The Arab Shalandi


When the Arabs first began building a galley fleet in the mid-7th century they drew on the shipbuilding traditions and peoples of the seafaring communities of Syria and Egypt. The Coptic (Egyptian Christian) seafarers of Alexandria and Damietta had been building ships for their Byzantine masters, and did the same for their new rulers. They also adapted the warships they produced to suit the needs of the Arabs, who placed a greater emphasis on the use of marines than did the Byzantines, as the Arabs felt they couldn’t wholly rely on their Coptic oarsmen. What little we can glean from various sources suggests that 7th-century Arab galleys – shalandiyyat – were higher-sided than their Byzantine counterparts, to create a better fighting platform. These craft were either monoreme or bireme galleys – both types are mentioned – with full decks covering the lower tier of oarsmen. These vessels were single-masted, and rigged with a single lateen sail.


The tendency to build Arab warships with higher sides than their Byzantine counterparts led to the development of the musattah. This variant of the shalandī was a bireme galley, fitted with two masts, each carrying a large lateen sail. As with Byzantine galleys these masts could be unshipped when required – usually before battle commenced – and were laid out along the deck, supported on mast crutches. Unlike on Byzantine warships, it appears this could be done at the deck level. Arab sources mention that fighting platforms were integral to the hull structure, and were located in the bow, and amidships. The stern area was also raised up slightly above the main deck, presumably to protect the two stern oars, one carried on each quarter. If catapults or naphtha throwers developed from Greek Fire siphons were carried, they would have been mounted in the bow platform, with lighter projectile weapons carried amidships.

Shalandi [1] is the name given by the Arabs to a special type of Byzantine war vessel. Agius enlightens us here with a further insight into Arab shipbuilding, classifies the different types of ships used by Muslims, and discusses the scarcity of wood in the region. The shalandi seems to be originally a Byzantine warship and the name apparently derives from the Greek. It seems that the shalandi was decked and that we can see here a difference from other contemporary ship types. The Fatimids ordered the buildings of shalandis in Egypt [2] in order to be competitive with the Byzantines. However, it seems from my point of view that the shalandis were as powerless as the rest of the Fatimid navy against the Crusaders. We do not hear of the shalandis in later periods and especially not in Mamluk times. But the Mamluks did not have a navy worthy of the name anyhow.

Whatever they were called, these warships seemed to have shared the same basic characteristics as their various Greek dromōn equivalents: they ranged roughly from 35 to 40m (115 to 130ft) long and up to about 6m (20ft) of beam, while sporting two lateen sails, two stern quarter rudders and around 100 oars.18 The oared horse transport of the Arabs was normally known as a tarida, a name later adopted by Latin mariners for their own horse-carrying galleys. In addition, it is thought, based on some documents of the Cairo Geniza (‘storeroom’) of the Ben Ezra Synagogue of Fustat, that the Arabs also had some sort of trireme called a koumbaria, which was said to be slow and cumbersome. And a Muslim version of the ‘fireship’ (i.e., one capable of launching some form of ‘Greek fire’), called the harraqa, made its appearance in the ninth century. It may have lacked Byzantine-style siphons, however, relying instead on catapults and grenades to deploy its incendiary.19 In the same general timeframe the dromōn is also seen to have inspired the principal fighting ship of such emerging Italian maritime powers as the Normans, Pisans, Genoese and Venetians: the galea. Enlarged and updated as a speedy bireme galley, its oarsmen rowed alla sensile – that is, each man manipulating his own oar in a stand-and-sit stroke fashion from the main deck.

Arab Navies

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.

[1] Ibn Mangli explained also the meaning of the name of Leo the Wise, which is a name of the lion in Greek. In another place he referred to a sort of the Byzantine ships which was called Dromon. He called this ship in Arabic pronunciation Adromons or Adromon. He stated that is a Greek word and means al-Mashaya, i. e. the voyager, which was the suitable ship for the fleet’s admiral.

Ibn Mankli, Al-Ahkam, p. 122. Ibn Mangli uses the term adromon in its arabized form for the average “ship in line”. He didn’t identify it with the Moslem type of ships known as shalandi or shini. Ahrweiler points out that in the 9th and 10th centuries there was no deference between the warships, and that these terms were indiscriminately used in Byzantine texts. Ahrweiler, H., Byzance et la mer, Paris, 1966, p. 415; Christides, Naval warfare, p. 140. Christides believes that the Arabic terms shalandi or shini were likewise synonyms in Arabic texts by the 10th century and roughly corresponded to the regular type of the Byzantine Dromon. When the Arabic sources refer to average Byzantine warfare, they usually call them shalandi or shini. See, Christides, Naval warfare, pp. 140-141.

[2] Arabic sources of the period use terms such as qārib (pl. qawārib) for small boats and also for galleys, shīnī (pl. shawānī) and ghurāb (pl. ‘aghriba/ghirbān/‘aghrub) for galleys; markab (pl. marākib) and qiț‘a (pl. qița‘) for vessels in general, but often with reference to war galleys; safīna (pl. sufun, safā‘in) for vessels in general, but often for transport ships; musattah (pl. musattahāt) for transport ships; bațsha (pl. buțash) for large sailing ships; ‘ushari (pl. ‘ushāriyyāt) for transport galleys, tarrīda (pl. tarā‘id) for horse transports, and harrāqa (pl. harrāqāt) for fire ships, as well as loan words such as shalandī (pl. shalandiyyat) from the Byzantine chelandion, frequently used for Byzantine war ships but also for galleys built in Egypt.

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