Medieval Articles
Battle of the Three Kings
The Battle of Tondibi
The Battle of Pinkie Cleugh
The Siege of Mazagan, 1562
Sharif and the Sultan of Fishermen
Ninety Five Theses and Revolution
Muslim Invasion of Iberia
Cairo's Fortress on the Mountain

Comer Plummer Articles
Battle of the Three Kings
The Battle of Annual
The Battle of Tondibi
The Siege of Mazagan, 1562
Sharif and the Sultan of Fishermen

Comer Plummer Books

Twilight in the Lands of Disorder: Spain, France, and the Conquest of Morocco (1906-1927)

Empire of Clay: The Reign of Moulay Ismail, Sultan of Morocco (1672-1727)

Conquistadors of the Red City: The Moroccan Conquest of the Songhay Empire

Roads to Ruin: The War for Morocco in the Sixteenth Century
The Sharif and the Sultan of Fishermen: Mohammed ash-Shaykh, the Rise of the Saadians, and the Emergence of Modern Morocco
By Comer Plummer, III

It was in Constantinople, perhaps in 1558, or even years later, that on a certain day a weathered basket containing the rotten head of Mohammed ash-Shaykh toppled from the ancient Walls of Theodosius. It had hung there for a long time. Just how long, no one quite remembered. It tumbled into the refuse that collected along the base, a forgotten memento, uninteresting to even the wild dogs that scavenged there.

Such a spectacle was, for the era, both callous and insipid. Eventually, it would become a dubious distinction for a Moroccan sovereign. In the final analysis, it might be described as a nadir that underscored an audacious life.

Youngest son of Shaykh Mohammed ibn ‘Abd ar-Rahmān, Mohammed ash-Shaykh was born in 1488 in the arid hamlet of Tagmadert, in the Draa Valley of southeastern Morocco. At first, he was called Mohammad el-Aςghar (Berber for ‘The Younger’), but later he cultivated the nickname of Amghar (Berber for ‘tribal leader’), which, in turn, eventually became the Arab equivalent, ash-Shaykh. Moroccan historian Mohammad el-Oufrani described him as an erudite young man, expert in the Qur’an, and with a lively interest in philosophy and poetry. And, as one of his favorite verses would indicate, Mohammed ash-Shaykh also had more than a hint of ambition.

Men resemble one another, and circumstances are one; fate is the same for all, and the world is his who takes it.[1]

Very few descriptions of Moroccan leaders emerge from this time, in part due to an Islamic cultural prejudice against idolatry. The depiction of men of stature through art was a foreign concept that would eventually be adopted from Europe and embraced. Written descriptions were only marginally better, due primarily to foreign travelers. In this instance, Spanish monk Diego de Torres described Mohammed ash-Shaykh later in life:

He was of medium build, with strong limbs, a round face with large, joyful eyes; he was of light complexion, with two prominent upper teeth, a long gray beard, trimmed round at its ends, with frizzy hair.[2]

As a potential sovereign-in-waiting, the young prince developed a lively interest in power, and how to wield it justly. He also believed that rulers must be men of vision. “Kings,” he pronounced, “must be men of long hopes, to key plans for the future, for even if that not be desirable in others it is proper in kings, for their subjects reap the benefit of it.”[3]

The object of these ‘long hopes’ was only recorded during Mohammed ash-Shaykh’s last, most strident years. As a young man growing up in a world of dust and adobe, he could have harbored few dreams of becoming sultan of Morocco, let alone contesting the Ottomans for control of North Africa. His ambitions were evolutionary, but always on an upward trajectory. Relentlessness defined Mohammed ash-Shaykh. He never settled for what he had. It was this energy that forged the Saadian state; and it would also lead to his demise.

The origins of the Saadians are murky. Other than their migration from Arabia to Morocco during the Middle Ages little is certain. Even their name is open to interpretation. Their claim of sharifan origins distinguished them from of thousands of tribal groups that migrated westward, from Mamluk Egypt and into the Berber-dominated lands of Ifriqiya and the Maghrib. As sharifs, the Saadians claimed lineage of the Prophet Mohammad, which was the seal of authority in the Muslim world. This assertion was not, however, unquestioned, both during and after their time. Some historians under the succeeding dynasty, the Alawites, openly mocked the Saadian pedigree for falling a bit short of the mark. The Saadians, they would say, issued not from the bloodline of the Prophet, but from that of his wet nurse, a member of the Banū Sa’d clan, hence the name ‘Saadian’.[4] Recently, Vincent Cornell suggested that the title in fact may have evolved from the term ad-dawla as-sa’diyya, or the ‘Salvific State’, with those residing in it being as sa’diyun, or ‘Saadians’ (Those Who Are Saved).[5] This interpretation fits with the dynasty’s jihadist beginnings. Whatever the truth may be, during their time the Saadians succeeded in convincing many influential religious leaders, and through them the people, of their holy origins.

By the 14th century, the Saadians had settled in Tagmadert, amidst the Draa and its picturesque landscape of earthen ksar (plural, ksour), or fortresses, that studded the valley walls, mixed in with spectacular blots and ribbons of tropical green that marked water in an otherwise desolate wasteland.

The Saadians might have passed quietly into obscurity had it not been for their proximity to the Sous Valley. This fertile alluvial basin of the river by the same name separated the High Atlas and Anti-Atlas mountain ranges. In some ways the Sous typified other areas of Morocco, being a problematic cohabitation between a recently-arrived Arab minority and an indigenous majority of fiercely independent Berber tribes. The Sous was, however, peculiar, and inherently more dynamic. A hotbed of Sufism in a deeply spiritual land, the region was home to and the burial site of the preeminent Sufi imam, Muhammad ibn Sulayman al-Jazuli, the most revered leader of all the Sufi orders in the land. The Sous was also a strategic crossroads linking to the Atlantic Ocean the caravan routes that made their terminus at various points along a long axis that extended from Marrakech all the way down the Draa Valley to the threshold of the Sahara. And, perhaps most importantly, the Sous, fed generously by the snows of two mountain ranges, was the center of Morocco’s lucrative sugar cane industry.[6] Taken together, however, these characteristics would have amounted to nothing had a galvanizing force not come along.

The trouble in the Sous began to boil over in 1505, when a Portuguese trader landed by sea and established a trading post at the port town of Agadir. Several years later, King Manuel I purchased the outpost, which they named Santa Cruz de Auger, and made it the southern most of the crown’s string of fronteiras, or fortified coastal enclaves, that stretched all the way to El Ksar es-Seghir on the Straits of Gibraltar.

The Portuguese arrival was only another misery heaped upon a people who were already in a desperate state. By the dawn of the 16th century, Morocco had imploded into what would be termed in modern parlance as a failed state. The land had known troubled times before. Since the coming of Islam to Morocco in the 8th century five dynasties had come and gone. None was able put down institutional roots, and all crumbled within one to two centuries under factional squabbles and palace intrigues. In between the eras of the great dynasties, the land had know intervals of chaos and privation, but none was as serious as the first decades of a period that came to be known as the Maraboutic Crisis.[7]

The crisis began to unfold in 1465 with the collapse of the last great Berber dynasty, the Merinids. Thereafter, Morocco regressed to a muddle of petty states and into sectarian war. The Wattasid Dynasty, which tried to succeed the Merinids, was able to directly control only part of the north from their capital at Fez; lesser fiefdoms ringed the Wattasids, the Mnadi at Tétouan, the Banou Rachid at Inaouen, and the Hintana at Marrekech. None was able to confront the challenges they faced. And, the challenges were legion. With the decline of central government, the countryside was in chaos. The influx of Hilalien and Maqil Arabs to the plains displaced many Berber tribes to arid mountain regions, setting off intense inter-tribal competition for dwindling resources. Moreover, the two races did not blend well. The Arabs clung to their pastoral ways, and had a proclivity to warlike activities. The Berbers, sedentary and clannish, brooded in their ksour, emerging from time to time for a swipe at their neighbor for some perceived injustice. When the two came together it was to perpetuate an unending cycle of violence in the hinterlands. As al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, better known as Leo Africanus, recorded from his travels through the south of Morocco:

Among the people of the Dra’a are many chiefs who are constantly coming to blows. Each faction draws support from the local Arabs, who are paid for their services a half-ducat a day if they are fully equipped horsemen. They are, however, only paid from day to day and only if they actually use their weapons. These folk here use firearms, the arquebuse and espingard [a kind of small cannon], and I have never seen such finely decorated guns. With these weapons, they kill each other all the time.[8]

