Named after the Prophet’s daughter, the Fatimids established their empire in 909 in North Africa when Imam al-Mahdi was proclaimed Caliph. Imams al-Mahdi and al-Mansur reigned from North Africa, founding cities named after them. In 973 Imam al-Mu’izz transferred the capital of the empire to Cairo, a city he founded. In Egypt, the Fatimids, patronised intellectual activities, founding major libraries and institutions of learning. Through their efforts, Cairo became a major centre of scholarship, sciences art, and economic activity. Cairo also became a major centre for the production of valuable artifacts. Furniture textiles, ceramics, wood and metalwork made in Fatimid Cairo had a high reputation and were exported to the entire Mediterranean area.
Although numerous Fatimid works of art have survived from the Egyptian period, very few from the North African period have survived.
One of the North African Fatimid luxury art items that has survived is the Blue Qur’an. The manuscript has been ascribed to various places and time periods, however, historical evidence presented by Jonathan Bloom indicates it was created for Fatimid Imam-Caliphs ruling from Qayrawan in North Africa in the early tenth century. The manuscript may have been made as a gift for the Byzantine Emperor.
The technique of writing script in gold differed from the process for brown ink. After drawing the outlines of the letters using pale brown ink, the interiors were filled with gold that had been ground up and suspended in a solution. As this was a lengthy and expensive process, gold kufic manuscripts of the Qur’an are rare.
Historians suggest the original manuscript may have comprised 600 leaves which were removed possibly in the sixteenth century and taken to Istanbul or further east.
A section of the manuscript is currently housed in the Aga Khan Museum, the National Institute of Art and Archaeology in Tunis and detached leaves or fragments are in the National Library, Tunis, the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, and in other public and private collections.
Another North African Fatimid luxury artwork to have survived is an ivory box made for Imam al-Mu’izz at Mansuriyya between 953 and 973, currently in the Archaeological Museum, Madrid. The box, now held together with iron hinges and clamps, which were later additions, has an inscription on the lid:
“In the name of God, the Mericful, the Compassionate. Help from God and speedy victory (Qur’an 61:13) for God’s servant and His friend, Ma’add Abi Tamim, the Imam al-Mu’izz [li-din Allah], Commander of the Believers – God’s blessings upon him and on his good ancestors and pure descendants. Among the things that was ordered to be made in Mansuriyya the Pleasing (to God). The work of A[hma]d al-Khurasani.”*
*Jonathan M. Blooom, Arts of the City Victorious, Islamic Art and Architecture in Fatimid North Africa and Egypt, Yale University Press, in association with The IIS, 2007.
Islam: Art and Architecture Edited by Markus Hattstein and Peter Delius, Konemann
Compiled by Nimira Dewji