History of Egypt - The Fatimid Period (969-1171)

History of Egypt - The Fatimid Period (969-1171) Last updated on Thursday 15th April 2010

The Fatimid Dynasty traced their lineage from the Prophet's daughter Fatima Zahra and her husband Ali Ibn Abi Talib. They embraced Shi'a doctrines which rejected the legitimacy of the first three Caliphs of Islam, Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman, who they claimed to be usurpers of Ali's right to succeed the Prophet in leading Islam.

At first the Shi'a, or "partisans" of Ali, were loyal members of the Muslim umma who simply disagreed with the political decision to bypass Ali. However, Ummayyad machinations which lead to the assassination and martyrdom of Ali and his sons Hasan and Hussein, hardened Shi'a attitudes and led to a religious schism with metaphysical overtones which has persisted to this day.

The Fatimids had separated themselves from the Sunni Caliphate and set up their own western Caliphate which, with their conquest of Egypt in 969 AD extended across North Africa. The Fatimids established their imperial capital within the walls of a newly built imperial city called Al Qahira, meaning "The Triumphant". Within the walls of the city were lavish palaces like the Azhar mosque and its University, which is now the world's oldest existing learning institution.

Egypt flourished under the Fatimids who ruled behind the walls of their imperial city, maintaining the mystery of distance from their subjects. It was not until the reign of the demented Khalif Al-Hakim that the Fatimid decline began.

Although beginning his rule beneficently, building a splendid mosque between ::I and ::I in Cairo, and emerging from his palace to meet his subjects to get a better understanding of their needs, Al-Hakim degenerated into a murderous despot. He executed anyone to whom he took a disliking and ruled with insane caprice. When he became enamoured of staying up all night, he made sleeping at night and working during the day punishable by death. He banned the making of women's shoes. He also banned the consumption of mulokhiyya, a vegetable resembling spinach which is a staple in the Egyptian diet. He supported the Byzantines against Roman Christians and the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem which was a pretext for the First Crusade.

His reign ended mysteriously when Al-Hakim rode his favourite mule up into the Moqattam hills at night. The mule was found but Al-Hakim had vanished. Although it is likely that he was murdered by bandits who roamed the outskirts of the city, hiding out in the hills or in the "City of the Dead", his disappearance was mythologized by his more extreme Shi'a followers who believed that he was divine and had ascended to a spiritual realm. Curiously, this heretical sect gained adherents and became known as the Druse who still have communities in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel. Although the Druse are clearly neither Muslim (Shi'a or Muslim), Christian or Jew, their true beliefs remain shrouded in mystery as only the Druse priesthood are privy to their doctrines and ordinary adherents are kept in total ignorance until the age of 40.

Fatimid rule continued over Egypt for another 150 years and the country continued to prosper. However their empire gradually declined due to famine, internal troubles and external pressure from the Seljuk sultans who captured Syria from the Fatimids, and the Christian crusading armies which conquered Fatimid Palestine and the Lebanon. To protect the remainder of their diminishing empire, the Fatimids collaborated with the Franks, an act which outraged the Seljuk Sultan Nuraddin who sent an expedition to overthrow the Fatimids.

The Sultan deputized his general Shirkoh to repel the Fatimid and Frank armies and conquered Upper Egypt, sending his nephew Salah al-Din Al-Ayyubi to capture Alexandria, thus opening the way for the Ayyubid Dynasty.

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