Fatimid conquest of Egypt map

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Fatimid conquest of Egypt

The conquest of Egypt by the Fatimids occurred in 969, when the forces of the Fatimid Caliphate, commanded by the general Jawhar, successfully captured Egypt. At the time, Egypt was under the autonomous rule of the Ikhshidid dynasty on behalf of the Abbasid Caliphate.

Following their rise to power in Ifriqiya (modern Tunisia and eastern Algeria) in 909, the Fatimids made several unsuccessful attempts to invade Egypt while the Abbasid Caliphate was still strong. However, by the 960s, the Fatimids had solidified their authority and grown in strength, while the Abbasid Caliphate had weakened and collapsed. During this period, the Ikhshidid regime faced a prolonged crisis marked by foreign raids, famine, and the death of Abu al-Misk Kafur in 968. The ensuing power vacuum resulted in internal conflicts among various factions in Fustat, the capital of Egypt. Concurrently, the Byzantine Empire was making advances against Muslim states in the Eastern Mediterranean. The presence of Fatimid agents in Egypt became more overt, and local elites increasingly embraced the idea of a Fatimid takeover as a means to end the instability and insecurity.

Taking advantage of this opportune situation, the Fatimid caliph al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah organized a significant expedition to conquer Egypt. Under the leadership of Jawhar, this expedition departed from Raqqada in Ifriqiya on February 6, 969, and arrived in the Nile Delta two months later. The elites of the Ikhshidid regime chose to negotiate a peaceful surrender. Jawhar issued a safe-conduct (amān), pledging to uphold the rights of Egyptian dignitaries and the general populace and to engage in a holy war (jihād) against the Byzantines.

Fatimid conquest of Egypt

Date of Birth

Location

Fatimid Caliphate

6 February – 9 July 969

Location

1990s –present

Fatimid Conquest - Leaders

Caliph al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah
Jawhar
Abu Ja’far Ahmad ibn Nasr

Emir Abu’l-Fawaris Ahmad ibn Ali
Ja’far ibn al-Furat
Nihrir al-Shuwayzan

Despite the Ikhshidid forces’ efforts to block the Fatimid army from crossing the Nile river, the Fatimids managed to prevail between June 29 and July 3. Amid the ensuing chaos, pro-Fatimid agents took control of Fustat and declared its submission to al-Mu’izz. Jawhar reaffirmed his commitment to the safe-conduct and took over the city on July 6, with the Friday prayer conducted in the name of al-Mu’izz on July 9.

For the next four years, Jawhar served as the viceroy of Egypt, suppressing rebellions and initiating the construction of a new capital, Cairo. However, his attempts to expand into the former Ikhshidid territories in Syria and to launch an offensive against the Byzantines ended in failure. After initial progress, the Fatimid armies suffered defeat, and Egypt itself faced an invasion by the Qarmatians, which was repelled just north of Cairo. In 973, al-Mu’izz arrived in Egypt and established his residence in Cairo, which subsequently became the seat of the Fatimid Caliphate until its dissolution by Saladin in 1171.

Background - Fatimid Conquest

In 909, the Fatimid dynasty established its authority in Ifriqiya, encompassing modern Tunisia and northeastern Algeria. Originating from Syria, the Fatimids migrated to the Maghreb, where they influenced the conversion of Kutama Berbers through their agents. Amid their concealment, the Isma’ili missionary Abu Abdallah al-Shi’i orchestrated the Kutama’s overthrow of the Aghlabid dynasty. This strategic move allowed the Fatimid leader to emerge publicly, assuming the title of caliph as al-Mahdi Billah (r. 909–934).

In contrast to their predecessors confined to a regional scope within the Abbasid Caliphate, the Fatimids embraced a broader vision. They asserted their lineage from Fatima, daughter of Muhammad and wife of Ali, positioning themselves as both leaders of the Isma’ili Shi’a sect and as semi-divine imams. This dual role granted them divine representation on earth. Motivated by their conviction, the Fatimids perceived their ascent to power as the initial stride toward reclaiming their rightful role as leaders of the entire Muslim world. This ambition manifested in their challenge against the pro-Sunni Abbasids, aiming to dethrone and succeed them.

Pursuing their grand imperial vision, the Fatimids, having established their rule in Ifriqiya, set their sights on Egypt, the strategic gateway to the Levant and Iraq, the core domains of their Abbasid rivals. The initial foray was launched in 914 under the leadership of the Fatimid heir-apparent al-Qa’im bi-Amr Allah. This campaign succeeded in capturing Cyrenaica (Barqa), Alexandria, and the Fayyum Oasis. However, the pivotal Egyptian capital of Fustat remained unconquered, and in 915, the Fatimids were pushed back after facing counteroffensives by Abbasid reinforcements from Syria and Iraq.

