The transition from Ptolemaic to Roman rule was similarly a matter of a slow fade rather than dramatic change. The Ptolemies had gone to some lengths to publicly integrate their regime into Egyptian society, adapting Greek religious figures to match local morays, building or rebuilding temples in the southern parts of the country, and even going so far as to follow the Pharoanic practice of marrying their siblings. As inbreeding took its inevitable toll and Roman pressure mounted on the militarily and politically weaker Ptolemaic dynasty, it was inevitable that their politics become intertwined. Cleopatra VII (69 B.C.-A.D. 30), the famous Cleopatra of the Hollywood screen, played Roman politics with verve but lost in the end. She bore a son for Gaius Julius Caesar (the famous Caesar of the Shakespearean stage) before he was knifed by his opposition, and she shifted her allegiance, and favors, to Mark Antony. When he, too, was defeated, she killed herself, allegedly by allowing a pet asp (snake) to bite her. Her son, and Caesar's, ruled, briefly and nominally, before being executed by the victorious Roman Emperor Augustus, inaugurating Roman rule over Egypt.

The centuries of Roman rule in Egypt were characterized by gradually stricter and heavier military control of the country, combined with an ever more efficient bureaucracy (at least until the 3rd century A.D.), designed to squeeze more taxes from it. It was, perhaps more important, also characterized by the rise of Christianity. At first persecuted and suppressed by the Romans but generally accepted by Egyptians, Christianity was well established here by around A.D. 200. Most Egyptians date the formal origin of the religion to the founding of the Patriarch of Alexandria in A.D. 33, but sources and evidence are fairly sketchy on this period. What is clear, however, is that the situation eased up significantly once the Christian Constantine (known as Constantine the Great, or even St. Constantine) was declared emperor in A.D. 306, and the Edict of Milan (which made Christianity legal) was circulated in A.D. 313. Constantine, of course, was also the point at which the center of imperial gravity -- at least for Egypt -- shifted eastward from Rome to the newly named city of Constantinople. By the 5th century A.D., Egypt had not only largely made the transition from 4,000-year-old deities of Pharoanic Egypt to a relatively new (at least officially) monotheistic cosmology, but also from a country ruled by Egyptians from Egypt to a province of empires.

There were flies in the religious ointment, however, and the chief one was that the church in Egypt was on the wrong side of the Council of Chalcedon, which in A.D. 451 ruled on what now seems a rather abstruse religious question concerning the physical and spiritual nature of Christ. Suffice it to say that the Egyptian Church professed a belief in the monophysite nature of Christ (that his essential being was at once divine and human) and refused to alter its view despite having been ruled out of bounds by a Byzantine council that had declared itself infallible. It is an amusing twist on the debate that the most vehement of the monophysites opponents, Nestorius, was himself subsequently exiled from his comfortable position in Antioch (now Antakya in southern Turkey) to the thoroughly unpleasant Egyptian desert outpost of Kharga for falling afoul of the same need for doctrinal uniformity. In any event, the rifts caused by these disputes were never properly closed, and by the 7th century, Christian Egypt was in no position to close ranks with the Byzantine Empire and present a unified front against a small army that arrived from the Arabian peninsular under the banner of a new prophet: Mohamed.

In late 639, a small army crossed the Sinai Peninsula under Amr ibn al 'As, a Muslim convert from a tribe near Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia. Fresh from victories in Palestine and Syria, the men had little difficulty reaching massive fortifications of Babylon (now in Coptic Cairo) by the fall of the next year. By the spring, the country was theirs. There are different perspectives on the ease with which this band of 4,000 men, which even with reinforcements only reached about 15,000 by the end of the campaign, managed to conquer one of the richest provinces of the Byzantine Empire. But, a population that was not inimical to the invaders (who seemed to offer the Monophysite Copts a greater degree of religious tolerance than their nominal co-religionists had) combined with general fatigue on the part of the Byzantines after centuries of conflict frames the most likely explanation.

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