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The Second Arab Siege of Constantinople (717-718) was a combined land and sea effort by the Arabs to take the capital city of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinoplemarker. The Arab ground forces, led by Maslama ibn Abdal Malik, were defeated by Constantinople's seemingly impregnable walls and Bulgarian attacks while their naval fleet was defeated by Greek Fire and the remnants of it subsequently sunk in a storm on its return home. It is often compared to the more widely studied Battle of Tours in the fact that it halted Muslim expansion into Europe from the East for almost 700 years.

Initial stages

After the First Arab siege of Constantinople (674-678) the Arabs attempted a second decisive attack on the city. An 80,000-strong army led by Maslama, the brother of Caliph Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik, crossed the Bosporusmarker from Anatoliamarker to besiege Constantinople by land, while a massive fleet of Arab war galleys commanded by another Suleiman, estimated to initially number 1,800 ships, sailed into the Sea of Marmaramarker to the south of the city. Emperor Leo III was able to use the famed Walls of Constantinoplemarker to his advantage and the Arab army was unable to breach them, whilst the Arab galleys were unable to sail up the Bosporus as they were under constant attack and harassment by the Byzantine navy, who used Greek fire to great effect.

Winter and Spring

Norwich describes the 717/718 winter as "the cruelest winter that anyone could remember." Constantinople was supplied via the Black Seamarker and did not suffer much hardship, in contrast to the Arab besiegers on land, who suffered immense hardship and losses due to disease and starvation during the winter, as they were not able to supply adequate provisions and were forced to eat their camels, horses, donkeys and according to a Greek source even small rocks and the bodies of their dead. The ground was frozen and the Arabs were forced to throw hundreds of their dead into the sea of Marmara, including the Arab naval commander, Admiral Sulieman. An Egyptianmarker fleet of 400 ships and an African fleet of 360 ships arrived in the spring with fresh reinforcements, but successive assaults on the city were unable to cause a breach in its defenses. Many of the sailors who manned the Arab fleets were recently enslaved or dhimmi Christians who also deserted en masse.

Death of a Caliph

Caliph Suleiman had perished in 717 whilst fighting the Byzantines on the border, most likely trying to lead a relief force or a diversionary attack, and was replaced by Umar II, who continued the siege. No doubt the death and succession of the Caliph in 717 played a role in delaying reinforcements until spring. Michael of Syria claims that "Maslama lied to them, as he was saying that soon reinforcements from their king would arrive." but it is very likely that Maslama, to the best of his knowledge, was telling the truth and was unaware that his brother, the Caliph Suleiman, had died while leading such a force against the Byzantine border.

Bulgarian aid

The Bulgars, who had established friendlier relations with the Byzantines a year earlier under Khan Tervel, ostensibly because of the looming Arab threat, came to the aid of the besieged city in the fall of 717. Norwich states "The Bulgars had no love for the Byzantines, but they were determined that, if Constantinople were to be taken, it should fall into Bulgar rather than Arab hands." The Arabs were surprised by the new and unexpected enemy and his attack on their own camp, followed by a horrible massacre. Encouraged by this, the Byzantines opened the gates and attempted to break the siege, but were stopped at the Arab trenches and had to retreat back behind the city walls because of the following Arab counter-attack. This scene was repeated several times during the siege with the same ill success for both sides. The incessant Bulgar attacks in the rear of the Arabs forced them to build trenches also against the Bulgars. This way, however, the Arabs found themselves in a thin line between two fortifications, which were attacked both by Bulgars and Byzantines. After an unusually harsh winter, weary from the long attrition of siege warfare, thinned out by disease and hunger, and demoralized by the lack of success in assaulting the city, the Arabs attempted to retreat to their ships in July, but were devastated by a Bulgar attack against their land forces. Contemporary chroniclers report at least 22,000-32,000 Arabs died in the first Bulgar attack.

Arab retreat

Unable to continue the siege in the face of the Bulgarian onslaught and lack of successes, the Arabs were forced to abandon their ambitions on Constantinople in August. Part of the Arab army attempted to withdraw back through Anatolia while the rest attempted to withdraw by sea in the remaining Arab vessels. A devastating storm wrecked the Arab fleet on its way back, destroying all but five galleys and drowning the men who had retreated by sea.

Historical significance

This battle was a severe blow to Caliph Umar II and the expansion of the Umayyad Caliphate was severely stunted during his reign. It has macrohistorical importance in that, had Constantinople fallen to this massive force of invaders, the Byzantine Empire most likely would have disintegrated and opened up new opportunities for Muslim expansion into Europe 700 years ahead of the Ottoman invasions. Many contemporary Arab and Western historians look at the Second Arab siege of Constantinople in the same light that modern Western historians look at the Battle of Tours, as a pivotal milestone in history that turned back the tide of Muslim incursions into Europe, ensuring Christianity would be the dominant religion at a time when Europe was in a state of disarray following the Decline of the Roman Empire. Leo III would go on to consolidate Byzantium's borders and defeat the Umayyad Caliphate again at the Battle of Akroinon. Bulgarian aid to the city was one of the key factors for the defeat of the Arabs and many poets and musicians glorified Khan Tervel as "The saviour of Europe". Blankinship argues that, along with the Battle of Toulouse and the Battle of Tours, the failure of the siege of Constantinople caused the Umayyad dynasty's weakness to be shown and was a primary factor in the fall of that Caliphate.

As Paul K. Davis writes, "By turning back the Moslem invasion, Europe remained in Christian hands, and no serious Moslem threat to Europe existed until the fifteenth century. This victory, coincident with the Frankish victory at Tours (732), limited Islam’s western expansion to the southern Mediterranean world."

Contemporary sources

As the Syriac Chronicle of Michael the Syrian records:

Aftermath

The Arab forces now turned to raiding Byzantine territory and making whatever easy conquests they could obtain. The sack of Amorium, Thessalonika and the invasion of Sicily and southern Italy allowed the Arabs to maintain the initiative, although slowly but surely their hold on Asia Minor was ground to dust. The Umayyad Caliphate would within a few years be reduced to Spain and later the Island of Crete. Byzantium however would regain her strength and destroy the Arab presence in Asia Minor in the 10th century and conquer Syria and much of Mesopotamia in the 11th. When the Seljuk Turks invaded in the mid 11th century, the balance of power had shifted in Byzantium's favor.

See also



Notes

  1. Covenant Worldwide - Ancient & Medieval Church History
  2. Paul K. Davis, 100 Decisive Battles from Ancient Times to the Present: The World’s Major Battles and How They Shaped History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 99.


References

  • R.G. Grant, Battle: A Visual Journey Through 5,000 Years of Combat (DK Publishing Inc., New York, 2005), p. 74
  • Jonathan Harris, Constantinople: Capital of Byzantium (Hambledon/Continuum, 2007), pp. 49-50. ISBN 978 1847251794
  • Stephen Turnbull, The Walls of Constantinople, AD 324–1453, Osprey Publishing, ISBN 1-84176-759-X.
  • Khalid Yahya Blankinship, The End of the Jihad State (2003)
  • John Julius Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium (Penguin, 1995), p. 110



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