Jawhar the Sicilian, Founder of Cairo and the World’s Oldest University

by Veronica Di Grigoli | Mar 19, 2014

Times of Sicily founder Giovanni Morreale and I were recently lamenting the fact that there are so many famous Sicilians nobody has ever heard of. Take the founder of Cairo, for example, who also founded the world’s oldest university.

Cairo is going through turbulent times these days, and is drawing the world’s attention with concern for its citizens’ welfare, political freedom, and freedom of speech. Some people may know this beautiful, modern city is the largest in the Arab world. But how many know it was founded by a Sicilian?

The founder of Cairo was called Jawhar al-Siqilli, which means “Jawhar the Sicilian”. We do not know exactly when he was born, for at the time of his birth he was a slave of no importance, so we only know it was some time in the early 10th century. We know exactly when he died – February 1st 992 AD – for by that time he was the most important military leader in Fatimid history, founder of the largest city in the Arab world, and founder of the world’s oldest university.

Cairo skyline at night
Cairo skyline at night

Jawhar was born in a Sicily just conquered by the Arabs of North Africa. The island had been invaded and plundered for several centuries by a motley succession of Germanic tribes, and ruled in chaotic fashion by a series of Byzantine emperors while the Arabs spent 100 years fighting to gain control of Sicily. On this island of many cultures and races, Jawhar was born to a Greek-speaking Byzantine woman reduced to slavery just when these turbulent times were starting to settle.

At a young age, the slave boy Jawhar was shipped from Sicily to the city of Qayrawan in North Africa. This was when his original Greek name – like his birth date, considered too unimportant to record for posterity – was replaced by the Arabic name Jawhar. He was given to the Caliph Ismail al-Mansur on account of his obvious intelligence and cunning. Evidently this prominent characteristic of Sicilians was already well established in the gene pool! When this Caliph’s son Al-Muizz (953-975) took the reins, Jawhar gained his freedom and became his personal secretary. Before long he became Vizir and the highest-ranking military commander of the Fatimids.

As commander of the Fatimid Arabs, Jawhar resumed the military expansion of the Fatimids, taking various parts of North Africa from other Arab rulers. He conquered Fez in Northern Morocco, and pushed towards the Atlantic. After the Western borders had been secured, Jawhar as-Siqilli pushed towards Egypt and occupied the land around the Nile in 969 AD. Before this conquest, a treaty was made with the Vizir of the Ikhshidids granting Sunnis freedom of religion. For this reason the Fatimids under Jawhar encountered little resistance. Afterwards Jawhar ruled Egypt until 972 AD as viceroy.

He founded the city of Cairo in 969 AD to serve as the new residence of the Fatimid Caliphs. Jawhar named the city Manriyyah, but the Caliph Al Muizz renamed it al-Qahira – Cairo – which means “The Victorious”. Cairo is not only the capital of Egypt, but now the 16th largest city in the world. It is by far the the largest city in the Arab world (North Africa and the Middle East).

In 970 AD Jawhar also commissioned the construction of al-Azhar Mosque, a beautiful building still standing over a thousand years later. Additions and embellishments have been added through the centuries.

Al-Azhar Mosque and University
Al-Azhar Mosque and University

Alongside the mosque, Jawhar founded Al-Azhar University, the oldest university in the world. Its students studied the Koran and Islamic law, logic, grammar, rhetoric, and how to calculate the phases of the moon. Cairo would eventually become one of the world’s centres of learning at that time, with the university library of Cairo containing hundreds of thousands of books. By bringing together the study of a number of subjects in the same place it was the first university in the world to survive as a modern university including secular subjects in the curriculum. The university of Bologna, often cited as the world’s oldest university, was founded over a hundred years later in 1088.

After the establishment of the residence at Cairo, Jawhar fell into disfavour with al-Muizz. Under his successor al-Aziz (975-996) however, in whose accession to the throne Jawhar played an important role, he was restored to favour and to power. He was regent again until 979 AD, but was finally stripped of power after being defeated in a campaign against Syria.

Starting as a slave boy in Sicily, Jawhar was taken to a foreign land, learned a foreign language, gained his freedom and the greatest power in the land besides the caliph, conquered vast areas and many people, and lived to be more than 80 years old. Yet the greatest legacy of this little-known Sicilian remains the magnificent city of Cairo and its thousand-year-old university. He may not be very famous, but his achievements are.

I would like to thank a reader of my blog THE DANGEROUSLY TRUTHFUL DIARY OF A SICILIAN HOUSEWIFE, named Alessandro Riolo, for first bringing the existence of Jawhar al-Siqilli to my attention.

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8 Responses to "Jawhar the Sicilian, Founder of Cairo and the World’s Oldest University"

  1. Steven Campo  March 28, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    Ciau Veronica,
    This is a fascinating detail. Nun sapìa affattu dda cosa(I didn’t know that at all)! I have a wall at school dedicated to famous Sicilians. Thanks to you I must make space for another very famous Sicilian. Bravu! Ciau a prestu…

    Reply
    • tom  April 17, 2014 at 4:42 pm

      informazione stupenda.
      cci vuoli un situ comu chistu. raccussi facemu virir u munnu cosu sunnu I siciliani.
      u sicilianu avissi a essiri navutra lingua comu u t’alianu. ssicilia sa vissi a parrari sulu u sicilianu

      a big hug from new york

      Reply
      • Veronica Di Grigoli  April 17, 2014 at 7:09 pm

        Hello Tom! I’m afraid I cannot write or speak Sicilian like you :-) but I am glad you liked the article, and welcome to Times of Sicily!

        Reply
    • Veronica Di Grigoli  April 17, 2014 at 7:09 pm

      Hi Steven,
      I’ve only just seen your comment (don’t know how I missed it) but I’m glad you like the article. And your comment has made me think maybe you can help with another article that Giovanni and I have been working on for too long…. I’ll email you!

