Arab Cover Upon Kemet

By Arthur Goldschmidt Jr., 2008


In 525 B.C.E. Egypt ceased to be ruled by Egyptians. With very few exceptions, the head of the Egyptian state would always be a foreigner […]. For most of this time Egyptians would still serve as administrators, scribes, judges, religious leaders, and village headmen. Egypt’s subordination to the Persians, Macedonians, Greeks, Romans, and Arabs, described in this chapter, set the pattern for later colonization by other outsiders. Usually the Egyptians accepted their lot, but sometimes they rebelled openly and often they subverted or influenced their foreign masters. A modern Arabic proverb sums up the popular view: Fi bilad Misr khayruha li-ghayriha (In the land of Egypt, its good things belong to others).

Persian Rule
The year 525 was when Cambyses II, the Persian emperor, defeated the last Saite pharaoh, conquered Egypt, and established the [27th] Dynasty. The Persians, originally tribal nomads in what now is Iran, were united by Cyrus, a powerful king, in the middle of the sixth century B.C.E. He and his sons conquered a vast empire, the largest one known up to that time, extending from the Indus River in what is now Pakistan across the Middle East to North Africa and southeastern Europe.

Cambyses was a son of Cyrus, a proud Persian, but he found it politic to honor Egyptian customs. Taking the name Mesut-i-Re (“offspring of Re,” one of the gods of ancient Egypt), he ruled for three years as a pharaoh. Hoping to ensure that the Egyptians would obey their orders, the new rulers took the titles and followed the forms of their pharaonic predecessors. Maintaining the ancient rituals, they built new temples and public works, reformed the legal system, and strengthened the economy. Persian rule facilitated Egyptian trade with southwest Asia. Egypt’s agriculture, and hence its people, prospered.

Cambyses’s successor, Darius (r. 521–486 B.C.E.), made Egypt a Persian province and appointed a satrap, or provincial governor, to govern it. The satraps’ rule was challenged by three Egyptian dynasties. The Twenty-eighth and Twenty-ninth Dynasties ruled only in the Nile Delta. In 380 B.C.E. Nectanebo, an Egyptian general, overthrew the last ruler of the Twenty-ninth Dynasty, declaring himself king. He gained control of all Egypt and founded the Thirtieth Dynasty. This dynasty is remembered for its naturalistic portraiture, statuary, and new temples, most notably the Philae Temple near Aswan. The Thirtieth Dynasty marked ancient Egypt’s flickering revival; it ended when the Persians reoccupied the country in 343 B.C.E. under Artaxerxes III. This Thirtyfirst Dynasty came to an end in 332 B.C.E. when Alexander the Great, hailed by the Egyptians as their savior from Persian domination, conquered
the country.

Alexander the Great [Murderer] (r. 332–323 B.C.E.)
Alexander (356–323 B.C.E.) was a [murderous] fighter and a master strategist who became king of Macedonia when he was 20. By 331, after a series of rapid military successes, his empire stretched from the Adriatic Sea to the Indus River and from the Danube to the Nile, including the entire Persian Empire. In this vast empire he laid the political basis for Hellenistic (Greek-like) civilization. The conquest of Egypt occurred in 332 B.C.E. Alexander treated Egypt’s culture with respect. He offered sacrifices to Apis and other Egyptian gods and trekked across the Western Desert to Siwa to consult Amun, whom he claimed as his divine father. […] His most lasting contribution was the creation of the port city of Alexandria, which blossomed into a cosmopolitan center of power and culture, linking Egypt economically to the Mediterranean world.

Alexander died suddenly in 323 B.C.E. His death was followed by a power struggle for control of his empire. In Egypt his childhood friend Ptolemy became satrap. By 306 B.C.E. Ptolemy had declared himself king of Egypt, founding the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt for 300 years.

