Leading historian of Islamic art and culture, Professor Bernard O’Kane offers a peek at the architectural accomplishments of the Fatimids in Egypt. On 21 February, he will speak on the same topic at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto.

In 909, the Ismaili Imamat established the Fatimid state in present-day Tunisia. Sixty years later, they moved their capital to Egypt, and consolidated their position by expanding into Syria. Their prestige greatly increased with subsequent control of the holy cities of Mecca and Madina.

In Egypt, the Ismaili Imam and fourth Fatimid caliph al-Mu‘izz li-Din Allah founded a new princely city, naming it al-Qahira (the triumphant) — the name from which Cairo is derived. At the centre of the new city was the royal palace, and to the southeast was the mosque of al-Azhar (972). The mosque borrowed its doubled columns in the transept and the dome in front of the mihrab from the great mosque in the earlier Fatimid capital of Mahdiyya, although the stucco that decorates its walls is of purely Egyptian invention.

In 976, the second Fatimid mosque in Egypt that we know of was built by al-Sayyida al-Mu‘izziyya (whose given name was Durzan), mother of the fifth Imam-caliph al-‘Aziz bi’llah. Though no longer extant, this Jami‘ al-Qarafa, which she built with her daughter Sitt al-Malik, was situated in the cemetery between Fustat and Cairo.

Jami‘ al-Qarafa proved popular with the Fatimid establishment, becoming a favourite place to pass Friday evenings. It was a house of piety, repose and refuge, where people came to offer prayers, but the courtyard in the summer and the prayer hall in the winter also hosted social gatherings where meals were shared.

Supposedly based on the Azhar mosque, the building entrance was probably a projecting portal, and had a door revetted with iron plaques. Above it was a minaret. Historians single out the colourful painted decoration of the ceiling for praise, reminding us of how much is missing from the surviving Fatimid mosques.

In 990, al-‘Aziz himself began a mosque situated outside the city gates of Bab al-Futuh. However, it came to be known by the name of his successor, the Imam-caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, who finished it 23 years later.

The mosque of al-Hakim would remain the largest of the Fatimid mosques. Its layout combined much from two major Cairene mosques that preceded it, borrowing the piers with engaged columns from the mosque of Ibn Tulun, and the clerestory and dome above the mihrab from al-Azhar. However, its two extra domes on the qibla side, and its two minarets on the opposite side, were novel.

Al-Hakim also erected major mosques at al-Maqs (modern Bulaq), and at al-Rashida on the outskirts of Fustat. In 1005 he led prayers at the end of the Ramadan fast at the Rashida mosque — the procession made more memorable for the six horses with jewel-studded saddles, six elephants and five giraffes that preceded it. This mosque also seems to have had a minaret with the name of the founder prominently displayed on it, like the mosque of al-Hakim.

During the long politically turbulent reign of the Imam-caliph al-Mustansir bi’llah, Cairo continued to be architecturally embellished. New stone walls were constructed around Cairo with its famous gates of Bab al-Futuh, Bab al-Nasr and Bab Zuwayla — the finest examples of military architecture of their time — as well as the shrine of al-Juyushi.

Al-Juyushi’s shrine on the Muqattam cliff bears a strong resemblance to the later shrine built in 1133 as a memorial to Hazrat Ali’s daughter Sayyida Ruqayya, except that the latter’s courtyard has disappeared. It is worth noting that the mausoleums erected by the Fatimids almost always included mihrabs — niches indicating the qibla. Many even had multiple mihrabs. The shrine of Sayyida Ruqayya has five surviving mihrabs, and further had a wonderfully carved portable wooden mihrab, presumably for use in open space on feast days when the crowds could not be accommodated within the shrine.

It is only from the end of the Fatimid period that we have two surviving neighbourhood mosques: al-Aqmar (1125) and al-Salih Tala’i‘ (1160). Both are significant in different ways.

Al-Aqmar was the first of many in the old city of Cairo to have its façade parallel with the street instead of the qibla. Al-Aqmar also has Cairo’s first façade that displays decoration across its entire length, a feature that was greatly favoured in later architecture.

The mosque of the vizier al-Salih Tala’i‘ also has a first in façade decoration in Cairo: continuous open or blind arches across the main and side façades. He also built a mosque at Qus in Upper Egypt, where he had been governor, which contains one of the finest minbars of its day.

Before the arrival of the Fatimids, brick was the main building medium, but the Fatimids were the first to exploit exquisitely carved stone to great advantage. This also contributed greatly to the fine state of preservation of many of their monuments, helping us to enjoy their legacy up to the present day.

Bernard O'Kane is Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the American University in Cairo, where he has been teaching since 1980. The above article has been adapted from his 2016 publication, The Mosques of Egypt.