From November 2014 to January 11, 2015, we wrote a series of articles entitled, “Heraclius”, “An Oppressed People”, “St. Samuel the Confessor”, “Administrative Division and Economic Recession”, and “Will He Rule Us”. In these articles, we tackled the conditions of Egypt during the Roman era and the conflict between the Romans and the Persians which enfeebled both parties. Likewise, we dealt with the Romans’ oppression of the Egyptians. This oppression had reached its peak. Same applied to the entirety of the Levant.
We also dealt with the war between the Persians and the Romans, the killing and imprisonment of thousands of Egyptians, as well as the ruining of about six hundred monasteries. Egyptians were subjugated by harsh treatment, high taxes, and the religious persecution which was directed toward Copts. This was made worse by the administrative division which negatively impacted the country’s cohesion.
We spoke of trade in the Arab Peninsula and the commercial relations between Egypt and the Peninsula. Amr bin al-‘As worked in trade, which is how he got to know Egypt’s entrances and exits, her roads, buildings, Roman sentries and their weapons. Many stories were told about this. Yet, all of them emphasize that Amr entered Egypt during the Romans’ tenure. He got to know about her roads, the nature of the land, the Roman sentries, their weapons, the country’s fortresses, churches and buildings.
Egyptians suffered a lot from the Melchites’ persecution. They tortured, killed, and chased thousands of Egyptians. So harsh were they that Pope Benjamin, the thirty-eighth patriarch, fled to Upper Egypt to protect the faith. He remained away from his See for about thirteen years, during ten of which Egypt was still under the Romans. These were followed by the Arab conquest. Here, it is worthy to quote Dr. William Soliman’s words, “The Egyptian Church has never forgotten her early history. At that time, Copts were terribly persecuted by the Melchites who tortured them under the cloak of Christianity. How horrific!”
At the same time, the call for Islam had already started in the Arab Peninsula. We already shed light on the geography and partitions of the Peninsula through two main divisions, namely, the Greek and Roman division, and the historians’ division. Then, we tackled some of the people’s characteristics: like literacy, knowledge of poetry and the creeds that spread therein in an article entitled, “The Arab Peninsula”.
As Islam made its debut, the first wave of migration took place, as Muslims traveled to Ethiopia. The second wave followed after Muslims had been persecuted. They also traveled to Ethiopia which king, Negus, was described by prophet Mohammed as just. The first wave occurred in the first year of Islam, during the month of Rajab. Migrants returned in Shawwal of the self-same year. It was said they were fourteen men and women. They fled from Mecca. History references assert that Muslims were well treated by Ethiopians. Yet, they stayed there for only three months after which they returned to their fatherland. Yet, as persecution increased, the second wave of migration took place. This time, eighty-three people migrated.
Muslims lived happily and peacefully in Ethiopia. They worked in trade and agriculture. They behaved decently, which made Ethiopians treat them gently. Negus protected them. Thus, they were able to practice their religious rituals. On the other hand, Quraysh did not leave them in peace. Having got to know that Muslims were welcomed by Ethiopians, Quraysh dispatched Amr bin al-‘As and Abdullah bin Rabi’ah to Negus with many presents. They asked him to deliver the migrants to their hands. Yet, he refused, thus, protecting Islam in its dawn.
Messages to Kings
After the Treaty of al-Hudaybiyyah had been made between the prophet and Quraysh, the prophet sent messages to the neighboring kings, telling them about Islam. He sent envoys like Hatib bin Abu Balta’a to Cyrus, Shuja’ bin Wahb al-Asadi to Khosrow, Dehiyya bin Khayfah to Heraclius, and Amr bin al-‘As to al-Jalandi’s sons, the princes of Oman.
The message sent to Egypt was delivered to Cyrus, the Copts’ nomarch, being a Roman civil and religious ruler. When Hatib bin Abu Balta’a reached Alexandria, he met Cyrus, and read him the message. Historians recount the dialogue that took place between Cyrus and Hatib as follows:
Cyrus: I know that your friend chose you to be his envoy. So, answer my questions.
Hatib: Ask what you wish. I shall tell you the truth.
Cyrus: What does Mohammed call for?
Hatib: To worship God only, and pray.
Cyrus: How many times do you pray?
Hatib: Five times, day and night. We fast during Ramadan. We make pilgrimages to the Kaaba. We keep our promises. And we never eat blood or any dead creature.
Cyrus: Who are his followers?
Hatib: Men from his tribe, as well as others.
Cyrus: Does he fight his people?
Cyrus: Describe him.
So, Hatib described Mohammed. Cyrus sent presents, including, Maria, her sister and their cousin, a grey mule, a grey donkey, attires made by Egyptian tailors, honey from Benha, and charity money.
The Conquest of Iraq, Egypt and the Levant
After the prophet’s death, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq took over, succeeded by Omar bin al-Khattab. Historians assert that Hatib was not the only envoy between Muslims and Cyrus, for the prophet sent him Shorahbil bin Hasna al-Kindi. Abu Bakr and Omar sent him Ka’b bin Udayy al-Tenukhi.
Before conquering Egypt, Arabs started by conquering Iraq, then the Levant. Major battles, like Yarmouk, al-Qadisiyyah, and Nahavand, took place. During the conquest of the Levant, Muslims headed toward Damascus, the capital. In return, Romans used to dispatch troops to the south of Muslim camps so that Muslims might retreat to retrieve the lands they lost. Yet, Romans could not apply such a technique to Egypt due to the difference in the nature of the land: the land of Egypt was flat, unlike that of the Levant. Another reason was that wars in the Levant enfeebled the Romans’ military power, in addition to the internal problems the Romans had in Egypt. Upon referring to a variety of manuscripts, we found that the conquest of Egypt took place as follows:
Amr bin al-‘As took caliph Omar bin al-Khattab’s permission to conquer Egypt between 18 and 19 Hijri, after which Amr entered Arish with his army on November, 640 A.D. From Arish, the army marched to Pelusium which was one of the strongest eastern fortresses during the Pharaonic era. This was on January, 641 A.D. No sooner had Cyrus heard that the Arabs reached Egypt, than he sent an army to Pelusium. Amr had already besieged Pelusium for a month. A fierce battle took place in which Amr prevailed. However, it is worthy to mention Butler’s comment on Cyrus’ stance: “Cyrus did not send that many troops to combat Amr and his army, which indicates his treason of the Roman Empire, for, as such, he helped Amr enter Egypt.” Here it is worthy to mention Cyrus’ message to Amr which we extract from “The Arab Conquest of Egypt”, “Do not attack the Copts. Count me one of them; oblige me with what you oblige them. The Copts and I have agreed on what I had pledged you of… Second, if the Romans request reconciliation, do not reconcile with them. Rather, enslave them, for they deserve it.”Yet, Amr knew, from his visits to Egypt prior the conquest, that Cyrus was against the Copts, and that he wanted to secure himself.
After that, Amr marched forward from Pelusium to Belbeis in February, passing by al-Qawaser. He was not resisted there. At Belbeis, he fought for a month until he conquered it, after which he asked the caliph for additional troops. Omar bin al-Khattab sent him four thousand sentries, which enabled Amr to conquer Belbeis in March.
Then, Amr headed toward Babylon. At that time, the first wave of supplies arrived. He marched to Heliopolis where a fierce battle took place, and the Roman troops fled to their fleet. After that Amr reached Um Dhenin where he fought the Romans and prevailed. Then, he continued marching toward Babylon fortress, which was the biggest and strongest of all. Bishop Youhanna al-Niqoussi (John of Nikiu) maintains, “For ten years, both Heraclius and Cyrus had been searching for Pope Benjamin. Then, it came to pass that the Muslim king sent a garrison with Amr bin al-‘As. So, the Muslim sentries entered Egypt quite powerfully on the twelfth of Ba’ounah, conquering some villages on their way. Being, a nomadic people, they took the mountainous route to reach Babylon fortress. They besieged the fortress for a long time: almost six or seven months. Amr asked the caliph to send him more supplies. So, he sent him four thousand sentries. He told him, “Now, you have twelve thousand sentries. They cannot be defeated by a minority!” It is said that Al-Zubayr bin al-Awwam reached Egypt, leading an army of ten or twelve thousand sentries. At that time, Cyrus and his men had fled from the palace to the island so as not to face the Muslim troops.
Having conquered Alexandria (which took him almost a year,) Amr returned to Babylon and built Fustat where he stayed. So was the story… Stories never end in Beautiful Egypt.
Head of the Coptic Orthodox Cultural Center