How a City Burned from Inter-Religious Violence: Cairo in 1321
Posted in
August 9, 2022

How a City Burned from Inter-Religious Violence: Cairo in 1321

By Peter Konieczny

Headlines from around the world reveal stories of violence and hatred caused by religious differences. The same was often true in the Middle Ages, especially in places where people of two or more faiths mingled together. The story of what took place in Cairo in the year 1321 is a sad example of what could happen when religious tensions spiralled out of control.

Cairo was a growing city in the early 1300s, seemingly on its way back to the glory days of the 10th and 11th centuries. Under the Mamluk sultans, the city and the rest of Egypt were at peace, with no meaningful threats from foreign invaders. Cairo was once again a thriving centre of trade, and its population was approaching a half-million inhabitants.

Cairo had long been a place where Muslims, Christians and Jewish people lived together. The Muslim majority was gradually getting larger, but the Christian Coptic community represented about 20% of Egypt’s population, while the Jewish community was much smaller.

Relations between Muslims and Christians were continuously evolving, with good and bad periods, but from the years 1250 to 1354, the country would see eight episodes of large-scale violence, with the Muslim majority attacking the Christian minority. For some Muslims, particularly the lower classes, there was anger over the Crusades, which at times was directed against Egypt itself, and perceived support of the crusaders by the Coptic Christians. Perhaps more troubling for them was that Christians were getting high-ranking jobs within the Mamluk government or were becoming wealthy, seemingly at the expense of the Muslim poor. One can see parallels to how the Christian majority treated its Jewish minority in parts of medieval Europe.

Outbreaks of violence could start out from strange incidents – the riots that took place in 1293 started when a wealthy Christian dragged a Muslim debtor through the streets with a rope around his neck. In another incident from 1314, a group of Copts had borrowed some candles from a mosque for their church, and when another group of zealous Muslims heard about this they attacked the church to rescue the candles. The violence was directed at the Mamluk authorities as often as it was against the Christian community, and would end with the sultan issuing new laws against the minority. The new laws were often ignored and then rescinded a few months later.

Walters manuscript W.658 contains a map of the city of Cairo (Misr).

Attacks on churches

However, an undercurrent of anger would continue to simmer, and in the year 1321 it would explode. Again, the cause of it was unusual – the authorities had ordered a particular area of Cairo to be excavated so that soil could be used for a huge animal enclosure that was being built. Many people would have lost their homes and businesses just so the Mamluk rulers could get some good dirt. A Christian church was in this zone, and the Mamluk leaders had made a secret deal with Coptic leaders to have the building be torn down at night. However, groups of Muslims, upset that their buildings were being torn down, while the church remained, attacked it with axes and spades, destroying the building, looting its furnishings, and capturing and murdering monks and nuns.

The violence did not stop there but spread to other parts of Cairo. Taqi al-Din al-Maqrizi (1364–1442), one of the most prolific historians of the Middle Ages, wrote about how other churches were being attacked by Muslim mobs. He reports:

In the Mosque of Al-Azhar it happened that when the people were assembled that day for the Friday prayers, one of the fakirs (a Muslim ascetic) fell into a sort of trembling, and when the hour of prayer was announced, before the preacher appeared, he stepped forward and said: “Destroy the churches of the enemies and unbelievers! God is great! God grant victory and help!” Then he began again to tremble, and cried out: “Down to the ground! Down to the ground!” The people looked at him and did not know what he meant; they were of various opinions regarding him, some saying, “He is mad;” and others, “This means something.” When the preacher came forward the fakir ceased shouting, and at the end of the prayers he was sought for but could not be found; and when the people came out of the door of the mosque they saw the plunderers with the woodwork of the churches, the garments of the Christians, and other plunder, and when they asked about these things they were answered that the Sultan had proclaimed that the churches should be destroyed; and the people believed this until they heard soon afterwards that all had happened without orders from the Sultan.

In fact, the Mamluk sultan was very upset over these attacks and had sent in his troops to protect the churches and arrest any of the looters. But the violence would spread beyond Cairo, and in other parts of Egypt there would be more attacks on Christian and their churches. Over a couple of weeks, eleven Christian churches would be damaged or destroyed in Cairo, and another 49 in other parts of the country.

Drawing of a street in Cairo – from The Story of Cairo, by Stanley Lane-Poole”. J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd.: London, 1918

Fires in the city

The violence had seemingly died down when three weeks later a fire broke out in Cairo. Fires were always a great danger for a medieval city, as the flames could spread rapidly through the crowded buildings. This fire began in one of the homes of the roast-meat vendors, and burned down many of his neighbours. It took an entire day before it was extinguished, but soon after another fire broke out in another part of Cairo. The winds had picked up, and the fire began to spread. Al-Maqrizi writes how the sultan was so concerned that he went out to inspect the firefighting efforts:

The Sultan went up to the roof of the castle, but could not slay there on account of the strong wind ; the fire lasted, and the Sultan repealed his command to the Emirs to extinguish it until Tuesday. Then the Sultan’s Deputy went down and took all the Emirs and water-carriers with him; and the Emir and Cupbearer Baktimur also went down; it was a terrible day; none more terrible has ever been seen. At the gates of Cairo guards were set to bring back the water-carriers if they tried to leave Cairo, in order to extinguish the fire; not one of the water-carriers of the Emirs and of the city was spared, all had to work; and they brought the water from the academies and baths; all the carpenters and attendants of the baths were taken to pull down the houses, and in this time of necessity many lofty buildings and great houses were pulled down.

