The Greek Fire
The Arab world in the late 6th Century and afterwards, were obsessed with taking the Christine capitol of the world at Constantinople, Turkey. This obsession happened after Mohammed the Prophet claimed to be the anointed one in the Koran began to spread Islam throughout the Middle East. Rome was on the decline, while the Persian and Christian armies had fought numerous wars for dominance and now were exhausted. Each had lost a lot of real estate and Islam would rapidly fill in those areas.
For ten years, Omar (a successor to Mohammed) oversaw Islam’s expansion into Byzantine territory, Persia, Syria, modern Iraq, and Egypt. But, soon, he was killed and that is when Islam had two factions: Sunni and Shiite. Ali, Mohammed's nephew, led the Shiites while a new faction, Sunni, led by Muawiya. He was determine to conquer Constantinople. At various times in the mid-late 6th Century, his armies on land and sea, tried to do this. They failed. Their most determined attempt was in August 717-18.
The Arab army was around 80,000 men and their navy totaled 1200+ ships. Each time the Arab navy tried to enter the Golden Horn area they were prevented by two things: A chain that was dragged across the entrance to the waterway where the Christian naval bases, and, Greek fire. When the Arab navy approached the chain they halted further advance. The Christian naval ships, armed with the secret weapon, sailed out to confront the Arab ships.
What is the Greek Fire?
In the most innovative form, it was an engineer, Kallinikos, a Jewish man who had fled the Romans in Syria. Perhaps, its name, Greek Fire, comes from the fact he may have been Greek in origin. In any case, he produced a real variant to the already existing secret. His device had a canister filled with a flammable liquid that was heated by fire and then when the pressure was adequate, it was shot out of a tube syphon.
The canister and fire was in the front hull of the ship under the deck and the tube syphon protruded either from the front of the ship or by some accounts, a tube to the top deck where the syphon was.
Like many weapons, when it was first used like this in 678 and 717-718, the shock effect was dramatic. As the Christian ship approached its enemy, when within about 30-40 feet, the liquid fire exploded across and onto the water setting the ship and men ablaze. It was a crude flamethrower. This may have been a one shot weapon or not, but the Christian navy appears to have at least five of these devices in the 678 and by 717, as many as 40. Once the secret weapon was revealed, the substance formula continued to be a secret. Even when the Bulgarians in 814 captured the weapon systems, they had no clue how to use them (much like how the Allies were when Hitler's V2 rockets were discovered in 1945). Like many innovative systems, opposing forces tried to copy them in various degrees after their introduction.
The unique formula of the Greek Fire remains unknown. But, experts have narrowed it down to a combination of Quicklime (Calcium Oxide), various oil resins found at the time mixed crude oil from wells. It was similar to the modern Napalm used in Vietnam during that war.
The shock impact was enormous. Along with the intense fire storm on the ship, it would set anything on fire upon impact, even the water. Upon hitting the water, a gas would be produced due to chemical reaction causing coughing and breathing difficulties on the crews. The liquid was heated to at least 300 degrees and more before firing and caused severe burns on the crew. The burning lasted for sometime, in fact, it could only be put out by sand or vinegar, which ships did not carry. It was unstoppable. Adding to the shock impact is the fact that most of the crews aboard the Arab ships were slaves or non-believers who quickly panicked and fled.
Thus, this weapon aboard even a few ships could easily create a panic to withdraw among the much greater in size Arab navy. In war, when there is a loss of morale among the men, things can go bad quickly, Even in later encounters, as in 717, 718, when the Arabs really tried to take the city, their navy, knowing of this weapon, still were defeated by the much smaller Christian naval force. Many thought it was divine intervention or proof whose side God was on.
As word about this "Greek Fire" spread, it helped keep Constantinople safe for years to come.
- Second Arab Siege of Constantinople in 717–718 | Weapons and Warfare
Date: August 717–15 August 718. Location: on the Sea of Marmara, modern Istanbul. Forces Engaged: Byzantine: unknown. Commander: Emperor Leo the Isaurian. Muslim: 210,000. Commander: Maslama. Importance: Defeat of Muslim forces in their first serious