“…we were touching the very foundations of my ancestors, the Fatimids, and the pluralistic history and intellectual profile of this city and this country to which they contributed so profoundly. I am very humbled by the opportunity to return to Cairo, founded over a thousand years ago by the Fatimid Caliph Al-Muizz, to build on that history. Thirty-five generations later, through the work done here by my institutions, it is my prayer that this park will be a continuing contribution to the people of this great city.”
Mawlana Hazar Imam, March 25, 2005, Cairo
On December 10, 1990, Mawlana Hazar Imam signed a Protocol of Agreement on behalf of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture with the Governor of Cairo, His Excellency Mahmoud Sheriff at the Governorate, to create a public park in Cairo, the former Fatimid capital. Following the signing, Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Excellency Mahomoud Sheriff, and Her Excellency Madame Suzanne Mubarak participated in the foundation stone and tree planting ceremony.
The Al-Azhar Park was inaugurated on March 25, 2005 by Her Excellency Madame Suzanne Mubarak in the presence of Mawlana Hazar Imam. After twenty years of planning and construction, the 500-year-old accumulation of debris has been transformed into much-needed leisure and recreational space.
Named after the Prophet’s daughter, the Fatimids, ancestors of Mawlana Hazar Imam, established their rule in 909 in Tunisia, in North Africa. During their reigns, Imams al-Mahdi and al-Mansur founded the cities of al-Mahdiyya and al-Mansuriyya, named after them. Traces of Fatimid grandeur can still be found in Mahdiyya, including the mosque commissioned by Imam al-Mahdi which continues to be used today after its restoration in the 1960s.
In 973, Imam Al-Mu’izz transferred the dynasty’s capital to a new city in Egypt that he designed, taking with him the coffins of his predecessors. “These were buried within the palace precincts in an area that came to be known as Turbat al-Za’faran. [The Sunni historian] Al-Maqrizi reports that every time al-Mu’izz went out of the palace, on his return he would always go past this burial place and pay respect to his ancestors. He also did this every Friday and on Id al-Fitr and Id al-Adha, and generously distributed alms” (Jiwa, Towards a Shi’i Mediterranean Empire p, 104, n. 297).
Originally named Mansuriyya after its prototype, it was re-named ‘al-Qahira al-Mu’izziyya’ (‘the Victorious One of al-Mu’izz’), al-Qahira for short, today known as Cairo. Al-Azhar mosque, founded by Imam Mu‘izz in 973 CE, was named in memory of the title al-Zahra (‘the luminous’), which is associated with Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet and the wife of the first Shi‘a Imam, Hazrat Ali, from whom the Fatimids claimed direct descent.
In 988, the Al-Azhar mosque became a university, subsequently developing into a major seat of learning with lecture halls and residences richly endowed to support students and teachers as well as one of the largest libraries of the time in the medieval Muslim world. Al-Azhar became the foremost Fatimid institution of higher learning, with sessions on Qur’anic studies, theology, and law. Admission was open to everyone including women. “The priority given to the development of al-Azhar, which ranks among the oldest institutions of higher education in the world, is reflective of the Fatimid commitment to the promotion of knowledge, consistent with the teachings of the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad” (Jiwa, Towards a Shi’i Mediterranean Empire p 21).
The Dar al-Ilm (‘House of Knowledge’), founded by Imam al-Hakim in 1005, specialised in non-religious sciences such as astronomy, medicine, mathematics, philosophy, and logic. Through the efforts of the Fatimid Caliph-Imams, Cairo became a flourishing centre of scholarship, sciences, art, and culture, in addition to playing a prominent role in international trade and commerce.
At its peak, the Fatimid Empire extended from the Atlantic shores of North Africa, across the southern Mediterranean and down both sides of the Red Sea, including Mecca and Medina.
The culture of unhindered scientific thought attracted the finest scholars and artisans of the age to the Fatimid court, regardless of their religious persuasions including, among numerous others, astronomer Ali b. Yunus; physicians al-Tamimi and Ibn Ridwan; mathematician Ibn Haytham, considered father of optics and the developer of the scientific method, who was known in Europe by the Latin name Alhazen. The foundation of contemporary advances in the study of light, optics, and ophthalmology are based upon al-Haytham’s observations and findings.
