The Sharif and the Sultan of Fishermen: Mohammed ash-Shaykh, the Rise of the Saadians, and the Emergence of Modern Morocco
By Comer Plummer, III
It was in Constantinople, perhaps in 1558, or even years later, that on a certain
day a weathered basket containing the rotten head of Mohammed ash-Shaykh toppled
from the ancient Walls of Theodosius. It had hung there for a long time. Just how
long, no one quite remembered. It tumbled into the refuse that collected along the
base, a forgotten memento, uninteresting to even the wild dogs that scavenged there.
Such a spectacle was, for the era, both callous and insipid. Eventually, it would
become a dubious distinction for a Moroccan sovereign. In the final analysis, it
might be described as a nadir that underscored an audacious life.
Youngest son of Shaykh Mohammed ibn ‘Abd ar-Rahmān, Mohammed ash-Shaykh was born
in 1488 in the arid hamlet of Tagmadert, in the Draa Valley of southeastern Morocco.
At first, he was called Mohammad el-Aςghar (Berber for ‘The Younger’), but later
he cultivated the nickname of Amghar (Berber for ‘tribal leader’), which,
in turn, eventually became the Arab equivalent, ash-Shaykh. Moroccan historian
Mohammad el-Oufrani described him as an erudite young man, expert in the Qur’an,
and with a lively interest in philosophy and poetry. And, as one of his favorite
verses would indicate, Mohammed ash-Shaykh also had more than a hint of ambition.
Men resemble one another, and circumstances are one; fate is the same for all, and
the world is his who takes it.
Very few descriptions of Moroccan leaders emerge from this time, in part due to
an Islamic cultural prejudice against idolatry. The depiction of men of stature
through art was a foreign concept that would eventually be adopted from Europe and
embraced. Written descriptions were only marginally better, due primarily to foreign
travelers. In this instance, Spanish monk Diego de Torres described Mohammed ash-Shaykh
later in life:
He was of medium build, with strong limbs, a round face with large, joyful eyes;
he was of light complexion, with two prominent upper teeth, a long gray beard, trimmed
round at its ends, with frizzy hair.
As a potential sovereign-in-waiting, the young prince developed a lively interest
in power, and how to wield it justly. He also believed that rulers must be men of
vision. “Kings,” he pronounced, “must be men of long hopes, to key plans for the
future, for even if that not be desirable in others it is proper in kings, for their
subjects reap the benefit of it.”
The object of these ‘long hopes’ was only recorded during Mohammed ash-Shaykh’s
last, most strident years. As a young man growing up in a world of dust and adobe,
he could have harbored few dreams of becoming sultan of Morocco, let alone contesting
the Ottomans for control of North Africa. His ambitions were evolutionary, but always
on an upward trajectory. Relentlessness defined Mohammed ash-Shaykh. He never settled
for what he had. It was this energy that forged the Saadian state; and it would
also lead to his demise.
The origins of the Saadians are murky. Other than their migration from Arabia to
Morocco during the Middle Ages little is certain. Even their name is open to interpretation.
Their claim of sharifan origins distinguished them from of thousands of tribal groups
that migrated westward, from Mamluk Egypt and into the Berber-dominated lands of
Ifriqiya and the Maghrib. As sharifs, the Saadians claimed lineage of the Prophet
Mohammad, which was the seal of authority in the Muslim world. This assertion was
not, however, unquestioned, both during and after their time. Some historians under
the succeeding dynasty, the Alawites, openly mocked the Saadian pedigree for falling
a bit short of the mark. The Saadians, they would say, issued not from the bloodline
of the Prophet, but from that of his wet nurse, a member of the Banū Sa’d clan,
hence the name ‘Saadian’. Recently, Vincent Cornell suggested that the title
in fact may have evolved from the term ad-dawla as-sa’diyya, or the ‘Salvific
State’, with those residing in it being as sa’diyun, or ‘Saadians’ (Those
Who Are Saved). This interpretation fits with the dynasty’s jihadist beginnings.
Whatever the truth may be, during their time the Saadians succeeded in convincing
many influential religious leaders, and through them the people, of their holy origins.
By the 14th century, the Saadians had settled in Tagmadert, amidst the Draa and
its picturesque landscape of earthen ksar (plural, ksour), or fortresses,
that studded the valley walls, mixed in with spectacular blots and ribbons of tropical
green that marked water in an otherwise desolate wasteland.
The Saadians might have passed quietly into obscurity had it not been for their
proximity to the Sous Valley. This fertile alluvial basin of the river by the same
name separated the High Atlas and Anti-Atlas mountain ranges. In some ways the Sous
typified other areas of Morocco, being a problematic cohabitation between a recently-arrived
Arab minority and an indigenous majority of fiercely independent Berber tribes.
The Sous was, however, peculiar, and inherently more dynamic. A hotbed of Sufism
in a deeply spiritual land, the region was home to and the burial site of the preeminent
Sufi imam, Muhammad ibn Sulayman al-Jazuli, the most revered leader of all the Sufi
orders in the land. The Sous was also a strategic crossroads linking to the Atlantic
Ocean the caravan routes that made their terminus at various points along a long
axis that extended from Marrakech all the way down the Draa Valley to the threshold
of the Sahara. And, perhaps most importantly, the Sous, fed generously by the snows
of two mountain ranges, was the center of Morocco’s lucrative sugar cane industry.
Taken together, however, these characteristics would have amounted to nothing had
a galvanizing force not come along.
The trouble in the Sous began to boil over in 1505, when a Portuguese trader landed
by sea and established a trading post at the port town of Agadir. Several years
later, King Manuel I purchased the outpost, which they named Santa Cruz de Auger,
and made it the southern most of the crown’s string of fronteiras, or fortified
coastal enclaves, that stretched all the way to El Ksar es-Seghir on the Straits
The Portuguese arrival was only another misery heaped upon a people who were already
in a desperate state. By the dawn of the 16th century, Morocco had imploded into
what would be termed in modern parlance as a failed state. The land had known troubled
times before. Since the coming of Islam to Morocco in the 8th century five dynasties
had come and gone. None was able put down institutional roots, and all crumbled
within one to two centuries under factional squabbles and palace intrigues. In between
the eras of the great dynasties, the land had know intervals of chaos and privation,
but none was as serious as the first decades of a period that came to be known as
the Maraboutic Crisis.
The crisis began to unfold in 1465 with the collapse of the last great Berber dynasty,
the Merinids. Thereafter, Morocco regressed to a muddle of petty states and into
sectarian war. The Wattasid Dynasty, which tried to succeed the Merinids, was able
to directly control only part of the north from their capital at Fez; lesser fiefdoms
ringed the Wattasids, the Mnadi at Tétouan, the Banou Rachid at Inaouen, and the
Hintana at Marrekech. None was able to confront the challenges they faced. And,
the challenges were legion. With the decline of central government, the countryside
was in chaos. The influx of Hilalien and Maqil Arabs to the plains displaced many
Berber tribes to arid mountain regions, setting off intense inter-tribal competition
for dwindling resources. Moreover, the two races did not blend well. The Arabs clung
to their pastoral ways, and had a proclivity to warlike activities. The Berbers,
sedentary and clannish, brooded in their ksour, emerging from time to time for a
swipe at their neighbor for some perceived injustice. When the two came together
it was to perpetuate an unending cycle of violence in the hinterlands. As al-Hasan
ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, better known as Leo Africanus, recorded from his
travels through the south of Morocco:
Among the people of the Dra’a are many chiefs who are constantly coming to blows.
Each faction draws support from the local Arabs, who are paid for their services
a half-ducat a day if they are fully equipped horsemen. They are, however, only
paid from day to day and only if they actually use their weapons. These folk here
use firearms, the arquebuse and espingard [a kind of small cannon], and I have never
seen such finely decorated guns. With these weapons, they kill each other all the
Insecurity contributed to a bleak economic picture. By the early 1500s agriculture
and arboriculture were severely contracted, ravaged by a 14-year interval of alternating
droughts and floods. Frequently, dietary staples such as cereals, dates and figs
became luxuries. The granaries, intended to provide succor in such times, were of
no use. Without government to ensure their replenishment, they had long been empty.
The caravans still brought their wares from Tagost and Timbuktu, but not as before.
Brigandage and the competition of Portuguese trading posts at Arguin and La Mina
were creating a seismic shift in West African patterns of trade. For the previous
four centuries Morocco had served as the transit point for precious metals from
West Africa to Europe. However, as the Age of Discovery gained momentum, change
came quickly. Gold, ivory, spices and slaves once went into the Muslim interior,
were making their way in ever increasing volume to the Portuguese oceanic trading
posts. For example, by 1495, only twenty-four years after it was established, the
La Mina factory in modern Ghana, alone was yielding twelve annual shiploads of gold
for Lisbon, each carrying 410 kg worth 100,000 cruzados. This trade once
went by the caravans, and its loss impacted the livelihoods of countless people
all along the terrestrial trade routes, as well as the governments that depended
on those taxes. As caravan trade slowed, currency fell into short supply, and urban
life declined. Plagues were commonplace and carried off tens of thousands of souls,
further depopulating the cities and towns. Nomadism re-emerged as a social phenomenon.
It would not be until 1554 that conditions materially improved. In 1521, during
a famine in the Doukkala region, a Portuguese visitor to Azemmour, one of the frontieras,
provided the following vignette:
When we arrived at Azemmour, Duarte Rodriguez and Pedro Alfonso presented themselves
to the captain of the city, Don Alvaro de Noronha. He [Noronha] told them that these
people of Arzila could go to the douars [a group of familial dwellings] and
purchase that which they desired. With this authority, we went to the douars which
were at a distance of five or six leagues of Azemmour; these douars were very numerous
that they occupied three or four areas and all was very peaceful and subjects of
an important Moor called Aco Bengabira…The Moors of these douars had gotten together
and made prisoners of others not under their authority, and those taken by force
and others who came with them were so numerous that we saw on the river at least
a hundred boats loaded with beautiful Moorish women who no one, neither man or woman,
had the money to buy.
Morocco’s downward spiral reinforced the popular notion of a fallen people. The
long crisis of national leadership and the Christian incursions, even the natural
disasters of drought, flood, and famine, came to be seen as a reflection of Allah’s
displeasure with a land that had drifted from the precepts of Islam. The popular
emotional response was a turn toward the network of outland mystics who offered
some hope of a better future.
The Maraboutic Crisis, as this period of political turmoil from the fifteenth to
the seventeenth centuries came to be called, was a misnomer, due to inaccurate references
by historians in later times to rural holy men and mystics as ‘marabouts’ – a term
that actually refers to the tomb of an Islamic saint. Regardless, the implication
is clear: During this time unchecked religious mysticism held the country in its
grip, both canalizing popular unrest and feeding it. The worship of saints was nothing
new in Morocco, but in the decades after the Merinids it achieved a historical excess.
As Clifford Geertz described:
What was different in these two hectic centuries from those that proceeded and those
that followed them was not that Moroccans worshipped saints, but that such worship
attained a luxuriance of political expression it had not been able to achieve before
and has been unable to regain after. Morocco splintered, in this period, into a
collection of larger and smaller polities centered around holy men or one sort or
another (leaders of Sufi sects, local [Qur’anic] teachers and self-appointed evangelists,
wandering ascetics, and the like) – a proliferation of zealous, insular, intensely
competitive hagiocracies, sometimes called maraboutic states, though most were like
utopian communities, aggressive utopian communities, than proper states.
Morocco’s confection of misery, isolation, and xenophobia was the ideal incubator
for mystical cults, above all the Sufis. They were not, however, the cause of the
crisis; rather, they were its primary beneficiaries.
Sufism and its mystical interpretation of Islam was firmly implanted in Morocco
by the late 12th century. Moroccan Sufism benefitted from its receptiveness to indigenous
tastes, such the common quest for baraka and the cult of the marabout.
Baraka was a kind of divine favor, and a power that a possessor might use or bestow,
or that a follower might absorb even after the possessor’s death. Not surprisingly,
it was a power claimed by all manner of Moroccan holy men. By the 15th century,
Morocco’s religious establishment, so to speak, had evolved to three distinct groups.
On the traditional side were the ulama of madrassa-trained scholars and jurists
and the comparatively small class of blue bloods, the sharifs. At the other end
of the spectrum were the mystical brotherhoods. While all three groups benefitted
from the popular belief that they were imbued with baraka, the Sufis offered common
folk the greatest access to it.
As part of providing a wider entrée to baraka, Sufism co-opted the maraboutic cults.
Early Sufi shaykhs, in search of local roots, gravitated to sects organized around
the tombs of venerated saints. These marabouts were places of pious reflection and
inspiration, and were believed to radiate baraka. As such, they were a natural fit
for the Sufi shaykhs, who selected them as the locales for their religious brotherhoods.
In this way, the Sufis joined traditional spiritual practices with a less structured
Islam. Simple people were drawn to Sufi asceticism, its quest for a more direct
relationship with Allah, the distinct rituals (tariqa) of brotherhood, and
the promise of baraka. The lodges, or centers of devotion and learning, called zawiya
(plural, zawaya) proliferated, eventually checkering the land, and attracted
tens of thousands of adherents. The zawaya were also about more than the esoteric.
As the primary mediators between tribes and ethnic groups, they served as the essential
arbiter in a consensus-based society. They also provided important services, such
as lodging and guides for traders and travelers, and charitable and social services.
The zawaya became an indispensable part of the national fabric. As it was commonly
said, “He who has no shaykh, has [Shaitan] for a shaykh.”
Of all the religious shaykhs, none rivaled Muhammad ibn Sulayman al-Jazuli. His
emphasis on social activism was signal, and his teachings carved out an unprecedented
political role for the Sufi shaykh. By effectively conjoining the concepts of Divine
presence (walaya) and the exercise of worldly authority (wilaya),
al-Jazuli made the shaykh the incarnation of the Mohammedian tradition and fully
justified his role in political life. As government receded from the countryside
during the late 15th century the zawaya shaykhs, with the Jazuliyya Sufi Order in
the vanguard, filled the void, and they became the de facto administration in much
of Morocco. By that time, their power was unrivaled, and no one dared openly
oppose them. Even the ulama, which had scorned the Sufis during the time of the
Merinids, fell into line. Islamic intellectuals and Malikite jurists alike joined
the brotherhoods in droves; they wrote of the miracles of the Sufi masters and brought
the teachings of the mystics into the madrassas.
The Sufi shaykhs, however, wanted power on their own terms. They resisted integration
with the secular power structure and jealously guarding their new-found clout. Rulers
and their bureaucrats found that they had to curry the favor of the religious shaykhs.
For both sides the dialogue was a mutual annoyance; it could not, however, be silenced.
The shaykhs were finding the need of a larger audience. While secular leaders in
their palaces and fortresses could tune out much of the blather from the countryside,
they found it hard to ignore the up swell for jihad.
Morocco’s weak, self-consuming condition made Portugal’s presence on her coast possible.
It also engendered a strong reaction that ultimately restored national unity. After
the Portuguese began to colonize the Moroccan coast in 1415, jihad, or a holy war,
against the Christian invader became the rallying cry and the means to a common
redemption. The zawaya shaykhs led the call. Emboldened to move beyond spiritual
teachings and charitable works, the shaykhs undertook a greater cause of national
revival. Few questioned this rhetoric, but the practical aspect was lacking. While
the moral authority of the religious shaykh was great, it was just that – moral.
As a group, they represented only half of a partnership. Only a strongman could
provide an army.
By 1510, the tribes of the Sous were at last ready to unite against their common
enemy. Destitute and caught between the Christians and warring Arab and Berber tribes,
and with no prospect of aid from their nominal overlord, the Wattasid sultan, in
Fez, or his Hintana vassal in Marrakech, they turned to their religious leaders
for help. In their search for one to lead them, a group of zawiya chiefs decided
upon Mohammed ibn ‘Abd ar-Rahmān. Other than his being a sharif, active in a Jazuliyya
zawiya in Tagmadert, and a passionate supporter of jihad, history provides little
justification for the choice. Suffice it to say that Abd ar-Rahmān’s reputation
was such that it penetrated the High Atlas Mountains and caused the zawaya to dispatch
a delegation to Tagmadert. Many of the southern tribes, including the Doui, Chebanat,
and Mansour, whose caravan interests were withering under Portuguese competition,
rallied to the choice. And the Wattasid sultan, only too anxious to delegate authority
for a holy crusade, gave his stamp of approval. With some reluctance, it was said,
Abd ar-Rahmān accepted. The following year, at formal ceremony at Tidsi, a hamlet
near the provincial capital, Taroudant, the tribes swore their allegiance. Mohammad
ibn ‘Abd ar-Rahmān adopted the name al-Qāim bi Amrillah (He Who Has Arisen
by the Command of Allah). Thus, by a grass roots movement, was the sharif of the
Saadians catapulted to leadership of the jihad in the south.
Unfortunately for the Moors, zeal could not compensate for Portuguese fortifications
and artillery, or their complete mastery of the seas. Mohammed al-Qaim’s campaign
against the Portuguese yielded inconsequential results. Most prominent was his failed
assault on Agadir in 1511. Waves of infantry equipped with scaling ladders made
no impression on prepared defenses and integrated missile weapons, with supporting
naval gunfire. The appalling casualties suffered by the Moors dampened support for
al-Qaim; his jihad was, for all intents and purposes, soon over.
While the Moorish horseman could hold his own against his Portuguese counterpart
in the open field, he seldom got the chance to try. But for brief raids and foraging
parties, the Portuguese seldom ventured from their coastal shelters. Defeating the
Portuguese meant dislodging them by siege, and this required wholesale modernization
and the creation of a distinctly Saadian military system.
This was no easy matter. Al-Qaim’s army was feudal in nature, rooted in a centuries-old
tradition of equestrian warfare, and heavily reliant on tribal contingents of cavalry
equipped with lances and sabers. Specialization in modern technologies, such as
artillery and siege craft, was usually provided by foreign mercenaries or captives.
In addition to archaic methods and poor cohesiveness, the feudal army was also notoriously
unreliable. Its loyalties lay heavily with the king/employer’s ability to pay, or
the perception for success and, therefore, some future hope for recompense. For
military leaders in Morocco, as in Europe, the drama of warfare was getting into
the fight. War, as they knew it, was rife with treachery, and instances of defections
en masse by tribal or mercenary contingents at the very moment of battle were commonplace.
Added to this, there were essential matters that overtook war at various times of
the year. The campaign season in Morocco was just more than that, about four months
long, being constrained by the harvest, and the holy observances of moharram,
or first month of the Islamic calendar, and the period of fasting, Ramadan.
As these periods approached, tribal contingents had the disturbing tendency to head
home. It all made for the Moorish commander in the field a constant angst over the
fragile coalition that was the feudal army.
After their early failures, the Saadians came to a conclusion shared by many of
the kings and princes of 16th century Europe: building a dependable and efficient
army meant developing a professional nucleus, a standing force. But, in the Sous,
the expertise and the tools of modern warfare, and the means to pay for them, were
in short supply. Turkish renegades and mercenaries traveling by land brought new
methods of war, but they only began to appear in southern Morocco in substantial
numbers in the 1530s. Modern arms were almost as scarce. Neither the Wattasids nor
the Portuguese favored the flow of firearms and cannon to the Saadians, and they
did what they could to prevent it. Lack of access to oceanic ports was the critical
problem, leaving the Saadians virtually cut off from Europe and deprived of an important
source of tax revenue. Smugglers managed to infiltrate small quantities of firearms
and cannon, but such weapons remained in short supply during al-Qaim’s time. And,
finally, there was no general fund to purchase war materiel and services. The road
to military reform looked to be a long one.
Though Mohammed al-Qaim was unable to transform the Saadian military, he laid a
foundation for its future success. He established the first tax under the Saadians,
which he used to create and support a small cadre of professional soldiers. Al-Qaim
revived a general tax, the naiba, or ‘affliction’, as the people termed it, which
had lapsed since the time of the Merinids. And, he cunningly calculated that if
he made the tax modest enough, he could impose it broadly, even upon the sharifs,
which, as an upper caste of society, had been customarily tax exempt.
Legend has it that upon venturing into the Sous countryside to survey the people
he was to lead in war, al-Qaim was deeply affected by the poverty he witnessed.
Such a landscape hardly offered the prospect of tax revenues he would need to sustain
a force in the field. He determined, however, to try. The Sharif sent messengers
forth to every village with the call for each foyer to provide his tax collectors
the sum of one egg. The people, relieved at such a modest request, readily complied
and soon Mohammed al-Qaim was awash in eggs. He then determined that those who could
afford an egg could afford a dirham. This too, was duly collected, and none were
spared. The people grumbled, but for the most part they paid. The fact that it was
egalitarian went a long way in their minds. The ire of sharifs and shaykhs paying
taxes had a definite appeal to the masses. The precedent was established, and would
be exploited to the full in years to come. The funds raised were modest, but allowed
al-Qaim to create a small standing army, 500 cavalry initially, which in a few years
grew to 3,000.
From the start, Mohammed ash-Shaykh and his older brother, Ahmad, figured closely
in their father’s designs. To cement his alliance with the Sous zawaya, al-Qaim
married Mohammed ash-Shaykh to the daughter of his father’s most influential zawiya
sponsor, the Sufi shaykh Mohammad ben Mubarak. According to el-Oufrani, Mohammed
al-Qaim conceived a great destiny for his sons, as revealed to him in a religious
vision that he was fond of recounting. According to this story, during al-Qaim’s
hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca around 1506, the sharif sought out a holy man to interpret
a dream he was having. In the dream, two lions emerged from his navel, and, as they
sauntered forth, a crowd of people formed behind them. The lions led them to a tower,
into which the beasts disappeared, leaving the people and al-Qaim at the door. The
holy man interpreted this to be a vision of how al-Qaim’s sons would be men of consequence
and would one day rule. Over what they would hold dominion, neither the holy
man nor el-Oufrani provided any indication.
Sometime after Muhammad al-Qaim made the hajj the brothers made the trip. They
too came away deeply affected, not only by the experience of religious renewal,
but by an awakening to a distinctly personal call of the obligations of sharifism.
And, like many émigrés from the Islamic heartland, the return to Arabia was an emotional
homecoming. Their route might well have taken the brothers through the Red Sea port
town of Yambo, their ancestral home.
For the Saadian brothers, the hajj was also an intellectually broadened experience.
Certainly, their sojourn in Cairo, the bustling capital of the Mamluks, was enlightening.
At more than half a million people, it was the largest city in the Western world.
It was cosmopolitan, an important center of the spice trade, and home to Al-Azhar
University, one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in the world. Since
the Abbasid Empire had begun to dissolve three centuries earlier, this strange state
run by a caste of soldier-slaves had been the center of the Muslim world, and its
vanguard against the Mongols and Crusaders. It was a position symbolically reinforced
by Cairo’s possession of many of Islam’s holiest relics, including the mantle and
swords of the Prophet.
In Cairo, the brothers would have also experienced a wider geo-political struggle.
To date, apart from the usual tribal rivalries, they had known only of the Portuguese
enemy and their local lackeys and collaborators. In Egypt they were exposed to the
unfolding struggle for supremacy in the Dar al-Islam, or the House of Islam.
With the rise of the Ottomans, and their drive for conquest, the Muslim world was
presented with the specter of domination by a non-Arab state. The Turks had already
nibbled at the periphery of the Mamluk provinces in Syria. A showdown, it was said,
After their return to Morocco, Mohammed al-Qaim sent his sons to Fez to complete
their education. In the imperial court they learned of the interworking of the makhzen,
or governing elite. They cultivated the sultan’s favor, and made connections with
men of influence. To that end, both served under the sultan’s banner in campaigns
against the Portuguese fronteiras of Arzila and Tangiers.
By the time of al-Qaim’s death in 1517, both were experienced leaders and field
commanders. As eldest, Ahmad received the bayah as shaykh and succeeded his
father. Having witnessed the ineffectual results of the past six years, the brothers
decided on another approach – one of political power. El-Oufrani is silent as to
whether this was a cynical strategy of two power-hungry men, or the result of some
epiphany about political consolidation as a prerequisite to effective military reform.
Whatever the motivation, the Saadians definitively changed course. To that point,
they had accepted the Wattasid sultan as their overlord. They would do so no more.
Henceforth, their policy would be to take his domains and those of his vassals in
the south and to challenge his position as ruler. With this decision, the Saadians
began to separate from their religious roots. Thereafter, they would posture as
mujahidin, or holy warriors, while continuing what became largely an internal power
This shift in Saadian policy was problematic and a nagging controversy. The most
visible sign of their ambitions, the naiba was expanded from the people of the cities
and the plains to the Berber tribes of the mountains, who had remained largely beyond
the reach of the tax collector, for whom such an imposition was an anathema. Another
irritant between the governing elite and the governed was that, as Arabs, the Saadians
were, for the majority of the indigenous people, outsiders. Rather than being inclusive
in forming government, the Saadians became ever more distant. Trusting in few outside
their clan, and a few proven allies, such as the Maqil Arabs and the Ilalen Berbers,
the Saadian makhzen came to be dominated by minority interests, foreigners, and
renegades, which only served to reinforce the growing divide. And, finally, as the
Saadians would come to understand, their power could not be easily detached from
its religious underpinnings. To do so risked violating a fragile consensus.
Jihad was widely accepted by the spectrum of Morocco’s religious establishment;
inter-tribal warfare, and the ever-increasing naiba required to fund it, was not.
It all made for a dicey business, whose continuance depended upon military success,
and, when necessary and all too often, repression.
Undaunted by appearances, the Saadians proceeded to conclude a series of truces
with the Portuguese in order to solidify and expand their fiefdom. By late 1524,
they had bullied most of the tribes into line and driven the Hintata emirs from
Marrakech, which became their capital. In Fez, the sultan was at last awakened to
the Saadian threat.
The Wattasid dynasty would not go quietly. They still fancied themselves rulers
of the land. While they had spent much of their failing strength the previous decade
in grueling battles with the Portuguese along the coast, they were still a force
with which to reckon, particularly in the north. They retained strong support in
Fez, and among many tribes of the northern plains, and, when called for, they could
still field a substantial army. In 1525, and again in 1527, the Wattasids did just
that, launching unsuccessful invasions of Saadian territory. A stalemate ensued,
with neither side having the military capacity for an extended campaign far from
their base of support. The following year, under the auspices of the brotherhoods,
both sides agreed to a truce and the demarcation of a border between their domains.
The so called Treaty of Tadla provided a respite that allowed each to return to
his business: the Saadians resumed efforts to consolidate their grip on the south;
and the Wattasids regrouped for another effort to capture Marrakech.
The conflict resumed in 1536, when Sultan Ahmad al-Wattasi, having reconstituted
his forces, determined to crush the upstarts once and for all. At the head of some
30,000 horse, 2,000 arquebusiers, and with 35 cannon in tow, the Sultan marched
his forces south. On July 24, the Saadians met them at the Wadi al-Abid, near Beni
Mellal. While the Saadians were outnumbered more than two to one, and were seriously
outgunned (by one account having only 200 arquebusiers), they chose their ground
wisely. Deploying his forces south of the river, Sharif Ahmad ringed the heights
above the crossing point with arquebusiers. As the Wattasid advanced guard began
to ford the river, the Saadians opened up a withering fire, pouring volley upon
volley into the men and horses struggling to free themselves from the muck and ascend
the steep banks. A Spanish chronicler of the age, Luis Marmol Del Caravajal recorded:
As their enemies [the Wattasid forces] were passing through the river or climbing
up the banks, they [the Saadian forces] fell upon the Wattasid advanced guard as
it set up. They killed the King’s son and his adjutants, throwing the troops behind
them into panic, sending them tumbling over those coming to their aid, down the
banks and over the ford with the enemy on their heels. In an instant, the river
was chocked with men, horses, and baggage wagons…The Sultan, who had yet to cross,
seeing the disaster that had befallen his force, turned and fled.
The Battle of Wadi al-Abid, also called Bū ‘Aqba, established Saadian control of
the south, and for the first time raised alarm in Lisbon of the specter of a unified
Morocco. However, while a serious reverse for the Wattasid sultan, the Battle of
the Wadi al-Abid did not alter the strategic picture. The Saadians, for all their
growing tactical prowess, remained too weak in logistics to mount any series threat
to Fez. The strategic stalemate continued.
At this juncture, Mohammed ash-Shaykh was approaching fifty. At a time when life
expectancy was roughly 35 years of age lofty ambitions would hardly have been typical
for such a man. Besides, he had been blessed with seven sons to continue his
work . Given the Sous to administer by his brother, Mohammed ash-Shaykh had
a comfortable perch from which to enjoy the fruits of his labors. Such was not,
however, his intent.
While, on the surface, relations between the brothers appeared harmonious enough,
fraternal jealousies had evidently been building for years. Their monikers could
not have helped. In contrast to the noble honorific Mohammad had adopted, Ahmad,
with an infirmity of the leg, was known as al-A’raj, or ‘The Lame’. Whatever
the source, their relations would rupture in 1541, and divergent military fortunes
would be the catalyst. For the past sixteen years, Saadian Morocco was essentially
two fiefdoms, with two administrations, and two armies. That of Ahmad al-A’raj seated
at Marrakech, was the recognized suzerain. Mohammed ash-Shaykh, as governor of the
Sous, at Taroudant, was the junior partner. Details about how these states operated
and interacted are generally lacking; however, the massive engineering works realized
in the Sous at this time, including the ramparts around Taroudant and elaborate
irrigation systems and factories for expanded sugar cane production, stand out.
And, in the contest that followed it became abundantly clear that one of them was
better prepared than the other.
After several unsuccessful attempts to break the Portuguese maritime stranglehold
between 1530 and 1536, in the autumn of 1540 the brothers tried once more by launching
two nearly simultaneous campaigns. Ahmad al-A’raj led his army north into Wattasid
territory, while Mohammed ash-Shaykh led his forces down the Sous Valley to invest
Agadir, or ‘fortified granary’ in Berber, was until the Portuguese arrival a sleepy
fishing village nestled between the final massif of the High Atlas Mountains and
the mouth of the Sous River. Its temperate climate, gentle azure tides, and long
arch of sandy beach would make the place a major tourist destination in modern times.
In the winter of 1540, the attraction was altogether different.
After the Portuguese crown purchase the settlement in 1513 they improved the fortifications
of the trading post, building a masonry fortress adjacent to the port. While the
most eye-catching of their fronteiras, Agadir, being the furthest south, was the
most remote. It was also the most difficult to defend. The hill mass the Portuguese
called ‘Pico’, jutting from the north ridge, loomed 250 meters over the settlement.
It was a position from which an occupying force could dominate not only the settlement,
but the bay itself. Defending it was, given the limited strength of the garrison,
For the garrison at Agadir, the prospects looked grim. Certainly, they had weathered
past storms, but in the space of a few years conditions had changed. They could
count on little outside help. The only field commanders in the region capable of
coming to their aid, Nuño Fernandez de Ataide, the governor of the nearest frontiera
of Safi, and Yahya ou Tafuft, the designated general-in-chief of allied southern
tribes, had been killed. The governor of Agadir’s urgent calls for help met with
lukewarm response at Lisbon. To a court that had recently landed men in Brazil (1500),
Goa (1510) and Malacca (1511), and was so beguiled by the enormous potential of
these lands, Morocco was a sideshow, and a tedious one at that.
Most importantly, the Portuguese faith in their tactical superiority was badly shaken.
Their mastery of artillery had been, until recent times, the decisive advantage.
The Moors, on the other hand, with their affection for large caliber guns that caused
more noise than damage, were objects of derision. Recent history, however, served
notice that such was no longer the case. Between 1508 and 1510, the Wattsids made
effective use of their artillery in besieging Arzila and Safi. While these assaults
failed, their ferocity and the damage wrought by Moorish cannonry made lasting impressions.
Worse still was the disaster at Mamora five years later. There, the Fassis, as the
people of Fez were called, trapped a Portuguese expedition on the Sebū River. Skillfully
using their siege guns and field pieces, the Moors isolated and pounded the Portuguese
stockade, and then blasted the relief barges as they attempted to evacuate the garrison.
In the worst defeat of King Manuel’s reign, the Portuguese left behind some 5,000
prisoners and 52 cannon. Many of these guns would reappear in another desperate
standoff at Arzila in 1516. Up and down the coast, as combat intensified, the
Moors employed artillery in unprecedented volume and to greater affect. Now, left
to fend for themselves, as rumors circulated on guns being hauled up the Pico, the
men of Agadir’s fort could have harbored no illusions of what lay ahead.
As dawn broke on the morning of February 12, 1541, Mohammed ash-Shaykh looked out
over the placid bay, dotted with a few Portuguese caravels, lying a respectful distance
out, and bobbing gently at anchor. The little citadel lay below, looking deceptively
innocuous. It was all so calm. The occasional head showing above the ramparts was
the only sign of life before them. The port was recognizable only by its patchwork
of wood piers. The clusters of boats that had been tethered there had long moved
off as their owners cleared out of the tempest’s path. Likewise, the village was
silent. The jumble of adobe dwellings piled up behind the port, and stretching down
the edge of the beach were frequented now by chickens. Even the thieves had gone.
Mohammed ash-Shaykh would have been in a pensive mood as he awaited the storm. It
could not have escaped him that it had been thirty years since his father’s failed
attempt to capture the place. Since that time, the Portuguese had made many improvements.
The stockade al-Qaim faced was of wood planks and barbicans. That had long since
been replaced with the stone battlements of a proper medieval stronghold. Over the
years the brothers too had tried to dislodge the Portuguese, and all had come to
naught. Mohammed ash-Shaykh’s last effort at Agadir, in 1533, was a bitter lesson:
The Saadians needed to fight smarter, not harder. A defender of the bastion described
the futility of the Moorish assaults:
…the beach and the entire area surrounding the tower was covered high and low with
Moors so that it was impossible to see the ground. Now, our bombards opened up.
Tamrakht bastion, which was closest to the castle, fired a ball which blasted a
path through the Moors that cut through them from the base of the tower all the
way to the tilt yards [enclosed courtyards for jousting], killing an enormous number.
Then, the Facho basion opened up…and blasted another path through the Moors. Then
all the artillery, sphaer guns, demi-sphaer, faucons and brecos from every bastion
fired together, one piece on one side, one on the other. The massacre was terrible.
“Run, run!”, the Moors screamed, but there were so many packed so tightly that there
was no place for them to flee. Then our arquebusiers from the height of a terrace
adjoining the castle on which plenty of artillery was mounted, opened fire, and
killed vast numbers.
Mohammed ash-Shaykh knew that this was his best, and perhaps his last opportunity.
He was determined that his baraka would not be a casualty to these walls.
A siege could be won by ruse, starvation or otherwise wearing down an enemy, or,
least desirably, by assault. While Saadian agents surely cultivated potential traitors
in the city and the garrison who might facilitate their entry into the citadel,
it was a risky proposition that might be an enemy trap. As for wearing down the
defenders, as long as the Portuguese controlled the seas and could resupply and
reinforce the garrison at will, that was impossible. So, as before, it would most
likely come to a direct attack. But, to win, this time the Saadians would have to
solve the twin challenges of stone fortifications and the Portuguese navy.
Mohammad ash-Shaykh placed his faith in the shovel, and he let it be known that
on this occasion there would be no expediency. He had mobilized a massive contingent
of Berber auxiliaries, the ibudraren. These laborers, levied on the tribes
in time of war, served a variety of crucial tasks, such as sappers, wagon masters,
and porters of artillery. Mohammad ash-Shaykh set them to work digging parapets
for his guns and erecting other earthworks to close the landward approaches to the
city. He then directed them to the Pico, where he intended to build a kasbah, or
fortress, that would determine the outcome of the battle. It was arduous work
that involved the quarrying tons of stone, baking of thousands of bricks, and harvesting
massive wood beams from the mountains, all of which had to be hauled by beast up
the hill. Yet, despite the difficulties, it took barely two months to complete the
structure. From September to October of 1540, as the Portuguese looked up in horror,
the kasbah rose above them.
There would no human waves, not this time, not at least until the walls of the citadel
were broken. Enough well-placed artillery would do that work. Mohammad ash-Shaykh
had assembled a potent force, by one account as many as 14 siege guns and more than
50 cannon of various caliber. Wattasid ineptitude had helped. Most of the guns,
35 bronze field pieces, were taken at the Battle of Wadi al-Abid. The rest were
probably smuggled into southern Morocco by French, Italian, and Spanish traders
through a number of contraband entry points, such as the coves of Tarkūkū and Tafetna
near Agadir. Team of camels had hauled the guns to the kasbah and other points
atop the heights around the citadel, achieving the dual advantage of plunging fire
to lob balls over the high masonry walls, and the protection of being above the
maximum trajectory of Portuguese guns.
