Muslim conquest of Egypt

Muslim conquest of Egypt
Muslim conquest of Egypt
Part of the Muslim conquests and Byzantine-Arab Wars
Giza Plateau - Great Sphinx with Pyramid of Khafre in background.JPG
Date 639–642
Location Egypt, Libya
Result Rashidun victory.
Muslim annexed Egypt, Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan.
Byzantine Empire Rashidun Caliphate
Commanders and leaders
Emperor Heraclius

Cyrus of Alexandria

Caliph Umar

Amr ibn al-Aas
Zubair ibn al-Awam
Miqdad bin Al-Aswad
Ubaida bin As-Samit
Kharija bin Huzafa

At the commencement of the Muslims conquest of Egypt, Egypt was part of the Byzantine Empire with its capital in Constantinople. However, it had been occupied just a decade before by the Persian Empire under Khosrau II (616 to 629 AD). Emperor Heraclius re-captured Egypt after a series of campaigns against the Sassanid Persians, only to once again lose it to the Rashidun army ten years later. Before the Muslim invasion of Egypt began, the Byzantine Empire had already lost the Levant and its Arab ally, the Ghassanid Kingdom, to the Muslims. This all left the Byzantine Empire dangerously exposed and vulnerable to the invaders.[1]


Byzantine Egypt

At the dawn of the seventh century A.D, Egypt was held in fee for the Byzantine Empire. The country was governed by the Byzantine civil service and military, both of which were filled by the (Greek-speaking) ruling class to the general exclusion of the native (Coptic-speaking) Egyptians. Egypt was ruled from the capital of Alexandria, and from the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis, with its great bulwark the fortress of Babylon, on the eastern bank of the Nile. A chain of fortress towns ran across the country. From these towns, soldiers and tax-gatherers patrolled the country, keeping order and collecting money, while Roman merchants and Jewish traders settled freely under protection of the garrisons, keenly competing with their native Egyptian rivals.[2]

In terms of religion, Egypt was also alienated from the rest of the Byzantine Empire. The Chalcedonian Christianity of the Byzantines held to the doctrine of Christ having two natures, one divine and one human. In Egypt however, the christological position of Miaphysitism (Oriental Orthodox Christianity) prevailed, maintaining the doctrine of Christ having one united nature, where the Divinity and Humanity were inseparably united. Although the Council of Chalcedon, held in 451 AD, had ruled in favor of the Byzantine position, Egypt remained a stronghold of Miaphysitism.[3] However, even though the Chalcedonians held the principal churches in Alexandria, the native Egyptians were able to build or rebuild their own churches, such as those of St. Michael, St. Angelus, and Sts. Cosmas and Damian, in addition to various monasteries, to all of which Pope Anastasius appointed priests and ordained bishops.[4]

In view of these religious rivalries, the Byzantine emperor Heraclius was genuinely anxious to win over the native Egyptians, and to reconcile the two branches of the Church of Alexandria.[4] The Miaphysite popes resided in Alexandria without being subject to any harassment.[5]

Rashidun invasion of Egypt


Rashidun army crossing the Egyptian border

Pyramids of Gizah.

In December 639 Amr left for Egypt with only 4,000 soldiers. Most of the soldiers belonged to the Arab tribe of 'Ak, although Al-Kindi mentions that one third of the soldiers belonged to the Arab tribe of Ghafik. The Arab soldiers were also joined by some Byzantines and Persians who had converted to Islam. Umar reconsidered his orders to Amr, however, thinking it foolhardy to expect to conquer such a large country as Egypt with a mere 4,000 soldiers. Umar accordingly wrote a letter to Amr asking him to come back.[6] He added a postscript, however:

"If you receive this letter when you have already crossed into Egypt then you may proceed. Allah will help you and I will also send such reinforcement as may be needed."[citation needed]

