Just published, a study of shrines at Moroccan archaeological sites

A long time in the pipeline, a co-authored study of shrines at archaeological sites has at last been published. Fifteen years ago, in the Spring of 2002, I teamed up with Said Ennahid, an archaeologist and colleague at Al Akhawayn University, to follow up on an empirical observation he had made, that ancient archaeological sites in Morocco tend to have functioning Muslim shrines atop them. With research funds from our employer (thank you AUI) we set out to investigate. We eventually settled on six sites. There was a neat division of labor between Said and me, and I of course got to do the cartography. In November 2010 I presented our findings at a conference on spoliation at Humbolt University in Berlin. Following the conference, organizers Stefan Altekamp, Carmen Marcks-Jacobs and Peter Seiler accepted to edit a peer-reviewed volume containing the full write-up of the studies presented. It is the resulting tome that has now just been published:

Stefan Altekamp, Carmen Marcks-Jacobs and Peter Seiler, editors (2017). Perspektiven der Spolienforschung: Zentren und Konjunkturen der Spoliierung 2. (Perspectives on Spoliation: Centers and Contexts of Spoliation). Topoi: Freien Universität Berlin.

For readers unfamiliar with the term, “spolia” refers to building material from abandoned places being reused for new buildings later in history. Until the development of archaeology in the late 19th century, spoliation was the fate of nearly all abandoned sites. For obvious reasons, pricey material like marble and iron was most prone to be “spoliated,” but so too were dressed stone of any kind, and baked bricks and tiles, and even the commonest rammed earth and adobe. While such spoliation seems at first to be utterly destructive, this is not necessarily always the case. Like a palimpsest, sometimes the only vestiges of an ancient building to survive in our day are the pieces of it that were reused in later buildings.

Perspektiven der Spolienforschung contains contributions in German, English, French and Italian, and deals with Mediterranean sites. Our chapter is entitled: “Adding a Layer: Functioning Muslim Shrines at Archaeological Sites in Northwestern Morocco.” I will present a brief, illustrated, synopsis of it below. For more fun you can download the entire edited volume here and here.

Location of Archaeological sites investigated in 2002

Of the six archaeological sites we investigated, three are Punico-Berber-Roman (Lixus,  Thamusida, and the Chella), two are entirely Roman (Zilil, Banasa), and the sixth (Hajr Nasr) is a classical Islamic site. I present them here in the order they appear in the publication, that is starting with the smallest and simplest types of shrine and proceeding towards ever larger and more institutionalized types. For more on popular shrines in the Moroccan landscape I refer readers to this post from 2011.


Mr. Hassani, Curator of the Lixus site (standing), Prof. Said Ennahid and AUI chauffeur Aziz El Arj (seated) in the ruined mosque at Lixus (ph. Eric Ross 2002)

Lixus lies on a plateau overlooking the Loukkos River just upstream from its mouth. The city dates to the Phoenician/Punic period and was occupied until early Islamic times. In the center of the ancient city, amidst the ruined temples, are the well preserved foundations of the mosque of that era.

Plan of the Lixus site

The shrine of Sîdî Ghazzal, the only functioning one at Lixus in the spring of 2002, was of the simplest type, a hawsh or enclosure. Located behind a thicket at the highest point on the site, it consisted of a low U-shaped wall of stones and bricks enclosing a shallow pit. We could tell this shrine was still active at the time of our visit because the whitewash over the masonry had not completely washed away and candles had been burnt in the immediate vicinity. The site’s curator, Mr. Hassini, confirmed that people from Larache and near-by villages occasionally visit Sîdî Ghazzal on Tuesdays or Thursdays.  We didn’t physically poke around the active shrines we visited, so cannot tell for sure, but in all likelihood the Roman-looking flat bricks in the dry-stone wall came from the near-by ruins, as too did the more regularly shaped stones.

The shrine of Sidi Ghazzal in Lixus (ph. Eric Ross 2002)

This is among the simplest types of shrine and the simplest type of spoliation, readily handled stones and bricks being reused nearly in-situ. Small shrines like this are easily abandoned, or else they “move” to some other secluded location. Whatever is left behind rapidly disappears from the landscape.


The therme (Roman baths) are the only visible archaeological structure at Zilil (ph. Eric Ross)

The Roman colonia of Zilil is located in the village of Dechra Jdid. It remained a town until the 11th century. There is nothing much left of it above ground today. Some simple spolia-shrines can be found at the site; others are a few kilometers away. Most of them were (in 2002) associated with tombs.

Plan of the archaeological site of Zilil

About 600 m west of the therme, the most visible ruin in Zilil, is the shrine of Hurmat Allâh (or “Sanctuary of God”).

The shrine of Hurmat Allâh incorporates Roman-era column fragments and is associated with burials (ph. Eric Ross 2002)

Hurmat Allâh occurs near an outcrop of Roman-period concrete and masonry. The outcrop is level with the surface and is mostly lichen-covered. The shrine itself consists of thicket of short trees, including olive and doum-palms, at whose roots a section of stone column has been erected. The column section and other large stones in the composition are not whitewashed. According to Ahmed Kadi Wahabi, the guardian of the Zilil site, the shrine is visited by people who suffer from back pain. The Hurmat Allâh site also includes a well (no longer in use) and two cemeteries:  a child’s cemetery directly behind the thicket and closer to the masonry outcrop, and a cemetery for adults off to the side. The guardian told us that the child’s cemetery is still in use.

Area around Zilil where spolia can be found

1.7 km north west of Zilil, in the neighboring village of Khaloua, is the beautifully bucolic zâwîya of Sîdî Ahmad Tardnî. This zâwîya consists of a darîh with qubba and a separate mosque with minaret. These whitewashed building are set within a grove of fig-trees at the summit of a narrow spur (90 m), with a spectacular view northwards across the plain. The grove contains a well and three whitewashed graves.

Zâwîya of Sîdî ‘Alî Tardnî in 2002 (ph. Eric Ross)

The zâwîya of Sîdî Ahmad Tardnî is not associated with the Zilil site, or to the shrines found there. It does however harbor within its precinct two cut stones of probable archaeological origin. First, there is a large rectangular piece of cut sandstone.  According to the shaykh of the zâwîya, the stone was found when the mosque was built; it now serves as a shaded garden bench overlooking the western precipice.  Large cut stones were commonly used in Roman Zilil, as in other Roman-period sites, but have not been used much in architecture since then. This stone was most likely removed from the Zilil site sometime in the past and brought to Khaloua for some purpose. Possibly, it may have been used for some building where the mosque now stands.

Roman-era millstone at the foot of a tomb next to the zâwîya of Sîdî ‘Alî Taradnî (ph. Eric Ross 2002)

The second archaeological feature at this site is a large millstone with a square hole at its summit for the wooden peg. Such millstones are common at Roman sites; they are larger than those currently in use by households but smaller than those used in commercial mills. Most probably this stone too was removed from the Zilil site or a Roman-era country villa and brought to Khaloua. Contrary to the cut sandstone piece, the millstone has some religious status. It lies at the foot of one of the garden graves and, like the other structures around it, is whitewashed.

Great olive tree shrine at the summit of Lâlla Rahma cemetery (ph. Eric Ross 2002)

Finally, 2.5 km west of Zilil is the shrine of Lâlla Rahma.  Lâlla Rahma (“Lady of Mercy”) is a cemetery. It occupies a low westward-jutting ridge. The ridge in fact culminates (50 m) in two different places, about 50 m apart, and these are where the shrines are located. The western-most summit is dominated by a large old olive tree enclosed by a low hawsh of dry-stone. There are traces of whitewash on the stones, but not on the tree trunk. The shrine is surrounded by graves.

Whitewashed segment of Roman-era column in the Lâlla Rahma cemetery near the Zilil site (ph. Eric Ross 2002)

The eastern summit, which also has many graves, is forested. Hidden among the brush is a low half-ruined circular stone enclosure which resembles a well. It is whitewashed.  10 m from this structure are a few large rectangular pieces of sandstone similar to the one in the zâwîya of Sîdî Ahmad Tardnî. Some of them are arranged horizontally, while another has been placed upright. The upright one is whitewashed.  Another low dry-stone enclosure, also partially whitewashed, completes the composition, along with a ribbon tree some 10 m away. Again, not wanting to poke around, we could only surmise that the large stones and the fragment of column were transported here from the masonry ruins a few kilometers away.

Ribbon trees are quite common at shrines across Morocco. Always designated as feminine (as in “Lâlla ‘Aîsha” or “Lâlla Rahma”), women single out little trees or bushes as secluded places of worship. The supplications women address at these trees often relate to fertility or marital issues, or else to the health and welfare of family members. They light candles and attach ribbons cut from personal items of clothing to the tree’s branches. Ribbon trees are  secluded from view, hidden in a ravine or within a grove. They are also mobile. If a given ribbon tree dies or is cut down (by the men who manage the shrines and who often take a dim view of ribbon trees and the activities that occur at them), women will select a new one somewhere else and resume their practices. Ribbon trees are not shrines in their own right; they are always associated to a more visible shrine. There were ribbon trees at nearly all the sites studied.


The white domed mausoleum of Sîdî ‘Alî b. Ahmad and the stand of palm trees next to it are the only things that rise above the ruins at Thamusida (ph. Eric Ross 2002)

Like Lixus, Thamusida, was a Punic-era commercial site which developed as a city during the Roman period. It occupies the left embankment of the Sebou River, about 20 km from its mouth.  The Sebou was a navigable river in Roman times. Next to the town they built a military camp, a castrum (approximately 150 m square) centered on a forum. Later, they erected a wall around the entire urban complex, which enclosed temples, bath houses, and salt pits for the production of garum (fermented fish paste, the ketchup of the Romans).

Plan of Thamusida archaeological site

The functioning Islamic layer consists principally of the darîh (mausoleum) of Sîdî ‘Alî b. Ahmad. This mausoleum is perhaps a typical example of a rural qubba, a whitewashed, domed structure with a single door, painted green. It stands very near the highest point of the site (12 m alt.) to the south of the castrum, and is visible from every direction. Otherwise, the archaeological site of Thamusida has no vertical components.

The mausoleum of Sîdî ‘Alî b. Ahmad and the ribbon tree (palms) next to it (ph. Eric Ross 2002)

Nothing is really known about the Sîdî ‘Alî b. Ahmad. The darîh has a murid, Mr. ‘Allâl al-Zaghmûrî, who looks after it and collects gifts left by visitors, but it has no documentation, no zahîr (official authorization or endowment). Even the mausoleum’s guadian could not tell us much about him. He did tell us that the shrine was originally a fig-tree, that the tree became a karkûr (little mound of stones) or a hawsh, and that only later was the mausoleum built. He told us that Sîdî ‘Ali b. Ahmad is visited on Wednesdays, mostly by women who wish to treat problems of infertility. It also has an annual mawsim (pilgrimage festival), in summer.

In 2002 the shrine of Lâlla ‘Aisha in Thamusida consists of bolts of cloth strung between bushes on the river bank (ph. Eric Ross)

In 2002, two ribbon trees were associated with the shrine. The first consisted of a stand of three palm trees directly adjacent to the darîh. The base of these trees showed evidence of much burning of candles and clothes had been left there. We were unable to determine if this tree-shrine had a proper name. The second ribbon tree was a bush right on the river bank.  The murid informed us that it was called Lâlla ‘Aisha. The bush was strung with long green banners, had many ribbons attached to its lower branches, and showed evidence of candle burning. The shrine was obviously used by women, but the murid was very dismissive of “women’s things” and we were unable to obtain any additional information. He did however tell us that the shrine had moved; formerly, Lâlla ‘Aisha had been located at another tree along the river bank, to the east.

Area around the Thamusida site

There are no burials around Sîdî ‘Alî b. Ahmad. Rather, the shrine is related to two cemeteries some distance away:  Sîdî Saba‘ Rijâl 4 km to the south-southwest, and Sîdî Bû Ma‘iza 1.7 km directly south of the darîh. Sîdî Bû Ma‘iza is a children’s cemetery. It consists of an almost perfectly conical hill some 200 m in diameter which culminates at 28 m. It lies in open country and has a commanding view of its surroundings, all the way to the river and the qubba of Sîdî ‘Alî b. Ahmad. At the summit of the cone is a small concrete marker. The graves of small children, as well as discarded children’s clothing, occupy the slopes of the cone. Mr. Muhammad ‘Alâm, the guardian of the Thamusida archaeological site, told us that children have been buried here since before he was born. There are also a lot of pottery shards and pieces of iron slag on the cone. The area is known as ‘Azîb Haddada, or Al-Haddada, toponymy which relates to blacksmiths and iron-working.

Hajr Nasr

The zâwîya of Sîdî Mazwâr as viewed from the slope of Jabal Khalwa in 2002 (ph. Eric Ross)

Hajar al-Nasr (“Eagle Rock”) was founded in the Idrissid period (9th-10th century) and it is today known for the zâwîya of Sîdî Mazwâr (d. 864 CE). It is therefore an entirely Islamic archaeological site. Hajar al-Nasr is an isolate place in the rugged yet densely populated Jbala region. It is about 25 km south west of the shrine of Mawlây ‘Abd al-Salâm b. Mashîsh, which is the most important shrine in the Jbala and which is closely linked to the zâwîya of Sîdî Mazwâr.

Plan of the archaeological site of Hajr Nasr

At 614 m. altitude, Eagle Rock is perched on a narrow spur of Jabal al-Khalwa, or “Mountain of the Retreat”, which culminates at 782 m. The south side of the spur is a precipitous cliff which falls to the village of Dâr Er-Rati (483 m). The north side slopes more gently towards the village of El-Hajar (550 m). The main approach to the site is the arduous south southern one, along a steep foot path which passes by a number of springs. Exactly how arduous this path actually was I only discovered once I reached the top and had to sit down quietly until my heart stopped pounding—my baptism into middle age.

Zâwîya of Sîdî Mazwâr, with the first mosque in the foreground (ph. Eric Ross 2002)

The only visible archaeological evidence for the “city” of Hajar Nasr (it could really only ever have been a fortress) is are the unimpressive foundations of a portion of wall near the summit of Jabal al-Khalwa. Otherwise, the functioning shrine “layer” at this site is quite impressive. The domed zâwîya of Sîdî Mazwâr and its dependencies occupy the flat summit of the spur. The current zâwîya is approximately 200 years old. To the left of the entrance, outside the building, is a well-constructed masonry hawsh purported to contain the grave of the Idrissid prince (either Ibrâhîm b. Muhammad b. al-Qâsim b. Idrîs, or his son Muhammad) who founded Hajar al-Nasr as a fortress-city. Two other buildings share the narrow ledge. Both are mosques and both are older than the zâwîya, but neither had been used for worship in a long time. The oldest mosque is a long narrow structure with an arched gallery along the outside of its qibla wall. The second mosque stands lower down the slope. It has the same general physiognomy as the older one (long and narrow), but without the outer gallery.

The ancient oak which dominates the central space on the site (ph. Eric Ross 2002)

The central space between the three structures is dominated by a great oak tree.  This space is used twice a year to accommodate the small crowd that attends the annual mawsims: the Mawlid al-Nabawî (the Prophet Muhammad’s “birthday” on the 12th of Rabi‘ al-Awal)  and the ‘Aîd al-Fitr holiday which marks the end of Ramadân.  Otherwise, according to the muqaddam, visits to the shrine occur mostly on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays.

Sîdî Mazwâr is the ancestor of nearly all the other Idrisid saints of the Jbala, including of the most well-known of all, Mawlây ‘Abd al-Salâm b. Mashîsh (died c. 1224 or 1227 CE). The hagiography of Ahmad b. ‘Alî Haydara b. Muhammad b. Idrîs b. Idrîs, alias Sîdî Mazwâr, recounts that the pious prince came to the isolated site to seek seclusion not from political or military turmoil, but for spiritual reasons. Hajar al-Nasr was his khalwa, his spiritual “retreat”, and this legacy survives in the name of the mountain which dominates the site. If the hagiography is historically correct, the spiritual function of the site precedes its function as an urban center or fortress. It is only later that his warring cousins established a fortress on the site. The fortress may not have been used for long but we can surmise from historic documents that the zâwîya of Sîdî Mazwâr was already an important shrine in the 16th century, cited along with that of Mawlây ‘Abd al-Salâm b. Mashîsh. Ibn Mashîsh is still a major Moroccan shrine today, but Sîdî Mazwâr is hardly known beyond the Jbala.

The Chella

Abu l-Hassan’s ruined zawiya is the largest surviving structure in the Chellah. Later mausolea rise on the slope above it under nesting egrets and storks. The foundations in the foreground are of Roman-era buildings around the forum. (ph. Eric Ross 2002)

The Chella, just outside the Almohad walls of Rabat, is one of the best known and most studied archaeological sites in Morocco.  Shalla (“Chella” in French transliteration) is etymologically related to Salâ (Salé), Rabat’s “twin” city across the Bou Regreg river, and ultimately to Sala Colonia, the name of the Roman colony on the site (I presented this history of Rabat-Salé more fully in this post from 2013).

Plan of the Chella archaeological site

The Chella is a complex archaeological site in that it has both ancient (Roman) and Medieval (Marinid) layers, as well as subsequent Islamic shrines, some of which are still functioning. The Islamic archaeological layer consists of an important mortuary complex established by the Marinids. Sultân Abû Yûsuf Ya‘qûb (reigned 1258-1286) built a funerary mosque for his wife Umm al-‘Îzz in 1284. We do not know why he chose this abandonded city to bury his wife. Subsequent sultans continued to develop the site. Abû al-Hâsan (1331-1351) built a large complex, consisting of a mosque, a zâwîya, his own monumental darîh (mausoleum) and that of his wife Shams al-Dûha. He also completed the great perimeter wall, with its monumental gate, which still encloses the site today. Abû al-Hâsan’s complex was the major necropolis of the dynasty; many important members of the Marinid court were buried there. The Chella continued to serve as cemetery until modern times and there is still a large active cemetery directly outside the walls. It has thus been a cemetery continually from the Marinid era to our day.

The author posing next to the ruined mausoleum of Sultân Abû al-Hâsan in the Chella many years ago. Traces left from burning candles can be seen in the niche in the wall behind me (ph. John Shoup 1998)

This continuity is expressed at the spiritual or mystical level by two shrines within Abû al-Hâsan’s complex itself: the shrine of the “Black Sultan” and that of his “daughter” Lâlla Shalla. The shrine to the mythical Black Sultan (al-Sultân al-Kahal) is none other than Abû al-Hâsan’s mausoleum. Now roofless, the mausoleum has open arches on three sides. The qibla side is a solid masonry wall, elaborately decorated on its outside. On its inner surface is a niche in the stonework where candles were regularly burnt (in 2002). Also the near-by tombstone of Abû al-Hâsan’s wife, Shams al-Dûha, is popularly believed to be that of an equally mythical “Lâlla Shalla”, “daughter” of the Black Sultan. Her tomb too has traces of candle burning. Like Aîsha Qandisha (see more about her in this post from 2016), the Black Sultan and Lâlla Shalla are characters from Morocco’s rich folklore and deserve to be researched, just not by a geographer like me.

The later tomb-shrines at the Chella are grouped on the slope to the west of Abû al-Hâsan’s complex. This is an overgrown cemetery consisting of: mausolea, low enclosures, tombstones, and an eel pool. Some of the trees around these tombs are now quite mature. A large colony of storks and egrets has made its home in the them.  The sound of chattering birds there is often deafening, yet it is somehow strangely in keeping with the mystical dimension of the place. One is reminded of the Persian mystic Farîd al-Dîn ‘Attâr’s Conference of the Birds.

Mausoleum of Sîdî Yâhyâ b. Yûnus in the Chella (ph. Eric Ross 2002)

The principal shrine today is the darîh (mausoleum) of Sîdî ‘Umar al-Masnâwî. The Mausoleum chamber, beneath a qubba, contains two tombs and is preceded by an antechamber. It has a guardian who lives on-site and it is still visited today. Next to it is the darîh of Sîdî Yâhyâ b. Yûnus. This is an imposing mausoleum, with a qubba. The main chamber contains two cenotaphs, while the antechamber contains four additional tombs, the most recent of which carries the date 1964. Next to this in turn is a darîh named Sîdî al-Hasan al-Imâm, a typical whitewashed cubical structure with a qubba. These names are popular attributions. The identities of the individuals originally buried in these mausolea, most likely members of the Marinid and Wattasid dynasties, are not known. Still less historical are the two female saints associated to the funerary structures: Lalla Ragraga and Lalla Sanhaja. Lalla Ragraga’s mausoleum is a small whitewashed cubical building with a qubba and a green door with the inscription “Allâh” on it while that of Lalla Sanhaja, though it looks like it may once have supported a qubba, does not seem to ever have had walls;  its four arches seem to have always stood empty. The darîhs of Sîdî Yâhyâ b. Yûnus, Lâlla Ragraga and Sîdî Hasan al-Imâm are in good repair but do not seem to be the locus of pious visit.

Eel pool next to the darîh of Sîdî ‘Umar al-Masnâwî (ph. Eric Ross 2002)

Only the darîh of Sîdî ‘Umar al-Masnâwî, with its attendant eel pool, is still a functioning shrine. The eel pool is the shrine’s most unique feature. It is a masonry basin sunken below ground level. It has seven small lateral chambers at water level.

Chambers of the eel pool (ph. Eric Ross 2002)

The construction dates from the Marinid period, though its original purpose has not been determined. It is built over a natural spring and has anywhere between 50 cm and 1 m of water in it at any time. This shrine is clearly related to issues of fertility. Women used to visit it for treatment; they would immerse themselves in the water and isolate themselves in the chambers. They would feed hard boiled eggs to the eels that live in the basin. Today, according to the guardian, this is no longer done. The eel pool is now part of the Chella tourist circuit. The guardian will feed eggs to the eels while tourists leave coins in offering. There is evidence however that the shrine is still visited for devotional purposes as burnt candles can be seen at the site.


The zâwîya of Sîdî ‘Alî Bu Junûn rises over the ruins of the Roman colony at Banasa (ph. Eric Ross 2002)

It appears that the colonia of Banasa (also Banasa Valencia) was created ex-nihilo during the reign of Augustus. Like Thamusida, Banasa occupies a low bluff on the left bank of the Sebou River – this river was still navigable to this point in Roman times. It was a small town, with a small forum at its center, a number of bath houses, and perhaps an industrial neighborhood (garum production) by the river.  It is likely the town was abandoned at the end of the 3rd century. The site is known today for the zâwîya of Sîdî ‘Alî Bû Junûn, a major shrine in the largely rural Gharb region.

Plan of Banasa archaeological site

Sîdî ‘Alî Bû Junûn is a full-fledged zâwîya in that its existence is documented (through a zahîr) and that the saint possesses a recognized genealogy. The muqaddam of the zâwîya, ‘Abd al-Salâm al-‘Agûbî, showed us these documents and volunteered a lot of additional information about the history of the site, and about its founder. Like Sîdî Mazwâr, Sîdî ‘Alî Bû Junûn was an Idrisid, i.e., a descendent of Mawlây Idrîs, great-great-great-grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (through his daughter Fatima) and founder of Morocco’s first Muslim dynasty.

