Qantara Qantara

The Idrisids (789- 974)

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The history of the Idrisid dynasty began with the arrival in Morroco of its eponymous founder Idriss 1, who was fleeing the Abbasid persecution. As a descendant of Ali, he had taken part in anti-Abbasid revolts led by members of the Alid clan, notably his brother  Muhammad al-Nafs az-Zakiyya and his cousin Husayn. The rebels, affirming the Alids’ right to the caliphacy, were of the Zaydite confession, this being one of the main branches of Shia Islam. After escaping from the massacre of Fakh in 786, Idriss left for the Maghreb where Zaydite missionaries had preceded him. He gained the support of Mu`tazilite Berbers in the central Maghreb and at Volubilis, and on arriving in Volubilis in 788 was welcomed by the Awraba Berbers and declared an imam; he set about consolidating his power by expanding into the furthest reaches of the Maghreb as far as Tlemcen. However, his projects were cut short by the Abbasids, who ordered his assassination in 791. Idris II, born after his father’s death, inherited power in 803, after a regency assured by Idris’ companions. The new sovereign carried on his father’s work, had the Awraba chieftain executed, and took on an Arab guard.

The major historical event of Idriss II’s reign was without doubt the completion of the founding of Fes. A historiographical tradition, passed down from the Middle Ages, attributes the founding of the city to him alone, but historical and numismatical research has proved that Fes was founded in two stages. First, under Idris I, an initial nucleus was established as early as 789 on the eastern bank of the Fes wadi, called Madinat Fas, a name which appears on coins struck in in 801 and 805. In 808 Idris II founded on the opposite bank a second centre, which went by the name of al-Aliyya until the mid-ninth century. The settlement of the two nuclei was intensified by the arrival in 814 of Andalusian refugees fleeing the repression that followed the revolt of a suburb (Rabad) of Cordoba, as well as by groups of people from Kairouan. This demographic influx was to inspire the toponyms of the two river-banks: al-Andalus (bank of the Andalusians) and al-Karaouine (bank of the Kairouans). Fes would remain a double city, with two separate nuclei each surrounded by its own rampart, until its unification by the Almoravids in the eleventh century.

Upon the death of Idris II in 828, the dynasty’s territory was divided among his sons, and the eldest, Muhammad, received Fes. The newly-fragmented Idrisid power would never again be reunified. The territories governed by the descendants of Idris II were essentially concentrated in the north of Morocco, along with some possessions in the Tadla or in the deep south of the country. The Idrisids continued to live alongside other local dynasties : the Salihids at Nekor, the Barghawatas in the Atlantic plains and the Midrarids at Sijilmasa. Other passing Mu`tazilite or Kharijite powers are also known to us thanks to their coined currency.

Due to the fragility of their régime, the Idrisids did not manage to constitute a sophisticated state- or institutional apparatus. The main trapping of sovereignty that they left behind is their abundant coinage. The legends on Idrisid dirhams clearly reflected the dynasty’s Zaidite confession, and helped to legitimize its power by insisting on its Alid pedigree. The coins, struck in roughly twenty workshops, were very widely circulated in the Orient and have been found in money hoards as far away as Russia and in Baltic countries.

The urbanisation of the western Maghreb also underwent notable development during the Idrisid period. First of all, the cities in which urban life had struggled on since the end of Antiquity were occupied. Volubilis, the town which had welcomed Idris, is the best known of these; the Islamic occupation was focused in the western third of the site. Two sectors have been excavated: on one side are found nuclear dwellings in the Berber tradition, probably dating from the eighth century; on the other side, outside the Roman rampart, a thermal establishment from the Islamic period is grouped with residential units, probably organised around central courtyards; this latter sector seems to have been abandoned during the 9th century. Other ancient towns, such as Sala (Chellah) and Tangiers, continued to be inhabited.

Several new urban centres were created during the Idrisid period. Basra, whose name recalls the famous town in Iraq, and Asilah, built on the Atlantic, appeared as coinage workshops from the beginning of the ninth century. Certain new foundations were established near silver mines, like Wazaqqur, commanding the mine of Jbel Awam, or Tamdult, in southern Maroc, reputed to have been founded by Idris II’s son Abdullah. Idrisid Morocco’s spreading urbanisation slowed down in the 10th century, due to the conflict between Umayyads and Fatimids, and it was in this context that al-Qasim b. Ibrahim, known as Gannun, set himself up at Hajar al-Nasr, a naturally defended site where he constructed an impregnable fortification.

