How Did The Muslims Conquer Egypt? Beginning in 639 the foggy fate of Egypt shifted into the hands of the Muslim Rashidun
Caliphate, who stripped the land from the powerful Byzantine Empire in their ever-growing mission of expansion.
The path of conquering began back during the life of the Prophet Muhammad himself and was now steaming forward through
the Middle East with no hesitation
As of 639, Egypt had only been in the hands of the Byzantine Empire for a short decade. Previously, the territory had been seized and occupied by the Persian Sassanid Empire back in 618, and was only just reconquered under Byzantine Emperor Heraclius.
After reclaiming their Egyptian possession though, the Byzantines began to lose the Levant during the same decade as the Rashidun Caliphate wasted no time on their conquests. By December of 639, Rashidun commander, ‘Amr ibn al-’As, marched at the head of a 4,000 strong army toward the Egyptian border with only one goal – TO CONQUER!.
As the troops made their way closer and closer to their target, Caliph Umar became increasingly concerned about the odds of his men being able to take such a vast amount of land from the Byzantines with such a small army.
Unwilling to take the risk anymore, Umar had a letter sent to ‘Amr instructing him to return home with his army immediately.
The message was given to ‘Uqbah to deliver and made its way to the commander at Rafah.
Unwilling to back down and fairly certain about what would be in the letter, Amr ordered his men to speed up and told the messenger that he would open the letter when the men stopped at the end of the day.
Uqbah was completely ignorant of the contents of his message, and easily agreed to follow alongside the army until their day’s travel was done
Amr then ensured that they did not stop until they were within the Egyptian border, finally halting just outside the city of El Arish. The commander finally agreed to open the Caliph’s letter and informed his troops of the contents, asking for their thoughts on what they should do next.
As he had anticipated and strategically aimed for, the men all agreed that since they were already within the Egyptian border, there was no reason to turn back now.
Amr then sent word back to the Caliph and continued forward into El Arish on Eid al-Adha, and passed through with no resistance from the locals.
The Rashiduns eventually reached Pelusium near either the end of December or early January 640.
A two-month siege began, with the Rashidun’s determined to break down what was known as the eastern gateway to Egypt.
During the siege, a large number of Sinai Bedouins also decided to join the Rashidun cause, helping to offset any casualties accumulated by the Muslim side.
The attack dragged on until Huzaifah ibn Wala gathered an assault group that was finally able to capture the Pelusian fortress and city.
After the strong victory there, ‘Amr led his forces toward Belbeis for their next siege.
Unlike at Pelusium, the Byzantines here put up a significant fight against the invading Arabs.
Cyrus, the governor of Egypt and Patriarch of Alexandria, even attempted to negotiate a deal with the Muslims in order to solve the dispute more peacefully.
Amr agreed to negotiate, and Cyprus was then joined by two monks and Aretion,a famous Roman general from Jerusalem.
The talks resulted in ‘Amr demanding that the Byzantines convert to Islam and pay a jizya yearly tax, or he would continue the siege.
Cyrus first asked for three days to consider the deal, then requested an extension of two more days, after which he had decided it would be best to surrender.
Unwilling to support the governor’s decision, Aretion and the monks announced their refusal to agree to ‘Amr’s deal and kicked off
the battle once again.
The Byzantines were shortly defeated and General Aretion was killed during the end of conflicts.
The Rashidun’s attempted to win over the local Egyptian population following their victory over the Byzantine forces, but the Egyptians refused to hand over the city.
The Muslims were forced to continue their siege yet again until they were finally able to capture Belbeis in March of 640.
Next, the Arab commander set his sights on Babylon. During the previous battle, when Cyrus had been betrayed by his men who
refused to surrender, he had fled back to his palace in Babylon, where the Muslims were now looking to annex only two months later.
This time though, ‘Amr and his men were incredibly outnumbered, and Babylon was a highly fortified city with a gigantic fort standing at roughly 18 meters high and over 2 meters thick.
The Byzantines were now prepared for a siege and began to push off any attempts made by the arabs to drive forward and break down the fort.
