THE OPENING OF EGYPT
The Condition of Egypt under the Byzantines
Generally speaking, Egypt suffered from severe poverty because its harvest and other products were sent to the cities of the Byzantine Empire. This was done by its rulers so that they could have the full satisfaction of the supreme sovereign, the Emperor. He was satisfied so long that the Egyptians were deprived of these blessings and harvest.
The Egyptians were ready for any kind of rebellion against the Byzantine rulers, who imposed taxes and unfair tributes in addition to forcing them to follow their doctrines and believe in a certain religion. Thus, the Egyptians were fed up and could not endure the Byzantine domination any more. Finally, some divisions took place within the Byzantine state, splitting it internally into numerous sects and parties.
'Amr ibn AI-'As Asks Permission to Open Egypt
'Amr used to go to Egypt for trade before Islam, so he knew how its people suffered from poverty and weakness. In addition, he had full knowledge of its resources and crops.
So When 'Umar came to Al-Sham to open Jerusalem, 'Amr ibn Al-'As came to him and said, "Commander of the Faithful, permit me to advance on Egypt, for if we open it, its harvest and fortunes will be a Source of power and help to the Muslims. This is because the Egyptian land is the richest land and its People are now too feeble to fight or struggle. "
On hearing this, 'Umar felt uneasy and said, "This could jeopardize the Muslims."
He said so because the Muslims had not yet established themselves in the cities that they had opened. In addition, their troops were distributed here and there in Al-Sham, Iraq, Armenia and so forth. Added to this, many of them had died of the plague of `Amwas. 'Umar was hesitant because he did not want to entangle the Muslims in a new battle when they had not recovered yet from those of Al-Sham.
However, 'Amr was persuasive and excellent in expressing himself. He mentioned that Artabun, the cunning Byzantine general, had fled to Egypt when he realized the intentions of the people of Jerusalem to reconcile with the Muslims. He added that the king was certainly mobilizing the army to resume the struggle against the Arabs. 'Amr convinced 'Umar that the public interest required the invasion of Egypt to hamper the Byzantines from mobilizing their troops.
'Amr asked his commander 'Umar, "Didn't you hear the saying of Allah's Messenger in which he said, 'If Allah helps you to open Egypt, adopt many soldiers from it, for they are the best soldiers on earth. `Abu Bakr said, 'Why are they the best, Messenger of Allah?' He answered, 'because they and their wives are tightly bound to each other till the Day of Resurrection.”’ (Narrated by Ibn 'Abdul Hakam in Fath Misr and by Ibn 'Asakir from 'Umar.)
Abu `Abdullah `Amr ibn Al-'As kept on persuading 'Umar about the opening and planning for it. He suggested marching towards Egypt with an army of four thousand only. 'Umar assented and gave him the permission, telling him that he would send to him a final message bearing his opinion on his way to Egypt.
`Amr ibn AI-'As Advances towards Egypt
After 'Umar had approved `Amr's plan, he mustered four or five thousand soldiers, saying to him "March forth, for I have asked Allah's guidance regarding this issue. My message will reach you soon, Allah willing. If you receive a message from me in which I order you to turn away from Egypt before entering it or any of its lands, you have to obey the order and discontinue the march. If you enter it before you receive my message, go ahead and seek Allah's aid and pray to Him to grant you victory."
`Amr marched with the troops in the middle of the night and none of the Muslims discovered the departure. 'Umar had previously consulted with the senior Companions. 'Uthman ibn 'Affan saw that this was a grave issue and mentioned that `Amr was apt to be rash and audacious.
After talking with them, 'Umar was once more hesitant. He feared that his message might not reach `Amr until after he had already entered Egypt. Hence, his return would badly affect the reputation of the Arabs and of Islam. He thus wrote to him, "If you receive my message before entering Egypt, return; or else, proceed. May Allah bless you."
The Shrewd 'Amr
'Umar's message reached `Amr ibn Al-'As when he was in Rafah. Guessing that the message was an order to stop the advance, 'Amr used his wit and did not receive the message till he reached Arish.
Only then did he summon the messenger of the Commander of the Faithful, take the message and read it. Then he asked his men, "Are we now in Egypt or Palestine?"
"We are in Egypt," they replied.
'Amr continued, "So, we shall resume our plan as the commander ordered us." 'Amr opened Arish easily with no effort, for its fortresses were not strong and the guards were few.
Opening Suez (AI-Farama)
The city of Farama was the first city where the Muslims fought with Byzantines. It was fortified, but `Amr besieged it for a month. Then the Muslims opened it by force, killing and capturing many Byzantines while the others fled. The historians Al-Maqrizi and Abul Mahasin narrated that the Christians of Farama helped the Muslims against the Byzantines in that battle.
After Allah had granted them victory in Farama, 'Amr ibn Al-'As advanced to Sanhur and Tanis, then Bilbis, which was a fortified city in which the Byzantines posted an immerse army under the command of the Byzantine general Artabun, who previously had been the general of Jerusalem.
'Amr sent to the commander, telling him to choose between Islam, jizyah or war. He gave him a respite of four days to send his reply. However, the cunning Byzantine chose betrayal and conspiracy over forwardness and honesty. On the second day of the respite, he took the Muslims by surprise, but Allah the Almighty granted victory to His servants, who succeeded in killing a thousand and capturing three thousand. Among the captives was the daughter of Al-Muqauqis, who ruled Egypt under the orders of Heraclius. 'Amr returned her to her father unharmed and dignified. Al-Muqauqis highly regarded this action of `Amr.
