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12.2: Post-Byzantine Egypt

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    72295
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    Learning Objective

    • Discuss the effects of the Islamic conquest on Egypt

    Key Points

    • At the onset of the Muslim conquest of North Africa, Egypt was part of the Byzantine/Eastern Roman Empire, with the capital in Constantinople. The province held strategic importance for its grain production and naval yards, and as a base for further conquests in Africa.
    • In 639, Rashidun troops led by Amr ibn al-As were sent to conquer Egypt. The Rashidun army crossed into Egypt from Palestine and advanced rapidly into the Nile Delta. The Muslim forces eventually defeated a Byzantine army at the 640 Battle of Heliopolis. Alexandria and the Thebaid surrendered shortly after that.
    • Following the first surrender of Alexandria, Amr chose a new site to settle his men, near the location of the Byzantine fortress of Babylon. The new settlement was called Fustat, and quickly became the focal point of Islamic Egypt.
    • The main pillar of the early Muslim rule and control in the country was the military force, or jund, provided by the Arab settlers. These were initially the men who had followed Amr and participated in the conquest.
    • The Fatimid Caliphate conquered Egypt in 969, founding a new capital in Cairo, which was intended as a royal enclosure for the Fatimid caliph and his army. Under Fatimid rule, Egypt became the center of the caliphate.
    • Under Fatimid rule, Egypt flourished economically and and culturally, attracting scholars and thinkers from across the world and becoming the center of intellectual debates and freedom of expression.

    Terms

    The Fatimid Caliphate

    An Ismaili Shia Islamic caliphate that spanned a large area of North Africa, from the Red Sea in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west. The dynasty ruled across the Mediterranean coast of Africa, and it was under its rule that Egypt became the center of the caliphate. At its height the caliphate included, in addition to Egypt, varying areas of the Maghreb, Sudan, Sicily, the Levant, and Hijaz.

    Byzantine/Eastern Roman Empire

    The continuation of the Roman Empire in the East during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, when its capital city was Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, originally founded as Byzantium). It survived the fragmentation and fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE and continued to exist for an additional thousand years until it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

    mamluk

    An Arabic designation for slaves. While they were purchased, their status was above ordinary slaves, who were not allowed to carry weapons or perform certain tasks. They eventually formed a powerful military caste.

    Copts

    An ethno-religious group situated in North Africa and the Middle East, mainly in the area of modern Egypt, where they are the largest Christian denomination. They are also the largest Christian denomination in Sudan and Libya. Historically they spoke the Coptic language, a direct descendant of the Demotic Egyptian spoken in the Roman era, but it has been near-extinct and mostly limited to liturgical use since the 18th century. They now speak Arabic.

    The Rashidun Caliphat

    The Islamic caliphate in the earliest period of Islam, comprising the first four caliphs—the “Rightly Guided” caliphs. It was founded after Muhammad’s death in 632 (year 11 AH in the Islamic calendar). At its height, the caliphate controlled an empire from the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant to the Caucasus in the north, North Africa from Egypt to present-day Tunisia in the west, and the Iranian plateau to Central Asia in the east.

    caliphate

    An area containing an Islamic steward known as a caliph—a person considered a religious successor to the Islamic prophet Muhammad and a leader of the entire Muslim community. During the history of Islam after the Rashidun period, many Muslim states, almost all of them hereditary monarchies, have claimed the right to be defined as such.

    Egypt in the Byzantine Empire

    At the onset of the Muslim conquest of North Africa, Egypt was part of the Byzantine/Eastern Roman Empire, with the capital in Constantinople.
    The province held strategic importance for its grain production and naval yards, and as a base for further conquests in Africa. Shortly before the Muslim conquest, Egypt had been conquered by the Persian Empire (619–629). However, Emperor Heraclius re-captured it after a series of campaigns against the Sassanid Persians, only to lose it to the Muslim Rashidun army ten years later. Before the Muslim conquest of Egypt began, the Byzantines had already lost the Levant and their Arab ally, the Ghassanid Kingdom, to the Muslims. All of this left the Byzantine Empire dangerously exposed and vulnerable.

    Rashidun Conquest

    The Rashidun Caliphate was the Islamic caliphate in the earliest period of Islam, comprising the first four caliphs. It was founded after Muhammad’s death in 632 (year 11 AH in the Islamic calendar). At its height, the caliphate controlled an empire from the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant to the Caucasus in the north, North Africa from Egypt to present-day Tunisia in the west, and the Iranian plateau to Central Asia in the east. Caliph Umar conquered more than 2,200,000 km² area in less than ten years and is known as the most powerful caliph in the history of Islam.

    In 639, some 4,000 Rashidun troops led by Amr ibn al-As were sent by Umar to conquer the land of the ancient pharaohs. The Rashidun army crossed into Egypt from Palestine and advanced rapidly into the Nile Delta. The imperial garrisons retreated into the walled towns, where they successfully held out for a year or more. But the Muslims sent for reinforcements and the invading army, joined by another 12,000 men in 640, defeated a Byzantine army at the Battle of Heliopolis. Amr next proceeded in the direction of Alexandria, which was surrendered to him by a treaty signed in November 641. The Thebaid seems to have surrendered with scarcely any opposition.

    image
    Empire of the Rashidun Caliphate at its peak. The Rashidun Caliphate expanded gradually. Within the span of twenty-four years of conquest, a vast territory was conquered comprising Mesopotamia, the Levant, parts of Anatolia, and most of the Sasanian Empire. Unlike the Sasanian Persians, the Byzantines, after losing Syria, retreated back to Anatolia. As a result, they also lost Egypt to the invading Rashidun army.

    Early Islamic Egypt

    Following the first surrender of Alexandria, Amr chose a new site to settle his men, near the location of the Byzantine fortress of Babylon. The new settlement was called Fustat. Fustat quickly became the focal point of Islamic Egypt and—with the exception of the brief relocation to Hulwan during a plague in 689, and the period of 750–763, when the seat of the governor moved to Askar—the capital and residence of the administration. After the conquest, the country was initially divided in two provinces, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt with the Nile Delta. In 643/4, however, Caliph Uthman appointed a single governor, resident at Fustat, with jurisdiction over all of Egypt. The governor would in turn nominate deputies for Upper and Lower Egypt. Alexandria remained a distinct district, reflecting both its role as the country’s shield against Byzantine attacks and as the major naval base.

    The main pillar of the early Muslim rule and control in the country was the military force, or jund, provided by the Arab settlers. These were initially the men who had followed Amr and participated in the conquest. The followers of Amr were mostly drawn from the Yamani. Although limited in number, they held many privileges and a protected status of prestige.

    In return for a tribute of money and food for the occupying troops, the Christian inhabitants of Egypt were excused from military service and left free in the observance of their religion and the administration of their affairs. Conversions of Copts to Islam were at first rare, and the old system of taxation was maintained for the greater part of the first Islamic century.

    Egypt under the Fatimid Caliphate

    The Fatimid Caliphate was an Ismaili Shia Islamic caliphate that spanned a large area of North Africa, from the Red Sea in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west. The dynasty ruled across the Mediterranean coast of Africa and it was under its rule that Egypt became the center of the caliphate. At its height the caliphate included, in addition to Egypt, varying areas of the Maghreb, Sudan, Sicily, the Levant, and Hijaz.

    The Fatimid general Jawhar conquered Egypt in 969 and built a new palace city there, near Fusṭat, founding a new capital in Cairo in 969. Cairo was intended as a royal enclosure for the Fatimid caliph and his army, though the actual administrative and economic capital of Egypt was in Fustat until 1169. Egypt flourished and the Fatimids developed an extensive trade network in both the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Their trade and diplomatic ties extended all the way to China and its Song dynasty, which eventually determined the economic course of Egypt during the High Middle Ages. The Fatimid focus on long-distance trade was accompanied by a lack of interest in agriculture and a neglect of the Nile irrigation system.

    Unlike western European governments in the era, advancement in Fatimid state offices was based more on merit than on heredity. Members of other branches of Islam, like the Sunnis, were just as likely to be appointed to government posts as Shiites. Tolerance was extended to non-Muslims such as Christians and Jews, who occupied high levels in government based on ability. Religious tolerance was set into place also to ensure the flow of money from all those who were non-Muslims in order to finance the caliphs’ large army of mamluks (an Arabic designation for slaves)brought in from Circassia by Genoese merchants.
    Over time, mamluks became a powerful military knightly caste, not only in Egypt. In some cases, they attained the rank of sultan, while in others they held regional power.

    image
    An Egyptian Mamluk warrior in full armor and armed with lance, shield, sabre, and pistols; Georg Moritz Ebers (1837-1898), Picturesque Egypt, Vol. II (1878). In the Middle Ages, soon after the mamluks took up the practice of chivalry, or furusiyya in Arabic, they came to be known as knights (or faris in Arabic), though un-free until after their service. The faris were trained in the use of various weapons and in wrestling. Their martial art skills were to be honed first on foot and then perfected when mounted. They were popularly used as heavy knightly cavalry by a number of different Islamic kingdoms and empires.

    Intellectual life in Egypt during the Fatimid period advanced greatly, with many scholars living in or visiting Egypt and having easy access to sophisticated libraries. Fatimid caliphs gave prominent positions to scholars in their courts, encouraged scholarship, and established libraries in their palaces. Perhaps the most significant feature of Fatimid rule was the freedom of thought, provided that no one infringed on the rights of others. The Fatimids reserved separate pulpits for different Islamic sects, where the scholars expressed their various ideas. They offered patronage to scholars and invited them from all over the world, even when their beliefs conflicted with their own. From the perspective of these developments, the history of the Fatimids is the history of knowledge, literature, and philosophy.
    The period is also known for producing exquisite art and architecture.

    During the late 11th century and the twelfth century, the Fatimid Caliphate declined rapidly, and in 1171 Saladin invaded their territory. He founded the Ayyubid dynasty and incorporated the Fatimid state into the Abbasid Caliphate.

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