Battle of Alexandretta

Battle of Alexandretta
Part of the Arab–Byzantine Wars
Datelate spring 971
Locationnear Alexandretta
Result Byzantine victory, raising of the Fatimid siege of Antioch
Byzantine Empire Fatimid Caliphate
Commanders and leaders
Nicholas Aras
Ibn az-Zayyat
unknown 4,000
Casualties and losses
unknown very heavy
Alexandretta (now İskenderun) within modern Turkey

The Battle of Alexandretta was the first clash between the forces of the Byzantine Empire and the Fatimid Caliphate in Syria. It was fought in early 971 near Alexandretta, while the main Fatimid army was besieging Antioch, which the Byzantines had captured two years previously. The Byzantines, led by one of Emperor John I Tzimiskes' household eunuchs, lured a 4,000-strong Fatimid detachment to attack their empty encampment and then attacked them from all sides, destroying the Fatimid force. The defeat at Alexandretta, coupled with the Qarmatian invasion of southern Syria, forced the Fatimids to lift the siege and secured Byzantine control of Antioch and northern Syria.


On 28 October 969, Antioch fell to the Byzantine commander Michael Bourtzes.[1] The fall of the great metropolis of northern Syria was soon followed by a treaty between the Byzantines and the Hamdanid Emirate of Aleppo, which made Aleppo a tributary vassal and handed over to the Byzantine Empire the entirety of the former Abbasid frontier zones (thughur) in Cilicia and Upper Mesopotamia, as well as the coastal strip of Syria between the Mediterranean Sea and the Orontes River until the environs of Tripoli, Arqa, and Shayzar.[2][3] Byzantine control of this area was initially only theoretical, and the murder of the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros II Phokas in December 969 threatened to nullify Byzantine gains in the region.[4]

Further south, the troops of the Fatimids of Ifriqiya, under the command of Jawhar al-Siqilli, had just conquered Egypt from its Ikhshidid rulers. Seized with the spirit of jihad and aiming to legitimize their rule, the Fatimids used the Byzantine advance on Antioch and the "infidel" threat as a major item in their propaganda aimed towards the newly conquered region, along with promises to restore just government.[5] The news of Antioch's fall helped to persuade the Fatimids to allow Jawhar to send Ja'far ibn Falah to invade Palestine. There, Ja'far defeated the last Ikhshidid remnants under al-Hasan ibn Ubayd Allah ibn Tughj and took Ramla in May 970, before occupying Damascus in November.[6]

Siege of Antioch and battle at Alexandretta

Almost as soon as Damascus submitted, Ja'far ibn Falah entrusted one of his ghilman, named Futuh ("Victories"), to carry out the promised jihad against the Byzantines,[7] although the 15th-century compilation Uyun al-Akhbar by the Yemeni historian Imad al-Din Idris ibn al-Hasan also mentions a certain Abdallah ibn Ubayd Allah al-Husayni Akhu Muslim as commander.[8] Futuh assembled a large army of Kutama Berbers, strengthened with levies from Palestine and southern Syria, and moved to besiege Antioch in December 970. The Byzantine writer Kedrenos claims that the Fatimid army numbered a clearly much exaggerated 100,000 men, but Imad al-Din records the number as 20,000 men.[9] The Fatimids laid siege to the city, but its inhabitants offered stiff resistance, and Ibn Falah had to send "army after army", in the description of the 14th-century historian Abu Bakr ibn al-Dawadari, apparently from the levies raised in southern Syria, to its reinforcement. Following the account of the 15th-century Egyptian al-Maqrizi, it was with these additional troops, which he puts at 4,000 men, that it became possible to completely halt the city's resupply by intercepting the caravans headed towards it.[10]

In the meantime, Nikephoros' murderer and successor, John I Tzimiskes, was unable to intervene in person in the east due to the more menacing invasion of the Balkans by Sviatoslav I of Kiev.[4][11] As a result, he sent a small force under a trusted eunuch of his household, the patrikios Nicholas, who according to the contemporary Leo the Deacon was experienced in battle, to relieve the siege.[12] In the meantime, the siege of Antioch had continued for five months over winter and into spring, without result. At some point, a Fatimid detachment—according to Ibn al-Dawadari 4,000 men under a Berber chieftain called Aras and a former emir of Tarsus, Ibn az-Zayyat—moved north against Alexandretta, where the Byzantine relief army had camped. Informed of their approach, the Byzantine commander vacated the camp and placed his troops in ambush. Finding the enemy encampment deserted, the Fatimid troops began to plunder it, heedless of anything else. At that moment, Nicholas launched a surprise attack from all sides and the Fatimid force disintegrated; most of the Muslim army perished, but Aras with Ibn az-Zayyat managed to escape.[9]

The defeat at Alexandretta was a major blow to Fatimid morale. Coupled with news of an advance against Damascus of the Qarmatians, a radical Isma'ili group originating from Eastern Arabia, Ibn Falah ordered Futuh to raise the siege of Antioch in early July 971. The army returned to Damascus, whence the various contingents dispersed to their home districts.[9]


The fist clash between the eastern Mediterranean's two foremost powers[11] thus ended in a Byzantine victory, which on the one hand strengthened the Byzantine position in northern Syria and on the other weakened the Fatimids, both in lives lost and in morale and reputation. As the historian Paul Walker writes, had Ibn Falah "possessed the troops and the prestige lost at Alexandretta, he might have resisted the onrush of the Qarmatians. The armies of the local districts might have aided him had they not dispersed".[13] In the event, Ja'far was unable to resist the Qarmatians and their Arab Bedouin allies; making the fatal choice of confronting them in the desert, he was defeated and killed in battle in August 971.[14] It was a defeat that led to the near total collapse of Fatimid control in southern Syria and Palestine, and the Qarmatian invasion of Egypt. The Fatimids were victorious before Fustat, however, and eventually managed to drive the Qarmatians out of Syria and restore their control over the restive province.[15] The Byzantines remained quiescent until the great campaigns led by John Tzimiskes in person in 974–975. Although the emperor advanced deep in Muslim lands and even threatened to take Jerusalem, his death in January 976 lifted the Byzantine danger for the Fatimids: the Byzantines would never again try to advance far beyond their northern Syrian possessions around Antioch.[16][17]


  1. Honigmann 1935, p. 94.
  2. Honigmann 1935, pp. 94–97.
  3. Treadgold 1997, p. 507.
  4. 1 2 Honigmann 1935, p. 97.
  5. Brett 2001, pp. 295–308.
  6. Brett 2001, pp. 308, 312–313.
  7. Brett 2001, p. 313.
  8. Walker 1972, pp. 433–434.
  9. 1 2 3 Walker 1972, pp. 431–439.
  10. Walker 1972, pp. 435–437.
  11. 1 2 Walker 1972, p. 432.
  12. Walker 1972, pp. 432–433.
  13. Walker 1972, pp. 439–440.
  14. Brett 2001, pp. 313–314.
  15. Brett 2001, pp. 314–315, 346.
  16. Brett 2001, pp. 331, 346.
  17. Honigmann 1935, pp. 98–103.


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