Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

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

Sharifian Dynasties: the Saadis
Al-Badi Palace, Marrakesh. Photo: David Stanley, Flickr.


Morocco was a battlefield in the 16th-century struggle for supremacy between the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the Ottomans.

In 1492, the year Columbus, under Spanish colours, landed in America, the last Muslim king of Granada surrendered to the Spanish Catholic kings. Both Christian powers expanded their influence beyond their enclaves on the coast.

The Spanish moved east. In 1510 they took Tripoli and a tiny islet off Algiers. In 1534 they took Tunis and installed a vassal Muslim regime. The Ottomans leapfrogged westwards along the coast, took Cairo in 1517, Mers el-Kebir in 1505, Oran in 1509, and Algiers in 1529. In 1553 they occupied the islet of Badis at the western end of the Moroccan Rif mountains.


Opposition to the Christian advance came not from the feeble Wattasis but from the tariqas and sharifs of the Moroccan south and Atlantic coast. Sharifianism provided the basis for a new legitimacy that has underpinned Morocco ever since. In the early sixteenth century it united around the Saadis, a family from the Sous Valley that claimed to originate in the Hijaz and to descend from the Prophet. They were war chiefs, allies of the tariqas in the struggle against the Portuguese. Jihad, not reform of Islam, was their goal.

Initially, they were very successful. Abu Abdallah al-Qaim bi-Amrillah al-Saadi won control of the Sous. When he died in 1517 his sons continued the war against the European enclaves. By 1550 they had regained Agadir, Al-Ksar As-Saghir, Asila, Safi and Azemmour from the Portuguese. Inland, they took Marrakesh in 1524 and turned on the rump of the Wattasis. They occupied Fez in 1549. Then they faced the Ottomans, a much more dangerous enemy.

The Ottoman threat

The Ottomans, under Suleiman the Magnificent, sought to acquire bases from which to attack the Spanish. In 1554, they briefly occupied Fez and invaded again in 1557. The powerful Saadi sultan Abdallah al-Ghalib Billah armed his troops with firearms but when he died in 1574, the regime tottered. 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, anxious to stop the Ottoman advance, 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 Battle of the Three Kings because Abd al-Malik, Abdallah Muhammad al-Mutawakkil, and Dom Sebastião (Sebastian I) all died there: a dynastic squabble had turned into one of the most epic battles of the early modern world. Abd al-Malik’s brother Ahmad, who called himself al-Mansur (the Victorious), set about rebuilding the Saadi dynasty.

Sharifian Dynasties: the Saadis
The Sa’di invasion of the Sahara in the sixteenth century. Source: C.R. Pennell

Ahmad al Mansur al-Dhahabi

Ahmad made peace with both Spain and the Ottomans, and roughly defined the northern section of what is today Morocco’s eastern boundary. He also negotiated an alliance with Queen Elizabeth I of England against Spain that facilitated a great expansion in trade. Trade underpinned the Saadi state: al-Mansur created a huge sugar industry in southern Morocco. He also built a new army, which he used, in 1591, to conquer the western Sudan.

Control of the trans-Saharan trade brought access to gold, salt, and slaves to work in the sugar factories. Ahmad claimed that all Muslims owed him allegiance as caliph. In the mid-twentieth century these conquests would give irredentist Moroccan nationalists their grounds to claim a ‘Greater Morocco,’ that spread across the Sahara. Ahmad rebuilt Marrakesh with a spectacular palace, al-Badi, of which only the main courtyard and its empty pools remain to give an idea of its splendour.

Plague Famine and Civil war

Ahmad al-Mansur’s regime depended on the flimsiest of bases: himself and ruthless repression of opposition. When he died of plague in 1603, the state collapsed into what a contemporary English author (George Wilkins, 1607) called the ‘Three miseries of Barbary: plague. famine. ciuill warre’.

The crisis lasted more than half a century during which Moroccan control over the Sahara collapsed. The gold routes were diverted eastwards towards the Turkish-controlled Maghreb. Sugar was replaced by South American competition. The political structure fragmented and various claimants sought support from foreigners, both Christian and Muslim, and jihad against the Christians devolved onto local sharifian leaders. The Iberian powers occupied more outposts on the Moroccan coast, notably Tangier, which the Portuguese took in 1643, but which they passed to England in 1662, as part of the dowry of Charles II’s wife, Catherine of Braganza.

All this inspired ideological arguments about just rule and the right to rebel that echoed down to the 20th century. It allowed the development in Rabat of an autonomous statelet funded by corsairing (privateering), naval attacks for profit on enemy foreign shipping. These were the famous Salé Rovers, many of whom were refugees from al-Andalus seeking revenge on the Spanish. They also 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 until today.

Further Reading