The oldest street in Fatimid Cairo, along which one will see more palaces per square inch than practically anywhere in the world, bears the name of the caliph, “al Muiz al-Din Allah.” The locals call the street bayn al qasrayn, (“between the two palaces”), a reference to the two chief palaces of the Fatimid caliphs: the palace of al-Muiz at the north end, and the palace of al-Aziz at the southwest end. This is the setting for many of Naguib Mahfouz’ novels, including the Cairo Trilogy and Midaq Alley.
The years 975 to 996 mark the caliphate of al-Aziz, the first Fatimid to reign from Cairo. Fatimid power reached its height during his reign.
The Persian Ismaili missionary, Nasir al-Khusraw, who lived in Egypt from 1046 to 1049 during the time of the caliph al-Mustansir (shortly before the economic and political decline set in), left a glowing report of Fatimid luxury and prosperity in Cairo. He claimed that the caliphal palace could house 30,000. Nasir once saw the young caliph riding a mule clad in a simple white quftan and turban, fanned by an attendant wielding a gem-studded parasol. The caliph personally owned 20,000 houses in Cairo, mostly of brick and rising to heights of five or six stories, and many shops as well. Nasir says that shops and homes were always left unlocked. In old Fustat there were seven great mosques, and in Cairo itself eight. The country seemed to be enjoying a high degree of tranquility, peace, and prosperity leading Nasir to declare, “‘I could neither limit nor estimate its wealth and nowhere have I seen such prosperity as I saw there.'” (Philip Hitti, History of the Arabs from the Earliest Times to the Present, tenth edition (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1970), 626).
Mosque of al-Hakim, Cairo, begun in 990 and completed in 1013.
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Ted Thornton, Chair, Department of History and Social Science
Northfield Mount Hermon School
Course Instructors: Ted Thornton and Dick Schwingel in collaboration with Peter Drench of Phillips Academy, Andover, the International Academic Partnership, and the Aga Khan Education Service.
Available at the Institute of Ismaili Studies:
An academic paper “Religious Pluralism in Egypt: The Ahl al-Kitab in Early Fatimid Times” by Dr Shainool Jiwa , Research Associate, The Institute of Ismaili Studies was delivered at the annual meeting of the Middle Eastern Studies Association of North America on November 19, 2001.