Shi῾i in origin, the Fatimid dynasty takes as its eponym Fatimah, the daughter of the prophet Muhammad and the wife of ῾Ali, the fourth of the earliest “rightly guided” caliphs. But for its real individuality, one must look to the schism within the Shi῾i movement, which divided on politically strategical lines when Isma῾il, the oldest son of the sixth Imam (in direct line from the sons of ῾Ali and Fatimah), was superseded by his younger brother. Part of the Shi῾i community remained loyal to the senior line and espoused a policy of political intervention and subterfuge toward achieving legitimacy. This group was known as the Isma῾ili branch, and those who followed the younger Imam down to the twelfth and last Imam are termed Ithna ῾Ashari, or “Twelver,” a group regnant in Iran and espoused by a significant percentage of the present population in Iraq and Lebanon.

It has been difficult to forge direct lineage between the family of the Imam Isma῾il and the founder of the Fatimid branch, Ubaydallah. Believers hold that the Imamate was vouchsafed to the father of Ubaydallah, Maymun al-Qaddah, by one of the heirs of Isma῾il. This claim was so difficult to prove that the ῾Abbasid caliphate refused to consider Fatimid legitimacy, denouncing them as impostors both to the Prophetic family and to the religious legitimacy, which it unwillingly acknowledged of the sons of ῾Ali and Fatimah and their heirs. (Such acknowledgement motivated the ῾Abbasid caliph al-Ma'mun to surrender his power temporarily to the Twelver Imam, ῾Ali ibn Musa al-Kadhim, In ah 201/817 CE.) Nevertheless, Ubaydallah operated out of Salamiyah in Syria, setting up a network of undercover agents whose objective was to secure him a base of power from which to begin his vaunted quest to unseat the ῾Abbasid caliphate. By shrewd and secret propaganda, these agents secured such a base among the Kutama Berbers, long disgruntled with the ῾Abbasid/Aghlabid hold on the eastern half of the Maghrib. By 297/909, Ubaydallah was in the Maghrib and declared himself the rightful imam and caliph, taking the almost prophetic regnal title of al-Mahdi. He constructed a new capital, al-Mahdiyah south of the old seat of power in Ifriqiyah, Qayrawan. (Soon after the Umayyad ruler of Spain, ῾Abd al-Rahman III, also assumed caliphal rank; thus by the mid-tenth century there were three caliphs in the dar al-Islam [Islamic world].)

Ubaydallah's success brought large sections of the Berber population to his side with whom he and his son, al-Qa'im, were able to subdue all of the Maghrib and, for a time, Sicily. Inevitably forays were made against Egypt, most signally In 913–915, 919–921, and 925. Eventually, the Fatimid general Jawhar (a slave of Sicilian origin) entered Fustat in Cairo In July 358/969 and welcomed his master, the caliph al-Mu῾izz In 362/973. Very soon thereafter, the regents left in charge of the Fatimid dominions in the west returned to the Sunni allegiance, recognizing the suzerainty of the ῾Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. (In the next century, the Fatimids of Egypt wrought their revenge by allowing free passage of the marauding tribes of Sulaym and Hilal through Egypt and into the Maghrib, which they proceeded to devastate.)

Until 567/1171 Egypt was the center, indeed the linchpin of Fatimid power. The Fatimids paid lip service to the quest toward the east and Baghdad, a quest that necessitated the conquest of most (but never all) of Greater Syria. (Yet for one year, 451/1059, the Fatimid caliph replaced the ῾Abbasid caliph in the khutbah in Baghdad.) In time the Fatimids were thwarted by two successive phenomena, the rise of the Seljuk (Saljuq) dynasty, which was adamantly Sunni, and the appearance of the Crusaders toward the end of the eleventh century CE. Indeed, it was to the crusaders that the Fatimids lost their last holding in Syria, Ashkelon, In 548/1153. [See Crusader Period.]

