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Art and Architecture

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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


After their conquest of Egypt in 969, the Fatimids embarked on a truly grandiose program of building, some of which survives; much more has been recorded by later Egyptian compilers such as the invaluable al-Maqrizi.15 These accounts in turn led, already before the first World War, to a series of very important, although not complete, topographical surveys by members of the French School in Cairo16, supplemented by a study of epigraphical material by Max van Berchem and Gaston Wiet17 and Creswell's monumental work. Both archaeological and interpretive concerns are ongoing activities in Egypt18 and, thus, for once in the study of Islamic art, both original documents and scholarly studies are numerous.

The centre of the Fatimid world was the imperial and military city of Cairo (al-Qahira, 'the triumphant').19 Nothing has remained of the first foundation, inaugurated in great pomp in the presence of astrologers with the purpose of controlling the older Muslim town of Fustat and its communications with the east. Yet its size is known (almost a square, about 1000 by 1150 metres), as are its north-south, almost straight axial street (the present Mu'izz al-Din street), its two huge palaces more or less in the middle of each side of the central street, with a wide open space for parades between them. It was provided with eight irregularly set gates (two on each side). Even the sites and names of the quarters assigned to the military groups permitted to share the city with the caliph have been recorded, because so much of the later topography and toponymy of Cairo is based on that of the town built between 969 and 973. Thereafter, little by little, the whole area to the south and southwest was transformed so that by the year 1000 Cairo, with the old city of Fustat, had become one of the largest and most cosmopolitan urban complexes of the medieval world, with its markets, mosques, streets, gardens, multistoreyed apartments, and private houses. Fatimid urban developments elsewhere are less well known, except for Jerusalem, Mecca, and, to a smaller degree, Ascalon on the Palestinian coast. In most of these instances, religious considerations dictated new constructions, but it is probably justified to believe that the establishment of Fatimid authority included transformations in the urban fabric of all the cities controlled by the dynasty.

The buildings of the early Fatimid period can be divided into three groups. Of the first, the palaces, nothing has remained, but the lengthy compilation of al-Maqrizi and the on-the-spot descriptions of Nasir-i Khosrow (1047) and al-Muqaddasi (985), as well as archaeological data brought together by Herz20, Ravaisse21, and Pauty22, allow for a few remarks about these palaces. Most remarkable was the Great Eastern Palace, whose main Golden Gate opening on the central square was surmounted by a pavilion from which the caliph watched crowds and parades.23 Inside, a complex succession of long halls led to the throne room, an iwan containing the sidilla; this was 'a construction closed on three sides, open on the fourth and covered by three domes; on the open side there was a sort of fenced opening known as a shubbak'. Painted scenes, probably of royal pastimes since we know that they included hunting scenes, constituted much of the decoration.24 For all its brilliance, the Eastern Palace seems to have been comparatively rambling in planning; the Western Palace (c.975-96, rebuilt after 1055) was smaller but more regular, centred on a long court with halls and pavilions on both axes.

Fatimid secular architecture can be characterized by two further features. The first (an apparent novelty in Islamic palaces) consisted in the royal pavilions spread all over the city and its suburbs.25 To these, for amusement or for ritual purposes, the caliph repaired in the ceremonial processions which brought the practices of the Fatimid court so close to those of Byzantium26 . Their shape is unknown, but most seem to have been set in gardens, often with pools and fountains, very much like the remaining twelfth-century constructions of the Normans in Sicily. The second feature is the layout of a number of private houses excavated in Fustat [293]. They abut each other in very irregular ways, and the streets on which they are found are often both narrow and crooked. But the interior arrangement of the larger ones is often quite regular and symmetrical. In almost all instances, open iwans or else two long halls at right angles to each other, or even both, surround a central court.27 The forms themselves often recall palatial ones, and the quality of most construction and the sophistication of the civil engineering are at times quite amazing.

