The World of the Fatimids, directed and edited by Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani, tells the story of one of the most complex societies ever in the Islamic world. Copublished by the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, The Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, and Hirmer Verlag in Munich as a companion volume to the art exhibition
The World of the Fatimids (10 March–2 July 2018), the book addresses the many intriguing questions raised by the art of Egypt between 973 and 1171 when the last Fatimid caliph was deposed by Salah al-Din. The world’s leading historian of Ismailism, Farhad Daftary, describes how the faith of a small Muslim community that first took root in Yemen and Syria before spreading in the western areas of North Africa inspired its followers to conquer Egypt and set up Cairo as the capital of the Fatimid caliphate in 973. Paul E. Walker analyzes the literary culture of Fatimid Egypt. Metaphysical works propounded the world view of Ismailism. Poetry flourished. Ibn al-Hani, who sang the praise of the caliph al-Muʿizz, was murdered in mysterious circumstances. Prose works ranged from a Book of Monasteries, to a falconry book, to a collection of aphorisms echoing ancient Greek wisdom.
Intense architectural and artistic activity took place in Fatimid Egypt. Doris Behrens-Abouseif’s innovative essay reveals the impact of their patronage on Cairo. Only a fraction of their legacy survives. Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani, analyzing the sometimes contradictory trends in Fatimid art, notes that our knowledge is based on a tiny fraction of what once existed. This in part accounts for some enigmas of Fatimid art such as the disparate character of the imagery and aesthetic trends in glazed earthenware vessels or in the carved remains of the Fatimid palace. By contrast, greater unity characterizes Fatimid calligraphy on stone as another innovative essay by Bernard O’Kane demonstrates. The American art historian studies both historical content and artistic form. Interestingly, monumental calligraphy in Ifriqiya (modern Tunisia), which formed part of the Fatimid state for a long period, developed highly original characteristics as shown by Lotfi Abdeljaouad in the first essay on this subject. The art of the Fatimid tiraz displayed outstanding calligraphy. Bernard O’Kane analyzes the characteristics of some of the best-preserved specimens of these textiles intended for funerary use.
A fundamental factor for the exceptional diversity of Fatimid art was the heterogeneous makeup of Fatimid society. The Christian communities with the Copts representing the majority had a culture of their own, studied by Johannes Den Heijer, Mat Immerzeel, Naglaa Hamdi D. Boutros, Manhal Makhoul, Perrine Pilette, and Tineke Rooijakkers. The Jews, while participating in the culture of arabized Egypt, also had Hebrew books. Paula Sanders describes aspects of the literature read in Jewish circles. Maribel Fierro gives an overview of the complex movements of humans across the Fatimid domain and the exchanges between al-Andalus (in modern Spain), the southern Italian shores, including Sicily, and Egypt. Goods circulated between Cairo, al-Andalus, and Sicily. David Bramoullé provides the first account of these peregrinations based on Arabic sources. So intense were the exchanges between Fatimid Egypt and Sicily that Doris Behrens-Abouseif and Maurizio Massaiu raise the question: was it Palermo after the Norman conquest of Sicily or Cairo that became the centre of Arab artistic innovation? The presence of Iranian Ismaili missionaries in Fatimid Egypt is investigated by Farhad Daftary. As a punchline to the many questions raised by Fatimid art, Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani revisits a passage in the travel account of Naser-e Khosrow and ponders what the Iranian writer actually saw.