Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 2, 2020
Jennifer A. Pruitt Building the Caliphate: Construction, Destruction, and Sectarian Identity in Early Fatimid Architecture New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020. 216 pp.; 71 color ills.; 18 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300246827)

Jennifer A. Pruitt’s Building the Caliphate explores the Fatimids’ architectural patronage. Followers of the Ismaili subbranch of Shi‘ism, the Fatimids (909–1171) established the first dissident caliphate against the Sunni Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad (751–1258). Originating in North Africa, they conquered Egypt in 969, where they built their new capital, Cairo. They envisaged overthrowing the Abbasids, but the Seljuks ruling on the latter’s behalf put an end to that project. Egypt consequently became the permanent center of Fatimid rule. Architecture was instrumental to the construction of this rule and to the dynasty’s political-religious visual representation in the region’s traditionally Sunni context. Their building projects helped promote the Fatimids’ sectarian ideology based on the sacred figure of the “imam-caliph,” the depositary of divine knowledge in line with the seven canonical Shi‘i imams recognized by the Ismailis (“Seveners,” as opposed to the Shi‘i majority or “Twelvers”). In Building the Caliphate, Pruitt reads Fatimid architecture within this particular sectarian context.

Well written and lavishly illustrated, the book offers a vivid presentation of the topic thanks to a combination of historical and art historical information, carefully buttressed by Islamic and Christian primary sources gathered from disparate scholarly works. However, the author relies heavily on earlier studies and seldom advances new knowledge of the Fatimid architectural practice per se. Pruitt focuses on the reign of al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (r. 996–1021), notorious for his persecution of the Fatimid empire’s religious minorities across North Africa, the Levant, and Arabia, and for the programmatic destruction of their worship institutions, most notably Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher (in 1009). Indeed, the Fatimids presided over a diverse population that included a Sunni Muslim majority, alongside vibrant and demographically substantial Christian and Jewish communities. The sectarian Fatimid regime’s stability strongly depended on delicate negotiations with this multifaith population. Deeming “simplistic” (3) the established narrative positing this imam-caliph as a mad disruptor in a Fatimid history characterized by tolerance, Pruitt seeks to locate this narrative within the context of his contemporary world. Her main argument is that this monarch’s actions sprang from a pragmatism forced by circumstances rather than from fanaticism. To frame this argument, Pruitt stretches the exercise of contextualization by surveying Fatimid religious-artistic culture in three full chapters. While the socio-historical part of this survey owes particularly to Paula Sanders’s brilliant book Ritual, Politics, and the City in Fatimid Cairo (State University of New York Press, 1994), the art historical account draws from other seminal works by Irene Bierman, Doris Behrens-Abouseif, and Jonathan Bloom.

The first chapter explains the Ismaili doctrine that engendered the Fatimid conception of the city as centered on the caliphal palace, conceived as a sacred place sanctified by the presence of the venerated imam-caliph. Pruitt extrapolates this with an overview of Fatimid material culture, reiterating generalities found in previous art historical books, such as the lively figural style on ceramics and woodwork or the period accounts attesting to the Fatimid “court’s taste for artistic splendor” (38). However, this overview lends little support to the architecture-focused argument at stake.

The two following chapters delve into the Fatimid caliphate’s complex sociology, underpinned by the relationship between the Ismaili rulers and the pluralist Egyptian population that they not only governed but also integrated into their power apparatus. For example, some viziers famously hailed from Christian and Jewish communities. Noticeably, though, Pruitt mischaracterizes the Jews as immigrants versus the “native” Copts: “Unlike the Copts, who largely represented a native Egyptian community, Egyptian Jews had established themselves in the country through waves of immigrations over many centuries” (49). She thus plays into the highly problematic trope of the purportedly eternally alien Jews, which frames Jewish history as separate from instead of integral to the polities with an ancestral Jewish population.

Pruitt’s descriptions of Fatimid architecture as a material medium of ideological representation largely echo those of established scholars. For example, she draws from Doris Behrens-Abouseif’s observation, in her study of the minarets in Cairo, about the light shining in through the pierced windows of the al-Hakim Mosque’s minarets and al-Aqmar Mosque’s facade (see fig. 3-19, 85). These lighting effects, Pruitt remarks, appear reinforced by the ornamental ray patterns framing the window openings but are also visible from the street when daylight fades and lamps are lit inside the mosques. Pruitt adds to this observation by contrasting these effects with the lux nova, the heavenly aura shining into, rather than shining out of, Gothic cathedrals’ stained glass windows. Unfortunately, this interesting correlation with Gothic structures is only mentioned en passant in a footnote (170n44).

Pruitt articulates her own thesis in chapter 4, where her analyses hinge on two momentous architectural events during al-Hakim’s reign. Seen as responses to the Fatimid regime’s vicissitudes, these events are the caliph’s concealment of the bottom part of the al-Hakim Mosque’s original minarets using masonry encasements and the aforementioned destruction of the Holy Sepulcher Church. To support her view, Pruitt rightly underscores that al-Hakim felt compelled to consolidate the Egyptian Fatimid kingdom and to transform Cairo into a permanent global center of the Ismaili world, unlike his predecessors, who saw Egypt as only a first step in their expansion mission. Although scholars variously associate al-Hakim’s architectural actions with this particular context, Pruitt credits them more specifically to his clever shift in political strategy, from imposing the dynasty’s esoteric Ismailism to accommodating a more ecumenical form of Islam under increasing pressure from the regional Sunni powers. Indeed, the Fatimids had to manage their rivalry with the Seljuks as well as with the Spanish Umayyads, who created the second dissident caliphate in Córdoba (929–1031). About the elusive meaning of the minarets’ encasement, Pruitt privileges one of the views expounded in the previous scholarship that she duly mentions in a footnote (172n13): that al-Hakim intended to mask the original constructions’ esoteric Ismaili message at a critical moment in the empire’s history. In facing an Islamic world dominated by Sunnism, the sectarian Fatimid regime had to reinforce its connection with Sunni Muslims within and outside the empire. Pruitt’s reading of the inscriptions and other contemporary sources cogently supports her choice of interpretation.

However, her analysis of these minarets’ and other Fatimid religious edifices’ ornaments appears to utilize an outdated methodology. Besides her using adjectives such as “bizarre” and “extravagant” that could be read as judgmental (97), Pruitt’s description of the carved motifs on wooden doors donated by al-Hakim to the al-Azhar Mosque as an example of the “archaizing Abbasid beveled style” (103–5) suggests a reliance on questionable art historical categories. Words like “archaizing” and “conservative” (105) reflect a Eurocentric conception of artistic evolution and progress, which posits that the repetition of art forms over time bespeaks a lack of innovation and creativity. Contrarily, in Islam, ubiquitous designs are creatively meaningful. In the Middle Ages, these decorative programs purposely transcended spatiotemporalities by following an aesthetic-ontological principle conceptualizing repetition as expansion, not as conservatism. Similar to the Islamic transaesthetic of muqarnas patterns (fragmented geometric formations resembling honeycombs), the “beveled style” traveled in an unrestrained flux, thus dissolving notions of origin and sectarian or political-ethnographic connotations. Therefore, this style, like other ornaments first found in Samarra (Iraq), is equally Abbasid and Fatimid. By inference, contrary to Pruitt’s suggestion (105), the presence of the beveled style in Fatimid art does not semiotically signify a sectarian or political-ethnographic positioning of any kind. A radical reproblematization of these patterns, and of Islamic ornament in general, is both timely and necessary.

Returning to Pruitt’s core argument, while al-Hakim’s building campaign in Cairo may serve as evidence of his political shrewdness, the same cannot be said of his demolition of religious edifices significant to the empire’s minorities. The author interprets these actions as “productive destruction” (106), since they stimulated the construction of important Islamic institutions. However, this seems to be a biased view, as the author appears to prefer the latter at the expense of the former, particularly by minimizing how disastrous the Holy Sepulcher’s demolition was for Christianity. Concurrently, from the vertical viewpoint of Fatimid history, al-Hakim’s eradication of minority architecture, in its scale, systematism, and symbolic dimension, remains incomparable with any destruction of churches and synagogues by both his predecessors and successors. Combined with his unprecedented persecution of non-Muslims, these actions in the cultural sphere are unanimously considered by the scholarship as exceptional violations of long-held Fatimid dhimma principles (based on Qu’ranic laws protecting the dhimmi, the followers of Abrahamic monotheism). Indeed, in a conscious move to restore justice, these principles were swiftly revived after al-Hakim’s death. On the other hand, from the horizontal perspective of this caliph and his Muslim contemporaries’ reign, Pruitt introduces some nuances into the picture by highlighting a “competitive impetus” (122) that could partly explain al-Hakim’s flouting of the Ismaili dhimma law. Stimulating factors included the precedent of Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil (r. 847–61) in enacting sumptuary laws against the Christians, as well as the sacking of Santiago de Compostela ordered by al-Mansur (938–1002), the chancellor of Umayyad Córdoba.

Chapter 5 looks into the restoration of the Fatimid dhimma law by al-Hakim’s son and successor, al-Zahir (r. 1021–36). Pondering this imam-caliph’s refurbishment of the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem, a key Islamic site comprising the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque, Pruitt endorses the hypothesis that the caliph wished to reemphasize Jerusalem’s holiness as the site of the Mi‘raj, Prophet Muhammad’s night journey to heaven. Although she does not discuss the idea in depth, she compellingly suggests that this refurbishment, marked by the restoration of the original Umayyad gold mosaics inside the al-Aqsa mosque, might have aimed “to counter the Druze declaration of al-Hakim’s divinity” (140).

While the book shows a well-assimilated knowledge of Fatimid architectural patronage, it does not offer much that scholars did not previously unravel. Original inputs are too rare and, in my view, insufficiently argued. Regarding Fatimid art, Pruitt chiefly reiterates the existing findings. Her revisionist narrative of al-Hakim’s reign, the book’s substance, does not succeed in fully remodeling historians’ steady portrayal of al-Hakim’s rule as a disruption in the inclusive Fatimid kingship’s history. That said, Building the Caliphate has the appreciable merit of providing an overall reliable and useful account of Fatimid culture and history, especially for nonexperts.

Valerie Gonzalez
Research Associate, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London