The Fatimid treasures appear quite incredible to us today—and indeed they were in their own times—but they were probably no more splendid than those collected by their contemporaries in Baghdad or Byzantium. A taste for luxury and excess was neither exclusively Fatimid nor exclusively Egyptian. Many of the treasures appear to have been either received as gifts or were intended to be given as gifts to family members, courtiers, military commanders, and supporters in an attempt to secure their loyalty and foster state policies. The Caliphs exchanged diplomatic gifts with Muslim and non-Muslim rulers, particularly with the Byzantine emperors of Constantinople. Splendid gifts were also distributed on special occasions, such as when the Caliph’s sons were circumcised.
Most Fatimid gifts were practical, consisting of clothing, animals, and cash. Gifts were not only tangible wealth but also symbols of the esteem in which the ruler held the recipients. As soon as the Fatimids appeared in North Africa in the early tenth century they began giving their allies and supporters robes of honor, which had often been worn by the Imam-Caliph himself (conveying additional blessing), and they continued to give gifts throughout the two and a half centuries they ruled. Twice a year rulers would give courtiers lengths of cloth bearing woven inscriptions, known as tiraz, invoking God’s blessings, from which clothing could be made.
The gifts most often mentioned in the sources, however, are livestock, especially riding mounts. These included thoroughbred and ordinary horses, Arabian and Bactrian camels, and donkeys. In addition to their value in military campaigns, mounts were often given because they marked differences in rank, and the gift often included saddles, harnesses and trappings of leather decorated with gold or silver. As the price of a horse was prohibitive, ordinary people rode mules, if they rode at all. Only the elite used horses, and riding a horse that the ruler had ridden, receiving a mount from his stable, or receiving permission to ride in his presence were prerogatives granted by the ruler. Other rare animals were also valued as gifts: In 993 the Nubian tribute arrived in Cairo accompanied by an elephant and a giraffe. Three decades later, in addition to the usual riding mounts and slaves, the gifts included a lynx, rare birds, monkeys, and elephant tusks. Lions, leopards, and saluqis were sometimes sent to Cairo as gifts, too.
In 1031 Caliph al-Zahir gave Mu‘izz b. Badis, the Fatimid Governor of North Africa, a typical gift consisting of rarities from India, China, and Khurasan, consisting of perfumes, jewels, and other things in great quantity. Of costly linens from Tinnis, Damietta and Tuna and their districts, he sent clothes, furnishings, hangings, flags, pennants, military banners, and large banners on rods of silver inlaid with gold with representations of various wonderful and strange images, the likes of which could hardly be found. He also sent him a wonderful, handsome giraffe, with its saddle cloth and trappings; several Bactrian camels from Khurasan carrying all kinds of howdahs, palanquins, and litters made of ivory, ebony and sandalwood, fitted with gold and silver, and topped with gold crescents; the finest curtains, some of red imperial cloth, velvet, or fine dabiqi linen, all with gold threads and other types and colors of fabrics. Inside the palanquins were singers and dancers. There were also thoroughbred Arabian horses, most of them with gold and silver saddles studded with jewels, and stuffed with ambergris and camphor; strangely worked and unique armor, helmets, coats of mail all gilded, jeweled swords, the likes of which could hardly be found, and also other things*.
Not all gifts were secular, for the Fatimids also offered gifts such as manuscripts of the Qur'an and gold and silver fittings, candlesticks and chandeliers, to mosques and shrines, especially those in Arabia. As soon as they conquered Egypt, they dispatched the shamsa, a sun-shaped circular ornament, for the Kaaba in Mecca. It measured twelve spans (ca. 9 feet) across. Its background was of red brocade, around it were 12 golden crescents containing a pierced golden sphere, each holding 50 pearls the size of pigeon eggs as well as red, yellow and blue stones, and it was filled with powdered musk. Around the edge was written Surat al-Hajj (the pilgrimage chapter, Qur'an 22) in green emeralds against a ground of huge white pearls. Such gifts were carried by the annual pilgrimage caravan to Mecca along with supplies of grain, flour, wax, and oil, gifts for the notables, money, as well as the kiswa, or cloth covering, for the Kaaba, made of white Egyptian linen.
Of all the Islamic dynasties that ruled in medieval times, none appears to us today so preoccupied with gifts as the Fatimids, because of the rich textual sources that provide contexts not only for the Egyptian objects of the period, but also for objects from other times and places when and where the literary record is not so rich. Some of the objects exhibited in Gifts of the Sultan give an approximation of the extraordinary riches once contained in the Fatimid treasuries, but to get the full picture we are lucky to have the accounts of medieval writers which bring them to life.
*Abu 'Abd Allah Muhammad b. 'Ali Ibn Hammad, Akhbar muluk Bani 'Ubayd wa-Sirathum, ed. and trans. M. Vonderheyden as Histoire des Rois 'Obaidides (Algiers-Paris, 1927), pp. 68, quoted by Prof. Jonathan Bloom in Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts, Dr. Linda Komaroff, Editor, Yale University Press, 2011.
This article is based on an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art , entitled, "Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Court."