Jews in North Africa and Egypt

New, more fanatical Muslim rulers caused the quality of Jewish life in North Africa and Egypt to deteriorate during the 12th and 13th centuries.

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Reprinted with permission from Eli Barnavi’s A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, published by Schocken Books.

The golden age of the Jewish communities in Muslim lands ended between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—first in North Africa and later in the Levant. Their situations deteriorated as a result of major political upheavals in these regions: new regimes, which valued Islam well above other beliefs inherited from Greek antiquity, came into being. Intolerance towards religious minorities, Jewish and Christian, was one of the more bitter consequences.

Taliban-like Dynasty Took Over North Africa and Spain

In the Maghreb (which in contemporary Arab geography included Spain as well as North Africa), a new dynasty, the Almohad, came to power in the mid-twelfth century. Originating in the High Atlas mountains among the Berbers, adhering to a fundamentalist and fanatic form of Islam, the Almohads imposed their puritanical religious concepts on all Muslims who came under their rule. The protection traditionally accorded to the “Peoples of the Book” was severely restricted. Muhammad had given these nations, the Almohads claimed, five hundred years for their Messiah to come forth; since the period of grace had elapsed, the whole world was now obliged to embrace Islam.

Numerous Jews in Morocco refused to convert and chose martyrdom instead; others found refuge in Ayyubid Egypt; but the majority stayed on, hoping that the persecution would soon subside. The Almohads, however, remained in power until 1269. North African Jewry was crushed under this brutal rule, and survived only by virtue of religious dissimulation [insincere conversion]. This crypto-Judaism, however, could preserve none of the creative energies which had characterized the Jewish community prior to the Almohad conquest.

Many of those who converted to Islam did not return to Judaism even when the persecutions abated. Yet the converts did not fare very much better than those who maintained the religion of their ancestors. Suspected of “Judaizing,” they were humiliated, spied upon, marked by distinctive clothes, prohibited from trading, and restricted to base occupations. Often their children were taken away by order of the authorities to be brought up in an orthodox Muslim environment. It was during this period that Maimon ben Joseph and his son Moses (the famous Maimonides), refugees themselves, wrote letters of advice and consolation from Egypt to the Maghreb Jews.

Mongols and Mamluks change Babylonia and Egypt

In the Orient, two major developments, both related to the Mongol invasion, transformed the conditions of Jewish existence. In Iraq, the Mongols put an end to the Abbasid caliphate (Baghdad was captured and sacked in 1258); and in Egypt the Mamluks, after defeating the Mongols, formed their own kingdom.

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Menachem Ben-Sasson

Menachem Ben-Sasson is a Professor of History at Hebrew University's Institute of Jewish Studies.