A Short History of Egypt – to about 1970
[Unknown Student, Stanford University]
See Part 1 (Chapter 9)
Chapter 15. The Arab Conquest.
Until the end of the 6th century Arabia (except for the fertile Yemen is the South) was a land of nomadic tribes, fighting with each other, trading on the caravan routes, with no semblance of political unity, and polytheistic in religion. A hundred years later these desert Arabs, unified and disciplined by the new faith preached by Mohamed, had conquered in the name of Islam Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, some of Turkestan and India, Egypt, northern Africa and Spain.
This extraordinary transformation does not seem to have been initially due to any fanatical desire to spread the new religion; in fact the Arabs made no great effort to convert the peoples they conquered. Their original motive seems to have been merely plunder. But the weakness of their main adversaries – the Byzantine and Persian Empires – was such that their raids led to easy conquests; and, having found
this, the Arabs then set about extending, holding and administering these conquests.
The conquest of Egypt took place between A.D.639 and A.D.642, in the time of ‘Umar, the second Caliph, as the Moslem rulers were called. The Arabs had already taken Syria from Byzantium, and Persia was being overrun, when Amr Ibn al-As, one of the ablest Arab commanders, obtained ‘Umar’s rather reluctant permission to invade Egypt with a small force of 4,000 men.
Amr captured Pelusium in December 639- With 5,000 reinforcements from Syria he defeated the Greek forces at Heliopolis in July 640, and then laid siege to the great fortress of Babylon (at the southern end of modern Cairo). Babylon fell in April 641, and after being held up by the Greeks at the many irrigation channels, Amr and his army appeared before Alexandria. The city held out for many months, but in 642 the Emperor Constans 11 (Heraclius died in 641) sent Cyrus to make peace with the Arabs. The Greeks were given a year to depart, and Alexandria was transferred to the Moslems. The Arabs now controlled all Egypt, and later a treaty with the Nubians settled Egypt’s southern boundary at Aswan.
Amr wanted to make Alexandria his capital, but ‘Umar decided that the Arab forces were more at home in the desert. A town of tents at Al Fustat, which had been the Arab camp for the siege of Babylon, became the capital.
On the fall of Alexandria there was no pillaging, and the Copts were allowed to continue their Christian worship. But soon many Egyptians, disillusioned with the doctrinal arguments in the Christian Church, gratified by Amr’s conciliatory attitude, and attracted by the simple tenets of the Moslem faith, were converted to Islam. (In Mohammedanism there is no priesthood and there are no theological complications; and all believers are equal before God, whatever their race, colour or worldly status. Like Christianity it is uncompromisingly monotheistic. Moslems believe in one God only (Allah), and in the teaching of the prophet Mohammed as laid down in the Koran.) Egypt’s ready acquiescence in the new order was a tribute to the wise administration and tolerance of the early Moslem leaders.
As part of the Arab empire Egypt now occupied a more important position, geographically and politically, than she had as an outlying province of the Roman and Byzantine Empires. Under the Arabs Egypt was the base for the extension of their rule along the coast of North Africa and into Spain.
Chapter 16. Early Islam.
At first the Arabs is Egypt were not allowed by their rulers to settle on the land. Their activities were confined to the collection of tribute and the maintenance of garrisons. But they took Egyptian wives, and later the phase of “foreign occupation” changed to one of colonisation and assimilation with the native population. The use of the Arabic language steadily gained ground, and Egypt’s integration into the Arab empire was sealed at the beginning of the 8th century when Arabic became the official language of the country.
Similarly Islam became the predominant religion. Although the Arabs did not forcibly convert the Egyptian Copts, their policy of gradual exclusion of Christians from state employment, and the higher taxation of non-Moslems, contributed to the adoption of Islam by large numbers of Egyptians.
For over 300 years from the Arab conquest (642-969) Egypt was ruled by Governors appointed by the Caliphate, though for such of the last hundred years of this period these Governors established independent dynasties. Until the middle of the 8th century the Caliphs were the Ummayad family, ruling from Damascus. Then came the Abbasid Caliphs, who founded a new capital at Baghdad.
The move of the Caliph to Baghdad made supervision of Egypt more difficult; and even in the great days of the Arab empire under the Caliphs Harun-al-Rashid (786-809) and Mamun (813-833), when the Abbasid power was at its height, there was little political authority over Egypt, where civil turmoil often prevailed and there were risings of the Copts against the burden of taxation. In 832 the suppression of a serious revolt of both Copts and Arabs was followed by a massacre of the Copts and the replacement of Arabs in higher-positions by foreign mercenaries.
This importation of foreign mercenaries was one of the causes of a gradual disintegration of the Abbasid Caliphate throughout the 9th and 10th centuries. A high proportion of the mercenaries were Turks. During the expansion of Islam into central Asia the Arabs had come into contact with the warlike nomadic Turkish tribes, and had brought many Turks into the Arab empire as slaves. They had then increasingly employed them as soldiers, under their own officers; and the influence of these Turks over the Caliphs grew, until in the 10th century the Caliphs were puppets of the Turkish generals.
Another cause of the decline of Abbasid power was that the fervour accompanying the original expansion of Islam had now spent itself. The Caliphs had become luxury-loving emperors, and, though Harun-al-Rashid and Mamun gave a great, impetus to the study of the arts and sciences, which led to the golden age of Arabic learning, the religious zeal which had bound together the various parts of the Caliphate was now lacking. In the 8th and 9th centuries the western provinces of the Caliphate broke away, first Spain and North Africa, and them, in 868, Egypt. The independence of Egypt was proclaimed by Ahmed lbn Tulun, the Turkish Governor appointed by the Caliph in Baghdad.
Ibn Tulun, son of a slave, was a professional soldier, and also a highly intelligent man with a university education. Near Al-Fustat, the Arab capital, which had become a great commercial centre, he built a magnificent palace and a great mosque, which still survives almost intact as one of the finest examples of early Islamic architecture. Under lbn Tulun some of Egypt’s former glory and prosperity was restored; and in 877 he added Syria to his domains, thus initiating an association between Egypt and Syria which lasted until the Ottoman conquest over six centuries later.
But the dynasty which Ibn Tulun founded (the Tulunids), and which depended on a military caste of Turks and [Copts] (Arabs were no longer enrolled), decayed after his death; and in 905 Egypt reverted for thirty years to the authority of the Baghdad Caliphate. From 935 to 969 another dynasty of Turkish Baghdad-appointed Governors (the Ikhshidids) ruled Egypt and Syria. Then a disorganised Egypt, weakened by internal dissension and brought near to collapse by the extortion of her rulers and by their incompetence in economic affairs, fell to new invaders the Shi’a Moslem Fatimids, Caliphs of Tunis.