The long period of Fatimid rule, lasting almost three centuries, and the dynasty’s political and ideological principles brought with them a major architectural revival. Clear evidence of change is provided by the monuments of the period, with their many new or additional features deriving from the traditions and cultures of the locations where they were distributed.
When Ubaidallah seized power in Ifriqiya in 910, at first he moved into the Aghlabid palace city of Raqqada, but political turmoil induced him to look for somewhere else. His choice fell on Mahdiya. No doubt the decision was made for strategic reasons, together with the wish to create a new capital – involving the replacement of the entire ruling class — but it was also in line with Ubaidallah’s ambition to make his young state a great naval power.
The 9-mile (14-kilometer) peninsula on which the city lay was surrounded by massive fortifications, with access from the landward side secured by two strong gateways. Ubaidallah laid out a harbor and built an arsenal, a palace, and a Great Mosque. Remains of the fortifications and one of the two city gates, the Sqifa al-Kahla, are still extant. The gatehouse consists of a vaulted anteroom 108 feet (33 meters) long and 16 feet (5 meters) wide, and a series of six doors, which, according to medieval written sources, were adorned “with bronze lions, modeled in relief, and facing each other.” These doors reinforced the defenses. Light fell into the Sqifa al-Kahla through two small openings on its narrow sides, and there were benches for the guards in the niches. According to the Iraqi geographer Ibn Hauqal, the gates of Mahdiya surpassed “in form and function all [others] with the exception of the two gates of Raqqa, on the model of which they were built.” Ubaidallah’s palace rose in the east of the city, and the palace of his son al-Qaim stood opposite it, with a large open space between them. Excavations have brought to light the ruins of a building which is probably al-Qaim’s palace. A curving entrance leads from an anteroom into the courtyard, with the various living areas grouped around it. They consisted of four small rooms around a larger one. A mosaic has been uncovered in one of the palace halls, showing a geometric pattern of interlacing bands which is reminiscent in style and motif of the mosaic floors of Raqqada.
The most important building in the whole complex is the Great Mosque, which is to the south of the peninsula. It was built in 916 on an artificial terrace, and modifications were made on several subsequent occasions. During the excavations of the 1960s, archeologists managed to reconstruct the plans of the first phase of building, and brought some original fragments to light. The Great Mosque covers a large rectangular area, consisting of a prayer hall and a courtyard surrounded on three sides by arcades of columns. A monumental portico, flanked by smaller entrances, stands in front of the middle of the north facade, which has massive, rectangular towers. The prayer hall consists of nine aisles and three bays, divided by eight rows of twin pillars, and the center aisle is taller and broader than the others; there is a dome above the bay in front of the mihrab. The semicircular mihrab niche recessed into the qiblawall is flanked by two small columns, and is divided into nine narrow niches with shell-shaped semicircular domes above them.
In its structure, the Great Mosque of Mahdiya is reminiscent of Aghlabid buildings, but there are some striking innovations in the design of its facade. As in the al-Qaim palace, the entrance is built out in front of the facade, and so becomes a striking architectural element of decoration. A large central porch is surmounted by a horseshoe arch. On both sides of this porch there are two niches with horseshoe arches, one above the other, the lower niche with a flat back wall and the upper niche with a semicircular wall. Two similar vertical sets of niches also ornament the side walls of the porch, which is surmounted by an attic story between cornices. With its tripartite decoration and its niches, it resembles the monumental city gates of classical antiquity, but also shows some similarity with the military buildings of the Abbasid and Umayyad periods, and represents a further stage of development, as Ibn Hauqal suggests in his comparison of the porches of Mahdiya and Raqqa. The model of this mosque was followed in many religious buildings of North Africa, and later of Egypt.
When al-Mansur came to power in 946, he decided, for strategic and political reasons, to move his capital. The geographical position of Mahdiya had certainly proved advantageous when Abu Yazid unsuccessfully besieged it, but its situation on a peninsula could equally well have led to disaster. Al-Mansur also felt drawn to the vicinity of Kairouan, where he built a third royal city near al-Abbasiya and Raqqada, calling it al-Mansuriya. The founding of this city should probably be seen as both a sign of reconciliation with a citadel of the Sunni faith, and an ostentatious demonstration of Shiite power.
