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SARACENS CONQUER EGYPT
DESTRUCTION OF THE LIBRARY AT ALEXANDRIA
A.D. 640
WASHINGTON IRVING

Who shall estimate the loss to civilization and the world that has been caused by the destruction of accumulated stores of books, through the crass ignorance or stupid bigotry of benighted rulers? The chronicles record a number of such vandal acts. Hwangti, one of China's greatest monarchs, he who built the Great Wall of China, attempted the complete extinction of literature in that country, B.C. 213. That prince, being at one time strongly opposed by certain men of letters, expressed his hatred and contempt, not only of the literary class, but of literature itself, and resorted to extreme measures of coercion. All books were proscribed, and orders issued to burn every work except those relating to medicine, agriculture, and science. The destruction was carried out with terrible completeness. The burning of the books was accompanied by the execution of five hundred of the literati and by the banishment of many thousands.

The destruction of the Alexandrian Library, by command of Omar, was as complete as the extinction of literature in China by Hwangti, as head of the Moslem religion.

Omar, using the intrepid Amru, was vicariously proselyting in true Mahometan style—in one hand offering the Koran, the while the other extended the sword.

After a successful campaign in Palestine, Omar's victorious banners were planted in the historic soil of the Pharaohs. A protracted siege of seven months found Amru master of the royal city of Alexandria. The library there was famed as the greatest magazine of literature. But this availed nothing with the ruthless Omar, for he doomed it to annihilation.

Prof. Thomas Smith says: "The library had been collected at fabulous expense of labor and money, from all countries of the world. Its destruction was a wanton act; but its perpetrator showed, like the loving spouse 'of another noted personage, that 'though on pleasure he was bent, he had a frugal mind.' He did not consume the books on their shelves, or in whatever repositories contained them, although doubtless they would have made a beautiful blaze. He utilized them as fuel for heating the baths of the city; and we are told that they sufficed to heat the water for four thousand such baths for six months. With an average share of persuasibility, when it is not against our will to be convinced, we stagger at the statement that seven hundred and thirty thousand furnaces could have been supplied with fuel from the contents of even that magnificent palace, and therefore venture to suggest that the papyri and palm-leaf manuscripts were used rather as fire-lighters than as fuel. Even this is a rather large order; but undoubtedly the collection was enormous. The reason tradition ascribes to Omar for this act has never, so far as we know, been disputed till quite recently, when 'historical criticism' has taken it in hand. 'The contents of these books are either in accordance with the teaching of the Koran or they are opposed to it. If in accord, then they are useless, since the Koran itself is sufficient; and if in opposition, they are pernicious and must be destroyed.'

"But the piecemeal destruction of many hundreds of thousands of manuscripts was no trifling task, even for a despotic caliph. A few escaped their doom; how, we do not know. Perhaps some officer annexed for himself some manuscript that struck him as specially beautiful; or perhaps some stoker at some bath rejected one as slow of ignition. At all events a few—probably very few—were preserved, and among them must have been copies of the writings of Euclid and Ptolemy, the Elements of the one, the Almagest of the other."

A proof of the religious infatuation, or the blind confidence in destiny, which hurried the Moslem commanders of those days into the most extravagant enterprises, is furnished in the invasion of the once proud empire of the Pharaohs, the mighty, the mysterious Egypt, with an army of merely five thousand men. The caliph Omar himself, though he had suggested this expedition, seems to have been conscious of its rashness, or rather to have been chilled by the doubts of his prime counsellor Othman; for, while Amru was on the march, he despatched missives after him to the following effect: "If this epistle reach thee before thou hast crossed the boundary of Egypt, come instantly back; but if it find thee within the Egyptian territory, march on with the blessing of Allah, and be assured I will send thee all necessary aid."

The bearer of the letter overtook Amru while yet within the bounds of Syria; that wary general either had secret information or made a shrewd surmise as to the purport of his errand, and continued his march across the border without admitting him to an audience. Having encamped at the Egyptian village of Arish, he received the courier with all due respect, and read the letter aloud in the presence of his officers. When he had finished, he demanded of those about him whether they were in Syria or Egypt. "In Egypt," was the reply. "Then," said Amru, "we will proceed, with the blessing of Allah, and fulfil the commands of the Caliph."

The first place to which he laid siege was Farwak, or Pelusium, situated on the shores of the Mediterranean, on the isthmus which separates that sea from the Arabian Gulf, and connects Egypt with Syria and Arabia. It was therefore considered the key to Egypt. A month's siege put Amru in possession of the place; he then examined the surrounding country with more forethought than was generally manifested by the Moslem conquerors, and projected a canal across the isthmus, to connect the waters of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. His plan, however, was condemned by the Caliph as calculated to throw open Arabia to a maritime invasion of the Christians.

Amru now proceeded to Misrah, the Memphis of the ancients, and residence of the early Egyptian kings. This city was at that time the strongest fortress in Egypt, except Alexandria, and still retained much of its ancient magnificence. It stood on the western bank of the Nile, above the Delta, and a little east of the pyramids. The citadel was of great strength and well garrisoned, and had recently been surrounded with a deep ditch, into which nails and spikes had been thrown, to impede assailants.

The Arab armies, rarely provided with the engines necessary for the attack of fortified places, generally beleaguered them, cut off all supplies, attacked all foraging parties that sallied forth, and thus destroyed the garrison in detail or starved it to a surrender. This was the reason of the long duration of their sieges. This of Misrah, or Memphis, lasted seven months, in the course of which the little army of Amru was much reduced by frequent skirmishings. At the end of this time he received a reinforcement of four thousand men, sent to him at his urgent entreaties by the Caliph. Still his force would have been insufficient for the capture of the place had he not been aided by the treachery of its governor, Mokawkas.

This man, an original Egyptian, or Copt, by birth, and of noble rank, was a profound hypocrite. Like most of the Copts, he was of the Jacobite sect, who denied the double nature of Christ. He had dissembled his sectarian creed, however, and deceived the emperor Heraclius by a show of loyalty, so as to be made prefect of his native province and governor of the city. Most of the inhabitants of Memphis were Copts and Jacobite Christians, and held their Greek fellow-citizens, who were of the regular Catholic Church of Constantinople, in great antipathy.

Mokawkas, in the course of his administration, had collected, by taxes and tribute, an immense amount of treasure, which he had deposited in the citadel. He saw that the power of the Emperor was coming to an end in this quarter, and thought the present a good opportunity to provide for his own fortune. Carrying on a secret correspondence with the Moslem general, he agreed to betray the place into his hands on condition of receiving the treasure as a reward for his treason. He accordingly, at an appointed time, removed the greater part of the garrison from the citadel to an island in the Nile. The fortress was immediately assailed by Amru, at the head of his fresh troops, and was easily carried by assault, the Copts rendering no assistance.

The Greek soldiery, on the Moslem standard being hoisted on the citadel, saw through the treachery, and, giving up all as lost, escaped in their ships to the mainland; upon which the prefect surrendered the place by capitulation. An annual tribute of two ducats a head was levied on all the inhabitants of the district, with the exception of old men, women, and boys under the age of sixteen years. It was further conditioned that the Moslem army should be furnished with provisions, for which they would pay, and that the inhabitants of the country should forthwith build bridges over all the streams on the way to Alexandria. It was also agreed that every Mussulman travelling through the country should be entitled to three days' hospitality, free of charge.

The traitor Mokawkas was put in possession of his ill-gotten wealth. He begged of Amru to be taxed with the Copts and always to be enrolled among them, declaring his abhorrence of the Greeks and their doctrines; urging Amru to persecute them with unremitting violence. He extended his sectarian bigotry even into the grave, stipulating that at his death he should be buried in the Christian Jacobite church of St. John at Alexandria.

Amru, who was politic as well as brave, seeing the irreconcilable hatred of the Coptic or Jacobite Christians to the Greeks, showed some favor to that sect, in order to make use of them in his conquest of the country. He even prevailed upon their patriarch Benjamin to emerge from his desert and hold a conference with him, and subsequently declared that "he had never conversed with a Christian priest of more innocent manners or venerable aspect." This piece of diplomacy had its effect, for we are told that all the Copts above and below Memphis swore allegiance to the Caliph.

