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The Fatimid Empire Shaping The World

Randy H. Sooknanan

Art & History Writer

The Fatimids can be considered heralders of a new intellectual and religious philosophy. At the height of their power, they conquered Egypt, where they founded the city of Cairo. At first, they were just a small group of Ismaili Shi’i Muslims that would go on to establish a dynasty that would rapidly conquer North Africa from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the Red Sea. They gave themselves their own name, Fatimid, meaning the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, from whom they claimed descent.


The Fatimid Empire

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Fragmentary Plaque
Fragmentary Plaque
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Ornamental Bowl
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In History 
During their reign, it was a time of great social, economic, political, and intellectual upheaval in the Islamic world. Their dynasty was one that built the world’s oldest university, created 'one of its greatest libraries, and fostered a flowering of the arts and sciences. At its height in the 10th and 11th centuries, the Fatimids established one of the greatest civilizations in the world, influencing knowledge and culture throughout the Mediterranean, Europe, and the Near East.' (1)

The Fatimids came to be around the first millennium CE.  They were a dynasty who reigned over a vast area of the southern Mediterranean–North Africa–all the way from Tunisia up until Egypt and parts of Syria. They reigned from 909 to 1171, CE for two and a half centuries.

In the end, the heart of their empire was in Egypt, their 'provinces at its peak included North Africa, Sicily, the Red Sea coast of Africa, Syria, Palestine, Yemen, and the Hejaz, with the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina.' (2) Control of Mecca and Medina was of immense value to this Muslim order, conferring great religious prestige and enabling their leaders, the caliphate, to exploit an annual pilgrimage to their advantage. While Egypt came to enjoy enormous prosperity primarily due to its intermediary role in the lucrative trade between the Mediterranean and India, Cairo soon rivaled the Abbasid capital of Baghdad.

The Fatimids were moved by ideology and dynastic ambition. They marked a new era in history and the religion 'of Islam because they posed serious intellectual and political challenges to the existing order.' (3) For them it was not enough merely to formulate an ideology, there was also the more practical business of implementing it. Which meant military conflicts to conquer other ruling Islamic factions and sending missionaries all through the world to spread their take on ideology, religion, philosophy, and political structure. 

The Fatimid "caliphate" was a regime imperial and revolutionary. The Fatimids were led by their “caliph” was not only an emperor but according to them, he was also an “imam”, the spiritual head of the Ismāʿīlīs sect of Islam ideology, making him the embodiment of God’s infallible guidance to mankind.
In their ventures abroad, after origins in Morocco, the Fatimids 'achieved many successes, the most notable being the conquest of Egypt itself. They suffered repeated setbacks, however, in Palestine and Syria where, in addition to local opponents, they also had to face major attacks from outside—by the Byzantines, the Turks, and then the European crusaders.' (4) Then in Syria, the great Fatimid advance to the East was delayed and halted. They experienced defeat from Saladin and his armies of a different sect of the Muslim religion. And so in Syria, this new power and opposition arose and in time eventually destroyed them. 

At times they were compelled by other problems such as wars on multiple frontiers, as well as trouble in the Mediterranean, and civil unrest at home or in their other provinces. They managed to reach some agreement with their religious interpretation rivals, but such arrangements were always temporary.
The end of the dynasty came in 1171. The last four caliphs were no more than a local Egyptian dynasty, without power, influence, or hope. In 1171, the last caliph died. Saladin, the nominal vizier, had become the real master of Egypt, and the Fāṭimid caliphate, already dead as a religious and political force, was formally abolished. (5)
In Art 
The opulence of the Fatimid court fueled a renaissance in the decorative arts, which made Cairo the most important cultural center in the Islamic world. Cairo, known as al-Fustat, became a major center for the production of pottery, glass, and metalwork, and rock-crystal, ivory, and wood carving; textile factories run by government officials created tiraz fabrics in the name of the caliph elsewhere in the Egyptian region, especially the Nile Delta. A novel, more refined style developed in pottery; bands with small animals and inscriptions now formed the major decoration in textiles; and rock-crystal carvers demonstrated great skill in works created for and treasured by the caliphs themselves. (6)

The artwork from this period exemplifies the creativity and ingenuity of Fatimid craftsmen. The technique of lusterware on ceramic, developed originally in Iraq, was revived in Egypt and Syria. Some lusterware pieces from this period are signed by their makers, an indication of the esteem in which the craftsmen were held. Wood carving and jewelry were executed with equal skill and inventiveness. Fatimid artists created new decorative motifs and made greater use of figural forms, both human and animal. Figures were stylized but lively, while traditional vegetal and geometric decorations maintained their abstract quality.
In architecture, the Fatimids followed Tulunid techniques and used similar materials, but also developed those of their own. In Cairo, 'the Fatimids founded great libraries and colleges where Da’is were trained to go out into the field, and to give further instruction to new converts.' (8) So it was 'in Cairo, their first congregational mosque was al-Azhar (“the splendid”) founded along with the city (969–73), which, together with its adjacent institution of higher learning (al-Azhar University), became the spiritual center for Isma’ili Shi’i.' (9) The Mosque of al-Hakim (r. 996–1021), 'an important example of Fatimid architecture and architectural decoration, played a critical role in Fatimid ceremonial and procession, which emphasized the religious and political role of the Fatimid caliph. Besides elaborate funerary monuments, other surviving Fatimid structures include the Mosque of al-Aqmar (1125) as well as the monumental gates for Cairo’s city walls commissioned by the powerful Fatimid emir and vizier Badr al-Jamali (r. 1073–94).' (10)


We can thank the Fatimids for bringing us the world's first modern styled University.

1. The World of the Fatimids: Mar 10 - Jul 2, 2018. Fāṭimid dynasty. Fatimid dynasty - LinkedIn SlideShare. Fāṭimid dynasty. Fāṭimid dynasty. Ismailiworld: The Art Of Fatimid Period ( 909-1171 A . D ). Ismailiworld: The Art Of Fatimid Period ( 909-1171 A . D ). THE RISE AND DECLINE OF THE FATIMID EMPIRE. Ismailiworld: The Art Of Fatimid Period ( 909-1171 A . D ). 10. Ismailiworld: The Art Of Fatimid Period ( 909-1171 A . D ).

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