Sunday,21 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1385, (15 - 21 March 2018)
Sunday,21 April, 2019
Issue 1385, (15 - 21 March 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The Fatimids in Toronto

The achievements of the Egyptian Fatimid period are on show for the next six months at a special exhibition in Toronto, reports Nevine El-Aref  

The Fatimids in Toronto

Eleven centuries ago, the Fatimid Dynasty conquered Egypt in what was the first leg of the expansion of the Fatimid Empire from Sicily to Sind in Southwest Asia. From the time of its creation in Tunisia in 909 CE, the Fatimid Empire searched for a new capital that would be closer to Syria, Palestine, Arabia and the Mediterranean islands. It found it in Egypt.

The Fatimids claimed to be the descendants of the Prophet Mohamed from his daughter Fatemah Al-Zahraa and Ali Ibn Abu Taleb. They conquered Egypt in July 969 CE after only five months of fighting. Egypt fell to the Fatimid commander Gawhar Al-Seqeli without much resistance as the former Ikhsidid Dynasty, then ruling the country, had been unable to put up a convincing defence.

The Egyptian population welcomed the Fatimids, seeing them as the descendants of the Prophet Mohamed and able to rid the country of the unpopular Ikhsidids.

The Fatimids in Toronto

On the orders of the Fatimid caliph Al-Muizz Li-Din Allah, Al-Seqeli built the empire’s new capital, Al-Qahera (the Triumphant), today the heart of Islamic Cairo, which soon became a place of opulent palaces, mosques, madrassas (schools) and sabils (fountains), and the prestigious Mosque-University of Al-Azhar.

During their two centuries ruling Egypt, the Fatimids gave rise to an outstanding period of cultural development and exquisite arts, making it one of the most flourishing not only in Egypt’s history but also throughout the Islamic world.

To highlight this empire, which reached its summit in the 10th and 11th centuries CE and influenced life throughout the Mediterranean, Southern Europe, and the Near East, the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada, has organised a “World of the Fatimids” exhibition, the first such exhibition in North America.

According to its website, the exhibition includes luminous ceramics, intricate carvings shaped from rock crystal, and artefacts decorated with Kufic calligraphy and embellished with vines and leaves. All bear witness to a remarkable dynasty that fostered the arts and the sciences, yet that is little known in North America.

“We know from accounts of the time that Fatimid art and architecture was glorious,” said Henry Kim, director of the Aga Khan Museum, in a press release. “Most of it has vanished over the ages, so in bringing together objects from many international collections, the exhibition offers a rare opportunity not only to admire Fatimid art, but also to understand what life would have been like in this lively, diverse, and tolerant society.”

The Fatimids in Toronto

Through monumental architectural pieces as well as intimately scaled artwork, the exhibition conjures up a land of many faiths and explores life, both royal and everyday, in the capital the Fatimids founded. Drone videography of the site of the Fatimid court and its architectural remains, plus a film on Cairo’s Fatimid history, offer insight into what the city was like a millennium ago.

The Fatimids embraced the skills and knowledge of people from different places and faiths, welcoming them into court and city life. “This multi-faceted society in part accounts for the very diverse sources of inspiration that characterise Fatimid art,” said Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani, the curator of the exhibition. 

Mustafa Amin, head of Islamic and Coptic Antiquities at the Ministry of Antiquities in Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Fatimid era was a very important period in Egypt’s history not only for its distinguished and awe-inspiring Islamic monuments, but also for the development of Kufic calligraphy from its simple form to its most flowery shapes. 

The Fatimids in Toronto

The Fatimids also built the Mosque and University of Al-Azhar, which has long had an enormous impact on the Islamic world and played a very important role in Egypt’s history. Because of the high value the Fatimids placed on intellectual and artistic activities, attracting talented people from all over the globe, Cairo became a flourishing centre for scholarship, learning and the arts.

The exhibition puts on show a collection of 87 pieces, among which are 37 from Egypt, while others come from international collections including the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the Benaki Museum in Athens, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and collections from Italy, Germany and Denmark. 

Elham Salah, head of the Museums Sector at the Ministry of Antiquities, told the Weekly that the artefacts had been carefully selected from the collection of the Museum of Islamic Art in the Bab Al-Khalq area of Cairo for the Toronto exhibition.

She said the ministry had taken all the necessary legal and administrative measures to ensure the safe transportation of the artefacts from Cairo to Canada, applying the latest techniques in packaging and transportation. An archaeologist and a conservator from the ministry had also accompanied the artefacts to monitor them on their long journey and inspect them on arrival, she said.

She added that the artefacts include a collection of clay pots, dishes with various foliage and animal decorations, and a wooden mihrab (niche) decorated with a two-line inscription in Kufic script. There are also a number of marble tombstones, one reading “this is the tomb of Hamzah ibn Ali and his descendant the Imam Ali Ibn Abi Taleb,” referring to the cousin of the Prophet Mohamed. 

Also among the artefacts are marble vases, copper lamps and chandeliers with Kufic script, and objects in rock crystal, ivory and ceramic. 

Highlights include an eight-foot carved marble slab discovered buried on what is presumed to be the site of a Fatimid palace, along with a rock-crystal cosmetics vessel carved in the shape of a bird that would have held kohl. A lusterware bowl painted with a Coptic priest swinging a censer and a cross resembling an Egyptian ankh is also included in the exhibition.  

The catalogue accompanying the exhibition includes essays by scholars on Fatimid patronage, literature, calligraphy, cultural influences, and global exchanges, as well as chapters on the Christian and Jewish communities in Fatimid Egypt and the history of the Ismaili branch of Islam.  

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