Map of the city of Mahdiyya in The Book of Curiosities and Marvels for the Eye

Map of the city of Mahdiyya (Image: The Ismailis: An Illustrated History)
Map of the city of Mahdiyya (Image: The Ismailis: An Illustrated History)

The map of the city of Mahdiyya (in modern-day Tunisia) is one of seventeen maps and diagrams illustrating a treatise about the earth and the universe titled Kitab Ghara’ib al-funun wa mulah al-‘ayun, loosely translated as The Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eye. The work was composed in Egypt between 1020 and 1050.*

The volume comprises two books, the first on the heavens in ten chapters , and the second, on the earth, in twenty-five chapters. The thirteenth chapter of the second book discusses “the island-city of Mahdiyya and begins with a description and history, followed by a map of the city, describing the founding of the city by the Fatimid Caliph-Imam al-Mahdiyya in 916-921.”*

This manuscript is a copy made in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century and shows, and depicts the city from a bird’s-eye view. The peninsula is shown surrounded by stone walls with the great gate at the bottom. Nearby are two elaborate buildings with a prominent sign  reading ‘the palaces of the [Fatimid] Imams, may peace be upon them.’*

In 909, Imam al-Mahdi was proclaimed caliph in North Africa, founding the Fatimid Caliphate. In 973, the Fatimid Caliph-Imam al-Mu’izz transferred the dynasty’s capital to Cairo, a city he founded. Named after the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, the reign of the Fatimd Caliph-Imams marked a climax in the history of the Ismailis. The literary, artistic, economic, and scientific achievements comprise the most brilliant period of Islamic history. The Fatimid traditions of learning “have spread their influence far beyond the limits of the Fatimid Empire itself – as far as India and western Europe – and chronologically beyond the political end of the dynasty.”**

*Farhad Daftary, Zulfikar Hirji, The Ismailis: An Illustrated History, Azimuth Editions (p 77)
**Heinz Halm, The Fatimids and their Traditions of Learning, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd. London, 1997

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

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