Egypt: The Taking of Egypt

The Taking of Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

A typical Muslim army at the time of Egypt's conquest, though not the one that attacked the country

Author's note: Stories such as this are difficult to illustrate, due to the nature of early Islamic art. Rarely are individuals portrayed, but rather the focus of their art was based on geometric and vegetal designs, together with calligraphy, due to the Old Testament prohibition on engraven images.

I believe that, were there only Christians (just as an example) in the world, and one group believed that in the ten commandments, god wrote "Thou shall not kill", and another group believed the reading should be "Thou shall not murder", with all other beliefs being exactly the same, they would nevertheless over a period of history have brought war against each other, slaughtering their kind over the difference. It seem to be the way of the world, that belief so often has led to violence.

Before the invent of Islam, this is more or less what occurred in the Christian world. Far from forming a homogeneous social group, the Christians of the old world were fragmented into a number of different sects, sometimes violently opposing one another. In Egypt, the most numerous among the Christians were the Copts, who then as now were Monophysites believing in the single divine nature of Christ, in defiance of the distinction laid down between the divine and human nature by the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

The Monophysites of Egypt were largely rural people who spoke Coptic, a language derived from ancient Egypt but which used the Greek alphabet in its written form. At the same time, the Greek influenced and the Greek speaking urban population had remained within the Melkite tradition of the Byzantine church, which affirmed the dual nature of Christ and considered the Monophysites to be heretics. Each of these sects had its own church and its own patriarch in Alexandria. The difference in languages helped nothing, and to further add to their problems, the Byzantines had imposed a burdensome tax upon the population that was all the more difficult to accept when civil and religious administration was entrusted to the Orthodox patriarch Cyrus in 631.

Egypt suffered turbulent times when, in 609 AD, the country had sided with Nicetas, a lieutenant of Heraclius, in the rebellion against the emperor Phocas. Only shortly after Heraclius overthrew Phocas, the Byzantines were attacked by the Persians. The armies of the Sasanid king Khosrau II invaded Egypt, inflicting cruel suffering upon its some of its inhabitants. This Persian occupation lasted six years, but while the conquerors treated the Orthodox Christians harshly, they dealt more evenly with the Monophysites, who welcomed deliverance from their Byzantine rulers. The Coptic patriarchs of this period (first Andronic and then Benjamin) were even allowed to resume their seat in Alexandria.

In 629 AD, Heraclius exacted revenge by capturing the Sasanid capital of Ctesiphon-Seleucia At that time, he also regained control of Egypt. The Orthodox patriarch, Cyrus, was held responsible for further persecution of the Copts. Menas, who was the brother of the Coptic patriarch Benjamin, preferred to be thrown into the sea tied in a sack rather than recognize the Council of Chalcedon. Another martyr, brought before Cyrus cried out, "We have no other archbishop than Benjamin; accursed be the Council of Chalcedon and all who accept it". Hence, Egypt's long crisis revealed the weakness of the empire and it's army, fanned religious dissension, and diluted Egyptians' loyalty to a political and religious power whose removal, as they had just seen from the Persian invasion, could prove an advantage to them.

However, the two great powers had weakened each other's strength. It was Abu Bakr who took control of the Muslims after the death of the prophet Muhammad, and it was he who inaugurated his reign by sending an expedition into Byzantine Syria, which the prophet had earlier planned. This was a courageous move when one considers that there was some consolidation required of the new caliph. After Muhammad's death, fractures revealed themselves in the Muslim nation and the Caliph had to contend with them as well. Yet, in 633 the Muslim commander Khalid ibn al-Walid was sent to Iraq, where he engaged in raids and induced the city of Hira to surrender. Thus, though few in number and precariously organized, the Muslims had now initiated hostilities on the periphery of both superpowers.

There were set backs. The original expedition to Syria in 629 was defeated and the Sasanians also defeated the Arabs in Iraq in 634. However, it was only four years after the death of the prophet Muhammad that the Arabs won a shattering victory over the Byzantines on the Yakmuk River in Palestine (August 20th, 636), following a victory over the Sassanids at Qadisiyya during February and March of 636. These victories gave the Muslims domination over Iraq and Syria, freeing the a new caliph, Umar, from any worry about the two greatest empires of the day.

Therefore, he began to contemplate the conquest of Egypt.

In 637, the Arabs gathered a new army and dispatched it against Iran. It routed the Sasanians at Qadisiyya, thereby evicting them from Iraq, which held the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon. The emperor Yazdegerd did succeed in assembling another army to fight the Muslims at Nihawand in the Zagros mountians in 642, but he was defeated. The Muslims pursued their successes in Syria by occupying the Jazira (the northern parts of modern Syria and Iraq between 639 and 641.

