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In 969 the Fatimids invaded Egypt from Tunis and moved the seat of their Shiite

caliphate to a new city they built just north of Fustat. The caliph, al-Muiz, and his
general, Jawhar, named the city al-Qahirah, "the Victorious": Cairo. The Fatimids
lasted until 1171 when they were ousted by Salah al-Din.

There is also a famous and (because there is a similar story connected with the
founding of Alexandria) probably apocryphal account of the naming of the new city.
Jawhar had erected, so the tale goes, a network of bells and ropes with which to ring
them to alert workmen all over the area to commence digging at the exact moment
astrologers had determined most propitious. But, a crow landed on the ropes and set
the bells ringing early causing work to begin while the planet Mars was still
ascendant. Hence, the name al-Qahirah after the name of the planet Mars, al-Qahir:
Cairo.

The Fatimids had initially set themselves up as rivals to the Sunni caliphate in Tunis
in 909. Following his general, Jawhar, into Fustat four years later, al-Muiz was
confronted by representatives of that city's ulema ("religious scholars") who
challenged him to present his credentials. That is, they wanted him to prove his
descent from the Shiite line stretching back to Ali, the prophet's son-in-law. al-Muiz
pulled out his sword and declared, "Here is my pedigree!" Then, he threw gold coins
out among the crowd, and shouted, "Here is my proof!" Arthur Goldschmidt (A
Concise History of the Middle East, Cairo, 1983, 81), says that both the scholars and
the crowd found the demonstration persuasive. 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).

Nasir also reports that the great mosques of Cairo were bought and sold by the
families of various rulers. The caliph's family, for example, had purchased from the
now indigent descendants of both Amr and Ibn Tulun the two great mosques bearing

onions. including 2. Outside the mosque of Amr. The royal caliphal library. Nasir tells us that the Amr mosque was the center of the spiritual and intellectual life of the city. melons. wonder.Ali al-Mawsili who pioneered methods of ophthalmologic surgery. The ferry service was especially busy on Sundays when a famous weekly market took place in Giza attracting huge crowds. Cairo was.000 dinars. Nasir says he was astonished to see all these items available on the same day in the same season. and awe the river has inspired in those who have lived and continue to live on its banks and demonstrates that its pleasures did not die with the pharaohs. we also learn a great deal about the makeup of the Fatimid court and about the rich life of the city. aubergines. but there were areas of brilliance. and Leonardo da Vinci. His description gives us a strong sense of the fascination. the yearly flooding of the Nile.their names (mosques could be passed down within families). Another member of al-Hakim's court was Ammar Ibn. not only do we learn about this wonderful festival. 1048 tells us what he saw for sale that day: red roses.000 of these animals were available. Lined with kiosks and cafes the river's banks welcomed patrons who leisurely sipped fresh water and listened to music as they watched the sunset. celery. it was lit up by 100 lamps. the foremost astronomer Egypt ever produced. apples. 50. turnips.000 dinars for the mosque of Ibn Tulun. Only soldiers rode horses. as it is today. It was regularly filled to capacity (5. jasmine. The court of al-Hakim sponsored the great Ali Ibn-Yunus. His entry for December 18.000 people). Inside the city. as Roger Bacon. At night. there were souqs (bazaars). a kaleidoscopic city of many races. lemons. even in the time of Salah al-Din it boasted 100. by regular ferry service across the river.400 illustrated Qur'ans. Intellectual pursuits and scholarly work were heavily restricted under the Shiite Fatimids. or. especially in the extraction of cataracts. Nasir has left us a richly detailed and vivid account of Fatimid Cairo's most colorful festival marking the annual late summer inundation. The river itself was one of the chief sources of diversion and pleasure in the city. as well as Abu Ali al- Hasan Ibn al-Haytham. According to Nasir. the mode of transport was mule or donkey. Nasir says. and on feast days by 700. cultures. The wall near the prayer niche bore white marble plaques upon which were inscribed the entire Qur'an in beautiful calligraphy.000 dinars." the principal Muslim physicist and researcher on optics. and heritages. bitter and sweet oranges. and carrots. fresh cherry plums. raisins. Recitations from the Qur'an and religious instruction took place in the great courtyard. Nasir says. marrows. "Alhazen. fresh dates. Getting around in Fatimid Cairo was facilitated. begun in the days of al-Aziz. fresh broad beans. sugar cane. beet roots. He paid much more for the Amr mosque: 100. narcissi. garlic.000 volumes. and later purchased the minaret for an additional 5. But. The arts were . cucumbers. was said to have contained 200. mangel-wurzels. Though the library was looted by the Turks in 1068.000 books. bananas. Al-Hakim paid 30. water lilies. Alhazen's work deeply influenced such European thinkers. each for a small fee. Johanes Kepler.

