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Yacov Lev:

State and Society in Fatimid Egypt (1991)

Yacov Lev. State and Society in Fatimid Egypt,

E. J. Brill. Leiden. 1991


a) The Fatimid Royal Family
The Fatimid royal family amassed immense wealth and held vast properties. Special administrative organs dealt with the management of the private property of the imam and other members of the family. These were the diwan al-khass -- the office of the Private Purse -- and the khizana al-khass -- imam's Private Treasury. Offices of a similar nature, known under the names of other members of the royal family, are also mentioned in the sources. Data on the magnitude as well as the composition of the properties owned by the Fatimids can be gleaned from the sources. The best starting-point is the description of the Persian Fatimid sympathizer, Nasir-i Khusrau, who visited Egypt between August 1047 and April 1048. He says that all the shops in Cairo [according to him there were 20,000) belonged to the imam, and the rent per month varied between two and ten dinars. The caravanserais and the bathhouses in Cairo also belonged to the imam. Other urban properties owned by him included 8,000 buildings in both Cairo and Fustat which were rented on a monthly basis. The concentration of urban properties in Cairo, the city founded by the Fatimids for themselves, is not surprising. The first market in Cairo was built in 365/975-6; the first bathhouses were built by al-'Aziz, and others by his daughter Sitt al-Mulk. However, by the time of al-Hakim, the Fatimid imam already had properties in Fustat as well. This is clearly born out by the text of Azhar's endowment document preserved by Maqrizi. The composition of the urban properties of the imam [riba' sultaniyya] diversified with the time. On the occasion of Ramadan 517/October, a decree was issued: it stated that from that date onward the tenants on riba' sultaniyya would enjoy a reduction in their rent during Ramadan. Under the heading of riba' sultaniyya, various types of business were mentioned, among them were: houses, bathhouses, shops, oil presses, mills and wedding halls. The decree reveals details about urban business not mentioned by other sources. The existance of oil presses in rural areas is referred to in a different context, but not attested to otherwise for the capital. The oil presses in rural areas, in contrast with those in contrast with those in the capital, were privately owned y iqta'-holders.

According to Nasir-i Khusrau, agricultural properties of the imam extended along the Cairo Canal, Khalij. The rural properties of the imams were not limited to Cairo. Muslim rulers of Egypt, prior to the Fatimid period, owned many properties in the country. Muhammad ibn Tughj, for example, possessed many estates and these were undoubtedly seized by the Fatimids. As a minor example of this largely unrecorded process, one can cite the history of Kafur's orchard along the Khalij which became a Fatimid property. The Fatimids owned two other extensive orchards in the capital which were valuable, financially, as they yielded large revenues. The most important rural properties were outside the capital, spread all over Egypt. In 390/1000, Sitt al-Mulk received many iqta'at or land grants whose annual income was 100,000 dinars. These properties included estates in Upper and Lower Egypt, houses and orchards. Also income from customs duties (rusum) was allocated to her as a part of the iqta'. Other women of the Fatimid royal family also derived high incomes from holding iqta'at.

Another source of income for the imams, and other members of the family, was trade. Musabbihi, in the annals of Rabi' II 415/June-July 1024, reports the sinking of seven ships which had left Alexandria for Maghreb. These ships were engaged in trade on the behalf of the imam. Ships of the imam sailed on trading ventures from other ports as well. Nasir-i Khusrau, on his way to Egypt, visited two Mediterranean ports: Tripoli in Lebanon, and Tunis, on the shore of the Sinai Peninsula. In both ports he saw ships of the imam, those in Tripoli were engaged in trade with Byzantium, Sicily and North Africa. Both port towns generated vast incomes for the regime from customs duties. In Tripoli, for example, these revenues covered the expenses of the Fatimid garrison in the city. Thus the importance of those towns was twofold as sources of revenues levied from merchants, and as a base for the private commercial enterprises of the imam and other members of the ruling circles.

I In general there is little information on women in Arabic medieval chronicles. Among the various classes of Muslim medieval women the most referred to in the chronicles are those of the ruling class. This state of affairs is a direct reflection of the character of our sources. Most of the historians were people of the upper classes many of whom had access to the ruling elite. The above remarks also apply to the Fatimid period. This onesideness of our sources is offset by the relative fullness of the data.

Two characteristic traist of women of the royal family are discernible: 1) they were wealthy, some of them immensely rich; 2) some of these women played an important political role in Fatimid history. The work of the eleventh century cadi, Ibn al- Zubayr, entitled Book of Gifts and Treasure,s supplies much information on our topic. Two daughters of al-Mu'izz, Rashida and 'Abda, who died in 442/1050-1 at the age of ninety, left fabulous riches. The estate of Rashida reached the tune of 1,700,000 million of dinars, and that of her sister was no less valuable. These were certainly exceptional cases. UndoubtedIy, more characteristic was the far more modest, nevertheless impressive, estate left by Sitt Misr, the daughter of al-Hakim, who died in 455/1063. The most remarkable piece of information is that describing the slave girl of the emir 'Abd Allah, al-Mu'izz's son. Her estate was worth 400,000 dinars. As a member of the royal family, the funeral prayers were conducted by the chief Fatimid propagandist, Qasim ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz of the Nu'man family. The fact that women of the royal family were wealthy was not a secret. During the crisis of 1024 Abu 'l-Qasim al-Jarjara'l pointed to al-Hakim's mother and his aunt as potential sources for obtaining the funds needed for the state. No one of the administrators dared to take action in that direction.

These data, impressive as they may be, form only part of the picture. Our source sheds light on how these riches could have been gained. As members of the royal family women were entitled to tap the wealth of the country. Both al-Hakim's sister, Sitt al-Mulk, and his daughter, Sitt Misr, were recipients of iqta'. Sitt al-Mulk had wide-spread economic interests in Egypt and in Syria, and maintained a large administrative manpower. The obituary notices by Musabbihi provide information on people in her service. Her personnel included both men and women. Abu l-'Abbas Ahmad ibn al-Maghribi, for example, served as Sitt al-Mulk's agent. He was a man of laudable character who had already served Sitt al-Mulk's mother in the same capacity. Sitt al-Mulk also employed a slave girl of her mother. This slave girl, named Takarrub, was Sitt al-Mulk's confidante. She served as Sitt al-Mulk's informant, and handled the petitions submitted to her lady. Takarrub died as a wealthy Woman .

For women of the Fatimid family of the twelfth century, the information is less abundant but points in the same direction. In the 1150's, Sitt al-Qusur was twice involved in conspiracies against military dictators who endangered the Fatimid dynasty. She spent 50,000 dinars on these plots. She must have been a wealthy woman familiar with state affairs no less than Sitt al- Mulk and Sawida Rasad.

b) Administrators and Viziers.

Next to the army, the administration was the largest state apparatus. The offices mentioned in the sources can be classified into three groups: 1) those which operated on a functional basis and dealt with specific matters such as taxation and correspondence of the state; 2) those which dealt with certain geographical areas; and 3) those which dealt with the affairs of various social groups, mostly the military. In the administrative structure there were built-in checks. Some controllers were attached to the offices and others were sent to the provinces. If one includes all levels of the administration, then it can be estimated that at least several thousand people must have been employed. The bast majority of these would not qualify for the designation of "ruling circles", although they were a privileged group in terms of income, power -- wielding authority vis-a-vis the subjects -- and status. But they were not policy makers, and had no influence over the decisions of the imam.

Among the administrators only a tiny group of people belonged to the so-called "ruling circles". In this group the most important were the civilian viziers, and the heads of administrative offices. The imam and other members of the Fatimid family, and the upper crest of administrative personnel shared many common traits. The administrators wielded wide-rangeing executive powers and, in wealth and life-style, were second only to the imams themselves. The most notable case was the vizir Ya'qub ibn Killis. He was virtually the sole person responsible for state affairs, and his authority extended over the whole Fatimid territories. His house (later known as dar al dabij) was a huge complex from which he ran state business. The petitioners, for example, submitted their cases to the vizier in his] house. Ibn Killis's house became an official residence -- a seat; of the government. Ibn Killis's wealth was fabulous, and his extravagant life-style did not fall behind that of al-'Aziz. Like the Fatimid imam, Ibn Killis was a sponser of cultural activity and was a patron of learned men. Ibn Killis, like al-Ma'mun al-Bata'ihi later, was a recipient of extensive iqta'a-t which yielded large incomes. These grants of iqta' were in additition to other incomes that both Ibn Killis and al-Ma'mun received from the imam for their services. In accordance with a practice widespread in the ruling circles, Ibn Killis, as a private person, was engaged in trade.

Ibn Killis's successor, Ibn 'Ammar, was a man of a far inferior position. Although he resided in a palace in Cairo and owned a house with stables in Fustat, his earnings were modest in comparison with those of his predecessor. In many ways Ibn Ammar was not a typical example. Far more typical of the great civilizn viziers was al-Yazuri. He used Ibn Killis's house as his official residence. In his life-style, and in the patronage he conferred on learned men and charitable acts, al-Yazuri did not lag behind Ibn Killis.

Like the imams and other members of the royal family, the viziers built religious monuments; they were also entrepreneurs, investing in commercial buildings. Ibn Killis was influential in shaping the particular Isma'ili character of Azhar mosque as an institution for the dissemintation of Isma'ili learning. Among the religious monuments, erected on the orders of the viziers, the most renowned is the Aqmar mosque in Cairo built by al-Ma'mun. The mosque has a distinquished Isma'ili contents. Al-Ma'mun also carried out the restoration of mausolea. Such activities were in line with the deeds of other viziers who built mosques in the capital. Building for commercial purposes was no less extensive. Badr al-Jamali, who rebuilt and repopulated Cairo, did not miss the commercial opportunities which occurred in the process of the economic reinvigoration of the town. In the Barjawan quarter, where he built his residence, Badr established a new market. Al- Ma'mun followed his steps; in Cairo, he built a dar al[wakala for merchants from Syria and Iraq. The viziers, like the imams and women of the royal family, in their building activities left a permanent imprint on the physical landscape of the capital.

In contrast with the military dictators of the twelfth century who wielded the sanction of brute force, the relationships between the civilian viziers and the imams were unequally balanced. The extent of the executive powers concentrated in the hands of the civilian viziers, and their personal aaggrandizement aroused the suspicious of the imams who did not hesitate to oust and, occasionally, to kill their civilian viziers. Even the most impressive record of achievements was no guarantee for survival.

Powerful and influential as Ibn Killis was, his dependency on the imam was absolute. Two events of his career exemplify this point: the sudden arrest and, shortly afterwards, the release of Ibn Killis by al-'-Aziz, and the confiscation of most of his inheritance. The notion of the sanctity of personal property is a modern one. In medieval Islam, despite elaborate rules of inheritance, people in the service of the state were subject to confiscation of their properties upon their death or falling out of favour. Al-'Aziz's deed reflected a concept which maintained that property accumulated in the service of the state belonged to the sovereign whose favour had been instrumental in its attaining. The extreme manifestation of this way of thinking is reflected by an event related in Musabbihi's chronicle. When the wife of Jawhar's grandson died, leaving a large inheritance, an attempt was made to seize a third of it for the government. The deed was justified on the grounds that Jawhar, the founder of the family, had been a slave of the Fatimids. One of those who had taken part in these events, the Treasurer, was later himself a victim of the concept that servants of the state do not enjoy full legal rights over their property. For the civilian administrators of the state, it was dim propsect adding to the general precariousness of their position.

The administrators attempted to combat the precariousness of their position by creating a network of personal ties through the administrative apparatus. The wider these ties were spread the better were the chances of survival. The employment of members of the family in the administration, such as father and sons or several brothers, was very common. This practice was to be found at all levels of the administration. But the creation of a family network was not sufficient. Among the administrators, as among the military, the system of patronage was widely used. Through this system, a person (depending on his social standing) was able to attach to himself, or attach himself, to people who were beyond the narrow limits of his immediate family. The most notable example was the vizier al-Yazuri. He owed his career to his determination and the ability to find advocates who pleaded on his behalf before al-Mustansir's mother. There was no-one in a better position than al-Yazuri to appreciate the value of patronage and to make use of the system to his best advantage. It was said of al-Yazuri: "that when he conferred on somebody patronage he raised him to to what was beyond one's expectations". Examples of al-Yazuri's use of patronage are recorded by the historians of the period. In one instance al-Yazuri seriously misjudged the person on whom he had conferred patronage. Abu 'l-Farj 'Abd Allah ibn Muhammad al-Babli, a recipient of al-Yazuri's favours, betrayed his patron by becoming his successor in the post of vizier. Al- Ma'mun, one of the great Fatimid civilian viziers, owed the beginning of his career to another case of a patron-client relationship which went wrong. Al-Ma'mun was fully aware of the importance of human relations, and the need of the ruler to be attentive to the necessities of people in his service. He is characterized as showing great interest in the affairs of common people and simple soldiers. However, al-Ma'mun's relationships with the imam went astray which led to his abrupt downfall and execution. Patronage conferred by the imams upon administrators was far more restricted than upon the military. Only a few such cases are recorded.

