In the tenth to twelfth centuries, an area including present-day Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily, Egypt, and Syria came under the rule of the Fatimid dynasty (909–1171), an offshoot of a Shi’i sect from North Africa. The Fatimid rulers traced descent from Muhammad’s daughter Fatima (hence Fatimid) via Isma’il, the seventh Shi’i imam, and thus presented a threat to the political and religious authority of the orthodox Sunni Abbasid caliph. The circular design of the city of al-Mansuriya, one of their first capitals, founded in 947, can be interpreted as a deliberate challenge to the round city of Abbasid Baghdad, the “city of peace” (madinat al-salam). This opposition became more significant following the Fatimid conquest of Egypt in 969. At this time, the Fatimids founded the city of Cairo (al-Qahira, “the triumphant”) and established it as their new capital (973). While Egypt came to enjoy enormous prosperity primarily due to its intermediary role in the lucrative trade between the Mediterranean and India, Cairo soon rivaled the Abbasid capital of Baghdad.
The opulence of the Fatimid court fueled a renaissance in the decorative arts, which made Cairo the most important cultural center in the Islamic world. Nearby, Old Cairo, known as al-Fustat, became a major center for the production of pottery, glass, and metalwork, and rock-crystal, ivory, and wood carving; textile factories run by government officials created tiraz fabrics in the name of the caliph elsewhere in the Egyptian region, especially the Nile Delta. A novel, more refined style developed in pottery; bands with small animals and inscriptions now formed the major decoration in textiles; and rock-crystal carvers demonstrated great skill in works created for and treasured by the caliphs themselves.
The artwork from this period exemplifies the creativity and ingenuity of Fatimid craftsmen. The technique of lusterware on ceramic, developed originally in Iraq, was revived in Egypt and Syria. Some lusterware pieces from this period are signed by their makers, an indication of the esteem in which the craftsmen were held. Wood carving and jewelry were executed with equal skill and inventiveness. Fatimid artists created new decorative motifs and made greater use of figural forms, both human and animal. Figures were stylized but lively, while traditional vegetal and geometric decorations maintained their abstract quality.
In architecture, the Fatimids followed Tulunid techniques and used similar materials, but also developed those of their own. In Cairo, their first congregational mosque was al-Azhar (“the splendid”) founded along with the city (969–73), which, together with its adjacent institution of higher learning (al-Azhar University), became the spiritual center for Isma’ili Shi’i. The Mosque of al-Hakim (r. 996–1021), an important example of Fatimid architecture and architectural decoration, played a critical role in Fatimid ceremonial and procession, which emphasized the religious and political role of the Fatimid caliph. Besides elaborate funerary monuments, other surviving Fatimid structures include the Mosque of al-Aqmar (1125) as well as the monumental gates for Cairo’s city walls commissioned by the powerful Fatimid emir and vizier Badr al-Jamali (r. 1073–94).