According to the muqaddam, Sîdî ‘Alî (“Abû Junûn” is his sobriquet), of the Kholt tribe, came from Ksar El-Kebir “300 years ago” to teach Qur’ân to the people of the area. Sîdî ‘Alî had power over the jinn, and was especially competent in dealing with handicaps, psychological problems, and epilepsy. This legacy is clearly expressed in his sobriquet, “Abû Junûn”, which could be unpoetically translated as “Possessor/Controller of Jinn-induced Insanity”. Sîdî ‘Alî Bû Junûn liked to isolate himself in spiritual retreat, or khalwa. It is possible that he chose to inhabit the ruins of Banasa in order to isolate himself for this purpose. It is also possible that he chose to inhabit the ruins in order to better “control” the jinn who lived there. In any case, it appears that the saint was buried amidst the ruins of the Roman colony and his tomb is now at the center of a zâwîya complex.

Probably due to this saint’s burial there, the ruins of Banasa developed into a Muslim cemetery. When the French began archaeological excavation in the 1920’s, the site was still actively used for burials by the people of surrounding villages and the archaeologists had to relocate graves to get to the Roman level. Like many Moroccan cemeteries, the Banasa cemetery had a number of mausoleums: the darîhs of Sîdî Mawlây Ahmad, of Sîdî Mawlây Bû ‘Azza, as well as that of Sîdî ‘Alî Bû Junûn. While the archaeologists were able to relocate most of the graves on the site, excavation was not conducted in the immediate vicinity of these three shrines.  As excavations around them progressed, the surface level of the Banasa site was lowered, and the three shrines now “stick out” of the surrounding landscape – though they seem to have been located on the higher ground in any case.

The zâwîya of Sîdî ‘Alî Bû Junûn in 2002 (ph. Eric Ross)

While nothing could be found out about the the darîhs of Sîdî Mawlây Ahmad and Sîdî Mawlây Bû ‘Azza, which are now completely ruined (though candles are still burnt at both tombs), the zâwîya of Sîdî ‘Alî Bû Junûn is very active and attracts many visitors from the Gharb region. Many come for reasons of health, as the zâwîya has specialized in this field. In 2002, it consisted of a darîh with a conical roof and a mosque with a stout minaret attached to its south side. The complex, built in 1964, is whitewashed each year during the mawsim (held in August or September), as are all the other active shrines connected to the site.

The tree-shrine of Sîdî Sâlih in 2002 (ph. Eric Ross)

Attached to the west side of the zâwîya is the home of the muqaddam and his family, one of three farmsteads on the site. Within this farmstead is a masonry water reservoir whose foundation consists of large cut stones most probably of Roman-period origin.  Between this reservoir and the darîh is a small tree-shrine called Sîdî Sâlih (“My Lord the Pious One”). The tree grows from of a mound of whitewashed dry-stones. It is not a ribbon tree.

At the south end of Banasa the darîh of Sîdî Mawlây Bû ‘Azza has all but disappeared.  Only one corner of the structure is left standing today, but it too is whitewashed.

The ribbon tree Lâlla ‘Aîsha is just across the street from Sîdî Mawlây Ahmad (ph. Eric Ross 2002)

At the norther end, the crumbling darîh of Sîdî Mawlây Ahmad, though it is regularly whitewashed, now stands roofless. Across the cardo (the main north-south thoroughfare of the Roman town) from the darîh is Lâlla ‘Aîsha, just one of Banasa’s ribbon trees.  In 2002 it was being visited by women who tied ribbons of clothing to the bush’s lower branches. Like Lâlla ‘Aîsha in Thamusida, this shrine may relate to issues of fertility. There is even the possibility that it may be related to the presence of phallic symbols on Roman-period stones found in the vicinity. Brothels were legitimate commercial establishments in Roman towns. Their commercial signs often consisted of bas-relief stone depictions of phalluses placed at strategic intersections which “pointed” the way to the brothel. The cardo of Banasa has two specimens of these commercial signs, less than 50 m from the Lâlla ‘Aîsha tree. That these visibly phallic stones might have been the catalyst for the development of a local fertility shrine is an interesting hypothesis, but it is not one that could be verified by a team of all-male researchers.

Banasa’s other ribbon tree is named Lâlla Rahma (“Lady Mercy”). It is a large fig-tree situated in one of the six axial temples of the forum (the fifth temple from the west). In 2002 it had ribbons attached to its lower branches. We were informed by the muqaddam that this was the current Lâlla Rahma. Formerly, Lâlla Rahma was another, smaller, tree which still grew in the therme, 40 m to the west.

Conclusions ?

Well, there are none, really, as is so often the case. A preliminary investigation like ours raised more questions than it resolved.

Sites are never really ever truly abandoned. Ruined but never abandoned, these ancient cities have continued to be inhabited ever since their “decline and fall.” No longer cities, human activities on these sites related to the rural economy… and to the numinous. In one case (Hajr Nasr), the shrine function predated the creation and abandonment of the city and appears to have continuously attracted religious activity to the site. In the other sites, the shrine function came on top of the ruins.

In the early decades of the 20th century whatever archaeological layers, mostly rural in nature, which had accumulated since the “end” of the city were removed. Only the active religious elements of the landscape survived the removal, or else relocated within the newly exposed streets and foundations of the “archaeological” layer. What is most interesting is the selective spoliation of the site for religious purposes.


We found few instances of reuse of ancient building material in buildings such as mausolea or zâwîyas, which are the larger types of shrine (though, of course, we did not poke around at the foundations of these buildings). The now-ruined darîhs of Sîdî Mawlây Bû ‘Azza and Sîdî Mawlây Ahmad in Banasa may have been of Roman-era bricks recycled from the therme. We found no case of re-use of the high-quality building materials at hand (cut stone, column fragments, baked bricks, millstones) in positions of prominence in these buildings. This contrasts with other cases studied in Perspektiven der Spolienforschung, in Tunisia and Libya for instance, where the columns in great mosques and major zâwîyas can be topped with superb specimens of spoliated Roman and Byzantine capitals.

In northwestern Morocco, the high-quality building materials at hand were not used for major buildings. They were reemployed to configure small shrines, low enclosures (hâwsh), and piles (karkûr), which are not, technically, buildings. In these shrines, the spolia is often mixed in with ordinary stones, becoming nearly indistinguishable under the whitewash.

In some cases though, especially in cemeteries, cut stones and column fragments spoliated from the city have been employed as focus of the shrine, or in composition with a tomb, or a tree-shrine. Here these high-quality re-erected stones can become the actual locus of devotion, where candles are burnt.

Civilizing the jinn?

Setting out, one of our working hypotheses  was that recourse to the spiritual may have been a way the “Islamize” old ruined sites and make them safe for the local population. This hypothesis is borne out mostly in Banasa, where Sîdî ‘Alî Bû Junûn is reputed to have tamed the jinn. In popular belief, jinn (spirits) inhabit abandoned structures, as well as old wells, grottoes, trees and thickets. When disturbed, a jinn can wreck all kind of havoc on near-by people. Psychiatric disorders especially are commonly attributed to jinn in popular belief. A ruined city would certainly attract jinn of all types, and local villagers would certainly appreciate the great service rendered by a visiting faqih who chose to settle in the ruins and appease the spirits. As Sîdî ‘Alî Bû Junûn had succeeded in civilizing the jinn of Banasa, people from far and wide sought him out to relieve their own jinn-induced ailments. The enigmatic Sîdî ‘Alî b. Ahmad in Thamusida may have been part of a similar story. In the Chella you can say that it was Sultân Abû al-Hâsan, the “Black Sultan” of popular lore,  who civilized the jinn.

Children’s cemeteries

At two of the sites, Zilil and Thamusida, there are separate cemeteries for children. In Thamusida it is the enigmatic and in all likelihood man-made conical mound of Sîdî Bû Mâ’iza that serves this purpose. In Zilil children are buried next to Hurmat Allâh, an erected fragment of column. I have come across separate children’s cemeteries only once elsewhere, in Khourou Mbacké where Cheikh Ahmadu Bamba buried his children (see this post from 2012). Finding it in the context of Northeastern Morocco, I can’t help but think of the Carthaginians who habitually buried their infants in a special cemetery called Tophet. Was this Punic practice shared by the Berber population of northeastern Morocco where the Carthaginians traded for centuries? How wide-spread, and how ancient is this practice? Really, this is a question for archaeologists and historians, not a geograoher, but still, I would like to map it.

Treasure hunters

During our field work in 2002, we found that all the sites which were not under strict state or religious supervision had been vandalized by swâsa (treasure-seekers). These individuals believe that treasure is buried in ancient sites (why else would foreign archaeologists be digging in them?), so they make night-time raids with pics and shovels. They never find any treasure, but that doesn’t stop them from coming back and destroying another patch. As an aside, this is only one popular belief about ancient sites. Another is that these sites are either “Pharaonic” (Pharaoh epitomizes “ancient history” when your reference is the Holy Qur’ân) or else “Portuguese” (the Portuguese occupation of Morocco’s ports in the 15-16th centuries still looms large in popular memory). We encountered both these popular attributions in the course of our field work.

“Women’s things”: Gender where you don’t expect it

Most importantly, the gender dimension of this study of spolia–in particular the reusing of cut stone as locus of devotion in the smaller shrines–was not one we had considered prior to undertaking the field work. The smallest types of shrines, the hâwshs and karkûrs and ribbon trees, in cemeteries and discretely secluded behind zâwîyas all across Morocco, are mostly frequented by women. The supplications of the women who visit these shrines relate to their lives as mothers, wives and daughters, where family health and fertility issues are important.

The most interesting pattern we found about spoliation is the selective reuse of high-quality spolia, mostly column fragments, by women at their shrines. At Zilil we can find two instances of column fragments re-erected at the base of thickets: the Hurmat Allâh stone, and the one in the Lâlla Rahma cemetery. It is hard not to surmise a phallic symbolism to these compositions. In Banasa, the phallic sign post left over from the city’s brothel lie in plane view of the women who visit the ribbon tree. What do they see in it? Might there be a phallic stone on the way to Lâlla ‘Aîsha in Thamusida, where fertility is also the main attraction? Regrettably, I didn’t think of looking around for one at the time. Fertility is certainly the dominant theme in the Chella’s eel pool. When it functioned as a fertility shrine, women would seclude themselves in its chambers and feed an egg to the eels.

The use Moroccan women make of shrine space has been studied, by anthropologists (see Fenneke Reysoo’s Pèlerinages au Maroc). In the case of shrines in ruined cities, women have clearly invested the curious stones with new meanings. Two men in rural Morocco, Said and I are not the ones to investigate this further.

Further reading

  • Akerraz, A. (1992). “Lixus, du Bas-Empire à L’Islam.” Lixus, Collection de L’Ecole Française de Rome 166:379-385.
  • Arharbi, R. (2011). “Thamusida : de l’agglomération maurétanienne à la ville militaire romaine.” Le Jardin des Hespérides, No. 5 :63-66.
  • Arharbi, R. and Ramdani, M. (2008). “Banasa : un site majeur de la plaine du Gharb.”  Le Jardin des Hespérides, No. 4 :60-63.
  • Basset, Henri and E. Levi-Provençal, (1922). “Chella, une nécropole mérinide.” Hespéris, vol. II :1-92, 255-336, and 385-422.
  • Cressier, Patrice, Abdelatif El Boudjay, Hassan El Figuigui and Jacques Vignet-Zunz (1998). “Hagar al-Nasr « capital » idrisside du Maroc septentrional: Archéologie et Histoire (IVe H./Xe ap. J.C.).” Genèse de la ville Islamique en al-Andalus et au Maghreb Occidental. P. Cressier and M. Garcia-Arenal. Madrid, Casa de Velazquez, CSIC: 305-334.
  • Ennahid, Said (2002). Political Economy and Settlement Systems of Medieval Northern Morocco: An Archaeological-Historical Approach.  Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, International Series No. S1059, Archaeopress, Oxford.
  • Lenoir, E. (2005). “La ville romaine de Zilil du 1er siècle av. J-C. au IV siècle ap. J.-C.”  Pallas: Revue d’Etudes Antiques, 68, pp. 65-76.
  • Reysoo, Fenneke (1991). Pèlerinages au Maroc : fête, politique et échange dans l’islam populaire. Paris, Editions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme.
  • Zouanat, Zakia (1998). Ibn Mashîsh: maître d’al-Shâdhilî. Casablanca, Imprimerie Najah El Jadid.
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My promotion to full professor

This new academic year is even more fantastic than previous ones for me in that Al Akhawayn University has just promoted me to full professor.

