The Aga Khan Museum in Toronto is North America’s only museum solely dedicated to showcasing Islamic art and culture. A new exhibition recently opening there and entitled The World of the Fatimids is showing a wide range of artifacts demonstrating the tolerant attitude of a dynasty that was for a while the most influential in the Islamic world. The show also reveals the skill and imagination of craftsmen as well as the empire’s economic prowess.
The Fatimids were Islam’s most powerful empire between the 10th and 12th centuries and are still remembered for some of the extraordinary buildings they left behind in Egypt. Old (or medieval or Fatimid) Cairo’s grand structures bear witness to the grandeur of the dynasty that founded the city. Today parts of the centre of old Fatimid Cairo close to the old walled city and citadel are characterised by mosques tombs and fortifications.
The exhibition which is unique in putting on show the extraordinary creative output of this celebrated dynasty through bringing together a selection of artifacts from museums and galleries around the world that reflect their economic prowess, cultural and religious tolerance as well as a high degree of artistry.
As the foremost Islamic power of their time, the Fatimids maintained complex political and economic networks across Africa, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, Iraq, Iran, and India – on occasion stretching, all the way to China.
Their art, explains Dr. Ulrike Al-Khamis, the museum’s director of collections and public programmes, spread from southern Iran and Iraq and reflects the breadth and diversity of their networks. “Their early successes were aided by diverse allies,” she explain,. “These included the Amazigh and Coptic Christians.
The beams of carved wood, dug up last century at sites relating back to the 14th and 15th centuries give some idea of what Fatimid Palaces would have looked like inside. Two main themes deal with the twin royal pass times of heroic hunts and wine banquets held to the sound of music.
As Dr. Ulrike Al-Khamis, the museum’s director of collections and public programmes points out the ivory horn confirms extensive trade with countries throughout the entire region and even more distant areas. “This was made in southern Italy,” she says.
The Fatimids were confident in their tastes defining luxury objects for a millennium and fostering a flowering of the arts and architecture, Different styles and specific types of objects such as lustreware, an expensive type of ceramic ware with metallic colours, were decorated with uniquely expressive styles and motifs that reflected the customer’s interests.
These range from Christian motifs to Greek animal fables, astronomical subjects, or references to official ceremonial occasions. Even the humble kitchen tool, the mortar is artfully decorated.
Exhibition curator Asadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani, pointing to a sole remaining example of a mortar decorated with the royal animal explains that the angled flanges give the impression of the whirling sky. “They are slanted so as to increase the sense of movement,” he continues. “This notion of a rotating heaven is common in Persian poetry.”
He also comments on the lion – each one has a slightly goofy look , a reminder, he says that humour is never far away in the art of the Fatimids. Picking up on his observations, Ulrike Al-Khamis points out Fatimid art contains lots of animals and humans and goes against the grain of much Islamic art which concentrates on non-figurative art.
Perhaps one of the most compelling objects is the rock crystal crescent moon engraved with the name of the caliph al-Zahir. This must have adorned the dome of a minbar in a Cairo mosque during the Fatimid period. Somehow the object found its way to Europe and was reworked by later craftsmen of a different religion.
One of the ideas that this show explores in some depth is the far-reaching tolerance unparalleled in its time. Pluralism and social inclusiveness practiced by the Fatimids may be observed in their aesthetic incorporation of traditional Jewish and Christian crafts in the one object. An 11th century bowl is painted in gold and depicts a Coptic priest swinging a censer (incense burner). An outsize cross resembling the ancient Egyptian ankh symbol on his left underlines his Christian allegiance.
While old Cairo may today resemble a complex jigsaw giving us a broad-sweep of history and telling us fascinating stories about this influential dynasty, it is through the objects made in workshops in this patch of the Egyptian capital that we learn most about taste, motivation and humour of this sophisticated and industrious people.