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Breathing Fire!

The Arab Armies had besieged Constantinople in the 7th Century, but failed to capture the capital of the Byzantine Empire, as the Greeks had Liquid Fire in their arsenal! It could not be extinguished even by pouring water. Instead, the fire would become more devastating as soon as it came in contact with water. This secret weapon, popularly known as Greek Fire, had helped the Byzantine rulers defend their territories for decades. Many had also dubbed it Marine Fire or Liquid Fire, a naval weapon somewhat resembling the modern flamethrower. Originally used in naval warfare, this weapon was also there in the arsenal of other Armies. Researchers believe that Greek Fire is one of the most destructive weapons in the history of war.

The Greeks defeated their enemies with this weapon in 672 AD, as they destroyed enemy ships with the Greek Fire from a safe distance. However, the formula of making such a destructive weapon still remains a mystery. Although the weapon had fallen into the hands of the enemies, they failed to resolve the mystery. People not only failed to identify the basic components of the Liquid Fire, but also failed to manufacture the machine that was used to fire the liquid. This weapon appears at a time when the days of the Eastern Empire seemed to be numbered. After years of Byzantine Armies fighting against Sasanid Persia, they proved to be completely unprepared for the Arab offensive. Within a few years, the empire had lost all the eastern territories, and the invaders were already at the gates of Constantinople. This is the context in which Kallinikos (or Callinicus in Latin; b. 650 AD) – a Byzantine architect and chemist from Heliopolis (Syria) in Baalbek (Lebanon) – or someone else presents himself to the emperor with the invention that would be the Byzantine spearhead for the next 500 years.

Greek Fire

According to researchers, a mixture – made with the formula that had been kept secret – was first heated to ensure extra pressure. The mixture was then poured into a tube, called Siphon, and fired at enemy ships from a safe distance. Firing the mixture into the sea water would not diminish its strength; instead, the Liquid Fire would get ignited into flames more in the water. The mixture would stick to whatever it would touch, be it the wooden or metal parts of the ship or the human body. There was also a way to escape from the Greek Fire, mostly unscathed. Researchers have claimed that it was possible to extinguish the Liquid Fire by another mixture, made up of vinegar, urine (several days old), and sand.


Many believe that Kallinikos had invented the Greek Fire. It is widely believed that the Jewish architect fled Syria to Constantinople. Kallinikos feared that the Arabs might take over his adopted country. Hence, he prepared this deadly weapon mainly to resist the Arabs. However, there is disagreement on this theory. Others are of the opinion that Kallinikos had discovered the formula after carrying out various experiments, and sent it to the then Byzantine Emperor. His exact formula was a carefully guarded secret, and remains unknown today. Possible ingredients include resin, asphalt, sulfur, naphtha, fine quicklime, and calcium phosphide.

Kallinikos Stamp

The Byzantine officials, too, managed to create the Greek Fire with all the ingredients mentioned in Kallinikos’ formula. They had also made a tube or Siphon, just like an injection syringe, to eject the liquid mixture. Some of the researchers have claimed that the Liquid Fire was accompanied by heavy smoke and lurid sound. The Greeks kept the formula secret, as it was a deadly weapon. Only the family members of Kallinikos and descendants of Byzantine Emperors knew about it.

Byzantine Architecture

The enemies of the Greeks could not get access to the formula, even after getting the weapon. As a result, the Greek Fire is lost forever. Only the Arabs had realised how destructive the Liquid Fire was. They had made an attempt to invade Constantinople in 678 AD , but the Greek Fire effectively repelled the Arab Navy. The Greeks destroyed the Arab Forces once again in 717-718 AD with this weapon. The Byzantine Emperors had used Greek Fire not only against foreign invaders, but also against the domestic enemies. Apart from the Byzantine Empire, other Western Civilisations had prevented foreign invaders from conquering Europe with the help of Greek Fire for centuries.

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