Treasures of the troublemakers: The lost art of Fatimid Egypt


Peer into the bowl. You see a gentlemanly hunter riding a horse, a hawk perched on his arm. Yet this noble image is subverted by the hunter’s expression. A dreamy, sarcastic smile floats on his face, one eyebrow raised ironically.
It’s one fascinating artefact amongst many, the echo of a culture long since destroyed – the Fatimids, a dynasty whose rule stretched from Arabia to Tunisia. The World of the Fatimids, a new landmark exhibit at the Aga Khan Museum in Ontario, Canada, has pieced together the fragments of this unusual period.

‘This sense of drollery – you don’t find it anywhere else’ says Dr. Malikian Chirvani, the exhibition’s curator, referring to the bowl of the royal hunter. ‘The art of the Fatimids reveals a ruling apparatus prepared to accept fun poked at it, which is almost exceptional in history. Even modern politicians don’t like very much when it’s aimed at them.’

So why did the Fatimids, powerful rulers of vast swathes of Africa and Arabia, allow such comic subversion of royalty?

‘The World of the Fatimids’ (10 March – 2 July) exhibit explicitly attempts to showcase the extraordinary tolerance of this distant dynasty. Located on the outskirts of Toronto, the Aga Khan Museum is the only museum in North America dedicated to the art and culture of Islamic societies. Given that the Aga Khan Museum’s ambition is to be a ‘centre of education and of learning’ acting ‘as a catalyst for mutual understanding and tolerance’, the tolerance of the Fatimids seems important to the Museum’s mission.

‘Fatimid Egypt is not a unique example of tolerance’, Dr. Malikian Chirvani explains, ‘but Fatimid Egypt is unique in that you have a tiny tiny religious minority ruling over other faiths – that is unique’.

The Fatimid dynasty was ruled by the Ismailis, a small sect within Shi’a Islam. It is also the sect to which the Aga Khan belongs. Despite their size, the Ismailis managed to conquer Egypt and rule over an empire which included both Sunni and Shi’a muslims, Coptic Christians, and Jews.

Their tolerance, says Dr. Malikian-Chirvani, was ‘a combination of historical necessity and natural inclination’. But the way in which it was expressed in its art and material culture was surprising, extraordinary and delightful.

Exploring the exhibit’s sprawling showcase, you find artefacts from around the Islamic world, including its porous borders. Bronze ewers from Al-Andalus (contemporary Andalucia), plaques from Sicily and bowls from Khorasan are all remarkably different, even to the layman’s eye, proving that there isn’t much traction in the phrase ‘Islamic art’.

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(Thanks to reader)

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