Chandax, the rest of Crete quickly capitulated to the Byzantine army, and the island was brought back under the suzerainty of Constantinople; extensive efforts were made by Byzantium to re-Christianize the island, led by John Xenos and Nikon “the Metanoeite”. The island was organized as a regular theme, with a ”strategos” based at Chandax. With the reconquest of Crete, the Byzantine Empire was once again poised to become the dominant naval power in the Eastern Mediterranean, probably for the first time since the initial Muslim conquests three centuries eaarlier. The Byzantines would continue to advance their borders under the later Macedonian emperors, culminating in the conquest of Bulgaria by Basil II in 1018. The Byzantines would preserve their position as the dominant naval power in the Eastern Mediterranean for around two centuries, even following the devastating Battle of Manzikert in 1071, which saw most of Anatolia turned over to the Seljuq Turks, largely due to their control of strategic islands such as Crete. Only following the Genoese/Venetian conquest of Crete in ~1205 did the downward spiral of the Byzantine empire into destruction become inevitable, mainly due to the effects of the Fourth Crusade, but also due to the empire losing control of key island outposts in the Mediterranean such as Crete and Cyprus. I would argue that the collapse of the Ottoman Empire only became inevitable after their loss of Crete, as control of the island is clearly synonymous with maritime control of the Eastern Mediterranean.