On August 27, 909** Imam al-Mahdi was publicly proclaimed as caliph in Sijilmasa (near modern-day Rissani in Morocco), North Africa, founding the Fatimid Caliphate, which began the ‘golden age’ of Ismaili thought and literature, and one of the greatest eras in Islamic and Egyptian history.**
Fatimid history is generally divided into two phases. The initial phase, commonly designated as the North African phase, lasted for over 60 years – from the establishment of Fatimid rule to the conquest of Egypt in 969, and the transference of the dynasty’s seat of power there in 973. In the second phase, covering about 120 years, from 973 until the death of Imam al-Mustansir in 1094, the Fatimid Caliphate centred in Egypt.
The first three Fatimid Caliph-Imams reigned entirely from North Africa. Caliph-Imam al-Mahdi founded the city of Mahdiyya, on the Tunisian coast, to where he transferred his capital in 921. Traces of Fatimid grandeur are still visibile in the town today: the remains of the seawall, the gate, and the mosque commissioned by Imam al-Mahdi. The mosque fell into ruins, but was restored in the 1960s and is used once again.
Imam al-Mansur founded the city named after him, to where the Fatimid caliphate was transferred in 948. Imam al-Mu’izz spent the majority of his reign in Mansuriyya from where he designed the plans for Cairo, modelled after Mansuriyya.
In 969, Jawhar, the Fatimid General, led the Fatimid expedition to Egypt, after an elaborate send-off by Imam al-Mu’izz. Jawhar and his entourage settled in Fustat and began to build the city of Cairo, including the Al-Azhar mosque, completed in 972. Jawhar governed Egypt until the arrival of Imam al-Mu’izz in 973.
About the reign of the Fatimid Caliph-Imams, Heinz Halm states it was “one of the most brilliant periods of Islamic history, both politically and in terms of its literary, economic, artistic, and scientific achievements….Fatimid traditions of learning have spread their influence geographically for beyond the limits of the Empire….and chronologically beyond the political end of the dynasty.”**
Farhad Daftary states that the Fatimids “greatly expanded their territorial possessions, and despite periodical disturbances and crises, Fatimid Egypt in general enjoyed economic prosperity. This was primarily due to the capability and stability of Fatimid administrative and financial organizations, and substantial revenues earned from expanding trade and economic activities. The doctrine of the Fatimid Ismai’ilis, as elaborated by gifted theologians and da’is, represent a high level of intellectual accomplishment…..The Fatimids were also noteworthy in terms of their patronage of artistic activities.” He further comments that by the time of the collapse of the empire, the intellectual achievements and contributions of the Fatimids “had already forever enriched Islamic thought and culture.”***
*The Advent of the Fatimids, A contemporary Shi’i Witness, Edited and translated by Wilfred Madelung and Paul Walker, I.B. Tauris in association with The IIS, London, 2000
**Heinz Halm, The Fatimids and their Traditions of Learning, I.B. Tauris in association with The IIS, London, 1997
***Farhad Daftary, The Ismailis: Their history and doctrines, Cambridge University Press, London, 1990
Compiled by Nimira Dewji