The Cilician frontier in the ninth and tenth centuries

There were many reasons for Near Easterners to be in Byzantium. Some were taken there against their wishes; some went there willingly to trade, to negotiate, or to die. Some entered the Christian Empire only once, while others paid frequent visits; some had a very fleeting glimpse of Byzantium while others settled there. Conversely, Byzantines went to the Near East for many of the same reasons, and they travelled under similar conditions.


The Syrian-facing Cilician frontier was one of the major passages between the Byzantine and Islamic worlds in the ninth and tenth centuries, in addition to Trebizond and the Armenian routes in the east, and the Mediterranean Sea routes connecting Cyprus and Crete to Greece and Anatolia in the south. The Cilician frontier was formed when the Umayyads consolidated their control of the Cilician plain gradually in the later seventh and early eighth centuries, and it remained stable until the mid-tenth century. The border passed roughly through the Taurus/Anti-Taurus mountain ranges, starting from the west of Tarsos, passing through Muslim-held Germanikeia and Melitene in the east. The transition of power in the Islamic world from the Umayyads to the Abbasids in 750 did not bring about drastic changes to the Syrian frontier, but the frontier districts facing Byzantium were reorganized, starting under Hārūn al-Rashīd, into two defensive zones. The outermost zone (thughūr) was characterised by the presence of fortresses that bore the brunt of the Byzantine attacks, while the second, interior zone (‘awāsim) contained fortresses and fortified cities, which acted as elements supporting the thughūr. In the case of the Syrian frontier facing Byzantine Anatolia, the thughūr extended from Tarsos to Germanikeia in Cilicia, while the ‘awāsim formed a line in northern Syria from Antioch to Manbidj.

Concerning the Byzantine defences, the themata (themes) of Anatolikon and Armeniakon stood the land incursions of the Arabs while the theme of the Kibyrrhaiotai faced Arab attacks from the sea for the seventh and early eighth centuries. The Kleisura of Cappadocia, which was a theme by 863, and the Kleisura of Seleukeia (modern Silifke), which Romanos Lekapenos promoted to theme status c. 930, faced the Syrian thughūr by the tenth century, together with the theme of Anatolikon.

Throughout the ninth and early tenth centuries, Cilicia and Syria remained largely under the control the Abbasids, although the Syrian thughūr entered Tulunid control between 878 and 896. In the mid- and later-tenth century, the Hamdanid Amir Sayf al-Dawla took control of Mosul and Aleppo, extended the military confrontation with Byzantium throughout the whole frontier region, and added Cilicia to his domains. However, this formidable foe of the Byzantines was obliged to resign against the expanding forces of the Byzantines, and his state was made into a tributary principality by 969. The efforts of Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros Phokas in the 960s not only resulted in the capture of Cilicia but also in retaking control of northern Syria for the Byzantines after approximately three centuries of Abbasid rule.

In the ninth and tenth centuries, political powers on both sides of the frontier created a highly militarized frontier through the erection of a network of fortifications and regular raids to weaken the enemy. However, complete control of the frontier by the central political authorities was an ideological construct rather than a reality.

In a militarized zone that lay on the shortest route connecting the political centres of Byzantium and the Abbasid and post-Abbasid Near East, it is no surprise to find various cases of military, political, and diplomatic movement, which would have served to organize the relations between the political entities. The Syrian thughūr and the central/eastern Anatolian plateau facing it were unquestionably the battlefields of Byzantine-Islamic military encounters. The Taurus/Anti-Taurus line, with its mountain passes, stood on the routes used both in seasonal raids and in large expeditions by caliphs.

The overland routes that were most frequently visited by Arab raiders coming from the Syrian thughūr were:

A. the easternmost Germanikeia-Caesarea route or Northern Syria-Caesarea route that passed through the al-Hadath/Adata defile (hereafter called the Adata Route);

B. the route that connected Tarsos to Cappadocia via the Cilician Gates (hereafter called the Route of the Cilician Gates);

C. the route that started from Seleukeia and followed a northern diagonal line that cut across the Taurus Mountains through Isaura and Claudiopolis (modern Mut), reaching the Anatolian plateau in Laranda (hereafter called the Diagonal Route);

D. the Mediterranean Coastal Route that connected Cilica to Seleukeia and Attaleia (modern Antalya).

These land routes and passes were used in the tenth century too, both by the Byzantine and the Islamic armies. The De Velitatione (Treatise on Skirmishing), traditionally attributed to Emperor Nikephoros Phokas, reflects the conditions of the eastern frontier in the early tenth century. This text counts the passes in the themes of Seleukeia and Anatolikon, and in the area around Germanikeia and Adata, as routes which the Arab forces used to retreat to their own territory; the Byzantine forces must also have used these routes to pursue the enemy. The construction of a fire beacon system from Loulon, north of the Cilician Gates, to Constantinople as an early warning system for Arab attacks shows how frequently the Route of the Cilician Gates was used for military purposes. Byzantine emperors in their campaigns used these Cilician routes in order to descend from the Anatolian plateau to Cilicia. For instance, Basil I in his Syrian campaign of 878 used the Cappadocia-Germanikeia route to transfer his army.