We know little about Idrisid art. Though essentially town-builders, the Idrisids also left behind some outstanding monuments, especially at Fes, like the al-Karaouine mosque, whose initial form was later completely transformed by restoration-work.

The al-Karaouine mosque was founded by Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad ibn Abdullah al-Fihri, an immigrant from Kairouan. The construction of the original oratory, consisting of four aisles parallel to the qiblah wall, began in 857. The mosque apparently underwent restoration under Dawud b. Idris in 877, as evidenced by an inscription carved into a wooden beam. This unique piece is the first example of wood art from Fes. It bears characters in archaic angular Kufic script, close to the Aghlabid style.

The al-Karaouine mosque was simply an oratory during the Idrisid period and was not the site of the weekly Friday prayer. It only took on this function during the Fatimid presence in the city.

The al-Andalus mosque, on the other bank of Fes, owes its existence, according to tradition, to Fatima’s sister, who commissioned its construction from 859-860. The original layout of the building is unknown due to a series of modifications and repairs.

The end of the Idrisid dynasty was very turbulent. After the advent of the Fatimid caliphate, Morocco had become a land of confrontation between the Fatimids and the Cordoban Umayyad, either directly or through the intermediary of allies. The Idrissid family branches, definitively expelled from Fes in 926, continued to reign over certain towns in north-west Morocco, like Basra or Hajar an-Nasr. Caught in the crossfire of the conflict between the Fatimid and Umayyad Empires, their territories finally fell into the hands of the Zenata powers, and the Umayyad victory over the last Idrisid, al-Hasan ibn Gannun, an ally of the Fatimids, marked the definitive end of the dynasty in 974.

The importance of the Idrissids in Moroccan history is overestimated by traditional historiography, doubtless due to the founding of Fes. Their role began to be inflated in the Marinid period, with the emergence of the shorfâ’ clans, who claimed to be of Idrisid origin.

The history of the Idrisid dynasty began with the arrival in Morroco of its eponymous founder Idriss 1, who was fleeing the Abbasid persecution. As a descendant of Ali, he had taken part in anti-Abbasid revolts led by members of the Alid clan, notably his brother  Muhammad al-Nafs az-Zakiyya and his cousin Husayn. The rebels, affirming the Alids’ right to the caliphacy, were of the Zaydite confession, this being one of the main branches of Shia Islam. After escaping from the massacre of Fakh in 786, Idriss left for the Maghreb where Zaydite missionaries had preceded him. He gained the support of Mu`tazilite Berbers in the central Maghreb and at Volubilis, and on arriving in Volubilis in 788 was welcomed by the Awraba Berbers and declared an imam; he set about consolidating his power by expanding into the furthest reaches of the Maghreb as far as Tlemcen. However, his projects were cut short by the Abbasids, who ordered his assassination in 791. Idris II, born after his father’s death, inherited power in 803, after a regency assured by Idris’ companions. The new sovereign carried on his father’s work, had the Awraba chieftain executed, and took on an Arab guard.

The major historical event of Idriss II’s reign was without doubt the completion of the founding of Fes. A historiographical tradition, passed down from the Middle Ages, attributes the founding of the city to him alone, but historical and numismatical research has proved that Fes was founded in two stages. First, under Idris I, an initial nucleus was established as early as 789 on the eastern bank of the Fes wadi, called Madinat Fas, a name which appears on coins struck in in 801 and 805. In 808 Idris II founded on the opposite bank a second centre, which went by the name of al-Aliyya until the mid-ninth century. The settlement of the two nuclei was intensified by the arrival in 814 of Andalusian refugees fleeing the repression that followed the revolt of a suburb (Rabad) of Cordoba, as well as by groups of people from Kairouan. This demographic influx was to inspire the toponyms of the two river-banks: al-Andalus (bank of the Andalusians) and al-Karaouine (bank of the Kairouans). Fes would remain a double city, with two separate nuclei each surrounded by its own rampart, until its unification by the Almoravids in the eleventh century.

