Ayyubid Egypt, 1192-1250

Saladin’s empire was split up among four sons, with his brother al-Adil receiving two important castles in Jordan. The oldest son was not a natural ruler. Uncle al-Adil had to broker peace among the brothers several times, until basically he just took over. Adil had been co-ruling with Saladin for years, so he had the most experience and connections. By 1200, Adil was formally the Sultan of Egypt, and his sons inherited after him.

There’s one interesting thing that happened while Saladin’s son was still ruling, before his death in 1198. Al-Aziz was the one Muslim ruler of Egypt who tried to tear down the idolatrous Pyramids! He decided to start with Pharaoh Menkaure, though it seems likely he didn’t know whose it was that he singled out. “Start with that one.” For eight months, a team tried to pull out stones. It seems likely that they were experienced at demolition, since Saladin’s men had destroyed many stone walls in Palestine and Syria. But when they came to Menkaure’s pyramid, they had little luck. It took about a day to remove one stone, and then the stone had to be cut in pieces to remove across the soft sand. When they gave up, they had made a vertical gouge in one side, but had not altered the structural integrity.

Adil’s son al-Kamil and two grandsons al-Adil II and as-Salih were the rest of the Ayyubid dynasty. By 1250, their rule had ended. Ayyubid extended family members were appointed to many regional ruling positions, and in turn they appointed friends and relatives to rule land grants called iqtas. I wonder if their structure was modeled after the Frankish feudal one, or if that structure was just common sense in the time.

Saladin set out to make Egypt into a Sunni land again. He promoted Sunni institutions, but he also fired a large layer of Christians and Jews who had been working in government under the Fatimids. A lot of these were Armenians, promoted by Armenian viziers. But keeping Christians out of government was a bad long-term strategy, since a higher percentage of people who knew how to track the Nile’s flood cycle were Coptic (native Egyptian) Christians. So after Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem made his power secure, his government rehired Christian and Jewish scribes and officials.

Al-Kamil was long remembered by Copts as a good ruler. He ruled as a governor even before he became Sultan, so he got to know Egypt well. He chose to live permanently in Cairo and govern in a hands-on way. He became friends with priests and monks, too.

Wealthy Copts were secure enough to commission art and literature during al-Kamil’s reign. A team of painters created a large set of murals around the walls of the Chapel of St. Anthony, inside a monastery. Scholars wrote books to keep the Coptic language alive; it’s one of the few times when a very old language was being replaced but with time and interest in documenting it. They wrote dictionaries and grammars, and one book even had a rhyming story to teach Arabic speakers some Coptic words. Coptic was still spoken in the farming areas, but not in the cities outside of church.

During an easy time, there were conversions between Christianity and Islam in both directions. Egypt had two periods when harsh repression of Christians caused waves of mass conversion to Islam, but the Ayyubid period was not like that. Interestingly, one of the documented reasons to convert to Islam at this time was quite personal. A Christian monk had sworn to celibacy: if he slipped into sexual sin, one way out was to become a Muslim, who merely preferred that he marry the woman. But these converts had a hard time feeling good about what they’d done, and some converted back. This sort of case went before the Islamic Qadi (judge), and frequently they were given the death penalty, but not always. They always expected it and made their decision knowing what it meant.

One big issue for the Christian churches was that they had to get their appointments approved by the Muslim government. It was hard enough sometimes to agree on a Pope among themselves. During the first half of Ayyubid rule, there was a stalemate, and the church had no Pope. When Pope Cyril III was finally elected and approved by al-Kamil, many church offices had fallen vacant. Cyril sold some of the appointments for donations, a practice called “simony” and specifically forbidden. Cyril’s defense is that he was himself forced to pay a large fee (1000 silver dinars) to the Sultan to buy approval, and he was trying to make up that sum. Cyril was able to appeal to the Sultan (by then Kamil’s son) to preside over his trial, and the Sultan influenced the vote to be in his favor. It was always tempting for Christians, divided by sectarian allegiance (Armenians, Syrians, Greeks, Copts) or concerned about each other’s doctrine, to appeal to the Muslim ruler. And the Muslim rulers always stayed involved in church affairs this way.

Christians in Egypt always suffered when European Crusaders attacked Egyptian ports and fortresses. In our time, Muslims are all held responsible for terrorist attacks by radical Muslims; in that time, all Christians, especially the ones who answered to Constantinople, but also the native Copts, were held responsible for whatever the Franks did. In Syria, during the First Crusade, Christian Armenians had often helped deliver their cities to the Crusaders. In Egypt, during the later Crusades, they were very afraid that Christians would do the same. So during those times, the army more often tore down nearby churches to make fortifications. During those times, Christians were more likely to be fired from government jobs that required a 13th century security clearance.  There had already been a painful rift between Rome and Alexandria in the 6th century; now Egyptian Christians found themselves turning more and more anti-Rome (and anti-Constantinople) to prove that they had no sympathy with these invasions.

Al-Kamil’s sons were nothing like him, and their misrule ended the dynasty’s future. The longer-ruling one, Salih, invested in new buildings, particularly a new palace on Rawda Island in the Nile. In order to build this palace, he had to demolish a historic church that had only recently been repaired from flood damage under his father’s rule. He was a forbidding, severe man. Salih made up for losing support at home by importing more slave soldiers, with one key mistake: he brought in mostly Turkish mamluks, and this disturbed a previous balance of Turks and Kurds among their ranks. The Ayyubid family was mostly Kurdish. In theory, mamluks were loyal to whoever paid them, but in reality, Turkish mamluks were less inclined to support a Kurdish Sultan.

The Ayyubids will still be part of the next few Crusades, until 1250.

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