Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Morocco: Sharifian Dynasties: the Saadis (1549 – 1659)

“Tombs of the saadis” by Le2 – is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Morocco was one of the battlefields in the 16th-century struggle for supremacy among the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the Ottomans. In 1492, the year Columbus, sailing under Spanish colors, landed in America, the last Muslim king of Granada surrendered to the Spanish Catholic kings. Both Christian powers already occupied enclaves on the coast and continued to take more places. In contrast, the Ottomans occupied Cairo in 1517 and leapfrogged along the North African coast, taking Algiers in 1529. Sharifian and tariqa resistance had raised the countryside around the Christian enclaves, but it could not hold off the Ottomans’ might under Suleiman the Magnificent. The leadership was too fragmented, but sharifianism provided the basis for a new legitimacy underpinning Morocco ever since.

The Saadis came from the Sous Valley but claimed to originate in the Hijaz and descend from the Prophet. They were war chiefs, allies of the tariqas in the struggle against the Portuguese. On this basis, Abu Abdallah al-Qaim bi-Amrillah al-Saadi won control of the Sous.

Abu Abdallah died in 1517, but his sons continued the war against the European enclaves. Jihad, not reform of Islam, was the object of the new regime. In 1524, they took from the Portuguese Marrakesh and in 1541 Agadir, then Safi and Azemmour; in 1549, they took Fez. Although the Portuguese retreat continued, the Ottoman Turks were an equally dangerous enemy: they wanted bases on the Moroccan coast to attack the Spanish. In 1554, they briefly occupied Fez and invaded again in 1557. When the powerful Saadi sultan Abdallah al-Ghalib Billah died in 1574, the Ottomans encouraged one of his sons, Abd al-Malik, to attack his brother, Abdallah Mohammed al-Mutawakkil, the new sultan. In 1576, Abd al-Malik invaded Morocco and took Fez. The Portuguese king, Dom Sebastião, determined to stop the Ottoman advance, so he too invaded Morocco in 1578. Abd al-Malik’s army cut him to pieces on the banks of the Wadi al-Makhazin, near Ksar al-Kebir (al-Qasr al-Kabir). This became famous as the Three Kings’ Battle because Abd al-Malik, Abdallah Mohammed al-Mutawakkil, and Dom Sebastião (Sebastian I) all died there: a dynastic squabble had turned into one of the epic battles of the early modern world. Abd al-Malik’s brother Ahmad, who called himself al-Mansur (the Victorious), led his armies and rebuilt the Saadi dynasty.

Ahmad made peace with the Ottoman empire in 1582, defining a roughly northern section of Morocco’s eastern boundary today. He built an alliance with Queen Elizabeth I of England against Spain and began a complex trading relationship in animal hides, metalwork, and, above all, sugar. Al-Mansur’s huge sugar industry in the Sous Valley used black slaves to farm and harvest the cane. He also built a new army, which he used to expand his rule across the desert and conquer western Sudan to control trans-Saharan trade in gold, slaves, and salt. He justified this by claiming that all Muslims owed him allegiance as caliph. All this made him powerful and rich, and Ahmad rebuilt his capital of Marrakesh with a spectacular palace, al-Badi, of which only the main courtyard and its empty pools now give an idea of its splendor.

Yet, despite Ahmad al-Mansur’s ruthless repression of all opposition and disorder, his rule rested on the flimsiest of bases. When he died in 1603, apparently of the plague, his three sons plunged Morocco into civil war and destroyed the Saadi dynasty. Morocco was for a long time divided into the two kingdoms of Fez and Marrakesh.

The war lasted until 1660. Moroccan control over the Sahara collapsed. The gold routes were diverted towards the Turkish ports on the Mediterranean. The sugar factories were replaced by South American and Atlantic competition, and the political structure fragmented. The various claimants sought support from foreigners, both Christian and Muslim so that jihad against the Christians devolved onto local sharifian leaders. All of this inspired ideological arguments about the nature of just rule and the right to rebel that would echo down to the 20th century. It also allowed Rabat’s development of an autonomous state that was a center for corsairing (privateering), naval attacks for profit on enemy foreign shipping. Many of the corsairs were refugees from al-Andalus who wanted revenge on the Spanish. They attacked other countries and raided the coasts of Wales, Ireland, and even Newfoundland in the 1620s and 1630s.

Even so, despite the Saadi collapse, the skeleton of a central power survived in Marrakesh. The idea of sharifian descent became a principal source of legitimacy, alongside other ideas about the nature of power and how it should be exercised. Despite the civil war that destroyed their dynasty, the Saadis had laid the basis of the Moroccan state that survives today.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]