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Chapter 3

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

David Yellin and Israel Abrahams

Jewish Publication Society of America
Philadelphia, 1903

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!


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Chapter 5

 p55  Chapter IV
With Saladin in Cairo

When Maimonides reached Alexandria, the last of the Fatimid Khalifs sat on the throne of Egypt. Saladin, whose life (1138‑1193) practically synchronises with that of Maimonides, had not yet come to Egypt, and it was uncertain whether the country was fated to remain in Moslem, or to fall into Christian, hands. Saladin was of Kurdish descent, and his rise was due to the service rendered by his father Ayyub to Zengy, master of Mosul. Nureddin, Zengy's son, was Saladin's immediate predecessor on the throne of Aleppo. As the Moslem hero of the second Crusade, Nureddin was second only to Saladin in fame among the champions of Islam.  p56 Ayyub's younger brother, Shirkuh, was Nureddin's most trusted general. The diplomacy of Ayyub and the military genius of Shirkuh enabled Nureddin to occupy Damascus in 1154, and to realise Zengy's dream of a Syrian empire with its capital at Damascus. Till 1164 Saladin lived in obscurity at Nureddin's court, but when Shirkuh made his famous inroads into Egypt, Saladin accompanied his uncle, and soon found himself ruler of the land of the Pharaohs.16

The Fatimids, claiming descent from Fatima, Mohammed's daughter, had for two centuries forced their presence on the Egyptians. The Fatimids were heterodox (Shiites), the masses orthodox (Sunnites), but the khalifs of this line were powerful enough by land and sea to maintain their prestige and independence. Their luxury and their prodigality, however, eventually produced their inevitable effects. The last of the Fatimids  p57 ruled from his harem. His Vizir Shawar coquetted with the Moslems and the Franks, seeking an alliance now with Nureddin in Damascus, now with Amalric in Jerusalem. In 1164 Shirkuh invaded Egypt, "a country without men," as the Moslem general reported to Nureddin. It took, however, some years before the Franks abandoned their hopes of winning supremacy in Egypt. By the year 1169 Shirkuh had triumphed, but within three months of his success he died, leaving the path free for his nephew. Saladin was immediately appointed Vizir, and remained master of Egypt, till the death of Nureddin in 1174 called him from Egypt to play a greater part in the world's drama. Saladin deserves all the honours that have been poured on his name by historians and romancers. "The popular conception of his character has not erred. Magnanimous, chivalrous, gentle, sympathetic, pure in heart and life, ascetic and laborious,  p58 simple in his habits, fervently devout, and only severe in his zeal for the faith, he has been rightly held to be the type and pattern of Saracen chivalry." Rarely has history shown us in rivalry two such noble characters as Saladin and Richard Coeur de Lion. And the same epoch presented us with the most typical medieval product of Judaism. Like the champions of Christianity and Islam, but with other weapons, the Jew Maimonides was struggling for possession of the Mount of God.

The Jewish population of Egypt was considerable. In Alexandria, where Maimonides remained for some time, there resided about 3000 Jewish families, in Bilbeys 3000 individuals. In el‑Kahira, New Cairo, 2000 Jewish families had their home; in addition another 1000 families were settled in Old Cairo (Fostat, or Misr). The Egyptian Jews enjoyed almost complete freedom, and under their own Nagid  p59 (Prince) formed a community practically self-governed, so far as its internal affairs were concerned. Their position closely resembled the situation of the Jewish community in Persia. The Egyptian Nagid, like the Exilarch at Bagdad, had extensive disciplinary powers: he appointed Rabbis and Synagogue officials; he could punish offenders by fines and imprisonment. Spiritually, the condition of the Jews was less satisfactory than it was materially. There was little genuine devotion to the Law, there were few men of light and leading. Karaism was eating deep into the communal organisation. In the capital, the Karaites were probably for the moment more numerous than the Rabbanites; their political influence was certainly stronger. The adherents of the Karaite sect, it may be explained in passing, assumed an attitude of opposition to the Rabbanite tradition, and sought to govern their lives by the letter of  p60 Scripture (Kara). To the Karaites was due not the foundation, but the development of a true Hebrew philology, and when the Bible became the battlefield of men like Saadiah and Japhet, the field was, at all events, very thoroughly trodden. Thus Biblical exegesis gained what the communal organisation lost. There was, moreover, much to admire in the independence and strength of character displayed by the Karaites, but their virtues have sometimes been exaggerated in order to deal an indirect blow at the mass of the Jews who have remained staunch to Rabbanism. Karaism was essentially reactionary, for starting with a profession of hostility to tradition it soon became itself nothing but a tradition, lacking the historical sanction and the fertilising spiritual vitality of the Rabbinical tradition which it sought to replace. The two sects were not rigidly separated, and intermarriages took place, sometimes on  p61 terms of very remarkable tolerance between the contracting parties. Still the temporary supremacy of Karaism was a menace to the Judaism of Egypt, and none of the services which Maimonides rendered to the cause of Judaism won him so much approval as his success in gaining for the Rabbanites the upper hand in Egypt.17 He won this victory by a policy of conciliation and firmness. He did not interfere with the friendly intercourse between the sects, on the contrary he held that Karaites might be visited in their homes, that Rabbanites might bury their dead, comfort their mourners, and initiate their children into the covenant of Abraham. He treated the Karaites as members of the family estranged; he sought not their annihilation, but their restoration to the family hearth. Weiss suggests that Maimonides' ruling passion for simplifying the Rabbinical exposition of Judaism was due to his desire to win  p62 the Karaites back to their allegiance. He eliminated the Karaite customs that had crept into Rabbanite life, and resisted the authority and influence of the followers of Anan. But he won by love more than by hostility, and thus his triumph over Karaism in Egypt was what Ben Sira calls the most laudable of victories, for he destroyed his foes by converting them into friends.

To return to an earlier period, to the time of Maimonides' arrival in Cairo. He himself describes the condition of the community in a document dated 1167.18 "In times gone by, when storms threatened us, we wandered from place to place; but by the mercy of God we have now been enabled to find a resting-place in this city. On our arrival we noticed to our great dismay that the learned were disunited; that none of them turned his attention to what was going on in the congregation. We therefore felt it our duty  p63 to undertake the task of guiding the holy flock, of reconciling the hearts of the fathers to their children, and of correcting their corrupt ways. The mischief is great, but we may succeed in effecting a cure, and in accordance with the words of the prophet: 'I will seek the lost one, and that which has been cast out I will bring back, and the broken one I will heal.' " Practical effect was given to Maimonides' zeal, and henceforth he never allowed his interest in wider concerns to preclude a very real devotion to local affairs. One might rather say that his presence in Cairo transfigured local affairs into matters of world-wide moment. His livelihood was still derived from the business in precious stones, in which his brother David was the more active partner.19 Nothing in all that Maimonides wrote exceeds in vehemence his denunciation of those who lived by their learning, and who served the Synagogue or the  p64 school for gain.20 He returns to the subject again and again; he would have colleges without revenues and teachers without salaries. His ideal was that of the old Mishnaic sages; the scholar, like the layman, must live from the toil of his hands. The change in Jewish life against which Maimonides protested was not widespread till the fourteenth century. Yet the change was inevitable. The demands of the community on its official heads became ever more onerous; the incompatibility between the Rabbinic office and trade was daily more keenly felt. Besides, the practice of medicine required little scientific training in the twelfth century, and Rabbis (like Maimonides himself a little later in his life) could double the parts of the healer of body and soul. But the great medieval universities established a higher standard of qualification, and the medical profession soon required an undivided devotion. Theology, too,  p65 became more absorbent of a man's whole mind and heart, and the Rabbinical function demanded all that a man had to give. Still it is a pleasing thing to contemplate the Rabbi of Cairo, like the Sage of Amsterdam, pursuing his intellectual career under the influence of utterly unsordid motives.

Soon after his arrival in Egypt, Maimon died. This was not the only sorrow that now visited our hero. A spirit less resolute than his must have been broken by the succession of misfortunes which befell him. "Physical sufferings threw him on a bed of sickness; heavy losses diminished his fortune; informers appeared against him, and brought him to the brink of death." We here have the echo of incidents in Fez, and it is certain from Maimonides' own testimony that at a later period he stood in serious danger from the injurious charges of informers. The final blow fell when his brother David  p66 perished in the Indian Ocean, and with him was lost not only their own capital, but also the money placed with the brothers by other traders. The loss of his brother affected him sharply and enduringly. He did not recover from the blow for many years, and his letter to his friend Japhet, written long after the catastrophe, bears touching witness to the close sympathy that had united the brothers.21 "It is the heaviest evil that has befallen me. His little daughter and his widow were left with me. For a full year I lay on my couch, stricken with fever and despair. Many years have now gone over me, yet still I mourn, for there is no consolation possible. He grew up on my knees, he was my brother, my pupil; he went abroad to trade that I might remain at home and continue my studies; he was well versed in Talmud and Bible, and an accomplished grammarian. My one joy was to see him. He has gone to his eternal  p67 home, and has left me confounded in a strange land. Whenever I come across his handwriting or one of his books, my heart turns within me, and my grief re-awakes. I should have died in my affliction but for the Law, which is my delight, and but for philosophy, which makes me forget of the moan."

After the death of his brother, Maimonides abandoned commerce in favour of medicine as a means of earning his livelihood. His fame as a physician belongs to a later period in his career. At first he was an unknown man, and his practice was not extensive. Alkifti informs us that he gave public lectures on philosophical subjects, but neither his medical nor his tutorial pursuits kept him from occupying his mind with the completion of the work which he had begun in Spain in his twenty-third year, and had spasmodically continued by land and sea during the vicissitudes of his troubled life.

 p68  The year 1168 witnessed the completion of the Siraj (Hebrew, Maor), or "Light," as the "Commentary on the Mishnah" was named. The fate which marked its inception accompanied the work to its close. Begun amid danger, the Siraj was finished in turmoil. For in 1168 Fostat, his new home, was the scene of the final conflict in the struggle between Amalric and Shirkuh for the mastery of Egypt. The King of Jerusalem had alienated the Egyptians by a wholesale massacre at Bilbeys, and the dilatoriness of the Christian advance gave the people of Cairo an opportunity to make heroic preparations. "The old city of Fostat, for three hundred years the metropolis of Egypt, and still a densely populated suburb of Cairo, was by Shawar's orders set on fire, that it might not give shelter to the Franks. Twenty thousand naphtha barrels and ten thousand torches were lighted. The fire lasted fifty-four days, and its traces may  p69 still be found in the wilderness of sand-heaps stretching over miles of buried rubbish on the south side of Cairo. The population re-occupied the burnt city to some extent for a century, and its final abandonment and demolition dates from the reign of Beybars."22 Cairo, despite this destruction of its oldest suburb, was soon to be made greater and nobler than ever. The Fatimids had relied for security on their fortified palace in the plain. With his military genius Saladin saw that the extension of the city to the northeast was dangerous. He chose the most western spur of Mount Mukattam for a new citadel, the famous "Castle of the Mountain," the view from which, over Nile and desert, dotted with Arab mosques and Pharaonic pyramids, still affords one of the most magnificent prospects in the world. From the citadel may still be seen traces of the new pleasure-gardens with which Saladin beautified the city. Fostat itself,  p70 which lay southwest of the citadel and close to the Nile, was to be included within Saladin's fortifications. This part of the plan was abandoned, and now very little is left of the old site. But the synagogue, standing near the soil which, though close to the ancient Fostat, has been recovered from the river since Maimonides' day, has recently brought the place to fame once more. For there is situate the Geniza, or buried treasury, from which so many lost gems of Hebrew literature have been recovered. The so‑called Maimonides Synagogue is not in Fostat at all, and has no authentic connection with Maimonides. The Geniza is Cairo's most famous Jewish relic of medieval ages, but England has spoiled the Egyptians, and Cambridge rather than Fostat now holds a large part of the Jewish treasures from the banks of the Nile.

The Authors' Notes:

16 For the career of Saladin and the history of Egypt in the latter half of the 12th century, two brilliant books by Professor Stanley Lane-Poole are particularly valuable: (a) Saladin and the Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, 1898, and (b) A History of Egypt, the Middle Ages, 1901 (vol. VI of the History of Egypt, edited by Professor W. M. Flinders Petrie).

17 Maimonides' views on the treatment of the Karaites are derived from his Responsa, 71, and Letters, 48B (ed. Leipzig, §§ 163 and 58).

18 Responsa, § 149.

19 Maimonides' Letter to Japhet (note 21 below); cf. Casici, Bibliotheca Arabicohispana, I.293A.

20 See for instance Commentary on Mishnah Aboth, IV.5, on the maxim: "Make not of the Torah a crown wherewith to aggrandise thyself, nor a spade wherewith to dig."

21 This Letter to Japhet, written eight years after the death of his brother David, is published in the Hebrew Graetz, IV p338, n. 4. In this letter he refers, among other matters, to the dangers he incurred through informers.

22 Lane-Poole, History of Egypt, p184.

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