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Islamic Antiquities

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© BA Antiquities Museum/M. Mounir Mohamed Mounir

Presentation of the department

The Islamic antiquities section comprises a variety of artifacts that show the exquisite craftsmanship of this period’s artists. The visitor may find, among other artifacts, textile, plastered stained glass, woodwork and pottery which would all offer him a glimpse of the social, intellectual, scientific and religious aspects of this period.

Islamic Era

The Islamic era starts in Egypt in 641 A.D. with the invasion of an army leader called Amr Ibn El 'As during the reign of Caliph Omar Ibn El Khattab. The conquests started at the time of the Prophet (PBUH) when Arab tribalism ended and after his death in 632 A.D. – 11 Hejira during the time of the Four Righteous Caliphs.

I. The Ummayyad Dynasty (661-750 A.D. / 20 – 132 Hejira)

The Ummayyads were the first ruling dynasty after the Caliphate and they ruled from 661 to 750 A.D. from Damascus.  They belonged to the bigger clans of Quraish.  Many converted to Islam well after the Muslim invasion, except Othman Ibn Affan, the third Caliph, who was one of the early ones to convert. The most famous lord of Beni Ummayya was Abu Sufian Ibn Harb, the overall master of Quraish from the time of the Badr invasion to the Arab conquest.  His son Mu'awaya (661-680 A.D.) is the founder of the Umayyad dynasty. He was a 'wali' (ruler) over Syria since 657 A.D. on behalf of the Caliph Omar Ibn El Khattab. 

Following the murder of Ali Ibn Abi Taleb and the succession of his son El Hassan Ibn Ali, the latter abdicated the caliphate to Mo'awaya Ibn Abi Sufian. Thus, the caliphate moved from the House of Ummayya to the Sufiani branch.  There were 32 'walis' (rulers) over Egypt from the time of the Arab conquest to the end of the Ummayyad dynasty.

The Ummayyad dynasty saw a flourishing of the economy in Egypt and a sense of safety prevailed among its people. They did not complain of heavy taxes being imposed on them nor about extortion nor about the ills of rule.  The inhabitants of Egypt went about their agriculture, increasing their yields and enhancing irrigation.  They built nilometres to measure the ebb and flow of the Nile. Furthermore, industry flourished during that dynasty, particularly textiles.

Factors contributing to the Fall of the Ummayyad Dynasty

Resistance grew against the Ummayyad regime from all corners, in spite of the success of the dynasty in its conquests and its policy of arabization. The dynasty was divided upon itself due to the succession system that was followed whereby more than one was considered for succession. This policy led to the division of Arabs into 'Quaiseya' in the north and 'Yemenia' in the south and to bitter civil wars between the two factions which weakened the regime considerably.

II. The Abbasid Dynasty (750 - 1258 A.D.)

The founder of the Abbasid dynasty is Al-Abbas ibn Abd Al-Muttalib, the uncle of the Prophet (PBUH), therefore his descendants claimed legitimacy to the caliphate based on their descent and being the rightful heirs of Muhammed (PBUH). 

'Abu Al-Abbas Al-Saffah' (749-754A.D.) managed with the help of the followers of Ali (Shi'a) to defeat the Ummayyad rulers and their adoption of a luxurious monarchical life. He and his brother Abu Ga'far Al-Mansur (745 – 775 A.D.) took strict measures to strengthen Abbasid rule. In 762 A.D., the city of Baghdad was built.

The number of rulers during the Abbasid period reached 69 between 750 A.D. (132 Hejira) until the arrival on stage of Ahmed Ibn Tulun in 868 A.D. (254 Hejira). 
Thanks to Abu Moslem Al-Khurasani, the Abbasid rule centred in the east, particularly in the region of Khurasan.  The Abbasids showed leniency in treating the Copts of Egypt and they promised to protect the property of the church and to reduce taxes imposed on the Copts.

Factors contributing to the Decline of the Abbasid Dynasty

The decline of the Abbasid rule and loss of control was mainly due to the increase in number and power of the Turks and Seljuks called the Mamelukes in the army. By allowing non-Arab forces into the army and into the administration and by giving them more and more power, the Abbasids gradually became only figureheads, who allowed the remote parts of the empire to become independent. Their system of succession also was a major contributing factor, as it allowed for more than one successor in a short period of time.  Furthermore, the competition between the followers of Ali and the Abbasids played a role in weakening the dynasty.

