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The Last Civilized Place: Sijilmasa and Its Saharan Destiny
The Last Civilized Place: Sijilmasa and Its Saharan Destiny
The Last Civilized Place: Sijilmasa and Its Saharan Destiny
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The Last Civilized Place: Sijilmasa and Its Saharan Destiny

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Set along the Sahara’s edge, Sijilmasa was an African El Dorado, a legendary city of gold. But unlike El Dorado, Sijilmasa was a real city, the pivot in the gold trade between ancient Ghana and the Mediterranean world. Following its emergence as an independent city-state controlling a monopoly on gold during its first 250 years, Sijilmasa was incorporated into empire—Almoravid, Almohad, and onward—leading to the “last civilized place” becoming the cradle of today’s Moroccan dynasty, the Alaouites. Sijilmasa’s millennium of greatness ebbed with periods of war, renewal, and abandonment. Today, its ruins lie adjacent to and under the modern town of Rissani, bypassed by time.

The Moroccan-American Project at Sijilmasa draws on archaeology, historical texts, field reconnaissance, oral tradition, and legend to weave the story of how this fabled city mastered its fate. The authors’ deep local knowledge and interpretation of the written and ecological record allow them to describe how people and place molded four distinct periods in the city’s history. Messier and Miller compare models of Islamic cities to what they found on the ground to understand how Sijilmasa functioned as a city. Continuities and discontinuities between Sijilmasa and the contemporary landscape sharpen questions regarding the nature of human life on the rim of the desert. What, they ask, allows places like Sijilmasa to rise to greatness? What causes them to fall away and disappear into the desert sands?

Release dateJun 15, 2015
The Last Civilized Place: Sijilmasa and Its Saharan Destiny
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    The Last Civilized Place - Ronald A. Messier

    The Last Civilized Place

    Sijilmasa and Its Saharan Destiny


    University of Texas Press


    All images in the book were created by personnel with the Moroccan-American Project at Sijilmasa (MAPS) and are the intellectual property of MAPS unless otherwise specified.

    Copyright © 2015 by the University of Texas Press

    All rights reserved

    First edition, 2015

    Requests for permission to reproduce material from this work should be sent to:


    University of Texas Press

    P.O. Box 7819

    Austin, TX 78713-7819


    Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

    Messier, Ronald A.

    The last civilized place : Sijilmasa and its Saharan destiny / by Ronald A. Messier and James A. Miller. — First edition.

    pages      cm

    Includes bibliographical references and index.

    ISBN 978-0-292-76665-5 (cloth : alk. paper)

    1. Sijilmasa (Extinct city)   2. Excavations (Archaeology)—Morocco.   I. Miller, James Andrew, author.   II. Title.

    DT329.S57M47      2015




    ISBN 978-0-292-76666-2 (library e-book)

    ISBN 978-0-292-76667-9 (individual e-book)

    For Emily, Ron’s wife, whose encouragement, patience, and limitless love and willingness to share Sijilmasa with her husband have made Ron’s work possible


    for Mary and Martha, James’s sisters, for their strength and wisdom through the years.


    Notes on Dates and Transliteration


    Prologue: Ibn Battuta’s Sijilmasa Journey

    1. Approaches to Sijilmasa

    2. Confluence of Time and Space in Morocco’s Desert Land

    3. Founding the Oasis City

    4. Sijilmasa in Empire

    5. Moroccan Rulers at the Desert’s Edge: The Filalians

    6. Out of Sijilmasa: The Alaouites

    7. Using Models of the Islamic City as Guides

    8. An Altered Present; An Uncertain Future

    Appendix 1. Moroccan Dynastic Rulers Governing Sijilmasa

    Appendix 2. Ceramics Typology





    Notes on Dates and Transliteration

    All dates for events in the narrative, unless otherwise specified, are in AD style and use numbers only, without the AD designation—for example, 1055. If there is any chance for ambiguity, then BC or AH (referring to the Muslim calendar, hijra dates) is used. If two dates are given for the same event, they are in the form AH/AD, but without the designations AH and AD—for example, 140/757–758. Dates for sources are given only as AD dates.

    Transliterations of Arabic words into Latin script are simplified. For example, the ta marbuta, the terminal Arabic silent t rendered as an h in English, is generally not used here. Initial hamzas (ʾ) and ʿayns (ʿ) are omitted, as are dots below and above consonants, and macrons above long vowels. Words that are commonly seen in English, such as Quran and vizier, appear in that form and are not italicized. Words that often appear in French, such as oued rather than wadi, are kept in French. Names of recent authors are written as the authors render their own names in Latin script. Names of places and persons that are still used today are written as they are in the country where they are located, for example, Meknes rather than Maknaas, Marrakech rather than Marrakush. Foreign words that are part of proper names are not italicized. In endnotes and in the bibliography, the rules for uppercase and lowercase in English are applied to all titles.


    In May 2011, the Royal Library of the Kingdom of Morocco (Bibliothèque Nationale du Royaume du Maroc; BNRM) organized a daylong seminar in honor of Ron Messier’s lifelong dedication to the history and archaeology of Morocco. The Homage à Ronald Messier day was planned by four friends and colleagues who have worked with Ron for over twenty years—Abdallah Fili, Lahcen Taouchikht, Saïd Ennahid, and me, James Miller. In the splendid setting of the BNRM, a day of presentations and personal memories re-created for an intimate public the road that led Ron from graduate school at the University of Michigan and the classroom at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) to the Tafilalt oasis in Morocco and the site of Sijilmasa. It is a long story, and here we wish to thank those who have worked with us, debated with us, assisted us financially and morally, and discovered, like us, the world in which Sijilmasa existed over its long career as a place and as a people connecting worlds nearly forgotten across the strata of time.

    Thanks, first, like that fine May day, to our closest colleagues and friends, those who have worked with us in the field and who have accompanied us on our intellectual journey. Our long relationship with INSAP (the Institut National des Sciences d’Archéologie et du Patrimoine; National Institute of Archaeology and Heritage), in Rabat, began with the signing of an agreement with the Ministry of Culture for the archaeological exploration of the Sijilmasa site in 1988. Mohammed Ben Aissa, then minister of culture, was among the first to recognize the significance of Morocco’s medieval heritage and the need for archaeological exploration. We thank him deeply for his encouragement and support. At INSAP, our deepest thanks go to Mme. Joudia Hassar-Benslimane, the institute’s director and a signatory of the agreement with Ron Messier and MTSU that established the Moroccan-American Project at Sijilmasa (MAPS). Mme. Benslimane’s lifelong dedication to archaeology in Morocco is unparalleled. At the Ministry of Culture, we thank Abdulaziz Touri for his wisdom and advice through the years, from Ron’s first exploratory visit in 1986 through the completion of our field work in 1998. His support has been indispensable.

    From the faculty at INSAP, Elarbi Erbati served as our Moroccan count