Al-Mansuriya was built south of Kairouan and within a very short space of time (like all the cities of the period). It was surrounded by a circular defensive wall of fired and unfired brickwork, and medieval illustrations show four gates in it. The curtain walls, 13 feet (4 meters) thick, were flanked by massive semicircular and rectangular towers. A large mosque, called al-Azhar (“The Resplendent”), was built, and the markets of Kairouan were moved to al-Mansuriya. Many baths — 300 such establishments, according to the geographer al-Idrisi – and many cisterns were built. Water was brought along the aqueduct restored by the Aghlabids, making it possible to control the water supply to neighboring Kairouan. Many of the palaces are known to us by name: Qasr al-Bahr, Qasr al-Iwan, Qasr al-Kafur, the Camphor Palace, the Crown Palace, the Myrtle Palace, the Khawarnaq (after a pre-Islamic palace near Hisa), and so on. The ruler’s intimate circle participated in the building of this vast site within its fortified walls, and had their own magnificently furnished houses erected here.
Contemporary authors record the beauty and luxury of the buildings, and their accounts have been confirmed by archeological excavations. A huge building measuring 295 x 66 feet (90 x 20 meters) stood in the south of the city, with a series of three long halls at its center and a building in front of them forming a reversed T-shape – an arrangement suggesting an audience room, with living areas off both sides of it. In front of the building there was a huge pool of water measuring 460 x 230 feet (140 x 70 meters), comparable with the pool in Raqqada, and again it had a large open space in front of it. The walls of the palace were adorned with tiles and stucco panels, either white or painted, and sometimes decorated with geometrical and floral or calligraphic patterns. Ceramic plaques and plaster sculptures of human beings and animals show oriental influence in the features of the human figures and the details of their clothing. Al-Mansuriya seems to have enjoyed very high prestige. We know, for instance, that Caliph al-Muizz gave his general Jauhar precise instructions for the founding of the new imperial city of Cairo, and one can well imagine that the plans were modeled on the buildings of al-Mansuriya. According to medieval sources, the caliph even took many items from al-Mansuriya itself to Egypt with him, transporting them by ship or on camel-back.
The tradition of Fatimid secular architecture continued in the buildings of their vassals, the Zirids and Hammadids. Shortly before moving to Cairo in 973, Caliph al-Muizz had transferred the government of North Africa to the Zirid Buluggin. The Zirids and the Hammadids alike belonged to the great Berber family of the Sanhaja. Buluggin’s father, Ziri, founder of the dynasty, had already founded the city of Ashir in 935 with the permission of Caliph al-Qaim, who sent him laborers and an architect from Mahdiya. The city, built on a rectangular ground plan, was surrounded by a strong fortified wall of quarry stone.
Like the Fatimids and Zirids, the Hammadids left impressive traces behind them. In 1007 they founded a qala (fortress) on the Hodna plateau. This city, surrounded by a polygonal wall 4 miles (7 kilometers) long, contained among other buildings a Great Mosque and some magnificent palaces — the Government Palace, the Lighthouse Palace, the Palaces of the Stars, of Salvation, and of the Sea – all of them surrounded by beautiful gardens. The Qasr al-Manar, or Lighthouse Palace, is a particularly interesting building. Its interior structure, with two halls one above the other, and its lavish ornamentation show that it had an important position in the city. The tower, on a square ground plan with sides measuring 66 feet (20 meters), has deep vertical niches on three sides. The square hall on the ground floor contains three alcoves and almost certainly once had a dome, as the remains of squinches found among the rubble would seem to suggest. Its ground plan is reminiscent of the hall at Ashir. Some way from Qasr al-Manar lay the largest palace complex in the qala, the Dar al-Bahr or Palace of the Sea. It forms a huge rectangle with walls which, like those at Ashir, were reinforced by rectangular bastions, while a porch protected the double bend of the entrance in the center of the eastern facade. There was a pool of water in the middle of the large courtyard, which was surrounded by arcades, and a reception building containing three rooms was laid out along its northern side. The lavish decoration – muqarnas cornices, calligraphic friezes, small marble domes, the remains of marble fountains, ceramics with figural motifs, animal sculptures, and coins — bears witness to the splendor and wealth characteristic of life at the Hammadid court.