III. Tulunid Dynasty (868 – 905 A.D. / 254 – 292 Hejira)

The dynasty is named after its founder Ahmed Ibn Tulun who was of Turkic origin. When his father Tulun died, his mother remarried a certain prince called Bayakbak. By the year 252 Hejira, this prince was appointed governor of Egypt. He, instead, appointed his step-son to that position.

The Tulunid rule lasted 38 years in which Egypt enjoyed some safety, stability and prosperity.  It also saw an economic, scientific, literary and artistic revival, particularly during the reign of Tulun and his son Khumarawayh.  The city of 'Qatae' outside of Fustat was established then and they embarked on building lavish palaces. The army became independent of the caliphate in Baghdad and the rulers managed to spread economic stability as well as to maintain pricing and availability of commodities all over Egypt.

The dynasty went into decline during the time of Harun (896 – 904 A.D.), the son of Khumarawayh, whose conflicts with the Qarmatians had exhausted the country. Eventually, he was unable to defend Egypt against the invading forces of the Abbasids who took over in 905 A.D.

IV. The Ikshidid Dynasty (935-969 A.D. / 323-358 Hejira)

The Ikshidid or Benu Ikshid are of 'arabized' Turkish descent who governed Egypt for thirty four years during the fourth century Hejira.  They ruled from Fustat. They are descendants of Mohammad ibn Tughj the Ikshid (935-946 A.D.) . The title Ikshid means 'King of Kings', although it is also said that it is of Persian origin which means 'The Clever". The title was conferred on him by the Caliph.

Egypt experienced a revival during the short-lived Ikshidid dynasty in the arts, literature and sciences, in architecture and the production of many fine objets d'art. However, there is little that remains of that period, possibly due to the ravages of time or the destruction by the Fatimids of Ikshidid buildings and palaces.

Factors contributing to the Decline of the Ikshidid Dynasty

Following the death of Muhammad ibn Tughj, his military commander the 'Black Kafur' (946-968 A.D.) took over the rule, as Tughj's two sons were under age. In 966 A.D., he ruled Egypt on behalf of the Abbasids. When the Fatimids invaded Egypt, they obliterated the descendants of Beni Tughj and ousted the last Ikshidid prince Abul Fawares from Fustat in 969 A.D.

V. The Fatimid Dynasty (909-1171 A.D. / 358-567 Hejira)

There are two schools of thought regarding the origin of the Fatimids among historians.  The first claims they descend from 'Ali ibn Abi Taleb' and 'Fatima' the daughter of the Prophet (PBUH) and the other school doubts this lineage.

Egypt witnessed a flourishing of Islamic art and architecture under the Fatimids, Al Azhar University and Al Hakim mosque being their legacy to this day. The Fatimids also developed the army in order to pursue their ambitious plan of conquests and to defend themselves. Egypt's economy flourished and agricultural production increased, as they devoted efforts to build dams and to clear canals. The textile, mineral, pottery and glass industries saw a great revival during that era.

Factors contributing to the Decline of the Fatimid Dynasty

'Al-Adid Ledinullah' was the fourteenth and last ruler of the Fatimid dynasty. He was a minor at a time when Egypt had become weak and open to attacks by the Crusaders, while the Seljuks were also vying for that country.  Al-Adid's vizier 'Shawar' effectively ruled Egypt and he preferred to make a deal with the Crusaders to fight off the Seljuks. The crusaders killed everyone in Belbeis in 1168 and were on their way to Cairo.  This is when Shawar ordered the burning of Fustat to the ground and switched sides with the Seljuks in Damascus. He struck a deal with the Zengid sultan Nur ad-Din in Damascus to become the first minister of Egypt.  He fought the Crusaders with the help of Zengid army leaders Shirkuh and his nephew Salah El Din El Ayyubi (Saladin). The Sultan in Damascus appointed Shirkuh as vizier of Egypt, but he died and Saladin took over from him and overthrew Shawar in 1169.  In 1171 A.D. Al Adid died (of natural or perhaps unnatural causes). This is when Saladin took over the rule of Egypt to start the Ayyubid dynasty and he replaced Shia doctrine with the Sunni faith.
 

VI. The Ayyubid Dynasty (1171-1250 A.D. / 567-648 Hejira)

The Ayyubids are of Kurkish origin. They ruled Egypt, Syria and Iraq from 1171. to 1250/1260 A.D. Their seats were in Damascus and in Cairo. The founder of the dynasty is 'Negm Eldin Ayyub' who was an army leader under the Zengids in Syria.

The Ayyub family originally came from Armenia.  Ayyub' s political career shone when he took over the rule of Crete, then Damascus. His brother 'Assad Eldin Shirkuh, the army general of Nur ad-Din (of the Zengid dynasty in Syria) and his son Saladin (1138-1193 A.D.) conquered Egypt in 1169. Saladin wanted to become independent of Nur ad-Din and to take over the rule from the Fatimids. Two years later, he conquered Aleppo and ended the Zengid rule in Syria and managed to rule both Egypt and Syria from 1171 A.D. onwards.

The Ayyubid period in Egypt is considered to be an extension of the Tulunid and Ikhshidid eras, as far as the flowering of language and religion are concerned. The Ayyubids also paid attention to the building of libraries.  The efforts they exerted to build up the army made Egypt a military country that took upon itself the fight against the Crusaders with the view to liberate Egypt and Syria of their danger. They spent a large amount of their resources on the army and on building fortresses in strategic places. Whatever funds were left over, they used on internal reform.

Factors contributing to the Decline of the Ayyubid  Dynasty

Saladin left Egypt in 1182 to fight off the Crusaders in the Holy Land.  He left his brother Al-Adil in charge, together with his vizier, Al-Fadil and he never returned to Egypt. He died in Damascus in 1193 A.D. (589 Hejira), after having divided his kingdom between his sons and his brother Al-Adel.  However the in-fighting that ensued between them ended up weakening the state instead of fighting their enemy, the Crusaders. The Ayyubid dynasty ended with the death of Turanshah, the son of As-Saleh Ayyub, in 1250 A.D.

VII. The Mameluke Dynsaty (1250-1517 A.D./ 684-922 Hejira

The Mameluke dynasty starts with Izz El-Din Aybak, the first Mameluke sultan of Turkic descent, who had married Shajar El-Durr, the widow of As-Saleh Ayyub. The latter and his son Turanshah died in 1249 and 1250 A.D. respectively. Shajar El-Durr ruled Egypt for eighty days after her husband's death with the help of the Mamelukes, but found it difficult to continue ruling and was forced to marry Aybak and to abdicate the throne to him thereafter.

The Ayyubids' policy was to bring in mamelukes (word means 'owned') from non-Muslim countries, usually when they were children and bring them up according to strict rules and regulations in military camps isolated from the rest of the outside world. This ensured their total loyalty to the rulers, and because of that system, the Mameluke dynasty enjoyed a certain amount of relative stability.

The Mameluke dynasty ruled along the lines of the Ayyubids at the time of the seventh Crusade of Louis IX of France. The Mamelukes are divided into two sections, the first is known as the Bahari (meaning sea or river) based at Al-Roda Island in the Nile in Cairo. They ruled from 1250 to 1382 A.D./ 648-784 Hejira and were mainly Kipchaks.

The other dynasty is called the Burjjeya, as they were based at the citadel of Cairo and they were of Circassian origin. Their reign spanned from 1382 to1517 A.D. (784-922 Hejira).

The Mamelukes fought the Mongol invasion into Egypt and Syria and defeated them at the battle of Ain Jalut in Palestine under the command of Baybars in 1260. The Sultan in Egypt at the time was Qutuz who ten years earlier, together with Baibars and Qalawun, had fought against the Seventh Crusade of Louis IX King of France.  Baybars (1260-1277 A.D.), it is said, had Sultan Qutuz assassinated and became the new Sultan of Egypt.  He became popular as he lifted the war taxes which were imposed on people by Sultan Qutuz.

The Mamelukes continued to concentrate their efforts on fighting the Crusaders' strongholds in Syria and in 1290 A.D. they destroyed Acre (Acca), the last Crusaders' bastion in Syria.

There were despots among the Mameluke ruling class who were inclined to use brute force, however, there were also patrons of the arts in a way Egypt had not experienced since the time of the Ptolemies. The skyline in Cairo was filled with a variety of architectural masterpieces ranging from mosques, to schools, domes, commercial lanes, mausoleums, palaces, sabeels and baths. The 'mashrabeyya' work flourished alongside inlay work ('takfeet') of gold or silver onto copper, so did the making of furniture, gates and trunks.

The Mamelukes also took care to increase agricultural produce in the knowledge that it was their prime source of income. They also paid attention to animal husbandry and ensured that livestock improved their genes by bringing the best breeds.

VIII. The Ottoman Empire (1517-1924 A.D./923-1342 Hejira)

The Ottomans

The Ottoman lineage goes back to Osman Khan son of Ertuğrul who founded the empire. He belonged to the clan 'Qabi' one of the clans of the Oghuz tribes which was forced to migrate when Genghis Khan invaded Asia Minor in 1226A.D./ 624 Hejira.