With a few hard years following low Nile floods and subsequent dysynchronous famine (i.e., intermittent but related to the flooding pattern), the Fatimid period represents the apogee of wealth of medieval Egypt. On the economic side, one may cite three strokes of fortune: a superb, even reformed, agricultural system, which permitted three harvests in one year and found rich return in exporting the surplus of cereals, sugar, and linen; the presence of a supply of gold in the Wadi Allaqi in Nubia, so bounteous that there was very little silver coinage in the eleventh century and so well controlled that Egypt essentially set the prices for its imports, thereby freeing itself from the medieval vagaries of the barter system; and control of the Indian and Far Eastern trade, which shifted to the Red Sea sometime after the beginning of the eleventh century as a measure of how tremulous the Persian Gulf route had become. Although it is true that the effects of the famines In 446/1054–55 and 457–464/1065–1072 were almost catastrophic (all sources agree on the suffering), so much so that the caliph al-Mustansir was forced to disgorge the treasures of his palace to allay the disaster, it is equally true that the recovery was quick and the prosperity renewed. This process held true to the very end of the dynasty. In pursuit of wealth, a protean economic endeavor, the Crusader states at the behest of Venetian and Genoese merchants attacked Egypt In 563/1168 without cause. To counter such trespass Egypt was forced to call on its sworn Sunni enemy, Nur ad-Din of Damascus, to assist the dynasty already in the throes of its political dessication.

From the beginning, the Fatimid dynasty sought to call attention to its legitimacy and its ambitions. A whole new “city” was laid out to house the caliph and his entourage, the military and the governmental bureaus to the northeast of the conglomerate capital of Fustat/al-Askar/al-Qata'i. This royal quarter was dubbed al-Qahira (Mars, “the conquering star,” was in the ascendant when the urban lines were laid out), which was transliterated Cairo by Italian merchants. Al-Azhar was founded a year after the conquest as a training school for the propagandists (sg., al-da῾i) of the creed. Eventually, the caliph al-Hakim (386–411/996–1021) built a Friday mosque directly adjacent to the earlier brick north wall, which had a beautiful facade with an imposing monumental entrance (a copy of the one at the mosque of al-Mahdiyah) and superb stone minarets at either end. Toward the end of the long reign of al-Mustansir (427–487/1036–1094) and under the stress of Seljuk incursions into Greater Syria, a second set of stone walls was erected, which enclosed the mosque of al-Hakim on the north side. Through its three superb gates, Bab al-Nasir and Bab al-Futuh on the north and Bab al-Zuwaylah on the south, passed not only the population of the expanded capital (for the old one had simply crept up and glued itself unto al-Qahira), but men from all over the Mediterranean and the dar al-Islam, particularly those of the Isma῾ili persuasion.

One other quite surprising aspect of the Fatimid rulers of Egypt, which contributed to their phenomenal success within Egypt, was the constant display of tolerance. It is true that some unusual forms of practice were introduced, particularly in the adhan (the call to prayer) and the Qur'anic verses used in inscriptions and recited during public ceremonies; nevertheless, Sunni allegiance was hardly touched during their two centuries of dynastic rule. Craftsmen and scholars were welcomed and lavishly patronized. Men of all religious persuasions assumed the wazirate (vizierate) or headed the various governmental diwans (administrative offices), and, in some cases, held military command. Though some converted, there was no policy of enforced conversion. Perhaps only the leadership of the duwwat, the system of training and directing the Fatimid propagandists, was allocated specifically to a Fatimid Isma῾ili Shi῾ite. The Shi῾ite worship of the ῾Alid and Imamate families, which accorded with Egyptian traditions concerning the dead and their monuments, in taking the form of rather splendid mausolea and their visitation, struck a sympathetic chord throughout Egypt. (It is interesting to note that not a single Fatimid public inscription was destroyed or defaced by Salah ad-Din and his successors.) In their public rituals, public ceremonies, and court etiquette the Fatimids raised the tone of society to a level that had only been touched during the Ptolemaic period.

Quite another aspect of the Fatimids' effect upon Egypt was in the realm of art and architecture. They freed artists from their implicit dependence on ῾Abbasid models, as is quite obvious from the two sets of stucco decoration at al-Azhar. On the one hand, the pre-Islamic classical style, which is preserved in Coptic monasteries, reemerged particularly in the variations on the vine and rinceau (circle or spiral) themes; on the other hand, a whole cycle of courtly motifs came to dominate the arts. These decorations were available to the bourgeois as well as the royal patrons. Insinuating all was the apogee of floriated Kufic calligraphy, which is easily traced on the buildings of the period. In architecture the patrons of the Fatimid period respected innovation above all; there was no low point, no tapering off of form or decoration, from al-Azhar to the mosque of as-Salih Tala'i built In 555/1160. Unlike the Mamluks style, the Fatimids had an aesthetic of decorous verve subsuming the undercurrents of millennial Egyptian motifs and influences from countries as diverse as Tunisia, China, Byzantium. In the Fatimid epoch, marriage contracts were woven in silk; chess was played with rock crystal figures; family tombs were replete with mosque and bath; luster ware and imported porcelain were readily available; and the textiles of the world could be had for a bride's trousseau.

