Muslim Incursions into Roman (‘Byzantine’) Territory in the Ninth Century

Here we present selected parts of the very informative paper titled “The Taktika of Leo VI and the Byzantine Eastern Frontier During the Ninth and Tenth Centuries“, by Kosuke Nakada.


“Islamic power emerged in the seventh century, and thereafter rapidly expanded into the entire Mediterranean world. It occupied parts of the most important Byzantine provinces, including Syria and Egypt. The caliphs held considerable influence over the vast Islamic world well into the first half of the ninth century under the rule of the Abbāsid dynasty, and exercised a large degree of control over the warfare, or jihād, waged against Byzantium. Even the caliph himself occasionally campaigned with his army. However, after the latter half of the ninth century, these large-scale campaigns and attempts to attain a new permanent domain essentially came to an end, due to the decline of caliphal power and the fragmentation of the Islamic state. The last attempt to gain new territory was made by the Caliph al-Mamūn in 833, when he sought to establish a foothold in the Cappadocian city of Tyana. However, his successor and brother al-Mutaṣim abruptly decided to retreat for unclear reasons, and never returned again. The last massive expedition by a caliph was conducted by this al-Mutaṣim himself in 838 against Amorion, and there were no subsequent equivalents. Thereafter, warfare became deadlocked, and a frontier zone, referred to as al-Thughūr in Arabic, developed
remarkably along the frontier with Byzantium. A local garrison stationed there and volunteers from other parts of the Muslim territory conducted jihād into Asia Minor, although virtually independently. Tarsus in the Thughūr of Syria and Malatya in the Thughūr of al-Jazīra in the upper Euphrates played especially prominent roles during this period. They led campaigns more frequently during the summer than the winter and spring, and primarily intended to capture prisoners and plunder and enhance their religious prestige, rather than capture or take possession of new territory. Accordingly, a relatively moderate number of soldiers were involved in these single campaigns. These frontiersmen demonstrated their independence by exploiting the sensitive balance between the central government and the local powers, including the Tulunids.

During the 850s and 860s, that is, the last years of the Byzantine Amorian dynasty, Tarsus, Malatya and their allies, the heretical Paulicians based at Thephrike, repeated these incursions into Byzantine territory. The history of al-Ṭabarī reports such campaigns during almost every year: 851/2 (summer campaign led by Alī b. Yaḥya al-Armanī, the Amīr of Tarsus); 852/3 (summer campaign by the same Alī); 853/4 (summer campaign by the same Alī); 856/7 (two campaigns, including a summer campaign led by Alī and a winter campaign led by Umar b. Abdillāh al- Aqṭa, Amīr of Malatya); and 859/60 (summer campaign led by Alī). The continuator of Theophanes also remarks that “they inflicted upon Roman territory persistently,” suggesting a continual series of raids. Although a central authority sometimes conducted these campaigns in 860s, or at least granted them permission, such activities were usually autonomous.


This trend continued into the 870s, when Byzantine rule was transferred to the Macedonian dynasty. The Paulicians, now led by Chrysocheir, constantly raided Byzantine land until the 870s, when Basil I managed to suppress them by means of large military operations, including his campaigning in person. The Paulicians occasionally threatened the Byzantines with extensive campaigns deep into Anatolia, but smaller and more frequent incursions along the frontier, seeking only plunder and prisoners, were likely of more paramount importance. One Byzantine chronicler remarks that Chrysocheir was “sorely harassing Roman territory and its inhabitants, and leading many of the countryfolk into captivity daily.” Historian al-Yaqūbī also records the summer raid led by Muḥammad b. Alī b. Yaḥyā al-Armanī in 872.

A short respite from these raids occurred in the East until c. 878, following the subjugation of the Paulicians. This was partly due to internal disturbances within the caliphates, including political relations between Caliph al-Mu’tamid (870-892) and his brother al-Muwaffaq, the de facto independence of Aḥmad b. Ṭūlūn in Egypt under the nominal hegemony of the caliph and, finally, the revolt of Zanj. However, the Muslim frontier soon became active once again, even though the war consisted of nothing more than skirmishes along the frontier. A Byzantine source also reports that “Roman Borderlands were constantly [infringed upon?],” implying incessant small-scale warfare. From the Muslim perspective, Tarsus held a leading role during this series of actions, notwithstanding that the city at that time was under the suzerainty of Ṭūlūnids established by Aḥmad b. Ṭūlūn, a general of Turkish origin. This was because the caliph was forced to entrust the Thughūr to such a potentate in 878, after the city disobeyed the central authority. Al-Ṭabarī records three expeditions into the Byzantine territory under the influence of Ṭūlūnids: 878 (by Abd Allāh Rashīd b. Kā’ūs, Ṭūlūnid Amīr of Tarsus); 879/80 (by Sīmā, dispatched by Aḥmad b. Ṭūlūn); and 881/2 (by Khalaf al-Farghānī, Ṭūlūnid Amīr). In 882, Tarsiotes deposed the Ṭūlūnid governor Khalaf al-Farghānī, and
a eunuch named Yāzamān took advantage of the situation to gain political power. He explicitly defied Ṭūlūnid authority by refusing to mention the name of Ṭūlūnid amīr during prayer. Thereafter, incursions into Byzantine territory occurred  autonomously. Al-Ṭabarī refers to expeditions led by Yāzamān in 885/6, 888 and 888/9. Although Ṭūlūnids recovered suzerainty in the Thughūr in 890, frontier garrisons made continual raids into Byzantine territory. Under Ṭūlūnid influence, these forces conducted razzias in 891, 893, 894 and 895. Changes in the political climate in 897 again brought the frontier under Abbāsid hegemony, but the caliph gained only nominal control, and the jihād initiatives against Byzantium came from frontiersmen. By the time the Taktika was composed circa 900, at least seven examples of these raids exist in the accounts of al-Ṭabarī: 897 (against Cappadocia), 898 (a naval expedition), 898/9, 899/900 (three expeditions), 900/1, 901/2 and 903. Based on this review of historical accounts, it can be verified that small-scale and frequent raids into Byzantine territory were a predominant element of the military activity of the Thughūr from the latter half of the ninth century to the reign of Leo VI.”


Research-Selection: Anastasius Philoponus


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