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Tripoli at the Beginning of the Fourteenth Century A. D./Eighth Century AH

  • Michael Brett (a1)


In the Seventh Annual Report of the Society I published an account of the journey of the shaykh Al-Tijānī to Tripoli at the beginning of the fourteenth century A. D./eighth century A. H., with particular reference to the Arab tribes and chiefs whom he encountered.

What follows is a translation of the passages from the Riḥla in which he describes the city of Tripoli as he saw it during the eighteen months of his residence. Page references are to the 1958 Tunis edition of the work, followed by references to the nineteenth century French translation by Alphonse Rousseau. The latter is incomplete, and not always accurate.

221, trans. 1853, 135

Our entry into (Tripoli) took place on Saturday, 19th Jumāḍā II (707).

237, trans. 1853, 135–6

As we approached Tripoli and came upon it, its whiteness almost blinded the eye with the rays of the sun, so that I knew the truth of their name for it, the White City. All the people came out, showing their delight and raising their voices in acclaim. The governor of the city vacated the place of his residence, the citadel of the town, so that we might occupy it. I saw the traces of obvious splendour in the citadel (qaṣba), but ruin had gained sway. The governors had sold most of it, so that the houses which surrounded it were built from its stones. There are two wide courts, and outside is the mosque (masjid), formerly known as the Mosque of the Ten, since ten of the shaykhs of the town used to gather in it to conduct the affairs of the city before the Almohads took possession. When they did so, the custom ceased, and the name was abandoned.



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1 Rihla de Abdallah Tidjani: relation de voyage en Tunisie et en Tripolitanie (de 1306 à 1308 J. C.), préface Abdul-Wahab, de H. H., Tunis, 1958; ‘Voyage du Scheikh Et-Tidjani dans Ia Régence de Tunis pendentlesannées 706, 707 et 708 de l'Hégire (1306–1309)’, traduit l'Arabe, de par Rousseau, M. Alphonse, Journal Asiatique, 08–September 1852, 57208; February–March 1853, 101–168; April–May 1853, 354–425. Cf. Brett, Michael, ‘The Journey of al-Tijānī to Tripoli at the beginning of the fourteenth century A. D./eighth century A. H.’, The Society for Libyan Studies, Seventh Annual Report, 1975–76, 4151; Brunschvig, R., La Berbérie orientale sous les Ḥafṣides, 2 vols., Paris, 1940, 1947, I, 391–5

2 Perhaps a spurious etymology. According to one version of the history of the city, Riḥla, 241, trans. 1853, 142–3, Tripoli was ruled by the dynasty of the Banū Khazrūn down to 540 A. H./1145 A. D., when the town was captured by the Normans. It freed itself in 553 A. H./1158 A. D., under the leadership of AbūYaḥyā ibn Matrṭrūḥ, who submitted to the Almohads in 555 A. H./1160 A. D.

3 Abū Yaḥyā ibn Maṭrūḥruled until his departure on the pilgrimage to Mecca in 586 A. H./1190 A. D., when the town was seized by the adventurer Qarāqūsh: Riḥla, 243, trans. 146–7

4 For these Arabs, and the grants made to them, cf. Brett, ‘Journey’.

5 An apparently exceptional survival of the Roman street plan.

6 The care devoted to the walls is in contrast to the neglect of the citadel. It suggests a conscious decision, perhaps to avoid the seizure of power by some overmighty subject: cf. Riḥla, 267–8, trans. 1853, 158–60, revolt of al-Harghī, 639 A. H./1241–2 A. D.

7 The great-grandson of ͨUqba ibn Nāfiaͨ, who seized power following the great Kharijite rebellion which began in 739 A. D.

8 The building of a wall on the seaward side at this period is consonant with the building of the ribāṭs along the coast of Ifrīqiya at the end of the eighth century to protect the country against the Byzantine fleet; that of Monastir was founded by Harthama.

9 Under the Fatimids, specifically under al-Muͨizz li-Din Allah, most probably with his invasion of Egypt in 358 A. H./969 A. D. in mind. The name al-Ṣiqlabī, ‘the Slav’, indicates one of the European generals, of slave origin, of whom Jawhar, the conqueror of Egypt, is the most famous.

10 The extent of this wall is not at all clear. Its primary purpose was probably to defend the vulnerable southern side of the city. If the Bāb al-Akhḍar were by the citadel in the south-east corner the reference to a continuation to the sea would be clear, though a little difficult to square with the digging of a ditch at the south-east corner. If, on the other hand, as Brunschvig, loc. cit., tends to think, and as the reference in the following paragraphs to a location between the Bāb al-Akhḍar and the Bāb al-Baḥr may indicate, the Bāb al-Akhḍar was in the long west wall, then the Screen would have been a much longer work, reaching the sea at the northern tip of the town.

11 1217 A. D. The Shaykh was the first Hafsid to be entrusted with the government of Ifrīqiya by the Almohads. His government, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, marked the beginning of the regime to which al-Tijānī belonged.

12 Presumably the Mahdī of the Almohads, Ibn Tūmart. A reference to the Fatimid Mahdī would suppose a Fatimid source at variance with the traditions on which al-Tijānī normally relies.

13 Cf. The Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam, ed. Gibb, H. A. R. and Kramers, J. H., Leiden and London, 1961, s.v. Muṣallā.

14 912–13 A. D., immediately after the Fatimid conquest of the city; see the description of the Great Mosque, below.

15 For this legend, cf. Brett, , ‘Journey’, 44.

16 Al-Bakrī, , Description de l’Afrique septentrionale, ed. and trans. Slane, de, Algiers, , 1911–13, reprint Paris, 1965, 7, trans. 20.

17 One of the main interests of these references to small mosques outside the town is the way in which they reveal the taking over of such oratories by holy men who come to reside there, leaving their names and their reputations to attract the faithful during their lifetime and after their death.

18 Named after the reigning Hafsid monarch at Tunis, the caliph al-Mustanṣir. The text of the 1958 edition of the Riḥla gives Muntaṣiriya, but this would seem erroneous. The madrasa in question would have been one of the earliest examples of such colleges in the Maghrib.

19 The monument is the triumphal arch of Marcus Aurelius. The reading of the inscription is a nice example of mediaeval Muslim historicism.

20 It was built, in fact, in the year when the first muṣallā was established. Khalīl ibn Isḥāq is described elsewhere in the Riḥla, 241, as a member of the army (jund) of Tripoli, promoted by the Fatimids when they conquered the city.

21 The building in question was destroyed in 1510 A. D. when the Spaniards captured the city, to be rebuilt a hundred years later. It would seem most probable that the mosque itself antedated the Fatimids, whose contribution of a minaret would be a suitable token of their arrival.

22 Al-Bakrī, , Description, 9, trans. 25; the text gives Sūbijīn for Sūfajjīn, but al-Tijānī is very careful to spell the word, whether from his copy of al-Bakrī, or from his informants. For the possibility of such very high yields from certain small areas in certain good years, cf. Valensi, L., Fellahs tunisiens: l'économie rurale et la vie des campagnes aux 18e et 19e siècles, Paris and the Hague, 1977, 192–200, esp. 199200.

23 Cf. Description, 8, trans. 25.

Tripoli at the Beginning of the Fourteenth Century A. D./Eighth Century AH

  • Michael Brett (a1)


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