A second attempt at invasion occurred between 919 and 921. While Alexandria was once again seized, the Fatimids met resistance near Fustat and suffered naval losses. Al-Qa’im retreated to the Fayyum Oasis but was eventually compelled to abandon it due to renewed Abbasid forces, retreating across the desert to Ifriqiya.

The failure of these early invasions stemmed largely from stretched Fatimid supply lines and the inability to secure a decisive victory before the arrival of Abbasid reinforcements. Despite these setbacks, the Fatimids maintained control over Barqa as a strategic base to pressure Egypt.

Gold dinar of the second Fatimid caliph

Gold dinar of the second Fatimid caliph
The gold dinar depicted here belongs to al-Qa'im bi-Amr Allah, the second Fatimid caliph. In his capacity as the heir-apparent to his father, he spearheaded the initial two unsuccessful invasions of Egypt under the Fatimid banner.

As the Abbasid Caliphate grappled with widespread crises during the 930s, the Fatimids seized an opportunity amidst conflicts between Egyptian military factions in 935–936. While Fatimid forces briefly held Alexandria, the true winner of this power struggle was Muhammad ibn Tughj al-Ikhshid, a Turkish commander who established his rule over Egypt and southern Syria under the banner of the Abbasids. He founded the Ikhshidid dynasty, effectively becoming an independent ruler despite his nominal allegiance to the Abbasids. Although al-Ikhshid initially considered a marriage alliance with the Fatimids, he later dropped the proposal once his rule was acknowledged by the Abbasid court.

On the Fatimid front, the initial revolutionary fervor that propelled them to power waned by the late 930s. While their claims to universal sovereignty remained, they were temporarily set aside due to the Khariji Berber preacher Abu Yazid’s large-scale rebellion (943–947). This revolt nearly destabilized the Fatimid regime, and even after its suppression, the Fatimids dedicated time to reasserting their influence in the western Mediterranean. This period saw relative tranquility in Egypt. Following al-Ikhshid’s death in 946, power shifted to Abu al-Misk Kafur, a powerful black eunuch slave who had been appointed commander-in-chief of the army by al-Ikhshid. For two decades, Kafur wielded considerable authority behind the scenes while al-Ikhshid’s sons ruled as emirs. In 966, Kafur ascended to the throne in his own right.

Egypt in the 960s

During the middle part of the 10th century, a notable shift in the balance of power favored the Fatimids. As the Fatimids solidified their rule, the Abbasid Caliphate was mired in continual power struggles among competing bureaucratic, court, and military factions. Gradually losing control of its peripheral territories to ambitious local dynasties, the Abbasid Caliphate was eventually confined to Iraq. After 946, the Abbasid caliphs themselves were reduced to mere pawns under the dominion of the Buyids.

By the 960s, the Ikhshidids also encountered a crisis fueled by internal tensions and external pressures. The Christian Nubian kingdom of Makuria launched incursions into Egypt from the south. Concurrently, the Lawata Berbers seized regions around Alexandria and aligned with local Bedouin tribes of the Western Desert to confront the Ikhshidid forces. In Syria, increasing Bedouin unrest coincided with an invasion by the Qarmatians, an Isma’ili sect based in Bahrayn (Eastern Arabia). These Qarmatians, often in collaboration with Bedouin groups, targeted merchant caravans and Hajj pilgrims, undermining Ikhshidid attempts to counter their attacks. These events essentially severed the overland routes connecting Egypt and Iraq. Scholars speculate that the Fatimids might have had a hand in some of these occurrences, but concrete evidence remains scarce.

Domestically, Egypt’s situation worsened due to a series of poor Nile floods beginning in 962. The famine that followed was compounded by hot winds, locust swarms, and a rat-borne plague, resulting in skyrocketing food prices and widespread suffering. Fustat, the populous capital, suffered profoundly, enduring famine and epidemic outbreaks. The diminished harvests also curtailed revenue, leading to financial cutbacks that even impacted religious circles. Mosques struggled to pay their staff, and the inability to fund Hajj caravans jeopardized their security.

Fatimid conquest of Egypt google map

Fatimid conquest of Egypt google map

The 960s also witnessed the Byzantine Empire, led by Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963–969), expanding at the cost of the Islamic world, annexing territories like Crete, Cyprus, and Cilicia, and advancing into northern Syria. The Ikhshidid regime’s response to this aggression was weak: their efforts to counter the Byzantine advances in Crete and Cyprus were futile, and the Egyptian and Syrian coasts were left exposed after their navy was defeated. Fueled by this Byzantine advancement, Egyptian Muslims initiated anti-Christian attacks, which authorities struggled to suppress. The Fatimids exploited this situation through propaganda, highlighting their own successful fight against the Byzantines in southern Italy while contrasting it with the ineffective responses of the Ikhshidids and their Abbasid overlords.

In this context of internal challenges and external dangers, the allure of a Fatimid takeover grew more appealing to the people of Egypt, especially as the authority of their previous imperial rulers waned.

Collapse of the Ikhshidid regime

The passing of Abu al-Misk Kafur in April 968 marked a significant turning point that paralyzed the Ikhshidid rule due to the absence of a clear successor. Ja’far ibn al-Furat, Kafur’s vizier, who was married to an Ikhshidid princess and possibly harbored aspirations for his son’s ascension to the throne, attempted to wield control over the government. However, his influence remained confined to the bureaucracy, lacking broader support. The military, divided into opposing factions—the Ikhshidiyya, formed under al-Ikhshid, and the Kafuriyya, established by Kafur—preferred a leader from within their ranks. Nonetheless, they had to relent due to resistance from the Ikhshidid family and opposition from civilian and religious circles.

Initially, the factions agreed to a power-sharing arrangement, nominally placing al-Ikhshid’s 11-year-old grandson, Abu’l-Fawaris Ahmad ibn Ali, on the throne. His uncle, al-Hasan ibn Ubayd Allah, the governor of Palestine, was designated as regent. Ibn al-Furat assumed the position of vizier, while the slave-soldier (ghulmām) Shamul al-Ikhshidi became commander-in-chief. However, this arrangement quickly disintegrated as personal rivalries and factional conflicts among the Ikhshidid elites emerged. Shamul’s authority over the military was limited, leading to clashes between the Ikhshidiyya and the expulsion of the Kafuriyya from Egypt. Simultaneously, Ibn al-Furat initiated the arrest of his administrative rivals, effectively paralyzing the government and disrupting the flow of tax revenue.

Fatimid conquest of Egypt google map

Gold dinar in the name of the last Ikhshidid ruler, Abu'l-Fawaris Ahmad, minted in 968/9 in Ramla, Palestine
A gold dinar bearing the name of the final Ikhshidid ruler, Abu'l-Fawaris Ahmad, struck in 968/9 in Ramla, Palestine. Fatimid Conquest

Regent al-Hasan ibn Ubayd Allah arrived from Palestine in November and occupied Fustat, subsequently imprisoning Ibn al-Furat. Despite his efforts to consolidate authority, his attempts faltered, prompting him to abandon the capital in early 969 and return to Palestine. This departure left Egypt in a state of administrative vacuum.

In this critical impasse, the Egyptian elites were compelled to seek external intervention. Given the global circumstances at the time, their options were limited to the Fatimids. Correspondences from both civilian and military leaders were dispatched to the Fatimid caliph al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah (r. 953–975) in Ifriqiya, coinciding with the ongoing preparations for a forthcoming invasion of Egypt.

Fatimid preparations

During the initial years of al-Mu’izz’s rule, his focus was on extending his dominion across the western Maghreb and engaging in conflicts against the Byzantine forces in Sicily and southern Italy. Nevertheless, historian Paul E. Walker asserts that al-Mu’izz had a clear intention of conquering Egypt from the early stages of his reign. As early as 965/6, preparations for a new Egyptian invasion were set in motion, with al-Mu’izz overseeing the accumulation of supplies. By 965, his armies, commanded by Jawhar, achieved victory over the Umayyads of the Caliphate of Córdoba, thus undoing their gains and reestablishing Fatimid control over present-day western Algeria and Morocco.

These regions had initially been captured by Fatimid generals during the 910s and 920s. In Sicily, the Fatimid governors successfully seized the final Byzantine strongholds, completing the Muslim conquest of the island. They also repelled a Byzantine counteroffensive. Subsequent to these achievements, a truce was arranged with Constantinople in 967, permitting both entities to pursue their respective goals in the East: the Byzantines against the Hamdanid Emirate of Aleppo, and the Fatimids directed towards Egypt. Al-Mu’izz did not conceal his aspirations, openly boasting to the Byzantine envoy during negotiations that their next encounter would be in Egypt.

