Thinking about the medieval state from a Moroccan perspective: Writing The Almoravid Maghrib

Was there a Golden Age?

A set of persistent questions propelled the writing of this book since before its inception. As a student I read widely through the history and culture of Islamic Spain and often found myself wondering why its story was told with the familiar arc of beginning, golden age, decline, and collapse. Arabs and Berbers had arrived in the Iberian Peninsula in 711, toppling the Visigothic kingdom that had established itself there more than two hundred years prior. Some years later, in 756, a surviving Umayyad prince, escaping the demise of his family in the east, made his way to the region and founded a dynasty, with its capital in Córdoba. The long reign of this dynasty, and especially its final century of political and cultural maturity, are often referred to as the Golden of Age of Islamic Spain. 

But, I wondered, if the Golden Age of Islamic Spain coincided with the proclamation of a fully independent caliphate in Umayyad Córdoba in 929, why would it appear–as it did to me–that the signature artistic, cultural, and literary achievements of Islamic and Jewish Spain come from a later period? Ibn Ḥazm’s Ring of the Dove, Averroës’s Aristotelian commentaries, Ibn Quzmān’s zajals, Ibn ʿArabī’s massive poetic and theosophical ruminations (not to mention the Alhambra, the Giralda, and much of the visible architectural legacy): All of these date to the period after the collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba (in a devastating civil war that started in 1009 and led to a fragmented political landscape). 

The Great Mosque of Córdoba. Symbol of the blossoming of Umayyad Culture and of its legacy to ensuing Andalusi forms in Iberia and North Africa.

The Almoravids in Spain

A widely accepted historical narrative about the course of Islamic Spain attributes the downfall of the Umayyad Caliphate, and, consequentially, of the culture and civilization that made Islamic Spain “great,” to groups of North African invaders, Berbers from the Maghrib (as Northwest Africa is referred to in Arabic). 

The term Berber is an exonym applied to the indigenous peoples of the region (Amazigh, pl. Imazighen). It echoes strongly with connotations of barbarians and barbarism.  

As the story goes, Islamic Spain, with its capital in Córdoba, had a flourishing culture that collapsed under the influx of barbarian invaders from North Africa who introduced religious intolerance into the mix. The culture of al-Andalus never recovered.

This is very simplistically put. And perhaps some aspects of the caricature aren’t entirely wrong: There was a civli war. Entire neighborhoods were burnt down. Córdoba especially suffered. Armed groups of Maghribi horsemen and soldiers, recently brought to the region to bolster Caliphal power, appear to have played a major role in the conflict. They were prominent among the identifiable political players (among other reasons, because they wielded notable military power) in what became a multi-sided conflict that undid the Umayyad state in a confusing period of two decades or so. And then, before Córdoba could recover at century’s end, a new invading Berber force from the Maghrib–the Almoravids (Arabic al-Murābiṭūn)–overwhelmed and conquered the entirety of Islamic Spain. 

Perhaps, but swan songs don’t last centuries. The answer would appear to be more complex. It deserves a nuanced and compelling explanation. 

The View from Morocco

The question of the nature of the relationship between political power (the state), and culture and religion presented itself as central. I was curious about what I saw as the contradictions of culture and power and became interested in this period when the Almoravids took what had been Islamic Spain and annexed it to their growing state, ruled from a new capital in Marrakech. 

The Almoravids had come out of the Sahara and conquered northward over a period of two to three decades. 

Draʿa Valley, on the way to Tamegroute

For me personally, it was after visiting the small town of Tamegroute, with its famous manuscript library and breathtaking setting on a river valley-oasis that disappears into the desert, that I started to ask myself a new set of questions, this time about political power and the environment, which might be summarized quite simply with the question: What does political power look like in the desert? If the agrarian state was based on the accumulation of surplus agricultural product, how does it form in desert regions? How did a medieval library (or even an early modern one) form in the Sahara or on its edge. And how did a conquering power, such as the Almoravids, take shape in a place that did not produce such surplus. What was the basis of their economy, why would they cultivate religious learning? Were they just raiders? And if so, why did they then build cities?  

Tamegroute’s Manuscript Library

Increasingly, through thinking about the Almoravids and other “marginal” post classical and medieval state formations, I have come to see that our received history, genealogy, and typology of the state modeled after the European experience–and by consequence of the civilizational story it is supposed to illustrate–is restrictive and limited. It doesn’t account for the actual historical variety of formations that blossomed across the vast and varied global medieval past (not to mention Antiquity).

by Camilo Gómez-Rivas

Book is now available here!

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