The name Almoravids, from Arabic al-Murābitūn (fighters for the faith), is conventionally given to the religious movement and dynastic state that dominated al-Andalus and modern Morocco from the late eleventh century to the 1140s.
The movement was founded by ‘Abd Allāh ibn Yāsīn in the 1050s. He preached a harsh and literalist version of Islam, which was easy to comprehend but left little scope for imagination or intellectual discussion. He found an audience among the Lamtuna tribe, a section of the Berber Sānhaja confederation that dominated the western Sahara. He was welcomed by Yahyā ibn ‘Umar and his brother Abû Bakr, whose descendants were to provide the dynastic leadership of the Almoravid Empire.
By 1054 they had secured control of the trade route that led from Sijilmassa in southern Morocco to the gold-producing areas of ancient Ghana, on the upper Niger River. Ibn Yāsīn then began to preach in Morocco, but after some initial success, he was killed in 1059. Leadership of the movement was assumed by Yûsuf ibn Tāshfīn. In 1070 the Almoravids founded the city of Marrakesh, which was to be the effective capital of both the Almoravids and their Almo- had successors.
Ibn Tāshfīn took the title of amir al-Muslimin (prince of the Muslims) but not the title of caliph; the Almoravids professed their loyalty to the Sunnī ‘Abbāsid caliphs in distant Baghdad. In 1083 Ibn Tāshfīn took Ceuta on the Strait of Gibraltar and so effectively completed his control of Morocco. Al-Mu‘tamid of Seville (1069-1091) and other Taifa rulers invited Ibn Tāshfīn to cross the straits to help them to resist the Christian advance. On 23 October 1086, their combined armies defeated Alfonso VI, king of Castile, at Sagrajas (Zallaqa), northeast of Badajoz. The Almoravids then returned to Morocco.
In the summer of 1088 Ibn Tāshfīn and the Almoravids crossed to Spain again and joined forces with the Taifa kings to besiege Aledo, between Granada and Murcia. Rivalries between the Taifa kings undermined the military effort, and Ibn Tāshfīn and his men were obliged to return to Morocco without having achieved anything.
When Ibn Tāshfīn came again in 1090, he was determined to act on his own. Between 1090 and 1094, he and his nephew Sīr ibn Abī Bakr took over Granada in 1090, Seville in 1091, and Badajoz in 1094. Only Valencia, taken by El Cid in the summer of 1094, and Zaragoza eluded Almoravid control. Until around 1117, Almoravid influence in the Iberian Peninsula continued to expand. In 1102 the Almoravids took Valencia from El Cid’s widow Jimena. On the death of Ibn Tāshfīn in 1106, power passed easily to his son ‘Alī, while the death of Alfonso VI in 1109 led to prolonged disputes among his heirs. In 1110 al-Musta‘īn, ruler of the last independent Taifa kingdom (Zaragoza), was killed fighting the Aragonese at Valtierra, and the pro-Almoravid party in the city expelled his son and handed the city over. In 1112 and 1114 Almoravid armies were able to use their new base in the Ebro Valley to raid Catalonia and reach the foothills of the Pyrenees.
The Almoravids never formed more than a small ruling military elite in al-Andalus, distinguished from the local people by their Berber language and their veils. Ibn Tāshfīn advised his son to maintain 17,000 horsemen in the country, including 4,000 in Seville, the Almoravid capital, and 1,000 in Cordoba and Granada. Power was concentrated in the hands of the ruling dynasty and a small number of related families, all from the Lamtûna tribe. No native Andalusi Muslims played an important role in the military. The Almoravids ruled in cooperation with Andalusi civilian elites, notably the qadis (judges) of the main cities, who became increasingly influential political figures at this time.
From 1118 the Almoravids’ power began to wane as their prestige was undermined by military failure. Their armies had proved their ability to defeat the Christians in battle at Sagrajas in 1086 and Ucles in 1108, but they proved much less effective at siege warfare. This showed most obviously in the failure to retake Toledo from the Castilians. In 1109 Almoravid forces moved up the Tagus Valley, and Talavera was taken. The lands around Toledo were ravaged, but the city held out.
From 1118 the military balance began to tilt in favor of the Christians. This shift began first in the Ebro Valley, where the dynamic king of Aragon, Alfonso I “the Battler,” took Tudela in 1114 and Zaragoza in 1118. In the winter of 1125-1126, Alfonso led a raid deep into Muslim territory, and his army wintered in the countryside around Granada while the Almoravid forces looked on helplessly.
Under the leadership of Tāshfīn ibn ‘Alī, the Almoravids recovered something of their military initiative in the 1130s and in 1136-1137 Muslim forces were able to operate north of the Tagus and capture the castle at Escalona. However, the urban militias of Christian towns such as Avila and Toledo raided far into Muslim territory: in 1133 the army of Toledo reached the walls of Seville and killed the governor.
Meanwhile, the Almoravids were threatened by the rise of a rival movement in Morocco, the Almohads. In 1130 the Almohads attacked Marrakesh, and by the early 1140s they controlled most of Morocco. From 1132, ‘Alī ibn Yûsuf became increasingly reliant on a Christian military commander, Reverter the Catalan, and his Christian troops. In the 1140s the position of the Almoravids declined rapidly. In 1143 the ineffective ‘Alī ibn Yûsuf died and was succeeded by his much more competent son Tāshfīn. In 1144 Reverter was killed in action, and Tāshfīn himself suffered the same fate in March 1145. His shadowy successors could do little, and in March 1147 the Almohads stormed Marrakesh, massacring the remnants of the Almoravid elite. With the fall of Tangier and Ceuta in May-June 1148, Almoravid rule in North Africa was over.
In al-Andalus, Almoravid military failure led to popular revolts. Almoravid rule survived in Granada until 1155, while the Banû Ghāniya, a branch of the Almoravids, held the Balearic Islands until 1203.
The Almoravid nomad warriors were effective in open warfare, but much less so in sieges or garrison duty. They also failed to recruit military support among the Andalusi Muslims. When the first generation had passed on and the regime was challenged in both Morocco and the Iberian Peninsula, Almoravid rule soon vanished.