The Tulinids, Ikhshidids, Fatimids, and Ayyubids, 868- 1260
A new era began in Egypt with the arrival in Al Fustat in 868
of Ahmad ibn Tulun as governor on behalf of his stepfather,
Bayakbah, a chamberlain in Baghdad to whom Caliph Al Mutazz had
granted Egypt as a fief. Ahmad ibn Tulun inaugurated the autonomy
of Egypt and, with the succession of his son, Khumarawayh, to
power, established the principle of locally based hereditary
rule. Autonomy greatly benefited Egypt because the local dynasty
halted or reduced the drain of revenue from the country to
Baghdad. The Tulinid state ended in 905 when imperial troops
entered Al Fustat. For the next thirty years, Egypt was again
under the direct control of the central government in Baghdad.
The next autonomous dynasty in Egypt, the Ikhshidid, was
founded by Muhammad ibn Tughj, who arrived as governor in 935.
The dynasty's name comes from the title of Ikhshid given to Tughj
by the caliph. This dynasty ruled Egypt until the Fatimid
conquest of 969.
The Tulinids and the Ikhshidids brought Egypt peace and
prosperity by pursuing wise agrarian policies that increased
yields, by eliminating tax abuses, and by reforming the
administration. Neither the Tulinids nor the Ikhshidids sought to
withdraw Egypt from the Islamic empire headed by the caliph in
Baghdad. Ahmad ibn Tulun and his successors were orthodox Sunni
Muslims, loyal to the principle of Islamic unity. Their purpose
was to carve out an autonomous and hereditary principality under
loose caliphal authority.
The Fatimids, the next dynasty to rule Egypt, unlike the
Tulinids and the Ikhshidids, wanted independence, not autonomy,
from Baghdad. In addition, as heads of a great religious
Ismaili Shia Islam (see Glossary), they also
challenged the Sunni Abbasids for the caliphate itself. The name
of the dynasty is derived from Fatima, the daughter of the
Prophet Muhammad and the wife of Ali, the fourth caliph and the
founder of Shia Islam. The leader of the movement, who first
established the dynasty in Tunisia in 906, claimed descent from
Under the Fatimids, Egypt became the center of a vast empire,
which at its peak comprised North Africa, Sicily, Palestine,
Syria, the Red Sea coast of Africa, Yemen, and the Hijaz in
Arabia, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Control of
the holy cities conferred enormous prestige on a Muslim sovereign
and the power to use the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca to his
advantage. Cairo was the seat of the Shia caliph, who was the
head of a religion as well as the sovereign of an empire. The
Fatimids established Al Azhar in Cairo as an intellectual center
where scholars and teachers elaborated the doctrines of the
Ismaili Shia faith.
The first century of Fatimid rule represents a high point for
medieval Egypt. The administration was reorganized and expanded.
It functioned with admirable efficiency: tax farming was
abolished, and strict probity and regularity in the assessment
and collection of taxes was enforced. The revenues of Egypt were
high and were then augmented by the tribute of subject provinces.
This period was also an age of great commercial expansion and
industrial production. The Fatimids fostered both agriculture and
industry and developed an important export trade. Realizing the
importance of trade both for the prosperity of Egypt and for the
extension of Fatimid influence, the Fatimids developed a wide
network of commercial relations, notably with Europe and India,
two areas with which Egypt had previously had almost no contact.
Egyptian ships sailed to Sicily and Spain. Egyptian fleets
controlled the eastern Mediterranean, and the Fatimids
established close relations with the Italian city states,
particularly Amalfi and Pisa. The two great harbors of Alexandria
in Egypt and Tripoli in present-day Lebanon became centers of
world trade. In the east, the Fatimids gradually extended their
sovereignty over the ports and outlets of the Red Sea for trade
with India and Southeast Asia and tried to win influence on the
shores of the Indian Ocean. In lands far beyond the reach of
Fatimid arms, the Ismaili missionary and the Egyptian merchant
In the end, however, the Fatimid bid for world power failed.
A weakened and shrunken empire was unable to resist the
crusaders, who in July 1099 captured Jerusalem from the Fatimid
garrison after a siege of five weeks.
The crusaders were driven from Jerusalem and most of
Palestine by the great Kurdish general Salah ad Din ibn Ayyub,
known in the West as Saladin. Saladin came to Egypt in 1168 in
the entourage of his uncle, the Kurdish general Shirkuh, who
became the wazir, or senior minister, of the last Fatimid
caliph. After the death of his uncle, Saladin became the master
of Egypt. The dynasty he founded in Egypt, called the Ayyubid,
ruled until 1260.
Saladin abolished the Fatimid caliphate, which by this time
was dead as a religious force, and returned Egypt to Sunni
orthodoxy. He restored and tightened the bonds that tied Egypt to
eastern Islam and reincorporated Egypt into the Sunni fold
represented by the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad. At the same
time, Egypt was opened to the new social changes and intellectual
movements that had been emerging in the East. Saladin introduced
into Egypt the madrasah, a mosque-college, which was the
intellectual heart of the Sunni religious revival. Even Al Azhar,
founded by the Fatimids, became in time the center of
In 1193 Saladin died peacefully in Damascus. After his death,
his dominions split up into a loose dynastic empire controlled by
members of his family, the Ayyubids. Within this empire, the
Ayyubid sultans of Egypt were paramount because their control of
a rich, well-defined territory gave them a secure basis of power.
Economically, the Ayyubid period was one of growth and
prosperity. Italian, French, and Catalan merchants operated in
ports under Ayyubid control. Egyptian products, including alum,
for which there was a great demand, were exported to Europe.
Egypt also profited from the transit trade from the East. Like
the Fatimids before him, Saladin brought Yemen under his control,
thus securing both ends of the Red Sea and an important
commercial and strategic advantage.
Culturally, too, the Ayyubid period was one of great
activity. Egypt became a center of Arab scholarship and
literature and, along with Syria, acquired a cultural primacy
that it has retained through the modern period. The prosperity of
the cities, the patronage of the Ayyubid princes, and the Sunni
revival made the Ayyubid period a cultural high point in Egyptian
and Arab history.
Data as of December 1990