A Review of The World of the Fatimids

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The World of the Fatimids at the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto. The exhibition’s last day is July 2, 2018. Photo: The Aga Khan Museum.

RESURRECTING A NARRATIVE OF BEAUTY AND CO-EXISTENCE THROUGH THE ARTS

By SAHIR DEWJI

Until July 2, 2018, the second-floor gallery of the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto is offering museum visitors a glimpse of history, which is a first of its kind in North America. The exhibition pulls together various artefacts (about 90 in total) from 14 international lenders based in Paris, London, New York, Cairo and others. [1] The exhibition takes place during Aga Khan IV’s Diamond Jubilee year as the 49th hereditary Imam of the transnational Shi‘a Nizari Ismaili Muslim community.

The World of the Fatimids exhibition which opened on March 10, holds a special meaning for the Aga Khan Museum and the Ismailis in Canada. The Fatimids were one of many Muslim Dynasties of the 10th to 12th centuries. Named after the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, the Fatimids embraced the lineage of the Shi‘a Ismaili faith from which Aga Khan IV claims his authority as the 49th legitimate descendant and Imam of the contemporary Ismaili community. The Fatimids conquered Egypt in 969 and established their capital at al-Qahira or Cairo. It is in Cairo where they built the world’s oldest university (Al-Azhar) and created one of the first public libraries that was accessible to everyone. [2] The Fatimids were known for their pluralistic governance and tolerant attitude, influencing knowledge and culture throughout the Mediterranean, Europe, and the Near East. [3] Among their vast contributions to Muslim civilization, art and architecture are considered one of the most remarkable disciplines that flourished under the reign of the Fatimids. In fact, the art produced during the 10th to 12th centuries of the Fatimid dynasty points to a flowering of figural imagery and reflects the dynasty’s confidant and flamboyant nature.

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Oliphant, ivory, carved. Photo: ©The Aga Khan Museum.

Much of the art produced during the height of the Fatimid dynasty is noted for its vibrant, sophisticated and innovative designs. The Fatimids developed a visual language that ignited a renaissance of sorts in the decorative arts, making Cairo an important cultural center. The different items on display at the Aga Khan Museum, made of organic and non-organic materials, showcase the impeccable skills of carving. In particular, objects made of ivory and rock crystal were the most attractive artefacts of the Fatimid period and were widely sold as luxury goods. [4]

The most notable and best-preserved artefacts range from carved woodwork, ivory and rock crystal to woven textiles, gold jewelry and glazed ceramics. Artisans drew inspiration from a variety of sources including contemporary urban and courtly culture, oral and written literature, in addition to artistic traditions beyond the Mediterranean world. [5]

During this period, Fatimid artists played freely with new motifs and created extraordinary designs reflected in the high level of craftsmanship. No wonder Fatimid artists were held in high esteem for their talent and felt a sense of pride in signing their names to a number of works – a practice that was not very common until this period. [6]

It is worth mentioning that as a subject matter, Islamic art (which is a western construct that is based on 19th-century taxonomy) is not monolith. There are many categories to Islamic art, one of which includes figures (animals and humans), naturalistic motifs, and portraits as seen through the collection of the Fatimids. This category of Islamic art dealt with non-religious contexts and is most often found inside private spaces such as palaces. This is in contrast to the familiar sights of geometric patterns and inscriptions that belong to the religious context. The latter are most often associated with mosques, centres of learning and instruction, and other public settings. [7] Contrary to popular conception, there is no direct guidance with regard to art forms in the Qur’an. Rather the revered scripture offers strict opposition to idol worship; “[i]t does not reject representational art as such, nor the making of images, only their worship.” [8] So what was the position of the Fatimids on figural art that is reflected in the various objects on display at the Aga Khan Museum exhibit? Fahmida Suleman offers some perspective on this topic:

Admonitions against images in art are nowhere to be found in the 10th-century legal compendium of the Fatimid state, Pillars of Islam, composed by the dynasty’s leading official jurist, Qadi al-Nu‘man. On the contrary, innovative artists appear to have enjoyed an elevated status during the Fatimid period (909-1171). The sources even recount an episode at court when a painting contest was organised by wazir al-Yazuri during the reign of the Caliph-Imam al-Mustansir billah in the eleventh century. [9]

World of the Fatimids, Aga Khan Museum

A fragment from a tomb surround, Egypt early 11th century, marble carved. From collection of Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo. Photo: Barakah/Malik Merchant.

Indeed, many of the artefacts containing figural motifs were specifically created for the Fatimid court. One of the most imposing artefacts on display is a set of marble slabs (never before displayed). Visitors will notice that the slabs are heavily decorated with animal figures. “Animals, birds and fantastic creatures abound in Fatimid art and are often interpreted as emblems of good fortune.” [10] It is believed that the use of figural representations by the Fatimid artisans signifies the dynasty’s interest in past ‘high’ civilizations and desire to forge cross-cultural connections. “Muslim artists still in quest of their own vocabulary adopted foreign, Sasanian, and Greco-Roman models and adapted them for their own purposes.” [11] For instance, the peacock used in the marble slabs was considered a symbol of paradise for the Greeks and was also used in the Roman and Byzantine (Christian) empires. [12] In addition, the specific animals carved into these marble panels probably reflect the actual animals found in the palace gardens at the time, pointing to the stature and taste of the rulers. As such, these slabs were probably carved to decorate the Fatimid palace in Cairo. A closer look will show the keen eye that one of the panels contains an undecorated peacock in contrast to a decorated peacock found on another marble slab. This suggests that these pieces were left unfinished, perhaps due to the invasion of Salah al-Din in 1169. [13]

Another object that offers insight into the grandeur of the empire and also utilizes figural representation (human and animal) is a ceramic bowl that uses a technique of lusterware. [14] In the center of the bowl is an image of a person (keeper) who seems to be puling a giraffe by its halter. The image represented in the bowl would have been familiar to the contemporary viewer; recalling a scene from the many Fatimid processions that took place on public and religious occasions. The sources inform us that giraffes and elephants were part of these processions. What is interesting is that these animals were not a common sight in Egypt and had to be brought from other parts of Africa. [15] The artist’s desire to capture this serves as a reminder of the Fatimids’ wealth and influence but also the splendour and impressiveness of these processions. Even more interesting, elephants and giraffes were sent as valued gifts to other rulers, especially the Byzantine emperors of Constantinople, whom the Fatimid Imam-caliphs held in high regard. [16] For example, the sources mention that:

[i]n 993 the Nubian tribute arrived in Cairo accompanied by an elephant and a giraffe. Three decades later, in addition to the usual riding mounts and slaves, the gifts included a lynx, rare birds, monkeys, and elephant tusks. Lions, leopards, and saluqis were sometimes sent to Cairo as gifts, too. [17]

Looking closely at the details of this figural representation, one will notice that the keeper is most likely wearing a robe with woven inscriptions referred to as tiraz. [18] More importantly, the viewer will notice the detailed precision of the artist’s stylized technique. The near accurate representation of the animal, for instance, is an example of what Richard Ettinghausen has referred to as Fatimid ‘realism’. [19]

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Centre glass panel: Moon shaped object made from rock-crystal with Imam-Caliph al-Zahir’s name engraved within. Photo: © Aga Khan Museum.

Another prized artefact on display at this exhibition is a moon shaped object made from rock-crystal known as the ‘Crescent of al-Zahir’ (1021-36). [20] Made of two curved pieces fastened together with the Imam-Caliph’s named engraved within, this object was one of the many prestigious objects of the Fatimid treasury.

The rock-crystal crescent appears as an emblem, a kind of medieval insignia or an official object of the court, which might be affixed to the very top of a spear. Moreover, the lustrous and transparent rock crystals encircle the reliquary and the small holy relics within it like an aura floating above a head of a saint. [21]

Somehow this object and others from the treasury found there way in Church treasuries of the Latin West and served as a Christian reliquary. By the time these rock-crystal objects reached the Latin West, it is believed that the objects acquired a spiritual aura associated with the holy land. Considered to be a prestigious material with special properties, rock-crystal was understood to be a symbol of purity favoured by both Muslims and Christians due to its translucency and transparency As such, many of these pieces were repurposed because of their special properties and were honoured in the Christian context. [22]

How would this object have reached the Latin West?  Although it is difficult to trace a specific record of how each Fatimid object made its way to Europe, there are two plausible incidents mentioned in the sources that provide some insight. Due to some politico-economic unrest around 1068 the Fatimid palace was looted. Military troops emptied the palace treasury, taking military supplies and a number of precious treasures as method of payment. [23] Some sources inform us that 18,000 (or 36,000) items of rock-crystal were looted. [24]

