Fatimid craftsmen were creative and ingenious

Mashad Sayyida Ruqayya
Detail view, side panel of the portable wooden mihrab (now at the Islamic Museum at Cairo
(image: Archnet)

In the year 909, the Fatimid Imam al-Mahdi was proclaimed as caliph in present-day Tunisia, founding the Fatimid reign. In 969, the Caliph Al-Mu’izz conquered Egypt, founding the city of Cairo, where he transferred his capital in 973. Named after the Prophet’s daughter, the reign of the Fatimids Caliph-Imams for almost two centuries is often referred to as a ‘golden age’ in Ismaili history.

The Fatimids placed a high value on intellectual and artistic activities and Cairo became a flourishing centre of scholarship, learning, and the arts. Cairo was also a major centre for the production of artifacts, satisfying the  desire of the ruling class for luxury goods, but also supplied the daily needs of the prosperous people. Furniture and textiles made in Cairo had a particularly high reputation and were exported to the entire Mediterranean region.

Items made from wood were among the most attractive artifacts. The artwork from this period exemplifies the creativity and ingenuity of Fatimid craftsmen. The delicacy of the workmanship of the pieces reveal the craftsmen’s mastery of the material, such as the carving of the wood to different depths to produce a contrast between light and dark. Since Egypt had little timber available locally, the wood – pine, teak, acacia – had to be imported. Carvings adorned the ceilings of palaces and mosques, panels for doors, caskets, and small portable mihrabs. One of the greatest pieces of decoration in Egypt is the mihrab of the Mashhad of al-Sayyida Ruqayya; the mashhad (tomb) was built in 1133.

Sayyida Ruqayya, a daughter of Hazrat ‘Ali, is considered one of the patron saints of the city of Cairo. Her shrine is still used as an oratory, a place where people make vows and pray for the saint’s intercession.

Dr Farhad Daftary, Ismaili History, The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Mashhad al-Sayyida Ruqayya, Archnet

Research by Nimira Dewji

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