Egyptian Papyrus Boat

Egyptian ship made of papyrus is one of the ancient in the world. Firstly it represented itself only a papyrus raft and to about 3500 year B.C. it became already a real ship. The ship was used only for navigation on the river Nile. Her bow and her stern were raised specially to pull her across shallows. But foreseeing the possibility to raise the bow and the stern higher with the help of ropes, Egyptians started their voyages at sea. The known expeditions of Tour Heyerdal on the papyrus rafts Ra-1 (1969) and Ra-2 (1970) showed that papyrus could stand two months of seafaring. Of course, Ra-1 had sunk earlier but it was due to great roughness at sea and the fault of the crew who did not pull the rigging steering the curve of the stern. On Ra-2 the stern was raised sufficiently from the very beginning of the seafaring. Ra-2 departed and in two months she reached Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados. Constructively Ra-2 was made of short papyrus bundles as they saturated less water. Bolivian Indians from the lake of Titikaka built Ra-2. From ancient times up to nowadays they navigate on such cane vessels calling them ‘totorus’.

Egyptian sailing ships were built by binding together papyrus bundles and the thickest of them were placed on the outer surface of the vessel. The sail was square. It was made of cloth or papyrus. It was hung on two yards, which were tied together to make them longer and which were fastened to the two-legged mast.

At moving downstream the Nile there was always a head wind and at upstream navigation there was a strong flow so the sail was useful. Rafts and vessels of such a type are used nowadays in the Eastern Africa, Persian Gulf and South America.

Etruscan Vessel – 4th Century BC

The images of Etruscan vessels are found on the tombstones of the central part of Italy (dated the 4th century B. C.). Resembling ancient Phoenician vessels by their forms these ships were differed by their sharper curve of posts and they had much in common with later vessels of North-European peoples. As in the Viking ships their oars passed through the holes in boards thus giving a possibility for more comfortable (lower) placement of rowers and for their defense by a high board. Short leather hoses closed slots between oars and a board. The vessel was steered by a single steering oar with a cross helm strengthened outside the starboard. The mast installed in the middle part of the ship carried a square sail with a yard. The upper band of planking was ornamented by a stylized image of a wave. The sternpost with two outside hanged shields was ended like a fish tail. The same shields were strengthened in the upper part of the stem and along the whole board. A figure in the form of a sheep head was installed on the bow part of the ship. It was a useful constructive element that defended the hull of the ship against the strike of an enemy’s ram. The fighting metal ram was installed at the waterline level and was strengthened to the keel beam. Wide, high boarded, with a big sagging Etruscan vessels obtained sufficient seaworthiness for navigation in the Mediterranean Sea.

Etruscan Trade

The Etruscans’ control over the seas was crucial for developing its north-south trade. They wanted amber. This precious ingredient was used in jewelry and in religious rites from the Baltic Sea in the north. Once the amber Italy, the Etruscans traded it by sea with areas throughout the Mediterranean and further east.

On the Adriatic, the Etruscans established the port of Spina, below present-day Venice, for east-west trade. They exported their own finished goods, especially jewelry, and imported huge numbers of Greeks vases in the 5th c BC.  Etruscan objects have been found all around the Mediterranean and the Near East. 

The Etruscans and the Sea


Egyptian warship circa 1200 BC

Egyptian squadrons composed of speedy keftiu, kebentiu from Byblos and Egyptian transports patrolled the eastern Mediterranean.

Unlike the later Greeks who developed special naval techniques (used also by Late Period Egypt), maritime battles by New Kingdom Egyptians and their opponents, the Sea Peoples, were fought by seaborne land troops. The Egyptian deployment of archers and the fact, that Egyptian ships could both be sailed and rowed, gave them a decisive advantage, despite the inferiority of the vessels themselves, which were at times quite sizable carrying up to two hundred and fifty soldiers.

But often the navy was little more than a means for getting land troops to where they were needed. Senusret III reached Nubia by ship

Master of the double cabinet, Sisatet, he saith: “I came to Abydos, together with the chief treasurer, Ikhernofret, to carve (a statue of) Osiris, lord of Abydos, when the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Khekure (Sesostris III), living forever, journeyed, while overthrowing the wretched Kush, in the year 19.”

J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 672

Soldiers could also be transported at great speed to the Asiatic coast where they came upon the rebellious Canaanites without warning. Thutmose III employed this technique with great success.

Egypt lost its role of maritime superpower after the end of the New Kingdom. Phoenicians and Greeks became the main players in the Mediterranean. Continental powers like the Persians used these sea-faring nations to impose their control on the seas.

Egypt renewed its navy under Necho II, investing heavily in the development of biremes and was possibly among the inventors of the more powerful triremes in its attempt to fight off the Persians. It was unsuccessful and thereafter its fleet was at the behest of the foreign power controlling the country. Dozens of Egyptian ships were incorporated into the Persian fleet fighting the Greeks.

The last of the Ptolemies, Queen Cleopatra VII joined forces with the Roman Marc Anthony, in an attempt to preserve Egypt’s independence. But her fleet was defeated at Actium, which spelled out the end of pharaonic Egypt.


It is commonly believed that Mu‘awiya Ibn Abi Sufyan was the first planner and establisher of the Islamic navy. A careful examination of primary sources reveals that the first Islamic naval expedition in history took place in AH 17/638 CE during the caliphate of ‘Umar Ibn al-Khattab and was led by al-‘Ala Ibn al-Hadrami, governor of Bahrain, against Persia; it ended with a trapped Islamic army nearby Istakhr. Three years later, in 20/641, with the permission of ‘Umar, ‘Alqama Ibn Mujazziz crossed the Red Sea toward Abyssinia. The expedition was disastrous, and only a few ships returned safely to their home port. In view of these facts, one may justifiably feel that the reluctance of ‘Umar Ibn al-Khattab to permit his generals to embark on naval adventures did not result from religious considerations but from his unsuccessful and disastrous attempt against Abyssinia. However, the establishment of the Islamic navy in the Mediterranean Sea occurred during the reign of Uthman Ibn ‘Affan. It was through the joint efforts of ‘Abd Allah Ibn Abi Sarh, governor of Egypt, and Mu‘awiya of Syria that the first maritime expedition on Cyprus in 28/648–649 was launched.

The Islamic expansions in the East and the West were not destructive. Muslim authorities not only preserved all dockyards, naval bases, and systems in the former Byzantine and Persian provinces, but they also founded new maritime installations—arsenals and naval centers—along their maritime possessions. Along the Syro-Palestinian coast were Tarsus, Laodicea, Tripoli, Beirut, Tyre, ‘Asqalan, and, most importantly, ‘Akka (Acre), from which the first Islamic naval expedition was launched against Cyprus; Egypt had Alexandria, Rosetta, Damietta, Tinnis, Babylon, and Clysma on the Red Sea. As for North Africa and Spain, their most important naval centers were Barqa, al-Mahdiyya, Tunis, Bougie, Ténès, Badis, Ceuta, Cádiz, Algeciras, Seville, Málaga, Almuñécar, Pechina/Almeria, Cartagena, Alicante, Denia, Valancia, and Tortosa. Likewise, they maintained and developed several naval centers in strategic Mediterranean islands, such as the Balearic Islands, Sicily, Crete, and Pantelleria. As a protective measure and until Muslims had acquired supremacy over the sea, the headquarters of their fleets were located in inland waters; the Egyptian navy was in Babylon, whereas the Andalusian one was in Seville.

