Egypt, new dimensions, new frontiers

Introduction - Facts for the travellers - Where to go, what to see? - History: Pharaonic history -
Coptic history
- Islamic history - Modern history - Holy Family - Useful Arabic

Islamic History

In the winter of AD 639, Amr Ibn Al-As leading an Arab army coming from Syria entered Egypt. The Arabian Peninsula, Iraq and Syria were already under Muslim control, and the Khalif Omar had turned his armies against the two great hostile empires on his flanks - Persia in the east and Byzantium in the west.

In AD 640, Amr advanced not towards the capital Alexandria, but towards a more strategic goal, the fortress of Babylon, about 12km south of the point where the Nile divides to form the Delta. He defeated the Byzantine forces at Heliopolis then he encircled Babylon which was captured in April 641. Alexandria was Amr's next goal and by September 642 it was his by a treaty. The Copts, who were reconciled to the Arabs (who had rid them of Greek Melkites and allowed them to elect their own Patriarch) welcomed them.

On the orders of the Khalif Omar, a town was built beside the fortress of Babylon called Fustat. It was from Fustat, instead of Alexandria, that Egypt was administrated as a province of the Khalifate, first the Khalifs in Medina, then the Ummayyads in Damascus followed by the Abbasids in Baghdad.

The Tulunids (868-905) and Ikhshidids (935-969)

Ibn Tulun Mosque

From the conquest in 642 AD until 868, Egypt was a province ruled either from Medina, Damascus or Baghdad, but from that time Egypt gained a sort of an autonomy when two dynasties, the Tulunids followed by the Ikhshids, ruled Egypt as a separate country until the Fatimids.

The Tulunids ruled the country for 37 years, during which time economic stability and order were restored. Like previous rulers, Ibn Tulun built a new capital city, Al-Qitai, whose vast mosque still remains. Ibn Tulun mosque was built to the design of Arm Ibn Al-As mosque, with the addition of a fountain, a minaret, brackets decoration and a foundation board. The mosque has a minaret, the only of its kind in Egypt, with a unique design derived from Persian temples known as Zegorah.

Like the Tulunids, Ikhshidid dynasty functioned virtually independently of the Khalifate. Severe taxation and famine led to popular discontent and political instability which opened the way for the invasion of the Fatimids from Tunisia.

The Fatimid period (969-1171)

Al-Azhar Mosque

The Fatimids were the only Shiite's who ever ruled Egypt. They were called as such since they claimed descent from Fatimah (the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed) and Ali the fourth Khalif. They embraced Shi'a doctrines which rejected the legitimacy of the first three Khalifs of Islam, Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman, who claimed to be usurpers of Ali's right to succeed the Prophet in leading Islam. At first the Shi'a, or Partisans of Ali, were loyal members of the Muslim umma who simply disagreed with the political decision to bypass Ali. However Umayyad machinations which lead to the assassination and martyrdom of Ali and his sons Hassan and Hussein, hardened Shi'a attitudes and led to a religious schism with metaphysical overtones which has persisted to this day. The Fatimids had separated themselves from the Sunni Khalifate and set up their own western khalifate which, with their conquest of Egypt in AD969, extended across North Africa.

In AD969 the Fatimids established their imperial capital within the walls of a newly built imperial city called Al-Qahira, meaning "The Triumphant". Within the walls of the city were lavish palaces and the Mosque of Al-Azhar and its University which is now the world's oldest existing institution of learning. Egypt flourished under the Fatimids who ruled behind the walls of their imperial city, maintaining the mystery of distance from their subjects. It was not until the reign of the demented Khalif Al-Hakim that the Fatimid decline began. Although beginning his rule beneficiently, building a splendid mosque between Bab Al-Futuh and Bab An-Nasr in Cairo, and emerging from his palace to meet his subjects to get a better understanding of their needs, Al-Hakim degenerated into a murderous despot. He executed anyone to whom he took a disliking and ruled with insane caprice. When he became obsessed with staying up all night, he made sleeping at night and working during the day punishable by death. He banned the making of women's shoes. He also banned the consumption of molokhia, a vegetable resembling spinach which is a staple in the Egyptian diet. He supported the Byzantines against Roman Christians and the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem which was a pretext for the First Crusade. His reign ended mysteriously when Al-Hakim rode his favourite mule up into the Mokattam hills at night. The mule was found but Al-Hakim had vanished. Although it is likely that he was murdered by bandits who roamed the outskirts of the city, hiding out in the hills or in the City of the Dead, his disappearance was mythologized by his more extreme Shi'a followers who believed that he was divine and had ascended to a spiritual realm. Curiously, this heretical sect gained adherents and became known as the Druse who still have communities in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel. Although the Druse are clearly neither Muslim (Shi'a or Muslim), Christian or Jew, their true beliefs remain shrouded in mystery as only the Druse priesthood are privy to their doctrines and ordinary adherents are kept in total ignorance until the age of 40. Fatimid rule continued over Egypt for another 150 years and the country continued to prosper. However their empire gradually declined due to famine, internal troubles and external pressure from the Seljuk sultans who captured Syria from the Fatimids, and the Christian crusading armies which conquered Fatimid Palestine and the Lebanon (First Crusade 1097-1099). To protect the remainder of their diminishing empire, the Fatimids collaborated with the Franks, an act which outraged the Seljuk Sultan Nurad'din who sent an expedition to overthrow the Fatimids. The Sultan deputized his general Shirkoh to repel the Fatimid and Frank armies and conquered Upper Egypt, sending his nephew Salah al-Din Al-Ayyubi to capture Alexandria, thus opening the way for the Ayyubid Dynasty.

Mosques of Al-Azhar, Al-Hakim and Al-Aqmar; Mausoleum of Imam Al-Shafi'i and various fortified gates in Cairo.

The Ayyubid period (1171-1250)

Salah Al-Din Al-Ayyubi ("Saladin") assumed control of Egypt upon the death of the last Fatimid Khalif in 1171. He chose for himself the secular title of Al-Sultan and gave his name -Ayyub- to the dynasty that succeeded him. When the Crusaders attacked Egypt, burning part of Cairo, Salah Al-Din built a fortress -today's Citadel- and fortified the city by expanding the Fatimids walls. His reign was a golden age for Egypt and Salah Al-Din is revered as one of the greatest heroes of Islam, for his humility, personal courage, brilliant military and administrative mind and for defeating the Christian armies and treating the vanquished with dignity. Salah Al-Din spent eight years of his 24-year reign in Cairo during which time he established the Seljuk institution of the madrassa, built hospitals and other infrastructure. Salah al-Din also introduced Mamlukes (an Arabic word meaning "owned"), Turkic slaves from the Black Sea region who had been raised as mercenary soldiers. Under Salah al-Din and his successors, the Mamlukes were given a measure of freedom to own land and raise families and some rose to positions of power and influence.

Upon the death of Salah al-Din in 1193, he was succeeded by his brother, Al-Adil, following a protracted succession dispute. Al-Adil died in Syria, upon hearing the news of the crusaders' seizure of the chain bridge (Burj Al-Silsila) at Damietta in 1218. He was succeeded by his son and Salah al-Din's nephew, Al-Kamil, who drove back the Fifth Crusade. His successor, Sultan Ayyub, increased the size of his Mamluke army and married a slave girl called Shagarat Ad-Durr (Tree of Pearls). When Ayyub died, his wife became the first woman to rule Egypt since Cleopatra. She was the last ruler of the Ayyubids. Prophetic injunctions against women rulers placed Shagarat Ad-Durr in an untenable position and the Abbassids forced her to take a husband. When her new husband, Aybak, planned to take a second wife, Shagarat Ad-Durr had him murdered. She was assassinated shortly after this and the Mamluke military commander Baybars assumed control, ushering in the Mamluke period.

Madrassa-Mausoleum of Al-Silah Ayyub, Mausoleum of Shagaret Al-Durr in Cairo; ruins of Shali in Siwa oasis.

The Mameluk period (1250-1517)

Baybars was a commander among the foreign troops, the Mamlukes. After his reign, Mamluke Amirs (military leaders) retained control of Egypt for the next three centuries.

Bahri Mamlukes (1250-1382)

Named for their barracks on Roda Island, the Bahri (river) Mamelukes defended the Islamic empire from the Mongols, who in 1258 swept through Persia and captured Baghdad, massacring the khalif and nearly all his family. In 1260, they took Aleppo and Damascus and were launching attacks into the rest of Syria. The Mamelukes were successful in keeping the Mongols out of Egypt.

