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

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Battle For The Mediterranean - The Arab Conquest of Malta

North African Arab Warriors

The Muslim Conquests

Starting in 639 AD the Muslims began their conquest of Roman North Africa by invading Egypt. After Egypt the Muslims moved across North Africa one by one taking the Roman provinces of Tripolitania and the lands controlled by the Exarchate of Africa.

In 708 AD the Roman fortress of Septem on the coast or Morocco and the surrounding territories were the last area of Roman Africa to be occupied by the Arabs.

With Africa under control the Muslims invaded Spain.

Then starting in the early-800s the semi-independent Emirs of Ifriqiya began a decades long battle for the control of Sicily and southern Italy.

These endless back and forth battles between the Muslims and Romans prove the historical nonsense of so-called "easy and rapid" Arab victories.

For over 200 years the Romans contested every inch of ground in Africa and Italy.  For example, after the fall of Carthage to the Muslims in 695 the Roman Navy in 697 staged an amphibious operation in North Africa, landed an army and re-captured Carthage.

And that brings us to Malta.

Battle For The Mediterranean
Malta was a key Roman Fortress
By holding Malta the Eastern Romans could threaten Muslims in both Africa and well as when they crossed the sea and attacked Sicily and Italy.
This map shows the dates of the endless battles between both sides. Muslim attacks and victories are in green and Roman attacks and victories are in red.

Muslims Target Malta

Sicily was first invaded by the Arab forces of Caliph Uthman in 652. The Arabs failed to make any permanent gains, and returned to Syria after gathering some booty.

By the end of the 7th century, with the Umayyad conquest of North Africa, they had captured the nearby port city of Carthage, allowing the Arabs to build shipyards and a permanent base from which to make more sustained attacks.

Around 700, the island of Pantelleria was captured by Arabs. Attacks from Muslim fleets repeated in 703, 728, 729, 730, 731, 733 and 734, the last two times meeting with a substantial Roman resistanceThe first true conquest expedition was launched in 740 and captured Syracuse but then returned to Africa.

The Muslim attacks and invasions went on and on into the 800s. 

It because obvious that Malta provided a naval base and staging area for the Romans to attack Muslim ships and soldiers making runs to Italy. That base had to be eliminated.

Roman Fortress of Melite
A possible reconstruction of the Roman walls of Melite (model by Richard Azzopardi and Stephen C. Spiteri, displayed at the Fortifications Interpretation Centre)

The 868 Siege of Malta

Dates are all over the place and sometimes when events happened is just a guess.

The reason behind the attack can be better explained if one bears in mind that Malta was considered a threat to North Africa's security. The Island, with its good natural harbors, served as an important base from where to wage war on Africa. It was a well-known fact that the Romans, who were a strong maritime power in the Mediterranean by far superior to the Arabs at the time, were making use of Malta's harbors to strike against Africa.

The Aghlabid dynasty in Africa attacked Malta at least twice. Khalaf, a freed slave, masterminded the first attack in 868. Khalaf was known for his construction of mosques, bridges and wells. he had great difficulties to succeed in the campaign and met his death in the Siege of Malta.

This first attack was a complete failure. The Arab army suffered a crushing defeat.  The island and, in particular, its capital city were well fortified by the Romans to the extent that they could offer resistance to any invading army.

The Conquest of Malta in 870

Conquering Malta meant removing an obstacle which stood in the way of the Arab conquest of Syracuse in Sicily. In fact, the fall of Syracuse came eight years after that of Malta. No doubt Roman Malta had a strong political, economic and religious relationship with this important Roman city and she was offering help, through her maritime networks, to resist the onslaught of Arab attacks.

Taking into consideration the geographical situation of the times, it was impossible to keep an army in Malta for an entire winter period. While Malta had good harbors for the fleet, such a large army needed resources. Again, this possibility went against the military strategy adopted by the Aghlabids at the time. It was not their custom to set out on a two-year continuous siege.

The attack in 870 is recorded in the Chronicle of Cambridge and by an anonymous Arab geographer. Muslims laid siege to the ancient Roman city-fortress of Melite.

The city withstood the siege for some weeks or months, but it ultimately fell to the invaders, and its inhabitants were massacred and the city was sacked the local cathedral's marble columns were sent to Africa and its fortifications razed.

The events of 868 can perhaps help us to explain why the Arabs moved with such ferocity against Malta in 870, destroying everything they came across, thus rendering the Island barren for a number of years. One cannot fail to consider that such ruthless destruction was in fact a form of punishment. First of all, the Arabs wanted to avenge the death of Khalaf.

Secondly, they wanted to ensure that the Island could not be used as a base for Roman incursions against Ifriqiyya. This explains why one author described Malta as being a wasteland for many years.

The fall of Malta ended over 300 years of Eastern Roman rule.

The fall of Malta had important ramifications for the defense of what remained of Roman Sicily: with Reggio Calabria and now Malta in their hands, the Muslims completed their encirclement of Sicily, and could easily interdict any aid sent from the east.

19th Century North African Arab Warriors
The Romans would have faced troops much like these soldiers.

Modern Malta
 Malta fell to the Roman Republic in 218 BC, and it remained part of the Roman and later the Eastern Roman Empire until 870 AD, when it was captured and destroyed by the invading Aghlabids. Muslims.

(core.ac.uk)     (Melite)    (Malta)


Anonymous said...

a non much know fact
congrats Gary

Anonymous said...

fascist italy and nazi germany missed it

Anonymous said...

Do you now where I might be able to read the Chronicle of Cambridge?

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