Medieval Egypt

Dedicated to Baroness Mammara Leona

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the August 1981, A.S. XVI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

The term "Middle Ages" brings to most people the images of Western and Central Europe, of knights and the Catholic Church. Yet they did not exist in isolation, but were often influenced by outside peoples and cultures. The most important of these was the Islamic culture. Egypt, and Cairo in particular, was one of the most important centers of this culture.

In 331 B.C., Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. There he founded the city of Alexandria to be its capital and it remains today as Egyptís greatest port. Upon his death in 323 B.C., Egypt was taken by one of his generals, Ptolemy Sotor, who founded a dynasty that lasted until 30 B.C., ending with the death of Cleopatra.

Christianity was brought to Egypt by St. Mark, the traditional author of the second Gospel, around 45 A.D. The church there split into two branches. The first was philosophical in nature, composed mainly of the Greeks who lived in Alexandria and formed the ruling class. The second branch was comprised of the native Egyptians and is now known as the Coptic Church. The greatest contribution of the Coptic Church is the monastic movement. Moved by the same impulses that would later influence St. Francis of Assisi, large numbers of Egyptians went out to the nearby hills and desert to become hermits and monks. The most famous of these hermits was St. Anthony, who lived around the last half of the third century.

Two other things came out of the Egyptian Church, both heresies. The first, Arianism, came from the Greeks, who argued the Christ was younger than the Father and Holy Ghost and therefore had not existed from all time. The second, Monophysism, came from the Coptics who argued that Christ had only one nature, as opposed to the orthodox view that the Christ had two and was both a god and a man.

By this time the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire had been moved to Constantinople. As with all distant rulers, the Byzantine emperors were soon hated, with the last heresy adding to the tension. In 630 the Emperor Heraclius sent Cyrus as Patriarch of Egypt to end the schism. This he attempted to do for ten years with systematic persecution.

In 640 the Arab general Amr ibn al-As arrived with 4,000 men and began a siege of the fortress of Babylon, which guarded the old capital of Memphis. The siege lasted seven months, fought solely by the Greeks, as the Copts and the Nubians were of the opinion that the Arabs could be no worse than the Greeks. Three weeks after the fall of Babylon, and reinforced by another 16,000 men, Amr besieged Alexandria and took it after 14 months. The legend that Amr had the books of the Alexandrian Library burned is now regarded as fiction; the library collection was all but gone by then.

On the order of the Caliph Omar, Amr did not make Alexandria his capital but founded a new city on the east bank of the Nile River, across from Memphis and next to Babylon. This was the start of the city that one day would be called Cairo. In time, Islam replaced Christianity as the primary religion, partly to avoid the tax on non-Muslims, and Arabic replaced the ancient Coptic language.

From 61 to 750, Egypt was ruled by the Omayyard Caliphs from Damascus without incident. In 750 the Omayyads were overthrown by the Abbasids in a coup with religious overtones that continues to split the Moslem world today. In 868, Ahmed Ibn Tulun, son of a Turkish slave, was sent to rule Egypt. Sensing a mood of disillusionment there, and noting the weakened state of the caliphate, now removed to Baghdad, Ahmed declared Egypt independent. His dynasty lasted until 905 when an Abbasid army retook Egypt.

In 935 Egypt fell to another Turkish dynasty, the Ikshidites. Unlike the Tulun dynasty, which had sparked a minor renaissance in Egypt, nothing came out of this dynasty but misery for the populace. Its rule ended in 969 when the Fatimid general Jewhar took Egypt for the Caliph Muizz.

The Fatimid caliphate, which originated in Tunisia, was the outgrowth of the religious schism that began at the beginning of the Omayyard caliphate. The schism revolved around the line of succession of the family of Mohammed. The Omayyad dynasty began with the destruction of the family of Ali, son-in-law of Mohammed, and the last of Mohammedís direct family. The Shia sect, based mainly in Persia, did not recognize the Omayyad caliphate or its successors and maintained that there was a descendent of Ali who was the true leader of Islam. The Fatimid caliphs claimed this role.

The Fatimid dynasty was to rule until 1171, although its last century was one of disunity and impotence. The most striking figure of the period was the Caliph al-Hakim bi-amrillah, who is often described as the Arab Caligula or Nero. Al-Hakim ruled from 966 to 1021 when he was assassinated. In 1010 he had the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem destroyed and this act is listed as one of the causes of the Crusades. Towards the end o f his reign, some of his followers declared him a god.

When the Fatimids quietly died out in 1171, they were replaced by the Ayyubids, whose only important member was its founder, the Kurd known as Saladin. Saladin, not wishing the religious leadership role, ruled as sultan, theoretically under the Abbisad caliphs, restoring orthodox Islam to Egypt. With religious zeal, Saladin set about destroying the Crusader states in Palestine. In 1174 he united Syria under his rule and began a two-front assault on the Crusaders. In the battle of Hattin on July 1, 1187, he destroyed the Christian army in Palestine, and several months later took Jerusalem. By 1189 he had all but swept the Crusaders out of Palestine. The Third Crusade under Richard the Lion Hearted stopped him, but he was able to prevent them from recapturing much of Palestine.

Upon Saladinís death in 1193, his empire fell apart. His descendants ruled Egypt until 1247. In 1247 the Sixth Crusade led by King Luis IX of France invaded Egypt and took Damietta, a port on the Nile delta. The last of Saladinís descendants to rule, Malik al-Salih Nejin al-Din Ayyub, was at the time dying of cancer. At his death, his Turkish slave wife, Shajrat al-Durr, took command and hid his body. The slave general Bibars and scurvy routed the French. When Ayyubís heir arrived from Iran, he made himself so disagreeable that Bibars killed him. At this point, Shajrat had herself declared queen, and became the only woman to rule a Moslem country in her own name. A few months later, to placate masculine prejudices, her lover, the Emir Aibek, was given the trappings of the sultanate. In 1257, however, jealousy caused her to have him killed, which in turn led to her death.

What followed was the strangest period of history to be found anywhere. Upon Shajratís death, power was seized by the mamelukes, who were slave soldiers. They ruled Egypt until the Ottoman conquest in 1517 and were its ruling class until their destruction in 1811. All the mameluke sultans started as slaves. As they worked their way up in their masterís estate, they would formally be emancipated and placed in positions of trust. From there power was acquired by stealth and skill at arms; ruthlessness and cunning was all that was required.

The greatest mameluke was Bibars. The fourth sultan, he succeeded to power by killing his predecessor while on the way back from defeating the Mongols under Hulagi Khan in 1260, which saved Egypt from the Mongols. He made firm the mameluke system, aided by the Mongols who had taken Baghdad two years earlier. He did this by finding an Abbisad who had survived the sack of Baghdad and set him up as a puppet caliph at Cairo, under whom the mameluke sultans were supposed to rule.

After Bibars, the mamelukes went into a long, slow decline, punctuated by a series of military campaigns against the Mongols and the Turks. Sustained for most of this period by the East-West trade, which transformed Europe, Egyptís importance came to an end in May of 1498 when Vasco da Gama first sailed into Calcutta, India. Thereafter Egypt became a mere pawn, first under the Ottomans, then later the British, not come into her own again until the last half of the 20th century.



Durant, Will, and Ariel Durant. The Story of Civilization: The Age of Faith, A History of Medieval Civilization. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950.

Hitti, Philip K. History of the Arabs. London: MacMillan & Co. Ltd., 1956.

Stewart, Desmond. Cairo; 5500 Years. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1968.

Waterfield, Gordon. Egypt. New York: Walker and Co., 1967.


Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

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