I have been to Marrakech before, twelve years ago, but the visit was relatively fleeting and I did not have time to take in its more historic attractions of which the Saadian tombs and Al Badi Palace are the foremost. Memories of the visit to be truthful are a little hazy if you know what I mean and so I am looking forward to re-making its acquaintance in a more cultured frame of mind.
So, anyway, to return to the question at hand: Who were the Saadian Dynasty?
The archetypal Moorish warrior leader
The Saadian Dynasty began as the major power in the south of Morocco, who mounted a challenge both to the incumbent ruling dynasty of the Wattasid Sultanate centred on Fez and to the Portuguese who had established a number of enclaves along the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts from which they sought to control the hinterland and gain access to the riches of the caravan trade in gold and slaves from Sub-Saharan Africa.
The presence of the Portuguese was a key driver behind the emergence of the Saadi as they put pressure on the tribes to select a leader with whom they could negotiate. This leader was regional strongman Abu Abdullah al Qaim who, rather than proving tractable, united the tribes of the south in jihad against the Portuguese. Following his death in 1517 his eldest son Mohammed ash Sheikh succeeded to his position and took up the mantle of jihad. In 1524 the Saadian forces conquered Marrakech. Three years later Mohammed's rule over the south was acknowledged by the Wattasid regent in Fez, ostensibly as governor, recognising the suzerainity of the Wattasids, but effectively as lord of the south.
The Saadi leader was happy to trade with other European powers in his quest to oust the Portuguese and acquired western gunpowder weapons for his campaigns. In 1541 he turned his weapons against the colony of Agadir. The Saadian forces, bolstered by Ottoman trained freebooters, approached the siege with unexpected professionalism. A Kasbah was constructed atop the hill which dominated the port from which the Saadian artillery could pound away at the Portuguese defences. When a barrel of gunpowder exploded the walls were breached and the city was taken.
This 1905 photograph shows the commanding position of the Kasbah above Agadir
In 1549 Mohammed turned his army against the Wattasid capital of Fez which also fell to his artillery. The city was briefly retaken by the Wattasids with Ottoman assistance five years later but Mohammed marched against them once more and defeated and killed the last Wattasid ruler in the Battle of Tadla fought close to Fez.
Mohammed ash Sheikh was seen as a threat by the Ottomans due to his claim of descent from the Prophet through the Fatimid line. He therefore did not recognise the Ottoman claim to the universal Caliphate and refused to acknowledge the Sultan in Constantinople as his nominal overlord. During a tax gathering expedition in the Atlas mountains in 1557 he was assassinated by his Janissary bodyguards.
Mohammed was succeeded by his son Abdullah al-Ghalib who successfully saw off an attempted Ottoman invasion in the following year. Al-Ghalib's reign was marked by political manoeuvring to counter Ottoman aggression by seeking alliance with the Spanish. His brothers al-Mansur and Abd al-Malik found themselves exiled during his reign and made their way to the Ottoman court. Both would fight in the Ottoman fleet at Lepanto in 1571. Abd al-Malik was taken prisoner by the Spanish but later escaped and returned to Constantinople. Al Ghalib died from an asthma attack in 1574 to be succeeded by his son Abdullah Mohammed.
In that same year Abd al-Malik arrived in Tunis with an Ottoman invasion fleet and following the successful capture of the port led a force of ten thousand Ottoman troops inland to take Fez, overthrowing his nephew who fled northwards; eventually finding his way to the court of the young King Sebastian of Portugal.
Sebastian I of Portugal
The 24 year old Sebastian had been raised on dreams chivalric glory combined with Jesuit zeal and the opportunity to lead a military expedition against the infidel, albeit with the aim of restoring Abdullah to the throne was irresistible. The political advantages of expelling the pro-Ottoman Abd al-Malik and replacing him with a Portuguese backed candidate were obvious and so Sebastian set out in 1578 at the head of an army perhaps as large as 20,000 men. It was a mixed force of Portuguese and mercenary troops from all over Europe attracted by the Papal blessing for the expedition and the prospect of loot.
The campaign was a complete disaster. At the Battle of Alcacer Quibir, also known as the Battle of the Three Kings, Sebastian's forces, tired and hungry from their march inland from Tangier, nevertheless mounted a bold but reckless charge against a Muslim force which out-numbered them by perhaps as many as three to one. Having initially driven their enemies back, the Portuguese and their allies were ultimately enveloped and overwhelmed by the superior numbers of the enemy, whose crescent formation allowed them to surge around the flanks. Sebastian himself fought furiously, with three horses being killed under him before at last, wounded in the arm, he was surrounded, overwhelmed and cut to pieces.
In the ensuing rout his army was annihilated. It was a disaster for Portugal which ultimately saw the kingdom annexed by Sebastian's uncle, Philip II of Spain.
Battle of Alcacer Quibir
Abd al-Malik did not live to see his victory however. Already fatally ill at the commencement of hostilities, the Sultan had to be tied onto his horse to keep him upright. By the battle's end he was dead. His brother al-Mansur was declared his successor on the battlefield. The deposed Abdullah Mohammed had also fallen in the battle.
Under Al-Mansur the Saadian dynasty knew its golden age. Enriched by the ransoms of wealthy European prisoners taken at Alcacer Quibir, Al-Mansur was able to beautify his capital of Marrakech, constructing the magnificent Al Badi Palace, the remains of which stand to this day. He was a ruler with imperial ambitions and sought alliances as far afield as England, dispatching envoys to the court of Elizabeth I to seek an alliance against Spain. In 1591 he sent forth an expedition against the gold-rich Songhai Empire of Mali commanded by a Spanish born eunuch named Judar Pasha. This bold enterprise, marching an army of four thousand soldiers and an additional two thousand non-combatants using eight thousand camels to carry their supplies and equipment which included arquebuses and canons on a 135 day crossing of the Sahara, caught the Songhai ruler entirely unprepared. At Tondibi the opposing forces met and the Malian defenders attempted to disrupt the Moroccan lines by sending ten thousand cattle in a stampede towards them. A volley of canon fire sent the stampede back towards the Malian lines and thus their own tactic rebounded upon them. The superior professionalism and firepower of the mostly mercenary Moroccan army carried the day. Reinforcement by a second expedition led to the swift collapse of the Songhai Empire and the occupation of its legendary cities of Gao, Djenne and Timbuktu which the Moroccans would control for the next thirty years before the logistical demands of maintaining such a far flung imperial possession proved too much.
A Nineteenth Century depiction of Timbuktu
Al Mansur died from the plague in 1603. He was succeeded by two of his sons ruling separately in Marrakech and Fez and so began the inevitable decline of the Saadian Dynasty as twenty five years of civil war beckoned, at the conclusion of which their empire was left fragmented and largely in the hands of local potentates, the Spanish or the Turks.
Rise of the Saadians
Battle of Alcacer Quibir
Expedition to Mali
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