The Mamluks

Medieval Egypt
The Mamluks, 1250-1517

To understand medieval Egypt history during the later middle Ages, it is necessary to consider two major events in the eastern Arab World:
  •  The migration of Turkish tribes during the Abbasid Caliphate and their eventual domination of it.
  • The Mongol invasion.

The 1st Turkish Migration:
Turkish tribes began moving west from the Eurasian steppes in the sixth century. As the Abbasid Empire weakened, Turkish tribes began to cross the frontier in search of pasturage.

The Mamluks
The Mamluks


The Mamluks

The Turks converted to Islam within a few decades after entering the Middle East. They also entered the Middle East as mamluks (slaves) employed in the armies of Arab rulers. Their training was not restricted to military matters and often included languages, literary and administrative skills to enable them to occupy administrative posts.

The 2nd Turkish Migration:
In the late tenth century, a new wave of Turks entered the empire as free warriors and conquerors. One group occupied Baghdad, took control of the central government, and reduced the Abbasid caliphs to puppets. The other moved west into Anatolia, which it conquered from a weakened Byzantine Empire.

The Mamluks had already established themselves in medieval Egypt and were able to establish their own empire because the Mongols destroyed the Abbasid caliphate. In 1258 the Mongol invaders put to death the last Abbasid caliph in Baghdad.

The Mongol Invasion:
The following year, a Mongol army of as many as 120,000 men commanded by Hulagu Khan crossed the Euphrates and entered Syria. Meanwhile, in medieval Egypt the last Ayyubid sultan had died in 1250, and political control of the state had passed to the Mamluk guards whose generals seized the sultanate.

In 1258, soon after the news of the Mongol entry into Syria had reached medieval Egypt, the Turkish Mamluk Qutuz declared himself sultan and organized the successful military resistance to the Mongol advance.

Defeating the Mongols:
The decisive battle was fought in 1260 at Ayn Jalut in Palestine, where the Mongol army was defeated. At the end of the fourteenth century, power passed from the original Turkish elite, the Bahriyyah Mamluks, to Circassians, whom the Turkish Mamluk sultans had in their turn recruited as slave soldiers.

Between 1260 and 1517, Mamluk sultans of TurcoCircassian origin ruled an empire that stretched from Egypt to Syria and included the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. As "shadow caliphs," the Mamluk sultans organized the yearly pilgrimages to Mecca. Because of Mamluk power, the western Islamic world was shielded from the threat of the Mongols.

The great cities, especially Cairo, the Mamluk capital, grew in prestige. By the fourteenth century, Cairo had become the pre-eminent religious centre of the Muslim world. 

The Fight for Domination

Medieval Egypt
The Fight for Domination, 868-1260

The Tulinid State:
A new era began in medieval Egypt with the arrival of Ahmad ibn Tulun as governor in Al Fustat in 868. He inaugurated the autonomy of Egypt and, with the succession of his son, Khumarawayh, to power, established the principle of locally based hereditary rule.

Autonomy greatly benefited medieval Egypt because the local dynasty halted or reduced the drain of revenue from the country to Baghdad. The Tulinid state ended in 905 when imperial troops entered Al Fustat. For the next thirty years, Egypt was again under the direct control of the central government in Baghdad.

The Fight for Domination


The Ikhshidid State:

The Ikhshidids were the next autonomous dynasty in medieval Egypt and was founded by Muhammad ibn Tughj, who arrived as governor in 935. The dynasty's name comes from the title of Ikhshid given to Tughj by the caliph. This dynasty ruled Egypt until the Fatimid conquest of 969.

The Tulinids and the Ikhshidids brought Egypt peace and prosperity:
  • By pursuing wise agrarian policies that increased yields
  • By eliminating tax abuses
  • And by reforming the administration

Neither the Tulinids nor the Ikhshidids sought to withdraw Egypt from the Islamic empire headed by the caliph in Baghdad.

The Fatimid State:
The Fatimids, the next dynasty to rule medieval Egypt, unlike the Tulinids and the Ikhshidids, wanted independence, not autonomy, from Baghdad. In addition, as heads of a great religious movement, the Ismaili Shia Islam, they also challenged the Sunni Abbasids for the caliphate itself. the Red Sea

Under the Fatimids, Egypt became the centre of a vast empire, which at its peak comprised North Africa, Sicily, Palestine, Syria, coast of Africa, Yemen, and the Hijaz in Arabia, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Control of the holy cities conferred enormous prestige on a Muslim sovereign and the power to use the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca to his advantage. Cairo was the seat of the Shia caliph, who was the head of a religion as well as the sovereign of an empire.

The Fatimids established Al Azhar in Cairo as an intellectual centre where scholars and teachers elaborated the doctrines of the Ismaili Shia faith.

The first century of Fatimid rule represents a high point for medieval Egypt.

The administration was reorganized and expanded. It functioned with admirable efficiency: tax farming was abolished, and strict probity and regularity in the assessment and collection of taxes was enforced. The revenues of Egypt were high and were then augmented by the tribute of subject provinces.

This period was also an age of great commercial expansion and industrial production. The Fatimids fostered both agriculture and industry and developed an important export trade. The two great harbours of Alexandria in Egypt and Tripoli in present-day Lebanon became centres of world trade. In the east, the Fatimids gradually extended their sovereignty over the ports and outlets of the Red Sea for trade with India and Southeast Asia and tried to win influence on the shores of the Indian Ocean.

In the end, however, the Fatimid bid for world power failed. A weakened and shrunken empire was unable to resist the crusaders, who in July 1099 captured Jerusalem from the Fatimid garrison after a siege of five weeks.

Saladin and the Ayyubid Empire:
The crusaders were driven from Jerusalem and most of Palestine by the great Kurdish general Salah ad Din ibn Ayyub, known in the West as Saladin. Saladin came to Egypt in 1168 in the entourage of his uncle, the Kurdish general Shirkuh, who became the wazir, senior minister, of the last Fatimid caliph. After the death of his uncle, Saladin became the master of medieval Egypt. The dynasty he founded in Egypt, called the Ayyubid, ruled until 1260.

Saladin abolished the Fatimid caliphate, which by this time was dead as a religious force, and returned medieval Egypt to Sunni orthodoxy. He restored and tightened the bonds that tied Egypt to eastern Islam and reincorporated Egypt into the Sunni fold represented by the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad.

At the same time, Egypt was opened to the new social changes and intellectual movements that had been emerging in the East.

Saladin introduced into Egypt the madrasah, a mosque-college, which was the intellectual heart of the Sunni religious revival. Even Al Azhar, founded by the Fatimids, became in time the centre of Islamic orthodoxy.

After Saladin’s death in 1193, his dominions split up into a loose dynastic empire controlled by members of his family, the Ayyubids. Within this empire, the Ayyubid sultans of Egypt were paramount because their control of a rich, well-defined territory gave them a secure basis of power.

Economically, the Ayyubid period was one of growth and prosperity. Egyptian products, including alum, for which there was a great demand, were exported to Europe. Egypt also profited from the transit trade from the East.

Culturally, too, the Ayyubid period was one of great activity. Egypt became a centre of Arab scholarship and literature and acquired a cultural primacy that it has retained through the modern period.

The prosperity of the cities, the patronage of the Ayyubid princes, and the Sunni revival made the Ayyubid period another cultural high point in Egyptian and Arab history. 

Medieval Egypt

Medieval Egypt
The history of Medieval Egypt can be
broken into four important periods:

    The Arab Conquest, 639-641
    The Fight for Domination, 868-1260
    The Mamluks, 1250-1517
    Egypt under the Ottoman Empire 1517-1760


The Mamluks
The Mamluks

    Islam in Medieval Egypt

The Arab Conquest was an approximate two year period in which the Arabs conquered the Byzantine rulers. The land was taken as part of an Arab-Islamic expansion plan and Al Fustat (present-day Old Cairo) became the capital.

The Fight for Domination is a four century long clarification of Egyptian history, starting with the prosperity of the agrarian policies under the Tulinid and the Ikhshidids, moving on to the more militant Fatimids and ending with the era of Saladin and the Ayyubids.

The Mamluks took control over Egypt about 1250 A.D. Because of their high skills in military matters, languages, literature and administration, they succeeded in keeping out the Mongol invaders from the entire western Arab-Islamic world.

The Ottoman Empire conquered Egypt in 1517 and controlled the country for nearly 250 hundred years until it was ousted in the late 18th century by the Mamluks, who once again ceased power of the revenues of Egypt. 

The Arab Conquest

Medieval Egypt
The Arab Conquest, 639-41

In medieval Egypt, perhaps the most significant event to occur since the unification of the Two Lands by King Menes in ancient times was the Arab conquest.

The conquest of the country by the armies of Islam under the command of the Muslim hero, Amr ibn al As, transformed medieval Egypt from a predominantly Christian country to a Muslim country in which the Arabic language and culture were adopted even by those who clung to their Christian or Jewish faiths.

The Arab Conquest

The conquest of Egypt was part of the Arab/Islamic expansion that began when the Prophet Muhammad died and Arab tribes began to move out of the Arabian Peninsula into Iraq and Syria. Amr ibn al As, who led the Arab army into Egypt, was made a military commander by the Prophet himself.