Amru now pressed on for the city of Alexandria, distant about one hundred and twenty-five miles. According to stipulation, the people of the country repaired the roads and erected bridges to facilitate his march; the Greeks, however, driven from various quarters by the progress of their invaders, had collected at different posts on the island of the Delta and the channels of the Nile, and disputed with desperate but fruitless obstinacy the onward course of the conquerors. The severest check was given at Keram al Shoraik, by the late garrison of Memphis, who had fortified themselves there after retreating from the island of the Nile. For three days did they maintain a gallant conflict with the Moslems, and then retired in good order to Alexandria. With all the facilities furnished to them on their march, it cost the Moslems two-and-twenty days to fight their way to that great city.

Alexandria now lay before them, the metropolis of wealthy Egypt, the emporium of the East, a place strongly fortified, stored with all the munitions of war, open by sea to all kinds of supplies and reinforcements, and garrisoned by Greeks, aggregated from various quarters, who here were to make the last stand for their Egyptian empire. It would seem that nothing short of an enthusiasm bordering on madness could have led Amru and his host on an enterprise against this powerful city.

The Moslem leader, on planting his standard before the place, summoned it to surrender on the usual terms, which being promptly refused, he prepared for a vigorous siege. The garrison did not wait to be attacked, but made repeated sallies and fought with desperate valor. Those who gave greatest annoyance to the Moslems were their old enemies, the Greek troops from Memphis. Amru, seeing that the greatest defence was from a main tower, or citadel, made a gallant assault upon it and carried it, sword in hand. The Greek troops, however, rallied to that point from all parts of the city; the Moslems, after a furious struggle, gave way, and Amru, his faithful slave Werdan, and one of his generals, named Moslema Ibn al Mokalled, fighting to the last, were surrounded, overpowered, and taken prisoners.

The Greeks, unaware of the importance of their captives, led them before the governor. He demanded of them, haughtily, what was their object in thus overrunning the world and disturbing the quiet of peaceable neighbors. Amru made the usual reply that they came to spread the faith of Islam; and that it was their intention, before they laid by the sword, to make the Egyptians either converts or tributaries. The boldness of his answer and the loftiness of his demeanor awakened the suspicions of the governor, who, supposing him to be a warrior of note among the Arabs, ordered one of his guards to strike off his head. Upon this Werdan, the slave, understanding the Greek language, seized his master by the collar, and, giving him a buffet on the cheek, called him an impudent dog, and ordered him to hold his peace, and let his superiors speak. Moslema, perceiving the meaning of the slave, now interposed, and made a plausible speech to the governor, telling him that Amru had thoughts of raising the siege, having received a letter to that effect from the Caliph, who intended to send ambassadors to treat for peace, and assuring the governor that, if permitted to depart, they would make a favorable report to Amru.

The governor, who, if Arabian chronicles may be believed on this point, must have been a man of easy faith, ordered the prisoners to be set at liberty; but the shouts of the besieging army on the safe return of their general soon showed him how completely he had been duped.

But scanty details of the siege of Alexandria have reached the Christian reader, yet it was one of the longest, most obstinately contested, and sanguinary in the whole course of the Moslem wars. It endured fourteen months with various success; the Moslem army was repeatedly reinforced and lost twenty-three thousand men. At length their irresistible ardor and perseverance prevailed; the capital of Egypt was conquered and the Greek inhabitants were dispersed in all directions. Some retreated in considerable bodies into the interior of the country, and fortified themselves in strongholds; others took refuge in the ships and put to sea.

Amru, on taking possession of the city, found it nearly abandoned; he prohibited his troops from plundering, and, leaving a small garrison to guard the place, hastened with his main army in pursuit of the fugitive Greeks. In the mean time the ships, which had taken off a part of the garrison, were still lingering on the coast, and tidings reached them that the Moslem general had departed and had left the captured city nearly defenceless. They immediately made sail back for Alexandria, and entered the port in the night. The Greek soldiers surprised the sentinels, got possession of the city, and put most of the Moslems they found there to the sword.

