Turning Points in History: The First Arab Siege of Constantinople
By Steven Brander/ Arab America Contributing Writer
This series will explore moments in history in which the fates of civilizations and regions teeter upon a knife’s edge. Here, we will delve into those key moments in which the course of Arab history was incontrovertibly altered. This article will cover the first time Arab armies attempted a siege of Constantinople. To read more about the conflict between Romans and Arabs leading up to this moment, click here for the article(s) on the Battle of Yarmouk.
The Rise of Islam
After the fateful Battle of Yarmouk in 636, the Arab armies swept through most of Roman territory in the eastern Mediterranean, taking Egypt, Syria, Armenia and even moving into the eastern portions of Anatolia. In the face of this onslaught, the Romans were forced to fortify behind the natural defenses provided by the Taurus Mountains. Over the next several decades, the Arab armies continued making substantial incursions into Roman territory, including the construction of the first ever Muslim navy, which allowed them to raid much of the Roman strongholds in the Mediterranean like Crete and Rhodes, and even seize Cyprus.
The constant raiding only paused upon the death of Caliph Uthman and the outbreak of the First Muslim Civil War.
The Umayyad Caliphate would emerge from this war in 661 under the leadership of Mu’awiya, who had spearheaded much of the earlier Roman campaigns. The Arab offensive then resumed with vigor, and their forces crossed over the Taurus Mountains into the Anatolian interior. With this natural barrier overcome, Arab forces continued to push west over the following decade eventually threatening Constantinople itself.
Though the exact rationales for continued warfare are difficult in these early stages of Arab expansion, there are several theories. First and foremost, is the idea that Byzantium was a dying empire, ripe for the plucking. As each successive wave of Arab raids brought back more and more booty, it seemed obvious that the Romans could no longer adequately defend themselves. Second, that the natural defenses for the Romans in the east were simply inconsequential compared to other borders faced by expanding empires prior. Unlike the Sahara, which would continue to serve as the Caliphates’ southern border as they had for the Romans previously, the Syrian desert proved too small an obstacle. The Taurus Mountains, while difficult, were either eventually surmountable or, thanks to Mu’awiya’s navy, circumventable. Finally, and perhaps most persuasively; following the Muslim civil war, Mu’awiya’s political power as well as the support of his thus-far-superior army was dependent on his ability to bring victory against the Romans. It is easy to imagine Mu’awiya would prefer to be known as ‘the Conqueror of the Romans’ over ‘the guy who took the throne from the Prophet’s son-in-law.’
A Tale of Two Sieges
Here is where the usual unified narrative of history splits. Though the usually-told story of the first Arab siege of Constantinople has significant supporting evidence, some relatively more recent scholarship by historians such as James Howard-Johnston has led to a much more toned down version of this earlier conflict due to doubts about the veracity of the original sources, who themselves conflict in their accounts.
The Usual Narrative
The conventional version of this tale, still widely used in textbooks and the like, is that Arab forces set up camp just across the Bosphorus from Constantinople. Their brand new navy proceeded to establish its dominance around Anatolia and eventually began to tighten the noose during the latter part of the 670s. Though they never attempted a direct siege of Constantinople as the Persians and Avars had a generation earlier, their blockade, as well as direct raids of Constantinople’s suburbs and neighboring cities, still put pressure upon the Roman basileus and his court.
With their backs up against the wall, the Romans melodramatically unveil their newest military technology, Greek fire. Pumped out of siphons mounted on the Romans’ ships, Greek fire sets the sea itself ablaze, forcing the grand Arab navy to retreat, where they are later caught in a storm and suffer severe casualties.
The opposing theory, meanwhile, relies on the historiographical theory that past chroniclers, especially the dominant Roman accounts by Patriarch Nikephorus I and Theophanes the Confessor, when writing about both this ‘siege’ and the later 717-718 siege, gave this first conflict the ‘prequel’ treatment, à la Star Wars or the Hobbit. That is, elements of the later siege were included in their accounts of the earlier for either dramatic effect or because the ‘second’ siege was much closer to their own time period, and therefore more present for details.
In the other version, pieced together from what is left by a different chronicler named Theophilus of Edessa, the ‘siege’ actually takes place in just 674 and is rather a battle than any kind of siege near the walls of the capital. Instead, Arab forces had begun to establish a base of operations upon Anatolian soil near the island of Rhodes. Their navy was also nearby, occupied with ferrying the army itself as well as supplies to this new base. The Romans in this case acted proactively, rather than simply sitting back and waiting for the Arabs to come right up to the Theodosian Walls, and sent their navy to attack the Arab force. The climactic use of fire was still present, though it was likely fire ships (in which ships were emptied of the crew, laden with flammable materials, set alight, and launched at the Arab vessels) rather than the mystical Greek fire that would become infamous in the 8th century.
However, all sources agree on what happened to the siege of Constantinople after the dispersal of the Arab navy. Without naval support, the Arab land army was essentially stranded and left to fend for itself. They raided the nearby Roman territory, but eventually, the Roman military was able to gather itself together and encircle the Arabs, forcing them to flee overland back to Syria.
This defeat finally broke the Arab momentum that had begun building at (and arguably before) the Battle of Yarmouk. It also finally showed the Mediterranean world at large that the Muslim tide was, while certainly remarkable, not invincible. Once a temporary peace was negotiated, the Romans were finally able to take a breath after over 30 years of constant warfare with the caliphate. Mu’awiya would die in 680, plunging the Arab world into another civil war that temporarily handed back to the Romans the reins to eastern Anatolia. It would be almost four decades before the Arabs could muster the strength necessary to once again attempt a siege of Constantinople.
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