COPTS UNDER THE TULUNIDS AND IKHSHIDS
Under the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, the Turkish viceroy Ahmad ibn Tulun (870-884) was appointed to rule Egypt. He aimed at governing the country independently and at establishing his own dynasty, though nominally under the titular rule of the Abbasids. On assuming the reins of power in Egypt, Ibn Tulun followed a completely different policy from that of his Abbasid predecessor, ibn al-Mudabbir, whose greed had milked the country dry with excessive taxation.
Ibn Tulun, on the contrary, lifted the burden of his predecessor’s imposts from Muslims and Copts alike, who began to enjoy a breathing space from administrative pressures and could devote their energy to positive productivity. In fact, for the first time since the Ptolemies, all Egyptians, the Copts included, had a feeling of independence and local prosperity, as is evident from the rate of taxation. Under Ahmad ibn al-Mudabbir, tax revenues had reached 4.3 million dinars annually, whereas it fell to 800,000 dinars in the first year of Ibn Tulun’s reign.
Ibn Tulun favored the Turks over other Muslims and the Melchites over the Jacobite Copts. Thus, he pursued a totally different policy with the Coptic patriarch, whom he arrested and incarcerated until he received a heavy ransom, which he sorely needed to subsidize a Syrian campaign. Ibn Tulun’s policy was double-pronged—leniency with the Coptic community in general, but harshness with the patriarch and the church. His position toward the church was dictated partly by the treacherous report supplied to him by one of the bishops hostile to Anba KHA’IL III (880-907) who told Ibn Tulun that the patriarch concealed an immense treasure.
Thus, Ibn Tulun seized the patriarch and demanded the deposition of his wealth in the public treasury. After a year, two Coptic archons, Yuhanna and Ibrahim Musa, both secretaries in the Tulunid administration, succeeded in freeing the patriarch by signing a document that promised the payment of 20,000 dinars in two installments, of which the first was raised with difficulty from the Coptic community. Only the death of Ibn Tulun and the succession of his son, the more lenient Khumarawayh, relieved the patriarch of payment of the second installment.
In spite of these policies, Ibn Tulun continued to favor some segments of the Coptic community, and he used to retire to the Monastery of al-Qusayr, in the neighborhood of Hilwan, for contemplation and for consultation on his state problems with one of its monks, Andunah.
Khumarawayh was, as noted, even more lenient toward the Copts than his father, but his extravagant policies were opposed by the caliphate in Baghdad, who finally struck Egypt with an iron hand. To replace the Tulunids, the caliph appointed a new governor in the person of the Ikhshid Muhammad ibn Tughk, like Ibn Tulun, a Turk, but more docile in his relations with the Abbasid caliphate. Ikhshid rule was relatively short and marked by harsher financial treatment of Egypt, and the Copts in particular, though socially the governor shared with the Copts the celebration of their feasts.
The Muslim historian al-Mas‘udi (1861, Vol. 1, pp. 212-13) recorded that in the Epiphany evening of the year 941-942, Ibn Tughk participated with the Copts in their annual celebrations by ordering that a thousand torches be lit in addition to the Coptic torches on the Nile banks at the island of Rodah and the city of al-Fustat (Old Cairo). In the end, however, Kafur, an Abyssinian eunuch and the mentor of Ibn Tughk’s young successors, seized power, and his reign tolled the knell of the Ikhshids, from whose hands the Shi‘ite North African Fatimids were able to wrest the kingdom of Egypt.
One must remember that most of the important positions in the Islamic administration of both the Tulunids and the Ikhshids were occupied by Coptic scribes, who were mainly responsible for the finances of the country.
- Hitti, P. History of the Arabs. London, 1946. Huart, C. Histoire des arabes. 2 vols. Paris, 1912.
- Lane-Poole, S. History of Egypt in the Middle Ages. London, 1925.