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History of early Arab Egypt

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From 639 to 1517 Egypt was part of the Arab world, ruled at first by governors acting in the name of the Ummayad Caliphs in Baghdad. In 747 the Ummayads were overthrown and the unity of the Arab world was broken. Although Egypt remained under the nominal rule of the Abbasid Caliphate its rulers were able to establish quasi-independent dynasties, such as those of the Tulunids and the Ikshidis. In 969 the Fatimid dynasty from Tunisia conquered Egypt, and established their capital at Cairo. This dynasty lasted till 1174, when Egypt came under the rule of Saladin, whose dynasty, the Ayyubids, lasted till 1252. The Ayyubites were overthrown by the their Turkish bodygaurds, known as the Mameluks, who ruled under the suzerainty of Abbasid Caliphs, until 1517, when Egypt became part of the Ottoman Empire.

Table of contents
1 The Arab Conquest of Egypt
2 The Fatimid Period
3 Ayyubid Period
4 Period of Bahri Mameluks
5 Period of Burji Mamelukes

The Arab Conquest of Egypt

In 639 an army of some 4,000 men was sent against Egypt under the command of Amr ibn al-As, by the second caliph, Umar. This army was joined by another 12,000 men in 640, and 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 on November 8, 641. The Thebaid seems to have surrendered with scarcely any opposition.

The ease with which this valuable province was wrenched from the Byzantine Empire appears to have been due to the treachery of the governor of Egypt, Cyrus, Patriarch of Alexandria, and the incompetence of the generals of the Byzantine forces. Cyrus had persecuted the local Coptic Christians, and some supposed him to have been secretly a convert to Islam. An attempt was made in the year 645 to regain Alexandria for the Byzantine empire, but it was retaken by Amr in 646. In 654 an invasion fleet sent by Constans II was repulsed. From that time no serious effort was made by the Byzantines to regain possession of the country, and it would appear that the Arabs were actually assisted by the Copts, who found the Muslims more tolerant than the Byzantines. In return for a tribute of money and food for the troops of occupation, the Christian inhabitants of Egypt were excused military service, and left free in the observance of their religion and the administration of their affairs.

During the period that elapsed between the Moslem conquest and the end of the Umayyad dynasty the nature of the Arab occupation had become a systematic colonisation. 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. The old division of the country into districts (nomoi) was maintained, and to the inhabitants of these districts demands were directly addressed by the governor of Egypt, while the head of the community, ordinarily a Copt, but in some cases a Moslem, was responsible for compliance with the demand. The resentment of the Copts against taxation led to a revolt in 725; in 727, to strengthen Arab representation, a colony of 3,000 Arabs was set up near Bilbeis. Meanwhile the employment of the Arabic language had been steadily gaining ground, and in 706 it was made the official language of the government. Other revolts of the Copts are recorded for the years 739 and 750, the last year of Umayyad domination. The outbreaks in all cases are attributed to increased taxation.

The Abbasid period was marked by new taxations, and the Copts revolted again in the fourth year of Abbasid rule. At the beginning of the 9th century the practice of ruling Egypt through a governor was resumed under Abdallah bin Tahir, who decided to reside at Baghdad, sending a deputy to Egypt to govern for him. In 828 another Coptic revolt broke out, and in 831 the Copts joined with the Arabs against the government. In 832 the Copts were compelled to surrender; the males were massacred and the women and children sold as slaves. The Copts never again rose against the Muslims.

In the 9th century Egypt was mostly governed by Turks ruling in the name of the Arab governor. Egypt came into conflict with Syria and the Caliphate, until peace was made in 891. In 914 Egypt was invaded for the first time by a Fatimid force sent by the Caliph al-Mahdi Obaidallah, now established at Kairawan. The Mahdi's son succeeded in taking Alexandria in 919, and Egypt was not freed from the invaders till the year 921, when reinforcements had been repeatedly sent from Baghdad to deal with them. In 969 the Fatimid general Jauhar was placed at the head of an army said to number 100,000 men and attempted to seize Egypt. He had little difficulty in defeating the Egyptian army, and on July 6, 969 entered Fostat at the head of his forces. Egypt was transferred from the Eastern to the Western caliphate.

