Egypt under Islamic rule
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Egypt under Islam

tall thin minarets in a courtyard
Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, Egypt (900s AD)

October 2016 - As part of the rise of the new religion of Islam in West Asia, the Arabs established a new empire centered on Syria. They soon conquered Egypt as well, so that just as under the Assyrians and then the Persians, Egypt came under the rule of West Asia. Gradually most Egyptians converted from Christianity to Islam, and learned to speak Arabic (the remaining Christians in Egypt are called Copts (you say KOPTS)). A new capital was established in the north at Cairo (you say KYE-row).

For a while around 1000-1300 AD, the Egyptians became independent of Asia under the Shiite Fatimid dynasty. This was a time of great achievements in Egypt. But then they were conquered by the Sunni Ayyubids, and then the Mamluks. At first Egypt did well under the Ayyubids and the Mamluks. Maimonides lived there in the 1100s. Egypt became a big center of manufacturing, selling sugar and cotton and paper to the Italian traders of Genoa and Venice in medieval Europe. But the bubonic plague - the Black Death - of the 1300s AD killed many people in Egypt and made Egypt less well organized, and then civil wars among the Mamluks allowed Europe to get ahead and start making its own paper and sugar, and then to use slavery to start growing sugar and cotton in the Americas.

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Around 1500 AD, Egypt became part of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, which held Egypt until modern times. Under Ottoman rule, the sultans in Constantinople taxed Egypt to support luxury lifestyles for themselves, and to pay the army. They brought a long peace, but they didn't leave enough money in Egypt so that Egyptians could afford to send their children to school, or start factories, or build roads or bridges or canals. Egypt, like the rest of the Ottoman Empire, fell further and further behind Europe, and by the 1700s, Europeans like Napoleon - first the French, and then the British - were beginning to invade Egypt and take Egypt's money for themselves.

Learn by doing: making paper
More about Fatimid Egypt

Bibliography and further reading about Islamic Egypt:

More about Fatimid Egypt
More about the Ayyubids
More about the Mamluks
More about the Ottomans


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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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