Religious life centered on the Great Mosque, a rectangular building measuring 184 X 210 feet (56 X 64 meters) along the sides. The maqsura, the area close to the mihrab reserved for the ruler, is a striking feature. The minaret rises in the center of the north wall, on the axis of the central aisle of the mosque. Only its south side is ornamented, with a tripartite design. A deep niche with round arches is recessed into this south facade, running all the way up it and flanked by three superimposed blind niches on each side. The decoration of this minaret is reminiscent of the entrance to the Mahdiya Mosque, particularly in the tripartite arrangement of the niches.
However, the prosperity of the Hammadids after the fall of the Zirid dynasty (as a result of the Banu Hilal invasion) was short-lived. In 1067 they began looking for a new, less vulnerable residence with access to the sea, and chose Bejaia. Thirty years later they finally abandoned the qala, and its palaces fell into decay. They constructed magnificent buildings in Bejaia, but in spite of archeological research very little is known of the palaces there, or indeed of the qala of Ashir, or the palace of al-Mansuriya. It is to the palaces of Sicily that we must look for more information about the sophisticated art of the princely palaces of North Africa.
In 970, on the instructions of Caliph al-Muizz and at the foot of the hill of al-Muqattam, his general Jauhar laid the foundation stone of the new capital city, Misr al-Qahira, “The Victorious,” 3 miles (5 kilometers) north of Fustat. According to legend, astrologers were summoned to determine the most propitious moment for the building to begin. A rope with little bells attached to it was stretched around the perimeter of the future city, so that work could begin everywhere at the same time when the astrologers gave the signal, but a bird set the chime of bells ringing by mistake.
Cairo was a palace city reserved exclusively for the caliph and his court, although it also contained army quarters. Its clay brick walls were built to an almost square plan, measuring 3,600 x 3,770 feet (1,100 x 1,150 meters), and had eight gateways in them. According to the Persian poet Nasr-i Khusrau, who visited the city in 1048, storehouses for provisions and other items, markets, and baths had to be built within the city walls to supply the needs of the inhabitants. A great street called al-Shari al-Azam ran along the north-south axis, and the palace of Caliph al-Muizz, later known as the Great Palace or Eastern Palace, stood in the city center, together with the Great Mosque. During the reign of al-Aziz (975—996), another palace, the Western Palace, was built opposite the palace of al-Muizz. There was a wide, open space between them, called Bain al-Qasrain (“Between the Two Palaces”). It was the scene of the great events staged by the Fatimids.
These palaces, abandoned after the fall of the caliphate, were destroyed in the 15th century, but old texts provide valuable information about them. The Eastern Palace was the caliph’s residence, and accommodated various government departments such as the treasury and the army office. Its rectangular enclosing wall had nine gateways and also contained the gardens and the hippodrome built under the Ikhshidid ruler Kafur (966—968). Access to it from the large open place between the palaces was through the Bab ad-Dhabab (“Golden Gate”), which was surmounted by a pavilion where the caliph presided over parades, and could show himself to his people on festive occasions. Nasr-i Khusrau mentions “a series of buildings, terraces, and halls’ belonging to the palace, and the Mamluk historian al-Maqrizi (d. 1442) describes some 10 halls or pavilions of different periods, standing in fine gardens and furnished with open porches (or iwans). Their names — Khawarnaq, Camphor Hall, Crown Hall, Myrtle Hall – are reminiscent of al-Mansuriya. The ground plans of the caliph’s palaces were sometimes adopted by private individuals, with slight modifications. Fustat contains some fine residences with square inner courtyards, and a main hall reached through a porch in front of the building and flanked by one or two other rooms.
