Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 December 2009
Issue No. 976
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The crazed caliph

A portrait of the Fatimid caliph

Caliph of Cairo: Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (996-1021), (2009) by Paul Walker. The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, New York

Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (996-1021) was the first Fatimid ruler to be born in Egypt. His forefathers were all born in the North African region named Ifriquiya (Africa), the Tunisia of today. Devilish or divine, he remains to this day a most controversial figure who had serious issues with questions concerning a host of subjects including women and wine. His death, or disappearance from public life, triggered a scramble to save the dynasty his forebears founded. His enemies tended to have wretched luck.

His foes, with the notable exception of his formidable elder sister Sitt Al-Mulk, were laid low by his sword, or by the daggers of his henchmen. Royal women amassed fantastic fortunes, but only Sitt Al-Mulk exercised political power. And the religious pundits were out in force.

Fatimid liberalism, which reached its zenith in the reign of Al-Hakim's father, had a long line of trailblazers. Some made it to government policy position, others didn't, though not for want of trying.

Walker's work is a well-researched, unbiased and engaging exposé of a melodramatic subject.

As a ruler, Al-Hakim's father had more reflected the times than created them. Al-Hakim himself tried in vain to recreate his Fatimid inheritance. And he failed miserably to do so.

Al-Hakim's Achilles Heels were the extremity of his views. He was an imperfect celebrity in an age when Egypt stood poised to perfect, and became obsessed with, the cult of celebrity -- that, eventually, of the slave sultans, the Mamluks. And there was Salah Al-Din Al-Ayubi, better known in the West as Saladin, before them. Al-Hakim was no celebrity though. An eccentric, perhaps. A megalomaniac, maybe. His court crowned by his hedonistic lifestyle teetered precariously on the precipice of the dying days of the Fatimid dynasty that had made Cairo the capital of its sprawling empire.

What he still lacked were teeth. He was a fervent anti- Sunni, on both political ad religious grounds, inveighing against what he saw as its adherents' moral squalor. But his zealotry acquired a harder, more ruthless edge towards the end of his reign.

The Caliph of Cairo reflected Fatimid Egypt's life and times. He personified the medieval megalomaniac despot who is not just a temporal lord but also the religious leader. He got into a nasty contretemps with some of his father's most trusted confidants, moderate pragmatists like Sitt Al-Mulk and Barjawan, his tutor and caretaker.

All the more extraordinary then that Al-Hakim hit out from the shadows first of his father, Al-Aziz, and then of Barjawan, his father's chief eunuch who is sometimes referred to in historical records as a white Slav and in others as a black Sudanese. The Christianity of Al-Hakim's mother became part of his legend. There is no conclusive evidence that she was indeed Christian. Fatimid royal women rarely appear in the histories. His sister [Sitt Al-Mulk] is an exception, notably so.

The French orientalist Baron Silvestre de Sacy, whose classic Expose de la religion des Druzes, was the first Westerner to shed light on the manner in which the Druze deified Al-Hakim -- to them he was God incarnate. To the Ismaili Shia Muslims Al-Hakim was the 16th imam and hence infallible and incapable of sin. Al-Hakim, however, sent shock waves throughout Christendom when he ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

"Al-Hakim himself was born in the palace on the eve of Thursday 23 of the Islamic month of Rabia Al-Awwal in 375 (13 August 985). The Egyptian historian Al-Miqrizi, atypically insists on greater specificity in this one case. He reports that it was the ninth hour of the night, the morning of which was the 13th of the Coptic month of Ab, the rising of Cancer had reached the 27th degree, the sun was in Leo at 25, the moon in Gemini at 11, Saturn in Scorpio at 24, Jupiter in Libra at 8, Mars in Libra, 13, Venus in Libra, 19, and Mercury in Leo, 10, and the head in Aquarius, 5. Why he provides such detail is an open question." Presumably, this detailed zodiac horoscope sketch was intended to ascertain whether the Stars ordained Al-Hakim's true nature to be diabolical or divine.

"Al-Hakim rode off on his last known excursion barely months beyond the 400th anniversary of the Prophet's death. Mohamed departed this earthly realm in the 11th year of the Islamic calendar. This caliph, his successor, disappeared exactly four centuries later in the year 411. Was that merely coincidence?" This is the question that to this day confounds both champions and critics of Al-Hakim.

A fascinating aspect of Walker's study is his attempt to position in proper historical context the precise role women played in the Fatimid period. This particular debate has never been more urgent.

Walker argues that even though there is relatively scant evidence of the status of Fatimid women, evidence suggests that they wielded considerable power and influence behind the scenes. At any rate, royal women -- dowager empresses and great aunts rather than queens and royal consorts -- were fabulously rich. Two of Al-Hakim's paternal aunts, daughters of the Fatimid Caliph Al-Muizz, the founder of Cairo, are also known. "Both died long after Al-Hakim in 1050, at the age by then of about 90... The first, called Al-Sayeda Rashida, left an estate worth an astonishing one million seven hundred thousand dinars, a figure well beyond that for most rulers and kings of the time. Her sister Abda died three days later."

The second sister, his aunt, also left such a massive estate that it took 40 Egyptian pounds of sealing wax and 30 reams of paper to complete the inventory of all items found in it. Among the items listed were 1,300 pieces of silver, 400 swords embossed in gold, 30,000 pieces of Sicilian cloth, gems including emeralds. Even so, she lived a frugal existence. "Throughout her life she ate nothing but bread mixed with some meat broth."

The daughter of Al-Hakim, known as Sitt Misr (Lady of Egypt) died in 1063 long after her father, leaving an impressive estate, among which were 8,000 female slaves, over 30,000 Chinese vases all full of musk, unique gems, one of which was a piece of ruby weighing 10 mithqals. Her landholdings yielded an income of 50,000 dinars annually. "Yet she, like her great aunts before her, was noted for virtue, in her case for generosity and munificence."

Walker obviously doesn't focus exclusively on women, wine, lunatic edicts and eunuchs. Walker's main concern appeared to be the hard choices among political alternatives that Al-Hakim was confronted with -- few of which seemed to have been entirely pure or just even so, though they were meant to be.

Al-Hakim lived at a time when the power struggles -- political and ideological -- between Sunni and Shia Islam had reached boiling point.

Those who confuse stridency with conviction and religious zealotry with integrity today weigh down both strands of Islam. Yet what is clear is that Al-Hakim, like his predecessors, employed officials of all races, social and ethnic backgrounds as well as those upholding diverse religious convictions. "This small snapshot of those who held important commands in the early years of Al-Hakim provides evidence of diversity. Fahd was a Christian; many others were Slavs, religion unspecified; some were eunuchs, some not; and one among those named here was black. Yet all received important commissions with major responsibilities."

Qayd, a black eunuch, was given the command of the Cairo police. He had, like his master Al-Hakim, the authority to bring subjects and subordinates into line.

The Fatimid cachet and an ability to recruit those who were, by common consent, the best and brightest staff in the Caliphate helped Al-Hakim's stature as a great leader.

However, some of his most trusted aides were to disappoint him bitterly. They disobeyed his decrees and indulged in drunken orgies. "Notice, for example, that the participants represented a crosssection of the elite, with Christians, Sunnis and Ismailis together in what amounted to a men's drinking club, the powerful class at play."

What a terrible mistake: many were put to death for their insubordination. "Still we are entitled to suspect that Al-Hakim did not forget or forgive. Surely he understood quite well that drunkenness, if not more serious forms of debauchery, was to blame, and that the highest officials of his government had participated, notably his chief executive Husayn in whose dwelling the party was held, as well as the head of the judiciary Abd Al-Aziz, the very man responsible for enforcing the law of the land." For the modern observer, such contradictions paint a lurid picture of Fatimid life.

The Sunni Turks were understandably at the end of their tether. But Al-Hakim's own vassals from the Berber Kutama tribe needed to be careful too. "Over the long course of al-Aziz's reign, the standing of the Kutama diminished steadily and that of the Turks rose. At the accession of Al-Hakim, the commander in charge of Fatimid forces in Syria was Manjutakin, a Turk. There were now many Turks in Egypt," the author observes.

"The series of edicts enacted in 1004 established a prohibition also on several kinds of food, which, like those against alcoholic beverages, appear to have arisen initially from a religious motive, Al-Maqrizi's record of the original decrees says as much. It forbade molukhiyya, Jew's mallow, a green herb used in soup and stews and a great favourite of Egyptians because it was much loved by Muawiya Ibn Abi Sifyan, the first of the Ummayid caliphs and the arch enemy of Ali and the Shia. Jarjir, a variety of watercress, known elsewhere as rocket or arugula, was outlawed due to its association with the Prophet's wife Aisha, who had been another major opponent of Ali."

The scope of the crisis was universal. The fashion in which Egyptians dealt with Al-Hakim reveals the crux of the national characteristic. "Evidently the common citizen responded to these prohibitions with little or no enthusiasm and even less compliance. Reports subsequent to the initial decree continue to reiterate the illegality of harvesting, selling and eating the proscribed foods."

Among the most curious of Al-Hakim's many accomplishments, his cull of canines caused considerable concern. "Among the edicts of Al-Hakim hardest to understand is his order to slaughter dogs. It is true that dogs are not considered clean by Islam and unrestrained they pose a clear menace especially in large numbers. A person riding through the city at night could hardly avoid confronting the canine presence either by rousing their bark or, if roaming freely, the actual threat of the attack. The first command to kill the dogs was issued in early 1005. The bodies were dumped in the desert and along the banks of the Nile." Certain historians, the writer asserts, estimated that upward of 30,000 dogs were killed by Al-Hakim's command.

Perhaps no relationship epitomised Al-Hakim's lunacy than his great affection for and later treacherous assassination of his loyal mentor Barjawan, who was much fond of music. Al-Hakim, of course, deemed song and dance instruments of the Devil, sins to be eschewed at all costs. But Barjawan was on the wrong side of the argument, and he paid a terrible price.

For some unexplainable reason, Barjawan nicknamed the Caliph "The Gecko". The Caliph summoned Barjawan, who tallied a little too long. "Tell Barjawan that the gecko has grown into a large dragon," an incensed Al-Hakim commanded his minions. When Barjawan appeared before his master he was promptly executed. Al-Hakim's perfidious deed had some narrow political merit -- it proved to all and sundry that the Caliph was no longer a minor, but a brutish despot. With all this in mind, perhaps it is understandable that the gecko indeed had metamorphosed into a dragon.

"One or two isolated pieces of information appear to confirm the need for the young caliph to be wary of his male relatives." Not so much gamekeeper turned poacher as teacher turned troublemaker, Barjawan's murder in cold blood sealed the fate of the Fatimids. He was, after all, a trusted and loyal servant of Al-Aziz.

However, it was his mistrust of women and his belief that they were evil temptresses that attracted much attention. "The most famous, or infamous, of Al-Hakim's social reformations was his severe restriction of women's freedom to move about in public, which eventually became as harsh and total a ban as any of its kind, when he forbade shoemakers from crafting and selling footwear for them."

Doubts about this and other edicts and endeavours culminated in the curious disappearance of Al-Hakim in the desert to the southeast of Cairo.

His subjects at first didn't believe that their Caliph could have met such an inauspicious end. They had heard it all before. Such weird and wonderful fables about their ruler abounded.

But first the madness that Al-Maqrizi describes in great detail. The selling of raisins, moloukhiya and fish was forbidden "Great quantities of raisins were burned". Worse was to come. "Those who sold grapes for a living were watched carefully."

Honey, too, was confiscated and thrown into the Nile, presumably because mead-wine could be made from honey.

"An order stipulated that neither Jews nor Christians enter the baths unless they are wearing, in the case of the Jews, a bell and, for Christians, a cross. Discoursing about the stars was forbidden. A number of astrologers absented themselves; a group of those that remained were banished and the people were warned not to hide any of them. One group publicly expressed repentance and they were forgiven. They swore that they would not investigate the stars."

"In January an edict prohibited the people from kissing the ground before Al-Hakim, and from kissing his stirrup and his hand when greeting him in a procession, thus ending the custom of using as a model the habit of the polytheists of bowing to the ground, which was the practice of the Greeks."

This series of events reveals a good deal more than at first meets the eye. The reader is at once struck by the cosmopolitan nature of Al-Hakim's realm as by the contending power blocks within vying for absolute power. Recent history provides further proof, without going back as far as Al-Hakim, of the enduring nature of some of these historical rivalries and religious schisms.

Al-Hakim's lifelong pursuit of Shia Puritanism produced many failures, but also successes. His historical position as a senior standard- bearer of Shia Islam is more secure among the Druze and the Ismaili Shia than among other strands of Islam -- both Shia and Sunni.

It is easy to see why Sitt Al-Mulk figured out that he could do a better job of running the Caliphate than her psychotic brother Al-Hakim. Years of official propaganda by Sitt Al-Mulk and the Ayyubids who succeeded the Fatimids, reinforced the idea that Al-Hakim was a deranged despot.