Professor Nizar Messari, Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, gives me a commemorative plate an an informal ceremony.

Dr. Nizar Messari, Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, gives me a commemorative plate at an informal ceremony announcing the promotion.

When I first joined this institution, fresh out of a PhD, I envisioned a long-term commitment to it. Teaching geography in Morocco placed me inside my field of study, Muslim Africa (Morocco was the closest I could get to Senegal and still have a job), and I already had cultural roots in this marvelous country. I was certainly hoping things would work out well for me here, and work out well they have. Hired as assistant professor in 1998, I was promoted to associate professor in 2006, and now this ultimate stage in my academic career. Hard work, teaching, service, research,  publication and collegiality have all played a role. But, what the self assessments and peer evaluations in the promotion process don’t take into account is the sheer fun and excitement of this life. Whatever else the experience has been, it has certainly never been boring. In particular, constantly working with young adults heading into working lives of their own maintains my enthusiasm for what I do. At the very least, teaching to 20 year-olds has kept me from suffering generational disconnect; over the years I have had to update my in-class pop culture references from Madonna and the Y2K bug to Lady Gaga and Pokemon Go.

I am very happy to have been promoted to tweedy old professor. While I get the feeling that it will be all down hill from here, I have been assured by those who have preceded me that this is not the case. I will let you know.

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The annual Interfaith Alliance excursion down Oued Tizguit

2016 Interfaith walk (6)

AUI’s Interfaith Alliance. Group photo in front of the Chutes de la Vierge waterfall, Oued Tizguit. Saturday, 3 Sept. 2016. (ph. Eric Ross)

To greet the new academic year with an appropriate mix of fun and purpose, AUI’s Interfaith Alliance organized an excursion down the Tizguit valley from campus to the village of Zawiyat Sidi Abdesslam. The Interfaith Alliance is one of the university’s most active student clubs and is advised by Rev. Karen Smith, our interdenominational Christian chaplain. The club is very successful in introducing students to the spiritual wealth and diversity of the world’s great religions and in integrating new and visiting students to life on a diverse international university campus.

Participants fording a stream (ph. Eric Ross)

Participants fording a stream (ph. Eric Ross)

The walking excursion follows Oued Tizguit as it cuts a deep ravine through the limestone plateau on which Al Akhawayn University and the town of Ifrane sit. The hike takes about two and half hours, depending on the number of photo-snapshot-selfie stops we make. As the valley floor is relatively well watered, most of the walking occurs beneath a canopy of leaves. It is very refreshing this time of year as the dry plateau above gets scorching hot by mid-morning. The hike is just strenuous enough to challenge undergraduate students—most of whom are from large cities and don’t get out much—but not so strenuous as to exhaust middle-aged faculty. It is a good “beginners” option for those who want to do more serious hiking in the Middle Atlas.

An outcrop of limestone towers above the Tizguit Valley. Birds of prey roost in its caves. (ph. Eric Ross)

An outcrop of limestone towers above the Tizguit Valley. Birds of prey roost in its caves. (ph. Eric Ross)

This is the second year I have been asked to join the Interfaith Alliance’s Tizguit excursion. Last year’s theme was “caves,” an apt one given that caves are an important part of the karst land-forms and human settlements around us (Ifrane means “caves” in the regional Tamazight language).

A tranquil pool in the Tizguit Valley. Its water is polluted by the town of Ifrane, which lies upstream. (ph. Eric Ross)

A tranquil pool in the Tizguit Valley. Its water is polluted by the town of Ifrane, which lies upstream. (ph. Eric Ross)

The theme of this year’s excursion was the environment. While I pointed out a number of environmental issues (water resources, biodiversity, pollution) to students along the way, Rev. Smith invited us to reflect on how major organized religions explain the relationship between humans and the environment and invite us to respect and cherish all of creation we are a part of. She was aided in this by graduate student Abdelfattah Kadiri, who I last met up with in Tsukuba, Japan. Abdelfattah is earning a Master’s degree in Islamic and Religious Studies and is already effectively employed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Rev. Smith invited students to further explore the theme of faith and the environment by visiting the greenfaith.org website.

A group of turtles sunning themselves on a log was only slightly disturbed by our passage. (ph. Eric Ross)

Turtles sunning themselves on a log were only slightly disturbed by our passage. (ph. Eric Ross)

The all-downstream hike culminated in the village of Zawiyat Sidi Abdesslam, where we were met by Imam Khanjari, Imam of AUI and Chair of the Ifrane Provincial Council of ‘Ulama. In the antechamber of the darîh (tomb-shrine) of Sîdî ‘Abd al-Salâm al-Ya’qûbî al-Wallalî, which stands in the village cemetery, Dr. Khanjari introduced the students to Sufism. The village elders present also recounted stories about this legendary saint.

The ultimate destination, the tomb-shrine of , which gave its name to the village of Zawiyat Sidi Abdesslam. (ph. Eric Ross)

The excursion’s ultimate destination, the tomb-shrine of Sîdî ‘Abd al-Salâm al-Ya’qûbî al-Wallalî, which gave its name to the village of Zawiyat Sidi Abdesslam. (ph. Eric Ross)

After this discussion, our group visited Jamal Bekri’s cave sculpture gallery and was then hosted for a large couscous chez l’habitant.

Saturday morning’s excursion reminded me of just how fortunate I am to be living in such a beautiful place. But it also caused some foreboding about the environmental legacy my generation is leaving for these students.

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Attending a festival of Hamadshi culture

2016 Sidi Ali Hamdush (1) 2016 Sidi Ali Hamdush (2)









On 38-29-30 July 2016 I was invited to attend the Festival of Hamadshi Heritage. It is held annually in the village of Sidi Ali, which harbors the tomb of Sîdî ‘Alî ben Hamdûsh. This 17th century saint is the patron founder of the Hamadsha (or Hamadcha in common French transliteration) Sufi tarîqa.

The village of Sidi Ali sits on the southern slope of Zerhoun Mountain, northeast of the city of Meknes. Jebel Zerhoun is home to a number of shrines, the most important of which is the shrine town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun. The zâwiyya of Sîdî ‘Alî b. Hamdûsh, which contains the saint’s tomb, is built above a narrow ravine.

The zâwiyya of Sîdî 'Alî ben Hamdûsh sits above a rivine on the slope of Jebel Zerhoun (ph. Eric Ross)

The zâwiyya of Sîdî ‘Alî ben Hamdûsh sits above a ravine on the slope of Jebel Zerhoun. The saint’s tomb is beneath the green-tiled pyramid in the foreground. (ph. Eric Ross)

View of the zâwiyya from above (ph. Eric Ross)

View of the zâwiyya from above (ph. Eric Ross)

View of the zâwiyya from across the ravine (ph. Eric Ross)

View of the zâwiyya from across the ravine (ph. Eric Ross)

View of the entrance esplanade (ph. Eric Ross)

View of the entrance esplanade (ph. Eric Ross)

Hamadsha groups can be found in every Moroccan city and across North Africa. The main pilgrimage to the zâwiyya of Sîdî ‘Alî b. Hamdûsh, where they assemble each year, occurs seven days after the ‘Ayd al-Mawlid (the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday). This will fall in December this year. The cultural festival, however, is held in summer to coincide with school holidays and family vacations. Moroccans living in Europe will also visit Sidi Ali when they come to Morocco on holiday.

Village streets

Village streets

(ph. Eric Ross)

(ph. Eric Ross)










The festival is organized by a local association called the Friends of Sidi Ali for Culture and Development. The theme of this year’s festival, the second it has organized, was “Rhythm and Peace in Hamadsha Art.” Like other Sufi groups, the Hamadsha promote peace, brotherhood and tolerance through their religious teachings and cultural activities.

Group of Hamadshi disciples recite poetry to the rhythm of assorted drums (ph. Eric Ross)

Group of Hamadshi disciples recite poetry to the rhythm of assorted drums (ph. Eric Ross)

Like the Gnawa and the Aïsawa, the Hamadsha use percussion, rhythm and trance to communicate with the jinn, powerful entities in the spirit world which can interfere, for better or for worse, in the lives of people.

One of the most potent of jinn, and something of a trickster in the manner in which she creates and solves problems, is Lalla Aïsha Qandisha. The Hamadsha have specialized in channeling her fierce energy. In the ravine just below the zâwiyya lies her grotto.

The grotto of Lala Aïsha (ph. Eric Ross)

The grotto of Lala Aïsha (ph. Eric Ross)

Stalls near the entrance to the grotto (ph. Eric Ross)

Stalls near the entrance to the grotto (ph. Eric Ross)

Stalls near the entrance to the zâwiyya (ph. Eric Ross)

Stalls near the entrance to the zâwiyya (ph. Eric Ross)

Attendants in the grotto will assist those who are troubled by Aïsha Qandisha by burning candles, incense and aromatic herbs, hanging colored kerchiefs and sprinkling rose-water about the grotto. These goods are sold to pilgrims in numerous stalls in and about the shrine.




Legendary ’70s folk-rock group Jil Jilala gave an evening concert on the village square. Jil Jilala has drawn heavily from Hamadsha musical tradition, among others.

This year’s festival also included the screening of a film about the pilgrimage by Frédérick Calmès. He has promised to upload it to Vimeo, but in the meantime here is an excerpt of a CNN program about the Hamdasha of Fez:

Similar Hamadshi groups are active in Essaouira, Meknes, Sidi Slimane, Taroudannt, Tangier, Beni Ammar and many other towns.

Finally, what would a festival be without a parade, or a pilgrimage without a procession?

(ph. Eric Ross)

(ph. Eric Ross)

Village boys have the honor of parading the flags of the Hamadsha through the streets.

Village boys have the honor of parading the flags of the Hamadsha through the streets.








This is a foretaste of the real deal, the annual moussem (pilgrimage) of Sîdî ‘Alî ben Hamdûsh, held seven days after the ‘Ayd al-Mawlid. It looks like this:

Further reading

By far the best book on the Hamadsha (though I believe it is out of print) is:

  • Vincent Crapanzano (1981). The Hamadsha: A Study in Moroccan Ethnopsychiatry. University of California Press.


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Mapping the zâwiyas of Fez

My disposition for mapping shrines often leads me to volunteer my services to fellow academics working on the topic who may not have the time or expertise to make their own maps. I am always delighted when one of these collaborative projects comes to print.

Fès et sainteté, by Ruggero Vermicati Sanseverino, has just been published by the Centre Jacques Berque.

Fès et sainteté, by Ruggero Vermicati Sanseverino, has just been published by the Centre Jacques Berque.

Fès et sainteté, de la fondation à l’avènement du Protectorat (808-1912): hagiographie, tradition spirituelle et héritage prophétique dans la ville de Mawlây Idrîs has just been published by the Centre Jacques Berque in Rabat. This is an in-depth history of Sufism in the city by Ruggero Vimercati Sanseverino, currently a professor of Islamic theology at University of Tübingen.

