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

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Byzantine Hand Grenades

Photo credit: Amir Gorzalczany, Israel Antiquities Authority

(Vintage News)  -  In Israel, a Crusades-era hand grenade was found and retrieved from the sea. The family that found the old relic has handed it over to the Israeli Antiquities Authority. It was found in 2016 and is a unique find.

Nothing like the ones made today, this grenade was made from heavy clay and is beautifully embossed, it does not explode with shrapnel like the hand grenades of this generation, but it is more like a Molotov cocktail or incendiary grenade. It was filled with naphtha, a flammable sticky liquid known as Greek fire, then sealed and thrown at enemies.

Diego Barkan, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority said ‘These hand grenades were being used in the Byzantine and early Islamic period right up until the Ottomans and it is made of a heavy clay and would have been used much like a Molotov cocktail.  He went on to say:  ‘Inside they would have put alcohol and lit a fuse poked in a hole in the top before throwing it towards the enemy ships.’

It was mostly known to be used in naval battles where the fire would easily destroy enemies’ ships and was an effective weapon. The IAA stated that the grenades were very popular in Israel during the crusades, which took place between the 11th to 13th century, and they were used until the Mamluk era, between the 13th and 16th century.

The late Marcel Mazliah, a worker at the Hadera power plant in northern Israel, found the grenade. But this wasn’t the only item that was in Mazliah’s collection. Archaeologists were very surprised to find ancient artifacts that date back 3,500 years.

Marcel’s family told them that he found most of these treasures while working at the power plant that was near the sea, he collected them for many years.

Some of his other finds were the head of a knife which dated back to the Bronze Age, along with candlesticks, two mortars and two pestles dating back to the 11th century.

“The items were apparently manufactured in Syria and were brought to Israel,” Ayala Lester, a curator with the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a statement.

Archaeologists believe that the metal objects fell overboard while on a metal merchant’s ship in the Islamic period (638-1099).

Byzantine Superweapons

In 717, Arab prince and general Maslamah ibn Abd al-Malik oversaw the Islamic Empire’s campaign to claim Constantinople and led his army straight for the capital. There, Maslamah tried to blockade the city with his navy, but this gave the prepared Byzantines an opportunity to unleash their secret weapon.
“Leo III Defends Constantinople with Greek Fire.” Milestone Events Throughout History, 2014, s.v. 
The fire that was spout out from this hose started to incinerate the entire Arabs’ fleet. The Muslim soldiers started to throw buckets of water to subdue the flames but quickly realized that this was not regular fire. This was a special kind of fire that could not be put out with water. Seeing as how stopping the fire was futile, the soldiers quickly took off their cumbersome armor and leaped out into the water while the ones that stayed got lit on fire. Some unlucky soldiers who impulsively jumped overboard were still wearing their full set of armor and as a result, immediately drowned to the bottom of the sea. 
The fire that had been burning the ship started to spread out onto the water as if it was gasoline. These flames stretched out and the surrounding ships were also caught on fire. Some of the soldiers tried to swim away frantically, for the fire floated across the sea and burned those that were closest. From a distance, the surviving Muslim soldiers were witnessing their own comrades burning, screaming in agony from the top of their scorched lungs. No matter what they did, there was nothing that could be done to put out the flames that were covering their melting bodies. Even some of the spectating Byzantine soldiers shivered at the thought of being burnt alive while being completely surrounded by water. Once the Arabs realized that a significant portion of their ships had been engulfed in flames, they signaled a retreat. As the Arabs fled the scene to lick their wounds, the Byzantine soldiers cheered with victory.

Arabs Start Using Greek Fire

Sometime in the mid-tenth century, the armies of the Islamic Caliphate also began using a similar pump/siphon device that was handheld, in the fashion of the Byzantine device. Whether this was a result of reverse engineering of the Byzantine invention or the outright acquisition is not known. Incendiaries were devastatingly effective against Crusader siege engines. 

Saladin's use of naffata troops is well documented. Saladin sent troops armed with Naphta grenades against houses and civilians during an uprising in Egypt led by African troops. The Christian defenders of Jerusalem noted his use of incendiaries in catapults used to attack the city walls. During the Third Crusade, Swimmers smuggled containers of the fuel into Acre during the Crusader's siege of that city. 

While the Greek Fire of the Byzantines was a closely guarded secrets, Arab alchemists were more ready to commit their recipe to paper. One of Saladin's chroniclers describers the burning substance as a mixture of tar, resin, sulphur, dolphin fat and goat fat.

Pots filled with Greek fire were thrown like
hand grenades | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

(thevintagenews)      (stmuhistorymedia.org)      (seakingsaga.blogspot.com)