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Muslim Cretan Emirate vs the Byzantines

The Muslims had tried several times to open the island of Crete during the 7th century and managed to occupy parts of the island temporarily during the reign of the Umayyad Caliph Al-Walid (705-715). The main period however when Crete became part of the early Muslim empire was the time between 824 and 961. A group of Andalusian exiles landed here and began the island’s opening in the 9th century. These exiles were the survivors of a failed revolt against the emir Al-Hakam I of Córdoba in 818.


Some settled in the city of Fez in Morocco, while around 10,000, under the leadership of Abu Hafs, landed in Alexandria and took control of the city until 827 when they were besieged and expelled by the Abbasids. According to Muslim sources, that was the time (827 or 828) when they arrived in Crete, while Byzantine sources rather mention the year 824.


Image of the Andalusian Fleet sailing towards Crete


The exact landing place is also unknown but it is believed that they left Alexandria in 40 ships with about 12,000 people. The Byzantines tried to capture Crete back from these exiled Muslims but Abu Hafs repulsed the early Byzantine attacks and slowly consolidated control of the entire island. He recognised the suzerainty of the Abbasid Caliphate, but he ruled as a de facto independent prince.

Image shows where the Cretan Emirate is located


During the 870s, the Cretans’ ships, often commanded by Byzantine renegades, even reached as far as the Dalmatian coasts and the Marmara Sea, coming very close to Constantinople. Despite some Byzantine victories, Cretans controlled the Aegean Sea as far north as the island of Aegina close to Athens and the Cycladic islands of Naxos, Paros and Ios were paying the jizya tax to the Muslims. The Cretans were joined by North African and Syrian fleets. Together they even occupied Athens between 896 and 902 and in 904, Byzantium’s second city, Salonika or Thessaloniki, was attacked and more than 20,000 Thessalonians were sold or gifted as slaves in Crete.

Image represents Sphere of the Cretan Emirates Influence at its Zenith


Here one can see the Aegean Sea with the island of Crete, the island of Aegina, Athens and the Cycladic islands of Naxos, Paros and Ios and the northern city of Thessaloniki (Salonica).


Egypt under the Tulunid dynasty (868 and 905) was a strong supporter of the Cretan Emirate. Having strong friends was very important for the tiny island of Crete and its survival. In the 930s and 940s, Crete had reached another high and the Byzantine emperor Romanos II (r. 959-963) attacked the island in June or July 960 and defeated the Muslims.


After a long siege of the Muslim capital Chandax, the city was stormed on the 6th of March 961. Chandax was pillaged, its mosques and walls were torn down, its Muslim residents were either massacred or enslaved. The island became a Byzantine theme while the remaining Muslims were converted to Christianity by missionaries.

The Byzantines hated the Muslim element on Crete so much that there are nowadays no major archaeological remains or any evidence from that period.

It is assumed that sugar cane was introduced to the island at the time. Furthermore, it seems that Muslim migrants or reverts lived mainly in the cities while the Christians could be found in the countryside.


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Our aim for this blog list is to try and get this beneficial knowledge out to people and spark discussion in the comments and forum. So, come and comment below what you find the most interesting part of Cretan Islamic History. Would you like to know more about Abu Hafs (Emir or Cretan)? And what would you like to see more of?

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