The following are my preparations for an assignment in my Islam in Africa course at DePaul University. I’m giving a presentation in about a week on architecture and meaning in Islamic Africa. I decided to choose, with the help of my friend, who knows far more about this subject than I probably ever will, the topic of two abandoned Fatimid cities in North Africa and how their construction contributed to the way the empire and its leaders thought of themselves for years to come. As part of this assignment, I must also submit a small paper (of about 10 pages or so) and I decided that I would do my research on this blog, writing down anything I can amalgamate into a sizable and coherent blogpost.
The Construction of Fatimid Caliphal Identity: A Comparison between al-Mahdiyya and al-Mansuriyya in the Tenth Century
The Fatimids are most often thought about within their Egyptian context, but their formative period took place in North Africa. This paper will be an exploration of early Fatimid imperial identity through the lens of architectural forms of two important capital cities: al-Mahdiyya, the city once besieged by the armies of the Kharijite Abu Yazid, and al-Mansuriyya, the city constructed to celebrate the victory over the Kharijites. The explored topics will be: challenges and reconciliations with Sunni empires, architectural symbolism, and influential political movements before and during the creation of the two Fatimid cities.
Early Islam in North Africa
The Islamic conquest of North Africa was completed in around 705, by when all of North Africa was under the control of the Umayyad Empire. Following the fall of the Umayyad Empire in 750, North Africa became fragmented. By the late 8th century, the region was being contested by the Aghlabids in Afriqiyya (modern Tunisia), the Idrisids in Morocco, the Rustamid Ibadis in Algeria, and the rest of North Africa portioned out to governorships under Abbasid authority.
In the early 8th century, Umayyads rule North Africa. Many Berbers are subjected to oppressive conditions, and not given full membership in Muslim communities. Though they were converts, they were continually being treated the same way as non-Muslims. This provided the perfect opportunity for Kharijite missionaries to preach their egalitarian message to them. (Messages of non-Arab leadership, etc.) The adoption of these doctrines by Berbers led to a rebellion in 743. These Berber uprisings, known as the Great Berber Revolt, eventually result in the loss of land and troops for the Umayyads. Several Kharijite states are formed as a result of this. The Algerian Ibadi state is the Rustamid state, and Southern Moroccan Sufri state is called the Midrarid state. The Berbers are now tied to this Kharijite identity through the progress of political motivation and emphasis on traditions of justice and rebellion over other more conservative ones. In 909, the Fatimids conquered both the Rustamid and the Midrarid dynasties and brutally destroyed their leaders and their families. The remaining Kharijites fled from dynastic territories and began to operate independently.
Rise of The Fatimids
Ismailis are a Shi’i offshoot that only recognize seven Imams. They believe in the Imamate of the son of Ja’far as Sadiq, Isma’il ibn Jafar, who predeceased him. Musa al-Kadhim was his brother from another mother, who was followed by the latter majority of Shi’is. In the late 9th century, an Isma’ili group in Syria claimed lineage from Isma’il. These are known as the Fatimids. The Fatimids recruit Abu Abdallah al-Shi’i to spread Fatimid doctrine among the Kutama Berbers. The head of this movement is Ubaydullah al-Mahdi. He and his family flee from Syria as a result of internal dispute and political turmoil. He flees to Morocco, while the Kutama Berbers there convert en masse to Isma’ili Shi’ism, and they already establish messianic tendencies about a savior figure that is coming soon. These converts, in 909 conquer the Rustamids and Kairouan. In the same year, Ubaydullah al-Mahdi goes to Kairouan, and for the first time claims to be the Imam and Caliph of a Fatimid state.
al-Mahdi goes on to execute all the generals of the new Fatimid armies and Abu Abdallah al-Shi’i in order to secure his authority. He moves the capital to al-Mahdiyya, named after himself but also after the messianic figure of the Mahdi, whom he claims to be, and represses the Sunni populations at Kairouan, though he does not necessarily force them to convert. The Maliki scholars mostly flee to al-Andalus, while the Hanafi minority begin converting to Isma’ili doctrine.
The Events Leading Up To The Battle
Berber Kharijites become dispossessed and operate independently. In the 920s, a man named Abu Yazid begins to organize a rebellion in the same fashion that they once rebelled against the Umayyads (framing it as a just rebellion against an oppressive force), and the rebellion begins officially in 944.
The rebellion is initially immensely successful. The Berbers conquer Kairouan, take all the major cities, besiege al-Mahdiyya, and the Fatimid Caliph dies within the walls of the city. However, the rebellion fails for two major reasons: the rebels treated the inhabitants of the regions they conquered with extreme oppression (the Sunnis began to side with the Fatimids instead of the Ibadis for this reason), resulting in local populations rebelling against the harsh Kharijite rule; and the lack of discipline and organization on behalf of the rebellion. The Berbers lose control of the population, and fail to take control of al-Mahdiyya. The new Caliph al-Mansur defeats the Kharijites in multiple battles. Abu Yazid is publicly crucified and killed.
It is important to note that al-Mahdiyya withstood the Berber rebellion, and Kairouan did not. This is seen in accordance with the messianic nature of Fatimid Isma’ili doctrine. It helps that the city is already named in accordance with these tendencies.
A Superior Defense: Architectural Qualities of al-Mahdiyya
The city of al-Mahdiyya was founded for several reasons, all revolving around the idea of security against an impending force. At the time, it was logical to assume that the force would be a Sunni one, following the pressure applied to Sunnis in Kairouan to get them to convert to Isma’ili doctrine. The fact that the Kharijites would suddenly rebel was much less likely, because of their perceived status as dispossessed, disorganized, and fragmented. The spot chosen for al-Mahdiyya was a protruding spur into the sea. This was a logical choice for the Fatimids, who had plans for forming a naval force in the near future. The town was extremely difficult to infiltrate by land because of its height. It is known that the town was built on a prior military settlement that was there since before the time of the Phoenicians, but Ubaydullah may not have known this fact and instead chosen the spot merely for his own understanding of its advantages.
The Great Mosque of Mahdiyya, still standing, albeit with many changes due to constant reconstruction, features: a hypostyle interior hall, ogival arches (that are later used in the gothic style), Corinthian columns, a bulky, fortress-like outer presence, and the notable absence of minarets. The mosque strangely features a second, smaller mihrab that is explained by the presence of a controversy between the Sunni minority and the Shi’i majority over which way the correct Qibla actually is. The architecture of the mosque is heavily influenced by the style of the Great Mosque of Kairouan. The extremely large portal into the mosque, however, is significant as an innovation because it was reserved particularly for the Imam and his elect. This portal is inspired by triumphal arches of Rome. The basilica-like structure of the main hall inside the mosque is inspired directly by the Great Mosque in Kairouan.
The fortress-like nature of the city was emphasized primarily by the unusually thick outer walls, which were about 8 meters thick. The gates to the city were extremely large and made of iron. These were the defenses that provided sufficient protection from the siege led by Abu Yazid in 944.
This may indicate a level of reconciliation in the construction of this city toward Sunni powers; the choice of moving the capital to another location yet choosing to emulate a style that was identified as Sunni in nature is a strange move. This speaks to the reasons for the move to al-Mahdiyya in the first place. Was it really about separating themselves from the Sunnis after seeing them as the heretical Dajjalic forces? Perhaps not. This may have instead been a move that was more strategic in nature, made near to the coast to secure naval power. Kairouan being used as the de facto guide for how to create bold, powerful architecture may have contributed to the reconciliatory nature of the Fatimids when dealing with certain Sunnis and not others. This becomes clearer when the city of al-Mansuriyya is constructed.
The Move From al-Mahdiyya to al-Mansuriyya
Reasons for the move of the capital are the strong Maliki population, realizing that somewhere must bear the Caliph’s name, establishing a new dynastic narrative, and securing his authority as a ‘divinely’ guided leader without Sunni ideological opposition.
The differences between al-Mahdiyya and al-Mansuriyya are ultimately due to a variation in the intended function of the city: while al-Mahdiyya was designed (appropriately) as a fortress, with its large walls and its rather bland decoration, al-Mansuriyya was celebratory, with lavish palaces, gardens, and inaccessible private structures devoted expressly to the prince. In a way, the architecture of this city leads us to understand that al-Mansuriyya was built to solidify the cosmic ‘righteousness’ of the Fatimid Empire as well as the current Imam. It is natural, then, to assume that from a context of the threat of war, a new context had to emerge in order to convey the idea that the Empire, led by their Imam, had won over the forces of oppression and were now in control, in harmony with the cosmos.
Imagining a Supreme Capital: Architectural Qualities of al-Mansuriyya
The city of al-Mansuriyya was founded upon the area known as Sabra, or the “hard stone,” likely a suburb of Kairouan known for its ‘enduring’ qualities. The city was named after the Caliph al-Mansur Billah, and built after the Abbasid city he had his sights on, Baghdad. The notable architectural qualities of the city that resembled Baghdad were the round construction, the presence of four gates built into the ramparts. The city was filled with more than 300 bathhouses and plenty of palaces built by the Caliph’s successors. This flourishing development was mostly spurred on by the plentiful supply of water. Eventually, the Caliph al-Mu’izz made his departure for Cairo and allowed his lieutenant, Buluggin, to reign on his behalf there. This marked the Zirid period. Soon after, artisans and merchants were ordered to move there from Kairouan, possibly to aid in restoring the economy of the city, which had dwindled since al-Mui’zz had departed. Not long after the transplant of workers, Kairouan broke out in revolts because of its deprivation of economic resources. This sentiment spread quickly to the suburbs of al-Mansuriyya, and then to al-Mansuriyya itself. The city was damaged by the protestors, and al-Mu’izz, who had recently returned, was again forced to leave to al-Mahdiyya, opening the doors for the hostile Banu Hilal tribes to invade and raze the city. al-Mansuriyya was left in decay, and it was quickly deserted. Because of later pillage and looting, there is not much at all to be found of al-Mansuriyya in the present day. In fact, even in the 12th century, al-Idrisi, a renowned geographer had this to say about the condition of al-Mansuriyya: “One no longer meets any living soul there.” The sociologist and geographer al-Maqdisi noted that before its fall, the city “had no equal.”
What does the architecture of al-Mansuriyya tell us about the way the Caliph saw himself in light of other Empires, in light of the Fatimids, and especially in light of neighboring cities Kairouan and al-Mahdiyya? To answer this, one must study the financial power of the Caliph, and the case of this city, it appears that there were none in sight. The massive displays of wealth and grandeur were celebratory not only of the defeat of the Kharijite forces, which the Fatimids already saw as a divinely ordained victory of the party of justice against the parties of oppression, but also of the ‘arrival’ of the Imam and rightful ruler of the world’s Muslims. This is the man that the Caliph al-Mansur Billah saw himself as. He may have felt a sense of connection or comparison to past and prior leaders; the Abbasid Caliph of 200 years earlier, Abu Ja’far al-Mansur shared his name, among other aspects of his context (the threat of war, victory over disruptive forces).
The ‘copious amounts of water’ described as being brought into the city required high-maintenance irrigation systems to be installed. The fact that the incoming water was not only used for the necessities but also for pleasure (for fountains and gardens) meant that the financial power that the Caliph commanded was extravagant, and he wished to show it off to the world. Gardens in the Islamic context, and especially in the Isma’ili context, are used often as a metaphorical representation of the Gardens of Paradise. There being such an emphasis on horticulture in this city meant that the Caliph felt that he had established a kind of ‘eden’ on Earth. This, combined with the architectural feature of placing himself and his family (in his palace) in the center of the city makes a strong statement about his identity.
Envisioning the Axis Mundi: Qualities of Early Fatimid Coinage in the Two Cities
Examining early Fatimid coinage and the standardized inscriptions reveals the progression of both the Axis Mundi concept and the mentality of historically confirming the rightfulness of their current situation and concurrent actions. When examining early Fatimid coinage, under the first Fatimid Imam, Ubaydallah al-Mahdi, the coinage reveals very little that distinguishes it from the coinage of the Umayyads. After the defeat of the Kharijites and the move of the capital to the city of al-Mansuriyya, there begins a drastic change in the coinage of the Fatimids, an idea that comes to fruition most visibly after the final move of the royal mint to Cairo. The coins go from depicting nothing more than Islamically important terminology to eventually reflecting the cosmology of the Isma’ilis, all while giving more emphasis to the role of the Imam. This change is fully concordant with the shift from al-Mahdiyya to al-Mansuriyya. Below are some coins minted in the Late Umayyad period:
Compare the layout and the inscription of this coin with the coins of the early Fatimids, under the rule of Ubaydallah al-Mahdi:
The coins share a remarkably similar structure, and other than the Fatimid inclusion of the word “al-Imam,” referring to Ubaydallah himself, there is no serious change in the inscriptions, either. However, comparing these coins to the coins produced in al-Mansuriyya under al-Mansur, and then under al-Muizz after the transplant of the minting process to Cairo, reveals a startling change in the layout:
Note the changes to the coins and how they have a progressive theme: the coins are inscribed with another concentric circle for every Imam. The central point on the final coin is representative of the Axis Mundi again, and in fact serves as a depiction of the city of al-Mansuriyya itself. The coins’ tertiary purpose is the symbolism of the cosmology of the Isma’ilis: the outer knowledge, the so-called “zahir” is being supplanted by the “batin,” the “inner knowledge,” and eventually replaces it in importance. The text is representative of that outer knowledge, and the abstractions of the coin (the shape, size, and circles) are representative of that hidden knowledge known only to the Imam and passed down to his elect.
Clearly, the rule of al-Mansur must have had a significant impact on the way the succeeding Caliphs have thought of themselves and their empires. As with many significant ideological shifts that are present on a societal level, this shift has been represented on the architectural scale.