The Battle of al-Dimas did not mark the end of peaceful diplomatic relations between the Zirids and the Normans. Despite this Norman defeat and bombastic rhetoric from al-Hasan ibn ʿAli, relations between the two dynasties calmed until 521H (1127–28), when the Almoravids (at the behest of the Zirids) launched another raid against Norman lands. This encounter, however, was soon eclipsed by political developments in southern Italy that occupied Roger II for the better part of a decade. During these years, the Zirids waned in power due to the collapse of their alliances, while the Norman political and military apparatus ballooned in strength under the able hands of Roger II and George of Antioch. As a Hammadid-led coalition approached the walls of Mahdia in 529H (1134–35), the Zirids requested aid from the Normans, who acquiesced and went a step further by seizing the island of Djerba for themselves.
The years following the Norman conquest of Djerba saw the gradual ascent of the Normans over the Zirids. The continued deterioration of emir al-Hasan ibn ʿAli’s alliances, environmental crises, and dissent among local Ifriqiyan governors crippled Zirid power in the central Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Roger II extended his power during the 1130s through campaigns in southern Italy that led to his eventual recognition as king of Sicily. With his continental territories secured, George of Antioch conducted campaigns on an almost annual basis in Ifriqiya during the 1140s. These attacks culminated in the seizure of Mahdia and the Ifriqiyan littoral from Tripoli up to Tunis by the summer of 1148, which marked the foundation of the Norman kingdom of Africa. For the first time since the Islamic conquests of the seventh century, the coastline of Ifriqiya was controlled by a Christian dynasty. Meanwhile, the last Zirid emir, al-Hasan ibn ʿAli, fled Mahdia and was subsequently captured by his Hammadid rivals.
Another Almoravid Raid, 521H (1127–28)
After the Battle of al-Dimas, sustained tension between the Zirids and Normans erupted during the pivotal year of 1127, when Roger II conquered the islands of Malta and Gozo, an Almoravid fleet raided several cities in Sicily, and Duke William II of Apulia and Calabria died. The first two of these events highlight the continued animosity between the Normans and Muslim leaders on the southern shores of the Mediterranean. The third event, meanwhile, provides an explanation for Roger II’s lack of concern for Ifriqiyan affairs for much of the late 1120s and early 1130s.
Arabic sources provide few details about the affairs of al-Hasan ibn ʿAli between the Battle of al-Dimas and the second Almoravid raid against Norman lands. More is known about Roger II, who continued to expand his power.1 He invested most of his time in the affairs of southern Italy. During the early years of his reign, Count Roger was subservient to William II, the duke of Apulia and Calabria (whose father was Roger Borsa and grandfather was Robert Guiscard). Although the two jockeyed for power in southern Italy during the early 1120s, Roger was able to dramatically expand the scope of his power when they signed a peace treaty in 1122 that was brokered by Pope Callixtus II. By the terms of this treaty, Roger agreed to provide military and financial support to William and in return, William conceded his shares of Calabria, Messina, and Palermo to Roger II. This effectively put Roger in complete control of Sicily and Calabria. Near the end of 1123, having recovered from his defeat at al-Dimas, Roger campaigned in Calabria to solidify his rule. The territories secured during these years strengthened the Norman monarchy and paved the way for excursions that Roger conducted several years later across the Strait of Sicily.
The first of these expeditions was aimed at Malta and a handful of other unnamed islands in the central Mediterranean. This was not the first Norman attack on Malta. Roger I had conquered (or raided) the island in 1091, but the next mention of it comes in the chronicle of Alexander of Telese, who briefly records Roger II’s conquest of Malta and Gozo in 1127.2 In the intervening years, the islands had presumably fallen into the hands of a Muslim lord, whose identity and allegiances are unknown.3 The most detailed account of Roger II’s island conquests comes from the Tristia ex Melitogaudo, a Greek poem composed by a member of the Norman court exiled to Gozo during the middle of the twelfth century. The anonymous author dramatically summarizes the Norman conquest:
The most resplendent of all the leaders,
Having mustered only a small naval expeditionary force
And a host of spear-bearing archer-infantry,
Sailed to Melitogaudos [Malta and Gozo], the country of Hagar, [and]
Not having been dismayed at the impudence of the godless [sons of Hagar],
Having encircled [them] with diverse engines of war,
He subdued [them] with the might and main for the Lord.
When he saw, on the one hand, these [inhabitants]
Invoking only the heresiarch, the all-abominable Mohammed,
He banished from the country their sheikhs,
With all their households and [their] black slaves, not indeed a few.
He, on the other hand, brought out into the open
The pious inhabitants of the place, together with the bishop,
Who, having departed from the Pact of old,
Got rid of the hated things by which they used to invoke Mohammed.4
This account of the Norman conquest of Malta and Gozo, written around twenty years after the event, shows the triumph of the Christian Normans over native Muslims. The conquest is presented as a battle fought with the approval of God against the Hagarenes (a Latin term for Muslims, based on their supposed descent from the biblical Hagar).5 It would be irresponsible, however, to take the word of this author as indicative of all the varied motivations that went into the Norman conquest of Malta and Gozo. The exiled author of this poem had every reason to want to return from his imprisonment on these backwater islands to the metropolis of Palermo. His praise of the Christian conquerors and condemnation of the Muslim population of the island are likely a reflection of his attempts at stitching together a narrative that would appeal to George of Antioch and the Norman court. Instead of approaching these island conquests from solely this perspective, we can also see them as part of the Normans’ larger plan for political and commercial control in the central Mediterranean. Malta and Gozo, located only fifty-five miles from the coast of Sicily, were ideal locations from which hostile powers could launch raids on Sicilian lands—they had been used as pirate bases in decades prior.6 By conquering these islands, Roger II inhibited raiders in the area and gained for himself a strategic base off the coast of Sicily en route to Ifriqiya.7
It is likely that the Norman conquest of Malta and Gozo was accompanied by a less successful attack that stretched to the coast of Ifriqiya itself—though the details of this campaign are obfuscated by inconsistencies in contemporary sources. William of Tyre, who provides the most detailed Latin-language account, records how the Normans launched a fleet in the summer of 1127 toward the province of Africa (probably in a continuation of the earlier Malta-Gozo campaign).8 The Normans first eyed Djerba. A letter from the island, reproduced by al-Hilati but written by an unknown author at an unknown date, mentions that the “Christians” attacked Djerba in 521H (1127–28).9 Following this raid, William of Tyre records how an “African” (potentially Zirid) fleet repulsed the Normans and chased them all the way back to Sicily, where it raided Syracuse, massacred many people, and enslaved the rest.10 Arabic sources corroborate this raid, though they indicate that it was conducted by an Almoravid fleet, which returned to the Maghreb laden with slaves and plunder.11 They also elaborate that this latest encounter further alienated Roger II from the Zirid emir al-Hasan, whom he suspected was once again collaborating with the Almoravids.12
The disputed and incomplete details of this encounter make it difficult to draw overarching conclusions about it. It is possible that these sources, which were written decades or centuries after the events themselves, were conflating this 1127 campaign with other, more firmly established ones in 517H (1123–24) or 529H (1134–35), or that there were other smaller encounters around these dates that would otherwise be unrecorded.13 What appears likely, however, is that the Normans, Zirids, and Almoravids undertook opportunistic raids during the 1120s through which they sought to destabilize their foes and fill their own treasuries. Indeed, the Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris (Chronicle of Alfonso the emperor) points to more widespread Almoravid aggression against Sicily. It mentions that the commander of the Almoravid navy would “sail through the Mediterranean to attack the area of Ascalon and the regions of Constantinople, Sicily, the town of Bari and other coastal towns … attacking and devastating, massacring and slaughtering the Christians.”14 Another section of the chronicle mentions that Almería was a haven for Almoravid pirates who would “strike at Constantinople, Sicily, or even at Barcelona.”15 Although the author may have exaggerated the suffering and extent of these raids, these passages nonetheless suggest multiple Almoravid raids conducted against Norman lands.16 The timeline for these expeditions is vague, however, and contemporary sources saw fit to record in any level of detail only two such expeditions—which perhaps were the most substantial ones.
The Normans’ attack on Malta, Gozo, and coastal Ifriqiya in 1127 represents an important change in the policy of Roger II. Unlike his previous incursions into the region, when Roger reacted to a request from an Ifriqiyan lord or responded directly to an act of aggression against him, this attack placed Roger on the offensive. The reason for this change of tactics was likely tied to the ascent of George of Antioch to the position of emir, which took place in 1126. Al-Maqrizi provides the most detailed explanation of George of Antioch’s rise to power.17 He explains how George and Christodoulos had shared power in Sicily when Roger came of age. Over time, though, George slandered Christodoulos to such an extent that Roger eventually had Christodoulos executed. Roger initially sought to appoint as a replacement Abu al-Dawʾ, a poet and administrator who had contacts in the Zirid court and was likely responsible for much of the Normans’ correspondence with Mahdia during the early twelfth century, but he refused the position.18 Roger then appointed George of Antioch. This change in personnel in the Norman administration corresponds to a radical change in policy toward Ifriqiya and is unlikely to be a coincidence. George played a formative role in planning the 1127 campaign, which involved proactive attacks on the islands of the central Mediterranean and the coast of Ifriqiya.19
This expedition further aligned with the ever-expanding commercial, political, and military aspirations of Count Roger II in the central Mediterranean. Treaties that the Norman administration negotiated roughly contemporaneously with the conquest of Malta and Gozo show these inflated ideas of Norman power. In the spring of 1128, Roger II concluded a series of treaties with Savona (a Genoese protectorate in northwestern Italy) that are preserved today in three documents.20 In these treaties, the Savonese agree not to harm the people or boats of Roger II in “the entire sea, which is from Numidia up to Tripoli, and all the sea and all the land that is between us.” Roger’s assertion that these waters and coastal lands, which span from roughly Algeria to Tripoli (Libya), fell under his sphere of influence indicates that he sought maritime control over much of the south-central Mediterranean.21 These treaties further show that Roger was actively seeking to requisition naval equipment in what was essentially state-sponsored piracy or privateering, presumably to support his own interests.22 The fortification of the Norman navy through this tactic allowed Roger to undertake campaigns in the Mediterranean with increased frequency—against Malta, Gozo, and Ifriqiya in 1127; on the Italian Peninsula in the late 1120s; and in Ifriqiya during the 1130s and 1140s.23
As Roger was negotiating these treaties with Savona, he was also looking for allies in the western Mediterranean to combat the Zirid-Almoravid alliance. He found one in the form of Raymond Berengar III, count of Barcelona.24 In the beginning of 1128, the two counts finalized a treaty by which Roger agreed to provide aid and counsel due to the “multiple incursions of Saracens in parts of Hispania.”25 According to the treaty, Roger would provide fifty ships, several of his vassals, and an unspecified number of soldiers to aid the armies of Raymond. The target of this expedition is not specified in the treaties, other than “Hispania.” It is possible, however, that Roger and Raymond were planning to attack the Balearic Islands, from which the Almoravids had been launching their raids on Christian lands.26 Wherever Roger and Raymond intended for this campaign to go, nothing of it materialized because of the repercussions of an unexpected death on the southern end of the Italian Peninsula.27
Amid Roger II’s treaty negotiations and campaigns in the central Mediterranean, Duke William II of Apulia and Calabria died childless on July 28, 1127. Roger sought to usurp his dukedom immediately by virtue of their shared Hauteville heritage, a move that brought him into conflict with both the papacy (which had a legitimate claim to William’s duchy) and lords in southern Italy. Pope Honorius II threatened Roger with excommunication, raised his own troops for an impending war, and invested a rival claimant to the dukedom.28 Roger responded by campaigning in Italy during the summer of 1128, which occupied virtually all of his military resources and rendered him unable to help Raymond in Iberia. These expeditions were the first of many through which Roger sought to establish himself as the sole ruler of Sicily, Apulia, and Calabria. Embroiled in these affairs, Roger did not commit himself militarily to the affairs of Ifriqiya for nearly a decade.29
Conflict in Mahdia and Djerba, 529H (1134–35)
After the campaigns of 521H (1127–28), there is no evidence of conflict between al-Hasan ibn ʿAli and Roger II for the better part of eight years. Instead, both sides pursued their own interests on their respective sides of the Mediterranean while continuing to benefit from commercial traffic that passed through their ports. This policy of nonintervention came to an end in the summer of 529H (1135), when al-Hasan sought an alliance with the Normans against a coalition of Ifriqiyan lords who had attacked Mahdia. The subsequent Zirid-Norman victory marked the beginning of a new phase in the relationship between the two dynasties, in which the Normans asserted a substantial degree of political authority over affairs in Ifriqiya.
In the wake of Duke William II’s death in 1127, Roger devoted much of his time and resources to securing the loyalty of lords on the Italian Peninsula, many of whom were hostile to him and enjoyed the support of Pope Honorius II. The death of Honorius in 1130 presented an opportunity for Roger to gain recognition for his rule when the subsequent papal election resulted in the contested appointment of Pope Anacletus II, whom Roger supported, and Pope Innocent II, who enjoyed the support of most of the rest of Europe. Roger and his advisers argued the need for a “king of Sicily” to Anacletus, who agreed and crowned Roger on Christmas Day 1130.30 This coronation was met with fierce opposition from supporters of Pope Innocent II and lords in southern Italy, leading to further conflict that lasted through the 1130s.31
Although Roger’s military energies in the years following the death of Duke William II were firmly fixed on the Italian Peninsula, he still looked for ways to gain influence elsewhere in the Mediterranean through diplomacy and subterfuge. In 1130, for example, Roger jumped at the opportunity to assert his hereditary right in Antioch when Prince Bohemond II of Antioch died and left his daughter Constance, still a minor, as heir.32 When a council of nobles from Antioch chose Raymond of Poitiers to wed Constance, they feared Roger would try to prevent Raymond from traveling to Antioch, in order to advance his own line’s claim. A wary Raymond thus set out on his journey incognito in 1135 to avoid the traps Roger had laid in every coastal city in Apulia. Those traps proved unsuccessful as Raymond, dressed as a humble pilgrim, managed to evade Roger’s sentries and safely sail to Antioch.
There is no evidence of such subterfuge between Roger II and al-Hasan in the early 1130s, as trade between their lands continued. In 1134, Roger II gave the monastery of San Salvatore in Messina the right to export wheat from their lands to “Africa” in exchange for olive oil.33 Across the Strait of Sicily, al-Hasan apparently displayed a similar attitude of nonintervention in Norman affairs, though contemporary sources are largely silent about these years. He clashed with his Hammadid rivals outside of Mahdia in 521H (1127–28), for unknown reasons.34 The chronicler Ibn ʿIdhari, as if to assure his readers that he had not forgotten to include the life of the Zirid emir, mentions in 523H (1128–29) that “al-Hasan ibn Ali was the emir of Ifriqiya, as he was the year before,” and in 528H (1133–34) that “the rulers of Ifriqiya were the same as in the preceding year.”35 The scarcity of documentation, however, does not mean that al-Hasan and other governors in Ifriqiya were wholly idle. To shine some light on the history of Ifriqiya in these years, it is necessary to use later entries from Arabic chronicles. Ibn al-Athir’s documentation of 529H (1134–35) is particularly revealing.
In this year (likely in the summer of 1135), the Hammadid emir Yahya ibn al-ʿAziz launched an expedition against the Zirid capital of Mahdia.36 The impetus for this was al-Hasan’s preferential treatment of a certain Ifriqiyan lord named Muhriz ibn Ziyad, who had command of a large group of Arabs.37 His act of favoritism (the nature of which is unspecified) made other lords envious and caused them to ask the Hammadid emir Yahya ibn al-ʿAziz to invade Mahdia. Spurred by this request and letters from discontented shaykhs in Mahdia, Yahya ibn al-ʿAziz gathered his forces. The Hammadid army, led by Muttarif ibn Hamdun and accompanied by a large number of Arabs allies, besieged Mahdia. The Hammadid fleet dominated the seas outside of Mahdia and the army pressed ahead toward the walls. Although the army managed to sack the suburb of Zawila, the tide of battle turned quickly. The account from Ibn al-Athir details al-Hasan ibn ʿAli’s heroism:
Al-Hasan ordered the opening of the sea-facing gate and he was the first of the people to exit it. He bore himself forth and cried out to those who were with him, “I am al-Hasan!” When those who were fighting him heard this, they called out to him, saluted him, and retreated from him out of respect for him. Then, at that moment, al-Hasan sent out his fleet from the harbor. Four ships from the fleet [of the enemy] were taken and the remaining [ships] were defeated. Then, help arrived from Roger the Frank, lord of Sicily, at sea in the form of twenty ships, which encircled the fleet of the lord of Béjaïa [Bougie]. Al-Hasan ordered them set free, which they were. Then, Maymun ibn Ziyad arrived with a large group of Arabs to assist al-Hasan. When Muttarif [ibn Hamdun] saw this and that support was coming for al-Hasan by land and by sea, he perceived that he did not have the power [to defeat] them. So he departed from Mahdia disappointed. Roger the Frank ostensibly made right [the situation] with al-Hasan such that there was the conclusion of a truce and an agreement. Despite this, [Roger] was constructing a fleet and increasing its numbers.38
In this account from Ibn al-Athir, al-Hasan mounts a brave defense against the Hammadids and their allies, but the day is ultimately won by reinforcements coming from the Normans. Ibn al-Athir, who frequently foreshadows Norman aggression in his chronicle, also hints at the eventual Norman conquest of Zirid lands by mentioning Roger II’s construction of a fleet. This intervention on the part of Roger II represents a significant departure from the events of previous decades, when al-Hasan formed alliances against the Normans that facilitated coastal raids against their territories. No medieval sources provide an explanation for the shifting alliances in Ifriqiya or al-Hasan’s decision to seek aid from his onetime rival across the Strait of Sicily. We are therefore forced to speculate that the ever-changing political landscape of Ifriqiya had shifted once again—this time to the misfortune of the Zirids, whose loyalty to Muhriz ibn Ziyad caused other lords in the region to feel alienated. So too were shaykhs in Mahdia so discontent with the governance of al-Hasan that they wrote to the Hammadid emir requesting that he invade Zirid lands.39 Al-Hasan, without Almoravid aid or the help of other nearby allies, was forced to turn to the only other prominent lord in the region, Roger II, to help repel the Hammadid attack.
Roger’s decision to intervene on behalf of the Zirid emir was not a simple act of altruism, however, but an opportunistic intervention to further the Normans’ power and protect their commercial interests in the central Mediterranean. The signing of a truce between the Zirids and Normans after this battle shows that Roger wanted to ensure the continuation of the trading partnership that had been so sorely tested in previous decades. In all likelihood, Roger was able to renegotiate whatever contracts he had in place with the Zirids to ensure better and more lucrative opportunities for Sicilian merchants. Norman intervention on behalf of the Zirids thus provided Roger with the leverage he needed to ensure future Zirid cooperation and advantageous commercial contracts in Ifriqiya.
Al-Hasan’s plea for aid also gave Roger a pretense for expanding his own domains in Ifriqiya. Following his intervention at Mahdia, a Norman fleet attacked and conquered the island of Djerba, which had long been a haven for piracy by the local Ibadi population (according to Zirid and Norman sources).40 Ibn al-Athir describes how the people of Djerba had “exceeded the proper bounds such that they were not under the authority of a sultan and were known for wickedness and committing highway robbery.”41 Roger’s decision to come to the aid of al-Hasan was likely tied to his desire to bring the troublesome island of Djerba under his control too—as he had attempted almost a decade earlier with his attacks on Malta, Gozo, and potentially Djerba itself. This strategic island, which provides access to major port cities in Ifriqiya around the Gulf of Gabès, would come to serve as a base from which Roger II could more closely monitor the affairs of Ifriqiya.
News of Roger’s conquest of Djerba soon reached the European mainland. In August 1135, Emperor Lothair II held a court at Merseburg (modern-day Germany), where a Byzantine lord and priest along with Venetian envoys beseeched the court to take action against Roger. They argued that Roger had “conquered Africa, which is known to be the third part of the world, from the king of Greece” and usurped the royal name there.42 The delegates then promised to send a fleet to assist the armies of Lothair II should he undertake an expedition against Roger. Although the Norman king held only Djerba and a series of Mediterranean islands at the time of this council, the extent of his conquests was perceived differently by the Venetians and Byzantines, who sought to emphasize (or exaggerate) their scope in order to spur the German emperor to action. Indeed, this plea was sufficient to persuade the Germans to launch a coordinated campaign with their allies in Italy to impede the Normans.
The Expansion of Norman Power in the Mediterranean
From roughly 1135 to 1142, medieval sources record few direct interactions between the Norman and Zirid courts. Instead, both groups jockeyed with other Mediterranean powers to expand their influence. For Roger II, this meant securing southern Italy, scheming in the principality of Antioch, and maintaining friendly relations with the Fatimid caliphate. The Zirids under al-Hasan ibn ʿAli were less successful in their plans for expansion, as they continued to clash with their Hammadid rivals over favor with the Fatimid court. The beginnings of a catastrophic drought in Ifriqiya further weakened the dynasty and contributed to the decision of the Normans to attack Mahdia in 536H (1141–42). This campaign marked the beginning of nearly annual campaigns in Ifriqiya that spanned most of the 1140s and resulted in the fall of the Zirid dynasty.