By July, ‘Amr recognized that the battle was at a standstill for his side and sent a message to Caliph ‘Umar for reinforcements, which the caliph had thankfully already sent out by the time the letter arrived. 4,000 new men, many having fought successfully during the Syrian campaign, and commanded by Zubair ibn al-Awam, who was once a part of the famed Khalid ibn Walid’s elite mobile guard, arrived in Babylon to assist the siege.
But still, the Arabs were struggling to make any progress against the Romans. Contrarily, in July, the Muslims did find success at the Battle of Heliopolis, which stood about 10 miles from Babylon.
Fearing that the Byzantine troops from Heliopolis could attack their men while they were preoccupied in Babylon, ‘Amr and Zubair decided to proactively attack the unexpecting city, temporarily shifting focus from their main target.
An initial cavalry scuffle proved only partially successful, as the Rashidun men were able to capture a fortress in modern-day Cairo. Keeping the momentum going, Zubair took a handful of his men to the walls of Heliopolis, where they scaled the fortifications and clashed with the guards.
The Muslim forces eventually claimed victory and opened the city gates for the rest of their men to enter.
After fully securing Heliopolis, The Arab commanders turned back to Babylon so they could finish the ongoing siege once and for all.
A mere month later, the caliph sent another 4,000 strong reinforcements. The 4,000 men were split into four columns.
When they arrived at Babylon in September, the Rashidun forces in total now numbered 12,000, and the battle began to intensify. Meanwhile, the Byzantines at Fayoum got word of the Rashidun victory at the Battle of Heliopolis and abruptly abandoned their posts, providing no warning to the citizens as to what they were doing, and affording Amr the opportunity of sending some of his troops across the Nile to capture both the cities of Fayoum and About, which the Byzantines had also fled.
The Muslims occupied the cities with no difficulty, allowing for no distraction from the siege back in Babylon, where a new strategy had been taken up.
The Byzantines had begun to push forward toward the Rashiduns, taking a more offensive approach, which proved to be a severe mistake.
During one of these assaults, the Muslim troops encircled the Byzantines and struck back from three flanks, causing serious damage and casualties, and forcing the Byzantines to retreat back to their fort and forgo further offensive action.
The siege now moved into negotiations with Cyrus of Alexandria once again, and ‘Amr personally met with the Byzantine general Theodorus.
Negotiations made no valid progress and the Arabs grew tired of how long the siege was dragging on.
Finally, on December 20th, under the cover of night, Zubair led a hand-picked group of troops straight to the city walls, just as he had done in Heliopolis, and proceeded to follow the same plan as before. By no surprise, Zubair was again able to scale the walls with his men, overpower the guards, and open the city gates for the rest of the Rashidun army.
Two days later, Cyrus recognized that there was little left for him to do, and agreed to a peace deal with the Muslims that would surrender all of Egypt to Caliph Umar.
Cyrus assured ‘Amr and Zubair that if the Byzantine emperor, Heraclius, refused to ratify the treaty, he himself would uphold the deal, as would all of the Coptic locals who were under his authority as High Priest of the Coptic Church.
As was expected, Heraclius immediately refused to ratify the treaty and stripped Cyrus of his viceroyship as punishment for such a preposterous proposal.
The emperor then ordered his commander-in-chief to rid Egypt of the Muslims promptly.
Cyrus then informed ‘Amr of the new developments and once again promised his loyalty, under the terms that the Rashiduns honor their side of the agreement with him and the Copts, and that if the Byzantines attempt to make peace after conflict, the Muslims must refuse and instead take the men as prisoners.
The Rashiduns now turned to the city of Alexandria, where they wished to end any Roman attempts to drive them out of Egypt.
The Byzantines attempted to push the Muslims back on their way to Alexandria, but they were slowly forced further and further toward the city.
By March of 641, the battle reached Alexandria and the conflict remained an intense back and forth until another Rashidun commander, ‘Ubaidah, finally launched a successful incursion leading to the seizure of the city once and for all. Cyrus subsequently sued for peace on behalf of the Egyptian people, and the Muslims agreed without delay.
Having finally pried Egypt from the Byzantine’s grasp, the Rashiduns would continue on their conquests further into Northern Africa, becoming a quickly rising power that was nowhere near done threatening the strength of Byzantium and anyone else in their way.
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