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H - 191 : Cibyrrhaeot ... What? Where is that?

Updated: Jan 22

The Byzantine Tokmar Castle which guarded the Hills west of Silifke (Seleucia)

When we tell people that we're sailing this summer along the coast of Cibyrrhaeot, they look a bit puzzled. “Cibyrrhaeot … What? And where would that be?” Nobody seems to know. You won’t find the name on a modern map. No tourist leaflets talk about it. We had no idea either when we sailed along this coast in 2018. But we noticed the high number of castles – something we mistakenly attributed to the time of the Crusades.  

There were 14 Themes. (Provinces) in Anatolia - Cibyrrhaeot was classified as borderland


Cibyrrhaeot is the Anatolian coast line between Bodrum and Mersin. It was one of Byzantium’s 29 Themes (provinces) and its first line of defence against any seaborne Arab invasion. Byzantium’s fleet was stationed in Cibyra Minor, half way between Side and Alanya. Over time, Byzantium fortified all important points of its front-line province. The castles in Kiz Kalesi, Mamure and Kokova we visited in 2018 were part of this effort. This year, we will see Softa Castle and Cibyra Minor. Climbing castles high over the coast line keeps us fit.

Sofia Castle near Bozyazi where we enter Turkey after the Crossing from Cyprus


Most people who look at the timeline of Arab Expansion in the 7th century AD are surprised how quickly and from seemingly nowhere it happened. The first raids into Syria started in 632 AD. By 674 AD, Constantinople was besieged by an Arab fleet. Within 40 years, Arab warriors had conquered Iraq, Persia, Syria, Palestine, the Levant, Armenia and Egypt. They also defeated the Sassanid Persians creating an empire larger than ancient Rome.


The Expansion of the Caliphate from the 7th to the 9th Century

At closer look, their success is less surprising. For over half a century, Byzantium and Persia were at war (572 – 628 AD). Both sides had their victories but eventually were so exhausted that they had to sign a peace treaty.  Neither had the manpower nor the financial resources to continue. The Arab tribes, many of Christian faith, fought as mercenaries on both sides. When not paid, they raided to get what they were owed. Exactly what the Germanic Goth, Franks, Burgundians and Vandals did 200 years earlier in Western Rome.


Battle of Yarmuk in 638 when the Byzantine Army was defeated by a smaller Arab Force

What started as raids morphed with each success into a broader campaign. By 635 AD, Arab armies had beaten what was left of the Sassanids. At the same time they increased their incursions into Byzantine territory. The Roman Emperor had to respond. He mobilized his last resources to field a new army. Historians disagree on how many men he could muster. The estimates go from 15’000 to 80’000. I would err on the lower side. The army was as byzantine as it goes. It was composed of Slaves, Franks, Georgians, Armenians, Lombards, Avars, Christian Arabs and even some Turks. The quickly assembled force did not well and lost the battle of Yarmuk (northern Jordan) in 638 AD. The Arab warriors were fewer but more agile. With the disintegration of the Byzantine Army, all doors were open now. Arab cavalry conquered Syria, Palestine and the Levant within a few months. Most towns simply surrendered. The new Arab overlords kept to themselves and let people go after their daily business. On numerous occasions, they were welcomed with open arms. Islam at the time was not codified yet. This came 200 years later. For most Christians, the new religion felt like a different interpretation of the bible. They knew Arabs for centuries.


The Caliphate's Mediterranean Campaigns in from the 7th to the 9th Century

But back to Cibyrrhaeot, Byzantium’s maritime border province. With the conquest of Acre, Tripoli, Alexandria and Tyre, the Caliphs won control over ports, shipyards and remains of the Byzantine fleet. They did not have enough manpower to attack over land through the Taurus mountains (638 AD), but now had the capacity to build a fleet. Within ten years, they built enough ships to raid Cyprus (649 AD), win their first sea battle off Alexandria (652 AD) and route the Byzantine Fleet near Antalya - Finike (655 AD). Both sides had 200 ships. The way to Constantinople lay open. By 674 AD the Byzantine Capital was besieged by an Arab fleet which anchored in Cyzicus. We stayed there on our first night during our 2020 trip


Picture of Greek Fire from the Madrid Skylitzes (painted 500 years after the event)

Three years later, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV finally destroyed the Arab fleet, using the new weapon of Greek Fire. But it was a close call. That an Arab fleet was for 3 years logistically supported around Anatolia was alarming. Byzantium decided not only to build a much larger fleet, but also to fortify all major ports along the coast, protected by many castles. When an Arab fleet sailed by, the Byzantines would wait until it passed and then attacked the slower supply ships. The Byzantine Fleet was stationed in Cibyra Minor.


The Kiz Kalesi Castle was one of the major Byzantine strong points in Cibyrrhaeot

Fortified ports and castles were no match though when a larger Arab land force was on the way. After a successful Byzantine raid in the upper Euphrates Valley, the Abbasid Caliphate retaliated against Amorium, the birthplace of the ruling dynasty in Constantinople. Having gathered an army of 80’000, the Caliph moved against Amorium which was strongly fortified and garrisoned by 30’000 soldiers. Through treason, the Arab soldiers were able to enter the down, sacked it and leveled it in as much as possible. Amorium recovered though and is full of Byzantine archeology from early 9th to 11th century. It was finally abandoned when the Seljuks arrived in the early 13th century.   


We knew almost nothing about Amorium when visiting in 2018 but were puzzled by its size

The defensive system of Cibyrrhaeot remained in place until the Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantine Emperor at Manzikert in 1078 AD. Slowly but steadily they advanced and settled into inner Anatolia. By 1207 they had reached the Mediterranean in Antalya and took one fort after the other. There was virtually no defence. By 1204, the 4th Crusade had reached and sacked Constantinople. The Byzantine Empire was defenseless.


Mamure Castle was built by Byzantium but later remodelled by the Seljuk Rulers

What is interesting is why none of this is mentioned in any modern description of the Anatolian Mediterranean coast. Feels almost as if this part of history was purged. Turkish Authorities go out of the way to preserve ancient Carian, Lydian, Roman or Seljuk sites. But the Byzantine past seems to have drifted away and the authorities happy to leave it this way.


Located between Side and Alanya, the former Byzantine Naval Harbor of Kibyra Minor is today a tourist resort -


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