A. Historical Introduction:


A.1. Early Background:

The Fatimids came to prominence in the early C10th at a time when the political hegemony and religious authority of the Sunni ‘Abbasid caliphate was challenged by various groups maintaining that the leadership of Islam should be in the hands of the descendants of ‘Ali. Shi’a means "partisan" and these groups defined their opposition to the Sunni regime in terms of their partisanship of the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, ‘Ali, and his wife Fatima. One of these Shi’i groups were the Isma’ilis: they asserted that Imam Isma’il, the son and designated heir of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, predeceased his father, but that the imamate should stay in his line and pass to his son Muhammad. It was thought that this Imam, instead of dying, had gone into concealment (or "occultation") and would one day reappear as al-mahdi, "the guide", or al-qa’im, "the rising"; hence the messianic titles adopted by the first Fatimid caliphs, Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi and his son, al-Qa’im. In this way they claimed direct descent from Muhammad ibn Isma’il, and thus from the Prophet Muhammad via his daughter Fatima, after whom the dynasty took its name, the "Fatimids".

Click here to see a chronology of the Fatimid caliphs
and main historical events (909-1171).

Nothing is known of the early history of Ubayd Allah until 899 AD when he assumed the leadership of the Isma’ili movement in Syria; followers of another group, the Qarmatians, believed Ubayd Allah’s spiritual claim to the Imamate to be fraudulent and established their own rival Shi’i state in the Yemen. Ubayd Allah was quickly compelled to leave and went to North Africa where he founded a Fatimid state in 909 and named the capital city al-Mahdiyya. His great mosque was built there in 912. His son, al-Qa’im, succeeded him in 934 and consolidated the Fatimid power by forming alliances with local Berber tribes. The reign of the third Fatimid caliph, al-Mansur (945-52), was marked by a Berber rebellion led by Abu Yazid, also known as the Old Man on the Donkey. The foundation of a new capital city in Ifriqiyya named al-Mansuriyya ("the Victorious") commemorated the final victory over their enemy.

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A.2. Conquest of Egypt:

The turning point in the early history of the Fatimid dynasty came with the accession of al-Mu’izz in 953. His predecessors had made attempts at gaining control of Egypt and had failed, but in 969 al-Mu’izz’s general, Jawhar, finally conquered Egypt and four years later, in 973, al-Mu’izz moved the Fatimid power base to their new capital city. His entourage included 100 camels carrying gold bullion from the North African palaces, and the coffins of his 3 predecessors. The new city was initially named al-Mansuriyya after the North African capital, but on the arrival of al-Mu’izz, it was renamed al-Qahira, also meaning "the Victorious", hence Cairo.

Like the North African palace cities, which had been separated from the region’s commercial area at Qairawan, and on the model of the Abbasid caliphs’ cities at Baghdad and Samarra, al-Qahira was established as an area distinct from Fustat, which was Lower Egypt’s commercial, administrative and religious focus: here the administrative foci were the Mosque of ‘Amr (which was the first mosque to have been built in Egypt during the Arab conquests of the 640s, by the general ‘Amr ibn al-As), and the Mosque of Ibn Tulun (built in 879 at the heart of the Tulunids’ new capital, al-Qata’i’). The ‘Amr mosque remained the centre of ritual and ceremonial activity for all the multi-denominational communities of Fustat - Copts, Jews and Muslims - and the market where they interacted. It was also the site of the famous potters’ quarter, and remains so to this day. Jawhar recognised the importance of Fustat and prayed the first Friday prayer after the conquest at the Mosque of ‘Amr.

The plan of the new city was closely based on that of al-Mansuriyya: it was organised round the East and West palaces which had a ceremonial square between them known as Bayn al-Qasrayn ("Between the Two Palaces"); two of the gateways (Bab Zuwayla named after a Berber tribe who had been allies of the Fatimids, and the Bab al-Futuh named for victory) bore the same names and stood in the same relation to each other as in the North African capital: ie., they led directly into the city’s major thoroughfare, which became the axis of the new city and its main processional route, linking Cairo with the commercial heart of Fustat. Neither of the palaces survive, but we can read about them in literary accounts, and it is possible to form a basic reconstruction of them from looking at the buildings of client states of the Fatimids, in Sicily and North Africa (for example, the Qal'a of the Banu Hammad), and at the Ayyubid and Mamluk architecture that followed.

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A.3. Religious Practices:

The Isma’ilis were religiously exclusive, praying at a special musalla (lit. "a place for prayer") outside the nothern city wall, at the Bab al-Nasr; here they also celebrated the two festivals of ‘Id, and only seem to have led congregational prayers in the city mosques on Fridays during the month of Ramadan. The Fatimid Imam-Caliph believed himself to be al-Mahdi who had come out of concealment to reveal the truth of religion to his followers: he is there to lead the Isma’ilis in his state, and thus it is only to the Isma’ilis that he will reveal the "truth of religion". The spiritual concept of what is revealed (zahir) and what is concealed (batin), embodied in the doctrine of the concealed Imam, was very important to the Isma’ilis, and is a strong element in their ideology of rule: for example, processions were important to the Fatimid caliphs as the means through which they established their control over the city and integrated all parts of the city into their capital. Procession also embodied both the concepts of revealed/concealed, in that the whole population of the city was able to see its ruler in the processions that accompanied the frequent festivals on the Isma’ili calendar; but at the same time the caliph was always carefully isolated by the ritual parasol that was carried over his head to shade him, and he was also concealed by a curtain (sitr) when he led the prayer or gave the khutba on a Friday.

However, only a very small proportion of the Egyptian population actually converted to Isma’ilism: generally there was an undisturbed religious tolerance in the Fatimid state, with the exception of the sometimes rigorous policies of al-Hakim (996-1021). There was some attempt to integrate Isma’ili formulae into worship in the Sunni centre of Fustat, which met resistance, and thereafter it seems to have been the policy that imams of mosques would not be punished if they did not include Isma’ili formulae in the prayers they led.

The Isma’ilis introduced the concept of missionaries (da’is) into Islam and having carefully trained them, sent them all over the world to spread the word of Isma’ilism. In fact, before the conquest, the Fatimids’ first sorties into Egypt were through missionaries, who created an underground movement of favour towards the Isma’ilis which meant the surrender of the country was actually quite peaceful. In 972, the great al-Azhar was founded as the first Isma’ili mosque in Egypt but principally as a religious school and training centre for da’is. The name "al-Azhar" comes from an epithet of the dynasty’s namesake Fatima, known as al-Zahra, "the shining one".

In fact, the Fatimids were very aware of the significance of names: as we have seen above, their early cities were named after victories, and al-Qahira (meaning "the Victorious") was first called after it’s North Afriacn predecessor. It’s gates were given names after alliances with Berber tribes (Bab Zuwayla) and two gates have names which again evoke victory - Bab al-Nasr and Bab al-Futuh. Together these names are taken from the popular Fatimid saying: Nasr min Allah wa Fath qarib, "Strength from God and speedy victory". Another example is the mosque of al-Aqmar (built 1125) whose name derives from qamar meaning "moon", one of the epithets of Husayn, the martyred son of ‘Ali.

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A.4. Propaganda:

This significance of the use of names is linked to the Fatimids’ clever and concerted campaign of propaganda: it is exhibited in the architecture of their mosques, the constant use of certain phrases and Quranic quotations (such as Surat al-Nur, Qur’an 24: 35-37, the parable of the light of God in a lamp in a niche, which has a special Shi’i interpretation); and particular designs such as the bull’s eye motif used on coins, textiles, buildings, and in intellectual treatises to symbolise the Isma’ili’s relationship with his Imam-Caliph. One significant feature relating to the political aspect of the Fatimid dynasty is that they tended to build mosques without minarets: of the five mosques that we know to have been built in Cairo during the Fatimid period (al-Azhar 972; al-Qarafa; al-Hakim, also al-Anwar meaning 'the Bright', 989-1002; al-Aqmar 1125; and the mosque of al-Salih Tala’i’ 1154-1159) only two of them had minarets, and both were built in locations outside the city walls of Cairo - al-Hakim and al-Salih Tala’i’. This trend has been convincingly explained by Bloom as a deliberate political statement against the ‘Abbasids whose imperial mosque architecture featured very conspicuous minarets, for example at Samarra and at the mosques built by clients of the 'Abbasids, such as the Aghlabids of Tunisia who built the mosque of Qairawan (c.836).

