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Egypt in the Middle Ages (Many Wonderful Things)

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The Greco-Roman domination of Egypt came to an end in 639 AD, when Egypt came under the rule of the Rashidun Caliphate originating from Arabia. This brought an age of over one thousand years in which Egypt was dominated by Muslim rulers until the French invasion of Napoleon in 1798. Most of these dynasties originated from Arabia itself, ending with the Ottoman Empire which ruled from Turkish origin. Almost all of these dynasties lasted around one hundred years, a period of time sacred to certain Muslim scholars at the time such as Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406). 

In the early Islamic Period, lasting until 969 AD, Egypt was dominated mostly by the existing Caliphate ruling from the Middle East. In the High Islamic Period, lasting until 1253, Egypt exerted itself as having more dominant autonomy, particularly under its own native Caliphate descended from Fatima, as well as the great jihadist Salah al-Din Ayyub (Saladin). In the Late Islamic period, Egypt would suffer great decline under external Turkish dynasties such as the Mamluks (white slaves) and later the Ottomans. 

Early Islamic Period (639 - 969 AD)

Rashidun Caliphate

Amr ib al-'As, Under the command of Caliph Umar, invaded Egypt with over 9,000 men from 639-640 AD. They first took the city of Heliopolis, then moved on to take Alexandria which surrendered in 641 AD. The Byzantine Empire would try multiple times to retake the nation, but with failed results. Amr established his capital at the city of Fustat, renamed from the Roman fort Babylon dating back to Persian times. This would remain the center of administration throughout the early Muslim period.

After the conquest, Egypt was initially divided into two provinces, Upper and Lower Egypt. In 644 AD, Caliph Uthman would instead appoint a single governor over the entire land, with deputies administrating the north and south. Alexandria remained a special district. Under the deputies, there were also ministers to head the military and police force. The military was composed entirely of Arab immigrants. Initially they were the same men to invade the nation under Amr, but eventually positions were given to migrants from both Syria and Yemen.

In exchange for monetary tribute, the Coptic Christians were exempt from military service, and allowed to practice their religion and culture freely. Conversion to Islam was rare, however, and the old system of taxation remained for the firs century of the conquest. 

During the First Fitna (656-661 AD), or Muslim Civil War, the provinces of Syria and Egypt broke away as independent entities until the assassination of Ali and establishment of the Umayyad Caliphate. Amr ib al-'As, governor of Egypt, respected the authority of the new Caliph. 

Ummayyad Caliphate

During the Second FItna (680-692), the Kharijite Caliph Ibn Zubayr gained enough support in Egypt to appoint his own governor their. The Arabs greatly disliked this overlord, and called on Caliph Marwan I for help. Marwan reconquered it in 684 AD, and installed Abd al-Aziz as governor. Abd al-Aziz would oversee the conquest of North Africa, and enjoyed relative autonomy as a viceroy. 

Abd al-Malik ibn Rifa'a al-Fahmi was the first governor not to be related to the Umayyad court. Arabic was made the official language in 706 AD, and the jizya tax was instituted in 715 AD. Outraged Copts revolted against the tax in 725, 739 and 750 AD, leading up to the Abbassid Revolution. 

Abbassid Caliphate

As the Abbassid rule came into effect, they instituted new taxes and regulations on Egypt, and this resulted in more frequent revolts. In the beginning of the 9th century, the governor of Egypt administrated from Baghdad, using a deputy to rule in their place. In 831 AD, both Muslims and Christians joined in the insurgency

Starting in 834 AD, the Abbassid Caliphs would make direct jurisdictions to lighten the military domination in Egypt, while simultaneously consolidating power to the Abbassid court. It was around this time that Muslim population of Egypt was just starting to surpass the native Christian population. As this took place, the discovery of precious jewels at Aswan increased the autonomy of Egypt's resources. In the late 9th century, the Abbassid dynasty would face severe internal disorder known as the Anarchy of Samarra, leading to the rise of Shia supporters and Alid claimants. 