Upon the death of Idris II in 828, the dynasty’s territory was divided among his sons, and the eldest, Muhammad, received Fes. The newly-fragmented Idrisid power would never again be reunified. The territories governed by the descendants of Idris II were essentially concentrated in the north of Morocco, along with some possessions in the Tadla or in the deep south of the country. The Idrisids continued to live alongside other local dynasties : the Salihids at Nekor, the Barghawatas in the Atlantic plains and the Midrarids at Sijilmasa. Other passing Mu`tazilite or Kharijite powers are also known to us thanks to their coined currency.

Due to the fragility of their régime, the Idrisids did not manage to constitute a sophisticated state- or institutional apparatus. The main trapping of sovereignty that they left behind is their abundant coinage. The legends on Idrisid dirhams clearly reflected the dynasty’s Zaidite confession, and helped to legitimize its power by insisting on its Alid pedigree. The coins, struck in roughly twenty workshops, were very widely circulated in the Orient and have been found in money hoards as far away as Russia and in Baltic countries.

The urbanisation of the western Maghreb also underwent notable development during the Idrisid period. First of all, the cities in which urban life had struggled on since the end of Antiquity were occupied. Volubilis, the town which had welcomed Idris, is the best known of these; the Islamic occupation was focused in the western third of the site. Two sectors have been excavated: on one side are found nuclear dwellings in the Berber tradition, probably dating from the eighth century; on the other side, outside the Roman rampart, a thermal establishment from the Islamic period is grouped with residential units, probably organised around central courtyards; this latter sector seems to have been abandoned during the 9th century. Other ancient towns, such as Sala (Chellah) and Tangiers, continued to be inhabited.

Several new urban centres were created during the Idrisid period. Basra, whose name recalls the famous town in Iraq, and Asilah, built on the Atlantic, appeared as coinage workshops from the beginning of the ninth century. Certain new foundations were established near silver mines, like Wazaqqur, commanding the mine of Jbel Awam, or Tamdult, in southern Maroc, reputed to have been founded by Idris II’s son Abdullah. Idrisid Morocco’s spreading urbanisation slowed down in the 10th century, due to the conflict between Umayyads and Fatimids, and it was in this context that al-Qasim b. Ibrahim, known as Gannun, set himself up at Hajar al-Nasr, a naturally defended site where he constructed an impregnable fortification.

We know little about Idrisid art. Though essentially town-builders, the Idrisids also left behind some outstanding monuments, especially at Fes, like the al-Karaouine mosque, whose initial form was later completely transformed by restoration-work.

The al-Karaouine mosque was founded by Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad ibn Abdullah al-Fihri, an immigrant from Kairouan. The construction of the original oratory, consisting of four aisles parallel to the qiblah wall, began in 857. The mosque apparently underwent restoration under Dawud b. Idris in 877, as evidenced by an inscription carved into a wooden beam. This unique piece is the first example of wood art from Fes. It bears characters in archaic angular Kufic script, close to the Aghlabid style.

The al-Karaouine mosque was simply an oratory during the Idrisid period and was not the site of the weekly Friday prayer. It only took on this function during the Fatimid presence in the city.

The al-Andalus mosque, on the other bank of Fes, owes its existence, according to tradition, to Fatima’s sister, who commissioned its construction from 859-860. The original layout of the building is unknown due to a series of modifications and repairs.

The end of the Idrisid dynasty was very turbulent. After the advent of the Fatimid caliphate, Morocco had become a land of confrontation between the Fatimids and the Cordoban Umayyad, either directly or through the intermediary of allies. The Idrissid family branches, definitively expelled from Fes in 926, continued to reign over certain towns in north-west Morocco, like Basra or Hajar an-Nasr. Caught in the crossfire of the conflict between the Fatimid and Umayyad Empires, their territories finally fell into the hands of the Zenata powers, and the Umayyad victory over the last Idrisid, al-Hasan ibn Gannun, an ally of the Fatimids, marked the definitive end of the dynasty in 974.

The importance of the Idrissids in Moroccan history is overestimated by traditional historiography, doubtless due to the founding of Fes. Their role began to be inflated in the Marinid period, with the emergence of the shorfâ’ clans, who claimed to be of Idrisid origin.

Y.B.