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Egypt under the Caliphate

As much as Egypt’s administrative machinery is concerned, it was one of the greatest Islamic provinces governed by a viceroy appointed by the Caliph. As for its boundaries, Egypt comprised Upper and Lower Egypt at the beginning of the Arab conquest. Later, Nubia, Sinai and Northern Hijaz were ceded and in 765 Barca was annexed. The governor was appointed over all the above mentioned territories during the reign of the Orthodox and Ommeyade Caliphs, while he was appointed over a part of it in the time of the Abbassids.

– The Authority of the Governor

The governor was almost independent, but used to consult the Caliph on thorny problems. During the Abbassid rule, the governors were never kept in their province for any length of time; consequently, many never attempted to do any beneficial reforms. The governor was the administrative and military head of the province; since he represented the Caliph in governing the province. By virtue of his office, he led prayers and delivered the Friday oration (Khutba). He used as well to supervise the collection of the land taxes, command the army and look after the police. The Kharaj was later taken out his hands and was entrusted to a functionary appointed directly by the Caliph. Under the Ommeyades, all the governors were Arabs, among whom where the sons and the brothers of the sovereigns. In the second half of the Abbassid Dynasty, the Turkish generals interfered in the civil affairs of the Empire and enforced their will. So, the caliphs used to choose governors from among those who preferred to stay at Baghdad –near the caliphs– to gain their satisfaction and sympathy and sent deputies to govern Egypt on their behalf. No sooner did anyone of them settle in the province than he was removed, since the average period of governing Egypt did not exceed two years. The outcome of this short sighted policy was the prevalence of chaos and turbulence. Thus, the internal condition of Egypt went from bad to worse.

– Administration

The Arabs divided the country into Upper and Lower Egypt, and left the tiny administrative parts as they had been in the time of the Romans. They divided each district into villages and each village into sections. Fustat, founded by Amr Ibn Al-Aas was the capital and the seat of government in the days of the Orthodox and Ommeyade caliphs. When Saleh Ibn Ali Abbassi came to Egypt, he built a new metropolis called Al-Askar in which he constructed the palace of the governor which remained a residence for the Abbassid governors till Ahmed Ibn Tulun came to Egypt and built El-Katai to be the chief town in Egypt.

– The Functionaries

The Functionaries (the administrative and financial officials) were appointed by the governor. Whenever a post occupied by a Roman became vacant, it was given to a Copt, thus the number of the Copt officials multiplied.

   – Saheb ul Kharaj

Saheb ul Kharaj was the head of the board of land-tax which was in the nature of a Department of Finance. He was one of the greatest functionaries. His duty lay in imposing and levying taxes; in paying the expenses of the administration and the salaries of the soldiers, then sending the remainder to the treasury of the central government. The governor, at times, entrusted him with the administration of this diwan, but the caliph generally entrusted it to another official. Thus the governor ran the province politically while the Saheb ul Kharaj did it financially. This state of affairs frequently led to strife and rivalry between them.

    – The Judge

Justices was administrated by civil judges who were appointed by the Caliph and were independent of the governors. Omar was the first ruler in Islam to fix salaries for his judges. The administration of justice was perfectly equal. Justice had two characteristics during the Ommeyades rule. Firstly, the judge ruled through the law from the Koran and the Sunna. Secondly, justice was not affected by politics: since judges were independent of the governing class, their judgment was obeyed by the governing class and by the governor. Muslims were left to the judges who looked into secular and spiritual cases as well as crimes. The Zimmis (non-Muslims), on the other hand, were left to the decision of their religious heads or magistrates.

   – The Saheb-ush-Shurta

Each city had its own special police called ‘Shurta’ under a chief who was designated the Saheb-ush-Shurta to whom was entrusted the protection of the people and the property of the citizens, the safeguarding of public security and the arrest of the criminals.

  – The Muhtasib

The Muhtasib was both superintendent of the markets and a public censor. He went to the city daily accompanied by a detachment of subordinates to inspect the provisions, test the weights and measures used by merchants; and suppressed nuisances. Any attempt to cheat led to immediate punishment.

 – The Army

The army was commanded by the governor in wartime. Occupying commodious barracks, the soldiers were placed at all the important points and received fixed pay. At first, the soldiers were forbidden to work at agriculture lest they should lose their military qualities. In the days of the Ommeyades, they were recruited from the Arabs. The Arabs received their pay from the Diwan ul Aata (Donation Office) which was charged with the payment of the regular troops until the reign of the Abbassids when the Persians and the Turks were recruited with the Arabs. When Mutasim ascended the throne, he ordered that the payment of the Arab soldiers should be stopped and be given to the Turks. This caused the dissolution of the Arab army.

 The Arab Settlement in Egypt

Amr Ibn Al-Aas wanted to make Alexandria the seat of the government; so he asked the Caliph’s permission but he was ordered to select a more central position, because Alexandria was liable to be cut off by the Nile inundation from land communication with El Medina, then the seat of Caliphate . When Amr Ibn Al-Aas built Fustat, the Arab tribes which took part in the conquest of Egypt dwelt in the new metropolis. When Al-Ma’mun came to Egypt and crushed the turbulence spreading at that time he allowed the Arab soldiers to live in the villages and the Arabs were permitted to migrate to Egypt. A large number of the Kais tribe descended at Wadi Hoaf, on the eastern bank of the Nile.

– Al-Fustat

Amr Iban El-As chose the plain close to the fortress of Babylon, to build the new arab capital in Egypt. Here he built his mosque which still stands though repeatedly altered or restored and here he began and foundation of the city which he called El Fustat which remained the capital of Egypt for more than three centuries, until El Kahira (Cairo) was founded close by 969. The new capital spread rapidly and soon became one of the chief cities of the Mohamedan Empire. The houses were at first of one storey but later they grew bigger and higher until some of them consisted of five stories.

– Helwan

From El-Fustat, Abdul Aziz Ibn Merwan moved to Helwan (near Memphis, on the opposite bank of the Nile). Here, he planned the city, built houses, mansions and mosques, planted orchards and palm groves, and caused a Nilometer to be erected.

– El-Askar

The Ommeyade governors generally lived at Fustat. The Abbassid governors, on the other hand, built a new official capital (a military suburb) on the plain to the north east of Fustat, where soldiers of some of the Arab tribes had formerly built houses of defenses. Saleh Ibn Ali (an Abbassid general) camped there in 750. His lieutenant built houses and El-Askar became the official residence of the governor, his guard and ministers. Another palace, called Kubbat-el-Hawa (Dome of the Air) was built on the spur of the Mokattam Hills, where the Citadel of Cairo now stands. The governors often resorted seeking cool breezes.

The Propagation of Arabic

The Arabs kept for themselves the political and spiritual offices. When trained on the administrative work and when the Arabic language replaced the Coptic language in the reign of Abdul Malik Ibn Merwan, the Arabs were appointed to these administrative posts. So they competed with the Copts who were infuriated at the loss of their jobs and they unsuccessfully revolted several times. Thus, the Copts began to learn Arabic until it became the national language and the Coptic clergy had to introduce it into the churches so that the congregations might understand the service.

The Spread of Islam

Many Copts were converted to Islam and learnt the Arabic language to understand the Koran and accomplish the ritual prayers. They married Arab women, mixed with the Arabs, and were appointed to the various vacant posts. Islam diffused widely after the arrival of El-Ma’mun to Egypt and the crushing of the insurgents.

 The Economic Conditions

The Arabs followed an equitable method in imposing taxes, regarding in their estimation and their collection the season of harvesting the crops and the condition of the annual flood, so that the farmer could pay the land-tax without being oppressed. Among the most important taxes at the time was the capitation of “Jazia”. This impost was in existence in the Roman Empire under the same designation and was in force under the Sassanides in the Persian Empire. The Romans and the Persians levied it on certain people of their empires. The Muslims followed this precedent and it was fixed on a mild and equitable basis. It was laid down that the tax should be levied on the Zimmis (non-Muslims) so as to cause the least possible hardship. The Copts who were styled “People of the Book” were treated with justice and humanity. When Amr Ibn Al-Aas conquered Egypt, he exempted every non- Muslim from fighting on payment of two dinars a year. Thus, women, lads, old men and the disabled were exempted from paying it.

– The Kharaj

It was the land-tax which was levied on the Zimmis, either in money or in kind. The condition of irrigation, agriculture and the harvest were constantly put into consideration. It was imposed by a local council in the village, the duty of which was to distribute the land among those who were able to cultivate it and pay the land-tax. The excess amount of the tax levied was spent on local reform. The villagers had to offer hospitality to the troops passing through their villages for three days. Taxes were levied on the ships when anchoring on certain harbors and on the merchandise passing from one region to another. The value of the tithes generally amounted to one tenth of the cargo and eighth of the merchandise. Now, such taxes resemble the customs duties. The poor tax was payable on a rising scale by all Muslims possessed of means. Other taxes were imposed on salt, fisheries, factories and one fifth of the output of the mines. The total amount of taxes reached twelve million dinars in the governorship of Amr Ibn Al-Aas. Omar the Caliph found out that it was possible for the total sum to be increased. So, he appointed Abdullah Ibn Abi Es Sarh governor in his place. The Egyptians resented the heavy burden of taxes and took part in the revolt directed against Osman and ended his life. When great multitudes of Copts were converted to the new faith, and when many Arab immigrants went to Egypt and their number in the army increased, taxes decreased and salaries and the expenses of the War Office multiplied. The total amount of taxes under the Ommeyades reached about three million dinars and never exceeded four.

