Mahri Poetry Archive

The Islamic Conquest of Egypt and North Africa: 639-647 CE


Not long after ʿIkrimah restored the authority of  the Islamic Caliphate over the tribes of al-Mahra in 634 CE, the Mahra were given an opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty to the Caliphate during its conquest of Egypt and North Africa.  Despite their small numbers overall, Mahri troops  played a surprisingly important role in the conquest of Egypt and Tunisia (“Ifrīqiyya”).  Their most noteworthy military achievement occurred during the siege of Alexandria (645 CE) where Mahri troops earned high commendation from the commander of the Muslim army, ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ.  According to the ninth century historian Ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥakam (d. 871 CE), the Mahra displayed particular ferocity towards their Byzantine adversaries after a Mahri solider was killed and his corpse desecrated by Byzantine troops who kept his head as a trophy.  In return, the Mahri troops captured and beheaded a Byzantine soldier whose head they exchanged for their comrade’s head in order to give the body a proper burial (Futūḥ Miṣr wa-ʾakhbāruhā, 76).  In light of their exemplary role in penetrating the defenses of Alexandria, ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ is reported to have said: “As for the Mahra, they are a tribe that kills but are not killed” (Futūḥ Miṣr wa-ʾakhbāruhā, 76-77).

While the precise number of Mahri soldiers who participated in the conquest of Egypt is not recorded, the Mahra must have been present in sufficient numbers that a district within the military garrison town of al-Fusṭāṭ (later renamed Cairo) was dedicated to them: khiṭṭat al-Mahra.  According the Ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥakam, khiṭṭat al-Mahra was located at the foot of Mt. Yashkur (Ar. jabal yashkur) and extended some distance to a trench “which the governor of Egypt ordered dug at a later date.” (Futūḥ Miṣr wa-ʾakhbāruhā, 118-119).   Additionally, the Mahra were granted spring pasture lands for their camels in the countryside to the west of Fusṭāṭ (Rajab Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm, al-ʾAzd wa-l-Mahra fī Miṣr, cited in Muqaddam, 2005: 93).

Finally, six hundred Mahri troops (out of a combined force of 20,000) were sent to subdue “Ifrīqiyya” (modern day Tunisia) under the command of ʿAbdallāh bin Saʿd bin al-Sarḥ in 647 CE (Futūḥ Miṣr wa-ʾakhbāruhā, 184).  It was during this period of contact between Arab bedouin and North African camel pastoralists (such as the Touareg) that the Mahri camel was most likely introduced into North Africa.  Whereas the unique linguistic status of the Mahri troops who brought their camels to North Africa was forgotten in subsequent centuries, the “mahrī” camel continues to be the totemic riding camel of the Touareg and is celebrated in their literary and oral traditions.  For more on this topic, see here.

In subsequent centuries, prominent individuals in North Africa and Andalusia bore the gentilic “al-Mahrī.”  However, it is doubtful that they still spoke the Mahri language or were even aware that their ancestors spoke anything other than Arabic.  The six hundred Mahri troops marching off to “Ifrīqiyya” in 647 CE is the last pre-modern reference to the Mahra as a distinct tribe outside of their South Arabian homeland.  Except for tantalizing references to “Ḥimyarites” – a by-word in Arab-Islamic intellectual history for the linguistically uncanny peoples of Southern Arabia – in North Africa, it appears that the Mahra became Arabic-speaking Arabs as they dispersed across North Africa and thus no different from the other peoples of the Arab-Islamic world who claimed a lineage extending back to the Arabian Peninsula.

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