Amru was in full pursuit of the Greek fugitives when he heard of the recapture of the city. Mortified at his own negligence in leaving so rich a conquest with so slight a guard, he returned in all haste, resolved to retake it by storm. The Greeks, however, had fortified themselves strongly in the castle and made stout resistance. Amru was obliged, therefore, to besiege it a second time, but the siege was short. The castle was carried by assault; many of the Greeks were cut to pieces, the rest escaped once more to their ships and now gave up the capital as lost. All this occurred in the nineteenth year of the Hegira, and the year 640 of the Christian era.

On this second capture of the city by force of arms, and without capitulation, the troops were clamorous to be permitted to plunder. Amru again checked their rapacity, and commanded that all persons and property in the place should remain inviolate, until the will of the Caliph could be known. So perfect was his command over his troops that not the most trivial article was taken. His letter to the Caliph shows what must have been the population and splendor of Alexandria, and the luxury and effeminacy of its inhabitants at the time of the Moslem conquest. It states the city to have contained four thousand palaces, five thousand baths, four hundred theatres and places of amusement, twelve thousand gardeners which supply it with vegetables, and forty thousand tributary Jews. It was impossible, he said, to do justice to its riches and magnificence. He had hitherto held it sacred from plunder, but his troops, having won it by force of arms, considered themselves entitled to the spoils of victory.

The caliph Omar, in reply, expressed a high sense of his important services, but reproved him for even mentioning the desire of the soldiery to plunder so rich a city, one of the greatest emporiums of the East. He charged him, therefore, most rigidly to watch over the rapacious propensities of his men; to prevent all pillage, violence, and waste; to collect and make out an account of all moneys, jewels, household furniture, and everything else that was valuable, to be appropriated toward defraying the expenses of this war of the faith. He ordered the tribute also, collected in the conquered country, to be treasured up at Alexandria for the supplies of the Moslem troops.

The surrender of all Egypt followed the capture of its capital. A tribute of two ducats was laid on every male of mature age, besides a tax on all lands in proportion to their value, and the revenue which resulted to the Caliph is estimated at twelve millions of ducats.

It is well known that Amru was a poet in his youth; and throughout all his campaigns he manifested an intelligent and inquiring spirit, if not more highly informed, at least more liberal and extended in its views than was usual among the early Moslem conquerors. He delighted, in his hours of leisure, to converse with learned men, and acquire through their means such knowledge as had been denied to him by the deficiency of his education. Such a companion he found at Alexandria in a native of the place, a Christian of the sect of the Jacobites, eminent for his philological researches, his commentaries on Moses and Aristotle, and his laborious treatises of various kinds, surnamed Philoponus, from his love of study, but commonly known by the name of John the Grammarian.

An intimacy soon arose between the Arab conqueror and the Christian philologist; an intimacy honorable to Amru, but destined to be lamentable in its result to the cause of letters. In an evil hour, John the Grammarian, being encouraged by the favor shown him by the Arab general, revealed to him a treasure hitherto unnoticed, or rather unvalued, by the Moslem conquerors. This was a vast collection of books or manuscripts, since renowned in history as the Alexandrian Library. Perceiving that in taking an account of everything valuable in the city, and sealing up all its treasures, Amru had taken no notice of the books, John solicited that they might be given to him. Unfortunately the learned zeal of the Grammarian gave a consequence to the books in the eyes of Amru, and made him scrupulous of giving them away without permission of the Caliph. He forthwith wrote to Omar, stating the merits of John, and requesting to know whether the books might be given to him. The reply of Omar was laconic, but fatal. "The contents of those books," said he, "are in conformity with the Koran, or they are not. If they are, the Koran is sufficient without them; if they are not, they are pernicious. Let them, therefore, be destroyed."

Amru, it is said, obeyed the order punctually. The books and manuscripts were distributed as fuel among the five thousand baths of the city; but so numerous were they that it took six months to consume them. This act of barbarism, recorded by Abulpharagius, is considered somewhat doubtful by Gibbon, in consequence of its not being mentioned by two of the most ancient chroniclers, Elmacin in his Saracenic history, and Eutychius in his annals, the latter of whom was patriarch of Alexandria and has detailed the conquest of that city. It is inconsistent, too, with the character of Amru as a poet and a man of superior intelligence; and it has recently been reported, we know not on what authority, that many of the literary treasures thus said to have been destroyed do actually exist in Constantinople. Their destruction, however, is generally credited and deeply deplored by historians. Amru, as a man of genius and intelligence, may have grieved at the order of the Caliph, while, as a loyal subject and faithful soldier, he felt bound to obey it.

The fall of Alexandria decided the fate of Egypt and likewise that of the emperor Heraclius. He was already afflicted with a dropsy, and took the loss of his Syrian and now that of his Egyptian dominions so much to heart that he underwent a paroxysm, which ended in his death, about seven weeks after the loss of his Egyptian capital. He was succeeded by his son Constantine.

While Amru was successfully extending his conquests, a great dearth and famine fell upon all Arabia, insomuch that the caliph Omar had to call upon him for supplies from the fertile plains of Egypt; whereupon Amru despatched such a train of camels laden with grain that it is said, when the first of the line had reached the city of Medina, the last had not yet left the land of Egypt. But this mode of conveyance proving too tardy, at the command of the Caliph he dug a canal of communication from the Nile to the Red Sea, a distance of eighty miles, by which provisions might be conveyed to the Arabian shores. This canal had been commenced by Trajan, the Roman emperor.

The able and indefatigable Amru went on in this manner, executing the commands and fulfilling the wishes of the Caliph, and governed the country he had conquered with such sagacity and justice that he rendered himself one of the most worthily renowned among the Moslem generals.

The life and reign of the caliph Omar, distinguished by such great and striking events, were at length brought to a sudden and sanguinary end. Among the Persians who had been brought as slaves to Medina, was one named Firuz, of the sect of the Magi, or fire-worshippers. Being taxed daily by his master two pieces of silver out of his earnings, he complained of it to Omar as an extortion. The Caliph inquired into his condition, and, finding that he was a carpenter, and expert in the construction of windmills, replied that the man who excelled in such a handicraft could well afford to pay two dirhems a day. "Then," muttered Firuz, "I'll construct a windmill for you that shall keep grinding until the day of judgment." Omar was struck with his menacing air. "The slave threatens me," said he, calmly. "If I were disposed to punish anyone on suspicion, I should take off his head"; he suffered him, however, to depart without further notice.

Three days afterward, as he was praying in the mosque, Firuz entered suddenly and stabbed him thrice with a dagger. The attendants rushed upon the assassin. He made furious resistance, slew some and wounded others, until one of his assailants threw his vest over him and seized him, upon which he stabbed himself to the heart and expired. Religion may have had some share in prompting this act of violence; perhaps revenge for the ruin brought upon his native country. "God be thanked," said Omar, "that he by whose hand it was decreed I should fall was not a Moslem!"

The Caliph gathered strength sufficient to finish the prayer in which he had been interrupted; "for he who deserts his prayers," said he, "is not in Islam." Being taken to his house, he languished three days without hope of recovery, but could not be prevailed upon to nominate a successor. "I cannot presume to do that," said he, "which the prophet himself did not do." Some suggested that he should nominate his son Abdallah. "Omar's family," said he, "has had enough in Omar, and needs no more." He appointed a council of six persons to determine as to the succession after his decease, all of whom he considered worthy of the caliphate; though he gave it as his opinion that the choice would be either Ali or Othman. "Shouldst thou become caliph," said he to Ali, "do not favor thy relatives above all others, nor place the house of Haschem on the neck of all mankind "; and he gave the same caution to Othman in respect to the family of Omeya.

Ibn Abbas and Ali now spoke to him in words of comfort, setting forth the blessings of Islam, which had crowned his administration, and that he would leave no one behind him who could charge him with injustice. "Testify this for me," said he, earnestly, "at the day of judgment." They gave him their hands in promise; but he exacted that they should give him a written testimonial, and that it should be buried with him in the grave.

Having settled all his worldly affairs, and given directions about his sepulture, he expired, the seventh day after his assassination, in the sixty-third year of his age, after a triumphant reign of ten years and six months.

Three days after the death of Omar, Othman Ibn Affan was elected as his successor. He was seventy years of age at the time of his election. He was tall and swarthy, and his long gray beard was tinged with henna. He was strict in his religious duties, but prone to expense and lavish of his riches.