At Ruggero’s request, I contributed a series of maps to the book. One set shows the historic evolution of the city from its Idrisid foundation in the early 9th century to its Merinid heyday, while another locates the various mosques, madrasas and Sufi zâwiyas discussed in the text. Ruggero provided the data; I mapped it.

Religious institutions of the Fez's Qarawiyyin neighborhood.

Religious institutions of Fez’s Qarawiyyin quarter.

Religious instirutions of Fez's Andalus quarter.

Religious instiutions of Fez’s Andalus quarter.

Since arriving in Morocco two decades ago I have striven to come to grips mapping its historic madinas, cities whose tight urban fabrics are a challenge to map (see this post on Morocco’s imperial cities). I am getting better at it. I am working on another such project at this very moment.

Fès et sainteté can be purchased in print from book stores but is also available for purchase in a variety of digital formats from Open Edition.


Posted in cities, map work, publication, shrines, Sufism | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

The Bradt Travel Guide to Senegal

Every once in a while, someone will contact me to ask me to contribute to a non-academic project. As an academic ensconced in my ivory tower, isolated in a gated campus on a ridge at the edge of a mountain resort (see my page on Ifrane), I always relish to opportunity to make myself relevant to a wider, non-specialist public.

Last year, author Sean Connolly asked me to contribute to a guide-book on Senegal. I am delighted to announce that this travel guide has just been released.

Bradt's Travel Guide to Senegal, by Sean Connolly, was released in November 2015.

Bradt’s Travel Guide to Senegal, by Sean Connolly, was released in November 2015.

Bradt’s new travel guide for Senegal is the most thorough English-language travel guide to the country. In keeping with Bradt’s comprehensive, multifaceted approach to travel and tourism, the Senegal guide provides an overview of the country’s geography, history, culture and environment, as well as the usual practical information for travelers. I contributed short inserts on Sufism and on the city of Touba. I advise any traveler heading to Senegal to consult the Bradt Travel Guide, as well as my general-readership book on the Culture and Customs of Senegal.

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Murids of Morocco gather to celebrate Cheikh Ahmadu Bamba

On May 9th, 2015, Murids from across Morocco gathered to celebrate Cheikh Ahmadu Bamba Mbacké, and I was honored to participate.

Fathul GhaffarThe national event, held in an indoor basketball stadium (the CMC) in Casablanca, was organized by Dahira Fathul Ghaffar, a major Murid association headquartered in Fez. Dahiras (local Sufi circles) traveled to Casablanca from across the country to participate in the all-day (and well-into-the-night) event.

The Marrakech dahira arriving at the Casablanca event.

The Marrakech dahira arriving at the Casablanca event.

The morning program consisted of rather official presentations from various religious and state authorities, both Moroccan and Senegalese, as well as by two academics: Professor Khalid Ettouzany of Sidi Mohammed ben Abdallah University in Fez and myself.

The author seated with Professor Khalid Ettouzani

The author seated with Professor Khalid Ettouzany

This is the part of the day’s program that was covered by Moroccan TV.

After lunch, the celebration consisted of group recitations of Cheikh Ahmadu Bamba’s famed Sufi qasâ’id (poems) offered to the growing audience by the various dahiras.

recitationThe 2015 edition was the second annual national Murid celebration to be organized in Morocco. Casablanca now joins the ranks of cities such as New York, Montreal and Atlanta, where Cheikh Ahmadu Bamba’s life and works are celebrated annually (see this post about mapping Murid expatriates). I look forward to the 2016 edition.

Photo of Cheilkh Ibra Fall hanging from the stadium rafters.

Photo banner of Cheikh Ibra Fall hanging from the stadium rafters.

I want to take this opportunity to thank Mouhamadou Bamba (Khadim) Dramé, one of the event’s principal organizers.

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Mapping the Mercantilist World Economy

This semester I get to teach Economic Geography, a Sophomore-level course in our International Studies program. I use World Systems and World History perspectives, both of which favor a global scale of analysis (the course textbook is Knox, Agnew & McCarthy’s The Geography of the World Economy). This week I presented on Mercantilism, which designates both the dominant political-economic doctrine of the 17th and 18th centuries (as hegemonic a doctrine in its day as Neoliberalism is today) and a set of trade practices institutionalized by European maritime powers. Our current globalized capitalist world economy was built on Mercantilist foundations, put in place in the first phase of global European expansion, the second phase being that of the formal European empires of the industrial age. In the case of the “New World” in the Americas, Europe’s Mercantilists were creating entirely new trade networks and hinterlands. In the Old World of Afro-Eurasia however, Europe was rearranging the existing, much older, world economy it had been part of since the Middle Ages (see Andre Gunder Frank’s Re-Orient and Jim Blaut’s The Colonizer’s Model of the World). I wanted to illustrate this first phase of global capitalism with thematic maps.

01 World trade 1340Long before Europe ventured across the world’s oceans in the 15th-16th century it was already enmeshed in long-distance trade (Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony). I mapped the Afro-Eurasian trade routes of the mid-14th century, a time when Atlantic Europe was a periphery, at the northeastern extremity of a system of overlapping trade networks which extended as far as Japan, Indonesia, Zimbabwe and Mali. Together, these trade relations created a single world economy.

I chose the symbolic date of 1340 for this map because it corresponds to the travels of Ibn Battuta (1304-1369), who visited most of the world economy’s core lands and many of its peripheries. This Moroccan faqih traveled along the trade routes of his day, both over-land and across the seas, paying his way as he went, sharing the trip with merchants and pilgrims. 1340 also falls just before the Black Plague ravaged major population centers across the system.

I have distinguished the goods traded into “commodities” (in green) and “manufactures” (in orange). This highlights the “core” status of China, India and the Middle East within the world economy. Semi-peripheries at this time included North Africa, parts of western Europe (Italy, Flanders), and Java.

Among manufactures, I have included sugar, being the refined crystal shipped in loaves. I classify it as a manufacture rather than as a commodity because the manufacturing process involved in producing it (land, labor, fuel, transportation) was every bit as “industrial” as the production of iron, or steel, or cloth. I will get back to sugar production in a future post.

Among commodities, I have included slaves. As laborers (domestic, agricultural, sexual, military), the enslaved are clearly “labor,” but when they are being transported, usually in bulk, weighed in markets, and their price negotiated over, then they are just as clearly a “commodity.” Nearly every “periphery” participated in the procurement of this human commodity for the “cores” of the world economy. I will get back to slavery in a future post.

02 Ming world 1430Blaut (1993) and Frank (1998) argue that Atlantic Europe was is no way predestined to start taking command of the world economy in the 15th century. If any part of the system was perhaps structurally predisposed to do so it was China. Ming China was by far the greatest empire of its day, with the largest population, the largest economy, the most advanced technologies, and the largest and most diversified production of manufactures in the world.

Between 1405 and 1433 China did in fact intervene in the world economy to realign it in its interest. Over the course of those decades, China sent a series of “Treasure Fleets” commanded by Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433) across the South China Sea and throughout the Indian Ocean to Arabia and East Africa (see Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas). These were diplomatic missions, laden with high quality silks, porcelains, perfumes, medicines… to be given liberally to rulers and grandees of states right across the system, all the way to the Mamluk and Timurid empires. This new diplomatic structure was successful in that it endorsed the existing principle of freedom of trade at sea then in place. This principle allowed a trade regime where traders from any port could trade freely in any other.

Meanwhile, in Atlantic Europe, Portugal, having taken Sebta/Ceuta from the Moroccans (1415), was engaging in its first oceanic acquisitions (Madeira, Azores Isl.). This was the beginning of the creation of the European Atlantic. For the time being however, Europe’s connections to global trade in manufactures still ran east through the Mediterranean. Venetian merchants bought silks and spices in Mamluk ports and the Genoese did the same in Ottoman ones. They then sold these on to German merchants in Italy, who then took them to over-land markets across the Alps. These trade relations had been operating for centuries.

03 World trade 1490The Mamluks and the Ottomans were very effective at keeping Italian merchants from trading, or even traveling, inland through their realms. East of the Mediterranean and Black Sea ports, almost all the rest of the world economy was operated by Muslim merchant networks. This is largely because the area we call today “the Middle East” (Arabia, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, Egypt, the Levant, Turkey, Iran) constituted the central crossroads of the world trading system, where major sea lanes and land routes converged. At least by the heyday of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate (9th century), Muslim merchants from these lands were traveling to Russia, West and East Africa, India and China. By Ibn Battuta’s day, most trans-continental and trans-oceanic trade in the world economy’s overlapping networks was conducted by Muslim traders. In Islam, these international traders found a common legal system, common mathematics and accountancy, and a commercial ligua franca in Arabic. This allowed the trading system to operated quite well across multiple, sometimes ephemeral and often warring states. And it did so without any type of international institution overseeing it (Graeber, Debt).

While Atlantic Europe craved the spices and adored the silks of “the Orient” that it bought in Levantine ports, it had few fine manufactures of its own to offer in return. The fine woolen cloth of Flanders, as fine as it was, was not a good fit for markets in the hot and arid Middle East, nor could the array of fine alcoholic beverages it produced find many buyers in Muslim markets. For the most part, western Europe had to purchase what it wanted in hard currency, silver coin mostly, mined in Bohemia, most of which eventually ended up in China. This was the biggest brake on Europe’s ability to consume Asian luxuries, and indicative of its “periphery” rank in the system.

The world economy’s other western peripheries, West Africa and East Africa, were the system’s greatest producers of gold. Mali and Zimbabwe exported gold as a commodity to North Africa and the Middle East, where it was minted into currency, which then circulated eastward across Central Asia and the Indian Ocean, much of it eventually ending up in India. The prosperity of Middle Eastern cities, at the crossroads of long-distance trade, was thus greatly enhanced by having both Europe’s silver and Africa’s gold circulate through their markets on their way east.

1490 marks the last convenient date for a “before” European world. In 1493 Christopher Columbus returned to Spain with news of a new empire to be had, and in 1499 Vasco de Gama returned to Portugal from his more-or-less successful trip to India. Genoese bankers, seeking to circumvent the Mamluk and Ottoman barrier to the trade with Asia, had in fact backed both countries’ Atlantic ventures.

I call Vasco de Gama’s voyage to South India more-or-less successful because, when he got to Calicut he found that his stock of miserable Portuguese exports (which found markets in West Africa in exchange for slaves and gold) became the laughing-stock of Indian merchants. Whether in the old Levant or the new one, in 1498 Europe still produced little of value to the world economy’s core regions.

04 Mercantilist World 1530-1776What ensued in the century after 1490 was the foundation of the European world economy, the global one we still live in. First, Atlantic Europe created a European Atlantic, one whose most lucrative trade configuration was the infamous “Triangular Trade” with Africa and America. The Portuguese and the Spanish unlocked that ocean’s trade winds and currents to create a whole new maritime trading sphere, one with Europe at the core. Gold and silver (first looted, then mined by slaves) from Mexico and Peru was shipped to Spain, where it was minted. Most of the new currency was sent to Genoese banks, some of them in Antwerp, from where it then circulated through northern Europe and the Baltic. And some of the new currency was sent to Lisbon, loaded onto ships bound for the “East Indies” to buy manufactures and spices.

Atlantic Europe now assumed the position in the world economy that the Middle East had held previously; the new gold and silver entered Europe as a commodity, as bullion. The coins minted from these precious metals then circulated through European markets and empowered European merchant networks, who circulated it east to the traditional currency sinks of China and India. The new type of merchant network in Atlantic Europe was the chartered company, a company of private shareholders chartered by the crown to exercise a monopoly of trade over some loosely-defined region of the world, such as: “the East Indies,” “Guinea,” “Hudson’s Bay,” “Mississippi,” or “the South Seas.” The royally-chartered, privately owned, joint-stock trading companies of Mercantilist Europe were the forerunners of today’s Trans-National Corporations.

