Did you know …
… that Sicily was a thriving commercial centre under the Fatimids?
The Fatimid Caliphs were Imams of the Shia Ismailis, who founded their dynasty in North Africa. Named after the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, the reign of the Fatimid Caliph-Imams, for almost two centuries, in North Africa and later in Egypt (973-1171), is often referred to as a ‘golden age’ in Ismaili history. They patronized intellectual activities, founding major libraries; their capital, Cairo, became a flourishing centre of scholarship in addition to playing a prominent role in trade and commerce.
The Fatimid Caliphate was founded by the Ismaili Imam, al-Mahid, who was proclaimed Caliph in 909 in Tunisia and reigned from the city of Qayrawan for several years. In order to gain better access to the Mediterranean and eastern lands, he founded the city of Mahdiyya and transferred his capital there in 921. The Fatimid fleet operated through the Mediterranean with Mahdiyya, equipped with a large shipyard, serving as a naval base. Improvements in navigation fostered the growth of trade across the Mediterranean between maritime Italy and Tunisia. Sicily was integrated into the Mediterranean commercial world in the 10th century under Fatimid rule.
Islamic countries of the Mediterranean gained access to a huge market for consumer goods in Europe. In particular, the objects made of rock crystal from the treasure houses of the Fatimid Caliphs enjoyed a fabulous reputation. From the Caliph’s court in Cairo, these rock crystal items seem to have travelled, via Arab merchants, into the possession of the Norman King Roger II of Sicily (1130-1154).
The first ceramic bowls arrived in Italy via this route as early as the 11th century. They were set into the facades of the newly built churches. In Pisa, for example, there are numerous bowls, bacini, as they were called, decorating the churches between the 11th and 13th centuries.
Fatimid textiles also made their way to the treasuries of Western churches and some of them, such as the veil of St. Anne, were objects of special veneration by pilgrims. Egypt has an ancient tradition of linen weaving and the first textile production centers in the east were set up here under the Fatimids, with several workshops along the Nile delta. Workshops also existed in Palermo, where the splendid mantle of King Roger II of Sicily was made in 1130. Sicily was also a major centre of the craft of wood and ivory carving. The ceiling of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, contains Fatimid and other Arab themes.
Accelerate your Awareness, Discover, Explore and Learn more about the Fatimid artefacts in European museums
• Sibylle Mazot, “Fatimid Decorative Arts,” Islam: Art and Architecture Edited by Markus Hattstein and Peter Delius. Konemann 2000
• Farhad Daftary, A Short History of Ismailis. Edinburgh University Press, 1998
Article researched by Nimira Dewji
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