Toronto's Aga Khan Museum Houses Treasures From The Fatimid Dynasty

BY Tim Cornwell / Aug 12 2018 / 19:15 PM

The exhibition in the first North American museum to house artworks from the Islamic world was a journey through extraordinary treasures, well worth a pilgrimage to its setting in a suburb eight kilometres outside the city centre

Toronto's Aga Khan Museum Houses Treasures From The Fatimid Dynasty
All images courtesy of Aga Khan Museum
Gold filigree bioconical bead, Egypt or Syria (10th-11th century). 7.2x2.9cm.

A recent acquisition of the Aga Khan Museum, founded in 2014 as the first in North America dedicated to promoting Islamic art and culture, is an intricate mother-of-pearl and black lacquer tray from Gujarat, India, showing nine winged angels, with a reputed $1 million price tag. Then there are the pages of the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp, from the greatest illustrated version of the Persian epic, so enchanting and alive in their dragons and other strange beasts that they alone are worth the visit. The World of the Fatimids exhibition, running until 2 July, occupies the entirety of the temporary space at the museum, usually set aside for two exhibitions. It was announced as a milestone show on the “remarkable dynasty” that created a Cairo renaissance in cultural and intellectual life and  “defined luxury fashion for a millennium.” It was strange, then, to be greeted with a display of objects that were less than sumptuous. 

The Fatimids’ rule at the height of the dynasty extended from Egypt to Algeria, Tunisia and Sicily; they made Cairo their capital in 973 and remained until Salahdin oversaw their defeat by the Abbasids in 1171. What remained, however, was a bounty of extravagant artefacts—the opulence of the Fatimid Dynasty brought with it a Renaissance in the decorative arts. Cairo became the most important cultural center in the Islamic world. Contemporary travellers to Cairo left accounts of staggering riches in the Fatimid city, various precious metals and other treasures. The old city of al-Fustat became a centre for production of carved rock crystal, silver and bronze work, ivory and wood-carving.  

aga khan museum

Crescent-shaped Finial, Egypt.  1021-1036. Mount: Italy or Germany. 14th century. Plaque: Iran. Late 15th century. Rock crystal; cut, engraved. Mount: Bronze. Plaque: Silver; engraved © Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg

The exhibition includes loans of 37 objects from Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art, mostly not seen outside Egypt; it was a rare collaboration that reflects the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s work in Cairo, in particular the foundation of Al-Azhar Park there.   There were loans of Fatimid pieces from other institutions world-wide including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Louvre, Paris.     

The show is particularly significant for the museum. The Fatimids were the Ismaili forebears of His Highness the Aga Khan, 49th hereditary Imam of Shia Ismail Muslims. “Our ambition as a museum is to connect cultures through art,” says Henry Kim, the Aga Khan Museum’s director and CEO. “The World of the Fatimids is a landmark exhibition for us in part because it reveals a 1,000-year-old culture that accomplished just that. It is also a privilege to share with the public the achievements of our founder’s ancestors, since His Highness the Aga Khan traces his lineage back to the Fatimids.” Highlight pieces range from oil lamps to a hawking drum to a delicately carved wooden mihrab, to gold lustre-ware ceramics.  Rock-crystal work is represented by a carved crescent moon engraved with the name of the caliph al-Zahir (1021–36), which would have crowned the dome of a minbar; it has been reset in a European medieval stand.

In interviews, curator and art historian Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani sets out to make particular points about the Fatimid dynasty: among them that the flowering of artisanship and culture, in a tolerant society, with objects that often show a whimsical sense of humour,  was deliberately erased by rulers who replaced them.  The invaders of 1171, he suggests,  embarked on a systematic destruction of the symbols of Fatimid power. Only mosques and ramparts were left intact, and three magnificent gates that survive in Cairo to this day. Is this why the exhibition, through some 87 objects, in the end provided only clues to the greatness of the Fatimid period? It was somehow a curiously underwhelming presentation, and not helped by an aerial tour of old Cairo from a cinema screen whose soundtrack blasted out noisily through exhibits better suited to quiet and close examination.     

aga khan museum

Bowl (Ka’s), Egypt. 11th century. Earthenware covered with a white slip and painted with golden colours derived from metal oxides. © The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait

A 12th-century Ismail traveller to Cairo describes the abundant quantities of silver on display in the city, from bowls on the roofs of houses to an oil lamp stand so large the gates of a mosque had to be removed to take it inside.   There were said to be tens of thousands of pieces of rock-crystal in the palace treasury. The only silver object show  is a mirror backed with delicately engraved and punched silver. “We have perhaps less than one per cent of what must have once existed in Fatimid Egypt. To describe the art, and build up an exhibition of the art that survives in such modest numbers, is difficult,” says Melikian-Chirvani, who also described enormous jugs made of Damascus brass. “Not a single of these jugs have survived,” adding, “So we must assume they were melted down for the alloy.  As the alloy was not all that rare it implies systematic melting down.”

He underlines this theory of the violent interruption of Fatimid work through three heavy marble reliefs, thought to have been part of palace walls, that were shipped here from Cairo. They were found buried face down in the sand, a symbol of overthrow. In one, in particular, a peacock on the right of the stone is a carefully finished carving; on the left, a blank shape. 

With the exhibition attempting to demonstrate a  multi-faith society, the Christian presence in 12th century Cairo is shown by a gold lustre-ware bowl, with a Coptic priest swinging an incense burner.   Richly inlaid mihrab panels show the fine delicacy of contemporary carving, with a ribboned feel and allusions to plant tendrils and palm fronds and pineapples. The Jewish community is represented in a carved synagogue arch—but it is only shown in a photograph, after new French rules protecting early woodwork from travel blocked export of the item itself. Safety concerns over the transport of the famous rock-crystal ewers in several museums also prevented their travel. This exhibition signalled a worthy and vital attempt to bring the Fatimid era to life. Still, more is needed to resurrect the importance of this crucial historical period and its affect on the present.  

The World of the Fatimids ran from 10 March to 2 July 2018 at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto.