The Islamic World to 1600
The first Muslims to rule Egypt who were not a part of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad were the Fatimids, a group of Shi'ites who derived their name from the Prophet's daughter and Ali's wife, Fatima. Their rule did not begin in Egypt, but rather in North Africa, where they took power from the Aghlabids in 909. From their North African base at Raqqadah, the Fatimids conquered Abbasid Egypt in the 960s. The Fatimids built a new capital in Egypt in 973, naming it al-Qahirah, or planet of victory. We know the city today as Cairo. The empire also expanded across the Sinai Peninsula into Syria and Palestine, often putting it in direct conflict with the neighbouring Byzantines and Abbasids. Because they ruled from Egypt and thus focussed on that region, the Fatimids soon lost control of their neglected territories in North Africa. By the early 11th century the Fatimids lost the Maghrib to the Almoravids, who controlled Morocco, much of Algeria, and Muslim Spain by 1090.
As Shi'ites, the Fatimids were both theologically and politically opposed to the Sunni rule of the Abbasids in Baghdad. The Fatimid caliphs considered themselves to be divine rulers, sent by God to rule on earth and ensure the prevalence of Islamic justice. As direct descendants of the Prophet's daughter, the Shi'ite Fatimids believed that they should rule the world, or at least the Islamic world, and that the Sunni Abbasids were simply usurpers. The Fatimids are known for their strict enforcement of Islamic laws regarding dietary restrictions and acceptable behaviour for Muslims. However, there is no evidence that Egypt became more Islamicised under the Fatimids. The population remained largely Coptic Christian and Jewish, and those who were Muslims were usually Sunni. Shi'ism was practised mainly by the Fatimid elite, and never substantially penetrated the population. Perhaps this is why Egypt has a mostly Sunni population today, despite its history of Shi'ite rule.
Courtesy of Byzantium at Rutgers
By 1171, the Fatimids had lost power to an expanding group of Kurdish-Turks from Syria, called the Ayyubids. The Ayyubids were led by a Kurd, Salah al-Din, or Saladin, who became one of the most famous rulers in Islamic history, and whose father, Ayyub, lent his name to their dynasty. Saladin justified his claim to power by invoking the Muslim fear of the Christian Crusaders, claiming that the Ayyubids would defeat them. Saladin's proclamation of a military jihad against the Crusaders rallied support to his otherwise tenuous rule. This strategy would also work for the Mamluks, who succeeded the Ayyubids with the proclamation of a military jihad against the invading Mongols.
The Citadel in Cairo
Courtesy of InterCity Oz, Inc.
Although the Ayyubid dynasty lasted until the Mamluk coup in 1250, more than 50 years after Saladin's death, it is he whose name is identified with the Ayyubid period. Saladin was a Kurd from Armenia, who followed in the footsteps of his father, Ayyub, to successfully defeat the Fatimids, first in Syria and then in Egypt. His subsequent defence of Islam against the Crusaders earned him admiration and respect not only within the Islamic world, but in Europe as well. In addition to his military expertise, Saladin was also considered to be a fair and just ruler. He is also well known for his construction of the Citadel in Cairo, built to fortify the city after an attack by the Crusaders in 1171.
Although Ayyubid territory covered former Fatimid land in Egypt and Syria, the centre of power shifted from Cairo to Damascus. Damascus became a major city on several trade routes, including those to Asia Minor, northern Syria, the Arabian peninsula, and India. As well, Damascus became an important city for military travel between Egypt and Palestine, particularly when sea routes were controlled by the Franks or Byzantines.
Another figure of interest during the Ayyubid period, although one who is less well known than Saladin, was Shajarat al-Durr, one of the few women ever to rule an Islamic state. She was the wife of the Ayyubid sultan, Salih Ayyub, who died in 1250. She assumed power, even defeating Ayyub's son for the throne, and successfully led the campaign against the Frankish Crusaders' invasion of Egypt. She managed to dominate the Ayyubid administration, either officially or from behind the scenes, until her death in 1259. She was the first woman to rule in Egypt since Cleopatra, and the last to rule in any Islamic kingdom until Queen Victoria became Empress of India in the 19th century.
A Mamluk soldier
Courtesy of IslamiCity
After Shajarat's death in 1259 the Ayyubid dynasty, on a steady decline for ten years, finally fell to the Mamluks, a class of Turkish slave soldiers who had served under the Ayyubids. The Mamluks, under their first sultan, Qalawun, immediately resumed the Ayyubid struggle against the Crusaders from Europe, in addition to defending Islam from a new challenger, the Mongols. More about the Mongols will follow in Chapter 4, but by 1258 they had sacked Baghdad and ended the long-standing Abbasid dynasty there, and they were quickly approaching Mamluk lands. The Mamluks were one of the few armies in the world that were able to defeat the Mongols, for a number of reasons which will be further explored in Chapter 4. The emphasis the Mamluk state put on military training above administrative or even cultural development was one reason for their success in battle.
Because the focus of Mamluk rule was military pursuit, very little changed in the government and administration of Egypt and Syria during their 300 years in power. The bureaucracy was made up mostly of Coptic Christians and Jews, who had filled such administrative roles for centuries, because the Muslims in Egypt were still a minority. Following the Crusades, trade within the Mediterranean network flourished, and the Mamluks found themselves trading with the Italian city-states of Venice and Genoa, as well as with Constantinople. This new relationship with Christian Europe was no longer based on militarism and mutual antagonism. Instead, it marked the beginning of the colonial relationship that would develop in the following centuries, as Europe's view of the Islamic world shifted from fear, to curiosity, and eventually to superiority and a desire to subordinate the Muslims. By the 15th century, constant warfare with the Mongols proved debilitating to the Egyptian economy, as did the decline in use of the Europe-Asia spice route that passed through Cairo. While the route did not disappear completely, many European traders, who were now able to navigate the seas, reached Asia instead by circumnavigating Africa. Mamluk influence gradually diminished until 1517, when they were overthrown by the rapidly expanding Ottoman Empire.
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