Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Byzantine-Crusader Re-Conquest of Egypt

Knights of the Kingdom of Jerusalem - Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

The Invasion of Egypt
  • The year 1169 saw the last great military offensive of the Eastern Roman Empire.  A huge Byzantine fleet of 230 warships and transports conducted an amphibious landing on the north coast of Egypt.  The aim was to conquer Egypt and divide the nation between the Empire and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

A failed and poorly coordinated joint invasion of Egypt by the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Eastern Roman Empire could have changed history. 

With the proper forces and will power there was the potential to drive out the Muslim rulers of Egypt and restore Christian rule much as was done centuries later in Spain.

Invasions of Egypt

King Amalric of the Kingdom of Jerusalem led his first expedition into Egypt in 1163, claiming that the Fatimids had not paid the yearly tribute that had begun during the reign of Baldwin III. The vizier, Dirgham, had recently overthrown the vizier Shawar, and marched out to meet Amalric at Pelusium, but was defeated and forced to retreat to Bilbeis.

The Egyptians then opened up the Nile dams and let the river flood, hoping to prevent Amalric from invading any further. Amalric returned home but Shawar fled to the court of Nur ad-Din, who sent his general Shirkuh to settle the dispute in 1164.

In response Dirgham sought help from Amalric, but Shirkuh and Shawar arrived before Amalric could intervene and Dirgham was killed. Shawar, however, feared that Shirkuh would seize power for himself, and he too looked to Amalric for assistance. Amalric returned to Egypt in 1164 and besieged Shirkuh in Bilbeis until Shirkuh retreated to Damascus.

King Amalric I
of Jerusalem

Amalric could not follow up on his success in Egypt because Nur ad-Din was active in Syria, having taken Bohemund III of Antioch and Raymond III of Tripoli prisoner at the Battle of Harim during Amalric's absence. Amalric rushed to take up the regency of Antioch and Tripoli and secured Bohemund's ransom in 1165 (Raymond remained in captivity until 1173).

The year 1166 was relatively quiet, but Amalric sent envoys to the Byzantine Empire seeking an alliance and a Byzantine wife, and throughout the year had to deal with raids by Nur ad-Din, who captured Banias.

In 1167, Nur ad-Din sent Shirkuh back to Egypt and Amalric once again followed him, establishing a camp near Cairo; Shawar again allied with Amalric and a treaty was signed with the caliph al-Adid himself. Shirkuh encamped on the opposite side of the Nile. After an indecisive battle, Amalric retreated to Cairo and Shirkuh marched north to capture Alexandria; Amalric followed and besieged Shirkuh there, aided by a Pisan fleet from Jerusalem.

Shirkuh negotiated for peace and Alexandria was handed over to Amalric. However, Amalric could not remain there indefinitely, and returned to Jerusalem after exacting an enormous tribute.

Upper register: Manuel and the envoys of Amalric, an embassy which
resulted in the despatch of the Byzantine force under Kontostephanos
to invade Egypt. Lower register: arrival of the crusaders in Egypt.
(William of Tyre's Historia)

Byzantine Alliance

The ties between Jerusalem and Constantinople grew into a close alliance.

King Baldwin III of Jerusalem (r. 1130 – 1163) had enough prestige to seek a wife from the Byzantine Empire. In 1157 he sent Humphrey of Toron to negotiate with Emperor Manuel, and it was decided that Baldwin should marry Theodora, Manuel's niece. The alliance was more favourable to Byzantium than Jerusalem, as Baldwin was forced to recognize Byzantine suzerainty over Antioch, and if Theodora were to be widowed she would be provided the city of Acre.

Though Theodora personified the Byzantine-Jerusalem alliance, she was not to exercise any authority outside of Acre. The marriage took place in September 1158, when Baldwin was 28 years old and Theodora only 13.

Relations between Jerusalem and Byzantium improved and in 1159 Baldwin met with Manuel in Antioch. The two became friends, with Manuel adopting western clothes and customs and participating in a tournament against Baldwin.

Emperor Manuel I Comnenus

Baldwin died at age 33. Theodora, now queen-dowager, retired to Acre. She was still only 16 years old; their marriage was childless. Baldwin was succeeded by his brother, Amalric I.

During Amalric's reign, Jerusalem became more closely allied with the Byzantine Empire, and the two states launched an unsuccessful invasion of Egypt.