      Reply
  2. Dr. Ismail  February 17, 2017 at 3:55 pm

    Hi Veronica. You have published an interesting article and forgive me for just reading the article that has been published since 2014. I will cite you in my leadership class as i will be taking about great military leaders in the world: past and present while i will be mentioning Jawhar as one of the great leaders in the history with his establishment of Cairo and construction of Al-Azhar University
    Thanks

    Reply
  3. Tomislav Bosnjak  September 4, 2017 at 9:52 am

    Dear Mrs Di Grigoli,
    As part of my research into Jawahar the founder of Cairo, I came across your 2014 article. It contained some interesting new details about Jawahar’s Greek mother and birth as a slave. I would be interested in the sources. My research so far indicates that Jawahar was frequently referred to as Al-Saqlibi also. Do you have any comment on that? According to information I have come across so far, it seems quite certain that Jawahar went from Sicily to Tunisia. However I am trying to ascertain whether he was born in Sicily or was he brought to Sicily as a slave
    by Sarazen pirates from somewhere else in the Mediterranean?

    Reply
  4. Karmelo A  September 21, 2017 at 12:28 pm

    This posting unfortunately gives too much reliance on info from websites such as Wikipedia and the like rather than to genuine scholarship. Articles on the subject of the Fatimid general Jawhar that are on Wikipedia and online elsewhere are very selective in so far as what details are provided, resulting in a very skewed and biased view of the subject. This is lying by omission. Looking through the various Wikipedia articles, it is evident that there is no consistency, each different national group, (language) uses it’s own set of reference material, with much recent scholarship being ignored.

    Signora di Grigoli even ignores research from her Alma Mater – “the Fatimid general Jawhar (a former slave of Dalmatian origin)” – page 10 The Cambridge History of Africa volume 3 by Roland Oliver – Cambridge University Press 1977

    another recent publication – “On 6 February 969 the Fatimid army under the command of the Slav general, Jawhar, marched from Qayrawan in the direction of Egypt” – page 30 The Fatimids and Their Traditions of Learning by Heinz Halm – I.B. Taurus 1997

    Important sources for this topic are;
    Ivan Hrbek, “Die Slawen im Dienste der Fa?imiden” in Archiv Orientální (1953):
    and Dmitrij Mishin’s article, “The Saqaliba Slaves in the Aghlabid State” 1997

    Reply
  5. Karmelo A  September 22, 2017 at 5:05 pm

    Hi,
    sorry for the somewhat distant tone of my previous posting.

    I am not a historian and up to a couple of weeks ago, most of what I knew about Sicily was what I had read in Norwich’s book “The Normans In The South”, whilst looking for info on the migration of peoples within the Mediterranean region, I came across Jawhar, and investigating further, found the different versions of his history, at this point I was amused by all those attempts by different nationalities to claim Jawhar as “one of their own”.
    In the The Times book, “The Peoples of Europe” is a pertinent quote – “Europe is a continent of energetic mongrels”, this is not meant as a slur, but merely as a reminder that the European peoples do share a common ancestry.

    I have not kept copious notes on what I had found on Jawhar, but I am able to share the following;

    Jawhar had a number of names and epithets, these do not appear in all reference works about him.
    In the earliest record that I found about him, this being Ibn Khallikan’s Biographical Dictionary, a work that dates back to 1274, and which was translated from Arabic into English in 1843, the entry for Kaid Jawhar reads as follows “al Kaid Jahwar ibn Ahb, al Katib ar Rumi” – which translates to “The leader/general Jahwar son of Ahbdulla, the scribe of Rome”. This work also mentions another much older slave known as Ustadh Jawdhar, who was an administrator and scribe, rather than a military leader,and who died in 973. The similarity in the two names has caused a bit of confusion, especially in the Wikipedia articles.

    Another Medieval source of information on Jawhar is the writer Leo Africanus, in whose work “Descrittione dell’Africa” 1550 Venice (Description of Africa, English translation 1600) we find Jawhar referred to as Geohar the Dalmatian (Djawhar, in works of others) – The original Latin text is “Gehoaro Chetibo Dalmata” Latin edition published 1556 in Antwerp.

    Many modern writers do not differentiate between Jawdhar and Jawhar, and so they should not be considered as reliable sources of information without first validating new information. One example, Jawdhar was an eunuch, whilst Jawhar had children which were mentioned in Ibn Khallikan’s Biographical Dictionary and elsewhere. One recent work which does differentiate between the two is Yacov Lev’s book “State and Society in Fatimid Egypt” 1991 Brill, wherein we find “When the wife of Jawhar’s grandson died, leaving a large inheritance, an attempt was made to seize a third of it”

    In a more recent work by Mumtaz Ali Tajddin Sadik Ali – “Isma’ili Historiography” 1996 on page 179, the following info is given “Jawhar as-Siqilli Abul Hasan Jawhar bin Abdullah traced his origin from his country of birth, Sicily in Italy. Imam al-Muizz had given him the kunya of Abul Hasan, and was also called al-Katib (secretary) and al-Qaid (general). He was born most probably between 298/911 and 300/913 in Sicily, the then island under occupation of the Byzantines, and died most probably in 381/992. ” In Isma’ili Historiography a surprising number of details about Jawhar are also vague, wrong or missing such as the date of death.

    Regarding “Jawhar as-Siqilli” this works out to be “Jawhar from Sicily” – Sicily is not necessarily the place where he was born, as the Arabic convention would be to give his “place of origin”, which in his case would more likey to be where he was first sold into slavery, likewise, his Christian names would be of no interest to Arabic chroniclers and were lost.

    Hopefully, these notes provide a bit more clarity.

    Reply

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