Osman expanded his realm at the expense of the Byzantine empire and organized his Ottoman kingdom by 1300A.D./ 699 Hejira.

The Ottomans formed special units called 'Enkesharia' which helped them expand rapidly into the Balkans and Anatolia. They were however beaten by the forces of Mongol ruler 'Timor' at Ankara in 1402 A.D./804 Hejira.  The defeat was followed by upheavals and political unrests.  However, the Ottoman regime regained its strength and launched a conquest and expansion programme during the reign of Murad II (1421-1453 A.D./ 832-854 Hejira), then again under Mohamed the Conqueror (1451-1481A.D./ 854-885 Hejira). In 1453 A.D., the conquest of Constantinople put an end to the Byzantine presence in the region.

The Ottomans in Egypt

The Mameluke dynasty lasted over two and a half centuries in Egypt.  During their reign, they managed to win victory over the Mongols in Ain Jalut. However, their end came at the hands of the Ottoman Sultan 'Selim I' (1512-1520 A.D./ 920-926 Hejira) who conquered Syria in the battle of 'Marj Dabeq' north of Aleppo. The Mameluke Sultan Qonsuh 'El-Ghouri' fought valiantly and with great courage and nearly won the battle, however, the Ottomans used cannons and El Ghouri's generals on both flanks switched sides. The battle ended with the death of the Mameluke Sultan under the hooves of horses in 1516 A.D./922 Hejira.

The nephew of El Ghouri, 'Tuman Bay' took over the reign, and the battles fought in his time between the Mamelukes and the Ottomans were fierce. The decisive battle was near the valley called 'Birket El-Haj' in 1517 A.D./ 922 Hejira. While the Egyptians fought with courage, the Mameluke army was no match to the Ottoman cannons and gunpowder, which were not in their arsenal. When the Ottomans won, Tuman Bay fled to Cairo and increased the fortification of the citadel. However, his attempts were futile in the face of the Ottoman attack.

Ottoman Sultan Selim I entered Cairo in 1517 A.D./ 923 Hejira and had Tuman Bay hanged from gate Zuweila.  His death ended the Burjjeya Mameluke dynasty and ushered in the rule of the Ottomans in Egypt.

Turning Egypt into an Ottoman province and Cairo into a city taking orders from Istanbul had its effect on the artistic life of Egypt.  While the new rulers were busy amassing money, stagnation set in. Hordes of Egyptian artisans were sent to Istanbul, together with stripped marble and torn-out parts of palaces were shipped to the Ottoman capital.

The Ottomans were well known at the time for producing carpets and their effective use of marble which was liberally used in mosques, water centres (sabeel), on the floors and in creating objets d'art. They mastered the art of working on metal and engraving it with decorative calligraphy, particularly verses from the Koran.  Egyptian architecture under Ottoman rule was greatly influenced by decorating walls, domes and minarets with a veneer of glazed mosaics and tiles.

The Ottomans were not against the cultural or artistic life in Egypt or elsewhere, in fact art and architecture went on developing during their rule.

The Ottoman empire survived for six centuries and its Muslim armies conquered vast tracts of lands in south east and middle Europe. They fought the kings of Europe and drove them to Hungary, besieged Vienna, the capital of Austria and swept along the Mediterranean coast up to Asia, conquered Iraq, Syria and Egypt on the hands of Sultan Selim I and his son Suliman.

The Fall of the Ottoman Empire

Internal and external causes played a role in bringing down the Ottoman empire. There was the decline in military and fighting ability among the Janissary corps, due to their neglect of military training.  While the corps was initially considered to be their only family and indeed, they were not allowed to marry, in time, their lack of loyalty to the corps and their increasing political power rendered them a real threat to the sultans. They saw it fit to instigate coups against or kill the sultans whenever they felt threatened by them (e.g. Osman II was murdered by them in 1622, and in 1807 they deposed Sultan Selim III).

On the other hand, the sultans themselves grew weaker and their grip on the empire loosened when real power was in the hands of their viziers. 

The external factors leading to the demise of the Ottoman empire lay in the breakdown of centralized government and the challenge faced in defending it against foreign invasions. The Ottoman army was no match to the technically advanced military force of the Europeans, in spite of efforts to reorganize it. 

The Ottoman empire ended officially in 1924 A.D./ 1342 Hejira, when Mustafa Kamal Ataturk cancelled it and declared Turkey a republic within the borders it now occupies.
 

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