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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


As to the drawings on paper from this period, the tattooed female figure [341] is perhaps the most accomplished picture that has come down to us. It shares with the undated and so far undatable lustre-painted pottery group, discussed above [323, 324], the new Fatimid imagery, exhibiting greater animation and interest in the naturalistic representation of the human figure. However, the rendering of the face and the coiffure still betrays a dependence on the figural style at the temporary Abbasid capital at Samarra.

Also exhibiting the new trends is the drawing [342]. This bears very close comparison to the decoration on tiles from Sabra al-Mansuriyya [141]. Such similarity provides proof of the important inspiration for the new imagery to be found in the output of the artists working under the aegis of the Fatimid dynasty in Ifriqiya.

The manner in which animals are depicted in this medium is no exception to the new sylistic trends we have been following from this period not only in the art of the book but also in that of the object. The hare [343] with its heavy body, long and large ears, snub nose, and short tail closely resembles those seen earlier in this chapter executed in the marquetry technique and in metal [317, 338]. However, this illustration shows an animal drawn even more realistically - owing, perhaps, to the medium checking his flank before hopping along. The verso of this folio is adorned with a lion.112

Other than the few drawings on paper, virtually no arts of the book produced in Egypt during the Fatimid period have up to now been identified. Because of the heightened interest in the human figure during this period to which so many of the decorative arts bear witness, it is difficult to imagine that the art of miniature painting was not highly developed. However, apparently no illustrated manuscript or fragment of one has survived. In fact, none has even been attributed to this period. We learn from the eleventh-century report by Ibn Zubayr of the dispersal of the Fatimid treasury during the reign of al-Mustansir that

the number of libraries (within the palace) was forty, including 18,000 books on ancient sciences. The books included also 2,400 complete copies of the Qur'an [kept] in Qur'an boxes. They were written in well-proportioned calligraphy of the highest beauty, and adorned with gold, silver, and other [colours]. This was besides [the books] kept in the libraries of Dar al-'Ilm in Cairo.113

None of these appears to be extant.114 The meagre knowledge we have of the arts of the book in the Fatimid realm, other than that found in texts, is that gleaned from those manuscripts produced under the aegis of this dynasty in Sicily [154] or under that of their governors in Ifriqiya [471]. This total lack of Fatimid Egyptian manuscripts has never been satisfactorily explained. The fact that none has been positively, or even seriously, identified after more than eight hundred years might indicate that all of them, even the Qur'an manuscripts, were methodically destroyed in the Sunni revival that followed the fall of this heterodox dynasty - the fulfilling of a duty to extirpate heresies and reinstate true orthodoxy and thus part of the systematic attempt at reeducation undertaken by the Sunnis. The solution to this puzzle has so far not presented itself.

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