Ibn al-Haytham’s works influenced art theorist and architect Leon Battista Alberti, author of the treatise On Painting (Della Pittura); the sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti; and the artist Piero della Francesca. Al-Khalili notes that “they harnessed Ibn al-Haytham’s discussion on perspective to help create the illusion of three-dimensional depth on canvas and in friezes.” A lunar crater is named after Ibn al-Haytham as is the asteroid 59239 Alhazen, in recognition of his enormous contribution to science.
Ibn Yunus, considered father of astronomy, was the earliest to calculate the occurrences of solar eclipses. He dedicated his astronomical tables His al-Zij al-Hakimi to Fatimid Caliph-Imam al-Hakim. “Ibn Yunus’ s influence, in the form of his methodology and parameters, as well as actual observations, can be seen in many later Islamic tables, such as al-Tusi’s Ilkhani zij 250 years later, where Ibn Yunus’s values for the longitudes of the sun and moon are used” (Starry Messenger). A lunar crater is also named after Ibn Yunus.
In the area of Ismaili studies, Nanji states “Figures of outstanding ability such as al-Nasafi, al-Razi, al-Sijistani, al-Nu’man, Hamid al-Kirmani, al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi, and Nasir-i Khusraw made crucial contributions to the articulation of Isma’ili theology which … was characterized by a remarkable upsurge of intellectual activity which [the French historian] M. Canard has described as analogous to that which took place in Europe in the eighteenth century. The cultural impact of the Fatimid state was not confined to the Muslim world. At the height of its power, while the Fatimid fleet and commerce dominated the eastern Mediterranean, the influence of the universities at Cairo spread into Europe, with Fatimid writers contributing significantly to the development in the West of sciences such as optics, medicine and astronomy” (The Ismailis in History p11).
Cairo also became a major centre for the production of valuable artifacts; furniture and textiles made here had a particularly high reputation and were exported to the entire Mediterranean area. S. H. Nasr notes that “members of this same dynasty [Fatimids] became patrons of the arts and made possible one of the most creative periods of Islamic art” (Ismai’ili Contribution to Islamic Civilization p 2). Stanley Lane-Poole states “there is no doubt that the artists of Egypt under the Fatimids were skilled to a degree that found no parallel in the handicrafts of Europe…” (The Arts of the Saracens in Egypt p 194).
The Fatimids were noted for employing their officers based on merit rather than on heredity. Halm states that “the priority accorded to the intellect by the Fatimids was intentionally pluralistic and meritocratic, open equally to all Muslims, Ismailis and others, Christians and Jews, enabling the original thinker, creative scientist or talented poet, as much as the astute politician and military strategist, to rise high in the offices of court and state” (The Fatimids and their Traditions of Learning p ). Hence, the concepts of knowledge society, meritocracy, and pluralism were well expressed in the Fatimid state.
The reign of the Fatimids for almost two centuries, is often referred to as a ‘golden age’ in Ismaili history, but also “one of the greatest eras in Egyptian and Islamic histories, and as such, a milestone in the development of Islamic civilisation” (Daftary, A Short History of the Ismailis, p 66).
Taking its cue from the one-thousand-year-old Al-Azhar “the luminous” University, the Park will bloom for many generations offering a place for peace and contemplation, silently reminding of a dynasty’s contributions to global knowledge and civilisations.
Video of inauguration ceremony
AKDN Video Al-Azhar Project
Al-Azhar Park in Cairo and the Rehabilitation of Darb al-Ahmar
Anna Madoeuf, The Old City of Cairo and the Beautiful Park: Contemporary Urban Tale, Égypte/Monde arabe
Azim Nanji, The Ismailis in History, The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Farhad Daftary, A Short History of the Ismailis, Edinburgh University Press, 1998
Heinz Halm, The Fatimids and their Traditions of Learning, I.B. Tauris, London, 1997
Jim Al-Khalili, In retrospect: Book of Optics, Nature, International Journal of Science
Paul E. Walker, Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani, Ismaili Thought in the Age of al-Hakim, I.B. Tauris, 1999
Contributed by Nimira Dewji, an invited writer who also has her own blog – Nimirasblog – where she writes short articles on Ismaili history and Muslim civilisations. When not researching and writing, Nimira volunteers at a shelter for the unhoused, and at a women’s shelter. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Recently researched Old Cairo to update a blog post and was astounded to discover that Egypt’s largest souk was once the graveyard of the Fatimid imams.