The Normans conquer north-central Africa and create a new kingdom. But can it last?
“[ʿUmar] said, “Let a group from among you climb the walls and a group proceed to the housing of the Franks and the Christians, all of them, and kill them all.” [The people of Sfax] said to him, “But our lord the shaykh, your father, we are frightened for him.” He said, “He commanded me to do this. If thousands from among the enemies are killed for the shaykh, then he has not died.” The sun had not risen before they killed the Franks to the last.”
-Ibn al-Athir, al-Kamil fi al-tarikh
“The lord of Sicily was obstinate in the tyranny of his trespassing. He continued his aggression and his injustice. The evil of [Roger’s] taxation and the wickedness of his scheming, which oppressed the side of Islam, burdened [al-Hasan]. [Roger] thought that this plan, which was close to his desire, would be easy [to accomplish]. Thus he mobilized and gathered an army. He called upon [his soldiers] to fight. When [Roger] was of the opinion that his affairs were in order and his planning finished, which was to be his annihilation, his fleet set out toward Mahdia – God defend it! - with three hundred ships bearing on their decks 30,000 soldiers and about 1,000 cavalry.
But its departure was ill-fated and bound to misfortunes. For God, who is the first and most radiant in the production of beauty, destroyed [the Sicilian fleet] with the loss of equipment and the perdition of souls. He made visible his providence, which does not reveal its truth without abundant praise, such that he sent on them a wind that moved them toward destruction. It came upon them with the cold of the water and the heat of fire. Their destruction befell them, alternating between the piercing of spears and the flashing of blades...
Then, we sought assistance by summoning the surrounding tribes of the Arabs to us. For they drew near in band upon band. The arrival of the torrent, which was a very violent commotion and surged in waves, came. All of them came with intentions of pure jihad.
Thank God, who has triumphed for the hand of Islam, elevated it, and granted it victory. He, who has destroyed, ruined, debased, and driven away idolatry.”
-Ibn al-Athir, al-Kamil fi al-tarikh [Quotes read by Abishai Aziz Al-Doory of the History of Westeros podcast]
The Normans in Italy first encountered Africa while in Sicily. As the qadits fell before the invaders their leaders called upon the Zirid emir Tamim ibn al-Mu'izz to save them. The Zirids obliged their fellow Muslims and sent a force to defeat the Normans. The North African rulers were not primarily fighting for Islam or any loyalty to the Sicilians but exerting their control over the island. Sicily and the mid-North African region of Ifriqiya were intimately connected religiously, culturally and economically. Importantly, the Ifriqiyan state depended on Sicilian grain. The Zirids largely controlled the coastal cities where they grew wealthy and militarily powerful through trading and piracy. But the seaside cities could not feed themselves. The Zirids expanded southward towards the Sahara Desert, exploiting what agricultural land existed, but they still needed regular Sicilian grain shipments to feed their urban population.
In 1072 Palermo fell. Subsequent Norman victories convinced Tamim that Sicily was lost, but perhaps its grain trade could be salvaged through a new understanding with the Normans. Roger Bosso had little choice but to make peace with the Zirids and keep trade going. While Ifriqiya depended on Sicily’s grain, Sicily’s economy depended on Ifriqiya. In exchange for grain Ifriqiyan merchants traded gold and slaves which came via caravans north through the Sahara Desert from Sub-Saharan Africa. One final thing that drove the Zirids into a close relationship with the Normans was that they needed allies. The strongest power in North Africa was Fatimid Egypt, whose leaders were Shi’ite Muslims. The Zirids broke off from Egypt and became Sunni. This religious division did not guarantee war, though it made it more likely as the Fatimids could use their rivals’ ‘heretical’ beliefs as justification for invasion.
Roger Bosso understood that his new island needed North African wealth and in 1075 he signed a treaty with the Zirids. Trade continued as usual and both countries grew rich. In fact, Roger Bosso was on such good terms with Ifriqiya that while the Zirids raided other countries they left his own territory alone. Despite being of different faiths both sides recognized there was more to gain from being friends than enemies; in fairness, both sides had enough of those. In the mid-1080s the rising city-states of Genoa and Pisa invited Roger to join them in an attack on Mahdia, the capital city of Ifriqiya, which he refused.