The Fatimid Period

Jauhar immediately began the building of a new city, Cairo, to furnish quarters for the army which he had brought. A palace for the Caliph and a mosque for the army were immediately constructed, which for many centuries remained the centre of Muslim learning. However, the Carmathians of Damascus under Hasan al-Asam advanced through Palestine to Egypt, and in the autumn of 971 Jauhar found himself besieged in his new city. By a timely sortie, preceded by the administration of bribes to various officers in the Carmathian host, Jauhar succeeded in inflicting a severe defeat on the besiegers, who were compelled to evacuate Egypt and part of Syria.

Meanwhile the caliph al-Muizz had been summoned to enter the palace that had been prepared for him, and after leaving a viceroy to take charge of his western possessions he arrived in Alexandria on May 31, 973, and proceeded to instruct his new subjects in the particular form of religion (Shiism) which his family represented. As this was in origin identical with that professed by the Carmathians, he hoped to gain the submission of their leader by argument; but this plan was unsuccessful, and there was a fresh invasion from that quarter in the year after his arrival, and the caliph found himself besieged in his capital. The Carmathians were gradually forced to retreat from Egypt and then from Syria by some successful engagements, and by the judicious use of bribes, whereby dissension was sown among their leaders. Al-Muizz also found time to take some active measures against the Byzantines, with whom his generals fought in Syria with varying fortune. Before his death he was acknowledged as Caliph in Mecca and Medina, as well as Syria, Egypt and North Africa as far as Tangier.

Under the vizier al-Aziz, there was a large amount of toleration conceded to the other sects of Islam, and to other communities, but the belief that the Christians of Egypt were in league with the Byzantine emperor, and even burned a fleet which was being built for the Byzantine war, led to some persecution. Al-Aziz attempted without success to enter into friendly relations with the Buyid ruler of Baghdad, and tried to gain possession of Aleppo, as the key to Iraq, but this was prevented by the intervention of the Byzantines. His North African possessions were maintained and extended, but the recognition of the Fatimid caliph in this region was little more than nominal.

His successor al-Hakim came to the throne at the age of eleven, being the son of Aziz by a Christian mother. Hs conduct of affairs was vigorous and successful, and he concluded a peace with the Byzantine emperor. He is perhaps best remembered by his destruction of the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (1009), a measure which helped to provoke the Crusades, but was only part of a general scheme for converting all Christians and Jews in his dominions to his own opinions by force. A more reputable expedient with the same end in view was the construction of a great library in Cairo, with ample provision for students; this was modelled on a similar institution at Baghdad. His system of persecution was not abandoned till in the last year of his reign (1020) he thought fit to claim divinity, a doctrine which is perpetuated by the Druze, called after one Darazi, who preached the divinity of al-Hakim at the time. For unknown reasons al-Hakim disappeared in 1021.

In 1049 the Zeirid dynasty in the Maghrib returned to the Sunni faith and became subjects of the Caliphate in Baghdad, but at the same time Yemen recognized the Fatimid caliphate. Meanwhile Baghdad was taken by the Turks, falling to the Seljuk Tughrul Beg in 1059. The Turks also plundered Cairo in 1068, but they were driven out by 1074. During this time, however, Syria was overrun by an invader in league with the Seljuk Malik Shah, and Damascus was permanently lost to the Fatimids. This period is otherwise memorable for the rise of the Assassins.

During the Crusades, al-Mustafa maintained himself in Alexandria, and helped the Crusaders by rescuing Jerusalem from the Ortokids, thereby facilitating its conquest by the Crusaders in 1099. He endeavoured to retrieve his error by himself advancing into Palestine, but he was defeated in the neighborhood of Ascalon, and compelled to retire to Egypt. Many of the Palestinian possessions of the Fatimids then successively fell into the hands of the Crusaders.

In 1118 Egypt was invaded by Baldwin I of Jerusalem, who burned the gates and the mosques of Farama, and advanced to Tinnis, when illness compelled him to retreat. In August 1121 al-Aflal was assassinated in a street of Cairo, it is said, with the connivance of the Caliph, who immediately began the plunder of his house, where fabulous treasures were said to be amassed. The vizier's offices were given to al-Mamn. His external policy was not more fortunate than that of his predecessor, as he lost Tyre to the Crusaders, and a fleet equipped by him was defeated by the Venetians.

