Sijilmassa: The Rise and Fall of a Walled Oasis in Medieval Morocco
Dale R. Lightfoot and James A. Miller
Annals of the Association of American Geographers: Vol. 8:1 (1996)
Sjilmassa, once a great oasis city that organized caravans for gold across the Sahara, lies today in ruins along the Wadi Ziz in the Tafilalt oasis of southeastern Morocco. Sijilmassa flourished for nearly 650 years after its establishment in AD 757, and housed a population of perhaps 30,000 in the last two hundred years of its existence. Founded by Islamic dissidents – kharijite refugees from the religious mainstream who debated authority in early Islam and who sought and found spiritual refuge among Berbers throughout the Maghrib – Sijilmassa quickly emerged as the premier desert entrepot of North Africa. Not only did the oasis city secure gold from south of the Sahara, it also controlled gold minting, sped the precious trade north and eastward, and was regarded by Arab geographers and historians as the wealthiest of places in the Maghrib. Because Sijilmassa organized the gold trade to Africa, Morocco, and beyond, the city was coveted by centers of power from Spain to Tunis. Prior to abandonment in 1393, Sijilmassa constituted a global place in the premodern era.
This study of the city’s rise and fall is prompted by a multi-disciplinary project to unearth Sijilmassa. As geographers with the Sijilmassa Project, we have focused on the mirphology of the ancient city and its organization of space, how the resources of the oasis were harnessed to sutain urban growth, and why the city collapsed.
With the expectation of developing a coherent picture of Sijilmassa as a place, we found that our approaches and methodologies contrasted dramatically with those of our colleagues in history and archaeology. Ultimately, we realized that conceptions of space, place, and landscape vary sharply among the three disciplines.