Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.10.50 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.10.50

Stéphanie Guédon (ed.), La frontière méridionale du Maghreb: Approches croisées (Antiquité - Moyen Âge). 1. Scripta receptoria, 13.   Bordeaux:  Ausonius Éditions, 2018.  Pp. 242.  ISBN 9782356132321.  €25,00 (pb).  


Reviewed by Athena Trakadas, National Museum of Denmark (athena.lynn.trakadas@natmus.dk)

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review. ]

This volume is the product of the 2016 colloquium La frontière méridionale du Maghreb et ses formes. Essai de définitions (Antiquité-Moyen Âge), the first scientific event organised within the framework of the project DÉSERT: la frontière méridionale du Maghreb à l’époque antique et médiévale, espace de confins et territoires d’échanges (lead by Université de Limoges). The collection of nine articles addresses geo-historical conceptions of the Saharan frontier in the Maghreb—central-western North Africa—from the Roman Empire to the medieval period. In her introduction (pp. 11-15), Guédon underscores that the present-day perception of the Sahara as a frontier, and its symbolic relation to conflicts between peoples and states, is rooted in concepts established in antiquity. This volume is a reflection upon the history of that construction, and the main questions it aims to address include: How was the Saharan border of the Maghreb formed in the Roman period? How did the arrival of Islam and other political powers in the Maghreb modify the perception of the Sahara, and displace the frontier to the south through original and complex processes that imply shared and competing political, economic, and religious motivations? How did the regional powers advance new forms of representation of the frontier in their quest for legitimacy? These questions are investigated through geo-historical, archaeological, and philological reflections with three foci (into which the volume is divided): the role of ‘Saharan tropism’ in constructing the frontier concept; the processes of constructing and claiming the frontier; and a regional focus on Hodna to Biskra in central Algeria to illustrate ideas raised in the first two sections.

The first paper in the first section by Leveau is a thorough presentation of the physical framework of the Maghreb. He notes that it is important for historians of North Africa to understand the inherent sub-text of the theoretical approaches of French geographers of the 20th century. Leveau abandons the paradigms of the 1960s that focus on the “Roman miracle” of agricultural exploitation in an optimal climate and instead concentrates on the re-constructed physical and climatic contexts to present more nuanced patterns of exploitation along the margins of the territory. What ensues is a detailed review of the topographical, climatological, and geological studies in the region, and a state-of-the-knowledge overview of what is known of past climate fluctuations. Leveau questions the historical determinism of these factors in affecting agriculture and pastoralism in an extensive post-colonial critique focusing mostly on the Algerian evidence of the province of Mauretania Caesariensis. Roman viticulture and olive-oil production in the region are well-known, but new data reveal fluctuations in climate which meant that these agricultural practices would have varied regionally and seasonally. Moreover, those groups who occupied the marginal arid and semi-arid zones south of the Atlas-Aurès massifs facing the Sahara adapted to micro-changes in climate within their practises of pastoralism, nomadism, semi-nomadism, transhumance, and also the dry farming of cereals—often hard to detect in the archaeological record.

The section is concluded by Valérian’s treatment of the Mediterranean-Saharan opposition. Modern historiography displays a great deal of inequality when treating these frontiers, when in fact they are mirrors. Valérian argues that French historians have followed Pirenne and focused on the Mediterranean as a frontier, resulting in an image of the sea as a place of confrontation between Christianity and Islam in the medieval period, characterised by wars, violence, piracy, and captives. The Saharan African frontier seems to be all but ignored apart from Moroccan scholarship. Conversely, it is treated differently than the Mediterranean in medieval Arab texts: the narrative is not one of isolation and division but reveals a more pacific and commercial dimension with “Black Africa” (l’Afrique noire). Islam followed the trans-Saharan gold trade routes and helped solidify the importance of the Ibadite states located on the Saharan margin and the expansion of the Almoravid dynasty. Valérian contends that due to a lack of competition with Christianity, a discourse on Islam and its external relations emerged, possibly as compensation for the narrative of failure of the expansion of Islam in the Mediterranean and the rise of European powers.

