Arab conquest of Egypt

The Arab conquest of Egypt, led by the army of 'Amr ibn al-'As,[1] took place between 639 and 642 AD and was overseen by the Rashidun Caliphate. It ended the seven-century-long Roman period in Egypt that had begun in 30 BC, and widely speaking Greco-Roman period that had lasted about a millennium.

Arab conquest of Egypt
Part of the Arab–Byzantine wars

Roman Theater in the city of Alexandria, Egypt
Result Rashidun victory
Rashidun Caliphate annexes Egypt, Cyrenaica, and Tripolitania
Rashidun Caliphate
Commanders and leaders

Shortly before the conquest, Byzantine (Eastern Roman) rule in the country had been shaken, as Egypt had been conquered and occupied for a decade by the Sasanian Empire in 618–629, before being recovered by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius. The Caliphate took advantage of Byzantines' exhaustion to invade Egypt.

During the mid-630s, the Romans had already lost the Levant and its Ghassanid allies in Arabia to the Caliphate. The loss of the prosperous province of Egypt and the defeat of the Byzantine armies severely weakened the empire, resulting in further territorial losses in the centuries to come.[2]



In 640, Heraclius was the Byzantine emperor, Cyrus of Alexandria was both the governor of Egypt (praefectus Aegypti) and the government-appointed Patriarch of Alexandria,[note 1] and Theodore was the commander-in-chief of the Byzantine army in the province.

Following the death of Muhammad in 632 AD, the Arab armies of the Rashidun Caliphate began expanding toward both Sasanian Persia and the Byzantine Empire.[3] Neither of the two former powers was prepared for the aggressive expansion of the Arabs, as both largely underestimated Islam and its growing support; this is best depicted by the ambivalent views held by the Byzantines and the painstakingly slow reaction of the Sasanians.[4]

After defeating the Byzantines at Yarmuk (636) and the Persians at Qadisiyah (637), the gaze of the Arab generals turned towards the riches of Byzantine Africa. After the Siege of Jerusalem, it was Amr ibn al-As who suggested an invasion of Egypt to the Caliph,[1] being familiar with the country's prosperity both from visiting it as a merchant and from leading the expedition to Gaza in 637.[1] Appealing to the Caliph, he said "the conquest of Egypt will give great power to the Muslims and will be a great aid to them, for it is the wealthiest land and the weakest in fighting and war power."[1]

After being convinced by Amr to proceed with the invasion, the caliph Umar is said to have had "an eleventh-hour change of heart", but too late to stop it. This element of the story, which conveys the caliph's wariness at allowing a general to seize such an asset, may have been a later embellishment in light of Amr's subsequent reputation as a stubbornly independent governor.[1]

Rashidun invasion of Egypt


Crossing the Egyptian border

Pyramids of Giza

According to Arab sources, In December 639, 'Amr ibn al-'As left for Egypt with a force of 4,000 troops. Most of the soldiers belonged to the Arab tribe of 'Ak, but Al-Kindi mentioned that one third of the soldiers belonged to the Arab tribe of Ghafik. The Arab soldiers were also joined by some Roman and Persian converts to Islam. However, 'Umar, the Muslim caliph, reconsidered his orders to Amr and considered it unwise to expect to conquer such a large country as Egypt with a mere 4,000 soldiers. Accordingly, he wrote a letter to 'Amr ordering him to "return with all haste to the court of the Caliph, so that his soldiers might join additional campaigns being planned elsewhere", however there was a provision in the letter stating that 'Amr's first duty was the protection of his troops, and if he found himself on Egyptian soil by the time he received the letter, the Caliph would leave overall strategic command of movement to him, so as to not unduly burden troops already in the field.[5]

The messenger, 'Uqbah ibn 'Amr, caught up with Amr at Rafah, a little short of the Egyptian frontier. Guessing what might be in the letter, 'Amr ordered the army to quicken its pace. Turning to 'Uqbah, 'Amr said that he would receive the caliph's letter from him when the army had halted after the day's journey. 'Uqbah, unaware of the contents of the letter, agreed and marched along with the army. The army halted for the night at Shajratein, a little valley near the city of El Arish, which 'Amr knew to be beyond the Egyptian border.[6] 'Amr then received and read 'Umar's letter and went on to consult his companions as to the course of action to be adopted. The unanimous view was that as they had received the letter on Egyptian soil, they had permission to proceed.[citation needed]

When 'Umar received the reply, he decided to watch further developments and to start concentrating fresh forces at Madinah that could be dispatched to Egypt as reinforcements. On Eid al-Adha, the Muslim army marched from Shajratein to El Arish,[5] a small town lacking a garrison. The town put up no resistance, and the citizens offered allegiance on the usual terms.[citation needed]

Conquest of Pelusium and Belbeis


According to tradition, Cyrus of Alexandria had a beautiful daughter named Armenousa, who he desired to marry to Heraclius Constantine. Constantine accepted the marriage proposal, so in late 639 Armenousa left Babylon in a grand marriage procession which included two thousand horsemen, along with slaves and a long caravan laden with treasures that served both as dowry and tribute. On her way to Constantine, who was in Caesarea, she heard of the Arab army approaching Egypt and dispatched a regiment of her guards to defend Pelusium, a garrison city considered to be the eastern gateway to Egypt at the time, while she herself remained in Belbeis with more of her guards and sent warnings to her father Cyrus.[7][8][9] However, Alfred J. Butler dismisses Armenousa's story as a myth.[10]

In of December 639 or early January 640, the Muslim army reached Pelusium. The siege of the town dragged on for two months. In February 640, an assault group, led by the prominent Huzaifah ibn Wala, successfully captured the fort and city.[11][12][13][14][15][16]

The losses incurred by the Muslim army were ameliorated by the number of Sinai Bedouins, who, taking the initiative, had joined them in conquering Egypt.[17] The Bedouins belonged to the tribes of Rashidah and Lakhm.[18]

The ease with which Pelusium fell to the Muslims and the lack of Roman reinforcements during the month-long siege is often attributed to the treachery of Cyrus, who was also the Greek Patriarch of Alexandria (not the one recognised by most of the population, who was Pope Benjamin I).[17][19]

After the fall of Pelusium, the Muslims marched to Belbeis, 65 km (40 mi) from Memphis via desert roads, and besieged it. Belbeis was the first place in Egypt that the Byzantines showed some measure of resistance towards the Arabs. Two Christian monks, accompanied by Cyrus of Alexandria and the famous Roman general Aretion, came out to negotiate with 'Amr ibn al-'As. Aretion had been the Byzantine governor of Jerusalem and had fled to Egypt when the city fell to the Muslims. 'Amr gave them three options: convert to Islam, pay the jizya, or fight. They requested three days to reflect and then, according to Al-Tabari, requested two extra days.[citation needed]

At the end of the five days, the two monks and the general decided to reject Islam and the jizya and fight the Muslims, thus disobeying Cyrus, who wanted to surrender and pay jizya. Cyrus left for the Babylon Fortress. The battle resulted in a Muslim victory during which Aretion was killed and Armenousa was captured, but sent back to Cyrus. 'Amr ibn al-'As subsequently attempted to convince the native Egyptians to aid the Arabs and surrender the city, based on the kinship between Egyptians and Arabs via Hajar.[20] When the Egyptians refused, the siege resumed until the city fell around the end of March 640.[19]

Siege of Babylon Fortress

Map detailing the route of the Muslims' invasion of Egypt

Amr had assumed that Egypt would be a pushover but was quickly proven wrong. Even at the outposts of Pelusium and Belbeis, the Muslims had met stiff resistance, with sieges of two and one months, respectively. As Babylon, near what is now Cairo, was a larger and more important city, resistance on a larger scale was expected.[5] The Muslims arrived at Babylon some time in May 640.[10]

Babylon was a fortified city, and Theodore had indeed prepared it for a siege. Outside the city, a ditch had been dug, and a large force was positioned in the area between the ditch and the city walls. The Muslims besieged the fort, a massive structure 18 m (59 ft) high with walls more than 2 metres (6.6 feet) thick and studded with numerous towers and bastions and a force of some 4,000 men. Early Muslim sources place the strength of the Byzantine force in Babylon at about six times the strength of the Muslim force. For the next two months, fighting remained inconclusive, with the Byzantines repulsing every Muslim assault.[10]

Realising that Babylon was too strong to take, 'Amr sent a detachment to raid the city of Faiyum. The Byzantines had anticipated that and so had strongly guarded the roads that led to the city and had fortified their garrison in the nearby town of Lahun. At this time, the governor of Faiyum was Domentianus, while Anastasius was the prefect of its province, Arcadia Aegypti, and Theodosius was the prefect of Alexandria. The defence of Arcadia Aegypti was entrusted to a certain John, who Hermann Zotenberg identifies with the John, Duke of Barca or Barcaina mentioned by Nicephorus.[note 2] He had brought the Ecthesis and a portion of the True Cross from Patriarch Sergius to Cyrus, and was likely on a direct commission from Emperor Heraclius.[10]

When the Muslims realised that Faiyum was also too strong for them to take, they headed towards the Western Desert, where they looted as many cattle and animals as they could. They subsequently headed to a town in the Faiyum district named Bahnasa (not to be confused with Oxyrhynchus 50 miles further south), which was defeated and the city was captured. According to John of Nikiû, "they compelled the city to open its gates, and they put to the sword all that surrendered, and they spared none, whether old men, babe, or woman."[22] The Arabs then noticed that John, with a small group of 50 men, had been following them. John and his men ran retreated to their base at Abûît, but their hiding place was betrayed by a Bedouin chief and they were all killed.

When news of John's death reached Theodore, who was commanding the garrison at Babylon, 'his lamentations were more grievous than the lamentations of David over Saul when he said: "How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished!"' as John of Nikiu puts it.[22] Theodore hurried his troops up the Nile while Anastasius and Theodosius rushed from Nikiû to Babylon to strengthen it, while a further force was sent from Babylon to Abûît to strengthen it under Leontius, who was "obese in person, quite without energy and unacquainted with warlike affairs".[22] When he arrived, he found Theodore and his troops there already making sorties every day against the Arab base at Bahnasa. Judging that Amr would soon be defeated, Leontius left only half of his men there, going back to Babylon with the other half.[10]

The Arabs eventually gave up on attempting to take Faiyum and returned northwards. Theodore gave orders for the body of John, which had been thrown in the Nile, to be found. It was retrieved with a net, embalmed with honour and sent back to Heraclius. As Theodore was commander-in-chief, Heraclius blamed him for John's death. Feeling that he was blamed due to negative reports from Theodosius and Anastasius, Theodore formed an enmity with them.[10]

Reinforcements from Madinah


In July, 'Amr wrote to 'Umar requesting reinforcements, but before the letter reached him, the caliph had already dispatched 4,000 men, mostly veterans of the Syrian campaigns, to bolster Amr's strength. Even with the reinforcements, 'Amr was unsuccessful and so, by August, 'Umar had assembled another 4,000-strong force, consisting of four columns, each of 1,000 elite men. Zubayr ibn al-Awwam, a renowned warrior and commander, veteran of the Battle of Yarmouk and once a part of Khalid ibn al-Walid's elite mobile guard, was appointed the supreme commander of the army.[citation needed]

'Umar had also offered Zubayr the chief command and governorship of Egypt, but Zubayr had declined. The column commanders included Miqdad ibn al-Aswad, 'Ubaidah ibn as-Samit and Kharijah ibn Hudhaifah. The reinforcements arrived at Babylon sometime in September 640, bringing the total strength of the Muslim force to 12,000 (and likely far less, given losses incurred), still quite modest.[6]

It is said that a Coptic soldier, seeing the size of the Muslim force, expressed amazement that such a small force could stand against the Emperor's army, whereto another soldier replied that Arabs could not yield, and had to either emerge victorious or die to the last man. In another anecdote, some Roman soldiers refused to fight, saying 'We have small chance against the men who have conquered Chosroes and Caesar in Syria.' [23]

Battle of Heliopolis


When Zubayr arrived, he pointed out to ‘Amr that the Roman-garrisoned city of Heliopolis was a short distance away, and that troops from there could relieve the Siege of Babylon. To remove this threat, ‘Amr went with about half of his men there.[24]

The Muslim army reached Heliopolis, 15 km (10 mi) from Babylon,[10] in July 640.[25] The city boasted the Sun Temple of the Pharaohs and grandiose monuments and learning institutions.[26] There was the danger that forces from Heliopolis could attack the Muslims from the flank while they were engaged with the Roman army at Babylon.

There was a cavalry clash near the current neighbourhood of Abbaseya. The engagement was not decisive, but it resulted in the occupation of the fortress located between the current neighborhoods of Abdyn and Azbakeya. The defeated Byzantine soldiers retreated to either the Babylon Fortress or the fortress of Nikiû.[27] Zubayr and some of his handpicked soldiers scaled the Heliopolis city wall at an unguarded point and, after overpowering the guards, opened the gates for the army to enter the city. After the capture of Heliopolis, 'Amr returned to Babylon.[24]

Conquering of Fayoum and Babylon

Remains of the Babylon Fortress in Old Cairo

When news of the Muslims' victory at Heliopolis reached Fayoum, its governor, Domentianus, and his troops fled without informing the people of Fayoum and Abuit that they were abandoning their cities to the enemy. When news reached 'Amr, he sent troops across the Nile to invade Fayoum and Abuit, capturing the entire province of Fayoum with practically no resistance. Fayoum's population was enslaved, and the city was looted (the traditional fate of cities that had resisted).[28]

Emissaries were exchanged between Theodore and 'Amr, leading to 'Amr meeting Theodore in person. Then, with negotiations stalled, during the night of 20 December, a company of handpicked warriors, led by Zubayr, managed to scale the wall, kill the guards, and open the gates for the Muslim army to enter. The city was captured by the Muslims the following morning with tactics similar to those that had been used by Khalid ibn Walid at Damascus. However, Theodore and his army managed to slip away to the island of Rauda during the night, whence they continued to fight the Muslims.[29]

