The crises of ancient Egypt: Arab occupation by Amr ibn al-As

Oct 23, 2010

The crises of ancient Egypt: Arab occupation by Amr ibn al-As

Egypt was conquered by the Arabs in AD 640, when ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, the general of Caliph Umar I, established a new Muslim capital at Al-Fustat (later a part of Cairo) from which to launch his military campaign.
He was an enlightened and realistic conqueror who achieved his objective with fewer than 4,000 troops. He had acted on behalf of the Umayyads, an Arab dynasty based in Damascus, whose ruler was the caliph—the temporal head of the Muslims and their champion in the holy wars of Islam.
With this imposed change in religion, the rulers of Egypt turned their attention to a new style of art and architecture, and medieval
Cairo became a center of excellence in the Islamic world. Against this background, however, there was little interest in Egypt’s ancient past. The indigenous population knew little of their pharaonic ancestry and history, and as the knowledge of hieroglyphic writing disappeared, they could not gain any information from the ancient Egyptian inscriptions.

The Arabs who came to Egypt at this time regarded the pharaonic monuments as the work of giants or magicians and treated them as a potential source of treasure. Some buildings were forcibly entered in the course of treasure seeking expeditions, and many monuments were utilized as quarries; for example, many limestone-casing blocks of the Giza pyramids were dismantled and taken to Cairo, where they were incorporated into the many buildings that were being erected in the new capital.

During the Middle Ages, there were few new literary accounts of Egypt, although some pilgrims visiting the Holy Land also traveled to Egypt, where they sought out the sites associated with Christianity and the Holy Family’s sojourn there. For the most part, however, these visitors wrongly assumed that the pyramids and other pharaonic monuments were in some way directly associated with biblical accounts.

Further contributing to the lack of medieval accounts of Egypt, the Crusades prevented most Europeans from traveling freely in the Middle East. The unique contemporary information in the writings of Abd’ el-Latif, a doctor from Baghdad who taught medicine and philosophy in Cairo around AD 1200, is therefore of particular significance. He visited Giza, where he saw the Great Sphinx when it was still intact and entered the Great Pyramid, and also traveled to other sites. As a Muslim, he did not interpret the monuments from a biblical viewpoint, as Christians had already done, and therefore provided an alternative perspective.

However, his writings were not translated from Arabic until the nineteenth century, so they had no influence on later European authors.
Once the Crusades had ended, Europeans began to travel to the area again, leading to a renewed interest in Egypt. Handwritten copies of travel books, although rare, began to be produced at this time; for example, the most popular guidebook for pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the fourteenth century was entitled The Voiage and Travaille of Sir John Mandeville, Knight. Sir John Mandeville, its attributed author, never existed, however, and the tale was probably written by Jean d’Outremeuse of Liège who had never visited Egypt but probably relied for his information on early works, particularly those of the Classical writers. This work remained unchallenged for several centuries, although it contained various inaccuracies that writers continued to quote in their own, later works.

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