Ancient Egypt had lasted for more than 3,000 years before the Romans conquered it in the year 30 B.C. The Romans would go on to rule Egypt for nearly 700 years before the Arabs, in December 639, conquered the ancient African kingdom.
The decline of Ancient Egypt and its fall to several rulers is due to countless factors such as personal rivalry, military success, failure of leadership, and so on – all of which had an effect on the sustainability of the country.
This article seeks to discuss the history of Ancient Egypt from Roman Rule to Arab Conquest.
The Roman Rule
The Roman Rule began in 30 B.C. after the death of Cleopatra VII. Following the assassination of her lover, Julius Caesar in 44 B.C, Cleopatra, afraid for her life and throne, joined forces with the Roman general, Mark Antony. Together, they warred against another Roman leader named Octavian (later known as Augustus). Cleopatra made the wrong choice. The two sides met at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. where Cleopatra and Mark Antony were soundly defeated. Cleopatra, rather than face the shame of humiliation, committed suicide.
The defeat of Cleopatra and Antony brought an end to the rule of the Ptolemaic Dynasty which had been in power since the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.
With the suicide of Cleopatra and the assassination of her son and co-ruler, Ptolemy Caesar, Emperor Augustus then took absolute control of Egypt. During the First Century, the Roman Emperor appointed a prefect (governor) for a limited-term, which effectively depoliticized the country, neutralized rivalries for its control among powerful Romans, and undermined any possible focus for local sentiments. Augustus introduced land reforms that enabled wider entitlement to private ownership of land and the local administration reformed into a Roman liturgical system, in which landowners were required to serve in the local government.
Egypt as a Roman Province
Egypt functioned as an active and prosperous Roman province in the Mediterranean world. The value of Egypt to the Romans was so indispensable as Egyptian grain supplied the city of Rome. Also, the country produced papyrus, glass, and various finely crafted minor arts that were exported to the rest of the Roman Empire. The deserts yielded a variety of minerals, ores, and fine stones such as porphyry and granite, all of which were brought to Rome to be used for sculpture and architectural elements.
The conquest of Egypt by the Romans brought about a new fascination with its ancient culture. Obelisks and Egyptian-style architecture and sculpture were installed in Roman fora. The status of Egypt’s cities was increased with Alexandria enjoying the greatest concessions. The inhabitants of Roman Egypt were divided by social class along ethnic and cultural lines. Non-Alexandrians were simply referred to as “Egyptians.” The citizens of Rome and Alexandria were exempt from a newly introduced poll tax while the “original settlers” – Egyptians – were granted a reduced poll tax.
The main cultural distinction was between the Hellenistic life of the cities and the Egyptian-speaking village, with the bulk of the population remaining as it had been – the peasants who worked for high rents as tenant farmers. However, there was considerable social mobility accompanying mass urbanisation and participation in the monetised economy and literacy in Greek by the peasant population which was widespread.
Queen Zenobia invades Roman Egypt
During the Roman Rule in Egypt, two great disasters hit the province of Egypt which disrupted the control of the Romans. The first disaster was the Antonine Plague of the 2nd Century A.D. The Roman Empire survived this plague.
However, the more grievous of these disasters came in the year 270 with the invasion of the province by the unlikeliest of all invaders, Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, an independent city on the border of Syria. She cut off the city’s corn supply and this singular action brought the intense anger of the Romans toward the queen. She was eventually defeated by the new Roman Emperor, Aurelian in the year 271. The Roman Empire survived these two attacks but the damage had already been done. Until the 7th Century when Egypt came under Arab control, it remained a part of the Roman Empire.
What really caused the Arab Conquest of Egypt?
The Arab Conquest, also known as the Rashidun Conquest of Egypt or the Muslim Conquest of Egypt, took place between the years 639 and 646. It was led by the army of Amr ibn al-As. It ended the 700-year long reign of the Roman/Byzantine rulers.
According to Hugh Kennedy, the conquests of Syria and Iran by the Arabs had followed naturally. This is because “in Syria, and to a lesser extent in Iraq, there were already Arabs, both settled and nomad, either to be incorporated into the Muslim armies or subdued. It was logical, even unavoidable, to move on from there to conquer, as the Muslim armies did, the non-Arab peoples of the area.”
However, Egypt was different. At the beginning of the 7th Century, “there seems to have been no substantial Arab settlement, no Arab tribes roamed the deserts and few Arab merchants did business in the towns.” It was therefore inconceivable that the conquest of Egypt would take place, let alone as swiftly as it had happened.
The conquest of Egypt by the Arabs is one that came about as a result of the enmity between two Christian sects – the majority Monophysite Coptic Christians and the minority Diophysite Chalcedonians; also, the legend that is told about Amr ibn al-As, the commander of the Muslim forces, discovering the wealth of Egypt and wanting to conquer the country.
The disparity and abyss of differences between the Copts and the Chalcedonians led Heraclius, the Byzantine emperor, to try to reunite both sects under imperial rule. He, therefore, summoned Cyrus of Alexandria, the last Byzantine prefect of Egypt, to settle the irreconcilable differences. However, Cyrus in his attempt, and with little or no success, persecuted the Copts severely.
In the words of John Butler, “Chastisement with whips was to be followed by chastisement with scorpions.”
By 636, the Arabs had Gaza and Syria in their hands and as a result of the growing influence of the Arabs, Cyrus decided it was best to offer tribute to the Muslims in exchange for a non-aggression pact. He even went ahead to suggest that a marriage alliance should be made between the emperor’s daughter, Eudokia and Amr ibn al-As, commander of Muslim forces in southern Palestine. However, in 639, Heraclius disagreed and replaced Cyrus, sent him into exile, and appointed a military man who was charged with building a more robust defence. This action must have triggered the Muslim conquest.
The Legend of Amr ibn al-As
The Egyptian-Arabic tale of the conquest is one that tells of the legend of Amr ibn al-As who discovered the wealth and splendour of Egypt first-hand.
Legend has it that right before the Muslim conquest, al-As had saved the life of a deacon twice while he was on a trading expedition in Jerusalem, along with a group from Quraysh. First, he saved the deacon from dying of thirst, and secondly from being bitten by a snake. The deacon who was overwhelmed by the kind actions of the commander decided to return the kindness. He sought to gift al-As money, the equivalent of blood money for saving one’s life, who told the deacon that the amount was 100 camels.
The deacon replied that they did not have camels in his country. However, he asked how much one hundred camels would cost in dinars, to which the answer was a thousand dinars. The deacon, a stranger in the country and one who had only come to pray in the Holy Sepulcher invited Amr ibn al-As to come along with him to his hometown – Egypt.
The Muslim Invasion of Egypt
Amr ibn al-As left his companions and went with the deacon to Egypt and there, he came across the beauty, wealth, and splendour of the country. He was duly rewarded by the deacon and was also given a companion to guide him back to his group. However, Amr could not get over what his eyes had seen. It was at this point that he decided to conquer Egypt, being vividly aware of the wealth Egypt and the city of Alexandria could offer.
After consulting the caliph Umar in person, ibn al-As gathered a force of between 3,500 and 4,000 men chosen from tribes, notably the tribe of Akk, whose members lived in Yemen. These “tiny army” first conquered the city of Farama (ancient Pelusius) which lay near the coast to the east of Port Said. As a result of a weak garrison, it was besieged for a month by the Muslims before they took complete control.
After Farama, the Muslims went ahead to Bilbay. There, they were met with a bit of resistance but they would not be deterred. Again, they took control of the city. At this point, Amr had sent for reinforcements. In the meantime, they went ahead to Umm Dunayn, probably on the Nile to the north of modern Cairo. There, they faced great resistance. The Byzantines had strengthened themselves in an earthwork in scattered gates. Fighting was hard and victory was slow. Eventually, they conquered.
After the victory, Amr ibn al-As shared some gifts with his men. These gifts included: a dinar, a juhha, a hurnus, a turban, and two pairs of shoes.
Following the defeat of the Byzantines at Umm Dunayn, the Muslims went on an expedition to Fayumm. The Romans were able to secure Fayumm, but it was only for a while. The Muslims, unrelenting in their chase, again, took over Fayumm. The reinforcements sent for by Amr had eventually come. They were said to have numbered 12,000 men commanded by Zubayr. b. al-Awwam.
The Arab Conquest of Alexandria
The Muslims went on to the fortress of Babylon. However, they met with even greater resistance. This was as a result of the strong garrison that had been built by the Byzantine. It was said that there was a garrison of 5,000 to 6,000 men.
In March 641, however, news came of the death of Heraclius and with it, a succession crisis ensued. These events – the death of Heraclius and the succession crisis – definitely played a huge role in the defence of the Byzantines. The Byzantines were depressed and this only boosted the morale of the Arabs.
On Easter Monday, April 9, 641, the Byzantines eventually surrendered the great fortress of Babylon to the Arabs and left the fortress, taking some of their gold but abandoning their considerable military equipment. Amr ibn al-As, having conquered the great fortress of Babylon, went ahead to make preparations to besiege the city of Alexandria and conquer it.
Following the death of Heraclius on February 11, 641, he consecrated power in the hands of his sons – Heraclonas and Constantine. Just three months after, Constantine died from tuberculosis and Heraclonas assumed full power, together with his ambitious mother, Martina. As a new government, they sought to make peace with the Muslims and called Cyrus back from exile to go to the city of Alexandria, not to strengthen the resistance but see what terms of negotiation could be reached.
Cyrus had hoped to restore the agreement which he had put in place before the Arab conquest in 639. Thus, upon meeting with al-As in October, Cyrus felt he had no alternative other than to accept the fait accompli and peace was eventually agreed upon on November 28, 641.
According to the new agreement, the people of Alexandria were to pay tribute. The Roman army was to leave the city with its possessions and treasures and return to Constantinople by sea. However, Cyrus was unable to relay this message to the people of Alexandria. It was not until an Arab force came to receive the first instalment of the tribute that the people of Alexandria realised that peace had been made.
Eventually, Cyrus tearfully explained all that had transpired to the people of Alexandria. At that point, there was no form of resistance from the people and the Arab forces took over the city. Finally, on December 10, 641, the people of Alexandria paid the tribute and they were completely won over by the Arabs.
Following the conquest of Alexandria, there was little or no resistance from the other towns in the country. In some smaller towns of the northern delta that the Muslim armies visited, there was sporadic resistance but no sustained opposition.
According to Hugh Kennedy, “of all the early Muslim conquests, that of Egypt was the swiftest and most complete. Within a space of two years, the country had come entirely under Arab rule. Even more remarkably, it has remained under Muslim rule ever since. Seldom in history can so massive a political change has happened so swiftly and been so long-lasting.”
Factors that led to the Arab Conquest of Egypt
Several factors led to the fall of Ancient Egypt to the Arabs.
First, is the vicious persecution of the Coptic Christians by Cyrus, the Chalcedonian Patriarch of Alexandria. The enmity between the Monophysite Coptic Christians and the Diophysite Chalcedonians caused a rift and an abyss between the people – and their irreconcilable differences led to a crack in their unity.
Another factor is the military success of the Arabs. They completely and soundly defeated the Byzantine army in battle on a number of occasions.
Furthermore, the failure of leadership on the Roman side played a huge role in the Arab conquest of Egypt. The actions of Cyrus played a significant role in the conquest of the Muslims over the Egyptians. Instead of setting out to defend the city against the Arabs, he despaired and only set out to make terms and sign treaties.
In addition to the failure of leadership, the political structure of Egypt also played a significant role in the conquest. The government, from the times of the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, was highly centralised. The defence was concentrated in the arms of the governor and his army. Most of the population had no arms or military training whatsoever.
Finally, the Copts, led by their patriarch, Benjamin, reportedly helped the Muslims in their conquest of Egypt.
Interestingly, the Arabs would rule Egypt and control the country until 1250, when the Mamluks overthrew them and established the Mamluk Sultanate. A rule that would last for 267 years until they were, in turn, conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1517.
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Butler, A. (1902). The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the last thirty years of the Roman dominion. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Department of Egyptian Art (2000, October). Roman Egypt. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/regy/hd_regy.htm
Donald, W. (2016, October 24). Roman Egypt. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/Roman_Egypt/
Kennedy, H. (2007). The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live in. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-81740-3.
Obarakpo, E. (2021, June 21). Was Ancient Egypt a White Civilisation? HistoryVille. Retrieved from https://www.thehistoryville.com/ancient-egypt-civilisation/