Wednesday, 3 July 2013

History repeats itself on the streets of Cairo

I saw this article on Quartz this morning, and thought it rather eerie. It mentions three armies, a lacklustre Egyptian leader, angry crowds on the streets of the Arab world's largest city - we've been here before, and it was not in 2010.

I've been reading a collection of short stories by Robert E. Howard recently. He earned his fame as the author of sword and sorcery fiction, and in particular as the creator of the character Conan the Barbarian. But he also wrote a lot of excellent historical fiction, much of it in the same vein. For someone who has read all his Conan and Solomon Kane stories, it is great to discover a new treasure trove of material, much of which is as good, if not better than, his Conan tales.

But what has Howard got to do with the events in Egypt this week? His story, Hawks Over Egypt, is a dramatic tale of the end of the Fatimid caliphate of Al Hakim bi-Amr Allah in 1021. Al Hakim ascended to caliphate of Egypt as a minor and became renowned in the West as the Mad Caliph - he certainly seems to have become somewhat unhinged in the later stages of his reign. Various legends are ascribed to his homicidal streak, but he was also responsible for banning the consumption of alcohol in Egypt, even by non-Muslims. He also prohibited the playing of chess and women were not allowed to leave their homes.

Where Al Hakim seems to have crossed the line is allowing preachers to proclaim that he was a god. He was already unpopular, but this sparked off riots and uprisings in Egypt which eventually seem to have undermined his reign. In the story, Hawks Over Egypt, which I won't spoil for you, Cairo is simmering as three rival factions prepare to square up to each other. These are the Turkish/Mameluke forces, the Sudanese army, and the Berbers. The story begins with an attempt on the life of the commander of the Turks, and rolls onward from there with characteristic Howardian verve. It was later adapted by L. Sprague de Camp and re-published as a Conan story, Hawks Over Shem, with Conan being swapped for the Castillian knight in the original.

There is not an awful lot of information available on the events of the actual fall of Al Hakim online, although it looks like a number of books have been published about him. He is also still venerated by the Druze religion. Howard fills in some of the gaps in the historical record surrounding the actual fate of Al Hakim, by proposing one alternative. We will probably never know what happened to the real Al Hakim however.

But I was struck by a sudden sense of deja vu, having just read Hawks Over Egypt, with the developing situation in Cairo. The rule of Egypt lost control of the street, and his fate, it seems, lay in the hands of the commanders of the three armies then quartered in Cairo. It seems like yet another striking example of history repeating itself, almost exactly 1000 years later.

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