That morning of February 12, as the first thunderous salvo rang out, sending a chorus
of birds aloft from every tree, and rippling the earth beneath them, the Portuguese
knew that the months-long lull was at an end; the dreaded moment had arrived. The
suspense was short lived. The Moorish cannon quickly found their mark, and inexorably
began to chip away at the walls of the citadel. Within a few days, the Portuguese
were driven to desperation. Most had never witnessed such a barrage, certainly not
in Morocco. The Moors surprised them with not only the number, but the caliber of
their cannon. The heaviest guns, six behemoths, named Maїmuna, belched stone
munitions equivalent to a caliber of 420 mm. Even the smaller guns fired a ball
of 13 pounds, equivalent to 117 mm. Furthermore, the Moors used their artillery
in a counter-maritime role. From the Pico, nine of the heaviest cannon were trained
on the bay, keeping the Portuguese navy at anchor, a spectator to the garrison’s
demise. The governor’s frantic appeals to Lisbon yielded little help.
Days, then weeks went by, with the men of the garrison casting hopeful glances north,
as detritus piled up around the fort. Nerves were raw. Each day brought its hail
of stone shrapnel and some new gruesome death, some new hideous wounds. The men
were exhausted. They could not sleep through the cacophony of the day, and night
was occupied in hasty repairs of the walls and infiltrating supplies from the ships
in the bay. Finally, on March 11, a Moorish cannon ball found a magazine in the
fort, which erupted spectacularly. From the surrounding hills, thousands of Moors
rose in jubilation. When the dust had settled, they spied an enormous hole in the
fortifications. Spontaneously, the Moors rushed the breach, and the defenders, unable
to contain them, fell back into the inner works. The following day, after a barrage
of 32 days, the governor surrendered. Into the victor’s lap fell an enormous
quantity of war materiel and booty, not to mention prestige.
Meanwhile, Ahmad al-A’raj suffered a humiliating defeat at Azemmour.
For Ahmad al-A’raj, being upstaged in battle by his younger brother was bad enough;
being denied his share of the booty was worse yet. Islamic tradition accorded a
sovereign a fifth of it, which Mohammed ash-Shaykh brazenly refused to yield. The
time had come for him to step out from the shadow of his older brother.
As of the royal fifth he had taken from Santa Cruz, he [Mohammed] would gladly send
his brother the captive captain along with a mix of captives of both sexes, keeping
for himself the artillery, munitions, and the artisans who had worked the arms forges
and the cannon masters. The elder [Ahmad], furious, ordered him to send all the
cannon, harquebuses, munitions, four hundred of the prisoners, and a fifth besides.
The rupture now out in the open, despite the efforts of the zawaya to mediate, a
civil war ensued between the two sides. Ahmad al-A’raj, however, was no match for
his brother, who defeated him twice in battle, occupied Marrakech, and packed him
off to an internal exile as governor of a remote eastern city.
As undisputed master of the south, Mohammed ash-Shaykh had the pleasure of being
referred to as the ‘King of Morocco’ in Europe and many other foreign lands.
Whatever satisfaction he felt, it was not universally shared. Trouble, in fact,
was already brewing. The consolidation of power ran against the grain in Morocco.
The primary irritant was taxation needed to support the burgeoning Saadian state.
A standing army that was some 3,000 strong at the time of al-Qaim’s death had grown
more than tenfold by 1540. More firearms and shot were required from abroad. A growing
standing army had to be paid at regular intervals. Greater specialization increased
the need for highly paid mercenaries. More territory meant additional garrisons
to maintain. Prestige demanded rich djellabas and Turkish-style kaftans, jewels,
tea sets, tents, carpets, mounts, bridles, saddles, and a hundred other objects
befitting a king. And, a sovereign’s table had to be capable of feeding from a few
dozen to a few hundred at any time. Though the people chaffed, taxes continued to
With the Portuguese occupied in mortaring up their coastal forts, and his brother
attending to the wiles of goat herders at Tafilalet, Mohammed ash-Shaykh turned
his attention to the Wattasids and the conquest of northern Morocco. In 1545 he
invaded Tamesna province, burning and pillaging an intimidating path of destruction
into the heart to Wattasid territory. Finding the path to Fez barred by the fort
at Fishtala, the Saadians had another unpleasant surprise when Sultan Ahmad al-Wattasi,
at the head of 30,000 horsemen, was discovered to be outflanking them on his own
drive south. Mohammed ash-Shaykh quickly moved to intercept them. That September,
the two sides met at the Derna River in central Morocco, very near the Wadi al-Abid,
site of their previous encounter.
Ahmad al-Wattasi had reconstituted his artillery, which he now looked to use to
good advantage. Placing his guns on a bluff overlooking the plain on the left flank
of his army, the Sultan determined to employ enfilade fire. The Saadians, who, in
the practice of the day, tucked their artillery into the center of their formation,
perceived a vulnerability to exploit.
For this decisive fight, Mohammed ash-Shaykh brought the full complement of his
male progeny, his eldest and heir, Mohammed al-Harran, Abd al-Qadir, Abdallah, Adelmoumen,
Abdelmalek, Ahmad, and Othman. He gave them each a command of the various formations,
perhaps as much out of concern for the loyalty of his troops as it was a show of
confidence in their abilities. Whatever was the cohesiveness of the army, it cut
an impressive figure. The Sultan surveyed his rival with a sinking heart. The Saadians
has not been idle these past years. The army arrayed before him, ¬– a crescent formation
anchored by the large main body of cavalry, flanked on each side by three smaller
formations, and preceded by a cohort of arquebus-toting skirmishers – spoke of purpose.
Even a weakness ¬– the absence of artillery ¬– was unsettling, and the source of
much speculation between the Sultan and his advisors. No less unconventional was
the Saadian standard, a dramatic statement in white, richly embroidered in golden
Qur’anic verses. The white standard was an old Merinid tradition bestowed by the
sultan upon faithful commanders; but, as kings in their own right, and in eschewing
the familiar green of Islam, the Saadians made it look so very new.
Diego de Torres, who arrived in Morocco in 1546 on a mission to redeem captives,
wrote of the Saadian forces: “The army was composed of seven squadrons arranged
in crescent formation, with the unit on the right commanded M¬¬umin [probably Adelmoumen]
and on the left by another son. These in the middle were under other sons, each
with 5,000 armed and chain-mailed horsemen with mail, lance, and buckler shield.
In front, strung between the two points, the mounted fusiliers with the towed artillery
and some small campaign pieces on mules with a man on each side, one for the gun,
the other for the powder and ball, ready to set up the guns at an instant and fire
at will on this plain where there was neither a tree nor a shrub in sight”.
The opening round was a test of nerves. The two sides drew up to one another in
the morning, and then came to a halt. Hours passed, as each waited for the other
to move, the Sun and the heat rising ever higher. There they stood, at arms and
in formation, through a torrid day. The Wattasids, still haunted by the memory of
their defeat nine years earlier, had planned on fighting a defensive battle. As
the placement of their artillery showed, they counted on the Saadians advancing
to meet them. Since the Wattasid guns were only just forward of their own lines,
any cavalry charge would have masked the fires of the guns and rendered their artillery
useless. But, though the Fassis intended to wait, as the day drew on, their men
grew restless. Finally, as the Sun set into the faces of the Sultan’s army, Mohammad
ash-Shaykh gave the signal for the battle to commence. A single cannon shot ran
out, stirring both armies to life.
The Wattasid cavalry, having shaken off its torpor, began impulsively to advance.
As the enemy cavalry charge formed, Mohammed ash-Shaykh put his plan into motion.
It consisted of three maneuvers launched in rapid succession. First, his mounted
arquebusiers advanced to engage the Wattasid center, the dragoons keeping the mobile
artillery carefully concealed. As the Wattasid cavalry took the bait and gained
speed, the ‘horns’ of the Saadian crescent surged forward and began to envelop the
enemy’s flanks. Once the right ‘horn’ had cleared the way, a detachment of cavalry
then launched at the Wattasid guns. This last effort was probably intended to
capture the guns rather than produce any tactical result. As the forces were then
coming to grips, the moment for artillery had passed.
As at Wadi al-Abid, mobile firepower would be the decisive element. As the Saadian
mounted arqubusiers closed with the Wattasid center, the first rank drew up, fired,
and wheeled about to be replaced by the second. As this and subsequent ranks discharged
their weapons, the cannoniers unlimbered the field guns from the mules, and readied.
When the last of the mounted fusiliers had moved aside, the cannon let loose a salvo
into the wavering host. This was too much for the Fassis, who began to take flight.
Ahmad al-Wattasi, ensconced in the main body at the outset of the battle, suddenly
found himself tangled in the stampede of flight. Betrayed by his royal regalia,
the Sultan was quickly captured.
Weston Cook describes this battle as the first use of a tactical maneuver similar
to the ‘caracole’ in the Moroccan theater. A product of Germany, the caracole
was part of 16th century military innovation to bring firearms to mounted warfare
and to counter traditional anti-cavalry techniques, namely the pike. The maneuver
involved highly trained formations of riders, up to 12 ranks deep, in which each
rank in turn executed the same maneuver: once the formation had reached an optimal
distance from the enemy, the front rank would turn slightly fire their weapons,
then wheel about to the rear of the formation to reload. The formation repeated
the sequence until the desired affect was produced. To a foe unaccustomed to
such a technique, the affect could be devastating. It certainly was at the brief
Battle of Derna.
The coordinated employment of firearms and cannon in the offense, and the shock
affect it caused, demonstrated the best of evolutionary military thinking of the
age. Mohammed ash-Shaykh’s emphasis on mobility and his tactics of fire and maneuver
were without precedent in Morocco. It was stunning progress, and it was about a
spirit of innovation, the readiness to adopt new and even foreign ideas, and ruthless
drilling. In contrast to their rival’s cursory efforts at military reform, the Saadian
forces were starting to look like professionals.
It was also, of course, about resources; and Agadir’s capture was key. Up to that
point, the Saadians had, despite Portuguese and Wattasid efforts at an embargo,
succeeded in cobbling together enough firearms and artillery to equip at least part
of their army. What could not be purchased clandestinely was increasingly being
fabricated in a burgeoning arms industry in Marrakech. According to Luis de Marmol,
Spanish chronicler who traveled in Morocco during this time, in 1539 the Saadians
began to mine a vast copper deposit discovered in the High Atlas Mountains, and
shortly thereafter began to produce cannon from their own foundry in Marrakech,
under the direction of a Morisco from Madrid. Another European traveler observed
the following after visiting the Saddian capital just prior to the siege of Agadir:
[From Portugal, Spain, and France] there are a great many merchants in this country
and artisans talents in all crafts and practices for making firearms and selling
things needed to make these items….Among there merchants there are many ‘New Christians”,
extremely skilled in making lances, crossbows, and arquebuses, who work here [so
they can] return to Judaism.
The fall of Agadir was the proverbial crack in the armor of the fronteiras system.
Within months, the Portuguese evacuated the nearby forts of Safi and Azemmour, which
they judged to be untenable. The Saadians, having already secured their end of the
caravan routes, now controlled the southern seaports and were free to regulate their
own trade with the outside world. And what the outside world wanted most, more than
the salt, gold and slaves from West Africa, was what southern Morocco had in abundance
- sugar. Benefitting from relative peace and advancement in irrigation technology,
sugar cane production in the Sous took off, providing increased tax revenues and
a commodity to trade for European weapons and finished goods. Agadir became a boom
town, and everything could be found on its docks and in its shops. As the flood
gates opened, implements of war poured in. A contemporary chronicler recorded in
the aftermath of Agadir’s fall:
...ships used to be awed into paying their dues at Agadir and, as they were forced
to come there, they dared not sell arms or war supplies to the Moors. These regulations
just about took care of most of the pay of the troops, and the Moors did not get
weapons as they were to have after we lost Santa Cruz. After that, the arms brought
there for sale, arms of all sorts, offensive and defensive, became so very many
that the market was better [in Agadir] than back here [in Europe]. It was astonishing
to see how low prices sank, dropping to a point that traffic stopped because it
not only made no profit, it found no customers.
The Battle of Derna tipped the balance of power in Morocco to the Saadians. Thereafter,
it was their fight to lose. Conquering the north was, however, a struggle involving
four more years of toil and frustration. The walled city of Meknes resisted a prolonged
Saadian siege. Ahmad al-Wattasi, who negotiated his release in exchange for territorial
concessions, found new enthusiasts upon his return to Fez. Across the north, tribes
that once despised the Wattasids now came to their aid, preferring their lassitude
to the intimidating prospect of Saadian rule. And, enemies lurking in the rear took
advantage of the Saadian preoccupations in the north. In the High Atlas Mountains
several tribes staged a tax revolt. From the coast the Portuguese launched deep
raids into the interior, savaging the countryside as they went. Hapsburg and Ottoman
agents meddled in hopes of maintaining a divided Moroccan kingdom. In Lisbon, the
prospect of the Saadians winning their war caused a growing alarm, and the contemplation
of a worse-case scenario of a Saadian-Ottoman alliance. King John III of Portugal
reflected these sentiments in an admonishment given to his embassy departing for
the court of Charles V in Vienna:
Do not allow the King of Marako to overcome the King of Fez…Except for resistance
to the Turk and everything affecting that, all besides becomes secondary if this
serious and disturbing business begin. The King of Marako is very astute and wealthy.
I am told intelligence contacts with the Turks exist, and [if he becomes] King of
Fez, he will dominate this whole sector of Africa.
Charles V was suitably impressed by this warning to impose a trade embargo on the
Moors, and to forbid his subjects against travel to Morocco. These were ineffectual
measures, and, in any case, they came too late to save the Wattasids.
By November, 1547 Mohammad ash-Shaykh had finally corralled the Wattasid family
within the walls of their capital. Hoping to avoid a protracted and bloody struggle,
he tried to negotiate with the city’s religious leaders to accept his overlordship.
They refused. So, for fourteen months he squeezed the city. As months wore on,
within the walls of the old medina 60,000 Fassis simmered in hunger, disease, rumor,
and fear. The religious elite seemed above it all. They occupied the days scoffing
at the notion of Saadian sharifism and the absurdity of taxation. After repeated
efforts at bribes and intimidation failed, Mohammad ash-Shaykh resorted to murder.
His agents struck down the primary antagonist, Abdul-Wahid al-Wansharisi, the chief
qadi of the city, at the gates of the Qarawiyyin mosque. The Fassis, however,
continued to hold out. It was only after Saadian forces blew down a large section
of wall that they came around. On January, 31, 1549, Mohammad ash-Shaykh at last
entered Fez, and Ahmad al-Wattasi once more passed into captivity. Of the entire
Wattasid family, only Ahmad’s brother, Abou Hassoun, managed to evade the dragnet
and escaped. At 61 years of age, and after more than thirty years of campaigning,
Mohammed ash-Shaykh was master of the land.
Then, hubris got the upper hand.
While the Saadians were engaged in their long struggle for supremacy in Morocco,
the Ottoman storm broke over the Arab world. In 1516, Sultan Selim I led his armies
south into Arab lands. By early the next year he had conquered the Mamluk Empire
and added Syria, Palestine, and Egypt to the Ottoman realm. From there, his forces
ranged south to the Red Sea. In adding the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to his
empire, Selim’s coup was complete. He had already taken possession of the priceless
treasures of the early Islamic period, the Prophet’s mantle, a bit of his tooth,
and a sprig of hair from his bead, the swords of the first Caliphs, and more, which
he had shipped from Cairo to Constantinople. As guardian of Islam’s holiest
places, he could now claim, to general acceptance throughout the Dar al-Islam,
the title of Caliph and Defender of the Faithful. This was a momentous step for
the Ottoman Turks, and it carried many consequences – both intended and otherwise.
Once established in the Levant, for instance, the Ottomans would become embroiled
in a struggle with the Hapsburgs for control of the Mediterranean Sea.
The conquest of North Africa was not explicitly part of either Hapsburg or Ottoman
plans. It was a vacuum into which they found themselves drawn. For five hundred
years, since the onset of the decline of the Fatamid Caliphate, the region had fallen
into a mosaic of squabbling Arab and Berber states. It was a condition that invited
Like Portugal, Spain pursued a policy of limited conquest in North Africa. The Spanish
were, however, latecomers to the party. The Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile, having
united in 1479, had finally subdued the Moorish Kingdom of Granada thirteen years
later. By the time she joined the colonial race, the Portuguese were laying claim
to Morocco’s Atlantic coast. After some friction, the two sides agreed to spheres
of influence, which consigned to Spain the Mediterranean coast of the Barbary.
In 1505, the Spanish began to establish their own series of fortified places, or
presidios, along the North African coast, at Peñon de Badis, Melilla, Mers
El Kébir, Oran, Algiers, Bugia, and Tunis. As it had in Morocco, this activity engendered
intense local resistance. Unlike Morocco, however, several local chiefs made direct
appeals for assistance to Constantinople. One of these local rulers, the Turkish
corsair Aruj, having wrested Algiers from the Spanish, determined that the best
protection for his fiefdom from Spain was fealty to the Ottoman sultan. Thus, in
1517 was established the Regency of Algiers, one of three Ottoman beylerbaylick,
or provinces, in North Africa that would eventually include Tunis and Tripoli.
Though preoccupied with his own travails, Mohammed ash-Shaykh could not have been
oblivious to the encroaching tide. Nearly all the countryside he had traveled in
making the hajj more than thirty years before, and the most of the states that spanned
it, were now Ottoman. The Saadian realm was the major exception. He would come to
see the Spanish and the Portuguese for what they were, mere parasites. The Turks
were the real threat to his kingdom.
Mohammed ash-Shaykh’s feelings toward the Turk were unconventional, and shaped a
foreign policy that was precariously unpredictable and prone to brinksmanship. He
was a bit conflicted where the Ottomans were concerned. On the one hand, he could
admire and selectively emulate their methods. For instance, the he referred to his
household guard as Janissaries, after the Ottoman sultan’s elite corps of soldier-slaves.
He actively recruited Turkish mercenaries, and relied heavily on their military
experience and expertise, such as at Agadir, where he had employed several Turkish
gunners and experts in siege works. But, while Mohammed ash-Shaykh was ready
to glean the useful from the Turk, he bore them no love. Such sentiments were hardly
uncommon at the height of the era of the ‘terrible Turk’. What was anomalous
was that this leader did not fear them either.
