Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Bishop's Sea: The Hawk of the Atlantic

A bit of an exercise in dilettantism here, but worth it because this stuff does seem to be neglected in the historiography of the "Reconnaissance."

Some 4000 meters above sea level in the High Atlas are the springs of the Oued Sous, which falls into the Atlantic near Agadir after only a 112 mile run. The Sous is well known as the home of the Argan tree, something of a sensation in the cutthroat world of hair products for the last few years. 

Timmel mosque at the ribat of Timmel in the Nfis valley.
It was in this fertile and well-irrigated region, in the otherwise unidentified village of Igiliz, a bit more than 500km south of Casablanca, that, perhaps in 1080, Abu Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Tumart was born, in the nation of the Hargha, part of the Masmuda Confederation. His given name is something of a mystery, for he is known to history as the "Son of Delight," perhaps from his father's nickname, although  numerous Sufi saints of Morocco bear the same name.

Perhaps unlike them, Ibn Tumart climbed towards the wisdom of God, like a goat  after an argan nut, travelling first to Cordoba in al-Andalus, and later to Baghdad, in search of Islamic learning. Which he found, it is said, at the feet of al-Ghazali. (The hagiographers really aren't that helpful.)
This map, which I scraped from an online thesis on colonial
Morocco, does a good job of capturing the scale.

Be that as it may, Ibn Tumart returned to the Maghreb by ship from Alexandria in 117/18. At Igiliz, at the end of Ramadan in 1121, he preached a fiery sermon in which he pursued weighty theological issues as well as the gravely immoral Almorad practice of veiling men and unveiling women, something with reverberations for our modern, masking times. Properly wound up, he proclaimed himself the right-guided one, the Mahdi, which implied levying revolt against the Almoravid regime. Promptly decamping to the high fortress of Timmel, in the midst of the Masmuda country. His cause united six nations of the Masmuda, closing the passes from Marrakesh into the Sous anticline. 

The anticline between the High Atlas and Anti-Atlas contains not only the watersheds of the Sous, but of the Draa valley, which rises only a little to the east of the Sous, but runs at first east and then south to reach the Atlantic below Tagounite, falling into the Atlantic north of Tan-Tan, marking the former border between Morocco and the Spanish Sahara in its lower course.  At its westward bend, far inland, lies the tell identified as old Sijilmasa, and, near it, the spectacular hillfort of Jebel Mudawwar now a regular movie location.

At this time, Sijilmasa was the major northwestern terminus of the caravan trail from Ghana, and also a way station on the east-west route to southern Morocco from Tunis via Tlemcen. Although drawing itself apart from Almoravid power, it was a crucial waypoint on the trans-Saharan route to the Empire of Ghana and its gold, and the blockade was an existential threat to the Almoravids, although before the economic effects could be felt, ibn Tumart had led his tribesmen down to besiege Marrakesh and been ignominiously killed. It therefore fell to
By Walrasiad - Own work, based on Morocco relief location map
.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0,
an Algerian named Abd al Mu-min to become the actual first Almohad caliph after extinguishing the Almoravid regime under its last leader, Reverter, Count of Barcelona, father of  Berenguer of Barcelona and of Abu-l-Hasan Ali ibn Ruburtayr. Abd al Mu-min would ultimately rule from the Guadalquivir to Cyrenaica, but he died while building a city at Agadir and an arsenal at Rabat, and so did not live to see his seapower roll back Christian conquests in the Atlantic. 

Which is my point. The timing and context of the founding of Agadir, a Moroccan porty city that lies far to the south of anywhere I would had imagined.

If you were wondering. Well, that, and I had the Almohads confused with the Almoravids.

The material here jumped out at me as I composed a chapter on what I thought was going to be "Reconquista Spain." It was finally, and effectively forced on me when I checked Christopher Tyerman's take on the origins of the Iberian crusading impulse and found him blaming the Almohads.

They're the exotic, masked, orientalising enemy that El Cid's corpse rides down, since apparently they can't even pry the man's banner loose from his cold, dead hands.  It is nice to see this 1961 movie presenting El Cid as the leader of a multicultural and multifaith Spain, even if the price of interfaith unity in Iberia is the construction of a Maghrebi Other.