In 1150 Ascalon was lost, the last place in Syria which the Fatimids held; its loss was attributed to dissensions between the parties of which the garrison consisted. Four years later (April 1154) the Caliph al-Zafir was murdered by his vizier Abbas, according to Usgmah, because the Caliph had suggested to his favorite, the vizier's son, to murder his father; and this was followed by a massacre of the brothers of Zafir, followed by the raising of his infant son Abul-Qasim Isa to the throne.

Shawar took control of Cairo was at the beginning of 1163; after nine months he was compelled to flee to Damascus, where he was favorably received by the prince Nureddin, who sent with him to Cairo a force of Kurds under Asad al-din Shirguh. At the same time Egypt was invaded by the Franks, who raided and did much damage on the coast. Shawar recaptured Cairo but a dispute then arose with his Syrian allies for the possession of Egypt. Shawar, being unable to cope with the Syrians, demanded help of the Frankish king of Jerusalem Amalric I, who hastened to his aid with a large force, which united with Shawars and besieged Shirguh in Bilbeis for three months; at the end of this time, owing to the successes of Nureddin in Syria, the Franks granted Shirguh a free passage with his troops back to Syria, on condition of Egypt being evacuated (October 1164).

Two years later Shirguh persuaded Nureddin to put him at the head of another expedition to Egypt, which left Syria in January 1167; a Frankish army hastened to Shawars aid. At the battle of Babain (April 11, 1167) the allies were defeated by the forces commanded by Shirguh and his nephew Saladin, who was made prefect of Alexandria, which surrendered to Shirguh without a struggle. In 1168 Amalric invaded again, but Shirguh's return caused the Crusaders to withdraw. Shirguh was appointed vizier but died of indigestion (March 23, 1169), and the Caliph appointed Saladin as successor to Shirguh; the new vizier professed to hold office as a deputy of Nureddin, whose name was mentioned in public worship after that of the Caliph. Nureddin loyally aided his deputy in dealing with Crusader invasions of Egypt, and he ordered Saladin to substitute the name of the Abbasid caliph for the Fatimid in public worship. The last Fatimid caliph died soon after in September, 1171.

Ayyubid Period

Saladin was confirmed as Nureddin's deputy in Egypt, and on the death of Nureddin on April 12, 1174 he took the title sultan. During his reign Damascus, rather than Cairo, was the major city of the empire. Nevertheless he fortified Cairo, which became the political centre of Egypt. It was in 1183 that Saladins rule over Egypt and North Syria was consolidated. Much of Saladins time was spent in Syria, where he fought the Crusader States, and Egypt was largely governed by his deputy Karaksh.

Saladin's son Othman succeeded him in Egypt in 1193. He allied with his uncle (Saladin's brother) Abu Bakr against Saladin's other sons, and after the wars that followed, Abu Bakr took power in 1200. He died in 1218 during the siege of Damietta in the Fifth Crusade, and was succeeded by al-Kamil, who lost Damietta to the Crusaders in 1219. However, he defeated their advance to Cairo by flooding the Nile, and they were forced to evacuate Egypt in 1221. Al-Kamil was later forced to give up various cities in Palestina and Syria to Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor during the Sixth Crusade, in order to gain his help against Damascus.

Najm al-Din became sultan in 1240. His reign saw the recapture of Jerusalem in 1244, and the introduction of a larger force of Mameluks into the army. Much of his time was spent in campaigns in Syria, where he allied with the Khwarezmians against the Crusaders and Ayyubids. In 1249 he faced an invasion by Louis IX of France (the Seventh Crusade), and Damietta was lost again. Najm al-Din died soon after this, but his son Turanshah defeated Louis and expelled the Crusaders from Egypt. Turanshah was soon overthrown by the Mameluks, who had become the "kingmakers" since their arrival and now wanted full power for themselves.