The special messenger, Uqba bin Amr, caught up to Amr at Rafah, a little short of the Egyptian frontier. Guessing what might be in the letter, Amr ordered the army to quicken its pace. Turning to Uqba, Amr said that he would receive the Caliph's letter from him when the army had halted after the day's journey. Uqba, being unaware of the contents of the letter, agreed and marched along with the army. The Muslim army halted for the night at Shajratein, a little valley near the city of El Arish, which Amr knew to be beyond the Egyptian border.[7] Amr then received and read the Caliph's letter and went on to consult his companions as to the course of action to be adopted. The unanimous view was that as they had received the letter on Egyptian soil, they had the permission to proceed. To the Caliph, Amr wrote:

"We have received your letter when we have reached Egypt. Therefore in the fulfillment of destiny we proceed seeking Allah's blessing."[citation needed]

When Umar received the reply, he decided to watch further developments and started concentrating fresh forces at Madinah that could be dispatched to Egypt as reinforcement. On Eid al-Adha, the Muslim army marched from Shajratein to El Arish[6], a small town lacking a garrison. The town put up no resistance, and the citizens offered allegiance on the usual terms. The Muslim soldiers celebrated the Eid festival there.

Fall of Pelusium and Belbeis

In the later part of December 639 or in early January 640, the Muslim army reached Pelusium. It was a fortified town manned by a Byzantine garrison, which contained many Ancient Egyptian monuments, as well as many Christian churches and monasteries. The city was considered Egypt's eastern gate, and a branch of the Nile, known as the Pelusiac Branch, used to empty into the Mediterranean near the city. The Muslims besieged the town. The siege dragged on for two months. Towards the fall of February 640 an assault group led by a prominent field commander Useifa ibn Wala assaulted the fort and city was captured by the Muslims.[8][9][10][11][12][13] Armanousa, the daughter of Cyrus who fiercely resisted the Muslims in Pelusium and fell hostage in their hands, was sent to her father in the Babylon Fortress.[14]

The losses of Arab Muslim army in the recent fighting were more than compensated for by a number of bedouins living in the desert of Sinai, who, scenting war and plunder, had joined the invaders in conquering Egypt.[15] These bedouins belonged to the tribes of Rashidah and Lakhm[16] The ease with which Pelusium fell to the Muslim Arabs, and the lack of Byzantine reinforcements to aid the city during the one-month long siege is often attributed to the betrayal and treachery of the governor of Egypt, Cyrus, who was also the Melchite (i.e., Byzantine–Chalcedonian Diaphysite) Patriarch of Alexandria.[3][15] He is one of the authors of monothelism, a seventh century heresy, and some supposed him to have been secretly a convert to Islam.

After the fall of Pelusium the Muslims marched to Bilbeis 40 miles from Memphis. Amr headed via desert roads towards Belbeis. Belbeis was the first place in Egypt where the Byzantines showed some resistance towards the Arab invaders. It was a fortified town, and the Muslims besieged it. Two Christian monks accompanied by Cyrus of Alexandria and the famous Byzantine general Aretion came out to negotiate with 'Amr ibn al-'As. Aretion was previously the Byzantine governor of Jerusalem, and had fled the city to Egypt when it fell to Umar ibn al-Khattab. Ibn al-'As gave them three options: to convert to Islam, to pay Jizya, or war. So they requested 3 days to reflect, then - as mentions al-Tabari - requested 2 extra days. At the end of the 5 days, the 2 monks and the Byzantine general decided to reject Islam and to refuse to pay Jizya, and chose to fight the invading Muslims. They thus disobeyed their ruler, Cyrus of Alexandria, who wanted to surrender and pay Jizya. Cyrus subsequently left for the Babylon Fortress, while the 2 monks and Aretion decided to fight the Arabs. The fight resulted in the victory of the latter and the death of Aretion. 'Amr ibn al-'As subsequently attempted to convince the native Egyptians to aid the Arabs and surrender the city, based on the kinship between Egyptians and Arabs via Hagar.[17] The Egyptians refused, the city of Bilbeis fell after a siege that lasted for a month, and towards the end of March 640 the city surrendered to the Muslims. From Bilbeis the Muslims marched to Babylon.[3] With the fall of Belbeis, the Arabs were only one day away from the head of the Delta.

