Sijilmasa: The Golden Oasis and Africa's El Dorado
Throughout ancient African history, gold has played a fundamental role, particularly as a source of wealth and power. Meanwhile, the cities that thrived on the gold trading routes were motivated by the lure of this precious metal and enjoyed great prosperity and prestige. Sijilmasa was one such city; perched on the northern edge of the Sahara Desert, it occupied a strategic position on the so-called “golden route.” However, despite its early success, the city was marked by power struggles, turbulence, and eventual decline. In this piece, we delve into the history of this jewel of the desert oasis.
Jewel of the Oasis: Exploring the History of Sijilmasa
The ancient city of Sijilmasa has been described by many historians as the “African El Dorado.” Despite being reduced to ruins, Sijilmasa remains a site of great importance, and is protected as an endangered archaeological site. Located in the desert landscape of modern-day Morocco, the crumbling walls of Sijilmasa serve as a testament to its lost grandeur and the passage of centuries.
Built on the northern edge of the Sahara Desert, Sijilmasa stands in the midst of the lush Tafilalt Oasis, near the banks of River Ziz. Its strategic location enabled it to emerge as the regional entrepôt, a crucial trading city on the African gold route. As a result, it became one of the most valuable cities in the region, as traders carrying precious gold and other goods were required to pass through Sijilmasa on their journey either towards the sea or inland.
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Naturally, Sijilmasa’s strategic location meant that it was destined for greatness. Many legends about the city quickly emerged, similar to the tales of the original “El Dorado,” or the City of Gold. Sijilmasa was founded around 757 AD by Sufri Khajiri Muslims refugees. Its rise to prominence was exceptionally swift. “Around Sijilmasa there are deposits of gold and silver,” observed the Arab writer Ibn Yakubi less than a century after its founding. “The gold is found like plants, and it is said that wind blows it away.”
Of course, Ibn Yakubi embellished his tales just a little bit, but there is no doubt that Sijilmasa was a true “city of gold.” For one, its mints struck pure gold coins as early as the 10th century AD. In fact, archaeological evidence suggests that gold was transferred through this area as early as the 4th century AD. From the bountiful goldfields of Bambouk, Bouré and Lobi in south-central Africa, trading caravans had to pass northwards, and through Sijilmasa.
Representational image of a trading caravan travelling through the desert. (Justinas / Adobe Stock)
The Puzzle of Sijilmasa: Investigating the City's Mysterious Origins
As we mentioned, Sijilmasa is officially said to have been founded by Sufri Khajiri Muslims, who fled in the wake of the Berber rebellion against the Umayyad Caliphate around 740 AD. There are, however, other legends related to the founding of Sijilmasa, some of which are more difficult to believe.
The famed historian and writer from Iberia, al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Zayyati - better known as Leo Africanus, wrote in the 16th century AD that the city was founded by a Roman General - Suetonius Paulinus. To commemorate his victories in the area, he founded the city and named it Sigillum Masse as a symbol of victory, which over time morphed into Sijilmassa. However, the conspicuous absence of Roman archaeological artifacts indicates that this is highly unlikely.
Whatever the true origins of the town may be, radar scans and archeology confirm that there was some pre-urban activity on the site much earlier than the actual emergence of the city itself. This is quite likely, since Sijilmasa is situated at a favorable spot - a naturally fortified location that lies along the fertile banks of the River Ziz within the flourishing Tafilalt Oasis. Thus, the site had all the prerequisites for the emergence of a thriving settlement.
Much of what we know about Sijilmasa and its early history comes from the famed Arab traveler and writer, Al Bakri. In his work, Book of Routes and Places, Al Bakri explained that the first leader of the settlers in Sijilmasa was one Isa bin Mazid al-Aswad. He was chosen as the leader, and ruled in Sijilmasa for 14 years, before being executed on accusations of corruption. In his place came Abu al-Qasim al-Miknasi, whose descendants would form the Midrar Dynasty that would rule from Sijilmasa until 977 AD.
Sijilmasa has been remembered as a beautiful ancient oasis city. (Public domain)
Prospering from the African Gold Routes
The next we hear of Sijilmasa comes from another Arab traveler, Ibn Hawqal, who visited the area around 950 AD. In his writings, Ibn Hawqal noted that the city was quickly growing in economic power, due to shifting trade routes in Africa. As a result, the flourishing oasis city attracted the attention of trading caravans.
Previously, trade between Egypt and the gold-producing Ghana Empire was conducted by crossing the harsh deserts, but this soon became untenable. The trade caravans shifted their paths, so as to travel through the Maghreb area and to Sijilmasa in the oasis. From there, they could again head south through the Sahara, with better results and less harsh conditions.
Visiting the booming town of Sijilmasa, Ibn Hawqal was stunned by its prosperity and the overall wealth of the gold-route cities. He witnessed a bill issued to a trader from the Mauritanian city of Aoudaghost, from a trader from Sijilmasa. The bill, written out for 42,000 dinars, was an astounding sum for the time. Ibn Hawqal had never witnessed such an amount in his entire life of travel.
The city’s wealth was undoubted: gold from Sudan was minted here, and the volume of trade with the regional realms was stunning. Of course, all that wealth and prosperity brought with it a degree of independence.
