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North Africa is a diverse region with a rich history and society, part of a set of varied landscapes that make up a compounded and multiplex socio-ecosystem. Its position as a meeting point—of the desert and the sea, of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, of North and South, of East and West—makes it a complex and rewarding area of study. This multiplicity of environments and societies means there is no one history of North Africa, it is rather a structure of imbricating stories, no one of which records the whole. The environmental history of the region is no different, as the many different ecosystems—and human relations within them—give rise to different stories and different ways to tell them. Indeed, the strength of the environmental approach to the history of the region is that it allows scholars to introduce important factors into the narrative that are otherwise left out. If history is to capture the richness of past lives, tell a compelling story of people in the world, then it needs to embrace those elements of the world that were important to people. These can be the everyday concerns with watering a garden, the spectacular catastrophes of multiyear drought, or the contemplation of what factors make a place one place and not another. While there is this bottomless well of potential stories to tell within the environmental history of North Africa, there are some centripetal forces that hold it together. One is the geographical setting, defined by the desert, seas, and Atlas Mountains. Within this setting the relative aridity of the region is its central concern; each history has a place for water within it. The other generalizing trend over the modern period is the increasing centralization of decision-making about the management of that aridity: since 1800, small-scale and localized knowledge, practice, and control over hydrology has been eroded. More and more the local ecosystem has become the regional ecosystem, managed according to a logic shared on a global scale. The tension between these generalized trends and the multiplicity of local ecologies and stories is what gives the environmental history of North Africa its power and appeal.

Article

According to traditional medieval histories—those that focus on the European West as a distinct civilization from North Africa and the Middle East—the advent of Islam in the 7th century was the final blow to the hope of a restored Rome, one that split the Mediterranean in two. In this version of the past, the Muslim conquests of the 7th century permanently divided Islamic North Africa and the Maghrib from the culture, society, and thinking of Christian Western Europe. In fact, the Maghrib was a major port of the culture, architecture, society, religious development, commerce, and politics of a common, medieval western Mediterranean zone. It is true that Christian and Muslim dynasties and states on both sides of the Mediterranean regularly saw themselves as enemies and rivals. The dogmatic and violent use of religion to justify enslavement, forced conversion, and conquest was common practice throughout this period. It is also true, however, that infidel Christian kings and unholy Muslim warriors formed alliances with one another, both across the sea and across faiths.1 The existence of a “convenient enemy” was often used as a means of gaining political or military advantage within Muslim or Christian lands. Popes and kings signed agreements with Muslim caliphs and Muslim sultans sought protection of Christian kings. In addition to high-level political alliances, ties between the Maghrib and Western Europe ran deep through the medieval economy. Commerce and business partnerships prospered and the 12th-century Commercial Renaissance lifted all boats. Christian, Muslim, and Jewish merchants took advantage of flows of trade and gold from Africa to the Mediterranean and into Europe. Dreams of conversion fostered unintended cultural interactions and exchanges, as was the case with the Franciscans and Christian mercenaries who journeyed deep into the Maghrib during this period. More than religion or politics, common artistic and architectural styles make perhaps the most compelling argument for a common, trans-Mediterranean culture.

Article

Arabic-speaking Muslim polities existed in medieval Spain and Portugal where they were superseded by Christian empires that gradually disavowed cultural connections to this past. Hebrew and Arabic were largely expurgated from homes and libraries. Jews and Muslims who refused to convert were expelled. And while an incipient study of that past existed, echoed even in popular literary forms, the need to disavow kinship prevailed, at least publicly and officially. The Maghrib, for its part, separated by a mere fourteen kilometers of sea from the southern tip of Spain, experienced Portuguese and Spanish imperial expansion firsthand, receiving the bulk of the displaced and interacting with fortified settlements and encroachments along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Later European colonization of North Africa completed the galvanization of a Maghribi culture of resistance to and disavowal of European, Latin, and Christian cultural forms and connections. Spain and North Africa came to be conceived as separate worlds; domains of inimical faiths; divided by culture, language, religion, and a history of mutual hostility. This sense of separateness is deceptive, however, as the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa are bound by deep and extensive commercial, material, and cultural contacts. They share inextricable histories in which alternating movements of commerce, conflict, and migration have played fundamental roles in shaping recognizably Western Mediterranean societies. They should be thought of as areas of a unified region with a common culture, or at the very least, as areas sharing a common region, in which they interact regularly, creating extensive ties and parallel forms of cultural and social organization.