Siege of Babylon

Map detailing the route of Muslim's invasion of Egypt.

Amr had visualized that the conquest of Egypt would be a walkover. This expectation turned out to be false. Even at the outposts of Pelusium and Bilbeis the Muslims had to meet stiff resistance. The siege of Pelusium had lasted for two months and that of Bilbeis for one month. Babylon was a larger and more important city, Close to it was Memphis the ancient capital of the Pharaohs. Here resistance on a larger scale was expected.[18] Amr nevertheless persevered and pushed on to Babylon. Meanwhile the reinforcement at Madinah was almost ready to march. After the fall of Bilbeis the Muslims advanced to Babylon, near modern Cairo. The Muslims arrived before Babylon some time in May 640 A.D.[19] Babylon was a fortified city, and the Byzantines had prepared it for a siege. Outside the city, a ditch had been dug, and a large force was positioned in the area between the ditch and the city walls. Muslims besieged the fort of Babylon some time in May 640. The fort was a massive structure 60 ft. high with walls more than 6 ft. thick and studded with numerous towers and bastions. As soon as Amr arrived at Babylon he formed up his force of 4,000 men in assault formation and attacked the Byzantine positions in front of him it led to some hard fighting, and the attack was repulsed by the Byzantines. Amr pulled his men back and went into camp near the east bank of the Nile.[3] Early Muslim sources place the strength of the Byzantine force in Babylon about six times the strength of the Muslim force. For the next two months fighting remained inconclusive, with the Byzantines having the upper hand by repulsing every Muslim assault.[20]

Some time in May 640 A.D, Amr sent a detachment to raid against the city of Fayoum. The Byzantines had anticipated this raid, and thus strongly guarded the roads leading to the city. They had also fortified their garrison in the nearby town of Lahun. When the Muslim Arabs realized that Fayoum was too fortified for them to invade, they headed towards the Western Desert where they looted all the cattle and animals they could. They subsequently headed to Oxyrhynchus (Per-Medjed), which they defeated. Failing to invade Fayoum, the Muslim Arabs returned to Lower Egypt down the River Nile.[21]

Reinforcement from Madinah

In July, Amr wrote to Umar asking for reinforcement, before the letter could reach Caliph, Umar had already dispatched first reinforcement of 4000 strong. The army mostly comprises the veterans of Syrian campaigns. Even with this reinforcement, Amr got no success. It was not until the final reinforcement under Zubair joined Muslim forces in Egypt, that Muslim got success. By August 640, Umar's concentration of the 4000 strong elite force had completed. It comprised four columns each column was one thousand strong and commanded by its own commander, while Zubair ibn al-Awam, a renowned warrior and commander, veteran of Battle of Yarmouk and once a part of Khalid ibn Walid's elite force mobile guard, was appointed the supreme commander of army. Umar indeed offered Zubair the Chief command and governorship of Egypt, which Zubair didn't accept. Other commanders were Miqdad bin Al-Aswad; Ubaida bin As-Samit, and Kharija bin Huzafa. Each Commander was famous in military prowess to be equal to a thousand men, and was the counterpart of Persian Hazer Mard or Roman gladiators. This reinforcement arrived at Babylon sometime in September 640. The total strength of the Muslim force now rose to 12,000, quite a modest strength to resume offensive.[7]

Battle of Heliopolis

Ten miles from Babylon was Heliopolis.[22] It was the city of the Sun Temple of the Pharaohs, and was famous for its grandiose monuments and learning facilities.[23]. There was the danger that some Byzantine force from Heliopolis might attack the Muslims from the flank while it was engaged with the Byzantine army at Babylon. With some detachments Amr and Zubeir marched to Heliopolis. There was a cavalry clash near the current neighbourhood of Abbaseya, the engagement was not decisive although it resulted in the occupation of the fortress located between the current neighbourhoods of Abdyn and Azbakeya. The defeated Byzantine soldiers retreated to either the Babylon Fortress or the fortress of Nikiû.[24] At an unguarded point of the wall of Heliopolis, Zubeir and some of his picked soldiers scaled the wall of the city, (similar to what Khalid did at Siege of Damascus) and after overpowering the guards opened the gates for the main Muslim army to enter the city. The city was thus captured by the Muslims. Amr and Zubair returned to Babylon.

Occupation of Fayoum and Babylon

When the news of the Arabs' victory at Heliopolis reached Fayoum, its Byzantine garrison under the command of Domentianus evacuated the city during the night and fled to Abuit. From Abuit, they subsequently fled down the Nile to Nikiu without telling the people of Fayoum and Abuit that they were abandoning their cities to the enemy. When the news reached Amr, he ordered a body of his troops to cross the Nile and invade Fayoum and Abuit. The Muslim soldiers thus captured the entire province of Fayoum without any resistance from the Byzantines.[25]

The Byzantine army at Babylon now grew bolder then ever before and had begun to sally forth across the ditch, though with little success. There had been a stalemate between Muslim and Byzantine forces at Babylon, until Muslim high command devised an ingenious strategy and inflicted heavy casualties on the Egyptian forces by encircling them from three sides in one of their such sallies, though the Byzantines were able to retreat back to the fort but were left too weak for any further offensive action. This situation forced the Byzantines to enter in negotiations with Muslims. The Byzantine General Theodorus shifted his headquarters to Isle of Rauda, whilst Cyrus of Alexandria, popularly known as Maquaqas in Muslim history entered in negotiations with the Muslims, which failed to give any productive results. Emissaries were also exchanged between Byzantine commander Theodorus and Muslim commander Amr ibn al-Aas, leading to Amr meeting Theodorus in person. After fruitless negotiations, the Muslims acted on the 20 December when in a night assault, led by Zubeir and a company of hand picked warriors, Muslim forces managed to scale the wall, killing the guards and opening the gates for the Muslim army to enter. The city of Babylon was captured by the Muslims on 21 December 640, using tactics similar to those used by Khalid Bin Waleed at Damascus. However Theodorus and his army managed to slip away to island of Rauda during the night, thereby restricting the damage done.[26]

Surrender of Thebaid (South eastern Egypt)

On the 22nd of December, Cyrus of Alexandria entered into a treaty with the Muslims.[27] By the treaty, Muslim sovereignty over the whole of Egypt, and effectively on Thebaid, was recognized, and the Egyptians agreed to pay Jizya at the rate of 2 diners per male adult.[28] The treaty was subject to the approval of the emperor Heraclius, but Cyrus of Alexandria stipulated that even if the emperor repudiated the treaty, he and the Copts of whom he was the High Priest would honor the terms of the treaty, recognize the supremacy of the Muslims and pay them Jizya.[29] Cyrus of Alexandria submitted a report to Heraclius and asked for his approval to the terms of the treaty. He also offered reasons in justification of the acceptance of the terms of the treaty. Amr submitted a detailed report to Umar and asked for his further instructions. When Umar received the report of Amr bin Al-Aas about the invasion of Babylon and the treaty with Cyrus of Alexandria, he wrote back to say that he approved of the terms provided Heraclius agreed to submit to them.[30] He desired that as soon as the reactions of Heraclius were known, he should be informed so that further necessary instructions might be issued.[31] Heraclius's reaction to the report of Cyrus of Alexandria was violent. He removed Cyrus of Alexandria from the Viceroyship of Egypt, but he remained the Head of the Coptic Church. This was a matter in which the emperor could not interfere. Heraclius sent strict orders to the Commander-in-chief of the Byzantine forces in Egypt that the Muslims should be driven from the soil of Egypt. Cyrus of Alexandria waited on Amr and told him that Heraclius had repudiated the treaty of Babylon. Cyrus of Alexandria assured Amr that so far as the Copts were concerned the terms of the treaty would be followed. Amr reported these developments to Umar, and Umar desired that before the Byzantines could gather further strength the Muslims should strike at them and drive them from Alexandria. It is recorded that Cyrus of Alexandria asked for three favors from the Muslims, namely:

  1. Do not break your treaty with the Copts;
  2. If the Byzantines after this repudiation ask for peace, do not make peace with them, but treat them as captives and slaves; and
  3. When I am dead allow me to be buried in the Church of St. John at Alexandria.[7][32]

This position was to the advantage of the Muslims. The Copts were the real natives of the land of Egypt.[33] Both the Byzantines and the Muslims were strangers. Though some Copts from personal considerations continued to support the Byzantines, the sympathies of the Copts were now by and large with the Muslims. The Copts were not supposed to fight against the Byzantines on behalf of the Muslims but they undertook to help the Muslims in the promotion of war effort, help them in the provision of stores; build roads and bridges for them; and provide them moral support.[34]

March to Alexandria

Ancient Roman theaters in Alexandria.

Byzantine commanders knew that after Babylon the next target of the Muslims would be Alexandria. They accordingly prepared for the siege to be laid on the city. Their strategy was to keep the Muslims away from Alexandria by destroying their power through continued sallies and attacks from the fort. Even if this didn't keep them away, it would demoralize them morally and physically. It would be more a war of patience then power.[35] In February 641, Amr set off for Alexandria from Babylon with his army. All along the road from Babylon to Alexandria, the Byzantines had left regiments to delay, and if possible, inflict heavy losses on the advancing Muslim troops. On the third day of their march from Babylon the Muslims' advance guard encountered a Byzantine detachment at Tarnut on the west bank of the Nile.[36] The Byzantines failed to inflict heavy losses, but they were able to delay the advance by one more day. Muslim high command decided to halt the main army at Tarnut and send the advance guard cavalry forward to clear the way from the possible Byzantine detachments. This was done so that without further delay the main army could reach Alexandria as soon as possible with out being stopped mid-way due to the Byzantine detachments. Twenty miles from Tarnut, Shareek, the Byzantine detachment that withdrew from Tarnut yesterday, joined the detachment already present at Shareek to form a strong offensive force. They attacked and routed the Muslim advance guard. The next day, before the Byzantines could resume their offensive to annihilate the Muslim advance guard, the main Muslim army had arrived, causing the Byzantines to withdraw. At this point Muslim high command decided not to send forward the advance guard, so the whole army marched forward, beginning the following day. The Muslims reached Sulteis where they encountered a Byzantine detachment. Some hard fighting followed, but the Byzantine resistance soon broke down and they withdrew to Alexandria. The Muslims halted at Sulteis for a day and then resumed the march to Alexandria. Alexandria was still two days' march from Sulteis. After one day's march the Muslim forces arrived at Kirayun twelve miles from Alexandria. Here the Muslim advance to Alexandria was blocked up by a Byzantine detachment about 20,000 strong. The strategy of the Byzantines was that either the Muslims would be driven away before they actually arrived at Alexandria, or that they would be as weak as possible. The two forces were deployed for action, and some hard fighting followed, but the action remained indecisive.[7] This state of affairs persisted for ten days. On the last day the Muslims launched a vigorous assault. The Byzantine resistance broke down, and they withdrew to Alexandria. The way to Alexandria was now cleared, and the Muslim forces resumed the march from Kirayun and reached the outskirts of Alexandria some time in March 641 C.E.

