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The Last Civilized Place

The Last Civilized Place
Sijilmasa and Its Saharan Destiny

Drawing on archaeological discoveries and historical accounts, this book tells the lively story of Morocco’s legendary golden city and its pivotal role in medieval transcontinental trade, the spread of Islam, and the rise of several ruling dynasties.

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June 2015
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296 pages | 6 x 9 | 42 b&w photos, 14 b&w illust, 11 maps |

Set along the Sahara’s edge, Sijilmasa was an African El Dorado, a legendary city of gold. But unlike El Dorado, Sijilmasa was a real city, the pivot in the gold trade between ancient Ghana and the Mediterranean world. Following its emergence as an independent city-state controlling a monopoly on gold during its first 250 years, Sijilmasa was incorporated into empire—Almoravid, Almohad, and onward—leading to the “last civilized place” becoming the cradle of today’s Moroccan dynasty, the Alaouites. Sijilmasa’s millennium of greatness ebbed with periods of war, renewal, and abandonment. Today, its ruins lie adjacent to and under the modern town of Rissani, bypassed by time.

The Moroccan-American Project at Sijilmasa draws on archaeology, historical texts, field reconnaissance, oral tradition, and legend to weave the story of how this fabled city mastered its fate. The authors’ deep local knowledge and interpretation of the written and ecological record allow them to describe how people and place molded four distinct periods in the city’s history. Messier and Miller compare models of Islamic cities to what they found on the ground to understand how Sijilmasa functioned as a city. Continuities and discontinuities between Sijilmasa and the contemporary landscape sharpen questions regarding the nature of human life on the rim of the desert. What, they ask, allows places like Sijilmasa to rise to greatness? What causes them to fall away and disappear into the desert sands?


Winner of the 2016 L. Carl Brown AIMS Book Prize in North African Studies


Notes on Dates and Transliteration


Prologue. Ibn Battuta's Sijilmasa Journey

Chapter 1. Approaches to Sijilmasa

Chapter 2. Confluence of Time and Space in Morocco's Desert Land

Chapter 3. Founding the Oasis City

Chapter 4. Sijilmasa in Empire

Chapter 5. Moroccan Rulers at the Desert's Edge: The Filalians

Chapter 6. Out of Sijilmasa: The Alaouites

Chapter 7. Using Models of the Islamic City as Guides

Chapter 8. An Altered Present; An Uncertain Future

Appendix 1. Moroccan Dynastic Rulers Governing Sijilmasa

Appendix 2. Ceramics Typology






Ronald A. Messier is Professor Emeritus of History at Middle Tennessee State University. From 1987 to 1998, he directed the excavation of Sijilmasa. He is the author of The Almoravids and the Meanings of Jihad and coeditor of The Jihad and Its Times.James A. Miller is the Director of the Moroccan-American Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange (MACECE), the Fulbright Commission in Morocco. He is Associate Professor Emeritus of Geography at Clemson University and the author of Imlil: A Modern Moroccan Geography.



Ibn Battuta’s Sijilmasa Journey

“Welcome to Sijilmasa.” While no one can really say that today, over its thousand years of greatness, Sijilmasa welcomed many. It also repelled attackers, and it was—several times—invaded and seized. More than six centuries ago, it was visited by Ibn Battuta—a native of Tangier whom we might call today the most famous Moroccan historical figure of all time. Ibn Battuta’s life took him from the Atlantic to the Pacific and through a multitude of lives led as a pilgrim, court scribe, and dozens of other occupations. Most importantly, he was a traveler and a keen observer who set down his observations in his famous book, known in short as the Rihla, or “Journey.” Inferences based on what Ibn Battuta tells us, what we know from historical texts, and from what we have learned Sijilmasa was like, on and in the ground, allow us to imagine what Ibn Battuta experienced in Sijilmasa. When the worldly traveler went there toward the end of the year 1351, Sijilmasa was no mythical kind of place; it was a kind of global city in premodern times. For Ibn Battuta, this was his last journey, and for him, Sijilmasa was yet another point in his encounter with the world. For others, Sijilmasa was still what al-Bakri had called it some three hundred years before—the “last civilized place.”

Our informed imagination allows us to present a picture of his journey, illuminating not so much Ibn Battuta’s world as that of Sijilmasa—connected to Africa to the south, the Mediterranean world to the north, and relaying trade and cultures in a compass rose outward from its corner of Morocco.

