Jawahar al-Siqilli, the Italy-born commander who built Cairo, Al-Azhar mosque

Francesca Astorri

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The story Jawhar al-Siqilli, or Jawhar the Sicilian, is incredible, almost mythological. The man with no exact date of birth went from being a slave to becoming the highest-ranking military commander, managing to build one of the strongest armies in the Islamic history.

Jawhar grew up in Tunisia, in the first Shiite capital city of Mahdia, that was the capital of the Fatimids at the time. Other historical accounts suggest he was born in Sicily, Italy, and some even suggest he was born in Croatia. Mahdia is located approximately 140 kilometers south of Tunis and it is believed that the architecture of Cairo was inspired by the city’s design.

It is also believed that during his reign, Jawhar managed to unify the Arab world extending from Iraq, Syria, Egypt and the entire North Africa till the shores of Morocco.

He travelled through the Mediterranean Sea, living all sorts of adventures, including being kidnapped by the pirates. After having survived all those, he went on to build the foundation of an Arab capital city, of a historic mosque and of the most ancient university.

“Jawhar is one of the leading personalities of the time for his military ability, for having consolidated the power of the emirs on a vast territory and also for having unlocked an intellectual development”, said Franco Cardini, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Florence, Italy.

Birth in Sicily

Jawhar was born in Sicily at the time of the Arab domination. We don’t know exactly when, as at that time the date of birth of a slave was considered unimportant to record. We only know it was some time in the early 10th century.

We know exactly when he died, because by that time he was the most important military leader in Fatimid history, founder of Cairo, of Al-Azhar mosque and of the Homonymous University. It was the 1st of February in the year 992.

Jawhar was brought to North Africa at a young age and was handed over to the Caliph Ismail al-Mansur Billah. When the Caliph’s son Al Muizz took over, Jawhar gained his freedom. Soon after he rose to the position of a military commander conquering territories in North Africa from Morocco to Egypt and beyond.

In the year 969, he founded the city of Cairo, whose name comes from al-Qahira, “the victorious”, that became the new residence of the Fatimid Caliphs.

“Cairo is an emporium, a city founded with the aim of penetrating Africa and to create a great commercial hub. Cairo was important because it coagulated trade routes” Cardini, who is also Fellow at Harvard University in Boston and Director of the Ecole d’Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris, said to Al Arabiya English.

Largest city in the Arab world

With this initiative, Jawhar wasn’t only founding the largest city in the Arab world, but one of the world’s centers of learning of that time. In facts, some would argue that the greatest contribution by Jawhar was in founding the most ancient university in the world, Al-Azhar University.

“Al-Azhar university is not only the most ancient academic institution, but also the most important cultural landmark in the Islamic world throughout the Middle Ages. After its foundation, Al Azhar university went through a declining moment, but then it regained centrality in the 19th century”, said Francesca Corrao, Professor of Arab culture and language at the Faculty of Political Science at LUISS University in Rome, Italy.

Students at Al-Azhar university would study the Quran and Islamic law, logic, grammar, rhetoric, how to calculate the phases of the moon and other subjects, as the university library was containing hundreds of thousands of books.

“The parallelism between academic and religious institutions was very strong at the time, while today the two structures are more unlocked”, Corrao explains to Al Arabiya.

The Al-Azhar mosque

Al-Azhar Mosque was considered the favorite of the emirs, the point of reference of the central power, and it is still standing over a thousand years later.

An epigraph in Arabic engraved in an elegant way on stone blocks, reporting the name of Jawhar, is preserved in the Civic Museum of Termini Imerese, Sicily. This epigraph celebrates Jawhar as the one who ordered the construction of a building during al-Muizz’s rule.

This inscription is considered one of the most ancient testimonies of the Islamic rule in Sicily and of Jawhar, according to the Director of the Orestiadi Foundation of Gibellina, Enzo Fiammetta, who conducted a wide research on the subject.

Jawhar is between the first people that migrated from the Italian peninsula to Egypt, but many followed him. “During the centuries Egypt faced numerous migrations from Italy, a phenomenon that contributed to strengthening relations between the two countries” said Leila El Houssi, Professor of History of Islamic countries at University of Padua, Italy.

“The major migration from Italy to Egypt was in the 19th century following the great economic depression, but many Italians decided to leave also during the Fascist regime”, El Houssi said.

Around 14 million Italians left Italy between 1876 and 1915, of which over 48,000 went to Egypt, according to the Historic Archive of Italian Migration (A.S.E.I.).

Italian community in Egypt

Just before the Second World War, the Italian community in Egypt was the third largest ethnic group in the country with over 55.000 people. Today that figure dropped significantly to few thousand people, but the cultural bonding resulted from centuries of relations still resists.

If Jawhar represented a bridge between Italy and Egypt, the relation between the two countries started far before him, as even two Roman Emperors, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, fell in love for the Ptolemaic Queen of Egypt Cleopatra.

Today there is a tangible friction between the two countries.

Following the killing in 2016 in Cairo of Italian PhD student, Giulio Regeni, the relations between Egypt and Italy deteriorated significantly, culminating with Rome’s decision to withdraw the Italian Ambassador to Cairo.

Regini’s case

In January this year, Ahmed Saeed, president of the Egyptian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said that Regeni’s case was close to a turning point, that it was a matter of one or two months.

The fact is that today, over a year since Regeni was brutally tortured and killed in Cairo, the truth has not been revealed.

“No incident can change the strong cultural relations between the two countries. Politics is politics, but cultural relations have always been strong and will continue to be so”, said awarded archaeologist and former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, adding that also today there are many important Italian archaeological missions working in Egypt.

“Italian missions made many important archaeological discoveries and conservation projects as well as site management projects. For 10 years Egyptians and Italians have worked together in the Fayum and it was because of the Italians’ work that the site of Wadi Mady, an important site in the Fayum, is now accessible to tourists. This is an important evidence of the strong cooperation between the Italian and Egyptian cultural exchange”, Hawass said, while travelling from Cairo to Rome to promote a book about Egyptian ruler Seqnenre.

This could be another twist of fate that provides ample proof of the powerful cultural bond represented by Jawhar the Sicilian.