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Early Medieval Dynasties in The West: Fatimids, Ayyubids

As Abbasid authority weakened, the Shi’ite Fatimid dynasty (909−1171)—claiming descent from Fatima, daughter of the Prophet and wife of Ali—rose to power in North Africa. They expanded into Egypt and Syria, and in 969 founded a new capital at Cairo (the name means “the victorious”). Fatimid control of trade around the Mediterranean brought enormous prosperity, and Cairo became an important cultural center.

After the Fatimids sought aid from Syria against invading Crusader armies, a Syrian officer —Salah al-Din ibn Ayyub (better known in the West as Saladin) —overthrew the Fatimid ruler to establish a new dynasty. The Ayyubids (1171−1250) restored Egypt to Sunni orthodoxy. Salah al-Din expanded Ayyubid territory into Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, and in 1187 he decisively defeated the Crusader states. Ayyubid territory broke into a collection of semi-autonomous principalities after his death, but it continued to enjoy peace and prosperity.


Fatimid taste for luxury spurred an efflorescence of the arts. Al-Fustat (the old town of Cairo) became a major center for luxury goods. Fatimid artists were celebrated for ceramics, especially lusterwares whose metallic decoration mimicked precious metals, as well as for textiles, glass, inlays in wood and ivory, and carvings of rock crystal. Painters of lusterware sometimes signed their work—an indication of greater status. Fatimid decoration includes calligraphy, lively vegetal designs, and elaborate geometric patterns. But it also reveals a great interest in figures.

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