Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Bab Zuweila (Cairo, 1092 AD)

Fatimids built Bab Zuweila (Cairo, 1092 AD)

Overthrowing the Abbasids in Egypt

In 908 AD, a new family rose up in Egypt and took control of Egypt from the Abbasids. This family was called the Fatimids, after Mohammed‘s daughter Fatima, because they claimed to be descended from her.

The Fatimids were Shiites

The family began as leaders of a heretical Shiite Islamic sect, the Ismailis (ish-my-EEL-ees), in Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula. They sent people from Yemen to Egypt to take over as the Abbasid caliphs began to weaken, and soon succeeded in taking over not only Egypt but much of North Africa from the Abbasids. They built the city of Cairo to be their capital, near the old capital of Alexandria but a new, Islamic city.

Al Azhar Mosque, Cairo, 970 AD

Fatimids built Al Azhar Mosque, Cairo, 970 AD

Fatimids conquer the Eastern Mediterranean

The Fatimids quickly conquered the old Egyptian territories in West Asia as well: Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and also Arabia. And they were powerful in the northern Mediterranean too. In 934 AD, a Fatimid fleet sacked and burned the city of Genoa, in northern Italy. They were most powerful in the 1000s AD.

Fatimid trade with Europe

During the 900s and 1000s AD, the Fatimids traded with Italian cities across the Mediterranean, under the control of Matilda of Canossa. This trade made both the Italians and the Fatimids very rich. Egypt sold silkpapersteelcotton, and sugar to the Italians. The Italian cities of Genoa, Florence, and Pisa sold it on to Northern Europe. In return, Egyptian traders brought back European wool cloth, perfume, wine, furs, silver, and gold to sell to people further East along the Silk Road.

(More about Matilda of Canossa)

Fatimid trade with East Africa

In the 900s and 1000s AD, Egypt also traded to the south, with Sudan and Ethiopia. Egyptian traders bought ivory and gold and ebony, and they sold glass beads, steel knives, and cotton cloth.

(More about medieval African trade)

The decline of the Fatimids

A plate from the Fatimid period (1000s AD), Egypt

A plate from the Fatimid period (1000s AD), Egypt

But by the end of the 1000s, the Fatimids were not as powerful as they had been before. In 1098, Egypt lost Israel and parts of Lebanon and Syria to the French and English soldiers of the First Crusade, who were taking advantage of Fatimid weakness.

(More about the First Crusade)

In the 1100s, they lost control of Syria and Arabia, and the Fatimid caliphs had lost most of their power to their generals, the Amirs.

Saladin takes control of Egypt

Finally in 1187 one of the Fatimid generals, Saladin (Sulah ad-Din), got rid of the last Fatimid ruler, and Egypt became Sunni once again, and part of the Ayyubid Islamic state ruled by Saladin and his sons.

(More about Saladin)

Learn by doing: paint a tile in an Islamic pattern
Go on to the Ayyubids

Bibliography and further reading about the Fatimid Caliphate:


Fatimid architecture
More about North Africa
More about the Islamic Empire home