At the end of the year 1260, the Egyptian Mameluke General Emir Baybars halted the horde at Ayn Jalut (Goliath's Spring), handing the Asians their first defeat. When their Syrian possessions rebelled, the Mongols retreated to Anatolia. After his return to Cairo, the victorious General Baybars had the current sultan murdered. He ruled Cairo for seventeen years and his courts were very elaborate and rich. All of his ministers and employees were paid very good salaries and many had to be in attendance whenever he was holding court. Baybars did rebuild the canals, fortifications and shipyards in Egypt, which were all essential to the public works and the efficient functioning. Because Baybars was so successful abroad, Egypt prospered and so did its people, especially his partners. He was a religious man and ordered all the taverns and brothels closed and ran the European prostitutes out of the city. Using both belligerence and diplomacy, he controlled the crusading Christians along the north coast of the Mediterranean. He installed the Abbasid Prince Al-Mustansir as khalif at Cairo, thereby moving the Sunni religious center to Egypt and gaining control of the Hajaz and Mecca. The khalif remained a figurehead while the Mameluke sultans continued to rule the remnants of the Islamic Empire. Baybars died when he was fifty years old, poisoned. After Baybar's death, his sons were quickly deposed and one of Baybar's generals, Qalawun was elected as sultan.

Qalawun, who founded a dynasty that lasted a hundred years, continued Baybar's policies. He kept both the Mongols and Christians at bay and made treaties with Emperor Rudolph of Hapsburg as well as other European princes. He continued the building program initiated by Baybars, contributing a hospital as well as a mosque and mausoleum that still stand in Cairo, monuments to the pinnacle of Mameluke architecture. The building complex that he had built is called the Sharia Al-Muiz and was built between 1284-1285. Qalawun was followed by his son Khalil in 1290, who captured the Christian port of Acre, razed the Crusaders' castles and drove them to Cyprus.

Muhammad al-Nasir succeeded his brother Khalil, but owing to his age (nine) and internal dissension, the Amir Lagim ruled Egypt in his name. Lagim took part in the murder of Sultan al Khalil, who was Qalawun's son. Lagim was murdered in 1299. Nasir regained control in 1298, only to flee in 1309 before the power of Baybars II. When Nasir returned in 1310, he had Baybars II put to death. Al Nasir was even more of a builder than his father was. He also had a cataract on one of his eyes like his father. He ruled absolutely and brutally and kept the rival Mamelukes under his thumb completely.

Externally, his reign was marked by security and prosperity. He made treaties with the Mongols and strengthened ties with Europe. Trade flourished, and Egypt's borders remained unchallenged. Cairo did flourish during this time due to the trading that came through the port here. Trade with Venice had just begun as Venice was establishing itself on the mainland of Italy. Nasir had a canal dug between Alexandria and the Nile in 1311 as an indication of the importance of the trade in the Mediterranean. This canal took one hundred thousand men to dig. The city seemed to thrive during his reign, but after his death it sank from civil wars, famine and plague, known as the Black Death of Europe. Nasir died in 1341.

Turmoil continued under his sons and relatives, who were in general ineffectual or incompetent. The only one of his ten sons that ruled after Nasir and managed to leave anything behind is Hasan. He built what is still possibly the most impressive madrasa in Cairo, which is the Mosque of Sultan Hassan. The madrasa-mosque is considered to be the finest existing monument in Egyptian architecture. The body of Hasan lies in a marble tomb inside the mosque. None of Nasir's sons reigned for long. The Mameluke emirs kept murdering the sultans as one faction would become more superior than another. Lacking strong sultans to control them, the Bahri (river) and Burgi (Tower) Mamelukes were continually at loggerheads, using their local wars as excuses to plunder the civilian populations.

In Cairo: Qalaoun's Maristan-mausoleum-madrassa, Mosques of Al-Nasir, House of Uthman Katkhuda & Qasr Bashtak.

Fort Qaitbey

Burgi Mameluke Period (1382-1517)

In 1382 a Circassian slave, Barkuq, took the throne and control of Egypt shifted to the Burgi Mamelukes. From the Citadel tower, the Burgi Mamelukes ruled Egypt for the next 135 years, but their reign proved even more bloody and unstable than that of the Bahris. They were also called the Circassian Mamelukes since most of them came from Caucasus. The period of their rule is said to have been the darkest points in Egyptian history. To help defend Syria from a new Mongol incursion under Timur-I Lang (Tamerlane), they assessed oppressive taxes. By 1403, famine and plague had combined to undermine the economy. The Christians and Jews were heavily taxed. Christians were required to wear a five pound wooden cross around their necks, while the Jews were required to wear a black ball. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the Nile had shifted its course to the west of the city and receded almost a mile to where it is at today. A huge ship called the Elephant (Fil) sank at a bend near the port of al Maks. Silt began to form around the ship and within a few years Elephant Island (Gezirat Al-Fil) had formed. During the inundations the island would be covered but eventually it began to stay above the water even then. This caused the river to straighten out its banks. The parts that formed are what is now referred to as the European part of Cairo, which is from Ezbekiya Gardens to the river. The ground around Elephant Island was soft and marshy. This area was eventually drained when Al-Nasir joined the Red Sea canal to the new bank of the river. This new area became the new port of Bulaq and was Cairo's link with the Red Sea traffic. Houses were built along the new riverbanks and the town of Bulaq began to appear.

After forty-nine years and twelve sultans, Qait Bey became sultan. He reigned for twenty-eight years and taxed all the land one fifth of its production. His mosque that was built in 1472 is probably the most beautiful and sophisticated building from medieval Cairo. The amirs expanded state monopolies, but production dropped and the cost of living soared. From 1468 through 1489, under the able Sultan Qait Bey, Egypt experienced a brief revival but the country was headed for crises. In 1488, the Cape of Good Hope was discovered. It was a sea route from Europe to India. The Europeans were desperate for another way to get to India to avoid the heavy taxes and physical tolls that Venice and Cairo placed on their goods. Portuguese traders had already started trading in Calicut. They picked up goods from India and took them to Lisbon at much less cost than it had through Cairo. By 1502 Cairo's trade had decreased so much that the Mamelukes tried to get help from the ruler of India. He refused. The Venetians brought timber to Alexandria and built a fleet of ships. The Egyptians sailed these ships to India and defeated the Portuguese fleet off of Bombay. However, in 1509 the Mameluke fleet was defeated off Diu. The sultan during this time was al Ashraf Kansuh Al-Ghury who was elected in 1501 at the age of 60. He was faced with the Portuguese coming from one side and the Ottoman Turks coming from Constantinople. In May of 1516, Al-Ghury headed his army to face the Turks. The Mamelukes were badly defeated on August 24, 1516 north of Aleppo. Up to fourteen thousand Mamelukes and a huge army were defeated by treachery and artillery. The Sultan Al-Ghury was killed on the battlefield. The Egyptians almost welcomed the Turks. They had suffered from taxation and famine and had grown weary of it. They thought the Turks were possibly the deliverers from the Circassian brutality. They were wrong. When the Turkish Sultan Selim came to Cairo, he started to reduce the city to nothing. This was the longest and heaviest era in Cairo's history.

In Cairo: Barquq's mausoleum, Madrassa and Khanqah of Barsbey, Mosque of Qaitbey and the Ghuriya; Fort Qaitbey in Alexandria.

The Ottomans (1517-1789)

Under the Ottomans Egypt was divided into twenty-four districts and each had its own Mameluke bey, which was formerly called an emir. Each of these beys were governed by the sultan in Istanbul. The Mameluke beys surrounded themselves with slaves who collected taxes for them and had baronial authority. Tributes had to be paid to the Turks as well. The Ottoman ruler, Sultan Selim liked to keep trouble brewing between the Mameluke beys so that he could keep them divided and controlled.

Cairo still remained an important city because of the wheat that fed the people of Istanbul, however Venice was almost destroyed. Cairo became once again a port for fruits and grains that headed for Islam, instead of Europe. Life in Cairo was again filled with plunderings, assassinations and killing in the streets. The rivalries among the Mamelukes were compounded when more types of Mamelukes were installed in the Citadel; the Azabs and Janissaries. Tributes were collected by the Turks in the ports, but the Mamelukes took most of the money before the tribute was levied. The ordinary person was left with almost nothing. The peasant was completely exploited. In 1695, a famine struck Cairo and the people demonstrated outside the Citadel. The pasha refused to acknowledge them and even tried to run them off. Finally the revolt got so bad that the pasha was replaced by another pasha that had been sent from the Porte.

