When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

The Islamic Conquest of Egypt and North Africa (639-647 CE)

Not long after ʿIkrimah restored the authority of the Islamic Caliphate over the tribes of al-Mahra in 634 CE, the Mahra were given an opportunity to demonstrate their fealty to the new state during the Islamic conquest of Egypt and North Africa. Despite their small numbers overall, Mahri troops played an important role in the conquest of Egypt and Tunisia. Their most noteworthy military achievement occurred during the siege of Alexandria in 645 CE, where Mahri troops earned high commendation from the commander of the Muslim army, ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ (d. 664 CE), for their bravery. According to the ninth-century historian Ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥakam (d. 871 CE), the Mahra displayed particular ferocity towards their Byzantine adversaries after a Mahri solider was killed and his corpse desecrated by Byzantine troops who kept his head as a trophy. In return, the Mahri troops captured and beheaded a Byzantine soldier whose head they exchanged for their comrade’s in order to give his body a proper burial (al-Ḥakam, Futūḥ Miṣr wa-ʾakhbāruhā, 76).  In light of their exemplary role in penetrating the defenses of Alexandria, ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ is reported to have said: “As for the Mahra, they are a tribe that kills but are not killed” (al-Ḥakam, Futūḥ Miṣr wa-ʾakhbāruhā, 76-77).

While the precise number of Mahri soldiers who participated in the conquest of Egypt is not recorded, the Mahra must have been present in sufficient numbers that a district within the military garrison town of al-Fusṭāṭ (later renamed Cairo) was dedicated to them: khiṭṭat al-Mahra. According to al-Ḥakam, khiṭṭat al-Mahra was located at the foot of Mt. Yashkur and extended some distance to a trench “which the governor of Egypt ordered dug at a later date” (al-Ḥakam, Futūḥ Miṣr wa-ʾakhbāruhā, 118-119). Additionally, the Mahra were granted spring pasture lands for their camels in the countryside to the west of Fusṭāṭ (Muqaddam, 2005: 93, citing Rajab Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm, al-ʾAzd wa-l-Mahra fī Miṣr).

Finally, 600 Mahri troops out of a combined force of 20,000 were sent to subdue Ifrīqiyya (modern day Tunisia) under the command of ʿAbdallāh bin Saʿd bin al-Sarḥ in 647 CE (al-Ḥakam, Futūḥ Miṣr wa-ʾakhbāruhā, 184). It was during this period of contact between Arab bedouin and North African camel pastoralists (such as the Touareg) that the Mahri camel was most likely introduced into North Africa. Whereas the unique linguistic status of the Mahri troops who brought their camels to North Africa was forgotten in subsequent centuries, the mahrī camel continues to serve as the totemic riding camel of the Touareg and is celebrated in their literary and oral traditions. In the words of Ibrāhīm al-Kūnī, the Touareg-Libyan author of the novel, al-Tibr (1992): “We always say that the Mahri is the mirror of his rider. If you want to look into a man and see what lies hidden within, look to his Mahri” (16).

In subsequent centuries, prominent individuals in North Africa and Andalusia bore the Arabic gentilic “al-Mahrī.” However, it is doubtful that they still spoke the Mahri language or were even aware that their ancestors spoke anything other than Arabic. The reference to the 600 Mahri troops who rode to Ifrīqiyya in 647 CE is the last time the Mahra as a distinct tribe outside of their South Arabian homeland appears in the historical record. Except for tantalizing references to “Ḥimyarites”—a byword in Arab-Islamic intellectual history for the linguistically "uncanny" peoples of Southern Arabia—in North Africa, it appears that the Mahra became Arabic-speaking Arabs as they dispersed beyond the Arabic Peninsula and thus became no different from the other peoples of the Arab-Islamic world who claim a lineage that extends back to the Arabian Peninsula.

Whereas distinct, Mahri-speaking communities faded into the broader social matrix of the Arab-Islamic world after the seventh century CE, individual Mahri tribes and tribal confederations continued to play an important role in southern Arabia, as can be seen in the following pages.

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