14 January 2010

Northwatch Article: Winter in Fatimid Cairo

Middle East Winter: An image of Cairo during the Middle Ages
Julia May (aka Samia al-Kaslaania)
October 2009

Cairo was a bustling metropolitan area during the Fatimid Caliphate (969-1171), with merchants arriving from all over the Mediterranean to trade goods, shop the market, and share news. As anywhere in the Middle Ages, urban living shifted with the seasons as much as rural life.

In the home, extra furniture such as curtains and rugs would come out of storage for the winter season. These would join the everyday couches (in this case a matched set of cushions and pillows without a wooden frame), draperies, carpets, and low tables. Additional multipurpose cushions in the home would be stacked next to the door, ready to serve as seating in the evening.

Evenings during the shorter winter days were illuminated by linseed oil, wax, or—for the wealthier families— the preferred olive oil [1]. Family time might be spent studying religious texts as it was a mark of pride for people of all ages to be able to quote from them; and such continuing education was also regarded as an act of devotion [2].

When they weren’t studying, children could be playing indoors with puppets, dolls, or board games such as chess and backgammon [3]. Women might be doing handicrafts which could be sold in the market, or perhaps mending a “Byzantine” bed cover, prized among the home’s possessions [4]. Adult men would be gathered in a different part of the house when hosting guests. They might play card games, talk philosophy, or discuss the thriving trade in the city.

When preparing for bed, cushions, mats, and blankets would be collected into the interior rooms. There were no designated “bedrooms” in urban Cairo homes during the Middle Ages, instead family members would spread out during the hot summer months to the windows and patios, and draw together during the chilly winter months. By the end of November most of the family would be sleeping in the smaller, inner rooms to conserve heat as it can at times get cold enough to put a transparent sheet of ice on water at night.

Rising in the morning, family members would stack their bedding neatly in the corner. Cushions used for seating would return to the main gathering rooms to be stacked next to the door. Men would prepare for working at their store in the market, and mothers would dress children neatly for school at the local mosque, church, or synagogue. Men would then accompany the children and attend morning prayers before starting their day. And so the work day would begin.

[1]Goitein, S.D. A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, Vol. 1. Berkley: Univ of California Press, 1967.
[2]Goitein, S.D. Vol. 2., 1971.
[3]Lindsey, James E. Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005.
[4]Goitein, Vol. 1. Byzantine made, or made in the Byzantine style, bedcovers were an expensive item and listed in many Fatimid-era trousseaux.

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