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Ismaili History 534 - Building of Cairo

It would be more accurate to describe the site of Fustat as a low-lying bank consisting of a plain and series of alluvial terraces stretching as far as the advanced spurs of the Jabal al- Muqattam, known as Jabal Yashkur. The Greeks named it Babylon, then it was known as Fustat, founded after the conquest by Amr bin al-Aas in 20/641, in the form of a camp, to the north of the ancient city. The name Fustat (fistat, fussat or fissat) means either a 'military tent' or more probably, a 'defensive moat' (Roman fossaton and Latin fossatum). In 258/872, Ibn Tulun, the chief of Egypt had built a huge palace at the foot of Jabal al-Muqattam and a great mosque in 261/875.Jawhar encamped his army at the northern plain of Fustat, almost away from the crowded parts of the city. Prof. Hitti writes in 'Capital Cities of Arab Islam' (London, 1973, p. 111) that, 'The victor lost no time in laying the foundation of his new capital. The site he chose excelled that of Baghdad in the number and importance of its forerunners, and the region around the site vied with that of the earlier capital.'

On 17th Shaban, 358/July 6, 969, Jawhar drew the lines of the new city, and on the same night, he laid the foundation of a new city, named al-Qahira al-Muizia, or al-Qahira (whence Cairo through Italian). It is related that a lot of about 1200 yards square was marked by poles with ropes extending from one pole to the other. Mattocks in hand, labourers stood waiting for the sound of bells strung on the ropes, while the astrologers were busy calculating the most favourable conjunction of the planets to give the signal for starting digging. But a raven darted down, perched on the rope, and set the bells jingling. Down went the diggers mattocks. Mars (qahira al- aflak) was then at its zenith, therefore, the name of the new city was given al-Qahira, or al-Qahira al-Muizzia. It should, however, be noted that Masudi (d. 346/958) tells more or less the same story about the foundation of Alexandria by Alexander. Still from credible sources, it seems that al-Muizz had designed a plan of the city before Jawhar's departure and had selected its name as expressed in his speech.

The new city was built on a rectangular plan. Its width was about 1200 metres and spread on 340 acres of land, out of which 70 acres were occupied by the big palace. A large area was reserved for gardens and parks, and about 200 acres were distributed among the soldiers. The city was strongly fortified on all sides with iron-gates to protect from the invaders. In its north was the gate of Nasr, in south the gate of Zwella, in east the gate of Barqiya and the gate of Mahruk, and on its west were the gates of Saadat, Faraj and Khokhal.

John J. Pool writes in 'Studies in Mohammedanism' (London, 1892, p. 165) that, 'Cairo, in the time of her real greatness, in the days when the Fatimites ruled, must have been a capital to be proud of. And not only was the city famous for her unique situation and grandeur, but she earned renown in the East, as Cordova did in the West, for her encouragement of learning.' Dr. T.J. De Boer writes in 'The History of Philosophy in Islam' (New York, 1967, pp. 5-6) that, 'For a short time Aleppo, the seat of the Hamdanids, and for a longer time Cairo, built by the Fatimids in the year 969, - have a better claim to be regarded as the home of intellectual endeavour than Baghdad itself.'

Jawhar ordered that all mention of the Abbasid caliph in the Friday prayers must be expunged from all official records and the Fatimid khutba be recited. Ibn Khallikan (1st vol., p. 344) writes that these words were added in the khutba:- 'O my God, bless Muhammad the chosen, Ali the accepted, Fatima the pure, and al-Hasan and al-Hussain, the grandsons of the Apostle, whom Thou hast freed from stain and thoroughly purified. O my God, bless the pure Imams, ancestors of the Commander of the faithful.' Ibn Khallikan (1st vol., p. 345) further writes that, 'Jawhar disapproved however of prayers (of khutba) being made for himself, and said that such was not in the direction given by his master.' One of Jawhar's first acts in Egypt was to strike the Fatimid coins, bearing the name of al-Muizz. He sent a sack of coins to al-Muizz in Mansuria as a symbol of his conquest. It is recounted that al-Muizz's faithful retainer, Abu Ali Mansur al-Jawdhar al-Azizi (d. 363/974) was near death due to illness on that time, therefore, al-Muizz sent him some of these Egyptian coins, and said, 'I hope that God will prolong his life, so that he may make the pilgrimage with us (towards Egypt).'

The preachers in the mosques were forbidden to wear the black garment usual under the Abbasids, and were ordered to use white instead. It was also ordered that every Sunday a court should be held for the inspection of complaints for hearing of petitions against the officials. Jawhar introduced financial reforms and accelerated the economical conditions, and the peace and prosperity were restored very soon in Egypt.

