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Volume 20, Number 5September/October 1969

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A Millennial

"There were marble fountains, birds of 'wondrous plumage,' and animals 'such as the ingenious hand of the painter might depict...'"

Written by Irene Beeson
Photographed by Tor Eigeland

As anniversaries go, Cairo's Millennial has been grim.

Despite brave efforts to focus on the dancers, singers, painters and other artists come to mark this rarest of events, Cairo's attention has been elsewhere, a harsh reminder, perhaps, of the night 1,000 years ago when, according to legend, the whim of a raven gave a new city an ominous name.

It was August 8, 969. General Gawhar, in the name of the Fatimid Caliph, had just conquered al-Fustat, then the capital of Egypt, and had chosen a site north-east of it for a new palace to house the Caliph when he came to claim his prize. Around the site, mattocks in hand, stood laborers listening for the sound of bells strung on ropes outlining the site. According to his plan General Gawhar would ring the bells at the most favorable conjunction of the planets. But just as Mars reached its zenith a raven darted down and perched on the rope. The bells rang, the laborers began to dig, and the city became "The Warrior", in Arabic, "al-Qahira," twisted later by western tongues into "Caire" and "Cairo."

Until that fateful night, Egypt's capital had moved up and down the Nile Valley for 5,000 years—changing name and site according to the wishes of conquerors and dynasties. Most recently—that is, when the Caliph al-Mo'ezz attacked Egypt—the capital had been the Roman-ruled Misr which the first Muslim conquerors of Egypt had named, in 641, al-Fustat.

Like Cairo, the name and site of al-Fustat, whose charred ruins archeologists are just now excavating after 800 years, was chosen by a bird: a dove that laid an egg in the tent of 'Amr ibn al-'As, the Arab conqueror of Egypt, as he was about to march on Alexandria. 'Amr immediately declared the spot sacred and when he returned, triumphant, from Alexandria, instructed his soldiers to build their quarters around the tent, thus giving the new city its name: "town of the tent." Later a mosque—the mosque of 'Amr, Egypt's first Islamic religious building—was erected on the site of the tent.

For a time after the Fatimid conquest al-Fustat continued as the metropolis of Egypt. Although nearby Cairo was growing, it was still essentially a royal enclosure reserved for the Caliph, his court, slaves, administration and army. Al-Fustat was the real capital and for years after, travelers marveled at its beauty. The geographer Ibn Hawkal, for example, wrote in 987 that al-Fustat, then about a third the size of Baghdad, was a city of shaded streets, gardens and handsome markets with houses up to seven stories tall, and large enough to accommodate 200 people. And nearly 70 years later, a Persian, Nasir-i-Khusron, marveled at the wonderful wares in Fustat markets: iridescent pottery so delicate he could see his hand through it, costly green transparent glass, rock crystal, tortoise shell and a profusion of fruits and flowers and vegetables even during the winter months.

In the meantime, the Caliph al-Mo'ezz had made a significant decision: he would move his court to Cairo. Egypt, for some 300 years a province administrated by governors appointed in such centers of Muslim power as Damascus, Medina and Baghdad, was now to be a center of power itself. And the compound called al-Qahira would be its capital.

By then the royal compound was an impressive place. Stretching from what is now Bab-al-Futuh to Bab Zuwayla, and from Bab al-Ghurayyib beyond al-Azhar Mosque to Khalq Street, was a wall so thick two horsemen could ride abreast on it, and so long they had to build seven gates to provide adequate access and egress. Inside, in an area measuring half a square mile, was a rahba (a square now called Khan al-Khalili) so large that 10,000 soldiers could parade in it. On the eastern side was the palace of al-Mo'ezz. This palace, which occupied nearly a fifth of the compound, was the structure the historian Makrizia would later say had "four thousand chambers," one an Emerald Hall with pillars of marble, another the incredible "Golden Hall", a pavilion where the Caliph on a golden throne surrounded by his chamberlain and gentlemen in waiting surveyed, from behind a screen of golden filigree, the festivals of Islam.

The compound was so large that from a distance, according to Nasir-i-Khusron, it looked like a mountain. And the palace was so magnificent that only the words of one who was there could properly capture it. Such a one was William of Tyre who in 1168 came to. Cairo with the ambassadors from the Crusaders. They were led, he wrote, through long mysterious corridors and guarded doors, across a spacious open court and arcades on marble pillars, and along halls with ceilings inlaid with gold. There were marble fountains, birds of "wondrous plumage," and animals "such as the ingenious hand of the painter might depict, or the license of the poet invent..."

Finally, he said, they came to the throne room where "the multitude of pages and their sumptuous dress proclaimed the splendour of their lord ... and the heavy curtains broidered with gold and pearls were drawn aside and on a golden throne robed in more than regal state, the Caliph sat revealed."

Another great structure constructed in the compound was the great mosque of al-Azhar ("The Resplendent") built between 970 and 972, rebuilt several times since, yet remaining at the core essentially the same. Five years later, the Caliph's son al-'Aziz would dedicate the mosque to learning, a step that would make it, during the next 1,000 years, a major theological center of Islam, with students from all over the world gathering for instruction in Islamic theology, law and tradition, and in Arabic, grammar and rhetoric. But that was later. At the beginning it was simply a great mosque and the scene for Caliph al-Mo'ezz's official arrival—and the beginning of a profound change in the history of Egypt.

For Egypt, the advent of the Fatimids was far more than a change of rule and the shifting of the capital. It was a complete departure from the country's religious, political, social and cultural traditions, a period in which Egypt asserted itself as the leading country of the Muslim Empire.

The men responsible for this change were al-Mo'ezz, and his son al-Aziz. The father, who had coveted Egypt for years, only ruled there for two years but during them he cleared the way for his son's 21 years of peace and prosperity.

One of the important contributions made by al-Mo'ezz was tolerance. Although a Shi'ite, he avoided extremes in substituting his beliefs for the orthodox Sunni teachings that had been predominant until his conquest. Another was economic strength. At Maks near present day Ezbekyia he built first docks, then ships: 600 ships, some measuring 275 by 110 feet, a fleet that strengthened trade so substantially that Egypt soon rivaled Baghdad.

To pay for the extravagances of an entourage already 20,000 strong, and his own love of luxury (he even encouraged representational painting, an art form banned by orthodox Muslims), he instituted a system of tax collection so rigorous it produced the equivalent of $150,000 a day from al-Fustat alone.

Al-'Aziz followed his father's example. He added his own palace, "the Lesser Western Palace," plus the Golden Hall, the Great Diwan and the Pearl Pavilion—all of which have vanished. He laid the foundations of the Mosque of al-Hakim in which the dome was later introduced. Samples of the Islamic dome can be found still in three Fatimid mosques in Cairo: al-Azhar, al-Hakim and al-Guyushi. This charming little mosque perched on the edge of Muqattam Hill, was built in 1805 by Badr al-Gamali, and is the only mosque of that period with a minaret intact.

Had the rest of the Fatimid Caliphs followed the example of al-Mo'ezz the history of the next 177 years might read quite differently. But with the accession of the mad al-Hakim the story of the Fatimid turns into a saga of repression, famine and war that would go on and on until the day in November, 1169 when troops ignited 20,000 barrels of naphtha and burned al-Fustat to the ground in a fire lasting 54 days.

Ominously, the reign of al-Hakim, nicknamed "the lizard" by a tutor, began with a murder. Fifteen years old, already feared by the court for his "terrible blue eyes" and a thunderous voice that made even adults tremble in his presence, al-Hakim immediately ordered the death of the regent who had served him for four years. It was the first of many such orders as, for 25 years, Hakim sought to force all Egypt to comply with his often ecentric decrees.

Not only did he ban alcohol, as one would expect from a good Caliph but also ordered the destruction of vineyards, outlawed raisins and confiscated honey. He forbade all games, even chess, and ordered shoe makers to stop the manufacture of outdoor footwear for women—to force them to stay indoors all the time. Eventually women were not only forbidden to appear at their latticed windows but also from going onto the roofs of their own houses. In 1005 he also instituted widespread persecution of Egypt's Christians. His final outrage—the one that led to his downfall—was to proclaim himself the incarnation of God, a violation of orthodox beliefs. When the people threatened revolution he sent in troops but lost control of them.

Despite a few improvements to Cairo—the Hakim mosque, the Musalla al-Id, and the Dar al-'Ilm (The Hall of Science) in the great palace,—the reign of al-Hakim seemed to spoil the Fatimid line. Although there were peaceful and prosperous periods—most notably one 20-year period during the 58-year reign of the handsome and amiable al-Mustansir—much of the Fatimid story thereafter involves battle, disease, and death.

During al-Mustansir's reign, for example, Turkish elements in the army fought the Sudanese and Berber elements for ten years, drove them out and took Cairo; they were only defeated when Badr-al-Gamaly, the shrewd and forceful governor of Damascus, was brought in by al-Mustansir to restore order. In 1066 there began a seven-year famine during which women would barter a house for a sack of flour and butchers sold horses, jackasses, dogs and cats. After the famine there was plague.

Badr-al-Gamaly and his son Afdal Shahansha did bring a period of tranquility to Egypt. They pacified Fustat, borrowed money and restored agriculture. During that period artisans of the land—the plasterers, woodcarvers, glassblowers and jewelers—recorded in stone, wood, plaster and in glass and precious stones, the glory of the Fatimids. There were major improvements effected in the city too, notably the construction of a new wall and the three great stone gates, Bab al-Futuh, Bab al-Nasr and Bab Zuwayla, all three of which stand today as monuments of the Fatimid period.

During ensuing reigns, however, the dynasty staggered to its end in a series of palace revolts, and uprisings so serious that in 1149, the people of Cairo appealed to Amir Tala'i ibn Ruzzik, governor of Ashmunain in Upper Egypt to come to the rescue. He did and soon after he built a mosque to mark his victory. It stands today near the Bab Zuwayla.

By now, however, the Crusaders had moved west from Jerusalem, and were threatening Egypt. When Tala'i failed to drive them away he too fell.

The end was in sight, and after a governor of Upper Egypt called Shawar marched on Cairo and seized the vizierate from Tala'i's son it was not long in coming. Soon involved in the constant struggle for power, Shawar offered a third of Egypt's revenue to a Sunni prince called Nur id-Din for his support against the rebels. Nur id-Din came, soon broke with Shawar who was then involved with the Crusaders, and, after Shawar's great fire had reduced al-Fustat to smoking ruins, invaded the city, and named Salah-id-Din as prime minister, the same "Saladin" who would loom so large in the later events of the Middle East, and would also, in 1171, suppress the title of "Fatimid Caliph" forever.

With the destruction of al-Fustat, Cairo, naturally, began to grow. Some of the sumptuous palaces had been sold, the others fell into decay and as the centuries went by what had been the glory of the Fatimids slowly vanished in the spreading sprawling mass of Cairo until today, on the 1,000th birthday of the city, only a few mosques, ancient gates, and sagging walls, and some fragments of pottery and carving remain as evidence of this violent, yet also brilliant, beginning to one of the world's most famous cities.

Irene Beeson is a free lance correspondent for several British and Middle East newspapers and magazines.

This article appeared on pages 24, 26-30 of the September/October 1969 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1969 images.