For decades Roger Bosso and his successor Roger II were on good terms with the Zirids. The Normans respected the Ifriqiyans, having a similar political structure which was a holdover from Muslim Sicily. African scholars regularly travelled from North Africa to Palermo where they received the patronage of the Hauteville family. While the Hauteville favored the Zirids the Norman leaders were in regular contact with leaders across North Africa. Notably in 1114 pirates under the authority of the Hammadids captured a group of monks travelling from Sardinia to the Abbey of Monte Cassino. When Roger II heard of this he sent emissaries to the Hammadid emir asking for their release, to which he immediately obliged.
These friendly relations took a decisive downturn due to the rise in power of George of Antioch. George had never forgiven the Zirid dynasty for the murder of his brother. George’s grudge against Yahya carried over to his son Ali and he pushed Sicily towards a more aggressive policy against its southern neighbors. In 1117 the governor of the Ifriqiyan city of Gabès built his own merchant ship for use in trade with Sicily. Ali condemned the governor’s actions as an affront to his own monopoly on trade, prompting the governor of Gabès to ask the Normans for help. Soon, a Norman fleet arrived at Gabès. An incensed Ali sent his own fleet, leading to a tense standoff. Ultimately the Normans withdrew without a fight. Yet, Ali remained so concerned about Norman aggression he reached out to the Almoravids in the west for an alliance.
The naval standoff opened a rift between Palermo and Mahdia. An increasingly confident Roger II added to the drama by sending Ali a derisive letter. Ali decided he would make the first strike and built up his navy, but Ali died in 1121 and was succeeded as emir by his 12-year-old son al-Hasan. It was under him, or more likely his regents, that the Almoravids and Ifriqiyans launched their assault against Roger II’s territory, raiding Nicotera. Sicily and North Africa were at war. Roger II expanded his own navy and halted all trade from Ifriqiya and the Almoravid state. The embargo was just as threatening as any invasion. The Zirid state depended on Sicilian grain more than ever; by this point they had lost their inland, agriculturally-rich territories to rival tribes and had to trade for sufficient food.
In the midst of this crisis al-Hasan reached out to a higher power: the Fatimid Caliph Al-Amir bi Ahkam Allah. Al-Amir was a powerful and widely-respected leader, who enjoyed good relations with the states of North Africa and Sicily. Moreover, he had his own reasons for ending the trade embargo. If there was a major trade disruption its economic impact would reverberate throughout the Mediterranean. No one wanted an economic crisis and al-Amir negotiated a peace between the three warring states.
The peace did not last. In summer 1123 Roger II sent a fleet of 300 ships to attack Mahdia. En route to the island a storm sank many of the ships. Weakened, the Norman navy decided to raid Pantelleria an island halfway between Sicily and the Tunisian coast. Then they attacked the fortified city of al-Dimas. They captured al-Dimas only to find themselves besieged by the arriving Zirids. Those Normans who managed to flee to their ships could only watch as those left behind were slaughtered.
Hostilities continued and in 1127 Sicily reconquered Malta, whose Muslim rulers had at some point renounced their Christian overlords. Roger II put a Christian governor in control with a garrison to hold the fortress of Mdina and begin the re-Christianization of the island. Then Roger II sent a fleet that raided Djerba, an important Tunisian island and the largest on the North African coast. From there the fleet sailed to Mahdia. But the Mahdians were prepared and defeated the attackers. The Zirids responded to Norman aggression by raiding Syracuse on 17 July 1127. The growing central-Mediterranean conflict was only interrupted by events in Italy. The death of Duke Guillaume II opened the door for Roger II to claim dominion over the southern half of the peninsula, starting a prolonged war for succession.
In 1135 the faltering Zirid state teetered under an invasion from the Hammadid emir who besieged Mahdia. Al-Hasan was so desperate that he did the unthinkable: he begged Roger II for aid. The Norman king of Sicily sent a fleet to Mahdia, saving his regular enemy and valuable trading partner. Roger II’s aim in supporting al-Hasan was to keep alive the valuable commercial linkages, but aside from this he was demonstrating his power in the region. Al-Hasan’s invitation showcased the emir’s impotence and Roger II’s strength for all of Ifriqiya to see. With Mahdia secure the Norman fleet then conquered Djerba, giving them a base of operations to assault the entire coast.
