Cultural Itinerary of the Almoravids and Almohads
The Cultural Itinerary of the Almoravids and Almohads, promoted by the Foundation The legacy of al-Andalus, is expected to guide travellers interested in history, art and culture along the remaining traces, monuments and memories of the past, still visible nowadays in these routes, which were travelled in the past as they are travelled in our days.
The roads that covered these two African dynasties alternated on both sides of the Strait of Gibraltar. Throughout the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, the great dynasties of the Almohads and the Almoravids created a strong and powerful empire, which stretched from the Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, the Maghreb and the Iberian Peninsula as far as the river Ebro’s estuary and the western Mediterranean Sea. The intense relationship between the two shores of the Mediterranean has resulted in an important number of people mixing races and cultures, whose traces can be seen today, since what was essential has remained, after going through the clashes that have taken place all along history, and it is a common cultural and artistic patrimony that endures.
How could we describe the itineraries of the Almoravids and the Almohads without mentioning constantly what the people of old called “The Two Shores” (al-Adwatayn)? On both sides of the Strait of Gibraltar, roads intermingled and crossed, weaving at the same time a strong net amongst men. As a result of these multiple contacts, often shaped by an alliance or a clash, we have inherited many things, and, above all, a specific way of living. But let’s ask a question: What was the right location of those routes in those times?. Let’s see the world map from the 12th century, drawn by the geographer from Ceuta, al-Idrisi, and let’s observe it from Marrakesh, the capital of the Almoravid and Almohad empires. We will try to establish a relationship between the cities that are mentioned there, and we will also see two outstanding axes of roads, south- and north- bound:
The first one starts in the “desert of the veiled men,” the name that historical sources gave to the vast extent of sand in what is nowadays Mauritania’s territory, the birthplace of the Almoravids movement. The roads of trans-Saharan commerce depart from the caravan cities, located north of the Niger and Senegal Rivers, such as Awdagost or Azuqi, and head for the Morocan Atlas plain. From Agmat-Urika or from Marrakesh, our tour crosses the Tadla, heads for Mequinez and Fez to get to the Mediteranean ports of Ceuta, Qsar Segir and Tangier. From here, the tour follows the Routes of al-Andalus once we leave Algeciras. We agreed to name this axis “Route of the Almoravids”, as in past times it was the one followed by the commercial caravan routes that connected Sub-Saharan Africa with the Mediterranean shores through Sijilmasa, bridgehead of this traffic based on African gold. Here, we can also bring to mind the emirs from al-Andalus, al-Mutamid of Seville and Abd Allah of Granada, who were led to exile through this same road.
The second axis lies over the Atlantic plains and detours towards the ports of Safi, Tit, Azemmur, Anfa, Fedala, Rabat and Salé, where it starts to develop. Rabat is the connection-point of this network, which is, by the way, an Almohad creation. Beyond this point, the route is oriented toward Qasar el-Kebir, an intersection that joins Tangier with the Mediterranean ports and the trading network of Fez. All these systems are connected, at the same time, with al-Andalus. This second axis constitutes the “Route of the Almohads” par excellence. Traffic became safer after the Almohads’s definitive reduction of the bargawata principality who were kind of wall between the northern and southern Atlantic plains. It was the need to supply the cities of al-Andalus with provisions –such as cereal, cattle and other raw materials–that greatly contributed to increase and multiply the maritime exchanges between the Moroccan Atlantic ports, and those of the low-lying Andalusian lands.
These two axes, as defined above, flank the Atlas Mountains and join at Marrakesh. According to Ibn Khaldun, “here merchants who came from everywhere met”. The Hispano-Moroccan main roads network that spread through the natural and historical routes that are the Atlas valleys branch here into the caravan roads of the Trans-Saharian and African trade. Tinmel, birthplace of the Almohad movement, has a fortress from which the Nfis valley was controlled, being also an important link to the South. This place knew at those times its greatest moments of glory.
Overall map of the Cultural Itinerary of the Almoravids and Almohads
Itinerary 1. The caravan cities
This itinerary crosses the desert of the veiled men, the birthplace of the Almoravids. n this ocean of sand, the road follows the traces left by the groups of camels which brought gold, salt, slaves, ivory, fur and ostrich tails to be taken on board.
The route goes to two cities that vanished off the face of the earth: Azuqui, an Almoravid bastion built in the middle of a beautiful palm grove, and Awdagust, the Berbers sinhaya crowded city, whose trace remains lie under the sand. Then, the route gets to the ksur of Chiguetti, Wadan, Tichittand Walatta, the “ports of the desert”.
These ancient cities, declared Patrimony of Mankind, keep alive, each in their own way, the graceful vernacular architecture of Western Sahara, a space where merchants and wise men, people and cultures from different horizons met.
Itinerary 2. Around MarraKesh
Marrakesh, the metropolis which gave name to Morocco, lies in the heart of this layout. It is the departing point of several roads, surrounded as it is by history, and can be followed easily by taking the national roads.
