Great Pyramid and Sphinx at Giza, Fourth Dynasty, ca. 2540 B.C.
Courtesy Boris Boguslavsky
The Arab Conquest, 639-41
Perhaps the most important event to occur in Egypt since the
unification of the Two Lands by King Menes was the Arab conquest
of Egypt. The conquest of the country by the armies of Islam
under the command of the Muslim hero, Amr ibn al As, transformed
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 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.
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. The fortress 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. 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.
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.
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, 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 Egypt.
From the time of the conquest onward, 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 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.
Data as of December 1990