Rise and Fall of Mighty Empires, Part 2

The eastern wing of the Roman Empire continued much after the western half had collapsed. It came to be known as the Byzantine Empire or Byazantium, with its capital at Constantinople, or modern-day Istanbul. Byzantium was predominantly Greek-speaking and Greek-influenced and Egypt formed a part of it. But a dramatic spread of a new religion would change the face of this region forever.

In 7th Century AD, the newly converted desert tribesman of Arabia raced across the peninsula till they arrived in 640 AD at the gates of the fortified town of Babylon, present-day Old Cairo. The fortress was beseiged and the Arabs galloped on towards Alexandria. The Greeks in Alexandria bargained for a year’s peace, at the end of which, they handed over the city to the Arabs without a fight!

The first leader or Khalīfah of the Islamic Arabs was Abu-Bakr, Prophet Mohammed‘s father-in-law. He was followed by three others – the Rashidun or the Rightly Guided Caliphs and then by the Umayyad Caliphs, the latter ruling from Damascus. Under them the Muslim Empire‘s influence stretched from the borders of India and China, across Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, Sicily, through Spain right up to the Pyrenees, all within a year’s time!

The darker brown areas denote the lands taken over during Mohammed’s time; the area expanded by the Rashidun Caliphs are peachy-brown and the empire’s expansion under the Ummayyadi Caliphs are shown in yellowy ochre.

But by the 9th Century the Muslim Empire was tottering under the weak leadership of the Abbasid Caliphs. The Ummayyads were governing Spain, the Berbers in North Africa, the hostile Persians in Persia. And in Egypt? 24 governors were appointed and dismissed in 23 years!

The shaky Caliphs in Baghdad chose to bolster their army by acquiring Turkish slaves or Mamelukes, because of their excellent fighting abilities. They were soon appointed to positions of responsibility and one such Mameluk, Ahmad ibn Tulun seized control of Egypt. He and successive Turkish dynasties ruled a large swathe of land that finally included almost the entire eastern Mediterranean.

But the fiercest Mameluke Turk of them all was Baybars, who came to Egypt as a slave himself. While the Mameluke dynasties were ruling over Egypt, the Mongol army had started a relentless war and advanced right up to Persia and Mesopotamia. They faced their first defeat in the hands of Baybars in 1260 when they are unable to conquer Egypt.

But three centuries of Mameluke rule over Egypt came to an end in 1517 when the Ottoman Turk sultan, Selim I, reached the Nile delta, seized Cairo and hung the last Mameluke sultan. While the rule under the Mamelukes was often chaotic they also bequeathed Egypt with some of the finest mosques and one of its oldest, al Azhar, a university mosque that exists to this day.


Selim I chose to make Eygpt an Ottomon province and installed a Mameluke governor and so it continued till the 16th Century – with a strong Ottoman Sultan ruling from Istanbul and Mamelukes running Egypt as feudal barons. That is until anarchy set in, when weaker Ottoman sultans could not keep control of the feuding Mameluke administrators.

Into this chaos stepped in a European claiming to be a friend of the Ottoman Sultan who had come to recover the Ottoman province from Mameluke tyranny. The man was Napoleon and the year was 1798.

To be continued in Part 3

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