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Egypt and the pharaohs
New Kingdom to Cushites
Arabs and Muslims
     Arab conquests
     Muslim North Africa
     A nominal caliphate
     The Fatimids
     Egypt, Palestine and Syria
     Mamelukes and Mongols
     Baybars and his successors

Egypt under the Turks
British rule
A modern republic

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The Arab conquests: 7th century

One of the most dramatic and sudden movements of any people in history is the expansion, by conquest, of the Arabs in the 7th century (only the example of the Mongols in the 13th century can match it). The desert tribesmen of Arabia form the bulk of the Muslim armies. Their natural ferocity and love of warfare, together with the sense of moral rectitude provided by their new religion, form an irresistible combination.

When Muhammad dies in 632, the western half of Arabia is Muslim. Two years later the entire peninsula has been brought to the faith, and Muslim armies have moved up into the desert between Syria and Mesopotamia.


Muslim North Africa: from642

The Arab conquest of Egypt and North Africa begins with the arrival of an army in640 in front of the Byzantine fortified town of Babylon (in the area which is now Old Cairo). The Arabs capture it after a siege and establish their own garrison town just to the east, calling it Al Fustat.

The army then moves on to Alexandria, but here the defences are sufficient to keep them at bay for fourteen months. At the end of that time a surprising treaty is signed. The Greeks of Alexandria agree to leave peacefully; the Arabs give them a year in which to do so. In the autumn of 642, the handover duly occurs. One of the richest of Byzantine provinces has been lost to the Arabs without a fight.


An increasingly nominal caliphate: from the 9th c.

From the 9th century the rule of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad is often, in many parts of the Muslim world, more nominal than real. In Palestine and Syria there are uprisings from supporters of the previous Umayyad dynasty, whose base was Damascus. In the rich province of Egypt, governors are increasingly unruly (as many as twenty-four are appointed and then dismissed during the 23-year caliphate of Harun al-Rashid).

In the further extremes of the empire independence from the Abbasids is even more marked. Spain is ruled by Umayyads. North Africa has Berber dynasties from 790. And eastern Persia, by about 870, is in the hands of Persians hostile to Baghdad.


The weakness of the caliphs tempts them into a measure which makes the problem worse. They acquire slaves from the nomadic Turks of central Asia and use them in their armies. The slaves, who become known as Mamelukes (from the Arabic mamluk, 'owned'), are excellent fighters. They distinguish themselves in the service of the caliphate and are often given positions of military responsibility. Well placed to advance their own interests, they frequently take the opportunity.

One of the first Mamelukes to seize power is Ahmad ibn Tulun. In the early 870s he takes control of Egypt. By 877 he has conquered the Mediterranean coast through Palestine and up into Syria.


This half of the Fertile Crescent has been ruled from Egypt at many periods of history. Separated from Mesopotamia by a broad swathe of desert, it is easier to control from Cairo than from Baghdad.

Palestine and Syria remain under Egyptian dominance for most of the next two centuries. The Tulunid dynasty, founded by Ahmad ibn Tulun in the 870s, rules the region until 905. The Ikhshidids, another Turkish dynasty, control it from 935 to 969, when they in their turn are replaced by the Fatimids - masters of an even broader swathe of Mediterranean coastline.


The Fatimid dynasty: 909-1171

An Ismaili leader, Ubaydulla, conquers in 909 a stretch of north Africa, displacing the Aghlabids in Kairouan. He founds there a dynasty known as Fatimid - for he claims to be a caliph in the Shi'a line of descent from Ali and Fatima his wife, the daughter of Muhammad (see The Shi'as).

Sixty years later, in 969, a Fatimid army conquers Egypt, which now becomes the centre of a kingdom stretching the length of the north African coast. A new capital city is founded, adjoining a Muslim garrison town on the Nile. It is called Al Kahira ('the victorious'), known in its western form as Cairo. In the following year, 970, the Fatimids establish in Cairo the university mosque of Al Azhar which has remained ever since a centre of Islamic learning.


At the height of Fatimid power, in the early 11th century, Cairo is the capital of an empire which includes Sicily, the western part of the Arabian peninsula (with the holy places of Mecca and Medina) and the Mediterranean coast up to Syria.

A century later the authority of the Ismaili caliphs has crumbled. There is little opposition in 1171 when Saladin, subsequently leader of the Islamic world against the intruding crusaders, deposes the last of the Fatimid line. And there is no protest when Saladin has the name of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad included in the Friday prayers in Cairo's mosques. After a Shi'a interlude, Egypt is back in the Sunni fold.


Egypt, Palestine and Syria: 1174-1250

Saladin's control of Egypt, Damascus and Aleppo, together with his campaign of 1187-8 against the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, brings almost the entire eastern Mediterranean once again under unified rule. The region will remain united during the rest of Saladin's Ayubid dynasty (until 1250), then under the next dynasty in Egypt (that of the Mameluke sultans) and finally under Ottoman rule from Turkey.

The only exceptions, in the short term, are the few strongholds which the Franks retain after 1188 - Tyre, Tripoli and a coastal strip up to Antioch. This region is briefly enlarged by the efforts, in the third crusade, of Richard I in 1191-2, but a more significant change comes with the fall of the Ayubid dynasty in 1250.


Mamelukes and Mongols: 1250-1260

The decade beginning in 1250 provides a succession of dramatic events in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia. In 1250 the last sultan of Saladin's dynasty is murdered in Egypt by the slaves of the palace guard. This enables a Mameluke general, Aybak, to take power. He rules until 1257, when his wife has him killed in a palace intrigue. His place is immediately taken by another Mameluke general, Qutuz.

In the following year, 1258, Baghdad and the caliphate suffer a devastating blow. Mongols, led by Hulagu, grandson of Genghis Khan, descend upon the city and destroy it. The Middle East appears to be open to conquest and destruction.


In 1259 Hulagu and the Mongols take Aleppo and Damascus. The coastal plain and the route south to Egypt seem open to them. But in 1260 at Ayn Jalut, near Nazareth, they meet the army of the Mameluke sultan of Egypt. It is led into the field by Baybars, a Mameluke general.

In one of the decisive battles of history Baybars defeats the Mongols. It is the first setback suffered by the family of Genghis Khan in their remorseless half century of expansion. This battle defines for the first time a limit to their power. It preserves Palestine and Syria for the Mameluke dynasty in Egypt. Mesopotamia and Persia remain within the Mongol empire.


Baybars and his successors: 1260-1517

Baybars is ruthless - in the best Mameluke tradition. Seized as a boy from the Kipchak Turks, north of the Caspian, he has been brought to Egypt as a slave. His talents have enabled him to rise to high command in the Mameluke army. In 1260, the year of his great victory at Ayn Jalut, he defeats and kills his own Mameluke sultan. He is proclaimed in his place by the army.

During his reign of seventeen years Baybars crushes the Assassins in their last strongholds in Syria, drives the crusaders from Antioch, and extends the rule of Egypt across the Red Sea to control the valuable pilgrim cities of Mecca and Medina.


In exercising this extensive rule, Baybars takes the precaution of pretending that he does so on behalf of an Abbasid refugee from the ruins of Baghdad - whom he acclaims as the caliph. His many successors maintain the same fiction. These Mameluke sultans are not a family line, like a traditional dynasty. They are warlords from a military oligarchy who fight and scheme against each other to be acclaimed sultan, somewhat in the manner of the later Roman emperors.

But they manage to keep power in their own joint hands until the rise of a more organized state sharing their own Turkish origins - the Ottoman empire.


The Ottomans, cautious about Mameluke military prowess, tackle other neighbouring powers such as the Persians before approaching Egypt. But in 1517 the Ottoman sultan, Selim I, reaches the Nile delta. He takes Cairo, with some difficulty, and captures and hangs the last Mameluke sultan.

Mameluke rule, spanning nearly three centuries, has been violent and chaotic but not uncivilized. Several of Cairo's finest mosques are built by Mameluke sultans, and for a while these rulers maintain Cairo and Damascus (500 miles apart) as twin capitals. A pigeon post is maintained between them, and Baybars prides himself on being able to play polo within the same week in the two cities.


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