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History & Culture
Egypt: Pre-Dynastic and Early Dynastic Periods
Egypt: Old Kingdom & First Intermediate Period
Egypt: Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period
Egypt: New Kingdom & 3rd Intermediate Period
Egypt: Late Period
Egypt: Ptolemaic and Roman Rule to the Arab Conquest
Egypt: Caliphate and Ottomon Rule
Egyptian Law on the Protection of Antiquities (1983)


During the initial Islamic invasion in 639 AD, Egypt was ruled at first by governors acting in the name of the Patriarchal Caliphs (632-661) and the Righteous Caliphs, and then by the Ummayad Caliphs in Damascus. After the Ummayads were overthrown in 747, the power of the Arabs in Egypt slowly began to weaken.

While Egypt remained under the nominal control of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, local rulers in Alexandria and Cairo were able to establish quasi-independent dynasties, the prominent being the Ismaili Shi'a Fatimid dynasty from Tunisia, which conquered Egypt in 969 and established its capital at Cairo. This dynasty lasted until 1174, when Egypt came under the rule of Saladin, whose dynasty, the Ayyubids, lasted until 1252.

The Ayyubites were overthrown by their Turkish bodyguards, known as the Mamluks, who ruled in Cairo under the protection of the Abbasid Caliphs until 1517, when Egypt was seized by the Turkish army of the Ottoman Sultan Selim I and became part of the Ottoman Empire.

Yet Egypt proved a difficult province for the Ottoman Sultans to control and remained dominated by the semi-autonomous Mamluks under Ottoman suzerainty until 1789, when the French army under Napoleon swept through the region and conquered Egypt.


The Art of the Fatimid Period (909–1171). In the tenth to twelfth centuries, an area including present-day Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily, Egypt, and Syria came under the rule of the Fatimid dynasty (909–1171), an offshoot of a Shici sect from North Africa. By tracing their descent from Muhammad's daughter Fatima, the Fatimid rulers presented a threat to the political and religious authority of the Sunni Abbasid caliph.

This opposition became more significant following the Fatimid conquest of Egypt in 969. At this time, the Fatimids founded the city of Cairo (al-Qahira, "the triumphant") and established it as their new capital (973).

While Egypt came to enjoy enormous prosperity primarily due to its intermediary role in the lucrative trade between the Mediterranean and India, Cairo soon rivaled the Abbasid capital of Baghdad.

The opulence of the Fatimid court fueled a renaissance in the decorative arts, which made Cairo the most important cultural center in the Islamic world — a hub of production of pottery, glass, and metalwork, and wood carving; textile factories run by government officials created fine fabrics that spread the name of the caliph elsewhere in the Egyptian region, and both metalworkers and carvers demonstrated great skill in works created for and treasured by the caliphs themselves.

The artwork from this period exemplifies the creativity and ingenuity of Fatimid craftsmen. The technique of lusterware on ceramic, developed originally in Iraq, was revived in Egypt. Wood carving, jewelry and lusterware pieces from this period signed by their makers underscore the esteem that such craftsmen acquired.


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Fatimid artists created new decorative motifs and made greater use of figural forms, both human and animal. Figures were stylized but lively, while traditional vegetal and geometric decorations maintained their abstract quality.

In architecture, the Fatimids followed Tulunid techniques and used similar materials, but also developed those of their own. In Cairo, their first congregational mosque was al-Azhar ("the splendid") founded along with the city (969–73), which, together with its adjacent institution of higher learning (al-Azhar University), became the spiritual center for Ismacili Shici.

The Mosque of al-Hakim (ruled: 996–1013), an important example of Fatimid architecture and architectural decoration, played a critical role in Fatimid ceremonial and procession, which emphasized the religious and political role of the Fatimid caliph.

Besides elaborate funerary monuments, other surviving Fatimid structures include the Mosque of al-Aqmar (1125) as well as the monumental gates for Cairo's city walls commissioned by the powerful Fatimid emir and vizier Badr al-Jamali (r. 1073–94).

The Art of the Ayyubid Period (circa 1171–1260). The Ayyubid dynasty came to power under the leadership of the Kurdish Zengid general Salah al-Din (reign 1169–1193), known in Europe as Saladin. After repulsing a Crusader army that had reached the gates of Fatimid Cairo, Salah al-Din declared the Fatimid caliphate to be at its end, and established the Ayyubid sultanate in 1171.

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As the conflict with Crusaders continued throughout the Ayyubid period, the sultanate depended on mamluks (slave soldiers) for its military organization, yet the end of the dynasty in 1250 was largely caused by Turkic mamluks, who overthrew the last Ayyubid sultan in Egypt, al-Malik al-Ashraf (r. 1249–50) and founded the Mamluk sultanate (1250–1517).

In the arts, the Ayyubids are known especially for their works in inlaid metalwork and ceramics, particularly luster- and underglaze-painted wares.

