|Site of mediaeval town|
Sijilmasa (also Sijilmassa, Sidjilmasa, Sidjilmassa and Sigilmassa) was a medieval Moroccan city and trade entrepôt at the northern edge of the Sahara Desert in Morocco. The ruins of the town lie for five miles along the River Ziz in the Tafilalt oasis near the town of Rissani. The town's history was marked by several successive invasions by Berber dynasties. Up until the 14th century, as the northern terminus for the western trans-Sahara trade route, it was one of the most important trade centres in the Maghreb during the Middle Ages.
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According to al-Bakri's Book of Routes and Places, Sufrite Kharijites first settled the town in the wake of the Berber revolts against the Umayyads. Al-Bakri recounts that others joined these early settlers there, until they numbered around four thousand, at which point they laid the groundwork for the city. They elected a leader, ‘Isa bin Mazid al-Aswad (the Black), to handle their affairs during the earliest first few years after the town’s establishment. However, after ruling for 14 years, he was blamed by his companions of corruption and executed. Abu al-Qasim Samgu bin Wasul al-Miknasi, chief of a branch of the Miknasa tribe, became the leader of the town. This Abu al-Qasim and his descendants are known as the Midrarid dynasty.
The Arab geographer Ibn Hawqal visited Spain and the Maghreb between 947 and 951 AD. According to the account in his Kitab Surat al-Ard completed in around 988 AD, Sijilmasa grew in economic power due to shifting trade routes. At one time trade between Egypt and the Ghana Empire took a direct route across the desert, but because of the harsh conditions, this route was abandoned. Instead caravans passed through the Maghreb to Sijilmasa and then headed south across the Sahara. Sijilmassa's economic wealth is evidenced by Ibn Hawqal's story about a bill issued to a trader in Awdaghust for forty-two thousand dinars from another merchant based out of Sijilmassa. Ibn Hawqal explains that he has never heard of such a large sum of money in all of his travels.
On account of its wealth, the city was able to assert its independence under the Midrarid dynasty, freeing itself from the Abbasid Caliphate as early as 771. Shifting alliances with the Caliphate of Córdoba and the Fatimids of Ifriqiya destabilized the city during the 10th century, beginning with Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi Billah's visit to the city, the man who was later known as the founder of the Fatamid dynasty. 'Ubayed Allah, accompanied by his son al-Qasim, arrived in the Maghreb in 905. 'Ubayed Allah and his son made their way to Sijilmassa, fleeing persecution by the Abbasids, who found their Isma'ili Shi'ite beliefs not only unorthodox, but also threatening to the status quo of their caliphate. According to legend, ‘Ubayed Allah and his son were fulfilling a prophecy that the madhi would come from Mesopotamia to Sijilmassa. They hid among the population of Sijilmassa for four years under the countenance of the Midrar rulers, specifically one Prince Yasa'.
Al-Qasim, the son of the alleged mahdi, had miraculous powers and caused a spring to gush forth outside of the city. A Jewish resident of the city witnessed this, and spread the word throughout Sijilmassa that 'Ubayed Allah was going to attempt to take over the city. At or around the same time, Prince Yasa', the Midrarid ruler, received a letter from the Abbasids in Baghdad, warning him to close his frontiers and be wary of ‘Ubayed Allah. Yasa' was forced to imprison the men he had previously patronized. 'Ubayed Allah's servant escaped to Kairouan, which at the time was a stronghold for Isma’ilis. The leader of the Isma’ilis in Ifriqiya was Abu ‘Abdallah; he quickly mustered an army to rescue his compatriot. On his way to Sijilmassa, he subdued Tahert, the nearby Ibadi Kharijite stronghold under the Rustamid dynasty. The army arrived in the Tafilalt in the latter half of 909, and laid siege to the city. After Yasa' was killed in that year or the next, the Midrar dynasty began a long process of fragmentation that eventually resulted in a hostile takeover by the Maghrawa Berbers, former clients of the Cordoban caliphate.
Under the Maghrawa, who later declared independence from the Cordoban caliphate, the city retained its role as a trade centre. It also became a center for Maghrawan government and its campaign against other tribes in Morocco proper. After 60 years of Maghrawa rule, the elders of Sijilmassa appealed to the Sanhaja Berber confederation, which was just beginning its transformation into the Almoravid movement. According to al-Bakri, in 1055, Abdallah ibn Yasin, the spiritual leader of the Almoravid movement, responded by bringing his new army to Sijilmassa and killed the leader of the Maghrawa, Mas'ud ibn Wanudin al-Maghrawi. The Almoravid imposed an extremely strict interpretation of Islam, smashing music instruments and closing down wine shops throughout the city. While the city would rebel against the Almoravid garrison on more than one occasion, Sijilmassa became the Almoravid's first conquest. It remained under their control until 1146, when the Almohad dynasty took control of the city. During the Almoravid's rule, the city shared in the centralized governing structure of the Almoravid Empire.
When the Almohad took the city in the mid-12th century, they also took advantage of the wealth of trade going through Sijilmassa. However, the strict philosophy imposed by the Almoravid at the beginning of their reign of Sijilmassa was overshadowed by the extremely violent practices of the Almohad. This culminated in the massacre of many of the Jews living in Sijilmassa .
Amid the fall of the Almohad dynasty to the Zenata Berber confederation under the Marinid, Sijilmassa once again played host to the latest Berber dynasty.
The Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta stayed in Sijilmasa on his journey to visit the Mali Empire in 1352-1353. He wrote: "I reached the city of Sijilmasa, a very beautiful city. It has abundant dates of good quality. The city of al-Basra is like it in the abundance of dates, but those of Sijilmasa are superior." Ibn Battuta also mentions Sijilmasa when describing the Chinese town of Quanzhou: "In this city, as in all cities in China, men have orchards and fields and their houses in the middle, as they are in Siljimasa in our country. This is why their towns are so big."
The next mention of Sijilmasa in the extant sources is that of Leo Africanus, who, travelling to Morocco in the early 16th century, goes to the Tafilalt oasis and finds Sijilmassa destroyed. He remarks on the "most stately and high walls", which were apparently still standing. He continues to describe the city as "gallantly builte," writing there were many stately temples and colleges in the city, and water wheels that drew water out of the river Ziz. Leo Africanus says that since the city was destroyed, former residents had moved into outlying villages and castles. He stayed in this area for seven months, saying that it was temperate and pleasant. According to Leo Africanus, the city was destroyed when its last prince was assassinated by the citizens of Sijilmassa, after which the populace spread across the countryside. Ibn Khaldun says in his Muqaddimah that the city fell due to a lack of resources. Lightfoot and Miller cite several facts from their findings on site: they say that oral tradition preserved by those in the Tafilalt says that the "Black Sultan", a malevolent dictator, was overthrown by the populace.
The city was rebuilt in the 18th century under the orders of Sultan Moulay Ismail. It was conquered and destroyed by the nomadic tribes of Ait Atta in 1818. Today, the ruins of Sijilmassa, a couple of km north of the town of Rissani, are recognized by the World Monuments Fund as an endangered site. They are preserved by the Moroccan Ministry of Culture.
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