Amir al-bahr (admiral) was the supreme commander of the maritime frontiers and naval forces. The duties of the construction of warships and the selection of appropriate materials—timber for keels, planking, masts, yards, oars, oakum, metals, skins, cables, pitch and tar, and other fittings—were laid upon him and a team of inspectors, who had to ensure that shipwrights observed technical standards and did not use inferior or inadequate raw materials. Every ship passed a comprehensive technical inspection while it was still in the yard and during the journey to avoid unpleasant consequences. Among the types of warships built in the arsenals for the fighting fleets in the eastern and western basins of the Islamic Mediterranean were dromon, fattash, ghurab, harraqa, jafn, jariya, qarib, qarqur, qishr, shalandi, shini, tarida, and zawraq.

The responsibility of recruiting highly skilled sailors, patient artisans, brave warriors, alert spies, and physicians rested with the admiral and his chief commanders. Papyri from early Islamic Egypt show that the method of recruitment of sailors for the raiding fleets was compulsory; sailors were drawn from all provinces and included various classes of the population. In case of reluctance or fugitiveness, the local authorities had to pay the wages of men hired from another place. As for the fighting men, they were Arab emigrants and mawalis who settled in the Levantine, Egyptian, and North African frontiers. Only experienced crews and warriors with high morals who were faithful, professional, and fearless in the face of the enemy were taken onboard. Supplies for the ships’ human element included bread, butter, wine, oil, and salt.

Only a few Arabic manuals dealing with Islamic naval warfare have survived. Ibn Mankali’s handbooks, Al-Ahkam al-Mulukiyya wal-Dawabit al- Namusiyya fi Fann al-Qital fi al-Bahr and Al-Adilla al-Rasmiyya fi al-Ta‘abi al-Harbiyya, give great detail about naval preparedness and tactics. Because Islamic warships could be attacked with all kinds of weapons, their commanders were instructed to carry a large supply of spears, swords, crossbows and arrows, stones and catapults, venomous creatures sealed up in earthenware jars, and combustibles and Greek fire. Ibn Mankali describes how to be prepared against enemies, addressing such things as the following: exercises; prayers offered and speeches delivered before the actual combat; time, place, and disposition of enemy; strategic tactics and arrangement of warships; disposition of the flagship; and the flags to be used during the maritime battle for signaling purposes.

Further Reading

‘Abbady, Ahmad, and Elsayyed Salem. Tarikh al-Bahriyya al-Islamiyya fi Misr wal-Sham. Beirut: Dar al-Nahda al-‘Arabiyya, 1969.

Adawi, Ibrahim A. Quwwat al-Bariyya al-‘Arabiyya fi Miyah al-Bahr al-Mutawassit. Cairo: Maktabat al-Nahda, 1963.

Ahmad, Ramadan A. Tarikh Fann al-Qital al-Bahri fi al-Bahr al-Mutawassit 35–978/655–1571. Cairo: Wizarat al-Thaqafa, 1986.

Christides, Vassilios. ‘‘Byzantine Dromon and Arab Shini: The Development of the Average Byzantine and Arab Warships and the Problem of the Number and Function of the Oarsmen.’’ Tropis 3 (1995): 111–22.

———. ‘‘Naval History and Naval Technology in Medieval Times: The Need for Interdisciplinary Studies.’’ Byzantion 58 (1988): 309–32.

———. The Conquest of Crete by the Arabs CA. 824: A Turning Point in the Struggle Between Byzantium and Islam. Athens, 1984.

———. ‘‘Naval Warfare in the Eastern Mediterranean (6th–14th Centuries): An Arabic Translation of Leo VI’s Naumachica.’’ Graeco-Arabica 3 (1984): 137–48.

———. ‘‘Two Parallel Naval Guides of the Tenth Century—Qudama’s Document and Leo VI’s Naumachica: A Study on Byzantine and Moslem Naval Preparedness.’’ Graeco-Arabica 1 (1982): 51–103.

Delgado, Jorge L. El Poder Naval de Al-Andalus en la E ´ poca del Califato Omeya. Granada: Universidad de Granada, 1993.

Fahmy, Aly M. Muslim Sea-Power in the Eastern Mediterranean from the Seventh to the Tenth Century AD. Cairo: National Publication & Printing House, 1966.

———. Muslim Naval Organisation in the Eastern Mediterranean from the Seventh to the Tenth Century AD. Cairo: National Publication & Printing House, 1966.

Nukhayli, Darwish. Al-Sufun al-Islamiyya ‘ala Huruf al- Mu‘jam. Alexandria: Alexandria University Press, 1974.

Picard, Christophe. La Mer et les Musulmans d’Occident au Moyaen Age. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1997.

Salem, Elsayyed, and Ahmad ‘Abbady. Tarikh al-Bahriyya al-Islamiyya fi al-Maghrib wal-Andalus. Beirut: Dar al-Nahda al-‘Arabiyya, 1969.

Ziade´, Nicole. ‘‘Al-Ustul al-‘Arabi fi Ayyam al-Amawiyyin.’’ In Studies on the History of Bilad al-Sham during the Umayyad Period, eds. M. Bakhit and M. Abbadi, 37–86. Amman, 1990.

Later Empire/Early Byzantine ROMAN NAVY


Land troops were supported by the Roman navy which was part of the army and not a separate service. Standing fleets of warships (for fighting) and merchantmen (for supply and transport of troops) were based throughout the empire. Individual squadrons were commanded by praefecti. In the west the major fleet was based at Ravenna, though there were other fleets in Italy, Gaul, Africa and Britain. In the east Constantinople became the major fleet base, while other smaller fleets were based in Egypt, Antioch and the Crete–Rhodes region. As part of the army naval expeditions were commanded by generals. In 324 Constantine’s fleet was commanded by his son Crispus, while Licinius’ was under an otherwise unknown Amandus. Later in the sixth century Belisarius reconquered Africa as the magister militum per Orientem.


Although fleets made a significant contribution to Roman military power, through defence of the Rhine and Danube frontiers by river flotillas and logistical support, there were very few campaigns which could be characterized as naval, primarily because Roman enemies rarely possessed significant fleets of their own. By far the most important naval encounters occurred in civil wars, the defeat of Licinius in the Bosphorus in 324 and the failure of Vitalian’s attempt on Constantinople in 515 when Greek fire was used to destroy his ships (Malalas 16.6 Thurn=403.5–406.8Dindorf ). In the 250s and 260s Gothic groups north of the Black Sea gained control of local fleets and rapidly became proficient at raiding, but their motley collection of fishing vessels, merchantmen, rafts and naval boats was always vulnerable to challenge by a proper fleet. Carausius and Allectus in Britain were a more formidable threat, since they had taken over the imperial Saxon shore fleet, and their suppression by Constantius in 293– 6 entailed a substantial naval expedition (Pan. Lat. 8.11–19). The Vandal capture of Carthage gave them control of Roman shipping and led to the first serious challenge to imperial domination of the Mediterranean since the PunicWars of the Republic, but their main activity was ravaging; even the massive expeditions dispatched from Constantinople in 468 and 533 passed off without confrontation at sea, the former being disrupted by fire ships at Syracuse and the latter arriving when the Vandal ships were busy off Sardinia. In the east it was feared that Persian access to the Black Sea would permit them to develop a fleet and threaten Constantinople (Procop. Wars 2.28.23), but when the Persians did eventually capture Phoenicia and Egypt in the seventh century they did not exploit what maritime resources fell into their hands: at Constantinople in 626 the Persians relied on Slav canoes to ferry them across the Bosphorus (Chron. Pasch. 722.14–723.12). The Slavs were effective raiders, but their light ships were no match for proper Roman vessels, as the engagement in the Golden Horn in 626 demonstrated (Theodore Syncellus 311.7–312.5; Georg. Pis. Bellum Avaricum 441–74). It was left to the Arabs to create a powerful fleet, in spite of the reluctance of the Caliph ‘Umar and their inexperience of maritime matters; the development was as striking as the emergence of the Roman navy during the First Punic War.


