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The Kutama (Berber: Iktamen) were a major Berber tribe in northern Algeria classified among the Berber confederation of the Bavares. The Kutama are attested much earlier, in the form Koidamousii by the Greek geographer Ptolemy.
The Kutama played a pivotal role during the Fatimid Caliphate (909–1171), forming the Fatimid army which eventually overthrew the Aghlabids who controlled Ifriqiya, and which then went on to conquer Egypt and the southern Levant in 969–975. The Kutama remained one of the mainstays of the Fatimid army until well into the 11th century.
The Kutama are part of the Barnès branch of Berbers. They are related to the Zouaoua, and are located in the larger Kabylia region. The tribe is a neighbour of the Zenati of the Ulhassa in the eastern part towards Annaba and the Aures.
An anecdote explaining the origins of the term "Kutama" is recounted by the Tenth-Century Ismaili jurist, al-Qadi al-Nu'man in his work entitled Iftitāḥ al-da‘wa, in which a preacher by the name of Abu ‘Abd Allah al-Shi’i encountered a group of Shi’i Kutama on the pilgrimage at Mecca in 893 CE. Upon meeting him, this particular group of Kutama Pilgrims became convinced of the Ismaili faith and brought Abu ‘Abd Allah along with them back to their country of origin. Along the way, Abu ‘Abd Allah asked the pilgrims about a region called the Valley of the Pious (fajj al-akhyār). The Kutama were astounded that he knew of this place and asked how he came to hear of it. Citing a prophetic tradition (hadīth) of Muhammad, Abu ‘Abd Allah replied that in fact this place was named after the very Kutama themselves: "The Mahdi shall emigrate far from his home at a time full of trials and tribulations. The pious (al-akhyār) of that age shall support him, a people whose name is derived from kitmān (secrecy)." He explained that it was to the Kutama that the tradition referred and on account of them that the region was named the Valley of the Pious.
In the early 10th century the Kutama formed a coalition with the Shi'a Fatimids against the Sunni Aghlabids who ruled Ifriqiya and supported the Abbasids. The Kutama became fierce protectors of the new Fatimid state and constituted the mainstay of its army.
Abu Abd Allah al-Shi'i, Shiite missionary met the Kutama and paved the way for his master Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi, a Shi'ite Ismaili from Syria and founder of the Fatimid Caliphate to be presented as the Mahdi. Abu Abd Allah ash-Shi'i's dream was to topple the Sunni power in Abbasid Baghdad in favour of a Shi'ite dynasty.
In 903 the Kutama, by then converted to Shiism and also to the ideology of al-Mahdi, began the uprising. On March 19, 909, they destroyed the Aghlabid dynasty installed by the Abbasids in Ifriqiya near Laribus. Six days later, they entered the Aghlabid capital, Raqqada. Later the Fatimid capital was moved to Mahdiyya.
The Kutamas installed a military camp near Cairo, forming a formidable military power in the service of the Fatimid Caliph. They led later expeditions to Damascus against the Abbasids. The district Kotama "El-Hai Kotamiyine" in Cairo and the Maghreb area of "Al-Harat Maghariba" in Damascus, still testify to the influence of this tribe whose members were, during different periods, repressed by the Abbasids and their allies. Saladin overthrew the Fatimids in 1171 and returned Egypt to Sunni Abbasid allegiance. The Siwis, Berbers of Egypt, are Kutama.
After conquering Egypt, the Fatimids left the Maghreb under the general Kutama Bologhin ibn Ziri, who was the governor of Ifriqiya. He became the founder of the Zirid dynasty.
- Registre des Provinces et Cités d’Afrique, éd. et trad. S. Lancel, in Victor de Vita, Belles Lettres, Paris, 2002, p. 270, Sitif., n° 29. Ptolémée, Géographie, IV, 2, 5, éd. C. Müller.
- Virani, Shafique N. The Ismailis in the Middle Ages: A History of Survival, A Search for Salvation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 47.