Cultural Itinerary of the Almoravids and Almohads
The Cultural Itinerary of the Almoravids and Almohads developed by the Foundation El legado andalusí aims to guide the traveller interested in history, art and culture through monuments, vestiges and memories of the past whose traces continue to mark these routes that were travelled over many centuries and continue to be travelled today.
On both sides of the Straits, the paths followed by these two African dynasties alternated. The great Almoravid and Almohad dynasties created a strong and powerful empire throughout the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, which extended across Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, the Maghreb and the Iberian Peninsula to the mouth of the Ebro river and the Western Mediterranean. The intense relationship between the two shores gave rise to a strong miscegenation of peoples and cultures whose traces are still present today.
Routes of the Almoravids and Almohads… Can we describe them without continually referring to what the ancients once called “the Two Shores, al-Adwatayn”? On both sides of the Straits, the roads alternated and crossed, weaving extraordinary bonds between men. Of these multiple contacts, whether for alliance or for confrontation, the most essential has survived the clashes of history: a common cultural and artistic background, a specific art of living that still endures. But where were the present ones the same routes at that time? Let us take the mid-12th-century world map drawn by the Ceuta-born geographer al-Idrisi and look at it from Marrakesh, the capital of the Almoravid and Almohad empires. Let us list the cities mentioned there. We will see that two main roads in a south-north direction stand out:
The first one begins in the “Desert of the Veiled Men”, as historical sources have called the vast expanse of sand that is currently found in Mauritanian territory, the cradle of the Almoravid movement. From the caravan towns situated to the north of the Niger and Senegal river basins, such as Awdagost or Azuqi, the tracks of the trans-Saharan trade took off towards the plains of the Moroccan Atlas. From Agmat-Urika or Marrakech, our historic route crosses the Tadla, heads towards Meknes and Fez until it reaches the Mediterranean ports of Ceuta, Qsar Segir and Tangier. From there, it is replaced by the Routes of al-Andalus at the exit of Algeciras. We agreed to call this route the “Route of the Almoravids” because, at that time, it was the way of the trade caravans that linked sub-Saharan Africa with the Mediterranean shores through Siyilmasa, the bridgehead for this traffic that was based on African gold. We could also evoke the memory of the emirs of al-Andalus such as al-Mutamid of Seville and Abd Allah of Granada, who were led by this same route to their destination in exile.
The second of the axes covers the Atlantic plains and leads to the ports of Safi, Tit, Azemmur, Anfa, Fedala, Rabat and Salé, which were then starting to develop. Rabat, the point of convergence of this network, was precisely founded by the Almohads. Beyond, the route is oriented towards Qsar el-Kebir, the confluence of Tangier and the Mediterranean ports with the Fez network. This whole system, in turn, is connected to al-Andalus. This second axis constitutes the “Route of the Almohads” par excellence. Traffic became safer thanks to the definitive elimination of the Bargawata principality by the Almohads, which had stood as a screen between the Atlantic plains of the north and those of the south. The need to supply the cities of al-Andalus with cereals, livestock and other raw materials contributed greatly to the increase of sea trade between the Moroccan Atlantic ports and those of Lower Andalusia.
These two axes thus described, at their confluence with Marrakech, flanked the Atlas mountain range where, as Ibn Khaldun states, “merchants come from everywhere”. Along these natural and historical routes, which are the Atlas valleys, the main road networks of the Moroccan-Andalusi system branched out onto the caravan trails of the trans-Saharan and African trade. Tinmel, the origin of the Almohad movement was a fortress that controlled the Nfis valley and an important link to the south, experienced its greatest moments of glory at that time.
Overall map of the Cultural Itinerary of the Almoravids and Almohads
Itinerary 1. Caravan Cities
This itinerary crosses the desert of the veiled men, cradle of the Almoravids. In this sea of sand, it follows the trail of the camels that loaded the African gold, salt, slaves, ivory, furs or ostrich tails.
It stops at two towns now disappeared: Azuqi, a bastion of Almoravids settled in the middle of a beautiful palm grove, and Awdagust, the bustling capital of the Berber Sinhayachs, where the remains of the town lie buried on the sand. The route then reaches the ksours of Chinguetti, Wadan, Tichitt, Walata, the “desert ports”.
Declared a World Heritage Site, these ancient cities keep afloat -each in its own way- the exquisite vernacular architecture of the Western Sahara, a prolific space where merchants and wise men, peoples and cultures from various territories converged.
Itinerary 2. Around Marrakech
At the heart of this route is Marrakech, the metropolis that gave its name to Morocco. It is the starting point for many roads, weaving around it a network full of history that can easily be followed today using the national roads.