The Battle of Prevesa, 1538

One formula for limiting military expenditure that had been successfully applied in the sixteenth century was to restrict central Ottoman treasury disbursements for the navy to a small proportion of general defence expenditure. Figures supplied by Ayn-i Ali for 1609 indicate that naval personnel accounted for only three per cent of manpower and four per cent of salary payments for the armed services borne by the central treasury. For a contemporary European context we learn that the cost to France of waging land wars against the Protestants in the 1620s represented roughly one-half of all state revenues from direct taxation. Because of the greater cost of equipment in naval wars, even apart from personnel considerations, land wars always represented the smaller burden. The French example, furthermore, represents an underestimation of real costs, since in foreign wars transport and provisioning costs were at much higher levels. That the Ottomans were able through much of the sixteenth century to wage a semi-continuous series of land wars without heavy reliance on exceptional levies and campaign contributions was due in part to the absence of competing resource commitments within the central fisc for the waging of sea battles. In the sixteenth century cost-containment in the naval sphere was achieved through the cooptation by the imperial fleet based in Istanbul of corsair freelancers whose fleets operated out of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli.

The large armadas mobilized on both sides of the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century were the result of multi-party collaborative effort representing the combined capacity of privately-operated and state-subsidized fleets. By contrast, in the seventeenth century a growing share of the burden and expense of activism in the naval sphere was being borne by the state and taxpayers in the core provinces, especially western Anatolia. Under exceptional circumstances the sixteenth-century fleet mobilizations of strategic importance for the Ottomans warranted treasury subsidy, but the short-term effect of such subsidies was to annihilate all surpluses accumulated by the treasury and curtail the Ottomans’ readiness to mobilize quickly for land campaigns. As an example, it is estimated in contemporary Western sources that the cost to the Ottomans of outfitting the fleet sent to aid their French allies in 1543 was 1.2 million ducats, equivalent at current rates of exchange to 72 million akçes. Ottoman treasury figures for that period show regular income of 198.9 million akçes against expenditure of 112 millions, leaving a positive balance of 86.9 million akçes. But even under such comfortable balance of payments conditions as this, naval activity on any scale in successive years represented an unsustainable burden to the treasury. In the mid-seventeenth century a significant proportion of fleet expenses was met from off-budget sources and extraordinary levies.

Another dimension of state military expenditure which, like the maintaining of a credible naval deterrent, formed an indispensable part of overall provision, involved both initial and ongoing costs for fortress construction and repair.

A dispassionate assessment of the Ottomans’ situation – whether in the spheres of naval activism and military construction reviewed above or in terms of their general strategic position – reveals that even in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, regarded as an unsurpassed era of prosperity and imperial success, the Ottomans had to prioritize, make choices and use their resources carefully.

Both distance and other geographical conditions strongly favoured a pattern of Ottoman military involvement oriented to the Balkans and Trans-Danubia in preference to the zone beyond the Euphrates. The limits to Ottoman expansion overland followed a similar logic to that which limited the Ottomans’ involvement in wars on the sea in the sixteenth century. A study by Pryor focusing on the Ottomans’ presence in the Mediterranean and contingent factors influencing the level of their naval activity has shown conclusively how physical, geographical and environmental constraints imposed by tides, prevailing winds and other natural forces defined the role they were able to play. Although Ottoman intentions in the Mediterranean had been signalled by the conquest of Rhodes in 1522, it was only through a patient and gradual building up of supply bases, especially in the Aegean – a process continued in phases over the course of an entire century between the late 1460s and the fall of Chios in 1566 – that they were able to position themselves to give adequate support to fleet operations in the mid- Mediterranean. According to Pryor’s study, position was of equal importance to advanced technology and seamanship in determining the limits of the possible on the sea.

