In 969 the Fatimids conquered Egypt, founding the city of Cairo in the hope of establishing a Shiʿi caliphate over the entire Muslim world. Although they quickly conquered Palestine and Syria, their universal aspirations were dashed, and by their demise in 1171 they ruled only over a much-diminished realm in Egypt. The sources for the Fatimid period are unusually rich and varied, including Muslim and Christian chronicles in Arabic and hundreds of thousands of medieval documents from the Jewish community, along with Persian and European travelers’ accounts. Museums and church treasuries filled with luster-glazed ceramics, diaphanous textiles, astounding rock-crystal ewers, and exquisitely carved ivories and wooden panels excite art historians, and almost three dozen Fatimid-era buildings in Egypt alone, comprising large and small mosques, tombs, shrines, minarets, and fragments from the royal palaces, were meticulously measured, planned, photographed, and studied by K. A. C. Creswell in the first volume of his monumental work The Muslim Architecture of Egypt (1952). Most Fatimid buildings have suffered over the centuries, however, and what we see today is not necessarily what was there fifty, one hundred, or one thousand years ago, as successive generations have repaired, restored, and enlarged the buildings to meet new needs and tastes.
Creswell's positivist approach fell out of favor as the study of Islamic art expanded dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly under the influence of Oleg Grabar (1929–2011). Grabar's students, including the present author, combined analysis of the forms and decoration on Fatimid buildings with investigation of their inscriptions and medieval Arabic texts, suggesting that Fatimid architecture was deeply imbued with meaning. Other scholars researched the use of urban spaces and buildings in ceremonies described in medieval chronicles. Some scholars considered the Fatimid rulers’ Ismaili beliefs of only incidental importance, while others saw their Ismaili Shiʿism as the principal reason for the florescence and distinctive forms of their art and architecture.
Jennifer A. Pruitt's Building the Caliphate focuses on the period in the early eleventh century when the third Fatimid caliph in Egypt, al-Hakim (r. 996–1021), completed the mosque begun by his father. He added a monumental portal and two unusual corner towers, which he subsequently concealed behind two enormous stone bastions, before spending a fortune on the final furnishing of the mosque. Expanded from her 2009 Harvard PhD dissertation, Pruitt's book connects this mysterious act of concealment with al-Hakim's equally mysterious “destruction” of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. While many historians have claimed that al-Hakim was simply crazy, Pruitt sees both construction and destruction as part of a larger pattern of sectarian conflict among the various religious communities active in the Fatimid state at this time. After al-Hakim's mysterious disappearance, Pruitt's story continues into the reign of al-Hakim's son, al-Zahir (r. 1021–36), who ordered the restoration of the Dome of the Rock and the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and allowed the restoration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Pruitt mines a wide range of textual evidence to try to reconstruct what happened in this period. Her focus on sectarian conflict speaks eloquently to our own times, when everyone seems to fight everyone else. This focus can be understood as her reaction to the attractive theory of convivencia, that the various faith communities of medieval Spain lived in relative peace and harmony, sharing many aspects of their cultures. Pruitt notes that this theory has been applied to Fatimid Egypt, where the rulers had Christian and Jewish viziers, but shows that the picture was not so rosy, and that the Muslim rulers were not always very tolerant of Jews and Christians. The Sunnis of Egypt, moreover, were not very tolerant of their Shiʿi rulers, and various Christian and Jewish sects were also intolerant of their coreligionists. Pruitt writes that her “study contributes to a body of recent scholarship that examines architecture's role in negotiating interfaith relationships in medieval Islam” (158).
Sectarianism, however, did not seem very important when I began studying in the 1970s, and the contemporary Sunni–Shiʿi rivalry that colors so much of our understanding of Islam today emerged only after 1979, following the Iranian Revolution and the attack on the Kaaba in Mecca. One could say Pruitt's book is deeply rooted in the present.
