The Fatimid Navy and the Crusades, 1099-1171

The Fatimid Navy and the Crusades, 1099-1171

Lev, Yaacov

Tropis Conference Proceedings, Vol.2 (1987)

13th century Byzantine depiction of Islamic ships - from History of John Skylitzes (Skyllitzes Matritensis (Biblioteca Nacional de España))

Introduction: A host of complex developments paved the way for the ability of the European nations to establish their sea-borne empires in the Americas, Africa and South-East Asia. A technological advantage – the combination of sails and guns – was one of the crucial components behind the European success. The Muslim Middle East was one of the first regions to feel the impact of the Portuguese maritime expansion in the fifteenth century which was marked by th ap pearance of Portuguese fleets in East Africa and Yemen. The Mamluks, the Muslim rulers of Egypt and Syria, and later the Ottomans, responded to the Portuguese challenge by dispatching fleets to the region. During the period of the Mamluk rule (thirteen-sixteen centuries) the Muslim naval power in the Mediterranean was on the dec!ine. The Mamluks were a cast of Turkish slave soldiers whose primary military specialization was archery. The sea was not their natural element and they showed little aptitude for adapting themselves to the need of naval warfare – dismounting. Islam, although predominantly a land power, had not always been indifferent to sea power. During the ninth century and the first half of the tenth century, for example, Muslim navies were very active in the Mediterranean and, on the whole, they were successful. The Fatimids (ruled in Tunisia 909-973, and in Egypt and Syria until 1171) from the inception of their rule had been involved in the multiple naval struggle in the Mediterranean. Prior to the Portuguese naval challenge, the Crusades had posed the greatest naval threat to Islam to which the Fatimid navy failed to respond.

The main features of the Fatimid naval failure against the Crusades can be summarized as follows:

1) Between 1094-1110 the Fatimids lost most of the coastal towns of the Levant; Tyre fell in 1124 and Ascelon in 1153. The most that the Fatimid navy could achieve in those years was to slip occasionally into the coastal towns endangered by the Crusaders bringing fresh troops and provision. At crucial times, however, the Fatimid navy was always late or inactive.

2) When combined land and naval offensives were launched by the Fatimids (against Jaffa in the summer of 1102, in 1156 and in 1123) the navy played a minor role in these operations.

3) The Fatimid navy showed very little activity or success in raids aimed against the coast of Palestine and Syria held by the Crusaders or against Christian shipping in general.

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