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In the year 611 C.E., in a town called Mecca on the western end of the Arabian Peninsula, there lived a young trader named Muhammad. One day, while meditating in a cave near Mecca, a powerful voice spoke to him. Muhammad came to belive that he had been chosen by God to be a prophet, and that he was responsible for delivering God's message to humankind. These messages would eventually become the Qur'an. Muhammad continued to receive revelations from God for the next twenty-one years, until his death at the age of 63 in the year 632.


The Mosque of Amr Ibn al-'As was the first mosque in Egypt, and has been restored many times. This is the fountain in the central courtyard as it appears today.

In the beginning, the people of Mecca were not happy that Muhammad was preaching a new religion. Mecca was a big caravan trading center which collected a lot of money from a big pagan shrine in the middle of town called the Ka'aba. People would come from all over Arabia to the Ka'aba, so a lot of people made a lot of money from these religious pilgrims. The wealthy merchants in particular were scared that Muhammad's message would disrupt their business.

As more and more people began to accept what Muhammad said about his new religion, Islam, the men who ruled Mecca began to make life difficult for him and his followers. Many of the converts to the new religion, called Muslims, were persecuted and killed. Muhammad himself experienced great loss. Several of Muhammad's family members were killed.

Finally, in 622, Muhammad and his followers were invited by the people of the city of Yathrib to come and live with them. The people of Medina had heard of Muhammad's teachings, and were willing to accept them. And so, the Muslims left Mecca for Yathrib, which was renamed "Medina al-Munawarra," (the Luminated City) also known as Medina. This event is called the Hijra, or "the flight," an event of such significance that it marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar.

In Medina, Muhammad's followers thrived, raised armies against their Meccan opposition, and eventually conquered Mecca. Throughout Muhammad's lifetime, the armies of Islam would wage war against the tribes who had persecuted them in the early days. Eventually, after Muhammad's death, the armies of Islam began to expand out of the Arabian Peninsula. They went north, to Mesopotamia, into Palestine and Syria, and into Persia. And as they expanded west into Africa, the first place they came was Egypt.


The mihrab in the Mosque of Amr Ibn al-'As. Every mosque has a mihrab, with a niche indicating the qibla, which is the direction Muslims must face in order to pray in the direction of Mecca.

What do Muslims Believe?

This is a complicated question, which deserves a detailed answer. See the links page in order to access more information about Islam.

In brief, Muslims believe that they worship the same God as the Jews and the Christians, and see Muhammad as the last in a line of prophets that started with Moses and Abraham, and includes Jesus as well as the prophets of the Bible. In Arabic, the word for "God" is "Allah" and sometimes the God of Islam is called Allah in English sources, but it is important to remember that Muslims believe that there is only one God for themselves, the Christians and the Jews.

The foundations of Islam come from two sources: the Qur'an, which is the collected verses that Muhammad received from God in his revelations; and the sayings of Muhammad and his companions, called the hadith. Modern day scholars use the Qur'an and the hadith if they have to make a legal ruling about something, or need to advise people about something that they have not had to deal with before.

Islam teaches that people should be kind and tolerant of one another, and treat each other with respect. It also teaches that people should be modest, which is why many Muslim women cover their hair with a scarf. Islam also teaches that Muslims should be respectful of the other "people of the book," meaning Jews and Christians. This respect for the "people of the book" has a direct bearing on the story of Islam's arrival in Egypt.

The interior of the Mosque of Amr Ibn al-'As as it appears today.

When the armies of Islam came into Egypt in the year 640 C.E., the situation in Egypt was rather difficult. The Byzantine rulers did not like their Egyptian subjects, and the Egyptians hated the Byzantines. When the Muslims came, Babylon shut its gates and held out for seven months.

There are conflicting stories about exactly how the Muslims were able to conquer Egypt. One says that the Muslims won when they convinced the Copts to help them, and together they threw the Byzantines out of Egypt. Another says that it was the Chalcedonian Patriarch of Alexandria who let the Muslims have Egypt, since he thought that they would kill all of the Copts whose beliefs he found objectionable.

Babylon fell to the Muslim forces on the day after Easter, Monday April 9, 641. Once Egypt was under the control of the Muslims, the Copts found that their situation had actually improved. Muslims believe that Christians and Jews are People of the Book because they share belief in the same God, even if they have not accepted the Prophet Muhammad and his message. The Qur'an and hadith both set out provisions for situations where Muslims govern over People of the Book, and call for tolerance and good treatment. In Egypt, the Muslims were willing to let the Copts practice their religion and would leave them alone as long as they paid a poll tax every year. The poll tax was less than the yearly tributes and taxes the Copts had been required to pay to the Byzantines. The Copts also had the option of converting to Islam, but they were not forced to do so. Muslims did not constitute the majority of Egypt's population until around the 10th century C.E..

The armies of Islam that came to Egypt were led by a man named Amr ibn al-'As. He was the representative of the Caliph Omar. The Caliphs were the direct successors of Muhammad as leaders of the Muslim world. By this time, the Caliphs had made the city of Damascus their capital.

Amr wanted to make Alexandria his capital, but Omar was concerned that the yearly flooding of the Nile river would make it too difficult to send troops into Egypt if it becams necessary. Omar was also secretly worried that Amr would try to break free and start his own country, so he directed Amr to found a new city. Amr chose a site east of the Roman fortress at Babylon for his new capital, which he called al-Fustat.


General view of the ruins of the first Islamic city in Egypt, al-Fustat. There is not much left to see of the old city.

Amr also built the first mosque in Egypt, which was built over the winter of 640-41 while Amr's armies were laying seige to Babylon. Originally, it was little more than a large open space surrounded by mud-brick walls and a thatched roof held in place by palm branches. Over the years it was expanded and the new large mosque was always maintained and restored. There is still a mosque named for Amr in the location of the original mosque, although it doesn't look like the original mosque at all.

This was once the wall of a building several stories high in the city of al-Fustat.

One of the old cisterns that provided the water supply for al-Fustat. Contrast the buildings of the old city with modern Cairo in the background.


The once-tiled floor of a house in al-Fustat. Notice the way the buildings were constructed right next to each other.

For nearly two hundred years, al-Fustat was the capital of Egypt, and it became one of the most important and influential cities in the world. Travelers to the city in the 9th century describe multi-story buildings that blocked the sun with their height, so that it was necessary to use a torch to light one's way through the streets, even in the daytime. Archaeological remains show that there was an expansive sewer and irrigation system that provided running water to houses, and took the waste-water away.

Eventually, however, political events to the east began to effect Egypt, and al-Fustat was soon to be supplanted by another settlement, called al-Qatta'i.

All photographs copyright 1995 by Christopher Rose

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