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A.5. The Fatimid Treasury - Background:

Aside from architecture, the Fatimids also produced a wide variety of very beautiful and skilfully crafted works of art, which we now know only through the very limited number of examples which have survived: by pure chance some happen to have a name or signature which links them to the Fatimids, though there are very few dated inscriptions.

The main reason why our knowledge of Fatimid objets d’art is so limited is that the great Treasury in which the Fatimids stored all their riches was looted between the years 1067 and 1072, and the contents were sold, melted down and minted into coins, dispersed amongst the population of Fustat, or carried by merchants to other countries. This was a time of great political instability, during the rule of the weak Caliph al-Mustansir, when the Nile failed to flood and led to widespread famine, which led in turn to rioting and clashes between the Sudanese and Turkish elements of the Fatimid army, and the Turkish general, Nasir al-Dawla, twice burned and looted Fustat, including the potters’ quarter.

Grabar’s theory is that this sparked off a revolution in the minor arts, which now imitated the princely riches which the looting had brought onto the market-place. The main change which he thinks is brought about in response to the dispersal of the Fatimid Treasury is the emergence of figural decoration representing princely activities on everyday objects like ceramics. This theory will be examined closely in section A.7. below.

Fortunately, two detailed accounts survive of the structure, content and function of the Fatimid Treasury: the first source is a contemporary account, written by an eye-witness or someone who had spoken to an eye-witness, perhaps al-Qadi al-Rashid ibn al-Zubayr, who had held office in the Fatimid Treasury. This book, the Kitab al-Hadaya wa'l-Tuhaf, is probably the source for the second account of the Fatimid Treasury, that of al-Maqrizi (1364-1442), who assigns a chapter to each of the various Treasuries which made up the caliphal collection. He enumerates the library, the Royal Wardrobe (the Khizanat al-Kisawat), separate treasuries for flags, shields, saddles, the armoury, the treasury of furnishings, storehouses of condiments and spices, the cellars, the treasuries of tents, insignia for ceremonial processions, and the Treasury of Jewels, Perfumes and Wonders.

It is perhaps from this last section of the Treasury that many objects which we now associate with the Fatimids originated, and which today give us some idea of the splendid luxury and superior craftsmanship of items ordered for or bequeathed to the caliphal collection. Many of these objects are currently in cathedral treasuries in Western Europe, now used as reliquaries, and may have come there from the Treasury after merchants traded them or Crusaders brought them back as loot (see Avinoam Shalem's book in the bibliography). It is also possible that these precious objects were given as gifts by the Fatimid Caliphs to the rulers of Byzantium. For example, in a letter addressed to his general Jawhar in 948, the Fatimid Caliph al-Mansur explained the necessity of collecting precious objects so that he could surpass in his presents to the Byzantine Emperor those he received from him (see essay by Viktoria Meinecke-Berg in Trésors Fatimides du Caire).

The Royal Wardrobe and the Treasuries of Furnishings were possibly the most important of the treasuries, and the textile industry as a whole in Egypt was closely patronised by the court - Romberg suggests that the majority of the population was involved in textile production whether in private (khassa) or public (‘amma) factories, and the Fatimids continued the mainly Coptic traditions of technique and design in the production of their textiles. There was a strict hierarchy of dress which included the quality of material and colours used on it - for example, gold was most associated with royalty, and silk was next in importance for displaying status. Clothing and furniture were the main media through which the caliph displayed himself to his court, and tiraz garments were given by the Caliph as gifts to servants or visitors. Maqrizi also tells us of a beautiful map woven of blue silk with details in gold, silver and silk, portraying the earth’s climates, mountains, seas, cities, rivers and roads, and representing clearly Mecca and Medina; it was made in North Africa but brought to Cairo in the 970s when the Fatimid court moved there. An inscription across the bottom read: "Among the things ordered by al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah, longing for God’s Sanctuary [ie. Mecca], and proclaiming the landmarks of His Messenger, in the year 353/964"; it is said to have cost 22,000 dinars to make.

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A.6. Objects – Rock Crystal:

Of the vast quantity of precious objects that must have existed in the Fatimid Treasury, very few individual extant items can be specifically attributed to Fatimid Caliphs or to a Fatimid date. However, three pieces of rock crystal and several items of lustre-painted ceramics can be securely dated to the Fatimid period: a rock crystal ewer in the Treasury of St Marks in Venice bears the name of the Caliph al- ‘Aziz (975-96); a second ewer in Florence is dedicated to Husayn ibn Jawhar who can be identified and whose dates are 1000-1008; lastly, a rock crystal crescent in the Museum in Nuremberg, which may have been mounted on a horse’s bridle as a royal emblem, bears the name of the caliph al-Zahir (1021-36).

The Kitab al-Hadaya wa'l-Tuhaf says that when al-Mustansir was forced to open his treasury in 1068, the looters of the Palace "brought out of the Treasury of Precious Objects 36,000 pieces of rock crystal". We can reasonably imagine that all three of the dated rock crystal objects mentioned above may have been held in the Fatimid Treasury prior to its dispersal, as may many other extant items of rock crystal which have no identifying inscription on them.

All these rock crystal items seem to be containers of some sort, either goblets for drinking or ewers and basins for holding liquids, perhaps for washing the hands of the guests after a meal. This recalls the magical qualities that rock crystal was supposed to possess; Romberg quotes pseudo-Aristotle: "Kings use [rock crystal] for the production of vessels in the firm belief that it is beneficial to drink out of them. It is said that if a man procures himself a vessel of rock crystal to drink from, the illness of craving for water does not affect him". Like cups of bezoar stone, of which there were also examples in the Fatimid Treasury, rock crystal glasses were supposed to shatter on contact with poisoned liquids, or the liquid changed colour, which is perhaps why they were so popular with rulers!

Cups of crystal are mentioned repeatedly in the Qur’an as one of the many things the Believer has to look forward to in Paradise, for example Sura 37 verses 45-7:

"Round will be passed to them a cup from a clear-flowing fountain,
crystal-white, of a taste delicious to those who drink (thereof),
free from headiness; nor will they suffer intoxication therefrom."

This recalls the magical and medicinal properties which rock crystal was thought to contain, but also may suggest another reason why rock crystal drinking vessels were so popular in the Muslim world. (There appears to have been no rock crystal carving tradition in the Christian West until the end of the C12th, but imports to church treasuries before that time were very often used as relic containers, an appropriately religious usage.)

It was not only rock crystal vessels that were an attribute of Paradise: besides the cool gardens with clear-flowing waters, the sight of angels and beautiful chaste women, were fine garments of silk with rich brocade, bracelets of gold and pearls, lofty mansions, thrones encrusted with gold and precious stones, dishes and goblets of gold and silver, rich carpets and cushions to recline on - in fact it all sounds very much like the contents of the Fatimid Treasury, and suggests that the attributes which earthly princes took for themselves are the representations of a perpetual, cosmological set of attributes which will come to them in the Afterlife.

The tradition of carving rock crystal in Egypt was masterful and the purest crystals were imported from Arabia and Basra, and the islands of Zanj in East Africa. Nasir-i-Khusraw also says the Yemen was a source of pure rock crystal, and that prior to discovering this source, lesser quality rock crystal was imported from the Maghreb and India. The skill required to hollow out a piece of crystal without blemishing it meant that relief decoration was often kept to a minimum, unlike other media in Islamic art where the surfaces were covered with decoration, so that the viewer could appreciate the craftsmanship of the object. When adorned with relief carving, this usually depicted floral or animal themes, especially lions and birds amongst palmettes. Sometimes gold or precious stones were added, on the handle or to hide a cloud or knot in the crystal, but generally the purity of the crystal was judged sufficient in itself.

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A.7. Objects – the Princely Cycle and Grabar’s
  theory of bourgeois revolution

Click here to read Grabar's theory "in a nutshell".

The depiction of human figures on objets d’art is seen as a specifically royal type of art - hunters (especially falconers on horseback), musicians, drinkers and pourers of wine, dancers, and depictions of the seated ruler with goblet in hand all recall the leisure activities of Islamic princes from the moment the Umayyads first built bath-houses. Such depictions are very common on Spanish caliphal ivories from the mid-tenth to the mid-eleventh centuries, and occur on the ceiling of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo (second quarter of the C12th). Both thus have princely contexts for their iconography and may have been inspired by imports from Fatimid Egypt.

However, Oleg Grabar believes that the dispersal of the Fatimid Treasury meant that the Egyptian lower classes were suddenly initiated into the hitherto secret world of figural representation of humans, and that this gave rise to "a change [in the midC11th] in taste or in some other aspect of life likely to affect the arts, which led to major modifications in the ways which expensive materials were used, and also to the spread to all media of figurative themes hitherto primarily limited to the more expensive ones".

The impact of flooding the market with luxury goods must have been substantial, but how different was the type of art on these luxury goods from the art which was already owned by those who could afford it?

According to Romberg, the Geniza documents - which were written by a wealthy Jewish merchant class - present an impression of a homogeneous society, where the middle classes owned and used the same sorts of articles as the court, though in less luxurious materials. In fact, the middle classes imitated the court, and we can compare this situation with Michael Vickers’ theory of Greek society in the C5th BC: the patrons of red- and black-figure pottery were the less wealthy class in society who imitated the luxury gold and silver possessions of the rich (Artful crafts: ancient Greek silverware and pottery. Oxford, 1994). Similarly, Grabar believes that "certain details like circles or grooves on the Pisa Griffin or the Kassel Lion could perhaps be explained as translations into cheaper bronze of inlaid or enamelled gold and silver objects". The Geniza peoples’ homes also imitated court custom by architectural arrangement and types of furniture, and in contrast with Grabar’s thesis of the invisibility of the caliphal riches, Romberg instead suggests that they were often on display, at processions and banquets on the frequent ceremonial occasions.

For the implications of this debate on the iconography of Fatimid lustre ware, go to sections C.4. and C.5.

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A.8. Section bibliography:

[Also see the main bibliography on Fatimid Lustre]

Barrucand, Marianne, ed., L'Egypte Fatimide: son Art et son Histoire. Actes du Colloque organisé ŕ Paris les 28, 29 et 30 mai 1998. (Presses de l'Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 1999).

Bierman, Irene A., Writing Signs: the Fatimid Public Text (Berkeley, 1998).

Contadini, Anna, Fatimid Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A Publications, Coventry, 1998).

Grabar, Oleg, “Imperial and Urban Art in Islam: The Subject Matter of Fatimid Art”, Colloque International sur l‘Histoire du Caire (Cairo, 1969) 173-189.

Qaddumi, Ghadah Hijawi, The Book of Gifts and Rarities (= Kitab al-hadaya wa al-tuhaf): Selections compiled in the fifteenth century from an eleventh-century manuscript on gifts and treasures (Harvard University Press; Cambridge, Mass., 1996).

Romberg, Helen, The Fatimid Treasury: Content and Function. Unpublished M.Phil. thesis, Faculty of Oriental Studies (Oxford, 1985).

Shalem, Avinoam, Islam Christianized: Islamic Portable Objects in the Medieval Church Treasuries of the Latin West. Ars Faciendi, band 7 (Frankfurt am Main, 1996).

Recent Exhibition Catalogues:

Ellis, Marianne, Embroideries and Samplers from Islamic Egypt (Oxford, 2001). Exhibition held at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 6 June-22 July 2001. [See: http://www.ashmolean.org/ash/publications/]

Schätze der Kalifen. Islamische Kunst zur Fatimidenzeit (Vienna, 1998). Exhibition held at the Künstlerhaus, Vienna, 16 November 1998-21 February 1999.

Trésors Fatimides du Caire (Paris, 1998). Exhibition held at the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, 28 April-30 August 1998.

Note: these last two are different catalogues of the same exhibition, which travelled from Paris to Vienna. The Vienna exhibition catalogue is bigger, with larger photographs.

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