"As with much of the information about specific events during the rule of Al-Hakim, we have only the notes copied by a much later historian from an older source, which far too often cannot be identified. And, the possibility of misinformation, either inadvertent or deliberate, is always present," noted Walker.

There is, of course, a debate to be had on how to access the reign of Al-Hakim. This Walker makes abundantly clear. The author's sources are multifarious and variegated.

Al-Hakim was well versed in the ruthless measures of medieval autocrats. To be fair, he comes across as having an endearing sense of humour. He easily forgave an errant because the accused made him laugh, or amused him. Still, Al-Hakim needed to demonstrate that he was serious about power.

Megalomaniac, manic depressive, he was venerated as God incarnate. Hardened historians of the Fatimid era may be forgiven a wry smile when they read yet another seminal work on Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah. His was a world of black and white Slavic eunuchs, the tribal Kutama Berbers of North Africa and the rival Turkish and Slavic mercenaries, Coptic and Malachite Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims, all in turn currying favour with the crazed Caliph and risking being put to the sword for oversights and blunders. Christians suffered badly in the religious zealotry that convulsed the country under Al-Hakim.

Walker is explicit, citing various sources to corroborate his thesis. "The caliph ordered the Christians, with the exception of the religious authorities, to wear black turbans and black hoods and to attach around their necks crosses of wood, to ride on saddles of wood, none to ride horses but rather mules or donkeys and not ride with adorned saddles or bridles, and that their saddles and bridles have black straps."

"The Christians were commanded next to make their saddles out of sycamore wood. The crosses the Christians wore on their necks now had to be a cubit in length and width. Their humiliation increased, as did the oppression imposed on them. An order specified that the weight of the cross be five pounds and that it be visible on the outside of their robes. But when matters began to oppress them most heavily, many of them feigned Islam."

Not surprisingly, "a number of Christians, clerks and others, thereafter converted to Islam." Al-Hakim changed the essential disposition of Egypt forever. "Egypt then as now has a substantial population of Christians who use wine as part of the sacrament. Traditionally, wine is allowed and the Muslim authorities did not attempt to rid the country of it, even though, obviously, non-observant Muslims could obtain it without too great a difficulty. Al-Hakim's new rules, however, aimed to stop all trade in wine, or any other intoxicating drink."

The disastrous historical consequences of Al-Hakim's excesses notwithstanding, his reign is regarded in retrospect as a glorious one by many. The Fatimids, and especially Al-Hakim, were notorious for the violent repression of dissenters. They were the archetypal champions of lost causes. Until, one day, they won -- they conquered Egypt, the Jewel in the Fatimid Crown.

Sitt Al-Mulk, his sister and by far his senior, lived long after her brother's demise. "Conspiracy theory is an old preoccupation. It serves to explain what is otherwise obscure or unknown; it is also a tool of polemic, a means to denigrate a political or religious opponent. The last days of Al-Hakim were no exception. The lack of solid information about what actually happened provided an opportunity for the invention of several stories that purported to fill the gap. One among them features Sitt Al-Mulk as both the capable administrator who stepped in to preserve the dynasty at a moment of weakness, and as the person responsible for the death of her brother."

Because people like simple answers, it was convenient for historians to credit Sitt Al-Mulk with her brother's assassination. "Whether it is true or not that she participated in any such plot, eventually it was she who took control of the government as the disappearance of Al-Hakim changed from a brief period of anticipating his possibly imminent return to the dawning certainty that he was gone for good," the author concludes. "She made sure her nephew (Al-Hakim's son) received the oath of allegiance from the army and bureacracy, rank upon rank, until all agreed. The slight few who demurred were done away with; any who remained in doubt came around out of fear of her."

Not that it really matters. She had her brother's interests at heart. "With Sitt Al-Mulk acting as regent for her nephew Al-Zahir and soon firmly in control, she immediately commenced to establish a sense of stability and continuity. The eccentricities of the former reign began to fade, to be replaced by the earlier traditions of the dynasty characterised by a carefully balanced policy of accommodation. Gradually Sunnis and non-Ismaili Muslims, Christians and Jews regained the status and protection accorded them in the tolerant days of Al-Aziz. Women re-entered the marketplace."

Reviewed by Gamal Nkrumah

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