Conquest of Alexandria and fall of Egypt

The Muslims appeared before Alexandria in March 641 and laid siege to the city.[37] Alexandria was heavily fortified. There were walls behind walls, and forts within forts. There was no dearth of provisions and food supply in the city. The city had direct access to the sea, and through the sea route help from Constantinople in men and material could come any time. As Amr surveyed the military situation, he felt that Alexandria would be a hard nut to crack.[38] The Byzantines had high stakes in Alexandria, and they were determined to offer stiff resistance to the Muslims. The Byzantines mounted catapults on the walls of the city, and these engines pounded the Muslims with boulders. This caused considerable damage to the Muslims and Amr ordered his men back from the advance position so that they might be beyond the range of these missiles. A see-saw war followed.[7] When the Muslims tried to go close to the city they were pounded with missiles. When the Byzantines sallied from the fort, they were invariably beaten back by the Muslims. It is said that Heraclius the Byzantine emperor collected a large reinforcement at Constantinople. He intended to march at the head of this reinforcement personally to Alexandria. Before he could finalize the arrangements he died. The reinforcement mustered at Constantinople dispersed, and no help came to Alexandria. This demoralized Byzantines further. The siege dragged on for six months, and in Madinah Umar got impatient. In a letter addressed to Amr the Caliph expressed his concern at the inordinate delay in the invasion of Egypt. He further instructed that the new field commander will be Ubada, and would launch the assault at the fort of Alexandria. Ubada's assault was successful and Alexandria was captured by Muslims in September 641. Thousand of Byzantine soldiers were killed or taken captive while other managed to flight to Constantinople through ships that stood anchored in the port. Some wealthy traders also left.[39] On behalf of the Egyptians, Cyrus of Alexandria sued for peace, and peace was allowed. In his report to the Caliph, Amr reported: After the invasion of Egypt Amr is reported to have written to Caliph Umar:

"We have conquered Alexandria. In this city there are 4,000 palaces, 400 places of entertainment, and untold wealth."

The permanent loss of the Egypt left the Byzantine Empire without an irreplaceable source of food and money. The loss of Egypt and Syria, followed later by the invasion of the Exarchate of Africa also meant that the Mediterranean, long a "Roman lake", was now contested between two powers: the Muslim Caliphate and the Byzantines. In the event, the Byzantine Empire, although sorely tested, would be able to hold on to Anatolia, while the mighty walls of Constantinople would save it, during two great Arab sieges, from the fate of the Persian Empire.[40]

An attempt was made in the year 645 to regain Alexandria for the Byzantine Empire, but it was retaken by Amr in 646. In 654 an invasion fleet sent by Constans II was repulsed. From that time no serious effort was made by the Byzantines to regain possession of the country.

Invasion of Nubia

The land of Nubia lay to the south of Egypt. It stretched from Aswan to Khartoum and from the Red Sea to the Libyan Desert. The Nubians were Christians and were ruled by a king. The capital of the kingdom was Dongola. In the summer of 642, Amr bin Al-Aas sent an expedition to Nubia under the command of his cousin Uqba bin Nafe. The expedition was ordered by Amr bin Aas on his own account and it was not a whole scale invasion but merely a preemptive raid to show down the power of new regime in Egypt to the bordering Kingdoms.[41] Uqba bin Nafe who later made a great name for himself as the Conqueror of Africa, and led his horse to the Atlantic complaining that there were no lands left for him to conquer in the way of Allah came in for an unhappy experience in Nubia. In Nubia, no pitched battle was fought. There were only skirmishes and haphazard engagements and in such type of warfare the Nubians excelled the Muslims. The Nubians were skilful archers and subjected the Muslims to a merciless barrage of arrows. The arrows were aimed at the eyes and in the encounter 250 Muslims lost their eyes. The Nubians were very fast in their movements.[3] The Muslim cavalry was known for its speed and mobility, but it was no match for the Nubian horse riders. The Nubians would strike hard against the Muslims, and then vanish before the Muslims could recover their balance and take counter action. The hit-and-run raids by the Nubians caused considerable damage to the Muslims. Uqba wrote to Amr bin Al-Aas of the state of affairs.[42] He said that the Nubians avoided pitched battle, and in the guerilla tactics that they followed the Muslims were the sufferers Uqba further came to know that Nubia was a very poor land, and there was nothing therein worth fighting for or to tempt by way of booty. Thereupon Amr bin Al-Aas asked Uqba to withdraw from Nubia. Uqba accordingly pulled out of Nubia with his forces.

