FATIMIDS AND THE COPTS
It is difficult to give a complete picture of the situation of the Copts under the Fatimid dynasty (972-1171). Generally speaking, the caliphs were very tolerant toward them, except during two very tense periods that even brought persecution: under al-HAKIM (996-1021) and during the reign of the last caliph, al-‘Adid. With the coming of Shirkuh and the restoration of Sunni Islam after al-‘Adid, the reign of Salah al-Din (Saladin) augured badly for the destruction of churches.
The Copts occupied many important state posts during most of the Fatimid period. This was not actually an innovation on the part of the Fatimids. When they arrived in Egypt, General Jawhar and his master, al-Mu‘izz (972-975), found Jews and Christians on different levels of the administration, and they were wise enough to change nothing in this matter. Al-‘Aziz (975-996) was the first of the Fatimids to bestow the title of vizier, and Abu al-Faraj Ya‘qub ibn Killis was the first recipient. But he had, in fact, already abandoned the Jewish religion before the Fatimids arrived in Egypt. On the contrary, the Christian ‘Isa ibn Nasturus, who held the same post from Dhu al-qa‘dah 385/December 995 until Ramadan 386/September-October 996, after being financial secretary, kept his religion. Perhaps he showed more favor than was tolerated to his fellow Christians, as was rumored to the caliph.
Whatever the cause, he was dismissed from his post, together with other Christians in official positions. Shortly afterward, however, ‘Isa was reinstalled on the intervention of al-‘Aziz’s favorite daughter, the famous Sitt al-Mulk, on condition that he pay a fine of 300,000 dinars to the Treasury. Christians occupied important posts also during the reign of al-Zahir (1021-1035). For instance, Majla ibn Nasturus was in the Diwan al-‘Abbas (usually reserved for Muslims), Abu Ghalib al- Sayfi in the Diwan al-Kharaj (al-Maqrizi, Itt‘iaz, Vol. 2, pp. 161, 163). A certain number of Copts, who had been converted by force to Islam during the persecution under al-Hakim, took advantage of the easing of their situation to come back to Christianity. But in 1025 Abu Zakariyya, a Christian who had become Muslim, was beheaded in Cairo for having returned to his former religion (al- Maqrizi, Itt‘iaz, Vol. 2, p. 136).
There seem to have been no significant changes in the situation of the Copts during the reign of al-Mustansir (1035-1094). A certain hardening of government policy toward them may have been due to the deterioration of the relationship between Constantinople and Cairo. At the beginning of the reign, a treaty with the Byzantines permitted the reconstruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Later on there were exchanges of ambassadors and gifts. But in 1055-1056, after a delegation from Baghdad had been allowed to pray in Constantinople in the name of the Abbasid caliph, the Fatimids permitted the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to be pillaged, while other churches were closed in Egypt and Syria and the JIZYAH (poll tax) was augmented.
In 1066-1067, sixty-three monks were assassinated near al-Ashmunayn. This last event, it is true, was a consequence of disorders in the region and not directly the fault of the central government.
The first vizier of al-Amir (1101-1130), al-Afdal, appointed a Christian and a Jew to the head of the Diwan al-tahqiq (office of justice) that he had just founded (1107-1108) to supervise expenditure. The Christian, Abu al-Barakat Yuhanna ibn Abi Layth, held this post until his execution in 1134. In addition, the monk Ibn Qanna played an important role at the end of the reign of al-Amir.
Under al-Hafiz (1130-1149) the anti-Armenian reaction that followed on Bahram’s fall had repercussions in the Coptic community. The new vizier, Ridwan (1138), removed many officials and revived a number of discriminatory measures against non-Muslims, such as the wearing of special clothes and the prohibition on “noble” transport. Besides Bahram, we know of other Christians in the caliph’s circle. Abu Sa‘id ibn Qurqah was one of his doctors. Having agreed to prepare poison for Hasan, al-Hafiz’s son, he was put to death and his possessions were given to his Jewish colleague. Abu Bakr al-Akhram was katib (secretary) with extensive powers. Later on, in 1146-1147, he was executed for corruption. One of the caliph’s astrologers was a Christian named Musa.
It is more difficult to assess the daily contacts of the two communities. On this matter sources are very meager. We possess some indications that in general Christians and Muslims coexisted peacefully in Fatimid Egypt. Christians and Muslims met for certain feasts. At Muslim marriages it was the custom for Copts of Isna to sing in procession before the bridegroom (Abu Salih, 1895, p. 102), while the Muslim population of Cairo took part in various rites of some Coptic feasts, for example, Epiphany and New Year.
More than once the caliphs renewed warnings against this mixing, which proved that the warnings were disregarded. For example, al-‘Aziz forbade the celebration of Epiphany in 978, as did al-Hakim in 1011. But on the New Year feast of 998, the Christian secretary ABU AL-‘ALA’ FAHD IBN IBRAHIM was present officially, while in 1025 the caliph al-Zahir was accompanied to the celebrations by his wives. He asked only that Muslims and Christians refrain from bathing together in the Nile. At certain periods, for example, at Christmas and Easter, the caliph’s palace sent gifts, among which were specially minted dinars, to the Christian officials (Al-Maqrizi, Khitat, Vol. 1, pp. 265, 494-95).
It must not be supposed, however, that the Copts enjoyed full religious liberty at the time of the Fatimids. A careful reading of the work of ABU SALIH THE ARMENIAN shows, in fact, that very few new churches were built in Egypt. The Christians had to content themselves with restoring the ones fallen into ruins, according to the famous COVENANT OF ‘UMAR. The same was true for the monasteries. It happened that one or another monastery was frequented and helped financially by a Muslim vizier or even a caliph, but these were isolated incidents (Abu Salih, 1895, pp. 62 and 89). The Copts, who at that time were far more numerous than today in Egypt, had the legal status of Dhimmis applied to them, even if the Fatimids interpreted it with a certain flexibility.
Obviously, the relationships of Fatimids and Byzantines were marked by the incessant struggle between the two empires. However, they enjoyed periods of calm when diplomacy had the upper hand. Already in 957-958, before the conquest of Egypt, al- Mu‘izz and Constantine VII had exchanged ambassadors. The caliph’s envoys were said to have brought a manuscript, entitled Al- Risalah al-Masihiyyah (“The Christian message”), in which al- Mu‘izz invited the emperor to convert to Islam. Although the tentative was unsuccessful, at least a treaty was arranged between the two sovereigns.
But when the Byzantines attacked Crete in 961, al-Mu‘izz revoked the treaty and thought of preparing an expedition to defend the island. We have two letters addressed by the caliph to the Ikhshidid amir of Egypt and to the emperor Romanus II, respectively. In the first, al-Mu‘izz asked ‘Ali al-Ikhshid to support a campaign against Crete. But it seems the expedition failed for want of a response from the amir. The island fell into the hands of the Byzantines and only in 1669, when conquered by the Ottomans, did it revert to the Muslims.
Many Cretan Muslims were taken prisoners and deported, while others were forcibly converted to Christianity. Ibn al-Athir speaks of another deputation that went to Mahdiyyah in 968. After his arrival in Egypt, al-Mu‘izz carried on the struggle against the Byzantines, but his army met with unequal results: though he managed to capture Tripoli and Beirut (975), he was repulsed before Antakiyah. The caliph, however, continued to receive envoys from Byzantium until near his death in 975.
Al-‘Aziz’s reign was marked by an almost continuous fight against the Greeks for the possession of Syria, and especially the Aleppo region. No doubt a delegation sent by Basil II in 987 managed to conclude a seven years’ truce that, among other conditions, included the liberation of their Muslim prisoners by the Byzantines and an undertaking to have the prayer in the name of the Fatimid caliph recited in the mosque of Constantinople. But little attention was paid to this truce; up to al-‘Aziz’s death, fighting went on for the possession of Aleppo, and the emperor Basil II thought it necessary to join the campaign personally. On the Fatimid side, too, an extremely well-equipped expeditionary force was prepared. A first fleet constructed on the orders of the vizier, ‘Isa ibn Nasturus, having been destroyed by fire, other boats were immediately built to replace them and sent to attack the port of Antartus (996). It was a failure. The caliph died at the head of his army at Bilbeis in October 996.