The city of Bilbis remained under siege for a month till the Muslims opened it and the Byzantines were badly defeated.
The Battle of 'Ain Shams
'Umar ibn Al-Khattab sent reinforcements of more than eight thousand men, thus increasing the Muslims in might and main. 'Amr camped with his army at `Ain Shams with the target of dragging the Byzantines away from their forts to the open. He split his troops into three divisions.
One division camped at `Ain Shams under his leadership. Another was at Umm Danin, and the third was in the hills facing the castle under the leadership of Kharjah ibn Hudhafah. Thus, the Byzantine army was surrounded by two divisions of the Muslims -a plot that they were ignorant of in order for the third to swoop down on them when the orders were issued.
The Byzantine army had more than twenty thousand soldiers under their general, Theodore. The leaders of the cavalry were Teodisius and Anastasius. Theodore marched with his cavalrymen and infantry towards the Muslim army.
The two armies confronted each other in the location of 'Abassiyah midway between `Ain Shams and Umm Danin. They fought hard, for each army sought to conclude the battle in its favor.
While the battle was proceeding desperately, the third division of the Muslim army led; by Kharjah ibn Hudhafah, which had been lying in wait behind the hills, attacked. They pounced on the rear of the Byzantine army like a raging storm.
The enemy was thus hemmed in on both sides. They were confused, distracted and terrified. They fled to Umm Danin but were assaulted by the Muslims camping there, so they were stunned at the surprise. Some Byzantines sought refuge in the castle by land while others fled by boats to the fort of Babylon, but many of them were killed. The Muslims took hold of Umm Danin again and killed all of its guards except for three hundred who succeeded in escaping to the fort of Babylon.
From `Ain Shams to Fustat
Some guards of Umm Danin fled by boats till they reached Niqius, a town between Fustat and Alexandria. The Muslims seized the riverbanks to the north and south of the fort and moved their camp from `Ain Shams to Fustat.
When the tidings of the Muslim victory reached the Byzantines, the Byzantine army evacuated Fayum at night and marched towards Abwat, from which they fled by boats to Kariun without telling the people of Abwat that they had abandoned Fayum to their enemies, the Muslims.
When `Amr knew this, he sent an army to occupy Fayum and Abwat. The battle of `Ain Shams lasted for fifteen days till Fayum was opened. This was in the year 19 A.H.
Opening the Fort of Babylon
Al-Muqauqis, the patriarch and ruler of Egypt under Emperor Heraclius, and the general of his army, Theodore, sat in the fort of Babylon, which was called the Palace of Candles because at the beginning of every month, many candles were lit in it. When the sun penetrated one of the towers, candles were lit that night on the top of the castle so that people would know that the sun had moved from that tower to another one. This fort and castle lay opposite the city of Manf, which was the residence of Al-Muqauqis overlooking the Nile and facing the island of Rudah. Manf was a fortified city that was hard to defeat because it was near the capital. The Byzantines stayed in it for a long time accompanied by the distinguished army.
'Amr ibn Al-'As and his troops camped in front of the fortress and besieged it for seven months. During the siege, Al-Muqauqis sent his messengers to 'Amr asking for a reconciliation. 'Amr gave him the choice of Islam, jizyah or fighting. Al-Muqauqis chose to pay jizyah and wrote to Heraclius asking for his permission. Heraclius, however, objected and was furious with him and rebuked him severely. After that, he summoned him to Constantinople, then banished him.
'Amr ibn Al-'As then wrote to 'Umar ibn Al-Khattab telling him that Allah the Almighty had granted them victory and opened Egypt for them. He told him as well that he reached Fayum and Abwat. He also asked for reinforcements because he concluded that the remaining army was not sufficient.
'Umar reinforced him with four thousand men. At the head of each thousand was a man who was equal to a thousand by himself. These four vigorous men were Al-Zubair ibn Al-'Awwam, Al-Miqdad ibn 'Amr, 'Ubadah ibn Al-Samit and Muslimah ibn Mukhlid. In his message to 'Amr, 'Umar said, "You had better know that you have twelve thousand soldiers and these twelve thousand will not be defeated because of their small number."
When the opening of Fort Babylon was slow, Al-Zubair ibn Al-'Awwam said, "I sacrifice my soul to Allah and I hope this may help the Muslims."
'Amr ibn Al-'As was besieging the fort of Babylon. Then one night they climbed its walls and fought with its soldiers in a difficult encounter. The first to climb was Al-Zubair ibn Al-'Awwam. He placed a ladder on the side facing Suq Al-Hamam, then climbed and ordered the Muslims to storm into the fort when they heard him cry, "Allahu Akbar!" and saw him holding his sword. Hearing his exclamation of "Allahu Akbar", the Muslims repeated after him from outside the fort. The Byzantines inside were certain by these voices that the Muslims had already broken into the fort, so they fled. Thus, Al-Zubair, the disciple of Allah's Prophet, entered with his companions and opened the gates. The Muslims at once rushed in and opened it by force.
However, 'Amr made an agreement with them that they would depart from the fort within three days. The Byzantines had to go to the Nile carrying enough food that could last with them for some days. The fort and the arms and weapons it contained were the gain of the Muslims. Afterwards, 'Amr demolished the towers and walls of the fortress.