Some objects from this period, including a group of inlaid metalwork pieces, also have Christian scenes.

Enameled glass rose to excellence in this period and carved wood was also
esteemed by Ayyubid patrons. Techniques established and developed during this time formed the foundation of the arts in the Mamluk period.

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The Ayyubids were also vigorous builders. Their generous patronage led to tremendous architectural activity in Egypt . The outstanding secular architecture from this period includes the fortified citadel of Cairo (1187); seminal works of religious architecture can be found among the madrasas, higher institutions for religious learning, such as the Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub (1243) in Cairo, which exemplifies the Ayyubid interest in Sunni education after Shia domination under the Fatimids had been cast aside. In terms of commemorative buildings, the Mausoleum of Imam al-Shafici (1211) and the Tomb of the Abbasid Caliphs (1242–43) in Cairo are especially noteworthy.

The Art of the Mamluk Period (1250–1517). The Mamluk sultanate (1250–1517) emerged from the weakening of the Ayyubid realm in Egypt (1250–60) by serving the Ayyubid sultans as slave soldiers (Arabic: mamluk, literally "owned," or slave). With service came power, which the mamluks of Turkic origin seized in order to overthrow the last Ayyubid sultan in Egypt, al-Malik al-Ashraf (r. 1249–50) and established their own rule. Following the defeat of Mongol armies in 1260, the Mamluks inherited the last Ayyubid strongholds in the eastern Mediterranean and within a short period of time, created a vast Islamic empire with their capital, Cairo, becoming the economic, cultural, and artistic center of the Arab Islamic world.

Mamluk history is divided into two periods based on different dynastic lines: the Bahri Mamluks (1250–1382) of Turkic origin from southern Russia, and the Burji Mamluks (1382–1517) of Caucasian origin.

Art and Architecture under the Bahri Mamluks (1250–1382). The Bahri reign defined the art and architecture of the entire Mamluk period. Prosperity generated by the east-west trade in silks and spices supported the Mamluks' generous patronage. Despite periods of internal struggle, there was tremendous artistic and architectural activity, developing techniques established by the Ayyubids and integrating influences from different parts of the Islamic world. Refugees from east and west contributed to the momentum.

Mamluk decorative arts—especially enameled and gilded glass, inlaid metalwork, woodwork, and textiles—were prized around the Mediterranean as well as in Europe, where they had a profound impact on local production. The influence of Mamluk glassware on the Venetian glass industry is only one such example.

Mamluk building projects — madrasas, mausolea, minarets, and hospitals — not only ensured the survival of the ruler's wealth but also perpetuated his name. Important commissions by Bahri Mamluk sultans include those of al-Nasir Muhammad (1295–1304) as well as the immense and splendid complex of Sultan Hassan (begun 1356).

Art and Architecture under the Burji Mamluks (1382–1517). The Burji Mamluk sultans followed the artistic traditions established by their Bahri predecessors. Although the state was faced with its greatest external and internal threats in the early fifteenth century, including the devastation of the eastern Mediterranean provinces by the Central Asian conqueror Timur (Tamerlane; r. 1370–1405), as well as famine, plague, and civil strife in Egypt, patronage of art and architecture resumed. Mamluk textiles and carpets were prized in international trade. In architecture, endowed public and pious foundations continued to be favored. Major commissions in the early Burji

period in Egypt included the complexes built by Barquq (r. 1382–99), Faraj (r. 1399–1412), Mu’ayyad Shaykh (r. 1412–21), and Barsbay (r. 1422–38).

In the second half of the fifteenth century, the arts thrived under the patronage of Qa’itbay (r. 1468–96), the greatest of the later Mamluk sultans. During his reign, the shrines of Mecca and Medina were extensively restored. Major cities were endowed with commercial buildings, religious foundations, and bridges. In Cairo, the complex of Qa’itbay in the Northern Cemetery (1472–74) is the best known and admired structure of this period. Apart from his own patronage, Qa’itbay encouraged high-ranking officials and influential emirs to build as well.

Building continued under the last Mamluk sultan, Qunsuwah Al Ghouri (Qansuh al-Ghawri) (r. 1501–17), who commissioned his own complex (1503–5); however, construction methods reflected the finances of the state. At this time, the Portuguese were gaining control of the Indian Ocean and barring the Mamluks from trade, their richest source of revenue. Though the Mamluk realm was soon incorporated into the Ottoman empire (1517), Mamluk visual culture continued to inspire Ottoman and other Islamic artistic traditions.

The history of early Ottoman Egypt is in many ways the story of a power struggle between the Mamelukes and the representatives of the Ottoman Sultan Selim I, who left the country in the hands of his viceroy Khair Bey and a 5,000-man guard force. Most of the land, remained a fief of the Mamluks, which allowed them to quickly return to posiitons of great influence.