Greek Fire, one of the most curious mysteries of the ancient world, that endures today. Namely for a couple of reasons, firstly its chemical ingredients are unknown, held in secret schools of the day. Which gives us the second reason its sheer destructive

ability, utterly devastating.  A liquid fire, similar in effect to the napalm of today, alleged in description of it in action. Greek Fire would adhere to surfaces, ignite and not even water could extinguish the flames.

There are two recorded incidents of the Byzantines using this weapon in war. In 678 they destroyed a Muslim fleet (it is believed over 30,000 men were lost) and also in 717-718, when Caliph Suleiman attacked Constantinople. Most of the Muslim fleet was once again destroyed by Greek Fire, and the Caliph was ultimately forced to flee. As there is virtually no documentation of its usage after this time by the Byzantines, it is generally believed (partially due to the poor performance of the Byzantine fleets after this date) that it was during this era that the secrets of creating Greek Fire were lost. Greek Fire was the nuclear weapon of its age.  Lost.

In the memoirs of the Lord of Joinville, a thirteenth century French nobleman, include these observations of Greek Fire during the seventh Crusade:

It happened one night, whilst we were keeping night-watch over the tortoise-towers, that they brought up against us an engine called a perronel, (which they had not done before) and filled the sling of the engine with Greek fire. When that good knight, Lord Walter of Cureil, who was with me, saw this, he spoke to us as follows: “Sirs, we are in the greatest peril that we have ever yet been in. For, if they set fire to our turrets and shelters, we are lost and burnt; and if, again, we desert our defences which have been entrusted to us, we are disgraced; so none can deliver us from this peril save God alone. My opinion and advice therefor is: that every time they hurl the fire at us, we go down on our elbows and knees, and beseech Our Lord to save us from this danger.”

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greek fire text

It seems after the Byzantines passed their secrets to Readers Digest? Now the reason I have decided to write about this, should be clear by reading the excerpt here. It does not make just a “perhaps” or  “this is the probable list”. It lists the ingredients as if they’ve never been forgotten – lets take a look in detail of the curious piece

“Trebuchets were used to throw Greek fire – a highly flammable mixture to sulphur, bitumen, resin with sprinklings of turpentine, charcoal and saltpetre. This fearful concoction was regarded as the ultimate weapon in the early Middle ages Its most alarming property was that water only caused the flames to burn more fiercely. For centuries the secret of how to manufacture Greek fire was known only to Byzantines.”

Before going back on to discuss of trebuchets were used in battles, which themselves succumbed to the invention of fire arms and gunpowder.  So does mean the secret has been solved? I only saw a documentary a few weeks ago talking about Greek Fire and how it is still unknown. Strange then how this book by Readers Digest published in 1973 ISBN 0 340 19754 4 and now you also know.