In 1550, only months after his triumphant entry into Fez, Mohammed ash-Shaykh made
a bizarre decision that remains shrouded in mystery: He decided to insert himself
in the Hapsburg-Ottoman conflict. His immediate object was Tlemcen, an oft-contested
city that was the seat of an independent Zayyanid Kingdom, and then a vassal of
Spain. The Zayyanids were in the uncomfortable position of being on the border between
Turkish Algeria and the Spanish enclaves of Mers El Kébir and Oran. The Sultan apparently
felt little concern for such sensitivities. Nor, did he show particular deference
to his tenuous control of the north, the spiraling cost of war and the tax revolts,
or that the Portuguese and the Spanish remained imbedded on his coast. None of these
or any other consideration could stop him from sending a sizable part of his army
– by one account as many as 36,000 soldiers – across his frontier and into yet another
The Sultan was confident enough of success that he entrusted the mission to his
eldest son and heir, Mohammed al-Hazzan, while he remained behind to mop up remaining
Wattasid partisans around Fez. When Saadian forces easily captured Tlemcen on June
10th, that confidence appeared justified. The army then turned north and proceeded
to the coast, where it occupied the port town of Mostaganem, in the territory of
the Regency of Algiers. Was antagonizing both great powers part of the plan?
Or, was this perhaps some overture to Spain? In his calculations, the Sultan might
have judged the Zayyanids to be, from the Spanish point of view, a sacrifice on
the altar of a greater alliance against the Turk. The strategy, like the motives
behind the operation, was unclear. Given Mohammed ash-Shaykh’s temperament, however,
it seems unlikely that it was left to improvisation.
While the Spanish were hardly willing to go to war to restore the Zayyanids, the
Ottomans were less ready to concede. In January, 1551, an Ottoman army fell upon
the unsuspecting Moorish forces encamped at the Abu Azun River. The Turks routed
the Saadians and captured most of their baggage and stores. Among the many dead
lay Abd al-Qadir, who was shot down trying to rally his troops. The vile Turks,
adding insult to injury, took his son’s head as a trophy. It was the second son
and heir apparent that Mohammed ash-Shaykh had buried during this disastrous campaign.
Several months before Mohammed al-Hazzan succumbed to an illness contracted in Algeria.
Mohammed ash-Shaykh’s hard-won dominion was unraveling fast. When news of the disaster
at Abu Azun River reached him, the Sultan had been in the Draa Valley on another
mission of tax enforcement. Hurrying across the frontier in an attempt to restore
the situation, he arrived in time to join the general retreat. The Turks swept through
Mostaganem and Tlemcen. By February 1551, Mohammed ash-Shaykh was holding a defensive
position in Morocco west of the Moulouya River. Rebellions, meanwhile, were breaking
out all over the land, and not only in the High Atlas Mountains and the usual places,
but in the Sous, Tetuan, and Taza. Rebellious tribes, sensing the Saadian extremis,
determined to throw off the oppressor.
A timid ruler might have shrunk before the challenge, but the Mohammed ash-Shaykh
further tightened his grip. First, he removed the threat of a coup in favor of the
Wattasids. Ahmad al-Wattasi was dragged from his prison quarters in Marrakech and
beheaded. Other surviving Wattasid family members in Fez met similar fates.
He then turned his ire to those who in his eyes were the main culprit of this civil
disobedience - the brotherhoods. Their usefulness had, for some years, been only
slightly greater than the inconvenience they caused. Now, however, they had become
a challenge to his authority that he could brook no longer. Examples had to be made.
That year, Mohammed ash-Shaykh launched a campaign of repression against the several
uncooperative zawaya shaykhs, sending agents to search their store houses, confiscate
property for taxes, and bully and intimidate. Sufi leaders of Fez were particularly
targeted, and many were obliged to surrender property they received from the Wattasids.
The zawiya of at least one Sufi shaykh was closed, and his disciples dispersed.
The Sufi shaykhs could do nothing. Too late they were awakened to the creature they
had created. The Sultan’s baraka, proven on the battlefield, was too great, and
his army too potent. Furthermore, he trumped their collective moral authority in
assuming the title of al-madhī, or the ‘guided one’, who according to Islamic
eschatology would redeem Islam and smite its enemies. And so, after nearly a hundred
years of watching their influence grow, the zawaya shaykhs suddenly found themselves
on uncertain footing. If not yet politically marginalized, they were certainly shut
out of the makhzen. The Maraboutic Crisis, for a time, receded.
Nearly three years went by, with the Sultan and his sons engaged in trekking up
and down mountain ranges at the head of various contingents of troops, collecting
taxes and administering justice. As time passed, and relative calm was restored
Mohammed ash-Shaykh might have begun to consider that the Turks had overlooked his
transgressions. He would have been mistaken.
The Turks had, in fact, been making preparations to restore a client Wattasid regime
in Fez. Abou Hassoun’s presence in Algiers was fortuitous and added incentive. The
beylerbey, or governor, of Algiers backed the would-be sultan, and in December,
1553, Turkish and Wattasid loyalist forces launched a three-pronged invasion of
Morocco. After two crushing defeats, Mohammed ash-Shaykh was forced to evacuate
Fez and retired to Marrakech to regroup. On January 8, 1554, the Turks captured
Fez. It was a humiliating defeat, made all the more bitter by the warm welcome the
people of Fez gave to Abou Hassoun. For the people of that city, who regarded Fez
as the true political and religious capital of the land, the Saadians, people of
the south, were unwelcomed rustics. The setback, however, was a brief one. On September
23, 1554, the Saadians were once more marching through the gates of Fez. The Turks
were gone and Abou Hassoun, left to his own devices, was finally exterminated. With
his death, the Wattasid Dynasty passed into history.
In re-capturing Fez, Mohammed ash-Shaykh demonstrated that Moroccan unity would
not be ephemeral; and Morocco would be a prospective player in the affairs of the
region. As Weston Cook observed:
Suddenly, Morocco was no longer an arena of contest, but a potential contestant,
who could shift the balance of forces in the Mediterranean if it’s new sovereign
Being an aspirant, and the weakest in a rough neighborhood, required statesmanship
for the embryonic Saadian state to gain the time needed to develop politically and
economically. This did not come easily to the hard-driving sultan. It was a lesson
that, if learned, was learned too late.
The re-captured Fez prompted another round of political cleansing. While Mohammed
ash-Shaykh was not, in el-Oufrani’s words, “shy about shedding blood” he was probably
not the ruthless tyrant that some have depicted . He did not, after all, execute
his brother, as was common of dynastic politics of survival. He showed restraint,
even after it was learned that Ahmad was conspiring with the Wattasids from internal
exile. Only after Mohammed ash-Shaykh had died would Ahmad and his family be executed
on orders from the governor of Marrakech. Furthermore, Mohammed ash-Shaykh had
shown a conciliatory spirit toward the Fassis in 1549. And, as for the Wattasids,
he had only executed the former sultan and his family when it became a political
necessity. The frustrations of the past four years, however, had taken their toll.
Now, blood would flow. A number of prominent supporters of the former dynasty were
rounded up and executed, including a renowned qadi of Fez, Abdel Mohammed Abdelouahhậb.
This latter incident figures prominently in many accounts of this era, in part in
an effort to illustrate the Sultan’s bloodlust; more to the point, legend finds
in prophesy the irresistible.
Standing in the Sultan’s presence at the moment of his execution, Abdelouahhậb remained
defiant, refusing to speak, let alone grovel.
“Choose the instrument by which thou shalt die,” Mohammed ash-Shaykh demanded of
“Choose for yourself,” came the terse reply, “for a man dies by the manner in which
The Sultan, doubtless annoyed at the fellow’s pluck, intoned, “Cut off his head
with an axe.”
His kingdom restored and his vengeance sated, Mohammed ash-Shaykh settled for a
status quo, at least for the moment.
The damage, however, had already been done. Between 1547 and 1557, the Ottoman Sultan
Suleiman I sent two emissaries to Mohammed ash-Shaykh’s court to pursue a détente,
and perhaps even to entice the Moorish ruler into his orbit. The Great Turk,
the preeminent conqueror of his age, the one they called, ‘The Lawgiver’ in the
East and ‘The Magnificent’ in the West, had pushed Ottoman frontiers across North
Africa to Tlemcen, in the east to the Caspian Sea, and to the south his forces ranged
as far as the Gulf of Aden. In Europe, he had led his armies to crushing victories
over the Hungarians, capturing Belgrade and Budapest, and pushing to the very gates
of Vienna. The Moorish sultan, however, was hardly overawed with Turks or their
ruler, whom he mocked as too preoccupied with adventures at sea.
At the second meeting, came the long-expected offer, really an ultimatum. The Ottoman
emissary suggested that Mohammed ash-Shaykh decree that Suleiman’s name be included
in the Friday sermon, and that coins be struck in his likeness. These were traditional
signs of fealty to the Turkish Sultan, nominal enough, but the Saadian ruler would
have none of it. The grizzled warrior, gray and stooped as he was, had weathered
more than forty years of war, besting or outlasting seemingly a thousand contestants.
Now, at the pinnacle of his power, he was not about to bow before a foreign master.
The ambassador shifted under the icy glare, and after an uncomfortable silence asked
what answer he might communicate to his master. The response was an indelible bit
“I will only respond to the sultan of fishing boats when I reach Cairo; it will
be from there that I will write my response.” With these words, Mohammed ash-Shaykh
dismissed the Ottoman sultan’s emissary. There was no diplomatic pretense where
the Turk was concerned. The hapless fellow withdrew and harried to back to Algiers,
no doubt too shocked to contemplate anything but how the beylerbey would receive
such effrontery from his lips.
