Ahmad al-Mansur was an important figure in both Europe and Africa in the sixteenth century, his powerful army and strategic location made him an important power player in the late renaissance period. He was also the Muslim hero of one of most memorable battles in the centuries-long struggle between Christians and Muslims. So what caused his downfall?
To better understand what happened, I will attempt to trace the geo-political events instrumental in his meteoric rise at the Battle of Alcazar in 1578 and those driving his empire’s slow decline during the Songhay occupation of the 1590s. The claim: al-Mansur did elevate the Sa’di dynasty of Morocco to its zenith through military conquest and masterful diplomacy yet, over time, his actions and policies also caused it to crumble under the weight of mounting debt and military over-reach in a foreign land.
Early Sixteenth Century Moroccan History
We begin, before al-Mansur’s birth, in the first decades of the 16th century charting the complex political and economic inter-relationships between the Ottoman state and the Moroccans as they reacted to Christian (Portuguese and Spanish) expansionism along the northern and western coasts of Africa.
Leading up, for centuries there had been hard-fought competition between Muslims and Christians waged largely on the Iberian Peninsula. The hostilities culminated at the Battle of Granada in 1492 with a Christian victory. The long struggle, and the subsequent vanquishing of the Muslims from Spain, is known as Reconquista.
At the same time, a critical shortage of precious metals, especially gold, was taking place in Europe. In the time before the arrival of gold from America, many of the great gold deposits that fueled European expansionism were located in West Africa. Shortly after Granada, the Portuguese and Spanish struck a deal to split North and West Africa between each other. The Spanish claimed a swath of the Mediterranean coast and the Portuguese claimed the Atlantic coast from Morocco to what is present- day Ghana. The age-old struggle between Christians and Muslims in that corner of the world had shifted south to the African continent and the underlying causes of conflict became increasingly economic rather than religious.
During their expansion the Portuguese constructed strategic coastal forts and negotiated terms with many local tribes along the way. They adopted a divide and rule strategy promoting inter-tribal divisions. They encouraged allied tribes to raid and plunder resistant towns and villages.
The Sa’di Dynasty
The Sa’di dynasty rose to power first in the southern portion of the country. They were rooted in a resistance family who violently opposed the Portuguese and their tribal allies. In 1511 these formidable Muslim defenders had united the Berber tribes behind them and had declared jihad against the Portuguese. Despite some initial successes, by the 1530s the ability of the Moroccans to fight as a united front against the Portuguese was severely limited because the Moroccans were themselves deeply divided between two groups; Wattasids and Sa’dis. Time and again the ruling Wattasids had proved too weak to resist the European advance. For their part, in 1541, a Sa’di force was able to evict the Portuguese from their garrison at Santa Cruz, seizing weapons and prisoners for ransom. With this victory, the Sa’dis triumphed over the Wattasids in the court of public opinion. Under these conditions the Sa’dis became a symbol of renewal. The environment proved to be ideal for the Sa’di cause and the first great leader of the Sa’di dynasty emerged in the personage of Muhammed al-Shaykh, Ahmad al-Mansur’s father.
The fading Wattasid ruler appealed for help to the Ottoman sultan, Sulayman “the Magnificent,” who saw an opportunity to add to his dominions and accepted. Sulayman called for Muslim unity in his demand to the Sa’dis to stand down and accept the Ottoman sultan, and his wattasid surrogates, as their rulers. By supporting the Wattasids, Sulayman likely calculated that it was in his interest to prop up a weak party over a strong one in Morocco. Al-Shaykh did not respond to Sulayman. Realizing he had as much to fear from fellow Muslim Ottomans as from the Christian Portuguese, he clandestinely opened secret negotiations with the Spanish. In public, anti-Christian rhetoric was still the party-line, but behind the scenes the relationship with Spain appears to have been a largely political marriage, which would turn out to be shaky at times.
At the time Spain was threatened at the territorial periphery by Ottoman expansion, yet the country also had plenty to fear from fellow Christian states like economic rivals Portugal, France and the English. Spain almost certainly feared encirclement by her enemies. An alliance with Morocco would add strategic depth to her African holdings and establish a diplomatic buffer zone influencing the movement of goods and armies moving north toward the straits of Gibralter. Al-Shaykh on the other hand gained in stature for being the first Moroccan statesman able to cement a strong alliance with Spain against the Turks. The partnership clearly caught the attention of the Ottomans, who responded by assassinating Muhammed al-Shaykh in 1557.
Twenty years later the jockeying over Sa’di succession finally culminated with the rise of al-Shaykh’s son Adb al-Malik in 1576. In the meantime, pressure was constantly building between Moroccans and the Portuguese foreigners resulting in ever more volatile levels of frustration and animosity between them.
What followed was the pivotal Battle of the Three Kings, aka the Battle of Alcazar or Wadi al-Makhazin, which occurred in 1578 and would once and for all end Portugal’s domination in Morocco. Alcazar is remembered as one of the famous battles in the long struggle between the two faiths.