Yet for all the public prestige and prosperity, the continuity was internally challenged from the beginning. Legitimacy may have been the constricting problem. Although European merchants and Byzantine diplomats beat a path to Cairo, Sunni Islam was as determined to destroy the Fatimid dynasty as to retrieve the lands usurped by the Crusaders. The overwhelming majority of Egyptians did not convert to Isma῾ilism; hence the need for external military personnel. The Berbers were undependable and melted back to the Maghrib; the black troops (Nubians and Ethiopians) were obstreperous and a civil menace; Daylami Persians never came in sufficient numbers; and itinerant Turks made manifest their quixotic loyalties. A strong caliph such as al-Hakim went to extremes in ordering a decent ῾Alid society, including burning the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in 400/1009–10. Others came to depend on military strong men, such as Badr al-Jamali, a converted Armenian, who restored order in Cairo and built the second set of walls. He was succeeded by his son al-Afdal who interfered in the succession process following the death of al-Mustansir in 487/1094 and had a more pliable second son, al-Musta'li (487–495/1094–1101) put on the throne rather than al-Nidhar the eldest, thus repeating the pattern of the imam Isma῾il's rejection. Once broken, it was almost impossible to resurrect caliphal influence and direction; one caliph, al-Hafidh (525–544/1130–1149) was only a cousin of his predecessor. The weak and the young succeeded one another; they were pawns of unstable wazirs and/or powerful generals, who had to be eliminated at great cost to the dynasty's prestige. All such fissiparous tendencies did not impinge on the public prosperity of Fatimid Egypt, but they weakened whatever direction the dynasty signaled to the populace. When the Crusaders attacked, help had to be sought from the Sunni constituencies, making the return to orthodoxy inevitable.

In September 567/1171 Salah ad-Din al-Ayyubi (Saladin) had the khutbah (the Friday sermon) read in the name of the ῾Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. As sultan of Egypt, he used its resources to commence his conquest of Greater Syria and his counter-Crusade, which culminated in the retaking of Jerusalem in 583/1187. He treated the Fatimid family with great kindness, simply making sure there was very little procreation.

The dynasty was remembered outside Egypt through two movements: the Druze in Greater Syria, who maintained a sacral reverence for the caliph al-Hakim; and the Nizari Isma῾ilis known more familiarly as the Assassins, from which today the Iranian, Indian, and African branches give allegiance to the family of the Aga Khan. Within Egypt, the memory faltered after the advent of the Ayyubids and the dominance of the Mamluks who moved the center of government from al-Qahira to the new Citadel. The two paradisiacal palaces of the Fatimids along the great north–south artery were reduced and then removed to make way for imposing religious structures. Only in the very beginning of the fourteenth century does a glimmer of interest reappear in the quest of the historian al-Maqrizi to understand the Fatimid effect in Egypt's history. The people of Cairo have continued to visit and venerate the Fatimid tombs to the present time. Perhaps in the pomp and prestige they evinced, however, the historian senses the move from the puissant autonomy of the Tulunids to an achieved independence of Egypt within the fuller medieval Islamic polity. This Fatimid legacy has proven more important than their chimerical origins.

[See also Ayyubid–Mamluk Dynasties; Cairo; Egypt, article on Islamic Egypt; and Fustat.]


For the best digest of the primary sources and analysis of the research up to c. 1970 on the subject, see the incomparable article by Marius Canard, “Fāṭ;imids,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 2, pp. 850–862 (Leiden, 1960– ). (The accompanying article on Fatimid art by Georges Marçais needs serious updating.)

A number of new editions of older sources have appeared which throw considerably more penetrating light on the history of the Fatimids. See, for example, al-Musabbihi, Al-juz' al-arba'in min akhbar misr, edited by Thierry Bianquis and Ayman Fu'ad Sayyid (Cairo, 1978); Ibn al-Ma'mun al-Bata'ihi, Nusus min akhbar misr, edited by Ayman Fu'ad Sayyid (Cairo, 1983); and, though later, Claude Cahen's various studies on the known fragments of the bureaucrat al-Makhzumi, which can be extrapolated to take in the final part of the Fatimid dynasty, collected in Makhzumiyat (Leiden, 1977). For the death and veneration of al-Hakim, see Joseph van Ess, Chiliastische Erwartungen und die Versuchung der Göttlichkeit der Kalif al-Hakim (386–411 H.) (Heidelberg, 1977).

All the new subgroup Fatimists are hugely in debt to the extraordinary work of S. D. Goitein based on the examination and rescension of the Geniza documents. Canard surveyed all the printed preparations toward Goitein's five-volume study, A Mediterranean Society (Berkeley, 1967–1988), but would have been very slightly dismayed to find that the materials were more pertinent to the twelfth than the eleventh century. A sixth volume of referential indices has been published jointly by Goitein and Paula Sanders (Berkeley, 1993). For the analysis of the Fatimid financial/commercial system, in a sense the first “spin-off” of Goitein's survey, see Abraham Udovitch, Partnership and Profit in Medieval Islam (Princeton, 1970).

Two very important monographs have recently appeared which flesh out Canard's rather acute analysis of the subjects: Paula Sanders, Ritual, Politics, and the City in Fatimid Cairo (Sarasota Springs, N.Y., 1994), and Leila Al-Imad, The Fatimid Vizierate, 969–1172 (Berlin, 1990). Yaacov Lev's State and Society in Fatimid Egypt (Leiden, 1991) is much less convincing as a commentary on Canard's precis. For the most insightful analysis of the propaganda bureau (duwwat), see Paul Walker, “The Ismaili Da῾wa in the Reign of the Fatimid Caliph al-Ḥākim,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 30 (1993): 161–182.

For the marriage contract on linen, see Y. Ragib, “Un contrat de marriage sur soie d'Égypte fatimide,” Annales Islamologiques 16 (1980): 31–37. Two important articles by Oleg Grabar discuss the artistic wealth of the Fatimids and its meaning: “Imperial and Urban Art in Islam: The Subject Matter of Fatimid Art,” in Colloque international sur l'histoire du Caire, pp. 173–191 (Cairo, 1969), and “Fatimid Art: Precursor or Culmination,” in Isma'ili Contributions to Islamic Culture, edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, pp. 207–224 (Tehran, 1977). Two important studies on the architecture of Fustat during the Fatimid period are Antoni A. Ostrasz, “The Architectural Material for the Study of the Domestic Architecture at Fustat,” Africana Bulletin 26 (1977): 57–86, and Wladyslaw B. Kubiak and George T. Scanlon, Fustat Expedition: Final Report, vol. 2, Fustat-C (Winona Lake, Ind., 1986). The recent work of Roland Gayraud on the Fatimid Funerary Complex at Stabl Antar in Fustat has not been fully published, but see his reports in Annales Islamologiques 23 (1987): 55–72; 25 (1991): 57–88; and 27 (1993): 225–232. Nothing specifically Fatimid has been published from the Polish excavations at Kom el-Dikka in Alexandria; however these results should form a governor to the excavations at Fustat and elsewhere in Egypt. A newer light on the question of Chinese imports and their influence can be found in George T. Scanlon, “Egypt and China: Trade and Imitation,” in Islam and the Trade of Asia, edited by D. S. Richards, pp. 265–274 (Oxford, 1970); and B. Gyllensvard, “Recent Finds of Chinese Ceramics at Fustat,” Bulletin of Far Eastern Antiquities (Stockholm), no. 45 (1973): 99–119, and no. 47 (1975): 99–119.

For a more searching survey of the post-Canardian bibliography, the reader should consult the Index Islamicus for the work of scholars such as Ayman Fu'ad Sayyid, Thierry Bianquis, Abbas Hamdani, Oleg Grabar, Y. Ragib, and George T. Scanlon, as well as the article “Fustat,” infra.

George T. Scanlon