14 April 2011

An Agricultural Fatimid Ceremony

An Agricultural Fatimid Ceremony
Sayyeda al-Kaslaania, March 2011.

The majesty and mystery of the Nile River has supported life in Egypt for millennia. The Nile rises almost magically during the hottest and driest part of the year, from June to September. The annual flooding not only gave the land resources it needed to sustain agricultural life, but also threatened it. If the level of the water climbed too high, the Nile broke its banks and destroyed surrounding infrastructure; if it failed to rise adequately the economy was crushed by famine. Many rituals involving the floodwaters had evolved throughout the years, and the Fatimid rulers of the Middle Ages continued this tradition faithfully.

During this period, a specially trained “guardian of the Nile” used Nilometers to track the progress of the flooding and report daily to the caliph. When the Nilometer indicated that the river had reached the proper height to support the community, a grand ceremony was staged to cut the earthen dams on canals used for watering crops. This was one of the few times in the year that regular people would have the opportunity to see the caliph, and he took good advantage of it. By making this a public ceremony every year, he reassured the people that the administration continued to support the infrastructure of the community, and thereby the economy.

Typical of the Fatimid period, these ceremonies were astonishingly grand. In 1047 CE, a procession of ten thousand fully-armored horses—adorned with jewel-studded gold saddles and tiraz embroidered saddle cloths—were led by ten thousand soldiers to the canal cutting site outside of old Cairo. They were preceded by many musicians, and followed by camels bearing heavily adorned litters of courtiers. As an act of piety the caliph himself rode a mule with only plain, unadorned tack. However, the white linen tunic he wore cost ten thousand dinars, whereas the average merchant class tunic cost about two dinars. The caliph was accompanied by royal parasol bearers carrying an elaborate parasol bejeweled with gold, cut stones, and pearls, and burning incense made from ambergris and aloeswood. Three hundred additional soldiers also joined the caliph on foot, each wearing identical brocade garments, made new for the ceremony. The processional path of the caliph was lined with common people who bowed before the ruler and called out blessings for him.

When he arrived, the caliph was greeted under a large brocade tent and given a ceremonial spear. At the proper time he walked out to the canal and threw the spear at the dam as the signal for workman to begin cutting it. After the caliph returned to his palace, a three day celebration continued  along the banks of the river where merchant class people ate and drank in celebration of their continued livelihood, solid in the knowledge that both the plantings will be a success this year, and that their government continued to be stable.

Source: Sanders, Paula. Ritual, Politics, and the City in Fatimid Cairo. State University of New York Press; Albany, 1994.

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