Battle of the Masts

Battle of the Masts
Part of the Arab–Byzantine wars
Locationoff the Lycian coast at Phoenice, Mediterranean Sea
Result Decisive Rashidun Caliphate victory
Rashidun Caliphate Byzantine Empire
Commanders and leaders
Abu'l-Awar Constans II
unknown unknown
Casualties and losses
heavy heavy

The Battle of the Masts (Arabic: معركة ذات الصواري, romanized Dhat al-Sawari) or Battle of Phoenix was a crucial naval battle fought in 655 between the Muslim Arabs, led by Abdallah ibn Sa'd ibn Abi'l Sarh and the Byzantine fleet under the personal command of Emperor Constans II. The battle is considered to be "the first decisive conflict of Islam on the deep."[1]


In the 650s, the Arab Caliphate finished off the Sasanian Empire and continued its successful expansion into the Eastern Roman Empire's territories. In 645, Abdallah ibn Sa'd was made Governor of Egypt by his foster brother Rashidun Caliph Uthman, replacing the semi-independent 'Amr ibn al-'As. Uthman permitted Muawiyah to raid the island of Cyprus in 649 and the success of that campaign set the stage for the undertaking of naval activities by the Government of Egypt. Abdallah ibn Sa'd built a strong navy and proved to be a skilled naval commander. Under him the Muslim navy won a number of naval victories including repulsing a Byzantine counter-attack on Alexandria in 646.[2]

In 655, Muawiyah undertook an expedition in Cappadocia while his fleet, under the command of Abu'l-Awar, advanced along the southern coast of Anatolia. It seems that Emperor Constans considered the naval part of the invasion the more dangerous, for he embarked against it with a large fleet.

The battle

The two forces met off the coast of Mount Phoenix in Lycia,[3] near the harbour of Phoenix (modern Finike). According to the 9th century chronicler Theophanes the Confessor, as the Emperor was preparing for battle, on the previous night he dreamed that he was in Thessalonica; awaking he related the dream to an interpreter of dreams who said: Emperor, would that you had not slept nor seen that dream for your presence in Thessalonica - according to the interpreter, victory inclined to the Emperor's foes.[4][5]

As the ships came into battle range Constans raised the Cross and had his men sing psalms. The Arabs responded by raising the Crescent and trying to drown out the psalms by chanting passages from the Koran. Both the Cross and Crescent remained mounted on the masts throughout the battle giving the naval conflict its name.[6]

The Arabs were victorious in battle, although losses were heavy for both sides, and Constans barely escaped to Constantinople.[7] According to Theophanes, he managed to make his escape by exchanging uniforms with one of his officers.[4]


Although the Arab fleet retreated after its victory,[7] the Battle of the Masts was a significant milestone in the history of the Mediterranean, Islam and the Byzantine Empire, as it established the superiority of the Muslims at sea as well as on land. For the next four centuries, the Mediterranean would be a battleground between Byzantines and Muslims. In the aftermath of this disaster, however, the Byzantines were granted a respite due to the outbreak of a civil war among the Muslims.


  1. Ridpath, John Clark. Ridpath's Universal History, Merrill & Baker, Vol. 12, New York, p. 483.
  2. Carl F. Petry (ed.), The Cambridge History of Egypt, Volume One, Islamic Egypt 640-1517, Cambridge University Press, 1998, 67. ISBN 0-521-47137-0
  3. Probably Mount Olympos south of Antalya, see "Olympus Phoinikous Mons" in Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, map 65, D4.
  4. 1 2 Theophanes the Confessor, Chronographia, in J.P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol.108, col.705
  5. Thessalonike can be read as «θὲς ἄλλῳ νὶκην», i.e., «give victory to another». See Bury, John Bagnell (1889), A history of the later Roman empire from Arcadius to Irene, Adamant Media Corporation, 2005, p.290. ISBN 1-4021-8368-2
  6. Part Great Sea Battles Have Played in History, New York Daily Tribune, 4 June 1905.
  7. 1 2 Warren Treadgold, A history of the Byzantine State and Society, Stanford University Press 1997, 314. ISBN 0-8047-2630-2

Coordinates: 36°16′55″N 30°15′39″E / 36.281898°N 30.260732°E / 36.281898; 30.260732

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