So at a time when world powers were extended, and at the same time, violent conflicts existed between the local Christians in Egypt, the Muslim general Amr ibn al-'AS was able to relatively easily march against and win this ancient land for his caliph, who may have personally decided to attack Egypt. However, tradition tells this story somewhat differently. When Umar was in Jerusalem, Amr asked his permission to invade Egypt. Characteristically neither consented nor refused, thus suggesting by his silence that if the venture was successful, he would be rewarded, or if it were unsuccessful, discredited.

At this time, Amr was at the height of his powers. he was forty-five years old, hard as steel and as resourceful as a fox. With 5,000 men, he set out from Caesarea, following the route that Alexander had taken before him. At the frontier a letter from the Caliph awaited him. A small gully traditionally divided Palestine from Egypt, and Amr decided to walk across it before opening the letter, which read:

"If my letter ordering thee to turn back from Egypt overtakes thee before thou hast entered any part of the country, then turn back; but if thou hast invaded the land before receiving my letter, then proceed, and my God help thee!"

Of course, he had already crossed over into Egyptian territory. The Arab troops reached al-Arish on the 12th day of December, 639, after which the Caliph's general overcame the Byzantine defenses at Farama, than at Bilbays, before reaching Heliopolis in July of 640. They laid camp at Heliopolis and awaited reinforcements from Umar, who sent al-Zubayr, the cousin of Muhammad, with 5,000 additional troops. They laid siege to the Byzantine fortress of Babylon in September, and on April 9th, 641, the city fell after a fairly spirited resistance. The Arab army had by this time received reinforcements that brought its number to about 15,000.

The Caliph's general built a semi-permanent camp for his troops behind a protective trench, and then turned his attention to the Capital of Egypt at that time, Alexandria. At this time, Alexandria was arguably the grandest city in the world. It's only contender for this title was Constantinople. The Arab's laid siege to the capital during June of 641. This actually did not much alarm the citizens of Alexandria, which had been in Greek hands since its founding 900 years earlier. The citizens seem to have gone about their business, receiving supplies by sea. However, the city surrendered on November 8th, 641 and it is said that this was the treachery of Cyrus, who hoped to administer the city as an independent enclave within the Arab empire. Amr wrote jubilantly to his caliph that:

"I have captured the city, but I shall forbear describing it. Suffice to say that I have taken therein four thousand villas, four thousand baths, forty thousand Jews liable to poll-tax, and four hundred pleasure palaces fit for kings."

The Arabs did not actually take possession until the 29th of September, 642, after the Greek forces had sailed away. By that time, Amr had already established his new capital for Egypt at Fustat, which would eventually evolve into the city we know today as Cairo.

It was the antagonism felt by the majority of Egyptian Christians towards the Church in Constantinople that helped to account for the indifference, if not outright relief, with which they greeted their Muslim conquerors. Thus, Michael the Syrian, writing in the twelfth century, described the Arab conquest of Egypt, saying:

"The God of vengeance, who alone is all-powerful, who can alter the dominion of men as he sees fit, giving it to whom he pleases and raising up the most humble, having observed the malice of the Greeks, who cruelly pillaged our churches and monasteries wherever they had dominion and condemned us mercilessly, brought the sons of Ishmael from the south to deliver us from the hands of the Greeks. It was no small advantage to us to be freed from the cruelty of the Romans, their malice, their anger, their cruel zeal towards us, and to be left in peace".

The bishop of Nikiu had more to say:

"God punished the Greeks thus for not having respected the vivifying passion of Our Lord. That is why God rejected them...Their religion was debased...They believed themselves to be servants of Christ but in reality were not." Elsewhere he wrote, "Everyone knows that the defeat of the Greeks and the conquest of Egypt by the Muslims was in punishment for the tyranny of Emperor Heraclius and the wrongs he inflicted on [Egyptians] through the patriarch Cyrus".

Hence, in certain scenes, the Monophysite Christians took the Muslim conquest of Egypt to be their own, which in many ways it was. For whether Christian or Jewish by faith, they were considered by the Muslims as "people of the Book", and hence as something akin to cousins in religion. One must remember that the great rift that grew up between the Muslims and the Christians actually sprang from the later crusades, which was, in reality, not a conflict so much between the Muslims and all Christianity, but only the western Christians. In fact, the Monophysite Christians often fought on the side of the Arabs.

The Egyptian revolt against Nepoleon

In fact, the Jacobite Copts did win in many ways. The Chalcedonian Melchites lost all of their churches in Egypt, but indeed, it was probably the Copts' nonresistance to the Arabs, together with their later cooperation with the Muslims during the Crusades that contributed to their survival as a community up unto the present day. Though the Muslim march into foreign lands would very quickly sputter and die at the hands of civil war, probably owning to the massive windfalls of their success, Egypt, and the face of the Middle East, had been changed. From that time until Napoleon's conquest of Egypt, it would be ruled by various sects of the Islamic faith, and in 1952, it left European hands to once again find its Islamic roots in a new world.






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