The Almohads: 1147-1248
The Almohads, like the Almoravids, are a Berber tribe practising a strict version of Islam. They come from the Atlas mountains and are first inspired by an enthusiast who in the early 12th century declares himself to be the Mahdi. In 1147 his followers capture the Almoravid capital, Marrakech.
By 1159 the Almohads have conquered the entire north African coast as far east as Benghazi, bringing all Berbers within a single empire. Meanwhile their rule extends over the water to the other half of the Berber realm, in Spain.
The Almohads move rapidly into southern Spain after their defeat of the Almoravids in Morocco. Seville falls to them in 1147, the same year as Marrakech. They make it their Spanish capital, building the Alcázar Palace and the lower part of the Giralda, now the famous belfry of Seville cathedral; in origin it is the minaret of the main Almohad mosque.
The decline of Almohad power, and the decisive phase of the Christian reconquest, begins with the defeat of the Muslims at Las Navas de Tolosa, in 1212, by the combined armies of Castile, Aragon, Navarre and Portugal. Cordoba falls to the Christians in 1236 and Seville in 1248. Meanwhile, in 1238, Aragon recovers Valencia (held by the Muslims since the death of El Cid).
In north Africa the collapse of this greatest of Berber kingdoms takes a little longer, with the Almohads only gradually losing control. In about 1229 their governor in Tunis declares himself independent and establishes a dynasty of his own, the Hafsids. In 1248 another Berber tribe, the Marinids, capture Fès, which they make their capital and develop into an impressive city; in 1269 they take Marrakech and bring to an end Almohad rule in Morocco.
The Marinid dynasty lasts until the 15th century, and the Hafsid rulers survive a century longer. By then northwest Africa and the Barbary coast is disputed between the adventurers and pirates of Portugal, Spain and Turkey.
The Barbary coast: 16th – 20th century
With the decline of the local Berber dynasties in the 15th and 16th centuries, the valuable coastal strip of north Africa (known because of the Berbers as the Barbary coast) attracts the attention of the two most powerful Mediterranean states of the time – Spain in the west, Turkey in the east.
The Spanish-Turkish rivalry lasts for much of the 16th century, but it is gradually won – in a somewhat unorthodox manner – by the Turks. Their successful device is to allow Turkish pirates, or corsairs, to establish themselves along the coast. The territories seized by the corsairs are then given a formal status as protectorates of the Ottoman empire.
The first such pirate establishes himself on the coast of Algeria in 1512. Two others are firmly based in Libya by 1551. Tunisia is briefly taken in 1534 by the most famous corsair of them all, Khair ed-Din (known to the Europeans as Barbarossa). Recovered for Spain in 1535, Tunisia is finally brought under Ottoman control in 1574.
Piracy remains the chief purpose and main source of income of all these Turkish settlements along the Barbary coast. And the depredations of piracy, after three centuries, at last prompt French intervention in Algeria. This, at any rate, is stated by the French at the time to be the cause of their intervention. The reality is somewhat less glorious.
Algiers is occupied by the French in 1830, but it is not until 1847 that the French conquest of Algeria is complete – after prolonged resistance from the Berber hinterland, which has never been effectively controlled by the Turks on the coast.
It is in the European interest to police this entire troublesome Barbary region. Tunisia becomes a French protectorate in 1881, and Morocco (which has maintained a shaky independence, under its own local sultans, since the end of the Marinid dynasty) follows in 1912. Italy takes Libya from the Turks in 1912. The regions of the Barbary coast thus enter their last colonial phase before independence.
The eastern section of north Africa, site of the continent’s earliest civilization, passes through three relatively insignificant centuries after it is brought (in 1517) within the Ottoman empire. As a remote and semi-independent province, Egypt lapses into periods of anarchy. Not until the rule of Mohammed Ali, in the 19th century, does it recover its natural cohesion.
Mohammed Ali’s descendants introduce into Egypt western customs and finance. The result is increasingly close involvement with the British, eager to protect the shortest route to India after the opening of the Suez canal in 1869.
Riots in Egypt in 1882 prompt the British to move in troops, in effect occupying the country. But unlike the majority of African regions in the late 19th century, Egypt does not become a colony. It remains ostensibly a province of the Ottoman empire, still governed by descendants of Mohammed Ali but with a strong British military presence.
More genuine independence is achieved in 1922 when Egypt becomes a kingdom, through British troops remain to protect the Suez canal. The final steps to full Egyptian independence are in the 1950s, culminating in the Suez crisis of 1956. This is also the decade in which the rest of north Africa wins or fights for freedom.
Among the north African nations on the Mediterranean coast west of Egypt only one achieves independence without a struggle. This exception is Libya, and the reason is the defeat of Italy in World War II. After the war the future of Italy’s main African colony is referred to the United Nations. The result is a referendum, followed by the independence of Libya (as a kingdom) in 1951.
The three French colonies to the west all engage in a prolonged fight for their freedom. But two of them, Tunisia and Morocco, benefit from the greater determination of the French to retain Algeria.
When the Algerian situation erupts in terrorist violence in 1954, the French reaction is to concede the issue elsewhere so as to concentrate on this more crucial struggle. The result is that Tunisia and Morocco are both granted independence in 1956.
The Algerian crisis escalates over the next few years (incidentally bringing de Gaulle back into power), but finally – in 1962 – France recognizes Algeria as an independent nation. After several millennia of shifting patterns of power, dating back to the Egypt of the pharaohs in the east and to Carthage in the west, the north African coastline emerges in its present form as five modern nations.
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