Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Art of the Almoravid and Almohad Periods (ca. 1062–1269)

The Almoravid dynasty (al-Murabitun, ca. 1062–1150), a newly emerged Islamic power in North Africa, ethnically more Berber than Arab, conquered Morocco and founded Marrakesh as its capital in 1062. Led by Yusuf ibn Tashfin, the Almoravids entered al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) after the fall of Toledo in 1085 in response to the Ta’ifa leaders’ pleas for help in repelling the Christian armies of northern Spain. They assumed control of al-Andalus in 1090, while maintaining their primary seat of government in Marrakesh. In this way, the Almoravids came to rule parts of the Sahara, Morocco, Algeria, and Spain and controlled important ports as well as trans-Saharan trade.

Repudiating the lack of piety and what they considered to be the decadence of the Ta’ifa kings, and following the conservative Malikiyya school of Islamic law, the Almoravids disdained as well the opulent arts of the Spanish Muslims. Although they began by sponsoring austere programs of architectural decoration, their later monuments and textile manufactory in Almería indicate that the Almoravids eventually succumbed to the luxury culture of al-Andalus. Especially spectacular from this period is the minbar from the Kutubiyya Mosque, Marrakesh, commissioned in 1137 by the last Almoravid sultan, ‘Ali ibn Yusuf (r. 1106–42), for his congregational mosque. In North Africa, the mosques of Algiers (ca. 1097), Tlemcen (1136), and Qarawiyyin in Fez (1135) are important architectural examples from this period.

In the mid-twelfth century, the Almoravids were replaced by the Almohads (al-Muwahhidun, 1150–1269), a new Berber dynasty from North Africa. By 1150, the Almohads had taken Morocco as well as Seville, Córdoba, Badajoz, and Almería in the Iberian Peninsula. The Almohads made Seville their capital in al-Andalus, while retaining Marrakesh as their center of power in North Africa. Following the Almohad defeat by the combined armies of Aragon and Castile at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, a turning point in the peninsula’s history, al-Andalus once again fractured into tribute-paying principalities, vulnerable to the depredations of Christian kingdoms. These principalities, except for Nasrid-ruled Granada, soon lost their sovereignty.

As religious reformation was integral to the Almohad establishment, their courts in Marrakesh and Seville became centers of Islamic learning. In Almohad arts, a rigorous style saw the increasing schematization of ornament and the continued use of geometric design. The Great Mosque and the minaret called La Giralda, which they built in Seville, are paradigms of Almohad style. In North Africa, architectural developments included the walls of Fez, Rabat, and Marrakesh and the mosques of Taza (1142), the Kutubiyya (Marrakesh, 1147–58), Tinmal (1153–54), the Qasba (Marrakesh, 1195), and Hasan (Rabat, 1199; unfinished).