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How the Arabs gained control of Egypt

How did Fustat develop between 640 and 750 to become the capital of Egypt? At the time Egypt was a province of the Islamic empire - the caliphate - that had been started by the prophet Muhammad. Original sources used by Arabist Jelle Bruning give new insights into the city. PhD defence on 2 April.

Islamic garrison town

Bilingual document on papyrus (Austrian National Library)
Bilingual document on papyrus (Austrian National Library)

Fustat was founded as an Islamic garrison town in 641, almost immediately after Egypt was taken over by the Arabs. The town was strategically located at the point where the Nile Valley opens out into the Nile Delta. Muhammad had passed away ten years before, but even after his death the conquests continued at a terrifying pace, until a Muslim-controlled area had been created which at its highpoint stretched from India to the Iberian Peninsula.

Only original sources

Arab tax receipt from the late 8th century (Austrian National Library)
Arab tax receipt from the late 8th century (Austrian National Library)

Three different periods can be seen in the development of Fustat: 640 to 660, 660 to 700, and 700 to 750. 'Research to date has emphasised the first and last periods,' says Bruning. 'The first period is when the Arabs arrive, and the last period is when an important process of Arabisation and Islamisation begins. But my research shows that the second period is just as interesting. You see power becoming more and more centralised in the hands of the Arabs, who made use of the existing structures.' Bruning decided as far as possible to use only original sources, such as documents, (building) inscriptions and archaeological artefacts. 'A lot of research is based on sources that were written much later, but these often conceal a hidden political agenda, relating to the politics of the caliphs, Muhammad's successor, for example. Original sources show the beginning of Islamic society in Egypt without any intermediary.'

Stronger Arab control

In the first period after the Arab invasion, there was little evidence of the effect of the new rulers on everyday life. The existing administrative structures outside of Fustat remained intact and were dominated by local, non-Arab dignitaries. Bruning: 'Egypt's Arab administration, which was based in Fustat, ruled over the Arab soldiers in the same way. The social and political structures that the local Arabs had known on the Arab Peninsula remained largely unchanged, even in a newly established garrison town like Fustat. Tribes had their own neighbourhoods, and tribal chiefs were the link between the Arab rulers and the Arab populace. What you do notice in this second stage is that the Arab rulers were steadily acquiring more and more power.'

Tax collection taken over

PhD candidate Jelle Bruning
PhD candidate Jelle Bruning

The Arabs also took over the existing tax system, although Arab soldiers sometimes also collected taxes ad hoc to live on when necessary. In the second period this slowly changed. The Arab administration in Fustat started assuming more and more offices, thereby acquiring increasing power. As a result, Fustat developed into a centre of authority, with the Arabs spreading their power through coinage and public texts.

Contact discouraged

In fact, the original inhabitants were gradually sidelined as a result of a range of measures. Besides the fact that fewer and fewer positions remained open for them, they paid more taxes than the Arabs who settled in the town in the wake of the conquest. 'At first, contact between the Arabs and the native population was discouraged by the central authorities,' according to Bruning. 'As a reaction to this exclusion, the indigenous people opted to adopt Islam, or they sought to align themselves with tribal chiefs who still had some influence, or with important individuals.' In the third stage, Arabs migrated en masse to the Egyptian countryside and started a process that after many centuries of further development would transform Egypt into an Arabic-speaking, Islamic country.

Impression of Fustat at the turn of the 20th century
Impression of Fustat at the turn of the 20th century

 

(3 April 2014)

 

City on fire

Fustat, which in its heyday had 200,000 inhabitants, was not destined to last. Several centuries later, in 1168, the city was set on fire by order of the vizier who ruled the city on behalf of the caliph. The aim was to prevent the city's treasures from falling into the hands of crusaders advancing on their way to Jerusalem. Now the area is a district of the present-day Egyptian capital Cairo: Old Cairo. Only here and there can remains of the earlier city still be seen.

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