Gold dinar of al-Mu'izz, minted in al-Mansuriya in 954/5

Gold dinar of al-Mu'izz, minted in al-Mansuriya in 954/5
Fatimid Conquest , Gold dinar of al-Mu'izz, minted in al-Mansuriya in 954/5

Military Preparations

In contrast to the impulsive endeavors undertaken by his forerunners, al-Mu’izz meticulously readied himself for his Egyptian enterprise, dedicating substantial time and extensive resources. According to the 15th-century Egyptian historian al-Maqrizi, the Caliph allocated a staggering 24 million gold dinars for this purpose. While this figure might not be taken literally, it offers insight into the formidable resources available to the Fatimids for this significant undertaking. The capability of al-Mu’izz to accumulate such substantial funds underscores the robust financial position of the Fatimid state during this era. This was notably augmented by taxes collected from trans-Saharan trade—approximately 400,000 dinars, constituting half of the Fatimids’ annual revenue, sourced from the Sijilmasa trade hub in the year 951/2 alone—alongside the substantial influx of high-quality gold from sub-Saharan Africa. These financial reserves were further bolstered in 968 through special taxes imposed in anticipation of the forthcoming expedition.

In 966, following his achievements in the Maghreb, Jawhar was dispatched to the Kutama homeland in Lesser Kabylia to enlist soldiers and raise funds. He returned to the Fatimid capital in December 968 with newly recruited Berber troops and an additional half million dinars. Simultaneously, the governor of Barqa received orders to make preparations for the route to Egypt, which included the establishment of new wells at regular intervals along the way. This thorough and systematic preparation also reflects the enhanced strength and stability of the Fatimid regime.

Gold dinar of al-Mu'izz, minted in al-Mansuriya in 954/5

Gold dinar of al-Mu'izz, minted in al-Mansuriya in 954/5
Fatimid Conquest , Gold dinar of al-Mu'izz, minted in al-Mansuriya in 954/5

 As Lev emphasizes, “their initial armies dispatched to Egypt were lacking in discipline and created terror among the population.” In contrast, the force assembled under al-Mu’izz’s command was “substantial, well-compensated, and well-disciplined.” The responsibility for the endeavor was entrusted to Jawhar, who was granted supreme authority over the expedition. The Caliph’s edict stipulated that the governors of towns along Jawhar’s path were required to dismount in his presence and show their deference by kissing his hand.

Fatimid Propaganda in Egypt

During the early 10th century, sentiments against the Abbasids and pro-Fatimid Isma’ili propaganda spread throughout the Islamic world, even reaching sympathizers within the Abbasid court itself. In 904, the future founding Fatimid caliph sought refuge in Egypt, which was then governed by the semi-autonomous Tulunid dynasty. He remained concealed with his supporters in Fustat for approximately a year until the Abbasids regained control of the province in early 905. While the Fatimid leader departed for Sijilmasa in the west, the brother of Abu Abdallah al-Shi’i stayed behind to maintain connections with other branches of the Fatimid missionary propaganda network, known as the daʿwa.

Evidence of Fatimid agents and sympathizers operating in Egypt emerged around 917/8, coinciding with the approach of the second invasion. In 919, the local governor detained several individuals who were found to be in correspondence with the advancing Fatimid army. Following the initial setbacks of their invasion attempts, the Fatimids escalated their reliance on propaganda and subversion. Fustat, a major trade hub with a diverse population, was susceptible to infiltration by agents of the Fatimid daʿwa. The impact of the daʿwa is evident in a notable increase in pro-Shi’a, particularly Isma’ili, inscriptions on Egyptian tombstones during the decades following around 912.

Notably, a delegation of Fatimid missionaries was openly welcomed by Kafur, and the daʿwa was allowed to establish and operate openly in Fustat. These agents stressed that the onset of Fatimid rule would only occur after Kafur’s demise. The head of the daʿwa, the affluent merchant Abu Ja’far Ahmad ibn Nasr, maintained amicable relations with local elites, including the vizier Ibn al-Furat, and may have offered bribes to several of them. The city’s merchants, driven by their interest in restoring stability for regular trade, were particularly receptive to Ibn Nasr’s arguments. Some sources even suggest that the regent al-Hasan ibn Ubayd Allah was influenced by Ibn Nasr. During a riot among the troops in Fustat, Ibn Nasr advised al-Hasan to appeal to al-Mu’izz and personally delivered a letter to the Caliph to that effect. 

Concurrently, his associate Jabir ibn Muhammad organized the daʿwa in the residential areas of the city, distributing Fatimid banners in anticipation of the Fatimid army’s arrival. The converted Jewish figure Ya’qub ibn Killis also assisted the Fatimids, having previously aspired to become a vizier before facing persecution from his rival Ibn al-Furat. Ibn Killis fled to Ifriqiya in September 968, converted to Isma’ilism, and supported the Fatimids with his knowledge of Egyptian affairs. The Ikhshidid establishment was deeply penetrated, with certain Turkish commanders reportedly sending invitations to al-Mu’izz, inviting him to conquer Egypt. Some contemporary historians even speculate that Ibn al-Furat may have aligned with the pro-Fatimid faction.

Gold dinar of al-Mu'izz, minted in al-Mansuriya in 954/5

Gold dinar of al-Mu'izz, minted in al-Mansuriya in 954/5
Fatimid Conquest , Gold dinar of al-Mu'izz, minted in al-Mansuriya in 954/5

Modern interpretations of these events underscore the profound impact of the Fatimids’ “clever political propaganda” (Marius Canard) that preceded the actual invasion. Coupled with the famine gripping Egypt and the political turmoil within the Ikhshidid regime, this “intensive phase of psychological and political preparation” (Thierry Bianquis) proved more pivotal than military strength, ultimately facilitating a swift and relatively uncomplicated conquest. The Fatimid cause was further bolstered by the alarm stirred by reports of the ongoing Byzantine advance into northern Syria in 968. The Byzantines operated freely in the region, capturing numerous Muslim prisoners with minimal opposition from the Abbasid-affiliated Muslim rulers of the area.

Invasion and Conquest of Egypt

On December 26, 968, Jawhar established his tent at Raqqada, overseeing the assembly of the expedition. Caliph al-Mu’izz would visit the burgeoning camp nearly every day, traveling from the nearby palace city of Mansuriya. Arab sources reported that the assembled army numbered well over one hundred thousand soldiers. They were joined by a formidable naval fleet and a war treasury containing more than 1,000 chests brimming with gold. On February 6, 969, the army set forth following a formal ceremony conducted by the Caliph himself. During this ceremony, he granted full plenipotentiary authority to Jawhar. To symbolize this delegation of power, only he and Jawhar remained mounted on their horses, while all other dignitaries, including the Caliph’s family members, dismounted to pay homage to Jawhar. As a further affirmation of his new viceroy’s authority, al-Mu’izz initially accompanied the army on horseback and later sent the lavish attire he wore that day to Jawhar. The army proceeded to Barqa, where Ibn Killis joined their ranks.

In May 969, the Fatimid army entered the Nile Delta. Without facing resistance, Jawhar swiftly took control of Alexandria and established a fortified camp at Tarruja on the western fringes of the Delta, in close proximity to Alexandria. The vanguard of his forces advanced towards the Fayyum oasis. As they entered the region, no opposition was encountered, and Jawhar’s command extended over the western bank of the Nile, spanning from the sea to the Fayyum. However, he paused, anticipating the response from Fustat.

Jawhar's amān

Fustat, as Egypt’s administrative hub and largest city, held the key to controlling the nation—a realization deeply ingrained in the Fatimids’ historical awareness. Their past invasions had underscored the significance of capturing Fustat: previous campaigns had seen them occupy substantial portions of the country, yet their failure to secure Fustat had decisively influenced the outcomes. This perspective was corroborated by Muhammad ibn Tughj al-Ikhshid’s trajectory and Jawhar’s triumph in 969, demonstrating that conquering the center significantly impacted the nation’s fate, even if the provinces weren’t entirely subdued.

In early June, Fustat’s ruling circles dispatched a delegation to Jawhar, presenting a list of demands. They sought assurances for their personal safety, protection of their possessions and positions, and a bold request by Nihrir al-Shuwayzan—commander of the Ikhshidiyya, the only substantial military force—to be appointed as governor of Mecca and Medina. This audacious demand was criticized by Lev as unrealistic, revealing a lack of understanding regarding Fatimid religious sensitivities. The delegation consisted of influential figures, including ashrāf members Abu Ja’far Muslim of the Husaynid, Abu Isma’il al-Rassi of the Hasanid, and Abbasid Abu’l-Tayyib. Other attendees were the chief qāḍī of Fustat, Abu Tahir al-Dhuhli, and chief Fatimid agent Ibn Nasr.

To secure peaceful submission, Jawhar, representing al-Mu’izz, issued a safe-conduct (amān) and a list of commitments to Egypt’s population. This amān was both a political manifesto and propaganda tool. It framed the invasion as protection for Muslims in the Islamic world’s east, implying, without explicit mention, the Byzantines as adversaries. The letter outlined tangible improvements, revealing Fatimid insights into Egyptian matters via local agents. It promised to restore order, safeguard pilgrimage routes, rectify illegal taxes, and enhance coinage. By pledging defense for pilgrims, Jawhar declared war on the Qarmatians, explicitly condemning them. The document mollified Islamic religious factions by vowing salaries, mosque restoration, and new constructions.

Crucially, the letter concluded by underscoring Islam’s unity and a return to the “true sunna” of the Prophet and early Islam, appealing to both Sunni and Shi’a. This rhetoric veiled the Fatimids’ true agenda, as Isma’ili doctrine positioned the imam–caliph as the authentic inheritor and interpreter of the “true sunna”. While the letter momentarily achieved its goal, establishing persuasive appeal across Egyptian society, it would later become evident that the Fatimids aimed to prioritize Ismai’ili doctrine in critical matters of public rites and jurisprudence (fiqh).