After his return to Jerusalem in 1167, Amalric married Maria Comnena, a great-grandniece of Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus. The negotiations had taken two years, mostly because Amalric insisted that Manuel return Antioch to Jerusalem. Once Amalric gave up on this point he was able to marry Maria in Tyre on August 29, 1167.

During this time the queen dowager, Baldwin III's widow Theodora, eloped with her cousin Andronicus to Damascus, and Acre, which had been in her possession, reverted into the royal domain of Jerusalem.

In 1168 Amalric and Manuel negotiated an alliance against Egypt, and William of Tyre was among the ambassadors sent to Constantinople to finalize the treaty. Although Amalric still had a peace treaty with Shawar, Shawar was accused of attempting to ally with Nur ad-Din, and Amalric invaded. The Knights Hospitaller eagerly supported this invasion, while the Knights Templar refused to have any part in it.

In January 1169 Shirkuh had Shawar assassinated. Shirkuh became vizier, although he himself died in March, and was succeeded by his nephew Saladin. Amalric became alarmed and sent Frederick de la Roche, Archbishop of Tyre, to seek help from the kings and nobles of Europe, but no assistance was forthcoming. Later that year however a Byzantine fleet arrived, and in October Amalric launched yet another invasion and besieged Damietta by sea and by land.

The Eastern Empire sent a large navy and army to invade Egypt including
20 large warships, 150 galleys and 60 transports.
The Byzantine Dromon
Literary sources and accounts reveal that there were at least three varieties of Dromon. These were, firstly the Ousiako which took its name from one company or Ousia of one hundred men. This was a two banked galley with the lower rank rowing only, and the upper rank rowing or disengaging to fight when required. Secondly the slightly larger the Pamphylos with a crew of between 120-160. Secondly the Dromon proper, which had a crew of two hundred, fifty on the lower bank, and one hundred on the upper bank in two files, together with fifty marines.
A description of some of the ships is given by Princess Anna Komnene:
"The emperor knew that the Pisans were skilled in warfare at sea and was afraid to clash with them. Thus he ordered the construction on all the ships of bronze and iron heads of lions and other wild animals of all types, with open mouths and covered in gold leaf, so that their appearance alone was enough to spread fear. The liquid fire that was to attack the enemy would pass through the mouths of these heads, so that it would appear verily that they were vomiting forth flames..."

Byzantine - Crusader Invasion of Egypt

The great invasion of Egypt did not happen on a whim or by accident.  There was a long history of an alliance between Byzantium and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  Also, the invasion itself required a huge amount of planning and expense.

Control of Egypt was a decades-old dream of the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, and king Amalric I of Jerusalem needed all the military and financial support he could get for his policy of military intervention in Egypt. Amalric also realized that if he were to pursue his ambitions in Egypt, he might have to leave Antioch to the hegemony of Manuel who had paid 100,000 dinars for the release of Bohemond III.

In 1165, he sent envoys to the Byzantine court to negotiate a marriage alliance (Manuel had already married Amalric's cousin Maria of Antioch in 1161). After a long interval of two years, Amalric married Manuel's grandniece Maria Komnene in 1167, and "swore all that his brother Baldwin had sworn before."

A formal alliance was negotiated in 1168, whereby the two rulers arranged for a conquest and partition of Egypt, with Manuel taking the coastal area, and Amalric the interior.

In the autumn of 1169 Manuel sent a joint expedition with Amalric to Egypt: a Byzantine army and a naval force of 20 large warships, 150 galleys, and 60 transports, under the command of the megas doux Andronikos Kontostephanos, joined forces with Amalric at Ascalon.
Byzantine Soldier

William of Tyre, who negotiated the alliance, was impressed in particular by the large transport ships that were used to transport the cavalry forces of the army.

Forces Involved

Records of the number of troops involved do not exist.  We must speculate.

Kingdom of Jerusalem  -  At the Battle of Hattin in 1187 the Kingdom fielded and army of 20,000 including 15,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry.  That battle was an all out effort by the Kingdom.  The invasion of Egypt with the King at the head of the army and with a Byzantine alliance would have been considered a major campaign requiring a larger army.

Let us say King Amalric marched into Egypt with a force of 40% of that at Hattin.  That would give the King 8,000 troops to add to the force brought by the Romans.

