Christian And Medieval Alexandria


The capital of the Ptolemies and the seat of the Roman prefect and of innumerable patriarchs, heresiarchs, and other products of Christian sectarianism, Alexandria rapidly lost its importance after the establishment of AL-FUSTAT (Cairo) as the new Muslim capital in 973. As the former capital, Alexandria, according to some, particularly P. Kahle (1921), received special treatment from its new rulers and was permitted to retain something of the status that it enjoyed in the last days of Byzantine rule.

Alexandria in the late sixth and early seventh centuries was a city where, in spite of revolts and tumultuous incidents caused by supporters of the Circus colors and others (John of Nikiou, 1883, chap. 109, sec. 15, pp. 118-19.), the imperial writ still ran; but it was a city where power lay effectively in the hands of the Augustal and a host of minor officials, and in the hands of the Melchite patriarch and his ecclesiastical officials.

Unlike in provincial towns, the mass of the Greek population had long since lost all significant organs of local self-government. That the Melchite church had in the course of time, since the Council of CHALCEDON, largely superseded the state as the instrument of effective government in the capital can be seen from the civil and legal powers assumed, clearly with the approval of Heraclius, by both John “the Almoner” informally and, in more special circumstances, by Cyrus the Muqawqas. In such a body politic the traditional organs of local government, as they had hitherto developed, counted for little.

City councillors, like legionary commanders, belonged to the limbo of pre-Justinian Egypt, and it was only in the provinces that the village headmen and their village councillors (protokometai), and the pagarchs (administrative officials) of the pagoi (districts), together with the owners of large “autopract” estates, supported the structure of bureaucratic government. Nevertheless, Alexandria did possess from the conquest onward certain privileges, notably the continued appointment of a Greek Christian civil governor, who, like his Byzantine predecessor, was called augoustalios, and in Arabic by various paraphrases, including ARCHON.

The use of the Greek title in a letter of Qurrah, dated A.H. 92/A.D. 710 (P. Lond., no. 1392) signifies that the usage continued into the Umayyad period. In terms of the Arab administration, it may even have started then. However, this appointment probably reflects more a concession to the Arab government in dealing with the still partly Greek-speaking, former capital, where the sole presence of a purely military governor from al-Fustat might lead to trouble, than a deliberate attempt to buttress the status of the city.

The real status of Alexandria differed fundamentally from that of al-Fustat, in its role in the overall control of the country and of the Arab settlements in Egypt. First and foremost, there were no true personal, tribal, or military settlements; with one exception, the formation of khittas (districts) was forbidden at Alexandria (Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, Futuh Misr, cf. Arab Conquest of Egypt, 1978, p. 130). In place of the semicivic form of life based on the khittahs that grew apace at al-Fustat—and which Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam described in detail from his own direct, firsthand knowledge, without reliance on traditions—Alexandria was a thaghr (frontier post), with billeting in available property (akha’idh), but no khittahs were allowed (al-Hakam, 1922, pp. 130-31).

The billeting system introduced by ‘Amr was based on the principle of a semestrial rotation of posting, by which troops from al-Fustat occupied their quarters for half the year, to be replaced by others at the end of that time (al-Hakam, 1922, p. 130). This military role in itself led to a form of dependence on al-Fustat, though in the Umayyad period the city was still ruled by a civic governor. In A.H. 45/A.D. 665 ‘Alqamah ibn Yazid was sent by ‘Utbah ibn Abi Sufyan, governor of Egypt, with 12,000 men to stay there permanently (al-Hakam, 1922, p. 192).

Again in the governorship of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Marwan, brother of Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik, sometime between 684 and 704, a new system was introduced by which the garrisons of both Alexandria and Khirbita, in the eastern Delta, were placed on a permanent basis, and a garrison-population of Arab tribesmen sprang up. Nevertheless, the status of Alexandria as a frontier post remained unaltered at a much later date when its commercial role had increased, and it is so called, for example, by the Arab geographers and travelers. Furthermore, even before the change from temporary to permanent garrisoning, immigrants had been brought in from Arabia under ‘Uthman (al- Hakam, 1922, pp. 123, 128; al-Baladhuri, 1932, p. 226). Thus we may say that under the Orthodox caliphs and the Umayyads the city had been both largely militarized and arabized.

As the need for an Arab Mediterranean fleet grew, Alexandria resumed its role as a shipyard, and became one of the major shipbuilding centers of the eastern Mediterranean, after Babylon and Clysma. Moreover, since the Arabs had both a dislike and an incapacity for naval operations, their navy was partly manned by Copts, who received booty and payment for their annual campaigns. The papyri yield considerable evidence of this shipbuilding and of the use of native Egyptian crews alongside of the Arabs (cf. P. Lond, Vol. IV, pp. xxxiiff.) In the reign of Mu‘awiyah, the expeditions to Cyprus (649) and to Rhodes (672; al-Baladhuri, 1932, p. 375H), and that to Sicily (651 and 669) were launched from Alexandria.

These maritime operations, unpopular as they were with the Orthodox caliphs, nevertheless laid the foundations of Muslim conquests overseas. Mu‘awiyah employed the same principle of rotating garrisons in Rhodes, in the seven years that the Muslims maintained their hold on the island, as obtained in Alexandria before the permanent garrison was installed (al-Baladhuri, 1932, p. 236). Its defensive role, on those occasions when the Byzantine fleet descended on the Delta coast and waterways, was equally vital, but the Arabs were not successful in holding off the Byzantine depredations at, for example, DUMYAT in 720 and at Tarujah, on the western edge of the Delta, in about 738.

Most of these coastal and interior cities lying on the branches and canals of the Nile had to be refortified at a later date (cf. Fahmy, 1966, pp. 139ff). In general, the presence of the permanent garrisons, as no doubt also of the maritime elements in the population, formed an inevitable source of danger to the Umayyad government, whose viceroy sat in al-Fustat, and there were not infrequent outbreaks of mutiny over pay and other issues at Alexandria in the Umayyad period.

Although the role of the city was to remain modest for several centuries until the Fatimid period and later, the development of overseas trade on a large scale gave it a new function as an entrepôt and commercial center. The impressions formed by the Arab conquerors, particularly ‘Amr himself as given in the letter to ‘Umar (al-Hakam, 1922, p. 82) describing his entry into the city, were totally devoid of reality, save in recognizing its foundation by Alexander, Dhu al-Qarnayn (or perhaps by Shaddad ibn ‘Ad). Oral and written impressions of the first settlers as chronicled were unrealistic as well.

They had little else to record but Egyptian traditions. To them the city was built of blindingly white marble, so bright that a needle, as the Traditionists love to repeat (alHakam, 1922, p. 42), could be threaded at night without the aid of moonlight. The Pharos Lighthouse, still functioning for many centuries under the Muslims, was turned into a miraculous weapon against invaders, and descriptions of such were fantasized. The city that had been built in 300 years and had stood for 300 years and had taken 300 years to destroy, had been so embellished by Cleopatra that she might be termed the second founder of the Muslim al- Iskandariyyah, a view not confined to the Muslim world. She had built the Pharos and built the canals that brought it water.

The Arabs had indeed captured from the Greco-Roman capital only the figures of Alexander himself, about whose identity they had the gravest doubts, but by whose bier Olympias and sages, named and unnamed, appropriate and inappropriate, were later to lament the passing of the conqueror of the world. They also knew of Cleopatra, Heraclius, and Cyrus the Muqawqas, but between these figures lay centuries that were blank. Thus in many ways the al-Iskandariyyah of the literature based on the traditions, as opposed to the later travelers’ records of it, was a city of the imagination only, symbolic of greatness felt, though not understood.

The Arab chroniclers created this elaborate mesh of fantasy in the absence of any true historical tradition. The reader of the Egyptian traditions must be struck by the contrast between the firsthand knowledge of al-Fustat shown by Ibn ‘Abd al- Hakam, and emphasized by the absence of isnads (traditional sources) in the description of the khittahs and the fantasies elaborated round the frontier post al-Iskandariyyah, based often on a vague and fabulous tradition.

The reality was different. Alexandria had undergone a profound transformation in the centuries of Roman and Byzantine rule. The city that had once been contained between Maryut and the sea, to the south and the north, and between Shatbi and the western harbor on the east and west, had now spread far beyond its original circuit, particularly to the east, where the city almost joined up with Nikopolis, which, when founded by Augustus, had been five miles from the center of the city.

As a result, the fortifications had come to have significance only in times of crisis, as Christian refugees had found sanctuary behind them during the Persian invasions of Palestine and Syria. These walls, according to the Arabs, were demolished by ‘Amr after the second capture of the city, but we read of them as standing or having been rebuilt later in the eighth century. It is likely that, although demolished, they were not wholly dismantled. Nor can there be doubt that the northern face of the city, the old Palaces or Brucheion area, had been so severely damaged in the first three centuries of the empire that Epiphanius could speak of that section of the city as a desert.

On the other hand, the main ridge of the city, running along the approximate line of the medial road of today, in front of the Kom al-Dikkah area, had maintained or increased its role in civic life, at a date when the Ptolemaic remains already lay meters below the late Roman street level. No very precise date can be assigned to the late Roman and Byzantine buildings, public and private, brought to light by the Polish excavations of Kom al-Dikkah.

Nevertheless, the theater-like building that seems to have formed the central point of that area was still standing at the time of the earliest Arab occupation, as revealed both by dwellings and by burial pits. There is no sign of a regular destruction level, and it looks as if the first Arab settlers camped among the buildings and in the houses they found standing in the city. To this extent, the excavations confirm the picture given by Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam that the first Arab garrison troops occupied residential quarters, which the remaining Greeks tried to take back from them (al-Hakam, 1922, pp. 130-31; al- Baladhuri, 1932, p. 222). Thus the early Arab al-Iskandariyyah probably did not differ greatly in appearance from late Byzantine Alexandria.

Nevertheless, the change of faith, and the departure of the Melchite population changed the use of religious buildings. We learn from the Futuh Misr of the names of the five early mosques of the city, including a Mosque of ‘Amr, but the location of none of these is given in such a way as to help us locate them, save that the Mosque of Dhu al-Qarnayn lay near the market and the Caesareum. More historically plausible is the information provided by Severus and Eutychius that the Melchite churches were turned into mosques.

There was no Melchite patriarch between 642 and 727, it may be noted. Of course the Monophysite churches continued, in normal circumstances, to fulfil their proper role. It is noteworthy that in his list of the mosques Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam does not include the “Mosque of Mercy” that he tells us ‘Amr dedicated at the point where the Arab forces sheathed their swords during the second conquest of the city.

An unverifiable piece of information transmitted by Futuh Misr (pp. 42-44) is that the city of Alexandria consisted of three separate sections, side by side. They were each surrounded by a wall and called respectively Manna, the area of the Pharos; al-Iskandariyyah, “the area where the citadel now is”; and Naqitah, which has been seen as an Arab reminiscence of the name of the general who won Egypt for Heraclius at the beginning of the seventh century. Some such attempt at regional division is not impossible; certainly, the names are sufficiently unusual to give them an air of historicity. In any event, the toponymy of the city in early Muslim times is largely unknown.

We may say that the city was deliberately isolated from the main stream of events by Umar’s wish to ensure the provision of vital supplies from Egypt to the Arabian peninsula. He was not concerned with the expansion, or even continuation, of Mediterranean trade. ‘Amr was forbidden by ‘Uthman to establish his headquarters at Alexandria, and was allowed to reside there only a short time. As already emphasized, the city had no khittas, having instead garrisons dependent for the first generation on the organization of al-Fustat. At the same time, the large-scale departure of the Melchite Greek merchant class meant the loss of the one element in the population able to provide commercial stability and communication with the outside world.

An inevitable consequence of the geographical position of the city was that this state of affairs could not be permanent, and that new groups would fill the gaps left by the departed Greeks. The Jews came in time to fill the role of the Greeks. In later centuries, during the Fatimid period, Jewish commercial activities are richly documented in the commercial papers found in the old Cairo Geniza studied exhaustively by S. D. Goitein in his A Mediterranean Society (Univ. of California, in press, 1987-), which have revealed a trade with the West, by land and sea, no less than with the East, based on transit via Alexandria. But in the years following the conquest, and in the Umayyad period, there is no sign of such life, and the city remained a frontier post, though at the same time its links with the Delta and the interior were maintained by the continuing care given by caliphs and governors to the canals linking the city with the Nile.

When ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Marwan, the governor of Egypt, arrived in the city in 685, an elderly Greek was able to give Marwan an eyewitness account of the capture of the city (al-Hakam, 1922, pp. 74.19-75.22). The reference serves, by its very unexpectedness, to remind us of the scanty evidence of Greeks in the population of the early Muslim city. The story presents a lively picture of the old man as a youth in his capacity as servant of a Greek patrician named Markos. He and his master, the latter richly robed and caparisoned, together rode out of the fortifications to watch the activity in the Arab camp. A single Arab horseman left a tent, saddled his horse, gave chase to them, and killed the master, while the young Greek managed to reach the safety of the walls. Other Greeks, we know, were quick to occupy untenanted parts of houses in Alexandria allotted to the Arab garrison.

A cultural vacuum set in. Even before the conquest, secular Greek culture had been at a low ebb since the time of Justinian. Few Greek authors of this late date are known, though we may note a continuing tradition in the Lives of the Saints and other works concerned with supernatural healing, such as the Miracula of Sophronius. But the Melchite church of Alexandria had no theological literature to compare with the wealth of Coptic literature known from Upper Egypt, and with the departure of most of the Melchite population, the Alexandria Library no doubt closed its doors, even though ‘Amr did not burn it down.

The next phase in the culture was found in the role played by Greek and Arabic doctors resident in Egypt, and particularly in Alexandria, who contributed to the transmission of Greek medical knowledge to Muslim lands; but the activity in this respect as compared with that in Nestorian lands is small indeed. Though Greek culture declined rapidly after the conquest, the same is not true of the Greek language itself, for it continued to be an essential language of the new bureaucracy until the eighth century. The new Islamic culture gained a slow footing in the city, which had little to attract Arab men of letters, because the whole of Arab tradition and tribal continuity and of Islam itself was placed, so far as Egypt was concerned, in the new capital at al- Fustat.

The contrast in this respect is apparent in the comparative importance of the mosques of ‘Amr at al-Fustat and at al- Iskandariyyah. The former remained the focal point of an early Muslim cult, enlarged first by Maslamah ibn Mukhallad in 674, and then rebuilt by Qurrah in 711, on the orders of the caliph Walid I; it thus became the most splendid mosque in the city. The very location of the Mosque of ‘Amr at al-Iskandariyyah seems, on the other hand, to have been almost forgotten (but cf. al-Hakam, 1922, pp. 130, 5-6). When ‘Amr himself returned to Egypt as the military governor of Mu‘awiyah a few years later it was to al-Fustat that he returned, the city he had founded in the shadow of Babylon.


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