The supply challenge in land wars, because of the exponentially expanded scale of operations, was orders of magnitude greater. According to calculations recorded by Katib Chelebi, a typical Ottoman fleet in the mid-seventeenth century consisted of only 46 vessels (40 galleys and 6 maonas), whose crew complement was 15,800 men, of whom roughly two-thirds (10,500) were oarsmen, and the remainder (5,300) fighters. The numbers of armed soldiers and support staff committed to land wars needed to be in the order of four to five times greater than this. In addition, while at sea each ship tended to operate as a self-contained unit, whereas on land army forces shared a collective destiny. Stormy weather at sea affected the opposing fleets equally, and in extreme conditions forced both sides to retreat to their home bases without giving battle.



A northern European cog with high sides, a straight prow, a flat keel and a single square sail. From a manuscript of ca. 1270.

Maritime power played a vital part in the Third Crusade because of the transportation of both men and supplies to the East. In addition, control of the sea was crucial in the fall of Acre in July 1191, and it enabled Richard I to recapture part of the Palestinian coast.

The Arabs only began to build warships after early Muslim rulers saw that they were needed to make conquests in the Mediterranean. They employed local experts to build and crew the fleets that defeated the Byzantines off Egypt in 654, and attacked islands such as Cyprus, Crete, Rhodes, and Sicily. In the late seventh century the Muslim governor of North Africa established shipyards at Tunis and built more than 100 ships. In the 840s a North African and Spanish Muslim fleet captured most of Sicily from Byzantium. In 904 an Arab fleet sacked Thessalonica, and throughout the tenth century Muslim ships dominated the Mediterranean. Although Muslim-owned warships were large, heavy, and slow, they were also stable and all-season vessels, unlike the Christian-owned types, which did not sail the Mediterranean in the winter. Most ships from Muslim territory operated as traders when they were not acting as warships and were hired by rulers on a freelance basis.

By the twelfth century improved western European ships, especially those of traders from the Italian cities of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa, were competing to control the Mediterranean. The most common warship was the long, narrow galley that sat low in the water and had the flexibility of oar- or sail-power, depending on the weather. The galley could be used for trade.

From 1177 Saladin began to improve the Egyptian fleet in order to defend his coasts from Christian ships and to attack ports of the Christian East. He imported timber from Europe and tried to recruit suitable crews. (In 1179 the church banned Christians from serving as captains or pilots in Muslim vessels.) Saladin’s improvements alarmed the Franks, who feared he would attack pilgrim ships and the crusader states-as he did in 1182, when at least thirty galleys unsuccessfully attacked Beirut.

After his victories of 1187 Saladin used his fleet to control the Syria-Palestine coastline. Only Admiral Margarit of Sicily resisted him in the north, while Conrad of Montferrat’s fleet at Tyre defeated him in the south. In his attempt to evade the crusader blockade of Acre during the siege of 1189-91, Saladin even disguised vessels as Christian ships (by putting pigs on board). The crusaders used ships to transport troops and supplies and to attack Muslim fortresses, erecting siege towers on ships to create mobile fighting platforms. Conrad defeated the Muslim fleet at Acre and Saladin’s naval supremacy finally ended in June 1191 when King Richard I arrived with a large fleet of warships and transports. They carried supplies up and down the coast, protected the crusaders marching along it, kept Richard in contact with coastal bases even when Saladin blocked the road, and enabled him to relieve Jaffa quickly in August 1192.

After Saladin’s death in 1193 Egypt’s rulers paid less attention to naval power, but still needed a fleet both for defense and to attack Christian settlements. Later, the Mamluk sultan Baibars I built up a fleet and in 1271 attacked Cyprus. In 1302 Egypt captured the island of Arwad from the Templars. Further north, Turkish ships raided the Greek islands, and in the fifteenth century the Ottoman Turks emerged as the greatest naval power in the Mediterranean.