Eastern Roman Empire  -  Records do show a massive Roman fleet of 230 ships that included 60 transports. 

We should look at the navy and marines on each ship.  Each ship could have a crew of at least 100 men.  Larger ships could have 350 men with an additional complement of Marines that could number 50 men.  Multiplying out these numbers over 230 ships shows a staggeringly large number of sailors and Marines that could run well over 10,000 men.

But more importantly, these ships were transporting an army to attack Egypt.  William of Tyre, who negotiated the alliance, was impressed in particular by the large transport ships that were used to transport the cavalry forces of the army.  The cavalry would require a large infantry support force to attack Egyptian cities and armies.

If only 50 extra Roman soldiers were placed on each ship you are looking at an army of at least 11,500 men.  If there was an average of 75 extra men on each ship the army grows to 17,250 men.  Both of these numbers would be in the traditional range for a Byzantine army in the field.

The Egyptians  -  The army of Egypt was mostly on the defensive.  In the case of the city of Damietta, there was a large enough force of Muslims to man the defenses, but little more. 

No doubt there were thousands of Egyptian troops roaming the countryside looking to take advantage of any mistakes the invaders might make, and to prevent foraging expeditions to resupply the Christian army.

Modern Damietta, Egypt
The Egyptian port was the target of a joint invasion by the
Byzantines and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

A long-range attack on a state far from the center of the Empire may seem extraordinary.  The last time the Empire had attempted anything on this scale was the failed invasion of Sicily over one hundred and twenty years earlier.  The campaign can be explained in terms of Manuel's foreign policy, which was to use the Latins to ensure the survival of the Empire.

This focus on the bigger picture of the eastern Mediterranean and even further afield thus led Manuel to intervene in Egypt: it was believed that in the context of the wider struggle between the crusader states and the Islamic powers of the east, control of Egypt would be the deciding factor. It had become clear that the ailing Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt held the key to the fate of the crusader states.

If Egypt came out of its isolation and joined forces with the Muslims under Nur ad-Din, the crusader cause was in trouble.

As usual with many Byzantine campaigns the historical records are thin.  But we know that the Emperor appointed an important general to command this important invasion force. 

Andronikos Andronikos was the leading Byzantine military figure during the reign of his uncle the emperor Manuel I Komnenos. Like his father he was appointed to the office of megas doux (grand duke), the commander-in-chief of the Byzantine navy and governor of the provinces of Hellas, the Peloponnese and Crete. However, his greatest success was as a general rather than as an admiral. At some point, Andronikos was also appointed commander of the Varangian Guard.

In a war against the Hungarians, bad health prevented Manuel from taking to the field in person, and he entrusted his army to the command of Andronikos. The Byzantine army met the Hungarians in a pitched battle on the 8th of July near the fortified city of Zemun. Andronikos’ skillful dispositions and the discipline of his troops gave the Byzantines a decisive victory at the Battle of Sirmium.
Byzantine Navy

The Hungarians sued for peace on Byzantine terms and recognised the empire’s control over the region around Sirmium, plus all of Bosnia, Dalmatia and the area south of the Krka River. Following the victory Manuel celebrated a triumphal entry into Constantinople with Andronikos Kontostephanos riding by his side.

In 1169, Andronikos was appointed commander of a fleet of 230 ships carrying a Byzantine army to invade Egypt in alliance with the forces of King Amalric.

Events are somewhat confused, but it appears that in October the Byzantines landed in Egypt and began what became a three month siege of the important port of  Damietta.

This is the maddening part.  We have a three month siege going on with zero information on events.  No doubt there were attacks on the city walls, attempts at gathering supplies inland and perhaps clashes with Muslim forces outside the city.  But of these events we know nothing.

The Byzantines prosecuted the siege with vigor, but the siege was unsuccessful due to the failure of the Crusaders and the Byzantines to co-operate fully.  The Byzantine fleet sailed with enough provisions for only three months. 

Amalric appears to have appeared at the city after the siege had been in progress for some time.  The King apparently did not bring any additional supplies with him, and it is very possible that Muslim forces prevented the gathering of new supplies. from the countryside. 

According to Byzantine forces, Amalric, not wanting to share the profits of victory, dragged out the operation until the emperor's men ran short of provisions and were particularly affected by famine; Amalric then launched an assault, which he promptly aborted by negotiating a truce with the defenders.

