The Almoravid dynasty was a Berber Muslim dynasty, based around central Morocco. While it came from humble beginnings, established in the 11th century, eventually this empire would come to control large swaths of the western Maghreb (Northern Africa) and Al-Andalus (Southern Spain and Portugal). It was founded by Abdallah ibn Yasin, a charismatic leader, who rallied thousands to his cause, by invoking stories from the early life of the prophet Muhammed. He preached that conquest was not only necessary, but it was glorious to die in service of faith. The empire was a powerful military power, and religious – believing in life after death due to Islamic beliefs. The Almoravid Dynasty that he founded followed these tenets, forging a powerful empire that ultimately fell to a rebellion from within by the Almohads. The dynasty lasted for a surprisingly brief amount of time, given how strong it was at its zenith.
Origins and Rise to Power
The Almoravid Dynasty was founded mainly by the actions of one man, Abdallah ibn Yasin. Ibn Yasin was a resident of the ribat of Waggag ibn Zelu (ribat is Arabic for “fortification”). There he met a chieftain named Yahya ibn Ibrahim, who was in the search of a Malliki teacher for his people, believing that orthodox customs were being forgotten. With ibn Ibrahim, ibn Yasin was radicalized, and began to win over people to his faith, calling for the abolishment of the current ruling government. At the time, the Maghreb and Al-Andalus area was split between multiple kingdoms, in control of three main factions, the Zenata in control of the north, the Masmuda holding central Morocco, and the Sanhaja, concentrated in two major areas: Western Sahara and the Eastern Hills of the Maghreb.
Ibn Yasin sought to consolidate the Berber muslims under one banner, his own, and to this end went to the nearby Lamtuna people. There he found a large base of support, raising a large number of people behind him, adherent to his views of the Quran and how it should be interpreted and enforced. By reciting stories of the early life of the prophet Muhammad, Ibn Yasin preached that war and conquest were required for strict adhrance to Islam. He further said that it was not enough to simply adhere to God’s law, but also necessary to eradicate opposition to it. Under Ibn Yasin’s ideology, anyone and anything outside of Islamic law could be taken as “the enemy”. He specifically identified the Berber practice of tribalism as a major hindrance to the formation of a cohesive empire. He believed that it was absolutely necessary to unite all the muslim tribes, if they were to be forged into a powerful whole.
For the Lamtuna leadership, Ibn Yasin’s new ideology merged perfectly with their long founded goal to reform the Sanhaja union and recover their lost territories. In the mid 11th century, around 1051, the Lamtuna, under the combined command of Abdallah ibn Yasin and Yahya ibn Umar soon began referring to themselves the al-Murabitin , or the Almoravids.
His people galvanised, ibn Yasin set his sights on building his empire.
His first campaign was in the year 1053, when the Almoravids began to move out and disseminate the teachings of their master. The first tribe they approached was the Sanhaja Berber tribe, in Northern Africa. They quickly won them over, which gave them control over the middle section of the extremely important Trans-Saharan trade route. A powerful source of income and leverage thus established, they went ahead and seized Sijilmasa towards the northern side in 1054, and Aoudaghost towards the southern end in 1055.
This campaign successfully gave the Almoravids complete control of the West and North African part of the Trans Saharan trade routes. This route was the most crucial trade route in the world, connecting almost all of northern and eastern Africa with Europe and Asia. More than half of the entire world’s trade took place across this route at the peak of its popularity.
Yahya ibn Umar died in battle soon thereafter, leading to ibn Yasin’s brother, Abu Bakr ibn Umar, becoming the chief of the Almoravids. Abdallah Ibn Yasin in the meantime had been elevated to the status of the main figure of faith, giving him absolute influence over the empire. Under the brothers, the Almoravid Dynasty rapidly took over the rest of Northern Africa, eventually coming into contact with a group of “heretics”, the tribe of Berghouata. Abdallah ibn Yasin was killed in battle with the Berghouata, in 1059, in Krifla, a village near Rommani, Morocco. He left behind an empire.
Abdallah ibn Yasin was a very strict disciplinarian, for whom the breach of his law by his forces was the most egregious offence. His infantry was bound to him by faith, and hence they were fanatically loyal, regularly dying in battle instead of surrendering.
The first military general of the Almoravids, Yahya ibn Umar al-Lamtuni, also imposed a culture of strong adherence to hierarchy and organisation. Their main army consisted of infantry regiments. They were armed with javelins in the front, with pikes backing them up from behind, forming a strong phalanx. Their flanks were supported by camelmen and horsemen, mainly carrying long cavalry swords.
They also employed the use of a flag bearer in each rank, who would relay instructions across the field to the various regiments. This gave the Almoravid army a greater ability to coordinate in battle, providing a vital advantage.
Areas under control, Early Leaders, and Administration
Abu Bakr ibn Umar took over command of the Almoravids, forcing them to convert back to orthodox Islam. Soon after he married a noble woman named Zaynab an-Nafzawiyyat, who would go on to be one of the most important people in the dynasty. After a series of lengthy campaigns in 1061, ibn Umar stepped away from leading the empire for a while, handing over the reins to his cousin, Yusuf ibn Tashfin, to act as viceroy of the empire. However, when ibn Umar came back to resume power, he found that his cousin was too powerful to be removed from the throne. He soon fell in battle while trying to suppress a revolt in Sudan.
Meanwhile, Yusuf ibn Tashfin captured large swaths of territory in Morocco, Mauritania, and Western Sahara, founding the city of Marrakech in 1061 in celebration of his victories. This city would soon become the capital of the Empire.
For the next decade ibn Tashfin was busy building his capital city, and strengthening other parts of his empire, like its trade and architecture. There were only small skirmishes until 1070, mainly quelling revolts and minor border disputes with their neighbours.
However, according to Arabic traditional stories, in 1073, the Almoravids went to war against the Ghana Empire. Over a period of three years they successfully took over an increasing amount of territory, conquering the entire empire in 1076 CE. The remaining Ghanan territories were absorbed by the Susu people.
The Almoravid conquests, and their powerful position as the master of the Trans Saharan trade, their fame spread wide, often getting requests for protection from various smaller muslim kingdoms. In 1086, the Muslim taifa princes of Al-Andalus invited Yusuf ibn Tashfin to the Iberian Peninsula to defend their lands from The King of León and Castile, Alfonso VI. In the same year, Ibn Tashfin sailed across the Strait of Gibraltar to meet Alfonso in battle in Castile, near the fort of Algeciras. Ibn Tashfin won a resounding victory at the Battle of Sagrajas, but chose to head back to Africa.
Soon, in 1090 he returned to Iberia, and won the favour of the people, slowly taking over dominion of most of the peninsula. By 1094 Ibn Tashfin was master of most of Iberia, except the taifa (independent Muslim principality) at Saragossa. There, after a lengthy battle with Alfonso, the Almoravids retreated south.
This marked the period of most prosperity of the Almoravid empire, under Yusuf ibn Tashfin, with their territory stretching all across the Maghreb and Al-Andulas.
The Almoravid government was nearly identical to the other Berber muslim kingdoms. The major difference was that, in the beginning, when they followed Abdullah ibn Yasin, he was their undisputed leader. However, he was not technically the chief. Apart from that, the Almoravid dynasty focused on an Aristocracy, with a supreme leader, and a powerful council of advisors. Their advisors were usually imams and other faith leaders of great repute, and the sheikhs of the various tribes in the empire. Their main source of income were their three forts, controlling the entire Northern End of the Trans Saharan route. They taxed nearly all the goods that passed on the route, with their own cities acting as market hubs, with lower tax rates for its own citizens.
Art and Architecture
The Almoravids are credited with a great leap in North African art and literature, as they caused the consolidation of a large number of people. This brought a variety of different but related cultures into close contact with each other, and caused the creation of a large, Maghreb wide form of art. Artistic output under the Almoravids consists of ornate minbars, lecterns for imams to give sermons from, intricate marble work, beautiful textiles, and religious tomes with fantastic calligraphy.
A minbar is a pulpit in a mosque where the imam stands to deliver sermons. It had other similar uses such as in a Hussainiya where the speaker sits and lectures the congregation.
The Almoravids, with their successors the Almohads, are credited with being the most influential in terms of African Islamic architecture. The capital city of Marrakesh, built in the then modern style, became a huge center for setting architectural trends. There were many developments across the lands of the Almoravid dynasty, like the intricate linked arches of the Great Mosque in Cordoba and the large ornate arches of the Aljaferia palace in Zaragoza.
Another majorly influential point of Almoravid architecture is the monumental roof work in the ribbed dome in front of the Great Mosque of Tlemcen. The purpose and construction of the dome is purely ornamental, and is not built to provide any sort of structural integrity. It consists of a large number of interlocking arches forming a twelve-pointed star pattern. The arch is also slightly see-through, letting some natural light to filter through a pierced screen and carved arabesque that dominates the spaces in between the arches.
Yusuf ibn Tashfin named his son, Ali ibn Yusuf, as successor. Ibn Yusuf tried to invade Iberia twice, in 1119 and 1121, but was largely unsuccessful, winning minor territories only. Then, with French assistance, Alfonso VII of León handed ibn Yusuf a sound defeat in 1138. Shortly after, at the Battle of Ourique, ibn Yusuf was defeated by Afonso I of Portugal, who was thereafter named King of Portugal.
According to some historians, Ali ibn Yusuf was part of a new generation of the Almoravid ruling class, one that had been softened by the luxuries of the city, and had not seen the harsh life of the desert. The Almoravids were ultimately defeated by the joint assaults of their Christian foes in Iberia and the Almohad rebellion in Morocco.
Immediately following Ali ibn Yusuf’s demise in 1143, his son Tashfin ibn Ali rapidly lost dominion to the Almohads. He was killed 1146, in a fall from a cliff while making his escape following a defeat near Oran.
He was succeeded by Ishaq ibn Ali Ibrahim and ibn Tashfin, but their times on the throne were brief. The siege, and subsequent capture of the capital city of Marrakech by the Almohads in 1147 was the catalyst of the fall of the Almoravid dynasty, though small splinters of the Almoravids continued to agitate throughout the empire. These splinters continued to employ the same guerilla tactics that the Almohads had used on them, before finally surrendering in 1155. With that final surrender, ended the legacy of one man’s mission to unite the Berber tribes, who arguably succeeded.
Bennison, Amira K: The Almoravid and Almohad empires, Edinburgh, 2016.
Architecture of the Islamic West: North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. Yale University Press, 2020
Nehemia Levtzion: Ancient Ghana and Mali, New York, 1973