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Central Islamic Lands

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Richard Ettinghausen et al.

From The Art and Architecture of Islam: 650-1250
© 1987 Yale University Press
Reproduced by permission of Yale University Press


For reasons provided in the Prologue to Part II of this volume, the presentation of the medieval arts in central Islamic lands has been divided into two sections.

The first section deals with the rule of the Fatimid dynasty, which began in Ifriqiya (present-day Tunisia) around 908, moved its capital to Egypt in 969 under the leadership of the brilliant caliph al-Mu'izz, and ruled from there an area of shifting frontiers which, at its time of greatest expanse, extended from central Algeria to northern Syria, the middle Euphrates valley, and the holy places of Arabia. Its very diminished authority, affected by internal dissensions and by the Crusades, was eliminated by Saladin in 1171. The dynasties dependent on them vanished from North Africa by 1159, while Sicily had been conquered by the Normans in 1071.

The second section focuses on the art of the whole area in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (at least until 1260), but only on its eastern part, essentially the Mesopotamian valley, in the eleventh. Several interlocking dynasties were involved in struggles and competitions which were as constant as they are difficult to describe and to recall. The lands of Iraq, the Jazira, Syria, Anatolia, Palestine, Egypt, Arabia, and Yemen were a mosaic of feudal rules enriched by the overall prosperity of the area, much involved in the elimination of the Crusaders' states, and largely committed to the revival of Sunnism and the destruction of what they considered to be a Shi'ite heresy. Although ideological opponents of the Fatimids, these feudal rulers shared with them both taste and material culture, and the visual distinctions between the arts of the two realms is not always easy to demonstrate.

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