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History, Egypt Under the Caliphate

Coptic Christianity, Mamelukes, Ayyubid dynasty, Fatimids, ancient Egyptian language

The Arab conquerors brought Islam to Egypt. The country became part of the vast Islamic realm known as the caliphate. The conquerors established their military and administrative headquarters, which they named Al Fustat, in what had been a Roman fortress called Babylon. Al Fustat was situated on the east bank of the Nile south of the delta. Most Egyptians did not at first feel the effects of Arab rule. The predominantly rural population continued to farm the land, practicing Coptic Christianity and speaking the Coptic version of the ancient Egyptian language.

Over the course of many centuries, the majority of the Egyptians gradually embraced Islam and adopted the Arabic language. These changes were due in part to the immigration of some Arab tribes and intermarriage between Egyptians and Arabs. Some Egyptians converted to Islam out of genuine religious conviction, but others did so to secure political or social advancement.

The first great dynasty of caliphs (leaders of the Islamic realm), the Umayyads, ruled Egypt as a province between 661 and 750. They were based in Damascus (in present-day Syria). Their successors, the Abbasids, ruled from their new capital, Baghdad (in present-day Iraq). The Abbasids controlled Egypt from 750 to 868. They imposed heavy taxes on non-Muslims, causing peasant uprisings. The unity of the Islamic world began to erode in the mid-9th century, and Egypt fell under a succession of autonomous foreign dynasties. Two of these dynasties, the Tulunids (868-905) and the Ikhshidids (934-969), improved agricultural techniques, curbed taxes, and reformed governmental administration.

The next rulers, the Fatimids (969-1171), had established an independent rival caliphate in North Africa in the early 10th century. The Fatimid rulers, originally from Tunisia, claimed the caliphate for themselves on the basis of descent from Fatima, daughter of the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Their branch of the faith, was a minority sect in opposition to the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad, who were majority Sunni Muslims.

Despite the dispute over the caliphate, the first century of Fatimid rule over Egypt was marked by religious toleration, economic prosperity, and relative political freedom. It was probably during Fatimid rule that the majority of the Egyptians became Muslims, although they embraced Sunni rather than Shia Islam. The Fatimids extended Al Fustat northward, creating a major commercial and political metropolis that they renamed al-Qahira, or Cairo. Untroubled by foreign invaders or conquerors, Cairo soon surpassed other Islamic cities such as Baghdad and Damascus in wealth and population.

During the First Crusade (1096-1099), a military campaign by Western European Christians to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims, Egypt faced a possible invasion. Although the Crusaders captured Jerusalem from a small Fatimid garrison in 1099, they did not invade Egypt. The Fatimids formed diplomatic and commercial ties with the newly established Crusader state known as the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, with other Crusader states along the Mediterranean coast of the Middle East, and with the various kingdoms and principalities of Christian Europe. Fatimid power declined in the 12th century, and in 1171 Kurdish military adventurer Saladin overthrew the dynasty.

Saladin restored the official status of Sunni Islam and the formal authority of the Abbasid caliphate in Egypt. Soon afterward, he united Egypt with Syria. In 1187 he led the Islamic reconquest of Jerusalem. Saladinís descendants, the Ayyubids, ruled Egypt, as well as parts of Syria and Yemen, until 1250. Ayyubid relations with the Crusader states varied; some rulers encouraged European Christians to settle in Palestine and even leased Jerusalem to the Crusaders for a short time. However, Egyptís Nile Delta suffered Crusader attacks from 1218 to 1221 and from 1249 to 1250. The latter invasion, during the Third Crusade, led to the overthrow of the Ayyubid dynasty by the Mamluks (also spelled Mamelukes), who regarded the Ayyubid rulers as weak and corrupt. The Mamluks were slaves from Central Asia and Caucasia whom the Ayyubids used as soldiers.

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