Eventually the fire was put out, but despite orders to be better prepared, including having barrels of water placed in every street and every shop, new blazes started up. People were also noticing that some of the fires had started in mosques or schools, and in one place they found that it had “arose from naphtha (a flammable liquid often used in medieval warfare) rolled up in cloths steeped in oil and pitch.”

Cairo, looking west, Egypt. Coloured lithograph by Louis Haghe after David Roberts, 1849 – Wikimedia Commons

Hundreds of homes and other buildings were burned down over the next few days, while panic and rumours spread throughout the city. One night two monks were captured coming out of a school where a fire had started, and the smell of sulphur was still on their hands. Meanwhile, in another part of the city, a Christian was caught inside a mosque with rags containing pitch and naphtha:

He had already thrown one of them down by the pulpit, and had stood by it until smoke rose from it; then he went to depart from the mosque; someone, however, had noticed him, and watched him from a place where the Christian could not see him; then he seized him.

These three men were tortured and soon confessed to a diabolical plot – they and other monks from a monastery outside of Cairo, known as the Monastery of the Mules, had decided to take revenge on Muslims for the destruction of the churches, and having collected money and supplies to prepare the naphtha, they set out to different quarters within the city, in order to set it on fire.

The sultan brought in the Coptic Patriarch of Egypt to ask what he knew about the plot, but all he could say was that “these are fanatical Christians, who wished to avenge themselves on the fanatical Muslims on account of the destruction of the churches.”

Protests and reactions

The fires continued, and more monks were caught – they would be publicly executed – but their actions would provoke a backlash from the Muslim community. “From this time the common people were enraged against the Christians,” al-Maqrizi writes, “and began to insult them and tore their garments off them, so that every form of outrage was allowed, and such as exceeded all measure.”

Those Christians who sought help from their Jewish neighbours also received less support than they hoped. Al-Maqrizi writes:

Nothing had been said at this time of the Jews, and so the Christians began, when they wished to leave their dwellings, to borrow a yellow turban from one of the Jews, and to wear it so as to be safe from the people. Then it happened that one of the Christians in the Divans was owed 4,000 dirhams by a Jew, so he came by night in disguise to the Jew’s house to demand the money; then the Jew seized him and cried, “Help from God and the Muslims!” and shouted so that people ran together to seize the Christian; but he fled into the inner part of the Jew’s house and hid himself with the wife of the latter; he was, however, obliged to write a receipt stating that the Jew had paid him his debt, and then he was set free.

The residents’ anger was also directed against many of the Christian officials within the Mamluk government, and protests were directed against the sultan himself. He responded by having his men attack the protesters, even executing a few of the protest leaders, but as the fires continued, the demands grew louder. When the size of the protesters reached 20,000 people, the sultan gave in and issued a new series of laws blaming “corrupt Christians” for the arsons, and ordering that any Christian wearing a white turban or riding a horse could be seized and killed, and that those who held office around the country be dismissed. According to the chroniclers, many Christians then converted to Islam so they could avoid losing their jobs – although from all reports we only know of one person by name that did this.

There would be more fires, and more revenge attacks on Christians – it would take weeks before the remaining monks were caught and for the tensions to calm. By then the government had already rescinded their proclamations, and those who had lost their jobs were restored to them. In the end, all that al-Maqrizi could do was lament:

So many persons perished, so much property was destroyed, and so many buildings ruined that for their multitude they cannot be described. The end of all things rests with God!

Further Readings:

An English translation of al-Maqrizi’s account of the events for 1321 can be found in The churches and monasteries of Egypt and some neighbouring countries, by Basil Evetts (Oxford, 1895)

Anna Akasoy, “The Man-Made Disaster: Fire in Cities in the Medieval Middle East,” Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung, Vol. 32, No. 3 (2007)

Donald P. Little, “Coptic Conversion to Islam under the Baḥrī Mamlūks, 692-755/1293-1354,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol. 39, No. 3 (1976)

Shaun O’Sullivan, “Coptic Conversion and the Islamization of Egypt,” Mamluk Studies Review, Vol.10, No.2 (2006)

Top Image: 16th-century map of Cairo by Braun & Hogenberg August 9, 2022 at 11:13AM

Comments & Reviews

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *