Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 April 2011
Issue No. 1044
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Shared traditions and religious tolerance

In Part II of this series, Jill Kamil traces the amity between Muslim and Christian under the Fatimids and Ayyubids

It is difficult today to visualise Cairo's capital as it was in mediaeval times. For one thing, the Salah Salem Highway today physically divides the so-called Fatimid city (sometimes referred to as the Historic Zone), famous for its Islamic monuments, from the churches and monasteries of Old Cairo. For another, Egyptian history has been divided into specialisations, and Islamic culture has not been synchronised with Coptic studies.

Societies, however, are not closed units. Co- existence is central to a multinational state, and such can be traced during the two centuries of Fatimid rule through to that of Salaheddin Al-Ayyubi (the Saladin of Western chronicles), when Egypt became both the real centre of military power and leader of Islamic culture.

The Fatimids, who claimed direct descent from the Prophet Mohamed through his daughter Fatima, were Ismaili Shias from Syria, whose spiritual head today is the Aga Khan. They settled in the Maghreb, present-day Tunisia, and their invasion of Egypt in 969 was carefully planned. The aim of the fourth caliph, Abd Al-Muizz lidden Allah (simply Al-Muizz) was to secure a base from which to establish a religious community that would rule the world, and that base would be Egypt.

Al-Muizz despatched his vizier and military commander Gawhar to pave the way, instructing him to ensure that his largely Berber troops did not to interfere with the local residents. Over a period of three years Gawhar laid out a walled enclosure, less than one square kilometre in size, on a sandy stretch of land beneath the Muqattam range to the north of Al-Fustat. It was called Al-Qahira, and it housed a splendid palace for the caliph and his ministerial offices, a smaller palace for his harem, and pavilions, residences, gardens, baths, fountains, an arsenal and stables. It was not planned as a city, although it was frequently referred to as such. It was in fact no more than an exclusive zone reserved for the use of Al-Muizz his entourage and choice regiments, which relied on goods and services from the industrial area of Al-Fustat near the Nile port of Babylon.

It was there that Al-Muizz made his spectacular entrance into Egypt. His impressive army of Berbers from Morocco, Sudanese recruits and Turkish volunteers, had approached from the Western Desert and camped overnight at Giza. The next morning they sailed to Roda Island, crossed the narrow branch of the river on Gawhar's newly-constructed bridge of thirty-six boats, and disembarked at the port. Clad in elegant robes and followed by an impressive cortege of gold-chained emirs, sword-bearers on horseback, richly-clad officers of the guard, army and cavalry, the sultan set off in the direction of Al-Qahira. When Al-Muizz reached the southern gate, he fell on his knees, gave thanks to God, proclaimed an amnesty, and promised relief and good governorship.

Al-Qahira, off-limits to the general public, was part of a much larger zone in which the mixed population interacted with one another at various levels to their mutual advantage. Al-Muizz issued frequent decrees declaring his beneficence to the religious minorities: Sunni Muslims, Qibt (Copts), Yaqub i (Jacobite Syrians), Malaki (Melkite Greeks), Rumi (Greek- Romans) and Yahudi (Jews), all of whom were allowed full freedom and equality. Himself an intellectual who wrote poetry, Al-Muizz had studied Greek, mastered the Berber and Sudanese dialects, and was an enthusiast of intellectual discourse, especially on the subject of religion. He frequently gathered religious leaders in open discussion.

Local builders and craftsmen were in great demand. Exquisite glass was manufactured and textiles of different qualities were produced. Ceramics from Al-Fustat were distinguished by the bright, glazed surfaces with metallic lustre ornamented with floral and geometric designs. Baths, caravanserais, public buildings and mausoleums were built, and public order was such that it was possible for shops, jewellers and moneylenders to leave their doors open. Traders of all nationalities worked side by side. A prosperous middle class emerged, and some individuals rose to high positions in the government. The Geniza Documents, a vast treasury of manuscripts discovered in Old Cairo, provide information on the vibrant, multi-ethnic society of Masr under Fatimid rule.

The sympathetic attitude of the Fatimids towards the Copts, which expressed itself in their participation in Coptic feasts and the unprejudiced employment of Copts in the government, is demonstrated also in the fact that Hanging Church in Old Cairo (Al-Moallaqa) was restored under them, and acquired distinction when the patriarchate was moved from Alexandria to Cairo. The church became the place for the election, consecration or enthronement of the patriarchs. Regular synods were held. The convivial relations between Muslims and Copts is exemplified by the words of Patriarch Kirollos, who admonished lay Copts to lead virtuous lives and obey the laws and practices of the country.

The population fitted so seamlessly into a pattern of social behaviour that the line between them is often blurred. The dynasty reached its peak under Al-Aziz, the son of Al-Muizz, who introduced state processions every Friday during the fast of Ramadan, and also made a great occasion of the annual dispatch of the Mahmal, the Holy Carpet woven locally to cover the tomb of the Prophet Mohamed in Mecca. Like his father, Al-Aziz extended a hand of generosity to minority groups and issued frequent decrees declaring his beneficence.

The peaceful Fatimid Dynasty was marred only by Abu Ali Al-Mansur Al-Hakim (996- 1021), who took sweeping steps to curb the influence of minorities by dismissing non- Muslims from public service. He has gained notoriety for a series of decrees frequently considered bizarre -- such as consigning women to the house and forbidding them even to look out of windows or going onto roof-tops; ordering Copts to identity themselves by wearing black hoods and hanging large wooden crosses of a certain size around their necks; and ordering churches and synagogues to be demolished and their land and property confiscated. Many Copts, in fear of their lives, took refuge in caves in the Muqattam hills, where, incidentally, Al-Hakim (who enjoyed riding or walking there in the evenings), disappeared one night in 1021.

