Notes on the history of Egypt — II

Zahi Hawass , Tuesday 19 Sep 2023

In the second part of a two-article series, Zahi Hawass continues his outline history of Egypt with an account of the country’s Islamic and modern periods

The history of Egypt
Muhammed Ali


ISLAMIC EGYPT: The Islamic period began in Egypt in 641 CE, when an army led by the Arab general Amr ibn Al-Aas put Byzantine forces at the Fortress of Babylon near today’s Cairo to flight.

This location had been recognised as a perfect strategic area by Egyptian rulers from the beginning of its history. It was in this area during the Pharaonic Period that innebu hedj (White Walls) and Mennefer (Memphis) had been built. Muslim governors administered the country from a new capital called Fustat, the first Islamic capital of Egypt just north of the Babylon Fortress.

For the next two centuries, Egypt was a province of the Islamic Empire. In the second half of the ninth century CE, Egypt once again became independent and remained so until its conquest by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century.

The history of the Islamic period in Egypt is divided into eight major eras, each being distinguished by a distinctive artistic style.

The first century after the Arab conquest is known as the Umayyad Era (661-750 CE), during which time the caliphs ruled from Damascus in Syria. Following this period, came the Abbasid Era, whose caliphs ruled the empire from Baghdad (750-1258). The caliph Al-Maamoun visited Egypt in order to suppress a Coptic rebellion in 832, and while there he forced entry into the Great Pyramid in order to take its treasures.

Ahmed ibn Tulun, after whom the Tulunid Era (868-905) is named, served under the caliph Al-Maamoun. His father was an effective and successful administrator who was eventually promoted to the powerful position of chief of the caliph’s guards. When he died, Ahmed inherited his father’s position and was appointed as the Abbasid governor of Egypt.

Ibn Tulun founded the first independent Islamic dynasty in Egypt, with the new royal city of Al-Qatai north of Fustat as his capital. The power of the Tulunids was short-lived, however, lasting for only two generations before the Abbasids invaded Egypt again in 905 and retook control of the country.

Between 935 and 969, another short-lived dynasty, the Ikhshids, ruled a virtually independent Egypt with the acquiescence of the Abbasids in Baghdad.

In 969, the commander of the Fatimid army, Jawhar Al-Siqilli, invaded Egypt on behalf of the Fatimid caliph Al-Muizz and took the capital at Fustat with little resistance from the weak Ikhshidid ruler. A new capital was founded by the new Fatimid Dynasty (969-1171) north of Fustat beyond the reach of the Nile floods and near to the Muqattam Hills named Cairo.

Bringing the bodies of his ancestors with him, the caliph Al-Muizz moved into the new city to rule Egypt. While the majority of the Egyptians were Sunni, the Fatimids were Shia. Following in the steps of the Pharaonic capitals like Thebes and Amara, Cairo became a ceremonial centre with an elaborate set of processional ways and rituals that shaped the urban fabric of the city.

The Fatimid period was one of stability and prosperity with low taxes and active trade relations. Major changes came to the region in 1097, however, with the advent of the Crusades led by soldiers sent from Europe. The Crusaders wrested Jerusalem from the Fatimids in 1099 and attacked Egypt in 1168. They were repulsed not by the Fatimids but by the Kurdish leader Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi (Saladin), who became a vizier during the last days of the Fatimid Dynasty.

Salaheddin founded his own dynasty in Egypt known as the Ayoubids (1171-1250) and succeeded in defeating the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin in Syria and regained Muslim control over Jerusalem.

The Ayoubids were capable rulers and established Cairo as an important centre of Islamic scholarship through Al-Azhar Mosque. The early 13th century saw many clashes between the Crusaders and the Ayoubids, who used trained slaves, known as Mamelukes, in their army.

However, Ayoubid control over Egypt ended in 1250, when the Mamelukes took over the throne.

Mameluke rule in Egypt is divided into two separate periods. The Bahri Mamlukes (1250-1382) who ruled from Rawda Island were Turks originally from the area of the Caspian Sea. They successfully repulsed the Mongol armies who toppled the Abbasid Dynasty in Baghdad in 1258 at the battle of Ain Jalut in Syria.

The second Mameluke period was led by the Burji Mameluks (1382-1517) who were Circassians from the Caucasus Mountains. Under Mameluke rule, Egypt flourished economically and prospered artistically. In addition to their achievements in architecture, the metal smiths employed during this period produced some of the best surviving examples of Islamic metalwork.


OTTOMAN PERIOD: The Turkish Ottomans built a new empire in western Anatolia in the late 13th century and became the most powerful state in the region. In 1517, the Ottoman Sultan Selim used advanced weaponry and military techniques to defeat the Mamelukes in Egypt.

Egypt was then ruled by series of Ottoman governors (1517-1798) loyal to the sultan in Istanbul, but Mameluke princes were permitted to retain much of their power. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Egypt was subjected to a series of military revolts by the Mamelukes against each other and against the Ottomans. The situation was difficult for the Egyptians because of high taxes and constant warfare. Although Turkish was the official language of the country, the Egyptians never accepted it as a common language and kept their own language and identity.

In 1767, the Egyptians revolted against the Ottomans, and for a short time Egypt enjoyed independence under the Mameluke prince Ali Bey Al-Kabir.

