Change and Continuities from a Christian to a Muslim Society — Egyptian Society and Economy in the 6th to 8th centuries

Funded by the Swiss National Research Foundation (SNSF)
01/2016 - 12/2018

 

This project’s website will give an overview of the project to the public and be regularly updated in order to present interim results, such as working papers and presentations.

The Arab conquest of Egypt, accomplished in 642 with the capture of Alexandria, initiated a new step in the country’s history. Once again Egypt fell to the influence of a foreign power, and yet again, like with previous regime changes, we know little about institutional and organizational changes the new rulers imposed when they came into power. The general scientific consensus assumes that numerous social, religious and economic phenomena survived the first decades of Muslim rule in Egypt. However, in­-depth scientific scrutiny of the administrative, social, and economic changes is still missing for this crucial transition period from Antiquity to early Medieval history. Considering the challenges of the evidence, it is no wonder that this crucial period of history nestled between the disciplines of Byzantine studies, medieval studies, coptology, papyrology, ancient history and early Arabic studies has been largely neglected so far. A comprehensive treatment of the period from the last years of Byzantine rule, the impact of the invasion of Egypt by the Arabs and the political, cultural and social consequences of Muslim rule for the Egyptian population has therefore been a long-term desideratum.

This interdisciplinary project will be the first to look specifically at Egyptian society and economy during the transition from antiquity to the middle ages, placing particular emphasis on continuities and disruptions at the transition from the classical to the post-classical world. It embraces a time frame that constitutes a critical period of history that has hardly ever been studied as a continuum because of language and discipline barriers that have prevented scholars from working on the same research questions in widely overlapping time periods. Very few studies on this transitional period from a Christian to a Muslim society have considered the whole range of sources – in Greek, Coptic and Arabic. Yet, only a full appraisal of all relevant evidence allows one to analyze continuities and disruptions during the transition from Christianity to Islam.

In this project we are bridging several disciplines by means of collaboration between ancient historians, Greek philologists, papyrologists, coptologists, byzantinists, and early Islamic scholars who will work together on the same research questions pertaining to the same geographical area and study the often contemporaneous Greek, Coptic and early Arabic sources - a long-awaited original approach to this significant period of history with project members informing and advancing each other’s work and transferring findings from one discipline to another. Apart from the historical and legal tradition, Greek, Coptic and Arabic papyri will constitute our main evidence for learning more about the impact of Muslim rule on basically all strata of Egyptian society in a direct, original and unrivaled manner. The goal is to get a better understanding of the inner workings of Egyptian society in this transition period and the effect the Arab conquest had on its social and economic conditions and cultural and religious norms.

This project is therefore truly cutting edge and is aimed at closing the gap between arbitrarily set historical periods, different languages, and disciplines. This interdisciplinary comparative approach will go substantially beyond the current state-of-the-art and promises to open new and important horizons for the study of the transition period from the ancient to the medieval world and the transition from a Christian to a Muslim society.

The findings will be presented in a joint publication in the form of a monograph on “Change and Continuities from a Christian to a Muslim Society — Egyptian Society and Economy in the 6th to 8th centuries” and an edited volume based on a jointly organized international conference on “Living the End of Antiquity” hosted from May 18-20, 2017 at the University of Basel. Additionally, the project members offer joint teaching on this multidisciplinary period in the form of seminars and workshops for advanced students at Basel and neighboring universities.

 

 

 

Map and timeline

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A Greek and Coptic papyrus
Early Islamic bilingual fals

Multilingual papyri are the most important source when analyzing the transition from the Byzantine to early Arab world in Egypt. There exist many bilingual papyri in Greek and Coptic, but also Arabic papyri are a most valuable source. Additionally to the papyri also coins can mark the takeover of the arabic administration in Egypt.