With bullion from the Americas flowing in, Europe could now afford to buy ever greater quantities of cotton and silk fabrics, porcelain and spices directly in Asian ports through its various “East Indies” companies. European traders (“factors,” agents of the chartered monopoly firms) in Asian ports were not only empowered by cash-flow, they could also count on gun-boat diplomacy, relying on their national navies to force their way into Asian markets.

Europe’s rise in rank in the world economy wasn’t only due to American bullion. There was also the abundant free land to be had there—free, that is, once you had removed or enslaved the population. Stolen land and abundant slave labor (first Native American, then African) soon translated into plantation production of agricultural commodities: tobacco, cacao, indigo, but especially sugar. These new commodities too flowed to Atlantic European ports, especially once the Dutch, the English and the French got in on the action at the turn of the 17th century.

In short, by the 17th century, in order to be a successful Mercantilist power, a European state had to build a merchant fleet, back it up with a navy, secure commodities in the Americas and slave labor in Africa, and have the currency to purchase high quality manufactures in Asia.

For over two centuries, profits from all of these lucrative overseas endeavors, those of the Portuguese and Spanish, of the Dutch and the French and the English (and of a few others) accumulated in Atlantic Europe. Much of this capital was reinvested in yet more lucrative overseas ventures, but some of it was invested at home, in agricultural improvements. This also contributed to western Europe’s economic growth in the Mercantilist era (Braudel, Civilization & Capitalism). Eventually, in late 18th century Britain, some of the profits from oversea ventures was invested in the production of manufactures (textiles). Thus, not only did the merchant capitalism of the Mercantilist era create a truly global, European-centered world economy, it provided much of the capital necessary to start industrial manufacturing, and the Industrial Revolution (see Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery). When that happened, policies favored by industrial capitalists in Atlantic Europe began to win out over those favored by its merchant capitalists. Mercantilism, as a doctrine, a set of policies and a set of practices, was dropped. The date 1776 best marks this rupture. Revolution in the Thirteen Colonies was provoked as much by resentment to Britain’s Mercantilist practices (protectionism, monopolies) as it was by its taxation policies. 1776 is also when Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, which amounted to an indictment of Mercantilism.

05 Portuguese World 158006 Spanish World 1650At first, the Iberian powers: Portugal and Spain, had everything their way. Early on they came to an agreement, endorsed by the Pope in Rome, that pretty much divided the planet between them. The Treaty of Todesillas (1494) delimited a meridian through the Atlantic Ocean, equivalent to 35° W. East of this meridian (Brazil, Africa, India and Indonesia) was a Portuguese maritime monopoly and everything west of it (the Americas minus Brazil) was a Spanish monopoly. In 1529 they signed the Treaty of Zaragoza, which basically used the 142° E meridian in the Pacific Ocean for the same purpose.

Once the Portuguese entered the Asian trade, that small country created Europe’s first Mercantilist empire with astonishing rapidity. The Portuguese started by conquering and fortifying nearly every major strategic trading port and navigation strait around the Indian Ocean: Kilwa and Mombasa (1505), Goa and Calicut (1510), Malacca and Ambon (1511), Hormuz and Bahrain (1515), Colombo (1518), Ternate (1522), Aden (1524), Ningbo (1533), and Diu (1535). This created a network of fortified trading ports from which they attempted to enforce their self-declared monopoly over maritime trade. They called “their” ocean a mare clausum (a “closed sea”), closed to all but Portuguese trade. They insisted that only ships with a cartaz (a permit which only the Portuguese crown could issue) were permitted to trade in it.

The Portuguese never succeeded in imposing their claim to monopoly, either on the merchants of the Indian Ocean or on the other European merchants who soon followed them there, but they did succeed in violently disrupting pre-existing trade relations. In an effort to enforce their declared monopolies against all comers, the Portuguese waged war right across the ocean from Africa to Indonesia, ending the institution of freedom of trade at sea which had thrived there. The Portuguese state saw this as an extension of the Iberian Reconquista against the Muslims/Moors. They encountered “Moors” everywhere, in Morocco and Guinea and East Africa and the Philippines. This is because, for centuries prior to their arrival, the maritime trade networks across this vast area were operated by Muslim merchants.

In the Atlantic Ocean, the Portuguese claimed a similar monopoly along Africa’ coastal coasts, particularly over the Guinea Coast and Congo-Angola where they procured slaves. The enslaved were shipped to plantations in Saõ Tome, Madeira and Brazil to produce commodities such as sugar and tobacco.

The Spanish took a little longer to set their hemispheric system up. Columbus’s initial landfalls in the Caribbean in the 1490s didn’t produce the amounts of gold the Spanish crown had been hoping for. However, once the Spanish conquistadors had overthrown the empires of the Aztecs (1520) and the Incas (1533), looted gold flowed across the Atlantic, soon to be followed by yearly convoys of silver mined in Mexico and Peru and shipped, en masse as bullion, from Havana. Meanwhile, the Spanish were establishing sugar plantations in the islands of the Caribbean, in Cuba and Hispaniola (modern Dominican Republic) especially.

Portugal and Spain were partners in the spoils/opportunities the new global world economy provided, and they cooperated in its management. For instance, for their plantations in the Americas the Spanish could rely on regular supplies of slaves from the Portuguese in Guinea and Angola. In turn, to finance their acquisition of manufactures in China and Japan, the Portuguese relied on a regular supply of silver from Spanish Mexico. The Spanish sent this silver directly across the Pacific to Manila in a yearly convoy (the “Manila Galleon”). This was an outcome of the 1529 Zaragoza Treaty; Portugal retained Japan (east of its 1494 share) while Spain retained the Philippines (west of its 1492 share).

The monopolistic bases of the 16th-century Iberian system created many enemies, not least among Iberia’s neighbors in Atlantic Europe. The Dutch, the French and the English crowns started financing exploration expeditions to parts of the world’s coasts not yet policed by the Portuguese and the Spanish. They created merchant fleets and ocean-going navies of their own. And they chartered “privateers” (licensed pirates) to attack the Iberians and trade in “newly found” territories. To the Portuguese and Spanish authorities, all these interlopers were “pirates,” breaking a legal (to them) monopoly of trade in their mare clausum.

07 Ottoman world 1580The Portuguese also faced resistance from powers in the “old” parts of the world economy. When armed Portuguese ships arrived in the Red Sea and threatened Jiddah and the holy cities of the Hijaz, the Mamluks reposted with attacks on Portuguese positions as far as the coast of India (1509). When the Mamluks were defeated by the Ottomans and their territories absorbed into the Ottoman Empire (1518), it is the powerful Ottoman fleet that took on the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean (see Giancarlo Casale’s The Ottoman Age of Exploration).

The Ottomans fought the Portuguese and their Spanish allies on many fronts: along the borders of Austria, across the length of the Mediterranean Sea, as well as in the Indian Ocean. It was during the administration of Sokollu Mehmed Paşa in particular (Grand Vizir 1565-1579) that Ottoman diplomacy developed its greatest reach. Its network of allies and its “soft power” influence (consisting of military advisers, arms exports, and loans) reached from Sa’dian Morocco and Valois France to Somalia and Aceh (modern Indonesia). The Ottomans found ready allies everywhere, as the pretentions of Portuguese monopoly, with its hated cartaz and gun-boats, were a structural source of violence in the trading system and were hindering normal maritime commerce. The immediate aim of the Ottomans was to preserve “their” Red Sea trade route to the spices of Indonesia. In this they succeeded. More broadly, they attempted to establish a diplomatic regime over the Asian core of the world economy that would reinstate the freedom of trade regime that had thrived there prior to the arrival of the Portuguese. In some ways, the Ottoman diplomatic initiative resembled that of the Ming a century and a half earlier.

In the end, the Ottomans failed to dislodge the Portuguese from the Indian Ocean and to reinstate an “open” trading regime there. In the 1580s, the Ottoman fleets retreated to the Red Sea, leaving the rest of the ocean to the devices of the Portuguese. Had they kept up their resistance there a little longer, the Ottomans may well have succeeded in their larger aim. By the turn of the 17th century the Portuguese were facing a growing array of enemies around the world with which the Ottomans could have found allies. For instance, because of their slave raiding and disruptive religious proselytism, the Portuguese became very unwelcome in Japan. That country expelled them in the 1580s and thereafter, among European nations, it would only trade with the Dutch, and even the Dutch traders were confined to a tiny islet-quay called Dejima in the port of Nagasaki. In 1545 the Chinese had likewise expelled Portuguese traders from Ningbo and confined them to the island of Macao near Guangzhou.

08 Dutch World 1665The biggest new player on the world’s seas in the 17th century was the Netherlands, an Atlantic European country even smaller than Portugal. The Dutch cities were still fighting their “Long War” (1568-1648) to free themselves from Spanish rule when they embarked upon Mercantilist empire-building. They began by attacking Spanish shipping in the North Atlantic, especially the bullion-laden galleons arriving from America. When, in 1580, the Spanish and Portuguese crowns were united under a single king, the Dutch took on the Portuguese Empire as well. At sea, they confronted the Portuguese at many points, in Brazil, along the Guinea Coast, and in the East Indies. They managed to oust the Portuguese from many key ports (Elmina, Malacca, Colombo) and replace Portuguese trading hegemony with their own (particularly in southern India and the lucrative “spice islands” of Indonesia). They also established the towns of New Amsterdam (1624, now called New York) in North America and Cape Town (1652) in southern Africa.

While Dutch chartered companies held monopolies in various parts of the empire, the Dutch claimed no overall monopoly of trade in the oceans as the Portuguese had. On the contrary, once freed of Spanish rule (1648) and able to exploit their newly created empire, the Dutch espoused mare liberum (freedom of the seas). First expounded by the jurist Hugo Grotius in 1609 in direct rebuttal to Portugal’s mare clausum policy, this principle claimed that the ships of all nations were free to trade anywhere. This was, of course, the very same principle that had pertained in the Indian Ocean and Chinese seas prior to Portugal’s ventures there.

The Netherlands were at the forefront of institutional innovation in the European world economy. Though still chartered monopolies, the Dutch overseas trading companies were joint-stock ventures whose shares were traded in the Amsterdam stock exchange, the first of its kind anywhere (1602). The Amsterdam Stock Exchange became famous for the Tulip Bubble of 1637. It nonetheless remained the biggest stock exchange in Europe well into the 18th century. The largest of the companies traded there was the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (United East Indies Company), chartered in 1602, whose monopoly in trade extended from South Africa to Japan.

09 French World 1750The Kingdom of France, the biggest economy in Europe, also acquired a Mercantilist empire in the 17th century. The French established plantation colonies in the Caribbean, in Martinique and Guadeloupe (1635), and in Saint-Domingue (established by French privateers in 1625). Their colony of Saint-Domingue (modern Haïti) became the single most lucrative colony in the world in the 18th century. To supply these sugar-colonies with slaves, the French established comptoirs (“factories,” trading towns governed by a company agent) in Senegal: Saint-Louis (1659) and Gorée (1677). On this particular “slave coast,” the French company competed with Dutch and English companies, as well as with the Portuguese.

In North America, where they also competed with the Dutch and the English, the French anchored a vast continental commercial hinterland with three settler colonies: Canada (modern Québec, 1608), Acadia (1604) and Louisiana (1718). Inland trade was conducted by river navigation (canoe & portage) secured with fortified posts: Detroit (1701), another Saint-Louis (1764), and Fort Duquesne (Pittsburg, 1754).

