History of the Islamic Egypt



MODERN Egypt owes its reawakening life to the energies of France and England within the past half century. As part of the decaying Roman world, Egypt was conquered by the Arab followers of Mahomet in 642 A.D. Then for twelve hundred years she lay stagnant, decadent, ruled by these savage foreigners, who trampled the Egyptian peasantry under foot.

The Mahometans came, as so many conquerors had come, across the desert from Asia. They stormed the fortress of Pelusium, and thence advanced into the heart of the country. Alexandria, garrisoned by a remnant of the Roman legions, withstood a siege of fourteen months. The city was almost wholly destroyed, and the Mahometan ruler or Khalif, Omar, was long accused, though probably unjustly, of having deliberately burned the celebrated Alexandrian library, the chief repository of all the garnered learning of the ancient world.

The legend runs that Omar's lieutenant, having captured the enormous library buildings, sent to ask the Khalif what should be done with all the writings. "Burn them," answered the unlettered Omar. On being argued with by some of his more enlightened followers, he condescended to explain his order by referring to the Koran, the Bible of the Mahometans. "If" said he, "the matter in these books is not contained in the Koran, then they are wrong and irreligious. If it is contained in the Koran, then they are unnecessary and better done away with." An Egyptian writer tells us that the water of all the public baths of the city was kept heated for six months by the fires fed with the books of the great library.

The Mahometans founded the city of Cairo as their capital. Indeed, it is worth noting, when looking at a modern map of Egypt, that neither of its chief cities of today, Cairo and Alexandria, has any connection whatever with ancient Egyptian history. One was the capital built by the Greek conquerors, the other that erected by the Mahometans, foreign cities both, intended to dominate the native population.

After a while Egypt became the chief centre of the Mahometan power, which covered all western Asia and northern Africa, the ancient seats of civilization. The mighty Saladin, the monarch who withstood the whole force of Europe in the crusade led by King Richard the Lion-hearted, was originally the ruler of Egypt, and gradually extended his power over all the Mahometan world. Saladin's successors established a mercenary soldiery of Turkish slaves, called the Mamelukes; and these Mamelukes, like the old Libyan guard or the Greek soldiers of Apries, soon became the real masters of the country. They set up and deposed sovereigns at will, the first "sultan" appointed from among their own ranks being Beybars (1266 A.D.).

Under the Mamelukes, art and literature revived in Egypt, but the prosperity was still that of foreign rulers, Arab or Turkish, and had little effect in alleviating the degradation of the native peasantry. The Turkish sultan, Selim I., conquered the land in 1517, and thereafter it was nominally a Turkish province, though still chiefly controlled by the Mamelukes. These became the most celebrated soldiery of the world, because of their wealth and display. Each Mameluke was a sort of prince, his rank depending on his military valor.

Napoleon invaded Egypt, as we have already noted, in 1798. The Mamelukes met him with desperate valor in "the Battle of the Pyramids," fought at the base of those silent watchers of the past. Napoleon was victorious; but the English fleet drove him from Egypt, and the Mamelukes once more resumed control under a nominal Turkish suzerainty.

In 1805 the Turkish sultan appointed as governor of Egypt, Mehemet Ali, a general as able and bold as he was treacherous and cruel. He pretended friendship for the Mamelukes, and so led all their chief members into a snare, where they were massacred. Having exterminated this celebrated force and thus made himself really master of Egypt, Mehemet Ali threw off his allegiance to the waning power of Turkey, and snatched some of her Asiatic

The money which Ismail received from this transaction, some twenty million dollars, he sunk in his labors for Egypt. He built roads and bridges; he provided harbors and lighthouses for his seaports; railways and the telegraph for the interior; he established schools and honest courts of law; he extended the rule of civilization far into the Soudan, and there attempted the suppression of that greatest horror of Egypt and of Africa, the slave trade.

It is sad to record the downfall of so energetic and earnest a ruler as the Khedive Ismail. His views clashed with those of his English assistants and advisers. His financial ideas failed to harmonize with modern business methods, in so far as he was much more interested in borrowing than in repaying, in spending money for his many constructive works than in laying it up for the interest on his ever-increasing debts. Finally the financial situation became so unsatisfactory that France and England, Ismail's two chief creditors, established a "dual control" over the Egyptian treasury. Ismail still continued refractory. He insistently regarded himself as the ruler of the country. He refused to establish an Egyptian parliament; he refused a formal demand that he should abdicate his throne. He had, however, no army capable of upholding him, so he was ultimately forced to give way to Europe's will and was succeeded by his son, the Khedive Tewfik (1879).

Tewfik was, naturally enough, the mere servant of the European powers. As such he won little respect from his own people. One of these, Arabi Pasha, organized a revolution which had for its purpose the expulsion of the foreigners from the country. Arabi defied the Khedive and became a military dictator. England sent a fleet to Alexandria to overawe the followers of Arabi. There was a brief, tumultuous uprising. Alexandria was bombarded by the fleet, and Arabi was captured. France refused to join England in these vigorous measures; and the latter, after assuring protection to the French creditors, took complete practical control of Egypt, though Turkey through all these changes still retained the nominal overlordship of the land.

The English occupancy of Egypt has since continued, and has completed to a marvelous degree the regeneration which the Khedive Ismail began. Lord Dufferin was first sent out as the Khedive's "adviser," and he prepared a constitution under which the land became a limited monarchy. Dufferin was afterward succeeded by other "advisers," the most notable of them being Lord Cromer, who remained the real though unofficial ruler of Egypt until 1907. To his wisdom and steady devotion to duty the success of England's Egyptian occupation is most largely due.

The most serious difficulty of the government has been in the far south, the Soudan, which Mehemet Ali had added to his kingdom. The noted English officer, General Charles Gordon, had been sent there by the Khedive Ismail to suppress the slave trade. To a very considerable extent he accomplished this; and another Englishman, General Baker, extended the British-Egyptian control way back to the great lakes of equatorial Africa.

About 1880, however, a new religious faith developed among the Arabs of the Soudan. A hermit and mystic arose, calling himself El Mahdi, which means "the inspired of God." He preached that the Turkish government was to be expelled from Egypt along with all other foreigners, and the old pure worship of Mahomet was to be reestablished by the sword. His followers defeated and utterly exterminated an Egyptian army in 1882, and a second one commanded by the English Colonel Hicks in the following year. The English Parliament took the position that England was pledged to defend Egypt itself, but not to expend precious lives in hunting out and punishing the wild, far-off fanatics of the Soudan. So an effort was made to withdraw all the Egyptian settlers and garrisons from the dangerous region. This resulted in more massacres, the most noted victim being General Gordon. He had been sent by England to Khartoum, the chief town of the Soudan, to superintend the withdrawal of the Egyptians. Here he was besieged by the Mahdi, but with the aid of the town folk and a small garrison, Gordon held the frenzied horde of fanatics at bay for ten months. A real English army under Lord Wolseley was sent to rescue him; but even this force failed to overcome the determined Arabs, or "Dervishes," as El Mahdi's followers were called. The latter finally stormed Khartoum, killed Gordon, and compelled Lord Wolseley to abandon his attack. Egypt lost the whole of the Soudan.

The Khedive Tewfik died in 1892 and was succeeded by his son Abbas, the present Khedive. In 1896, the English officials determined to reoccupy the Soudan. The Mahdi was dead, but his successor, called the Khalifa, led the Dervishes against this new advance with equal resolution and ferocity. In several battles the Dervishes proved themselves the most terrible foes England had ever encountered among barbarians. But at Omdurman in 1898 they were finally defeated and well-nigh exterminated. The Khalifa escaped, but was slain in a petty battle the next year; and England's mastery of all this vast territory has since been peaceful and almost unopposed.

In Egypt itself there has developed a strong opposition to English rule. The native population consists of two antagonistic elements, the Copts and the Mahometans. The Copts are the native Egyptians, who through all the centuries of Mahometan sovereignty have still clung to the Christian religion. The Mahometans are of mingled Arab and Egyptian race. They are the more numerous and, during the Turkish rule, were of course the dominant race; but the Copts are proving themselves better business folk, industrious, clear-headed, and persistent. If England were to withdraw from Egypt, the Mahometan population think their numbers would reestablish them in control; the Copts hope their ability would make them the masters. England believes there would be anarchy.

The so-called "national" party were particularly vociferous about the years 1906 to 1909. In mass-meetings and conventions they protested against England's rule; they circulated among the more ignorant folk newspapers filled with the falsest and coarsest accusations against the foreign officials; the mob grew openly mutinous. Meanwhile England had been making some actual experiments toward increasing self-government among the Egyptians, establishing a sort of restricted parliament and even allowing the appointment of a native Egyptian, a Copt named Boutros Pasha, as chief minister. In 1910 Boutros was assassinated by some of his own people.

Since then the English have adopted stricter methods, being convinced that home rule for Egypt is for the present an impossibility. Ex-President Roosevelt, visiting England in 1910, made a much discussed speech, urging the English to a vigorous policy in suppressing the Egyptian disorders. Since then the murmurs of ambitious discontent in Egypt have almost died out; the material prosperity of the land has continued.

The immense public works undertaken by the English during their rule have revolutionized industrial conditions in Egypt. Most important of these works was the vast dam at Assouan to regulate the waters of the Nile. This was completed in 1902, and has assured lower Egypt of regular harvests ever since. In 1913 Lord Kitchener, who held rule over the upper valley of the Nile, the Soudan, persuaded the English Parliament to allow fifteen million dollars for great engineering works which should equally benefit his province. Thus England continues to lead Egypt toward wealth and comfort, as a wise nurse might lead a child, despite the resentful whimpering of her discontented charge.






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