The Invasion:
Amr crossed into Egypt on December 12, 639, at Al Arish with an army of about 4,000 men on horseback, armed with lances, swords, and bows. The army's objective was the fortress of Babylon (Bab al Yun) opposite the island of Rawdah in the Nile at the apex of the Delta. It was the key to the conquest of Egypt because an advance up the Delta to Alexandria could not be risked until the fortress was taken. In June 640, reinforcements for the Arab army arrived, increasing Amr's forces to between 8,000 and 12,000 men.

The Battle:
In July the Arab and Byzantine armies met on the plains of Heliopolis. Although the Byzantine army was routed, the results were inconclusive because the Byzantine troops fled to Babylon.

Finally, after a six-month siege, the fortress fell to the Arabs on April 9, 641. The Arab army then marched to Alexandria, which was not prepared to resist despite its well fortified condition. Consequently, the governor of Alexandria agreed to surrender, and a treaty was signed in November 641.

The following year, the Byzantines broke the treaty and attempted unsuccessfully to retake the city.

The Victory:
Muslim conquerors habitually gave the people they defeated three alternatives: converting to Islam, retaining their religion with freedom of worship in return for the payment of the poll tax, or war.

In surrendering to the Arab armies, the Byzantines agreed to the second option. The Arab conquerors treated the Egyptian Copts well. During the battle for Egypt, the Copts had either remained neutral or had actively supported the Arabs.

The Stabilization:
After the surrender, the Coptic patriarch was reinstated, exiled bishops were called home, and churches that had been forcibly turned over to the Byzantines were returned to the Copts. Amr allowed Copts who held office to retain their positions and appointed Copts to other offices.

Amr moved the capital south to a new city called Al Fustat (present-day Old Cairo). The mosque he built there bears his name and still stands, although it has been much rebuilt. For two centuries after the conquest, medieval Egypt was a province ruled by a line of governors appointed by the caliphs in the east. Egypt provided abundant grain and tax revenue.

In time most of the people accepted the Muslim faith, and the Arabic language became the language of government, culture, and commerce. The Arabization of the country was aided by the continued settlement of Arab tribes in medieval Egypt.

The Consequences:
From the time of the conquest onward, medieval Egypt's history was intertwined with the history of the Arab world. Thus, in the eighth century, Egypt felt the effects of the Arab civil war that resulted in the defeat of the Umayyad Dynasty, the establishment of the Abbasid Caliphate, and the transfer of the capital of the empire from Damascus to Baghdad.

For medieval Egypt, the transfer of the capital farther east meant a weakening of control by the central government. When the Abbasid Caliphate began to decline in the ninth century, local autonomous dynasties arose to control the political, economic, social, and cultural life of the country. 

The French Invasion

Modern Egypt

The French Invasion, 1798-1801

After the death of Muhammad Bey, there was a decade-long struggle for dominance among the beys. Eventually Ibrahim Bey and Murad Bey succeeded in asserting their authority and shared power in Egypt. Their dominance in the country survived an unsuccessful attempt by the Ottomans to reestablish the empire's control (1786-91).

In addition to the upheavals caused by the Ottoman-Mamluk clashes, waves of famine and plague hit modern Egypt between 1784 and 1792. Thus, Cairo was a devastated city and Egypt an impoverished country when the French arrived in 1798.

Napoleon and the Sphinx
Napoleon and the Sphinx

The French Invasion:

On July 1, 1798, a French invasion force under the command of Napoleon disembarked near Alexandria. The invasion force, which had sailed from Toulon on May 19, was accompanied by a commission of scholars and scientists whose function was to investigate every aspect of life in ancient and contemporary Egypt.

France wanted control of Modern Egypt for two major reasons:
  •     Its commercial and agricultural potential
  •     Its strategic importance to the Anglo-French rivalry

During the eighteenth century, the principal share of European trade with Egypt was handled by French merchants. The French also looked to Egypt as a source of grain and raw materials. In strategic terms, French control of Egypt could be used to threaten British commercial interests in the region and to block Britain's overland route to India.

Conquering Modern Egypt...?

The French forces took Alexandria without difficulty, defeated the Mamluk army at Shubra Khit and Imbabah, and entered Cairo on July 25. Murad Bey fled to Upper Egypt while Ibrahim Bey and the Ottoman viceroy went to Syria. Mamluk rule in Egypt collapsed. Nevertheless, Napoleon's position in Egypt was precarious. The French controlled only the Delta and Cairo; Upper Egypt was the preserve of the Mamluks and the bedouins. In addition, Britain and the Ottoman government joined forces in an attempt to defeat Napoleon and drive him out of Egypt. On August 1, 1798, the British fleet under Lord Nelson annihilated the French ships as they lay at anchor at Abu Qir, thus isolating Napoleon's forces in Egypt.

