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19-20 A.H.   /   640-641 A.D.

19 A.H., 640 A.D.

THE year following was one of comparative repose. Islam continued to push its way now steadily into Persia. Reserving the advance in that direction, we will first narrate the conquest of Egypt.

'Amr casts an eye on Egypt

The project was, it is said, due to 'Amr, who had made trading expeditions in the country in his

1 The chief authorities for the Muslim conquest of Egypt are the contemporary chronicle of the Copt John of Nikiu, a number of papyri dating from that period in the collection of the Archduke Rainer, the contemporary and later accounts preserved by the early Arabic historians Ibn 'Abd al-Hakam (d. 268 A.H.), Al-Biladhuri (d. 279 A.H., 892 A.D.), and Tabari (d. 310 A.H., 966 A.D.), as well as the later Ibn al-Athir (d. 630 A.H., 1233 A.D.), Al-Makrizi (d. 845 A.H., 1442 A.D.), As-Suyuti (d. 911 AH., 1505 AD.), and many others.

The value of the Chronicle of John of Nikiu (of which the text with a French translation will be found in Notices et Extraits des MSS. de la Bibliothèque Nationale, vol. xxiv.) is diminished by the fact that it is extant only in an Ethiopic version made in the year 1602, from an ancient Arabic translation, the original having been composed in Greek, with some chapters in Coptic. Moreover, in the narrative itself the events do not appear to follow the order of time.

The Papyri of the Rainer Collection have been published by Prof. Karabacek in the Denkschriften and Sitzungsberichte of the Vienna Academy, as well as in the Mittheilungen.

The question of the sequence of events in the Conquest of Egypt has been discussed and, as far as practicable, settled by Mr E. W. Brooks in the Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 1895, p.436 ff. The Arab historians are fully awake to the confusion which exists (Tab. i. 2580). Ibn al-Athir attempts to find one fixed point by stating that the conquest of Misr must in any case have been before the Year of Ashes (see p. 153), since in that year 'Amr sent supplies by way of Suez to Medina by sea, but he wisely adds that God knoweth best (ii., 440. Cf. Tab. i. 2577).


heathen days. After the fall of Cæsarea, the able and ambitious general chafed at a life of inaction in Palestine. On the Caliph's visit to Syria, he urged a descent upon Egypt, at once to enfeeble the enemy's power and augment their own. The advice was good; for Egypt, once the granary of Rome, now fed Constantinople with corn. Alexandria, though inhabited largely by natives, drew its population from every quarter. It was the second city in the Empire, the seat of commerce, luxury, and letters. Greeks and Armenians, Arabs and Copts, Christians, Jews, and Syrians, mingled here on common ground. But the life was essentially Byzantine; although the government was ever and anon interrupted by revolt and by the uprising of the native Egyptians, both among themselves, and against their foreign rulers. The vast population was provided, in unexampled profusion, with theatres, baths, and places of amusement.1 A forest of ships congregated in its safe and spacious harbour, from whence communication was maintained with all the seaports of the realm. Alexandria was thus a European, rather than an Egyptian, city.

Egypt disaffected towards Byzantine rule.

It was otherwise with the rich valley beyond. Emerging from the luxurious city, the traveller dropped at once from the pinnacle of civilisation to the dreary wastes of Monasticism, and the depths of poverty and squalor. Egypt was then, as ever, the servant of nations. The overflowing produce of well-watered fields served but to feed the great cities of the empire. And the people of the soil, ground down by exaction and oppression, were ever ready to rise against their rulers. Hatred was embittered here, as elsewhere, by the never ceasing endeavour of the Byzantine rulers to convert the inhabitants to Orthodoxy, while the Copts held tenaciously by the Monophysite creed.2 No sooner had Egypt been evacuated by the Persians, who had occupied it for some

1 The male population alone is given at 600,000. There were 70,000 (according to others 40,000) male Jews of an age to pay the poll-tax, and 200,000 Greeks, of whom 30,000 effected their escape by sea before the siege; 4000 baths, 400 theatres, and 12,000 vessels of various size. These numbers are no doubt exaggerated.

2 See Palmer's Origines Liturgicæ, vol. i., p. 82; and The Story of the Church of Egypt, vol. i., noticed below.


ten or twelve years, and whose rule, here as elsewhere, had, after the rigours of the conquest were over, been marked by a fair amount of toleration, than persecution recommenced with the return of its former masters. Cyrus, the instrument chosen by Heraclius to carry out in Egypt his scheme for the union of the Church on the basis of the Monothelite compromise, arrived at Alexandria about the year 630, in the double capacity of ecclesiastical and civil ruler of Egypt. The Coptic Patriarch Benjamin at once fled to Upper Egypt and concealed himself in a monastery there, and advised his clergy to follow his example. For ten years Cyrus strove by persecution to force the Copts to abandon the Jacobite creed for that of Chalcedon.1 Chronic disaffection pervaded the land, and the people courted deliverance from the overbearance of Byzantine rule. The Romans themselves were divided into the Blue and Green parties here as elsewhere, and the military chiefs were at feud with one another. There were, indeed, at the time in Egypt no Bedawi tribes with Arabian sympathies for Muslim conquest; but elements of even greater danger had long been here at work, which made the change of yoke at first sight not unwelcome.

'Amr invades Egypt, 19 A.H., 640 A.D.

It was at the close of the eighteenth year of the Hijra that 'Amr, having obtained the hesitating consent of the Caliph, set out from Palestine for Egypt. His army, even with bands of Bedawin, lured on the way by hope of plunder, did not exceed 4000. Soon after he had left, 'Omar, who had meanwhile returned to Medina, concerned at the smallness of his force, would have recalled him; but finding that he was already gone too far, sent Az-Zubeir with heavy reinforcements after him, many of them veterans and warriors of renown.

Reduces Lower Egypt.

'Amr entered Egypt by the Wadi al-'Arish, where he was on the 12th December 639 (10, xii., 18 A.H.). Pushing westwards he reached Al-Farama (Pelusium), in the siege and capture of which a month was spent. Following up the eastern estuary of the Nile he occupied Bilbeis. Marching along the course of the river, now almost at its lowest,

1 Renaudot, Historia Patriarcharum Alexandrinorum Jacobitarum—Benjamin Patriarcha.


amidst groves of fig-tree and acacia, 'Amr reached at last the obelisks and ruined temples of 'Ain Shems ('Aun or Heliopolis). On the way he routed several columns sent to arrest the inroad; amongst them one commanded by his Syrian antagonist Artabun, who was, it is said, slain in the encounter.

Battle of Heliopolis

From Heliopolis 'Amr crossed the Nile and (according to John of Nikiu) made a flying raid into the Faiyum (Lake Moeris), and it appears to have been only on his return to the neighbourhood of Heliopolis that he was joined by the reinforcements which 'Omar had sent after him under the command of Az-Zubeir. These may have brought his forces up to 15,000. The people of 'Ain Shems, mixed Copts and Nubians, now urged the Governor of Egypt, whom the Arab writers call the Mukaukis,1 to make peace and not expose them to destruction. "What chance," they said, "have we against men that have beaten both the Chosroes and the Kaiser?" An armistice of five days was agreed upon,2 but as soon as it had expired, an action took place. 'Amr adopted the familiar plan of dividing his forces into three parts, one stationed near Heliopolis, one to the north of the Roman fortress of Babylon, and one near a place on the Nile called Tendunyas or Um Dunein. When the Roman gererals attacked the first, which was commanded by 'Amr, the other divisions fell on their rear. The victory of the Arabs was complete. The Romans took to their boats and fled down the river. The battle of Heliopolis took place in July 640 (viii., 19 A.H.).

By this victory the City of Misr (Memphis), in which

1 This name is generally derived from the Greek Click to View, vain glorious. That it is a title, not a proper name, appears from the fact that it is used also of the governor of Egypt in the lifetime of Mohammad (Muir's Life of Mohammad, 4th ed., p. 371). See Mrs E. L. Butcher, The Story of the Church in Egypt, vol. i., chap. xxxii. A. J. Butler, The Arab Conquest of Egypt considers it to be a nickname of Cyrus, a view which is taken for granted in the 11th ed. of the Encycl. Brit. On the other side, see The Athenæum for 1903, vol. i., p 455 f.

