Phoenician Merchant Ship

The best navigators and shipbuilders of the ancient world in 1500 – 1000 years B. C. were Phoenicians who lived on the Eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The famous Libyan cedar, which covered slopes of their motherland, gave an excellent material for building of strong seafaring ships. The picture depicts a Phoenician merchant ship dated 1500 year B. C. This was a sufficiently capacious vessel with powerful posts and two stern oars. Twig gratings were strengthened along the boards of the ship to protect the deck cargo. The mast carried a square sail fastened to two curved yards of an Egyptian type. A large amphora made of burnt clay was erected on the stem to keep drinkable water. Phoenician helmsmen contributed to the navy science introducing separation of a horizon circle into 360 degrees and they composed reliable celestial reference-points for future generations of seafarers.


Old Depiction of a Dromon (Dromond)

After the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire the struggle on the Mediterranean Sea was held between Byzantine and the Arab world. The dromon became the main type of ships at that time and besides, both opposing sides used them. She was a war ship who dismissed biremes and liburnas. Firstly the dromon was launched about the 6th century A. D. and was used in different variants up to the 12th century. We little know about this ship, however the Byzantine manuscript dated by the year of 850 contains an engraving with the dromon of that period. Her construction resembles that of the bireme with two rows of rowers. She had two masts with Latin sails on them. But the first vessels of such a type had only one row of rowers and they looked like a liburna with a single mast. Later on two- and three-masted dromons appeared. Their length was varied from 30 to 50 m, the width – from 6 to 7 m. There were helms on the stern – one at each side of a board. The ships had sharp forms and were sufficiently fast. The crew consisted of from 100 to 300 people depending on dimensions of a ship. There was another ship in Byzantine called heladion, but we know quite less about her than about the dromon. The dromon’s keel ended by an underwater ram just like for the bireme. The main weapons on the dromon were catapults, which threw fiery shells at a great distance. On the bow and the stern parts of the vessel there were raised decks for bowmen. Powerful and heavy catapults had a possibility to throw shells with the weight of 500 kg at the distance of 1 000 m. Dromons were also armed by light flame-throwers (syphonopho-rami), which flooded enemy ships by fluid burning mass (Greek fire) consisted of tar, sulphur and nitre dissolved in oil. At slight contact with water this fluid blazed up. Such a fire only flamed up in extinguishing by water and it was put out only by wine, vinegar or sand. The precise consistence of such a mixture as well as a construction of weapons did not come to us. Dromons were defended by metal armour against enemy’s rams.

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.


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.