The courts of Cairo, Qairwan, and Fez rivaled one another in the support of architecture, painting, music, poetry, and philosophy. But nearly all the surviving manuscripts of Islamic Africa in this period are hidden in libraries which Western scholarship is just beginning to explore; much of the art has perished, and only the mosques proclaim the vigor and spirit of the age. At Qairwan stands the mosque of Sidi Oqba, originally built in 670, seven times restored, and mostly dating from 838; its cloisters of round arches are upheld by hundreds of Corinthian columns from the ruins of Carthage; its pulpit is a masterpiece of wood carving, its mihrab a splendor of porphyry and faïence; its square and massive minaret—the oldest in the world13—set a Syrian style for the minarets of the West. This mosque made Qairwan the fourth holy city of Islam, one of “the four gates to Paradise.” Only less sacred and magnificent were the mosques of Fez and Marraqesh, of Tunis and Tripoli.
In Cairo the mosques were many and immense; 300 still adorn that charming capital. The mosque of Amr, begun in 642, was rebuilt in the tenth century; nothing remains of its early constituents except the fine Corinthian columns judiciously rescued from Roman and Byzantine ruins. The mosque of Ibn Tulun (878) precariously preserves its first form and ornament. A high crenellated wall surrounds its roomy court; within are pointed arches older than any others in Egypt except the arch of the Nilometer (865)—a structure built on an island in the Nile to measure the rise of the river; possibly this graceful and convenient form of the arch passed from Egypt through Sicily and the Normans to Gothic Europe.14 In the zigguratlike minaret, and in the domed tomb of Ibn Tulun, are horseshoe arches—one of the less pleasing features of Moslem art. It is told of Ibn Tulun that he had intended to raise the arches on 300 columns; but when he learned that these could be secured only by dismantling Roman or Christian edifices, he decided, instead, to support the arches with massive piers of brick;15 here again this mosque may have suggested a characteristic element of the Gothic style. Finally, as if to make the building a steppingstone to Chartres, some of the windows were filled with colored glass, some with grilles of stone in rosette or stellar or other geometrical designs; these, however, are of uncertain date.
In 970–2 Jauhar, the converted Christian slave who had conquered Egypt for the Fatimids, built the mosque of el-Azhar (“the brilliant”); some of the original structure is still in place; here too are pointed arches, rising on 380 columns of marble, granite, or porphyry. The mosque of al-Hakim (990–1012) was built of stone, and most of it survives, though in disuse and decay; some conception of its medieval splendor may be gathered from its elegant stucco arabesques, and the fine Kufic inscription of the frieze. Once these mosques, now as forbidding as fortresses (and doubtless so designed) were glorified with exquisite carving and lettering, mosaic, and tiled mihrabs, and chandeliers that have become museum rarities. The mosque of Ibn Tulun had 18,000 lamps, many of varicolored enameled glass.16
The minor arts were practiced in Islamic Africa with Moslem patience and finesse. Lustered tiles appear in the Qairwan mosque. Nasir-i-Khosru (1050) described Cairene pottery “so delicate and translucent that the hand placed on the outside can be seen from within.”17 Egyptian and Syrian glass continued their ancient excellence. Fatimid rock-crystal wares, preserved intact through a thousand years, are treasured in Venice, Florence, and the Louvre. Wood carvers delighted the eye with their work on mosque doors, pulpit panels, mihrabs, and window lattices. From their Coptic subjects the Egyptian Moslems took the art of decorating boxes, chests, tables, and other objects with inlay or marquetry of wood, ivory, bone, or mother-of-pearl. Jewelry abounded. When Turkish mercenaries raided the chambers of al-Mustansir they came away with thousands of articles in gold—inkstands, chessmen, vases, birds, artificial trees set with precious stones….18 Among the spoils were curtains of silk brocade worked with gold thread, and bearing the pictures and biographies of famous kings. From the Copts, again, the Moslems learned to stamp and print patterns upon textiles with wooden blocks; this technique was apparently carried from Islamic Egypt to Europe by Crusaders, and may have shared in the development of printing. European merchants rated Fatimid textiles above all others, and told with awe of Cairene and Alexandrian fabrics so fine that a robe could be drawn through a finger ring.19 We hear of luxurious Fatimid rugs, and of tents made of velvet, satin, damask, silk, and cloth of gold, and decorated with paintings; a tent made for Yazuri, al-Mustansir’s vizier, required the labor of 150 men over nine years, cost 30,000 dinars ($142,500), and claimed to picture all the known animal species of the world excepthomo lupus. All that remains of Fatimid paintings is some fragmentary frescoes in the Arab Museum at Cairo. No miniatures survive from Fatimid Egypt, but Maqrizi—who in the fifteenth century wrote a history of painting—tells us that the library of the Fatimid caliphs contained hundreds of richly illuminated manuscripts, including 2400 Korans.
In the days of al-Hakim the caliphal library at Cairo had 100,000 volumes; in al-Mustansir’s time, 200,000. We are told that the manuscripts were lent without charge to all responsible students. In 988 the vizier Yaqub ibn Qillis persuaded the Caliph Aziz to provide tuition and maintenance for thirty-five students in the mosque of el-Azhar; thus began the oldest existing university. As this madrasah developed it drew pupils from all the Moslem world, as the University of Paris, a century later, would draw them from all Europe. Caliphs, viziers, and rich individuals added year by year to the scholarships, until in our time el-Azhar has some 10,000 students and 300 professors.20 One of the most pleasant sights of world travel is the assemblage of students in the cloisters of this thousand-year-old mosque, each group squatting in a semicircle at the base of a pillar before a seated savant. Famous scholars from all Islam came here to teach grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, poetry, logic, theology, Hadith, Koranic exegesis, and law. The students paid no fees, the teachers received no salaries. Dependent upon governmental subsidy and private philanthropy, the famous university tended to ever more zealous orthodoxy, and its directing ulemas or learned men had a discouraging effect upon Fatimid literature, philosophy, and science. We hear of no great poets under this dynasty.
Al-Hakim set up in Cairo a Dar al-Hikmah (“Hall of Wisdom”); its main function was to teach Ismaili Shi’ite theology; but its curriculum included astronomy and medicine. Al-Hakim financed an observatory, and helped Ali ibn Yunus (d. 1009), perhaps the greatest of Moslem astronomers. After seventeen years of observations Yunus completed the “Hakimite tables” of astral movements and periods, and gave more precise values than before to the inclination of the ecliptic, the precession of the equinoxes, and solar parallax.
The brightest name in Moslem Egyptian science is that of Muhammad ibn al-Haitham, known to medieval Europe as Alhazen. Born at Basra in 965, he won repute there as a mathematician and engineer. Hearing that al-Haitham had a plan for regulating the annual inundation of the Nile, al-Hakim invited him to Cairo. The plan proved impracticable, and al-Haitham had to hide in obscurity from the incalculable Caliph. Fascinated, like all medieval thinkers, by Aristotle’s attempt to formulate a rational synthesis of knowledge, he composed several commentaries on the works of the philosopher; none of these commentaries has reached us. We know al-Haitham chiefly by his Kitab al-Manazir, or Book of Optics; of all medieval productions this is probably the most thoroughly scientific in its method and thought. Al-Haitham studied the refraction of light through transparent mediums like air and water, and came so close to discovering the magnifying lens that Roger Bacon, Witelo, and other Europeans three centuries later based upon his work their own advances toward the microscope and the telescope. He rejected the theory of Euclid and Ptolemy that vision results from a ray leaving the eye and reaching the object; rather “the form of the perceived object passes into the eye, and is transmitted there by the transparent body”—the lens.21 He remarked the effect of the atmosphere in increasing the apparent size of sun or moon when near the horizon; showed that through atmospheric refraction the light of the sun reaches us even when the sun is as much as nineteen degrees below the horizon; and on this basis he calculated the height of the atmosphere at ten (English) miles. He analyzed the correlation between the weight and the density of the atmosphere, and the effect of atmospheric density upon the weight of objects. He studied with complex mathematical formulas the action of light on spherical or parabolic mirrors, and through the burning glass. He observed the half-moon shape of the sun’s image, during eclipses, on the wall opposite a small hole made in the window shutters; this is the first known mention of the camera obscura, or dark chamber, on which all photography depends. We could hardly exaggerate the influence of al-Haitham on European science. Without him Roger Bacon might never have been heard of; Bacon quotes him or refers to him at almost every step in that part of the Opus maius which deals with optics; and Part VI rests almost entirely on the findings of the Cairene physicist. As late as Kepler and Leonardo European studies of light were based upon al-Haitham’s work.
The most striking of all effects produced by the Arab conquest of North Africa was the gradual but almost complete disappearance of Christianity. The Berbers not only accepted Mohammedanism, they became its most fanatical defenders. Doubtless economic considerations entered: non-Moslems paid a head tax, and converts were for a time freed from it. When in 744 the Arab governor of Egypt offered this exemption, 24,000 Christians went over to Islam.22 Occasional but severe persecutions of Christians may have influenced many to conform to the ruling faith. In Egypt a Coptic minority held out bravely, built their churches like fortresses, maintained their worship in secret, and survive to this day. But the once crowded churches of Alexandria, Cyrene, Carthage, and Hippo were emptied and decayed; the memory of Athanasius, Cyril, and Augustine faded out; and the disputes of Arians, Donatists, and Monophysites gave way to the quarrels of Sunni and Ismaili Mohammedanism. The Fatimids propped up their power by gathering the Ismailites into a Grand Lodge of complex initiations and hierarchical degrees; the members were used for political espionage and intrigue; the forms of the order were transmitted to Jerusalem and Europe, and strongly influenced the organization, ritual, and garb of the Templars, the Illuminati, and the other secret fraternities of the Western world. The American businessman is periodically a zealous Mohammedan, proud of his secret doctrine, his Moroccan fez, and his Moslem shrine.