"In the conquests of Syria, Persia, and Egypt," says a modern writer, "the fresh and vigorous enthusiasm of the personal companions and proselytes of Mahomet was exercised and expended, and the generation of warriors whose simple fanaticism had been inflamed by the preaching of the pseudo-prophet was in a great measure consumed in the sanguinary and perpetual toils of ten arduous campaigns."

We shall now see the effect of those conquests on the national character and habits; the avidity of place and power and wealth superseding religious enthusiasm; and the enervating luxury and soft voluptuousness of Syria and Persia sapping the rude but masculine simplicity of the Arabian desert. Above all, the single-mindedness of Mahomet and his two immediate successors is at an end. Other objects besides the mere advancement of Islamism distract the attention of its leading professors; and the struggle for worldly wealth and worldly sway, for the advancement of private ends, and the aggrandizement of particular tribes and families, destroy the unity of the empire, and beset the caliphate with intrigue, treason, and bloodshed.

It was a great matter of reproach against the caliph Othman that he was injudicious in his appointments, and had an inveterate propensity to consult the interests of his relatives and friends before that of the public. One of his greatest errors in this respect was the removal of Amrou ben-el-Ass from the government of Egypt, and the appointment of his own foster-brother, Abdallah Ibn Saad, in his place. This was the same Abdallah who, in acting as amanuensis to Mahomet, and writing down his revelations, had interpolated passages of his own, sometimes of a ludicrous nature. For this and for his apostasy he had been pardoned by Mahomet at the solicitation of Othman, and had ever since acted with apparent zeal, his interest coinciding with his duty.

He was of a courageous spirit, and one of the most expert horsemen of Arabia; but what might have fitted him to command a horde of the desert was insufficient for the government of a conquered province. He was new and inexperienced in his present situation; whereas Amru had distinguished himself as a legislator as well as a conqueror, and had already won the affections of the Egyptians by his attention to their interests, and his respect for their customs and habitudes. His dismission was, therefore, resented by the people, and a disposition was manifested to revolt against the new governor.

The emperor Constantine, who had succeeded to his father Heraclius, hastened to take advantage of these circumstances. A fleet and army were sent against Alexandria under a prefect named Manuel. The Greeks in the city secretly cooperated with him, and the metropolis was, partly by force of arms, partly by treachery, recaptured by the imperialists without much bloodshed.

Othman, made painfully sensible of the error he had committed, hastened to revoke the appointment of his foster-brother, and reinstated Amru in the command in Egypt. That able general went instantly against Alexandria with an army, in which were many Copts, irreconcilable enemies of the Greeks. Among these was the traitor Mokawkas, who, from his knowledge of the country and his influence among its inhabitants, was able to procure abundant supplies for the army.

The Greek garrison defended the city bravely and obstinately. Amru, enraged at having thus again to lay siege to a place which he had twice already taken, swore, by Allah, that if he should master it a third time, he would render it as easy of access as a brothel. He kept his word, for when he took the city he threw down the walls and demolished all the fortifications. He was merciful, however, to the inhabitants, and checked the fury of the Saracens, who were slaughtering all they met. A mosque was afterward erected on the spot at which he stayed the carnage, called the Mosque of Mercy. Manuel, the Greek general, found it expedient to embark with all speed with such of his troops as he could save, and make sail for Constantinople.

Scarce, however, had Amru quelled every insurrection and secured the Moslem domination in Egypt, when he was again displaced from the government, and Abdallah Ibn Saad appointed a second time in his stead.

Abdallah had been deeply mortified by the loss of Alexandria, which had been ascribed to his incapacity; he was emulous, too, of the renown of Amru, and felt the necessity of vindicating his claims to command by some brilliant achievement. The north of Africa presented a new field for Moslem enterprise. We allude to that vast tract extending west from the desert of Libya or Barca to Cape Non, embracing more than two thousand miles of sea-coast; comprehending the ancient divisions of Mamarica, Cyrenaica, Carthage, Numidia, and Mauritania; or, according to modern geographical designations, Barca, Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, and Morocco.

Toward this rich land of promise, yet virgin of Islamitish seed, Abdallah, at the head of the victorious Saracens, now hopefully bent his ambitious steps.

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