During this time, Theodore assembled an army in the Nile Delta and put two generals in charge of defending Samannud. Hearing of this, 'Amr went north to destroy this army. The two generals in Samannud refused to fight the Muslims, but Theodore fought 'Amr there and defeated him, inflicting many casualties on the Muslims. Unable to damage any cities in the Nile Delta, they retreated back to Babylon. However, Theodore was unable to follow up this victory by recapturing Babylon.[10]

The final assault of the Muslims was on Good Friday, April 6 641, and by Easter Monday the Roman troops had evacuated and began marching to Nikiû. The Romans were given a few days to evacuate so they might celebrate Easter. Many Copts who were imprisoned in Babylon, either for refusing to accept Chalcedon or on suspicion of treachery, were released from prison by the Romans, but Eudocianus, the brother of Domentianus, had them scourged and their hands cut off. The Siege of Babylon had lasted seven months.[23]

Surrender of Thebaid (Southeastern Egypt)


On 22 December, Cyrus of Alexandria entered a treaty with the Muslims,[30] recognizing Muslim sovereignty over the whole of Egypt and effectively over Thebaid, and agreeing to pay Jizya at the rate of 2 diners per male adult.[10] The treaty was subject to the approval of the emperor Heraclius, but Cyrus stipulated that even if the emperor repudiated the treaty, he and the Egyptians, would honour its terms.[31] Cyrus asked Heraclius to ratify the treaty and offered an argument in support. 'Amr submitted a detailed report to Umar recommending ratification.[10] He desired that as soon as the reactions of Heraclius were known, he should be informed so that further necessary instructions could be issued promptly.[30] Upon hearing about this, Heraclius was furious and sent Cyrus a letter full of insults, calling him an abject coward and a heathen and asking whether 100,000 Romans were a match for 12,000 barbarians.[23]

March to Alexandria

Ancient Roman theaters in Alexandria

The Byzantine commanders, knowing full well that the Muslims' next target was Alexandria, set out to repel the Muslims through continued sallies from the fort or, at least, to exhaust them and erode their morale in a campaign of attrition.[30] In February 641, 'Amr set off for Alexandria from Babylon with his army, encountering defending regiments all along the route. On the third day of their march the Muslims' advance guard encountered a Byzantine detachment at Tarnut on the west bank of the Nile.[10] The Byzantines failed to inflict heavy losses but were able to delay the advance by a full day. The Muslim commanders decided to halt the main army at Tarnut and send an advance guard of cavalry forward to clear the path.[citation needed]

The Muslims came to Kebrias of Abadja, where Domentianus and his soldiers were. He cravenly fled the city in a small boat, leaving his soldiers to their fate. They attempted to follow him, but in the panic the boatmen fled to their home provinces, leaving many of the soldiers stranded. When the Arabs arrived, the soldiers threw their weapons into the water before their enemies, hoping to be spared, but instead they were all massacred. According to John of Nikiu, the only man who lived to tell the tale was a “gallant warrior” named Zacharias. The Muslims then passed by Sais and, finding the family of Theodorus there, killed all of them.[22][23][8]

Now 30 km (19 mi) from Tarnut, the Byzantine detachment that had withdrawn from Tarnut the day before joined another that was already at Shareek, and both attacked and routed the Muslim cavalry. The next day, before the Byzantines could annihilate the Muslim advance guard completely, the main Muslim army arrived, prompting the Byzantines to withdraw. The following day, the whole army marched forward without an advance guard. The Muslims reached Sulteis, where they encountered another Byzantine detachment. Hard fighting followed, but the Byzantine resistance soon broke down and they withdrew to Alexandria.[citation needed]

The Muslims halted at Sulteis for a day, still two days' march from Alexandria. After another day's march, the Muslim forces arrived at Kirayun, 20 km (12 mi) from Alexandria. There, the Muslim advance to Alexandria was blocked by a Byzantine force about 20,000 strong. The resulting action remained indecisive for ten days.[6] However, on the tenth day, the Muslims launched a vigorous assault, forcing the defeated Byzantines to retreat to Alexandria. With the way to Alexandria clear, the Muslims reached the capital's outskirts in March.[citation needed]