While this was going on, the Abbassid Caliphate was very interested in the monuments of Ancient Egypt, and took great care at their study and preservation. It is believed that the tombs of Khufu and Khafre were first opened at this time. Unfortunately, it would still be some time before hieroglyphics could be translated by western Europe. 

Early Independence

In 868 AD, during the Anarchy of Samarra, Caliph al-Mu'tazz gave the rule of governor to the military leader Ahmad ibn Tulun. After ensuring the dismissal of the fiscal agent, al-Muddabir, Ibn Tulun would work towards asserting Egypt as its own political entity, rivaling the Caliphate as an empire of wealth and power. A new capital, al-Qata'i, was established in 870 AD, fitted with a grand Mosque known as the Mosque of Ibn Tulun.

In 876 AD, Ibn Tulun came in conflict with the regent al-Muwaffaq as he pushed his military north into Syria. In 882 AD, Ibn Tulun had jurists in Damascus condemn al-Muwaffaq as illegitimate, and declared jihad against him. Ibn Tulun would die in 884 AD, leaving the campaign to his son, Khumarawayh. After Khumaraqayh's victory, an era of peace ensued in which the daughter of the new Tulunid married the Caliph al-Mu'tadid.  

After Khumarawayh died, the subsequent rulers of the Tulunid dynasty proved to be cruel and tyrannical, often murdering members of their own family for power. This would prove ineffective against attacks from the Shia Qarmatians in the south, as well revolts in Alexandria and Syria. In 905 AD, the Abbassid general Muhammad al-Katib entered Fustat and reclaimed Egypt under Arab rule, completely destroying al-Qata'i except for the Mosque of Ibn Tulun. 

In 935 AD, the Turkish mercenary Muhammad al-Ikhshid was appointed governor over Egypt, and ruled it mostly autonomous of the Abbassids throughout his life. In 969 AD, Egypt was invaded and conquered by the Fatimids from Tunisia, a Shia dynasty claiming descent from Ali through his wife Fatima. 

High Islamic Period (969 AD - 1252)

Fatimid Caliphate

Originating from Africa, the Fatimid general Jawhar as-Siqilli led the conquest of Egypt and established a new capital, now the modern city of Cairo, including a royal palace and mosque. In 971 AD he sent word to invite the Caliph al-Muizz to reside in the palace, bringing with him the new religion of Ismail Shia held since the days of Ali. At the same time as this conquest, however, the Qarmations had also invaded Egypt from Syria, besieging the Caliph in his own city. After the Qarmations were forced to retreat, both through military campaigns and bribes, al-Muizz was acknowledged as Caliph as far as Syria, Mecca, and Algeria. 

During the rule of Caliphs al-Aziz and al-Hakim, there was a great deal of toleration for various Muslim sects within Egypt, including some sects of more heretical background such as the Druze and Nizari. However, at the same time there was more rigorous and systematic persecution of Coptic Christianity, which was felt to be in league with Byzantium. Al-Hakim destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009, and the library of Cairo in 1020. At last, Al-Hakim deemed himself and his advisor Darazi as divine, and mysteriously disappeared in 1021. 

During this apex of Muslim piety, there was much less concern for the well being of Egyptian monuments. On orders of the Fatimid Caliph, the nose of the Sphinx was torn off, and the Pyramids were almost dismantled several times.

The Seljuk Turks invaded the Middle East and took Baghdad in 1059, followed by an invasion of Egypt from 1068-1074. Damascus was permanently lost at this time. Desperate to drive out the Turks, Caliph al-Mustafa invited the French to invade Syria. After the First Crusade (1096-1099) successfully took Jerusalem, al-Mustafa attempted to retaliate by sending his Vizier al-Afdal. Al-Afdal was defeated at the Battle of Ascalon, and many successive battles after that with the Crusaders, until eventually he was executed by the Caliph. Egypt would be invaded by the Crusaders many times until the General Salah al-Din Ayyub (Saladin) took over as the Sultan of Egypt. 