Insecurity contributed to a bleak economic picture. By the early 1500s agriculture and arboriculture were severely contracted, ravaged by a 14-year interval of alternating droughts and floods.[9] Frequently, dietary staples such as cereals, dates and figs became luxuries. The granaries, intended to provide succor in such times, were of no use. Without government to ensure their replenishment, they had long been empty. The caravans still brought their wares from Tagost and Timbuktu, but not as before. Brigandage and the competition of Portuguese trading posts at Arguin and La Mina were creating a seismic shift in West African patterns of trade. For the previous four centuries Morocco had served as the transit point for precious metals from West Africa to Europe. However, as the Age of Discovery gained momentum, change came quickly.[10] Gold, ivory, spices and slaves once went into the Muslim interior, were making their way in ever increasing volume to the Portuguese oceanic trading posts. For example, by 1495, only twenty-four years after it was established, the La Mina factory in modern Ghana, alone was yielding twelve annual shiploads of gold for Lisbon, each carrying 410 kg worth 100,000 cruzados.[11] This trade once went by the caravans, and its loss impacted the livelihoods of countless people all along the terrestrial trade routes, as well as the governments that depended on those taxes. As caravan trade slowed, currency fell into short supply, and urban life declined. Plagues were commonplace and carried off tens of thousands of souls, further depopulating the cities and towns. Nomadism re-emerged as a social phenomenon. It would not be until 1554 that conditions materially improved. In 1521, during a famine in the Doukkala region, a Portuguese visitor to Azemmour, one of the frontieras, provided the following vignette:

When we arrived at Azemmour, Duarte Rodriguez and Pedro Alfonso presented themselves to the captain of the city, Don Alvaro de Noronha. He [Noronha] told them that these people of Arzila could go to the douars [a group of familial dwellings] and purchase that which they desired. With this authority, we went to the douars which were at a distance of five or six leagues of Azemmour; these douars were very numerous that they occupied three or four areas and all was very peaceful and subjects of an important Moor called Aco Bengabira…The Moors of these douars had gotten together and made prisoners of others not under their authority, and those taken by force and others who came with them were so numerous that we saw on the river at least a hundred boats loaded with beautiful Moorish women who no one, neither man or woman, had the money to buy.[12]

Morocco’s downward spiral reinforced the popular notion of a fallen people. The long crisis of national leadership and the Christian incursions, even the natural disasters of drought, flood, and famine, came to be seen as a reflection of Allah’s displeasure with a land that had drifted from the precepts of Islam.[13] The popular emotional response was a turn toward the network of outland mystics who offered some hope of a better future.

The Maraboutic Crisis, as this period of political turmoil from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries came to be called, was a misnomer, due to inaccurate references by historians in later times to rural holy men and mystics as ‘marabouts’ – a term that actually refers to the tomb of an Islamic saint.[14] Regardless, the implication is clear: During this time unchecked religious mysticism held the country in its grip, both canalizing popular unrest and feeding it. The worship of saints was nothing new in Morocco, but in the decades after the Merinids it achieved a historical excess. As Clifford Geertz described:

What was different in these two hectic centuries from those that proceeded and those that followed them was not that Moroccans worshipped saints, but that such worship attained a luxuriance of political expression it had not been able to achieve before and has been unable to regain after. Morocco splintered, in this period, into a collection of larger and smaller polities centered around holy men or one sort or another (leaders of Sufi sects, local [Qur’anic] teachers and self-appointed evangelists, wandering ascetics, and the like) – a proliferation of zealous, insular, intensely competitive hagiocracies, sometimes called maraboutic states, though most were like utopian communities, aggressive utopian communities, than proper states.[15]

Morocco’s confection of misery, isolation, and xenophobia was the ideal incubator for mystical cults, above all the Sufis. They were not, however, the cause of the crisis; rather, they were its primary beneficiaries.

Sufism and its mystical interpretation of Islam was firmly implanted in Morocco by the late 12th century. Moroccan Sufism benefitted from its receptiveness to indigenous tastes, such the common quest for baraka and the cult of the marabout.

Baraka was a kind of divine favor, and a power that a possessor might use or bestow, or that a follower might absorb even after the possessor’s death. Not surprisingly, it was a power claimed by all manner of Moroccan holy men. By the 15th century, Morocco’s religious establishment, so to speak, had evolved to three distinct groups. On the traditional side were the ulama of madrassa-trained scholars and jurists and the comparatively small class of blue bloods, the sharifs. At the other end of the spectrum were the mystical brotherhoods. While all three groups benefitted from the popular belief that they were imbued with baraka, the Sufis offered common folk the greatest access to it.

As part of providing a wider entrée to baraka, Sufism co-opted the maraboutic cults. Early Sufi shaykhs, in search of local roots, gravitated to sects organized around the tombs of venerated saints. These marabouts were places of pious reflection and inspiration, and were believed to radiate baraka. As such, they were a natural fit for the Sufi shaykhs, who selected them as the locales for their religious brotherhoods. In this way, the Sufis joined traditional spiritual practices with a less structured Islam. Simple people were drawn to Sufi asceticism, its quest for a more direct relationship with Allah, the distinct rituals (tariqa) of brotherhood, and the promise of baraka. The lodges, or centers of devotion and learning, called zawiya (plural, zawaya) proliferated, eventually checkering the land, and attracted tens of thousands of adherents. The zawaya were also about more than the esoteric. As the primary mediators between tribes and ethnic groups, they served as the essential arbiter in a consensus-based society. They also provided important services, such as lodging and guides for traders and travelers, and charitable and social services.[16] The zawaya became an indispensable part of the national fabric. As it was commonly said, “He who has no shaykh, has [Shaitan] for a shaykh.”[17]

Of all the religious shaykhs, none rivaled Muhammad ibn Sulayman al-Jazuli. His emphasis on social activism was signal, and his teachings carved out an unprecedented political role for the Sufi shaykh. By effectively conjoining the concepts of Divine presence (walaya) and the exercise of worldly authority (wilaya), al-Jazuli made the shaykh the incarnation of the Mohammedian tradition and fully justified his role in political life.[18] As government receded from the countryside during the late 15th century the zawaya shaykhs, with the Jazuliyya Sufi Order in the vanguard, filled the void, and they became the de facto administration in much of Morocco.[19] By that time, their power was unrivaled, and no one dared openly oppose them. Even the ulama, which had scorned the Sufis during the time of the Merinids, fell into line. Islamic intellectuals and Malikite jurists alike joined the brotherhoods in droves; they wrote of the miracles of the Sufi masters and brought the teachings of the mystics into the madrassas.[20]

The Sufi shaykhs, however, wanted power on their own terms. They resisted integration with the secular power structure and jealously guarding their new-found clout. Rulers and their bureaucrats found that they had to curry the favor of the religious shaykhs. For both sides the dialogue was a mutual annoyance; it could not, however, be silenced. The shaykhs were finding the need of a larger audience. While secular leaders in their palaces and fortresses could tune out much of the blather from the countryside, they found it hard to ignore the up swell for jihad.

Morocco’s weak, self-consuming condition made Portugal’s presence on her coast possible. It also engendered a strong reaction that ultimately restored national unity. After the Portuguese began to colonize the Moroccan coast in 1415, jihad, or a holy war, against the Christian invader became the rallying cry and the means to a common redemption. The zawaya shaykhs led the call. Emboldened to move beyond spiritual teachings and charitable works, the shaykhs undertook a greater cause of national revival. Few questioned this rhetoric, but the practical aspect was lacking. While the moral authority of the religious shaykh was great, it was just that – moral. As a group, they represented only half of a partnership. Only a strongman could provide an army.

By 1510, the tribes of the Sous were at last ready to unite against their common enemy. Destitute and caught between the Christians and warring Arab and Berber tribes, and with no prospect of aid from their nominal overlord, the Wattasid sultan, in Fez, or his Hintana vassal in Marrakech, they turned to their religious leaders for help. In their search for one to lead them, a group of zawiya chiefs decided upon Mohammed ibn ‘Abd ar-Rahmān. Other than his being a sharif, active in a Jazuliyya zawiya in Tagmadert, and a passionate supporter of jihad, history provides little justification for the choice. Suffice it to say that Abd ar-Rahmān’s reputation was such that it penetrated the High Atlas Mountains and caused the zawaya to dispatch a delegation to Tagmadert. Many of the southern tribes, including the Doui, Chebanat, and Mansour, whose caravan interests were withering under Portuguese competition, rallied to the choice. And the Wattasid sultan, only too anxious to delegate authority for a holy crusade, gave his stamp of approval. With some reluctance, it was said, Abd ar-Rahmān accepted. The following year, at formal ceremony at Tidsi, a hamlet near the provincial capital, Taroudant, the tribes swore their allegiance.[22] Mohammad ibn ‘Abd ar-Rahmān adopted the name al-Qāim bi Amrillah (He Who Has Arisen by the Command of Allah). Thus, by a grass roots movement, was the sharif of the Saadians catapulted to leadership of the jihad in the south.

Unfortunately for the Moors, zeal could not compensate for Portuguese fortifications and artillery, or their complete mastery of the seas. Mohammed al-Qaim’s campaign against the Portuguese yielded inconsequential results. Most prominent was his failed assault on Agadir in 1511. Waves of infantry equipped with scaling ladders made no impression on prepared defenses and integrated missile weapons, with supporting naval gunfire. The appalling casualties suffered by the Moors dampened support for al-Qaim; his jihad was, for all intents and purposes, soon over.

While the Moorish horseman could hold his own against his Portuguese counterpart in the open field, he seldom got the chance to try. But for brief raids and foraging parties, the Portuguese seldom ventured from their coastal shelters. Defeating the Portuguese meant dislodging them by siege, and this required wholesale modernization and the creation of a distinctly Saadian military system.

This was no easy matter. Al-Qaim’s army was feudal in nature, rooted in a centuries-old tradition of equestrian warfare, and heavily reliant on tribal contingents of cavalry equipped with lances and sabers. Specialization in modern technologies, such as artillery and siege craft, was usually provided by foreign mercenaries or captives. In addition to archaic methods and poor cohesiveness, the feudal army was also notoriously unreliable. Its loyalties lay heavily with the king/employer’s ability to pay, or the perception for success and, therefore, some future hope for recompense. For military leaders in Morocco, as in Europe, the drama of warfare was getting into the fight. War, as they knew it, was rife with treachery, and instances of defections en masse by tribal or mercenary contingents at the very moment of battle were commonplace. Added to this, there were essential matters that overtook war at various times of the year. The campaign season in Morocco was just more than that, about four months long, being constrained by the harvest, and the holy observances of moharram, or first month of the Islamic calendar, and the period of fasting, Ramadan.[23] As these periods approached, tribal contingents had the disturbing tendency to head home. It all made for the Moorish commander in the field a constant angst over the fragile coalition that was the feudal army.

After their early failures, the Saadians came to a conclusion shared by many of the kings and princes of 16th century Europe: building a dependable and efficient army meant developing a professional nucleus, a standing force. But, in the Sous, the expertise and the tools of modern warfare, and the means to pay for them, were in short supply. Turkish renegades and mercenaries traveling by land brought new methods of war, but they only began to appear in southern Morocco in substantial numbers in the 1530s. Modern arms were almost as scarce. Neither the Wattasids nor the Portuguese favored the flow of firearms and cannon to the Saadians, and they did what they could to prevent it. Lack of access to oceanic ports was the critical problem, leaving the Saadians virtually cut off from Europe and deprived of an important source of tax revenue. Smugglers managed to infiltrate small quantities of firearms and cannon, but such weapons remained in short supply during al-Qaim’s time. And, finally, there was no general fund to purchase war materiel and services. The road to military reform looked to be a long one.

Though Mohammed al-Qaim was unable to transform the Saadian military, he laid a foundation for its future success. He established the first tax under the Saadians, which he used to create and support a small cadre of professional soldiers. Al-Qaim revived a general tax, the naiba, or ‘affliction’, as the people termed it, which had lapsed since the time of the Merinids. And, he cunningly calculated that if he made the tax modest enough, he could impose it broadly, even upon the sharifs, which, as an upper caste of society, had been customarily tax exempt.

Legend has it that upon venturing into the Sous countryside to survey the people he was to lead in war, al-Qaim was deeply affected by the poverty he witnessed. Such a landscape hardly offered the prospect of tax revenues he would need to sustain a force in the field. He determined, however, to try. The Sharif sent messengers forth to every village with the call for each foyer to provide his tax collectors the sum of one egg. The people, relieved at such a modest request, readily complied and soon Mohammed al-Qaim was awash in eggs. He then determined that those who could afford an egg could afford a dirham. This too, was duly collected, and none were spared. The people grumbled, but for the most part they paid. The fact that it was egalitarian went a long way in their minds. The ire of sharifs and shaykhs paying taxes had a definite appeal to the masses. The precedent was established, and would be exploited to the full in years to come. The funds raised were modest, but allowed al-Qaim to create a small standing army, 500 cavalry initially, which in a few years grew to 3,000.[25]

From the start, Mohammed ash-Shaykh and his older brother, Ahmad, figured closely in their father’s designs. To cement his alliance with the Sous zawaya, al-Qaim married Mohammed ash-Shaykh to the daughter of his father’s most influential zawiya sponsor, the Sufi shaykh Mohammad ben Mubarak.[26] According to el-Oufrani, Mohammed al-Qaim conceived a great destiny for his sons, as revealed to him in a religious vision that he was fond of recounting. According to this story, during al-Qaim’s hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca around 1506, the sharif sought out a holy man to interpret a dream he was having. In the dream, two lions emerged from his navel, and, as they sauntered forth, a crowd of people formed behind them. The lions led them to a tower, into which the beasts disappeared, leaving the people and al-Qaim at the door. The holy man interpreted this to be a vision of how al-Qaim’s sons would be men of consequence and would one day rule.[27] Over what they would hold dominion, neither the holy man nor el-Oufrani provided any indication.

Sometime after Muhammad al-Qaim made the hajj the brothers made the trip.[28] They too came away deeply affected, not only by the experience of religious renewal, but by an awakening to a distinctly personal call of the obligations of sharifism. And, like many émigrés from the Islamic heartland, the return to Arabia was an emotional homecoming. Their route might well have taken the brothers through the Red Sea port town of Yambo, their ancestral home.

For the Saadian brothers, the hajj was also an intellectually broadened experience. Certainly, their sojourn in Cairo, the bustling capital of the Mamluks, was enlightening. At more than half a million people, it was the largest city in the Western world. It was cosmopolitan, an important center of the spice trade, and home to Al-Azhar University, one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in the world. Since the Abbasid Empire had begun to dissolve three centuries earlier, this strange state run by a caste of soldier-slaves had been the center of the Muslim world, and its vanguard against the Mongols and Crusaders. It was a position symbolically reinforced by Cairo’s possession of many of Islam’s holiest relics, including the mantle and swords of the Prophet.

In Cairo, the brothers would have also experienced a wider geo-political struggle. To date, apart from the usual tribal rivalries, they had known only of the Portuguese enemy and their local lackeys and collaborators. In Egypt they were exposed to the unfolding struggle for supremacy in the Dar al-Islam, or the House of Islam. With the rise of the Ottomans, and their drive for conquest, the Muslim world was presented with the specter of domination by a non-Arab state. The Turks had already nibbled at the periphery of the Mamluk provinces in Syria. A showdown, it was said, was imminent.

After their return to Morocco, Mohammed al-Qaim sent his sons to Fez to complete their education. In the imperial court they learned of the interworking of the makhzen, or governing elite. They cultivated the sultan’s favor, and made connections with men of influence. To that end, both served under the sultan’s banner in campaigns against the Portuguese fronteiras of Arzila and Tangiers.[29]

By the time of al-Qaim’s death in 1517, both were experienced leaders and field commanders. As eldest, Ahmad received the bayah as shaykh and succeeded his father. Having witnessed the ineffectual results of the past six years, the brothers decided on another approach – one of political power. El-Oufrani is silent as to whether this was a cynical strategy of two power-hungry men, or the result of some epiphany about political consolidation as a prerequisite to effective military reform. Whatever the motivation, the Saadians definitively changed course. To that point, they had accepted the Wattasid sultan as their overlord. They would do so no more. Henceforth, their policy would be to take his domains and those of his vassals in the south and to challenge his position as ruler. With this decision, the Saadians began to separate from their religious roots. Thereafter, they would posture as mujahidin, or holy warriors, while continuing what became largely an internal power struggle.

This shift in Saadian policy was problematic and a nagging controversy. The most visible sign of their ambitions, the naiba was expanded from the people of the cities and the plains to the Berber tribes of the mountains, who had remained largely beyond the reach of the tax collector, for whom such an imposition was an anathema. Another irritant between the governing elite and the governed was that, as Arabs, the Saadians were, for the majority of the indigenous people, outsiders. Rather than being inclusive in forming government, the Saadians became ever more distant. Trusting in few outside their clan, and a few proven allies, such as the Maqil Arabs and the Ilalen Berbers, the Saadian makhzen came to be dominated by minority interests, foreigners, and renegades, which only served to reinforce the growing divide. And, finally, as the Saadians would come to understand, their power could not be easily detached from its religious underpinnings.[30] To do so risked violating a fragile consensus. Jihad was widely accepted by the spectrum of Morocco’s religious establishment; inter-tribal warfare, and the ever-increasing naiba required to fund it, was not. It all made for a dicey business, whose continuance depended upon military success, and, when necessary and all too often, repression.