There also remain from the early Fatimid period in Cairo two large congregational mosques. The celebrated al-Azhar ('the splendid') was founded together with the city to serve as its main place for ritual gathering. Because it grew slowly into a great centre of religious learning, it has undergone frequent alterations (the court façade, for example [294, 295, 296], is later, although still Fatimid). The original mosque can be reconstructed as a simple hypostyle (85 by 69 metres), with a prayer hall of five aisles parallel to the qibla wall and porticoes.28 The hall of prayer was bisected by a wide axial nave leading to a superb mihrab decorated with stucco [296]; in front of the mihrab was a dome, probably with two other domes framing it.29 The remaining dome now in front of the axial nave, built between 1130 and 1149, recalls, by its position, the one introduced in the mosque of Qayrawan. Throughout the mosque the supports were columns, single or double, often spoils from older and abandoned buildings. A great deal of decoration - mostly stucco - remains in the spandrels of the axial nave, on the qibla wall, and elsewhere. To its themes we shall return later; its position seemed to emphasize the main directions and lines of the building. The Fatimid exterior has not been preserved. Al-Maqrizi relates that there were royal pavilions and that a number of official ceremonies took place which were probably reflected in architecture. Without these accessories, the first Azhar Mosque appears almost as simple as the first hypostyles with axial naves known in Islam [297].

The second early Fatimid mosque in Cairo, the mosque of al-Hakim, redone and inaugurated by that caliph in 1013, was begun by his father in 990. Its original purpose is not evident, for it was outside the city walls to the north, in a sparsely populated area. Clarification is provided by a long passage in al-Maqrizi.30 Until 1266 (when it returned to the Azhar), the first and most splendid of a cycle of long and elaborate ceremonies of caliphal prayer, including the khutba or allegiance to the sovereign, took place here, to be followed on successive Fridays in Cairo's other large three mosques (early mosque of Amr, Ibn Tulun, al-Azhar). We may, then, interpret this building as an imperial foundation, whose primary function was to emphasize the religious and secular presence of the caliph and to serve as a setting for the ceremonial pageantry of the dynasty.31 While no doubt related to earlier mosques such as those of Damascus, Baghdad, and Cordoba, in all of which the nearby presence of the ruler played a part, the al-Hakim Mosque had a more restricted purpose as a royal sanctuary some way away from the city proper, not far from the mausoleums of the Fatimid family, and illustrating the very complex nature of Fatimid kingship. The private oratory in one of the minarets, and a possible mystical explanation of some of the decorative motifs like stars and a pentogram found on the masonry,32 lend credence to the idea of the building's special character.

The mosque of al-Hakim was a large and slightly irregular rectangle (121 by 131 metres) [298, 299]. At the west and south, on the corners of the façade, are two minarets now partly enclosed in later constructions, a feature obviously related to Mahdiyya's mosque. The minarets are remarkable for their decoration and for being of different shapes, one cylindrical, the other square. Between them in the main façade [300] is the monumental (15 by 6 metres) entrance; four more doors with flat arches and a very classical moulding complete the composition, and there is a further gate on each side of the mosque. The interior hypostyle combines features from the mosque of Ibn Tulun [25-27] (five-aisled sanctuary parallel to the qibla wall, large brick piers with engaged columns, single arcade on the other three sides) with innovations from North Africa (higher central nave, dome in front of the mihrab with two corner domes on squinches and drums). Thus, compared to the Azhar Mosque, al-Hakim's is much more carefully thought out, blending several architectural traditions and drawing especially on its North African roots. But it is still in most aspects traditional, and its most expressive features are the domes, whose outer appearance (square, octagon, cupola) is one step removed from the inside (octagon, drum, cupola), and the façade, whose symmetry is so curiously broken by the different shapes of the minarets which frame it.

Both the Azhar and Hakim mosques are remarkable for their architectural decoration, although themes and style differ considerably. At the Azhar the stucco panels on the wall spaces provided by the arches and the qibla aim, like those at Samarra, to cover the whole surface. The comparison is all the more justified since - except for the epigraphical borders rarely found in Iraqi palaces - the shapes of the panels, the motif of constant interplay of leaves and flowers around symmetrically arranged rigid stems, and the techniques of outlining, notching, and dotting are all certainly related to the art of Samarra, probably through the impact of the latter on Tulunid Egypt.33 However, the floral element is more pronounced and more clearly recognizable, and the background again plays an important part. After the Samarra-inspired experiments, therefore, the Azhar stuccoes seem to indicate a preference for an earlier and more natural treatment of vegetal motifs. The inscriptions of the Azhar have been chosen to proclaim the ideological bases of the Fatimid dynasty.

The decoration of the al-Hakim Mosque is quite different. Flat ornamental panels are rarer; when they exist, as on certain niche-heads of the entrance or on the windows of the domes, they consist of symmetrical designs of stems and leaves or of more complex arabesques, always set off by a visible background. Most of the decoration is of stone and is concentrated in a series of horizontal and (more rarely) vertical bands which emphasize the minarets and the gateway block. The designs include vegetal as well as geometric and epigraphical motifs, almost always in relief leaving the stone background visible. As already mentioned, it may be that some of the devices, such as pentagrams or the heavily decorated medallions which occasionally replace the horizontal bands, had a symbolic significance.34 There is no doubt that the inscriptions of the mosque were meant to proclaim an ideological message of caliphal power, and the striking originality and novelty of the al-Hakim example is that this message occurs on the outside of the building in direct and immediate contact with all the inhabitants of the city rather than being restricted to those permitted to pray inside.35 The al-Hakim decoration as a whole, however, is most notable, especially when compared to the Azhar, for its sobriety. Both the sobriety and the complex composition recall North Africa rather than the East, although it is possible that the ubiquitous classical background of the Mediterranean was wilfully employed by the Fatimids both in the simplicity of ornamentation and in the revival of more naturalistic themes of design.

A last point about early Fatimid decoration is that it was not limited to stucco or stone. Wood was common, although little has remained in situ. Mosaics were also used, which we know mostly from texts and from the superb decoration of the large dome in front of the mihrab of the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem (early eleventh century). The mosaics of the drum [301] probably copy much earlier Umayyad work,36 but those of the triumphal arch and of the pendentives are original Fatimid compositions [302], and their technical quality indicates that the older traditions picked up by the Muslim world in Byzantium were not yet totally lost or that, especially in Jerusalem, the Fatimids were reviving Late Antique techniques they knew as Umayyad.

The last group of monuments datable to the first Fatimid decades in Egypt consists of mausoleums, whose erection is attributable both to the Fatimid sense of imperial pomp and to their Shi'ite veneration of the descendants of Ali.37 The earliest royal and religious mausoleums are known through texts only, but two major early groups remain, a small one near Cairo,38 and another sixty-odd-strong in the great Aswan cemetery in southern Egypt [303].39 None is dated, but the indirect evidence of texts and certain details of construction indicate that they probably belong to the early decades of the eleventh century. By then the mausoleum was no longer either a royal prerogative or a place of religious commemoration, but a widely available form of conspicuous consumption. The social and pietistic conditions of the time suggest that the new patrons of architecture in this field were women and the middle class of merchants and artisans. There is, for instance, the very curious case of the Qarafa Mosque, sponsored by two noble women in 976 in the southern cemetery of Cairo; it shows that, quite early in Fatimid times, the place of the dead became a site for the expression of piety by another patronage than that of rulers.40

The mausoleums are simple squares with openings on one, two, or three sides. Built in brick or stone in mortar, or in combinations of the two methods, most of them probably had whitewashed walls with little decoration. All were covered with domes on simple squinches with an octagonal drum whose purpose was to give greater height and more light. Some of the mausoleums had over twelve windows, which emphasized their openness, perhaps in order to indicate that they were not full-fledged buildings and therefore did not entirely controvert the religious opposition to the expression of wealth or power after death.41 Their ultimate origin undoubtedly lies in the ancient mausoleums and canopy tombs of Syria and Anatolia, but how this form, which was rarely used in Christian and early Islamic times, came to be revived here in the tenth century is still unclear.

The early Fatimid period saw, then, not only the creation and growth of the new city of Cairo with its great congregational mosques but also some spectacular, if no longer available, secular and memorial building. Egypt was asserting itself as one of the great artistic and cultural centres of the Islamic world and a new and varied patronage for architecture came into being.

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