The Ptolemies
For Egypt the Ptolemies’ rule was highly beneficial at first. Trade flourished in the Mediterranean and the Red Seas. As wheat replaced emmer and barley, Egypt became the breadbasket of the Mediterranean world. Fruit trees, grapevines, fl ax, and papyrus also contributed to a general prosperity. For the Egyptian people, though, life under these rulers, who were Greek-speaking Macedonians, did not improve. Even though the Ptolemies acted like pharaohs, honored the gods, maintained the temples, and built new ones at Edfu, Esna, and Dendera, the Egyptians resented them. Their main reasons were economic. Alexandria’s magnificent architecture, high culture, museum, and library were justly famous, but they were supported by taxes paid mainly by toiling Egyptian peasants. Their resistance flared into periodic open revolts, both in the cities and in the countryside. A peasant uprising in 132 B.C.E. involved the whole Nile Valley.

A cultural chasm divided ruler from ruled. The Ptolemies did not intermarry with the people of Egypt; by custom kings usually married their sisters and few learned the Egyptian language. Lower Egyptian officials were not expected to know Greek, yet Alexandria and parts of the Delta were being colonized and developed by Greek settlers. The Ptolemies had rivals for control of the region. At first they competed for control of Syria and Palestine with the Seleucid Empire, founded by another of Alexander’s generals in what is now Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The Nubians regained parts of Upper Egypt around 200 B.C.E. But the greatest contender for control of Egypt was the Roman Republic, which was conquering most of the Mediterranean lands between the third and first centuries. During the last century B.C.E. the Ptolemies came to depend on Rome to protect them against their other enemies.

The Romans long tried to avoid conquering Ptolemaic Egypt, fearing that any general who led the conquest would gain so much wealth from Egypt that he would become a dictator in Rome itself. Only under Queen Cleopatra VII (r. 47–30 B.C.E.) did Egypt become a Roman colony. The story of Cleopatra has long fascinated people. This fascination may be due in part to her love affairs with Julius Caesar (100–44 B.C.E.), the general who became proconsul and dictator of the Roman Republic, and Mark Antony, a Roman general whose own career had been promoted by Julius Caesar; partly to her adept use of material luxury as a means of impressing other rulers; but most of all to the fact that she was a woman who had gained and shrewdly wielded immense power. After living in Rome for several years as a young woman, she ruled Egypt capably for almost two decades and was adored by the Egyptian people. She was the only Ptolemaic ruler to learn their language.

When Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C.E., Mark Antony turned to Cleopatra and other Near Eastern leaders to consolidate his power. Cleopatra supported Mark Antony against his rival Octavian, who later became Caesar Augustus. When Octavian declared war on Mark Antony, Cleopatra raised and commanded an army to support him. They lost the war in the famous Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.E., which put an end to Ptolomaic rule and to Egypt’s status as a country independent of the Roman Empire. Her suicide following that of Antony, who was to blame for the defeat, was inspired not only by love but also by fear of being paraded through the streets of Rome, which viewed winning Egypt as a triumph too long deferred.

Roman Rule (30 B.C.E.–640 C.E.)
Roman and Byzantine Egypt lasted longer than any one of ancient Egypt’s dynasties. As soon as Octavian had defeated Antony and Cleopatra, he took control of Egypt’s treasury and levied new and higher taxes on the Egyptians. The country became his personal property, a land exploited on behalf of a ruler living elsewhere, one that no Roman senator might enter without his consent. Alexandria continued to prosper as a provincial capital and as a center of trade, manufacturing, and culture, but it no longer enjoyed the privileges it had known under the Ptolemies. The main basis of Egypt’s wealth was its agriculture, and one-third of Egypt’s annual grain harvest fed the empire. The senators understandably refrained from interfering in the governance of a land whose productivity benefited so many Romans.

Another important development during the Roman period was the rise of Christianity in Egypt. The Apostle Mark is said to have made his first convert among the Jews in Egypt around 40 to 60 C.E. He became the first patriarch of the National Church of Egypt, which is usually called Coptic Orthodox. As life under Roman rule was very different from life in pharaonic times, the ancient religion of Egypt seemed less relevant. Egyptians converted to the new faith of Christianity in large numbers and with great fervor, despite intermittent persecution. That of Roman Emperor Diocletian caused the death of so many Egyptian Christians that the onset of his reign in 284 marks the beginning of the Coptic calendar. In 313, when Constantine issued his Edict of Milan, which granted freedom of worship throughout the Roman Empire, persecution ended and Christianity flourished.

The Coptic Challenge to Rome
Unfortunately, however, Egypt became the cockpit for the theological disputes and chasms that divided Christendom. The disputes began with an Alexandrian priest named Arius who taught that Jesus Christ, though divinely sired and inspired, ranked lower than God the Father. Arian views spread widely throughout North Africa and later Europe. They posed a challenge to Christianity, but were opposed by Athanasius, Alexandria’s Coptic patriarch, and by the Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.), chaired by none other than the Emperor Constantine himself. There the Christian bishops agreed upon a statement that Christ is of one substance with God the Father, the basis for the doctrine of the Trinity, to which nearly all Christians still adhere, hence the so-called Nicene Creed.

Other church councils met during the fourth and fifth centuries to refine Christian doctrines further. The Coptic Church, along with the Syrian Jacobites and the Armenians, came to believe that Christ was wholly divine, whereas the Orthodox view was that Jesus contained within his person both a human and a divine nature. The later Roman emperors and the patriarch of Constantinople required Egyptians to support Orthodox Christianity. As a consequence Egypt developed parallel Orthodox and Coptic hierarchies and churches during the fifth and sixth centuries, posing a severe financial burden on the people and alienating them from their Roman rulers. Perhaps as a sign of passive resistance to foreign control, one of Egypt’s main contributions to Christianity was monasticism. Starting with St. Antony (252–356), devout Christians became hermits or founded monasteries in the Egyptian desert, living a communal life devoted mainly to study and prayer remote from the centers of wealth and power.

The Roman Empire depended heavily on the wheat and wine produced in the Nile Valley and Delta. However, the Egyptian people had no right to citizenship in the empire, and Egypt’s Roman rulers did not respect the region’s cultural heritage. Many statues and obelisks were taken from Egypt to the empire’s eastern and western capitals, Rome and Constantinople. In 330 C.E. the center of the empire shifted from Rome to Constantinople, marking the transition to what is usually called the Byzantine Empire. This change was of no consequence to Egyptians. Greeks and Romans in Egypt remained a privileged and separate caste. With all these grievances against Roman rule, it is hardly a surprise that some Christian Egyptians hailed the return of Persian rule in 619 or that many welcomed the Arab conquest in 640.

Arab Conquest
In 640 an event took place that would profoundly affect Egypt. The Arab general Amr ibn al-As (d. 663) led a band of warriors across the Sinai Peninsula and into the Nile Valley, defeating the Byzantines at Heliopolis near what is now Cairo. Within two years the Arabs had conquered the Nile Valley, the Delta, and Alexandria itself, marking the beginning of Islam in Egypt.

Much controversy rages over this conquest of Egypt. Did the Egyptian Christians welcome the Arabs as liberators from the Byzantine yoke? Did they resist the Arabs and make common cause with their fellow Christians against the coming of Islam? Both sides are partly correct. Most Egyptian Christians had adopted the view that Christ was fully divine. Their Byzantine rulers tried to impose the Orthodox belief that Christ combined human and divine natures within his person. The Byzantines had imposed high taxes and discriminatory laws against the Egyptian Christians, or Copts. For these reasons, among others, many Egyptians did view the Arab conquest as liberating them from Orthodox tyranny.

The Arabs did not try to convert the Egyptians to Islam, in part because their laws allowed them to tax Jews and Christians at a higher rate than Muslims, and also because the early Arabs assumed that only they could be Muslims. For the Egyptians the taxes imposed by the new rulers were lower at first than they had been under the Byzantines. Also most of the tax collectors and government accountants were Coptic Christians. Those few non-Arabs who did embrace Islam were given client status within the Arab tribes; called mawali, they played a major political role in those early days of Islam, notably in the rise of Shiism.

The conversion of Copts to Islam was not as significant, numerically and politically, as the Islamization of the peoples of Iran and Mesopotamia. An Egyptian Christian who embraced Islam cut himself off from his family and village community, but his conversion enabled him to enter the higher ranks of the administration or the army.

