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At its height, the Fatimid Caliphate stretched across the southern Mediterranean, from eastern Morocco to southern Turkey. From their base in Syria in 909, the Fatimids’ Ismaili leaders marched across the North African desert, touched Sicily and founded Cairo in 969; it served as their capital, and one of the most vibrant centres of art and commerce on Earth, until their downfall in 1171.

One of four massive marble panels on display at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto as part of an exhibit exploring the era of the Egyptian Fatimid Caliphate.Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo

Despite their success, the Fatimids made for odd conquerers. Followers of an esoteric, revelation-centric branch of Islam analogous to modern Sufism, they were among the most tolerant military dictators the world has ever known. Although they vanquished their enemies, they never called themselves sultan or emir, sticking with the more benign “caliph”: successor, as in successor to Mohammed, or spiritual leader. And although they were – as you would expect – quite devout, they never had much success converting many of their subjects, nor did they ever really seem to try, allowing other religions to practise and flourish, particularly in Cairo.

It’s this unique quality that Dr. Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani aims to highlight in The World of the Fatimids, an exhibition on now at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. A long-time collector, scholar and 50-year columnist for the International Herald Tribune, Melikian-Chirvani helped gather rare Fatimid objects from across the globe – many of which are being displayed for the first time – to demonstrate the esoteric vitality of an often-overlooked empire.

The portable prayer niche

Among the most curious artifacts in the exhibition are a collection of small wooden mihrabs, each a little bit bigger than your average smartphone. A mihrab is an Islamic prayer niche, typically carved into the wall of a mosque or home, helping the devout pray in the direction of Mecca. These miniature versions, which are not found in any other area or era of Islamic life, are carved reproductions – capable, in Melikian-Chirvani’s figuring, of being removed from the wall, depending on who was coming into your home.

An 11th century Egyptian Mihrab, carved from rosewood.Hughes Dubois / RMN-GP/Musée du Louvre

The devout have often found reason to hide their religious affiliation, although it’s typically more as a means of escaping oppression – think of various ways Jews hid in plain sight through Europe. Although some of these mihrabs are from other Shia sects, the Fatimids were nevertheless in power in Cairo at the time, hardly necessitating hiding on the part of their followers.

The theory, then, is that one could remove the prayer niche as a way of making certain neighbours and visitors more comfortable. Cairo at the time was intensely pluralistic: “the New York of the Islamic world,” as Melikian-Chirvani describes it. Coptic Christians, Jews and other Muslims interacted freely under Islamic rule – for instance, some of the other Islamic religious artifacts in the exhibit show signs of Hebrew metalwork. These portable prayer niches, then, seem to have been a way not so much to hide as to make strangers feel more welcome – or at least to set aside religion and get down to business.

Eagle side-eye

For Melikian-Chirvani, one of the exhibition’s underlying themes is the irrepressible irreverence of Fatimid craftsmen. Nearly all of the figures depicted on the pottery and metalwork of the show have some cartoonish, nearly ironic qualities, from puckish, grinning rabbits to the fatuous royals who are hunting them.

This bowl, though, which features an eagle – a prized royal symbol – drawn in gold has a particularly special prod. Most obviously, the eagle is sporting a not-exactly-regal countenance. More subtly, below its left claw, you can see the signature of the artist, Muslim Ibn al-Dahhan. Trick is, the signature is written upside down: In order to read it properly, you literally have to turn the royal symbol on its head.

Given the bowl’s intricacy and what it depicts, it was almost certainly given royal approval; judging by what survives, al-Dahhan was a favoured royal craftsman, too. The implication, Melikian-Chirvani says, is that the Fatimid rulers welcomed, or at least tolerated, this sort of irreverence, even toward themselves – which is not a trait we’ve come to particularly associate with leaders of any era.

“It stems from their esotericism: Anyone who thinks that knowledge has degrees, lower and superior degrees, but remains forever relative, will take a relativist view of the world – that, by definition, inclines you to complete tolerance,” he explains. “You know, if you’re a relativist, you’re not going to hammer people on the head and say, ‘I want you to do that.’”

Face down in the dirt

The second room of the exhibit is dominated by four massive marble panels, three of which have never been seen publicly before. Intricate and intriguing on their own – they depict royal symbols, showing the Fatimids’ clear lineage from post-Mohammed Iran – they are perhaps most notable for how they reveal the fate of the dynasty.

An Egyptian panel, carved from marble, circa 1171.Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo

The Fatimid rulers fell along with Cairo in 1171, to what would become Saladin’s Ayyubid sultanate. Although the Fatimids seem to have supported all manner of arts and architecture, virtually everything but their mosques were destroyed, victims of a more familiar manner of regime change. What few fragments remain are often hard to precisely identify or place, scattered as they were to the winds – even many of the pieces in the exhibit lack exact details of their discovery or progeny, simply dusted off and eventually delivered to museums, particularly in Cairo, over the past few hundred years.

These panels, which are unfinished, were probably being carved for use on one of the Fatimid palaces, which were said to rise like mountains from the desert. Their precise purpose is lost to history, but we do know how they were found: face down, buried under sand and rubble – an obvious sign, Melikian-Chirvani says, of disrespect. Seems most of history’s winners are not quite as gracious as the mystic Ismailis of Middle Ages Egypt.

The World of the Fatimids continues until July 2 at Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum (agakhanmuseum.org).