2 Tabari (i. 2584) says that the Mukaukis sent Abo Maryam, "catholicus of Egypt," with "the bishop "[Abo Maryam] and the religious folk, who concluded a truce of five days. Artabun, however, would not agree to it. One of those who accepted Islam was called Abu Maryam according to what it professes to be the narrative of a soldier who served under 'Amr (i. 2583).


the fort called Babylon was situated, fell into 'Amr's hands, and the whole of Lower Egypt would have been at once overrun had not Nature come to the help of the vanquished. The Nile, which begins to rise early in June, in those days by the middle of August transformed the whole Delta into one vast lake, rendering military operations impossible. 'Amr therefore made use of the period of inundation, which lasts till near the close of the year, by investing the fort of Babylon, which was considered impregnable. The siege, begun in September 640, lasted some eight months. As in the case of Damascus, the fortress was taken both by capitulation and by assault. Whilst Az-Zubeir with desperate valour had successfully scaled the walls, a deputation from the garrison obtained terms from 'Amr (Tab. i., 2583 f). The fortress of Babylon fell on Easter Monday, 9th April 641. The Emperor Heraclius had died, whilst the siege was in progress, on the 11th February of the same year.1

Opposition was now almost at an end. The Greeks, whom Gibbon scruples to call Romans, fallen now to the level of those over whom they used to domineer, and hated by them, were glad to make their escape towards the sea-coast. The Copts now began actively to take sides with the Arabs and massacre the Imperial soldiery. 'Amr's first care was to secure the Faiyum, his next to throw a bridge of boats across the Nile, and this not only facilitated the transport of his own followers, but cut the stream of fugitives from Upper Egypt, which was constantly flowing down the valley towards Alexandria. Taking full advantage of the rivalries of Roman and Copt, 'Amr, leaving a garrison in Babylon, lost no time in marching with mounted troops upon Alexandria, where the Imperial commander-in-chief, Theodore, had his headquarters, so as to reach it before the Greek troops could rally there for its defence. On the way he captured Nikiu, in which many fugitives, amongst others the governor of the Faiyum, had taken refuge, on the 13th of May 641 (John of Nikiu, p. 563). Although the fugitive governor of the Faiyum, who was in command of the town, had fled and the garrison had, with one exception, laid down their arms, the

1 In the Arabic histories Heliopolis and Babylon appear to be confused with one another. Butler explains this as due to their taking Bab al-Yun = Gate of 'Aun (On or Heliopolis).


inhabitants, non-combatants, women and children, were put to the sword. Similar scenes were enacted in other towns. In spite of considerable resistance at points, 'Amr worked his way as far as Kiryaun, some sixteen miles east of Alexandria. Here Theodore gave battle, but was forced to retire within the city, before which the Arabs encamped, just out of range of the catapults mounted behind the walls, which it was futile for the Arabs to think of assaulting. The stretch of wall on the land side was indeed as narrow as it was well fortified, and succour and supplies could always be obtained by sea. But, as may be imagined, the contention of factions within the city, filled as it was with fugitive generals, and in the absence of Cyrus, who had been recalled, had reached a climax (John of Nikiu, p. 568 f.).

All parties, however, even the Copts whom he had persecuted, united in welcoming Cyrus back in the following September, when he came empowered to make peace with the Muslims; and in the autumn of the year 641 Egypt passed from the hands of the Emperor into those of the followers of the Arabian Prophet, with whom it has remained for over 1200 years.1


'Amr wished to fix his seat of government at Alexandria, but 'Omar would not allow him to remain so far away from his camp. So he returned to Upper Egypt. For several years his followers were engaged against the Nubians, and at last brought them under subjection in the direction of Dongola. A body of the Arabs crossed the Nile and settled in Ghizeh, on the western bank,—a movement which 'Omar permitted only on condition that a strong fortress was constructed there to prevent the possibility of surprise. The headquarters of the army were pitched near Memphis. Around them grew up a military station, called from its origin Fustat, the fossatum or "Encampment." It expanded rapidly into the Capital of Egypt, the modern Cairo. And there 'Amr laid the foundation of a great Mosque on the site of that which still bears his name.2

1 The treaty was concluded between Cyrus and 'Amr at Babylon (John of Nikiu, p. 575). E. W. Brooks, following John of Nikiu, dates the capitulation of Alexandria 17th October 641. (Tab. i., 2588 f.).

