Today in Middle Eastern history: the Sack of Damietta (853)

The city of Damietta, located in Egypt’s Nile Delta, became quite important during the later Crusades, as the Crusaders began to see that capturing Jerusalem was irrelevant so long as Muslims ruled Egypt. Its location made it the ideal beachhead for both the unsuccessful Fifth Crusade and the ridiculously unsuccessful Seventh Crusade, both of which sought to conquer Egypt first, or at least defeat its Ayyubid rulers so badly that Jerusalem could be secured. Prior to that it served as a port for the Abbasid caliphate, and that made it a fairly frequent target for Byzantine raids. The one we’re talking about today, which took place in 853, is the most impactful of those raids, and covering it allows us to talk about one of the more peculiar figures in Byzantine history, Emperor Michael III (d. 867).

You may recall that Arab forces, fleeing a failed rebellion in al-Andalus, captured Crete from the Byzantines in the 820s, and that their frequent raids from that island were a source of unending misery for the Byzantines for decades to come. In addition, the loss of the island itself deprived the Byzantines of a crucial forward naval base. Having tried and failed on several occasions to retake Crete, in the 850s the Byzantines decided to render the Muslim position there untenable by cutting its supply lines to Egypt. They sent out three fleets, of which we only know the whereabouts of the one that raided Damietta for three days starting on May 22, 853.

Byzantine-Arab naval warfare in the 7th-11th centuries (Wikimedia Commons | Cplakidas)

At this point, Egypt didn’t have that much of a fleet, and what it did have was mostly used to patrol the Nile, not the sea. Neither did Egypt have much in the way of coastal defenses, and Damietta’s military garrison just happened to be in Fustat, the provincial capital, when the Byzantines arrived. So the attackers met little resistance and took away hundreds of women and massive amounts of material plunder–including a mess of supplies that were intended for Crete. Things went so well that the Byzantines raided the city again in 854, and again again in 855.

The raids obviously had little impact on the Muslim occupation of Crete, which finally came to an end over a century later in 961, nor on Muslim piracy in the eastern Mediterranean. But at a time when the Byzantines rarely came out on top in their military exchanges with the Arabs, this 853 raid in particular stands out as a rare unambiguous success. On the other side, this raid spurred the Abbasids and their Egyptian governors to rebuild Egypt’s navy, which grew within a couple of centuries to become a formidable force in the Mediterranean.

Given how successful this raid was, it’s strange that no extant Byzantine sources mention it. We know about the raid from Arab sources—which actually helps prove that it really happened, Arab historians having no apparent reason to invent a successful Byzantine raid on an Egyptian city.  It’s likely that the Byzantine sources ignore it because Byzantine writers generally loathed the emperor at the time, Michael III, and didn’t want to credit him with a military victory.

Michael, known as “the Drunkard” in the sources so you can tell he was really well respected, became sole emperor at the age of two and was assassinated at the age of 27, so he had little time to establish his own legacy and, having been assassinated, had to be trashed by subsequent historians in order to justify his murder. He was, apparently, drunk quite a bit, and he also seems to have mocked the Church, a huge mistake that damaged his reputation even though it was technically during his reign (during its regency period) when his mother, the Empress Theodora (Saint Theodora in Orthodox Christianity) ended the practice of iconoclasm. As a result his reputation was thrashed by historians.

If you put aside those things, though, there’s no question that Michael III left the empire in better shape than he received it–revenue was up, the military revived, religious strife tamed. The empire’s fortunes, especially vis-a-vis the caliphate, began to turn around under his reign. Michael himself didn’t have that much to do with all of this, but his regents are praised for it, and it’s interesting to see a ruler’s regents treated so well by historians while the ruler himself is treated as an embarrassment. Arab writers, paradoxically, treat Michael as a worthy opponent, and modern scholarship tends to view him in a somewhat better light than Byzantine tradition allows.

The last thing I’ll say about Michael involves his convoluted private life, which would put most soap operas to shame. During his regency he fell in love with a woman named Eudokia Ingerina, but Theodora disapproved because Eudokia’s family were iconoclasts. So she arranged his marriage to a Eudokia Dekapolitissa, who became Michael’s empress consort, but he carried on his affair with Eudokia Ingerina anyway. In order to facilitate this, he had Eudokia Ingerina married off to his chamberlain, Basil the Macedonian (d. 886), who seems to have understood the arrangement and apparently carried on his own affair with Michael’s sister, Thekla.

Michael III (seated) presiding over the marriage of Basil and Eudokia Ingerina, from the 11th century History of John Skylitzes (Wikimedia Commons)

Basil used this mess to manipulate Michael into murdering his uncle and designated heir, Bardas, in 866, which of course cleared a path for Basil, a commoner who made good, to rise to the top of the imperial hierarchy. Basil and Eudokia had a son later that year, the future Leo VI (d. 912). There’s at least some reason to suspect that Leo was Michael’s biological son or at least that Michael believed him to be so. Michael then appointed Basil as his co-emperor—which makes sense if you figure he was trying to legitimize Leo’s eventual accession to the throne. That decision proved to be a fatal mistake. The following year, Basil murdered Michael and became sole emperor—Basil I—and Eudokia Ingerina got to be empress consort after all.