Arabic, Greek, and Coptic documents from the Umayyad period (661-750) indicate the contribution of Christian Egyptians, including Copts, in the building and the manning of the Muslim fleet. The extent of this participation is unclear, since these documents contain sparse and fragmentary information, and are insufficient for a thorough study of this topic. It is evident that the Arabs, in their effort to counter Byzantine maritime supremacy in the Mediterranean, made use of available skilled labor in building or refitting naval vessels after their conquest of Egypt in 641.

A number of Arabic medieval accounts—including those of al- Bakri, al-Raqiq al-Qayrawani, and al-Tjani—report that the ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (685-705) ordered his brother ‘Abd al- Aziz (governor of Egypt, 685-705) to dispatch to Hassan ibn al-Nu‘man (commander of the forces in ) one thousand Copts with their families to help with the construction of the shipyard and the building of the fleet in Tunis. This is the only historical text in which Copts are specifically mentioned. Other texts either refer to or to non-Muslim Egyptians in general, or include information that implies that Copts are meant.

The chronicle of the Byzantine historian Theophanes (d. 818) comprises an account of the Arab naval assault on in 717-718, during the rule of Emperor III (717-741). It states that the main fleet sailed from Egypt and was later reinforced from (Tunisia). The Arab assault ended in disaster not only because the used Greek fire but also, according to Theophanes (p. 89), because the “Egyptians . . . took the merchant ships’ light boats, and . . . fled to the city,” thus providing the Byzantines with information about the Muslim fleet. “Egyptians” is a reference to non-Arab sailors, and the mention of “merchant ships” in this passage indicates that Christian sailors were manning supply ships. The question of their actual participation in the fighting is left unanswered.

A number of relevant Greek and Coptic from Aphrodito, the majority dating back to the governorship of Qurrah ibn Sharik (709-714) in Egypt, have been reproduced by H. I. Bell and W. E. in the fourth volume of in the . These documents leave no doubt that Christian manpower was used in the maintenance of the fleet. In 1350 (dated 710, pp. 24-25), Qurrah requests Basilius, pagarch of Aphrodito, to supply information regarding the whereabouts of sailors who were part of a fleet that sailed to North Africa under the orders of ‘Ata ibn Rafi‘.

The latter was the commander of a raid against Sicily in 703-704. In Papyrus 1353 (dated 710, pp. 27-28), the same governor orders Basilius to dispatch sailors and shipbuilders, probably to Alexandria. Papyri 1355, 1371, 1376, 1386, 1393, 1451, 1452, and 1456, all Greek, contain requisitions for sailors, workmen, money, or provisions, or for all of these together, to meet the needs of the fleet. This is confirmed by the contents of some of the Coptic papyri in the same collection that are reproduced by Crum (pp. 435-450).

Christian contributions to Arab naval works continued after the fall of the in 750. SAWIRUS IBN AL-MUQAFFA‘ (tenth century), bishop of al- and first compiler of the , complains of the conscription of Christian sailors by the governor of Egypt during the rule of the Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil (847-861), following a Byzantine attack on Damietta in 853. He states that Christian workmen took part in building and refitting ships, and that Christian sailors were forced to join the fleet, receiving no pay and being provided food rations only. This implies that Christian conscripts who were in the service of the fleet were usually paid only in kind for their labor, an interpretation that is supported by the content of Coptic Papyrus 1501, edited by Crum.


  • Greek Papyri in the British Museum. Catalogue, with Texts, Vol. 4, ed. H. I. Bell, with Appendix of Coptic Papyri, ed. W. E. Crum. London, 1910.
  • Lewis, A. R. Naval Power and Trade in the Mediterranean. pp. 60-75. Princeton, 1951.
  • Sebag, P. “Les travaux maritimes de Hasan [sic] Ibn Nu‘man.” Revue de l’Institut des belles-lettres arabes (Tunis) 33 (1970):41-56.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *