The Arab conquest of Egypt was probably the first big surprise of the early Islamic period after the Arabs’ initial military successes against the Romans and Persians, for a couple of reasons. First, while Egypt may hold more Arabs than any other country in the world today, in the seventh century it held very few, and virtually all of those 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. But Egypt was real expansion beyond those places, so its capture demonstrated the real scope of what the Arabs were capable of doing.
Second, after the Arabs took Syria and destroyed the decaying Persian Empire, the Romans seem to have felt like that would be it for a while, like they might now have time to regroup. Surely it would take these Arabs a little while to pacify and consolidate their huge initial gains, right? We should finally have a chance to recover from the plague and the big war with the Persians, and then we’ll see how tough these Arabs really are when confronted with a genuine Roman army that’s had time to train and prepare for the confrontation.
Yeah. So…funny story. We don’t have great sources for the Arab conquest of Egypt–we don’t have great sources for the Arab conquests of Syria and Iraq/Persia either, really, but it’s worse in this case. But we do know that the conquest of Egypt happened a lot sooner than the Romans thought it would, and that’s in part due to one Arab commander: Amr ibn al-ʿAs (d. ~664). As was the case with another famous early Muslim general, Khalid ibn al-Walid, Amr was a Meccan who initially fought against Muhammad and his followers before eventually joining the cause in 629 (he and Khalid supposedly went to Medina and accepted Muhammad’s message at the same time). He’s said to have led the “conversion” (I hesitate to use that word because Islam was still coming together as a distinct religion in this period, but oh well) of Oman and then governed that region for a short time. Eventually, he joined the Arab armies that invaded Syria and Palestine–he was present, for example, at the Battle of Yarmouk in 636.
In 639, as the Arabs were still picking through the remnants of the Persian Empire, we’re told that Amr asked the Caliph Umar (d. 644) for permission to lead a ~4000 man army into Egypt. Egypt, like most of the rest of the Roman Empire, had been devastated by two major recent events: the 6th century outbreak of plague and the 602-628 war with Persia, including the brief Persian conquest of the area and the subsequent reimposition of Roman authority. The war was devastating for obvious reasons, but the return of Byzantine control also hurt because, for that brief period under the Persians, Egypt’s miaphysite Coptic Christians had actually experienced more religious freedom than they were permitted under the orthodox Byzantines. These people were not exactly thrilled to see the war end with a Roman victory. And the Romans were not ready to defend the place against another invasion, busy as they were trying to beat the Copts back into happy submission to Constantinople.
One thing that seems to come through in the histories of the Egyptian conquest, spotty as they are, is that Amr was familiar with Egypt to some degree. Again, unlike Syria or Iraq, genuine Arab knowledge of Egypt would likely have been hard to come by, but it’s possible then that Amr knew how unsettled the province was. He certainly knew how rich Egypt was (the Nile Valley was still the breadbasket of the Roman Empire at this point), so he was apparently able to convince Umar to OK an incursion despite the caliph’s apparent concerns. The size of his army raises questions about whether Amr was supposed to conquer Egypt or simply raid it and maybe establish a foothold that the Arabs could later exploit, but I suppose those questions are kind of irrelevant at this point.
There’s also a story that Umar changed his mind about the invasion and sent a messenger to Amr carrying a letter ordering him to turn back–unless, that is, he’d already invaded Egypt by the time he read the letter. Amr, in this tale, has not yet invaded, but realizes what’s in the letter and makes the messenger accompany him as he leads his army into Egypt and then reads the letter. This seems like a legend, but since it’s one that doesn’t make Umar look great in hindsight I guess it’s possible that there’s a kernel of truth to it. It’s funny, anyway. The invasion now a fait accompli, Umar sent Amr around 12,000 men as reinforcements, which gave his small beachhead force the chance to really do some conquering. Amr’s force did some raiding through the Egyptian countryside until the reinforcements arrived in early June and camped before the city of Heliopolis, where Amr met them and combined the two forces.
Heliopolis was located roughly where Cairo is today–that city’s Ayn Shams suburb is built atop its ruins. One of the funny things about Cairo is that while it was only founded in 969, its site has been the location of important cities going all the way back to predynastic Egypt–first Heliopolis, later the nearby fortress at Babylon, and then Fustat, the garrison city later founded by Amr as the new provincial capital. All of those places are now part of modern Cairo. Heliopolis wasn’t so important by this point (Babylon, however, was, and that was probably the Arabs’ main target), but Amr decided to make it his temporary base because it was a defensible position with good access to water. It’s here that a ~20,000 man Roman army under the command of a general named Theodore decided, for reasons that don’t make a whole lot of sense in hindsight, to meet the Arabs in the open field.
Theodore, it seems to me, had no reason to do this. Amr’s army wasn’t well equipped for sieges and it could have been vulnerable to a Fabian strategy: harass the invaders from your well-fortified garrisons, hoard food inside those garrisons to deny it to the enemy army, then eventually make a major attack on a hungry, exhausted opponent. Theodore opted not to go that route. Worse, it seems he may have missed opportunities to attack Amr’s smaller force before it met up with those reinforcements at Heliopolis. But maybe he was relying on the fact that his army still outnumbered the combined Arab army to carry the day. Unfortunately, he was wrong, in large part because Amr thoroughly outclassed him as a battlefield commander.
The night before the battle, Amr sent a small cavalry force to hide in nearby hills, with instructions to hit the Roman flank or rear once the battle started. He sent another detachment south to catch the Romans in retreat. This all worked pretty much to perfection. The first detachment took the Romans completely by surprise and forced them to attempt an orderly retreat toward Babylon, while the second detachment ambushed them during the retreat and turned it into a rout. Almost the entire Roman force was killed or captured.
Without going too far beyond today’s topic, Egypt’s conquest at this point was probably inevitable. Babylon was able to hold out for a while–Amr’s army wasn’t equipped for a siege, remember–and capturing Alexandria took a while longer, but the Romans had just lost a 20,000 man army in one shot and, conditions being what they were in the empire at this point, they were unable to raise another force large enough to potentially defend and/or retake Egypt. Amr became governor of Egypt, founding that new capital city, Fustat, near the site of Heliopolis and Babylon (Amr wanted to govern from Alexandria but apparently Umar ordered him to base himself on the eastern side of the Nile). He lost his gig in 644, when Umar died and the new caliph, Uthman, appointed a close buddy to the job, but he got it back in 658 as a reward for backing Muʿawiyah during the First Fitna.
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