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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 most striking feature of the arts under Fatimid rule was the establishment of Egypt, and more particularly of the newly created city of Cairo, as a major centre for artistic activities. The latter involved the construction of many buildings, their decoration in many techniques, the establishment of a brilliant art of lustre-painting ceramics and glass, carving ivory, rock crystal or wood, chasing and engraving (but apparently not inlaying) metalwork, and an elaborate art of textile weaving. Cairo also became a consumer for foreign goods, silks and ceramics from China, gifts from Christian rulers farther north. Expensive curios from many places were brought to the city as parts of an extremely active international trade in items that must have been considered works of art. All these things were available to a wealthy middle class best known through its Jewish component which left so many documents of private and professional life.115 Or else they were kept in an imperial treasury whose variety is demonstrated by the lists made after the looting in the middle of the eleventh century.116 Some of these sources even imply the existence of an art market, where new and old objects, sometimes outright frauds like the saddles attributed to Alexander the Great, were peddled by otherwise unknown dealers.117 Cairo became a major employer of artisans and technicians, and it is, for instance, to the importation of stone-cutters from Armenia and northern Mesopotamia that some of the novelties in late eleventh-century construction techniques have been attributed.

But beyond these economic and technical considerations, the detailed evolution of which still needs investigation, a more important and particularly original feature of the arts under the Fatimids is the blurring of the boundaries between public and private art. Many of the new artistic developments, especially the buildings in the city of Cairo but also the lustre ceramics, were made to publicize and to display power, ideology, wealth, taste, or whatever else a patron or an owner wished to proclaim. This novelty is particularly visible in the importance assumed by inscriptions, the 'public text' identified by I. Bierman,118 on the outside of buildings, by individualized images on ceramics, and in the colourful restoration of great sanctuaries like those of Jerusalem.119 Nasir-i Khosrow, the Persian traveller and propagandist for the Fatimids, was allowed to visit the imperial palaces in Cairo and described at great length their elaborate decoration.120

While it is easy enough to demonstrate the artistic vitality of Fatimid Cairo and some of the social and ideological functions of individual monuments or objects, it is much more difficult to identify and explain the characteristics of the art itself. Three of these may help to define the paradox of Fatimid art.121 One is the possibility of demonstrating a progression away from the dry and severe formalism of ninth-century vegetal decoration, as in the stucco ornament of the mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo and in many related pieces of woodwork, to a much more lively arabesque with highly naturalistic features in the eleventh century, and, eventually, in the twelfth, to an elaborate geometry with its own formalism. Whether an evolution which is apparent in woodwork and stucco ornament is true for all media remains to be seen. A second characteristic is the frequent appearance of representations of people and animals in almost all media. Sometimes hidden in vegetal ornament, animals and personages also appear as the motifs decorating muqarnas niches and lustre-painted ceramics. The motifs represented in the latter are quite varied both in style and in originality, but the essential point is that their range goes from traditional scenes of royal pastimes to very lively images of daily life. Stretching a point slightly, R. Ettinghausen even talked of 'realism' in this Fatimid art.122 It is unfortunate that we are not yet able to date accurately the appearance of these representations, but there seems to be little doubt that it preceded by almost a century the same phenomenon in Iraq, in Syria, and especially in the eastern Islamic provinces. It could be connected to a renewed awareness of Late Antique art and, in general, to the artistic explosion of the whole Mediterranean area in the eleventh century rather than to some uniquely Islamic developments, but the matter still requires further reflection.123 And, finally, the art of the Fatimids reflected and satisfied the needs of a stratified society. It is, at times, difficult to decide whether a given object, or even a building, should be attributed to a royal, aristocratic, or middle-class patron or user, or whether he or she was a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew. But all these possibilities are open.

Thus, and therein lies the paradox, the art of the Fatimids is more difficult to explain than to describe or to define. Should it indeed be considered a Mediterranean art which may have picked up certain features from eastern Islamic lands, but which developed largely independently within a different context of civilization? Or was it the precursor and even possibly the inventor of changes, like the appearance of representations or the growth of a public art, which were soon to become common? There are as yet no answers to these questions which illustrate the second paradox of Fatimid art within the broad context of medieval Islamic art. It exhibited an aesthetic vitality which seems absent from the rest of the Islamic world during the same period. Is it an accident? Does it have something to do with the doctrines of Isma'ili Shi'ism and the ways in which they were applied to the rich and complex society of Egypt and of the provinces, like Ifriqiya or Syria and Palestine, under its domination in the eleventh century? Or, perhaps, Fatimid art and culture were an original phenomenon hatched in tenth-century Ifriqiya by a brilliant leadership around the caliph al-Mu'izz, which would have created its own synthesis of Islamic doctrines and practices with Mediterranean art and culture.124

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