Conquest of North Africa

After the preemptive raid in Nubia in the south Amr bin Al-Aas decided to undertake campaigns in the west, to secure the western borders of Egypt and clear the region of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan from Byzantine influence. Some time in September 642, Amr led his troops to the west. After one month of marching the Muslim forces reached the city of Pentapolis. From Burqa, Uqba bin Nafe was sent at the head of a column to undertake a campaign against Fezzan. Uqba marched to Zaweela the capital of Fezzan. No resistance was offered, and the entire district of Fezzan, what is present day north-western Libya, submitted to the Muslims. After the invasion of Fezzan, Uqba returned to Burqa, soon after the Muslim army marched westward from Burqa. They arrived at Tripoli in the spring of 643 C.E. and laid siege to the city. After a siege of one month the city was captured by Muslims. From Tripoli, Amr sent a column to Sabrata a city forty miles from Tripoli. A feeble resistance was put up, and thereafter the city surrendered and agreed to pay Jizya. From Tripoli Amr is reported to have written to the Caliph the details of the operations in the following words:

"We have conquered Burqa, Tripoli and Sabrata. The way to the west is clear, and if the Commander of the Faithful wishes to conquer more lands, we could do so with the grace of God."

Umar, whose armies were already engaged in a massive campaign of conquering the Sassanid Empire didn't wanted to engage himself in further inland in north Africa, when Muslim rule in Egypt was still not completed firm. Umar accordingly disapproved of further advance and ordered to first consolidate position in Egypt, and issued strict orders that there should be no further campaigning. Amr bin Al-Aas accordingly abandoned Tripoli and Burqa and returned to Fustat. This was towards the close of the year 643 C.E.[43]

Stance of the Egyptians towards the invading Muslims

The Copts did find the Muslims more tolerant than the Byzantines. In return for a tribute of money and food for the troops of occupation, the Christian inhabitants of Egypt were excused from military service and left free in the observance of their religion and the administration of their affairs. This system (called jizya) was not a new institution. It was adopted by Muslims from previous poll tax systems in the ancient Middle East. Indeed, Egyptians had been subject to it - as non-Romans - during Roman rule before the adoption of Christianity by the Roman state. After that, all non-Christian subjects of the Roman Empire had to pay it, including non-Christian Egyptians. The Persians also had a similar poll tax system.

On the twentieth of Maskaram Theodore and all his troops and officers [the Byzantines] set out and proceeded to the island of Cyprus, and abandoned the city of Alexandria. And thereupon 'Amr the chief of the Moslem made his entry without effort into the city of Alexandria. And the inhabitants received him with respect; for they were in great tribulation and affliction... And 'Amr became stronger every day in every field of his activity. And he exacted the taxes which had been determined upon, but he took none of the property of the churches, and he committed no act of spoliation or plunder, and he preserved them throughout all his days.

Egypt under Muslim rule

Rashidun Empire at its peak under third Rashidun Caliph, Uthman- 654
  Strongholds of Rashidun Caliphate

The ease with which this valuable province was wrenched from the Byzantine Empire appears to have been due to the treachery of the governor of Egypt, Cyrus[3], Melchite (i.e., Byzantine–Chalcedonian Orthodox, not Coptic) Patriarch of Alexandria, and the incompetence of the generals of the Byzantine forces. Cyrus had persecuted the local Coptic Christians.[44] He is one of the authors of monothelism, a seventh century heresy, and some supposed him to have been secretly a convert to Islam. An attempt was made in the year 645 to regain Alexandria for the Byzantine Empire, but it was retaken by Amr in 646. In 654 an invasion fleet sent by Constans II was repulsed. From that time no serious effort was made by the Byzantines to regain possession of the country.

Fustat, the new Capital

With the fall of Alexandria the Muslims were the masters of Egypt. When the Muslims conquered Egypt, Alexandria was the capital of the country. When the Muslims conquered Alexandria, most of the Byzantine population evacuated the city. The vacant houses were occupied by the Muslims. Alexandria was the queen of cities. Amr bin Al-Aas and the other Muslims with him were much attracted by the city. Amr wanted to make Alexandria the capital of Muslim Egypt.[7] Amr wrote to Umar seeking his permission to make Alexandria the capital of the province. Umar rejected the proposal on the basis that Alexandria was a maritime city and there will always a danger of Byzantine naval attacks.[45] He suggested that the capital should be established further inland at a central place, where no mass of water intervened between it and Arabia.[46] As per treaty with Cyrus of Alexandria, the wealth of Egyptians in Alexandria was spared and that of Romans and Greeks was taken as booty. Greek civilians were given a choice, whether a safe passage to return to Greek land with out their wealth, or stay in Alexandria and pay Jaziya. Some choose to stay, while others went to Byzantine lands. Amr next proceeded to choose a suitable site for the capital of Egypt. His choice fell on the site where he had pitched his tent at the time of the battle of Babylon. His tent had been fixed about a quarter of a mile north east of the fort. It is reported that after the battle was over, and the army was to march to Alexandria when the men began to pull down the tent and pack it for the journey it was found that a dove had nested on top of the tent and fail eggs. Amr ordered that the tent should remain standing where it was. The army marched away but the tent remained standing in the plain of Babylon. In this unusual episode of the dove and its nest, Amr saw a sign from the Heaven. He decided "Where the dove laid its nest, let the people build their city". As Amr's tent was to be the focal point of the city, the city was called Fustat, which in Arabic means the tent. The first structure to be built was the mosque which later became famous as Mosque of Amr bin Al-Aas.[47] The city of Fustat was built east of Babylon. In due course Fustat extended to include the old town of Babylon. It grew to become a bustling city and commercial center of Egypt.[48]

Reforms of Caliph Umar

To consolidate his rule in Egypt, Umar imposed very low Jizya (tribute) on Egyptians, unlike the Romans had. Egyptians found them self economically at ease under the Rashidun rule. However during Umayyad rule unbearably high taxes were imposed on Egyptians. Upon Umar's permission, Amr ibn al Aas decided to build a canal to join Nile with Red sea, it would help the traders and Arabia will flourish through this new trade route. More over it will open new markets for the merchants of Egypt and open for them an easy route for the markets of Arabia and Iraq. The project was presented to Caliph Umar, who approved it. A canal was dug and with in few months was opened for merchants. The canal was named Naher Amir ul Momeneen i.e. The canal of Commander of believers named after the title of Caliph Umar.[49] Amr proposed another project, digging a canal that would join the Red sea and the Mediterranean sea.[50] The project was once again sent to Caliph Umar for approval, but Umar viewed it as a threat to national security and rejected on the basis that it will open a way for Byzantine navy to enter Red sea via that canal and it will be a continuous threat to Madinah.[7] This project however was completed in the form of what is now known as Suez Canal 1300 years later. The British Empire, like Caliph Umar resisted the construction of Suez Canal on the same basis that it will threaten its rule over India.[47] Each year a large amount of Jizya according to Caliph's instructions use to be spent on building and repairing of canals and bridges.[51] The Arab rulers remained in control of the country from this point until 1250, when it fell under the control of the Mameluks (however, the Ayyubids whom mamluki sultans replaced were Kurdish by their origins).

See also


  1. ^ Al Farooq, Umar By Muhammad Husayn Haykal. chapter no:18 page no:453
  2. ^ Alfred Butler, the Arab invasion of Egypt, page 42-43
  3. ^ a b c d e f
  4. ^ a b Alfred Butler, the Arab invasion of Egypt, page 47
  5. ^ Alfred Butler, the Arab invasion of Egypt, page 51-53
  6. ^ a b Al Farooq, Umar By Muhammad Husayn Haykal, chapter no:19
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Al-Maqrizi, Mawaiz wa al-'i'tibar bi dhikr al-khitat wa al-'athar,
  8. ^ Al-Kamil, page 451 - 452
  9. ^ Al-Gawzi, Al-Montazim, page 532 - 534
  10. ^ al-Tabari, history of the kings, page 862
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  40. ^ Kaegli, Walter. Heraclius: Emperor of Byzantium.
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