The Last Civilized Place

The Last Civilized Place: Sijilmasa and Its Saharan Destiny

RONALD A. MESSIER
JAMES A. MILLER
Copyright Date: 2015
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7560/766655
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    The Last Civilized Place
    Book Description:

    Set along the Sahara's edge, Sijilmasa was an African El Dorado, a legendary city of gold. But unlike El Dorado, Sijilmasa was a real city, the pivot in the gold trade between ancient Ghana and the Mediterranean world. Following its emergence as an independent city-state controlling a monopoly on gold during its first 250 years, Sijilmasa was incorporated into empire—Almoravid, Almohad, and onward—leading to the "last civilized place" becoming the cradle of today's Moroccan dynasty, the Alaouites. Sijilmasa's millennium of greatness ebbed with periods of war, renewal, and abandonment. Today, its ruins lie adjacent to and under the modern town of Rissani, bypassed by time.The Moroccan-American Project at Sijilmasa draws on archaeology, historical texts, field reconnaissance, oral tradition, and legend to weave the story of how this fabled city mastered its fate. The authors' deep local knowledge and interpretation of the written and ecological record allow them to describe how people and place molded four distinct periods in the city's history. Messier and Miller compare models of Islamic cities to what they found on the ground to understand how Sijilmasa functioned as a city. Continuities and discontinuities between Sijilmasa and the contemporary landscape sharpen questions regarding the nature of human life on the rim of the desert. What, they ask, allows places like Sijilmasa to rise to greatness? What causes them to fall away and disappear into the desert sands?

    eISBN: 978-0-292-76666-2
    Subjects: Archaeology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Notes on Dates and Transliteration
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. PROLOGUE: Ibn Battuta’s Sijilmasa Journey
    (pp. 1-18)

    “Welcome to Sijilmasa.” While no one can really say that today, over its thousand years of greatness, Sijilmasa welcomed many. It also repelled attackers, and it was—several times—invaded and seized. More than six centuries ago, it was visited by Ibn Battuta—a native of Tangier whom we might call today the most famous Moroccan historical figure of all time. Ibn Battuta’s life took him from the Atlantic to the Pacific and through a multitude of lives led as a pilgrim, court scribe, and dozens of other occupations. Most importantly, he was a traveler and a keen observer who...

  6. CHAPTER 1 Approaches to Sijilmasa
    (pp. 19-31)

    Sijilmasa is an African El Dorado. Most people who have heard of it know it as the legendary City of Gold. Medieval Arabic texts describe it that way. Writing in the third quarter of the ninth century, al-Yaʿqubi, one of the earliest Arabic writers to mention Sijilmasa by name, said of it, “Around it [Sijilmasa] there are deposits of gold and silver. It [the gold] is found like plants and it is said that the wind blows it away.”¹ Al-Masʿudi, in the mid-tenth century, wrote: “All that gold which the merchants obtain is minted in the town of sijilmasa.”² At...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Confluence of Time and Space in Morocco’s Desert Land
    (pp. 32-63)

    At Sijilmasa, the frame of human life meets the immensity of the greatest desert, the Sahara. Sijilmasa is “an excellent frontier town,” noted al-Muqaddasi in his compendium of geography, which appeared in 985. And indeed, Sijilmasa’s setting near Rissani in the Tafilalt oasis still is.¹ Sijilmasa is in the desert foreland of North Africa, the fringe of what Arab geographers have calledal-jazirat al-maghrib, “the island of the West.”² “Sijilmasa is situated at the beginning of the desert and no inhabited places are known to the south and west of it,” wrote al-Bakri in the century following al-Muqaddasi.³ Sijilmasa is...

  8. CHAPTER 3 Founding the Oasis City
    (pp. 64-91)

    What history tells us runs in the opposite direction of what archaeology reveals. The historical narrative normally moves in a linear, chronological fashion from earlier to later. Archaeology, on the other hand, moves stratigraphically from later to earlier, from the most recent occupation at the top to the earliest at the bottom. How to tell the story of Sijilmasa from both historical and archaeological perspectives poses a quandary. Should the historical narrative set the stage, followed by the story of the discovery of Sijilmasa’s strata as we found them? Or vice versa? In answer to this question, we have woven...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Sijilmasa in Empire
    (pp. 92-130)

    The Almoravids invaded the Tafilalt in 1055. The amir of Sijilmasa, Masʿud Ibn Wanudin, mounted his defense on the outskirts of the oasis, but to no avail.¹ The Almoravids had adopted new tactics to revolutionize their style of attack. There were three waves of warriors. The first carried long spears and the tall broad shields made of oryx skin, calledlamt, for which the Almoravids became famous. Standing side by side and shield to shield, soldiers in the first line formed a barrier to protect those in the rear. The second line of warriors carried several javelins each, which they...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Moroccan Rulers at the Desert’s Edge: The Filalians
    (pp. 131-150)

    Did Sijilmasa collapse after the civil war of 1393 as Leo Africanus described so explicitly? His narrative of the war is the primary textual reference for this event, but he wrote it well over a century after the fact. His account is supported by a rich body of folklore, much of which we gathered systematically in a series of interviews in the Tafilalt. In our first season of work at Sijilmasa, we began to hear the story of Sultan al-Khal, the Black Sultan, whom today’s Filalians still blame for Sijilmasa’s ultimate ruin. “Why has Sijilmasa fallen into ruin?” is the...

  11. CHAPTER 6 Out of Sijilmasa: The Alaouites
    (pp. 151-173)

    The current Alaouite king of Morocco traces his roots back to the Tafilalt oasis. His ancestors came to the Tafilalt with the great influx of Arab tribes in the middle of the thirteenth century. They readily became and remained highly respected asshurfa. Adding even more to their prestige, two maternal ancestors, so the story goes, were descendants of the Almoravids, who had conquered Sijilmasa back in the eleventh century.¹ By the seventeenth century, their many offspring inhabited fifteen or soqsurin the Tafilalt. But they remained in the political background until the Tafilalt became the focus of competition...

  12. CHAPTER 7 Using Models of the Islamic City as Guides
    (pp. 174-189)

    The relationship between an evolving, theoretical model of the Islamic city and the reality of Sijilmasa as seen on the ground through our interdisciplinary approach produced a dynamic that has become central to our study. An important starting point in the evolution of our theoretical model is the work of Dale Eickelman, who outlines four discernible patterns of spatial order in precolonial Middle Eastern cities: the presence of the central power, often represented by a fortified quarter, aqasba(citadel), and marked by a conspicuous externality or otherness in relation to the urban population; a complex of economic activity, the...

  13. CHAPTER 8 An Altered Present; An Uncertain Future
    (pp. 190-199)

    A week together in the Tafilalt in October 2011 allowed us, Ron Messier and James Miller, to see a great deal of change. We visited Rissani, renewing old friendships and spending several days at the site and at the Centre d’Études et de Recherches Alaouites (CERA). That visit was prompted by the fact that the storage shed at the center had lost its roof in rains several years before, and much of the carefully marked ceramic collection of the project’s six seasons had been covered—rather fortunately, as it turned out—by the caved-in roof. We needed to excavate the...

  14. APPENDIX 1. Moroccan Dynastic Rulers Governing Sijilmasa
    (pp. 200-204)
  15. APPENDIX 2. Ceramics Typology
    (pp. 205-216)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 217-238)
  17. Glossary
    (pp. 239-250)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 251-266)
  19. Index
    (pp. 267-280)