SNSF n° 100015_162963: "Change and Continuities from a Christian to a Muslim Society – Egyptian Society and Economy in the 6th to 8th centuries"

Change and Continuities from a Christian to a Muslim Society (2016–2018)

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. This 3-year project funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation offered an in­-depth study of the administrative, social, and economic changes 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 had been previously 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 had therefore been a long-term desideratum.

In this project we bridged several disciplines by means of collaboration between ancient historians, Greek philologists, papyrologists, Coptologists, Byzantinists, and early Islamic scholars who worked 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 constituted 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 was 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.

 Through the organization of an international conference, presenting their research output at invited lectures and conferences abroad, and with a high number of publications, the Basel project and its research has reached high visibility on an international level.

The international conference entitled ‘Living the End of Antiquity – Individual Histories from Byzantine to Islamic Egypt’ took place at the University of Basel from May 18-20 2017. The complete conference program along with a list of the speakers and topics is available under The conference was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences (SAGW) and the Max Geldner Foundation. Centering on the consistencies and disruptions that can be traced throughout this period of transition, the conference adopted a transcultural perspective through individual case studies. This approach allowed the participants to highlight the diversity within a social cluster and at the same time create a more comprehensive picture of how changes might have been perceived through different social and religious layers of Muslim and Christian societies. The source material presented and used by the speakers was equally rich and diversified, being composed of archaeological, literary, epigraphic and, especially, papyrological sources. Within this context, a focus was largely placed on published and unpublished papyri and ostraca as a source for understanding social and economic history through a more immediate perspective. The presentations were grouped into four panels, with each panel focusing on a different aspect of the transition between Late Antiquity and Islamic Egypt. Aside from the insights gained from each lecture, many questions and comments regarding both the methodology and the content arose in general discussions. It became clear that even the most central terms historians refer to in the study of this period were not equivocally accepted. For example, questions arose about the use of the terms ‘empire’ or ‘state’ to define the political situation in the observed context, as well as to what extent the textual evidence reflects reality or merely a discourse. Furthermore, it was argued that, especially in the light of such scanty and random evidence, historians have to avoid teleological tendencies, that would simply see the ending of Late Antiquity documented in every source. Others suggested that an additional methodological approach, which could yield further insights, might lie in the comparison of different periods of transitions, be it in Antiquity (and in particular the Ptolemaic period, which shows similarities with the times following the Arab conquest of Egypt) or the entirety of world history.

An edited volume based on the proceedings of this conference‘Living the End of Antiquity – Individual Histories from Byzantine to Islamic Egypt’ and edited by the project members has been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication in open access in the series Millenium-Studies with DeGruyter. It will appear later in 2019.