His successor, Al-Zahir, showed renewed tolerance towards minorities. Coptic records describe the clearance and reconstruction of the church complex of Abu Seifein, which had been damaged in riots under Al-Hakim. By this time, however, the Coptic language was being spoken less and less, and Arabic was formally acknowledged as the language of the state. Consequently, after reciting the Lord's Prayer in Coptic in churches all over the country, bishops repeated it in vernacular Arabic.

The might of the Fatimid caliphate rested ultimately on its troops, who were mercenaries of many nations, and rivalry, intrigues, even murder between them led to frequent frictions. Coupled with a succession of lean years due to failed Nile floods, the economy faltered. Taxes could not be collected. Trade came to a standstill. Growing indiscipline eventually undermined the state. The period known as "the great calamity" saw serious depopulation of hitherto crowded areas. Homes were abandoned, unattended churches looted. The rich suffered as much as the poor. Farmers watched their crops shrivel and dry out year after year, while the army, starving and unpaid, rioted and plundered the treasury. The caliphal library in the Great Palace (a vast and valuable collection estimated at six million volumes housed in 40 rooms) was ransacked with a view to raising money. The magnificent pavilions in Al-Qahira's elitist quarter, with their colonnaded porticos, fountains and floors of coloured marble, were torn down. An aviary of exotic birds was destroyed.

The situation became so out of hand that drastic steps had to be taken, and Caliph Al-Mustansir, whose long rule from 1036 to 1094 witnessed the decline of Fatimid power both internally and externally, eventually called upon his governor in Syria (a dependency of Egypt since Tulunid times) to come to the rescue. A liberal and wise leader, Badr Al-Gamali restored tranquillity by eliminating corrupt officials, judges and emirs, and appointing trustworthy "Men of the Sword", "Viziers of the Pen", and a chief Qadi (Judge) obedient to his orders alone. He took immediate steps to suspend taxes for three years, suppressed lawless troops and replaced them with his own efficient cavalry and infantry brigades. Through his wise policies and generosity in the distribution of food, clothing and money, he won the loyalty of the people. He took stock of the revenues of waqf, pious foundations that were in fact shops built beside mosques, the rent of which helped pay for their upkeep. He also funded schools, institutions and churches.

Al-Gamali was not ignorant of the Crusader threat. The great cities of Edessa and Antioch had fallen, and 70,000 defenceless Muslims had been massacred in Jerusalem. Moreover, the Crusaders were building a chain of fortresses along the Syrian coast and presented a formidable enemy in the region. It soon became clear that Egypt was a master-key in politics, strategically important and a prolific source of revenue. Whosoever could control Masr could dominate the whole region.

The citadel of Saladin on the western spur of the Muqattam hills dominates Cairo's skyline. Revered as one of the greatest heroes of Islam for his personal courage, for his capture of Jerusalem and for conquering the whole of Palestine, Saladin founded the Ayyubid dynasty in 1171 and, although he spent only eight years of his 24-year rule in Egypt, he left a lasting legacy.

When Saladin planned the construction of his lofty fortress, he aimed to extend its walls to enclose the whole of city -- from the Nile port of Maqs to the west of Al-Qahira, extending in a great semi-circle from its south-eastern corner to enclose the heavily populated district where Ibn Tulun's mosque was located; the commercial and industrial zone near the mosque of Amr; and to the port of Babylon, which still functioned for trade with Upper Egypt and was a terminal for desert caravans from the Red Sea. The task unfortunately fell short of completion, but Saladin managed nevertheless to develop commercial activity on a grand scale and take measures that had a lasting affect on the future of the country.

Immediate steps were taken to replace the Shia doctrine and restore Sunni orthodoxy. Al-Azhar Mosque was taken over and enlarged. Learned sages specialising in theology, mathematics, physical and natural science, astronomy, medicine and philosophy were brought into the country from the east, and college-mosques were built to provide regular religious instruction. The establishment of orthodoxy met no opposition, and graduates well-grounded in Sunni law were given posts in the new government. The Tunisian-born Abdel-Rahman Ibn Khaldun, one of Islam's greatest historians, spent many years in Egypt. He studied at Al-Azhar, taught Sunni Islamic culture at state- sponsored college-mosques and was made a qadi under Sultan Barquq. He wrote of Masr Al-Fustat, the expanded metropolis, as "the heart of Islam", a meeting place of nations, a dazzling city with overflowing markets and with mosques and schools filled with scholars.

Social boundaries broke down when sultans, emirs, merchants and administrators became involved in trade and commerce. Trading institutions for travelling merchants, known as wekalat, were built around a courtyard with stables and warehouses, with living quarters on an upper storey. Christian sources indicate that Copts respected Saladin because under his guardianship they were employed in various offices of the state and were free to build churches. Indeed, the Arab historian Abu Al-Makarram described Masr under the Ayyubids as peaceful, with Muslims, Copts, Greeks, Armenians, Georgians, Ethiopians and Nubians living amicably together alongside "Franks" (the word used to denote Europeans).

Today we live in a world polarised by ongoing conflicts between Muslim and Christian. No such legacy can be traced in mediaeval Egypt. The Chronicle of the Churches and Monasteries suggests there was at least one Coptic church in every town and village in Egypt, and a 14th- century document reveals that the clergy of the Hanging Church remained on such good terms with their Muslim neighbours that they were able to borrow lamps from the Mosque of Amr for their celebration in the honour of the Holy Virgin. The German pilgrim Felix Fabri, who visited "Babylon" in the 15th century, found it inhabited by Christians of all denominations, "their churches neighbouring the venerable mosque of Amr full of gilded images". This was a coexistence that we should remember today.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 1044 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Economy | Region | International | Opinion | Readers' corner | Press review | Culture | Features | Living | Sports | People | Cartoons | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map