The Norman presence at Djerba was a fatal blow to the declining Zirids. From the island George of Antioch launched raids virtually every year. These raids sapped the strength of the coastal cities even as the Normans grew more powerful. In 1142 he attacked Mahdia, seizing its ships, and with it control over the city’s sea trade.
Even more consequential than the Northmen’s aggression was the environment. From 1143 until the end of the decade there was an annual drought. The Arab chronicler Ibn al-Athir wrote that travelers arrived in empty towns where the dead outnumbered the living. There were even reports of cannibalism. Al-Hasan could only ask for grain shipments even as the Normans attacked more cities. On 18 June 1146 George attacked Tripoli, which was even then in the midst of a civil war between supporters of the Almoravids and a local tribe. As the Normans seized the gates many of the city’s people fled. But there was hardly any place to go; there was certainly no food in any direction. No sooner had they left then messengers rode out telling them that they could return in peace. Many heeded the call and returned to the city where the Normans treated them kindly. This time the Northmen had not come as raiders but conquerors. The Normans aimed to win over their new subjects and appointed a local governor with a charter of rights for himself and his people. These were quite generous given the circumstances and the city gained a great degree of autonomy even as its leaders acknowledged the overlordship of the Normans.
As Zirid authority collapsed the Ifriqiyans recognized that the Normans were the powerbrokers in the region and turned to them to settle disputes. In Gabès a local ruler named Yusuf became deeply unpopular for his involvement in a coup and for his sexual abuse of protected women. Yusuf turned to Roger II, pledging fealty in exchange for his military backing. In response Al-Hasan managed to form a coalition that ousted and executed Yusuf. It would be his last conquest before his downfall.
In 1147 the drought reached its peak. Ifriqiyans were starving and the Zirids were in full crisis. The following year, George of Antioch returned from raiding Greece. When he learned how desperate the situation in North Africa was he decided to make his move. First, George seized Pantelleria. Then he sent out carrier pigeons with messages claiming his fleet would sail next to Constantinople. Instead, the galleys left for Mahdia. As Al-Hasan watched the Normans approach he decided that there was not enough food left in the city to last out a siege. He ordered everyone to evacuate with whatever they could carry. Most did, though the Christians and some others decided to stay. The Normans entered the city without a fight.
George let his men sack the city for two hours before he established order. Then, in the words of Ibn al-Athir, “He sent to those who were nearby among the Arabs and they came to him. He treated them well and gave them much money. He also sent out some among the army of Mahdia which had remained there as a group. They carried the promise of safety to the people of Mahdia who had fled along with mounts to carry the children and women to the city. They were close to death from hunger, but they had their hidden treasures and wealth in Mahdia. When [news of] the safe passage came to them, they returned. Before Friday most of the people of the city had returned.”
The Normans then moved on Sousse. The city similarly suffered from a lack of food and surrendered on 2 July. Sfax became the first city to resist the Normans during the 1148 campaign, though they and their allies were overwhelmed on the 13 July. If the Normans were merciful to those who surrendered they were brutal to those who resisted, taking the men, women and children as slaves. Al-Hasan had to flee westward and was taken prisoner by the Hammadid emir of Annaba, who in turn submitted to the Normans.
By the end of the campaign the Kingdom of Sicily controlled a territory that stretched from Tripoli in the east up to Tunis in the west. The Normans controlled Mediterranean trade from east to west and the valuable trans-Saharan trade from north to south. Silk, incense and spices flowed from the east; gold, slaves and ivory came up from the south; the Ifriqiyans extracted salt on the coasts; from Spain came wool, iron and foodstuffs, while Sicily itself exported its vast hard grain reserves which paid for it all, alongside taxes extracted from conquered peoples. This trans-Mediterranean, trans-Continental kingdom was looking more like an empire, one which could rival Byzantium or the Caliphates. Indeed, some Byzantine officials openly lamented the Normans’ successes. One envoy to the Holy Roman Emperor claimed that Roger II had conquered Africa, the rightful domain of the Roman Empire, and with it held sway over 1/3rd of the world. Clearly the Byzantines were exaggerating; but given their rivalry with the Normans they were more than willing to play up their power to gain German aid.
On paper, Roger II had built an empire. Reality was quite different. The Norman Kingdom of Africa was resigned entirely to the coast with Christian governors and soldiers exercising direct control over Mahdia, Pantelleria, Kerkennah and Djerba. The vast majority of ‘Norman’ territory was under the control of indigenous governors, who paid a small amount in taxes while retaining remarkable autonomy, though, to keep the governors in line, the Normans took some of their relatives as hostages back to Sicily. The Normans never even tried to administer inland meaning that most of the country’s land and people lay outside of their power.
Despite these obvious limitations, Roger II was convinced of his own power. In 1149 he sent George of Antioch to raid Constantinople’s port; while there ol’ Georgie even fired a few arrows at the palace windows in revenge for his family’s mistreatment by the Greeks. It just so happened that Louis VII of France was sailing west when his entourage came upon the Norman fleet engaging a Byzantine fleet. After defeating the Byzantines the Normans escorted Louis VII to Sicily. There the two French-speaking monarchs likely bonded over their mutual enmity of the Germans, Byzantines, Muslims…pretty much anyone who wasn’t French or subservient to them. This friendly meeting with the mighty King of France seemed to embolden Roger II even further. In the early 1150s Roger II supported Welf VI against the King of Germany Conrad III. Conrad III defeated Welf VI but the fact that an outsider would dare interfere in the internal affairs of the Holy Roman Empire was stunning.
Ifiriqiya prospered under the Normans, though in fairness when the Normans seized the region it did not have anywhere to go but up. In 1148 the drought ended, concluding the years’-long nightmare that gripped middle-North Africa. Norman authority acted as a peace-keeping force, which abetted trading. Normans also built-up local infrastructure, investing in their new territory. Finally, they encouraged Christian merchants to travel or even settle in the kingdom, drawing many Italians, particularly Genoese. Pope Eugenius III even took the opportunity to appoint a new archbishop of Ifriqiya to serve the growing Christian population.
The Normans ruled as North African lords. They bestowed ceremonial robes, called khil, or plural khil’a, upon their surrogate rulers. They allowed locals to maintain their customs and worship. They also engaged in gift-giving, distributing gold to tribes to gain their allegiance. The Normans appointed qadis to judge local cases. Given that Sicilian rulers already emulated Fatimid Egypt it was easy for them to adapt to North Africa.
The Normans would soon realize that Ifriqiya was not Sicily. Sicilian Muslims practiced the laxest form of Islam in the whole world. The people of Ifriqiya were far more orthodox and resented Christian overlordship. They chafed under the gizya tax and opposed the Christianization of their land. The end of the drought meant that the Ifriqiyans were less dependent on Sicily for grain, meaning that rebellion became a far more realistic prospect. Finally, while Sicily was an island of Muslims in a Christian region, North Africa was predominantly Muslim. Sicilian Muslims had to learn to tolerate and adapt to Christians because they could not expect much aid from their fellows. Ifriqiyans had many potential allies, including their fellow city-states, inland tribes, the Fatimids or the rising power in the west, the Almohads.
The Almohads would ultimately end the Norman Kingdom of Africa. This new caliphate rapidly conquered the Maghreb in the 1140s, overthrowing the Almoravids, before stretching eastward. In 1152 or 1153 they took the city of Annaba, deposing the last Hammadid emir. The Almohads freed al-Hasan, who eagerly joined the new power as a military commander against the Normans. In Spring 1153 a coalition of Ifriqiyan tribes assembled to fight the Almohads. Roger II offered 5,000 of his own men to fight alongside them but the tribes refused on the grounds that this was a Muslim affair. Perhaps they should have accepted his help, as the Almohads utterly defeated them at the Battle of Sétif.
Roger II understood that he needed to do something about the Almohads. He sent a naval commander, the eunuch Philip of Mahdia, to conquer Annaba, which he did in 1153 along with the city of Bône. There Philip treated kindly with the locals to win over their hearts. Despite, or perhaps because of these triumphs, Philip was recalled to Palermo as his political enemies launched a conspiracy against him. They accused him of being a secret Muslim due to his treatment of the people in the conquered cities. While the Sicilians tolerated Islam, they could not countenance apostasy, a crime which carried the death penalty. Roger II was on Philip’s side but the rest of his court was firmly against him. The King openly wept when he gave the order to have his servant burned alive.
Tragedy struck Sicily in February 1154 when Roger II died. His son Guillaume I was not as energetic or as competent as his father. Moreover, he faced a number of crises early on in his reign. Pope Adrian IV prompted the Normans in Italy to revolt in 1155, a revolt which the Byzantines supported with a fleet. For two years Guillaume I fought in Italy, defeating Normans, Italians and Byzantines. He succeeded, forced submission from his vassals and the pope recognized him as king.
Guillaume I was so preoccupied with preserving his kingdom in Italy that his kingdom in Africa fell apart. The emir of Sfax, Umar ibn Abi al-Hasan al-Furriyani led a force that slaughtered the Norman guard. When news arrived in Palermo of the massacre in Sfax, Guillaume ordered Umar’s father, who was then a hostage at court, to write to his son and urge him to resubmit to Norman authority. Umar’s father refused. Guillaume then sent an emissary to Sfax demanding their submission. The emissary was not allowed within the city; instead he watched a procession as the people carried an empty coffin in front of him. The coffin was for Umar’s father, the previous ruler; the people of the city were honoring him for remaining faithful to his fellow Ifriqiyan Muslims, even though it surely meant his death. Back in Palermo, Guillaume I did as the people of Sfax knew that he would, though in an excessively brutal manner. He ordered Umar’s father crucified.
Sfax’s rebellion was a spark that spread like wildfire across Ifriqiya. Tripoli, Gabès, and the islands of Djerba and Kerkennah revolted along with many smaller cities. In 1157 an army from Sfax and Zawila even attacked Mahdia. The Normans successfully held the city until reinforcements arrived, bringing with them enough gold to bribe other tribes to join them. Realizing their danger, the army of Sfax retreated to their city. The army from Zawila tried to do the same, but the inhabitants feared Norman retribution and locked the city gates. Trapped outside the walls, the Zawila army faced the Normans and were massacred. But the Normans showed no mercy to Zawila. They pillaged the city and exterminated those within.
The Normans managed to retake a number of coastal cities but their power was much-reduced. Moreover, the Almohads continued their eastward expansion. In 1158 the Normans demanded the imams of Tripoli denounce the fundamentalist ideology of the Almohads. The imams refused this Christian intrusion upon Muslim theology and the people were so incensed that they killed a Norman guard. Shortly thereafter the Almohads conquered the city.
By 1159 the Normans lost all their territory to rebellion or Almohad invasion, save Mahdia. But the capital was soon to follow. That year the Almohad caliph himself, ‘Abd al-Mu’min, travelled to Zawila to oversee the siege of Mahdia. The atmosphere in the city was almost that of a festival as people travelled to see the Caliph and join in his glorious jihad against the last of the Christian interlopers. In the meantime, many independent cities sent emissaries pledging fealty to al-Mu’min.
Guillaume I determined to save what little remained of his African kingdom. He sent a fleet under the command of Qaid Pierre to break the siege. An Almohad fleet met the Normans and won a decisive victory. Mahdia held for another six months before surrendering on 21 January 1160.
The Almohads erased whatever Norman influence remained in Ifriqiya. These leaders pursued a fundamentalist version of Islam, one that was far less tolerant for non-Muslims. They demanded that Christians convert, leave the country or face execution. However, exceptions were made for travelling Italian merchants; money is a powerful influence after all. After two decades of formal war, in 1180, King Guillaume II and Caliph Yusuf I negotiated a peace to resume the ever-important Mediterranean trade.
The Norman Kingdom of Africa was far too audacious an endeavor to last. The Normans believed they could replicate their conquest and rule of Islamic Sicily in Africa. But Africa was not Sicily. Its people were very different kinds of Muslims, the land was far too vast, and there were great states beyond the powers of the Normans to contend with.
The 1150s were the height of the Kingdom of Sicily’s territorial conquests. However, it would only grow richer and grander in the late 12th century when it became one of the greatest kingdoms in all of medieval Europe.