Episode Detail

Script


  • Hello and Welcome to the History of the Copts. Episode 87. The Massacre of Bilbais.
  • First – a couple of house-keeping items. By the end of this episode, Salah El Din would be the vizier in Egypt and the Fatimids period of our story would be finished
  • Rather than pushing through with the narrative right away – my plan is to pause for a bit after this episode for a small epilogue episode of that period that looks over things from the big picture perspective
  • What was life like, how did the Coptic population in Egypt change under the Fatimids, what changed and what stayed the same with Salah el Din and so on.
  • I am also going to try and arrange for an interview or two – since starting with this episode, there would lots of information and change in short bursts and regular interruption with professional insight – would add a lot to our conversation
  • With that out of the way, we can resume our narrative.   
  • We last stopped at the conclusion of the 2nd Crusade and the emergence of a unified Syria in 1154 AD under Nur el Din
  • This new state – with Aleppo its capital less than 100 miles away from Antioch was an existential threat to basically everybody in the region
  • Most importantly – the Crusader states themselves, especially Antioch who lost the bulk of  its army and its prince to Nur El Din already
  • But also, – to the Byzantines who feared an alliance between the Suljuks of the sultanate of Rum and Nur El Din
  • And to the Fatimids in Egypt – who were perhaps the easiest and most natural next target for expansion – with its mostly Sunni population and ongoing instability
  • We last stopped there with the death of al Hafiz in 1149 – Basically, the last Caliph that was relevant in anyway
  • A 17-yr old son followed him – but he was more concerned about worldly pleasures than any kind of responsible governing
  • Within a year, another civil war ensued – really three different rebellions back to back but the overall effect was similar to that of one big civil war lasting from 1149 to 1154 AD with multiple Viziers taking power, and then losing it shortly after a rebellion
  • Nur el Din – a crafty diplomat – tried to build an alliance with one of those short-lived viziers – to hopefully take Egypt without losing men or treasure
  • But, this was just before Damascus fell and it ultimately failed when the Vizier was assassinated and Damascus required Nur El Din full attention
  • The Franks – similarly – saw the weakness and took advantage
  • Besieging and then taking Ashakalon in 1154 AD – where an army that was meant to relieve the city – rebelled and went to Cairo to install a new vizier instead
  • Eventually, the Caliph himself was assassinated in an ambitious blot to take out the whole dynasty
  • All the grown men of the dynasty were slaughtered by the Vizier, who only kept the women alive and an epileptic child of the Caliph being kept alive as a figurehead
  • But – this again spelled into another civil war – as the women of the dynasty cut their hair and sent it to another Armenian governor in an appeal for help – The son of a soldier brought by Badr al Jamali who converted to Shia Islam
  • Who – like a hero from a Greek tragedy – attached the hair to the lances of his men
  • Similar to Ridwan – who kick started this whole thing by attaching the Quran to the lances of his men
  • Anyway – That Armenian Governor Talai managed to make his way to Cairo and started a brief period of stability
  • He quickly arrived to the cynical, but probably correct conclusion that the only way his regime in Egypt is to survive was – to
  • one – keep the soldiers away from Cairo -  ideally pursuing holy war that will prop up his regime legitimacy
  • And two – is to also to keep Nur el Din away – ideally busy pursuing the same holy war– as an equal partner rather than a potential  enemy
  • From the Crusader side – they like Talai – arrived to the same conclusion
  • if they are to survive they needed to turn their enemies into allies
  • The new prince of Antioch – tried to cultivate both the Byzantines and the Armenians as potential allies – succeeding quickly in winning the alliance of a fearsome Armenian warlord and – for now – failing to come to an agreement with the Byzantines who were furious at a crusader raid against the island of Cyprus
  • Lastly in that geopolitical dance – the series of successful campaigns from Nur El din came to a sudden halt in the late mid 1150’s from two things outside of his control
  • First – a series of earthquakes damaged a lot of the previously secured castles and fortresses in his domains, which limited the movement of his troops
  • Second – he was struck down by a serious illness that made it look like he was about to die and caused all kinds of palace intrigue around him
  • Part of that intrigue – was to give Shirku – the Kurdish general – uncle of a certain Salah el Din control of Damascus to keep him loyal
  • Also – the same illness put the brakes on the plans of Talai to form a grand alliance with Nur El Din
  • And so – Talai men campaigned against the crusaders alone – with mostly feeble results that we will come to in a second
  • The most important consequence of the earthquackes and sickness of Nur El Din though, was the reemergence of the Byzantines as a regional power
  • They – as I said earlier – while not huge fans of the Crusaders, realized the existential threat that a combined Suljuk alliance would pose. And Nur El Din, was a brilliant diplomat who could make it happen
  • So – they finally warmed up to an alliance with Jerusalem
