Qantara Qantara

The Almoravid dynasty (1056-1147)

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The Almoravid dynasty originated from a religious and political movement founded by the Berber tribes of the southern Sahara around 1039. A Malikite jurist named ‘Abd Allah ibn Yasin went into the desert to preach religious and moral reform to the tribes of the Sahara at the behest of the leader of the Gdala tribe. Ibn Yasin gathered his disciples in a ribat, which was both a spiritual retreat and a base for jihad. He gave them the name of murabitun (the people of the ribat), which became “Almoravids” when transcribed into European languages. He made an alliance with another powerful tribe, the Lamtuna, and set out to conquer the Sahara and western Maghreb, following the Trans-Saharan trade routes. He was able to take Sijilmasa (1054) and Aghmat (1058) but lost his life in a battle against the Barghwata of the Atlantic plains in 1059. After his death, power came into the hands of Abu Bakr ibn ‘Umar who started the conquest of the kingdom of Ghana (in today’s southern Mauritania). His lieutenant and successor Yusuf ibn Tashfin came into power around 1070 and expanded Almoravid territories through the conquest of the western half of the Maghreb as far as Algiers (1083). He founded his new capital at Marrakech in 1070 and proclaimed himself Emir of the Muslims. This new title allowed him to legitimize his position, while recognising the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad and respecting the principal of unity of the caliphate so dear to the Malikite jurists. The jurists held a privileged position under the Almoravids and had some influence on political decision-making. Some of them were responsible for the Almoravid intervention in al-Andalus, whose objective was to halt the advance of the Castilian armies after the shock of the loss of Toledo in 1085. Ibn Tashfin’s victory at the battle of Zallaqa in 1086 allowed him to progressively bring the kingdoms of the Taifas under his authority and annex their territories. Over a period of thirty years, the Almoravids managed to contain the Christian conquest and to retake Valencia, which had been briefly occupied by El Cid.

The Almoravid Empire stretched from the Ebro valley to today’s Mauritania. Its administration was organised centrally, with Almoravid dignitaries at its head. Members of the Malikite judiciary were in charge of religious and judicial affairs. The empire’s mints were supplied with African gold, with which they produced Dinars, which found their way to the Christian kingdoms of Spain (They were given the name marabotins).

The development of certain town such as Almeria bears witness to the economic activity, which was encouraged by commercial exchange was the north of the Mediterranean.

Not much has been written concerning Almoravid urban construction yet they were responsible for two of today’s major urban centres in Morocco: Marrakech and Fes. They founded Marrakech as their capital and built a palatial complex (Qasr al-hajar, the stone palace, which was built where the Almohad Koutoubia now stands). They also built a great mosque named after the Almoravid sovereign ‘Alik b. Yusuf (1106 – 1143) as well as constructing underground channels to bring water to the numerous urban gardens. They later constructed earthen ramparts to protect the city against the rebel Almohads.

Fes had been a divided city with two independent centres since its foundation by the Idrissids. The Almoravids reunited the city and constructed new city walls as well as enlarging the al-Qarawiyyin mosque.

Much of the Almoravid religious architecture in Morocco has been lost and they are better known for their constructions in today’s Algeria. The great mosques of Algiers, Nedroma and Tlemcen have the same architectural layout with naves perpendicular to the qibla wall. These naves continue into the central courtyard (sahn) as galleries (riwaq). In Morocco, they are best known for the work done on the al-Qarawiyyin mosque in Fes, where they built three new naves parallel to the qibla wall. A new mihrab was also constructed, as well as a series of cupolas to cover the axial nave. Close to the mosque, they built a funeral oratory, which was destined to receive the remains of the dead for the celebration of the funeral prayer. In Marrakech, there are few remains of the Almoravid period. The only parts that remain of the ‘Ali b. Yusuf mosque are the outbuildings and notably the Famous cupola covering a small basin used for ablutions. The exterior of the dome is decorated with chevrons forming a zigzag pattern. Inside the monument the cupola is supported by ribbing, which is hidden by sumptuous decoration combining the rigor of geometric arches and muqarnas with luxurious flowered decoration including epigraphic inscriptions. All of this was set off by multicoloured highlights as has been shown by the discovery of coloured glass fragments during recent excavations.

Almoravid art brought a number of innovations to the architectural tradition of the Muslim west. The use of multi-foiled cusped arches was already known in Umayyad al-Andalus. Their use during the Almoravid period was abundant and involved new techniques for cutting out the intrados. In terms of decorative motifs, the palm leaf was used extensively and occupied a central position in the floral compositions. The epigraphic inscriptions used include more and more cursive script, which was better adapted to the flowery decorations than the rigid Kufic script (which during this period, became more ‘flowery’ itself).

There are also numerous furnishings that have survived from this period. The best examples are in the form of carved wood. The minbar of the Koutoubia was ordered by the Almoravids between 1125 and1130 and was built in Cordoba. It is a true masterpiece of woodwork: The four metre high piece is decorated with a network of geometric tracery bounding several polygonal panels with sculpted flowery motifs, which are worked with great delicacy and inlaid with ivory and rare wood. Other sculpted wooden objects from the Fes region attest to the existance of a local workshop using cedar wood from the Middle Atlas Mountains. The motifs were mainly inspired by the work of the al-Andalus workshops under the Umayyad and Taifa. 

Under the reign of the emir ‘Ali b. Yusuf, the Almoravids began to feel the first symptoms of a crisis. They were locked into war with the advancing Christian armies in al-Andalus, whose advances began again in 1118 with the fall of Saragossa. At home they had to face up to the revolt of the Almohads. Despite the defensive structures that they had constructed to stem the access of the dissidents from the mountains to the Atlantic plains, Marrakech fell in 1147. In al-Andalus the collapse of the dynasty led to a phase of instability, sometimes known as the “post-Almoravid taifas”. Only the Balearic Islands offered a temporary refuge to the last of the Almoravid clans, the Banu Ghaniya, who remained autonomous for another half century.