My 10th Article in El Legado Andalusí: al-Mahdiya, under the sign of the Lion

Another article of mine was published by El Legado Andalusí, this time about a marvelous little city in the Tunisian coast, called al-Mahdiya.
The city, once a Fatimid capital, is dotted with monuments and archaeological sites from the tenth century. Apart from being a picturesque Mediterranean port, it was once home for such figures as the poets Ibn Hani’ al-Andalusi and Ibn Rashiq al-Kairuani. Following a brief period under the rule of the Norman kings of Sicily, the city fell to the Almohads in the twelfth century, signed peace treaties with Sicily, and flourished economically and culturally. Ibn Khaldun would refer to it in the thirteenth century as the richest Berber city of the era.

You can read the original article in Spanish at:

You can read the English translation for excerpts from the article below:

Mahdiya, the first Fatimid capital

Better said, the first capital founded by the Fatimids, who had lived in Raqqada (some 8 km from Qayrawan) before moving to Mahdiya.
The city bears the name of the caliph al-Mahdi who ordered its construction in 916. It’s a Mediterranean city that occupies a rocky peninsula whose isolation allowed for defending it by land, while the solidity of the Fatimid float guaranteed the security of the port against possible attacks form the sea. Moreover, Mahdiya was far enough from Qayrawan, whose religious scholars and people were known for their religious rigor and their rejection of the Shiite doctrine of the Fatimids.

The Fatimids, famous for their obsession with astrology and astronomy, waited till the lion (the Zodiac sign of Leo) dominated the constellations to start building the city, according to the astrologers’ instructions. Historians mention a very similar story that would take place later in Egypt with the founding of Cairo by the Fatimids in 969: only this time it was the sign of Aries that dominated, and the city was called ‘al-Qahira’ (the conqueror or invincible), the feminine form of ‘al-Qahir’, the ancient Arabic name of planet Mars which controls Aries.

Is this for real or is it just one more example of what we can call ‘the magical realism of the medieval chroniclers’? What we know for sure is that the lion (a symbol of power in Islamic iconography) became the city symbol, according to the travel accounts and the symbols seen in the walls.

With the exception of Cairo, one cannot compare Mahdiya to other Islamic capitals like Fez, Damascus or Baghdad. A typical medina of the Islamic World would have the great mosque more or less at its heart, surrounded by markets, caravanserais, hamams, etc. The Fatimid model is distinct because of the Shiite doctrine: In Mahdiya like in Cairo, the heart of the city is occupied by the palace of the Fatimid caliph, who represents the shadow of God on Earth.

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