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During the 7th century the power of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire was challenged by the Sassanids of Persia, who invaded Egypt in 616. They were expelled again in 628, but soon after, in 642, the country fell to the Arabs, who brought with them a new religion, Islam, and began a new chapter of Egyptian history.
Egypt Under the the Byzantinans:
Alienated by the religious intolerance and heavy taxation of the Byzantine government, the Coptic Egyptians offered little resistance to their Arab conquerors. A treaty was subsequently signed, by which the Egyptians agreed to pay a poll tax (jizyah) in return for an Arab promise to respect the religious practices, lives, and property of the Copts. Besides the poll tax, the male population, estimated at between 6 and 8 million, paid the kharaj, a tax levied on agricultural land.
No changes in the administration were made by the Arabs, who adopted the Byzantine decentralized system of provincial governors reporting to a chief governor, resident in the capital, Alexandria. They did, however, later move the capital to a new, more central location, called Al Fustat (“the tent”), a few miles south of present-day Cairo.
For the next two centuries Egypt was ruled by governors appointed by the caliph, the leader of the Muslim community. In this system, mild and generous rule alternated with severity and religious oppression, depending on the character of the governor appointed, his relationship with the population, and his financial needs. Immigration of Arab tribes and the replacement of the Coptic language by Arabic in all public documents began a slow process of Arabization that was eventually to turn Coptic-speaking Christian Egypt into a largely Muslim and wholly Arabic-speaking country. Coptic became a liturgical language.
Under the Abbasid caliphs (750-868), governors were appointed for brief periods, and Egypt was plagued by a series of insurrections arising from conflicts between the different sects of Muslims who had settled there: the Sunni, or orthodox majority, and the minority Shia sect. On several occasions the Copts also rose to protest excessive taxation. Such uprisings were met with repression and persecution by the government. Internal conditions became so bad in the late 8th century that a group of new immigrants from Andalusia allied themselves with an Arab tribe and seized Alexandria, holding it until an army arrived from Baghdad and exiled them to Crete. Insurrections continued to break out among the Arabs, who even defeated a governor and burned his baggage. Rebellions by the Copts continued until Caliph Abdullah al-Mamun led a Turkish army to put down the revolts in 832. This was a period of ruthless and unscrupulous governors, who abused the population and extorted money from them. The only bulwark against such oppression lay in the chief qadi, the country's leading Muslim magistrate, who maintained the sacred law—the Sharia—in the face of abuse of power, and helped ease the rapacity of the governors.
Despite a predominantly rural population, commercial centers flourished, and Al Fustat grew to become a trading metropolis.From 856 onward Egypt was given as an iqta, a form of fief, to the Turkish military oligarchy that dominated the caliphate in Baghdad. In 868 Ahmad ibn Tulun, a 33-year-old Turk, was sent to the country as governor. A man of ability and education, Tulun ruled wisely and well, but he also turned Egypt into an autonomous province, linked with the Abbasids only by the yearly payment of a small tribute. Tulun built a new city, Al Qita‘ì (“the Wards”), north of Al Fustat. Under his benevolent rule Egypt prospered and expanded to annex Syria. Tuluns dynasty (the Tulunids) ruled for 37 years over an empire that included Egypt, Palestine, and Syria.
After the last rule by the Tulunids, the country fell into a state of anarchy. Its weak and defenseless condition made it an easy prey for the Fatimids, a Shiite dynasty that in 909, rejecting the authority of the Abbasids, had proclaimed their own caliphate in Tunisia and by the mid-10th century controlled most of North Africa. In 969 they invaded and conquered Egypt and subsequently founded a new city, Cairo, north of Al Fustat, making it their capital. See Caliphate.
Al Fustat, however, remained the commercial hub of the country under the Fatimids. It was an impressive, multistoried urban center with an excellent underground sewage system. An Iranian traveler, Nasir-i-Khosrau, who visited Egypt in 1046, marveled at the rich markets and the security of the land. Egypt was then enjoying a period of tranquillity and prosperity.
The Fatimids, although Shiites in their beliefs, for the most part coexisted peacefully with the predominantly Sunni population. They founded the oldest university in the world, Al Azhar, and Cairo became a great intellectual center.
Tranquillity disappeared with later Fatimid rulers, who could not control their unruly regiments of Berber and Sudanese soldiers. A low Nile caused serious famine in 1065. New danger appeared with the First Crusade from western Europe, which established Christian control over Syria and Palestine in the late 1090s. The Fatimid caliphs, by now pawns in the hands of their generals, appealed to Nur ad-Din of Halab (Aleppo), and he sent an army to help them against the Crusaders in 1168. Saladin, one of Nur ad-Din's generals, was installed as vizier. In 1171 he abolished the Fatimid caliphate, founding the Ayyubid dynasty and restoring Sunni rule to Egypt. Saladin reconquered most of Syria and Palestine from the Crusaders and became the most powerful Middle Eastern ruler of this time. His nephew, Sultan al-Kamil, who reigned 1218-1238, successfully defended Egypt against a Christian attack in 1218-1221, but after his death Ayyubid power declined. The Ninth Crusade, led by Louis IX of France, was repelled in 1249, with the aid of the Mamelukes, slave troops in Ayyubid service. The following year the Mamelukes overthrew the Ayyubids and established their own ruling house.
The first Mameluke dynasty, the Bahri, held power as sultans of Egypt until 1382. Hereditary succession was frequently disregarded and the throne usurped by the more powerful emirs (military commanders). Many among them were remarkable rulers, such as Baybars I, who halted the Mongol advance into Syria and Egypt in 1260. Two other Mongol invasions were repelled by the Mamelukes, who also expelled the Crusaders from the region and captured ‘Akko, their last stronghold in Palestine, in 1291. In the late 13th and early 14th centuries, the Mameluke realm extended north to the borders of Asia Minor.
The age of the Mamelukes was one of extraordinary brilliance in the arts. It was also an age of commercial expansion; Egypt's spice traders, the Karimi, were merchant princes who vied with the emirs in patronizing the arts.
After the death of the last great Bahri sultan, al-Nasir, in 1341, Egypt lapsed into decline. His descendants were mere figureheads who allowed real power to remain in the hands of the emirs. In 1348 the plague known as the Black Death swept over the land, radically reducing the population.
The second dynasty of Mameluke sultans, the Burjis, was of Circassian origin and ruled from 1382 to 1517. Most of the Burji rulers exercised little real authority; their dynasty was marked by continual power struggles among the Mameluke elite. In the midst of rebellion and civil strife, the Mamelukes continued to hold Egypt and Syria by virtue of their ability to repel invasions. By the early 16th century, however, they were threatened by the growing power of the Ottoman Empire, and in 1517 the Ottoman Sultan Selim I invaded Egypt and ruled it.