As angular morning light strikes from the east across the Sahara, the ruins of the great Islamic city are illuminated in the heart of the Tafilalt oasis. When the harsh sun ends its journey and evening sweeps across the northwestern Sahara, the call to prayer of the muezzin peals through the air at Sijilmasa. Standing in the ruins of the mosque in the heart of the city, the clear human voice reminds the faithful of their duty, just as other muezzins did in Muslim communities hours earlier far to the east in Cairo, Baghdad, and beyond. Prayer occupied the moment at this place centuries ago as it does today in Rissani, the modern town adjacent to the ruins.

To anyone standing today in the ruins of Sijilmasa, it is difficult to realize that its people helped forge the structure of the modern Moroccan state and that even long before, Sijilmasa was a guiding light in the history of the Islamic West. So it was 650 years ago, 600 years into the history of Sijilmasa, when the man responsible for a remarkable narrative called “A Gift to Onlookers concerning the Curiosities of Cities and the Wonders of Journeys” visited “one the mightiest cities of Morocco” near the end of a lifetime of world travels and remembrances of places.3 Ibn Battuta was forty-six years old and had seen much of the known world. By the time he arrived in Sijilmasa, he had already logged some 75,000 miles over the course of thirty years. As we begin our own journey to Sijilmasa, we open our imaginations to travel with him, informed both by what he tells us of what he saw and what we have learned through the tools of our trade as archaeologists, historians, geographers, geomorphologists, ceramicists, and architects.

By his mid-forties, Ibn Battuta had made four pilgrimages to Mecca, centerpieces of a kind of continuous journey between 1325 and 1349 that had taken him from his native Tangier to lands from Istanbul to Zanzibar, and from Delhi to Indonesia and the coast of China. In 1351, he visited the south of Morocco for the first time. He called Marrakech “among the prettiest cities,” but found that it had been struck by the plague, and described it much as he had Cairo two years before: a “honeycomb without the honey.” Indeed, the Black Death was sweeping across the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, devastating numerous places besides Marrakech. While we cannot reconstruct the impact of the Black Death on Ibn Battuta’s thinking, we know that from Marrakech he returned north to Salé, on the Atlantic coast, from which he proceeded inland to Meknes and Fez, the capital of the Merinid sultan, who ruled over the “land of the farthest west,” as Morocco has always been known to the Arabs. When Ibn Battuta arrived in Fez in the fall of 1351, the city and much of Morocco was under the control of Sultan Abu Inan, the fifth ruler in the Merinid dynasty, which had been the central power in much of Morocco for a century.5 And in Fez, the stakes were high.

Three years earlier, in 1348, Abu Inan had declared himself sultan when his father, Sultan Abuʾl-Hassan, was rumored to be dead. The father, hoping to place the entire rim of the Islamic West within his grasp, had been at war in the far eastern corner of North Africa, in Tunisia (or Ifriqiya as it was known), extending the authority of the Merinids 1,200 miles east of the capital, Fez. It was reported that Abuʾl-Hassan had been killed on the field of battle at Qayrawan in central Tunisia. He hadn’t been, but his son wasted no time in establishing his own rule. Ibn Battuta doesn’t tell us about these events, which were unfolding around him. Instead, he set off across the Sahara for Mali, a place he had not seen before. Mali was the land of an important Islamic kingdom on the North African periphery, a place of fabled fortune whose reputation had taken root a generation earlier when the mansa (king) of Mali distributed untold wealth in gold in the bazaars of Cairo on his way to Mecca. Mali was due south of Morocco, Ibn Battuta’s relationship with the Moroccan sultan was close, and the sultan’s intentions, while not clear, were clearly expansionist. And not enough was known about Mali, successor to ancient Ghana, which had been so vividly portrayed by al-Bakri three hundred years earlier. In any case, the caravans that brought gold to Sijilmasa started out in the Kingdom of Mali, and Ibn Battuta was to be a witness to that trade for the next two years.

He was off to see another world. From Fez, he journeyed to the Sudan— the land on the other side of the Sahara. The journey took him south from Fez to Morocco’s “port” at the edge of the Sahara, Sijilmasa, where in the winter of 1351–1352 he spent four months at the edge of his native land preparing for his journey.