It is a given in the historiography of what Parry famously called the "Age of the Reconnaissance" that the earliest stages of the Portuguese and Castilian expansion into the Atlantic was an organic extension of the "Reconquest," and that it pushed down the coast of Africa as a way of short-circuiting the Islamic North African monopoly on sub-Saharan goods, particularly gold. John Hale's 1990 Henry the Navigator  makes the connection even more direct, or organic. Henry involves himself in the colonisation of Madeira because he needs employment for ships otherwise used to support the Portuguese outpost at Ceuta. The rhythms of his subsequent initiatives are synchronised with Portugal's relationships with the larger crusading impulse inside and outside the peninsula. To put it crudely, if Portugal can present its push down the coast of Africa as a crusade, it can levy crusading taxes and put off Castilian demands that it take part in the campaigns of the reconquest under Castilian leadership, which would give Castile fatal influence over the Portuguese grand noblesse, with its strong Castilian connections. (The house of Albuquerque being an excellent example of this dynamic.)

All of this I thought I understood. Even if the earliest details are hazy and romantic, it is a story of a continuous southwards push from the fastness of Asturias to the Straits of Gibraltar. Even if the last stages of the Reconquest are strangely retarded, with Granada serving as a crusader's hunting reserve for two centuries, it is a push from north to south, and the push across the Straits is seen as colonialist mainly because it is a move from Europe to Africa. At the time, Morocco was seen as part of the old Visigoth patrimony, and thus, religious differences notwithstanding, a legitimate object of Reconquest. The Pirate Republic of Sale, with its American connections, is a later and orthogonal branch of Moroccan history.

But now, I have my doubts. "The Hawk of the Atlantic" is a play on Abd al-Rahman ibn Mu'awiya, "the Hawk of the Quraysh," which takes us back to the  731--788 life of the founder of the Emirate of Cordoba.

Abd al-Rahman's colourful life is dominated by his flight all the way from Damascus to Cordoba, accompanied only by a loyal Greek freedman (who, like Count Julian of Ceuta, plays an outsized role in this whole affair.) Fleeing the Abbasid coup, Abd al-Rahman becomes the last representative of the overthrown Umayyad dynasty, although, inconveniently, it is not for a century and a half that his descendants proclaim themselves caliphs in opposition to the two caliphates by then competing in the Middle East. 

Similarities with Idris ibn Abdillah and Abdallah al-Mahdi Billah, get more than a little suspicious by this time. All three are refugees from the centre of the Islamic world and connected with the losing sides of the central conflicts of political Islam. Given the repetition of tropes and the fragile historiography, it is perhaps not surprising that one modern scholar is willing to throw in Dido as a fourth model, point to the two-century delay between Abd al-Rahman's founding of the Emirate of Cordoba, and the declaration of the Umayyad Caliphate, and very strongly imply that it is all invented history. (At least, as I read Richard Bulliet reviewing Janina Safran.) Paolo de Moraes Falias is insistent on interrogating our chroniclers' engagements with their own times in preference to the antiquity they profess to reveal, and although I sell his project short on a very short acquaintance, it's a reasonable place to start as we look to understand Morocco's role in the plantation of the Atlantic. (It is belated because the rise of Moroccan seapower is antedated to create fictitious synchronisations with the political history of early Islam.)

It turns out that the historicity of the first Abd al-Rahman is under fierce contention. Numerous lead sealings invoking local peaces between Visigothic Hispanic communities and the various Arabic jhunds, or mercenary regiments have turned up, and a late and atypical one, meant for wearing on chain mail, turns up with the name of Abd al-Rahman ibn Mu'awiya. But does it come from his lifetime, or later, when the developing Caliphate needed a proper genealogy? Given that we now doubt the very conquest of Morocco itself beyond the immediate hinterland of Tangier, there's a certain epistemic giddiness going on. The Chronicle of 754 tells us that the Visigothic regime collapsed on itself, with an Islamic raid only the precipitating factor, and romantic legend has long allowed the Count Julian of Ceuta, the last Byzantine Count of Africa, a central role. Whether he provided the Arabs with a fleet so as to avenge the honour of his daughter, La Cava against the caddish King Roderic, or because he was a partisan of the line of Wittiza, a rival Visigothic royal claimant, he suffices to get the jhunds into Iberia and transforms Islamic conquest into an internal affair. I'm more than agnostic about that. What matters here is the  Ceuta-centric interpretation, as it were.