Islam teaches that there is only one God, the Creator and Sustainer of this world and the next, all-knowing and all-powerful, who has made himself known to humanity through scriptures revealed to a succession of prophets, culminating in the revelation of the Quran to Muhammad, who lived in the Hejaz (western Arabia) from 570 to 632. Those who accept Muhammad as the last of the prophets and the Quran as God’s revealed word are Muslims. The word Muslim means “one who makes peace [with God].”

The word Arab originally meant a camel-herding nomad living in Arabia, but now is applied to people who speak Arabic as their native language and who embrace what can broadly be called Arab culture. Most Arabs are Muslim, but some are Christian. Nowadays, only a sixth of the world’s Muslims are Arabs.

Muhammad’s successors as leaders of the Muslim community were known as caliphs. The first four caliphs are called Rashidun, a term commonly translated as “right-guided.” The third caliph, Uthman, was assassinated, and Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, became the fourth caliph. But a dispute arose over the legitimacy of his appointment. Ali did not attempt to prosecute the men who killed his predecessor. Uthman’s cousin, Muawiya, who was a member of the Umayyad family, claimed the right to seek revenge for Uthman’s death. Fighting broke out between those who supported Ali and those who supported Muawiya. The conflict resulted in Ali’s assassination. In 661 Muawiya claimed the caliphate for himself, moved the capital from Medina, Saudi Arabia, to Damascus, Syria, and made the post hereditary within the Umayyad family.

Most Muslims accept all four caliphs as legitimate; they are called Sunni, from the Arabic word for “tradition.” Others believe that Ali was the first legitimate successor of Muhammad; they discount the first three caliphs. They are known as Shiites, from the name Shiat Ali, or the Party of Ali. In modern times most Shiites believe that this leadership was passed downn by Ali to his sons and their sons, who are called imams (leaders). They claim that the 12th imam vanished in 874 but that he remains alive and in hiding until the time when God has ordained that he will return to restore righteousness on earth. But there are also Shiites who believe that Ismail, the man who should have been the seventh imam, was wrongly passed over in favor of a brother; these Shiites are known as Ismailis.

Islam literally means “making peace [with God].” A man who practices Islam is a Muslim, a woman, a Muslima. Believing Jews and Christians, having come to know God through revealed scriptures, are also, in a generic sense, muslim. God’s existence was revealed to a series of prophets, including Adam, Noah, Moses, David, Solomon, and Jesus. The last, Muhammad (570–632), received the Quran, or sacred text of Islam. Muslims believe that the Quran is God’s perfect revelation and will never be superseded.
Sunni Muslims are those (including nearly all Egyptian Muslims) who believe that the caliphs had the right to rule the Muslim community after Muhammad’s death.
Shiite Muslims (including the Fatimids, who ruled Egypt from 969 to 1171) believe that Ali and his descendants should have succeeded Muhammad.
Sufism is organized Islamic mysticism. A Sufi can be either Sunni or Shiite. Many Egyptians, past and present, have made Sufism a major part of their lives.

Early Arab Rule (640–868)
Given the lack of pressure by Egypt’s foreign rulers, both Islamization and Arabization occurred only slowly over time. Arabic did not become the official language of Egypt until 706. Between 640 and 868 Egypt was ruled by governors appointed by the caliphs. Egypt’s role as a province in an empire whose primary purpose was seen as supplying the central government with taxes and grain did not change. Egypt’s Muslims, mainly soldiers living in the garrison town of Fustat, accepted Umayyad rule. Some mawali in Persia objected to Umayyad favoritism toward the Arabs—launching a revolt that brought the Abbasid family to power in 750 and moved Islam’s capital to Baghdad. Egyptian Muslims acquiesced in these changes. Indeed, Egypt’s role in the politics of early Islam was remarkably quiet. But resistance against foreign rule increased in the early eighth century when rising taxes and other government demands inspired Coptic farmers to rebel against Arab rule, as they would do frequently between 725 and 832.