Undaunted by appearances, the Saadians proceeded to conclude a series of truces with the Portuguese in order to solidify and expand their fiefdom. By late 1524, they had bullied most of the tribes into line and driven the Hintata emirs from Marrakech, which became their capital. In Fez, the sultan was at last awakened to the Saadian threat.

The Wattasid dynasty would not go quietly. They still fancied themselves rulers of the land. While they had spent much of their failing strength the previous decade in grueling battles with the Portuguese along the coast, they were still a force with which to reckon, particularly in the north. They retained strong support in Fez, and among many tribes of the northern plains, and, when called for, they could still field a substantial army. In 1525, and again in 1527, the Wattasids did just that, launching unsuccessful invasions of Saadian territory.[31] A stalemate ensued, with neither side having the military capacity for an extended campaign far from their base of support. The following year, under the auspices of the brotherhoods, both sides agreed to a truce and the demarcation of a border between their domains. The so called Treaty of Tadla provided a respite that allowed each to return to his business: the Saadians resumed efforts to consolidate their grip on the south; and the Wattasids regrouped for another effort to capture Marrakech.

The conflict resumed in 1536, when Sultan Ahmad al-Wattasi, having reconstituted his forces, determined to crush the upstarts once and for all. At the head of some 30,000 horse, 2,000 arquebusiers, and with 35 cannon in tow, the Sultan marched his forces south. On July 24, the Saadians met them at the Wadi al-Abid, near Beni Mellal. While the Saadians were outnumbered more than two to one, and were seriously outgunned (by one account having only 200 arquebusiers), they chose their ground wisely. Deploying his forces south of the river, Sharif Ahmad ringed the heights above the crossing point with arquebusiers. As the Wattasid advanced guard began to ford the river, the Saadians opened up a withering fire, pouring volley upon volley into the men and horses struggling to free themselves from the muck and ascend the steep banks. A Spanish chronicler of the age, Luis Marmol Del Caravajal recorded:

As their enemies [the Wattasid forces] were passing through the river or climbing up the banks, they [the Saadian forces] fell upon the Wattasid advanced guard as it set up. They killed the King’s son and his adjutants, throwing the troops behind them into panic, sending them tumbling over those coming to their aid, down the banks and over the ford with the enemy on their heels. In an instant, the river was chocked with men, horses, and baggage wagons…The Sultan, who had yet to cross, seeing the disaster that had befallen his force, turned and fled.[32]

The Battle of Wadi al-Abid, also called Bū ‘Aqba, established Saadian control of the south, and for the first time raised alarm in Lisbon of the specter of a unified Morocco. However, while a serious reverse for the Wattasid sultan, the Battle of the Wadi al-Abid did not alter the strategic picture. The Saadians, for all their growing tactical prowess, remained too weak in logistics to mount any series threat to Fez. The strategic stalemate continued.

At this juncture, Mohammed ash-Shaykh was approaching fifty. At a time when life expectancy was roughly 35 years of age lofty ambitions would hardly have been typical for such a man.[33] Besides, he had been blessed with seven sons to continue his work[34] . Given the Sous to administer by his brother, Mohammed ash-Shaykh had a comfortable perch from which to enjoy the fruits of his labors. Such was not, however, his intent.

While, on the surface, relations between the brothers appeared harmonious enough, fraternal jealousies had evidently been building for years. Their monikers could not have helped. In contrast to the noble honorific Mohammad had adopted, Ahmad, with an infirmity of the leg, was known as al-A’raj, or ‘The Lame’. Whatever the source, their relations would rupture in 1541, and divergent military fortunes would be the catalyst. For the past sixteen years, Saadian Morocco was essentially two fiefdoms, with two administrations, and two armies. That of Ahmad al-A’raj seated at Marrakech, was the recognized suzerain. Mohammed ash-Shaykh, as governor of the Sous, at Taroudant, was the junior partner. Details about how these states operated and interacted are generally lacking; however, the massive engineering works realized in the Sous at this time, including the ramparts around Taroudant and elaborate irrigation systems and factories for expanded sugar cane production, stand out. And, in the contest that followed it became abundantly clear that one of them was better prepared than the other.

After several unsuccessful attempts to break the Portuguese maritime stranglehold between 1530 and 1536, in the autumn of 1540 the brothers tried once more by launching two nearly simultaneous campaigns. Ahmad al-A’raj led his army north into Wattasid territory, while Mohammed ash-Shaykh led his forces down the Sous Valley to invest Agadir.

Agadir, or ‘fortified granary’ in Berber, was until the Portuguese arrival a sleepy fishing village nestled between the final massif of the High Atlas Mountains and the mouth of the Sous River. Its temperate climate, gentle azure tides, and long arch of sandy beach would make the place a major tourist destination in modern times. In the winter of 1540, the attraction was altogether different.

After the Portuguese crown purchase the settlement in 1513 they improved the fortifications of the trading post, building a masonry fortress adjacent to the port. While the most eye-catching of their fronteiras, Agadir, being the furthest south, was the most remote. It was also the most difficult to defend. The hill mass the Portuguese called ‘Pico’, jutting from the north ridge, loomed 250 meters over the settlement.[35] It was a position from which an occupying force could dominate not only the settlement, but the bay itself. Defending it was, given the limited strength of the garrison, impossible.

For the garrison at Agadir, the prospects looked grim. Certainly, they had weathered past storms, but in the space of a few years conditions had changed. They could count on little outside help. The only field commanders in the region capable of coming to their aid, Nuño Fernandez de Ataide, the governor of the nearest frontiera of Safi, and Yahya ou Tafuft, the designated general-in-chief of allied southern tribes, had been killed. The governor of Agadir’s urgent calls for help met with lukewarm response at Lisbon. To a court that had recently landed men in Brazil (1500), Goa (1510) and Malacca (1511), and was so beguiled by the enormous potential of these lands, Morocco was a sideshow, and a tedious one at that.

Most importantly, the Portuguese faith in their tactical superiority was badly shaken. Their mastery of artillery had been, until recent times, the decisive advantage. The Moors, on the other hand, with their affection for large caliber guns that caused more noise than damage, were objects of derision. Recent history, however, served notice that such was no longer the case. Between 1508 and 1510, the Wattsids made effective use of their artillery in besieging Arzila and Safi. While these assaults failed, their ferocity and the damage wrought by Moorish cannonry made lasting impressions. Worse still was the disaster at Mamora five years later. There, the Fassis, as the people of Fez were called, trapped a Portuguese expedition on the Sebū River. Skillfully using their siege guns and field pieces, the Moors isolated and pounded the Portuguese stockade, and then blasted the relief barges as they attempted to evacuate the garrison. In the worst defeat of King Manuel’s reign, the Portuguese left behind some 5,000 prisoners and 52 cannon. Many of these guns would reappear in another desperate standoff at Arzila in 1516.[37] Up and down the coast, as combat intensified, the Moors employed artillery in unprecedented volume and to greater affect. Now, left to fend for themselves, as rumors circulated on guns being hauled up the Pico, the men of Agadir’s fort could have harbored no illusions of what lay ahead.

As dawn broke on the morning of February 12, 1541, Mohammed ash-Shaykh looked out over the placid bay, dotted with a few Portuguese caravels, lying a respectful distance out, and bobbing gently at anchor. The little citadel lay below, looking deceptively innocuous. It was all so calm. The occasional head showing above the ramparts was the only sign of life before them. The port was recognizable only by its patchwork of wood piers. The clusters of boats that had been tethered there had long moved off as their owners cleared out of the tempest’s path. Likewise, the village was silent. The jumble of adobe dwellings piled up behind the port, and stretching down the edge of the beach were frequented now by chickens. Even the thieves had gone.

Mohammed ash-Shaykh would have been in a pensive mood as he awaited the storm. It could not have escaped him that it had been thirty years since his father’s failed attempt to capture the place. Since that time, the Portuguese had made many improvements. The stockade al-Qaim faced was of wood planks and barbicans. That had long since been replaced with the stone battlements of a proper medieval stronghold. Over the years the brothers too had tried to dislodge the Portuguese, and all had come to naught. Mohammed ash-Shaykh’s last effort at Agadir, in 1533, was a bitter lesson: The Saadians needed to fight smarter, not harder. A defender of the bastion described the futility of the Moorish assaults:

…the beach and the entire area surrounding the tower was covered high and low with Moors so that it was impossible to see the ground. Now, our bombards opened up. Tamrakht bastion, which was closest to the castle, fired a ball which blasted a path through the Moors that cut through them from the base of the tower all the way to the tilt yards [enclosed courtyards for jousting], killing an enormous number. Then, the Facho basion opened up…and blasted another path through the Moors. Then all the artillery, sphaer guns, demi-sphaer, faucons and brecos from every bastion fired together, one piece on one side, one on the other. The massacre was terrible. “Run, run!”, the Moors screamed, but there were so many packed so tightly that there was no place for them to flee. Then our arquebusiers from the height of a terrace adjoining the castle on which plenty of artillery was mounted, opened fire, and killed vast numbers.[38]

Mohammed ash-Shaykh knew that this was his best, and perhaps his last opportunity. He was determined that his baraka would not be a casualty to these walls.

