Byzantine Egypt

See a map of the Cairo area at this time

It is not known for certain when the settlement that came to be known as Babylon was founded, nor how it came to have that name. European writers from the medieval era assumed that the settlement had been founded by Jews who were descended from the Babylonian exiles. While it is known that it was a habit in Memphis and other cosmopolitan cities in Egypt to name quarters and neighborhoods after the religious, ethnic, or national groups that lived in them, there are no records from that time that mention Babylon. Another possibility is that the settlement was named for a nearby temple dedicated to the god Hapi. In the ancient Egyptian language, the name would have been Pr H'p[y] m 'lwnw (the House of Hapi in On). The name sounded like "Per-hapi-en-on," which could have easily been corrupted to "Babylon" by its Greek speaking Jewish and Christian residents later on.

The Byzantine rulers of Bablyon spoke Greek, while the Egyptians continued to speak the language of the pharaohs, a language that is now called Coptic. The word "Copt" is an Arabic corruption of the Greek word for Egypt, "Aigyptos," which in turn was a corruption of Hikaptah, one of the names of the city of Memphis. The Arabs referred to Egypt and its inhabitants as "al-Jibt" prior to the Muslim invasion in 640.

Interior, Ben Ezra SynagogueAlthough most Egyptians spoke Coptic at home, many of them also spoke Greek, which became an important language of business and trade. Greek also became the primary language of the Jewish community in Egypt. Although Egypt was never predominately Jewish, there had been a large community of Jews in Egypt since 685 B.C.E., when the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar expelled the Jews from Jerusalem. To the right, you can see the Ben Ezra Synagogue, one of the few remaining synagogues in Cairo.

Jewish scholars living in Egypt translated their sacred books into Greek. These translations were later used as the primary texts of the Old Testament when they were translated into European languages.

Reconstructed tower of the fortress of Babylon that stood guard over the Nile

Why is Cairo located where it is?

Look at this map of Egypt. Notice that north of Cairo the Nile River breaks down into several branches as it runs through the fertile, roughly triangle-shaped region known as the Delta. This is where the river slows down as it approaches the Mediterranean Sea.

Imagine that you are living two thousand years ago, and that you want to invade Egypt. You do not have any maps, like the one you've just seen, to guide you, but you want to get to Upper Egypt (which is in the south). Since there is a big river that runs all the way through the country from north to south, all you have to do is follow the river upstream. But, look at the map again. If you were coming from the east, which branch of the river would you follow? What if you were coming from the west? What if you came by boat from across the sea?

Now imagine that you are an Egyptian, and that you do not want to have a lot of gold-seeking foreigners running through your country. Where would you build a fort so that you could stop them? The best place would be somewhere where you could stop intruders regardless of which branch of the river they followed. And that place is exactly where Cairo is located. It doesn't matter which branch of the river you follow, you will always come to the site of Cairo. An additional bonus was the presence of an island in the river at that point, where the fast moving river could be crossed safely.

Now, look at a map of your hometown. What factors did the people who first founded your city take into account when they picked the place to start their new city?

During the Byzantine period, as during the Roman and Greek periods that came before it, Egypt was used as a source of food for the empire. The fields of Egypt produced grains and rice in abundance, which could feed not only Egypt, but other parts of the empire as well. The main city in Egypt was Alexandria, on the Mediterranean coast, which became a great city of learning and scholarship, as well as one of the most important ports in the world. Memphis remained an important river port, along with the Byzantine settlment of Babylon close by, but little is known about either city during this period.

The decline of the religion of the Pharaohs coincided with the introduction of a new religion, Christianity. The Romans originally considered Christianity a subversive force because its prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish rabbi, had spent much of his ministry preaching against Roman practices in Galillee, Judaea and Samarria. This made it all the more attractive to the Egyptians, who were not happy with the Byzantine occupation. The story of Jesus and the Holy Family was also inexorably tied to Egypt, with the legend that Joseph and Mary had passed through Egypt and stayed there during the flight from King Herod.

Tradition states that Christianity was brought to Egypt by St. Mark during the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero, who ruled from 54-68 C.E.. Some of Mark's first converts came from the Jewish community in Egypt. However, until the 4th century, Christianity was not a tolerated religion, and Christians were forced to worship in private. Often times, the Egyptians would be forced to participate in public ceremonies worshipping the Egyptian and Roman gods (whose identities had been blended together by the Ptolemies). Anyone who refused to participate was branded as a Christian and executed. Many Christians chose to die rather than deny their faith, and their examples further inspired the spread of the religion among the Egyptians.

In 284, the Emperor Diocletian came to power. He issued a series of broad-sweeping political reforms that were designed to strengthen the Roman Empire. Latin was introduced as the official language of all government business. Although it was the official language of Rome, in most of the eastern provinces, including Egypt, Greek was the language actually spoken, and the vast majority of Egyptians -- and even the Romans who governed Egypt -- could not speak any Latin at all. Further, the emperor declared that all Egyptians would be forced into public service, such as building roads and other public works projects on behalf of the Empire, for which they would not be paid.

