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Objects and knowledge in Egypt 4th-19th centuries AD

The object in Christian Egypt

The treasury and library of church and monastery may provide parallels to the earlier institutions of object and knowledge. The focus falls now on the more heavily ornamented objects used in the liturgy, and on the collections of books. The emphasis on a sacred book, the Bible, gives Christianity the same intense focus on the written word as object, as is found in the other 'religions of the Book', Judaism and Islam. In Egypt, the major difference between Christian institutions and those of earlier times lies in the relations of power: in contrast to other periods and faiths, Christian Egypt never had its own resident ruler. Even the Byzantine Emperors ruling Egypt from the fourth to seventh centuries AD were Orthodox Christian, regarding the Monophysite Christianity of Egypt as a heresy. With the patronage of that Christian state concentrated outside Egypt, on the imperial capital Byzantium (present-day Istanbul), there would have been less opportunity for accumulating extensive treasuries of culturally valued objects. However, the Christian Egyptian attitude to the single object and to collections of objects remains to be researched.

Institutions of knowledge in Islamic Egypt

Islam projects itself consciously as a quest, and has therefore always cultivated and promoted institutions of knowledge, learning and teaching. The largest branch of Islam, Sunni Islam, maintains its teachings through the institution of the madrasa 'school', and many of the most famous buildings of medieval Cairo include the magnificent architectural setting for these institutions of learning. Today the mosque of al-Azhar in Cairo acts as a principal centre of teaching in the Islamic world, above all for theology, but also for branches of science such as medicine; it was founded in AD 970 by the Fatimid conqueror Gawhar. From AD 969 to 1171 Egypt was ruled by the Fatimid dynasty, adhering to the Shia branch of Islam. The Fatimid rulers built their new fortified Residence city at Cairo, just north of Fustat, the first centre of power in Islamic Egypt, and its sixth Khalif, al-Hakim, created in AD 1004/ AH 395 one of the most remarkable institutes of medieval times - Dar al-ilm, the House of Knowledge (Walker 1997: 189-193). According to a contemporary writer, al-Musabbihi, al-Hakim endowed the Dar al-ilm with books on a range of subjects, from his own palace treasury, and paid for the scholars to teach there and, crucially, for support staff and furnishings. The institution was open to all who wished to study there, with writing materials provided. Out of an annual grant of 257 dinar, 209 dinar went to the following:

Purpose Dinars
reed mats 10
paper 90
salary of keeper (al khazin) 48
water 12
attendants 15
writing materials for scholars teaching 12
repair of door/window curtains 1
repair of books and replacing pages 12
felt for attendants for winter 5
carpets for winter 4
Cairo in the Fatimid Period


This list demonstrates an awareness of the material cost and practical importance of maintenance necessary to survival of an institution. Such awareness is not documented in such detail for institutions better known in Eurocentric museum histories, such as the Museum and Library of Alexandria. The list makes physical security and conservation central, in contrast to the visible political economy of the modern Western institution of museum.

The Dar al-ilm was closed following an incident of heresy, and reopened later in a new location: under al-Hakim it lay on the west side of the Lesser Palace, entered from Bab al-Tabbanin, and so directly in contact with the then centre of political and military power, whereas in its new location it was somewhat marginalised at the east side of the Great Palace. Even on its earlier site, its priceless collection of books (and other objects?) had been ransacked at one point by government authorities seeking money to pacify senior commanders - a sad early result of the general modern attitude to collections as 'treasure' in economic terms alone. Despite the dearth of information on its development and operation during the later Fatimid period, the Dar al-ilm stands out as an exemplary medieval institution of knowledge.

When Saladin removed the Shiite Fatimids from power and restored Sunni Islam in Egypt, he founded the madrasa at the Cairo mausoleum of the Imam al-Shafii, founder of one of the four rites of Sunni Islam, who had died in Egypt in AD 820. The mausoleum itself was rebuilt under the nephew of Saladin, al-Kamil, in AD 1211/ AH 608, and is the largest free-standing mausoleum in Egypt today. The Cairo madrasa of al-Kamil himself became a principal centre of learning in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries AD, until the famine of AD 1403-1404 reduced its income. The Cairo mausoleum and madrasa of the last in the Saladin dynasty, al-Salih Nagm al-Din, offered the model for later theological schools, with a section for each of the four Sunni legal schools, adjacent to the tomb of the founder. This madrasa acted as the supreme court of justice for Cairo throughout the following Mamluk period.


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