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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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.