On the Moroccan side, the new Sa’di leader Abd al-Malik called for jihad against the Christian invaders. Fearful of reliance on the Turks he instead stocked his forces with Andalusians (refugee Iberian Muslims) and renegades (European Christians who had converted to Islam). King Dom Sebastian’s Portuguese army was composed mainly of little experienced adventurers, German mercenaries and Papal troops, along with regular Portuguese infantry. They had abandoned much of their artillery and had become physically exhausted on the long march to the battle site. On the eve of the battle the Spanish unexpectedly signed a treaty with the Ottomans, pulling themselves out of the fray. King Philip of Spain, aware of the abilities of the Moroccans, then tried unsuccessfully to deter the vainglorious Dom Sebastian’s folly in Morocco now known as the “Last Crusade.”
The famous Battle was a hard fought affair won finally by the Moroccans due in large part to the military exploits of Ahmad al-Mansur. Three Kings were killed; Portugal’s Dom Sebastian, Morocco’s current ruler Abd al-Malik (al-Mansur’s brother) and deposed former ruler al-Mutawakkil (al-Mansur’s nephew who fought alongside Dom Sebastian). Ahmad al-Mansur was suddenly a national hero, the living representation of Morocco’s strength and pride. The door for his reign opened and he charged through. He began by leveraging his dominant position with the vanquished Portuguese during prisoner ransom talks, the collection of which filled the Moroccan royal coffers. Shortly after, he began construction on the great architectural symbol of this new birth of Moroccan power and relevance; the grand palace in Marrakesh called al-Badi, or “the marvelous.”
Eventually the coffers began to run dry due to the great expense of supporting the military, extensive spy services, the palace and other urban building projects, a royal lifestyle and a propaganda campaign aimed at building support for his controversial claim to the Caliphate. In reality, Morocco’s standing with the Christian states was still in flux. The Spaniards and the Portuguese were still popularly seen as the infidel, but al-Mansur knew that the only way his regime would survive was to continue to benefit from alliances with the Christian economic powers. To do that Morocco had to control sizable gold resources of its own. Accordingly, al-Mansur was drawn irresistibly to the trans-Saharan gold trade of the Songhay in hopes of solving Morocco’s economic deficit with Europe.
The Songhay Campaign
The Songhay, was a pre-colonial African state centered in eastern Mali. From the early 15th to the late 16th century, it was one of the largest African empires in history. Its base of power was on the bend of the Niger River in present-day Niger and Burkina Faso. At its greatest extent (c. 1498), the Songhay sphere of power reached far down the Niger river into modern day Nigeria, all the way to the Northeast of modern day Mali, and even to a small part of the Atlantic coast in the West. Songhay trans-Saharan trade consisted primarily of gold, salt, and slaves.
It is pretty clear that al-Mansur’s designs in the Songhay campaign were economic, but he had other considerations as well. At home he sought support from powerful religious leaders by accusing the Songhay of being lax in their practice of Islam and thus a target for proper moral purification. He also sold the action domestically as being a vital step in establishing an African Caliphate.
Geo-politically al-Mansur claimed his interests within the region were strictly part of a defensive jihad to halt further Ottoman expansion. The Sa’di ruler could point to the increasingly provocative Ottomans operating next door in Algeria to make his case for taking Songhay in order to create a buffer zone on Morocco’s southern flank.
At the time of al-Mansur’s incursion, a civil war over succession had weakened the Songhay power structure. Al-Mansur dispatched an invasion force under the leadership of Judar Pasha (a Spaniard by birth, who had been captured as a baby and educated at the Moroccan court). In 1591, after a cross-Saharan march, al-Mansur’s army appeared on the Niger. Though confronted by a much larger Songhay force, the firearms of the Moroccans won the day at the Battle of Tondibi. The cities of Gao and Timbuktu on the Sudanese trade route were captured, thus providing needed gold revenue to the central treasury.
However, as has often happened to victorious armies in unfamiliar lands, the Moroccan occupation force had great difficulty stabilizing and maintaining its power over the Songhay. Governing such a vast empire across such long distances proved too much for them. The occupation would continue to drain away blood and treasury as the situation deteriorated and they soon relinquished control of the region, letting it splinter into dozens of smaller kingdoms. The Sa’dis lost final control of the cities shortly after the death of Ahmad al-Mansur in 1603. The taking of the Songhay territories had been a strategic gamble for Ahmad al-Mansur, one that had not paid off in the long-run.
In short, through masterfully astute diplomacy, sometimes reminiscent of Machiavelli, al-Mansur resisted the demands of his nominal ruler, the Ottoman sultan, to preserve Moroccan independence. By playing the Europeans and Turks against one another al-Mansur excelled in the art of “balance of power” diplomacy. Eventually though he repeated the age-old error, he spent far more than he collected. To fix the problem, like many he attempted to expand his holdings through conquest. And though initially successful in their military campaign against the Songhay Empire, the Moroccans found it increasingly difficult to maintain control over the conquered locals as time went on. Meanwhile, as the Moroccans continued to struggle in the Songhay, their power and prestige on the world stage declined significantly. By the time of his death al-Mansur, who was a contemporary of Galileo and Shakespeare*, had lost not only most of the Songhay but his reputation and legacy was also reduced. In fact, the memory of the great General who was victorious at Alcazar and who built the greatest palace in Morocco has faded largely from view.
* Ironically al-Mansur is believed to have been the model for Shakespeare’s prince of Morocco character in The Merchant of Venice–the work that gave us the famous line: “All that glitters is not gold.”
Ahmad al-Mansur: Islamic Visionary. Smith, Richard L. New York, 2006