Such recklessness did not stop there. After taking recapturing Fez, Mohammed ash-Shaykh
entered into negotiations with the Spanish viceroy of Oran for an alliance against
the Turks. In all probability, this was intended as a defensive alliance of
convenience. Surely, the old man could not believe that he, lacking a navy, and
with a predominantly tribal army of xenophobes, might march side-by-side with Spanish
troops all the way to Cairo?
Certainly, the Turks did not believe it. But they had finally had their fill of
the troublemaker. Initially, perhaps in the heat of the moment, Suleiman and his
advisors contemplated sending an invasion force by sea. In time, they thought the
better of it. The distance involved was too great, and the anchorages too poor.
A more conventional approach, assassination, was settled upon. Their man in the
region, Hasan Pasha, the Beylerbey of Algiers, was charged with the arrangements.
In Hasan they found the man for the job. He had only been re-appointed to his post
a few weeks earlier, and was still bitter at the Moorish king. Five years earlier
Suleiman, perceiving that Hasan had somehow baited the Sharif of Marrakech into
a fight, had sacked him over the border war. Now, he would be avenged. Hasan promptly
selected a band of the choicest Turkish ruffians in his garrison and sent them under
the command of Salih el Kiahia to Morocco with instructions to present themselves
as elite soldiers and deserters who wished to offer their services. Turkish soldiers,
he knew, were much prized in the service of Moorish princes.
Mohammed ash-Shaykh was delighted with the addition of such experienced professionals,
and he integrated them into his personal body guard and employed them in the drilling
of his regulars. The Turks bided their time. In the fall of 1557, Mohammed ash-Shaykh,
despite his nearly 70 years of age, was again on the move. October found him and
his part of his army in the Deren region of the western High Atlas Mountains. Once
more, a show of force was required to cow obdurate tribes into paying their taxes.
This particular group of Berbers had resisted the naiba since 1547. On the evening
of October 23, the army stopped to make camp at a place called Aglagal. The tumult
of the moment provided the assassins with their opportunity. Amidst the noise and
confusion, as tired men hauled loads from the backs of braying camels and donkeys
and as the concentric rings of tents and barriers began to rise, Sahil and a few
of the Turks slipped into the Sultan’s command tent. Finding its occupant alone,
Sahil, it was said, drew up an axe and decapitated Mohammed ash-Shaykh. Stuffing
their trophy into a haversack, the Turks slipped from camp and headed east into
the gathering darkness.
In the end, the wily old ghazi had forgotten the poet’s admonishment:
Lean not on the Turk; even if his piety is such that he may fly in the clouds.
If he is kind to you, it is pure error on his part; if he is cruel it is because
he takes after his father and mother.
As the news made its way to the next Saadian sultan, Abdallah el-Ghalib, at Fez,
the headless trunk was being carted off to Marrakech for burial. On the marble sepulcher
was carved the following poem.
Pay homage to this tomb which mercies sheathe,
And their white clouds that shade its niche.
From it the perfumed fragrances of saintliness flow,
And through him, in eternal rest, carries unto us.
When he died, the sun of faith no longer burned;
The seven earths in darkness mourned.
O, beautiful soul laid low by this evil deed,
Cruelly pierced by the arrows of death.
At thy demise the pillars of glory crumbled and
the seven heavens trembled.
Voices and melodies of angels escorted thy coffin to Eden;
Ported by the Pleiades on their celestial course
Whilst you lay in the earth beneath the clouds.
O, Divine mercy, shower him with the nectar of your favors
and may the of chalice of ambrosia be ever full before him!
His destiny was fulfilled at the utterance of these words:
It is clear that the abode of the Imam of Faith, the Mahdi, is Paradise.
While his work was ephemeral, as would be the dynasty he created, Mohammad ash-Shaykh
stands as one of the greatest rulers of Islamic Morocco. Through superior generalship
and sheer determination he overcame enormous obstacles to achieve the consolidation
of political power and reverse the decline of his country. In mastering the Sufi
shaykhs and re-invigorating the tradition of royal sharifism, Mohammad ash-Shaykh
established the political foundations of the modern Moroccan state. His vigorous
efforts to free Morocco from the Portuguese commercial stranglehold, and to ward
off Ottoman expansion, kept Morocco free from foreign conquest. And, he succeeded
in raising two remarkable sons, Abdelmalek and Ahmad al-Mansur, who would succeed
him and leave their own indelible marks on Moroccan national consciousness.
. . Mohammad Esseghir Ben Elhadj Ben Abdallah El-Oufrani, Nozhet el hādi: Histoire
de la dynastie Saadienne au Maroc: 1511-1670 (Paris: Ernest LeRoux ed., 1889) 45.
. Ernest Mercier, Histoire de l’Afrique septentrionale (Berberie) depuis les
temps le plus reculés jusqu’a la conquête française (1830) (Paris, Ernest LeRoux,
1888) 87. My translation.
. T.H. Weir. The Shaikhs of XVIth Century Morocco (London: Simpkin, Marshall
and Co., 1904) 159
. Richard L. Smith, Ahmad al-Mansur: Islamic Visionary (New York: Pearson Longman,
2006), 167; La Grande Encyclopdie du Maroc : Histoire, Italy: GEP Publishers, 1987)
. Vincent J. Cornell, Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism
(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998) 260.
. Bernard Rosenberger, Le Maroc au XVIe ciècle: au seuil de la modernité (Paris:Trois
Cultures, 2008), 93-7.
. Clifford Geertz, Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia
(Chicago: Chicago University press, 1968) 30.
. Weston F. Cook, The One Hundred Years War for Morocco: Gunpowder and Military
Revolution in the Early Modern Muslim World (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994) 171.
. Encyclopedie du Maroc, 84.
. Histoire du Maroc. (Paris: Hatier, 1967) 184. Hereafter referred to as ‘Hatier’.
. Andrew Hess, The Forgotten Frontier: A History of the Sixteenth Century Ibero-African
Frontier (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1978) 33.
. Encyclopedie, 84-5. My translation.
. Hatier, 199; Pierre Berthier, La Bataille de L’Oued el-Makhazen (Paris: Centre
National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1985) 152.
. Cornell, xxv.
. Geertz, 30.
. R.G. Jenkins, “The Evolution of Religious Brotherhoods in Northwest Africa.”
Studies in West African History (London: Cass and Co, Ltd., 1979) 63.
. Jenkins, 50.
. Cornell, 285.
. Jenkins, 62.
. Terrace, 144.
. Hatier, 206.
. El-Oufrani, 32; Mercier, 10-11.
. Andrej Dziubinski, L’armée et la flotte de guerre marocaines à l’époque des
sultans de la dynastie saadienne (Hesperis Tamuda, Vol XII, 1972) 86.
. Jamil Abun-Nasr, A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1987) 213.
. Dziubunski, 62; Cook, 70.
. Rosenberger, 97.
. El-Oufrani, 19.
. Rosenberger, 99.
. Cook, 172
. Terrace, 120.
. Cook, 176-7.
. Cook, 184.
. “Life Expectancy Through the Centuries,” http://rationalskeptic.wordpress.com/2010/02/07/life-expectancy-throughout-the-centuries.
. El-Oufrani, 69-70.
. Dziubinski, 73.
. Rosenberger, 105-7.
. Cook, 154-5.
. Cook, 183.
. Dziubinski, 73.
. Cook, 171.
. Dziubinski, 72
. Cook 195-6.
. Cook, 201.
. At the time, Morocco, or Marako, and Marrakech were interchangeable terms.
. Weir, 202.
. Dziubinski, 82. By Dziubinski’s own admission, the connection of the Merinid
tradition of awarding a white standard and drum to loyal lieutenants, and the Saadian
standard was speculation on his part. He believed that the Saadian brothers brought
the tradition back with them from their early service with the Wattasid army.
. Cook, 204; Dziubinski, 77-9.
. Dziubinski, 76-8; Cook 25-6.
. Cook, 204-7.
. Brian Todd Carey, Warfare in the Medieval World (Barnsely, Pen and Sword Military
Digital Edition, 2011), Kindle locations 3659-3671.
. Cook, 197.
. Cook, 196.
. Cook, 185.
. Rosenberger, 129-130.
. Abun-Nasr, 212; Cook, 210.
. “The Chamber of Sacred Relics.” http://www.ee.bilkent.edu.tr/~history/religious.html/.
. Dziubinski, 72-3; Weir 239.
. Mercier, 71.
. Cour, 85-6.
. Mercier, 72; Cour 88-9; Cook 220.
. Abun-Nasr, 213.
. Cook, 221.
. Rosenberger, 132.
. Abun-Nasr, 212.
. Cook, 211.
. Cook, 217
. El-Oufrani, 42
. El-Oufrani, 59.
. Sources vary widely on when these missions occurred, and what precisely was
discussed. By most accounts, the Turks made two attempts come to an understanding
with Mohammed ash-Shaykh. The first probably occurred at Taroudant in either 1547
or 1548, and a subsequent mission took place in Marrakech between 1554 and 1557.
. Roger LeTourneau, L’Histoire de la Dynastie Sa’adide (Revue de l’Occident
Musulman et de la Méditerranée, No. 23, 1977) 15. http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/remmm_0035-1474_1977_num_23_1_1402;
Larbi Essakali. Le Memorial du Maroc. (Paris: Nord Organization, Vol 3, 1982) 147.
. Abun-Nasr, 157.
. El-Oufrani, 80.
. Abun-Nasr, 213.
. El-Oufrani, 80; Weir, 240.
. El-Oufrani, 81-2. My translation.
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