Persians in Fatimid Egypt: (I) Their Role in the Army



By Hatim Mahamid

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 in 358-359/969, and the seat of the Fatimid caliphate had transferred from al-Mansuriyya in Ifriqiya to Cairo (Egypt), the Fatimids began to organize their political and religious administration accordingly. Thus, 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.  Cairo developed as a rival centre to Baghdad, politically, commercially and of course regarding doctrine. Many Persians and various people from the East moved to Cairo because of two factors: ‘pull’ factors attracting them to Egypt, and ‘push’ factors, i.e. the difficult situations in the regions of the Muslim East. Those Easterners, especially the Persians, made a strong impact and left a significant legacy on the Fatimid state in general, and on Isma‘ili doctrine in particular. Therefore, this study aims to follow and examine the processes of the Persian role in the Fatimid areas, particularly in Egypt. Part I discusses the role of the Persians in the Fatimid military. Part II will focus on their important contribution to Fatimid da‘wah and doctrines. Part III will describe their activities in the commercial and economic life of the Fatimids. 

I. Persians and their Military Role in the Fatimid Army

Egypt had known Persians in the military fields before the Fatimids. During the Tulunid era, Persians (specifically Daylamites – Arabic Dayalimah – i.e., those from the region of Daylam) had served as distinct military units. The historian Ibn Iyas mentions that Ahmad ibn Tulun (d. 270/883), the ‘Abbasid governor of Egypt, brought about forty thousand Persians (Dayalimah) to Egypt. [1] So, one can suppose that Persians and their descendants continued to serve during the Ikhshidid era, until the Fatimid conquest of Egypt. The Persian units were introduced to Fatimid service particularly by the Imam al-‘Aziz bi-Allah (r. 365-386/975-996). [2]

In addition to recruiting the remnants of the pre-Fatimid military units, Imam al-‘Aziz recruited other Easterners (al-Mashariqa), especially Turks and Persians, after defeating their Turkish commander Alptakin and their allies, the Qaramatians and Bedouins in the battle of al-Tawahin in Palestine in 368/978. Al-‘Aziz captured many of Alptakin’s troops, who were composed of Turkish and different Persian elements. When those elements entered Cairo al-‘Aziz took them into his service as a special unit. The Persians (Daylam) and their cohorts founded a quarter of their own, called Harat al-Daylam, and Alptakin and his Turkish companions founded their own quarter known as Harat al-Atrak. However, according to the historian al-Maqrizi, the Turkish quarter was mixed with the Daylami one; as a result, it became known as the Turks’ and Daylams’ quarter (Harat al-Turk wal-Daylam), and only sometimes were they called by distinct names for the separate quarters. [3]

The Daylamites were apparently allotted a quarter close to the Fatimid palace and the al-Azhar mosque, on its southern and south-eastern sides. The Persian traveller Nasir Khusraw mentions the Daylami quarter among other quarters, when he stayed in Cairo (between Safar 439 – Jumadi I 442/August 1047 – October 1050). [4] He adds that the caliph’s conduct and excellent hospitality, in addition to the safety and security prevailing in Egypt, and willingness to get to know the Fatimids and follow Isma’ili doctrine, attracted many notables and emirs from different countries including emirs and sons of Eastern Muslim kings and rulers, such as the sons of Khusraw al-Dahlawi and their mother; sons of Georgian kings (Karaj); sons of Daylami kings, sons of the ruler (Khaqan) of Turkistan, etc. [5]

A depiction of a Daylami soldier in the Fatimid army

Because of the Daylamite quarter’s importance and close location to the Fatimid palace one of the palace’s gates was named Bab al-Daylam. This gate was in the south-eastern side of the palace, and led to three important sites: the Daylamite quarter, the al-Azhar mosque and the Mashhad al-Husayn which had been established in the late Fatimid era. [6]

In addition to the above groups of Persians and Eastern elements who were recruited to serve the Fatimids, groups of them served in Syria under the Arab rulers, among them the Hamadanids, Banu ‘Aqil and Banu Mirdas. When the Fatimids occupied Syria, many of the Daylamites and Eastern elements entered the Fatimid army, who were also called al-Mashariqah. [7]

It is obvious that by the beginning of the Fatimid rule in Egypt, the Maghribis (al-Magharibah) formed the main component of the Fatimid army. When Imam al-‘Aziz ruled, though, he founded a special unit of his own including Daylams and Turks (istana‘a al-Daylam wal-Atrak wa-qaddamahum wa-ja‘alahum khassatahu). Rivalry broke out between the Eastern elements and the Maghribi components of the Fatimid army. During the reign of the Imam al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (386-411/996-1021), a serious conflict erupted between these two components. After that period, the Maghribis lost power, when their role in the army weakened, and they became regular Fatimid subjects. At the same time, the Daylamites and Turks got stronger, because of the policies of Imam al-Zahir and then al-Mustansir in preferring the Eastern elements. During al-Mustansir’s reign, many Sudanese blacks (Sudans) entered the Fatimid army with the support of the Imam’s mother (al-Sayyida al-Walidah). Rivalry and conflicts between the Turks and Daylamites against the Sudanese ensued. [8]

During the first Fatimid era, until the Armenian commander Badr al-Din al-Jamali became the absolute ruler in his post as a military vizier (wazir sayf) in 466/1073, the Persian and Turkish elements played an important role in the Fatimid Army. The Daylamites played a significant role as a unit of Naphtha throwers (al-naffatun). [9] Moreover, Ibn al-Qalanisi explains that al-‘Aziz was fascinated by the Eastern troops, who made use of archery. This means that Persians were also archers and formed part of the infantry, giving them significant status in the Fatimid army. [10]

During the reign of Imam al-Hakim, especially after the death of al-Hasan ibn ‘Ammar, the leader of the Maghribis, al-Hakim tended to restrict the Maghribis’ power. In this period (395/1005), the Daylamites were among the Fatimid units that received promises and guarantees (aman) from al-Hakim, after practicing a policy of assassinating many high ranking people. Al-Hakim issued petitions for securing the ghilman (slave servants) of the Turks, Daylamites and other groups, including Persian ghilman, who served individually, rather than in organized Persian units (al-ghilman al-mufarraqa min al-‘Ajam). [11] These petitions indicate that different terms were used for those of Persian origin in the Fatimid army, such as Daylam, ‘Ajam and Bakhtiyariyyah. Some of them served in organized units, while others served individually in other units. Al-Musabbihi explains that in 415/1024, the Daylams formed a military unit, which along with other units, escorted the Imam al-Zahir. [12]

During the long period of Imam al-Mustansir’s reign (427-487/1036-1094), the al-Mashariqah elements, particularly the Turks and Daylamites, played a strong role. The Fatimid military forces had reached their zenith with the al-Mashariqah and the Sudans. Nasir Khusraw explains that the number of the al-Mashariqah troops was estimated at ten thousand, including Turks and Daylamites; although most of them were born in Egypt, their title al-Mashariqah, indicating their origin, was retained. [13]

Despite the small number of al-Mashariqah in Nasir Khusraw’s account, compared with the entire force of the Fatimid troops he mentioned (215,000 soldiers), their important position is obvious. From Khusraw’s account, one notes that the Daylamites had a significant position and specific function in times of celebrations. His description is considered another indication that Persians maintained their military specialization as archers from the period of al-‘Aziz. When Imam al-Mustansir rode to celebrate the opening of the canal (fath al-khalij), a group of three hundred Daylami infantry soldiers preceded him. They wore special golden clothes with ties around their waists and wide sleeves, and they were armed with bows and arrows. [14]

The Persians and the other elements of al-Mashariqah played a central role in the conflict against the Sudans during the great crisis (al-shiddah al-‘uzma, 457-466/1065-1073). When the Armenian commander Badr al-Din al-Jamali, leading his Armenian unit, managed to restore order and security in Egypt in 466/1073, he operated against both the Sudans and the al-Mashariqah. Thus, al-Jamali succeeded in restricting their power and weakening their position in Egypt. In their place, the Armenians arose as a new and powerful element in the Fatimid army and administration. [15] Despite that, remnants of regiments of the other elements continued to exist during the second Fatimid era, that is after the Nizari-Mustali schiism. Medieval sources mention that the Persian elements continued their position in the Fatimid army when they describe the participation of the Daylamite troops among other units in celebrating special events and festivals. [16]

Date article posted on Simerg: March 29, 2011

Copyright: Dr. Hatim Mahamid

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


Dr. Hatim Mahamid

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 II and III to be published in the coming days, has been contributed by the author for It 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.



[1] Muhammad bin Ahmad ibn Iyas, Bada’i‘ al-Zuhur fi Waqa’i‘ al-Duhur, (Cairo, 1982), 1/1:162.

[2] Al-Maqrizi mentions that units of Turks, Daylams, al-‘Aziziyya, al-Ikhshidiyya and al-Kafuriyya accompanied the Imam al-‘Aziz as his escorts. See: Taqiyy al-Din Ahmad bin ‘Ali al-Maqrizi, Al-Mawa‘iz wa’l-I‘tibar bi-Dhikr al-Khitat wa’l-Athar, Ayman Fu’ad Sayyid ed., (London, 1995), 186.

[3] Alptakin the Turk was ghulam of Mu‘izz al-Dawla the Buwayhid. He came to Damascus with a group of Turks and Daylams accompanied by the sons of Mu‘izz al-Dawla in 365/975. Then he began to threaten the Fatimids in Syria and Egypt with the support of the Qarmatians. See: Al-Maqrizi, Khitat, (Cairo, 1967), 2: 300-303; Al-Maqrizi, Al-Mawa‘iz…, 353-355; Ahmad bin ‘Ali al-Qalqashandi, Subh al-A‘sha fi Sina‘at al-Insha, (Beirut, 1987), 3: 403. (See there, page 405 in which al-Qalqashandi mentions a quarter by the name of al-Rihaniyya, which included Armenians, Persians/al-‘Ujman and black slaves/’Abid al-Shira’); Abu al-Mahasin ibn Taghri-Bardi, Al-Nujum al-Zahira fi Muluk Misr wa’l-Qahira, (Cairo, 1955), 4: 43; See further: Yaaqov Lev, “The Fatimid Army, A.H 358-427/968-1036 C.E. Military and Social Aspects”, Asian and African Studies 14 (1980), 169, 171, 190.

[4] Nasir Khusraw, Safar-Nameh, (Yahya al-Khashshab ed.) (Beirut, 1970), 99-100.

[5] Ibid, p. 95.

[6] Regarding Bab al-Daylam of the Fatimid palace in Cairo, see: Al-Qalqashandi, 3: 395; Al-Maqrizi, Khitat…, 1: 435; Ibn Taghri-Bardi, 4: 63.

[7] See: Y. Lev, “The Fatimid…”, 172; B. J. Beshir, “Fatimid Military Organization”, in Der Islam 55 (1978), 42.

[8] Al-Maqrizi, Khitat…, 2: 303.

[9] Al-Maqrizi, Itti‘az al-Hunafa bi-Akhbar al-A’imma al-Fatimiyyin al-Khulafa, (Jamal al-Din al-Shayyal ed.), (Cairo, 1967), 1: 269; Al-Maqrizi, Khitat…, 3: 318-319; Muhammad bin ‘Ubayd Allah al-Musabbihi, Akhbar Misr, (Ayman Fu’ad Sayyid ed.), (Cairo, 1978), 87; Ibn al-Qalanisi, Dhayl Tarikh Dimashq, (H. F. Amedroz ed.), (Leiden, 1908), 40. He mentions several events indicating the effective military role of the Persian elements by the end of the fourth/tenth century; see there: pp. 45, 47, 49, 51.

[10] See: Ibn al-Qalanisi, 28; Al-Maqrizi, Itti‘az…, 1: 294; Ibn Aybak al-Dawadari, Kanz al-Durar wa-Jami‘ al-Ghurar, (Salah al-Din al-Munajjid ed.), (Cairo, 1961), 6: 201; Ibn Muyassar, Akhbar Misr, (Ayman Fu’ad Sayyid ed.), (Cairo, 1981), 48; Y. Lev, “The Fatimid…”, 172-175.

[11] See: Al-Maqrizi, Itti‘az…, (Muhammad Hilmi Ahmad ed.), (Cairo, 1971), 2: 55-56.

[12] Al-Musabbihi, 161.

[13] N. Khusraw, Safar-Nameh, 94.

[14] Ibid, 96.

[15] See: B. J. Beshir, 42-43.

[16] See: Al-Maqrizi, Al-Mawa‘iz…, 208; See also al-Qalqashandi’s description of the Fatimid military units: A-Qalqashandi, 3: 552-553.


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2 thoughts on “Persians in Fatimid Egypt: (I) Their Role in the Army

  1. Dear Alice
    How’re you? Thanks for your comment. It’s nice to hear from you. It’s a good idea to organize such a conference in Cairo about this topic. I’m ready to take a part.
    Best wishes.
    Hatim Mahamid

  2. Dear Hatim,
    Great to read your informative article here on the Simerg site. It helps to have the Arab/Arabic view of the Easterners/Ajam. We often don’t realize how fluid populations were in earlier times. When I wrote on Nasir Khusraw in Cairo, I wondered how literally we should take his numbers of troops. What do you think? Maybe we could get the IIS to have a conference in Cairo?
    Best wishes,

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