Local Dynasties Take Control (868–969)
By the ninth century internal conflict within the Abbasid Empire reduced the empire’s control of outlying areas. In 868 Ahmad Ibn Tulun (r. 868–884), a Turkish offi cer sent to Egypt as governor, established himself as the independent ruler of Egypt, founding the Tulunid dynasty. Ibn Tulun kept Egypt’s tax revenues in Egypt, rather than sending them to the caliph in Baghdad. This enabled him to build Egypt into an autonomous state that could compete for power against Iraq. His improvement of the Nile irrigation works increased his tax revenues, which enabled him to support a huge army. Tulunid control extended eastward into Syria (and sometimes parts of Iraq) and westward into Libya. Ibn Tulun never realized his dream of moving the Abbasid caliphate to Egypt, but he used some of his revenues to build palaces, hospitals for men and for women, and the great mosque north of Fustat that bears his name. Ibn Tulun’s son succeeded him as ruler of Egypt, but he and his heirs wasted their inheritance, spending and drinking recklessly. The Abbasids regained their power as a dynasty and retook Egypt in 905.

For the next 30 years Egypt suffered riots and invasions under successive Abbasid-appointed governors. Then, in 935, Muhammad Ibn Tughj was installed as governor. He took the honorifi c title ikhshid, a Persian word meaning “prince.” The Ikhshid ruled Egypt, Syria, and most of the major land and sea routes for a decade. He was succeeded by his sons, but effective power was held by an Ethiopian officer named Kafur, a former slave who was named regent for Muhammad ibn Tughj’s young heirs. After both of the Ikhshid’s sons died, Kafur took the surname al-Ikhshid and ruled in his own name. Between 963 and 969 a series of low Nile floods disrupted the crops and brought famine to Egypt; as a result the Egyptian people looked to the western part of the Muslim world for relief.

Fatimid Rule (969–1171)
Help came from the Fatimid dynasty in what is now Tunisia. The Fatimids adhered to the Ismaili branch of Shiite Islam and claimed to be descended from the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima, who was married to Ali. The Fatimids had built up a powerful state in North Africa. They called their leaders caliphs, thus challenging the legitimacy of the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad. Hoping to reunite the Muslim world under their Ismaili standard, the Fatimids needed to extend their empire into Egypt and Syria. Their propagandists found willing ears among the Muslims of Egypt, distressed by quarreling troops, low Nile floods, and high taxes. Egyptian Muslims tended to be Sunni and might have been expected to support the Abbasid caliphs, but Fatimid propagandists allayed their fears and played on their hopes. In 969 the Fatimid leader Jawhar defeated Kafur’s soldiers and established a new capital, Cairo, which was destined to become the largest city in the Muslim world. The Fatimids also established the mosque-school al-Azhar, originally meant to train new Ismaili propagandists, which survives today as the world’s oldest Islamic university.

Fatimid rule in Egypt lasted from 969 to 1171. The area controlled by the Fatimids usually included Libya, Syria, Palestine, and the Hejaz, or western Arabia. The first century of Fatimid rule saw general prosperity. Egypt’s peasants continued to produce a surplus of grain that could be sold throughout the Mediterranean world, as well as fl ax, which supported a thriving linen industry. Egypt was a center of long-distance trade, with thriving ports on the Mediterranean and Red Seas.

Most of the Fatimid caliphs adopted a tolerant policy toward Egypt’s Copts, Jews, and Sunni Muslims. One exception was al-Hakim (r. 996–1021), who placed severe restrictions on Jews, Christians, and Sunni Muslims. Al-Hakim disappeared in 1021; it is believed he was assassinated on his sister’s orders. The Fatimid caliphs gave considerable leeway to merchants to manufacture and sell goods, using the head of the merchant guilds as an agent to maintain order. A series of low Nile floods and factional struggles among the troops caused a crisis in the 1060s. In 1073, to restore order the caliph appointed a chief minister or vizier. From that time on the vizierate was a key administrative post in Egypt.