As soon as al-Zahir ascended the throne, the regent Sitt al-Mulk sent Nicephorus, the patriarch of Jerusalem, to lead an embassy to Constantinople, but it came to nothing. A fresh tentative in 1027, however, was crowned with success. The truce contained the following provisions: the reconstruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the churches that had been destroyed by al-Hakim in Egypt; the Fatimids to desist from helping Sicily against Byzantium; a Byzantine patriarch to be named at Jerusalem; the prayer to be made in the name of al-Zahir in Constantinople, where the mosque was to be reconstructed (it had been demolished after the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher); freeing of Muslim prisoners held by the Greeks; and the Byzantines not to help the Syrian opponents of the Fatimids. This truce ended in 1031, when the Byzantines supported the Syrian bedouins’ revolt against the Fatimid rule.
Relations improved under al-Mustansir. A truce was concluded in 1038 with the emperor Michael IV. This provided for the reconstruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in exchange for the liberation of 5,000 Muslim prisoners. A fresh embassy sent by Constantine IX arrived in Cairo in 1045-1046 with sumptuous gifts (there was talk of 300,000 gold dinars). The treaty of 1038 was renewed in 1048. But a new period of tension started when the emperor negotiated with the Saljuqids of Baghdad, and the prayer at Constantinople was made in the name of the sultan Toghrulbeg. This was particularly true under the empress Zoë. In revenge, al- Mustansir had the Church of the Holy Sepulcher pillaged, and he forced the Christians in Jerusalem to live in a special district.
Ambassadors were exchanged, again during the second half of the eleventh century (e.g., in 1069), but generally the contacts were not as good as under Constantine IX. The arrival of the Crusaders in the East upset the balance of forces in the region. Alliances were concluded, sometimes between Byzantines and Crusaders, and even between the Fatimids and the Crusaders against the troops of Nur al- Din (1169).
In their relationship with Christian Nubia, the Fatimids had inherited a particular situation based on the BAQT TREATY, which laid down that the king of Nubia had to pay an annual tribute to Egypt. For a long period, this tribute consisted mainly of 360 black slaves, together with animals that were unknown or rare in Egypt. Through several historians, al-Maqrizi in particular, we know that this practice continued under the Fatimids, but only intermittently.
Apart from certain periods, the government of Cairo had no means of forcing the clauses of the baqt, and the Nubians took advantage of this to reduce or interrupt their payment. But Nubian slaves were numerous in Egypt. Ibn Muyassar says there were 5,000 solely in the service of al-Mustansir’s mother (who was herself a Nubian), not to mention those serving in the army. The greater number of them were later exterminated in the terrible struggles against the Turkish elements.
Except for these events, the history of the Nubians had little connection with that of the Fatimids; at least the sources rarely mention them. A short time after General Jawhar’s arrival in Egypt, he sent an embassy to King George of Nubia, inviting him to convert to Islam or else to pay the jizyah. The sovereign chose to pay. We hear of Nubia once more during the revolt of Abu Rakwah, in al-Hakim’s times. The rebel had fled to Nubia, but was captured by the king of the country, who handed him over to the Fatimids. When the king of Nubia, Solomon, who had recently abdicated, went on pilgrimage to Aswan (1080), he was first arrested and sent to Cairo, but the vizier, Badr al-Jamali, treated him with special attention. The king died in Cairo the following year and was buried in the Monastery of Saint George.
During the Maghreb period of the dynasty, Sicily had been one of the major preoccupations of the Fatimid caliphs. When al-Mu‘izz settled in Cairo, he left his Zirid lieutenant the task of defending Sicily. This province remained under Muslim domination until the middle of the eleventh century. From that time on, weakened both by Byzantine attacks and internal divisions, it began to represent a coveted prey. The Norman, Roger I, gradually conquered the island between 1061 and 1091.
There seem to have been very friendly relationships between Fatimids and Normans under the caliphs al-Amir and al-Hafiz, and we have a certain number of documents that bear witness to this. Deterioration set in during the reigns of al-Fa’iz (1154-1160) and al-‘Adid (1160-1171), which included even Norman expeditions by sea against Lower Egypt.
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