Gibraltar from the Ceuta ferry. Source: The Telegraph
If the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba constructed its past, that was very much the fashion in Tenth Century Iberia. Already, Alfonso III of Asturias had ordered the creation of a  usable past, in which the Asturian kingdom (ancestral to Castile, Navarre, Leon/Aragon and Portugal) had been founded by Don Pelagius, grandson of Chindasuinth. Given that Chindasuinth was already an old man when he assumed the throne in 642, this seems unlikely, and it was no doubt the superiority of the Cordoban origin story that allowed the caliphate to dominate northern Spain until its ignominious collapse into multiple taifa kingdoms after the death of Almanzor. Which brings us to the brief period of Castilian ascendancy, to which belongs the story of El Cid, and the arrival of the Almoravids under Yusuf ibn Tashfin, to rescue Iberian Islam.

The Almoravids are heroic figures in the Maghreb, and a popular derivation of their name ties them to the Islamic institution of the ribat, a wilderness fortress refuge for Islamic warrior monks. Much later chroniclers suggested a ribat on the island of Tidrar in the Bay of Arguin on the Mauretanian shore, but there are connections with their favourite school of theologians and even with the dismissive nickname given them by their enemies, "The Veiled Ones." Nor are our eyes going to stop being drawn south into Africa, as the chroniclers have the early Almoravids conquering the Empire of Ghana, although this early conquest is now thought legendary. Clearly the Almoravids must have commanded political weight in the south where originated the gold that lubricated the taifa/Christian connection far to the north; but the fall of Ghana is placed far too early, the archaeologists say. To the north, Almoravid predominance in Iberia lasted from the initial incursion of 1086 to a series of defeats in 1138/9, followed by the fall of Lisbon in 1147.

The disasters to the north came less than a generation after an explosion of characteristic red-stone building in the Almoravid capital of Marrakech that reflects either the regime's wealth, its need to lavish patronage on the Sous, or perhaps both. It's hard not to see its prompt collapse in the face of Almohad pressure as anything other than evidence of political and economic tensions. Above all, the more farming being done in the Sous, the less room for pastoralists, perhaps.

Which brings me, at last, to Abd el Mu'min, the Almohad ruler, victor over "William the Evil" of Sicily, then elbow-deep in creating a Crusader principality in Tunisia (where both Fibonacci and Ramon Llull were active). The histories say, bluntly and plainly, that his fortress at Rabat was intended as an arsenal, although its name, Chellah, reflects its role as a royal necropolis under the Marinids, following from Almohad royal burials; including, perhaps, their ambitions to Atlantic seapower.

Or maybe not. At least, the culminating naval struggle did not occur until the Fourteenth Century, when the 1340 Rio Salazar campaign saw the Marinid Sultaqn Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Othman gather a fleet of 60 galleys and "250 other ships" to intervene in one of Castile's interminable wars with Granada.Victory on an improbable scale precipitated an Iberian coalition, to which Manuel Pessanha, the Admiral of Portugal, was also able to bring a Genoese mercenary fleet under Micer Gil Bocanegra, motivated in part by Genoa's desire to see the destruction of the pirate haven of Ceuta. The Christian victory of Rio Salazar is famous, and led to the surrender of Algeciras, the site of the arsenal supporting the Islamic effort, fell to the Christians. 

Ceuta, logically enough, would be next, and it is possible that Pessanha won't be the last Genoese adventurer to seek the honour of Admiral from the Portuguese crown.

It is hard not to see Abd el Mu'min's strategic vision as correct. Without an arsenal on the Moroccan side, Moroccan interventions in Iberia could not continue, and thus Moroccans could not control the northern terminus of the trans-Saharan trade. And without that leverage, their ability to control the southern terminus was very much in doubt. The problem lay in making an arsenal affordable. (Which, in turn, would open it up as a source of patronage.) For that, Rabat needed a trade. Clearly, Moroccan eyes were drawn south: at least to Agadir, perhaps down into Mauretania. The Republic of Sale shows that the possibility was not neglected --but it is fair to say that it was overtaken, by Lisbon and by Seville. 

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