Theodore and Cyrus in Constantinople


Heraclius died in February 641, two months before the fall of the Babylon Fortress, and was succeeded by his two sons Constantine III and Heraclonas as co-emperors. Heraclonas' mother, Martina, ruled through Heraclonas because of his young age and consistently opposed Constantine. Constantine, following his father's wishes, summoned Cyrus and Theodore to Constantinople to discuss the invasion. Cyrus was in favour of surrendering to the Muslims, whereas Theodore wanted to continue fighting them and hoped the Emperor would send reinforcements to Egypt. Constantine had been preparing a fleet to send to Egypt, but died on May 25 after a reign of just 100 days. With Heraclonas as sole emperor, Martina gained complete control over the government. She had Heraclonas give Cyrus express permission to make peace at any price with the Arabs, but also gave him reinforcements and a new general named Constantine to replace John. After Theodore and Cyrus' left for Egypt with reinforcements, Martina was deposed by Valentine, who sent envoys to Rhodes with a message to Cyrus' troops, telling them to return to Constantinople and not to side with Cyrus.[note 3] He also sent a letter to Alexandria telling the defenders not to obey Martina, and to keep fighting.[note 4] Theodore was pleased to hear this, and without telling Cyrus or anyone but the captain, he secretly attempted to sail from Rhodes to Pentapolis.[note 5] However, the captain of the ship claimed the wind was contrary to him, and Theodore was stuck with Cyrus. They returned to Alexandria on September 14, 641, the Feast of the Cross.[10]

Meanwhile in Egypt, Anastius had been appointed temporary prefect of Egypt, and during his time the Muslims captured both Babylon and Nikiu. Domentianus and his soldiers were guarding Nikiu. When he saw the enemy approaching cravenly fled the city in a small boat, leaving his soldiers to their fate. They attempted to follow him, but in the panic the boatmen fled to their home provinces, leaving many of the soldiers stranded. When the Arabs arrived, the soldiers threw their weapons into the water before their enemies, hoping to be spared, but instead they were all massacred. According to John of Nikiu, the only man who lived to tell the tale was a "gallant warrior" named Zacharias.[22] The Muslims then passed by Sais and, finding relatives of Theodore there, killed them. John of Nikiu also says that "Egypt also had become enslaved to Satan. A great strife had broken out between the inhabitants of Lower Egypt, and these were divided into two parties. Of these, one sided with Theodore, but the other wished to join the Moslem." The Muslims had also begun their Siege of Alexandria.

Conquest of Alexandria


When Theodore returned to Alexandria, he dismissed Domentianus as the military commander of the garrison and exiled him from the city, replacing him with Menas, who was a non-Chalcedonian Copt and popular with the army. Menas held a grudge against Domentianus' brother Eudocianus for Eudocianus' torture of the Coptic prisoners in Babylon. Theodore was angry with Domentianus for his cowardly flight from Nikiu and took Menas' side in their quarrel. Despite being brothers-in-law, Domentianus also disrespected Cyrus and showed him unreasonable hatred. He enlisted the Blues in Alexandria to his side, to which Menas responded by enlisting the Greens. There also came to Alexandria Philiades, prefect of the province of Faiyum and brother of Patriarch George I of Alexandria. Philiades was Menas' friend, but unlike Menas he was corrupt and unpopular, so much so that he was nearly lynched.

Since Theodore and Cyrus' arrival in Egypt was on September 14, 641, the Feast of the Cross, a great procession was organised from their landing place to the Caesareum Church. Their entire path was covered in carpets, hymns were sung, and a piece of the True Cross which was earlier brought to Egypt by John, Duke of Barcaina, and stored by the monks of Tabenna, was carried with Cyrus and Theodore to the Caesareum. The Psalm reading of the day was Psalm 118:24,[note 6] but the deacon said another psalm hoping to praise Cyrus and congratulate him on his return. This was said to be a bad omen. Cyrus then gave a sermon about the discovery of the True Cross, perhaps encouraging them to resist the siege in the name of the Cross, despite having already decided in himself to forsake the Cross and surrender to the Muslims.[10]

Cyrus then went to Babylon to negotiate with 'Amr, and agreed the following treaty:

  1. Payment of a fixed tribute by all who came under the treaty.
  2. An armistice of about eleven months, to expire the first day of the Coptic month Paophi, i.e. September 28, 642.
  3. During the armistice the Arab forces to maintain their positions, but to keep apart and undertake no military operations against Alexandria; the Roman forces to cease all acts of hostility.
  4. The garrison of Alexandria and all troops there to embark and depart by sea, carrying all their possessions and treasure with them: but any Roman soldiers quitting Egypt by land to be subject to a monthly tribute on their journey.
  5. No Roman army to return or attempt the recovery of Egypt.
  6. The Muslims to desist from all seizure of churches, and not to interfere in any way with the Christians.
  7. The Jews to be suffered to remain at Alexandria.
  8. Hostages to be given by the Romans, viz. 150 military and 50 civilian, for the due execution of the treaty.

He then returned to Alexandria and reported the terms of this humiliating treaty to Theodore and Constantine, convincing them that it was necessary and telling them to report it to the Emperor Heraclonas, who ratified it in what may had been his last act as Emperor, as he died in November. The local populace was not informed of it until an Arab army approached Alexandria to receive the tribute, and the Byzantine generals told the people not to resist. Realising what had happened, a furious mob attempted to stone Cyrus, but he said to them "I have made this treaty in order to save you and your children" and wept before them, which calmed the riot down. The first installment of tribute was paid on 10 December 641, sealing the surrender of Alexandria.

