How was ancient Egypt Arabized

During the Arab-Islamic Middle Ages (639-1517) Egypt was Islamized and culturally and linguistically Arabized. Numerous Islamic-Arab dynasties shaped the political and cultural development of the country during this period.

After the conquest of Egypt by the Persian ruler Chosrau II. Parwez (from the Sassanid dynasty) in 619 AD, the political influence of Constantinople (Byzantium) in the southeastern Mediterranean was weakened. Only after several years of counter-offensive by the Byzantine emperor Herakleios did the Persians withdraw again in 630 AD. But that was not a result that would last. A new force from the Middle East was decisive for the future fate of Egypt: the Arabs and Islam.

Mohammed (approx. 570-632 AD), the prophet of Islam, was born in Mecca. He came from an impoverished but respected family. Orphaned at an early age due to the death of his parents, he first became a shepherd, then a camel driver. He later married a wealthy widow and became the head of her trade caravan. Mohammed had the vision of being a prophet of a new religion as the Arabs called. Although he was able to quickly gain followers, his small religious community in Mecca was fiercely opposed. For this reason he emigrated to the nearby city of Yathrib-Medina. It became the city of the prophet. The beginning of this exile (Hejra), namely June 15, 622, is considered to be the beginning of the Islamic calendar. In Medina, Mohammed became head of the city within a short period of time. In 630 he and his followers conquered his hometown Mecca and cleansed the city and its sanctuary, the Kaaba, from (from an Islamic point of view) pagan idolatry, which he had always strongly criticized before his emigration. Politically, Mohammed managed to unite the feuding Bedouin tribes of the Hejaz (Hijaz, region in eastern Arabia). By the year of his death in 632 AD, Mohammed was able to bring the entire Arabian peninsula under his rule and convert large parts of the population to Islam.

Muhammad's successors, the so-called electoral caliphs, were able to conquer large parts of the Near and Middle East, all of Persia and large areas of North Africa in the course of the 7th century. On their way to the west, the Arabs also conquered Egypt in the years 640-642. In the name of the caliph Omar, the general Amr Bin al-As marched into Egypt and eliminated the last resistance there by 642. The history of Egypt was determined from Damascus at the time of the Omayyad dynasty (7th and early 8th centuries) and from Baghdad at the time of the Abbasid dynasty (from the second half of the 8th century). Arab governors ruled the country on behalf of the caliphs and established Arabic as the language of administration. There was a major anti-Arab uprising under the Caliph Al-Mamun, but it was suppressed. At this time the Islamization of Egypt began.

The Christian Copts, however, remained an influential religious force in Egypt for a long period of the Islamic-Arab Middle Ages, which radiated into Northeast Africa as far as Ethiopia. The Arab immigrants who came to Egypt during these centuries were either Bedouins who stayed in the desert regions of Northeast Africa or traders and traders who settled in the cities of Egypt. They formed a kind of upper class in Egypt and were able to amass a lot of wealth through the control of the bazaars and trade caravans. The agricultural activities on the Nile and in the delta were left to the subjugated Egyptian indigenous people, the so-called fellahs. Accordingly, the cultural and linguistic Arabization initially had an impact in the cities. These were cosmopolitan, i.e. Muslims, Jews and Copts of different ethnic origins lived in the immediate urban neighborhood. The majority rural population, on the other hand, was structured more homogeneously. However, many converted to Islam for economic reasons, in order to be allowed to keep land and to be exempt from the heavy tax burden. Army service, which many non-Muslims had to take on, was also a reason to convert. In addition to phases of partial religious freedom, there were also periods of violent repression and forced conversion of non-Muslim parts of the population throughout the Arab-Islamic Middle Ages in Egypt. Many Egyptians also converted to Islam for fear of reprisals.

The size of the Arab-Islamic empire quickly led to its decline into several sub-empires. Egypt was an autonomous kingdom under the Islamic dynasties of the Tulunids (868-905), Ichsidids (935-969), Fatimids (969-1171) and Ayyubids (1171-1252), even if the rulers were not of Egyptian blood. Sultan Saladin, for example, who fought against the European-Christian crusaders, came from a Kurdish family. Under the Fatimids, Cairo (el-Qahira, "the victorious") became the capital. The basic urban structures of medieval Cairo go back to this time. An attack by the Mongols around 1260 could only be repulsed with the help of a mercenary force of Turkish-born Mamluks. Under the rule of the Mamluk sultans (1252-1517), Egypt became the center of the Islamic world. During this period, numerous mosques were built in Cairo and the Islamic University there attracted scholars from all over the Middle East. The Egyptian sphere of influence included parts of the Levant, Libya and the Arabian Peninsula.

The rule of all these dynasties was based on the military power of foreign mercenary troops. Most of the mercenaries were of Turkish, Circassian, Berber or Arab descent. Although they were a successful means of supporting the domestic and foreign political power of the caliphs and sultans because of their military clout, they were often a dangerous powder keg, especially when the mercenaries turned against their employers or against each other at the expense of the ancient Egyptians Rural people feuded.

In the early 16th century, a new power came to Egypt from the former Constantinople or Byzantium, which was now called Istanbul: the Turkish Ottomans.

Selection of further literature:

  • Haarmann, Ulrich, History of the Arab World, Munich 2001.
  • Halm, Heinz, The Caliphs of Cairo: The Fatimids in Egypt (973-1074), Munich 2003.
  • Hourani, Albert, The History of the Arab Peoples, Frankfurt am Main 1992.
  • Kessler, Jörg-Ronald, Die Welt der Mamluken: Egypt in the late Middle Ages 1250 - 1517, Berlin 2004.