c) Slaves and Eunuchs.
Slaves of Fatimid imams, among them notably white and black eunuchs, rose to important positions in the state becomng byi any definition part of the ruling circles. White eunuchs -- Saqaliba i.e. Slavs -- had already been eminent at the Fatimid court in Tunisia. Spain was the main source of supply of Saqaliba eunuchs, and the Fatimid practice of employing them was in line with Aghlabid heritage. The most important eunuch, during the North African period of the Fatimid imamate, was Jawdhar who was entrusted with an extensive range of authority. Other Saqaliba were commanders of naval and land forces. Al-Mu'izz's instructor in the art of writing was a Saqlabi eunuch, and another Saqlabi was his sahib al-sitr (the bearer of the veil behind which the ruler spoke to the people); he carried out delicate diplomatic missions to the chiefs of the Kutama Berbers. In 362/973, with the transfer of the Fatimid imamate to Egypt, the Saqaliba arrived with al-Mu'izz. In Egypt, al-Mu'izz's sahib al-mizalla (the bearer of the ceremonial parasol) was a Saqlabi eunuch.

Al-'Aziz kept a large number (10,000 it is said) of slave girls and eunuchs who always surrounded him. The power which eunuchs could attain is exemplified by Barjawan. At the beginning of al-Hakim's reign, Barjawan ruled the state as a vizier of second rank for almost three years. His ability to assume power was a result of the solidification of his position during al-'Az1z's rule. Barjawan had been brought up at the court and fostered by al-'Aziz who made him responsible for his harem and palaces. The entrusting of the eunuchs with all sorts of assignments was a natural consequence of the day-to-day contacts between them and the ruler. In terms of wealth and power, Barjawan was typical of the top echelon of the ruling circles. A quarter in Cairo was named after him; apparently his residence was situated there. Barjawan had large stables and his inheritance included a great quantity of textiles, many books and some 30,000 dinars in cash.

None of the other eunuchs in Fatimid Egypt reached the pinnacle of power as did Barjawan. Far more typical and common was the case of the black eunuch Mi'dad. He began his career in the service of Sitt al-Mulk who employed him as ustadh of the young al-Zahir. An important turning point in Mi'dad 's career was Friday, 18 Safar 415/1 May 1024, when al- Zahir bestowed on him honorific titles and named him Abu 'l- Fawaris. From another passage of Musabbihi it seems that Mi'dad received other titles as well. Mi'dad belonged to the highest-ranking group of eunuchs -- the muhannak -- i.e. that the turban they wore passed under their chin. According to a long official decree (sijji), read publicly in the palace, Mi'dad was entrusted with the management of the affairs of the soldiers (rijal and protecting the provinces. The event was celebrated in pomp. Among the administrative responsibilities of Mi'dad was the headship of the Office of the Kutama. He was among the small group of administrators and courtiers who took the reins of power into their hands preventing al-Zahir from running the affairs of the state. In the circumstances of the year 1024, the execution of the duties entrusted to Mi'dad was a most demanding task. Because of a severe famine, the army was unpaid, starving and rioting. These difficulties brought Mi'dad into clashes with other people at the court -- the commander of the troops in the provinces and the market supervisor in the capital; they accused him of too lenient conduct towards the troops engaged in looting. However, when the riots reached the capital, Mi'dad took steps to protect Fustat and the civilian population from the soldiers who went on the rampage.

The administrative assignment of Mi'dad as the head of the Office of the Kutama was atypical of the posts designated to the eunuchs such posts usually being of an executive nature. (Although under al-Hakim, for short periods, some eunuchs served in administrative posts.) Many of the Fatimid expeditionary forces in Palestine and Syria were commanded by eunuchs. Eunuchs were frequently appointed as governors of towns and provinces. The two most important executive posts in the capital -- the chief of police and the supervisor of the markets -- were on many occasions held by eunuchs. These officials had at their discretion the most sensitive aspects of city life; suppression of crime and commerce, including the supply of wheat and bread. Other eunuchs, serving as generals and governors, also wielded wide powers in spheres of vital importance for the state. As with other people in ruling circles, some eunuchs attained great wealth. In Cairo there were quarters and lanes known under the names of certain eunuchs testifying to the extent of their households and the size of houses. The most notable case was of Sayf al-Dawla Nadir al-Saqlabl (who died on 12 Safar 382/14 April 992) after whom one of the lanes was named. He left 300,000 dinars in cash and property worth 80,000 dinars, including horses and slaves. Of Mi'dad's wealth we know less; he owned a large number of horses and sheep. He was not exceptional in investing in livestock; others -- a qadi, a top-ranking administrator, and less famous persons among the Kutama -- did the same. Their livestock were kept in Jiza, the area of Nile west bank opposite the capital. Eunuchs in accordance with the practice of other people in the ruling circles sponsered the building of mosques, even Congregational ones.

Were the eunuchs, as slaves or freedmen, at any disadvantage in comparison with free-born people who belonged to the ruling circles ? The rationale behind the institution of slavery and the advancement of eunuchs to high positions suggests a negative answer. The ruler turned to his slaves and eunuchs in expectation of loyalty and exemplary service. The dependency of the slave on his master, his estrangement from society (the eunuchs were an extreme example) made them instrumental in achieving those goals. In order to faciliate the functioning of slaves and eunuchs in a society of free born people, any manifestations of contempt toward them, because of their servile status, should have been suppressed. The same applies in respect to racial prejudice against blacks. These points are nicely illustrated in al-Zahir's decree announcing the titles bestowed on Mi'dad and the duties vested to him. The favours conferred on Mi'dad were explained as rewards for loyal service. The decree and the pompous ceremony of its reading aimed at faciliating Mi'dad's entrance into the ruling circles as al-Zahir's trusted man.

There were two other aspects which also contributed towards the acceptance of slaves and eunuchs in the corridors of power. The first was economic: the supply of eunuchs, white and black, was not abundant, and they were expensive. Their high price explains why eunuchs were included in gifts exchanged by rulers of the period. Thus, we should not be misled into thinking that eunuchs were among the ruling circles in great numbers. The eunuchs were conspicuous, attracting the attention of the historians, but they neither dominated the ruling circles nor constituted a majority. In the multi-ethnic composition of the ruling establishment, eunuchs and blacks, were yet other social group. The people of the ruling circles themselves used slaves, and to a lesser extent eunuchs, imitating the example set by the ruler. People who themselves were of servile status employed slaves.

The ease in which slaves and eunuchs moved in the court and the ruling circles should not obscure the basically inhumane features of slavery and castration. When convenient the servile status could always be invoked. Following the killing of Barjawan, al-Hakim addressed the people in the palace who were in an apprehensive mood by saying: "Barjawan was my slave and I employed him. He acted in good faith, and I treated him favourably. Then he misbehaved, so I killed him". The message conveyed by the speech was obvious: a slave is a slave, and his killing a trifling affair of no concern for others. While the punishment of a slave who misbehaved was death, the reward for a slave who served loyally was manumission. Zaydan, a Saqlabi eunuch of al-Hakim and the bearer of his parasol, who had masterminded Barjawan's killing, was emancipated and the title ustadh was bestowed on him. Typically of the Muslim patterns of slavery, the emanicipation did not sever the master from his freedman. Bonds of slavery became bonds of patronage. Zaydan signed his letters as mawla amir al- mu'minin -- the client of the Commander of the Believers. Servile status and castration could be overlooked when convenient: slaves were nevertheless despised. Mutanabbi's poetry against Kafur and the remarks of the Fatimid propagandists on him reflected, and echoed, popular feelings.


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