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.
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.
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.