The Fatimi domestic water-basin: Aesthetic and utilitarian roles

M. Husain Chiba

Attention given to the art and architecture attributed to the celebrated Fatimi era is primarily focused (as it should be) on its royal capitals. However, contemporary research has shed light upon traces of art and architecture that have resurfaced in Fatimi ruled, pre-established Islamic cities that neighboured these royal capital cities. Although now part of the greater city of Qahira or Cairo, Fustat was a city adjacent to the medieval palace-city of al-Qahira. Known for its large masjids, vast market places and greenery, the most prominent feature of this city was its multi- storied houses. A series of excavations since the beginning of the 20th century have shed light upon the architectural properties of these houses that were constructed during the Fatimi period, predominantly their outdoor landscaping elements.

The houses of Fustat were all centred on multiple courtyards. These courtyards occupied a varied range of elements such as fountains, shrubbery pits and water channels. The most prominent element of these courtyards however, was the traditional Fatimi domestic basin.

The courtyard basins exemplified an appreciation of creating beauty through a combination of different shapes. Although the use of the octagonal base was a common vocabulary, the mouth of the basins had either a square, or a rectangular frame. This variation contributes significantly to the aesthetic appeal of the basin. To someone viewing the basin from a vertical distance it appears as if the basin plays with a diverse range of shapes such as the design of the fountain, the square or rectangular frame and the octagonal base. The octagonal base due to its stylistic recurrence is generalized by historians as a Fatimi basin style.

Besides employing different shapes, the patrons of these houses also decorated the interior of these basins using various recesses1. One house in particular has a basin that has a square mouth and arch shaped semi-circular recesses on each side2. Another settlement located in al-Darrasa exemplifies an intricate basin decoration. The interior of the basin was decorated using two different forms of alternating recesses; one of which is the typical Fatemi Cairene style pointed arch with deep recesses and the other is the Fatemi Maghrebi style recti-curvilinear (uninterrupted curve) arch with shallow niches3. These niches were intended to contribute to the symmetrical appeal of the courtyard and basin while simultaneously also creating ripple patterns in the water. Recesses are generally characterized as a Fatemi stylistic element and domestically, they are usually found only in porticos and liwans. Scanlon informs us of an exception where a house in Fustat contained a room that had recessing in its south wall4.

In some houses, the clever application of these water basins and their supporting channels hinted towards another additional role. In one particular house which is centred by a court there is another small room towards the east which is occupied by a basin that connects with a larger basin in the courtyard through a water channel. The smaller room is delimited by a recess where a water pipe ends up vertically in the wall behind it. This design is interpreted as an ingenious cooling system where the recess was intended to take a sloping marble slab with a ridged surface down which the water from a tap would run in a thin film and cool the air by slight evaporation5.

A similar technique is apparent in another Fustat house where the layout of the garden allows the wind that blows from the North in the summer to pass the basins whereby cooling it after which it is described as becoming scented by flowers by passing through the garden and finally ending up in the courtyard.6

William of Tyre, while exalting the Fatimi palaces, notes that these palaces had “marble fish-pools with lipid waters”7. Although we cannot justly conclude that these beautiful water basins and their clever application was a direct replication of the royal water basins of the Fatimi Palaces, it can be understood that these royal Fatimi basins in some capacity influenced water basins and fountains within the domestic architecture of Fustat.

1 Recess – a small space created by building part of a wall further back from the rest.
2 Creswell, The Muslim Architecture of Egypt 1952, New York Hacker Art Book, Vol,1 pg 503
3 Pradines, Fatimid gardens: archaeological and historical perspectives, Bulletin of SOAS 79,3 2016 pg 494
4 George Scanlon, Fustat expedition: Preliminary report 1966 pg 407
5 Creswell, The Muslim Architecture of Egypt 1952, New York Hacker Art Book, Vol,1 pg 503
6 Pradines, Fatimid gardens : archaeological and historical perspectives, Bulletin of SOAS 79,3 2016 pg 492
7 William of Tyre, A History of deeds done beyond the sea,1976 vol.2 pg 319

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About the author–M. Husain Shk. Juzar bhai Chiba graduated from Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah in 1441/2019 bearing the degree of al-Faqih al-Jayyid. Specializing in Islamic History, he is an enthusiast of Islamic and Fatimi Art and Architecture. He is also a Microsoft Certified Trainer for Microsoft 365 applications.