Occupation of Fustat

Returning to Fustat on June 26th with Jawhar’s letter, rumors had already spread that the military rejected it and aimed to fight, obstructing passage over the Nile. Public reading of the letter saw vehement opposition, especially from officers who resisted even vizier Ibn al-Furat’s intervention. Jawhar then declared the expedition a jihād against the Byzantines, confirmed by the chief qāḍī, allowing for anyone impeding their way to be killed. Nihrir was appointed the joint commander of the Ikhshidiyya and Kafuriyya. On June 28th, they occupied Rawda Island, controlling the pontoon bridge between Fustat and Giza where Jawhar had established his camp.

The subsequent conflict’s course remains uncertain due to varied sources. The initial engagement occurred on the 29th, leading Jawhar to withdraw. He then decided to cross the river elsewhere, either with boats provided by defecting Ikhshidid ghilmān or captured by Ja’far ibn Fallah from an Ikhshidid fleet assisting Fustat’s garrison. Ibn Fallah led a portion of the Fatimid army across, although the precise location is unknown. Al-Maqrizi mentioned that four Ikhshidid commanders had been dispatched with their troops to reinforce landing points, but the Fatimid troops managed to cross the river. On July 3rd, the armies clashed, resulting in Fatimid victory. While details are scarce, the entire Ikhshidid force sent from Giza against the Fatimids was eradicated. The remaining Ikhshidid troops then abandoned Rawda, fleeing as far as Syria for safety.

The events left Fustat in disarray, prompting the Fatimid daʿwa to step in, liaising with the chief of police. White Fatimid banners were displayed across the city as a submission symbol, while the police chief paraded the streets with a bell and banner proclaiming al-Mu’izz as caliph. The troops’ resistance negated Jawhar’s amān, allowing customary plunder. Jawhar consented to renew the amān, appointing Abu Ja’far Muslim for maintenance and Ibn al-Furat for confiscating fleeing officers’ homes.

Mosque of Amr ibn al-As

the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As
Fatimid Conquest , Jawhar, the conqueror of Egypt, led the Friday prayer in the interior courtyard of the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As upon his arrival in Fustat.

On July 6th, accompanied by prominent merchants, Ibn al-Furat and Abu Ja’far Muslim led a crowd over the pontoon bridge to honor Jawhar in Giza. That evening, the Fatimid army began crossing the bridge, setting up camp around 5 kilometers north of the city. On the next day, alms distribution was announced, funded by the treasure Jawhar had brought along. Money was given to the poor by the army’s qāḍī, Ali ibn al-Walid al-Ishbili. On July 9th, Jawhar led Friday prayers in Fustat’s Mosque of Amr. The Sunni preacher, clad in Alid white, recited the khuṭba in al-Mu’izz’s name, using unfamiliar phrases from a note.

Consolidation of Fatimid rule

After the fall of Fustat, remnants of the Ikhshidid forces regrouped in Palestine under al-Hasan ibn Ubayd Allah. Meanwhile, the Byzantines conquered Antioch and brought the Hamdanids of Aleppo under their control. Responding to these developments, Jawhar dispatched an army led by Ja’far ibn Fallah. This force aimed to quell the last pockets of Ikhshidid resistance, confront the Byzantines, and fulfill their commitment to renewed jihād.

In May 970, Fatimid troops defeated and captured al-Hasan ibn Ubayd Allah, but the unruliness of the Kutama soldiers incited the people of Damascus to resist until November 970. Subsequently, the city was pillaged after surrendering. A Fatimid army advancing from Damascus attempted to besiege Antioch but suffered defeat at the hands of the Byzantines. Simultaneously, Ibn Fallah faced an attack by the Qarmatians, who had joined forces with local Arab Bedouin tribes. Ibn Fallah met his demise in battle in August 971, leading to the collapse of Fatimid authority in Syria and Palestine and leaving the path to Egypt unprotected.

The Fatimids experienced greater success in the Hejaz, where their liberal gifts of gold enhanced their influence. In Medina, Abu Ja’far Muslim, aligned with the Husaynid faction, gained considerable sway, and the khuṭba was first proclaimed in the name of the Fatimid Caliph in 969 or possibly 970. While some reports suggest that Ja’far ibn Muhammad al-Hasani declared the khuṭba in al-Mu’izz’s name immediately upon hearing of Egypt’s conquest, the timing of the proclamation varied among historical sources. Recognition of Fatimid authority through the inclusion of the Caliph’s name in the khuṭba and the resumption of Hajj caravans from 974/5 onwards solidified the Fatimids’ claim to legitimacy within the Hejazi ashrāf.