For many years, Cairo was divided into two factions, the Kassemites and the Fikarites. The division was originally created deliberately by Sultan Selim between the Kassemites (who were the Mamelukes of Egypt) and the Fikarites (who were the Turkish Janissaries). Sometimes these conflicts affected the whole city and many people lost their lives in silly battles that accomplished absolutely nothing. The only good thing that occurred during this time is that the scholars did not give up. Cairo had the reputation of deteriorating intellectually during this time, but that was not the case. The common disrespect for the rulers bound them together.

Some of the Turkish rulers were not as bad as others. Osman Bey Zulficar was rather intelligent as was Ridwan Al-Gelfi. Al-Gelfi was the chief of the corps of Azabs who were the Turkish mercenaries. He built several beautiful homes. However, his tastes were not on the same scale of excess as al Hakim or Kafour. He did manage to leave a good impression on Cairo. The only monument of his that remains is a gate on the Citadel called Bab Al-Azab. It was behind this gate that Mohammed Ali massacred the last of the Mamelukes in 1811.

In the year between 1796 and 1797, the Egyptians revolted against the Turks. They wanted something to be done about the unbearable taxes and the economic misery that had been oppressing them for so long. One of the Egyptian Mamelukes, Ali Bey, occupied Cairo and sent the Turkish pasha back to Porte. He was called the caliph of Mecca, which made Egypt an essentially independent state within the Ottoman Empire. Ali Bey was eventually murdered and Ibrahim, who was another Mameluke along with Murad Bey took over the rule of Egypt. It was during this time that Napoleon arrived on the coast of Alexandria.

In Cairo: Mosques of Suleyman Al-Silahdar and Suleyman Pasha; Sabil-Kuttab of Abd Al-Rahman Katkhuda; Terbana Mosque in Alexandria

Islamic Religion

Islam means submission to God. Mohammed is the last of many messengers of God, the first messenger being Ibrahim (Abraham), and thus the seal of prophecy. All the Prophets received the true revelation and had passed it on to their peoples, the revelations that descended upon Mohammed were recorded by his followers and collected shortly after his death to be compiled into a book in the form in which it now appears: The Koran. Koran is the transliterated form of the word derived from qara'a, meaning to read, and is thus generally rendered "recitation". The message that was revealed to Mohammed embodied that which God requires for the guidance of the believer. Covering all aspects of life, it can be divided into five sections: Beliefs, Practical devotions, Transactions, Moralities, Punishments.

Six beliefs are required of a Muslim

That God is unique, having no partners or equals. He is eternal and unbegotten and unbegetting. He knows all things hidden or manifest. The Angels of God are created of light and endowed with reason; they are his perfect servants. They intercede for men and are also their guardians. They are one of the ways of communication between God and mankind. The Scriptures of God, from the first to the last there is only one true religion. The Will of God was revealed to many Prophets and there are four recognized books: Al-Tawrah (the torah), Al-Zubur (the Psalms), Al-Ingil (the Gospels) and the Koran. The Messengers of God Prophets delivered their revelation to their respective peoples and warned them of the consequences of disbelief. The day of resurrection all the Prophets passed on the message that after death each individual will exist in eternity and must give an account of his actions; their subsequent state depending on the manner in which they had lived. The date of the Day of Resurrection is unknown to any except God but will be portended by certain signs.

Practical Devotions

There are five acts enjoined of Muslims, often called the Pillars of Faith: Pronouncing the formula of faith "I bear witness that there is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his Messenger". Prayer performed at five specific times of the day: Daybreak, noon, afternoon, sunset and night. For the prayer a Muslim must be in a state of purity, so he washes himself in a particular way. Payment of Alms, is a payment enjoined on every Muslim of a proportion of his annual income, both money and goods. It is calculated in a very exact proportion. It is paid out to the poor, needy debtors, for the ransom of captives, to travelers, and for those seeking information about Islam and the way of God. Fasting in Ramadan is an injunction, the benefits of which are given in the Koran. The fast begins at dawn after the moon is first seen to mark the beginning of the month of Ramadan and continues throughout the month between the hours of dawn and sunset. It must last until the moon of the next month is seen. (The Muslim calender is based on a lunar month). Pilgrimage is enjoined on every Muslim to Mecca at least once during his lifetime, in the month of Dhu'l-Hijjah.

