Siege of Alexandria (641)

Siege of Alexandria (641)


Historical overview

With the death of Muhammad in 632 AD, the Muslim world began a period of rapid expansion. Under the rule of the first caliphs, the Rashidun, Muslim armies began assaulting the borders of both Sassanid Persia and the Byzantine Empire.[1] Neither of the two former powers was prepared for the aggressive expansion of the Arabs, as both largely underestimated Islam and its growing support; this is best depicted by the ambivalent views held by the Byzantines and the painstakingly slow reaction of the Sassanids.[2] After smashing both the Byzantines at Yarmuk (636) and the Persians at Qadisiyah (637), Muslim expansion set it sights south towards the rich provinces of Byzantine Africa.

The hallmark of Muslim conquest was its surprising tolerance. Following Muslim conquest, the local populace and political infrastructure was generally allowed to continue on, albeit under Muslim control. There were notable exceptions of course; most apparent was the Muslim treatment of “idolaters” and “pagans”. The Muslim people were remarkably tolerant of the Jews and Christians of captured regions. Many rose to positions of relative power and affluence in the new cities like Baghdad.[3] This led to a stable and smooth running empire. The only major differentiation existent between Muslims and non-Muslims was the system by which they were taxed. Non believers were obligated to pay a higher tax to the local government called the jizya, while Muslims had to pay a zachat.

Byzantine Alexandria

The previous rulers of Alexandria before the arrival of Islam were the Byzantines. A heavily trafficked port city, Alexandria was crucial to maintaining Byzantine control over the region, due mainly in fact to its large Greco-Egyptian population and economic value. The population of Alexandria was heavily influenced by both the cultural and religious views of their Byzantine rulers, but despite this the majority of the population spoke Coptic rather than Latin or Greek. Thus the main instruments of cultural diffusion at the time of the arrival of Islam were the Coptic Christians.[4]

The Byzantines used Egypt the same way their predecessors, the Roman Empire, had done namely as the main center of food production for wheat and other foodstuffs. Alexandria also functioned as one of Byzantium’s primary army and naval bases, as there was usually a significant imperial garrison stationed in the city.[5] With the loss of Jerusalem in 638 though, much of Byzantine attention was drawn towards the strengthening their holds on the frontier, chiefly in Anatolia and Egypt. Though they would be able to successfully hold Asia Minor and retain it as an imperial province, as time went on Egypt became increasingly difficult to defend.

Muslim conquest of Egypt

In 634, the Muslim leader Umar ascended to the role of caliph and inherited a heterogeneous and rapidly expanding Islamic empire. Throughout the early 640s he set his sights on the economically desirable province of Egypt and its capital city of Alexandria. The Muslim invasion of Egypt was led by the commander Amr ibn Al-Asi, who commanded a force larger than any army the Byzantines could field at the time, resulting from their crushing defeat at Yarmuk four years earlier.

The original attempts of the Arab forces were not directed solely towards Alexandria but rather at removing the Byzantine fortress of Babylon on the Nile Delta.[6] The destruction of the Byzantine military power at the ensuing battle of Heliopolis, also known as Ayn Shams, in the summer of 640 and the victory over the Byzantine defenders at Babylon effectively broke Byzantine power in Egypt.

Fall of Alexandria and aftermath

Following the destruction of the Byzantine forces at Heliopolis, the city of Alexandria was left virtually defenseless and it is likely that only a fraction of provincial forces remained garrisoned in the city itself. Though the Byzantines were unable to field an effective force, Alexandria's substantial walls proved to be valuable assets and were adequate in keeping the Muslim attackers at bay. However, on November 8, 641, after a fourteen month siege, Byzantine officials at last capitulated to Amr, turning the city over to Muslim hands.

The impact of such a major event as the loss of Alexandria to Muslim forces was felt throughout the Mediterranean world. The decrease in the annual grain shipments from Egypt struck a decisive blow to the Byzantine economy; besides the simple fact of fewer available resources, the empire lost untold thousands in taxes from the grain merchants now traveling southward towards Damascus and Alexandria. In such a weakened condition the empire was barely able to bail itself out financially and in some instances, had to resort to piracy, in some cases attacking merchant ships and “requisitioning” their cargo before distributing it to Byzantine or allied ports.[7]

Historically, Alexandria had provided Byzantium with a steady income of both money and luxury items, though some scholars speculate that the imposition of especially high taxes in the final decades of Byzantine rule may have been a considerable factor in causing a sizeable amount of the city’s population to defect from Byzantine stewardship to side with the Muslim invaders.[8]

Byzantine counterattack

There were several Byzantine attempts to retake Alexandria. Though none of these were successful for a sustained period of time, Byzantine forces were able to briefly regain control of the city in 645. Arab chroniclers tell of a massive fleet and army sent by the Byzantines with the goal of retaking Alexandria. The imperial forces were led by a lower ranking imperial official named Manuel. After entering the city without facing much resistance, the Byzantines were able to regain control of both Alexandria and the surrounding Egyptian countryside. The Muslims retaliated by readying a large force of 15,000 who promptly set out to retake the city under command of the veteran Amr ibn Al-Asi. The Byzantines, following their standard tactical doctrine, advanced out of the city and sought an open battle away from the shelter of their fortifications. Accounts of the battle portray the Muslim forces as relying heavily on their archers before eventually assaulting the Byzantine positions, driving many back and routing the rest in the process.[9] After this, the Byzantines were utterly defeated and withdrew from the region.

In 654, yet another attempt to bring Alexandria back into imperial hands failed when an invasion force sent by Constans II was repulsed. This generally marks the end of Byzantine attempts to retake the city.