Roger II’s capture of Djerba in 529H (1134–35) was an outlier in his Mediterranean policy during the 1130s. For the greater part of this decade, Roger committed his resources to southern Italy, where he fought against a host of rival lords. These campaigns attracted the attention of the German emperor Lothair II, who thought that he had an ancestral right to southern Italy and thus sent an army to the peninsula in 1137 to combat the advancing Normans.43 This expedition was undertaken with the support of Pope Innocent II and comprised an army led by Lothair, a Pisan navy, and auxiliary forces from Roger’s opponents on the Italian mainland. Although Roger initially tried to negotiate with Lothair, his efforts proved fruitless, and the German army conquered a number of cities in Italy, most prominently Salerno, which surrendered on Roger’s order in August 1137. The capture of Salerno ultimately proved fateful to the expedition. The Pisans found the terms of the city’s surrender unfavorable to them, so they removed themselves from the expedition and signed a peace treaty with Roger. Without a supporting navy, Lothair subsequently withdrew from the peninsula.
With this invading army gone, Roger brought his army to the Italian mainland in late 1137 and began to conquer the cities he had lost. He made favorable concessions to cities that had remained loyal to him during the campaigns. For example, he provided the merchants of Salerno with trading rights equal to those that Sicilian merchants enjoyed in the city of Alexandria.44 The success of these conquests did not sit well with Pope Innocent II, whose support of Lothair II against Roger had widened the divide between the papacy and Kingdom of Sicily. Two years after the withdrawal of German soldiers from Italy, in 1139, Innocent personally led an army against Roger. The result was a decisive Norman victory in which Roger’s forces ambushed the papal army and captured Innocent. It was under this duress that the pope recognized Roger II as the king of Sicily, of the duchy of Apulia, and of the principality of Capua.45 Armed with the papal recognition that he had long sought, Roger brought under his authority those cities in Italy that had resisted him. By mid-1140, the entirety of Italy south and east of the Papal States belonged to Roger and his sons.
While conducting these campaigns, Roger schemed once again to bring Antioch under his control. He had already tried and failed to inherit the Kingdom of Jerusalem through his mother’s marriage to King Baldwin I and to usurp the Principality of Antioch by hindering the arrival of its legitimate successor, Raymond of Poitiers. The opportunity for Roger to insert himself into the affairs of Antioch a second time presented itself when a cleric from southern Italy named Arnulf persuaded him that the city’s patriarch, Ralph of Domfront, had been responsible for helping to bring Raymond to power.46 When Ralph traveled to Rome and southern Italy, Roger therefore had him arrested and his property confiscated. Ralph, however, was a gifted orator. He managed to convince Roger that he was actually on terrible terms with Raymond of Poitiers and that he would support the Norman lord should he seek the throne of Antioch. It was well within Ralph’s power, for example, to annul the marriage between Raymond and Constance (the daughter of the previous lord of the city) on the grounds that she was underage when the marriage was solemnized. On returning to the Latin East, however, Ralph was unable to win over the nobility of Antioch. His eventual imprisonment effectively put an end to Roger II’s latest attempt to take the city.
Although the court at Palermo failed to establish a foothold in the Latin East, the Norman administration continued to maintain productive ties with the Fatimid caliphate, spurred by the friendship between their respective administrators, George of Antioch and Bahram. The importance of this relationship is revealed in a letter sent by the Fatimid imam-caliph al-Hafiz to Roger II in late 1137 or early 1138. The letter survives today in a later transcription by Mamluk historian al-Qalqashandi that showcases how the Fatimid chancery corresponded with foreign powers.47 The content of this letter indicates that it was one of many exchanged between these two dynasties. In it, al-Hafiz acknowledges the Norman attack on the island of Djerba in 529H (1134–35), which Roger II had evidently mentioned in a previous letter. Al-Hafiz does not criticize Roger for taking the island but instead suggests that Roger had done him a favor by destroying this refuge of pirates. He then thanks Roger for intervening on behalf of his personal trading vessel, which a Sicilian admiral protected after it was erroneously seized. In return for this generosity, al-Hafiz ordered that his admirals give the same protection to Roger’s ships as they would to his own, and that import/export taxes be waived for any ships belonging to Roger, George of Antioch, and two ambassadors (potentially from Salerno). Al-Hafiz also acknowledges Roger’s previous thanks for releasing some Sicilian captives and notes that this is a generosity he would not bestow on any other Christian king.48
These niceties aside, the bulk of this letter concerns the treatment of Bahram, the Armenian vizier who had been so essential in promoting amicable relations between the Fatimids and Normans. When al-Hafiz sent this letter, Bahram had been ousted as vizier by a Muslim governor named Ridwan ibn Walakhshi and was being confined in a monastery in Cairo.49 Roger had requested in a previous letter that Bahram be freed. The lengthy response from al-Hafiz, which Johns argues was probably written by Ridwan ibn Walakhshi himself, details Bahram’s crimes and promises that a trustworthy person from the Fatimid court will visit Sicily to expand on its contents. In short, the Fatimid administration was unwilling to free Bahram.50
The Norman administration’s concern for the well-being of Bahram shows the centrality of the personal relationship between him and George of Antioch to the larger Norman-Fatimid dynamic. It might also indicate larger Norman ambitions in Antioch. Since Bahram and George were both from the same larger Antiochene kinship network, Roger’s intervention on behalf of Bahram could have been tied to his larger ambitions in the city. With Bahram on his side, Roger could have potentially leveraged to his own advantage any political power that Bahram had either as a member of the Fatimid government, as a member of the Antiochene nobility, or as an ethnic Armenian with a substantial cohort of followers.51 Johns speculates that “it is not difficult to imagine how interested Roger, his Antiochene vizier, and Bahram might all have been in such a scheme.”52 This letter to the Fatimids can potentially be viewed as yet another scheme by Roger II to cultivate his own power in the Principality of Antioch.
Turning to Ifriqiya, al-Hafiz’s letter also proves that the Fatimids were aware of the Normans’ conquest of Djerba and even looked on it favorably. As with many of the Normans’ other diplomatic relationships in the Mediterranean, economic considerations were at the heart of this particular interaction. The Fatimids supported the Norman attack on Djerba because it eliminated pirates who sought to interrupt maritime commerce and provided prisoners destined for Egyptian markets.53 This latter consideration is apparent in a letter from the Cairo Geniza, which states that “there arrived the prisoners of Djerba” in Egypt on October 14, 1136, including a captive cantor named Isaac ibn Ṣedaqa, who was sold to an Egyptian individual.54 Norman attacks in the central Mediterranean both eliminated piracy that interfered with Fatimid trade and provided slaves to be sold in Fatimid markets. Even though the Fatimids had a claim to Djerba through their Zirid vassals, this theoretical claim to power was worth less to them than the promise of commercial wealth.
Despite substantial military investment in southern Italy, Roger II had not lost sight of affairs abroad during the 1130s. His opportunistic attack on Djerba in 529H (1134–35), scheming in the Principality of Antioch, and negotiations with the Fatimid caliphate show his continued investment in the greater Mediterranean. Across the Strait of Sicily, the actions and motivations of the Zirid emir, al-Hasan ibn ʿAli, are difficult to divine. None of the surviving primary sources detail the fate of the Zirids or Hammadids from 529H to 535H (1134–41).55 Still, entries from Arabic chronicles describing the early 1140s provide a glimpse at mounting tensions between these Ifriqiyan dynasties, which would later devolve into conflict. In 536H (1141–42), a Hammadid prince sent gifts to the Fatimid imam-caliph on board a ship that was in the port of Alexandria.56 The Fatimid imam-caliph received these presents favorably and subsequently loaded the Hammadid vessel with gifts of his own (alongside goods from other merchants) before the ship returned to Bougie. Also in the port of Alexandria at this time was a Zirid ship. When the two vessels tried to leave Alexandria, a Fatimid port official stopped the Zirid ship from leaving and permitted the Hammadid one to depart. Ibn ʿIdhari notes that the Fatimid official stopped the departure of the Zirid ship because he wanted to facilitate a closer Hammadid-Fatimid relationship and because of rumors of tensions between the Fatimid imam-caliph and his Zirid vassals.57 When news reached al-Hasan ibn ʿAli of this incident, he assumed that it was the result of Hammadid scheming. The Zirid emir retaliated by capturing the Hammadid ship (presumably as it was passing through Zirid waters) and repurposing it for his own fleet.
This episode provides some indication of the diplomatic posturing that occurred in Ifriqiya following the Norman conquest of Djerba in 529H (1134–35). Despite the lack of records of violence in these years between the Zirids and Hammadids, the relationship between the two dynasties was tense as both looked to increase their power through their interactions with Fatimid Egypt.58 The role of the Fatimid official who permitted the blockade of the Zirid vessel remains a mystery. Fagnan and Idris speculate that he might have been working in secret for the Hammadids, which is perhaps the most likely explanation for this episode, in the absence of further evidence.59 Assuming this is true, we are confronted with an encounter in which the Hammadids actively undermined Zirid commercial interests in the eastern Mediterranean; the Zirid response to this collusion was to seize the Hammadid vessel.60
This episode between the Hammadids and Zirids was soon overshadowed by a much greater threat to Zirid autonomy. Later in 536H (likely the spring/early summer of 1142), George of Antioch attacked the port of Mahdia. The Norman fleet seized a number of Zirids vessels, including the one that al-Hasan had seized from the Hammadids, but stopped short of trying to capture the city proper.61 This raid left al-Hasan ibn ʿAli in a less-than-desirable position. Shortly after the attack, the Zirid emir was forced to contact Roger so that grain could be transported between Sicily and Ifriqiya, which at the time was suffering from the beginning of a deadly famine (discussed below). This brief encounter shows that the Normans had undoubtedly emerged as the more powerful dynasty in the central Mediterranean by the early 1140s. The Zirids were reliant on Norman grain for their own survival and were unable to stop the Normans from inserting themselves into Ifriqiyan affairs. Roger II, meanwhile, had every motivation to assert greater control in Ifriqiya, as that would allow the Normans simultaneously to negotiate advantageous trade contracts, to exact revenge on the Zirids for their previous transgressions, and to further remove threats of piracy from the Ifriqiyan coast.
According to Ibn al-Athir, the Norman raid on Mahdia in 536H (1141–42) was met with a sense of betrayal in the Zirid court, for Roger II had broken treaties between the two dynasties.62 In all likelihood, Ibn al-Athir was referring to the most recent iteration of these treaties, forged after the Zirid-Norman victory at Mahdia in 529H (1134–35). These contracts therefore must have theoretically guaranteed the safety of Zirid vessels from Norman aggression, or at least included provisions about the Normans not interfering in Ifriqiyan commerce. They also likely mandated joint cooperation when Zirid lands were threatened, for Roger II later campaigned in Ifriqiya ostensibly on behalf of the Zirids (as discussed below). Al-Tijani’s account corroborates that of Ibn al-Athir. He describes how Roger had stationed jawāsīs (spies or agents) in Mahdia who wrote to him about the weakness of the Zirid navy and about commerce in the city, so that Roger could strike at the most opportune moment.63 Reports from these spies led the Normans to raid the city—an attack that was the first of many, culminating in the conquest of Mahdia in 543H (1148–49).
This encounter shows that much had changed between the Normans and Zirids since the 1120s. The pressure that al-Hasan had been able to exert over the Zirids through his alliances with the Almoravids and local Arab lords was gone. Instead, we see a Zirid dynasty that the Normans could bully with impunity. What had caused this dramatic change? The first factor was the stabilization of the Kingdom of Sicily following Roger II’s second coronation in 1139 and the completion of his conquests in southern Italy.64 With his realm firmly intact, Roger could reap the economic, military, and political benefits of ruling over one of the most prosperous regions of the Mediterranean. The treaty that the Normans struck with Savona provided the foundation for expanding the Norman navy by requisitioning ships. When the conquest of southern Italy was complete, Roger could use these ships to bully the Zirids and, at the same time, expand his own navy by seizing Zirid vessels.
Meanwhile, the Zirids were unable to compete with the ascendant Normans. Their alliance with the Almoravids disappeared during the 1120s as the Almoravids had to devote increasing resources to combat the upstart Almohads in the Maghreb. Local Ifriqiyan lords, too, were unwilling to support the Zirids in the wake of the joint Zirid-Norman victory at Mahdia in 529H (1134–35). These disadvantageous political developments during the 1130s were complemented by environmental catastrophe in the 1140s. It had long been commonplace for lords in Ifriqiya to import grain from Sicily into their cities during times of conflict and drought (this is testified across much of the eleventh century), but this exchange had been a mutually beneficial one through which Sicilian merchants were supplied with goods like olive oil and gold.65 Benjamin of Tudela, a Jewish rabbi who visited Sicily in the 1170s, summarizes this commercial relationship: “Sicily’s main export is wheat, of which most goes to North Africa. In times of commotion in North Africa, when Muslims fight among themselves or when Muslim lands are set upon by Berbers or by pagan tribes, the consequent food shortages there swell Sicily’s coffers with the tax on grain exports.”66
This commercial dynamic described by Benjamin of Tudela collapsed during the 1140s, when a prolonged drought in Ifriqiya from 537H (1142–43) to 543H (1148–49) devastated agricultural production, caused massive depopulation, and depleted the treasuries of local lords. No longer able to purchase Sicilian grain without loans or some other form of financial consideration, the Zirids and their neighbors were vulnerable to the ascendent and aggressive Normans. The significance of the famine was such that it is described by all of the major Arabic sources that chronicle the Zirid dynasty in the twelfth century—Ibn al-Athir, Ibn Khaldun, al-Tijani, and Ibn ʿIdhari. Of these authors, Ibn al-Athir provides the most detail for the scope of the famine in an entry for the year 542H (1147–48): “This year there was a famine in Ifriqiya, which lasted a long time. It had begun in the year 537H (1142–43). It had a terrible effect on the population, who even resorted to cannibalism. Because of starvation the nomads sought the towns, and the townspeople closed the gates against them. Plague and great mortality followed. The country was emptied and from whole families not a single person survived. Many people traveled to Sicily in search of food and met with great hardship.”67 The descriptions by other Arabic chroniclers complement the picture painted by Ibn al-Athir. The chronicle of Ibn ʿIdhari mentions a “massive famine” in Ifriqiya.68 Ibn Khaldun similarly reports a mass migration of people from Ifriqiya to Sicily and, in Ifriqiya, cannibalism and mortality rates such that the dead outnumbered the living.69 Al-Tijani likewise refers to many people dying from a “great calamity” that aided Roger II’s attack on Tripoli in 541H (1146–47).70 The uniformity of the Arabic sources in describing this famine gives some sense about its cataclysmic impact on people living in Ifriqiya during the 1140s.71
Lest we think that these above accounts were exaggerating or using tropes like cannibalism to highlight the extent of drought, environmental data supports the descriptions of the drought given by the likes of Ibn al-Athir and Ibn Khaldun. Data from the Old World Drought Atlas (OWDA) indicates the cause of this famine and helps to quantify its scope in the 1140s.72 According to the OWDA, every summer from 1143 through 1149 in Ifriqiya is classified as “moderate” to “extreme” drought according to the Palmer Drought Severity Index metric.73 Per this metric, a result of “0” indicates an average amount of rainfall for a given region. Ascending numbers from 0 indicate progressively more rainfall and descending numbers progressively less rainfall. The map below shows composite data from 1143 to 1149, which highlights the persistence and severity of drought in Ifriqiya during this time period.
When this data is combined with medieval sources, the environmental and humanitarian catastrophe in Ifriqiya becomes clear.74 Lack of rainfall in Ifriqiya created unfavorable conditions for growing crops across the region for much of the 1140s. This unusually dry weather caused crop failures and forced people to rely on imports of grain from Sicily, which drove up prices and stretched the limits of local economies.75 Although families may have been able to afford foodstuffs to accommodate for one or two poor harvests, the persistence of this drought drove them to the brink. When their savings were exhausted from inflated prices, they had little choice but to move elsewhere or starve. Nomads from inland Ifriqiya, whose voices are largely unrecorded in contemporary chronicles but who must have also felt the consequences of this drought, moved to cities, and those who could afford to traveled elsewhere in the Mediterranean—primarily to nearby Sicily, which conversely had generally favorable climatic conditions for crop yields during the 1140s. It is likely that the Zirid emirs needed to take out loans from the Normans in order to feed their royal court, which indicates that the once-substantial treasury of the dynasty had been depleted.76
This change in climate aligns with a substantial change in Norman policy toward Ifriqiya. Beginning with their expedition against Mahdia in 536H (1141–42) and extending through 543H (1148–49), the Normans launched attacks against various cities in Ifriqiya on an almost annual basis. Through these campaigns, the Normans conquered much of coastal Ifriqiya, bringing an end to the various dynasties that ruled there—including the Zirids.
The Formation of the Norman Kingdom of Africa
The Normans’ first campaign after their attack on Mahdia came one year later, in 537H (1142–43) against the city of Tripoli. The most detailed accounts of the attack come from the Arabic chronicle of Ibn al-Athir and the Latin Ferraris Chronicle, which diverge on the motivations for the Norman attack but agree on its outcome. According to Ibn al-Athir, Roger II attacked Tripoli because it had been “rebellious toward al-Hasan” in defiantly installing a new governor.77 Acting ostensibly on behalf of his Zirid neighbor, Roger sent a fleet to Tripoli. The Norman navy arrived at the city in June 1143 but was rebuffed from its walls. Soon after, the people of Tripoli were reinforced by a group of unnamed Arabs, and these combined forces defeated the Normans, who were forced to flee. The Norman fleet compensated for this loss by sailing west and raiding Jijel, a coastal Hammadid town located in modern-day Algeria.78
The Ferraris Chronicle (a continuation of the work of Falco of Benevento), meanwhile, describes how “certain citizens of Tripoli” came to Sicily and promised to surrender their city and rule it on behalf of the Norman king.79 Roger obliged and sent forces under George of Antioch to besiege the city in 1143. When the Normans arrived at Tripoli, though, the men who had requested Roger’s aid in the first place “acted with treachery” and the siege failed. The Ferraris Chronicle does not mention the subsequent raid on Jijel or any future Norman campaigns in Africa.80 While the accounts of Ibn al-Athir and the Ferraris Chronicle thus provide different motivations for the arrival of the Normans at Tripoli, these divergences are minimal in the larger context of Norman military movements in Ifriqiya. In both accounts, Roger intervenes in Tripoli because of political factionalism but is unable to take the city itself.
The Norman attack on Tripoli was the second expedition launched against a major Ifriqiyan city in two years. This increasing Norman assertiveness in the region did not escape the eyes of the Fatimid caliphate. Ibn Muyassar reports that the Fatimids dispatched a messenger to Roger in 537H (1142–43) to discuss his recent campaigns against the Zirids (Mahdia), Hammadids (Jijel), and other Ifriqiyan lords (Tripoli).81 The Fatimids of Cairo, who had previously benefited from the Norman conquest of Djerba, sought to ensure that these attacks would similarly help their position. The details of these talks are unknown, but the persistence of Norman campaigns in subsequent years indicates that the two dynasties reached an agreement through which the Normans could conduct annual campaigns in Ifriqiya without fear of Fatimid reprisal. Indeed, the relationship between the Normans and Fatimids remained stable over the next several years, even as George of Antioch led attacks against the Hammadid town of Brashk in 539H (1144–45), the lands around Tripoli in the same year, and the Kerkennah Islands in 540H (1145–46).82 Although the Zirids claimed nominal authority over the Kerkennah Islands and protested the Norman conquest of them (which is further evidence of persistent treaties between the two dynasties), Roger claimed that the people of the islands were not subjects of the Zirid emir. These campaigns set the stage for sweeping Norman conquests in Ifriqiya.
From 1146 to 1148, Roger II launched annual campaigns in Ifriqiya that resulted in the piecemeal conquest of cities along its coast. During this three-year period, Roger avoided conflicts on the Italian Peninsula so that he could focus his military efforts on the southern Mediterranean. According to the Ferraris Chronicle, Roger “conceded and confirmed a truce” with the papacy because of his desire “to acquire the African kingdom and Tripoli in Barbary.”83 Around the same time, Roger II narrowly averted conflict with his rivals in Germany, who had finalized a marriage alliance with the Byzantines with the eventual goal of invading southern Italy.84 This nascent alliance failed to act against Roger, however, as the fall of Edessa in 1144 and the subsequent Crusade to retake it led both Conrad III of Germany and Louis VII of France take up the cross. Conrad’s commitment to this expedition averted the threat of a joint attack by the Germans and Byzantines.85
Roger even used the impending Crusade to his advantage. Fearing the arrival of thousands of unruly Frankish and German troops, the Byzantine emperor Manuel I withdrew soldiers from the edges of his kingdom to Constantinople. This allowed George of Antioch to raid more vulnerable Byzantine outposts on the western edge of the Adriatic Sea in the spring of 1147.86 Roger also reached out to the French king Louis VII, offering to provide supplies for Louis’s upcoming Crusade and to send one of his sons on the Crusade if Louis agreed to take his army through the Kingdom of Sicily. By routing Louis through Sicily, Roger hoped to improve his standing with the French monarch and to increase the chance of future cooperation. Whatever scheming Roger envisioned ultimately went unrealized, as Louis elected to travel through Constantinople instead.87
With the threat of a German-Byzantine alliance gone, the stage was set for Norman conquests of the Ifriqiyan littoral that would form the core of the Norman kingdom of Africa. The first of these conquests was Tripoli. In the summer of 541H (June 1146), George of Antioch led a fleet against the city. Unlike in the assault that had taken place several years earlier, this time the Normans had the advantage of arriving in the midst of chaos. A group in Tripoli had expelled the ruling Banu Matruh and appointed an Almoravid as governor. As the Normans laid siege, fighting erupted in the city between factions supporting the Banu Matruh and the Almoravids. This chaos helped the Normans storm Tripoli and capture many inside the city walls.88 After the initial sacking of Tripoli, George of Antioch issued a proclamation granting sanctuary for those who had fled, at which point many returned.89 Eventually, the Normans appointed a member of the Banu Matruh to govern Tripoli on their behalf. Roger encouraged immigration to the city and “[its] affairs were rectified.”90
The following year, in 542H (1147–48), the Normans attempted to take the city of Gabès. Ibn al-Athir and Ibn Khaldun provide the greatest level of detail on this episode.91 In the 1140s, Gabès was ruled by the Banu Dahman. The governor of the city, a man named Rushayd, died in 1147 and left behind two sons, Muhammad and Muʿammar. Although Muʿammar was the older son and the expected successor to Rushayd, one of Rushayd’s advisers named Yusuf expelled him and installed the younger Muhammad as governor, effectively giving Yusuf control over the city. Over time, however, Yusuf grew unpopular in Gabès because of his reputation for molesting the women of Rushayd’s harem, one of whom was a member of the Banu Qurra tribe. When her brothers living outside Gabès heard of this situation, they set out to retrieve her. Yusuf refused to give her up, however, so the members of the Banu Qurra united with the exiled brother Muʿammar and complained to emir al-Hasan about Yusuf. The Zirid emir attempted to mediate these rising tensions but was unsuccessful.
Yusuf responded to this nascent alliance between the Zirids and Banu Qurra by offering his allegiance to Roger II. The Norman king accepted Yusuf’s offer, which once again set the stage for conflict with the Zirids. Both Yusuf and al-Hasan ibn ʿAli sent envoys to Sicily to explain their sides of the developing situation. According to Ibn al-Athir, Yusuf’s envoy spoke negatively of al-Hasan and blamed him for the diplomatic crisis at hand. When al-Hasan heard about this accusation, he intercepted the ill-speaking envoy on his way back to Gabès. He paraded the envoy on a camel through Mahdia as a crier proclaimed, “This is the recompense for anyone who tries to make the Franks lords of Muslim lands.”92 The people of Mahdia then stoned the envoy to death. In the wake of this execution, al-Hasan and Muʿammar attacked Gabès. This attack was supported by the people of Gabès, who were already in the midst of revolting because of Yusuf’s submission to Roger. Al-Hasan was welcomed into the city, and he promptly executed Yusuf. The Banu Qurra took their sister away from the harem, Muʿammar became the governor of Gabès, and Yusuf’s brother, ʿIsa, fled to Sicily.
This incident at Gabès reveals much about the political landscape of Ifriqiya in the midst of the Normans’ conquests. Although Roger II had subjugated Tripoli and a number of islands in the central Mediterranean by 542H (1147–48), local rulers were still able to resist the growing power of the Normans by making regional alliances, as shown through the combined strength of al-Hasan ibn ʿAli, the Banu Qurra, and the people of Gabès. Conversely, this episode also shows the extent to which Roger II had become something of a power broker in Ifriqiya. Yusuf sought the Normans’ protection from al-Hasan and his allies, knowing that Roger had the strength to resist them. When al-Hasan and Yusuf sent envoys to the Kingdom of Sicily, they did so because of the power that Roger asserted in Ifriqiya and their desire to remain in his good graces. Although al-Hasan had demonstrable power, the outside influence of the Kingdom of Sicily was impossible to ignore.
The dynastic struggle in Gabès, although clearly precipitated by familial politics, was also exacerbated by environmental turmoil. Ibn al-Athir reports that the famine in Ifriqiya in the summer of 542H (1147) was the worst since the beginning of the drought. Data from the Old World Drought Atlas provides some context for this famine, for it is in this year that extreme drought (as quantified by the Palmer Drought Severity Index) stretched across Ifriqiya and the eastern Maghreb.
Amid this drought and political unrest, the Normans resumed their campaigning a year later, in 543H (1148–49), with the conquest of Mahdia and a handful of other nearby cities.93 According to Ibn al-Athir, Roger knew of the devastating drought afflicting Ifriqiya and was angry at himself for not using the chaos at Gabès as justification for conquering other lands in Ifriqiya.94 In the summer of 1148, therefore, he sent out George of Antioch with a fleet to conquer Mahdia from al-Hasan.95 First, George captured a Zirid ship off the island of Pantelleria and sent out messenger pigeons with fake messages saying that the Norman fleet was sailing to Constantinople. George intended to launch a sneak attack on the city under cover of night, but this plan was thwarted by unfavorable winds. The Norman fleet thus sailed to Mahdia on the morning of 2 Safar 543H (June 22, 1148). George sent to al-Hasan a message saying that his fleet was seeking revenge for the removal of Muhammad ibn Rushayd from Gabès. He asked that al-Hasan assist the Normans with reinstalling Muhammad in accordance with their treaties. Al-Hasan responded by convening a council of leading scholars and nobles to discuss the dire situation at hand. Although the council urged al-Hasan to fight the Normans, al-Hasan decided that it was in the people’s best interests to abandon the city. Ibn al-Athir reports his rationale:
I am scared that he is going to disembark, encircle us by land and by sea, and block us from supplies. We do not have food to support us for a month. We will be seized by force. I reckon that saving Muslims from capture and death is more virtuous than ruling. [George of Antioch] asked from me an army against Gabès. If I do this, then I am not allowed to aid unbelievers against Muslims. But if I refuse, he will say, “The peace between us is destroyed.” [George of Antioch] only wants to hinder us until he can bar us from the land. We do not have the energy to fight him. My judgment is that we set out with [our] family and children and leave the city. Those who want to do as we do should hasten with us.96
Following this council, al-Hasan ordered Mahdia’s inhabitants to evacuate the city with their families and whatever they could carry. Most followed his order, although some decided to hide with Christians and in churches. Near the end of the day, the winds turned and permitted the Norman fleet to set sail to Mahida, which they entered without resistance.97 Norman soldiers sacked Mahdia for two hours before George of Antioch declared safe passage for those wishing to return to the city, provided they pay a tax.98 As in Tripoli, this (relative) generosity prompted many people to return unharmed.
The Norman conquest of Mahdia was only the beginning of George’s campaigns that summer. Soon after taking the city, George of Antioch sent out fleets against the nearby ports of Sousse and Sfax.99 Sousse capitulated without resistance on 12 Safar 543H (July 2, 1148).100 The people of Sfax, however, joined with “many Arabs” to resist the invading force. Nonetheless, the Norman army emerged victorious on 23 Safar 543H (July 13, 1148), imprisoning the surviving men and enslaving the women. Following this victory, safe passage was proclaimed, the townspeople returned to Sfax, and those who could have paid the ransom on their loved ones. Roger II initially appointed a scholar named Abu al-Hasan al-Furriyani as governor, but he requested that Roger instead appoint his son, ʿUmar ibn Abi al-Hasan. Roger obliged and took Abu al-Hasan as a hostage back to Sicily to ensure compliance from ʿUmar. Much like the people of Mahdia, the Normans “treated gently” the people of Sousse and Sfax. Roger even sent out letters to “all of the people of Ifriqiya” guaranteeing “safety and good promises.”101
After conquering Sousse and Sfax, George of Antioch moved with his fleet to the castle of Kelibia, located on the peninsula of Cape Bon near Tunis. Following his arrival, a group of unspecified Arabs engaged the Normans in open combat and emerged victorious. This failed attack was the last documented military endeavor of George of Antioch in Ifriqiya during 543H (1148–49) and the next several years. These combined conquests established the so-called Norman kingdom of Africa, which extended from Tripoli up to Tunis. Implicit in this description of Norman lands is the (likely peaceful) submission of Gabès, which is the only major coastal city in Ifriqiya not named in the Norman conquests.102
The fate of Tunis in these conquests is unclear. Although Ibn al-Athir sets the boundaries of Norman control from Tripoli “up to Tunis,” the chronicles of Ibn ʿIdhari and ʿAbd al-Wahid al-Marrakushi both hint at the city paying tribute (or attempting to pay tribute) to the Normans.103 The former mentions that the governor of Tunis planned to send a ship full of wheat to lands controlled by the Normans, presumably as some sort of payment. The people of Tunis, however, revolted against the governor because they did not want to see their grain used to feed Christians. Whether this revolt limited the involvement of the Normans in appointing a governor in Tunis is left unexplored. ʿAbd al-Wahid al-Marrakushi, meanwhile, mentions that the Normans had granted the Khurasanid dynasty, which had been in control of Tunis for much of the twelfth century, a right to rule the city, though the details of this contractual relationship are unclear.104 In any case, contemporary sources do not mention any revolts against Norman control in Tunis, nor do they mention any Norman power in the city when the Almohads laid siege to it during the 1150s—so if the Normans did manage to extract tribute from its governors, this relationship did not last long.
With the completion of these conquests, the Normans controlled maritime ports on the northern and southern shores of the central Mediterranean from which they could extract lucrative tax revenue.105 These Ifriqiyan cities and nearby islands also provided strategic bases from which the Normans could patrol the waters of the central Mediterranean to root out any pirates that sought to interfere in this commerce.106 The Fatimid caliphate, which continued its “policy of tacit approval” of Norman intervention in Ifriqiya, stood to benefit from the stability that Norman rule might bring to the central Mediterranean.107
For the Zirids, the Norman conquest of Ifriqiya was an unmitigated disaster that displaced the emir al-Hasan from his court at Mahdia. Immediately following the conquest of Mahdia in 543H (1148–49), al-Hasan and his family fled to the lands of Muhriz ibn Ziyad, whom al-Hasan had previously favored “over all the Arabs and treated generously.”108 En route, though, he encountered an Arab lord named Hasan ibn Thalib, to whom he owed money and to whom he was forced to give his son Yahya as a hostage.109 When al-Hasan reached the friendly lands of Muhriz, he remained there in comfort for several months before purchasing a ship, with the goal of sailing to Egypt. George of Antioch got wind of this plan, however, and deployed ships to capture al-Hasan. Abandoning his initial scheme, al-Hasan sought to travel west to the Almohad caliph, ʿAbd al-Muʾmin, who reigned in modern-day Morocco. In order to reach his lands, al-Hasan had to travel through the territory of his rival, the Hammadid emir Yahya ibn al-ʿAziz, who had “openly rejoiced” on hearing of the fall of Mahdia.110 Despite securing the right to safe passage through Hammadid lands, al-Hasan and his sons were imprisoned on their arrival at Jazaʾir Bani Mazghannan (modern-day Algiers). For the time being, the last Zirid emir would remain jailed and at the mercy of his rival.