Period of Bahri Mameluks

The Mameluk sultans were drawn from the enfranchised slaves who formed the court and officered the army, and were mostly unable to form a new dynasty, usually leaving behind infants who were then overthrown. The first of these was Aibek, who married Turanshah's mother, and he quickly began a war with Syria. He was murdered in 1257 and was succeeded by Qutuz, who faced a growing danger from the Mongols. Qutuz defeated the army of Hulagu Khan at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260, allowing him to regain all of Syria except those places still held by the Crusaders.

Qutuz was murdered by his lieutenant Baibars a month after the battle. He reestablished the Abbasid caliph in Cairo as Baghdad had fallen to the Mongols, and an attempt to retake Baghdad was unsuccessful. In 1268 he recaptured Antioch from the Crusaders, and also fought the Armenians, Seljuks, and Hashshashin; he also extended Muslim power into Nubia for the first time, before his death in 1277.

His successor Qalun defeated the Syrians when they tried to secede in 1280, and also defeated another Mongol invasion in 1281 outside Emesa. After the Mongol threat passed he recaptured Tripoli from the Crusaders in 1289. His son Kalil captured Acre, the last Crusader city, in 1291.

The Mongols renewed their invasion in 1299, but were finally defeated in 1303. The Egyptian sultans established a peace with the Mongols in 1322, and also entered into relations with the Golden Horde, sultan al-Nasir marrying a Mongol princess in 1319. His diplomatic relations were more extensive than those of any previous sultan, and included Bulgarian, Indian, and Abyssinian potentates, as well as the pope, the king of Aragon and the king of France. He died in 1341, and the constant changes of sultan that followed led to great disorder in the provinces; meanwhile, from 1348-1349 Egypt was visited by the Black Death, which is said to have carried off 900,000 of the inhabitants of Cairo.

In 1377 there was a revolt in Syria which spread to Egypt, and the government was taken over by the Circassians Berekeh and Barkuk; Barkuk was proclaimed sultan in 1382, ending the Bahri dynasty. He was expelled in 1389 but recaptured Cairo in 1390, setting up the Burji dynasty.

Period of Burji Mamelukes

Barkuk entered into relations with the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I, but became an ememy of Timur after slaying one of Timur's envoys. Timur threatened to invade Syria, but Barkuk died in 1399; Bayezid then invaded Syria, but came into conflict with Timur, who took Aleppo and other towns in 1400. Syria was regained by sultan Faraj when Timur died in 1405, but Faraj continually faced rebellions from the emirs there and he was forced to abdicate in 1412. In 1421 Egypt was attacked by the Kingdom of Cyprus, and although the Egyptians were unable to capture the island they forced the Cyprians to acknowledge the suzerainty of the Egyptian sultan Barsbai. During Barsbai's reign Egypt's population was greatly reduced from what it had been a few centuries before, with only 1/5 the number of towns. He frequently raided Asia Minor, but died in 1438.

Al-Ashraf came to power in 1453 and had friendly relations with the Ottoman Empire, who captured Constantinople later that year, causing great rejoicings in Egypt. However, under the reign of Khoshkadam, who took power in 1463, Egypt began the struggle between the Egyptian and the Ottoman sultanates which finally led to the incorporation of Egypt in the Ottoman empire. Both Koshkadam and Mehmet II supported different candidates to the principality of Karaman; then in 1467 sultan Kait Bey offended the Ottoman sultan Bayezid II, whose brother was poisoned while being entertained by Kait. Bayezid II seized Adana, Tarsus and other places within Egyptian territory, but was eventually defeated by Kait. Kait also tried to help the Muslims in Spain by threatening the Christians in Syria, but without effect. He died in 1496.

In [1515]] there began the war with the Ottoman sultan Selim I which led to the close of the Mameluke period, and the incorporation of Egypt and its dependencies in the Ottoman Empire. Egyptian sultan Kansuh was charged by Selim with giving the envoys of the Safavid Ismail passage through Syria on their way to Venice to form a confederacy against the Turks, and with harbouring various refugees. At the battle of Merj Dabik, on August 24, 1515, Kansuh was killed in the fighting. Syria passed into Turkish possession, who were welcomed in many places as deliverance from the Mamelukes. On January 20, 1517 Cairo was taken by the Ottomans, and Selim shortly after declared sultan of Egypt.