A siege could be won by ruse, starvation or otherwise wearing down an enemy, or, least desirably, by assault. While Saadian agents surely cultivated potential traitors in the city and the garrison who might facilitate their entry into the citadel, it was a risky proposition that might be an enemy trap. As for wearing down the defenders, as long as the Portuguese controlled the seas and could resupply and reinforce the garrison at will, that was impossible. So, as before, it would most likely come to a direct attack. But, to win, this time the Saadians would have to solve the twin challenges of stone fortifications and the Portuguese navy.

Mohammad ash-Shaykh placed his faith in the shovel, and he let it be known that on this occasion there would be no expediency. He had mobilized a massive contingent of Berber auxiliaries, the ibudraren. These laborers, levied on the tribes in time of war, served a variety of crucial tasks, such as sappers, wagon masters, and porters of artillery. Mohammad ash-Shaykh set them to work digging parapets for his guns and erecting other earthworks to close the landward approaches to the city. He then directed them to the Pico, where he intended to build a kasbah, or fortress, that would determine the outcome of the battle.[39] It was arduous work that involved the quarrying tons of stone, baking of thousands of bricks, and harvesting massive wood beams from the mountains, all of which had to be hauled by beast up the hill. Yet, despite the difficulties, it took barely two months to complete the structure. From September to October of 1540, as the Portuguese looked up in horror, the kasbah rose above them.

There would no human waves, not this time, not at least until the walls of the citadel were broken. Enough well-placed artillery would do that work. Mohammad ash-Shaykh had assembled a potent force, by one account as many as 14 siege guns and more than 50 cannon of various caliber. Wattasid ineptitude had helped. Most of the guns, 35 bronze field pieces, were taken at the Battle of Wadi al-Abid. The rest were probably smuggled into southern Morocco by French, Italian, and Spanish traders through a number of contraband entry points, such as the coves of Tarkūkū and Tafetna near Agadir.[40] Team of camels had hauled the guns to the kasbah and other points atop the heights around the citadel, achieving the dual advantage of plunging fire to lob balls over the high masonry walls, and the protection of being above the maximum trajectory of Portuguese guns.

That morning of February 12, as the first thunderous salvo rang out, sending a chorus of birds aloft from every tree, and rippling the earth beneath them, the Portuguese knew that the months-long lull was at an end; the dreaded moment had arrived. The suspense was short lived. The Moorish cannon quickly found their mark, and inexorably began to chip away at the walls of the citadel. Within a few days, the Portuguese were driven to desperation. Most had never witnessed such a barrage, certainly not in Morocco. The Moors surprised them with not only the number, but the caliber of their cannon. The heaviest guns, six behemoths, named Maїmuna, belched stone munitions equivalent to a caliber of 420 mm. Even the smaller guns fired a ball of 13 pounds, equivalent to 117 mm.[41] Furthermore, the Moors used their artillery in a counter-maritime role. From the Pico, nine of the heaviest cannon were trained on the bay, keeping the Portuguese navy at anchor, a spectator to the garrison’s demise. The governor’s frantic appeals to Lisbon yielded little help.

Days, then weeks went by, with the men of the garrison casting hopeful glances north, as detritus piled up around the fort. Nerves were raw. Each day brought its hail of stone shrapnel and some new gruesome death, some new hideous wounds. The men were exhausted. They could not sleep through the cacophony of the day, and night was occupied in hasty repairs of the walls and infiltrating supplies from the ships in the bay. Finally, on March 11, a Moorish cannon ball found a magazine in the fort, which erupted spectacularly. From the surrounding hills, thousands of Moors rose in jubilation. When the dust had settled, they spied an enormous hole in the fortifications. Spontaneously, the Moors rushed the breach, and the defenders, unable to contain them, fell back into the inner works. The following day, after a barrage of 32 days, the governor surrendered.[42] Into the victor’s lap fell an enormous quantity of war materiel and booty, not to mention prestige.

Meanwhile, Ahmad al-A’raj suffered a humiliating defeat at Azemmour.

For Ahmad al-A’raj, being upstaged in battle by his younger brother was bad enough; being denied his share of the booty was worse yet. Islamic tradition accorded a sovereign a fifth of it, which Mohammed ash-Shaykh brazenly refused to yield. The time had come for him to step out from the shadow of his older brother.

As of the royal fifth he had taken from Santa Cruz, he [Mohammed] would gladly send his brother the captive captain along with a mix of captives of both sexes, keeping for himself the artillery, munitions, and the artisans who had worked the arms forges and the cannon masters. The elder [Ahmad], furious, ordered him to send all the cannon, harquebuses, munitions, four hundred of the prisoners, and a fifth besides.[43]

The rupture now out in the open, despite the efforts of the zawaya to mediate, a civil war ensued between the two sides. Ahmad al-A’raj, however, was no match for his brother, who defeated him twice in battle, occupied Marrakech, and packed him off to an internal exile as governor of a remote eastern city.

As undisputed master of the south, Mohammed ash-Shaykh had the pleasure of being referred to as the ‘King of Morocco’ in Europe and many other foreign lands.[44] Whatever satisfaction he felt, it was not universally shared. Trouble, in fact, was already brewing. The consolidation of power ran against the grain in Morocco. The primary irritant was taxation needed to support the burgeoning Saadian state. A standing army that was some 3,000 strong at the time of al-Qaim’s death had grown more than tenfold by 1540. More firearms and shot were required from abroad. A growing standing army had to be paid at regular intervals. Greater specialization increased the need for highly paid mercenaries. More territory meant additional garrisons to maintain. Prestige demanded rich djellabas and Turkish-style kaftans, jewels, tea sets, tents, carpets, mounts, bridles, saddles, and a hundred other objects befitting a king. And, a sovereign’s table had to be capable of feeding from a few dozen to a few hundred at any time. Though the people chaffed, taxes continued to rise.

With the Portuguese occupied in mortaring up their coastal forts, and his brother attending to the wiles of goat herders at Tafilalet, Mohammed ash-Shaykh turned his attention to the Wattasids and the conquest of northern Morocco. In 1545 he invaded Tamesna province, burning and pillaging an intimidating path of destruction into the heart to Wattasid territory. Finding the path to Fez barred by the fort at Fishtala, the Saadians had another unpleasant surprise when Sultan Ahmad al-Wattasi, at the head of 30,000 horsemen, was discovered to be outflanking them on his own drive south. Mohammed ash-Shaykh quickly moved to intercept them. That September, the two sides met at the Derna River in central Morocco, very near the Wadi al-Abid, site of their previous encounter.

Ahmad al-Wattasi had reconstituted his artillery, which he now looked to use to good advantage. Placing his guns on a bluff overlooking the plain on the left flank of his army, the Sultan determined to employ enfilade fire. The Saadians, who, in the practice of the day, tucked their artillery into the center of their formation, perceived a vulnerability to exploit.

For this decisive fight, Mohammed ash-Shaykh brought the full complement of his male progeny, his eldest and heir, Mohammed al-Harran, Abd al-Qadir, Abdallah, Adelmoumen, Abdelmalek, Ahmad, and Othman.[45] He gave them each a command of the various formations, perhaps as much out of concern for the loyalty of his troops as it was a show of confidence in their abilities. Whatever was the cohesiveness of the army, it cut an impressive figure. The Sultan surveyed his rival with a sinking heart. The Saadians has not been idle these past years. The army arrayed before him, ¬– a crescent formation anchored by the large main body of cavalry, flanked on each side by three smaller formations, and preceded by a cohort of arquebus-toting skirmishers – spoke of purpose. Even a weakness ¬– the absence of artillery ¬– was unsettling, and the source of much speculation between the Sultan and his advisors. No less unconventional was the Saadian standard, a dramatic statement in white, richly embroidered in golden Qur’anic verses. The white standard was an old Merinid tradition bestowed by the sultan upon faithful commanders; but, as kings in their own right, and in eschewing the familiar green of Islam, the Saadians made it look so very new.[46]

Diego de Torres, who arrived in Morocco in 1546 on a mission to redeem captives, wrote of the Saadian forces: “The army was composed of seven squadrons arranged in crescent formation, with the unit on the right commanded M¬¬umin [probably Adelmoumen] and on the left by another son. These in the middle were under other sons, each with 5,000 armed and chain-mailed horsemen with mail, lance, and buckler shield. In front, strung between the two points, the mounted fusiliers with the towed artillery and some small campaign pieces on mules with a man on each side, one for the gun, the other for the powder and ball, ready to set up the guns at an instant and fire at will on this plain where there was neither a tree nor a shrub in sight”.[47]

The opening round was a test of nerves. The two sides drew up to one another in the morning, and then came to a halt. Hours passed, as each waited for the other to move, the Sun and the heat rising ever higher. There they stood, at arms and in formation, through a torrid day. The Wattasids, still haunted by the memory of their defeat nine years earlier, had planned on fighting a defensive battle. As the placement of their artillery showed, they counted on the Saadians advancing to meet them. Since the Wattasid guns were only just forward of their own lines, any cavalry charge would have masked the fires of the guns and rendered their artillery useless. But, though the Fassis intended to wait, as the day drew on, their men grew restless. Finally, as the Sun set into the faces of the Sultan’s army, Mohammad ash-Shaykh gave the signal for the battle to commence. A single cannon shot ran out, stirring both armies to life.