Much of the Morocco that Ibn Battuta saw in the 1350s might look like the Morocco of today. On his way to Sijilmasa, he traversed the heart of the Middle Atlas Mountains and passed along roads whose landscapes would be familiar to the modern traveler. As he crossed the Saïs plain south of Fez and Meknes, he was struck as he approached the mountains by the “green gardens stretching in every direction.” The same would be true today. At the end of the first day of his journey, he might have stayed in Sefrou—traditionally, a predominantly Jewish town of cherry orchards and barley fields at the foot of the mountains. Upon reaching the first upsweep of the Middle Atlas, Ibn Battuta found its slopes covered, as many still are, with dense forests of evergreens and holly oaks crowned by age-old stands of lacy, long-living cedars.7 In his day, lions haunted the edges of the woods, as they did until modern times. Lynx and boar were abundant; hawks soared overhead by day, and owls echoed at night. Packs of macaque monkeys would have moved across his path in the sylvan mountain glades. Morocco was a wild place in its many recesses and uninhabited places; indeed, it remains so still. In the higher elevations of the Middle Atlas, where piles of volcanic rock sculpt the surface, small lakes dot the landscape and forest covers the landscape in many places. Farther south, as aridity became more and more apparent, Ibn Battuta crossed some of the highest of the Atlas ranges, the Eastern High Atlas, which projects toward the central Maghrib and where vales of cedar and juniper nestle along the westernand northern-facing slopes. While it could well be that his road cleft well west of today’s main thoroughfare, he may have stopped at places, then as now, that are obvious points of rest along the road—towns such as Midelt or Rich—before undertaking the arduous climb upward through the passes of the Eastern High Atlas.

The passage through any part of the Atlas—Middle, Eastern, or High— can be treacherous. Snow is sometimes heavy: the intensity of low-pressure systems over the Atlantic reaching far inland across North Africa varies widely from one year to the next, or from one winter month to another. Later, when returning across these mountains to Fez, Ibn Battuta noted that he set out from Sijilmasa on December 29, 1353, “during a period of fierce cold”: “A lot of snow came down on the road. I have seen many rough roads and much snow in Bukhara and Samarkand and in Khurasan [in Persia] and in the land of the Turks, but I have never seen anything more difficult than the road [through the Atlas].” 8 Fold after fold of the Eastern High Atlas, surface projections of the earth’s deep tectonic movements, unravels across the landscape toward the south; mountain gorges, the mothers of rivers running east and north to the Mediterranean to form the Oued Moulouya watershed, compete with gouges in the earth carrying waters furiously east and then south into the Sahara, bleak birthplaces of the oueds (rivers) Gheris and Ziz.

Out of the mountains, the snow ends quickly in Morocco. The descent from the Atlas is sharp, and the environmental changes are dramatic. The desert beyond the Atlas, the pre-Sahara, is reached quickly: a desert landscape punctuated by Atlas waters rushing outward to their deaths in the true desert beyond. At the modern city of Errachidia, at the foot of the route following the Oued Ziz out of the Eastern High Atlas, the air is dry; vegetation is thin; springs abound; rivers flow out into the desert; there is no more forest; and the desert is at hand. Elevations decline and temperatures rise. Ibn Battuta continued onward through the deeply incised canyon of the Oued Ziz known as the Rteb, where Berber cultivators tended forests of date palms and irrigated plots of barley and Saharan fruits, pomegranates and almonds, in a sinuous passage leading to the great southern oasis beyond, the Tafilalt and its beacon, Sijilmasa. The surrounding canyon heights are still surmounted by watchtowers from ancient days, perhaps the same as those that ensured the safety of caravans in Ibn Battuta’s day.

Ibn Battuta followed the blue waters of the Oued Ziz—literally, the “gazelle river”—flowing like a wave ahead in a landscape of ever-drier proportions, south to the oasis of Tafilalt and the port city of the Sahara. The Rteb Canyon opened up into dry country along the riverbank, signaling the great desert to come, and all sense of the Atlas was left behind. The fourteenth-century traveler passed by an isolated peak (today’s Borj Erfoud, a military outpost on an outlying butte of the high desert mesa to the east) towering over a district where the waters of the Oueds Ziz and Gheris nearly join and numerous villages of date farmers dot the landscape along both rivers. Unlike the remote mountain areas, here the rule of central authority was strong, and the shaykh of a walled village, a qsar in Arabic, may have invited the illustrious traveler to spend the night. Ibn Battuta, a disciplined man of high learning, would have been happy to be among a society eager to hear news of the court in Fez.

The next morning, he began his last day’s journey toward Sijilmasa, in a stretch of open country along the Ziz just downstream from the palm oasis of today’s Erfoud. Perhaps Ibn Battuta paused along the river to observe a waterworks. Unlike the Ziz earlier in its course, the river now jutted off straight ahead, deflected by a low mortared dam, a sed, such as he had seen years before in Mesopotamia and along the Indus, far distant but still within the dar al-Islam. Behind the dam, a diversion stuck in the river course like a big brick, an empty channel running to the southeast loomed under the rising desert sun. While he had undoubtedly been impressed by the intricate nature of waterworks in Granada and the underground horizontal wells, the khettara, surrounding Marrakech, he had seen nothing this massive in all his journeys west of the Nile. “These people know how to make water work in the desert,” he may have mused. He picked up speed, following the course of the Ziz to the first palms of the Tafilalt. By nightfall, he would be in Sijilmasa.

As Ibn Battuta entered the northern edge of the Tafilalt, he was still a few hours’ ride away from his destination. The shallow waters of the Ziz coursed ahead toward a horizon of dark green palm trees. We do not know how the main road through the Tafilalt was then arranged, but surveys in the oasis have led us to believe the obvious: it went through the center of the oasis, connecting the greatest number of qsur (plural of qsar) and their irrigation works, which spread outward from the Oued Ziz into ever-smaller canals emptying into the oasis fields. Ibn Battuta saw a well-ordered agricultural scene, like the fields in the north, but this was an oasis landscape, dominated by date palms. He was undoubtedly eagerly anticipating getting to Sijilmasa by nightfall. Friends awaited him there, relatives of merchants he had known from trade networks and would see again in Africa across the Sahara: he had a list of Sijilmasa folk in his head to look up and knew that they and people in the Sudan would form connections with many places he had been before. This journey was a culmination of all his travels for over a quarter of a century throughout the world of Islam. What other Moroccan knew the world so well? What he did not know was how much Sijilmasa mattered in Africa, how many merchants and slaves knew Sijilmasa as home and a passage to other worlds. Sijilmasa was their point of departure, a necessary waypoint in the convergence of Africa north and south.

But now, his thoughts focused on the world around him. Looking right and left along the road through the palm oasis from the nimble mount that had carried him through the Atlas Mountains, he was again confirmed in his view that Morocco “surpasses . . . all other countries” 9 and is the best governed. As he passed through orchards of dates being harvested, we imagine him coming across the people of Terrist, a qsar on the right bank of the Ziz. He would have been invited to sample their dates, which were being brought to their village to be sorted on a stone platform alongside their solid, rectangular qsar topped with crenellations reminiscent, in their own mud-brick way, of the architecture he had seen emerge in Fez under the Merinids during his generation away from home. Asr (afternoon) prayers would be at hand. He would be just a few miles from Sijilmasa, and his desire to continue moving forward before nightfall would be great. But it was only asr; there was still travel time left before sunset, and he and his party would be invited to pray and to take nourishment along the road. Ibn Battuta would have found the same strength in prayer in the simple mosque just inside the gate that he had experienced in so many places elsewhere in the world. As the men of Terrist welcomed the travelers, their humble prayer room held all the attributes needed to accomplish the most fundamental of Muslim duties. The delicately scalloped, arched niche in the side of the mosque, a mihrab pointing ideally toward Mecca, directed the bowed heads of the assembled in prayer. A minbar, a small stepped wooden pulpit from which the local shaykh would deliver his message during Friday prayers, lay alongside the mihrab; like others in the region, it could be rolled out farther out into the room on wooden rails for the Friday sermon. After prayer, Ibn Battuta and his small band of travelers would commune with the elders over sage tea and fresh dates. He found that their dates, a “kind called irar, has no like anywhere,” and compared them to the next best he had known, those of Basra, in Mesopotamia.10 He might have asked the men about their sed, known as the Rsif, running across the Ziz right in front of them, built to impound water from the Oued Ziz so that their date palms could be well watered throughout the year. The top of the dam, rising ten meters (thirty-three feet) above the waters of the shallow Ziz, was broad enough to constitute a road across the river, part of the labyrinth of roads and trails forging the entire Tafilalt into one communicative environment. He was curious, full of questions, seeking views and information to add to what he already knew from the rest of the world.

“Shukran, barrak Allahufik,” words of thanks, and then Ibn Battuta was back on the road, across the dam and onto the road that would bring him into Sijilmasa on the east bank of the Ziz. The road followed one of the canals that drew water from the Rsif and was named for Sijilmasa’s founding dynasty, the Bani Midrar. The canal was the Midrariya, and it and its waters formed a district in the oasis, also called the Midrariya. He reflected on the fact that a full six hundred years of Islam had moved through this place: the Midrar had founded Sijilmasa as a religious refuge and commercial center in 757 and ruled over it for the next two hundred years, and their reign had ended four hundred years ago. Ibn Battuta, who knew his history well, might have thought of the curious emergence of the Fatimids, the people who first unsettled the Midrarids’ steady reign over Sijilmasa. He knew the story of how the founder of the Shiʿite Fatimid dynasty, which was later to rule over Tunisia and then eventually found Cairo and reign over the eastern Mediterranean, had come to Sijilmasa to await a miracle signaling their greatness—which eventually came in the form of a geyser spouting from the land. “That was over 450 years earlier, and now here I am in that same land!” he may have thought to himself. Suddenly, the canal ended; its waters delivered. The road continued, and the landscape opened up to a broad plain along the Ziz.

He stopped at a gate. As invariably happens, children would have come up to him and his party; they might have asked, “Oh sidi, are you the emissary from Fez and our master, the sultan?” To his amazement, Ibn Battuta was in front of the first piece of imperial architecture he had seen since departing from Sefrou weeks earlier, and it was magnificent: a majestic city gate in the style of Fez. He smiled in joy at this fragment of urban splendor, reminding him firmly that he was in Morocco, a land of God different from all the rest. Oddly, he thought, they have already heard of my coming; word travels fast in this land of dates and the Ziz, the Tafilalt. Indeed, this part of Morocco was its own country.

Ibn Battuta had arrived at one of the few large structures of Sijilmasa still standing today, a gate now known as Bab Fez, the Gate of Fez, but also more forlornly as Bab al-Rih, the Gate of the Wind.11 It was named, as city gates in premodern societies often were, for the next most important place; in this case, between Sijilmasa and the north—Fez was the next stop in the world. Bab al-Rih was a Merinid version of earlier gates leading into the Moroccan capital of the Saharan world. The haris al-bab, or guardian of the gate, would have approached the riders, looking for the man whose fame had preceded him, a man reckoned to have seen the corners of the earth.

“The shaykh Abu Abdallah awaits you, and I am ordered to escort you there,” announced the gatekeeper. Ibn Battuta bid farewell to the companions he had made along the long road from Fez. They would see one another again in the bustling town. As he rode through the pointed arch, he looked up at the graceful scalloped frame and a herringbone pattern carved in the adobe above the portal. Once inside the gate, he found himself in a covered patio with arches opening in several directions. He was not really in a city; he was not really in the country. In the words of al-Bakri, written in 1055: “The town of Sijilmasa is situated on a plain the soil of which is salty. Around the town are numerous suburbs with lofty mansions and other splendid buildings. There are also many gardens. The lower section of the wall surrounding the town is made of stone, but the upper one is brick . . . There are twelve gates, eight of which are of iron.”  Ibn Battuta may have read this description in manuscript and now recognized the place, as would travelers and archaeologists in ages to come.

Next, Ibn Battuta and his new guide passed through one of those “numerous suburbs,” an open land of houses and gardens, each, it seemed, watered by a different small canal. His guide led him to the main road going south to the center of town, taking him past a number of villas, walled houses with interior gardens and fountains. These could have been the houses of some of the wealthier farmers in the oasis.13 This neighborhood was very unlike the Midrariya, where large orchards of date palms shaded understories of pomegranate and plum trees, and where barley, alfalfa, and vegetables—beans and wargiya (kale)—were watered by the irrigated ditches. Here was a sense of wealthy citizens organizing land and life at the edge of town. If it was at all like it is today, donkeys and their riders passed Ibn Battuta, hurrying home to their qsur as the lowering sun made long shadows against their paths.

Ibn Battuta and his guide rode on, and buildings on a jutting rise came into view. “What is here?” he inquired. “The dar al-imara,” the governor’s palace, was the answer. At the northern end of Sijilmasa, a dense mass of structures emerged before them. A wall some forty feet above them surrounded the heights of the promontory, enclosing a citadel—a fortress consisting of a palace and barracks. “This is the home of the wali of Sijilmasa and his soldiers,” Ibn Battuta’s guide might have announced.14 Some of the soldiers, serious-looking young men, were members of an Arab tribe relatively new to the region, the Maʿqil, whose loyalties were being sealed to the Merinid regime through their work as scouts and soldiers throughout the southern periphery.

They moved on, entering the heart of town. The main street was flanked on the left by the western wall of the citadel, made of thick adobe, isolating the seat of government from the rest of the city. Past the citadel, both sides of the street were lined with walls of houses and shops, some with their wares jutting out into the thoroughfare. As in Fez, houses of the rich and the poor alike lay behind unremarkable walls that came right to the street (unlike the houses just outside of town). Inside, Ibn Battuta would find that Sijilmasa houses were decorated with geometric designs, ceramic tiles, and carved stucco in floral patterns that continued the simple styles set by the city’s founders, the Bani Midrar. A few might have been like the “shops where wine was sold” that had been smashed during the prohibitions of the Almoravid era but had found their way back into the thread of Sijilmasan life in Merinid days. It was a wealthy place: Ibn Battuta later recorded that every inhabitant of Sijilmasa had a house and a garden.

Throughout his four-month sojourn in Sijilmasa, Ibn Battuta stayed in one such house: “I stayed there with the faqih Abu Muhammad al-Bishri, whose brother I had met in the city of Qanjanfu of the land of China. How far apart they are!” Ibn Battuta knew the al-Bishri family (as he did so many other people) from several directions, including, besides the brother he had met in China, relatives he had met just a year earlier in Sebta (Ceuta).

Continuing along the main north-south city street, Ibn Battuta passed through an elaborate gate complex, “a real city gate,” he might have noted, and the street, clearly an urban thoroughfare, took a sharp turn to the left, passing public baths and latrines. He recalled al-Bakri’s claim that the baths were not well built, but there could have been much improvement in three hundred years!18 Just beyond the baths, he arrived at the heart of the city, the Mosque of Ibn Abd Allah, the most magnificent structure he had seen since leaving Fez. It was nearly dark, and the maghrib prayer would be called, so he dismounted his horse to enter the mosque and pray. In the dimly lit interior, twenty-four columns divided the space into four bays and nine aisles. While not nearly as large or ornate as many of the mosques he had known in the East, this one had a long tradition as a place of religious refuge. He was among the powerful fellowship of the dar al-Islam once more: Fez, Granada, Tunis, Cairo, Damascus, Bukhara, Delhi, and now Sijilmasa. All reached to the matter at hand: prayer among the believers. As he stood shoulder to shoulder with the pious of Sijilmasa, he gave thanks for his safe arrival in this famous caravan city. At the end of prayer, he would not be able to hide his presence, his selflessness, in this place. His guide, who had also bowed his head in prayer, spoke to the congregation, and the word spread that this great man was in Sijilmasa.

The rest of the city, where clay oil lamps were being lit to illuminate supper on a warm winter evening, lay below him: a hive of dwellings, large and small, sweeping downward toward the Oued Ziz just below.

What did Ibn Battuta do in Sijilmasa for four months? On market days, he would have gone to the city market along the east-west thoroughfare, the road that entered from the irrigated fields, the gamaman, at Bab al-Sharq, the eastern gate, and led directly to the market gate to form a walled enclosure about the size of two standard football pitches. There were no permanent structures in the market, only wooden stalls with thatched roofs to shelter the merchants and their goods. The bargaining, then as now, must have been intense. Sellers enticed prospective buyers to their stalls as they hawked their merchandise and assured people that their wares were the best. Goods in the Sijilmasa market came from all compass points. Ibn Battuta would have recognized almonds, candied fruit, figs, and raisins from Malaga and Almeria in the Andalus; pistachios from Gafsa in Tunisia; and distinctive olive oils from as far away as Seville and Sfax in Tunisia. Fine cotton, silks, and brocades woven with gold and silver thread came from Egypt and Yemen. Copper, bronze, and iron utensils, even Coptic bronze lamps from Egypt, could be had. Enameled pottery from Cordoba and sculpted marble stelae from Almeria might have been in the market. At the spice merchants, cinnamon and cloves from Zanzibar vied with saffron, ginger, and sugar from the Sus Valley to the west. Cone-shape mounds of spices in brown, red, and yellow were accented by the bright sun, stimulating the eye much as their scents did the nose. The spice merchants were at the same time apothecaries and healers, selling medicinal herbs and drugs, dried animal skins, skulls, and bones for magic potions. Here, like everywhere he went on the continent, what Ibn Battuta was really doing was learning about Africa.

The journey south demanded serious preparations, many of which took him to a place outside town and across the river on the western edge of the oasis, the Oued Gheris. This was a marketplace as well, but a very different mercantile world. This was the Suq Ben Akla. To get there, he passed out through the western gate, Bab al-Gharb, crossed the Ziz, and rode past the noria, the waterwheel on the riverbank, and went west some five kilometers (three miles). Crossing the Gheris meant leaving the oasis, and on the west bank of the Gheris, Ibn Battuta found himself at an enormous global crossroads.

Many of the merchants at Suq Ben Akla were international traders. Their capital was locked up in large, highly organized caravans moving goods north and south. Security was at a premium, since the desert and the long distances to be covered held all kinds of risk. Top traders banded together. They would often come with seventy, eighty, or a hundred camels laden with goods, and yet would still make up only part of a caravan numbering hundreds or even thousands of camels. For them, it was not practical to go to the city market in Sijilmasa; they went instead to Suq Ben Akla. In its seasons, Ben Akla was a huge camp and a market. Its service community that catered to the caravan trade lived in permanent residences, and there were many facilities for the trade. It was a kind of open-air caravansary where traders could find lodging and the space to trade, tend their camels, and store their goods. On its northern edge, Suq Ben Akla had a mosque and a cemetery.

Ibn Battuta mingled with the caravaners and listened to their tales of Saharan perils, profit, and plunder. Few places would have piqued this world traveler’s imagination as much as this as he mapped Suq Ben Akla and its stories onto the grid of his own global crossings. The tales were told and retold. One was the story of how a caravan was guided by a blind man who rode the lead camel and commanded a handful of sand to be given to him at standard intervals. He would raise the sand to his nose, smell it, and sense the direction to take even in the midst of blinding sandstorms. The problem of transporting enough water, carried in skin bags, and of having decent clean water across the Sahara, was overwhelming. A favorite story told of the evildoer who climbed down a prized well along the desert trail and cut the ropes of the buckets as the caravaners dropped them down to fetch water. They would eventually run out of buckets, and without water they would die of thirst. The man would then climb out of the well and claim their treasures. But a slave of the caravaners climbed down into the well and killed the thief, saving the traders.

Other stories dealt with the gold trade that made this market and, indeed, Sijilmasa a global trading center. They described how, in the upper reaches of the streams flowing down from the Guinea Highlands, partners in the gold trade from such places as Timbuktu engaged in silent barter for gold. Merchants from Mali would lay down their merchandise and clothing on their bank of the river and then disappear into the forest. The people from places such as Bambuk and Buré in the Highlands, where gold was panned in the rivers, would then come across the river to see what the merchants had left. If they found it suitable, they would leave the quantity of gold they were willing to pay for the merchandise, take the goods, and leave in turn. When the traders returned to see what the natives had left, if they were satisfied with the amount of gold left for their goods, they would take it and leave, deal done. If not, the process would be repeated, sellers and buyers increasing their quantities until both sides were satisfied and the transaction complete. What fascinated Ibn Battuta was the recognition that the goods in the market, both here and in town, were some of the very trade goods that would travel south, stop at Timbuktu and other cities in Mali, and then be transported again to the third point in this global supply chain of the gold trade, to the unknown people who lived in the source of the gold itself.

Suq Ben Akla was a thrilling experience. Ibn Battuta needed camels for the next leg of his journey, and so he went to the staging area at the southern edge of Suq Ben Akla to negotiate with merchants who were forming a large caravan. He found women and men pounding mounds of date pits into camel feed and marveled at the date pounders fashioned from local rock. He noted: “[I] bought camels there and fed them for four months,” indicating that he must have visited the Suq frequently during his time in Sijilmasa.

We know little of what he saw in those four months. But when he left, in February 1352, there is little doubt that he had seen much: “Then I set off at the beginning of God’s month of Muharram in the year [7]53/18 February 1352 with a caravan whose leader was Abu Mohammed Yaandakan al-Masufi, may God have mercy on him. In the caravan was a company of merchants of Sijilmasa and others. After 25 days we arrived at Teghaza. This is a village with nothing good about it.”

Over the course of two years, from February 1352 until January 1354, Ibn Battuta made his final daring journey, during which he crossed the Sahara down and back, voyaging to the empire of Mali along the upper and middle reaches of the Niger River.25 He crossed the desert in an organized caravan, describing a ten-day stay midway in a salt-mine town, Teghaza, which he called the “most fly-ridden of places,” where even the houses were fashioned from slabs of salt. He moved on to the southern edge of the desert, to Oualata, a town within the sphere of the Malian Empire, where he began to accustom himself to the ways of people new to him.26 By the end of July 1352, he was in the seat of government of Mansa Suleiman, the sultan on the other side of the Sahara.

He stayed seven months exactly in the capital of a people whose Islamic practices he found quite different from his own and from those carried out by all the peoples he had visited far and wide in the dar al-Islam. His descriptions of the court of Suleiman, “a lofty pavilion . . . where he sits for most of the time,” speckled with adornments and ornaments of gold, are indications of the links forged between North African traders and Mali, as are the numerous transactions in gold elucidated by him along the way. His mixed feelings about what he found good and bad in Mali, mostly along the lines of how Islam was followed—or not—in Malian culture, led him to outline the brief “Account of What I Found Good Amongst the Blacks and of What I Disliked”—a list unique in his manuscript. His sojourn in the Malian capital in the upper reaches of the Niger River, a place, curiously, that he never named and whose name and location is still not known, came to an end as he pushed onward, at the end of February 1353, through modern Mali to Timbuktu and Gao, and then farther east and north through the northern Niger of today, meeting Moroccan traders everywhere he went.

From Gao, Ibn Battuta had joined a “big caravan” bound north for Ghadamès, an eastern North African port of the Sahara (near the southern tip of modern Tunisia, in Libya) much like Sijilmasa, at the juncture of trade with the “Land of the Blacks,” the sudan, from which the traditional name of West Africa, “Sudan,” is taken in Arabic. He recrossed the Sahara, accompanying the caravan in the summer of 1353 as far as the oasis of Takadda (in modern Niger), a separate Berber “statelet” beyond the Malian realm. Takadda was a copper-mining crossroads where fleets of camels laden with slaves, ivory, and gold converged and then diverged to ports on the northern edge of the trade— Nul in the far west of the Anti-Atlas Mountains, Darʿa (modern Zagora) in the Draa Valley, and Sijilmasa in the Ziz, all in Morocco today; Ouargla in east-central Algeria; Ghadamès. At Takadda, his world caught up with him, and his reverie ended. To use an anachronistic image, the telephone rang. Sultan Abu Inan was on the line from Fez.

We shall never know why. What we do know is that Ibn Battuta had to hurry home to Fez. He described the moment: “The young slave of al-Haj Muhammad Ibn Saʿid of Sijilmasa arrived with a command from our master the commander of the faithful, the supporter of the faith, the depender on the Lord of the worlds, commanding me to appear in his sublime presence. I kissed the order and complied with it immediately.” 29 Ibn Battuta bought two camels and took sufficient provisions for seventy nights, enough to allow him to reach Touat, in today’s northern Algerian Sahara. He left Takadda on September 11 in a caravan—with some six hundred slave women—and reached Sijilmasa in mid-December, spending two weeks there. At the end of December 1353, he set out from Sijilmasa in a “period of fierce cold” and traveled through deep snow in the Atlas. He arrived in Fez a month later.

Back in Fez, over the next year or two, Ibn Battuta must have rubbed shoulders with a rising star in the Moroccan intellectual community.30 Ibn Battuta had come home to compile his travelogue at the behest of the sultan; Ibn Khaldun was a bright young clerk in the service of the court, eager to hear the tales told by one who had traveled to the ends of the earth. Ibn Battuta must have told Ibn Khaldun of all the wonders he had seen, feeding the mind of one who would develop a universal outlook and put it down in his systematic history, the Muqaddimah. Ibn Battuta’s most recent journey might have been the first he told the man who is by any measure today known as the most famous Tunisian of the fourteenth century.

For two years in Fez, Ibn Battuta dictated his book of travels to the court scribe Ibn Juzayy. His complete description of Sijilmasa is as follows, with the introductory line announcing his arrival at Fez late in the summer of 1351, just before setting out for Sijilmasa and the land across the Sahara:

Then we arrived at the capital, Fez (may God protect it!) and there they took leave of our Lord [the sultan] (may God support him!) and set off bi-rasm al-safar [with the purpose of traveling] to the land of the Sudan. I arrived at Sijilmasa. It is one of the finest of cities where there is an abundance of excellent dates. In its abundance of dates, it resembles the city of Basra, but the dates of Sijilmasa are better; the irar kind has no like in all the lands. I stayed there with the faqih Abu Muhammad al-Bishri, whose brother I had met in the city of Qanjanfu of the land of China. How far apart they are! He treated me with great hospitality. I bought camels there and fed them for four months.

In later years Ibn Battuta apparently served as a qadi ( judge) in a Moroccan town or two, much as he had in Delhi and the Maldives a generation earlier. When he was received by the sultan in Fez, he wrote: “[I] kissed his noble hand and deemed myself fortunate to see his blessed face,” words that end, more or less, the immense narrative of one who had truly traveled to the ends of the earth.

Ibn Battuta’s life ended in the 770th year of Islam, 1368–1369, or perhaps as late as 1377, of what cause and where we do not know. In the Tangier medina today, his small white tomb, a saint’s shrine, a typical North African qubba, doesn’t figure among the tourist attractions. Abu Inan ruled until 1358, strangled by his own vizier, and the Merinid dynasty fell into bloody
dissension among competing viziers, regents, and family members, leading Morocco into a state of complete civil war by the end of the fourteenth century. Disorder reigned for a full hundred years, and Sijilmasa was among its victims. But in the age of Ibn Battuta, Sijilmasa was strong; it was secure.


“Messier and Miller are among the few Americans working on pre-modern North African topics. They are possibly unique in their role as joint practitioners of urban Islamic archaeology for North Africa. They are more qualified to write this type of book than any other combination of scholars I know. . . . [This] book reflects an effective integration of archaeological data with an urban history, and can be a model for the study of any pre-modern Muslim city from the Atlantic to the Indus Valley.”
Jere Bacharach, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Washington, and author of Islamic History through Coins: An Analysis and Catalogue of Tenth-Century Ikhshidid Coins


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