Opening the second section of the volume, Callegarin analyses the diachronic continuity of the particular frontier of the province of Mauretania Tingitania, in present-day northern Morocco, from the Mauretanian kingdoms at the end of the 2nd century BC to the Roman-African states in the 6th-7th centuries AD. Since the region was isolated from the rest of the Maghreb due to the high topography of the Atlas and Rif mountains, Callegarin contends that this resulted in the frontier being a negotiated zone between two political entities: the emerging, stationary Roman Urbs and the pre-existing, sometimes mobile Mauretanian tribes. Peace treaties between these groups, found at several Roman colonia, reveal that several tribes moved in and out of the civic territory during seasonal transhumance. During the late 3rd century, the Roman administration and army began to withdraw seemingly peacefully northward, and Callegarin suggests that this could indicate continued negotiation regarding changes in this frontier zone. Interestingly, Mauretanian tribes upheld some ‘Romaness’, using Latin, Latinised names, and titles such as rex into the 7th century.

The military dimension of the Roman frontier is analysed by Reddé, who compares the eastern and western deserts in Egypt and the Libyan Sahara. With these examples, he highlights the regional differences, characterised by porousness, temporal discontinuity, and the administrative role of the military installations. Initially, during the Principate, military forts established in the eastern desert policed movement and re-supplied caravan routes, but the system collapsed in the mid-3rd century. In contrast, the western desert, with its desiccated plateau, was left “open”, with little evidence of military presence. After the Tetrarchy, however, military forts appeared near the Khargeh oasis. The reasons for these differences, Reddé argues, are due to a reduction in caravan trade in the east, but remain unclear in the west and make it impossible to identify it as a real frontier: was the Roman military present to stem growing insecurity, or control population movement and the possible increase in commercial traffic to “Black Africa”? However, in the Libyan Sahara, local military installations appear in the 2nd and 3rd centuries along the southern edge of cultivatable land. The forts are small, and not really linked to any known itineraries, but Reddé cautions that regional surveys have until now been too disjointed and limited to draw any major conclusions.

Ducène addresses the geo-political realities of the Maghreb—and the Marinid, Zayyanid, and Hasfid dynasties therein—through the perspective of the neighbouring Mameluke Sultanate. He argues that the information on the Maghreb provided by 9th-10th century Arab geographers such as Ya’qubī, al-Iṣṭak̲h̲rī, and al-Idrîsî was very generalised, and treated the region as an unlimited, seemingly endless entity with the Saharan populations administratively linked, religiously or economically, to coastal cities. New information was needed to assist in foreign relations, and Mameluke administrators in Cairo relied on contemporary geographers of ca. 13th-15th centuries, including al-‘Umarī, al‐Ğayš, and Qalqašandī, for updated information. Ducène proposes that these geographers also introduced new concepts of territoriality, based on political power, military capacity, and commercial and diplomatic relations. As a result, the Sahara appears as a geographic entity, but is not considered impassable—it is linked to commercial routes to the south. Three vertical divisions of Ifrīqiya, Maghreb middle (al-awsat), and west (al-aqṣā) are established, as are three longitudinal divisions of the coastal band, the mountain band of Berbers, and the Sahara band as the boundary of the Maghreb in contact with the “Land of the Blacks” (bilād al-Sūdān).

The importance of the construction of the southern Saharan frontier of the Maghreb is presented by Dejugnat in a detailed survey of the 14th-century work by the widely-travelled Ibn Battūta. Although there are certainly issues with text, Dejugnat proposes that it reveals a physical boundary—the desert—was understood, yet it seems to possess religious and cultural “otherness” through the presence of paganism/Ibadism and those from bilād al-Sūdān. However, the desert is also an unclear, intermediary space, with a mix of peoples, languages, religions, and powers living in its oases. It is also a movable border, with competition between the Marinids in the west and Mamelukes in the east for political relations and economic control of the region. Dejugnat suggests that control of the gold trade coming from bilād al-Sūdān was part of the main Marinid political goal, as a way to finance the jihad /reconquering the lost territories in al-Andalus/Iberia.

In the volume’s third section, a regional focus on central Algeria is presented in order to underscore the need for more data. This raises the importance of the papers here, first that of Slimani & Kherbouche, who highlight previously unpublished archaeological finds from north-west of the Chott el Hodna (‘saline lake’). Seven sites are presented with the aim to determine their character and the spatial occupation in this frontier zone during the Roman period. Some of the larger settlements are mentioned in the Antonine Itinerary (ca. early 3rd century) and the Arab medieval geographies, and rural finds include aqueducts and other hydraulic features, pottery-, glass-, and lime kilns, olive-oil presses, Roman and Byzantine forts, wells, and underground silos. Even though there is extensive re-use of building material and multiple-period sites, the authors conclude that there was dense agricultural exploitation and a military presence in this part of the High Plains well into the 7th century.

Benseddik presents the chance-find of a military inscription from the ancient fort of Thabudeos (Touda), ca. 12 km east/south-east of Biskra. Dating to the Tetrarchy, the boundary marker inscription confirms earlier archaeological data indicating the renewed stability of the frontier in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries, along the route south of the Aurès and Nemencha mountains. The inscription testifies to an investment in the frontier zones through well-placed forts for the importance of controlling the main routes of nomadism/transhumance between the Saharan plateau and the High Plains, which was carried over into the Byzantine reoccupation of the region’s fortresses in the 7th century.

The historical geography of the Ziban area of central Algeria—Biskra and its oases—is surveyed through medieval Arab sources by Meouak (pp. 215-242). Key sources on the region include al-Ḥāzimi (12th century) to Leo Africanus (16th century), but importantly also Ibn Khaldun (mid- 14th century), who visited Ziban. Meouak notes that medieval authors vary their descriptions: sometimes the Ziban is characterised as a series of oases centred on Biskra, sometimes as open on all sides, and sometimes as a group of closed terroirs. Located between the Sahara to the south and the Aurés mountains to the north, Meouak maintains that the Ziban was in reality a prosperous and diverse macro-region whose geography and topography allowed certain economic and religious activities, and included urban, rural, and oasis milieus peopled by nomads, semi-nomads, and sedentary groups.

La frontière méridionale du Maghreb is a thoughtful treatment of a vital and prescient topic: how, both physically and ideologically, were historical frontiers perceived, constructed, and maintained. One of the strengths of the volume is its diachronic approach to the subject, balanced through the chronological periods addressed in each contribution. Further parity is given to the use of source material to answer, regionally and generally, the questions originally posed in the volume’s introduction. There is understandably a heavy reliance on French literature in the bibliographies, which in themselves are a great asset and illustrate the depth of francophone scholarship. However, this sometimes seems to be at the expense of the contributions made by English-, Italian- and Spanish-speaking scholars working in the region. In a majority of cases, the maps would have been more helpful if reproduced at a large scale, as their important details are difficult to make out. Overall, this volume is a fine first product of the DÉSERT project, and one can hope that future colloquia will address the western and eastern Maghreb in such attentive detail.

Authors and titles

Stéphanie Guédon, Introduction. L’apport d’une étude diachronique de la frontière méridionale du Maghreb
Section 1. Le désert comme frontière, un tropisme géographique?
Philippe Leveau, Climat, sociétés et environnement aux marges sahariennes du Maghreb : une approche historiographique
Dominique Valérian, Le Sahara et la Méditerranée, frontières du Maghreb médiéval : approches comparées
Section 2. Construire, revendiquer la frontière
Laurent Callegarin, Négocier la frontière : la fluctuation du limes en Maurétanie tingitane
Michel Reddé, Il y a frontières et frontières… Les franges sahariennes de Rome, de la mer Rouge à la Tripolitaine
Jean-Charles Ducène, Les frontières du Maghreb vues depuis la chancellerie mamelouke (XIIIe s.-XVe s.)
Yann Dejugnat, Perception et statut de la frontière méridionale du Magrheb dans le récit de voyage (rihla) d’Ibn Battūta (milieu du XIVe siècle)
Section 3. Étude régionale : l’Algérie centrale : du Hodna à Biskra
Souad Slimani & Hanane Kherbouche, Les formes d’occupation antique dans le Hodna : état des lieux
Nacéra Benseddik, Sidi Okba ou Thouda-Thabudeos : un nouveau milliaire
Mohamed Meouak, Biskra et ses oasis au Moyen Âge, marge aurésienne, marge saharienne ? Notes préliminaires
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