Fatimid Imams had a fondness for books, establishing a library that was a wonder of the medieval world

Facade of the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. (Photo: Islam: Art and Architecture)
Facade of the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. (Photo: Islam: Art and Architecture)

“An Ismaili da’wa without libraries was unimaginable. The fondness of the Ismaili Imams for books from a very early stage is again and again emphasized by contemporary sources.”

“After the Fatimids moved to Egypt in the year 973 the palace in Cairo acquired a library unmatched anywhere in the contemporary world. During the reign of al-Aziz (975-996) it contained more than thirty copies of the al-‘Ayn dictionary by the well-known grammarian Khalil (d. 791). The famous world chronicle of al-Tabari (839-923) was represented by twenty copies… the major work of the philologist and lexicographer Ibn Durayd (837-933), al-Jamhara, there were a hundred copies. When this library was plundered by Turkish soldiers in the year 1068 it consisted of forty rooms. The works of classical authors alone comprised 18,000 volumes.”

After the loss of the palace library in…the year 1068, the collections had to be re-assembled and soon they once more comprised a considerable number of volumes. Ibn al-Tuwayr, a chronicler of the late Fatimid and early Ayyubid periods, is our major source on the subject…He writes…

“This library contained a great many bookshelves standing all around the enormous hall; the shelves were divided into compartments by vertical partitions; each compartment was secured by a hinged door with a padlock. There were more than 200,000 bound books and a few without bindings; jurisprudence according to the different schools, grammar and philology, books about the traditions of prophets, history, biographies of rulers, astronomy, spiritual knowledge (ruhaniyyat) and alchemy – on each discipline the [relevant] manuscripts….All this was written on a label attached to the door of each compartment. The venerable Qur’an manuscripts were preserved in a higher place…”

After the fall of the Fatimid empire in the year 1171, Saladin sold the library and converted the rooms into a hospital. The chronicler Ibn Abi Tayyi of Aleppo, a Twelver Shi’i, has left the following account:

library“Among the things that were sold was the library. It was one of the wonders of the world, and it was said that in all the lands of Islam there had been no greater library than the one in the palace of Cairo. Among the astonishing things is the fact that there were 1,200 copies of al-Tabari’s chronicle and many others!

At the Dar al-Ilm founded by Fatimid Imam al-Hakim in 1005
The court chronicler al-Musabbihi (quoted by al-Maqrizi) described the library at this institution:

Into this house they brought all the books that the commander of the faithful al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah ordered to bring there, that is, manuscripts in all the domains of science and culture, to an extent to which they had brought together for a prince. He allowed access to all this to people of all walks of life, whether they wanted to read books or dip into them. One of the already mentioned blessings, the likes of which had been unheard of, was also that he granted substantial salaries to all those who were appointed by him there to do service – jurists and others. People from all walks of life visited the House; some came to read books, others to copy them, yet others to study. He also donated what people needed: ink, writing reeds, paper and inkstands.”

Extracts from Heinz Halm’s The Fatimids and their Traditions of Learning, I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd. London, 1997

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

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