Arabic-speaking Muslim polities existed in medieval Spain and Portugal where they were superseded by Christian empires that gradually disavowed cultural connections to this past.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.
At their closest points, Sicily and Tunisia are separated by less than 100 miles across the Strait of Sicily. Using intermediate islands as guides, it is possible to cross this distance without losing sight of land. The proximity of Sicily and the Italian Peninsula to North Africa facilitated substantial interactions between peoples in these regions across the central Middle Ages—from roughly 1000 until 1300. During this period, Norman Sicily and Italian city-states like Venice, Genoa, and Pisa had substantial interactions with Muslim lords across North Africa. Walled funduqs provided isolated and secure facilities for merchants to conduct business in Muslim ports. Mendicant missionaries tended to these traders and, at times, voluntarily martyred themselves by denouncing Islam and proselytizing in the streets of Muslim cities. These traders and monks operated against a backdrop of intermittent conflict. State-sponsored raiding from both Muslim North Africa and Christian Italy proved a persistent threat to merchants and their wares. On occasion, these raids devolved into more substantial campaigns aimed at conquest, including a handful of papally-sponsored crusades. The longest-lived Christian foray into North Africa during these years resulted in Norman Sicily seizing control over a strip of land in modern-day Tunisia from roughly 1148 to 1160 and forming the Norman “Kingdom of Africa.”