The itinerary includes, to the West, two Atlantic ports: Safiand Essaouira; to the North the archaeological site of Sidi Bu Uthman; to the South, the Great Atlas, being Agmat the first stage towards the mountain, and Tinmel, as the last step in the historic trip. Between the ocean and the mountain, the path allows us to gaze at the indelible Portuguese influence in the coastal cities; the solemn birthplace of two great empires of Western Islam; lots of different kinds of lands that adopt many hues from green colour to lilac, and where olive, apples, almonds trees and walnuts grow together and mingle.
Itinerary 3. Heading to Fez
In the centre of the plain of the Tadla, between Marrakesh and Fez, the route continues after the Almoravids trails. The Saharan warriors, in order to take over a huge empire, had to control first this major artery, of vital importance due to its strategic location. In ancient times it was named Tariq al-Makhzen.
JalonThe route, which is filled with several centuries old kasbahs, superb constructions acting as the sentries of the Atlas massif, take us to the outskirts of a city brimming with culture and refinement: Fez. The most varied artistic and intellectual streams from western and eastern Islam once met here. Further beyond, Mequinez, the ancient sovereign, reveals its extraordinary patrimony: a sky illuminated by its minarets and the unique pyramid vaults of its palaces. This is a land where the olive tree grows, and the Mahloun flourishes (a popular sung poetry, whose far distant echoes evoke al-Andalus).
Itinerary 4. Through the Atlantic plains
Between Marrakesh and Rabat we follow the steps of the Almohads through the Atlantic plains. In these spots, the Almohads stop to found the “Camp of Victory” -as they first referred to Rabat- before continuing their unstoppable march beyond the Strait of Gibraltar.
These oceanic coasts, on their turn, got several waves of moriscos and people from al-Andalus in exile. They were coveted by Portugueses, Spanish, Dutch and many of their villages were got to become principalities, being independent from any central power. Two of these cities are Morocco capitals: Casablanca, the economic one, and Rabat the politic. The route travels superb fortresses which watch the ocean, the coves of the corsairs of old, and the labyrinth of its medinas, where the traditional Hispano-Moroccan jobs still remain.
Itinerary 5. The way to the Straif
All routes, from both the coasts and the interior, converge in the Strait and its ports: Tangier and Ceuta which will act as a springboard to all the incursions towards the subjugating al-Andalus. The road first stops, before crossing the “Bahr al-Zuqaq” (Lane Sea), in nature spots as the Blue Lagoon of Merdya Zerga, an ancient hunting reserve, the favourite of the Almohads caliphs.
There, the cities of Larache and Asilah facing the Atlantic Ocean, combine monuments belonging to two civilizations where mosques and medersas go hand in hand with Hispano-Morisco palaces. Before getting to the point, it is necessary to proceed to a substantial cultural immersion into two cities which are impregnated of the legacy of al-Andalus; Tétouan and Xauen, which during centuries received large crowds of immigrants from the opposite shore.
Itinerary 6. From the Strait of Gibraltar towards western al-Andalus
The Itinerary of the Almoravids and Almohads, as going up towards North, cross the Strait of Gibraltar to start the journey through the northern shore –the land of al-Andalus. The first cities to be seen are the Strait ones, the communication key between the Maghreb and al-Andalus.
The road advances into the undulating horizons of the Jerez and Arcos de la Frontera country sides to get to the thriving Seville, the great trading centre of the epoch and capital of the Almohads, together with Marrakesh. The Itinerary continues on his way through the lands of Huelva, Portugal and the region of Extremadura. Then, it turns to the rivers valleys of the Guadiana and Tajo, whose line marked the limit of the Almoravids and Almohads expansion in western al-Andalus.
Itinerary 7. Through the Guadalquivir and the Castile plateau
This route follows the main communication road in the Valley of the Giadalquivir river with the Castilian plateau. It is a historic round way for armies and civilizations. It starts in Carmona, continues to Écija and gets to Cordova, mother of all the al-Andalus cities, and main of communications junction inherited from Romans times. The Cordova and Jaén country side get together to reach the Upper Guadalquivir though an itinerary which runs amongst monumental cities, border villages and castles.
Our way overcomes the obstacle of Sierra Morena, to reach the landscapes that once were the background of great events of the Spanish medieval history: Alarcos, Navas de Tolosa, Uclés…
Itinerary 8. Towards Eastern al-Andalus
Departing from the Strait of Gibraltar, there is another branch of a great importance in the Route of the Almoravids and the Almohads within the domains of al-Andalus. It is the one which goes East and West bound searching the confines of the North-African empires. This itinerary first stage passes by the cities which once were included in the Nasrid Kingdom, the last redoubt of al-Andalus: Ronda, Antequera, Málaga, Granada, Guadix and Almería.
A second branch follows towards East, a territory filled with medinas, castles and ports. We follow historical routes where this itinerary getting round the fortress of Aledo, go across the fertile plains of Murcia to get to Valencia. Finally, the tour approaches the eastern and northern limits of that al-Andalus of the XIst and XIIIth centuries: in the Mediterranean sea, the Balearic Islands; towards the interior, Cuenca where the two centres of power: the Plateau one and the East met; and in direction to the river Ebro valley, Albarracín and Saragossa.