Article

The history of North Africa from the coming of Islam to the rise of the Almoravid Empire in the 11th century is a crucial period in the making of the Islamic Maghrib. From 600 ce to 1060 ce Berbers and Arabs interacted in a variety of ways and through a process of acculturation. This interaction created a distinctive cultural and historical zone called the “Maghrib” or the “land of the setting sun,” a zone that would be recognized throughout the Islamic world. While many questions remain unanswered or yet to be explored from this period due to issues with sources, the first centuries after the coming of Islam to the Maghrib (7th—11th centuries) set the stage for the rise of the great Berber and Muslim empires: the Almoravid and Almohads. This period is crucial for understanding the development and history of Maghribi Islam.

Article

In the Middle Ages and the early modern period, slavery was a widespread institution in the Christian-western Mediterranean. Its development was closely related to the systemic changes that took place in the region: the arrival of Islam in the 8th century, the Latin expansion of the 12th and 13th centuries, and the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade (c. 1450). After the arrival of Islam on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, and then the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century, a type of slavery concentrated mainly in the cities began to take shape in western Europe. During the Latin economic and commercial expansion of the 12th and 13th centuries, European merchants expanded their networks to the Black Sea, the Balkans, and the coast of Libya around Barqa, an area that concentrated part of the trans-Saharan slave trade routes. These three regions became the main centers for the exportation of enslaved men and women for the Christian-western Mediterranean. Finally, after the Ottoman expansion in the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea (c. 1370–1480), and the onset of the Atlantic slave trade (c. 1450–1480), Black African slaves became more numerous than those from anywhere else. Medieval Mediterranean societies made intensive and extensive use of slave labor. The slaves’ living conditions were related to the type of jobs they were forced to do, whether exploited directly by their owners or hired by others. After the exponential increase of sub-Saharan slaves, the first Black brotherhoods in the northern Mediterranean appeared, a testimony to the importance that Black slavery had attained by the end of the 15th century.

Article

Although Jerusalem was the ultimate target of many of the largest crusading expeditions during the medieval period, North Africa nonetheless played a crucial role in this movement. Following the establishment of the Crusader states at the end of the 11th century, Latin Christians clashed with the Fatimids of Egypt for regional control of the Levant and Nile River delta. This conflict gave way in the 13th century to the “Egyptian strategy,” through which crusaders thought the most likely way to retake Jerusalem was by attacking the rich and fertile lands of the Nile. The crusades of King Louis IX, which were directed at Egypt and Tunis, were motivated in part by the idea that seizing these lands in North Africa would ultimately lead to the reconquest of the Holy Land. Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, crusading fervor reached the shores of North Africa via the Reconquista. Beginning in the 13th century and extending through the early modern period, Christian leaders in Iberia viewed campaigns in northwest Africa as an extension of their earlier repulsion of Muslims from the peninsula. These crusades, which were theorized as dynastic enterprises that served to both spread Christianity and expand the borders of empires, persisted into the 16th century as the papacy marshaled the assistance of European Christian powers against the Ottomans. The response of Muslim dynasties in North Africa to these expeditions was never uniform, as some preferred diplomacy with the aggressing Franks and others conflict. However, there gradually developed in the Islamic world the idea that a persistent jihad against Mediterranean-wide Frankish aggression was an appropriate response. The memory of medieval crusades was a particularly potent one in France, where Louis IX’s expeditions were evoked during France’s conquest of Algeria in the 19th century.