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.

Urban Life is Ruined in Mesopotamia

The Mongol wave destroyed the texture of urban life in Mesopotamia and ruined its trade. Although Jews attained important positions in the administration at the beginning of the conquest, their situation was gravely affected when the Mongols adopted Islam. Delivered in to the hands of the vindictive mob, the Jewish communities paid dearly for their ephemeral success.

Mamluks Harass Near Eastern Merchants and Minorities

The Near East—Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon—was under Mamluk domination for almost three centuries. A military aristocracy of slave origin, the Mamluks--mostly Turks or Balkan Christians taken from their families at a young age--were all the more devoutly Muslim since they were foreigners and recent converts. They formed an extremely centralized state. Its cadres were raised in religious schools (madrasa), and they made every effort to curry favor with the Muslim theologians.

The Mamluk order was particularly resented by two strata of Muslim society: the urban middle classes which were excluded from government, and the city merchants who suffered from state intervention in the economy. Naturally, frustrations were vented against minority groups, mostly against Christians and the Coptic rite, still numerous in the high echelons of government and in commerce. However, in a period when the Covenant of Omar was increasingly interpreted in a narrower sense, and when the confrontation with the Crusaders intensified suspicion of non-Muslims, the Jews too had their share of tribulations.

Thus, it was a new era for the Jews throughout the Muslim world. They found themselves economically restricted, ill at ease in a civilization which had adopted a new spiritual direction, and ill-treated by the rulers who had once been their main source of security, but were now intent on alienating the minorities.

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Menachem Ben-Sasson

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