Al-Maqrizi and the Fatimids: Imam al-Mu’izz’s reforms led to the rise of an empire which promoted intellectual and artistic life, initiating the development of a brilliant civilisation

Al-Maqrizi (d. 1442), a Sunni, Egyptian scholar, was a prolific author of the Mamluk period [1250-1517]. “His writings spanned many facets of Egyptian society, from its political history, topography and economic characteristics to biographical works chronicling its distinguished individuals. He painstakingly penned works that recorded Egyptian history from the time of its Muslim conquest to his own era, displaying particular pride in all things Egyptian.”

“The reign of al-Mu’izz [973-975] witnessed the momentous transition of the Fatimids from a regional dynasty in a peripheral part of the Muslim world to the most powerful Mediterranean state of the time. Although his time in Egypt was brief, the reforms al-Mu’izz introduced laid the foundation for Egypt’s economic recovery and the attainment of a level of prosperity unprecedented  since the advent of Islam. It also led to the rise of an empire which promoted ‘intellectual and artistic life’ and initiated the development of a brilliant civilisation which reached its full flowering on the banks of the Nile.

As well as being a patron of scholarship, al-Mu’izz was an accomplished scholar and linguist with mastery of several languages. He composed a number of treatises and is also acknowledged to have inspired the invention of the fountain pen. He established a palace library which was, in the words of Heinz Halm, ‘unmatched anywhere in the contemporary world.’ A decade before his death, al-Mu’izz commissioned a map of the world that was subsequently displayed in his mausoleum.

Al-Maqrizi’s interest in the Fatimids was inextricably linked to his pride in and loyalty to Egypt, his homeland. His admiration for the dynasty may have been partly aroused by the way they had reversed Egypt’s chronic political  and economic decline, and its dependence on the Abbasids.

He maintained a distinctive interest in the Fatimids. As such, his writings represent the most comprehensive account of the Fatimid era. His Itti‘az al-hunafa’ bi-akhbar al a’imma al-Fatimiyyin al-khulafa’ (Lessons for the Seekers of Truth in the History of the Fatimid Imams and Caliphs) focuses principally on the Fatimid age, and so it is a particularly valuable historical source on this dynasty.

Pivotal to the prosperity of Fatimid Egypt was the emergence of Cairo as a thriving metropolis. The founding of Cairo, which has remained the Egyptian capital to this day, constitutes perhaps the most lasting legacy of al-Mu’izz. The Fatimid capital  was not only a strategic centre but also an inland port with robust ship traffic along the Nile, as well as being the terminus of trans-Saharan trade […] as far as West Africa.

Al-Maqrizi carefully compiled his narrative from a wide range of materials then available to him, many of which are no longer extant, demonstrating a scholarly discernment regarding the value and limitations of his sources that was unusual among medieval Muslim historians. Moreover, he records a number of official documents, letters and sermons of the Fatimids in their entirety, often making his works the only surviving source for this material. As such, it is a rare work of its kind and makes a significant contribution to the study of the Fatimid era.”

Extracts from Towards a Shi’i Mediterranean Empire, Fatimid Egypt and the Founding of Cairo Translated by Shainool Jiwa, I.B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, 2009 (accessed June 2017)

 

Previously on Ismailimail…

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