The Attarine Mosque in Alexandria was originally a church but was converted to a mosque after the surrender of Alexandria.

After the siege was over, Cyrus negotiated with 'Amr to allow the Egyptians who had taken refuge in Alexandria during the war to return to their lands, but he apparently did not allow them to do so. Towns along the northern coast of the Nile Delta remained outside Muslim control for some more years; 'Amr evidently did not consider them a priority. He began building his new capital, Fustat, just outside Babylon, and the Byzantine prefects and governors of Egypt either converted to Islam to retain their positions, or were replaced by Muslims. 'Amr and these Muslim governors forced the Christians to work for them, and made them dig a canal from the Nile to the Red Sea. According to John of Nikiu, 'Amr broke the terms of the treaty he had made with Cyrus. Cyrus fell into depression and died on Holy Thursday, March 21, 642. Theodore was appointed governor of Egypt after Cyrus' death, and arranged the withdrawal of Byzantine forces from Alexandria. On September 17, 642, Theodore left Egypt and set sail for Cyprus with the last Roman troops. Then on September 29, the 11 months of armistice ended, and 'Amr marched at the head of his Arab army into Alexandria, and thus ended Roman Egypt.[10]

Invasion of Nubia


In the summer of 642, 'Amr ibn al-'As sent an expedition to the Christian kingdom of Nubia, which bordered Egypt to the south, under the command of his cousin 'Uqbah ibn Nafi as a pre-emptive raid to announce the arrival of new rulers in Egypt.[32][page needed] 'Uqbah ibn Nafi, who later made a great name for himself as the conqueror of Africa and led his horse to the Atlantic, had an unhappy experience in Nubia. No pitched battle was fought, but there were only skirmishes and haphazard engagements, the type of warfare in which the Nubians excelled. They were skilful archers and subjected the Muslims to a merciless barrage of arrows, resulting in 250 Muslims losing their eyes in the engagement.[citation needed]

The Nubian cavalry displayed remarkable speed,[19] even more so than the Muslim cavalry. The Nubians would strike hard and then vanish before the Muslims could recover and counterattack. The hit-and-run raids took their toll on the Muslim expedition. 'Uqbah reported that to 'Amr,[30] who ordered 'Uqbah to withdraw from Nubia, terminating the expedition.[citation needed] A treaty was finally concluded with the Nubians in 651–2, securing the southern frontier of Muslim rule in Egypt.[33]

Byzantine counterattack


In 645, the newly installed Eastern Roman Emperor Constans II was determined to retake the land, and ordered a large fleet to carry troops to Alexandria. These troops, under Manuel, took the city by surprise from its small Arab garrison towards the end of 645 in an amphibious attack - thus temporarily winning Alexandria back.[34]

Amr at the time might have been in Mecca, and was quickly recalled to take command of the Arab forces in Egypt.[35] On returning to Egypt, he engaged the Byzantines at the small fortified town of Nikiou (Coptic: ⲡϣⲁϯ Pashati),[36] about two-thirds of the way from Alexandria to Fustat,[37] with the Arab forces numbering around 15,000, against a smaller Byzantine force. The Arabs prevailed, and the Byzantine forces retreated in disarray, back to Alexandria.[38]

Although the Byzantines closed the gates against the pursuing Arabs, the city of Alexandria eventually fell to the Arabs, who stormed the city sometime in the summer of that year. The defeat of Manuel's forces marked the last attempt by the Byzantine Empire to recapture Egypt for some 500 years, before Emperor Manuel I Komnenos sent a failed expedition there in the 12th century.[39][40]

Egypt under Muslim rule

Rashidun Caliphate at its peak under the third Caliph, Uthman in 654
  Strongholds of Rashidun Caliphate

In The Great Arab Conquests, Hugh Kennedy writes that Cyrus, the Roman governor, had exiled the Coptic patriarch, Benjamin. When 'Amr occupied Alexandria, a Coptic nobleman (duqs) called Sanutius persuaded him to send out a proclamation of safe conduct for Benjamin and an invitation to return to Alexandria. When Benjamin arrived, he was then instructed by the governor to resume control over the Coptic Church. He arranged for the restoration of the monasteries in the Wadi Natrun, which had been ruined by the Chalcedonean Christians; four of them still survive as functioning monasteries.[41]

On Benjamin's return, the Egyptian population also worked with him.[42] Kennedy wrote, "The pious biographer of Coptic patriarch Benjamin presents us with the striking image of the patriarch prayed for the success of the Muslim commander Amr against the Christians of the Cyrenaica. Benjamin survived for almost twenty years after the fall of Egypt to the Muslims, dying of full years and honour in 661. His body was laid to rest in the monastery of St Macarius, where he is still venerated as a saint. There can be no doubt that he played a major role in the survival of the Coptic Church".[41] Benjamin also prayed for 'Amr when he attempted to take Libya.[43]

Kennedy also wrote, "Even more striking is the verdict of John of Nikiu. John was no admirer of Muslim government and was fierce in his denunciation, but he says of Amr: 'He extracted the taxes which had been determined upon but he took none of the property of the churches, and he committed no act of spoliation or plunder, and he preserved them throughout all his days.... Of all the early Muslim conquests, that of Egypt was the swiftest and most complete. Within a space of two years the country had come entirely under Arab rule. Even more remarkably, it has remained under Muslim rule ever since. Seldom in history can so massive a political change have happened so swiftly and been so long lasting."[44]

The Coptic Chronicler Severus ibn al-Muqaffa claims that “The Arabs in the land of Egypt had ruined the country.… They burnt the fortresses and pillaged the provinces, and killed a multitude of the saintly monks who were in them and they violated a multitude of the virgin nuns and killed some of them with the sword.”[45]"Egypt had become enslaved to Satan" concludes John of Nikiu.[46]

Uqba ibn Nafi then used Egypt as a launch pad to move across North Africa, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.[47] Kennedy wrote that when Uqba reached the Atlantic, he is said to have ridden his horse into the sea until the water was below his chest, and then shouted, 'O Lord, if the sea did not stop me, I would go through lands like Alexander the Great, defending your faith'. Kennedy writes further that the image of a warrior whose conquest in the name of God was stopped only by the ocean remains important in the history of the conquests.[48]

Fustat, the new capital


During the Egyptian campaign, Alexandria was the capital of Egypt. When Alexandria was captured by the Muslims, the houses vacated by the Byzantines were occupied by the Muslims, who were impressed and attracted by Alexandria, "the queen of cities". 'Amr wanted Alexandria to remain the capital of Muslim Egypt.[6] He wrote to 'Umar to propose that but 'Umar refused on the basis that Alexandria was a maritime city, and there would always be a danger that the Byzantine Navy would attack.[10] He suggested instead for the capital would be established at a central location further inland, where no mass of water separated it from Arabia.[30]

As 'Amr's tent was to be the focal point of the city, the city was called Fustat, meaning in Arabic "the tent". The first structure to be built was the mosque that later became famous as Mosque of 'Amr ibn al-'As.[49] In the course of time, Fustat extended to include the old town of Babylon to the west, becoming the bustling commercial centre of Egypt.[30]

Umar's reforms


To consolidate his rule in Egypt, Umar imposed the jizya on Egyptians. During later Umayyad rule, higher taxes would be levied. With Umar's permission, Amr decided to build a canal to join the Nile with the Red Sea to open new markets for Egyptian merchants and an easy route to Arabia and Iraq. The project was presented to Umar, who approved it. A canal was dug and, within a few months, was opened for merchants. It was named "Nahar Amir ul-Mu'mineen" (the canal of the Commander of the Faithful), after Umar's title.[30]

See also



  1. ^ The majority of Egypt's population was non-Chalcedonian and instead recognised Pope Benjamin I as their rightful Pope.
  2. ^ According to Nicephorus, "While Heraclius was still in the East, he sent John, Duke of Barcaina, against the Saracens in Egypt. He joined battle with them and was himself killed."[21]
  3. ^ The letter stated "Return to the imperial city and do not take sides with him."[22]
  4. ^ The letter stated "Do not hearken to the voice of Martina, and do not obey her sons."[22]
  5. ^ It is unclear what Theodore's motives were. Butler suggests "He may have desired merely retirement and shelter from the coming storms; or he may have resolved, like Heraclius, to stake his fortune on a throw for the crown, and to found a new empire at Carthage; or he may have wished to gather resources and watch events, detesting the policy of surrender and hoping to strike a blow at the Muslims from Carthage."
  6. ^ "This is the day the Lord has made; We will rejoice and be glad in it."


