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Complete Guide  to Egypt travel & Tours
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The Hellenistic and Roman Periods

Egyptian history

The Hellenistic and Roman Periods

 

The occupation of Egypt by the forces of Alexander the Great in 332 BC brought an end to Persian rule. Alexander appointed Cleomenes of Naucratis, a Greek resident in Egypt, and his Macedonian general, known later as Ptolemy I, to govern the country. Although two Egyptian governors were named as well, power was clearly in the hands of Ptolemy, who in a few years took absolute control of the country.

The Ptolemaic Dynasty

Rivalries with other generals, who carved out sections of Alexander's empire after his death in 323 BC, occupied much of Ptolemy's time, but in 305 BC he assumed the royal title and founded the dynasty that bears his name (see Ptolemaic Dynasty). Ptolemaic Egypt was one of the great powers of the Hellenistic world, and at various times it extended its rule over parts of Syria, Asia Minor, Cyprus, Libya, Phoenicia, and other lands.

 

Partly because native Egyptian rulers had a reduced role in affairs of state during the Ptolemaic regime, they periodically demonstrated their dissatisfaction by open revolts, all of which were, however, quickly suppressed. In the reign of Ptolemy VI, Egypt became a protectorate under Antiochus IV of Syria, who successfully invaded the country in 169 BC. The Romans, however, forced Antiochus to give up the country, which was then divided between Ptolemy VI and his younger brother, Ptolemy VIII; the latter took full control upon the death of his brother in 145 BC.

 

The succeeding Ptolemies preserved the wealth and status of Egypt while continually losing territory to the Romans. Cleopatra VII was the last great ruler of the Ptolemaic line. In an attempt to maintain Egyptian power she aligned herself with Julius Caesar and, later, Mark Antony, but these moves only postponed the end. After her forces were defeated by Roman legions under Octavian (later Emperor Augustus), Cleopatra committed suicide in 30 BC.

 

Roman and Byzantine Rule

 

For nearly seven centuries after the death of Cleopatra, the Romans controlled Egypt (except for a short time in the 3rd century AD, when it came under the power of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra). They treated Egypt as a valuable source of wealth and profit and were dependent on its supply of grain to feed their multitudes. Roman Egypt was governed by a prefect, whose duties as commander of the army and official judge were similar to those of the pharaohs of the past. The office, therefore, was one with which the native population was familiar. Because of the immense power of the prefects, however, their functions were eventually divided under Emperor Justinian, who in the 6th century AD put the army under a separate commander, directly responsible to him.

Egypt in the Roman period was relatively peaceful; its southern boundary at Aswan was only rarely attacked by the Ethiopians. Egypt's population had become Hellenized under the Ptolemies, and it included large minorities of Greeks and Jews, as well as other peoples from Asia Minor. The mixture of the cultures did not lead to a homogeneous society, and civil strife was frequent. In 212, however, Emperor Caracalla granted the entire population citizenship in the Roman Empire.

 

Alexandria, the port city on the Mediterranean founded by Alexander the Great, remained the capital as it had been under the Ptolemies. One of the great metropolises of the Roman Empire, it was the center of a thriving commerce between India and Arabia and the Mediterranean countries. It was the home of the great Alexandrian library and museum and had a population of some 300,000 (excluding slaves).

Egypt became an economic mainstay of the Roman Empire not only because of its annual harvest of grain but also for its glass, metal, and other manufactured products. In addition, the trade brought in spices, perfumes, precious stones, and rare metals from the Red Sea ports. Once part of the empire, Egypt was subject to a variety of taxes as well.

In order to control the people and placate the powerful priesthood, the Roman emperors protected the ancient religion, completed or embellished temples begun under the Ptolemies, and had their own names inscribed on them as pharaohs; the cartouches of several can be found at Isna, Kawn Umbu, Dandara, and Philae. The Egyptian cults of Isis and Serapis spread throughout the ancient world. Egypt was also an important center of early Christendom and the first one of Christian monasticism. Its Coptic or Monophysite church separated from mainstream Christianity in the 5th century.

 

During the 7th century the power of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire was challenged by the Sassanids of Persia, who invaded Egypt in 616. They were expelled again in 628, but soon after, in 642, the country fell to the Arabs, who brought with them a new religion, Islam, and began a new chapter of Egyptian history.

 

Egypt Under the the Byzantinans

 

Alienated by the religious intolerance and heavy taxation of the Byzantine government, the Coptic Egyptians offered little resistance to their Arab conquerors. A treaty was subsequently signed, by which the Egyptians agreed to pay a poll tax (jizyah) in return for an Arab promise to respect the religious practices, lives, and property of the Copts. Besides the poll tax, the male population, estimated at between 6 and 8 million, paid the kharaj, a tax levied on agricultural land.

 

Local Government

 

No changes in the administration were made by the Arabs, who adopted the Byzantine decentralized system of provincial governors reporting to a chief governor, resident in the capital, Alexandria. They did, however, later move the capital to a new, more central location, called Al Fustat ("the tent"), a few miles south of present-day Cairo.

For the next two centuries Egypt was ruled by governors appointed by the caliph, the leader of the Muslim community. In this system, mild and generous rule alternated with severity and religious oppression, depending on the character of the governor appointed, his relationship with the population, and his financial needs. Immigration of Arab tribes and the replacement of the Coptic language by Arabic in all public documents began a slow process of Arabization that was eventually to turn Coptic-speaking Christian Egypt into a largely Muslim and wholly Arabic-speaking country. Coptic became a liturgical language.

 

Internal Strife

 

Under the Abbasid caliphs (750-868), governors were appointed for brief periods, and Egypt was plagued by a series of insurrections arising from conflicts between the different sects of Muslims who had settled there: the Sunni, or orthodox majority, and the minority Shia sect. On several occasions the Copts also rose to protest excessive taxation. Such uprisings were met with repression and persecution by the government. Internal conditions became so bad in the late 8th century that a group of new immigrants from Andalusia allied themselves with an Arab tribe and seized Alexandria, holding it until an army arrived from Baghdad and exiled them to Crete. Insurrections continued to break out among the Arabs, who even defeated a governor and burned his baggage. Rebellions by the Copts continued until Caliph Abdullah al-Mamun led a Turkish army to put down the revolts in 832. This was a period of ruthless and unscrupulous governors, who abused the population and extorted money from them. The only bulwark against such oppression lay in the chief qadi, the country's leading Muslim magistrate, who maintained the sacred law—the Sharia—in the face of abuse of power, and helped ease the rapacity of the governors.

Despite a predominantly rural population, commercial centers flourished, and Al Fustat grew to become a trading metropolis.From 856 onward Egypt was given as an iqta, a form of fief, to the Turkish military oligarchy that dominated the caliphate in Baghdad. In 868 Ahmad ibn Tulun, a 33-year-old Turk, was sent to the country as governor. A man of ability and education, Tulun ruled wisely and well, but he also turned Egypt into an autonomous province, linked with the Abbasids only by the yearly payment of a small tribute. Tulun built a new city, Al Qita'ì ("the Wards"), north of Al Fustat. Under his benevolent rule Egypt prospered and expanded to annex Syria. Tulun's dynasty (the Tulunids) ruled for 37 years over an empire that included Egypt, Palestine, and Syria.

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