The Wattasid cavalry, having shaken off its torpor, began impulsively to advance. As the enemy cavalry charge formed, Mohammed ash-Shaykh put his plan into motion. It consisted of three maneuvers launched in rapid succession. First, his mounted arquebusiers advanced to engage the Wattasid center, the dragoons keeping the mobile artillery carefully concealed. As the Wattasid cavalry took the bait and gained speed, the ‘horns’ of the Saadian crescent surged forward and began to envelop the enemy’s flanks. Once the right ‘horn’ had cleared the way, a detachment of cavalry then launched at the Wattasid guns.[48] This last effort was probably intended to capture the guns rather than produce any tactical result. As the forces were then coming to grips, the moment for artillery had passed.

As at Wadi al-Abid, mobile firepower would be the decisive element. As the Saadian mounted arqubusiers closed with the Wattasid center, the first rank drew up, fired, and wheeled about to be replaced by the second. As this and subsequent ranks discharged their weapons, the cannoniers unlimbered the field guns from the mules, and readied. When the last of the mounted fusiliers had moved aside, the cannon let loose a salvo into the wavering host. This was too much for the Fassis, who began to take flight. Ahmad al-Wattasi, ensconced in the main body at the outset of the battle, suddenly found himself tangled in the stampede of flight. Betrayed by his royal regalia, the Sultan was quickly captured.

Weston Cook describes this battle as the first use of a tactical maneuver similar to the ‘caracole’ in the Moroccan theater.[49] A product of Germany, the caracole was part of 16th century military innovation to bring firearms to mounted warfare and to counter traditional anti-cavalry techniques, namely the pike. The maneuver involved highly trained formations of riders, up to 12 ranks deep, in which each rank in turn executed the same maneuver: once the formation had reached an optimal distance from the enemy, the front rank would turn slightly fire their weapons, then wheel about to the rear of the formation to reload. The formation repeated the sequence until the desired affect was produced.[50] To a foe unaccustomed to such a technique, the affect could be devastating. It certainly was at the brief Battle of Derna.

The coordinated employment of firearms and cannon in the offense, and the shock affect it caused, demonstrated the best of evolutionary military thinking of the age. Mohammed ash-Shaykh’s emphasis on mobility and his tactics of fire and maneuver were without precedent in Morocco. It was stunning progress, and it was about a spirit of innovation, the readiness to adopt new and even foreign ideas, and ruthless drilling. In contrast to their rival’s cursory efforts at military reform, the Saadian forces were starting to look like professionals.

It was also, of course, about resources; and Agadir’s capture was key. Up to that point, the Saadians had, despite Portuguese and Wattasid efforts at an embargo, succeeded in cobbling together enough firearms and artillery to equip at least part of their army. What could not be purchased clandestinely was increasingly being fabricated in a burgeoning arms industry in Marrakech. According to Luis de Marmol, Spanish chronicler who traveled in Morocco during this time, in 1539 the Saadians began to mine a vast copper deposit discovered in the High Atlas Mountains, and shortly thereafter began to produce cannon from their own foundry in Marrakech, under the direction of a Morisco from Madrid. Another European traveler observed the following after visiting the Saddian capital just prior to the siege of Agadir:

[From Portugal, Spain, and France] there are a great many merchants in this country and artisans talents in all crafts and practices for making firearms and selling things needed to make these items….Among there merchants there are many ‘New Christians”, extremely skilled in making lances, crossbows, and arquebuses, who work here [so they can] return to Judaism.[51]

The fall of Agadir was the proverbial crack in the armor of the fronteiras system. Within months, the Portuguese evacuated the nearby forts of Safi and Azemmour, which they judged to be untenable. The Saadians, having already secured their end of the caravan routes, now controlled the southern seaports and were free to regulate their own trade with the outside world. And what the outside world wanted most, more than the salt, gold and slaves from West Africa, was what southern Morocco had in abundance - sugar. Benefitting from relative peace and advancement in irrigation technology, sugar cane production in the Sous took off, providing increased tax revenues and a commodity to trade for European weapons and finished goods. Agadir became a boom town, and everything could be found on its docks and in its shops. As the flood gates opened, implements of war poured in. A contemporary chronicler recorded in the aftermath of Agadir’s fall:

...ships used to be awed into paying their dues at Agadir and, as they were forced to come there, they dared not sell arms or war supplies to the Moors. These regulations just about took care of most of the pay of the troops, and the Moors did not get weapons as they were to have after we lost Santa Cruz. After that, the arms brought there for sale, arms of all sorts, offensive and defensive, became so very many that the market was better [in Agadir] than back here [in Europe]. It was astonishing to see how low prices sank, dropping to a point that traffic stopped because it not only made no profit, it found no customers.[52]

The Battle of Derna tipped the balance of power in Morocco to the Saadians. Thereafter, it was their fight to lose. Conquering the north was, however, a struggle involving four more years of toil and frustration. The walled city of Meknes resisted a prolonged Saadian siege. Ahmad al-Wattasi, who negotiated his release in exchange for territorial concessions, found new enthusiasts upon his return to Fez. Across the north, tribes that once despised the Wattasids now came to their aid, preferring their lassitude to the intimidating prospect of Saadian rule. And, enemies lurking in the rear took advantage of the Saadian preoccupations in the north. In the High Atlas Mountains several tribes staged a tax revolt. From the coast the Portuguese launched deep raids into the interior, savaging the countryside as they went. Hapsburg and Ottoman agents meddled in hopes of maintaining a divided Moroccan kingdom. In Lisbon, the prospect of the Saadians winning their war caused a growing alarm, and the contemplation of a worse-case scenario of a Saadian-Ottoman alliance. King John III of Portugal reflected these sentiments in an admonishment given to his embassy departing for the court of Charles V in Vienna:

Do not allow the King of Marako to overcome the King of Fez…Except for resistance to the Turk and everything affecting that, all besides becomes secondary if this serious and disturbing business begin. The King of Marako is very astute and wealthy. I am told intelligence contacts with the Turks exist, and [if he becomes] King of Fez, he will dominate this whole sector of Africa.[53]

Charles V was suitably impressed by this warning to impose a trade embargo on the Moors, and to forbid his subjects against travel to Morocco. These were ineffectual measures, and, in any case, they came too late to save the Wattasids.

By November, 1547 Mohammad ash-Shaykh had finally corralled the Wattasid family within the walls of their capital. Hoping to avoid a protracted and bloody struggle, he tried to negotiate with the city’s religious leaders to accept his overlordship. They refused. So, for fourteen months he squeezed the city.[54] As months wore on, within the walls of the old medina 60,000 Fassis simmered in hunger, disease, rumor, and fear. The religious elite seemed above it all. They occupied the days scoffing at the notion of Saadian sharifism and the absurdity of taxation. After repeated efforts at bribes and intimidation failed, Mohammad ash-Shaykh resorted to murder. His agents struck down the primary antagonist, Abdul-Wahid al-Wansharisi, the chief qadi of the city, at the gates of the Qarawiyyin mosque. The Fassis, however, continued to hold out. It was only after Saadian forces blew down a large section of wall that they came around. On January, 31, 1549, Mohammad ash-Shaykh at last entered Fez, and Ahmad al-Wattasi once more passed into captivity. Of the entire Wattasid family, only Ahmad’s brother, Abou Hassoun, managed to evade the dragnet and escaped.[55] At 61 years of age, and after more than thirty years of campaigning, Mohammed ash-Shaykh was master of the land.

Then, hubris got the upper hand.