The Normans’ conquest of Djerba in 1135 was the first episode of conquest in a thirteen-year period that eventually saw much of the Ifriqiyan coastline fall to Roger II. During these years, the Normans simultaneously invoked their treaties with the Zirids and disregarded those same treaties to bully the emirs of Mahdia, whose attempts at resisting Norman domination became increasingly futile. Nonetheless, it took a favorable set of political and environmental circumstances for the court of Palermo to dethrone the Zirids and their neighbors. Political stability in the Kingdom of Sicily and the lack of an external threat from Europe during the 1140s allowed Roger to devote more of his resources to campaigns in the southern Mediterranean. This period also coincided directly with a time of unprecedented drought in Ifriqiya that caused widespread death, emigration of its people, financial catastrophe, and infighting between local lords. The Zirids, whose alliances and armies had earlier helped to keep the Normans at bay, could no longer withstand their strength. The Normans’ annual campaigns against Ifriqiya culminated in sweeping conquests in 543H (1148–49) and displaced the Zirid emir al-Hasan ibn ʿAli from his ancestral throne.
1. This history is summarized in Matthew, Norman Kingdom of Sicily, 19–21; Houben, Ruler between East and West, 36–38.
2. The timeline of these events is ambiguous in contemporary texts, but it is possible to infer their order. Alexander of Telese puts Roger’s island conquests as taking place before Duke William’s death on July 28, 1127. Based on the short amount of time between the Almoravid raid on July 17, 1127 and the date of William’s death, it is most likely that Roger seized these islands before the Almoravids attacked the Sicilian coast. Alexander of Telese, Alexandri Telesini abbatis, 112:97.
3. Maltese scholars have contested the religious composition of the island during the time of the Normans’ conquests in 1091 and 1127. The most accepted theory at present is that Islam was a present force on both Malta and Gozo from the time of the island’s conquest in the tenth century through Norman rule of the island. See Godfrey Wettinger, “The Arabs in Malta,” in Malta: Studies of Its Heritage and History (Valletta: Mid-Med Bank, 1986), 87–104; Charles Dalli, Malta: The Medieval Millennium, Malta’s Living Heritage (Valletta: Midsea Books, 2006), 51–91; Michael Cooperson, “Al-Ḥimyarī’s Account of Medieval Malta: A Reconsideration,” in Fuzzy Boundaries: Festschrift füe Antonio Loprieno, ed. H. Amstutz et al. (Hamburg: Widmaier Verlag, 2015), 347–51. Luttrell goes further and argues that the population was exclusively Muslim by the time of Roger I’s conquest in the eleventh century. Anthony Luttrell, “Approaches to Medieval Malta: Studies on Malta before the Knights,” in Approaches to Medieval Malta, ed. Anthony Luttrell (London: British School at Rome, 1975), 1–70; Anthony Luttrell, “The Christianization of Malta,” in The Malta Year Book 1977, ed. B. Hilary (Msida, Malta: De La Salle Brothers, 1977), 415–21; Anthony Luttrell, “L’effritement de l’Islam: 1091–1282,” Revue du Monde Musulman et de la Méditerranée 71 (1994): 49–61.
4. Translation is from Busuttil et al., Tristia ex Melitogaudo, 166–67. See also M. Puccia, “L’anonimo carme di supplica a Giorgio di Antiochia e l’elaborazione dell’idea imperiale alla corte di Ruggero II,” in Re and Rognoni, Giorgio di Antiochia, 231–62. The translation given by Busuttil, Fiorini, and Vella has been the subject of controversy for its presentation of Christians on Malta during the early Islamic conquests of the island. Stanley Fiorini, Tristia ex Melitogaudo Revisited: Objections, Clarifications, Confirmations (Valletta: Best Print, 2010); Marc Lauxtermann, “Tomi, Mljet, Malta: Critical Notes on a Twelfth-Century Southern Italian Poem of Exile,” Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik 64 (2014): 155–67; Stanley Fiorini and Horatio C. R. Vella, “Reactions to Tristia ex Melitogaudo: A Response,” Literatūra 58, no. 3 (2016): 75–87.
5. John Tolan, Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 10–11.
6. Idris, La Berbérie orientale, 1962, 1:338; Abulafia, “Norman Kingdom of Africa,” 31; Houben, Ruler between East and West, 41.
7. It is possible that the Normans also seized other islands in the central Mediterranean around this time. Wieruszowski, for example, argues that Roger conquered the island of Pantelleria. Helene Wieruszowski, “The Norman Kingdom of Sicily and the Crusades,” in History of the Crusades, vol. 2, The Later Crusades, 1189–1311, ed. Harry Hazard, Robert Wolff, and Kenneth Setton (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), 21.
8. William of Tyre, PL, 201:571.
9. Al-Hilati, Rasaʾil, ed. Muhammad Gouja (Beirut: Dar al-Gharb al-Islami, 1998), 42–43. See also Tarek Kahlaoui, “Ibadi Jerba: Surviving the Early Ḥafṣids (13–14th Centuries),” Journal of North African Studies 26, no. 4 (2021): 631–41.
10. William of Tyre, PL, 201:571. For William of Tyre’s reliability on Sicilian affairs, see Wieruszowski, “Norman Kingdom of Sicily,” 21; Stanton, Norman Naval Operations, 75.
11. Al-Tijani, Al-Rihla, 339; Ibn Khaldun, Kitab al-ʿIbar, 6:214. No Arabic sources mention the Norman conquest of Malta or an attack on the coast of Ifriqiya itself.
12. Ibn Khaldun refers to the Almoravid commander as Ahmed and al-Tijani calls him Muhammad. Al-Tijani might have mistakenly recorded this name, however, since he says the leader of the 1127 raid was also the leader of the 1122 raid, whose name (according to al-Tijani himself) was ʿAli. Al-Tijani, Al-Rihla, 335–39; Ibn Khaldun, Kitab al-ʿIbar, 6:214.
13. It is possible that William of Tyre is conflating this 1127 encounter with the Norman attack on al-Dimas in 1123, though his details about the retaliatory Zirid raid on Sicily do not line up with other narratives for that particular battle. Similarly, it is possible that the Djerban letter recorded in al-Hilati is misdating the Norman conquest of Djerba in 1135.
14. Simon Barton and Richard Fletcher, Chronica Adefonsi imperatoris, in The World of El Cid: Chronicles of the Spanish Reconquest (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), 248.
15. Barton and Fletcher, Chronica Adefonsi imperatoris, 208.
16. The theme of revenge was central to this chronicle and the author drew on the style of the Old Testament and classical authors like Virgil and Ovid to convey it. Despite these thematic considerations, Barton and Fletcher argue that “the importance and reliability of the CAI [Chronica Adefonsi imperatoris] as a historical source are beyond question.” Barton and Fletcher, Chronica Adefonsi imperatoris, 151–55.
17. Al-Maqrizi, Kitab al-Muqaffa al-Kabir, 3:18–20.
18. Johns, Arabic Administration in Norman Sicily, 86–90; Jamil and Johns, “New Latin-Arabic Document,” 129–30.
19. It is possible that Roger II’s preferred choices for the successor to Christodoulos, first Abu al-Dawʾ and then George of Antioch, indicate his increased interest in Ifriqiya, as both of these individuals had clear connections to the Zirid regime.
20. Carlrichard Brühl, ed., Rogerii II: Regis diplomata latina (Cologne: Böhlau, 1987), document 10.
21. Abulafia argues that unwritten agreements were in place between the Genoese and Normans during the reign of Roger II, basing his argument on the language of treaties written during the reigns of Roger’s successors. Abulafia, Two Italies, 69–71.
22. The line between privateering and piracy in the Middle Ages was a blurry one. The case study of Trapelicinus tackles some of the ambiguities surrounding commerce, violence, and politics in the Mediterranean. Enrica Salvatori, “Corsairs’ Crews and Cross-Cultural Interactions: The Case of the Pisan Trapelicinus in the Twelfth Century,” Medieval Encounters 13, no. 1 (2007): 32–55.
23. Abulafia argues that part of the terms of this first treaty, which specified that the captured galley and crew from Savona must provide forty days of service to Roger, were meant for a forthcoming naval expedition to North Africa. Wieruszowski similarly sees the terms of this treaty as helping Roger prepare for his “future role as lord of the African sea.” Wieruszowski, “Norman Kingdom of Sicily,” 21; Abulafia, Two Italies, 65–68.
24. Raymond previously formed alliances with other Christian rulers against Muslim powers in the Mediterranean. He also campaigned in Muslim-held Ibiza, Majorca, and the Balearic Islands. Reilly, Contest of Christian and Muslim Spain, 174–80. See also Lev Kapitaikin, “ ‘The Daughter of al-Andalus’: Interrelations between Norman Sicily and the Muslim West,” Al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean 25, no. 1 (2013): 113–34.
25. Brühl, Rogerii II diplomata, document 9; Idris, Berbérie orientale, 1:397.
26. Amari, Storia dei musulmani di Sicilia, 3:384–85.
27. Chalandon argues that the reason this treaty fell through was because Raymond did not ratify it during the eight days that followed the arrival of Roger’s envoys. The basis on which he makes this claim is unclear. Chalandon, Histoire de la domination normande, 1:378.
28. Houben, Ruler between East and West, 43–46.
29. While these years did not see direct Norman intervention in Ifriqiya, there were important developments in Roger II’s use of Christian rhetoric in his royal titles. In the middle of the 1120s, Roger began to deliberately alter his royal titles in charters to reflect what he saw as his role as defender of Christianity. In his correspondence with Raymond III, Roger refers to his rule as “by the grace of God” and directs his galleys to be sent “in the service of God and the aid of the armies” of Hispania. Another charter, from 1126, is the first in which Count Roger presents himself as “defender and shield, by the authority of God, of the Christian religion.” Charters in subsequent years also see Roger using Christian rhetoric in his titles. He claims to be a “helper and shield of Christians” and an “increaser of the churches of God and the weapons and shield of Christians.” Brühl, Rogerii II diplomata, documents 7, 9, 13, 14.
30. The coronation mantle of Roger II, which was made in Palermo in 528H (1133–34), depicts two lions lunging at two camels. The overtones of the subjugation of Muslims by Christians, as depicted by the camels and lions, respectively, are clear. On the coronation mantel, see Isabelle Dolezalek, Arabic Script on Christian Kings: Textile Inscriptions on Royal Garments from Norman Sicily (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017), 165–90.
31. For details, see Houben, Ruler between East and West, 60–66.
32. Roger II’s paternal cousin, Bohemond I, had captured Antioch during the First Crusade. Bohemond I’s son and heir, Bohemond II, was therefore Roger II’s first cousin once removed. William of Tyre, PL, 201:599–600, 624–27.
33. David Abulafia, “The Crown and the Economy under Roger II and His Successors,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 37 (1983): 5.
34. Ibn ʿIdhari, Al-Bayan al-Mughrib, 1:344.
35. Ibn ʿIdhari, Al-Bayan al-Mughrib, 1:344–45.
36. Ibn ʿIdhari is alone in asserting that the Hammadid attack on Mahdia came in the year 530H (1135–36). Ibn ʿIdhari, Al-Bayan al-Mughrib, 1:345–46.
37. Ibn al-Athir, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, year 529H, 11:17–18. Following the argument of Idris, I suspect that Ibn al-Athir has mistaken “Maymun” for “Muhriz” in this entry. Muhriz ibn Ziyad was a veteran Arab leader from the Banu Riyah who ruled at the fortress of al-Muʿallaqa near Tunis. When al-Hasan was forced to flee Mahdia in 543H (1148–49), he went to the lands of Muhriz because he had long maintained a good relationship with him. This circumstantial evidence of friendship between al-Hasan and Muhriz, combined with the similar spellings between Muhriz and Maymun , makes me suspect this error. Idris, Berbérie orientale, 1:342.
38. Ibn al-Athir, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, year 529H, 11:17–18.
39. The reasons for this internal unrest in Mahdia are unexplored in the sources. It could have been tied to the preferential treatment that al-Hasan had provided to certain Arab lords or to treaties that the Zirid emir had made with the Normans. Ibn al-Athir, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, year 529H, 11:17–18; Ibn Abi Dinar, Al-Muʾnis fi Akhbar Ifriqiya wa-Tunis, 90.
40. The Djerbans’ reputation for piracy was likely tied to Ibn Shaddad’s hatred of the Ibadi community of Muslims on Djerba. Earlier Zirid attacks against the Ibadis show that the dynasty struggled to keep them under its control. Al-Idrisi likewise notes the difficulty of keeping the Djerbans under Norman rule. The sandbanks around the island make it perilous for ships to attack; it is even possible at low tide for camels to cross to the island from mainland Ifriqiya. Al-Idrisi, Nuzhat al-Mushtaq, 1:305–6; Virginie Prevost, “La chaussée d’al-Qantara, pont entre Djerba et le continent,” in Autour de la géographie orientale … et au-delà: En l’honneur de J. Thiry, ed. L. Denooz and X. Luffin (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2006), 165–88. On the Ibadis, see Gabriel Baer, “al-Ibāḍiyya,” EI2; Tadeusz Lewicki, Les ibadites en Tunisie au moyen âge (Rome: Signerelli, 1959); Valerie Hoffman, The Essentials of Ibadi Islam (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2012); Martin H. Custers, Al-Ibāḍiyya: A Bibliography, 2nd ed. (Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms Verlag AG, 2017).
41. Ibn al-Athir, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, year 529H, 11:18. The Tristia ex Melitogaudo somewhat corroborates this. It states that the Normans “threshed the impudence of Djerba that vaunted herself above every race by its evils.” Whether this is an allusion to piracy or religious heterodoxy is unclear. Busuttil et al., Tristia ex Melitogaudo, 171.
42. Monumenta Erphesfurtenses, MGH, SS rer. Germ., 42:171–72.
43. The main sources for this invasion are the Annalista Saxo, Annales Cavenses, Annales Pisani, Regesta imperii, and the chronicles of Otto of Freising, Hugo Falcandus, and Romuald of Salerno. The campaign is summarized in Houben, Ruler between East and West, 66–73.
44. Brühl, Rogerii II diplomata, document 46. The letter between the Fatimid imam-caliph al-Hafiz and Roger II likely confirms these trading privileges, as it mentions how ships of Roger II, George of Antioch, and two ambassadors were to receive exemption from import and export taxes. As Canard suggests, the two ambassadors very well could have been from Salerno. Canard, “Une lettre du calife,” 133–34.
45. Technically, the duchy of Apulia and principality of Capua were given to Roger II’s sons, Roger and Alfonso, although it was clear that the lords of these two territories were subservient to Roger II.
46. William of Tyre, PL, 201:624–627. The life of Ralph of Domfront is explored in Bernard Hamilton, “Ralph of Domfront, Patriarch of Antioch (1135–40),” Nottingham Medieval Studies 28 (1984): 1–21.
47. Al-Qalqashandi, Subh al-Aʿsha (Cairo: al-Muʾassasa al-Misriyya, 1964), 5–6:458–63. My analysis of this letter echoes that of Canard and Johns. Canard, “Une lettre du calife”; Johns, Arabic Administration in Norman Sicily, 258–67.
48. Al-Qalqashandi, Subh al-Aʿsha, 5–6:459–61.
49. Johns, Arabic Administration in Norman Sicily, 261–62; Catlos, Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors, 207–12.
50. The letter concludes with a panegyric devoted to Ridwan, the acceptance of a Sicilian scribe’s apology for writing the incorrect caliphal title in a previous letter, the acknowledgment that Roger’s gifts to the Fatimids had arrived safely, and a statement about al-Hafiz’s desire to receive more news about Sicily. Al-Qalqashandi, Subh al-Aʿsha, 5–6:462–63.
51. Dadoyan, Fatimid Armenians, 99–101.
52. Johns, Arabic Administration in Norman Sicily, 263. The connection between Roger II, the Fatimid court, and his ambitions in Antioch was not lost on the seventeenth-century historian Ibn Abi Dinar. Although his narrative is not supported in any contemporary medieval sources, he wrote that that Roger II’s expeditions “stretched to the East” and that he even “conquered Antioch.” It is possible that Ibn Abi Dinar was confusing Roger II with one of his Hauteville relatives like Tancred, who was deeply involved in the internal politics of the Crusader states. Ibn Abi Dinar, Al-Muʾnis fi Akhbar Ifriqiya wa-Tunis, 89.
53. On Djerban piracy and the Fatimids, see Canard, “Une lettre du calife,” 129–31; Johns, Arabic Administration in Norman Sicily, 260.
54. Goitein, Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders, 324; Goitein, Mediterranean Society, 1:117–18.
55. Environmental data for these years indicates consistently wet summers and, based on no evidence to the contrary, adequate harvests. Old World Drought Atlas, 1134–40 (hereafter cited as OWDA).
56. Ibn ʿIdhari, Al-Bayan al-Mughrib, 1:346; al-Tijani, Al-Rihla, 339–40.
57. The Fatimids’ desire to conduct trade with the ports of North Africa makes sense given the political turmoil in Egypt at this time. The Fatimid caliph al-Hafiz had emerged triumphant against rebellions in 1134 and 1137. By 1141, al-Hafiz had stabilized his rule and sought to promote trade out of Egypt. Michael Brett, “Abbasids, Fatimids and Seljuqs,” in Luscombe and Riley-Smith, New Cambridge Medieval History, 4.2:716.
58. Commerce between the Hammadids and Fatimids could indicate that the Hammadids had renounced their allegiance to the Sunni Abbasids and, like the Zirids, reverted to Shiʿism and allegiance to the Fatimids. The timeline for this reversal of loyalties is unclear, though it is plausible that it happened shortly after the relocation of the Hammadids to Bougie in the 1050s.
59. Ibn ʿIdhari, Histoire de l’Afrique et de l’Espagne intitulée al-Bayano’l-Mogrib, trans. E. Fagnan, 1:460; Idris, Berbérie orientale, 1:347.
60. The Fatimids’ ability to retaliate militarily against the Zirids and Hammadids for their transgressions had been hindered since the beginning of the twelfth century. In 1105, the Fatimid navy lost twenty-five ships and two thousand sailors when a storm drove its fleet to the shores of the Levant and into the hands of the Franks. Then, in 1123, the Venetians defeated a Fatimid fleet near the city of al-ʿArish. Yaacov Lev, “A Mediterranean Encounter: The Fatimids and Europe, Tenth to Twelfth Centuries,” in Shipping, Trade and Crusade in the Medieval Mediterranean: Studies in Honour of John Pryor, ed. Ruthy Gertwagen and Elizabeth Jeffreys (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2012), 137.
61. Ibn ʿIdhari alone mentions a Norman attack on Tripoli in 537H (1142–43), which other chronicles date to 541H (1146–47). Ibn ʿIdhari, Al-Bayan al-Mughrib, 1:436; Ibn al-Athir, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, year 541H, 11:55; al-Tijani, Al-Rihla, 240.
62. Ibn al-Athir, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, year 536H, 11:47.
63. Al-Tijani, Al-Rihla, 340.
64. Loud, “Norman Sicily in the Twelfth Century,” 452.
65. Idris, Berbérie orientale, 2:655–56, 665–68; Brett, “Ifriqiya as a Market,” 348–49.
66. Benjamin of Tudela, The World of Benjamin of Tudela: A Medieval Mediterranean Travelogue, ed. Sandra Benjamin (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995), 278.
67. Ibn al-Athir, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, year 542H, 11:63. Translation is from Richards, Chronicle of Ibn al-Athir, 2:16–17.
68. Ibn ʿIdhari, Al-Bayan al-Mughrib, 1:347.
69. Ibn Khaldun, Kitab al-ʿIbar, 5:233.
70. Al-Tijani, Al-Rihla, 241.
71. The personal stories of those who suffered from drought in Ifriqiya are largely lost, but a glimpse of the kind of desperation that this catastrophe facilitated can be found in the legal rulings of al-Mazari. In one case, al-Mazari mediated a conflict that revolved around a woman seeking to sell her jewelry in Sicily in exchange for wheat. Whether this woman was desperate for wheat of her own or eager to exploit vulnerable Ifriqiyan markets, this evidence points to the widespread need for Sicilian grain in Ifriqiya during times of drought. Al-Wansharisi, Al-Miʿyar al-Muʿrib, 8:208. See also Sarah Davis-Secord, “Muslims in Norman Sicily: The Evidence of Imam al-Mazari’s Fatwas,” Mediterranean Studies 16 (2007): 61–62. Documents from the Greek monastery of St. George’s of Tròccoli (near Caltabellotta in southwest Sicily) show that Ifriqiyan immigrants from a handful of cities were present in Sicily by 1141. It is likely, though, that these migrants arrived in Sicily before this famine occurred. Vera von Falkenhausen, Nadia Jamil, and Jeremy Johns, “The Twelfth-Century Documents of St. George’s of Tròccoli Sicily,” Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies 16 (2016): 30.
72. This dataset comes from tree rings (a field called dendrochronology). On this discipline, both generally and in its North African context, see Fritz Hans Schweingruber, Tree Rings: Basics and Applications of Dendrochronology (Boston: Kluwer Academic, 1989); Ramzi Touchan, D. M. Meko, and A. Aloui, “Precipitation Reconstruction for Northwestern Tunisia from Tree Rings,” Journal of Arid Environments, no. 72 (2008): 1887–96; James Speer, Fundamentals of Tree-Ring Research (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2010).
73. Data from the OWDA uses the JJA (June–July–August) PDSI metric to measure relative rainfall, which is common in the field of dendrochronology. William Alley, “The Palmer Drought Severity Index: Limitations and Assumptions,” Journal of Climate and Applied Meteorology 23 (July 1984): 1100–1109; T. R. Heddinghaus and P. Sabol, “A Review of the Palmer Drought Severity Index and Where Do We Go from Here?,” in Proceedings, 7th Conference on Applied Climatology (Boston: American Meteorological Association, 1991), 242–46; Nathan Wells, Steve Goddard, and Michael Hayes, “A Self-Calibrating Palmer Drought Severity Index,” Journal of Climate 17 (June 2004): 2335–51.
74. This map was created through the Tree-Ring Drought Atlas Portal at the University of Memphis. It is easier to discern differences in relative rainfall when viewing these maps in color. The above black-and-white map can be replicated at OWDA, http://
drought .memphis .edu /OWDA /Composite .aspx. This data is derived from Cook et al., “Old World Megadroughts.”
75. Accounts from a 1311 famine in Djerba may provide some sense of how people coped with drought in earlier centuries—for instance, by using sawdust from palm trees to make bread. Numerous anecdotes in later Ibadi sources about nourishment, food, and scarcity show how pervasive the thought of drought was in the region. Virginie Prevost, “Nourritures médiévales: L’alimentation au Maghreb d’après les sources ibadites (xie–xiiie siècle),” in Travelling through Time: Essays in Honour of Kaj Öhrnberg, ed. Sylvia Akar, Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila, and Inka Nokso-Koivisto (Helsinki: Finnish Oriental Society, 2013), 401–17.
76. Ibn Abi Dinar notes that al-Hasan was unable to pay back Roger’s agents for money that the Norman king had loaned to him, which led to “coldness” between the two. This statement is likely an inference made from Ibn Abi Dinar’s reading of Ibn al-Athir and al-Tijani. Ibn Abi Dinar, Al-Muʾnis fi Akhbar Ifriqiya wa-Tunis, 93.
77. Ibn al-Athir, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, year 537H, 11:47–48. See also al-Tijani, Al-Rihla, 173–74, and Ibn Khaldun, Kitab al-ʿIbar, 5:232. Although it was located on an important trade route that linked Egypt to Ifriqiya and the Maghreb, “virtually nothing” is known of the city in the years preceding the Norman attack. There are even conflicting reports from the Arabic chronicles about the ruling dynasty when the Normans attacked. Al-Tijani and Ibn Khaldun write that the Banu Khazrun governed the city, while Ibn al-Athir writes that the Banu Matruh held power there. Michael Brett speculates that it is more likely that the Banu Matruh were governors of Tripoli at the time of the Norman attack in 1143, because they “played a leading part in the resistance to the Normans of Sicily, in the government of the city by the Normans, and in the freeing of the city from the Normans.” Brett, “City-State in Medieval Ifriqiya,” 82.
78. Ibn al-Athir, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, year 537H, 11:48.
79. Augustus Gaudenzi, ed., Ignoti monachi Cisterciensis S. Mariae de Ferraria chronica et Ryccardi de Sancto Germano (Naples: Presso la Società, 1888), 27. The textual history of this chronicle is considered in Loud, Creation of the Kingdom of Sicily, 55–58.
80. I am inclined to believe the Arabic sources because of their specificity and quantity, and because of the Ferraris Chronicle’s general lack of concern with Norman involvement in Africa.
81. Ibn Muyassar, Al-Muntaqa min Akhbar Misr, 134–35.
82. Ibn al-Athir, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, years 539H and 540H, 11:51–53, 54–55.
83. Gaudenzi, Ignoti monachi Cisterciensis, 28; Houben, Ruler between East and West, 90–92.
84. John Kinnamos reports that a Byzantine envoy named Basil Xeros placed Roger “on an equal plane of greatness” to the emperor Manuel. When Roger’s embassy arrived in Byzantium, though, the emperor treated it as a joke, which infuriated Roger. Romuald of Salerno similarly reports that Roger sent envoys to the emperor but that they were imprisoned. Iōannēs Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, trans. Charles M. Brand (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976), 75–76; Romuald of Salerno, Chronicon, 7.1:229–30.
85. Houben, Ruler between East and West, 88–90.
86. A detailed narrative and chronology of these raids is found in Stanton, Norman Naval Operations, 92–97.
87. Odo of Deuil, De profectione Ludovici VII in Orientem: The Journey of Louis VII to the East, ed. Virginia Gingerich Berry (New York: W. W. Norton, 1948), 10–15.
88. Ibn al-Athir, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, year 541H, 11:55; Ibn Khaldun, Kitab al-ʿIbar, 5:232; al-Tijani, Al-Rihla, 241.
89. Ibn Khaldun, Kitab al-ʿIbar, 5:232, 6:223. He places this attack in the year 540H (1145–46) in the latter citation and in the year 541H (1146–47) in the former. I prefer the date of 541H (1146–47) due to its corroboration in other sources.
90. Ibn al-Athir, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, year 541H, 11:55.
91. Ibn al-Athir, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, year 542H, 11:61; Ibn Khaldun, Kitab al-ʿIbar, 5:232–33.
92. Ibn al-Athir, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, year 542H, 11:61–62.
93. OWDA 1147. This map was created through the visualization software provided by the University of Memphis at http://
drought .memphis .edu /OWDA /SingleYearRecon .aspx, with data derived from Cook et al., “Old World Megadroughts.”
94. Ibn al-Athir, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, year 543H, 11:63.
95. The Annales Siculi states that this attack happened in 1149, but it is contradicted in every other source that considers the conquest of Mahdia. This text was initially thought to have been an appendix to the chronicle of eleventh-century chronicler Geoffrey Malaterra, but now it is more commonly read as a work that merely drew heavily on Malaterra. Charles Stanton, “Anonymus Vaticanus: Another Source for the Normans in the South?,” Haskins Society Journal 24 (2013): 79–94.
96. Ibn al-Athir, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, year 543H, 11:64.
97. Ibn ʿIdhari refers to the capture of Mahdia as an “atrocious” (al-shanʿāʾ) occurrence. Ibn ʿIdhari, Al-Bayan al-Mughrib, 1:347.
98. Ibn Khaldun, Kitab al-ʿIbar, 5:233.
99. Ibn ʿIdhari is alone in suggesting that Roger seized Sfax in 538H (1143–44). Ibn ʿIdhari, Al-Bayan al-Mughrib, 1:346. See also Idris, Berbérie orientale, 1:358–61.
100. Ibn al-Athir reports that the governor of Sousse, a son of the emir al-Hasan, had joined his father in flight following the capture of Mahdia. Al-Tijani writes that Sousse was instead under the authority of Jabbara ibn Kamil from the Riyad branch of the Banu Hilal. It is possible to see these accounts as not mutually exclusive and to imagine Sousse “commanded at the time by a nominal Zirid governor and by an omnipotent Riyad emir.” Idris, Berbérie orientale, 1:359.
101. Ibn al-Athir, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, year 543H, 11:65.
102. The importance of control over Mediterranean commercial lanes to the Norman state is seen in the description of Roger II’s kingdom from the Ferraris Chronicle: “And [Roger II] created one kingdom from all the provinces that are contained between three seas: from the east is the Great Sea, which is beyond Sicily; from the south is the Tyrrhenian Sea, which is between that kingdom and Africa and Mauritania; from the south is the Adriatic Sea, which is between that kingdom and Greece and Sclavonia and Hungary; from the west holds the boundaries of the province of Campania.” Gaudenzi, Ignoti monachi Cisterciensis, 26.
103. Ibn al-Athir, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, year 543H, 11:65; Ibn ʿIdhari, Al-Bayan al-Mughrib, 1:348–50; ʿAbd al-Wahid al-Marrakushi, Al-Muʿjib fi Talkhis Akhbar al-Maghrib, ed. Reinhart Dozy (Leiden: Brill, 1881), 162. Although Ibn ʿIdhari provides this description of people in Tunis attempting to transport grain to Sicily, he also mentions that the name of the Banu Khurasan was proclaimed up to the Almohad conquest, which may indicate that the Normans did not have control of the city.
104. Ibn ʿIdhari and Ibn Khaldun provide (at times contradictory) accounts of Tunis’s internal politics. In 543H (1148–49), the governor of Tunis was Maʿadd ibn al-Mansur, who planned to send wheat to the Normans. When the people of Tunis heard this, they revolted. Local shaykhs took control of Tunis and appointed a local judge as their leader. Fearful of retaliation, the judge first sought to put Tunis under the protection of the veteran Arab lord Muhriz ibn Ziyad. The people of Tunis refused to give allegiance to an Arab lord, however, and revolted against this arrangement. Tunisian leaders eventually asked for Abu Bakr ibn Ismaʿil ibn ʿAbd al-Haqq ibn Khurasan (a member of the Khurasanid dynasty, which had previously governed Tunis) to rule the city. He accepted and ruled for seven months until he was assassinated. Ibn ʿIdhari, Al-Bayan al-Mughrib, 1:349–50; Ibn Khaldun, Kitab al-ʿIbar, 6:217–19. The fourteenth-century chronicle of Andrea Dandolo claims, on the basis of unknown sources, that Tunis paid tribute to the Normans. Andrea Dandolo, Chronica per extensum descripta, ed. Ester Pastorello, 2nd ed. (Bologna: Nicola Zanichelli, 1958), 243; Abulafia, “Norman Kingdom of Africa,” 35.
105. Stanton’s claim that the 1140s saw Roger’s “long-postponed plans to claim the coast of North Africa” come to fruition is overstated. I prefer Johns’s thoughts on the long-term thinking of Roger II. He argues that “we should certainly be careful not to mistake the characteristic opportunism of medieval rulers for carefully planned and articulated policy.” Stanton, Norman Naval Operations, 89; Johns, “Malik Ifrīqiya,” 99.
106. The centrality of these expeditions to Roger II’s foreign policy is clear from his lack of military involvement elsewhere on the Mediterranean during the year 543H (1148–49). As his navy was campaigning in Ifriqiya, a joint Venetian-Byzantine fleet launched a prolonged assault on a Norman outpost at Corfu off the coast of Greece. Although the attack eventually failed, Roger’s decision to not send reinforcements to this strategic fort indicates the significance of his Ifriqiyan expedition. Stanton, Norman Naval Operations, 98–99.
107. Johns, Arabic Administration in Norman Sicily, 263. Johns further argues, “While we cannot show that the two monarchs were actually in league over Norman activity in Africa, there is sufficient evidence to conclude that Roger had reason to be confident that the Fāṭimid ruler would not intervene on behalf of his Zīrīd vassal.” Johns, “Malik Ifrīqiya,” 97.
108. Ibn al-Athir, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, year 543H, 11:64–65.
109. Ibn Khaldun, Kitab al-ʿIbar, 5:233.
110. Ibn al-Athir also notes that Yahya had been denigrating al-Hasan previously and had also “published his faults” in slandering letters presumably circulated throughout Ifriqiya. Ibn al-Athir, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, year 547H, 11:79.