Persians In Egypt


The last great clash between the Eastern and the Sassanid empire (602-628), begun by Chosroes II Parvez (590-628) against Phocas (602-610) and continued against Heraclius (610-634), at first brought brilliant successes to the Sassanids. The culmination was the conquest of Egypt with its Byzantine administrative districts: Aegyptos, Augustamnike, Arkadia, and the Thebaid. Never before had the Sassanids, as heirs of Achaemenid rule, been so close to emulating their great ancestors in territorial expansion.

But thrust was followed by counterthrust. After intensive preparations, Heraclius launched a counteroffensive in 622 that the Sassanids, weakened by years of offensive campaigns, could not resist for long. The fall of Chosroes II and a peace treaty dictated by the conquerors brought the war to an end. The decisive event that had ensured the success of the Persians was the capture of Alexandria. A Syrian chronicle assigns it to June 619 (Chronica minora, II, ed. Brooks, p. 146, ll. 25-27).

This date agrees with the evidence of a Greek papyrus document from Oxyrhynchus that, together with the statement of the Byzantine imperial year, points to 5 July 619 as a terminus post quem for the arrival of the Persians there (Papyri Iandanae 3.49). The conquest of Alexandria or those of Alexandria and the whole chora are dated too early in the following sources: al-Tabari, Annales, ed. de Goeje, Vol. 1, p. 1002, ll. 9-12; Theophanes, Chronographia, ed. de Boor, p. 301, ll. 8-11; Agapius, universalis, ed. Cheikho, p. 331, ll. 16-17; Michael the Syrian, ed. Chabot, p. 404, center col. ll. 13-19; Barhebraeus, Chronicon Syriacum, ed. Bedjan, p. 94, ll. 25-27.

The conquest of Alexandria was by ventures into Lower Egypt that aimed at securing areas of strategic importance. Nikiou and Babylon are mentioned (Theodorus of Paphos, in van den Ven, 1953, p. 81, ll. 10-14; cf. p. 103). The conquest also acted as a deterrent and served to acquire booty. The beginning of these actions should be placed probably in 619 or even 618. Already in Pelusion (Arabic, al-Frm’; see Amélineau, 1893, 317-18), the “key to Egypt,” churches and monasteries had been destroyed by the invading Persians (Churches . . . 1895, p. 71, l. 22; p. 72, l. 4).

Not far from Alexandria, Sassanid troops attacked a group of prosperous monasteries, murdered the monks (save a few who could save themselves), carried off goods and chattels as spoil, and reduced the monastic to rubble and ashes. Other sites in the Delta region were laid waste as the Persian conquerors plundered, destroyed, and murdered (Sawirus, 2. 485-87). The “monastery of Canopus” (Canopus is the conjecture of Evetts) escaped only because of its special location.

Alexandria was taken by treachery. A Christian Arab in the city who came from the Sassanid-controlled northeast coast of Arabia advised the Persians, who were encamped to the west, in front of the city, to resort to a ruse. The conquerors followed his advice. Dressed as native fishermen, a few Persians made their way at dawn from the great harbor on the canal that flowed through the eastern section of the city and so gained entry.

They disembarked and hastened along the main street, which ran from east to west, and took the sentries at the west gate of the city by surprise. Thus the Sassanids became masters of the city. The booty was immense, particularly as great numbers of ships laden with treasure belonging to the church and to the city dignitaries had set off in flight, only to be blown back by an unfavorable wind. Along with the keys of the city, the treasure was sent to Yazden, the minister of finance responsible for such matters, and through him to the king of kings.

The Persian army commander (his name unknown) triumphantly erected a palace, which was still standing in the time of SAWIRUS IBN AL-MUQAFFA‘ (the tenth century). The memory of its origin was kept strikingly alive by the Alexandrians, who called it Qasr Farisi (Persian Castle). To secure what had been won, but even more, to prevent at the outset any uprising by the Alexandrians, the army commander resorted to brutal methods. Under the proclamation of allocation of money, he contrived to in front of the city every man between the ages of eighteen and fifty years, in order that their names might be recorded. When they were all present, they were surrounded by Persian soldiers and massacred.

Among the notable personalities who managed to flee Alexandria were the two most important representatives of the emperor: the praefectus augustalis and dux, Nicetas, the civil and head of the administrative district of Aegyptos, and the acting patriarch of the Chalcedonian church of Egypt, John III Eleemon, who had been in office since 610. Both fled by boat and arrived in Rhodes. From there John went to Cyprus and died in his native city, Amathus, on 11 November 619. (Leontios of Neapolis, ed. Festugière, p. 402, l. 22, and p. 405, l. 14; ed. Gelzer, p. 90, l. 25, and p. 103, l. 7; for the date of death see Grumel, 1958, p. 443).