France was equally successful in India (Pondicherri, 1674), though it was a latecomer there. Dutch and the English companies were already competing with the Portuguese in India when la Compagnie française pour le commerces des Indes orientales was chartered in 1642. By the middle of the 18th century however, that Company’s commercial, diplomatic and military hinterland extended over much of the Deccan, surpassing all its rivals.

The French conducted trade with China under the same conditions as did the Dutch, the English and the various other European nations, all quarantined on a single quay, called the “Thirteen Factories,” in the port of Guangzhou. The newly established Qing Dynasty sought to limit contact with European Mercantilism in this way.

French institution-building initiatives were not as successful as those of the Dutch and the English. The first central bank, the Banque Générale, was established in 1716. While private, its capital came from state revenues. It collapsed in 1720 when the Mississippi Company’s bubble burst catastrophically (also known as the Louisiana Bubble).

The French had greater success institutionalizing another Mercantilist policy, import-substitution. Import-substitution was one of Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s main policies while minister of finance (1665-83) for Louis XIV. Royally-endowed glass works were established in Saint-Gobain (1665) to compete with glassware from Venice, the import of which was then forbidden. Tapestry works were established at Gobelin. The import of silks was banned to protect the silk manufacturers of Lyon and, later, ceramic works were established in Limoges (1771). The French state used import-substitution to reduce its trade deficit with India and China (mostly because in needed its currency reserves to finance expensive wars in Europe). Embargoes on the imports of luxury manufactures from Asia were not air-tight. For example, Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s beautiful official mistress (1745-64), pointedly appeared at court in gowns cut only from authentic Indian fabrics. Nonetheless, import-substitution worked. Made-in-France silks, porcelains, glassware and other manufactures, backed by state capital, dominated the French market and were traded throughout Europe, where they competed with Asian luxury goods. These young French manufactures also benefited from a monopoly over “overseas” French markets, especially in American colonies. France’s luxury industries were given a great boost by the protectionist policies of the Mercantilist era.

10 British World 1750The English (British after the 1707 Acts of Union), like the Dutch and the French, built a successful Mercantilist empire on the ruins of Portuguese and Spanish pretentions to global duopoly. While in Europe the British steadfastly supported the Dutch Republic against France, in their Mercantile empire British companies proved as willing and able to conquer Dutch possessions as they were those of the French, or of the Spanish. The 18th century was a global free-for-all of ferocious Mercantilist competition between emerging European Nation-States. It was highly unstable and caused repeated bouts of war in Europe and “overseas:” The War of the Grand Alliance (1688-97), The War of Spanish Succession (1701-14), The War of Austrian Succession (1740-78), The Seven Years War (1756-63). These were already “world wars” avant la letter. Atlantic European powers fought each other in India and South East Asia, on Africa’s Atlantic coasts, in the Caribbean and in North America. Some of their colonies in these areas changed hands many times.

The English took their share of West Indian sugar-islands (Jamaica, 1655) from the Spanish, but they were especially successful in establishing 13 settler colonies along North America’s Atlantic seaboard: Virginia (1607), Massachusetts (1620), South Carolina (1670), Pennsylvania (1681), Georgia (1733)…, evincing the Danes and the Dutch in the process, and competing with French companies in the interior.

In India, the English East India Company acquired three major factories: Madras (1639), Bombay (1661), and Calcutta (1712), destined to become the main cities of its 19th century empire.

England was no free-trade advocate when it set out to create its Mercantilist empire. Starting in 1651 it enacted Navigation Acts which restricted access of foreign ships to English goods in home ports, and to even call at English ports “overseas.” This was a reaction to the growth of Dutch trade. These protectionist measures accorded well with the theories of Thomas Mun, the Director of the English East India Company who had been appointed to the government’s Standing Committee on Trade in 1622. The Navigation Acts greatly bolstered England’s merchant navy and permitted it to compete with the Dutch and the French on all the seas. English goods, too, were given a monopoly over captive colonial markets. Emerging markets in the 13 American colonies especially resented these laws.

Like the Netherlands, Britain developed corporate institutions for the Mercantilist age which are still with us. The Bank of England was chartered in 1694. It was composed of a group of private stockholders (bankers) and held a monopoly on the issuing of banknotes in England and Wales. The Bank of England subsequently became a model for central banks everywhere. The transactions of maritime merchants meeting over coffee at Lloyd’s Coffee House, in London, eventually led to the establishment of Lloyd’s of London, an insurance company. Lloyd’s held an un-chartered monopoly on insuring British slave-ships in the Atlantic until the abolition of that trade in 1807. The Royal Exchange (forerunner of the London Stock Exchange), was chartered by Queen Elizabeth I in 1571. It operated from Johnathan’s Coffee House, near the Bank of England, where stockbrokers and investors met. It was famous for such bubbles as the South Sea Company Bubble of 1720 (a double-whammy with the Mississippi Bubble unfolding in France at the time) and the Bengal Bubble of 1769 (caused by an overvaluation of British East India Company stock, based on tax revenues it was collecting in the newly conquered province of Bengal). Speculative colonial bubbles could come and go, by the late 18th century the London’s stock exchange was the largest in Europe.

Britain emerged the great victor of the Mercantilist era. The Seven Years War proved a disaster for rival France. In 1763 France lost nearly all of its empire in North America and India, and nearly all of its losses were British gains. Though Great Britain lost its 13 North American colonies in 1783, it seized African and Asian colonies from the French and the Dutch during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815). By 1815 Britain’s hegemony over trade in the world economy was established. By then though, Mercantilism was history, destroyed by four revolutions: the American Revolution (1775-83), the French Revolution (1789-94), the Haïtian Revolution (1791-1804) and the Industrial Revolution then unfolding in Britain itself.

By 1815 there were very few markets in the world beyond the reach of British merchants. Among these few were Japan, China and Morocco. Tokugawa Japan would only trade with the Dutch (and the Chinese), and would only do so on the island-quay of Dejima in Nagasaki harbor. In China, the factory of the British East Indies Company stood on 13 Factories quay in Ghangzhou along with those of all the other European companies (save the Portuguese, who traded on the island of Macao). The Qing Dynasty in China proved as effective at keeping European traders out as the Mamluks and Ottomans had in the 15th century. In Morocco, the ‘Alawi Dynasty confined trade with Europeans to designated consulates, first in Rabat and then in Essaouira (1762). These buildings were tiny “footholds” for Europe’s Mercantilist traders, especially when compared to the scale of the havoc they were wreaking elsewhere. The policy of limiting European trade to specified factories and consulates in singular ports allowed states like Japan, China and Morocco to protect their own trade and commerce from the violent corporate monopolies European powers were attempting to impose on all the non-European states they encountered.

In the mid-19th century, industrial capitalism, in the name of “freedom of commerce,” would use a few new rounds of powerful gun-boat diplomacy to break these three states open once and for all: Britain’s Opium Wars in China (1839-42, 1856-60), the French bombardment of Tangier and Essaouira (1844), and Commodore Perry’s threat to Edo/Tokyo (1853). By then, Britain was the “workshop of the world,” producing manufactures the whole world wanted to buy. By then it was pursuing free trade, symbolized by the abolition of slavery (1833) and the repealing of the Navigation Acts (1849). By then, the British had the largest merchant navy in the world, and its ships, laden with all sorts of Made-in-Britain manufactures, called in all the world’s ports.


Suggested reading

  • Abu-Lughod, Janet (1989). Before European Hegemony: The World System A. D. 1250-1350. Oxford University Press.
  • Blaut, J. M. (1993). The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History. New York/London: The Guilford Press.
  • Braudel, Fernand (1979). Civilization & Capitalism: 15th-18th Century (3 vols.). Translated by Siân Reynolds. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Casale, Giancarlo (2010). The Ottoman Age of Exploration. Oxford University Press.
  • Chaudhuri, K. N. (1991). Asia before Europe: Economy and Civilisation of the Indian Ocean from the Rise of Islam to 1750. Cambridge University Press.
  • Frank, Andre Gunder (1998). ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age. University of California Press.
  • Graeber, David (2011). Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Melville House Publishing: Brooklyn, NY
  • Hobson, John M. (2004). The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization. Cambridge University press.
  • Ibn Fadlân, Ibn Jubayr, Ibn Battûta et un auteur anonyme (1995). Voyageurs arabes. Translated and annotated by Paule Charles-Dominique. Paris: Gallimard.
  • Knox, Paul, John Agnew & Linda McCarthy (2008). The Geography of the World Economy (fifth edition). London: Hodder Education.
  • Levathes, Louise (1994). When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne: 1405-1433. Oxford University Press.
  • Pomeranz, Kenneth & Steven Topik (1999). The World that Trade Created: Society, Culture, and the World Economy 1400 to the Present. Armok/London: M.E. Sharpe.
  • Rodney, Walter (1972). How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. London: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications.
  • Williams, Eric (1944). Capitalism and Slavery. University of North Carolina Press.


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Just published in an edited volume: a chapter on Senegalese urban design

In September 2013 I attended a conference in Lisbon on colonial and post-colonial urban planning across Africa. I am pleased to announce that the resulting edited volume has been published.

Grid Plan in Senegalese Urban Design_cover

Urban Planning in Sub-Saharan Africa: Colonial and Post-Colonial Planning Cultures was edited by Carlos Nunes Silva and published by Routledge, 2015.

My chapter in this volume is entitled “The Grid plan in the History of Senegalese Urban Design.” In it, I argue that an elite urban design culture involving use of the grid plan thrived in Senegambia prior to colonization. It was first used for the laying out of royal capitals in the 16th century and was then adopted by Muslim clerics in the 17th century. Its first colonial manifestation occurred when the French fort of Saint Louis expanded into a town in the 18th century. In the late 19th century the French systematically disseminated the grid plan inland through the establishment of rail-towns (escales). At this same time (ca. 1880-1950) it was also being implemented by all three major Senegalese Sufi orders in their darou-s (school-villages).

The grid plan is a ubiquitous urban design principle. It can be found in a wide variety of geographical and historical contexts. It characterized the ancient city of Mohenjo-Daro, was used in ancient Egypt (worker’s towns like Lahun and Deir el-Medina), was a standard of ancient Greek colonization (Hippodamus’ Miletus), and characterized the camp-towns (castra) of the Romans . Nearly all the imperial cities of China (Chang’an, Beijing) and Japan (Nara, Kyoto) were laid out as grids. It was a feature of many agricultural frontier settlements in Medieval Western Europe (the bastides of southern France) and of some its royal establishments (like Winchelsea and Aigues-Mortes). European powers employed it in various American colonies (the Spanish Law of the Indies, English Philadelphia and Savannah) and it became standard across the United States and Canada throughout the 19th century. The grid plan is highly versatile, adaptable to a great variety of city types, and applied at a gamut of scales ranging from imperial capitals to agricultural villages. In modern times the grid plan has been conducive to the rational provisioning of public amenities (drinking water, sewage, electricity, civic addressing & postal service) and to the mass production of housing allotments. It is also well suited to motor vehicle traffic.

Given the extraordinary distribution of the phenomenon across time and space, the use of the grid as an urban design model does not correlate with any specific regime type, economic system or religious tradition. The only common denominator all grid planned settlements seem to share is the existence of a power, usually a state, able and willing to plan settlements in this way (Kostof 1991: 95-157). In other words, grid planned towns never seem to be the outcome of spontaneous local development. Rather, they are produced by powerful agents as a matter of policy. In cases where that agent ceases to exercise this power of control over built space, as when Roman authority dissipated, gridded towns may well morph into more “organic” types of urban fabric.

In this chapter, I argue that, in the case of Senegal, the grid plan first developed as the dominant settlement type for elites. The late 19th/early 20th-century dissemination of the grid plan across Senegal’s Peanut Basin was due as much to the “democratization” of that elite ancien régime model by the country’s new Islamic elite, the Sufi orders, as it was to French colonial policies. As is my wont, my argument is profusely supported by maps.

