For approximately 135 years, Crete, an island that is, in the Greek popular consciousness, inextricably linked to the foundations of civilisation and Greece itself, was one of the major foes of Byzantium.

Commanding the sea lanes of the Eastern Mediterranean, and functioning as a forward base and haven for pirate fleets that ravaged the Byzantine-controlled shores of the Aegean Sea, Crete was able to achieve considerable prosperity, not just through naval plundering, but also through more mainstream agriculture and trade. Moreover, its rulers did not speak Greek.

Instead, for a period in the ninth century CE, after years under Roman then Byzantine rule, Crete was Arabic-speaking and formed an integral part of the Islamic world as the Emirate of Crete.

Emirate of Crete ca 827–961 CE

Though parts of Crete were temporarily occupied during the reign of the Umayyad Caliphate Al-Walid I in approximately 710 CE, it was, according to some reports, a cleric revolt against Emir Al-Hakam I of Córdoba in Islamic Spain that caused a mass exodus of rebels to Alexandria in 818. Numbering over 10,000, the Andalusian exiles took over that city and held it until 827. Upon expulsion, they landed, most probably on the north of the island, in 828, during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Michael II.

Abu Hafs Umar, who had been expelled from Al-Andalus by Emir Al-Hakam I, known in Byzantine sources as Απόχαψις, defeated a number of Byzantine attempts to reconquer Crete, commencing with an expedition under commander Photeinos, stratēgos (military governor) of the Anatolic Theme (a central administrative division of the empire, grown from military settlements), and Damianos, Count of the Stable, in which Damianos was killed.

In time, the Andalusians founded a city and main fortress near their landing place, to which they gave the name Chandax, from the Arabic rabd al-khandaq meaning Castle of the Moat, a name that persisted until modern times, when the city was renamed Heracleion.

A year later, a Byzantine armada of 70 ships under the command of stratēgos Krateros of the naval Theme of the Cibyrrhaeots successfully landed on the island, but was routed in an night attack. Krateros managed to flee to Kos, but was captured and crucified.

Byzantine efforts to reconquer Crete were hampered by the Muslim conquest of Sicily, where the Aghlabids set about establishing a polyethnic, sophisticated, multicultural and religiously tolerant regime in which the Sicilian Greeks played a key role, and the revolt of Thomas the Slav, which took place in Asia Minor.

Unlike their counterparts in Sicily, the Andulsians seem to have treated the land they conquered, at least in the early years, as merely a base from which to conduct piratical expeditions, though this was to change. Consequently, the Saracean conquest transformed the naval balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean and opened the hitherto secure Aegean Sea littoral to frequent raids.

The Arabs on Crete thus were able to occupy several of the Cyclades islands, and destroyed a Byzantine fleet off Thasos, raiding and pillaging Evia, Lesvos, north western Asia Minor, the Peloponnese, and Mount Athos.

The Cretan raids upon the Byzantine Empire were so devastating that in 829CE, Emperor Theophilos was compelled to send an embassy to Emir Abd ar-Rahman II of Córdoba proposing a joint action against the erstwhile Andalusian rebel Cretans, though this proved fruitless. In an early exercise of global warfare and proving just how extensive the Arab world had become at this time, in 853, the Byzantines attacked the Egyptian naval base of Damietta, capturing weapons intended for Crete.

During the early 870s, the Cretan raids against the Byzantine intensified, aided as they were by Byzantine renegades who had adopted Islam. One such raid in 873, under the renegade Photios, penetrated into the Marmara Sea and unsuccessfully attacked Proconnesos, near Constantinople.

Though many of these raids were repulsed, the Andalusians of Crete returned again and again, often reinforced by North African and Syrian fleets. As a result, the islands of Patmos, Karpathos, and Sokastro came under their control, with Islamic rule extending as far north as Aegina in the Saronic Gulf, and Elafonisos and Cythera off the southern coast of the Peloponnese, while residents of Naxos, Paros and Ios, were forced to pay a poll tax (jizya), prescribed as payable by subject Christians to Muslim rulers. The impact of this wave of raids from Crete caused some Aegean islands to be deserted altogether, and many other coastal sites were abandoned for inland locations.

