Fatimids (A.D. 969-1171)

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Fatamid caliph Al-Adid li-Din-Allah

The Fatimids (A.D. 969-1171) ruled North Africa, Egypt and most of Syria, the Levant and Arabia for around 200 years. They were Ismaili Shiites who claimed to be descendants of Fatima, the Prophet's daughter, hence their name.

Fatimids established their own caliph, who appeared in public on a horse with a scepter in his hand, and presided over an elaborate court. They grew rich from the agricultural abundance produced in the Nile delta and valley and from trade in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Their army was made up primarily of non-Arabs: Berbers, Turks and black Africans from Sudan.

The Fatimids,, unlike the Tulinids and the Ikhshidids, wanted independence, not autonomy, from Baghdad. In addition, as heads of a great religious movement, the Ismaili Shia Islam, they also challenged the Sunni Abbasids for the caliphate itself. The name of the dynasty is derived from Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and the wife of Ali, the fourth caliph and the founder of Shia Islam. The leader of the movement, who first established the dynasty in Tunisia in 906, claimed descent from Fatima. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Egypt: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Cairo was established in 969. It became the Fatimid capital in 983 and became a major center of Islamic and Arabic culture. Al-Azhar, the world's oldest university, was found in 970 in Fatimid in Cairo.

The Fatimids were replaced by the Ayyubid dynasty (1171-1250), founded by Saladin. They defeated the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt, and converted it to Sunni Islam. The Ayyubids ruled Egypt to 1252, Syria to 1260 and part of western Arabia to 1229.

Websites on Islamic History: History of Islam: An encyclopedia of Islamic history historyofislam.com ; Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World oxfordislamicstudies.com ; Sacred Footsetps sacredfootsteps.com ; Islamic History Resources uga.edu/islam/history ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/islam/islamsbook ; Islamic History friesian.com/islam ; Muslim Heritage muslimheritage.com ; Chronological history of Islam barkati.net

Before the Fatimids: Tulinids and Ikhshidids

Fustat (Cairo)

A new era began in Egypt with the arrival in Al Fustat in 868 of Ahmad ibn Tulun as governor on behalf of his stepfather, Bayakbah, a chamberlain in Baghdad to whom Caliph Al Mutazz had granted Egypt as a fief. Ahmad ibn Tulun inaugurated the autonomy of Egypt and, with the succession of his son, Khumarawayh, to power, established the principle of locally based hereditary rule. Autonomy greatly benefited Egypt because the local dynasty halted or reduced the drain of revenue from the country to Baghdad. The Tulinid state ended in 905 when imperial troops entered Al Fustat. For the next thirty years, Egypt was again under the direct control of the central government in Baghdad. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Egypt: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The next autonomous dynasty in Egypt, the Ikhshidid, was founded by Muhammad ibn Tughj, who arrived as governor in 935. The dynasty's name comes from the title of Ikhshid given to Tughj by the caliph. This dynasty ruled Egypt until the Fatimid conquest of 969.*

The Tulinids and the Ikhshidids brought Egypt peace and prosperity by pursuing wise agrarian policies that increased yields, by eliminating tax abuses, and by reforming the administration. Neither the Tulinids nor the Ikhshidids sought to withdraw Egypt from the Islamic empire headed by the caliph in Baghdad. Ahmad ibn Tulun and his successors were orthodox Sunni Muslims, loyal to the principle of Islamic unity. Their purpose was to carve out an autonomous and hereditary principality under loose caliphal authority.*

Emergence of the Fatimids

The Ismaili sect of Shia (Shiite) Islam sent out missionaries around the Middle East and the Mediterranean. One group arrived in the Maghreb and enlisted Berber soldiers. Their leader Ubaydallah, an The Ismaili imam, claimed to be a descendant of Ali and Fatima, the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter and Ali’s wife. He founded the Fatimid dynasty.

In the closing decades of the ninth century, Ishmaili missionaries converted the Kutama Berbers of the Petite Kabylie region to the militant brand of Shia Islam and led them on a crusade against the Sunni Aghlabids and defeated them in a battle in Ifriqiya in present-day Tunisia. Al Qayrawan (Kairouan) fell in 909, and the next year the Kutama installed Ubaydallah, the Ismaili grandmaster from Syria. Ubaydallah declared himself caliph and established Mahdia as his capital. Ubaydallah declared himself the “Guided One” and initiated the Fatimid Dynasty. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

For many years, the Fatimids posed a threat to Morocco, but their deepest ambition was to rule the East, the Mashriq, which included Egypt and Muslim lands beyond. By 969 they had conquered Egypt. In 972 the Fatimid ruler Al Muizz established the new city of Cairo as his capital. The Assasids, the great Baghdad-based Islamic Dynasty, had lost control of Egypt before it fell under he control of the Fatimids. The Fatimids established a calipahte that rivaled the Assasid caliphate.

Al Hakin (ruled 996-1021), the infamous "Mad Caliph" of the Fatimids, established Cairo as the Fatimid capital in 996, launching a long, cruel rule. He persecuted and killed Christians and Jews as well as Muslims and was often arbitrary about the way he meted out his terror. According to local tradition, he conversed regularly with the devil and worshiped the planet Saturn. He was killed in plot masterminded by his sister who was angered that he doubted her chastity.

Fatimids in North Africa, 909-973

Fatimid Empire

Under the Fatimids, Egypt became the center of a vast empire, which at its peak comprised North Africa, Sicily, Palestine, Syria, the Red Sea coast of Africa, Yemen, and the Hijaz in Arabia, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Control of the holy cities conferred enormous prestige on a Muslim sovereign and the power to use the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca to his advantage. Cairo was the seat of the Shia caliph, who was the head of a religion as well as the sovereign of an empire. The Fatimids established Al Azhar in Cairo as an intellectual center where scholars and teachers elaborated the doctrines of the Ismaili Shia faith. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Egypt: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The first century of Fatimid rule represents a high point for medieval Egypt. The administration was reorganized and expanded. It functioned with admirable efficiency: tax farming was abolished, and strict probity and regularity in the assessment and collection of taxes was enforced. The revenues of Egypt were high and were then augmented by the tribute of subject provinces. This period was also an age of great commercial expansion and industrial production. The Fatimids fostered both agriculture and industry and developed an important export trade. Realizing the importance of trade both for the prosperity of Egypt and for the extension of Fatimid influence, the Fatimids developed a wide network of commercial relations, notably with Europe and India, two areas with which Egypt had previously had almost no contact.*

Egyptian ships sailed to Sicily and Spain. Egyptian fleets controlled the eastern Mediterranean, and the Fatimids established close relations with the Italian city states, particularly Amalfi and Pisa. The two great harbors of Alexandria in Egypt and Tripoli in present-day Lebanon became centers of world trade. In the east, the Fatimids gradually extended their sovereignty over the ports and outlets of the Red Sea for trade with India and Southeast Asia and tried to win influence on the shores of the Indian Ocean. In lands far beyond the reach of Fatimid arms, the Ismaili missionary and the Egyptian merchant went side-by-side.*

By the seventh century, a conflict had developed between supporters of rival claimants to the caliphate that would split Islam into two branches--the orthodox Sunni and the Shia--which continued thereafter as the basic division among Muslims. The Shia (from Shiat Ali, or Party of Ali) supported the claims of the direct descendants of Ali, the fourth caliph and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, whereas the Sunni favored that of Ali's rival, the leader of a collateral branch of Muhammad's tribe, and the principle of election of the fittest from the ranks of the shurfa. The Shia had their greatest appeal among non-Arab Muslims, who, like the Berbers, were scorned by the aristocratic desert Arabs. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Libya: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1987*]

Fatimid Empire at Its Greatest Extent

Fatimid Incursions in North Africa

Ubaydallah, recognized by his Berber followers as the Mahdi ("the divinely guided one"), ruled over a territory that included Tripolitania (present-day Libya). The Fatimids turned westward in 911, destroying the imamate of Tahirt and conquering Sijilmasa in Morocco. Ibadi Kharijite refugees from Tahirt fled south to the oasis at Ouargla beyond the Atlas Mountains, whence in the eleventh century they moved southwest to Oued Mzab. Maintaining their cohesion and beliefs over the centuries, Ibadi religious leaders have dominated public life in the region to this day. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

For many years the Fatimids threatened Morocco with invasion, but they eventually turned their armies eastward, where in the name of religion the Berbers took their revenge on the Arabs. By 969 the Fatimids had completed the conquest of Egypt and moved their capital to the new city that they founded at Cairo, where they established a Shia caliphate to rival that of the Sunni caliph at Baghdad.

The Fatimids left the rule of Ifriqiya and most of Algeria and the Maghrib to their Berber vassals the Zirids (972-1148). This Berber dynasty, which had founded the towns of Miliana, Médéa, and Algiers and centered significant local power in Algeria for the first time, turned over its domain west of Ifriqiya to the Banu Hammad branch of its family. The Hammadids ruled from 1011 to 1151, during which time Bejaïa became the most important port in the Maghrib.*

The Shia regime begun to crumble early in Tripolitania as factions struggled indecisively for regional supremacy. The Zirids neglected the economy, except to pillage it for their personal gain. Agricultural production declined, and farmers and herdsmen became brigands. Shifting patterns of trade gradually depressed the once-thriving commerce of the towns. In an effort to hold the support of the urban Arabs, in 1049 the Zirid amir defiantly rejected the Shia creed, broke with the Fatimids, and initiated a Berber return to Sunni orthodoxy.*

Fatimid Rule in North Africa

Merchants of the coastal towns were the backbone of the Fatimid state that was founded by religious enthusiasts and imposed by Berber tribesmen. The slow but steady economic revival of Europe created a demand for goods from the East for which Fatimid ports in North Africa and Sicily were ideal distribution centers. Tripoli thrived on the trade in slaves and gold brought from the Sudan and on the sale of wool, leather, and salt shipped from its docks to Italy in exchange for wood and iron goods. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Libya: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1987*]

Christian widow of the Fatimid caliph sends a letter to Michael IV

This period was also marked by constant conflict, political instability, and economic decline. The Hammadids, by rejecting the Ismaili doctrine for Sunni orthodoxy and renouncing submission to the Fatimids, initiated chronic conflict with the Zirids. Two great Berber confederations — the Sanhaja and the Zenata — engaged in an epic struggle. The fiercely brave, camelborne nomads of the western desert and steppe as well as the sedentary farmers of the Kabylie to the east swore allegiance to the Sanhaja. Their traditional enemies, the Zenata, were tough, resourceful horsemen from the cold plateau of the northern interior of Morocco and the western Tell in Algeria. In addition, raiders from Genoa, Pisa, and Norman Sicily attacked ports and disrupted coastal trade. Trans-Saharan trade shifted to Fatimid Egypt and to routes in the west leading to Spanish markets. The countryside was being overtaxed by growing cities. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Contributing to these political and economic dislocations was a large incursion of Arab beduin from Egypt starting in the first half of the eleventh century. Part of this movement was an invasion by the Banu Hilal and Banu Sulaym tribes, apparently sent by the Fatimids to weaken the Zirids. These Arab beduin overcame the Zirids and Hammadids and in 1057 sacked Al Qayrawan. They sent farmers fleeing from the fertile plains to the mountains and left cities and towns in ruin. For the first time, the extensive use of Arabic spread to the countryside. Sedentary Berbers who sought protection from the Hilalians were gradually arabized.*

Fatimids Versus the Seljuk Turks in Syria

The Iraq- and Anatolia-based Seljuk Turks were also rivals of the Fatimids: J.J. Saunders wrote in “A History of Medieval Islam”: “The Fatimid regime had, in fact made a surprising recovery from what had seemed certain ruin. A dreadful six years' famine had paralysed Egypt from 1067 to 1072; the civil government virtually broke down; thousands fled from the country, and the misery of those who remained was heightened by the brutal lawlessness of the Turkish, Berber and Sudanese slave soldiery who killed and robbed in quest of food and plunder. The Fatimid Empire all but vanished. The Maghrib had long been lost; Sicily was conquered by the Normans from South Italy, Atsiz seized Palestine, and the Abbasid Caliph was once more prayed for in the Holy Cities. [Source: J.J. Saunders, “A History of Medieval Islam,” (London: Routledge, 1965), chap. 9. "IX The Turkish Irruption" \=]

“But in 1073 Mustansir called in the governor of Acre, Badr al-Jamali, a brilliant general of Armenian birth, to restore order; the mutinous troops were disciplined, the defences of Cairo were strengthened, trade revived, the revenues rose, and prosperity returned. The price paid was the creation of a military dictatorship, Badr, with the title of Amir al-Juyush, 'Commander of the Armies,' replacing the civilian wazir, and the Caliph being reduced almost to the level of the Abbasids under Buyid rule. \=\

Fatimid rulers

“Badr then set out to recover Syria, and though he failed to regain Damascus, which fell to the Seljuks in 1076, he succeeded in checking Tutush's advance to the Egyptian frontier and in re-establishing Fatimid authority along the Levantine coast as far as Tyre and Sidon. The Alid Caliphate, though shorn of much of its glory, was put on its feet again and enabled to survive for another century. When Badr died in 1094, a few months before the aged Caliph, Seljuk hopes of restoring Egypt to orthodoxy had been frustrated, and the rival parties were still struggling for the control of Syria, a situation highly advantageous to the Latin Crusaders who broke into the Levant three or four years later.” \=\

Rulers of the Islamic Egypt

Rulers of the Early Islamic Egypt
Dynasty. Ruler, Muslim dates A.H., Christian dates A.D.
Tulunid: 254–92: 868–905
Ahmad ibn Tulun: 254–70: 868–84
Khumarawayh: 270–82: 884–96
Jaysh: 282–83: 896
Harun: 283–92: 896–905
Shayban: 292: 905
Ikhshidid: 323–58: 935–69
Muhammad ibn Tughj: 323–34: 935–46
Unujur: 334–49: 946–60
cAli: 349–55: 960–66
Kafur: 355–57: 966–68
Ahmad: 357–58: 968–69
[Source: Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Fatimid document

Fatimid: 297–567: 909–1171
Ruler, Muslim dates A.H., Christian dates A.D.
cUbaydullah al-Mahdi: 297–322: 909–34
al-Qa'im: 322–34: 934–46
al-Mansur: 334–41: 946–53
al-Mucizz: 341–65: 953–75
al-cAziz: 365–86: 975–96
al-Hakim: 386–411: 996–1021
al-Zahir: 411–27: 1021–36
al-Mustansir: 427–87: 1036–94
al-Mustacli: 487–95: 1094–1101
al-Amir: 495–524: 1101–30
Interregnum: 524–25: 1130–31
al-Hafiz: 525–44: 1131–49
al-Zafir: 544–49: 1149–54
al-Fa'iz: 549–55: 1154–60
al-cAdid: 555–67: 1160–71

Ayyubid—Egypt: 564–650: 1169–1252
Ruler, Muslim dates A.H., Christian dates A.D.
Salah al-Din (Saladin): 564–89: 1169–93
al-cAziz: 589–95: 1193–98
al-Mansur: 595–96: 1198–1200
al-cAdil I: 596–615: 1200–1218
al-Kamil: 615–35: 1218–38
al-cAdil II: 635–37: 1238–40
al-Salih Ayyub: 637–47: 1240–49
Turan Shah: 647–48: 1249–50
al-Ashraf II: 648–50: 1250–52

Abbasid—Egypt: 659–923: 1261–1517
Ruler, Muslim dates A.H., Christian dates A.D.
al-Mustansir: 659: 1261
al-Hakim I: 660–701: 1261–1302
al-Mustakfi I: 701–40: 1302–40
al-Wathiq I: 740–41: 1340–41
al-Hakim II: 741–53: 1341–52
al-Muctadid I: 753–63: 1352–62
al-Mutawakkil I (1st reign): 763–79: 1362–77
al-Muctasim (1st reign): 779: 1377
al-Mutawakkil I (2nd reign): 779–85: 1377–83
al-Wathiq II: 785–88: 1383–85
al-Muctasim (2nd reign): 788–91: 1385–89
al-Mutawakkil I (3rd reign): 791–808: 1389–1406
al-Mustacin: 808–16: 1406–14
al-Muctadid II: 816–45: 1414–41
al-Mustakfi II: 845–55: 1441–51
al-Qa'im: 855–59: 1451–55
al-Mustanjid: 859–84: 1455–79
al-Mutawakkil II: 884–903: 1479–97
al-Mustamsik (1st reign): 903–14: 1497–1508
al-Mutawakkil III (1st reign): 914–22: 1508–16
al-Mustamsik (2nd reign): 922–23: 1516–17
al-Mutawakkil III (3rd reign): 923: 1517

Muhammad cAli: 1220–1372: 1805–1953
Muhammad cAli: 1220–64: 1805–48
Ibrahim: 1264: 1848
cAbbas I: 1264–70: 1848–54
Sacid: 1270–80: 1854–63
Ismacil: 1280–96: 1863–79
Tawfiq: 1296–1390: 1879–92
cAbbas II Hilmi: 1309–33: 1892–1914
Husayn Kamil: 1333–35: 1914–17
Ahmad Fu'ad I: 1335–55: 1917–36
Faruq: 1355–71: 1936–52
Fu'ad II: 1371–72: 1952–53

Administrators in the Fatimid Dynasty

Yacov Lev wrote in “State and Society in Fatimid Egypt”: “Next to the army, the administration was the largest state apparatus. The offices mentioned in the sources can be classified into three groups: 1) those which operated on a functional basis and dealt with specific matters such as taxation and correspondence of the state; 2) those which dealt with certain geographical areas; and 3) those which dealt with the affairs of various social groups, mostly the military. In the administrative structure there were built-in checks. Some controllers were attached to the offices and others were sent to the provinces. If one includes all levels of the administration, then it can be estimated that at least several thousand people must have been employed. The bast majority of these would not qualify for the designation of "ruling circles", although they were a privileged group in terms of income, power — wielding authority vis-a-vis the subjects — and status. But they were not policy makers, and had no influence over the decisions of the imam. [Source: Yacov Lev, “State and Society in Fatimid Egypt,” translated by E. J. Brill. Leiden. 1991, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu |=|]


“In contrast with the military dictators of the twelfth century who wielded the sanction of brute force, the relationships between the civilian viziers and the imams were unequally balanced. The extent of the executive powers concentrated in the hands of the civilian viziers, and their personal aaggrandizement aroused the suspicious of the imams who did not hesitate to oust and, occasionally, to kill their civilian viziers. Even the most impressive record of achievements was no guarantee for survival. |=|

“Powerful and influential as Ibn Killis was, his dependency on the imam was absolute. Two events of his career exemplify this point: the sudden arrest and, shortly afterwards, the release of Ibn Killis by al-'-Aziz, and the confiscation of most of his inheritance. The notion of the sanctity of personal property is a modern one. In medieval Islam, despite elaborate rules of inheritance, people in the service of the state were subject to confiscation of their properties upon their death or falling out of favour. Al-'Aziz's deed reflected a concept which maintained that property accumulated in the service of the state belonged to the sovereign whose favour had been instrumental in its attaining. The extreme manifestation of this way of thinking is reflected by an event related in Musabbihi's chronicle. When the wife of Jawhar's grandson died, leaving a large inheritance, an attempt was made to seize a third of it for the government. The deed was justified on the grounds that Jawhar, the founder of the family, had been a slave of the Fatimids. One of those who had taken part in these events, the Treasurer, was later himself a victim of the concept that servants of the state do not enjoy full legal rights over their property. For the civilian administrators of the state, it was dim propsect adding to the general precariousness of their position. |=|

“The administrators attempted to combat the precariousness of their position by creating a network of personal ties through the administrative apparatus. The wider these ties were spread the better were the chances of survival. The employment of members of the family in the administration, such as father and sons or several brothers, was very common. This practice was to be found at all levels of the administration. But the creation of a family network was not sufficient. Among the administrators, as among the military, the system of patronage was widely used. Through this system, a person (depending on his social standing) was able to attach to himself, or attach himself, to people who were beyond the narrow limits of his immediate family. The most notable example was the vizier al-Yazuri. He owed his career to his determination and the ability to find advocates who pleaded on his behalf before al-Mustansir's mother. There was no-one in a better position than al-Yazuri to appreciate the value of patronage and to make use of the system to his best advantage. It was said of al-Yazuri: "that when he conferred on somebody patronage he raised him to to what was beyond one's expectations". Examples of al-Yazuri's use of patronage are recorded by the historians of the period. In one instance al-Yazuri seriously misjudged the person on whom he had conferred patronage. Abu 'l-Farj 'Abd Allah ibn Muhammad al-Babli, a recipient of al-Yazuri's favours, betrayed his patron by becoming his successor in the post of vizier. Al- Ma'mun, one of the great Fatimid civilian viziers, owed the beginning of his career to another case of a patron-client relationship which went wrong. Al-Ma'mun was fully aware of the importance of human relations, and the need of the ruler to be attentive to the necessities of people in his service. He is characterized as showing great interest in the affairs of common people and simple soldiers. However, al-Ma'mun's relationships with the imam went astray which led to his abrupt downfall and execution. Patronage conferred by the imams upon administrators was far more restricted than upon the military. Only a few such cases are recorded.” |=|

Viziers in the Fatimid Dynasty


“Among the administrators only a tiny group of people belonged to the so-called "ruling circles". In this group the most important were the civilian viziers, and the heads of administrative offices. The imam and other members of the Fatimid family, and the upper crest of administrative personnel shared many common traits. The administrators wielded wide-rangeing executive powers and, in wealth and life-style, were second only to the imams themselves. The most notable case was the vizir Ya'qub ibn Killis. He was virtually the sole person responsible for state affairs, and his authority extended over the whole Fatimid territories. His house (later known as dar al dabij) was a huge complex from which he ran state business. The petitioners, for example, submitted their cases to the vizier in his] house. Ibn Killis's house became an official residence -- a seat; of the government. Ibn Killis's wealth was fabulous, and his extravagant life-style did not fall behind that of al-'Aziz. Like the Fatimid imam, Ibn Killis was a sponser of cultural activity and was a patron of learned men. Ibn Killis, like al-Ma'mun al-Bata'ihi later, was a recipient of extensive iqta'a-t which yielded large incomes. These grants of iqta' were in additition to other incomes that both Ibn Killis and al-Ma'mun received from the imam for their services. In accordance with a practice widespread in the ruling circles, Ibn Killis, as a private person, was engaged in trade. [Source: Yacov Lev, “State and Society in Fatimid Egypt,” translated by E. J. Brill. Leiden. 1991, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu |=|]

“Ibn Killis's successor, Ibn 'Ammar, was a man of a far inferior position. Although he resided in a palace in Cairo and owned a house with stables in Fustat, his earnings were modest in comparison with those of his predecessor. In many ways Ibn Ammar was not a typical example. Far more typical of the great civilizn viziers was al-Yazuri. He used Ibn Killis's house as his official residence. In his life-style, and in the patronage he conferred on learned men and charitable acts, al-Yazuri did not lag behind Ibn Killis. |=|

“Like the imams and other members of the royal family, the viziers built religious monuments; they were also entrepreneurs, investing in commercial buildings. Ibn Killis was influential in shaping the particular Isma'ili character of Azhar mosque as an institution for the dissemintation of Isma'ili learning. Among the religious monuments, erected on the orders of the viziers, the most renowned is the Aqmar mosque in Cairo built by al-Ma'mun. The mosque has a distinquished Isma'ili contents. Al-Ma'mun also carried out the restoration of mausolea. Such activities were in line with the deeds of other viziers who built mosques in the capital. Building for commercial purposes was no less extensive. Badr al-Jamali, who rebuilt and repopulated Cairo, did not miss the commercial opportunities which occurred in the process of the economic reinvigoration of the town. In the Barjawan quarter, where he built his residence, Badr established a new market. Al- Ma'mun followed his steps; in Cairo, he built a dar al[wakala for merchants from Syria and Iraq. The viziers, like the imams and women of the royal family, in their building activities left a permanent imprint on the physical landscape of the capital.” |=|

Fatimid Economy and Royal Family

Yacov Lev wrote in “State and Society in Fatimid Egypt”:“The Fatimid royal family amassed immense wealth and held vast properties. Special administrative organs dealt with the management of the private property of the imam and other members of the family. These were the diwan al-khass -- the office of the Private Purse -- and the khizana al-khass -- imam's Private Treasury. Offices of a similar nature, known under the names of other members of the royal family, are also mentioned in the sources. Data on the magnitude as well as the composition of the properties owned by the Fatimids can be gleaned from the sources. The best starting-point is the description of the Persian Fatimid sympathizer, Nasir-i Khusrau, who visited Egypt between August 1047 and April 1048. He says that all the shops in Cairo [according to him there were 20,000) belonged to the imam, and the rent per month varied between two and ten dinars. The caravanserais and the bathhouses in Cairo also belonged to the imam. Other urban properties owned by him included 8,000 buildings in both Cairo and Fustat which were rented on a monthly basis. The concentration of urban properties in Cairo, the city founded by the Fatimids for themselves, is not surprising. [Source: Yacov Lev, “State and Society in Fatimid Egypt,” translated by E. J. Brill. Leiden. 1991, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu |=|]

“The first market in Cairo was built in 365/975-6; the first bathhouses were built by al-'Aziz, and others by his daughter Sitt al-Mulk. However, by the time of al-Hakim, the Fatimid imam already had properties in Fustat as well. This is clearly born out by the text of Azhar's endowment document preserved by Maqrizi. The composition of the urban properties of the imam [riba' sultaniyya] diversified with the time. On the occasion of Ramadan 517/October, a decree was issued: it stated that from that date onward the tenants on riba' sultaniyya would enjoy a reduction in their rent during Ramadan. Under the heading of riba' sultaniyya, various types of business were mentioned, among them were: houses, bathhouses, shops, oil presses, mills and wedding halls. The decree reveals details about urban business not mentioned by other sources. The existance of oil presses in rural areas is referred to in a different context, but not attested to otherwise for the capital. The oil presses in rural areas, in contrast with those in contrast with those in the capital, were privately owned y iqta'-holders. |=|

“According to Nasir-i Khusrau, agricultural properties of the imam extended along the Cairo Canal, Khalij. The rural properties of the imams were not limited to Cairo. Muslim rulers of Egypt, prior to the Fatimid period, owned many properties in the country. Muhammad ibn Tughj, for example, possessed many estates and these were undoubtedly seized by the Fatimids. As a minor example of this largely unrecorded process, one can cite the history of Kafur's orchard along the Khalij which became a Fatimid property. The Fatimids owned two other extensive orchards in the capital which were valuable, financially, as they yielded large revenues. The most important rural properties were outside the capital, spread all over Egypt. In 390/1000, Sitt al-Mulk received many iqta'at or land grants whose annual income was 100,000 dinars. These properties included estates in Upper and Lower Egypt, houses and orchards. Also income from customs duties (rusum) was allocated to her as a part of the iqta'. Other women of the Fatimid royal family also derived high incomes from holding iqta'at. |=|

looks like an Aardvark

“Another source of income for the imams, and other members of the family, was trade. Musabbihi, in the annals of Rabi' II 415/June-July 1024, reports the sinking of seven ships which had left Alexandria for Maghreb. These ships were engaged in trade on the behalf of the imam. Ships of the imam sailed on trading ventures from other ports as well. Nasir-i Khusrau, on his way to Egypt, visited two Mediterranean ports: Tripoli in Lebanon, and Tunis, on the shore of the Sinai Peninsula. In both ports he saw ships of the imam, those in Tripoli were engaged in trade with Byzantium, Sicily and North Africa. Both port towns generated vast incomes for the regime from customs duties. In Tripoli, for example, these revenues covered the expenses of the Fatimid garrison in the city. Thus the importance of those towns was twofold as sources of revenues levied from merchants, and as a base for the private commercial enterprises of the imam and other members of the ruling circles.” |=|

Fatimid Women

Yacov Lev wrote in “State and Society in Fatimid Egypt”: “In general there is little information on women in Arabic medieval chronicles. Among the various classes of Muslim medieval women the most referred to in the chronicles are those of the ruling class. This state of affairs is a direct reflection of the character of our sources. Most of the historians were people of the upper classes many of whom had access to the ruling elite. The above remarks also apply to the Fatimid period. This onesideness of our sources is offset by the relative fullness of the data. [Source: Yacov Lev, “State and Society in Fatimid Egypt,” translated by E. J. Brill. Leiden. 1991, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu |=|]

“Two characteristic traist of women of the royal family are discernible: 1) they were wealthy, some of them immensely rich; 2) some of these women played an important political role in Fatimid history. The work of the eleventh century cadi, Ibn al- Zubayr, entitled Book of Gifts and Treasure,s supplies much information on our topic. Two daughters of al-Mu'izz, Rashida and 'Abda, who died in 442/1050-1 at the age of ninety, left fabulous riches. The estate of Rashida reached the tune of 1,700,000 million of dinars, and that of her sister was no less valuable. These were certainly exceptional cases. UndoubtedIy, more characteristic was the far more modest, nevertheless impressive, estate left by Sitt Misr, the daughter of al-Hakim, who died in 455/1063. The most remarkable piece of information is that describing the slave girl of the emir 'Abd Allah, al-Mu'izz's son. Her estate was worth 400,000 dinars. As a member of the royal family, the funeral prayers were conducted by the chief Fatimid propagandist, Qasim ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz of the Nu'man family. The fact that women of the royal family were wealthy was not a secret. During the crisis of 1024 Abu 'l-Qasim al-Jarjara'l pointed to al-Hakim's mother and his aunt as potential sources for obtaining the funds needed for the state. No one of the administrators dared to take action in that direction. |=|

“These data, impressive as they may be, form only part of the picture. Our source sheds light on how these riches could have been gained. As members of the royal family women were entitled to tap the wealth of the country. Both al-Hakim's sister, Sitt al-Mulk, and his daughter, Sitt Misr, were recipients of iqta'. Sitt al-Mulk had wide-spread economic interests in Egypt and in Syria, and maintained a large administrative manpower. The obituary notices by Musabbihi provide information on people in her service. Her personnel included both men and women. Abu l-'Abbas Ahmad ibn al-Maghribi, for example, served as Sitt al-Mulk's agent. He was a man of laudable character who had already served Sitt al-Mulk's mother in the same capacity. Sitt al-Mulk also employed a slave girl of her mother. This slave girl, named Takarrub, was Sitt al-Mulk's confidante. She served as Sitt al-Mulk's informant, and handled the petitions submitted to her lady. Takarrub died as a wealthy Woman . |=|

“For women of the Fatimid family of the twelfth century, the information is less abundant but points in the same direction. In the 1150's, Sitt al-Qusur was twice involved in conspiracies against military dictators who endangered the Fatimid dynasty. She spent 50,000 dinars on these plots. She must have been a wealthy woman familiar with state affairs no less than Sitt al- Mulk and Sawida Rasad.” |=|

Slaves and Eunuchs in the Fatimid Dynasty

Yacov Lev wrote in “State and Society in Fatimid Egypt”: “Slaves of Fatimid imams, among them notably white and black eunuchs, rose to important positions in the state becomng byi any definition part of the ruling circles. White eunuchs -- Saqaliba i.e. Slavs -- had already been eminent at the Fatimid court in Tunisia. Spain was the main source of supply of Saqaliba eunuchs, and the Fatimid practice of employing them was in line with Aghlabid heritage. The most important eunuch, during the North African period of the Fatimid imamate, was Jawdhar who was entrusted with an extensive range of authority. Other Saqaliba were commanders of naval and land forces. Al-Mu'izz's instructor in the art of writing was a Saqlabi eunuch, and another Saqlabi was his sahib al-sitr (the bearer of the veil behind which the ruler spoke to the people); he carried out delicate diplomatic missions to the chiefs of the Kutama Berbers. In 362/973, with the transfer of the Fatimid imamate to Egypt, the Saqaliba arrived with al-Mu'izz. In Egypt, al-Mu'izz's sahib al-mizalla (the bearer of the ceremonial parasol) was a Saqlabi eunuch. [Source: Yacov Lev, “State and Society in Fatimid Egypt,” translated by E. J. Brill. Leiden. 1991, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu |=|]

“Al-'Aziz kept a large number (10,000 it is said) of slave girls and eunuchs who always surrounded him. The power which eunuchs could attain is exemplified by Barjawan. At the beginning of al-Hakim's reign, Barjawan ruled the state as a vizier of second rank for almost three years. His ability to assume power was a result of the solidification of his position during al-'Az1z's rule. Barjawan had been brought up at the court and fostered by al-'Aziz who made him responsible for his harem and palaces. The entrusting of the eunuchs with all sorts of assignments was a natural consequence of the day-to-day contacts between them and the ruler. In terms of wealth and power, Barjawan was typical of the top echelon of the ruling circles. A quarter in Cairo was named after him; apparently his residence was situated there. Barjawan had large stables and his inheritance included a great quantity of textiles, many books and some 30,000 dinars in cash. |=|

“None of the other eunuchs in Fatimid Egypt reached the pinnacle of power as did Barjawan. Far more typical and common was the case of the black eunuch Mi'dad. He began his career in the service of Sitt al-Mulk who employed him as ustadh of the young al-Zahir. An important turning point in Mi'dad 's career was Friday, 18 Safar 415/1 May 1024, when al- Zahir bestowed on him honorific titles and named him Abu 'l- Fawaris. From another passage of Musabbihi it seems that Mi'dad received other titles as well. Mi'dad belonged to the highest-ranking group of eunuchs — the muhannak — i.e. that the turban they wore passed under their chin. According to a long official decree (sijji), read publicly in the palace, Mi'dad was entrusted with the management of the affairs of the soldiers (rijal and protecting the provinces. The event was celebrated in pomp. Among the administrative responsibilities of Mi'dad was the headship of the Office of the Kutama. He was among the small group of administrators and courtiers who took the reins of power into their hands preventing al-Zahir from running the affairs of the state. In the circumstances of the year 1024, the execution of the duties entrusted to Mi'dad was a most demanding task. Because of a severe famine, the army was unpaid, starving and rioting. These difficulties brought Mi'dad into clashes with other people at the court — the commander of the troops in the provinces and the market supervisor in the capital; they accused him of too lenient conduct towards the troops engaged in looting. However, when the riots reached the capital, Mi'dad took steps to protect Fustat and the civilian population from the soldiers who went on the rampage. |=|

“The administrative assignment of Mi'dad as the head of the Office of the Kutama was atypical of the posts designated to the eunuchs such posts usually being of an executive nature. (Although under al-Hakim, for short periods, some eunuchs served in administrative posts.) Many of the Fatimid expeditionary forces in Palestine and Syria were commanded by eunuchs. Eunuchs were frequently appointed as governors of towns and provinces. The two most important executive posts in the capital — the chief of police and the supervisor of the markets — were on many occasions held by eunuchs. These officials had at their discretion the most sensitive aspects of city life; suppression of crime and commerce, including the supply of wheat and bread. Other eunuchs, serving as generals and governors, also wielded wide powers in spheres of vital importance for the state. As with other people in ruling circles, some eunuchs attained great wealth. In Cairo there were quarters and lanes known under the names of certain eunuchs testifying to the extent of their households and the size of houses. The most notable case was of Sayf al-Dawla Nadir al-Saqlabl (who died on 12 Safar 382/14 April 992) after whom one of the lanes was named. He left 300,000 dinars in cash and property worth 80,000 dinars, including horses and slaves. Of Mi'dad's wealth we know less; he owned a large number of horses and sheep. He was not exceptional in investing in livestock; others — a qadi, a top-ranking administrator, and less famous persons among the Kutama — did the same. Their livestock were kept in Jiza, the area of Nile west bank opposite the capital. Eunuchs in accordance with the practice of other people in the ruling circles sponsered the building of mosques, even “|=|

Slaves and Eunuchs in the Fatimid Court

High ranking eunuchs were so common in Egypt that the word "eunuch" became a term for describing any officer of the court and the court itself was sometimes describes as "eunarchy."

Fatimid architecture

Yacov Lev wrote in “State and Society in Fatimid Egypt”: “Were the eunuchs, as slaves or freedmen, at any disadvantage in comparison with free-born people who belonged to the ruling circles The rationale behind the institution of slavery and the advancement of eunuchs to high positions suggests a negative answer. The ruler turned to his slaves and eunuchs in expectation of loyalty and exemplary service. The dependency of the slave on his master, his estrangement from society (the eunuchs were an extreme example) made them instrumental in achieving those goals. In order to faciliate the functioning of slaves and eunuchs in a society of free born people, any manifestations of contempt toward them, because of their servile status, should have been suppressed. The same applies in respect to racial prejudice against blacks. These points are nicely illustrated in al-Zahir's decree announcing the titles bestowed on Mi'dad and the duties vested to him. The favours conferred on Mi'dad were explained as rewards for loyal service. The decree and the pompous ceremony of its reading aimed at faciliating Mi'dad's entrance into the ruling circles as al-Zahir's trusted man. [Source: Yacov Lev, “State and Society in Fatimid Egypt,” translated by E. J. Brill. Leiden. 1991, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu |=|]

“There were two other aspects which also contributed towards the acceptance of slaves and eunuchs in the corridors of power. The first was economic: the supply of eunuchs, white and black, was not abundant, and they were expensive. Their high price explains why eunuchs were included in gifts exchanged by rulers of the period. Thus, we should not be misled into thinking that eunuchs were among the ruling circles in great numbers. The eunuchs were conspicuous, attracting the attention of the historians, but they neither dominated the ruling circles nor constituted a majority. In the multi-ethnic composition of the ruling establishment, eunuchs and blacks, were yet other social group. The people of the ruling circles themselves used slaves, and to a lesser extent eunuchs, imitating the example set by the ruler. People who themselves were of servile status employed slaves. |=|

“The ease in which slaves and eunuchs moved in the court and the ruling circles should not obscure the basically inhumane features of slavery and castration. When convenient the servile status could always be invoked. Following the killing of Barjawan, al-Hakim addressed the people in the palace who were in an apprehensive mood by saying: "Barjawan was my slave and I employed him. He acted in good faith, and I treated him favourably. Then he misbehaved, so I killed him". The message conveyed by the speech was obvious: a slave is a slave, and his killing a trifling affair of no concern for others. While the punishment of a slave who misbehaved was death, the reward for a slave who served loyally was manumission. Zaydan, a Saqlabi eunuch of al-Hakim and the bearer of his parasol, who had masterminded Barjawan's killing, was emancipated and the title ustadh was bestowed on him. Typically of the Muslim patterns of slavery, the emanicipation did not sever the master from his freedman. Bonds of slavery became bonds of patronage. Zaydan signed his letters as mawla amir al- mu'minin -- the client of the Commander of the Believers. Servile status and castration could be overlooked when convenient: slaves were nevertheless despised. Mutanabbi's poetry against Kafur and the remarks of the Fatimid propagandists on him reflected, and echoed, popular feelings.” |=|

End of the Fatimids

Fatimid halberd and lion-hunting spear

In the end, however, the Fatimid bid for world power failed. A weakened and shrunken empire was unable to resist the Crusaders, who in July 1099 captured Jerusalem from the Fatimid garrison after a siege of five weeks. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Egypt: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The Crusaders were driven from Jerusalem and most of Palestine by the great Kurdish general Salah ad Din ibn Ayyub, known in the West as Saladin. Saladin came to Egypt in 1168 in the entourage of his uncle, the Kurdish general Shirkuh, who became the wazir, or senior minister, of the last Fatimid caliph. After the death of his uncle, Saladin became the master of Egypt. The dynasty he founded in Egypt, called the Ayyubid, ruled until 1260.*

Saladin abolished the Fatimid caliphate, which by this time was dead as a religious force, and returned Egypt to Sunni orthodoxy. He restored and tightened the bonds that tied Egypt to eastern Islam and reincorporated Egypt into the Sunni fold represented by the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad. At the same time, Egypt was opened to the new social changes and intellectual movements that had been emerging in the East. Saladin introduced into Egypt the madrasah, a mosque-college, which was the intellectual heart of the Sunni religious revival. Even Al Azhar, founded by the Fatimids, became in time the center of Islamic orthodoxy.*

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Metropolitan Museum of Art, Encyclopedia.com, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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