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Mosque of al-Hakim, Cairo, begun in 990 and completed in 1013.

See also Fatimid and Mamluk Architecture


In 969 the Fatimids invaded Egypt from Tunis and moved the seat of their Shiite caliphate to a new city they built just north of Fustat. The caliph, al-Muiz, and his general, Jawhar, named the city al-Qahirah, "the Victorious": Cairo.  The Fatimids lasted until 1171 when they were ousted by Salah al-Din

There is also a famous and (because there is a similar story connected with the founding of Alexandria) probably apocryphal account of the naming of the new city. Jawhar had erected, so the tale goes, a network of bells and ropes with which to ring them to alert workmen all over the area to commence digging at the exact moment astrologers had determined most propitious. But, a crow landed on the ropes and set the bells ringing early causing work to begin while the planet Mars was still ascendant. Hence, the name al-Qahirah after the name of the planet Mars, al-Qahir: Cairo.

The Fatimids had initially set themselves up as rivals to the Sunni caliphate in Tunis in 909. Following his general, Jawhar, into Fustat four years later, al-Muiz was confronted by representatives of that city's ulema ("religious scholars") who challenged him to present his credentials. That is, they wanted him to prove his descent from the Shiite line stretching back to Ali, the prophet's son-in-law. al-Muiz pulled out his sword and declared, "Here is my pedigree!" Then, he threw gold coins out among the crowd, and shouted, "Here is my proof!" Arthur Goldschmidt (A Concise History of the Middle East, Cairo, 1983, 81), says that both the scholars and the crowd found the demonstration persuasive. The oldest street in Fatimid Cairo, along which one will see more palaces per square inch than practically anywhere in the world, bears the name of the caliph, "al Muiz al-Din Allah." The locals call the street bayn al qasrayn, ("between the two palaces"), a reference to the two chief palaces of the Fatimid caliphs: the palace of al-Muiz at the north end, and the palace of al-Aziz at the southwest end. This is the setting for many of Naguib Mahfouz' novels, including the Cairo Trilogy and Midaq Alley.

The years 975 to 996 mark the caliphate of al-Aziz, the first Fatimid to reign from Cairo. Fatimid power reached its height during his reign.

The Persian Ismaili missionary, Nasir al-Khusraw, who lived in Egypt from 1046 to 1049 during the time of the caliph al-Mustansir (shortly before the economic and political decline set in), left a glowing report of Fatimid luxury and prosperity in Cairo. He claimed that the caliphal palace could house 30,000. Nasir once saw the young caliph riding a mule clad in a simple white quftan and turban, fanned by an attendant wielding a gem-studded parasol. The caliph personally owned 20,000 houses in Cairo, mostly of brick and rising to heights of five or six stories, and many shops as well. Nasir says that shops and homes were always left unlocked. In old Fustat there were seven great mosques, and in Cairo itself eight. The country seemed to be enjoying a high degree of tranquility, peace, and prosperity leading Nasir to declare, "'I could neither limit nor estimate its wealth and nowhere have I seen such prosperity as I saw there.'" (Philip Hitti, History of the Arabs from the Earliest Times to the Present, tenth edition (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1970), 626).

Nasir also reports that the great mosques of Cairo were bought and sold by the families of various rulers. The caliph's family, for example, had purchased from the now indigent descendants of both Amr and Ibn Tulun the two great mosques bearing their names (mosques could be passed down within families). Al-Hakim paid 30,000 dinars for the mosque of Ibn Tulun, and later purchased the minaret for an additional 5,000 dinars. He paid much more for the Amr mosque: 100,000 dinars.

Nasir tells us that the Amr mosque was the center of the spiritual and intellectual life of the city. It was regularly filled to capacity (5,000 people). At night, it was lit up by 100 lamps, and on feast days by 700. Recitations from the Qur'an and religious instruction took place in the great courtyard. The wall near the prayer niche bore white marble plaques upon which were inscribed the entire Qur'an in beautiful calligraphy.

Outside the mosque of Amr, Nasir says, there were souqs (bazaars). His entry for December 18, 1048 tells us what he saw for sale that day: red roses, jasmine, water lilies, narcissi, bitter and sweet oranges, lemons, apples, melons, bananas, fresh cherry plums, fresh dates, raisins, sugar cane, aubergines, marrows, mangel-wurzels, turnips, celery, fresh broad beans, cucumbers, onions, garlic, beet roots, and carrots. Nasir says he was astonished to see all these items available on the same day in the same season.

Getting around in Fatimid Cairo was facilitated, Nasir says, by regular ferry service across the river. The ferry service was especially busy on Sundays when a famous weekly market took place in Giza attracting huge crowds. Inside the city, the mode of transport was mule or donkey. According to Nasir, 50,000 of these animals were available, each for a small fee. Only soldiers rode horses.

The river itself was one of the chief sources of diversion and pleasure in the city. Lined with kiosks and cafes the river's banks welcomed patrons who leisurely sipped fresh water and listened to music as they watched the sunset.

Intellectual pursuits and scholarly work were heavily restricted under the Shiite Fatimids, but there were areas of brilliance. The court of al-Hakim sponsored the great Ali Ibn-Yunus, the foremost astronomer Egypt ever produced, as well as Abu Ali al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, or, "Alhazen," the principal Muslim physicist and researcher on optics. Alhazen's work deeply influenced such European thinkers, as Roger Bacon, Johanes Kepler, and Leonardo da Vinci. Another member of al-Hakim's court was Ammar Ibn- Ali al-Mawsili who pioneered methods of ophthalmologic surgery, especially in the extraction of cataracts. The royal caliphal library, begun in the days of al-Aziz, was said to have contained 200,000 books, including 2,400 illustrated Qur'ans.

