Timeline: Fatimid {909-1171}

By the late ninth century, the hegemony of the Abbasid Caliphate had weakened. Regional governors in Egypt and Iran exercised near-total control of their territories, paying lip service to the caliph through the mention of his name in the Friday sermon (khutba) and in coinage and tiraz textiles produced at official manufactories. Some Islamic dynasties, such as the Umayyads of Spain, operated entirely outside the caliphate, while local leaders in parts of Syria and Arabia espoused Shiism. In 267 H/909 a new Shia leader, "Abd Allah al-Mahdi, conquered Tunisia and founded a new capital at Mahdiyya. He followed the Ismaili doctrine of Shiism which claimed a new era of history would be heralded by the arrival of the Mahdi (the messiah), who would be descended from "Ali and Fatima through Isma"il ibn Ja"far al-Sadiq. "Abd Allah and his successors, the Fatimids, set themselves up as rivals to the Abbasids, and within seven years of Imam alMahdi’s conquest of Tunisia they had established a governor in Sicily. In 969 an exceptional general, Jawhar, occupied Egypt, and in 973 the fourth Fatimid Imam-caliph, al-Mu"izz, relocated the Fatimid capital to Cairo (al-Qahira, the Victorious), the new town he built on the Nile next to the pre-existing city of al-Fustat.

Although the Fatimids maintained their capital at Cairo, they taught their vision of Islam by proselytising through a broad regional organisation, the da"wa. At the height of their power in the late tenth century, the Fatimids controlled Mecca and Madina, Yemen and parts of Palestine and Syria. Supported by an army of North African, Turkish, and Sudanese soldiers, the Fatimids eventually suffered from internal dissensions that took both ideological and political forms. Exacerbating the power struggles within the military, drought led to economic woes in the 1060’s and the inability of the Fatimid caliph to pay his army. In 1067, during the reign of al-Mustansir, the soldiers ransacked the Fatimid treasury. While this was a disaster for the Fatimid ruler, it has proved to be a boon for historians of Fatimid art because of the descriptions by the historians, Ibn al-Zubayr and Makrizi, of the objects dispersed from the treasury. While the Fatimid dynasty survived until 1171, its territories in Sicily, Syria and Palestine fell to their rivals and finally, Saladin delivered the coup de grâce with his conquest of Egypt. 

The historical descriptions of the Fatimid treasury corroborate the tangible evidence of the luxury and refinement of this court. Carved rock crystal vessels designed to contain precious substances such as attar (cat. no. 59), gossamer-thin textiles inscribed with the name and titles of the caliphs (cat. no. 62), and jewelry made of the finest filigree and enamel (cat. nos 63–66) reflect the Fatimid court’s opulence. Fatimid art shows a loose influence of Abbasid and Byzantine prototypes. While some elements of Fatimid lustreware pottery derive from Abbasid lustrewares, the iconography of large hares (cat. no. 57), figures engaged in sports such as cock-fighting, and the combination of foliated epigraphy and geometric ornament (cat. no. 56) are more typical of the Fatimids than the Abbasids. The descriptions of the Fatimid treasury call attention to how much was lost, but the few items that remain are witness to a period of great cultural wealth.

Source: Aga Khan Museum (Spirit and Life Catalogue, p.87)

Images & Videos
Parent Collections