The French general Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798 and through the French military campaign took Cairo in the bloody Battle of the Pyramids (1798). France held Egypt until 1801, when the Treaty of Arish passed the country back to the Ottomans. Mohamed Ali Pasha, an Albanian born in Kavala, was then sent to Egypt with an army of 300 men to support the Ottoman Sultan against Napoleon.


MOHAMED ALI PERIOD: Between 1801 and 1805 when the French had left Egypt, Mohamed Ali used the Albanian troops that he now controlled to take advantage of the struggle between the Mameluke and Ottoman forces for control of Egypt.

Through his popular policies and by gaining the support of the Egyptian elite, he was appointed governor of Egypt in 1805. Mohamed Ali then ruled Egypt for 44 years from 1805 until 1849.

Known as the founder of modern Egypt, he transformed the country into a regional power. His plans to modernise Egypt along more western lines included reforms such as the establishment of state educational institutes and hospitals and the introduction of cotton as an important cash crop.

His initiatives also sparked a renaissance in Arabic literature, and in 1820 the first printing press in the Arab world opened in Bulaq in Cairo. Mohamed Ali was also the first to care about Egypt’s ancient and historic monuments, setting aside a building on the Citadel to house artefacts and manuscripts.

A great believer in education, Mohamed Ali had many foreign books translated into Arabic and sent engineers, doctors, teachers, and translators to Europe for advanced education. New methods of agriculture and industry were encouraged under his administration, new roads and hospitals were constructed, and new canals dug.

The modernisation of Egyptian culture continued after the death of Mohamed Ali Pasha through the two-month reign of Ibrahim Pasha and his grandson Abbas Helmi (1849-1854). The dynasty continued under Said Pasha (1854-1863) and khedive Ismail (1863-1879).

 Both Said and Ismael were overambitious in their modernisation projects, which included the Suez Canal started in 1859 and completed in 1869. Egypt went into debt, and the taxation imposed by the royal house created problems between it and the general population.

Eventually, khedive Ismail sold Egypt’s share in the Canal to the British, leaving Egypt vulnerable to the political wishes of both Britain and France.

By 1879, Britain and France had convinced the Ottoman sultan to depose the Khedive Ismail and set his son Tawfik (1879-1892) up as ruler. A national revolt against khedive Tawfik was led by Colonel Ahmed Orabi, giving Britain a pretext to invade Egypt. The revolution was put down, Tawfik remained in power, and the British stayed on as an occupying force.

Tawfik was succeeded by khedive Abbas Helmi II (1892-1914), who ruled until the beginning of World War I. Abbas Helmi II declared Egypt to be on the side of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, which provided the British with an excuse to depose him, sever Egypt’s ties with the Ottoman Empire, and appoint his uncle Hussein Kamal as Sultan.

In 1917, Sultan Hussein Kamal died and was succeeded by his younger brother Fouad I, who founded the oldest university in the Middle East and Africa, Cairo University (previously known as Fouad I University). Britain formally granted Egypt its independence in 1922, so Fouad converted his title from sultan to king.

King Fouad ruled Egypt with the help of the British army, dying in 1936 and being succeeded by his son. King Farouk I was very popular in his early years of his reign, but he lost the support of the Egyptians because of his extravagant lifestyle and his ineffective and corrupt government.


MODERN EGYPT: The dynasty founded by Mohamed Ali, lasting more than 147 years, was toppled by the Revolution of 1952.

In that auspicious year, the Free Officers led by Mohamed Naguib and Gamal Abdel-Nasser declared Egypt a republic. In 1956, Nasser became president of the republic and brought Egypt into the modern world. Among his achievements are the opening of relations with many other countries and the nationalisation of the Suez Canal.

As an outcome of the 1967 War with Israel, Egypt lost the Sinai Peninsula. Nasser died in 1970 and was followed to the presidency by Anwar Al-Sadat.

Al-Sadat recouped some of Egypt’s losses in the 1973 War and signed a peace treaty with Israel. In 1981, Sadat was assassinated, and the presidency of Egypt was taken up by his vice president, Hosni Mubarak. Under Mubarak’s leadership, Egypt opened many new museums as well as archaeological sites. First lady Suzanne Mubarak worked hard supporting women’s rights and children’s education.

1 am very fortunate to have worked closely with the first lady on the Suzanne Mubarak Children’s Museum that opened in 1996 and was renovated in 2007.

In 2011, demonstrations against Mubarak’s rule took place in Tahrir Square in Cairo and from there spread across the country. The demonstrations resulted in the resignation of Mubarak and the emergence of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to run the country temporarily.

After holding presidential elections, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi became president in 2012. His administration was marked by the interference of the Muslim Brotherhood in the affairs of government. A year after Morsi assumed the presidency, demonstrations were held demanding his departure. The number of demonstrations and demonstrators grew, and the protests in Tahrir Square included about half a million people.

At that time, the Armed Forces offered Morsi the option to hold early elections, but he refused. They decided to dismiss him, based on the people’s will, and Adli Mansour was chosen as the country’s interim president. Presidential elections were held in 2014, which Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, who was head of the army, won.

President Al-Sisi has accomplished a great many things since he came to power. The country has become more secure for its citizens and visitors, the new Suez Canal was begun and completed, and new roads and vital infrastructure improvements are underway.

During his second and ongoing presidential term, President Al-Sisi announced that education and healthcare would be his major focus. Many new museums have also been opened, as he gives special attention to museums and cultural sites.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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