Under the above-mentioned Midrar Dynasty, Sijilmasa grew into a regional power, and was able to free itself from the yoke of the Abbasid Caliphate as early as 771 AD, becoming largely independent. The rule of the Midrar Dynasty spread to the neighboring region, and was centered on the city of Sijilmasa. But, alas, every era of prosperity has to end at some point.
The Geopolitics of Sijilmasa: Navigating Power Struggles in the Sahara
In the 10th century, Sijilmasa’s rulers experienced their first major problems. Two rival Caliphates began a major feud, fighting over the control of the African trade routes. These were real superpowers, and Sijilmasa could not compare, even with its wealth. These superpowers relied on powerful regional rulers to act in their stead. Sijilmasa’s Midrar rulers were chosen by the Fatimids of Ifriqiya (modern-day Tunisia), while their rivals - the Umayyads of Cordoba - chose the rulers of Maghrawa confederation.
These alliances, however, were quick to shift and displace, and troubles soon arose in Sijilmasa. Around 909 AD, the Fatimids launched an expedition against Sijilmasa. For fifty days the city was in their hands, before it was again retaken by the Midrars. In 922, however, the Fatimids returned, and this time held the city for 20 years.
Sijilmasa remained a crucial trading hub, with its gold coin mints operating at full capacity. This time, however, the names of Fatimid caliphs were on these coins, and they went to different pockets. Needless to say, these events were fatal for the Midrar Dynasty, and its rapid disintegration began in this period. Eventually, it was the Maghraba Berbers - whose alliance shifted between Umayyad and Fatimid - that took hold of the city. It now became the major town of the Maghrawas, and continued its role as a trade center.
However, after six decades of Maghrawa rule, the elders of Sijilmasa had had enough. They sought the assistance of the Sanhaja Berber confederation, a major north African power, which was at that time transforming into the important Almoravid Dynasty. According to the Arab writer al-Bakri, the leader of the Almoravids mustered his armies and descended upon Sijilmasa, defeating the leader of the Maghrawa Berbers.
Alas, it was the Almoravids who ruled in Sijilmasa from that point on - and their rule was hardly welcome. For the Almoravids practiced an incredibly strict form of Islam. They banned all the instruments in the city, and closed wine shops and similar venues. The people of the city attempted a few revolts, but to no avail. Sijilmasa remained in Almoravid hands until 1146.
Mud-brick ruins from the ancient city of Sijilmasa within the lush Tafilalt Oasis in Morocco. (Mohammed / Adobe Stock)
Sijilmasa: A Pawn of Greater Powers
It was only in 1146 that the Almohad Caliphate took control of Sijilmasa. They were quick to take advantage of the town’s wealth, and all the traffic that passed through it. Much to the misfortune of the citizens, their rule was equally as bad as that of the strict Almoravids. Although the Almohads were not that strict, they were awfully violent and oppressive. This was confirmed with a brutal massacre of all the Jews that lived in Sijilmasa. Their ruthless regime did not last for long, as the ruling powers once again changed in the city.
The Almohad Dynasty eventually fell, and the new Zenata Berber confederation was established as the new ruler of Sijilmasa, and most of Morocco as well. The change happened in the mid 14th century AD. In 1352, the esteemed Arab explorer Ibn Battuta wrote of Sijilmasa:
"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."
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Sometimes in the late 14th century, after reaching its absolute peak of glory and wealth, Sijilmasa entered a steep decline. Economic fluctuations and increased rivalries between regional rulers, placed the city at increased risk. Around this time, a vicious civil war broke out, and Sijilmasa suffered widespread destruction. From this point on, even though it was partially rebuilt in different times during history, the city would still never attain the prosperity it had for centuries.
The Iberian scholar Leo Africanus traveled the area in the early 16th century, and stumbled upon the deserted ruins of the once-mighty Sijilmasa, writing:
“Of its walls, once so high, only a few sections remain, half-ruined, and covered with grass and moss. Of its population, there remain only various hostile clans, each living with its chief in a fortified village near to the ruins of the former Sijilmasa.”
The Tragic Fate of a Once Prosperous Metropolis
History does not know the exact reason why Sijilmasa was abandoned and destroyed after centuries of incredible prosperity. The likeliest reason, as evidenced from oral legends and travel writers, is that civil war and the rule of cruel despots doomed the city to its tragic fate. Climate change could have contributed as well, with a continued lack of resources plaguing the townsfolk.
At its height, Sijilmasa was the most prosperous town in the region. All the gold from the powerful Mali Empire ended up in the Sijilmasa mints, where it was struck into coins and placed into the global market. From there, it was transported to Egypt and Spain, and eventually made its way to Europe and the Mediterranean. Culture and arts flourished in the city, as did lavish Islamic architecture.
Alas, no golden age is destined to last forever. Today, only a few mud-brick walls and buildings remain of the vast oasis city that was Sijilmasa. After multiple destructions and rebuilds, the city never regained its former glory. Its fate serves as a valuable lesson in the history of affluent cities, subject to power struggles by covetous rulers.
Top image: Remains of the ancient city of Sijilmasa within the lush Tafilalt Oasis in Morocco. Source: Mohammed / Adobe Stock
Berzock, K. B. 2019. Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa. Princeton University Press.
Lightfoot, D. R. and Miller, J. A. 1996. Sijilmassa: The Rise and Fall of a Walled Oasis in Medieval Morocco. Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
Miller, J. A. and Messier, R. A. 2015. The Last Civilized Place: Sijilmasa and Its Saharan Destiny. University of Texas Press.