As the goods were brought out from the palace, functionaries recorded who took what. The extravagant descriptions of these fabulous treasures appear in various later works, most based on a Book of Gifts and Rarities, composed by an anonymous eleventh-century Egyptian. The goods found in the palace ranged from huge rock crystal jars filled with precious jewels to intricate curios such as a bejeweled ornamental orchard made of silver. [25]

These precious objects were sold in the markets between the years 1061 and 1069 for money and some even landed in Crusader hands. On the other hand, it is also likely that a number of objects, including the ‘Crescent of al-Zahir’ landed in the hands of the Ayyubids who conquered Egypt in 1171. [26]

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Visitors viewing the Mihrab exhibit, wood, Egypt, 1137–38 or 1146–47, from the collection of Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo. Photo: Barakah/Malik Merchant.

Dedicating a space solely to Fatimid material culture is indeed a tall order. Be that as it may, this exhibition succeeds in recounting a narrative of coexistence, pluralism, and religio-cultural connections that served as a hallmark of this once glorious dynasty. [27] From the start of the exhibition the museumgoer is welcomed with 3 objects that represent the main religious communities (Coptic Christian, Jewish, and Sunni Muslim). For example, the mihrab on display at the start of the exhibition contains stylistic designs that resemble that of Jewish craftsmanship visible in the nearby photograph of an arch from the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo. It is hoped that all visitors will be able to draw inspiration from the stories illustrated through these magnificent artefacts that may provide some insight into the current affairs of the present. More immediately, the exhibition offers Canadian Ismailis an opportunity to visually take-in the relics of a history that is sacred to Ismaili identity. Unfortunately, missing from this exhibition were the well-known Fatimid coins. It was explained to me that the coins did not quite fit the ‘artistic cross-cultural’ theme as envisioned by the curator of the exhibition and reflected in the overall objective of the galleries at the Aga Khan Museum. There is thus a focus on historical art objects that could illustrate a particular story that provides powerful insights for the contemporary world. In addition, there are no objects from the early Ifriqiya period since there is hardly any remaining material culture from this time with exception of some archeological fragments on site, such as in al-Mahdiya. At the end of the exhibition, museum visitors will be able to increase their historical knowledge of the Fatimids by watching a video that offers some insightful details about this dynasty.

What: The World of the Fatimids. 
Where: Aga Khan Museum, 77 Wynford Drive, Toronto, Ontario M3C 1K1, Toll-free 1-844-859-3671.
When: The World of the Fatimids runs until Monday, July 2, 2018. Museum Hours: Tuesday-Sunday: 10:00am – 6:00pm. Free entrance Wednesday 4:00 – 8:00pm. Note: Museum is normally closed on Mondays, except on holiday Mondays.
Things to do: 
Visit the museum’s permanent galleries including the Bellerive Room; have lunch at the museum’s highly acclaimed Diwan restaurant (11:30 am – 2:30 pm), patio is now open until September; stroll through the Aga Khan Park and attend concert at Park on Canada Day, July 1; involve your children in museum’s educational activities; consider planning private events at the museum; and visit the magnificent Ismaili Centre on the opposite side of the museum, after crossing the Park.

More information and to plan your visit: Please visit http://www.agakhanmuseum.org

Date posted: June 20, 2018.
Last updated: June 21, 2018.

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Sahir Dewji PortraitAbout the author: Sahir Dewji received his Ph.D. from Wilfrid Laurier University in Religious Studies, specializing in Islam in North America. His dissertation entitled Beyond Muslim Xenophobia and Contemporary Parochialism: Aga Khan IV, the Ismailis, and the making of a Cosmopolitan Ethic situates the Aga Khan’s cosmopolitan ethic within a broader theme of human connectivity and understanding ‘the Other.’ His research demonstrates how key initiatives of the Aga Khan promote a cosmopolitan ethic, helping to foster a moral sensibility among the Ismailis and communities at large and how this concept is manifested within three institutions of the Imamat in Canada. He received the SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier CGS Doctoral Scholarship for his research.

Sahir also holds an M.A. from Harvard University specializing in the History and Culture of the Islamic world, with a focus on the study of Indo-Muslim Culture. Sahir has also completed the Graduate Program in Islamic Studies and Humanities from the Institute of Ismaili Studies and holds a B.Sc. from the University of Waterloo. Sahir’s publications includes an article in the Studies in Religion Journal, entitled The Aga Khan’s Discourse of Applied Pluralism: Converging the “Religious” and the “Secular” and a book chapter entitled Being Ismaili in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: Identity Maintenance among Gujarati Ismailis in Kinshasa. Sahir’s broader interests lie in the study of Ismaili thought and history as well as Muslim identity and expressions in the North American context. 