  • The King of Jerusalem was married to the Emperor’s niece – followed by, the emperor himself marrying a princess of the Antiochean nobility
  • In October 1158 – a huge Byzantine army landed in northern Syria with the stated goals of capturing Aleppo itself
  • In return – the Aniochean prince supplicated himself as a servant of the emperor and the Armenians also agreed to submit to Manuel
  • And so – in a typical Byzantine fashion. Antioch and surrounding Armenian country was turned into client states with simple deft diplomacy
  • Now – Nur el Din saw the Byzantines and the Crusaders coming closer and absolutely dreaded the thought
  • The Crusaders knights – while brave and ferocious on the battlefield were susceptible to infighting and foolish endeavors. Not to mention, always lacked manpower
  • Give them the resources and the diplomatic finesse of Byzantium – and they could be extremely dangerous
  • So – Nur el Din pulled every trick in the book to not fight the Byzantines and the crusaders together
  • First – he declared formal Jihad gathering warriors from all over the Muslim world to make peace attractive
  • Second – he decided to release 6000+ captured Franks as a token of goodwill
  • And lastly – he gave the Emperor what he wanted without fighting. A promise, to not only stay away from Anatolia, but actively assist Byzentium in fighting the Sultanate of Rum
  • This was too good of a deal to refuse for Manuel and really, as far as Byzentium was concerned fulfilled the strategic goals of the empire for the campaigns.
  • Antioch was back in the fold, the Armenians checked and the prospect of a suljuk alliance taken off the table
  • And so- the Romans went home – leaving the Crusaders exposed again
  • Now – while this back and forth was playing near Antioch. Talai was sending one campaign after another against Jerusalem
  • Not only they failed as usual – But in response, the King of Jerusalem Baldwin the third threaten to invade Egypt – only backing off when Talai promised to pay him tribute
  • Further complicating his situation – the child Caliph – suffering from seizures and generally sick died in the same year that the Crusaders were bought off – naturally without any sons ‘
  • A brief succession crisis then ensued – where Talai got another child – a cousin of the deceased Caliph and appointed him as the new Caliph and married him off to his own daughter
  • In the process- the women of the dynasty that brought Talai to power in the first place were pushed aside and in some cases executed as Talai accumulated more and more power
  • Finally – fearing for their position – they arranged for the assassination of the armenian governor in 1161
  • A bungled attempt – that mortally wounded the Vizier rather outright killing him– giving him enough time to arrange for his son to succeed him and making sure that the princess behind the attempt is executed before dying   
  • The son – wasn’t really up to the task though – and ambition men all over the country made plans to replace him in Cairo
  • One of these men was a certain Bedouin named Shawar – appointed by Talai to be the governor of Qus in upper Egypt and then – removed by his son
  • He naturally didn’t like the removal and so – he rebelled – succeeding in gathering a Bedouin coalition that successfully took Cairo in 1163 AD – beginning the final phase of the Fatimids long decline
  • You see – Shawar and his Bedouins had no friends in the army or the civil administration and were sort of outsiders
  • They threatened everyone who was part of the system. The professional soldiers, the civil elite, the religious leaders – everyone.
  • Further – to reward his soldiers. Shawar sort of gave them a free hand in pillaging the land. Which – not only made them unpopular, but alienated the elite who owned those lands
  • And so, again – one of the army general rebelled within a few months of Shawar entering Cairo
  • He succeeded and Shawar had to escape Cairo – like many before him
  • But what made his short reign stick, was rather than disappearing into the twilight – like the 5 or so irrelevant viziers before. He hanged on, fighting to keep his power no matter the end results
  • If you remember- Bahram preferred to step away rather than be a king of ashes
  • Well – Shawar was the absolute opposite. Going to very extremes to continue to rule Egypt
  • Fully knowing the consequences, he went to none other than Nur El Din for help
  • And here my friends – where everything finally comes together
  • At the moment – Nur El Din – after surviving all the tribulation of the 1150’s – with the earthquackes, the sickness, and the Byzantines – was finally in the position to expand his growing empire
  • And the Egypt was right there – Shawar practically begging for him to take it. One third of its tax revenue to be exact
  • And so, he decided to take it
  • Sending Shirku – the Kurdish general in charge of Damascus with 2000 horsemen to take Egypt and install Shawar as the vizier
  • In response – the army general who took Shawar place. Also, with little regard for the potential consequences reached out to the Crusaders – King Amalric at this point, since Baldwin died a couple of years earlier to come to his aid
  • It was a little too late though – By the time the Crusaders were ready
  • Shawar and the Suljuks from Syria managed to retake Cairo after an indecisive and bloody civil war that saw lots of civilian causalities –
  • The history of the Patriarchs records how as a result of that war, slaves were so abundant that the slave markets were flooded
  • You could buy a black slave for as little as 5 denars and a Christian young woman for 20 denars.
  • As the civil war was indecicive– Shawar control was limited at best and he could only pay Nur El Din or really Shirkuh at this point – 30,000 denars. A tiny amount compared to the promised 1/3 of Egypt’s tax revenue
  • And so – Shirku broke the alliance and declared war against Shawar. Perhaps looking for an excuse to conquer Egypt outright  
  • Wisely, he left Cairo – as not to alienate its populace and camped in the Delta
  • With the goal to pressure Shawar to pay more money as a tribute or even, if he is lucky – ride another rebellion to annex the country altogether
  • In response – Shawar – clinging to his power reached out to the only people left that could help him. Yeb – the Crusaders
  • And so – King Amalric and a crusader army arrive to also conquer Egypt
  • Now – everyone was here. Shirku representing Nur el Din and the Syrians – The Crusaders – and the Fatimids
  • All locked in a 3 way struggle to decide the fate of Egypt
  • Unfortunately for the flow of a good Podcast narrative – it ended up being an indecisive struggle. A tie so to speak.    
  • The Crusaders besieged the Syrians in the Delta and were making good progress
  • And so – Shirku reached to Shawar to see if they can come to agreement. A tough negotiation, mostly centered on the tribute amount. Eventually agreeing on a total of a 60,000 denars
  • And in the same time – Nur El Din in Syria was moving inside Crusader territory – capturing a small strategic town already which made the Crusader eager to wrap up the siege and go home
  • So – everybody quickly disengaged.
  • Shirku left – after getting his 60,000 denars
  • The Crusaders left to deal with Nur El Din
  • And Shawar - well – he was left to be the king of Ashes
  • A short reign – lasting for just 1 year. As everybody decided to come back and do the same dance in 1167 AD
  • You see – while Nur El Din personally was rethinking the whole Egypt thing, knowing that he will have to fight both the Crusaders and Shawar – only to get a scarred land difficult to govern
  • Shirku, his general on the other hand – having gotten a taste of what is possible – really wanted to conquer Egypt and rule it as its Vizier
  • He had served loyally for a lifetime and now – he wanted his own domain and legacy
  • Entirely driven by personal ambition rather than a rational and thoughtful process and without Nur El Din fully on board – Shirku gathered a small personal army to go conquer Egypt in the middle of Winter 1167 AD
  • Taking with him – his nephew – the police chief of Damascus and a rising star in the nobility of Nur El Din kingdom. Yusuf Ibn Ayyub, better known to history as Salah El din
  • At this point – a 29 years old aristocrat with limited experience beyond making the market merchants use the correct weights and shaking down prostitutes for money
  • More on him as we move into our narrative – for now. Shirku invasion force, prompted Shawar to ask for the Crusaders help again promising them – unrealistic tribute of 400,000 denars
  • Either believing the unrealistic number or more likely, with plans to annex the whole country as well – the Crusaders showed up crossing the border on the heels of Shirku –in February 1167
  • Deja-vu
  • Like last time – all three sides was locked in a indecisive series of battles
  • First – Shirku arrived to Cairo only to find the gates firmly shut and the Crusaders in hot pursuit
  • Not wishing to get trapped – he moved south, where the Crusaders caught up to him and a very bloody and indecisive battle took place
  • Giving up on Cairo and upper Egypt – Shirku then moved north to Alexandria
  • Where – the city welcomed him and he installed Salah el din as its commander with a small garrison –
  • He himself though, moved quickly from the city as the Shawar and the Crusaders were on their way to besiege the city and he didn’t want to get trapped there
  • The eventual fate of young Salah El din who had to endure a painful siege – that perhaps became the best lesson in the misery of warfare to the young noble
  • His uncle though – not confident in being able to best the combined Egyptian and Crusaders armies in an open battle or break the siege – kept moving from city to another. Hoping for his enemies to make a mistake or for the population to rise up and support him   
  • They didn’t – and by the end of the Summer and the Nile about to flood – it became clear that the campaign was a failure
  • Shirku retreated with Salah El Din surrendering Alexandria for safe passage to the Crusaders
  • Shawar remained in power but with the Crusaders extracting a 100,000 denars yearly tribute for their efforts as well as installing a garrison in Cairo itself
  • Here we are – for this brief moment of history – Egypt was so close to be an outright Crusader state
  • And Amalric – the King of Jerusalem knew it as well
  • He had ambitious plans and for a few years now – was trying to convince the Byzantines to participate in a joined North African invasion that included Egypt – and at this point. They actually agreed in principle, although the details were being hashed out
  • And here he stood – literally inside Cairo – having turned the Fatimids into a client state
  • A patient man would have kept the status quo for a year – hashed out the details with the Byzantines and turned the client state into conquered land
  • But Amalric wasn’t a patient man – and his knights, had no desire to share the spoils of victory with anyone
  • And so – a mere 2 months after the victory – in October 1167 AD, The Crusaders were inside of Egypt again – this time, to conquer outright
  • The first city they encountered was Bilbais – which had a healthy, perhaps majority Christian population
  • With not much in terms of defenses or an army to defended it – the city surrendered within a couple of days
  • And as was the habit – the entire population of the city was massacred or enslaved. Christians, Muslims, Men, Woman, Children. Everybody.
  • Like I said earlier – the Crusaders on their own were susceptible to foolish endeavors and the massacre of Bilbais was how exactly one would shoot himself in the foot
  • They came into a land suffering for decades now from ineffectual rule and violence
  • The bar to be welcomed by the populace or at least its elite was as low as it will ever get
  • Shawar – the king of that land – was universally hated by almost everybody
  • It doesn’t get much easier than that. Just show up, do something – anything really short of killing everybody and door would be opened to you.
  • Instead – the Crusaders managed somehow to turn the scheming and destructive Shawar into a beloved saint and defender of common folks given what happened in Bilbais
  • And it’s extremely hard to justify the massacre as part of any rational plan
  • I mean – even If the strategy was similar to the Abbasids crushing the bashmourite revolts earlier in our narrative
  •             A brutal – scorched earth campaign to just depopulate the land and start new   
  • It would have meant that the Crusaders continued to move decisively and quickly – until they captured Cairo and pacified the entire land
  • But that’s not how it happened
  • After Bilbais – the Franks slowed down their march considerably –heavy with slaves and loot and perhaps under the impression that Shawar is about to surrender. Since, he didn’t have much in terms of troops and he – in a desperate move, burned the whole city of Fustat – to deny its capture and defenses to the Crusaders
  • Fustat at this point was like a suburb of Cairo – so, it was truly an act of desperation  
  • Indeed their march was so slow - that the vizier managed to send several messages to Nur El din begging for help
  • And Nur El Din – after careful consideration of the pros and cons – agreed. Sending Shirku again with a treasury of 200,000 denars as well as 7000 horsemen
  • He also – personally convinced Salah el Din to go again. Scarred as he was from the Alexandrian siege and not wanting to go through the ordeal again
  • At this point – two months later. The Crusaders still taking it very easy – Shirku’s army dashesd through Sinai and made to the Nile Valley
  • When the word reached Amalric, he decided to stop his advance and regroup in Bilbais again – hoping Shirku would go to him – when that didn’t happen
  • He decided he would be better off –If he can intercept the Kurdish general in Sinai
  • Like the Fatimids in the first Crusade though – the army of Jerusalem was always a step or two behind
  • By the time they were in Sinai – Shirku had bypassed them altogether and was in the Nile valley
  • You see, he had no need to fight the Crusaders. Nope. He just needed to get to Cairo – and then – he can fight the Crusaders on his own terms – perhaps with Nur El din launching his own campaign in Syria
  • Reaching the same conclusion – where he would have to fight on multiple fronts, Amalric decided to call it a day and retreat
  • Not only failing in the campaign, but basically – leaving the door right open for Shirku and Nur el Din to take Egypt
  • And losing the very valuable foothold that he had achieved earlier with a garrison inside Cairo
  • Also – lest you forget, making any future plans with the Byzantines 10 times harder now
  • In less than a month – Shirku was besieging Cairo –a short 8 day siege
  • Shawar – like I said – hated by everybody had no chance. The Caliph himself welcomed the Kurdish general
  • As for the Bedouin Vizier – well – he was executed on site. By Salah el Din himself if we are to believe his court poems.
  • Shirku was appointed as the new vizier – but as fate would have it, he died 2 months later in March, 1169 AD
  • Following him – was his nephew. Salah El Din Al Ayoopi.
  • Thank you for listening, farewell and until next time

References


  • The History of the Patriarchs by" multiple
  • The Cambridge History of Egypt, Vol. 1: Islamic Egypt, 640-1517 by" Carl F. Petry (Editor)
  • The Coptic Papacy in Islamic Egypt, 641–1517: The Popes of Egypt by" Mark Swanson
  • The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land by" Thomas Asbridge
  • Coptic Identity and Ayyubid Politics in Egypt, 1218-1250 by" Kurt J. Werthmuller
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