Abbasids: Sunni Muslim, Arab family of caliphs descended from Muhammad’s uncle, Abbas, that ruled from Baghdad (750–1258 C.E.) and in name from Cairo (1258–1517) and Istanbul (1517–1924)
Ayyubids: Saladin and the Ayyubids (1171–1250), Kurdish Sunni Muslims, who ruled in Egypt (1171–1250), Syria (1174–1260), and occasionally western Arabia
Buyids: Shiite Persian family that ruled Persia and Iraq (932–1055)
Fatimids: Ismaili Shiite, Arab family who ruled North Africa (909–972), Egypt (969–1171), and occasionally parts of Syria, Hejaz, and Yemen
Ghaznavids: Sunni Turkish family that ruled in Afghanistan, parts of Persia, Central Asia, and India (977–1186)
Hamdanids: Shiite Arab family with branches ruling in Aleppo and Mosul (890–1004), sometimes a rival to the Fatimids
Hashimites: Arab family descended from Muhammad, contenders for power in early Muslim times, and rulers in Hejaz (1916–1924), Iraq (1920–58), and Jordan (1921– )
Ikhshids: Literally “Princes” but actually Turkish warriors sent by the Abbasid caliphs to govern Egypt (935–969)
Mamluks: Members of a Turkish or Circassian military oligarchy ruling Egypt (1250–1517), Syria (1260–1516), and occasionally the Hejaz. During the era of Ottoman rule, some Mamluks continued to wield power in Egypt until Napoléon’s invasion (1798)
Mongols: Tribal nomads from the Asian steppes north of China who conquered Central Asia, Persia, Iraq, and Syria in the 13th century but were stopped by the Mamluks in 1260 before they could enter Egypt. Pagan at fi rst, the Mongols ruling in the Middle East gradually embraced Islam and became known as the Ilkhanid dynasty (1256–1349)
Ottomans: Sunni Turkish family, also called Osmanli, that ruled southeastern Europe, most of the Middle East, and North Africa, including Egypt, from 1517 to 1798 and nominally until 1914
Qajars: Shiite Turkish family that ruled Persia (1794–1925)
Safavids: Shiite Turkish family, originally Sufi , that ruled Persia (1501–1736)
Timurids: Sunni Turkish and Mongol family that ruled most of Persia and Central Asia in the late 14th century and briefly challenged the Mamluks for control of Syria (1400–1405). Their descendants
included the Mughals (Moguls), who ruled India (1526–1858)
Tulunids: Sunni Turkish family sent by the Abbasid caliphs to govern Egypt (868–935)
Umayyads: Sunni Arab family, originally from Mecca, that ruled most of the Muslim world from Damascus (661–750) and later ruled over Muslim Spain

1171 he deposed the Fatimid caliph and restored Sunni Islam in Egypt. Although Saladin had to face several attempts to restore Fatimid rule, he won strong popular support in Cairo. He ordered the construction of the citadel that still overlooks the city and also strengthened Egypt’s Mediterranean and Red Sea fleets. Saladin built up a Muslim state that stretched from Tunisia to northern Iraq and from northern Syria to Yemen. In 1187 Saladin’s forces recaptured Jerusalem from the crusaders, European Christians who fought to take the “Holy Land” from Muslim control.

Saladin has come down in history as a heroic fighter. Yet despite his efforts to master Fatimid court and bureaucratic procedures, he failed to set up an orderly administration in Egypt. Saladin’s Ayyubid successors did not surmount these difficulties. Egypt lacked an institutional structure that might have limited factional struggles and made the government more efficient. Yet the country prospered, due largely to its extensive commerce with the Italian city-states and with other Muslim countries.

By the time of the Ayyubids most of the Egyptian people spoke Arabic and practiced Islam. The collapse of Ayyubid rule came from within. The Ayyubids had built up a corps of Turkish soldiers recruited from Central Asia and trained as slave-soldiers. Known as Mamluks (mamluk in Arabic means “owned man”), these slaves had saved Egypt from European invaders, specifically the Seventh Crusade. Now they took the country for themselves and opened a new chapter in its history.

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