Life under Islamic rule

There is much evidence to support that Alexandria continued to thrive under its new leaders. Once subdued, the native population of Alexandria was remarkably receptive toward the rule of their Islamic governors, often favoring them to their previous Byzantine masters.[citation needed] In regards to the treatment of the native population, many sources point out the visible efforts made by the Muslims to respect the cultural identity and religious freedoms of the local population. In his analysis on the post-conquest status of regions affected by Islamic expansion, Dr. Gustav LeBon writes:

“However, the early Caliphs, who enjoyed a rare ingenuity which was unavailable to the propagandists of new faiths, realized that laws and religion cannot be imposed by force. Hence they were remarkably kind in the way they treated the peoples of Syria, Egypt, Spain and every other country they subdued, leaving them to practice their laws and regulations and beliefs and imposing only a small Jizya in return for their protection and keeping peace among them. In truth, nations have never known merciful and tolerant conquerors like the Arabs.”[10]

In a later section LeBon further explains,

“The mercy and tolerance of the conquerors were among the reasons for the spread of their conquests and for the nations’ adoptions of their faith and regulations and language, which became deeply rooted, resisted all sorts of attack and remained even after the disappearance of the Arabs’ control on the world stage, though historians deny the fact. Egypt is the most evident proof of this. It adopted what the Arabs had brought over, and reserved it. Conquerors before the Arabs—the Persians, Greeks and Byzantines—could not overthrow the ancient Pharaoh civilization and impose what they had brought instead.”

Thus the majority of the population remained content and enjoyed a fair amount of local autonomy under Muslim leadership. The following is an account that reputedly took place shortly after the surrender of the city to Amr:

“And when [Amr] saw the patriarch, he received him with respect, and said to his companions and private friends: ‘Verily in all the lands of which we have taken possession hitherto I have never seen a man of God like this man. Then Amr turned to him, and said to him: ‘Resume the government of all your churches and of your people, and administer their affairs. And if you will pray for me, that I may go to the West and to Pentapolis, and take possession of them, as I have of Egypt, and return to you in safety and speedily, I will do for you all that you shall ask of me.” Then the holy patriarch Benjamin prayed for Amr, and pronounced an eloquent discourse, which made Amr and those present with him marvel, and which contained words of exhortation and much profit for those that heard him; and he revealed certain matters to Amr, and departed from his presence honored and revered.”[11]

Islamic influence

Culturally, the city continued to function much the way it had under Byzantine rule. Greek, Coptic, and Arabic were all spoken fluently throughout the city and documents continued to be published Greek and Coptic for some time following the takeover. Coptic was also continued in the fields of medicine, mathematics, and alchemy, whose practices thrived under the budding advances of Islamic intellectualism. After the 11th century however, Arabic replaced Greek and Coptic as the principal language of the city.[12]

In terms of religion, Alexandria was largely characterized by its heterogeneous makeup both before and after the advent of Islam. Indeed from the third century on, Alexandria served as a major base for both the practice of Monophysitism and Nestoriansim, as well as a surprising[citation needed] number of other Christian sects that found refuge in Egypt.

It is also interesting[citation needed] to note that from a cultural perspective the practice of marriage between Muslim men and non-Muslim women was a fairly common one, and at least a sizeable portion of the Muslim invasion force that settled in and around the city of Alexandria took native Greek and Berber women as their brides. As this was typically discouraged by the umma and prohibited by the reigning caliph Umar, this gives credence to the Islamic state's desire to respect the lives of the local population rather than act as agents of disorder.[13]

The fall of Alexandria and the acquisition of the Byzantine Empire's oriental provinces of Egypt and Syria are generally seen[by whom?] as a critical step towards the culmination of uniquely Islamic identity. The importance of Alexandria as the staging point for future conquests and economic purposes should not be dismissed.[citation needed] It is accurate then to say that the loss of these provinces paved the way for the future Muslim conquest of the Byzantine Exarchate of Africa, which included key cities such as Cyrenaica (642), Tripoli (643), and Kairouan (670).[citation needed] Thus the fall of Alexandria accentuated a clearly defined geopolitical shift in influence from the regions of interior Arabia to those of the Mediterranean and in the ensuing centuries, the significance of these conquests would allow Egypt to become the seat of dominant Muslim law.


  1. ^ James Lindsay. Daily Life in The Medieval Islamic World. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press,1957) Pg 3
  2. ^ Khalil I. Semaan. Islam and the Medieval West. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1980) Pg 4
  3. ^ Bat Ye’or. The Dhimmi. (Cranberry NJ: Associated University Press, 1985) Pg 43
  4. ^ Khalil I. Semaan. Islam and the Medieval West.
  5. ^ Phillip K. Hitti. Capital Cities of Arab Islam. (Minneapolis: Jones Press, 1973) Pg 110
  6. ^ James Lindsay. Daily Life in The Medieval Islamic World.
  7. ^ Khalil I. Semaan. Islam and the Medieval West.
  8. ^ “The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu.” (The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu. English Translation, 2002 accessed 8 February 2008) from
  9. ^ James Lindsay. Daily Life in The Medieval Islamic World.
  10. ^ “Civilization of the Arabs.” (Testimony of Some Western Scholars on the Muslim Conquest, 2007 accessed 5 February 2008) from
  11. ^ “The History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria” (The Internet Medieval Sourcebook,1998 accessed 10 February 2008) available from
  12. ^ “Coptic Egypt: Background Information” (University College, London, 2003 accessed 13 February 2008) from
  13. ^ Kenneth W. Frank. 1993. “Pirenne Again: A Muslim Viewpoint”. The History Teacher 23 (6): 371-383

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