2 An interesting history of the Mosque, with illustrations, appears in the Asiatic Journal for October 1890, p. 759. 'Amr is there described, from a tradition of Al-Makrizi, as "a short thick-set man with a large


Soil left with the cultivators

Az-Zubeir urged 'Amr to enforce the right of conquest, and divide the land among his followers. 'Amr refused; and the Caliph confirmed the judgment. "Leave it," was his wise reply, "in the people's hands, to nurse and fructify." 'Amr himself was refused ground whereon to build a mansion for himself. He had a dwelling-place, the Caliph reminded him, at Medina, and that should suffice. So the land of Egypt, left in the hands of its ancestral occupants, became a rich granary for Arabia, just as in bygone times it had been the granary of the Roman empire.

Suez Canal Reopened, 21 A.H., 642 A.D.

A memorable work, set on foot by 'Amr after his return to Fustat, facilitated the transport of corn from Egypt to the Hijaz. It was nothing less than the reopening of the ancient communication between the waters of the Nile in Upper Egypt and those of the Red Sea at Suez.1 The channel left the eastern branch of the river at Bilbeis, then turned to the right, and, striking the salt lakes near Timsah, reached the Red Sea by what is now the lower portion of the Suez Canal. Long disused, the bed was choked with silt; but the obstructions could not have been very formidable, for within a year navigation was restored, and the Caliph, at Yenbo' (the port of Medina), witnessed vessels discharge their burdens which had been freighted under the very shadow of the Pyramids. The canal remained navigable for some eighty years, when, choked with sand, it was again abandoned.

Nothing could show how well disposed 'Amr was towards the native Egyptians better than the fact that, as soon as the Greek dominions had been overthrown, he caused search

head and black eyes, and a good-humoured expression." The tradition adds a sermon given by 'Amr in this Mosque, which, of course, like much else that we read about this campaign, is mere fiction.

1 A canal connecting the Nile near Bubastis with Lake Timsah already existed under Rameses II. (Herod, ii., p. 158). Pharaoh Necho attempted to continue this canal southwards to the Red Sea. The design was completed by Darius a century later. A second canal made by the Ptolemies at Tell Fakus, nearer to the Mediterranean. This took the line of lagoons (the modern fresh-water canal) to the Red Sea, and was too shallow to be of much use, excepting in high flood. One of these lines eventually (deepened, apparently, by Trajan, since it is called Amnis Trajanus) remained navigable to the end of the third century of our era. It was the same canal, no doubt, which was now cleared out and deepened by 'Amr.


to be made for the former head of their Church; and the patriarch Benjamin, after thirteen years' retirement, was reinstated in his office. This step was only equal in wisdom to the manner in which 'Amr had made use of the mutual hostility of Romans and Copts to advantage his own cause.

'Amr would teach Egyptians to respect Arabs.

Finding that the Egyptians, used to delicate and luxurious living, looked down upon the Arabs for their frugal fare, Amr, famed for mother-wit, chose a singular expedient to disabuse them. First he had a feast prepared of slaughtered camels, after the Bedawi fashion, and the Egyptians looked on with wonder while the army satisfied their hunger with the rude repast. Next day a sumptuous banquet was set out, with all the dainties of the Egyptian table; here again the warriors fell to with equal zest. On the third day the troops were paraded in battle array, when 'Amr thus addressed the crowds who flocked to the spectacle:—"The first day's entertainment was to let you see the simple manner of our life at home; the second, to show that we can enjoy the good things of the conquered lands, and yet retain, as ye see this day, our martial vigour notwithstanding." The Copts retired, saying one to the other, "See ye not that the Arabs have but to raise their heel upon us, and it is enough." 'Omar was delighted at his lieutenant's device, and said of him, "Of a truth it is on wisdom and resolve, as well as upon force, that warfare doth depend."1

Fable of maiden sacrifice to Nile.

A curious tale is told of the rising of the Nile. The yearly flood having been long delayed, the Copts, according to custom, sought leave to cast into the river a maiden beautifully attired, or rather, as we may suppose, the effigy of such a one.2 When referred to, the Caliph inclosed this singular letter in a despatch to 'Amr:—

The Commander of the Faithful to the River Nile, greeting.
If in times past thou hast risen of thine own will, then stay thy flood but if by will of Almighty God, then to Him we pray that thy waters may rise and overspread the land.

1 Tab. i., 2590 f.

2 The tradition is not given by our early authorities, but may nevertheless be grounded on fact, for Lane tells us it is the custom to cast year by year such a figure into the river calling it The Bride of the Nile, Modern Egyptians, xxvi.)


"Cast this letter," wrote the Caliph, "into the stream, and it is enough." It was done, and the fertilising tide began to rise abundantly!

Alexandria retaken; finally reduced, 25 A.H., 646 A.D.

'Amr, with the restless spirit of the Faith, soon pushed his conquests westward, established himself in Barka, and reached even to Tripoli. The subject races were taxed in fixed tribute of Berber slaves, thus early sanctioning in that unhappy land traffic in human flesh and blood. The maritime settlements received little aid from the Byzantine fleets. But a few years after, in the Caliphate of 'Othman, a desperate attempt was made to regain possession of Alexandria. The Muslims, busy with their conquests elsewhere, had left the city insufficiently protected. The Greek and other inhabitants, already weary of the Muslim rule, conspired with the Byzantine Court; and a fleet of 300 ships, under command of Manuel, drove out the garrison and took possession of the city. 'Amr hastened to its rescue. A great battle was fought outside the walls: the Greeks were defeated, and the town subjected to the miseries of a siege. It was at last taken by storm and given up to plunder. To obviate the recurrence of similar mishap, 'Amr razed the fortifications, and quartered in the vicinity a strong garrison, which twice a year was relieved from Upper Egypt. The Muslim court was transferred to Fustat, and Alexandria ceased to be the capital of Egypt. A reminiscence of the fact that Alexandria underwent two investments (one of which ended in a capitulation, the other in its capture) is preserved in the divergent dates given by the Arab historians for the one siege which they know of—20 A.H. and 25 A.H. The story of the burning of the library of Alexandria by the Arabs is a late invention.

Within Egypt, as outside of it, the Arabs maintained the divisions of the country which they found already existing. The largest division of both Upper and Lower Egypt was into eparchies, each under a dux. The Frontier is, as elsewhere, specially mentioned. But more important were the smaller pagarchies, roughly answering to the ancient nomes, each under a pagarch, who was frequently an Arab; and lastly, the village communities under their headmen. Under Roman rule the great land owner (who was often the pagarch) often enjoyed the privilege of paying


his taxes directly to headquarters but this and other abuses seem to have been abolished by the Arabs. The governor did not come into contact with the individual taxpayer at all, but only with the pagarch, and, by letters sent through him, with the headmen. Their administration is marked by simplicity and extreme centralisation.

Fiscal matters.

Much light has been thrown upon the character of the Arab government of Egypt by the Papyri discovered in recent years. Especially is this the case with regard to taxation. Registers were kept in every chorion (village community) of all persons subject to taxation. When men or money or goods were required, a requisition was sent from the governor at Fustat to each pagarchy (or nome) stating the amount demanded of it, and of each of its choria. The local officials then collected the assessment from the individual tax-payers according to their property in land, date-palms, vines, or acacias, or according to their trade. The ordinary taxes consisted of a money-tax and a corn-tax. The money-taxes were land-tax, poll-tax, and taxes to defray the expenses of collecting these. The poll-tax was on heads of families only; the land-tax on both men and women. To equalise matters there was a special tax for those engaged in trades. The corn-tax consisted, as a rule, of wheat, sometimes of barley. In addition to these, personal service was sometimes demanded by the government. This was not the corvée or forced labour, for those impressed received wages. A common demand was for sailors, and for this persons of all trades and callings were taken. The bulk of the ordinary taxation went for the support of the Arabs resident in Egypt; but there were also extraordinary taxes for special purposes. A demand might be made upon a pagarchy for so many palm-tree trunks for building. There was also the obligation to find food and fodder for Arab soldiers on the march for three days. The Arab historians in dealing with this early period already speak of kharaj and jizya, but these two terms are quite synonymous, and denote revenue however it was raised.1

1 H. I. Bell, Greek Papyri in the British Museum, p. xvii. ff.

The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline, and Fall [Table of Contents]

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