After the capture of Alexandria the Sassanids advanced farther into the country. Egypt was taken possession of by the Persians as far as the southern border of the Thebaid, which separated Byzantine territory from the most northerly of the three Nubian kingdoms. They may have gone beyond these boundaries. A terminus ante quem for the arrival of the Persian troops in the region of Oxyrhynchus is provided by a papyrus document from that site. Entries on supplies “on account of the Persians” in March/April 621 indicate that at this time Persian rule can be considered established (The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Vol. 16).

As the Persians advanced, the bloody actions that demonstrated their power continued, particularly against prosperous monasteries. Utilizing information he had received in Nikiou that familiarized him with certain localities, the army commander ordered his Sassanid troops to surround an eremite settlement protected by fortified and to murder all the monks attached to it. The sorrow of a particular family is brought to light by a Greek papyrus. The father of a family who had fled before the Persians to Arsinoë (Krokodilonpolis) in the Fayyum writes to his master that the Persians had abducted him from his home, subjected him to torture that rendered him unconscious, and in his defenseless condition had robbed him of his children. He had escaped only by the skin of his teeth (Papyri russischer und geor-gischer Sammlungen, Vol. 4, pp. 99-105).

The news of what the Sassanid army was perpetrating sped ahead of it. Impressed by what he had heard, PISENTIUS, bishop of Coptos, resolved not to await the arrival of the conquerors. With his disciple (and biographer) John he abandoned his bishop’s seat, sought refuge in Djeme, and later joined the community of Epiphanius in western Thebes. A Coptic papyrus letter from the in western Thebes expressly naming the Persians mirrors the same voice of panic. The woman who sent it conveys the terror felt throughout this area of Upper Egypt in the face of the advancing forces (Crum in Winlock, 1926, Vol. 2, no. 433).

The completed occupation of Thebes (Ne) is presupposed in another Coptic letter written on a potsherd from the monastery of Epiphanius (Crum in Winlock, no. 324). The writer of this letter refers to someone called “(the) Persian that is in Ne,” presumably “the chief official installed by the Persians at Thebes.” One can read of the sorrow of a widow from the area of Djeme in a Coptic letter written on a fragment of sandstone, which the widow had directed to Pisentius, bishop of Hermonthis.

The Persians had murdered her son; they had robbed her of well-nigh all her livestock. Now she is unable to pay her taxes, and as a result, is in serious danger of being evicted from her home. She earnestly beseeches the bishop to help her (Drescher, 1946). In a Coptic papyrus from the Hermopolite, several villagers addressed their lord, whose name is obviously Persian, promising to deliver a fixed quantity of after fourteen days and swearing to fulfill their promise “by God and the well- being of the king of kings.” The date corresponds to 8 November 625. A Coptic letter on a potsherd from Thebes shows that a man and his family were fleeing before the Persians.

There are more witnesses of the same kind. A Greek papyrus document from a later period concerns the arrival of the Persians in Apollonopolis Magale, Idfu. The numerous Middle Persian papyrus documents from Egypt, by their language and script, as well as their use of the Zoroastrian calendar, testify to the presence of Persian occupying forces. One of these Middle Persian texts enumerates the places that had Persian installations (and presumably were army centers): Elephantine, Herakleia, Oxyrhynchus, Kynon, Theodosiopolis, Hermopolis, Antinoopolis, Kosson, Lykos, Diospolis, and Maximianopolis.

It is not clear how the affairs of the Coptic church were conducted during the Persian incursion and in the period of occupation. It is reported of the Andronicus that by the time he died (622), he had experienced and witnessed great suffering as a result of the Persian invasion. His successor was Benjamin I, whose period of office lasted throughout the Persian occupation and extended well beyond it (Sawirus, 2. 486-487).

The conquerors evidently meddled in the administrative affairs of the Coptic church. The vacant of Latopolis (Isna) was taken over by the bishop of Hermonthis on the order of the Coptic patriarch, because the Persians did not permit the of new bishops. It appears that after the initial phase of the country’s conquest and possession, which was characterized by the lust for spoils as well as the endeavor to counter violently the forces of resistance, the Sassanids changed their policy to one of moderation and diplomacy, and to a certain extent arrived at a working arrangement with the population and the established customs of the land. One of the conditions of the peace treaty concluded by the victorious Heraclius with Chosroes’ successor, Kavad II Seroe, was the withdrawal of the Persian occupation forces from Egypt. Kavad’s period of reign was 25 February 628-September 628. The Persian troops left Alexandria in June 629. After more than a decade of the presence of Persian troops, Egypt once more became part of the Eastern Roman empire.


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