|Egypt Table of Contents
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 movement, the Ismaili Shia Islam, 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 Fatima.
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 went side-by-side.
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 Islamic orthodoxy.
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.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress