Siege of Alexandria (641)

The major Mediterranean port of Alexandria, the capital of the province of Egypt, was permanently seized from the (Eastern Roman, or) Byzantine Empire by forces of the Rashidun Caliphate in the middle of the 7th Century AD. This marked the end of Eastern Roman maritime power over (and financial dominance of) the Eastern Mediterranean and thus brought about a decisive geopolitical shift.also spreading the Islamic region even further

Historical overview

With the death of Muhammad in 632 AD, the Muslim world began a period of rapid expansion. Under the rule of the first caliphs, the Rashidun, Muslim armies began assaulting the borders of both Sassanid Persia and the Byzantine Empire.[1] Neither of the two former powers was prepared for the aggressive expansion of the Arabs, as both largely underestimated Islam and its growing support; this is best depicted by the ambivalent views held by the Byzantines and the painstakingly slow reaction of the Sassanids.[2] After smashing both the Byzantines at Yarmuk (636) and the Persians at Qadisiyah (637), Muslim expansion set its sights south towards the rich provinces of Byzantine Africa.

Following Muslim conquest, the local populace and political infrastructure was left largely intact, albeit under Muslim control. Some groups were persecuted, namely anyone deemed to be "pagan" or an "idolater". The Library of Alexandria was also destroyed, although blame for its destruction is disputed. The Muslim people were tolerant of the Jews and Christians of captured regions. Many rose to positions of relative power and affluence in the new cities like Baghdad.[3] This led to a stable and smooth running empire. The only major difference in treatment between Muslims and non-Muslims was the taxation system. Non believers were obligated to pay a higher tax to the local government, called the jizya, while Muslims had to pay a Zakāt.

Byzantine Alexandria

The rulers of Alexandria before the arrival of Islam were the Byzantines. A heavily trafficked port city, Alexandria was crucial to maintaining imperial control over the region, based on its large Greco-Egyptian population and economic importance. The population of Alexandria was heavily influenced by both the cultural and religious views of their Eastern Roman Empire rulers; nevertheless, the majority of the population spoke Coptic, rather than Latin or Greek. Thus, the main agents of cultural diffusion at the time of the arrival of Islam were the Coptic Christians.[4]

The Byzantines relied on Egypt as the main center of food production for wheat and other foodstuffs. Alexandria also functioned as one of Byzantium’s primary army and naval bases, as there was normally a significant imperial garrison stationed in the city.[5] Though with the loss of Jerusalem in 638, much of Byzantine attention was drawn towards strengthening their hold on the frontier, chiefly in Anatolia and Egypt. Even though they would be able to successfully hold Asia Minor and retain it as an imperial base province, as time went on, Egypt became increasingly difficult to defend.

Muslim conquest of Egypt

In 634, the Muslim leader Umar ascended to the role of caliph and inherited a heterogeneous and rapidly expanding Islamic empire. Throughout the early 640s, he set his sights on the economically desirable province of Egypt and its capital city of Alexandria. The Muslim invasion of Egypt was led by the commander Amr ibn Al-Aas, who commanded a force larger than any army that the Byzantines could field at the time, as a result of their crushing defeat at Yarmuk four years earlier.

The original attempts by the Arab forces were not directed solely towards Alexandria, but rather at removing the Byzantine fortress of Babylon on the Nile Delta.[6] The destruction of the Byzantine military power at the ensuing battle of Heliopolis, also known as Ain Shams, in the summer of 640 and the victory over the Byzantine defenders at Babylon effectively broke Byzantine power in Egypt.

Fall of Alexandria and aftermath

Following the destruction of the Byzantine forces at Heliopolis, the city of Alexandria was left virtually defenseless and it is likely that only a fraction of provincial forces remained garrisoned in the city itself. Though the Byzantines were unable to field an effective force, Alexandria's substantial fortifications, especially wall-mounted artillery, proved to be valuable assets and were adequate in keeping the Muslim attackers from mounting large attacks. However, on November 8, 641, after a fourteen-month siege, Byzantine officials at last capitulated to Amr, turning the city over to Muslim hands.

The impact of such a major event as the loss of Alexandria to Muslim forces was felt throughout the Mediterranean world. The decrease in the annual grain shipments from Egypt struck a decisive blow to the Byzantine economy; besides the simple fact of fewer available resources, the empire lost untold thousands in taxes from the grain merchants now traveling southward towards Damascus and Alexandria. In such a weakened condition, the empire was barely able to bail itself out financially and, in some instances, had to resort to piracy, in some cases attacking merchant ships and “requisitioning” their cargo before distributing it to Byzantine or allied ports.[7]

Historically, Alexandria had provided Byzantium with a steady income of both money and luxury items, though some scholars speculate that the imposition of especially high taxes in the final decades of Byzantine rule may have been a considerable factor in causing a sizeable amount of the city’s population to defect from Byzantine stewardship to side with the Muslim invaders.[8]

Byzantine counterattack

There were several Byzantine attempts to retake Alexandria. Though none of these were successful for a sustained period of time, Byzantine forces were able to briefly regain control of the city in 645. Arab chroniclers tell of a massive fleet and army sent by the Byzantines with the goal of retaking Alexandria. The imperial forces were led by a lower ranking imperial official named Manuel. After entering the city without facing much resistance, the Byzantines were able to regain control of both Alexandria and the surrounding Egyptian countryside. The Muslims retaliated by readying a large force of 15,000 who promptly set out to retake the city under command of the veteran Amr ibn Al-As. The Byzantines, following their standard tactical doctrine, advanced out of the city and sought an open battle away from the shelter of their fortifications. Accounts of the battle portray the Muslim forces as relying heavily on their archers before eventually assaulting the Byzantine positions, driving many back and routing the rest in the process.[9] After this, the Byzantines were utterly defeated and withdrew from the region.

In 654, yet another attempt to bring Alexandria back into imperial hands failed when an invasion force sent by Constans II was repulsed. This generally marks the end of Byzantine attempts to retake the city.

Life under Islamic rule

Once subdued, the native population of Alexandria was remarkably receptive toward the rule of their Islamic governors. In regards to the treatment of the native population, many sources point out visible persecution towards the native Coptic Christian population in Alexandria, a "religious tax" was imposed on any Dhimmis (un-converted) Egyptian. The protection of the Dhimmis (unconverted) was guaranteed in return for a payment of Jizyah (poll tax) of supposedly fixed taxes, which were embodied in the terms of the capitulation, at two dinars per adult male, and an additional kharaj (land tax) payable by those (including churches) possessing land in the provinces. In addition, the protected population was required to provide a measure of clothing and hospitality to any itinerant Muslim. This description is vague enough to cover the innumerable variations of interpretation offered by Arab chroniclers, jurists, and writers on taxation, to say nothing of many of their modern successors concerning the imposition of these taxes. Much of this confused material reflects the theoretical variations of a later date. Nevertheless, contemporary papyri as well as some historical sources show clearly that the Dhimmis in early Muslim Egypt were, in fact, the victims not so much of a system fixed ab origine by the capitulation but of frequent and seemingly haphazard changes in status and in levels and incidence of taxation. ”[10]

In a later section, LeBon further explains,

“The lack of mercy and tolerance of the conquerors were among the reasons for the spread of their conquests and for the nations’ The imposition of their faith and regulations and language, which became deeply rooted. Egypt is the most evident proof of this. It adopted what the Arabs had brought over, and reserved it.

Thus the majority of the population of Alexandria where ready to resist Amr, although the Copts wanted peace, but where denied this by 'Amr.”[11]

'Amr kept his way until he arrived in Alexandria whose inhabitants he found ready to resist him, but the Copts in it preferred peace. Al-Mukaukis communicated with 'Amr and asked him for peace and a truce for a time; but 'Amr refused. ”[12]

Al-Mukaukis then ordered that the women stand on the wall with their faces turned towards the city, and that the men stand armed, with their faces towards the Moslems, thus hoping to scare them. 'Amr sent word, saying, "We see what you have done. It was not by mere numbers that we conquered those we have conquered. We have met your king Heraclius, and there befell him what has befallen him." Hearing this, al-Mukaukis said to his followers, "These people are telling the truth. They have chased our king from his kingdom as far as Constantinople. It is much more preferable, therefore, that we submit." His followers, however, spoke harshly to him and insisted on fighting. The Moslems fought fiercely against them and invested them for three months. At last, 'Amr reduced the city by the sword and plundered all that was in it, sparing its inhabitants of whom none was killed or taken captive. He reduced them to the position of dhimmis like the people of Alyunah. He communicated the news of the victory to 'Umar through Mu'awiyah ibn-Hudaij al-Kindi (later as-Sakuni) and sent with him the fifth. ”[13] “And when [Amr] saw the patriarch, he received him with respect, and said to his companions and private friends: ‘Verily in all the lands of which we have taken possession hitherto I have never seen a man of God like this man. Then Amr turned to him, and said to him: ‘Resume the government of all your churches and of your people, and administer their affairs. And if you will pray for me, that I may go to the West and to Pentapolis, and take possession of them, as I have of Egypt, and return to you in safety and speedily, I will do for you all that you shall ask of me.” Then the holy patriarch Benjamin prayed for Amr, and pronounced an eloquent discourse, which made Amr and those present with him marvel, and which contained words of exhortation and much profit for those that heard him; and he revealed certain matters to Amr, and departed from his presence honored and revered.”[14]

Islamic influence

Culturally, the city continued to function much the way it had under Byzantine rule. Greek, Coptic, and Arabic were all spoken fluently throughout the city and documents continued to be published in Greek and Coptic for some time following the takeover. Coptic was also continued in the fields of medicine, mathematics, and alchemy, whose practices thrived under the budding advances of Islamic intellectualism. However, after the 11th century, Arabic replaced Greek and Coptic as the principal language of the city.[15]

In terms of religion, Alexandria was largely characterized by its heterogeneous makeup, both before and after the advent of Islam. Indeed, from the third century on, Alexandria served as a major base for both the practice of Monophysitism and Nestorianism, as well as a surprising number of other Christian sects that found refuge in Egypt.

It is also interesting to note that from a cultural perspective the practice of marriage between Muslim men and non-Muslim women was a fairly common one, and at least a sizeable portion of the Muslim invasion force that settled in and around the city of Alexandria took native Greek and Berber women as their brides. As this was typically discouraged by the umma and prohibited by the reigning caliph Umar, this gives credence to the Islamic state's desire to respect the lives of the local population rather than act as agents of disorder.[16]

The fall of Alexandria and the acquisition of the Byzantine Empire's oriental provinces of Egypt and Syria are generally seen as a critical step towards the culmination of uniquely Islamic identity. The importance of Alexandria as the staging point for future conquests and economic purposes should not be dismissed. It is accurate then to say that the loss of these provinces paved the way for the future Muslim conquest of the Byzantine Exarchate of Africa, which included key cities such as Cyrenaica (642), Tripoli (643), and Kairouan (670). Thus the fall of Alexandria accentuated a clearly defined geopolitical shift in influence from the regions of interior Arabia to those of the Mediterranean and in the ensuing centuries, the significance of these conquests would allow Egypt to become the seat of dominant Muslim law.


  1. James Lindsay. Daily Life in The Medieval Islamic World. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press,1957) Pg 3
  2. Khalil I. Semaan. Islam and the Medieval West. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1980) Pg 4
  3. Bat Ye’or. The Dhimmi. (Cranberry NJ: Associated University Press, 1985) Pg 43
  4. Khalil I. Semaan. Islam and the Medieval West.
  5. Phillip K. Hitti. Capital Cities of Arab Islam. (Minneapolis: Jones Press, 1973) Pg 110
  6. James Lindsay. Daily Life in The Medieval Islamic World.
  7. Khalil I. Semaan. Islam and the Medieval West.
  8. “The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu.” (The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu. English Translation, 2002 accessed 8 February 2008) from
  9. James Lindsay. Daily Life in The Medieval Islamic World.
  11. “available from History of The Patriarchs of Alexandria
  12. “available from History of The Patriarchs of Alexandria
  13. “available from History of The Patriarchs of Alexandria
  14. “The History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria” (The Internet Medieval Sourcebook,1998 accessed 10 February 2008) available from
  15. “Coptic Egypt: Background Information” (University College, London, 2003 accessed 13 February 2008) from
  16. Kenneth W. Frank. 1993. “Pirenne Again: A Muslim Viewpoint”. The History Teacher 23 (6): 371-383

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