This coming Tuesday, May 29, is the 559th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople. The following essay by Anestos Canelides provides an overview of previous Islamic attempts to conquer the capital of the Eastern Empire.
The Arab Siege of Constantinople: A Summary
by Anestos Canelides
“Whilst we were around the Prophet (saw) writing he was asked, ‘Which of the two cities will be opened first, Constantinople or Rome?’ He (the Prophet Muhammad) answered, ‘The city of Heraclius will be opened first!’”
In both the late 7th and early 8th centuries AD the Arabs attempted to fulfill a prophecy by their late prophet Muhammad and seize the Christian city of Constantinople, but failed miserably. They were thwarted by an ingenious new weapon that frustrated the Arab Muslims’ attempt to seize the Roman (Byzantine) capital.
The first Arab siege in 672
In 672 AD the Saracens (Muslims) advanced towards the city of Constantinople. They sailed up the Hellespont and into the Marmara Sea, capturing Roman territory only fifty miles across the water from the city. From there the Arab invaders began to fortify principal territory to use for a land bridge in their attempt to seize the city. In 674, two years after their arrival the siege began. The majority of previous attacks on the Roman capital had come from the land, but the Arab siege would arrive from the sea.
The Arab ships carried heavy siege engines and huge catapults with which they could bombard the city’s fortifications and create breaches to gain access to the city. The fortifications on the Golden Horn (a small sea channel) and the Marmara Sea were prepared for the assault, but the defenders’ new weapon would further strengthen their defense. Through the genius of its inventor the defenders were able to thwart the Arab attempts to subdue the city. Created by an architect and chemist named Kallinikos from the Syrian city of Heliopolis, this new “weapon of mass destruction” would truly save the Romans from the Muslim threat to their faith and culture.
This new innovation in warfare was called Greek fire. Its composition was such a well-guarded secret that to this day its formula is unknown, and can only be speculated about. Combustible material had long been used in warfare when Kallinikos introduced the secret of this new weapon he called “wet fire”. It is believed that quicklime was an ingredient, since water played such an important role in its combustion. Sulfur and naphtha were also probably key ingredients.
This mixture was projected from copper tubes with the aid of siphons and pumps. It ignited on contact with the sea water or the moist sides of enemy ships.
Medieval historian Geoffrey Hindley says, “The famous incendiary weapon known as Greek fire was usually deployed at sea. The secret recipe included petroleum and resinous extracts so the burning liquid would float on the surface”.
The result of the attack by Greek fire on the Arab fleet was very destructive. According the author and historian John Julius Norwich, “The results almost invariably catastrophic — particularly since the flaming liquid, being oil based, would float up upon the surface of the sea, frequently igniting the wooden hulls of the ships and causing an additional hazard to those who tried to save themselves by jumping in the water.”
After losing most of their fleet to Greek fire, the Arabs refused to accept defeat. They called up reinforcements from Syria and spent the next few months repairing ships. When spring came they began their second attack, and once again it failed miserably, due to Constantinople’s strong fortifications and the Greek fire. After the fifth year the Arabs gave up their attempts to fulfill the prophet’s call to seize that city. To the Romans, it seemed their capital was protected by God against the Muslim invaders.
In 679 the Syrian Caliph accepted the Romans’ terms for peace.
The second Arab siege in 717
In retrospect it seems clear, but at that time the Romans did not realize that peace would last only long enough for the Arabs to gain the upper hand. In the Summer of 717 the Arab Prince Maslama marched across Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). His armies captured the Greek city of Pergamon and then marched on Abydos, where his force of 80,000 crossed the Hellespont and marched into Thrace. By August 31 he stood before the walls of Constantinople. On September 1 about 1,800 ships arrived to blockade the city.
The newly-crowned Roman Emperor Leo III had prepared the city against the Arab incursion. “He had put to good account the five months that had elapsed since his coronation, pressing on with various defense measures initiated by Anastasie and ensuring his people had all they needed to defend themselves against the worst the Saracens could hurl against them.”
The Arab siege resulted in the same failure their previous military venture had faced in the late 7th century. Most of the fighting was limited to the summer months but the siege continued on into the winter months. The cold and snow of Constantinople were too much for them in their flimsy tents, which were made more for desert winds than the icy cold of Thrace. Food began to run short for the invaders, so they begin to eat their horses and camels. After the food ran out so many men died from starvation that the bodies were thrown into the Marmara Sea.
Norwich says, “Soon, too, the food ran out; in conditions scavenging became impossible and, if Theopanes is to believed, the desperate Arabs were reduced to eating their horses and camels and, finally cakes of dead men’s flesh, mixed with their own excrement and baked in camp ovens.”
On the sea their fleet faced Greek fire, which destroyed most of it, but by the following Spring the defenders were terrified to see a second Armada as big as the first, arriving from Egypt. Luckily for the city’s defenders most of the Christians galley slaves deserted the ships en masse at the first chance.
Soon an ally from the north would come to assist against the Arabs. The Bulgar army arrived, and while they had no love for the Romans, they preferred to have them as neighbors rather than the Muslim conquerors. They believed if Constantinople were to fall, it should fall into their hands and not those of the Arab infidels.
As spring turned into summer the Bulgars fell on the weakened and dying Arab soldiers and killed about 22,000 of them. Maslama realized his army had enough, and in August withdrew his troops. His ground forces dragged their way back to Syria without further mishap. The fleet, unseaworthy, was less lucky and it was annihilated by a series of freak summer storms. It is reported that only five ships made it back to port. It was apparent from both Arab expeditions against the city that it was not the will of Allah for them to take Constantinople at that time.
No serious attack was made again on Constantinople by the Muslims until the arrival of the Ottoman Turks. The prophecy about conquest of the city failed — or was at least postponed till the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The Byzantine (Roman) Empire had acted as a bulwark against the Muslims invasion into Europe, but once most of the former Roman Empire had been conquered by the Turks, the floodgates of Islamic conquest would be opened into Europe, beginning in the 14th century.
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According to Islamic prophecy Rome, the center of the Roman Catholic faith, would be the next Christian city to be conquered and dominated by Islam. So far Rome is still the religious center for Roman Catholics, but with the Islamization of Italy it could finally be conquered for Islam, without a shot being fired.
If this were to happen then the Islamists will see it as a fulfillment of prophecy. If Italians fail to wake up, the Vatican and other Catholic holy sites could be turned into Islam-dominated centers. For the nay-sayers, Turkey and the Ottoman Empire form a perfect example of the likely consequences.
No one should think that history does not repeat itself. The once great Christian Orthodox Basilica, the Aya Sophia or Church of the Holy Wisdom, became the Mosque of the Holy Wisdom. Could the Basilica of St. Paul in Rome also become a mosque someday? Would this unite Catholics worldwide against any attempt, by Islam, to seize the Vatican and other important Catholic holy sites?
What can the Italians do today to prevent the Islamization of Italy and Europe? Will they continue to allow Multiculturalism to flourish in their country?
The Muslims will conquer Rome if they are allowed to. This is a fact!
||Norwich, John Julius, Byzantium — The Early Centuries, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1989, pages 323, 324, 351, 353
||Hindley, Geoffrey, Medieval Sieges & Siegecraft, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2009, 52-53
Previous posts by Anestos Canelides: