Siege of Constantinople (718)

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Second Arab siege of Constantinople
Part of the Byzantine-Arab Wars
Date 717 - 718 AD
Location Constantinople, modern day Istanbul, Turkey
Result Decisive Byzantine-Bulgarian victory;
End of the Byzantine-Arab Wars.
Umayyad Caliphate Byzantine Empire, First Bulgarian Empire
Maslama, Admiral Suleiman Leo III and Khan Tervel
Approximately 200,000 men, 1,800 ships 30,000 Byzantines, 50,000 Bulgarians
Extremely high, estimates are 130,000-170,000 men, almost 1,795 ships Unknown
Byzantine-Arab Wars
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The Second Arab siege of Constantinople (717-718), was a combined land and sea effort by the Arabs to take the capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople. The Arab ground forces, led by Maslama, were defeated by Constantinople's impregnable walls and Bulgarian attacks while their naval fleet was defeated by Greek Fire and the remnants of it subsequently sunk in a storm on its return home. It is often compared to the more widely studied Battle of Tours in the fact that it halted Muslim expansion into Europe from the East for almost 700 years.


[edit] Initial Stages

After the first Arab siege of Constantinople (674-678) the Arabs attempted a second decisive attack on the city. An 80,000 strong army led by Maslama, the brother of Caliph Suleiman of Umayyad, crossed the Bosporus from Anatolia to besiege Constantinople by land, while a massive fleet of Arab war galleys commanded by another Suleiman, estimated to initially number 1,800, sailed into the Sea of Marmara to the south of the city. Emperor Leo III was able to use the famed Walls of Constantinople to his advantage and the Arab army was unable to breach them, whilst the Arab galleys were unable to sail up the Bosporus as they were under constant attack and harassment by the Byzantine navy, who used Greek fire to great effect.

[edit] Winter and Spring

Norwich describes the 717/718 winter as "the cruelest winter that anyone could remember." Constantinople was supplied via the Black Sea and did not suffer much hardship, in contrast to the Arab besiegers on land, who suffered immense hardship and losses due to disease and starvation during the winter, as they were not able to supply adequate provisions and were forced to eat their camels, horses, donkeys and according to a Greek source even small rocks and the bodies of their dead. The ground was frozen and the Arabs were forced to throw hundreds of their dead into the sea of Marmara, including the Arab naval commander, Admiral Sulieman. An Egyptian fleet arrived in the spring with fresh reinforcements but successive assaults on the city were unable to cause a breach in its defenses. Many of the sailors who manned the Arab fleets were recently enslaved or dhimmi Christians who also deserted en masse.

[edit] Death of a Caliph

Caliph Suleiman had perished in 717 whilst fighting the Byzantines on the border, most likely trying to lead a relief force or a diversionary attack, and was replaced by Umar II, who continued the siege. No doubt the death and succession of the Caliph in 717 played a role in delaying reinforcements until spring. Michael of Syria claims that "Maslama lied to them, as he was saying that soon reinforcements from their king would arrive." but it is very likely that Maslama, to the best of his knowledge, was telling the truth and was unaware that his brother, the Caliph Suleiman, had died while leading such a force against the Byzantine border.

[edit] Bulgarian Aid

The Bulgarians, who had established friendlier relations with the Byzantines a year earlier under Khan Tervel, ostensibly because of the looming Arab threat, came to the aid of the besieged city in the fall of 717. Norwich states "The Bulgars had no love for the Byzantines, but they were determined that, if Constantinople were to be taken, it should fall into Bulgar rather than Arab hands." The Arabs were surprised by the new and unexpected enemy and his attack on their own camp, followed by a horrible massacre. Encouraged by this, the Byzantines opened the gates and attempted to break the siege, but were stopped at the Arab trenches and had to retreat back behind the city walls because of the following Arab counter-attack. This scene was repeated several times during the siege with the same ill success for both sides. The incessant Bulgar attacks in the rear of the Arabs forced them to build trenches also against the Bulgars. This way, however, the Arabs found themselves in a thin line between two fortifications, which were attacked both by Bulgars and Byzantines. After an unusually harsh winter, weary from the long attrition of siege warfare, thinned out by disease and hunger, and demoralized by the lack of success in assaulting the city, the Arabs attempted to retreat to their ships in July, but were devastated by a Bulgarian attack against their land forces. Contemporary chroniclers report at least 22,000-30,000 Arabs died in the first Bulgar attack.

[edit] Arab Retreat

Unable to continue the siege in the face of the Bulgarian onslaught and lack of successes, the Arabs were forced to abandon their ambitions on Constantinople in August. Part of the Arab army attempted to withdraw back through Anatolia while the rest attempted to withdraw by sea in the remaining Arab vessels. A devastating storm wracked the Arab fleet on its way back, destroying all but five galleys and drowning the men who had retreated by sea.

[edit] Historical Significance

This battle was a severe blow to Caliph Umar II and the expansion of the Umayyad Caliphate was severely stunted during his reign. It has macrohistorical importance in that, had Constantinople fallen to this massive force of invaders, the Byzantine Empire most likely would have disintegrated and opened up new opportunities for Muslim expansion into Europe 700 years ahead of the Ottoman invasions. Many contemporary Arab and Western historians look at the Second Arab siege of Constantinople in the same light that modern Western historians look at the Battle of Tours, as a pivotal milestone in history that turned back the tide of Muslim incursions into Europe, ensuring Christianity would be the dominant religion at a time when Europe was in a state of disarray following the Decline of the Roman Empire. Bulgarian aid to the city was the primary factor for the defeat of the Arabs and many poets and musicians glorified Khan Tervel as "The saviour of Europe". Blankinship argues that, along with the Battle of Toulouse and the Battle of Tours, the failure of the siege of Constantinople caused the Umayyad dynasty's weakness to be shown and was a primary factor in the fall of that Caliphate.

[edit] Contemporary Sources

As the Byzantine Chronicle of Michael of Syria records:

"Then the whole army of the Arabs was positioned on the western coast against the Golden Gates. He [Maslama] ordered that a ditch be made around the camp - one between it and the city and another one behind them [the Arabs], from the side of the Bulgars. From the left and from the right the camp was abut upon the sea, in which were the ships, loaded with an army - from ten thousand of Arabs and Egyptian soldiers, - them he placed at the sea to fight the Roman ships; he sent a 20 000 strong army to guard the camp against the Bulgars; and he placed that much from the Syrians.

The Arabs were attacked by land both by the people from the city [Constantinople] and by the Bulgars, and in the sea - by the Roman ships, and on the other side of the sea [on the coast of Asia Minor] by the Roman vanguard. They couldn't get out of the camp to a distance greater than two miles, while they were forced to search for wheat. The Bulgars attacked the Arabs and slew them; those latter [the Arabs] feared the Bulgars more than they feared the besieged Romans. The winter came, but the Arabs were afraid of retreating: first - because of their king, second - because of the sea and third - because of the Bulgars. The wind of death grabbed them. Maslama lied to them, as he was saying that soon reinforcements from their king would arrive. The Romans were besieged, but the Arabs were no better than them. The hunger oppressed them so much that they were eating the corpses of the dead, each other's faeces and filths. They were forced to exterminate themselves, so that they could eat. One modius of wheat was worth then ten denarii. They were looking for small rocks, they were eating them to satisfy their hunger. They ate the rubbish from their ships."

[edit] See also

[edit] Sources

fr:Siège de Constantinople (718) it:Battaglia di Costantinopoli (717)

Siege of Constantinople (718)

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