Jawhar as viceroy of Egypt​

Although the capture of Fustat, the pivotal city and administrative hub, held immense significance, complete Fatimid dominance over Egypt was not yet achieved. While Ja’far ibn Fallah turned his attention to Syria, Jawhar remained in Egypt to solidify Fatimid control in the capacity of viceroy or proconsul. His responsibilities encompassed reinstating efficient governance, stabilizing the nascent regime, dealing with the vestiges of the defeated Ikhshidid forces, and expanding Fatimid influence both northward (across the Nile Delta region) and southward (into Upper Egypt).

Treatment of the Ikhshidid troops

In 969, Jawhar initiated the acceptance of submission from fourteen leaders belonging to the Ikhshidiyya and Kafuriyya factions, accompanied by around 5,000 to 6,000 of their soldiers. These commanders were apprehended and their troops disarmed, with the new regime systematically seizing the assets of both the Ikhshidid officers and ordinary soldiers.

Despite this, the Fatimids harbored suspicions regarding the loyalty of the former Ikhshidid forces and opted against integrating them into their regular army. However, certain ex-Ikhshidid commanders were temporarily employed during the initial years of the new government to quell local uprisings in Egypt, leveraging their extensive knowledge of the region. The rank-and-file soldiers, having been disbanded, were retained as a potential “fighting manpower reserve” (Lev) for exigent situations, particularly due to their lack of alternative livelihood options. This group was extensively mobilized to counter the Qarmatian invasion in 971. Subsequently, around 900 of them were detained by Jawhar, only to be released for deployment against a second Qarmatian assault in 974. Former Ikhshidid troops were also enlisted to reinforce the Fatimid military after significant defeats as late as 981. Numerous other Ikhshidid soldiers, who had fled Egypt, chose to join the Qarmatians instead.

Domestic Administration

In his domestic policies, Jawhar exercised caution to prevent generating discontent among the local elites and to ensure a smoothly functioning administration. Consequently, he largely retained experienced personnel from the previous government, such as Ibn al-Furat who remained as vizier, alongside the chief qāḍī, chief preacher, and administrative bureau heads. Jawhar introduced a Kutama overseer to maintain their accountability. To address grievances, he established weekly sessions (maẓālim), eliminated certain taxes, and restituted unlawfully confiscated properties.

In matters of faith, Jawhar proceeded with care, gradually introducing Isma’ili practices. While adhering to Sunni rites at the Mosque of Amr, the Fatimid call to prayer (adhān) was implemented at the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, used as a congregational mosque for the Fatimid army, in March 970. A discord arose in October 969 when the Fatimid army’s qāḍī ended Ramadan a day ahead of the Sunni chief qāḍī. The regime also established a more stringent moral code, reflecting both Fatimid puritanism and a deliberate effort to counter the perceived libertinism of the Ikhshidids. These measures garnered support from the Sunni religious circles but also spurred some opposition.

al-Mu'izz

the al-Azhar Mosque, begun by Jawhar in 970, from the interior courtyard (2013)
the al-Azhar Mosque, begun by Jawhar in 970, from the interior courtyard (2013)

Jawhar embarked on building a new capital, eventually known as Cairo, at his encampment site for his sovereign. Similar to its Ifriqiyan counterpart, it was initially named al-Mansuriya; names of gates and city quarters were also mirrored. The centerpiece, the al-Azhar Mosque, commenced construction on April 4, 970, and was finished by the summer of 972 under Jawhar’s direction.

The Qarmatian invasion

As early as November/December 969, Jawhar dispatched troops led by former Ikhshidid commander Ali ibn Muhammad al-Khazin to suppress banditry in Upper Egypt. In the Delta region, the situation was more intricate due to the unfamiliar marshy terrain and complex societal divisions. Hence, Jawhar initially entrusted former Ikhshidid officers with operations. Muzahim ibn Ra’iq, now a Fatimid supporter, was appointed governor of Farama, while former Ikhshidid commander Tibr was sent against a tax rebellion in Tinnis. However, Tibr joined the insurgents and assumed their leadership. Despite attempts to coax him back, Tibr’s rebellion persisted, leading to a Fatimid counteroffensive. Though Tibr fled to Syria, he was captured and executed.

In September 971, Jawhar confronted invading Qarmatians who ignited rebellion in Tinnis and the eastern Delta, delaying their attack on Fustat. Jawhar fortified a line at Ayn Shams, mobilizing Fustat’s male population. Through two fierce battles, Fatimid forces defeated the Qarmatians, who retreated back into Palestine. Reinforcements from Ifriqiya further solidified Fatimid control.