On the other hand, William of Tyre remarked that the Greeks were not entirely blameless. Whatever the truth of the allegations of both sides, when the rains came, both the Latin army and the Byzantine fleet returned home.

Andronikos, disgusted with Amalric’s double-dealing and with his soldiers in state of starvation, evacuated Egypt. He returned with part of his army by land through the crusader states of Palestine and Syria. Half of the Byzantine fleet was lost in a series of storms on its return journey.

With the collapse of the invasion the last great opportunity to drive back Islam was lost.


Despite the bad feelings generated at Damietta, Amalric still refused to abandon his dream of conquering Egypt, and he continued to seek good relations with the Byzantines in the hopes of another joined attack, which never took place. In 1171 Amalric came to Constantinople in person, after Egypt had fallen to Saladin.

Manuel was thus able to organise a grand ceremonial reception which both honoured Amalric, and underlined his dependence: for the rest of Amalric's reign, Jerusalem was a Byzantine satellite, and Manuel was able to act as a protector of the Holy Places, exerting a growing influence in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

In 1177, a fleet of 150 ships was sent by Manuel I to invade Egypt, but returned home after appearing off Acre due to the refusal of Count Philip of Flanders and many important nobles of the Kingdom of Jerusalem to help.

Now Jerusalem was surrounded by hostile enemies. In 1170 Saladin invaded Jerusalem and took the city of Eilat, severing Jerusalem's connection with the Red Sea. Saladin, who was set up as Vizier of Egypt, was declared Sultan in 1171 upon the death of the last Fatimid caliph. Saladin's rise to Sultan was an unexpected reprieve for Jerusalem, as Nur ad-Din was now preoccupied with reining in his powerful vassal.

Nevertheless, in 1171 Amalric visited Constantinople himself and envoys were sent to the kings of Europe for a second time, but again no help was received. Over the next few years the kingdom was threatened not only by Saladin and Nur ad-Din, but also by the Hashshashin; in one episode, the Knights Templar murdered some Hashshashin envoys, leading to further disputes between Amalric and the Templars.

What If: A Roman-Crusader Victory?
A successful invasion of Egypt would have several further advantages for the Byzantine Empire. Egypt was a rich province, and in the days of the Roman Empire it had supplied much of the grain for Constantinople before it was lost to the Arabs in the 7th century.
The revenues that the Empire could have expected to gain from the conquest of Egypt would have been considerable, even if these would have to be shared with the Crusaders.
A major result of a Christian victory would be the knocking out one of the most powerful states in Islam.  The ripple effect on Middle Eastern history of a restored Christian rule in Egypt are interesting to ponder:  no Egyptian Sultan Saladin, the continuation of the Crusader states and a greatly strengthened Roman Empire. 

Byzantine Soldiers 12th and 13th Centuries

Crusaders and Muslims

(Manuel I Komnenos)      (Andronikos Kontostephanos)      (Amalric I)

(Crusades)      (Byzantine-Crusader raid)      (Kingdom of Jerusalem)

(Egypt)      (Muslim responses-Crusades)


Unknown said...

Don't forget the sack of Alexander from Peter of Cyprus in 1305, which was largely successful. This could have been used as a point for a reconquest of Egypt as well.

I would guess that the Byzantine Empire lost Egypt in the long run because of soft-power deficits. It attempted reconquest of Egypt several points in the seventh century, and possibly the eighth. With the Kingdom of Jerusalem, it landed troops many times. It just never gained popular support, frequently having to resort to wholesale slaughter of populations. Hard genocide is a tough way to win a war. The Turkish variety, the type where one lets his subjects live if they just change their names, languages, and religions, is much more effective from an occupational standpoint.

Gary said...

Well thought out. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Sure they are Keith . Well thought out .
Turks try that with armenians , as you know in 1915 . They live one year more walking of hard suffering from armenia to mesopotamia . As they not change , as those centuries on an on , they die on starvation on the plains of syria and iraq . Really effective.
Or with the kurds nowadays .
Or with fettah Gulen supporters . Those fake nice staged coup .
If they do not gain popular support , they lets his subjects live and change ?!?! WHERE ?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????
Man ... what a farout conclusion .