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Notes:

[1] Ulrike al-Khamis, Curator’s Tour, Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Ontario, June 5, 2018.
[2] The Al-Azhar is today the center of Sunni ‘orthodoxy’ in the Muslim world.
[3] “The proclamation of the Fatimid imamate in early 10th-century North Africa provided the first real opportunity for an overtly Shi‘i architecture and art” (Bloom 2015 “Art and Architecture” p. 230).
[4] “The pure quality of the quartz crystal used to carve the artefacts made them suitable gifts for guests of high rank.” Nimira Dewji, “Treasures: Many Artefacts from the Fatimid Period are Housed in Museums Around the World,” The.Ismaili website, December 24, 2014, https://ismailimail.wordpress.com/2014/12/24/treasures-many-artefacts-from-the-fatimid-period-are-housed-in-museums-around-the-world/.
[5] Fahmida Suleman, “Art,” in A Companion to Muslim Ethics, ed. Amyn B. Sajoo (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010), 100.
[6] Richard Ettinghausen, “Islamic Art”: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 33, no. 1 (Spring, 1975).
[7] Ulrike al-Khamis, Curator’s Tour, Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Ontario, June 5, 2018.
[8] Fahmida Suleman, “Art,” in A Companion to Muslim Ethics, ed. Amyn B. Sajoo (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010), 93-94.
[9] Ibid., 99.
[10] Ibid., 100.
[11] Eva Baer, “The Human Figure in Early Islamic Art: Some preliminary Remarks,” Muqarnas vol. 16 (1999): 32-41, quote at p.40.
[12] Ulrike al-Khamis, Curator’s Tour, Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Ontario, June 5, 2018.
[13] Ibid.
[14] “The technique of lusterware on ceramic, developed originally in Iraq, was revived in Egypt and Syria. Some lusterware pieces from this period are signed by their makers, an indication of the esteem in which the craftsmen were held.” See Suzan Yalman, “The Art of the Fatimid Period (909–1171),” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000), http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/fati/hd_fati.htm
[15] Ulrike al-Khamis, Curator’s Tour, Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Ontario, June 5, 2018.
[16] Jonathan M. Bloom, “Gifts of the Fatimids,” The.Ismaili website (December 22, 2017), https://the.ismaili/gifts-fatimids.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Tiraz refers to inscribed textiles, such as the robes of honour distributed by a ruler. It may also refer to the band of inscription on the textiles as well as the state workshops where they were produced (dar al-tiraz).” See https://archnet.org/collections/52/media_contents/87102. Linen was a major export product of Egypt at the time and under the Fatimids an entire textile industry was created just for the court. There was also an entire department dedicated to looking after the imam-caliph and his entire court’s clothing. Ulrike al-Khamis, Curator’s Tour, Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Ontario, June 5, 2018. An example of tiraz fabrics is also on display in the Fatimid exhibition at the Aga Khan Museum which contains blessings to the Prophet Muhammad and the Fatimid imam-caliph al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah (r. 952-975 CE).
[19] Richard Ettinghausen, “Early Realism in Islamic Art,” Studi Orientalistici in onore di Giorgio Levi della Vida, vol. I (Rome, 1956).
[20] “The use of crescent-shaped ornaments was borrowed by the Fatimids from Byzantine art.” See Richard Ettinghausen, “Islamic Art”: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 33, no. 1 (Spring, 1975): 9.
[21] Avinoam Shalem, “Histories of Belonging and George Kubler’s Prime Object,” Getty Research Journal no. 3 (2011): 1-14, quote at p.5.
[22] Ulrike al-Khamis, Curator’s Tour, Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Ontario, June 5, 2018.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Jonathan M. Bloom and Sheila S. Blair, “Rock Crystal,” in The Grove Encyclopedia of Materials and Techniques in Art Vol. III (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 154.
[25] Jonathan M. Bloom, “Gifts of the Fatimids,” The.Ismaili website (December 22, 2017), https://the.ismaili/gifts-fatimids.
[26] Avinoam Shalem, “Histories of Belonging and George Kubler’s Prime Object,” Getty Research Journal no. 3 (2011): 1-14, quote at p.3.
[27] Ulrike al-Khamis, Curator’s Tour, Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Ontario, June 5, 2018.

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