The Qarmatian invasion spurred anti-Fatimid activities. Revolts arose in Upper Egypt under the Kilabi leader Abd al-Aziz ibn Ibrahim, ultimately quelled by a Nubian-led expedition. The Delta rebellion persisted, suppressed brutally by troops under Ibn Ammar in the summer of 972. Qarmatian naval expeditions to aid Tinnis were thwarted, and the city eventually paid a ransom for submission.

Assessment

Jawhar’s rule achieved relative success in solidifying control over Egypt, notably through prudent and restrained imposition of Isma’ili doctrine. However, costly campaigns in Syria, repelling Qarmatian invasions, pacifying Egypt, and constructing a new capital depleted resources. These challenges disrupted agricultural recovery and tax collection, dampening hopes of further expansion. Apart from Ramla’s recapture in May 972, much of Syria eluded Fatimid control. A second Qarmatian invasion struck Egypt in 974, capturing the Delta and encamping between Asyut and Akhmim. The populace rallied, defeating the Qarmatians north of Ayn Shams. Under al-Mu’izz’s successor, al-Aziz Billah, the Fatimids finally captured Damascus and expanded dominion over Syria.

Fatimid court to Egypt

After repelling the Qarmatian attack and calming local unrest, Jawhar deemed Egypt sufficiently stable to invite his master, al-Mu’izz, to join him. Al-Mu’izz prepared to move his court, treasure, and ancestors’ coffins from Ifriqiya to Egypt. Departing Ifriqiyan al-Mansuriya on August 5, 972, the Fatimid ruler stayed at Sardaniya near Aïn Djeloula, where supporters gathered for four months. On October 2, al-Mu’izz appointed Buluggin ibn Ziri as Ifriqiya’s viceroy. The procession commenced on November 14, reaching Alexandria on May 30, 973, and Giza on June 7. Accompanied by notables, he crossed the Nile on June 10, bypassing Fustat for his renamed capital, al-Qāhira al-Muʿizzīya (“the Victorious City of al-Mu’izz”), known as Cairo in English.

This arrival marked a pivotal moment in Egyptian history. Previous regimes were regional and linked to Abbasid authority, whereas the Fatimids were imperial and revolutionary, challenging the Abbasids’ religious mandate. The event impacted Twelver Shi’ism and Sunnism, prompting the differentiation of sects into distinct communities with separate doctrines, rituals, and festivals. The Sunni–Shi’a divide solidified into mutually exclusive groups, with profound implications. Although the Fatimids ultimately fell and Sunnism was restored by Saladin in 1171, their legacy transformed Egypt. Cairo, their capital, became a hub of the Islamic world and their influence shaped the religious landscape.

Footnotes

– Emerging from the same secret Isma’ili movement that gave rise to the Fatimid Caliphate, the Qarmatians split from the pro-Fatimid branch in 899 due to doctrinal disagreements introduced by the eventual first Fatimid caliph, al-Mahdi Billah.
– Earlier beliefs that the Qarmatians secretly collaborated with the Fatimids to coordinate attacks have been disproven, despite contemporary Muslim sources and some scholars entertaining this notion.
– While the Fatimids attempted to gain recognition from scattered Qarmatian communities, only limited success was achieved, with the Qarmatians of Bahrayn consistently rejecting their leadership.
– Refer to Brett (2001, pp. 243–266) for an exploration of the influence of trans-Saharan trade, unminted gold imports, and Fatimid fiscal practices.
– In 968, the Fatimid governor of Sicily, Ahmad al-Kalbi, was called back to lead the naval aspect of the Egyptian expedition, but he fell ill and died before significant involvement. The naval role during the conquest is scarcely mentioned until the arrival of a Fatimid fleet from Ifriqiya in June/July 972.
– Despite Egypt’s predominantly Sunni Muslim population, the elevated status of the ashrāf (those tracing their lineage to Muhammad’s family) made them influential mediators in political disputes. The Fatimids actively engaged with them to gain favor and recognition, particularly from the ashrāf of Mecca and Medina, as this bolstered their claims to Islamic leadership legitimacy.
– The content of the amān (writ of safe-conduct) was documented by Ibn Zulaq, a contemporary Egyptian historian, whose account forms the basis for later historians’ works, such as Ibn Sa’id, al-Maqrizi, and Idris Imad al-Din.
– The Fatimid dynasty’s emblematic color was white, contrasting the Abbasid black, while red and yellow banners were associated with the Fatimid caliph.
– The shift of the Fatimid court to Egypt led to the practical loss of its control over Ifriqiya and Sicily, resulting in independent Zirid and Kalbid dynasties that even became antagonistic toward the Fatimids.

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