Ibn Tulun Trilogy: A city without walls

Nazek Fahmy, Monday 31 Jan 2022

Reem Bassiouney, Al- Kataa’e: Ibn Tulun Trilogy, Nahdet Masr, 2021. pp704

Ibn Tulun

This huge volume is not a trilogy in the ordinary sense, but rather, as the author herself informs her readers, three stories which span a few decades and the life and the legacy of Ibn Tulun, whose dynasty ruled Egypt and Syria between AD 868 and 905.

The launch pad is an early 20th-century frame narrative, a teasingly inviting smattering of words about history inscribed in stone – about the names of those who build and those who destroy, about love, passion and ambition.

The dense spin of events takes for its title the name of the historical but little known capital city of Al-Kataa’e. A metropolis meant to replace Al-Fustat, it is built by Ahmad Ibn Tulun, the Turkic slave-soldier. A projection of his unique vision, Al-Kataa’e is built not only to harbour the Egyptian army, the first of its kind since the Pharaohs, but also as a flagship of tolerance where native and foreign, pagan, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim people could live in brotherhood and peace. Immediately acquiring legendary dimensions, Al-Kataa’e has no walls. By extension, the mosque, a marvel of architecture, is an epitome of the idealistic impetus which defines the rule of Ibn Tulun as governor of his much- loved Egypt. Not only was he a master builder with an unmistakable architectural vision, he was also known as a reformer and an innovator, translating his love for the Egyptians into the building of hospitals, canals, dykes and bridges.

Only two centuries down from the Arab conquest of Egypt, the country is still in a state of transition. Ancient Egypt looms large. Arabic is slowly supplanting Coptic as both vernacular and identity. In Iraq, the Abbasid empire is rocked by internal divisions and the ever-present threat of breakaways. Having arrived in Egypt as deputy viceroy, Ibn Tulun seizes the day. Dreaming of independence and glory, instead of ruling impassively under the auspices of the Abbasids, he turned his prized possession into a renegade state, bringing more disputes to the far flung and already insecure Abbasid Caliphate. As a result, between an Egypt nominally under Abbasid rule and a remote Baghdad, the seat of the Caliphate, a spool of events is unravelled. In the book the tangle of tales, and the profusion of characters in action which crosses borders and generations, are eventually both defined by only one thing--their relationship to the founder of the Tulunid dynasty.

In a heroic attempt to probe the mentality and the realities of distant times, that maze of events positions the public alongside the private. The streets are a non-stop Theatre of Cruelty: scenes of bloodcurdling torture, impalements, floggings and arbitrary killings are rampant. In a world of cloistered females, men’s lustful eyes manage inveterately to penetrate the thick walls of medieval chambers. Ruthless tax extortionists wrestle with idealistic young men in life-or-death struggles over money, love and power. Young women of fabulous beauty covered up with opaque veils, inspire frenzied passions in bold and daring young men. We are always at the top end of a range of emotions: anger, hate, revenge, infatuation, crazed feelings which generate abductions, escapades, and strange reversals. Conspiracies and court intrigues abound, and sexual politics intersect with state politics. Through it all, a cruel carnality beguiles the fairy tale atmosphere which permeates the action.

There are attempts upon attempts to parse abstractions, like love, justice, vengeance, possession, and dispossession, concepts which are all the while enigmatically wrapped in the exoticism of Ancient Egypt and the ambiguous utterances of monks and sages. Thus, despite the sordid realistic details, we are forever in the grey area between the real and the surreal.

Enchantment is the name of the game: the enchantment of the past, of place, the enchantment of women, and the enchantment of love and passion. Born in Samarra, Iraq, Ibn Tulun has been bewitched by Egypt since early childhood. For him, Egypt is dream and Egypt is myth, but Egypt is also a treasure trove which he refuses to share with Baghdad. His dream of possessing the country realised, he proceeds to govern it with different directives. In doing so, he becomes not only a controversial ruler but a larger-than-life figure.  Although lauded as a fair and just ruler, this self-made warrior, is not above puzzling and often contradictory characteristics and behaviour. He embraces austerity yet claims grandeur, is naïve yet cunning, tolerant yet unforgiving, simultaneously inspiring the fiercest loyalty and the most despicable treachery. In panelled discourses narrated by avatars, family members, scribes, public figures, friends and foes, we are given enough pieces to make up our own whole.

It does not take the reader long to realise that Ahmed Ibn Tulun the man, his city Al-Kataa’e, and the mosque merge into one thing. In the aftermath of his rule, there are cataclysmic attempts to destroy the man’s reputation, his progeny, and any vestiges of his existence. The city is levelled to the ground, but the mosque miraculously survives intact to this day.

Taken as a whole, the trilogy is a very ambitious venture into bygone eras, and a heroic foray into the mentality of times past – times of hidden treasures and wasted wealth, of incredible opulence, but also times of unmitigated cruelty, of crimes committed with an impunity that dismays. Bizarre secrets come to light, alliances, likely and unlikely, are fostered. Loyalties shift, treasures literal and metaphorical change hands, reputations are forever being reconsidered, and everything is an endless testimony to shifting grounds and the fickle world of men.

This trilogy is a mountain of verifiable historical facts wrapped in an exotic atmosphere which emanates the magical along with the surreal. It bespeaks a rich imagination enhanced by period poetry and viable motifs – an unforgettable read.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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