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Christine D. Baker

The Fatimid dynasty ruled North Africa from 909 to 1171 CE. The Fatimids identified as Isma’ili Shi’is and they declared a Shi’i countercaliphate in Qayrawan to rival the Sunni ‘Abbasids in Baghdad. Their dynasty rose to power from an underground missionary movement, but eventually conquered most of North Africa, the Levant, the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and Yemen. Their first capital was in Qayrawan, but they are best known for founding the city of Cairo as their imperial capital in 969. The Fatimids linked North African and Mediterranean trade with the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea, creating an era of unprecedented economic growth. Further, Fatimid sponsorship of Isma’ili Shi’i ritual and scholarship allowed for the development of several Isma’ili movements that have persisted into the modern era. The Fatimid era ended in the 12th century during the rise of Turkic dynasties and the influx of Crusader forces into the eastern Mediterranean region.

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Arabic-speaking Muslim polities existed in medieval Spain and Portugal where they were superseded by Christian empires that gradually disavowed cultural connections to this past.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.