John Frederick Lewis, 'Hof im Haus des Malers in Cairo', 1851
Emil Homerin
(University of Rochester)

Cairo and Alexandria

Introduction:  Cairo, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Damascus were all part of the Mamluk Sultanate at this time. 

Key events 1348-1418: Alexandria continued to be an important entry way for Christian pilgrims travelling to the holy places in Cairo, Sinai and on to Jerusalem, as we read in Frescobaldi’s travel account to the region in 1384.  Alexandria was also the port of call for Italian merchants, including Cyriaco de’Pizzicoli who visited Egypt in 1412 and 1418.  Alexandria was decimated by the plague in 1348, and then sacked in 1365 during the crusade of Peter Lusignan.  The city never recovered during this period, though it remained an important port, especially for the Venetians, while its fortress served as a prison for Mamluk emirs who had fallen from favour.  Among the items transferred from Alexandria to Cairo was the plague as gruesomely described by Arab historians, including al-Maqrizi.  As elsewhere, Cairo was slow to recover, and the city would experience the plague and famine several more times during this period, which was also marked by political instability.  From 1348-82, there were six different sultans, who generally ruled in name only.  Then in 1382, a Circassian Mamluk, Barquq, finally stabilized his regime, ruling until 1398.  He was succeeded by his cruel son Faraj, whose reign was marked by civil war and Timur’s invasion of Syria.  Faraj died in 1412, and the period ends during the more stable reign of al-Mu’ayyad Shaikh.  The events are well documented due to the long tradition of Arab historians, here represented by al-Maqrizi, Ibn Khaldun, and Ibn Taghri Birdi. 

Society: The population of Egypt during this period was largely Muslim, particularly in Cairo and the Alexandria, though there was a significant number of Christians, especially in Upper Egypt.  The Christian communities appear to be in decline at this time, and Genizah documents suggest the same for the Jewish community in Cairo.  In general, Egyptian society was divided into four classes, the lowest being the vast majority of illiterate Egyptian peasants and town-dwellers.  They were ruled by the Mamluks who were foreign slaves, usually Turkish, who probably spoke colloquial Egyptian Arabic as well.  Some Mamluks could read and write Arabic, and a few appreciated Arabic scholarship and literature.  Another class was the Awlad al-Nas, the “Children of the People,” that is the children of the Mamluks, who sometimes served in the military, but more often were educated in the Arabic tradition and worked among a final class, the “men of the pen.”  This educated elite included scribes who served the Mamluk administration and chancery, and is well represented by al-Qalqashandi.  “The men of the Pen” also included the religious scholars, who were usually supported by various schools and universities established by the Mamluks.  This patronage also drew scholars from Muslim Spain, North Africa, and elsewhere in the Islamic world.

Literature: In addition to the histories, topographies, and chancery works, a number of other writings appeared in Egypt between 1348-1418.  Religious scholarship included pilgrimage guides, sermons, mystical tracts, works on law and theology, as well as the great commentary on the Qur’an by Ibn Kathir, and the commentary on hadith by Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, who also composed other works, including an epistle on the plague and a large biographical dictionary of learned men.  Another important biographical dictionary was composed by al-Safadi, a literary scholar, who had a special affection for poets and litterateurs of the time.  Among the great poets of the period are Ibn Nubatah, Ibn al-Mukanis, and Ibn Abi Hajalah, whose verse well represents the genres and trends of Arabic poetry at the time.  Also of importance are prose works of the period including the 1001 Nights and the Epic of Baybars.