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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


The Fatimids In Egypt, Palestine, and Syria

The arts of this period of some 250 years are difficult to define on account of regional differences and of the growing complexity of Fatimid contacts with the rest of the Muslim world, the Christian West, Byzantium, and even India and China. The Fatimid era is North African, Egyptian, Syrian, and Arabian; but it is also Mediterranean and pan-Islamic.1

Politically, and in many ways culturally and artistically, Fatimid power and wealth were at their highest before the middle of the eleventh century. Shortly after 1050, however, in the middle of the long reign of the caliph al-Mustansir (1036-94), financial difficulties, famines, droughts, and social unrest led to two decades of internal confusion out of which order was not re-established until the 1070s. At the same time, in North Africa, an attempt by local Berber dynasties to shake off Shi'ite allegiance led to a new invasion by Arab tribesmen and to a thorough change of economic and political structure2, as Tunisia and western Algeria lost much of their agricultural wealth and entered by the twelfth century into a western rather than eastern Islamic and Mediterranean cultural sphere. During the last century of their existence the Fatimids controlled hardly anything but Egypt. Whether the major changes in Islamic art which they had earlier set in motion were the result of their own, Mediterranean, contacts with the classical tradition or of the upheavals which, especially in the eleventh century, affected the whole eastern Muslim world remains an open question.

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