The Egyptians rebelled against Diocletian's reforms, effectively shutting off Egypt as a supply of food, and closing the port of Alexandria. Diocletian then decided that if the Egyptians could not be controlled, they should be eliminated. Egyptians were dismissed from government service, their property was taken by the government, and Roman troops destroyed their houses. Anyone who was found to be Christian, or to have copies of the scripture or crosses in their houses, was executed on the spot. The event is well remembered among Egyptian Christians, and the Coptic Church begins its calendar on August 29, 284, in memory of the thousands of Christians who were executed by Diocletian's army.

One of the ways in which Christians would escape the persecution was by taking up residence in the desert, often living in caves and devoting their lives to studying scripture. Many of them went to a remote valley called Wadi Natrun, to the northwest of Cairo, a place that remains an important center for Coptic monasteries to this day.

The Fayyum Portraits

Whenever two cultures interact, a process called syncretism often takes place. This is when two aspects of two separate cultures combine to form a third. The Fayyum portraits are an example of this process. The Fayyum portraits, which you can find examples of here and here, are beautifully painted portraits that were placed in the wrappings of mummies to identify whose mummy it was. They are surprisingly life-like, and offer a unique insight into the lives of the people who lived in Egypt at this time.

Ayn Musa

Many sites in Egypt have Biblical associations. This is Ayn Musa, "the Well of Moses," which, legend says, is where Pharaoh's daughter pulled Moses from the Nile.

Ben Ezra

While Judaism was never the predominant religion in Egypt, there has been a Jewish minority in Egypt for several thousand years. This is the Ben Ezra Synagogue, one of the few remaining synagogues in Cairo.

St. Georges

St. George's Greek Orthodox Church, which was built over one of the towers of the old Fortress of Babylon.

In 312, the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and issued the Edict of Milan, which established the principle of religious tolerance throughout the Empire. Although in theory this practice extended to all, as Egypt became predominately Christian, those who practiced the old religion of the Pharaohs found their place in Egyptian society waning. Most of the practitioners of the old faith converted to Christianity, although the religion appears to have been practiced until the 5th or 6th centuries at temples near Aswan in Upper Egypt.

Take a virtual tour of the "Hanging Church," built over one of the towers of the Fortress of Babylon.

In 330 C.E., the Roman Emperor Constantine refounded an old village along the Bosphorous. Originally called Byzantium, it was renamed Constantinople. He did this because the Empire was very big, and it was hard to maintain a tight control on the far reaching areas from Rome. In 395, the Emperor Theodesius decreed that his two sons would rule jointly: one from Rome, and one from Constantinople.


The Coptic Museum in Cairo.

Despite the new official endorsement of Christianity in the Empire, things turned sour for the Christians of Egypt fairly quickly. Because Christianity had not been a unified religion, but had had to grow in secret, its scholars had different opinions on certain issues of doctrine. One of these concerns the nature of Jesus Christ, and how it is that he was both human and yet a divine being. The Egyptian Christians believed that, while Jesus Christ was human, he was of a divine nature, and were thus called monophysites. Other Christians considered Christ to have been of two natures at the same time: both divine and human. Although both groups were essentially arguing the same point: (that Christ was of both of these natures), political factors got in the way and complicated matters. At the Council of Chalcedon, a meeting called to settle the differences in 451, the Egyptian Christians were condemned for their beliefs, and split off from the rest of Christianity. The Coptic Church, along with the other "Non-Chalcedonian Churches," as they are called, were considered for a long time to be heretical in their beliefs by other Christians. Only recently has it been acknowledged that the views of the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Churches are similar, and that the main dispute at Chalcedon was political rather than over issues of doctrine.

In 476, Rome was conquered, and the Roman Empire ended. The Eastern half carried on independently, and became known as the Byzantine Empire. With the fall of Rome, Egypt's importance waned. There were sources of food much closer to Constantinople, and so trade declined rapidly. The city of Memphis, a transfer point for cargo heading up and down the Nile, dwindled. The final decline of Memphis was determined by the River Nile itself, which shifted in its banks, leaving the port city more than a mile away from the river. Babylon took over as the main port for what little trade there was, and Memphis was forgotten.

From the time of Byzantine independence, Egypt was regarded as a difficult province. Because of the ideological differences between the Chalcedonian rulers and their non-Chalcedonian subjects, the local Christian population was heavily taxed and discriminated against. Those Christians whose beliefs fell in line with the Church of Constantinople were favored. Therefore, when the Muslim armies came out of Arabia in 640 C.E., they encountered little resistance from the local population. The fortress at Babylon, armed with Byzantine soldiers, held out for seven months before finally surrendering. The Arabs finally conquered the city on Easter Monday, April 9, 641.

The new Muslim governor of Egypt was a man named Amr Ibn al-As. He made his new capital outside the walls of the Byzantine fortress, and named it "The Tented City" or Misr al-Fustat in Arabic. The city became known as Al-Fustat, while Misr today is the Arabic word for "Egypt."

All photographs copyright 1995 by Christopher Rose


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