Persians in Fatimid Egypt: (III) Their Role in Commerce, the Economy and Trade



By Hatim Mahamid

Published earlier:

Persians in Fatimid Egypt: (I) Their Role in the Army
Persians in Fatimid Egypt: (II) Their Role in the Da’wah and Ismaili Doctrines

Abstract: This paper deals with the role of Persians and their impact on the life of Fatimid State in Egypt. After the Fatimid conquest of Egypt and Syria Cairo became a new centre of the Isma‘ili caliphate and many Isma‘ilis turned to Egypt, not only for leadership concerning doctrine, but for leadership in other spheres as well.  Many Persians moved to Cairo and made a strong impact and left a significant legacy on the Fatimid state in general. This study aims to follow and examine the processes of the Persian role in the Fatimid areas, particularly in Egypt. In Parts I and II published earlier (see links above), we discussed the role of the Persians in the Fatimid military and their important contribution to Fatimid da‘wah and doctrines. In this final part we describe their activities in the commercial and economic life of the Fatimids. 

III. Persians in Commercial and Economic Spheres in Fatimid Egypt

Beginning in the Tulunid era (254-292H./868-905CE), Egypt became an important centre of regional and local trade. Ahmad ibn Tulun, the ‘Abbasid governor of Egypt, took great care of this field, repairing the ports and establishing a large merchant navy. Since then, Egypt became a pull factor for merchants. Many of them settled there, particularly Persians who formed a big community of merchants. Commercial developments also continued in the Ikhshidid period, during which Egypt seemed to have gained political semi-independence. [50]

When the Fatimids built Cairo, it became a political and commercial centre. The accounts of medieval travellers, who visited Fatimid Egypt – al-Muqaddasi, Ibn Hawqal, Nasir Khusraw, Ibn Jubayr – reflect Egypt’s important commercial role, and its appeal to merchants from all over the Muslim world. Al-Muqaddasi, who was in Egypt in the second half of the 4th/10th century, described Fustat (old Cairo) as a political centre encompassing the caliph’s seat and government offices (diwans). It had become a duplicate of Baghdad and had a commercial centre to which traders came from the East and from the West. [51]

By the middle of the 5th/11th century, the commercial activities in Egypt were of such range and quality as to fascinate the Persian traveller Nasir Khusraw. He described the safety and security prevailing there, as well as the excellence of the Suq al-Qanadil (lamps market). Every kind of rare thing from all over the world was bought and sold in the Suq al-Qanadil. Such a bazaar is not known to have existed anywhere else. Nasir Khusraw added that there were about 200 khans (caravanserai) in Fustat that also served as shopping centres. [52] During the Fatimid period, and as a result of commercial activities, many specialised markets and commercial centres developed. Some of those markets, such as suq al-Magharibah, suq al-Barbar, suwayqat al-‘Iraqiyyin and others, were related to the goods or to the ethnic communities who owned or traded in them. [53]

The Fatimids took care to organize the markets’ administration through the post of al-muhtasib (the market administrator) and provided secure conditions for the merchants and their commercial activities. Some high ranking Persians who specialised in finance served the Fatimids since their first days in Egypt. According to medieval sources, the first Fatimid muhtasib in Egypt was a Persian, Abu Ja‘far al-Khurasani, who was appointed by Jawhar al-Siqilli in place of the previous Sunni muhtasib. [54] Moreover, Ibn al-Athir explains that the Fatimid Imam al-Mu‘izz, appointed a Persian by named ‘Abd al-Jabbar al-Khurasani as manager of the tax office (al-kharaj) when the latter moved to Cairo in 362/972. [55]

Another noticeable feature of Fatimid Egypt, as noted in many travellers’ accounts, was that many inns (caravanserais) of different kinds and names, such as khan, wakalah, qaysariyyah, funduq, dar and others existed. Persians played an important role in working in these caravanserais which served as hostels for traders, travellers and pilgrims, in addition to serving as markets and commercial centres. Those Persians even owned some of them. The khan of Dar al-Wazir in Fustat that Nasir Khusraw mentioned, specialised in silk goods (al-qasab), and employed skilled workers. [56] Al-Musabbihi mentioned that in 415/1024, a Persian trader, Abu ‘Ali Hasan al-Asbahani al-Bazzaz died in Qaysariyyat al-Wazir (khan/dar). [57]

Despite the rivalry and political hostility between the different groups of Isma‘iliyyah, dynamic trade existed between Fatimid Egypt and the East. Egyptian traders brought products from Tinnis, Damietta (Dumyat) and Upper Egypt to the Eastern Muslim regions, while the Eastern traders brought different kinds of silk known by the names al-Khusruwani and al-Tustari to Egypt. Judging from the names of the inns and markets, one can extrapolate information about the vigorous commercial activities that took place between Fatimid Egypt and Iraq, Persia and the East. Sources describe inns and markets related to the Eastern ethnic groups, such as: suq al-‘Iraqiyyin, suwayqat ibn al-‘Ajamiyyah in Fustat and qaysariyyat al-A‘ajim in Alexandria. [58] When Ibn Jubayr visited Egypt in 579/1183, he mentioned that he stayed in a hostel (funduq) related to Ibn al-‘Ajami in Qus, in Upper Egypt. He added that Qus is full of markets and crowded with people; pilgrims and traders, and it is considered to be a major way-station for travellers. [59]

In his Safar-Nameh, Nasir Khusraw emphasised this commercial relationship between Fatimid Egypt and Persia when he described the silk manufacturing of Tennis, and says that the cloth and dresses manufactured there were sent to the East and to the West (al-Mashriq wa’l-Maghrib). In addition, Khusraw tells the story of a Persian king who sent his emissaries to Tennis in Egypt with 20,000 dinars for purchasing clothes. [60] He also explains that woolen goods manufactured in Asyut in Upper Egypt, were actively traded and exported to Persia (Bilad al-‘Ajam). [61]

The promotion of trade during the Fatimid era was reflected in the wealth and prosperity of the traders in general. Some rich Persian traders managed to obtain high positions in the Fatimid state, not only in commerce and finances, but in politics and administration as well. During the reign of al-Zahir, two Persians, Abu Talib al-Hasani al-‘Ajami al-Qazwini (d. 415/1024) and his son, along with members of their families, were given lofty positions in the Fatimid court. These two Persians were known by the name al-Sharifan al-‘Ajamiyyan (the two Persian notables), who were famous for their wealth. Abu Talib al-‘Ajami was responsible for Dar al-Sina‘a and rebuilding a wall around al-Miqyas (the Nile Measure). As noted by al-Musabbihi, the al-‘Ajamiyyan were asked to lend money to the Fatimid treasury (bayt al-mal) to cover deficits caused by the economic crisis in the year 415/1024. [62]

The son of Abu Talib, Abu Isma‘il Ibn Tajj al-‘Ajami (d. 415/1024), was a notable Persian merchant, who was responsible for a commercial institute (al-Wakalah). He exported a variety of merchandise, and became one of the richest people in Egypt. He and his father died in the same year and left a large legacy, worth about 200,000 dinars in cash, property, land, buildings, commercial businesses and merchandise. [63]

The commercial and financial power of these two Persians (al-Sharifan al-‘Ajamiyyan), helped them to attain positions close to the Fatimid caliph al-Zahir. They intervened in state policy and served as financial advisors for the Fatimid administration; the al-‘Ajamiyyan even sometimes made important decisions without asking the vizier (wasitah/wasit). Moreover, in Jumadi II 415/1024, it was decided that the Grand Sharif (the father), al-‘Ajami al-Qazwini, would be one of the four men allowed to meet with the Caliph by himself to handle the state’s affairs and make decisions. [64]

Medieval sources tell us about another Persian family who were appointed to high posts in the Fatimid state. In this case, it was a Jewish family from Tustar in Persia, so the family was known by the name al-Tustari. The family had become very wealthy from commerce and trade. Abu Sa‘d (Sa‘id) al-Tustari (d. 439/1047) and his family were close to both Imam al-Zahir and his successor, Imam al-Mustansir.  Abu Sa‘d was authorized to manage the office of al-Sayyidah al-Walidah, the mother of Imam al-Mustansir. He then became one of the comptrollers of state affairs. Some medieval sources gave him the title of vizier of al-Mustansir’s mother (wazir al-Sayyidah al-Walidah). [65]

Abu Sa‘d’s high status in the Fatimid court caused jealousy among Fatimid vizier Ibn al-Fallahi and other rivals, who successfully conspired to kill him in 439/1047. But this was not the end of the al-Tustaris’ role in the Fatimid administration; they were still to influence Fatimid policy. Al-Mustansir then appointed two of the Persian al-Tustari family to high positions: Abu Nasr Harun, brother of Abu Sa‘d, was appointed manager of the caliph’s special treasury (khizanat al-khass) and al-Hasan, Abu Sa‘d’s son, was appointed as a supervisor in one of the administrative offices (diwan). [66]

In addition to his position in the treasury, Abu Nasr al-Tustari served as a mediator between the Fatimid court and its political opponents. For example, he mediated between the Fatimid court and the rising leader Thumal bin Salih ibn Mirdas, governor of Aleppo, in 440/1048, to gain peaceful relations. [67] Hasan al-Tustari, Abu Sa‘d’s son, even advanced to the elevated position of vizier in 456/1064, but only after he converted to Islam. Unfortunately, he was dismissed after ten days of service as a vizier, because of the serious conflicts that occurred at the time of the big crisis (al-shiddah al-‘uzma). [68]

Nasir Khusraw explains that this Abu Sa‘d (Sa‘id) al-Tustari was very rich, that only God knows how much money he had. On the roof of Abu Sa‘d’s house, he had three hundred silver pots with fruit trees planted in them. When Abu Sa‘d was killed, the Tustaris were afraid that the caliph would change his attitude towards them. To continue in the caliph’s good graces, Abu Sa‘d’s brother Abu Nasr offered 200,000 dinar to the state’s treasury. Imam al-Mustansir refused and promised the Tustaris that they would not be harmed, and he had no need of anyone’s money: he compensated them. [69] Nasir Khusraw’s account of the Tustaris attributes the Fatimid caliph’s conduct to the Caliph’s good relations with merchants, and acted to encourage commerce and secure the traders’ money and goods.

Hasan al-Tustari was not the only Persian who was appointed to the highest position in Fatimid Egypt, i.e. vizier; another person of Persian origin by the name of Abu Ghalib ‘Abd al-Zahir, known as Ibn al-‘Ajami, also served as a vizier. He served in the Fatimid vizierate three separate times during the big crisis, in the reign of al-Mustansir: in 455/1063 and in 456/1064. Ibn al-‘Ajami was given especially glorious titles such as, al-wazir, al-ajall, al-awhad, and several others. [70]

Persian existence in Fatimid Egypt had declined in the second half of the Fatimid era, particularly after the division within the Isma‘ili doctrine into Nizariyyah and Musta‘liyyah, after the death of Imam al-Mustansir in 487/1094. Despite the continuation of commerce between the East and Fatimid Egypt, apparently the Fatimid authorities became distrustful of Persians and Eastern merchants. Changes in procedures were introduced by the Fatimid vizier Ma’mun al-Bata’ihi (d. 519/1125) which made it difficult for merchants from the East to enter Egypt without passing through a series of different control points and inspections, especially during the reign of the Musta’li Imam al-Amir (495-524/1101-1130).

In 516/1122, the vizier al-Bata’ihi was informed that Hasan al-Sabbah and his followers (al-Nizariyyah) in Persia had sent some agents to Egypt; they carried a lot money and travelled with trade caravans. For this reason, al-Bata’ihi issued orders to the governor of Ascalon (‘Asqalan in Palestine) to prevent those agents and merchants from entering Egypt by arranging for all sorts of methods of control and supervision before they were allowed to enter the Fatimid domain. Only known merchants were allowed to enter Egypt as individuals, and they were allowed to do so only after inspections, replete with the collection of detailed information about each one and his goods, in advance. When those merchants entered Egypt they were examined again in Bilbis, outside of Cairo, according to the information that had been sent on from Ascalon. So, during this period, Persians and Eastern traders had to pass several stages and obstacles until they arrived in Cairo. In addition, the vizier al-Bata’ihi ordered the governors of Cairo and Fustat to persecute the Nizaris (al-Batiniyyah), to find out everything about them in every street and every house in the various quarters of Cairo. In that way, all strangers from the East were known to the vizier. [71]

Consequently, relations between Fatimid Egypt and Persia and the East deteriorated during this phase, and tension and suspicion prevailed. All of the political and religious/doctrinal circumstances worked against the Fatimids, causing the gradual weakening of the Fatimid state until its abolition in 567/1171.


Persians played important roles in different spheres of Fatimid Egypt. Despite the Persian presence in pre-Fatimid Egypt, the establishment of Cairo as the centre of the Fatimid caliphate obviously provided a pull factor for Persians interested in various different fields of actions: Isma‘ili doctrine, military service, politics and administration, commerce and finance. What characterises the Persian role in Fatimid Egypt, compared with other elements, is that Persians were active and involved in the different spheres of the Fatimid state. However, in the second half of the Fatimid era, particularly after the Nizari secession, the decline of the Persian role is noticeable.

Date article published on Simerg: April 14, 2011

Copyright: Hatim Mahamid

Published earlier:

Persians in Fatimid Egypt: (I) Their Role in the Army
Persians in Fatimid Egypt: (II) Their Role in the Da’wah and Ismaili Doctrines



[50] See: Aminah Ahmad Imam al-Shurbaji, Ru’yat al-Rahhala al-Muslimin li’l-Ahwal al-Maliyya fi Misr, (Cairo, 1994), 306-309.

[51] See more about this account: Muhammad bin Ahmad al-Bishari al-Muqaddasi, Ahsan al-Taqasim fi Ma‘rifat al-Aqalim, (Beirut, 1987), 167-171.

[52] See: N. Khusraw’s description of al-Fustat and its markets: N. Khusraw, Safar-Nameh, 103-106. See also the description of Cairo in this period in: Hatim Mahamid, “Cairo in Light of Nasir Khusraw’s Safarnama”, 355-366.

[53] Al-Shurbaji, 312-314.

[54] Ibid, 354.

[55] Ibn al-Athir, 7: 45.

[56] N. Khusraw, Safar-Nameh, 106.

[57] Al-Musabbihi, 110.

[58] See: Al-Shurbaji, 358-361, 384-385; Ibn al-Ma’mun says that in 516/1122 the Fatimid vizier al-Bata’ihi established Dar al-Wakalah (Commercial House) in Cairo for traders from Iraq, Syria and others. See: Ibn al-Ma’mun, 39; See also: Al-Maqrizi, Itti‘az…, 3: 92; Ibn Muyassar, 92.

[59] Ibn Jubayr, Rihlat Ibn Jubayr, (Beirut, 1984), 40-41.

[60] See the accounts of N. Khusraw, Safar-Nameh. 77.

[61] Ibid, 115-116.

[62] See: Al-Musabbihi, 33, 86.

[63] Ibid, 108.

[64] The other three men who worked with al-‘Ajami were: Najib al-Dawla Abu al-Qasim al-Jarjara’i, al-‘Amid Muhsin ibn Badus and the commander al-Ajall Mi‘dad al-Khadim. See regarding al-Sharif al-‘Ajami and his role in the Fatimid state: Al-Musabbihi, 31, 37-39, 41, 42, 45-46, 49, 53, 59-60, 66, 100-101; Al-Maqrizi, Itti‘az…, 2: 136, 142, 145, 148, 152, 154, 169.

[65] Regarding Abu Sa‘d al-Tustari and his status in the Fatimid state, see: Ibn al-Sayrafi, 40; Al-Maqrizi, Itti‘az…, 2: 191. N. Khusraw, Safar-Nameh, 108-109. Ibn Muyassar, 3-5; Al-Minnawi, 309; Al-Qalqashandi, 3: 561. Ibn al-Athir, 8: 115; See also: J. Mann, The Jews in Egypt and in Palestine under the Fatimid Caliphs, (Oxford, 1920), 1: 76-83; See also regarding the Tustars family and its role in Fatimid Egypt: Moshe Gil, The Tustars; The Community and the Family, (in Hebrew), (Tel-Aviv, 1981).

Ibn Muyassar, 4-5; Al-Maqrizi, Itti‘az…, 2: 196. Ibn al-Athir, 8: 115.

[66] Ibn Muyassar, 4-5; Al-Maqrizi, Itti‘az…, 2: 196. Ibn al-Athir, 8: 115

[67] Ibn Muyassar, 7.

[68] Ibid, 29; Ibn al-Sayrafi, 54; Al-Minnawi, 309.

[69] Regarding this description, see: N. Khusraw, Safar-Nameh, 109.

[70] See about Ibn al-‘Ajami, the Fatimid vizier of Persian origin: Ibn Muyassar, 27, 28, 56; Ibn al-Sayrafi, 52; Al-Minnawi, 261-262.

[71] Regarding the means of security applied by al-Bata’ihi, see: Ibn Muyassar, 97-98, 103; Ibn al-Ma’mun, 39; Al-Maqrizi, Itti‘az…, 3: 108.


About the author: Dr. Hatim Mahamid received his Ph.D from Tel Aviv University in 2001, where he specialized in the history of medieval Islam, from Fatimid to Late Mamluk Egypt and Syria. He has published numerous articles in journals such The Journal of Islamic Studies, Islamic Quarterly and Annales islamologiques, and contributed to three critical anthologies as well as presented papers at numerous conferences. His book Al-Tatawwurat fi Nizam al-Hukm wal-Idara fi Misr al-Fatimiyya was published in Jerusalem in 2001, and his book Dirasat fi Tarikh al-Quds al-Thaqafi fi al-‘Asr al-Wasit was published in Amman in 2009. He currently lectures in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Ben Gurion University and The Open University.

This reading, along with Parts I and II (previously published) has been contributed by the author for The complete article is an edited version of his original paper, Persians in Fatimid Egypt, published in the Journal of Middle Eastern and North African Intellectual and Cultural Studies, 4(2), 37 – 60, 2006.


We welcome feedback/letters from our readers. Please use the LEAVE A REPLY box which appears below. Your feedback may be edited for length and brevity, and is subject to moderation. We are unable to acknowledge unpublished letters.

Please visit the Simerg Home page for links to articles posted most recently. For links to articles posted on this Web site since its launch in March 2009, please click What’s New.

Sign-up for blog subscription at top right of this page.

One thought on “Persians in Fatimid Egypt: (III) Their Role in Commerce, the Economy and Trade

  1. Simerg has to be congratulated for bringing this fascinating history in three parts for the readers. The information is detailed and illustrates well the contribution of Persians in Fatimid Period.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s