The Marinids: Ibn Battuta’s Morocco

Last time we briefly traced the history of Morocco from the late 8th century through the rise and fall of the Almohads. Now we’re ready to look at the dynasty that controlled Morocco during Ibn Battuta’s lifetime, the Marinids.

Whereas the Almohads lost Tunisia (to the Hafsid dynasty) and Algeria (to the Zayyanid dynasty) relatively quickly, the Marinids’ efforts to take Morocco were more of a slow grind, which reflected a couple of factors that didn’t come into play further east. For one thing, Morocco was the Almoravids’ home turf. For another, much of the population was urbanized, and attuned to the Almohads’ religiously inflected politics. They didn’t warm easily to the Marinids, who were nomadic and had no religious message to deliver. For still another, the Marinids faced external pressures from the start, both from the Zayyanids to their east and from Christians in Iberia who saw the breakup of the Almohad caliphate and got ideas about expanding into North Africa. And the Marinids themselves weren’t all that internally coherent, at least in the early going.

By the time Marrakesh fell, during the reign of Marinid Sultan Abu Yusuf Yaqub ibn Abd Al-Haqq (d. 1286), the Marinids had beaten the Christians back to Iberia and had even sent forces there to capture Iberian ports (like Gibraltar) and prevent further incursions. The Zayyanids remained a nuisance but the frontier between the two sultanates eventually settled down. Tensions within the Marinid family continued to be an issue, and the major cities of Morocco, including Tangier, continued to resist Marinid control. It may have been partly for this reason that Abu Yusuf decided to build a new capital, “New Fez,” right next to Old Fez, which had been the Idrisids’ capital.

But by Abu Yusuf’s death Marinid control of Morocco was relatively complete and stable. It didn’t stay that way for very long. Over the next couple of decades the Marinids turned inward to deal with a series of revolts, and it wasn’t until the reign of Abu Saʿid Uthman (d. 1331) that things calmed down again. This was the period during which Ibn Battuta undertook his Hajj, in 1325. Morocco was so stable that Abu Saʿid Uthman’s successor, Abu al-Hasan (d. 1351) was able to undertake offensive operations in Iberia–this was a disaster, a really big disaster–and against the Zayyanids to the east. He not only defeated the Zayyanids, but by 1347 (two years before Ibn Battuta arrived back in Tangier) his armies swept all the way across the Maghrib as far as the Libyan city of Misrata. This, obviously, was the height of the Marinid sultanate.


Again we’re stuck with Wikipedia for a map of the Marinids at their height

This also didn’t last very long. The Zayyanids were already making a comeback in Algeria while Abu al-Hasan was in Tunisia and Libya, and when he hurried back west to stop them he was defeated and forced back to Morocco. His son, Abu Inan Faris (d. 1358)–the sultan who encouraged Ibn Battuta to record the recollections of his travels–promptly overthrew him and again led an army as far east as Tunisia. But a mini-uprising among his soldiers in 1357 forced him back to Morocco and the Zayyanids restored themselves in Algeria as a result. Without a geographical connection to Tunisia the Marinids couldn’t prevent a Hafsid resurgence there. Both the Zayyanids and Hafsids survived well into the 16th century (we’ll talk about them next time). The Marinids, not so much.

Morocco by this point was losing wealth, as the main trans-Saharan trade routes (an extremely lucrative trade route due to the large gold reserves in western sub-Saharan Africa) had shifted east to wind up in Algeria and Tunisia rather than in Morocco. Ibn Battuta’s later journey to Mali, begun around the time when Abu Inan Faris began his attack on the Zayyanids, may have been a mission to get the Malians to move their trade back to a more western route that ended in Morocco. It is certainly the case that Abu al-Hasan’s quest to conquer the entire Maghrib was motivated in part by a desperate need to gain control over those new trans-Saharan trade termini.

The pressures caused by the loss of trade and the unsuccessful expeditions to the east caused those old tensions within the Marinid family to reassert themselves. The Nasirids in Granada, who were always worried that the Marinids might move into Iberia and dethrone them, engineered an attempted coup in Morocco while Abu Inan Faris was on campaign, hoping to keep the Marinids in disarray and eventually took the remaining Marinid-controlled territory in al-Andalus. By the end of the 14th century they were effectively controlling Marinid politics in Fez through a number of proxy Marinid princes, while another branch of the Marinids ruled Marrakesh more or less independently.

Then the Portuguese showed up. They captured Ceuta, which today belongs to Spain, in 1415, and attempted to capture Tangier in 1437 though it didn’t go well for them. At long last, the Marinids were saved but also supplanted by the rise of the Wattasids. They were also a Zenata family and rose to hold prominent positions in the Marinid bureaucracy during the 14th century. When another Sultan Abu Saʿid Uthman died in 1420, a Wattasid governor named Abu Zakariyah Yahya (d. 1448) engineered the succession of the one year old Marinid prince, Abd al-Haqq II (d. 1465) and ruled the sultanate as his regent. It was Abu Zakariyah Yayha who was able to rally the fraying Marinid sultanate to resist the Portuguese at Tangier, and while this was good for the sultanate it was bad for the Marinids.

The Wattasids held the vizierate until 1458, to the growing irritation of the now adult Abd al-Haqq II. In 1458 he replaced his Wattasid vizier with someone named Harun, who was apparently Jewish. Perhaps not understanding the religious sensibilities of the region, Harun eliminated traditional tax exemptions for people–known as sayyids and sharifs–who could demonstrate an ancestral link to Muhammad. Members of the Prophet’s family are well-regarded in the Islamic world, and were revered in Morocco–a place that was, obviously, far removed from the core regions of Islam–as religious exemplars. Harun’s decision didn’t go over very well, and a revolt broke out in Fez that ultimately cost Abd al-Haqq II his head, quite literally. The Wattasids took advantage of this and supplanted the Marinids as sultans beginning in 1472.

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