We often think of the Crusades as something that happened in the what is termed the Holy Land. Broadly the battles were fought in what is now Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. But in fact, there were other crusader theatres of war including the land of the pyramids – Egypt.
In the shadow of the pyramids (well, just about), crusaders and Templar knights included fought furiously with Muslim rulers. And this was a time when Egypt had quite a confusing political situation. The Islam practised by its rulers didn’t match the majority of the population. And there was still a very sizeable Christian minority in Egypt – as there still is today.
Crusaders eye up the prize of Egypt
From the middle of the twelfth century AD, the crusaders began looking at Egypt as the territory they had to annex if their venture was to have any chance of success. I say “Egypt” but of course the nation that we know today didn’t exist at this time and from 909 to 1171 was part of the huge and sprawling Fatimid empire. This Islamic realm stretched from Morocco to modern Jordan and Syria. It took its name from Fatima, daughter of Mohammed, from whom the Fatimids claimed descent and therefore legitimacy.
The real significance of the Fatimids was that they weren’t Sunni. They didn’t recognise the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. Worse, from the perspective of the caliph, they adhered to the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam and sought to overthrow their Sunni overlords. And they came quite close to achieving that aim. Throughout the tenth century – the Fatimids were by far the most powerful Muslim force but internal and external problems were stacking up.
The Fatimids had originated in modern Algeria and through conquest, took over the existing Islamic dominions including southern Italy. In that area, they constantly bumped up against the military power of a very resurgent and aggressive Byzantine empire. But keen to push east and overthrow the caliph in Baghdad, the Fatimids took Egypt and established the city of Cairo. This effectively became their capital and it was from here that they pushed up into the Levant – all the time promoting their version of Islam and insisting that the Sunni caliph was an imposter.
Trouble began for the Fatimids with a rather mad ruler called al-Hakim whose random brutality became the stuff of legend. This included flattening the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and killing all dogs in Cairo because he couldn’t stand their barking. However, al-Hakim was at the same time accused of being too lenient towards non-Muslims by the caliph in Baghdad who began accusing the Fatimids of being less than pure, certainly not descended from Fatima and possibly – horror of horrors – being of Jewish ancestry! Mercifully for everybody, al-Hakim went out for a stroll one night in Cairo and only his blood stained cloak and a confused donkey were found. He was never heard of or seen again.
There now began a long period of anarchy and secession of territories from the Fatimid empire. Nubians, Turks and Berbers fought between each other and the rulers had difficulty asserting control. By the mid-twelfth century – two new and very large threats had emerged that would eventually combine to destroy the Fatimids. The crusaders had taken Jerusalem and established a string of kingdoms along the eastern Mediterranean coast. And from the north had emerged the Seljuk Turks – uniting Sunni Islam under vigorous military rulers.
Egypt becomes a crusader target
For the crusaders of Jerusalem – Egypt became a very attractive target. The Seljuks had invaded the crusader kingdom of Edessa and the Byzantines had claimed sovereignty over Antioch. So the kingdom of Jerusalem began looking southwards at the Fatimids who were busy arguing amongst themselves. Almaric I of Jerusalem, together with the Byzantines, invaded Egypt, which seemed ripe for the taking. And sure enough – they defeated the Fatimids in their first battle.
This has given rise to a question still hotly debated today – could Almaric have annexed Egypt? In the end he retreated but there’s plenty of reasons for supposing he could have succeeded. Some senior figures in the Fatimid empire were already working with the Sunni Seljuks while others remained loyal to the original Fatimid aims. So the ruling elite was divided and treacherous.
It’s been argued that Almaric could have relied on the Coptic Christians of Egypt to rally to his side but that may be an assumption too far. Eastern Christians did not necessarily look favorably at the Latin rites, western crusaders and vice versa.
The Greek rites church of Byzantium had gone its own way, splitting from Rome, a hundred years earlier. The Coptic church, with its long history of a powerful patriarch in Alexandria, did not look to Rome for spiritual guidance. But a Latin crusader king could conceivably have convinced the Copts to come on side – they were a much larger percentage of the population at that time – and Almaric might have assured them that he would put the forward march of Islam on hold.
Who knows? It didn’t happen but as I’ll show in future posts – that didn’t stop some very well known crusaders having another go at Egypt.