While the Saadians were engaged in their long struggle for supremacy in Morocco, the Ottoman storm broke over the Arab world. In 1516, Sultan Selim I led his armies south into Arab lands. By early the next year he had conquered the Mamluk Empire and added Syria, Palestine, and Egypt to the Ottoman realm. From there, his forces ranged south to the Red Sea. In adding the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to his empire, Selim’s coup was complete. He had already taken possession of the priceless treasures of the early Islamic period, the Prophet’s mantle, a bit of his tooth, and a sprig of hair from his bead, the swords of the first Caliphs, and more, which he had shipped from Cairo to Constantinople.[56] As guardian of Islam’s holiest places, he could now claim, to general acceptance throughout the Dar al-Islam, the title of Caliph and Defender of the Faithful. This was a momentous step for the Ottoman Turks, and it carried many consequences – both intended and otherwise. Once established in the Levant, for instance, the Ottomans would become embroiled in a struggle with the Hapsburgs for control of the Mediterranean Sea.

The conquest of North Africa was not explicitly part of either Hapsburg or Ottoman plans. It was a vacuum into which they found themselves drawn. For five hundred years, since the onset of the decline of the Fatamid Caliphate, the region had fallen into a mosaic of squabbling Arab and Berber states. It was a condition that invited foreign intervention.

Like Portugal, Spain pursued a policy of limited conquest in North Africa. The Spanish were, however, latecomers to the party. The Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile, having united in 1479, had finally subdued the Moorish Kingdom of Granada thirteen years later. By the time she joined the colonial race, the Portuguese were laying claim to Morocco’s Atlantic coast. After some friction, the two sides agreed to spheres of influence, which consigned to Spain the Mediterranean coast of the Barbary.

In 1505, the Spanish began to establish their own series of fortified places, or presidios, along the North African coast, at Peñon de Badis, Melilla, Mers El Kébir, Oran, Algiers, Bugia, and Tunis. As it had in Morocco, this activity engendered intense local resistance. Unlike Morocco, however, several local chiefs made direct appeals for assistance to Constantinople. One of these local rulers, the Turkish corsair Aruj, having wrested Algiers from the Spanish, determined that the best protection for his fiefdom from Spain was fealty to the Ottoman sultan. Thus, in 1517 was established the Regency of Algiers, one of three Ottoman beylerbaylick, or provinces, in North Africa that would eventually include Tunis and Tripoli.

Though preoccupied with his own travails, Mohammed ash-Shaykh could not have been oblivious to the encroaching tide. Nearly all the countryside he had traveled in making the hajj more than thirty years before, and the most of the states that spanned it, were now Ottoman. The Saadian realm was the major exception. He would come to see the Spanish and the Portuguese for what they were, mere parasites. The Turks were the real threat to his kingdom.

Mohammed ash-Shaykh’s feelings toward the Turk were unconventional, and shaped a foreign policy that was precariously unpredictable and prone to brinksmanship. He was a bit conflicted where the Ottomans were concerned. On the one hand, he could admire and selectively emulate their methods. For instance, the he referred to his household guard as Janissaries, after the Ottoman sultan’s elite corps of soldier-slaves. He actively recruited Turkish mercenaries, and relied heavily on their military experience and expertise, such as at Agadir, where he had employed several Turkish gunners and experts in siege works.[57] But, while Mohammed ash-Shaykh was ready to glean the useful from the Turk, he bore them no love. Such sentiments were hardly uncommon at the height of the era of the ‘terrible Turk’. What was anomalous was that this leader did not fear them either.

In 1550, only months after his triumphant entry into Fez, Mohammed ash-Shaykh made a bizarre decision that remains shrouded in mystery: He decided to insert himself in the Hapsburg-Ottoman conflict. His immediate object was Tlemcen, an oft-contested city that was the seat of an independent Zayyanid Kingdom, and then a vassal of Spain. The Zayyanids were in the uncomfortable position of being on the border between Turkish Algeria and the Spanish enclaves of Mers El Kébir and Oran. The Sultan apparently felt little concern for such sensitivities. Nor, did he show particular deference to his tenuous control of the north, the spiraling cost of war and the tax revolts, or that the Portuguese and the Spanish remained imbedded on his coast. None of these or any other consideration could stop him from sending a sizable part of his army – by one account as many as 36,000 soldiers – across his frontier and into yet another war.[58]

The Sultan was confident enough of success that he entrusted the mission to his eldest son and heir, Mohammed al-Hazzan, while he remained behind to mop up remaining Wattasid partisans around Fez. When Saadian forces easily captured Tlemcen on June 10th, that confidence appeared justified. The army then turned north and proceeded to the coast, where it occupied the port town of Mostaganem, in the territory of the Regency of Algiers.[59] Was antagonizing both great powers part of the plan? Or, was this perhaps some overture to Spain? In his calculations, the Sultan might have judged the Zayyanids to be, from the Spanish point of view, a sacrifice on the altar of a greater alliance against the Turk. The strategy, like the motives behind the operation, was unclear. Given Mohammed ash-Shaykh’s temperament, however, it seems unlikely that it was left to improvisation.

While the Spanish were hardly willing to go to war to restore the Zayyanids, the Ottomans were less ready to concede. In January, 1551, an Ottoman army fell upon the unsuspecting Moorish forces encamped at the Abu Azun River. The Turks routed the Saadians and captured most of their baggage and stores. Among the many dead lay Abd al-Qadir, who was shot down trying to rally his troops. The vile Turks, adding insult to injury, took his son’s head as a trophy. It was the second son and heir apparent that Mohammed ash-Shaykh had buried during this disastrous campaign. Several months before Mohammed al-Hazzan succumbed to an illness contracted in Algeria.[60]

Mohammed ash-Shaykh’s hard-won dominion was unraveling fast. When news of the disaster at Abu Azun River reached him, the Sultan had been in the Draa Valley on another mission of tax enforcement.[61] Hurrying across the frontier in an attempt to restore the situation, he arrived in time to join the general retreat. The Turks swept through Mostaganem and Tlemcen. By February 1551, Mohammed ash-Shaykh was holding a defensive position in Morocco west of the Moulouya River. Rebellions, meanwhile, were breaking out all over the land, and not only in the High Atlas Mountains and the usual places, but in the Sous, Tetuan, and Taza.[62] Rebellious tribes, sensing the Saadian extremis, determined to throw off the oppressor.

A timid ruler might have shrunk before the challenge, but the Mohammed ash-Shaykh further tightened his grip. First, he removed the threat of a coup in favor of the Wattasids. Ahmad al-Wattasi was dragged from his prison quarters in Marrakech and beheaded. Other surviving Wattasid family members in Fez met similar fates.[63] He then turned his ire to those who in his eyes were the main culprit of this civil disobedience - the brotherhoods. Their usefulness had, for some years, been only slightly greater than the inconvenience they caused. Now, however, they had become a challenge to his authority that he could brook no longer. Examples had to be made.

That year, Mohammed ash-Shaykh launched a campaign of repression against the several uncooperative zawaya shaykhs, sending agents to search their store houses, confiscate property for taxes, and bully and intimidate. Sufi leaders of Fez were particularly targeted, and many were obliged to surrender property they received from the Wattasids. The zawiya of at least one Sufi shaykh was closed, and his disciples dispersed.[64]

The Sufi shaykhs could do nothing. Too late they were awakened to the creature they had created. The Sultan’s baraka, proven on the battlefield, was too great, and his army too potent. Furthermore, he trumped their collective moral authority in assuming the title of al-madhī, or the ‘guided one’, who according to Islamic eschatology would redeem Islam and smite its enemies. And so, after nearly a hundred years of watching their influence grow, the zawaya shaykhs suddenly found themselves on uncertain footing. If not yet politically marginalized, they were certainly shut out of the makhzen. The Maraboutic Crisis, for a time, receded.

Nearly three years went by, with the Sultan and his sons engaged in trekking up and down mountain ranges at the head of various contingents of troops, collecting taxes and administering justice. As time passed, and relative calm was restored Mohammed ash-Shaykh might have begun to consider that the Turks had overlooked his transgressions. He would have been mistaken.

The Turks had, in fact, been making preparations to restore a client Wattasid regime in Fez. Abou Hassoun’s presence in Algiers was fortuitous and added incentive. The beylerbey, or governor, of Algiers backed the would-be sultan, and in December, 1553, Turkish and Wattasid loyalist forces launched a three-pronged invasion of Morocco. After two crushing defeats, Mohammed ash-Shaykh was forced to evacuate Fez and retired to Marrakech to regroup. On January 8, 1554, the Turks captured Fez. It was a humiliating defeat, made all the more bitter by the warm welcome the people of Fez gave to Abou Hassoun. For the people of that city, who regarded Fez as the true political and religious capital of the land, the Saadians, people of the south, were unwelcomed rustics. The setback, however, was a brief one. On September 23, 1554, the Saadians were once more marching through the gates of Fez. The Turks were gone and Abou Hassoun, left to his own devices, was finally exterminated. With his death, the Wattasid Dynasty passed into history.