To the west, the route includes two Atlantic ports, Safi and Essaouira; to the north, the archaeological site of Sidi Bu Uthman; to the south, the High Atlas, with Agmat as the first step towards the mountains, and Tinmel as the last step on the historic route. Between the ocean and the mountains, the path allows us to contemplate the indelible Portuguese mark of these coastal cities, the solemn cradles of the two great empires of the Muslim West, varied lands that go from green to mauve, where olive, apple, almond and walnut trees grow and intermingle.
Itinerary 3. Heading to Fez
In the heart of the Tadla plain, between Marrakech and Fez, the route follows the tracks of the Almoravids. To take possession of a vast empire, Saharan warriors first had to control this vital, strategic artery, once called Tariq al-Majzen.
For centuries, it has been marked by imposing kasbahs, sentries in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, and leads to the banks of a city brimming with culture and refinement, where the most varied artistic and intellectual currents from both the West and the East came to the Muslim world: Fez. Beyond, Meknes, a former sovereign city, reveals its extraordinary heritage: a sky lit up by its minarets and the unique pyramid-shaped vaults of its palaces. A land where the olive tree grows and Malhun, the popular sung poetry whose distant resonances evoke al-Andalus, flourishes.
Itinerary 4. Through the Atlantic Plains
Between Marrakech and Rabat, we follow the footsteps of the Almohads, letting ourselves be carried away by the Atlantic plains. In these places, the Almohads stopped and founded the “Victory Camp”, Rabat, before continuing their unstoppable advance beyond the Straits.
In turn, these oceanic shores received many waves of Andalusi and Moorish exiles. Coveted by Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch, many of these towns managed to set themselves up as principalities, independent of any central power. Two of these cities are the capitals of the Kingdom of Morocco: Casablanca, the economic capital, and Rabat, the political capital. The route passes through superb fortresses overlooking the ocean, ancient corsair coves and labyrinthine medinas where the Hispano-Moroccan crafts and arts have perpetuated.
Itinerary 5. The way to the Straits
From the coast or inland, all routes converge on the Straits and its two ports, Tangier and Ceuta, which will be springboards for all incursions into the subjugating country of al-Andalus. Before crossing Bahr al-Zuqaq (Sea of the Alley), the route first stops at natural sites such as the Blue Lagoon of Merdya Zerga, once a favourite hunting reserve of the Almohad caliphs.
There. Facing the Atlantic, Larache and Asilah combine monuments from two civilizations where mosques and madrasas rub shoulders with Hispano-Moorish palaces. Before taking the leap, it is imperative to make a substantial cultural immersion in two cities impregnated by the legacy of al-Andalus: Tetouan and Chaouen, which for centuries received large waves of immigrants from the other shore.
Itinerary 6. From the Straits to Western al-Andalus.
As it progresses northwards, the Itinerary of the Almoravids and Almohads skips the Straits of Gibraltar. The journey begins on the northern gradient of “The Two Shores”, the lands of al-Andalus. The cities of the Strait appear in first place as a key for communication between the Maghreb and al-Andalus.
The route goes through the rolling countryside of Jerez and Arcos, to reach, shortly afterwards, the flourishing city of Seville, a great emporium of that time and the capital of the Almohads in parallel with Marrakech. The route continues through the territory of Huelva, Portugal and Extremadura, and then returns to the Guadiana and Tagus valleys, whose line marked the limit of the Almoravid and Almohad expansion in western al-Andalus.
Itinerary 7. Along the Guadalquivir river and the Central Plateau
This route follows the main communication route between the Guadalquivir valley and the Castilian plateau, a historic road for armies and civilizations to and from. It starts in Carmona, continues in Ecija and enters Cordoba, mother of all the cities of al-Andalus and main communication node inherited from the Roman period. The Cordoba and Jaén countryside get together to climb up to the Upper Guadalquivir river following an itinerary that runs through monumental cities, frontier towns and castles.
Our route crosses the obstacle of the Sierra Morena, continuing through landscapes that were the scenery for great moments in Spanish medieval history: Alarcos, Navas de Tolosa, Uclés…
Itinerary 8. Towards Eastern al-Andalus
From the Straits, another important branch of the Routes of the Almoravids and Almohads through the domains of al-Andalus runs east and northwards, seeking the confines of the North African empires. The first part of this itinerary goes through the cities that made up the Nasrid kingdom, the last refuge of al-Andalus: Ronda, Antequera, Malaga, Granada, Guadix and Almeria.
A second section continues towards the Levant, a territory dotted with medinas, castles and ports. Following historical routes, the itinerary passes through the fortress of Aledo, crosses the Vega (fertile plains) of Murcia and reaches Valencia. Finally, the route approaches the eastern and northern limits of al-Andalus in the 11th and 13th centuries: in the Mediterranean, the Balearic Islands; inland, Cuenca, that linked the centres of power of the Central Plateau with the Levant; and towards the Ebro Valley, Albarracín and Saragossa.