The Declaration of War:

On September 11, Sultan Selim III declared war on France. On October 21, the people of Cairo rioted against the French, whom they regarded as occupying strangers, not as liberators. The rebellion had a religious as well as a national character and centered around Al Azhar mosque. Its leaders were the ulama, religiously trained scholars, whom Napoleon had tried to woo to the French side. During this period, the populace began to regard the ulama not only as moral but also as political leaders.

The French Retreat:

To forestall an Ottoman invasion, Napoleon invaded Syria, but, unable to take Acre in Palestine, his forces retreated on May 20, 1799. On August 22, Napoleon, with a very small company, secretly left Egypt for France, leaving his troops behind and General Jean-Baptiste Kléber as his successor. Kléber found himself the unwilling commander in chief of a dispirited army with a bankrupt treasury. His main preoccupation was to secure the evacuation of his troops to France.

When Britain rejected the evacuation plan, Kléber was forced to fight. After Kléber's assassination by a Syrian, his command was taken over by General Abdullah Jacques Menou, a French convert to Islam. The occupation was finally terminated by an Anglo-Ottoman invasion force. The French forces in Cairo surrendered on June 18, 1801, and Menou himself surrendered at Alexandria on September 3. By the end of September, the last French forces had left the country.

As historian Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot has written, the three-year French occupation was too short to exert any lasting effects on modern Egypt, despite claims to the contrary. Its most important effect on modern Egypt internally was the rapid decline in the power of the Mamluks.

The Consequences:

The major impact of the French invasion was the effect it had on Europe. Napoleon's invasion revealed the Middle East as an area of immense strategic importance to the European powers, thus inagurating the Anglo-French rivalry for influence in the region and bringing the British into the Mediterranean.

The French invasion of Egypt also had an important effect on France because of the publication of Description de l'Egypte, which detailed the findings of the scholars and scientists who had accompanied Napoleon to Egypt. This publication became the foundation of modern research into the history, society, and economics of modern Egypt.

Naguib Mahfouz

Naguib Mahfouz
Chronicler of Cairo

The Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz is one of the few modern Arabic novelists to achieve a truly international status. His reputation as an outstanding author has earned him the respect not only of his own country, but also of the Arab world. Naguib Mahfouz was in born in Al-Jamaliyya, an old quarter of Cairo, on December 11, 1911. He was the son of a middle-class civil servant and the youngest of seven children.

Mahfouz was rather a quiet child and spent a good deal of his time reading. He studied philosophy at Cairo University and graduated in 1934. After a brief spell as a journalist, he embarked on a career as a civil servant - a line of work he felt would afford him more time to work on his novels.

Naguib Mahfouz
Naguib Mahfouz

In 1939, his first novel, The Games of Fate, was published. It marked the beginning of a prolific output that includes some 30 novels, in addition to numerous short stories. Of special interest during his early career is The Struggle of Thebes, a novel influenced by the historical romances of Walter Scott and based on ancient Egyptian history. In it, he draws a parallel between the struggle by the Egyptians to expel the foreign Hyksos and the modern British occupation of Egypt.

Amongst Mahfouz's most famous works is his Cairo Trilogy published in the 1950s. Named after alleys in the Jamaliyya district of Cairo, the three books - The Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street - trace the lives of a cast of fascinating characters through three generations that stretch from World War I to the 1950s. In The Cairo Trilogy the author offers the reader a wonderful and insightful glimpse into social and religious attitudes of the time.

However, Mahfouz's exploration of his own society courted a great deal of controversy in the Arab world. This was especially the case with his book The Children of Gebelawi, published in 1959. In it he portrayed everyday Egyptians in the role of religious characters, including Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Naguib Mahfouz was barraged with accusations of blasphemy on account of his treatment of Islam, and his book was subsequently banned in many Arab countries.

Mahfouz's outspoken support for the peace treaty with Israel earned him further criticism and censorship in the Arab world. Speaking of the period during which Sadat was assassinated, the author likened the situation to a "woman facing a difficult pregnancy," a time during which he explained, "We must rebuild the social classes in Egypt, and change the way things were during Nasser's time."

In 1988, Naguib Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his wonderful novel, Midaq Alley, which explores the frictions between modern and traditional Egypt. He was the first Arab novelist ever to win the prize. The Swedish Academy of Letters hailed his novels as works that formed an "Arabic narrative art" that applied to all mankind. Mahfouz's writing has won him numerous other awards, including the Egyptian State Prize on two occasions. He was also made an honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Letters and Arts in 1992 and, three years later, was awarded an honorary doctorate by the American University of Cairo.

Still the subject of great controversy, Mahfouz narrowly escaped death in October 1994, after being stabbed in the neck outside his home in Cairo by a Muslim fundamentalist who had taken offense at his work.

Although much weakened by the attack, Mahfouz was still actively writing in his nineties and his dedication to his art is best summed by his own declaration that: "If the urge to write should ever leave me, I want that day to be my last."

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