Ayyubid Sultanate

Saladin restored Sunni Islam to Egypt, replacing the venerated name of the Fatimid Caliph with that of the Abbassid. Damascus was the capital of his empire, appointing a governor over Egypt. After power was consolidated in 1183, Saladin's reign was entirely made up with fighting the Christian invaders during the Third Crusade (1187-1192). 

Under the reign of al-Adil, the Sultanate worked tirelessly to protect the Levant from Crusader invasion during the Fifth Crusade (1218-1221). During the Siege of Damietta, al-Adil succumbed to disease and died. Al-Kamil almost lost Cairo to the forces of Pelagius, except for some unforeseen luck. However, he did lose the port of Damietta until 1221, and permanently relinquished trading rights with Alexandria.  It was during this campaign that Rome took possession of the Tabula Rashida, ultimately leading to the translation of hieroglyphics. Al-Kamil was ultimately forced to relinquish Jerusalem and several other cities in the Sixth Crusade (1228-1230).

The Sultan Najm al-Din introduced Mamluk ("white slave") forces into the military in 1240, and took Jerusalem in 1244. In 1249 Louis IX of France invaded again in the Seventh Crusade (1248-1254). Shortly after the French were expelled, the Mamluks rebelled and overthrew the Sultan, completely removing Arab control over the region. 

Late Islamic Period (1252 - 1798)

Mamluk Sultanates

There were two different families of Mamluks that successively ruled over Egypt. the Bahri Dynasty ruled until 1382. Qutuz defeated an invasion of the Mongols under Hulagu Khan in 1260. Baybar, who succeeded him and ruled until 1277, was a famous military leader. In 1291 al-Ashraf took Acre, the last Crusader stronghold.

It was under this first dynasty that Cairo turned into a major city, particularly as it became the seat of the Abbassid Caliph after the destruction of Baghdad in 1253. Starting in 1347, a massive decline began in the Mamluk Sultanate, primarily caused by the Black Death that hit Egypt worse than any other nation in Europe. Due to the popularization of Egyptian relics in Europe during this time, it was also the beginning of the great looting of Pharaoh's tombs and the discovery of the Valley of the Kings. 

The Burji Dynasty saw continual decline as the Bubonic plague came back in frequent times over the decades. Tamerlane invaded in 1398, reducing the already-unstable Mamluk rule to virtual anarchy. In the 15th century, with the rise of aegyptography in Europe, many passive expeditions would frequently excavate Pharaonic tombs at this time.  

Egyptian Eleyat

Administration

The Ottoman rule of Egypt was administrated abroad from Istanbul. Initially, the Grand Vizier Yunus Pasha was made governor of the land. After Sultan Selim discovered Yunus as committing massive embezzlement, he changed the office to the Mamluk ruler of Aleppo. Due to the Ottoman millet system, the registry of dividing land between the Mamluk fiefs remained unchanged, allowing the former Mamluk nobles to quickly regain their power. The Mamluk Emirs were reorganized as a system of divans by Suleiman the Magnificent. The Ottoman government would change out the governor frequently, usually less than a year. 

Early Ottoman Period

Later Ottoman Period

List of Dynasties

  • Rashidun Caliphate (636-661 AD)
    • Rebellion of Amr ibn al-'As (656-661 AD)
  • Umayyad Caliphate (661-750 AD)
  • Abbassid Caliphate (750-935 AD)
    • Tulunid Sultanate (868-905 AD)
  • Ikhshidid Sultanate (935-969 AD)
  • Fatimid Caliphate (969 AD-1171)
  • Ayyubid Sultanate (1171-1252)
  • Mamluk Sultanates (1252-1517)
    • Bahri Dynasty (1252-1382)
    • Burji Dynasty (1382-1517)
  • Ottoman Empire (1517-1798)

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