Egyptian born. Not one of these princes of whom I have just spoken gets less than five hundred dinars as his stipend. This day all the soldiers of the Caliph are afoot: arranged in companies and distinct detachments.000. Here are some excerpts from his account: "'When the time for the ceremony approaches. as befits a descendant of Hussein. Yemen.000. His white jubba covers a long full tunic. A company of soldiers marches behind. a huge awning of Byzantine satin covered with embroidery in gold and sown with precious stones.000 slaves bought for various services. unadorned by silver or gold.000 horsemen all armed with the lance. Then come a corps of slaves bought for money: roughly 30. in his hand he holds a riding whip of high price. At a great distance behind the horses and soldiers advances the Caliph [al-Mostansir]. A hundred horsemen can stand in the shade of this tent. They are mounted and consist of around 15. all this is to accustom the horses to a great din. not Arabs. A helmet is placed on the pommel and other arms are affixed to the saddle itself. The saddle carpets are all of Byzantine satin and bouqalemoun which is woven expressly. these are people from North Africa installed in Egypt before the arrival of al-Moi'zz.000 horses with saddles of gold. the Slav lands. The Caliph's turban is a length of white material rolled round his head. of saluting him and then of returning to their homes. For this service each man gets three dirhams. who came from Tunisia with al-Muiz. they are not considered a forming part of the army. charged with palanquins [a kind of covered litter] and litters. scholars. kettledrums have been beaten in the royal stables and trumpets constantly blown.000. Each steed is covered with a coat of mail or armor. the Prince of the Faithful. at the head of the canal. There is another corps of 30. Another corps consists of Bedouin from the Hijaz: 50.000 of them. The first is that of Ketami. and scholars were generously supported on state salaries. and artists. The "Easterners. An inscription bearing the name of the ruler of Egypt runs round these saddle cloths. Then come camels. over a period of three days. there are in his procession 10. Just in front of . they are black and come from Masmoud: 20. and have an imposing aspect. I am told there are 20. Nubia. These princes come from North Africa. Also in the procession can be observed màf letters. some receive as much as two thousand Maghrabi dinars. The second is that of the Bathili. They have no duty to fulfill but that of attending the Vizir's audience. a fair number of poets. When the caliph mounts his charger. the son of Ali. The third are the Masmoudi.000 men are engaged to lead by the bridle the horses of which first I spoke. they erect for the caliph. Preceded by men beating drums and blowing trumpets and bugles they move forward in groups of a hundred. He is a young man of imposing appearance and pleasing expression. they are mostly of Turkish or Persian origin. Byzantium. their harnesses enriched with precious stones.officially promoted and sponsored. and Ethiopia." so called because.000. poets. all stipendiaries of the Caliph. The morning of the ceremony 10. There is also a troop composed from the sons of foreign rulers who have come to Egypt. number about 10. He has a shaved head and rides a mule whose bridle and saddle are of the utmost simplicity. as is the fashion in Arab lands: its value at least ten thousand dinars. neither cut nor sown. Before the ceremony.

They carry short spades and mattocks. He stays on horseback under the awning for the space of an hour. dressed in Byzantine brocade. 1981). To the right and to the left eunuchs carry pots burning amber and aloes. 79-82) . '" (Desmond Stewart. He wears a turban of cloth of gold enriched with gems.him go three hundred Persians. the ordinary folk attack the dam with shovels and picks until it yields to the pressure of the water which then floods into the canal. the place. all on foot. These are believed to exert an auspicious influence. the chief religious judges. This done. where it will take water from the Nile. the man who carries the Caliph's parasol keeps close to him. Then he is handed a short spade which he hurls against the dam. Their sleeves are long in the Egyptian manner. Great Cairo: Mother of the World (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press. his costume is worth ten thousand Maghrabi dinars. the Sultan sees that they are given alms. As the Caliph approaches it is customary for the people to prostrate themselves upon the ground and call down heavenly blessings upon him. that is. The first boat launched on the canal is filled with deaf mutes. The whole population of Misr and al-Qahira throng to watch this spectacle and to take part in innumerable amusements. their legs are girt with lengths of cloth. This great ruler thus reaches the head of the canal. This officer is the only person near the Caliph who is mounted. and a large throng of doctors and functionaries follow the Caliph. belted at the waist. The Vizir. The parasol itself is of the utmost splendor.