Ross_01_ancien régime mapThe above map locates the royal capitals, clerical towns and European establishments of the 17th-18th centuries.

Ross_02_capitalsBoth Diakhao, capital of the Kingdom of Sine, and Lambaye, capital of the Kingdom of Baol, were established in the 16th century. Both have grid plans.

Ross_03_clerical towns Starting in the 17th century, the emerging Muslim clerical elite adopted the grid plan for its settlements.

Ross_04_Saint LouisBy the end of the 18th century the French mercantile authority in Saint-Louis had adopted a grid plan for the town.

Ross_05_colonial mapFrench colonial policy in Senegal centered on opening up the “Peanut Basin” for cultivation of that cash-crop. This involved building a rail network and equipping it with regularly spaced grid-planned rail-towns, called escales. The Sufi orders too established grid-planned shrine-towns and darou-s throughout the Basin. Only a few of the darou-s (school-villages) are shown on the map.

Ross_06_Tivaouane escaleRail escales consisted of a standard grid and were intended as marketing centers for the peanut cash-crop.

Ross_07_Murid towns

Ross_08_Tijani townsAs the French built their rail network, the Sufi orders (the Murids, the Tijâniyya, and the Qâdiriyya (“Khadr”) were establishing darou-s, also linked to the peanut cash-crop. The formerly elite practice of establishing grid-planned settlements was generalized and democratized by these orders, who applied it to virtually all their settlements, rural and urban, major shrine and isolate darou alike.

The development of the grid in Senegal, as both urban model and social practice, clearly transcends the moments of rupture which colonial conquest and then independence are often assumed to represent. It also demonstrates the agency of African actors in the modern urbanization process, particularly during the colonial era, a time when the colonial project was nearly hegemonic and being fully deployed.

A pdf copy of my chapter can be downloaded here.

Suggested readings

on the grid plan in history:

  • Kostof, S., 1991. The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History. London: Thames & Hudson.

on colonial urban policies in Senegal:

  • Sinou, A., 1993. Comptoirs et villes coloniales du Sénégal: Saint-Louis, Gorée, Dakar, Paris: Karthala.
  • Pheffer, P. E., 1975. Railroads and Aspects of Social Change in Senegal 1878-1933. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

and, of course, my own works on Senegalese urban design:

  • Ross, E., 2006. Sufi City: Urban Design and Archetypes in Touba. Rochester: University of Rochester Press.
  • Ross, Eric (2015), “The Grid Plan in the History of Senegalese Urban Design”, in Urban Planning in Sub-Saharan Africa: Colonial and Post-Colonial Planning Cultures, edited by Carlos Nunes Silva, Routledge
  • Ross, Eric (2013), “Les places publiques (pénc) et la configuration des communautés”, in Les arts de la citoyenneté au Sénégal : Espaces contestés et civilités urbaines, edited by Mamadou Diouf & Rosalind Fredericks, Karthala, Paris.
  • Ross, E., 2012. Building Community: Configuring Authority and Identity on the Public Squares of Contemporary Senegalese Sufi Centers. Prayer in the City: The Making of Muslim Sacred Places and Urban Life, P. Desplat & D. Schultz eds., New Brunswick N.J.: Transaction Publishers & Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.
  • Ross, Eric (2012), “Touba, le soufisme, et la modernité urbanistique”, in La Réponse du Soufisme à la Crise : Actes du Premier Colloque International du Grand Magal de Touba sur le Soufisme, Serigne Same Abdourahmane Bousso, ed., Dakar/Touba: Comité d’Organisation du Grand Magal de Touba, Commission Culture & Communication.
  • Ross, Eric (2006), “Le Pénc : élément du patrimoine et modèle d’aménagement urbain”, in Sénégalia : Etudes sur le patrimoine ouest-africain, Hommage à Guy Thilmans, edited by Cyr Descamps & Abdoulaye Camara, Editions Sépia, Saint-Maur-des-Fossés.
  • Ross, Eric (2005), “From marabout republics to autonomous rural communities: autonomous Muslim towns in Senegambia”, in African Urban Spaces in Historical Perspective, edited by Steven J. Salm & Toyin Falola, University of Rochester Press.
  • Ross, Eric (2005), Villes soufies du Sénégal : réseaux urbains religieux dans la longue durée, Série Conférences #20, Institut des Etudes Africaines, Université Mohammed V, Rabat.
  • Ross, Eric (2002), “Marabout republics then and now: configuring Muslim towns in Senegal”, in Islam et Sociétés au Sud du Sahara, #16.
  • Ross, Eric (1995), “Touba: a spiritual metropolis in the modern world”, in Canadian Journal of African Studies, vol. 29, # 2.



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Attending a conference on Islam and peace in New York City

The skyline of midtown Manhattan as viewed from the 15th floor of

The skyline of midtown Manhattan as viewed from the 15th floor of Columbia University’s International Affairs Building, venue of the Islam and World Peace Conference.

I started the new semester by attending a conference. This is getting to be a habit; read about attending conferences at the outset of semesters in Lisbon (Sept. 2013), Edinburgh (Sept. 2014) and Harvard University (Feb. 2015). This time, the conference was on Islam and World Peace. Held on September 11-13, 2015, and scheduled to fall on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the conference was jointly organized by Columbia University’s Institute of African Studies, its Institute for Religion, Culture & Public Life, and Majalis, a US-based NGO active in peace-building and African-Muslim heritage.

As academic conferences go, this one was exceptional and unusual in several respects. It included not only presentations of dry scientific papers, as wonderful as these are, but also the screening of a new documentary on Touba’s great Magal by filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, and an exhibition of paintings by artist-calligrapher Yelimane Fall.

Painting titled "Touba Darou Salam" (Touba the Abode of Peace) by Senegalese Murid Calligrapher Yelimane Fall.

Painting titled “Touba Darou Salam” (Touba Abode of Peace) by Senegalese Murid Calligrapher Yelimane Fall, exhibited at the conference.

Mostly though, the conference was innovative in that it brought together academics and Senegalese clerics on both sides of the Atlantic. While academics have long studied clerics and their works, the idea that something fruitful can come out of a dialog is rather new. My first experience with this was at an International Conference on Sufism organized by Murids and held in Dakar and Touba in December 2011. There, scholars of Sufism met with sheikhs from several different Senegalese Sufi orders to discuss Sufi responses to the current global economic crisis. The proceedings of that get-together were published and can be downloaded here.

The context for this weekend’s dialog between academics and clerics is just as pressing. The post-9/11 world is characterized by extreme expressions of violence. Mass murders have become spectacular media events. Regimes are overthrown in displays of disproportionate “shock & awe.” Drones wantonly rain death on innocents from the skies. Arms sales are booming. Discourse on the web and in social media has become hateful and threatening (never read the comments). Violence is far more pervasive in the world now than at any time since WWII, and much of it is somehow associated with Islam; in the name of God, violent extremist who profess Islam go into mosques to kill Muslims as they pray. Not only is peace not being given a chance (I took a moment while in New York to visit Strawberry Field across from the Dakota Building where John Lennon was murdered), it doesn’t even seem to be an option any more. It’s as if it’s been taken off the menu. A whole generation of young people have come of age in the meantime. Our present age of extreme violence in act and in rhetoric is all they have known. This could prove disastrous to the world they are inheriting. How can we oppose the violence of our times? How can we take the space, our “public sphere,” back from saber-rattling, war-mongering and jihadism? How can we put peace back on the menu?

In contrast to warfare, which has a very ancient pedigree as an object of study in both theory and practice, as a political idea peace is a relative newcomer. Historically, religion has been the only sphere of human inquiry to develop the concept of peace. Because of their great geographic scope over centuries, this is particularly important in the case of the main “world” religions. This is why academics and clerics need to talk.

This conference aimed at presenting the theories, concepts and practices of peace in the  Islamic traditions of Senegal in particular, where a successful “peace tradition” has developed and thrives–there is talk of a “Senegalese model.” What can we learn from this? Over two days, clerics and academics assembled in Dakar and in New York City to share perspectives and experiences. On Sunday morning a joint panel discussion was held via satellite.

My contribution to the work shop consisted of tracing an ethical principle of nonviolence from Al-Hajj Salim Suware, founder of the Jakhanké clerical tradition in the 12th century, to modern Sufis: Sheikh Ahmadu Bamba Mbacké (1853-1927) and Tijani sage Tierno Bokar Tall (1875-1939). All three thinkers categorically rejected violence, and armed jihad in particular. Their teachings have become the consensus, not just among clerics but throughout society, and this peace tradition is holding up very well.

Clerics and academics have something else in common, students. Our students and taalibes are our greatest assets. They are important to the issue of world peace not just because they are the “citizens of tomorrow” but because they are active world citizens now. They have grown up in a violent post-9/11 world of “culture wars” and “civilizational” conflict. For the most part, they don’t like it. We need to trust them. They are very good at articulating the kind of planet they want, and at communicating with each other. Our role as educators consists not only of presenting them with ideas but of empowering them as social actors. Clearly though, academics and clerics have only just begun the discussion.

Some words of wisdom from West African Sufis

Cheikh Ahmadu Bamba Mbacké, 1853-1927

Cheikh Ahmadu Bamba Mbacké, 1853-1927

This is how Sheikh Ahmadu Bamba responded when in 1886 Lat Dior, deposed king of Cayor and leader of resistance to French occupation, asked for advise on how to pursue the conflict:

“I am sure that if you manage to free yourself from your soldiers, to distance yourself from your weapons and horses, in recompense you would find something better and would know peace and tranquility…” (Serigne Bachir Mbacké. Les bienfaits de l’Eternel ou la biographie de Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacké. Khadim Mbacké trad. Publication de l’IFAN Cheikh Anta Diop: Dakar. 1995: 62)


And here is one of Tierno Bokar Tall’s aphorisms:

Tierno Bokar Tall, 1875-1939

Tierno Bokar Tall, 1875-1939

“When will men realize that panting war horses and weapons that spew deadly fire and destruction can only destroy material beings, never the principle of evil which inhabits souls which lack any sense of charity. Evil is like a mysterious breath. When one kills a man inhabited by evil violently or with weapons, the principle of evil rebounds out of the cadaver which can no longer be inhabited and it enters the murderer through his dilated nostrils, where it then takes new root and grows even stronger. Evil must be combated with weapons of Good and Love. When love destroys evil, evil is definitively killed. Brutal force only buries the evil it wants to destroy for a while. Know that evil is a tenacious seed. Once buried it grows stealthily. It germinates and reemerges stronger than before.” (Amadou Hampaté Bâ. Vie et enseignement de    Tierno Bokar, le Sage de Bandiagara. Paris: Editions du Seuil. 1980: 159-60).

Suggested readings

  • Ba, Amadou Hampaté (1980), Vie et enseignement de Tierno Bokar, le Sage de Bandiagara, Editions du Seuil, Paris.
  • Ba, Amadou Hampaté (2008), A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar, Translated by Jane Fatima Kasewit, Edited by Roger Gaetani, World Wisdom Publisher.
  • Babou, Cheikh Anta (2007), Fighting the Greater Jihad: Amadu Bamba and the Founding of the Muridiyya of Senegal, 1853-1913, Ohio University Press, Athens.
  • Diouf, Mamadou (editor) (2013), Tolerance, Democracy and Sufis in Senegal, Columbia University Press, New York.
  • Dumont, Fernand (1969). “Amadou Bamba, apôtre de la non-violence.” Notes africaines. #121, pp. 20-24.
  • Sanneh, Lamine (1989). The Jakhanke Muslim Clerics: A Religious and Historical Study of Islam in Senegambia. New York City: University Press of America.
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