  1. ^ a b c d e Sijpesteijn 2007, p. 440.
  2. ^ Haykal 1944, ch. 18
  3. ^ James Lindsay. Daily Life in The Medieval Islamic World. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press,1957) Pg 3
  4. ^ Khalil I. Semaan. Islam and the Medieval West. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1980) Pg 4
  5. ^ a b c Haykal 1944, chpt. 19
  6. ^ a b c d Al-Maqrizi, Mawaiz wa al-'i'tibar bi dhikr al-khitat wa al-'athar.
  7. ^ Al-Maqrizi, Mawaiz wa al-'i'tibar bi dhikr al-khitat wa al-'athar, p. 231
  8. ^ a b Butcher, Edith Louisa (1897). The Story of the Church of Egypt: An Outline Of The History Of The Egyptians Under Their Successive Masters From The Roman Conquest Until Now. London, United Kingdom: Smith, Elder, & Company.
  9. ^ Martindale, John Robert; Jones, Arnold Hugh Martin; Morris, J., eds. (1992). The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire. Vol. III: A.D. 527–641. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-20160-5.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Butler 1902
  11. ^ Al-Kamil, pp. 451–452
  12. ^ Al-Gawzi, Al-Montazim, pp. 532–534
  13. ^ al-Tabari, History of the Kings, p. 862
  14. ^ Abu Salih the Armenian, The churches and monasteries of Egypt and some neighbouring countries, tr. B.T.A.Evetts, p. 168
  15. ^ Butler 1902, p. 234
  16. ^ Kamil Salih, Pope Benjamin the First and the Arab invasion of Egypt, p. 65
  17. ^ a b Butler 1902, p. 213
  18. ^ Al-Maqrizi, Mawaiz wa al-'i'tibar bi dhikr al-khitat wa al-'athar
  19. ^ a b c "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Cyrus of Alexandria". Archived from the original on 24 March 2011. Retrieved 8 October 2005.
  20. ^ Butler 1902, p. 216
  21. ^ Constantinopolitanus, Nicephorus. Nikephoros' Short History [for the years 602-769 A.D.]. Translated by Mango, Cyril. p. 71. ISBN 9780884024507. Ἐv ᾧ δὲ ἐν τοῖς ἀνατολικοῖς µέρεσι διέτριβεν Ἡράκλειος, Ἰωάννην τὸν Βαρκαίνης στρατηγὸν προχειρίζεται καὶ πέμπει κατὰ Σαρακηνῶν τῶν ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ: οἷς συμβαλὼν πίπτει καὶ αὐτός.
  22. ^ a b c d e f g "John, Bishop of Nikiu: Chronicle. London (1916). English Translation".
  23. ^ a b c d Butler, Albert J. (1903). The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last Thirty Years under Roman Dominion (PDF). Oxford University Press. ISBN 1724498029.
  24. ^ a b Bagnall, Roger S., ed. (2021), "The Persians, the Arab conquest, and another transformation of Egypt", Roman Egypt: A History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 276–343, doi:10.1017/9781108953948.008, ISBN 978-1-108-84490-1, retrieved 12 October 2023
  25. ^ Raymond, Andre, Cairo, transl. Willard Wood, (Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 10.
  26. ^ Butler 1902, p. 258
  27. ^ Butler 1902, p. 263
  28. ^ Butler 1902, p. 264
  29. ^ Haykal 1944, chpt. 21
  30. ^ a b c d e f g Haykal 1944, chpt. 22
  31. ^ "Omar (634-644)", The Islamic World to 1600 Multimedia History Tutorials by the Applied History Group, University of Calgary. Last accessed 20 Oct 2006
  32. ^ Akram, A.I., Muslim Conquest of Egypt and North Africa, ISBN 978-0-19-597712-7
  33. ^ Sijpesteijn 2007, p. 441.
  34. ^ Castleden, Rodney (8 December 2023). Conflicts that Changed the World. Canary Press eBooks. ISBN 9781907795633. Retrieved 22 October 2016.
  35. ^ Haag, Michael (2003). The Rough Guide History of Egypt. Rough Guides. p. 202. ISBN 9781858289403. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
  36. ^ "أسماء بعض البلاد المصرية بالقبطية". (in Arabic).
  37. ^ Cosman, Madeleine Pelner; Jones, Linda Gale (2009). Handbook to Life in the Medieval World, 3-Volume Set, Volumes 1-3. Infobase Publishing. p. 47. ISBN 9781438109077. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
  38. ^ Crawford, Peter (16 July 2013). The War of the Three Gods: Romans, Persians and the Rise of Islam. Pen and Sword. p. 174. ISBN 9781848846128. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
  39. ^ "An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors". Roman Emperors. Archived from the original on 1 November 2016. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
  40. ^ "Manuel I Comnenus". Encyclopædia Britannica. Archived from the original on 21 November 2016. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
  41. ^ a b Kennedy 2007, p. 164
  42. ^ Kennedy 2007, p. 167
  43. ^ Kennedy 2007, p. 163
  44. ^ Kennedy 2007, p. 165
  45. ^ The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last Thirty Years of the Roman Dominion. Clarendon Press. 1902. p. 460. ISBN 9780524081556.
  46. ^ A Sword over the Nile. Austin Macauley. June 2020. ISBN 9781643787619.
  47. ^ Kennedy 2007, p. 212
  48. ^ Kennedy 2007, p. 214
  49. ^ "John, Bishop of Nikiu: Chronicle. London (1916). English Translation".



Further reading