While I still believe that Fatimid patrons erected buildings with particular reasons in mind, I now realize that we are often unable to retrieve those reasons as easily as we might wish. The people who wrote texts rarely wrote about buildings, and when they did, they usually mentioned only aspects that could be quantified, such as numbers of columns, types of materials used, and size. Muslim societies generally lacked institutions, such as clergy and churches, to maintain the connections between forms and ideas, so meanings tended to devolve quickly from specific to generic. Furthermore, our image-saturated world is very different from the one that existed before printed pictures and photographs became ubiquitous. Medieval builders and patrons could not transmit images over great distances, and, as Richard Krautheimer demonstrated many years ago, medieval “copies” relied on ideas that could be communicated verbally rather than visually.1 Thus, architectural historians should be very cautious when saying that some particular form “recalls” or “looks like” another building elsewhere. To whom? How was the idea transferred? For example, Pruitt compares the minarets on the Mosque of al-Hakim in Cairo with the minarets of the Great Mosques of Sfax and Kairouan in Tunisia, stating, “In form the minaret resembles Islamic monuments in North Africa” (98–99). That may be apparent to an observer today, but would a builder in eleventh-century Cairo have known of ninth-century buildings in Tunisia?
Although Building the Caliphate suggests that it is about architecture, it is really about the idea of building and unbuilding as evidence for sectarian conflict. Pruitt offers very little description or analysis of actual buildings, either those that survive or those that no longer exist but about which something is known. When she does write about art and architecture, it is disappointing. For example, she states, “I would posit that this archaizing Sunni style of carving [on the wooden doors al-Hakim commissioned for the Azhar Mosque] is consistent with the shift to a more conservative, austere style in the [carved-stone] bastions of the Mosque of al-Hakim” (103–5). What exactly is a Sunni style of carving? Might the shift have something to do with the difference between soft wood and hard stone, let alone between wood-carvers and stonemasons? Describing the interior of the Aqsa Mosque, Pruitt writes that the mosaic roundels’ “recession into the pendentives is made more pronounced by the concentric circles … resembling miniature domes surrounding a larger, central dome” (147). These domes then recall the concentric circles she claims are found throughout Fatimid art. “The adornment of sacred spaces in precious materials, executed in a series of concentric circles, was thus an established Fatimid practice” (149). Established by whom?
Pruitt's interpretation of construction and destruction in this period is essentially inductive: she has an interesting theory and adduces the evidence to support it. She believes that Fatimid architecture, like Ismaili philosophy, conceals an inner (bāṭin) truth behind exterior (ẓāhir) appearances. She relies not only on the evidence of medieval texts but also on the work of such earlier scholars as Paula Sanders, Irene Bierman, and Yasser Tabbaa, who believed that Fatimid art and architecture were the physical manifestations of Ismaili belief, or that Sunnis developed cursive scripts as a response to the Fatimids’ preference for angular scripts.2 While some scholars have endorsed such theories, others, including Sheila Blair and myself, have written that the evidence does not support them.3 In contrast to Pruitt, deductive scholars examine the evidence and see which, if any, theories might help to explain it. Pruitt is certainly entitled to her inductive method, but I would suggest that readers of this attractive book also seek out alternate views of the subject.
Richard Krautheimer, “Introduction to an ‘Iconography of Mediaeval Architecture,’” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 5 (1942), 1–33.
Paula Sanders, Ritual, Politics, and the City in Fatimid Cairo (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994); Irene Bierman, Writing Signs: The Fatimid Public Text (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Yasser Tabbaa, “The Transformation of Arabic Writing: Part 2, the Public Text,” Ars Orientalis 24 (1994), 119–47.
Sheila S. Blair, “Floriated Kufic and the Fatimids,” in L'Egypte fatimide: Son art et son histoire; Actes du colloque organisé à Paris les 28, 29 et 30 mai 1998, ed. Marianne Barrucand (Paris: Presses de l'Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 1999), 107–16; Jonathan M. Bloom, Arts of the City Victorious: Islamic Art and Architecture in Fatimid North Africa and Egypt (London: Yale University Press, 2007); Jonathan M. Bloom, “Art and Architecture,” in The Shii World: Pathways in Muslim Tradition and Modernity, ed. Farhad Daftary, Shainool Jiwa, and Amyn Sajoo (London: Institute of Ismaili Studies and I. B. Tauris, 2015), 228–56.