– The Collection of the Kharaj

The revenues were in the charge of the Sahib-ul-Kharaj, who was directly appointed by the Caliph. All expenses connected with the administration of the country were defrayed from the treasury. That is, soldiers, stipendiaries and public functionaries were paid out of Egypt’s revenues. At the cost of the revenues were all works of utility (such as roads, canals, and public buildings such as mosques and schools). The remainder of the revenue was sent to the treasury of the central capital of the sovereign to be spent in other reforms. There were three methods for the taxing of the land:

1) Taxing by measurement of “Muhasibah” with fixed amount in money or kind or both.

2) Taxing by Mukasimah, by paying the taxes in kind according to certain percentage of the crop. This amounted to a third of fourth of the harvest.

3) Taxing by Iltizam, by which taxes were collected according to a fixed settlement based upon leases or agreement between the government and private people.

Equity and tolerance were two characteristics prevalent in the time of the Orthodox Caliphs. In general, governors were not oppressive in levying the taxes, with the exception of some tax collectors who abused their authority and overtaxed the people. In person, the caliphs checked the collection of taxes and were very strict in making accounts with the functionaries of Kharaj.

The Ommeyades made strict laws concerning the collection of the taxes. Abdul Malik Ibn Merwan was very firm with the tax collectors and the functionaries of the land-taxes when they resigned: If they were suspected of obtaining illegal wealth, they were sometimes persecuted until they proved the source of their wealth. So they had to deposit in the treasury what they had confiscated.

– Commerce

In order to facilitate direct communication between Egypt and Arabia, Amr Ibn Al-Aas had the old disused canal between the Nile and the Red Sea re-excavated. The Arabs named it “The Canal of Commander of the Faithful”. It was dug in less than a year, and when the Nile boats sailed up to Yembo and Jeddah with Egypt’s produce, the price of the grains fell in the markets of the towns in Hijaz. In Gaafar Al Mansur’s reign, the Alides revolted at Medina, so the caliph ordered that the canal should be blocked to prevent the grain reaching the town. The blockade of this canal did not stop trade with Egypt, since trade caravans were always on the move carrying the merchandise between Suez and El Darma on the Mediterranean and from Suez to Jeddah, India and China. They carried to Egypt spices and perfumes from the East; timber and silk from Syria and Asia Minor. On their way back, they transported the produce and the manufacture of Egypt.

– Irrigation

Irrigation was based at the time on the basin system. Lands were covered by the flood and allowed the fertile sediment carried by water to settle down on the surface of the land. This system necessitated the construction of the embankments and bridges and the clearance of the canals and the Nile. The governors were aware of all the utility works, and the workers were busy in undertaking these projects. Besides other wooden bridges over the canals, two bridges of boats were seen on the Nile: one connected the Island of Er-Roda with Fustat while the other linked Er-Roda with Giza.

– Manufactures

Manufacture of every kind of materials was both fostered and encouraged. Paper manufacture had been flourishing from the ancient times. This kind of industry had manufactories established at Fustat, Faiyum and many other places on the shores of Lake Menzala. Alexandria, Damietta and Tinnis were famous for manufacturing linen, woolens and silk, with These exquisite fabrics exported to Italy, France and the East. The manufacture of glass, earthenware, pottery, jewelry, wooden and leather craft was maintained at a high standard.

– Social Life

After the Arab conquest of Egypt, the population of the country formed a mixture of many races such as the Copts, the Romans, the Abyssinians and the Arabs. At that time, many Romans preferred to take Egypt as their home.

– The Copts

The vast majority of the people were of course the Christian Copts who were favored by many governors. The Arabs undertook to protect the Copts, guard them from all injuries and defend their property as well as allowed them to build their churches giving them full liberty to follow their faith. The Copts’ Revolts In spite of this tolerance, the Copts revolted when the tax-collectors overtaxed the people and when an order was given that Arabic must be the language used in all public documents instead of Coptic, because all the Coptic functionaries were removed from their offices. Anyhow, there is little evidence to show that they were grossly ill-treated.

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