Islamic Arts

The expansion of the Arabs as a power in the 7th century AD was no gradual rise through ascending cultural levels, but a sudden eruption into the heartland of two of the greatest civilizations at the time.

Persia and Byzantium

The former was conquered completely and a great portion of the latter was claimed. Thus, virtually at a strike, the Arabs were heirs to civilizations stretching back several thousands of years. However, with the rise of Christianity in Egypt, the ancient artistic traditions were studiously avoided, so in turn the Arabs found little in the provincial Byzantine style of Egypt to attract them; their requirements were very different from those of the static conquered population and none of the religious or aesthetic traditions were adopted.

At first, the main influences were from Mesopotamia, which contained the metropolitan centers of Islam. With the increase in independence from the time of Ibn Tulun (868) onward, local styles emerged. Following conquests of the Fatimids in the 10th Century, the Ayyubids in the 12th Century and the Ottomans in the 16th century, new fashions and techniques were introduced only to be modified in turn by local preferences. In addition, despite political frontiers, it was possible to travel widely in the Muslim territories, in fact it was a necessity when going on the Hajj, which encouraged the wide scale of interchange in ideas.

The immense disruptions in the east caused by successive waves of central Asian peoples and in the west by the re-conquest of Europeans also contributed greatly to the cultural mix and as the pivot between the eastern and the western territories of Islam, Egypt received refugees from both. However, some styles remained local and were never adopted throughout.

Gohar, commander of the khalifal forces built the city of Al-Qahira as a new capital in 969. Its walls containing opulent palaces and the prestigious mosque-university of Al-Azhar. Al-Muizz and his successor Al-Aziz were efficient and tolerant rulers, under whom Egypt's economy prospered and the arts flourished. Islamic architecture, while maintaining its essential features, developed a local Egyptian character. Al-Azhar mosque is the most famous still existing monument that represents Fatimid architecture in Egypt. Moreover, Al-Anwar mosque still maintains the main characteristic of the Fatimid mosques: hudge facades and projecting entrances. Al-Aqmar mosque (1135 AD) is a piece of perfect architecture where relief decorative elements known as Muqarnas (stalactites), a unique distinguishing feature of Islamic architecture were used. In addition, cut and dovetailed stones, that first apeared during the reign of the Ptolemies, were used in building the mosque.

The Turks built mosques but they preferred the public mosque called a masjid, to the college mosque called a madrasa. The Byzantine style was preferred to the traditional Arabian style. The mosques were usually smaller and their artistic creativity was less, not because of a lack of skill, but because of a lack of money.

Arabic Language

Arabic belongs to a language group standing between the Southern Semitic group (includes Ancient Sabaen, Sokotran, Tigre and Amharic) and the North-West Semitic group (including Hebrew and Aramaic). These are branches of the Semitic language family, a sub-division of the Afro-Asiatic language family, which includes within it Ancient Egyptian and Berber.

It is first recorded in Assyrian Chronicles of the 9C BC, its literal form appearing slightly later in a script similar to Dedanite. Later texts in the various scripts are found from Mesopotamia to Egypt. During the 3-6C AD, while Arabic was developing in the Arabian Peninsular, its current vernaculars in the North assimilated many words from Aramaic, Persian, Greek and Latin, thus extending the vocabulary greatly.

By the 7C, although the language itself was rather uniform amongst the various Arabian tribes and can be termed Classical Arabic that spoken by Quraysh is considered by Arab scholars to have been the most pure.

After the revelation of the Koran, the Arabs had a model text and during the following centuries scholars, with painstaking thoroughness, standardized the language. The literary Arabic used throughout the Middle East today is the product of this process, though the spoken language has developed into various local dialects. Egyptian is one of these.

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© World INvestment NEws, 2000.
This is the electronic edition of the special country report on Egypt published in Forbes Global Magazine.
August 7th 2000 Issue.
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