A major type of exchange that resulted from military confrontation between the Byzantines and the Muslims was the carrying of captives by the enemy forces. Innumerable references to the seizure of soldiers in battles and civilians in raids in the written sources of the period demonstrate that involuntary movement of people across the frontier was a very common occurrence. While some of the captives were sold into markets as slaves, others were kept as prisoners for exchange. We have evidence for the occurrence of both cases in the Cilician region. The Abbasid geographer ibn Khurradādhbih, referring to the raids into the Byzantine territories in Cilicia in his Kitāb al-masālik wa’l-mamālik from the later ninth century, mentions female slaves being carried on the back of she-camels descending from the mountains to Tarsos. The Persian geographer ibn al-Fakīh, too, writing in the early tenth century when Cilicia was still under Islamic rule, claims that slaves and eunuchs were brought from Byzantium.

However, by the later tenth century, when the Byzantine armies controlled northern Syria, the situation must have changed, because al-Mukaddasī laments in the later tenth century that the slaves were no more brought from Byzantium to Syria because of the wars. In addition to being an important venue for the transportation of slaves, Cilicia was a major nexus for the movement of prisoners as well. Tarsos, Aleppo, and Baghdad were major Islamic cities where Byzantine prisoners were kept, while Ikonion and Constantinople were major Byzantine locations where Islamic captives were imprisoned in the tenth century. When one looks at the geographical distribution of the cities listed above, one can easily see that Cilicia stood in the middle of the prisoner routes, connecting to Baghdad via Aleppo, and to Constantinople via Ikonion. There are occasional references in the sources to the use of Cilician routes to transport captives. The amir of Tarsos, abu Thābit, who fell prey to the Byzantines in a raid in 900, was carried from the Taurus border to Constantinople via Ikonion, following the Route of the Cilician Gates.


In another episode, when ‘Abd Allāh ibn Rashīd entered Byzantine territory via the Cilician Gates and was captured by Byzantine forces in a raid in 878, he was taken to Loulon, a city that stood at the entrance to the Cilician Gates, and then to Constantinople. The famous historian al-Ţabarī, who narrates in the early tenth century, adds a precious note regarding this episode: he [ibn Rashīd] was taken to Lu’lu’an and then on to the tyrant along the post road. This statement shows that captives were carried inside the Byzantine Empire through postal routes. The same holds true for the Islamic routes as well. The author of the vita of St. Ioannikios from the later ninth century puts it very clearly when he describes the story of Byzantine prisoners escaping from a prison in an unmentioned location.

Main routes on the Islamic frontier, manned with soldiers, must have been used for multiple purposes including transporting captives. Moreover, prisoners were exchanged in highly regular and ritualized prisoner exchanges in western Cilicia. The River of Lamis, which acted as a separation line between Byzantine mountainous Cilicia and the Islamic Cilician plain, was the scene of twelve major and six minor exchanges from 768 to 946. In order to ransom soldiers and civilians taken captive in raids, Muslims would leave from the city of Tarsos, where Byzantine captives were collected, and proceed to the mouth of the River of Lamis, where the Byzantines on their boats waited with captives of Near Eastern origin. A statement by al-Mas‘ūdī reveals the itinerary of the prisoners of Near Eastern origin who were brought to Lamis by the Byzantines. He writes that the prisoners were carried from Constantinople to Lamis via Pylai (modern Yalova), which lay to the southwest of the capital city and stood at the beginning of the land routes leading to the Anatolian plateau. The most viable land route connecting Pylai via the Anatolian plateau to Lamis was the Diagonal Route.

The routes connecting the Syrian thughūr to Byzantine Anatolia were frequently used in two other types of politically-motivated movements: movements of diplomats and deserters. The routes through Cilicia were major highways used by diplomats moving between Constantinople and Umayyad Aleppo or Abbasid Baghdad.

However, the Syrian thughūr was not simply a stop for diplomats travelling between capital cities. It was occasionally a target of Byzantine diplomatic missions, while envoys from Cilicia visited Constantinople for negotiations. For example, in 859, Emperor Michael III sent a certain patrician with the title of logothete to the city of Loulon because the Arabs of Loulon decided to deliver the fortress to the Byzantines.

In the reverse direction, as we learn from the De Ceremoniis, Tarsiot envoys were present in Constantinople in the tenth century, and in 965, the people of Mopsuestia and Tarsos sent an envoy to the Emperor Nikephoros Phokas requesting to pay tribute in return for a truce. The Emperor received the envoy, but did not accept the request. The local envoys must have travelled through the Cilician Gates.

Routes through Cilicia also provided a major venue for deserters to escape into enemy territory. Wāsif, the eunuch of governor of Azerbaijan, sought refuge in 900 in Byzantium when the plans of Wāsif and his master ibn Abī al Sādj to overtake Egypt were revealed by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mu‘ta.did. The Caliph captured Wāsif in Ain Zarba/Anazarbus in Cilicia while he was preparing to escape into the Byzantine territory. Similarly, Manuel, the strategos of Anatolikon Theme, escaped through the “Syrian Kleisurai” to Baghdad during the reign of Theophilos around 829. Finally, the Byzantine general Andronikos Doukas, who served under Leo VI, revolted against the Byzantine state, and escaped to the Arabs in 906/907. The general left Ikonion (or Kabala near Ikonion) with his Christian fellows and two hundred Muslim prisoners, whom he freed, and approached the Muslims in Cilicia. In none of examples mentioned above is there a reference to a specific route that connected Cilicia to the Anatolian plateau. However, given the starting points and destinations of the deserters, it is very likely that the Route of the Cilician Gates or the Diagonal Route was traversed by the deserters in question.

All of the movements mentioned above resulted from political and/or military encounters. However, two categories of movement, those of merchants and pilgrims, took place outside the sphere of military confrontations or political negotiations.

Arabic and Greek sources from the ninth and tenth centuries contain direct and indirect references to merchants, commercial routes, caravans, and infrastructure for commerce (such as markets and inns in cities and on the roads), all of which point to the Cilician passes as major commercial routes, if not the only ones, between the Islamic and Byzantine realms. Byzantine merchants were present in Cilician and Syrian cities in the mid- and later-tenth century, and Muslims from Syria visited frontier towns of the Byzantines in order to obtain various commodities during the same period.

The routes that were used for military attacks and carrying captives were also used for commercial purposes. Ibn Khurradādhbih presents the Route of the Cilician Gates as the main route connecting Baghdad to Constantinople in the later tenth century. He does not specifically say for what purposes the route was used, but the fact that he draws the attention of the reader to the transportation of vegetables from Nicaea to Constantinople on the same route tells us that he was aware of the commercial use of the route. Moreover, the presence of a funduq (inn/hostel) to the north of Bozanti (Podandos/al-Badandun) on the same route demonstrates that there were merchants carrying commodities on this route. The eastern Germanikeia-Caesarea route was also a corridor for trade, because we know that there was funduq between Germanikeia and Samandu (Tzamandos). Finally, there must have been at least one route connecting Syria to Byzantium via the Byzantine city of Seleukeia, which was a central entry point for goods (specifically silk) coming from Syria in the early tenth century.

Pilgrims traveled on trade routes in peaceful periods, and their presence supports the possibility of trade connections in the same region. The western European pilgrims of the early Middle Ages (up to the year 800) followed the late antique pilgrimage route that passed through Constantinople or Ephesus, and then connected to the Holy Land via Cyprus, while those traveling to Palestine after 800 preferred the southern route via Egypt. While westerners preferred sea routes rather than the Cilician land routes, the ancient pilgrimage route connecting Palestine to Constantinople via the Cilician Gates was used by the Byzantines from the Late Antique period to the central Middle Ages.

An interesting remark in Ηudūd al- ‘Ālam, a later tenth century anonymous geography in Persian, shows that Cilicia was not only a stop along the greater pilgrimage to Palestine, but had its own pilgrimage centers. The coastal city of Avlās/Āyās (ancient Aigai) to the east of the Ceyhan River was home to two places which the Byzantines venerate and to which they go on pilgrimage.

In conclusion, when al-Mukaddasī wrote that routes leading to Byzantium were used to transport prisoners, to send envoys, to invade, and to conduct trade, he not only informed his reader about the close relations between the Byzantines and Islamic empires, but he also indicated that the same routes were used by people whose interests in passing to the other side arose from diverse and occasionally contradictory motives.

(Source: “Traffic across the Cilician frontier in the ninth and tenth centuries: movement of people between Byzantium and the Islamic Near East in the Early Middle Ages”, by Koray Durak)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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