MAMLUKS AND THE COPTS
Under the rule of the Mamluk dynasty (1250-1517), the Copts were protected by their skill in handling taxation and state finances. Occasionally, as a political subterfuge, the Mamluk sultans dismissed them from office for their refusal to convert to Islam, but Copts were soon again employed to save the state from the resulting confusion in tax operations and civil administration. Another factor in the survival of the Copts and their churches was the relationship with Ethiopia: the emperors, who were of Coptic profession, interceded on behalf of the Copts at the sultan’s court, promising to protect the Muslim mosques in Abyssinia.
In fact, after the discomfiture of the Crusade of Louis IX of France at al-Mansurah and the accession of the Mamluk sultan Aybak (1250) to the vacant Ayyubid throne, the new potentate employed a Copt by the name of Sharaf al-Din Hibat-Allah ibn Sa’id al-Fa’izi as his vizier. He had powers in the administration of the country and could concentrate on the regulation of the taxation system at a time when the sultan’s treasury was in need of funds.
The new vizier, according to al-MAQRIZI, devised a new supplementary tax as “the right of the Sultanate” over and above the normal tax imposed by his predecessors. Its results, though detrimental to Muslims and Copts alike, filled the sultan’s treasury with the sorely needed funds.
One of Aybak’s successors, Qutruz (1259-1260), continued to levy additional taxes for his campaign in Syria. Qutruz was assassinated, and when Baybars (1260-1277) took over, he revoked all taxes. Peace returned to Egypt.
Later, according to the Christian chronicler al-Mufaddal ibn Abi al-Fada’il, on Baybars’s return from an expensive campaign in Syria, the sultan aimed at extorting additional funds from all DHIMMIS, as non-Muslims were called.
He threatened them with burning, and he ordered a large ditch to be dug below the citadel in Cairo and filled it with flammable material in readiness for punishment. (The reason for menacing the Dhimmis with burning was that they had been accused of starting fires in several districts of Cairo as an act of vengeance for the role of the Muslim mob in the destruction of Christian churches [Glubb, 1973, p. 211].) At this juncture, they were saved only by the emergence of a solitary Coptic monk named Bulus al-Habis, who had reputedly discovered the hidden treasure of the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim in a cave and used the money for the relief of the poor and the needy, irrespective of their religion. He ransomed the menaced Dhimmis with 500,000 dinars, to be paid in annual installments of 50,000 dinars, of which the first was paid on the spot (Tajir, 1951, pp. 174-76).
In the meantime, all the Coptic employees in the offices of war and taxation were dismissed and replaced by Muslims, who were not equipped with the requisite skills. In addition, the prosperous DAYR AL-KHANDAQ, outside Cairo in the neighborhood of the gate of Bab al-Futuh, was ordered to be destroyed. But soon Sultan Qalawun and his son al-Ashraf Khalil found that their administration was in a shambles, and both were constrained to reappoint the Copts, to set things aright. Al-Maqrizi said that the returned Copts abused Muslim subjects, and he gave a case in point, about a Copt by the name of ‘Ayn al-Ghazal, whose treatment of a Muslim broker precipitated the wrath of the public and the Mamluk amirs Baydarah and Sinjar al-Shuja‘i.
Ultimately both amirs dismissed the Copts from their service and requested other amirs to do the same, while Coptic residences were stormed and pillaged by the angry populace. Alarmed by this outbreak of lawlessness, the sultan was constrained to use military force to end the havoc. Nevertheless, a decree was issued for the retention of Copts in office only if they converted to Islam; otherwise, they would risk decapitation (Glubb, 1973, pp. 189-90).
According to one story, a Maghribi vizier who was on a pilgrimage was passing through Cairo in the year 1301 and happened to observe a richly dressed horseman surrounded by natives who were pleading with him for something and kissing his boots while he ignored them. He was told that the man was a Copt. Consequently the Maghribi vizier approached Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun to protest against Muslim humiliation by Christians.
Consequently, the Mamluk amirs who were present, among them the powerful Baybars al-Jashankir, ordered the Copts to wear the blue turban instead of the white, and the Jews the yellow, to distinguish them from Muslims (Glubb, 1973, pp. 189-90). The Copts also had to wear a certain belt. Moreover, the churches in Cairo were closed for a short period, and those in Alexandria, together with Coptic residences, were attacked by mobs.
In 1303, Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun and the amir Baybars al-Jashankir suppressed the annual celebration of the FEAST OF THE MARTYR, which was a holy day among the Copts. The authorities even went to the Martyr’s Church in Shubra and seized the box containing the famous relic of the martyr’s finger, which the Copts used to dip in the Nile to ensure the river’s annual flooding. They burned it and cast the ashes in the Nile.
But the most calamitous and destructive movement against the Christian churches came to pass in 1320 and subsequent years. This time, the storming of churches was general and could have been carried out only with careful maneuvering and conspiratorial preparation. The destruction of churches was apparently carried out at the same time, after the Friday prayers, from Cairo, Alexandria, and Damietta in Lower Egypt to QUS in Upper Egypt.
It seems that the authorities were taken by surprise by this movement and could not do much to stop it. While the sultan was alarmed at the extent of what happened, apparently some monks wanted to avenge this calamity with another—the burning of Cairo. Naphtha and sulfur were used to start fires in a number of Cairene districts, and a wind spread the flames far and wide, leaving hundreds of houses ruined. All attempts to stop the creeping destruction failed.
As the fire subsided, the authorities summoned the leaders of the various religious communities, including the Coptic and Melchite patriarchs, the Karaite rabbis, and numerous others to review these tragic events and to renew the COVENANT OF ‘UMAR, to reaffirm the rightful position of minorities. However, under the year A.H. 852/1448, the annalist al-Sakhawi stated that no church in Egypt escaped some destruction (al-Sakhawi, 1897, p. 36; Tajir, 1951, pp. 184-94). In sum, these events left an indelible mark on Cairo and Coptic religious foundations throughout the country.
- Glubb, J. Soldiers of Fortune: The Story of the Mamlukes. New York, 1973.
- Heyd, W. Histoire du commerce du Levant au moyen âge, 2 vols. Amsterdam, 1959.
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- Tajir, Jak. Aqbat wa-Muslimun Mundhu al-Fath al-Arabi ila ‘am. Cairo, 1951.
- Weit, G. “L’Egypte arabe.” In Histoire de la nation égyptienne, 7 vols., ed. G. Hanotaux. Paris, 1931-1940.
- Zellersteen, A. Beiträge zur Geschichte der Mamluken-sultanen in den Jahren 690-741. Leiden, 1919.
AZIZ S. ATIYA