Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of Heliopolis (640)

The Arab conquest of Egypt was probably the first big surprise of the early Islamic period, after the Arabs’ initial military successes against the Byzantines and Persians, for a couple of reasons. First, while Egypt may be home to more Arabs than any other country in the world today, in the seventh century very few Arabs lived there, and virtually all of them were transient merchants. It was one thing for the Arabs to conquer Syria, Iraq, and the rest of the Levant, places that had already been settled by large numbers of Arabs. It was another thing for the Arabs to expand into Iran as the house of cards that was the Sasanian Empire crumbled. But expanding into Egypt was something more, and it demonstrated the scope of what the Arabs were capable of doing.

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