Jawhar's first step after laying down the city wall with four gates was to start on the two major projects: the Imam's palace and the mosque. The palace complex occupied the central area of 116,844 square yards. It was large enough to accomodate the imperial household and servants and to provide offices for government officials and army officers. In course of time it came to have 4000 rooms.

Close by the palace rose the mosque, extending to the foot of Jabal al-Muqattam, named Jam-i Azhar, on 24th Jamada I, 359/April 4, 970, where a big library and school were erected. Since the title of Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad and the wife of Ali, was Az-Zohra (the bright) and in her honour, it was named Al-Azhar, being the masculine form of Az-Zohra. Philip K. Hitti writes in 'Capital Cities of Arab Islam' (London, 1973, p. 114) that, 'It took two years (970-972) to build. Its name al-Azhar (the most resplendent) recalls Ali's wife and Muhammad's daughter, Fatimah al-Zahra.' It was built with 76 pillars of marble, facing each other. The roof was made of strong wood. The first service was performed in the mosque on Saturday, the 7th Ramdan, 361/June 22, 971. Makrizi writes in 'Khitat' (2nd vol., p. 273) that the dome above the arches was decorated with the following inscriptions:-

'In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate; according to the command for its building, from the servant of Allah, His governor Abu Tamim Ma'ad, the Imam al-Muizz li din Allah, Amir al-Mominin, for whom, and his illustrious forefathers and his sons may there be the blessings of Allah: By the hand of his servant Jawhar, the Secretary, the Siqilli, in the year 360.'

De Lacy O'Leary writes in 'A Short History of the Fatimid Khalifate' (London, 1923, pp. 110-11) that, 'In 378/988, the following caliph al-Aziz, devoted it especially to the learned, and from this it gradually become the leading university of Islam.' 'Reputed to be one of the world's oldest universities', writes John L. Esposito in 'Islam, the Straight Path' (New York, 1991, p. 48), 'al-Azhar has remained an internationally recognized centre of Islamic learning, training students from all over the Islamic world and issuing authoritative religious judgements on major issues and questions.'

The students in al-Azhar were called mujawir (learners) and talib al-ilm (seekers after knowledge). The teachers and professors took pride in using the modest title khadim al-ilm (servants of knowledge). The relationship between the teacher and pupil was patriarchal. The students showed their tutors the great respect, kissed their hands and carried their shoes. An inspector (nazir) at the head of the al-Azhar was to be chosen from the high officials of the state, also known as shaikh al-umum, who may be compared to the Rector of the German universities, and the office of the Rector was called mashyakha.

When one enters the Jama-i Azhar in Cairo through the door bab al-muzayyinin, the inscription on this gate will bedevil and attract his attention. It says: 'Inna' l-a'mala bi'l-niyyati wa-li-kulli mara'in ma nawa' (verily, actions are judged by their intention and every man has what he has intended). This saying of the Holy Prophet is considered to be one of the most important principles of Islam. As such it is mentioned as one of the four basic doctrines around which Islam revolves (madar al-islam).

Syed Ameer Ali writes in 'The Spirit of Islam' (London, 1955, pp. 336-7) that, 'The Fatimides of Egypt were grand supporters of learning and science....They established colleges, public libraries, and scientific institutes, richly furnished with books, mathematical instruments, to which were attached numerous professors and attendants. Access to, and the use of, these literary treasures were free to all, and writing materials were afforded gratis. The Caliphs frequently held learned disputations at which the professors at these academies appeared, divided according to the different faculties,-logicians, mathematicians, jurists and physicians, dressed in their khala, or doctoral mantles. The gowns of the English universities still retain the original form of the Arabic khala or kaftan.' It must be noted that khala (robes of honour) generally consisted of a set of clothes: an imama (turban), a qamis (shirt), taylasan (piece of material worn over the shoulders), a qaba (a kind of sleeved, close-fitting coat) or a durra'a (a loose outer garment). While, the kaftan was regarded as a characteristic dress of the Turks. It was a kind of sleeved, close-fitting coat, generally reaching the middle of the calf, divided down the front and made to overlap over the chest.

It must be known that the first university was founded in Europe on 1150 at Paris, whose grade of university was declared in 1208. The Oxford was founded in 1168 and the Cambridge in 1231, therefore, al-Azhar University, no doubt, is the first oldest University in the world. In July, 1969 more than 4,000,000 people crowded into its 83 square miles in Cairo to celebrate its thousandth anniversary with pomp and jubiliation.


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