Though the library was looted by the Turks in 1068, even in the time of Salah al-Din it boasted 100,000 volumes. Nasir has left us a richly detailed and vivid account of Fatimid Cairo's most colorful festival marking the annual late summer inundation, the yearly flooding of the Nile. His description gives us a strong sense of the fascination, wonder, and awe the river has inspired in those who have lived and continue to live on its banks and demonstrates that its pleasures did not die with the pharaohs. But, not only do we learn about this wonderful festival; we also learn a great deal about the makeup of the Fatimid court and about the rich life of the city. Cairo was, as it is today, a kaleidoscopic city of many races, cultures, and heritages. The arts were officially promoted and sponsored, and artists, poets, and scholars were generously supported on state salaries. Here are some excerpts from his account:

"'When the time for the ceremony approaches, they erect for the caliph, at the head of the canal, a huge awning of Byzantine satin covered with embroidery in gold and sown with precious stones. A hundred horsemen can stand in the shade of this tent.

Before the ceremony, over a period of three days, kettledrums have been beaten in the royal stables and trumpets constantly blown; all this is to accustom the horses to a great din.

When the caliph mounts his charger, there are in his procession 10,000 horses with saddles of gold, their harnesses enriched with precious stones. The saddle carpets are all of Byzantine satin and bouqalemoun which is woven expressly, neither cut nor sown. An inscription bearing the name of the ruler of Egypt runs round these saddle cloths. Each steed is covered with a coat of mail or armor. A helmet is placed on the pommel and other arms are affixed to the saddle itself.

This day all the soldiers of the Caliph are afoot: arranged in companies and distinct detachments. The first is that of Ketami, who came from Tunisia with al-Muiz; I am told there are 20,000 of them. The second is that of the Bathili; these are people from North Africa installed in Egypt before the arrival of al-Moi'zz. They are mounted and consist of around 15,000. The third are the Masmoudi; they are black and come from Masmoud: 20,000. The "Easterners," so called because, Egyptian born, they are mostly of Turkish or Persian origin, not Arabs, number about 10,000, and have an imposing aspect. Then come a corps of slaves bought for money: roughly 30,000. Another corps consists of Bedouin from the Hijaz: 50,000 horsemen all armed with the lance. There is another corps of 30,000 slaves bought for various services. There is also a troop composed from the sons of foreign rulers who have come to Egypt; they are not considered a forming part of the army. These princes come from North Africa, Yemen, Byzantium, the Slav lands, Nubia, and Ethiopia. Also in the procession can be observed màf letters, scholars, a fair number of poets, all stipendiaries of the Caliph. Not one of these princes of whom I have just spoken gets less than five hundred dinars as his stipend; some receive as much as two thousand Maghrabi dinars. They have no duty to fulfill but that of attending the Vizir's audience, of saluting him and then of returning to their homes.

The morning of the ceremony 10,000 men are engaged to lead by the bridle the horses of which first I spoke. Preceded by men beating drums and blowing trumpets and bugles they move forward in groups of a hundred. A company of soldiers marches behind. For this service each man gets three dirhams. Then come camels, charged with palanquins [a kind of covered litter] and litters.

At a great distance behind the horses and soldiers advances the Caliph [al-Mostansir]. He is a young man of imposing appearance and pleasing expression, as befits a descendant of Hussein, the Prince of the Faithful, the son of Ali. He has a shaved head and rides a mule whose bridle and saddle are of the utmost simplicity, unadorned by silver or gold. His white jubba covers a long full tunic, as is the fashion in Arab lands: its value at least ten thousand dinars. The Caliph's turban is a length of white material rolled round his head; in his hand he holds a riding whip of high price. Just in front of him go three hundred Persians, all on foot, dressed in Byzantine brocade, belted at the waist. Their sleeves are long in the Egyptian manner. They carry short spades and mattocks; their legs are girt with lengths of cloth. the man who carries the Caliph's parasol keeps close to him. He wears a turban of cloth of gold enriched with gems; his costume is worth ten thousand Maghrabi dinars. The parasol itself is of the utmost splendor. This officer is the only person near the Caliph who is mounted. To the right and to the left eunuchs carry pots burning amber and aloes.

As the Caliph approaches it is customary for the people to prostrate themselves upon the ground and call down heavenly blessings upon him. The Vizir, the chief religious judges, and a large throng of doctors and functionaries follow the Caliph. This great ruler thus reaches the head of the canal, the place, that is, where it will take water from the Nile. He stays on horseback under the awning for the space of an hour. Then he is handed a short spade which he hurls against the dam. This done, the ordinary folk attack the dam with shovels and picks until it yields to the pressure of the water which then floods into the canal. The first boat launched on the canal is filled with deaf mutes. These are believed to exert an auspicious influence; the Sultan sees that they are given alms. The whole population of Misr and al-Qahira throng to watch this spectacle and to take part in innumerable amusements. '" (Desmond Stewart, Great Cairo: Mother of the World (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1981), 79-82)

Fatimid and Mamluk Architecture

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Last Revised: July 8, 2007