The dwelling apartments, as literary sources tell us, were magnificently ornamented. The chronicler William of Tyre, whom the king of Jerusalem sent as his envoy to the caliph in 1167, describes “a vast, open courtyard, surrounded by porticoes borne on columns, all paved with marble in different hues, with unusually rich gilding … the hall was closed by a curtain of gold and silk in every color, upon which one might see wild animals, birds, and human beings, shining with rubies, emeralds, and a thousand other precious stones.” Nasr-i Khusrau writes of the Qaat al-Dhabab throne room in similar terms: “In one [of the halls] there stood a throne occupying the whole breadth of the room. Three sides of it were made of gold, and adorned with hunting scenes showing galloping horsemen and other subjects The throne was surrounded by a golden balustrade of surpassing beauty, and behind it there was a silver stairway.” This magnificence is confirmed by the discovery of several wooden friezes showing figural scenes in the Maristan al-Qalawun, the hospital founded near the Western Palace by the Mamluk sultan who reigned from 1279 to 1290. An inventory of the caliph’s treasury also conveys some idea of the luxury in which the princes lived, mentioning the caliph’s library, which comprised 40 rooms and, in the words of the 11th-century historian al-Mushabbihi, contained “volumes dealing with all areas of science, including … the knowledge of antiquity.” Sources of the Ayyubid period give the number of works in this library as between 200,000 and 600,000.
When Cairo was founded, the al-Azhar Mosque, built to the south of the palace in 970—972, was the focal point of the city’s religious life. It quickly developed into a center of Shiite teaching, and to this day is prominent in the Islamic educational world. Little is left of the original building, since the mosque has undergone frequent renovation over the centuries, for instance in the first half of the 12th century when Caliph al-Hafiz (1131-1149) had a domed porch erected in front of it. The building, measuring 279 x 226 feet (85 x 69 meters), has brick walls with stucco decoration. The prayer hall originally had 5 bays and 19 aisles, with a broad middle aisle and a dome over the bay in front of the mihrab. The mihrab itself is ornamented with calligraphic bands and friezes of highly stylized interlacing tendrils. The hypostyle halls around the courtyard are also richly ornamented, in a style related to that of the Amr and Ibn Tulun Mosques. The columns are surmounted by blind niches with rosettes above the apexes of the arches, and the courtyard facades end in striking stepped battlements.
In 990 al-Aziz had a new mosque built outside the city walls; it took the name of Caliph al-Hakim, under whose rule it was completed in 1012. It resembles the al-Azhar Mosque in having five bays, but there are 17 aisles, and not only is the bay leading to the mihrab domed, so are the two corner bays in front of the qiblawall. The pointed arches of the prayer hall, like those of the other colonnades, rest on masonry pillars, and the outer walls of the courtyard galleries are divided by niches and surmounted by battlements, as in the al-Azhar Mosque. The main facade of the al-Hakim Mosque has a tripartite. structure, and is also reminiscent of the Great Mosque of Mahdiya. There is a monumental porch at the center of the facade, and rectangular towers with minarets, one cylindrical and the other rectangular, rise above the corners.
During the period when the power of the Fatimid caliphs was beginning to wane, and Egypt was mainly ruled by strong viziers, a new architectural revival began under the patronage of these men.
Badr al-Jamali (d. 1094), vizier of Caliph al-Mustansir, ordered an extension of the fortified walls; demographic growth made it necessary to enlarge the city boundaries, and the old defenses were in poor repair. He entrusted the building of the fortifications around the city to Armenian architects from Odessa, who — as usual in Syria — used quarry stone and reinforced the walls with columns from older buildings. The ring of walls, surmounted by round- arched battlements, was fortified at regular intervals by massive square bastions. The gatehouses of three of them are still extant: Bab al-Futuh and Bab al-Nasr in the north, and Bab Zuwaila in the south. Bab al-Futuh has a straight entrance about 16 feet (5 meters) long, set between two round towers 26 feet (8 meters) high. The plain decoration of this gateway consists of large arched areas framed by rectangles, and a cornice pierced by loopholes. The two towers of Bab al-Nasr are on a square groundplan, and are ornamented only by a horizontal cornice. Bab Zuwaila is in some respects a synthesis of the other two gateways.
Two unusual mosques founded by viziers adopted (and reinterpreted) the architectural style and decoration of the al-Hakim Mosque: the Aqmar and Salih Talai Mosques testify to a new delicate, almost Baroque aesthetic. The first of these two mosques was built in 1125 for Vizier Mamum al-Bataibi. The prayer hall has five aisles and three bays, the bay in front of the mihrab being much wider than the others. As in the arcades surrounding the courtyard, the pointed arches rest on elegant marble columns. On the exterior, a continuous calligraphic band runs around the extrados of the arches, and their spandrels are decorated with rosettes.
A notable feature is the unusual decoration of the facade, which follows the course of the street and does not run parallel to the qibla wall. As in the al-Hakim Mosque, the porch projects slightly from the surface of the wall, and is tripartite in its structural design. The central arch, which extends all the way up the height of the building and is flanked by two narrower niches, not so tall, has a ribbed, shell-like intrados with a medallion bearing decorative inscriptions at its center. Rectangular areas filled with muqarnas appear above the small lateral niches, and there are two blind niches with shell-shaped vaulting and small inset columns above these rectangles, echoing the shell-shaped intrados of the main arch. The individual elements are decorated with friezes of interlacing patterns, floral motifs, and calligraphic bands. There is a calligraphic frieze at the top of the facade. The mosque, which was built in 1160 by Vizier Salih Talai and was the last of the Fatimid buildings, resembles the Aqmar Mosque in its interior design. It was constructed above a barrel-vaulted basement floor where shops were housed, and is the oldest mosque of this type in Egypt.
At the time of the viziers, new elements were appearing in Fatimid architecture – memorial monuments and tombs, funerary mosques, mausoleums. Shiite doctrine contributed to this development with its veneration of the descendants of Ali. When al-Muizz came to power in Cairo, he sent to Ifriqiya for the remains of his ancestors and had a mausoleum built for them inside the palace precincts. From then on funerary mosques became a widely distributed type of building in Egypt. In 1085 Badr al-Jamali had a funerary mosque known as the Mashhad al-Juyushi built on the hill of al-Muqattam, but it contained no tomb. It has a minaret over the entrance with a domed octagonal area on top, and the porch leads to a courtyard adjoining the prayer hall. The bay in front of the mihrab and the room intended as a burial chamber are covered by squinch domes. The building contains the oldest muqarnas in Egypt. Many mausoleums of this type have been preserved in Cairo and Aswan.
Two funerary mosques, Sayida Atiqa (1120) and Sayida Ruqaya (1133), dedicated to members of the family of the Prophet, were built outside the city wall. Sayida Ruqaya has three rooms, with five mihrabs in all, richly ornamented with stucco decoration. The central room is covered by a dome with muqarnas pendentives. In general, the mausoleums are simpler in design. They are built of brick or stone, with a squinch or pendentive dome, and usually on a square ground plan, with one, two, or three of the sides designed as open arcades. Four buildings of this kind are still extant in the south of Cairo, known by the name Saba Banat, “The Seven Maidens,” and there are similar mausoleums in less important cities, for instance in Aswan, where about 60 funerary mosques have been preserved.
A striking feature of the Fatimid buildings in Cairo is the new and extremely lavish decoration of both interior and exterior walls, in materials as different as stucco and stone. The pointed arches, muqarnas, and ribbed niches derive from the ornamentation of the Iranian provinces, and are very different from those earlier decorative elements where the link with Ifriqiya is still clearly perceptible. This remarkable synthesis of extremely different tendencies is characteristic of the new artistic style, which from now on can be properly called Egyptian. Fatimid art came to its peak in Cairo, but the Fatimids were also active in Mecca, Syria, and Palestine, although they did not leave their mark so strongly on those places. However, the fine mosaics in the spandrels of the great arch of the al-Aqsa Mosque are undoubtedly significant evidence of their presence in Jerusalem.
- Cairo’s Islamic Architecture – 7th to 18th Centuries (islamic-arts.org)
- The al-Azhar Mosque (970) (islamic-arts.org)
- Cairo – A City Adorned (islamic-arts.org)