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The Fatimia Period (969-1171)
The Fatimid Dynasty traced their lineage from the Prophet's daughter Fatima Zahra and her husband Ali Ibn Abu Talib. They embraced Shi'a doctrines which rejected the legitimacy of the first three Khalifs of Islam, Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman, who they claimed to be usurpers of Ali's right to succeed the Prophet in leading Islam.
|At first the Shi'a, or Partisans of Ali,
were loyal members of the Muslim umma who simply disagreed with the political
decision to bypass Ali. However Umayyad machinations which lead to the
assassination and martyrdom of Ali and his sons Hassan and Hussein, hardened
Shi'a attitudes and led to a religious schism with metaphysical overtones, which has
persisted to this day.
The Fatimids had separated themselves from the Sunni Khalifate and set up their own western khalifate, which, with their conquest of Egypt in AD969 extended across North Africa. The Fatimids established their imperial capital within the walls of a newly built imperial city called Al Qahira (Cairo), meaning "The Triumphant". Within the walls of the city were lavish palaces and the Mosque of Al Azhar and its University, which is now the world's oldest existing institution of learning.
Egypt flourished under the Fatimids who ruled behind the walls of their imperial city, maintaining the mystery of distance from their subjects. It was not until the reign of the demented Khalif Al-Hakim that the Fatimid decline began.
Although beginning his rule beneficently, building a splendid mosque between Bab Al-Futuh and Bab An-Nasr in Cairo, and emerging from his palace to meet his subjects to get a better understanding of their needs, Al-Hakim degenerated into a murderous despot. He executed anyone to whom he took a disliking and ruled with insane caprice. When he became enamored of staying up all night, he made sleeping at night and working during the day punishable by death. He banned the making of women's shoes. He also banned the consumption of molokhia, a vegetable resembling spinach, which is a staple in the Egyptian diet. He supported the Byzantines against Roman Christians and the destruction of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, which was a pretext for the First Crusade.
His reign ended mysteriously when Al-Hakim rode his favorite mule up into the Mokattam hills at night. The mule was found but Al-Hakim had vanished. Although it is likely that bandits who roamed the outskirts of the city murdered him, hiding out in the hills or in the City of the Dead, his disappearance was mythologized by his more extreme Shi'a followers who believed that he was divine and had ascended to a spiritual realm. Curiously, this heretical sect gained adherents and became known as the Druse who still has communities in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel. Although the Druse are clearly neither Muslim (Shi'a or Muslim), Christian or Jew, their true beliefs remain shrouded in mystery as only the Druse priesthood are privy to their doctrines and ordinary adherents are kept in total ignorance until the age of 40.
Fatimid rule continued over Egypt for another 150 years and the country continued to prosper. However their empire gradually declined due to famine, internal troubles and external pressure from the Seljuk sultans who captured Syria from the Fatimids, and the Christian crusading armies, which conquered Fatimid Palestine and the Lebanon. To protect the remainder of their diminishing empire, the Fatimids collaborated with the Franks, an act which outraged the Seljuk Sultan Nurad'din who sent an expedition to overthrow the Fatimids.
The Sultan deputized his general Shirkoh to repel the Fatimid and Frank armies and conquered Upper Egypt, sending his nephew Salah al-Din Al-Ayyubi to capture Alexandria, thus opening the way for the Ayyubid Dynasty.