Battle of the Masts


A map idicating the battle of the Mast

The Middle Ages was the golden period of the Byzantine state's unrivaled sovereignty and control over theMediterranean.

·         The Byzantine navy, the largest Merranean war fleet throughout most of the early Middle Ages, employed crescent formations with the flagship in the center and the heavier ships at the horns of the formation, in order to turn the enemy's flanks.

This is because of the high quality of training of its officers which was based on a plethora of very important military manuals the contents of which was being continuously, systematically and methodically updated and enriched.

The extension and influence of the Byzantine fleet

In the north: the possessions of the Byzantine Empire extended to the Balkan Peninsula and Central Asia, from the East  it ruled Syria and Palestine, From the south, it ruled Egypt and all of North Africa, and its political influence extended to central and southern Italy, and for a short period it controlled the southern coast of Gothic Spain.

It had integrated infrastructure in the field of navigation: (a huge fleet of ships, naval bases from which armies were moved, and where ships were manufactured and repaired).

Among the most important shipbuilding houses were: (Constantinople, Acre, Alexandria, Carthage, Sicily).

The emerging Arab-Islamic fleet

While the emerging Islamic power competing with the Byzantine Empire relied in its wars on land combat, during and after it overthrew the Persian Empire, it clashed with the Byzantines along the borders with them, so it seized control of the Levant, Egypt, and parts of North Africa, but due to the presence of the Mediterranean Sea as a naval battlefield, and the Byzantine possession For their ancient fleet, the matter required the establishment of an Arab-Islamic fleet to prevent Byzantine naval raids on the coasts of the Levant and Egypt, then switching from defense to attack, as the Muslims’ destination was heading to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. 

The Muslims created a fleet whose industrial centers were in the coastal cities overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in the Levant and Egypt, such as Tyre, Acre, Alexandria, and Damietta.

In its construction, they relied on the workforce in that country, which had previous experience in shipbuilding since the Byzantine era, and they relied on the wood found in that country, and the remains of the ships that the Byzantines left behind the day after they left that country after their defeats from the Muslim Arabs.

  •  The strong blows that Muslims dealt to the Romans in Africa.
  • The attack of the Romans on their eastern and southern coasts after the Muslims took control of them with their fleet. 
  • Constantine, son of Heraclius, wanted to restore the prestige of his kingdom after successive losses on land and on its shores in the Levant, Egypt, and the coast of Cyrenaica.
  • The Romans also wanted to fight a battle that they thought would have guaranteed results, so that they would maintain control over the Mediterranean and preserve its islands, from which they would launch raids on the shores of Arabia. 
  • An attempt to reclaim Alexandria because of its status among the Romans, it has been historically proven that its residents wrote to Constantine II, King of the Romans.
The Romans feared that the Muslim fleet would become stronger, so they thought of invading Constantinople, this is what the Byzantine historian Theophanes believes, saying: “In this year, Muawiyah prepared the army and provided it with a huge fleet, intending to besiege Constantinople, and he ordered the entire fleet to be gathered in Tripoli. 
When two Christian brothers from the city learned about this, they attacked the prison, smashed the doors, and released all the detainees, then they attacked the city president, fought him and all his men, and fled to the Roman borders.
However, Muawiyah did not change his mind about the siege of Constantinople, but rather he brought his army - meaning the fleets of the Levant, Iraq and Egypt - to Caesarea and Ciadoccia, and appointed Abula Barus - meaning Abdullah bin Saad bin Abi Sarh - commander of the fleet, so he brought Phenicia to a place in Lycia.] where Emperor Constans was staying with his camp and fleet and entered into a naval battle with him.    

Start the battle

The Battle of the Masts (Arabic: مَعْرَكَة ذَات الصَّوَارِي, romanized: Maʿrakat Dhāt al-Ṣawārī) was a naval battle  fought in 655 between the Rashidun Caliphate under the command of Abu al-A'war and the Byzantine Empire led by emperor Constans II (r. 641–668)

There is a great deal of disagreement between historians from both sides over determining the location of the Battle of the Masts.

Abdullah sent half of his army by land, led by “Busr bin Abi Arta,” to carry out reconnaissance duties and fight the Byzantines stationed on land, because the naval battle is close to land, it will eventually be resorted to, in addition to reconnaissance missions.

Abdullah bin Saad bin Abi al-Sarh, the Emir of Egypt, departed with his forces from Rashid, targeting the Roman fleet, at the same time, Bisr bin Abi Arta’a (one of the commanders of Muawiyah bin Abi Sufyan, governor of the Levant) departed with his fleet from Tyre, and the two met in the sea near the coast of Lycia in South of Ashtaniyah, where the battle took place.

The Byzantine fleet consisted of at least 500 ships to a thousand ships at most, while the Muslim ships did not exceed 200, one Muslim fighter described his feeling when the Islamic fleets met the Byzantine, saying:

We met at sea and looked at boats the likes of which we had never seen before.

Combat strategy

The two fleets approached each other and the wind was strong, so the Muslims sent to the Byzantines:

If you wish, we can go down to the coast and fight there until one of us wins (the Muslims prefer the land battle), the Byzantines refused anything but the sea (they were experienced and superior in it). Then they agreed to fight the next day, so the Muslims began to pray and supplicate to God, and the Christians did the same.

At dawn the next day, the two fleets approached each other, and the fighting with arrows began, when it ended, they began to throw stones at each other, and for this reason, they “would place on the top of the masts open boxes at the top, which they called coffins, the men would climb into them before meeting the enemy, and they would stay in them to detect, carrying small stones in a clearing.” Hanging next to the box, they threw stones at the enemy while they were hidden in the boxes, until the stones were empty.

It seems that the Muslims realized that engaging in a naval battle against these many and trained Byzantine ships was in itself a risk with unsafe consequences, so they tied their close ships to the enemy ships, and made their backs a land field for battle, the battle intensified and huge numbers were killed on both sides, and the blood of the dead was mixed with the sea water, they dyed it bright red, and the waves threw the men's bodies into rubble.

The Muslim leader, Abdullah, was almost captured, but he escaped by jumping into one of the nearby Muslim ships. Emperor Constantine was injured and fled, so the Emperor changed his clothes with one of his soldiers, and one of the soldiers jumped on his boat, kidnapped him, took him here and there, and reached the island of Sicily, where he was killed.


The Byzantines and their Emperor Constantine II abandoned the idea of expelling Muslims from the coasts of the eastern Mediterranean, and tended to acknowledge the fait accompli of the influence of the emerging Islamic power and their participation with the Romans in it after the Muslims established their feet on this sea, which was known at the time as the Sea of Rome, so the Muslim ships set off to continue the movement of Islamic conquests in North Africa, its land forces are wary of sea pirates.

The Muslims were able to wrest full sovereignty over the eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea, and to have complete control over the coasts of that sea, from Tripoli in the Levant to Cartagena in the African region, and they seized the islands of Arwad, Cyprus, and Rhodes in preparation for the conquest of Constantinople itself, the capital of the Byzantine Empire.







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