In re-capturing Fez, Mohammed ash-Shaykh demonstrated that Moroccan unity would not be ephemeral; and Morocco would be a prospective player in the affairs of the region. As Weston Cook observed:

Suddenly, Morocco was no longer an arena of contest, but a potential contestant, who could shift the balance of forces in the Mediterranean if it’s new sovereign so desired.[65]

Being an aspirant, and the weakest in a rough neighborhood, required statesmanship for the embryonic Saadian state to gain the time needed to develop politically and economically. This did not come easily to the hard-driving sultan. It was a lesson that, if learned, was learned too late.

The re-captured Fez prompted another round of political cleansing. While Mohammed ash-Shaykh was not, in el-Oufrani’s words, “shy about shedding blood” he was probably not the ruthless tyrant that some have depicted .[66] He did not, after all, execute his brother, as was common of dynastic politics of survival. He showed restraint, even after it was learned that Ahmad was conspiring with the Wattasids from internal exile. Only after Mohammed ash-Shaykh had died would Ahmad and his family be executed on orders from the governor of Marrakech.[67] Furthermore, Mohammed ash-Shaykh had shown a conciliatory spirit toward the Fassis in 1549. And, as for the Wattasids, he had only executed the former sultan and his family when it became a political necessity. The frustrations of the past four years, however, had taken their toll. Now, blood would flow. A number of prominent supporters of the former dynasty were rounded up and executed, including a renowned qadi of Fez, Abdel Mohammed Abdelouahhậb. This latter incident figures prominently in many accounts of this era, in part in an effort to illustrate the Sultan’s bloodlust; more to the point, legend finds in prophesy the irresistible.

Standing in the Sultan’s presence at the moment of his execution, Abdelouahhậb remained defiant, refusing to speak, let alone grovel.

“Choose the instrument by which thou shalt die,” Mohammed ash-Shaykh demanded of the prisoner.

“Choose for yourself,” came the terse reply, “for a man dies by the manner in which he kills.”

The Sultan, doubtless annoyed at the fellow’s pluck, intoned, “Cut off his head with an axe.”[68]

His kingdom restored and his vengeance sated, Mohammed ash-Shaykh settled for a status quo, at least for the moment.

The damage, however, had already been done. Between 1547 and 1557, the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I sent two emissaries to Mohammed ash-Shaykh’s court to pursue a détente, and perhaps even to entice the Moorish ruler into his orbit.[69] The Great Turk, the preeminent conqueror of his age, the one they called, ‘The Lawgiver’ in the East and ‘The Magnificent’ in the West, had pushed Ottoman frontiers across North Africa to Tlemcen, in the east to the Caspian Sea, and to the south his forces ranged as far as the Gulf of Aden. In Europe, he had led his armies to crushing victories over the Hungarians, capturing Belgrade and Budapest, and pushing to the very gates of Vienna. The Moorish sultan, however, was hardly overawed with Turks or their ruler, whom he mocked as too preoccupied with adventures at sea.

At the second meeting, came the long-expected offer, really an ultimatum. The Ottoman emissary suggested that Mohammed ash-Shaykh decree that Suleiman’s name be included in the Friday sermon, and that coins be struck in his likeness. These were traditional signs of fealty to the Turkish Sultan, nominal enough, but the Saadian ruler would have none of it. The grizzled warrior, gray and stooped as he was, had weathered more than forty years of war, besting or outlasting seemingly a thousand contestants. Now, at the pinnacle of his power, he was not about to bow before a foreign master. The ambassador shifted under the icy glare, and after an uncomfortable silence asked what answer he might communicate to his master. The response was an indelible bit of impudence.

“I will only respond to the sultan of fishing boats when I reach Cairo; it will be from there that I will write my response.”[70] With these words, Mohammed ash-Shaykh dismissed the Ottoman sultan’s emissary. There was no diplomatic pretense where the Turk was concerned. The hapless fellow withdrew and harried to back to Algiers, no doubt too shocked to contemplate anything but how the beylerbey would receive such effrontery from his lips.

Such recklessness did not stop there. After taking recapturing Fez, Mohammed ash-Shaykh entered into negotiations with the Spanish viceroy of Oran for an alliance against the Turks.[71] In all probability, this was intended as a defensive alliance of convenience. Surely, the old man could not believe that he, lacking a navy, and with a predominantly tribal army of xenophobes, might march side-by-side with Spanish troops all the way to Cairo?

Certainly, the Turks did not believe it. But they had finally had their fill of the troublemaker. Initially, perhaps in the heat of the moment, Suleiman and his advisors contemplated sending an invasion force by sea. In time, they thought the better of it. The distance involved was too great, and the anchorages too poor. A more conventional approach, assassination, was settled upon. Their man in the region, Hasan Pasha, the Beylerbey of Algiers, was charged with the arrangements.

In Hasan they found the man for the job. He had only been re-appointed to his post a few weeks earlier, and was still bitter at the Moorish king. Five years earlier Suleiman, perceiving that Hasan had somehow baited the Sharif of Marrakech into a fight, had sacked him over the border war. Now, he would be avenged. Hasan promptly selected a band of the choicest Turkish ruffians in his garrison and sent them under the command of Salih el Kiahia to Morocco with instructions to present themselves as elite soldiers and deserters who wished to offer their services. Turkish soldiers, he knew, were much prized in the service of Moorish princes.[72]

Mohammed ash-Shaykh was delighted with the addition of such experienced professionals, and he integrated them into his personal body guard and employed them in the drilling of his regulars. The Turks bided their time. In the fall of 1557, Mohammed ash-Shaykh, despite his nearly 70 years of age, was again on the move. October found him and his part of his army in the Deren region of the western High Atlas Mountains. Once more, a show of force was required to cow obdurate tribes into paying their taxes. This particular group of Berbers had resisted the naiba since 1547.[73] On the evening of October 23, the army stopped to make camp at a place called Aglagal. The tumult of the moment provided the assassins with their opportunity. Amidst the noise and confusion, as tired men hauled loads from the backs of braying camels and donkeys and as the concentric rings of tents and barriers began to rise, Sahil and a few of the Turks slipped into the Sultan’s command tent. Finding its occupant alone, Sahil, it was said, drew up an axe and decapitated Mohammed ash-Shaykh. Stuffing their trophy into a haversack, the Turks slipped from camp and headed east into the gathering darkness.

In the end, the wily old ghazi had forgotten the poet’s admonishment:

Lean not on the Turk; even if his piety is such that he may fly in the clouds.

If he is kind to you, it is pure error on his part; if he is cruel it is because he takes after his father and mother.[74]

As the news made its way to the next Saadian sultan, Abdallah el-Ghalib, at Fez, the headless trunk was being carted off to Marrakech for burial. On the marble sepulcher was carved the following poem.[75]

Pay homage to this tomb which mercies sheathe,
And their white clouds that shade its niche.
From it the perfumed fragrances of saintliness flow,
And through him, in eternal rest, carries unto us.
When he died, the sun of faith no longer burned;
The seven earths in darkness mourned.
O, beautiful soul laid low by this evil deed,
Cruelly pierced by the arrows of death.
At thy demise the pillars of glory crumbled and
the seven heavens trembled.
Voices and melodies of angels escorted thy coffin to Eden;
Ported by the Pleiades on their celestial course
Whilst you lay in the earth beneath the clouds.
O, Divine mercy, shower him with the nectar of your favors
and may the of chalice of ambrosia be ever full before him!
His destiny was fulfilled at the utterance of these words:
It is clear that the abode of the Imam of Faith, the Mahdi, is Paradise.

While his work was ephemeral, as would be the dynasty he created, Mohammad ash-Shaykh stands as one of the greatest rulers of Islamic Morocco. Through superior generalship and sheer determination he overcame enormous obstacles to achieve the consolidation of political power and reverse the decline of his country. In mastering the Sufi shaykhs and re-invigorating the tradition of royal sharifism, Mohammad ash-Shaykh established the political foundations of the modern Moroccan state. His vigorous efforts to free Morocco from the Portuguese commercial stranglehold, and to ward off Ottoman expansion, kept Morocco free from foreign conquest. And, he succeeded in raising two remarkable sons, Abdelmalek and Ahmad al-Mansur, who would succeed him and leave their own indelible marks on Moroccan national consciousness.

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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© 2024 Comer Plummer, III.

Published online: 09/15/2012.

Written by Comer Plummer. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Comer Plummer at:

About the author:
Comer Plummer is a retired US Army Officer.  He served from 1983 to 2004 as both an armor officer and Middle East/Africa Foreign Area Officer.  He is currently employed as a DoD civilian and living in Maryland with his wife and son.

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