The Maghreb, Muslim North Africa, c. 750-1650

The Maghreb, Muslim North Africa

The area in North Africa that the Arab geographers designated as the Maghreb was isolated from Islam’s power center in the east by expanses of desert. After the Umayyad conquest, the area consequently soon fell apart into a number of small, independent Berber states. In many cases, their founders were charismatic leaders who headed popular religious movements. Their goal was both to establish a society based on what they considered purer forms of Islam and to wage jihad (“holy war”) against the Christian world, which was increasingly seen as a threat. Spain in the north, and not the caliphate in Syria and Iraq, was to play a dominant role as a source of artistic and cultural inspiration. Political developments in al-Andalus and the Maghreb were also closely linked.

The Zirids (972-1152) ruled Tunisia and eastern Algeria. Since the time of the Aghlabids (800-909), their capital of Kairouan, with its great mosque, had developed into North Africa’s most important theological center. But harrying Bedouins who invaded North Africa from the east forced the Zirids to the coast, where they built up a fleet. This was the start of an age of piracy that made large parts of the Mediterranean unsafe for several centuries, countered by the attacks and conquests of Christian forces along the coast of North Africa.

In the west, the Almoravids (1062-1147) conquered Morocco and founded Marrakesh. This Berber dynasty seized power in southern Spain in 1090, criticizing earlier minor Spanish Muslim realms for their decadence and lack of devoutness. After a few decades, the Almoravids themselves were accused of religious laxness by another Berber dynasty, the Almohads (1130-1269), which managed to conquer all of North Africa. The Almohad Empire was controlled from Seville and Marrakesh, and the strict religious principles that permeated Almohad society were reflected in an architectural style with a stylized, geometric idiom.

After suffering defeat in Spain to Christian forces in 1212, the Almohad Empire collapsed and was succeeded in North Africa by a number of smaller states. In addition to conflicts among themselves, they came under increasing pressure in the 14th and 15th century from the kingdoms of Christian Spain. Soon an even more formidable enemy appeared in the east, the Ottoman Empire, which expanded westward from the 16th century. Despite alliances with the Christian powers, only Morocco, under the Sadian dynasty (1510-1659) and their successors, managed to avoid ending up as an Ottoman vassal state.