It also appears that Athens may have been occupied between 896–902CE, by the Arabs of Crete, while in 904, they took part in a Syrian expedition that sacked Thessalonica, the Byzantine Empire’s second most important city.

While they ravaged the Byzantine Empire, we know little of prevailing social conditions on the island itself. Apart from a few place names recalling their presence, there is little surviving archaeological evidence attesting to their long rule. Byzantine sources, unsurprisingly, given the amount of devastation caused, are extremely negative and this has traditionally influenced western scholars’ attitudes towards Arabic rule in Crete.

From contemporary Muslim chroniclers, however, we can glean references to the Empire of Crete as being an orderly state with a balanced economy enjoying extensive trading ties in the region, especially with Egypt and the rest of the Islamic world. Finds of gold, silver and copper coins of standardised weight attest to state regulated commerce, with the capital Chandax described as a significant Islamic cultural centre. It is also considered that Arab rule saw an agricultural boom in Crete, with sugar cane introduced to the island during this time.

The fate of the Christian population of Crete during Arab rule is also a matter of debate. In the past, it was believed that the Cretans were either expelled, killed, or had converted to Islam in droves, a process that was repeated during the Ottoman conquest. Careful analysis of the sources, however, suggests that while large numbers of Cretans did convert to Islam, especially in cities, and formed the majority of the population along with the original invaders and other migrants, Christians remained as a subject class. Theodosius the Deacon, for example, records that rural Christian Cretans, “inhabitants of crags and caves,” a metaphor that is reminiscent of Rhigas Pheraios’ Thourion almost a millennium later, descended from the mountains under their leader Karamountes during the siege of Chandax to assist the besieged.
Further, in a surviving letter sent by Nikolaos I Mystikos the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople to the Emir of Crete about the release of Byzantine prisoners, the Patriarch calls the Emir an honourable man and praises his administration. He also adds that the Cretans and Romans (it is noteworthy that the Patriarch considers the Cretans to be Arabs) could live side by side even though they had many religious differences.

Successive Byzantine emperors maintained a concerted effort to rid the empire of the Cretan menace for good.

The siege of Chandax

In 960 CE, Byzantine Emperor Romanos II entrusted his general Nikephoros Phokas with a vast armada. In July 960, Phokas landed on the island, and defeated the initial Muslim resistance. A long siege of Chandax followed, which endured until 6 March 961, when the Byzantines stormed the city. According to chroniclers, the Byzantines pillaged Chandax, and tore down its mosques and city walls. A massacre of its Muslim inhabitants took place, with many killed and others carted off to slavery, while Crete’s last Emir, Abd al-Aziz ibn Shu’ayb, the great-great-grandson of Abu Hafs Umar and known in Byzantine sources as Kouroupas, and his son al-Numan, known as Anemas, and family were taken captive and brought to Constantinople, where Phokas celebrated a triumph.

Return to Byzantine Rule

Crete was converted into a Byzantine theme, and remaining Muslims were converted to Christianity by such missionaries as St Nikon Metanoeite (“Preacher of Repentance”), so named for his conversionary zeal. Among the Muslim converts was Anemas. He joined the Byzantine army and died at Dorystolon in 970, fighting against the Viking Rus.

Capitalising upon his experience as the reconqueror of Crete, Phokas went on to reconquer Cilicia in southern Asia Minor and Cyprus. His fame was so great he was able to make an imperial marriage and propel himself to the Byzantine throne.
Crete, on the other hand, thoroughly cleansed of 135 years of Islamic Arab rule, to the extent that little lasting legacy or memory remained of it, abided in Byzantine hands until 1204, when it was occupied by the Venetians.


Today, all that remains to bear witness of the time when the Cretans were Arabs and the Arabs were Cretans is a few scattered placenames: Sarkenos, Souda, Aposelemis (Abu Salim) and Choumeri. No major archaeological remains exist, possibly due to deliberate Byzantine destruction after 961 CE. This is a battle for Crete that, to all intents and purposes, has been forgotten.