In his new book “Caliph of Cairo” (AUC Press, 2009), Paul E. Walker, a historian of Medieval Islamic history based at the University of Chicago and former Director of the American Research Center in Egypt, tells the captivating tale of the rise and sudden disappearance of Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, whose erratic rule of the Fatimid Empire from 996 to 1021 left a legacy of unanswered questions.
A controversial character, one night, just as the dynasty reached its peak of power and fortune, Al-Hakim rode through Cairo’s southern gates and was never heard from again. Speculations of murder, or the personal choice to abandon a demanding royal life, were never confirmed; the only thing for certain is that Al-Hakim was never found.
But, according to Walker’s research, the ruler never left the memories of his people. In Islam, the caliphate denotes supreme leadership of the entire Muslim community. All Fatimid caliphs claimed to be descendants of the Prophet Muhammad and Ali B. Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law.
The Druze–an independent religious sect which began as an offshoot of Islam–continued to think of Al-Hakim as a manifestation of God, interpreting his disappearance as a mere reversion to nonhuman form. To the Ismaili Muslims, the ruler was the sixteenth Imam, directly descended from the Prophet Muhammad. But, to the Jews and the Christians, Al-Hakim was a vicious persecutor.
Al-Hakim came into power at age 11, upon the death of his father. The story goes that the young Al-Hakim was playing in a tree when Barjawan, Al-Hakim’s caretaker and tutor, called out to the boy to, “end your game and come down.” Indeed, with Barjawan placing a special jeweled turban on the young boy’s head, kissing the ground before him, and uttering the phrase “Greeting to the commander of believers,” one childish game came to an end, with a much more intricate one lying ahead.
The new caliph was met with high expectations. He had spent his childhood exploring literature, investigating the fine points of sciences, and observing the stars. Now, he would look to enlarge his empire to embrace all of the Islamic domain, maybe even the world.
Al-Hakim’s empire spanned from North Africa and Sicily to Syria and the holy cities of Arabia, but Cairo was home. “He rode incessantly in, through, and about Cairo and its older urban sibling, Fustat, by night and by day, often all but alone, as if it belonged to him and he to it. In a sense this caliph haunted his city, this city and its people, in a way no other ruler has ever done,” writes Walker.
Like his vanishing, Al-Hakim’s rule was peculiar and inconsistent, his behavior erratic. He restricted women from leaving their houses, attempting to enforce the rule by forbidding cobblers from making women’s shoes. He cursed the Prophet’s companions, forbade the consumption of beer and wine, outlawed mulukhiyya, and ordered the systematic killing of Egypt’s dogs.
Some considered him infallible, while others viewed him as a violator of Islam. He was at once condemned for ordering the destruction of synagogues and churches, and praised for his efforts in nurturing a public library. Despite his record of often-bizarre cruelty, Al-Hakim was popular among the masses.
One explanation for his volatile reign might have been his diagnosis of “melancholia,” a form of madness, the treatment for which was soaking in a large tub of violet oil. Such madness combined with tyrannical power could have proved itself to be an utterly lethal combination.
But the caliph also led a complex bureaucratic system, ranging from top officials to police to market inspectors. Owing to the institutional vastness, it is hard to blame Al-Hakim fully, or give him complete credit, for what transpired, both good and bad.
The royal library during Al-Hakim's time was a treasure, holding a wide selection of books collected by Fatimid caliphs. Keen on academic advancement, Al-Hakim also inaugurated Dar Al ‘ilm, a public academy designated solely for the advancement, preservation, and propagation of knowledge. The caliph was also extremely generous when it came to building, furnishing, and renovating mosques, at one point sending seven boxes, holding 1,298 copies of the Quran, some written entirely in gold, to an old mosque in Fustat.
But bloodshed remains the most prominent characteristic of Al-Hakim’s era, and the many executions and killings forced into question the legitimacy of all his decisions. Still, the ruler had many fervent defenders.
Any account of the caliph’s rule suffers from a lack of sources, and there are no remaining personal papers or memoirs from Al-Hakim himself. But perhaps the paradoxes are the legacy. Walker suggests that the contradictions were different sides of the same person, co-existing throughout Al-Hakim’s life, defining rather than confusing his character.
Which component ends up being highlighted reveals as much about who is telling the history as it does about the history itself. Walker writes, “Ultimately, both views of him, the mad and despotic tyrant irrationally given to killing those around him on a whim, and the ideal supreme ruler, divinely ordained and chosen, whose every action was just and righteous, were to persist, the one among his enemies and those who rebelled against him, and the other in the hearts of true believers, who, while perhaps perplexed by events, nonetheless remained avidly loyal to him to the end."