Building of Alexandria

The Futūh-Misr of Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam

James Holmes


The Futūh-Misr is the first comprehensive account of the Arab conquest of Egypt and North Africa, and is extant in four manuscripts. This particular text is primarily based on the London manuscript, and describes the foundation of Alexandria, in a more or less chronological order. It draws on oral and written sources, and weaves exotic anecdotes and miscellanea with sober facts.

Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam (d.871) was actually, by nature, more of a tradition scientist, and in Professor Torrey’s words “was one who possessed few of the qualities of a good historian.” Nevertheless, his work serves as a useful starting point for later and more accomplished historians such as al-Suyūtī.

This translation is targeted at the well educated amateur historian, without much knowledge of Arab culture. He will mainly be interested in the history and layout of pre-Islamic Alexandria, perhaps in order to find out where Alexander the Great is buried. Therefore, the translator will attempt a ‘balanced’ rendering – a literal translation would result in too many undesired calques and exoticisms. After all, the reader will only want to ascertain hard facts such as ‘how many forts were there?’ and ‘who built the lighthouse?’ The Futūh-Misr does not pretend to be a nuanced literary masterpiece – it is basically a reference book, and therefore the translator is prepared to idiomise some of the clunkier constructions. Most significantly, the long isnād chains have been condensed to who said the thing in the first place. For example “Hānī ibn al-Mutawakkil said that ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Shuryah said that Qays ibn al-Hajjāj said that Tubī‘ said that...” has been contracted to “Tubī‘ said…” Whilst Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam is only doing his job as a tradition scientist, retaining the full isnād adds little value for our amateur historian and makes reading heavy going. On the other hand, this translation will not be too free – anything that plays with the facts will not be allowed. For the most part, this is easy, however there are occasionally very ambiguous anecdotes such as that of the sheep and the slave-girl. In these instances, I will not try to invent meaning. I will translate as faithfully as possible, even if the result is bizarre – it is not my place to second guess the author. That said, there is one sentence that I have simply not translated as it is too incongruous and doesn’t make any sense (see footnote 26). All place names (except Alexandria) and proper names, have been transliterated using the ‘scholarly’ system. This is because the reader will probably want to quote from this text, and will already be familiar with the basic transliteration system e.g. aa=ā.

The Futūh-Misr of Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam

On the building of Alexandria

According to some of the sheikhs in Egypt, ‘Amr ibn al-‘Ās said that Alexandria’s story began when the Pharaoh built workshops and other buildings , and that he was the city’s original founder. After him, the kings of Egypt handed the city down from one to the other. Dulūkah ibnah Zabā’ erected the Alexandrian lighthouse and the lighthouse in Būqīr. Later, when Sulayman ibn Dāwud (peace be upon him) appeared, he built mosques and took over senate-house. Some time after, Dhū l-Qarnayn took possession and razed all that the Pharoahs and Kings had built to the ground , sparing only the buildings of Sulayman ibn Dāwud. These, he neither demolished nor changed, and restored anything that had fallen into disrepair. He left the lighthouse where it was, and then rebuilt Alexandria anew, with buildings that closely resembled one another. After him, Alexandria was passed down amongst the Roman Emperors and Ptolomies , and each and everyone of them left a building that he is famous for It is said that Queen Cleopatra was the first one to build Alexandria, and that she is the one who dug the bay so that it would reach Alexandria. Originally, Alexandria was not actually on the sea – the waterline was level with a village called Kissā, opposite al-Kiryawn. Therefore, she dug until the water reached Alexandria, and then paved Alexandria's courtyards. Ibn Lahī‘ah said that a stone was found in Alexandria, bearing the inscription "I am Shaddād ibn ‘Ād and I am the one who erected the columns, dug the quarries , and single-handedly dammed the valley. These achievements will never die nor fade away into oblivion. The stone is as soft as mud.” Ibn Lahī‘ah said that these quarries look like caves. It is said that Alexandria was built by Shaddād ibn ‘Ād, but God knows best.

Tubī‘ said that there are five mosques in Alexandria: the mosque of the prophet Mūsā (pbuh) which is by the lighthouse and the closest of them to the church, the mosque of Sulayman, the mosque of Dhū l-Qarnayn or al-Khidr (peace be upon them) which is situated by the acacias in the Bazaar, and the mosque of Dhū l-Qarnayn or al-Khidr, just outside of the city gate. In fact, each gate had a mosque by it, but we don’t know where it is or where the Grand Mosque of ‘Amr ibn al-‘Ās is.

According to another source, Tubī‘said that that Alexandria has five holy mosques, including the one located in the Bazar that sells inheritance deeds, as well as the mosque by the acacias and the mosque of ‘Amr ibn al-‘Ās. ‘Abdallāh ‘Abd al-Hakam tells us that, Alexandria was in fact made up of three cities that were next to one another – Mannah, where the lighthouse and its surrounding areas lie; Alexandria, where the citadel is now located, and Nuqaytah. Each one had its own wall, with a larger wall surrounding all three.

‘Abdallāh ibn Tarīf al-Hamdānī says that, in previous times, Alexandria had seven forts with seven ditches. Khālid and Abu Hamzah relate that when Dhū l-Qarnayn built Alexandria, he paved the ground and walls with white marble. The city’s inhabitants wore black and red clothes, whereas before that, the monks would wear black for the dazzling whiteness of the marble. In fact, such was this marble’s brilliance, they didn't need to light street lamps at night. When the moon shone, the man sewing in the evening, could, by its light on the white marble, thread a needle. According to some of the sheikhs, Alexandria was under construction for three hundred years, inhabited for three hundred years, and lay in waste for three hundred years. For the first seventy years, nobody entered unless they had tied a black rag over the eyes – such was the brightness of the marble tiles and plaster. And during these same 70 years, nobody ever lit a lamp. Al-‘Attāf ibn Khālid tells us that Alexandria was white - lit by day and night - and that nobody left their homes after dark . This was because if anyone did, he would be kidnapped. Among them, was a shepherd who was tending his flock on the beach when something came from the sea and took one of his sheep. So he lay in wait and prepared to ambush it when it next came out of the sea , when suddenly a slave-girl appeared. He grabbed hold of her, and although she put up a struggle, he overcame her, and dragged her back to his house. As she grew accustomed to them and their ways , she noticed that they didn't go out after dark and asked them why. They said that it was because whichever of them ventures out, is kidnapped. On hearing this, she made talismans for them and was the first to introduce charms to Egypt. Hishām ibn Sa‘ad al-Madīnī says that a stone was found in Alexandria, bearing the inscription "I buried treasure 12 cubits out at sea and it won't be recovered until the Muslims come and dig it up. ‘Uthmān ibn ‘Atā’ tells us that his father said that the marble had the constituency of dough from early morning to noon. At noon, however, it became hard. He also says, along with other historians, that the pyramids were built in the time of Shaddād ibn ‘Ād, though I have not learnt anything else about the pyramids from Egypt’s scholars, or at least anything of any worth.