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Though the crusades are numbered it would appear that the Pisans zero crusade was truly the first as it preceded the First Crusade by nearly 80 years. And from that time forward the fortunes of Pisa rose to incredible heights! 	Source: Lunstream / Adobe Stock

Was Pisa’s 1016 Sardinia Expedition the First Crusade of Them All?


During the First Crusade, the city state of Pisa, like many other European powers, was moved by the pleas of Pope Urban II, who in 1095 ordered the Christian kingdoms of Europe to launch a holy crusade against Islam and re-capture the divine city of Jerusalem. Led by their enigmatic leader Daibert, Pisan chroniclers were characteristically praiseworthy of their army’s efforts in the east, proclaiming how it was Pisan bravery and might that had caused Jerusalem to fall. But in reality, the Pisans were too late. Daibert and his armada only reached Laodicea on the Turkish coast two months after Jerusalem was seized. But had the Pisans already undertaken the first crusade nearly 80 years earlier?

In 1016, Pisan forces moved against the Muslims of Denia on Sardinia, hoping to re-capture the island from Islamic occupiers. Historians point to the Sardinian expedition as a “proto-crusade,” as it had all the trademarks of the crusading tradition. It also marked the start of Pisan supremacy in the Mediterranean, and their exalted place among the ranks of the first crusaders.

Build Up to the Sardinia Expedition: The Pisans

By the time of the First Crusade, the city of Pisa was a multicultural and economically powerful entity presiding over the Mediterranean. The Duomo Cathedral, completed in 1092 a few years before the First Crusade, encapsulated the wealth and glory of Pisa with its smorgasbord of international influences. Gigantic marble columns linked the rising city state to the architectural greatness of antiquity, and the stylistic variety of its grand facades echoed the ageless artistic triumphs of legendary civilizations from North Africa, Spain, and Byzantium. The composition of the people was no different in diversity, as the Italian monk Donizone noted the assortment of ethnicities on show in Pisa:

“Whoever goes to Pisa sees monsters that come from the sea, Pagans, Turks, Libians, and even Parthians and dark Chaldeans going up and down along her shores.”

However, Pisa was not always a Mediterranean powerhouse. During the 8th and 9th centuries, Pisa, alongside other Italian city states such as Venetia and Genoa, was relatively peaceful under the rule of the French Carolingian monarchy, preferring to trade rather than fight. However, with the Muslim conquest of Spain from 711, and the gradual establishment of a Muslim naval presence in the Mediterranean basin, Pisa began to become increasingly aggressive towards the new Islamic denizens of the Iberian Peninsula in the fight for domination of the western to eastern Mediterranean sea routes.

Pisan ascendancy commenced in 970 after a skirmish at Calabria, on the Italian coast, which the Muslims had periodically occupied throughout the 10th century. In the geo-politics of the sea, Calabria was strategically important because it traditionally ensured mastery over the straits separating Reggio and Messina at Sicily, which granted greater access to the Mediterranean.

Signs of retaliation from the Muslims appeared in 1004 when they attacked Pisa, prompting them to strike back the next year, 1005, at Muslim-occupied Reggio. Reggio was chosen by the Pisans because it had customarily been a safe haven for Muslim pirates, suggesting the attack was part of a stronger thrust to extinguish the Muslim presence in the Mediterranean. Evidence suggests that Muslim raiding parties were also wreaking havoc against the cities of southern Italy at the same time, with Capua, Benevento, Bari, and Naples all suffering ruinous injuries from Muslim incursions.

At the same time as Pisa was fighting the emerging Islamic threat, during the late 10th and early 11th centuries, they were also embarking on an ambitious defense program, doubling the size of their city walls in response to Muslim attempts to usurp power. With the economic expansion of Pisa in the early 11th century, adequate safeguards such as fortifications were required to secure Mediterranean trading routes and facilitate Pisan progress. It was in this atmosphere that Sardinia became a principal island of contention that would eventually lead to direct conflict with the Muslims in 1016.

The ornate mihrab of Cordoba, where the Muslim Umayyad enemies of the Pisans had their most powerful Mediterranean sea base. A mihrab is a niche in the wall of a mosque or religious school (madrasa) that indicates the direction of Mecca (qibla), which Muslims face when praying. (Ingo Mehling / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The ornate mihrab of Cordoba, where the Muslim Umayyad enemies of the Pisans had their most powerful Mediterranean sea base. A mihrab is a niche in the wall of a mosque or religious school (madrasa) that indicates the direction of Mecca (qibla), which Muslims face when praying. (Ingo Mehling / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Rise of the Mediterranean Muslims

After the institution of Muslim power on the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century, the Mediterranean experienced a resurgence in Islamic piracy. During the 10th century, pirate strongholds established at Fraxinetum in southern France and Pechina in southeast Spain were initially independent. But eventually they were controlled by the Umayyads, the Islamic dynasty that exercised overlordship over Spain from their capital at Cordoba and sought to consolidate their Mediterranean authority.

With the help of their brand-new acquisitions, the Umayyads continued to sanction and support piratical endeavors, engaging in attacks against Christian cities in the south of France and Catalonia. To Muslim jurists charged with interpreting the holy scriptures of the Quran, piracy was another form of jihad legitimized by the divine texts. It was favored by the first Islamic ruler of Spain, Abd al-Rahmān III, as a larger extension of holy war against the Christians and the heretical Shiite Fatamids, who both held sway in the Mediterranean melting pot at the time.

However, after a few years, the Umayyads began to recognize that a bigger fortune could be made via the lucrative trade networks of the Mediterranean. The resulting change in policy led to agreements in 940 and 941, which stipulated that merchants from Barcelona, Sardinia, Narbonne, and other maritime trading hubs were to be granted safe conduct through Islamic waters.

Until the year 1000, the Mediterranean experienced a period of stability and calm as Christians and Muslims alike bolstered their economic strength through the medium of peaceful trade. However, cooperation ended in 1004 after a Muslim foray into Pisa, prompting the Pisans to counter at Reggio the following year. In 1011, the Muslims continued their new policy of aggression, with Pisan sources reporting that a “fleet from Spain” had come to destroy the city.

The Muslim’s change in policy in the early 11th century stemmed from the accession to power of Mujāhid al-ʿĀmirī in 1002, the ambitious governor of the Balearic Islands and Denia appointed by Āmir Muḥammad al-Manṣūr of the Āmirids, who controlled the Umayyad caliphate in Spain. Following a civil war in 1009, the Āmirids fell, and Mujāhid would become leader of the Muslims at Denia as the Umayyad Iberian possessions fractured into smaller kingdoms called taifas.

Denia was the richest of the taifas and was home to a variety of renowned and celebrated Islamic scholars and poets who enjoyed the caliph’s patronage. Their main source of income was booty acquired from raids which included human captives they would sell to the rest of the Islamic world. Following the Pisan counterattack in 1005 at Reggio, Mujāhid would look elsewhere for funds after his kingdom was weakened by defeat. Mujāhid, whose court was located in the port town of Denia, decided to reclaim the taifa’s superior economic status via the sea, setting him apart from his Muslim neighbors who favored land conquests.

Equally as important as economic aspects, Mujāhid was also keen to legitimize his new authority through the divine calling of jihad which he would undertake through piracy. In the Islamic world, waging holy war was a requirement for new Muslim kings eager to prove they were God’s representatives on Earth.

This was no different in Spain, where the first caliph of Iberia, Abd al-Rahmān III, had validated his rule through jihad. Additionally, Mujāhid’s master, Amir Muḥammad al-Manṣūr, had before entrenched control with assaults against the Christian lands of the north. With the establishment of a caliph in 1013, Mujāhid started to closely follow the successful examples of his predecessors. Like Pisa, Mujāhid recognized the economic and political significance of Sardinia in the Mediterranean power struggle, and in the subsequent years he would make moves to conquer the hotly contested island to affirm jurisdiction over his new dominions.

Nearly 60 years after the “zero crusade” by the Pisans that forced the Muslims of Sardinia out, the Abbey of Lérins on the Île Saint-Honorat was fortified, as Muslim raiding continued to plague the island. (Alberto Fernandez / CC BY-SA 2.5)

Nearly 60 years after the “zero crusade” by the Pisans that forced the Muslims of Sardinia out, the Abbey of Lérins on the Île Saint-Honorat was fortified, as Muslim raiding continued to plague the island. (Alberto Fernandez / CC BY-SA 2.5)

The Sardinia Expedition

Sardinia was a vital territory in the Mediterranean, linking the busy trading traffic of the Muslim seas in the west to the Italian cities of the north. As a result, it took center stage in the expansionist plans of both the Muslims and the Pisans. Whichever power controlled the islands would additionally inflict devastating economic damage to the other, who would no longer have access to essential trade routes, raising the stakes even further.

In 1016, after a series of initial forays, a fleet of 120 of Mujāhid’s ships and a unit of 1000 cavalry soldiers set sail towards Sardinia. To Mujāhid, he was simply continuing the Muslim history of intrigues on Sardinia, as the island had often been used by Muslim invaders of the past. In 841, for example, an Islamic raiding force that attacked Rome had used Sardinia as a forward base.

Mujāhid was attempting to capture an island that had traditionally been a no-man’s land fractured by pockets of weak Islamic and Christian control. During Mujāhid’s time, the island was administered by a series of feeble local magnates who pledged fealty to the Byzantine empire but who were unable to defend the land from outside attacks. 

As a result of its mixed population, the island contained vestiges of Islamic settlement that Mujāhid used to his advantage. The church of S. Giovanni at the village of Asemini, for example, was rebuilt from the ruins of a mosque of North African design, and 2 Islamic funerary inscriptions have also been found in the area, implying that a large community of Muslims existed on the south-eastern coast of the Cagliari region where Mujāhid and his jihadi troubadours initially landed.

An enormous, combined flotilla of Pisan and Genoan ships was sent in response. In fact, the last time the Pisans had sent such an armada to protect Sardinia was nearly 200 years before, in 829, illustrating the importance they placed on bringing it back into their orbit.

Of further significance was the involvement of the papacy, who became extremely anxious at a Muslim attack striking uncomfortably close to home. At their behest, the navies of the Pisans and Geonese, who were often enemies, were united. Pope Benedict VIII proclaimed the granting of privileges to those who fought against Mujāhid’s hordes and sent with the Christian detachments a vermillion banner for spiritual support.

In addition, according to Thietmar, an 11th century German bishop, the Pope encouraged Christians to take up arms against the Muslims who were marauding the Luni coast. He portrayed Mujāhid’s exploits in direct confrontation with God and his armies as “enemies of Christ.” The division of good and evil was further reinforced by a story in which the Pope is sent a sack of chestnuts by Mujāhid to show the number of Muslim soldiers he would release against Christianity. In response, the Pope sends Mujāhid a sack of millet to illustrate the amount of Christian warriors he will send to protect the Lord’s interests on Sardinia.

This religious response from the papacy has caused many historians to characterize the Sardinia expedition as a proto-crusade. All the hallmarks of a crusade, such as papal encouragement, promises of divine reward, and the stark divide between good and evil delineated by anti-Muslim rhetoric were evident alongside the cooperation of Christian kingdoms, Pisa and Genoa, against a common Islamic foe.  

Indeed, divine intervention may have even played a major part in the downfall of Mujāhid’s forces. Finding himself outnumbered by the combined Pisan and Geonese fleets, Mujāhid ordered his ships to flee. They were subsequently caught in a violent storm and obliterated against the rocks of a dangerous cove where they had unwisely decided to dock.

The Start of a Mediterranean Empire

Following the loss of Sardinia, Mujāhid gave up on his imperial Mediterranean ambitions. Despite this he continued to harry the Pisans, launching smaller attacks in 1018, 1019, 1021, and 1028. His successor, Ali, was no different, unsuccessfully attempting to retake Sardinia from 1044 to 1056.

But the acquisition of Sardinia had allowed the Pisans to expand rapidly, and Muslim raids started to become increasingly ineffective in the 11th century as the Italian city state consolidated its power in the Mediterranean. In the latter half of the century,  Islamic poet Abu¯ al-'Arab Mus'ab al-Siqillı¯, aware of the new shift in power, declined an invitation to go to Seville from Sicily, reasoning that: “the sea belongs to the Rūm, and the ships sailing it run a great risk.” The Muslims would eventually turn to heavy taxation of their subjects to fill their coffers as income from piracy and pillage dried up.

1016 was a turning point for the Pisans, who experienced a meteoric rise following the Sardinia expedition. It was also a ‘proto-crusade’, a Christian weapon of expansion that would be fully realized and developed nearly 100 years later by the paladins of Europe on their journeys to Jerusalem.

Top image: Though the crusades are numbered it would appear that the Pisans zero crusade was truly the first as it preceded the First Crusade by nearly 80 years. And from that time forward the fortunes of Pisa rose to incredible heights! Source: Lunstream / Adobe Stock

By Jake Leigh-Howarth


Bruce, T. 2006. The politics of violence and trade: Denia and Pisa in the eleventh century. Journal of Medieval History.

Bruce, T. 2010. Piracy of Statecraft: The Mediterranean Policies of the Fifth/Eleventh-Century Taifa of Denia. Al-Masaq.

Heywood, W. 2010. A History of Pisa, Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries. Cambridge University Press.

Salvatori, E. 2002. Pisa in the Middle Ages: the Dream and the Reality of an Empire. Available at:

Jake Leigh-Howarth's picture


Jake Leigh-Howarth is a journalist and researcher from the UK with 8 years experience in music, travel, news, and historical journalism. He grew up in rural North Yorkshire where he developed a lifelong fascination for nature, mythology, folklore and history. ... Read More

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