Post-classical history


A political movement and dynasty that ruled North Africa and al-Andalus from the mid-twelfth to mid-thirteenth centuries. The name is derived from the Arabic al-Muwahhidün (those who assert the unity of God).

The founder of the movement was Muhammad ibn Tûmart, who began to preach a message of Islamic revival among the Masmûda Berbers of the Atlas Mountains in the 1120s. An attack on Marrakesh in 1130 failed, and he died soon after. The movement was taken over by his lieutenant ‘Abd al-Mu’min, who established his control by ruthless purges of any opponents. In 1147 he conquered Marrakesh and destroyed the remnants of the Almoravid regime.

In 1147 the first Almohad troops entered al-Andalus, and in 1148 Seville was taken, but progress was halted by Almo- had campaigns in North Africa, which led to the conquest of Constantine andBejaïa (Bougie) in 1152-1153. Following this triumph, ‘Abd al-Mu’min set about consolidating his control over the Almohad political apparatus. His sons were appointed governors of provincial cities in both North Africa and al-Andalus, and the descendants of the original Council of Ten who had dominated the movement in its early days became a sort of hereditary aristocracy, a privileged ruling class. ‘Abd al-Mu’min himself took the title of caliph, implying both political independence and religious leadership.

The core of the Almohad army consisted of the original Berber supporters of the dynasty, who were said to have numbered 10,000 and were usually quartered in Marrakesh, except when they were on campaign with the caliph. Unlike the Almoravids, the Almohads coopted native Andalusi military leaders, and families like the Banû Azzun of Jerez were to play an important role in Almohad campaigns in the Iberian Peninsula.

In 1155 the Almohads took Granada from the last of the Almoravid governors, but Valencia and Murcia remained independent under the control of Ibn Mardanīsh, a local Muslim ruler closely allied to the Castilians. The caliph meanwhile was busy with the struggle against the Normans of Sicily in Tunisia, where Tunis was taken by the Almohads in 1159, and the last Norman outpost at Mahdia in January 1160. In 1163 the caliph assembled a vast army at his new fortress city of Rabat, intending to cross to al-Andalus, but he died before the expedition could set out.

He was succeeded by his son Abû Yûsuf Ya‘qûb (1163-1184). He was a cultured and bookish man, who built up a large library and entertained leading intellectuals like Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Rushd (known to Christendom as Aver- roes) at his court. He was not, however, a great warrior, and the Almohad position in al-Andalus was continually threatened, by Giraldo Sempavor in the west, who took Trujillo and Evora, and by Ibn Mardanīsh of Murcia in the East.

In 1172 the caliph launched a major military expedition against Castile. Morale was boosted by the death (from natural causes) of Ibn Mardanīsh. After an unsuccessful attempt to take the small Castilian town of Huete, the Almohad army descended on Ibn Mardanīsh’s heartlands around Murcia. Ibn Mardanīsh’s family were received into the caliph’s favor and, for the first time, all the Muslims of al- Andalus (except for the Balearic Islands) were under Almohad rule. However, the great expedition had failed to recover any territory from the Christians.

When the caliph left al-Andalus in 1176, the security position began to decline immediately. In 1177 Cuenca fell to the Castilians, while the Portuguese sacked Beja in 1178 and began raiding the Algarve at will. In 1180 the caliph decided that Tunisia, where the Bedouin Arabs presented a continuing problem, was the most pressing concern, and he did not return to Marrakesh until 1182. In 1184 he led an attack on Santarém on the river Tagus but was surprised in his tent and killed.

His son and successor, Abû Yûsuf, who took the title of al-Mansûr (the one granted victory), was a robust military man. His first task was to cross the Strait of Gibraltar and secure his position in Marrakesh. He may have intended to return to al-Andalus and avenge his father’s humiliating death, but he first had to deal with problems in North Africa. It was not until 1188 that some sort of Almohad control was reestablished.

In 1190 he turned his attention to al-Andalus and led an expedition against the Portuguese fortresses in the Tagus Valley, but he failed to take the Templar castle at Tomar, and disease in the army forced him to retreat to Seville and then to Morocco. In 1195 he set out to al-Andalus again. He led his army north from Cordoba, and on July 17 he met and defeated the troops of Alfonso VIII of Castile at Alarcos in the plain of Calatrava. In 1196 he led his army through Extremadura and sacked the newly settled city of Plasencia. In 1197 he raided around Madrid and Guadalajara, but though the countryside was ravaged, no strong points were captured.

In 1198 al-Mansûr returned to Marrakesh, where he died in January 1199. He was succeeded by his son al-Nasīr (1199-1213). In 1203 the Almohads enjoyed a success when a naval expedition of 130 ships took the Balearic Islands from the Banû Ghāniya dynasty. In 1209 the Christians in al-Andalus began raiding the area around Cordoba, and in 1211 the caliph gathered his forces at Rabat and crossed the strait. He captured the castle of Salvatierra, used as a base by the military Order of Calatrava. The next year Alfonso VIII of Castile marched south with a force that included the king of Aragon and contingents from all the kingdoms of Spain. Al-Nasir went to meet him but was decisively defeated at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (12 July 1212). The caliph fled ignominiously back to Marrakesh, where he died the next year.

The caliph was succeeded by his young son al-Mustansir (1213-1224), whose death led to a series of succession disputes that effectively paralyzed the Almohad caliphate. Meanwhile the Almohad governors in al-Andalus had to try to defend themselves. From 1230, Ferdinand III of Castile began the series of campaigns that were to result in the conquest of the whole of al-Andalus apart from the kingdom of Granada, but by this time the Almohads were largely irrelevant, their last rulers engaged in succession disputes in Marrakesh and vain attempts to resist the rise of the MarīnidBerbers.

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