Seminar CLXXVII: conquering Egypt by the back door

After the sudden rush of major events lately described, the regular seminars in my incredible reporting backlog resumed on 13th May 2013 with Dr Philip Booth addressing the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford with the title, “Beyond Alfred Butler’s Conquest of Egypt“. The work in question here is old enough that it’s in the Internet Archive from its initial 1902 edition but it went into a second edition in 1978 and, according to Dr Booth, is still the standard text.1 He is, however, determined to replace it because he thinks the narrative in it is much too trustingly based on the ninth-century Arabic account of Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam,2 and in this paper argued that a perspective from earlier, Christian, sources actually shows something more complicated going on.

Map of the traditional understanding of the Muslim conquest of Egypt

The story as it is usually told. “Mohammad adil-Muslim conquest of Egypt” by Mohammad Adil (talk) – who created this work entirely by himself, he says. Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The account in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, and therefore in Butler, has a big Muslim army under ‘Amr ibn al-‘As arrive in Egypt along the coast, move into the Delta and more or less sweep all before them, slowing at Alexandria and then with that under siege beginning to move south and coming up against the remaining Roman defence in Arsinoë, the modern Faiyum, more or less by accident. Against this, Dr Booth raised the Chronicle of Bishop John of Nikiu.3 Now, this is a text with problems that make the usual ones of Arab historiography look minor: Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam’s ninth-century work is known from four manuscripts, of which the two earliest are twelfth-century and all of which are thought to be derived from a single copy of the original made at an uncertain earlier date by an uncertain person, but John of Nikiu’s work, while contemporary to the events it describes in terms of its author, firstly jumps between 610 and 641 without any coverage, while the events we are interested in here started in 639, and more importantly was written in Coptic, but survives only via an Arabic abbreviation of that text which itself only survives via translation into Ethiopian in the seventeenth century, given the which perhaps it’s not surprising that only James Howard-Johnston has really tried to use it.4 Dr Booth made some attempt to plug the gap before 641 with the tenth-century Arabic History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria,5 and a small but useful myriad of papyrus charters that let us seek identities for the rather obscure names preserved in the narratives.6

Christian-period ruins at Ansinā on the Upper Nile

Images for this post have been really hard to search up. Apparently the only things from the actual settlement of Medinet el-Fayum that have ever been photographed are its modern water-wheels and a load of mummy portraits (which are both very cool but not relevant right here). At Antinoë, modern Ansinā, however, there is much less going on and so some of the Byzantine-era stuff is still standing. Hopefully this is it!

All this doesn’t do much to explain the Arab conquest of Egypt or the lack of solid Roman resistance to it, although Dr Booth made some attempt at the latter; the History says that the Muslims came to liberate the Monophysite Christian Copts from the tyranny of the Orthodox Empire, for example, which maybe is what you feel you have to say after eighty years of Muslim rule, and of course John of Nikiu as we have it enters the story long after its beginning. Nonetheless, both texts seem to agree that two armies were involved, the main force coming along the coast but also a second, fast-moving one that would have come in via marginal, undefended territory (a caravan route, according to Elizabeth Fentress in questions), crossed the Nile very far down it and routed the few Roman forces in the area. John of Nikiu opens up with these forces falling back on Arsinoë to face attack from the south and then having to retreat further up the Nile to what is now Abūīt. Only then did the Roman forces regroup to meet a threat from the north in the form of the new army of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, who therefore got ships sent down the Nile by Apa Cyrus, the Pagarch of Heracleopolis (as the papyri allow him to be identified) to bring up the cavalry force from the south, and rather than meet the Romans in the field besieged and took a fortress at Antinoë.

Recto of Oslo Pap. Inv. 1648

A papyrus fragment from Antinoë, now in Oslo, sadly from two centuries before we’re talking about but showing why this evidence is perhaps not as much used as some other sorts. Oslo Papyrus Inv. 1648.

All this seems to have been about securing roads and river routes, rather than strongpoints or the string of cities recorded in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, which Dr Booth thought helped explain the lack of Roman resistance somewhat: the Muslim forces were not only fast-moving and dangerous but not attacking the points the Romans were set up to defend. Instead they cut them off from each other and robbed them of their ability to appropriate supplies and taxes, leaving small islands of Roman jurisdiction floating but slowly sinking in a sea of now-Muslim-occupied territory. The eventual master narrative of the Arabic sources is thus quite literally after the facts here. There was some debate in questions about why anyone would write out such Muslim cunning and effectiveness, which Dr Booth thought might be about the tribal origins of the respective leaders, but he was happy that while this remained to be explained the fact that it had happened was demonstrable.7 Now, this is neither my period nor my texts nor any of my languages so I make no final call here, but I do note that the two Coptic texts’ failure to identify too strongly with the Roman cause here, explicable in terms of doctrinal conflict as has often been done, here ties up quite nicely with Petra Sijpesteijn‘s insistence that the Arabic conquest left the local community rulers and pagarchs in place for the most part; in the form of Apa Cyrus we have such a man making the immediate and presumably profitable decision to throw his lot in with the invaders.8 If he, how many others? I suspect that that kind of readiness to abandon the cause may have even more to do with the Roman collapse than cunning use of a cavalry squadron in a preliminary feint, given that it doesn’t seem actually to have drawn forces south. The problem here looks like the home front to me…9

1. Alfred J. Butler, The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last Thirty Years of Roman Dominion (Oxford 1902, 2nd edn. 1978).

2. Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, Futūh Misr, ed. Charles C. Torrey as Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, The History of the Conquest of Egypt, North Africa and Spain, known as the Futūh Misr (New York City 1922), partly transl. Torrey as “The Mohammedan Conquest of Egypt and North Africa in the years 643 to 705 A.D.” in Biblical and Semitic Studies: critical and historical essays by the members of the Semitic and Biblical Faculty of Yale University (New York City 1901), pp. 279-330, online here.

3. And, unless anyone who’s using it actually does read Ethiopic, a further step is introduced by the fact that the edition of resort is a translation into English, R. H. Charles (transl), The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu, translated from Zotenberg’s Ethiopic text (London 1916). However, that wouldn’t necessarily serve you here as Dr Booth was introducing extra details that apparently only survive in later manuscripts of a translation of the Ethiopic into Amhari!

4. In his huge Witnesses to a World Crisis: historians and histories of the Middle East in the seventh century (Oxford 2010), which it must be annoying to have people already picking holes in.

5. Severus of Al’Ashmunein (Hermopolis), History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic church of Alexandria, ed./transl. B. Evetts, Patrologia Orientalis 1, 5 & 10 (Paris 1904-1914), 4 fascicles, repr. together as Sawirus ibn al-Mukaffa’, Bishop of al-Asmunin, History of the patriarchs of the Egyptian Church, known as the History of the Holy Church (Cairo 1942).

6. Bernard P. Grenfell, Arthur S. Hunt & David G. Hogarth with J. Grafton Milne, Fayûm Towns and their Papyri (London 1900); Robert Hoyland, “New Documentary Texts and the Early Islamic State” in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies Vol. 29 (London 2006), pp. 395-416.

7. Here he cited H. Omar, “‘The Crinkly-Haired People of the Black Earth’: examining Egyptian Identities in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam’s Futūh” in P. Wood (ed.), History and Identity in the Late Antique Near East (Oxford 2013), pp. 149-167, and E. Zychowicz-Coghill, “Defining the Copts in the Conqquest of Egypt: minority representation in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam’s Futūh Misr in Robert Hoyland (ed.), Minorities in the Mediterranean and Islamic World (Princeton forthcoming).

8. Just to cite the ones that Dr Booth did, P. M. Sijpesteijn, “The Arab Conquest of Egtypt and the Beginning of Islamic Rule” in R. S. Bagnall (ed.), Egypt in the Byzantine World (Cambridge 2007), pp. 437-459; Sijpesteijn, “New Rule over Old Structures: Egypt after the Muslim Conquest” in H. Crawford (ed.)., Regime Change on the Near East and Egypt (London 2007), pp. 183-202; Sijpesteijn, “Landholding Patterns in Early Islamic Egypt” in Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 9 (Oxford 2009), pp. 120-133. One could now add eadem, Shaping a Muslim State: The World of a Mid-Eighth-Century Egyptian Official (Oxford 2013).

9. Lastly one should add P. Booth, “The Muslim Conquest of Egypt Reconsidered” in Travaux et Mémoires Vol. 17 (Paris 2013), pp. 639-670, which was still forthcoming at the point the paper was given (though presumably even then beyond the point of change).

One response to “Seminar CLXXVII: conquering Egypt by the back door

  1. “The problem here looks like the home front to me”: the problem is always the home front (to a first approximation).

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