This integrated history of the Zirids and Normans has shown that the relationship between these two dynasties was a tumultuous one in which armed conflict and diplomacy operated against a backdrop of commercial and cultural exchange. It is the former issues that dominate Latin and Arabic medieval sources. The two dynasties first encountered each other on the battlefield in Sicily as both groups sought control over the island. Although the Normans emerged triumphant in these encounters, both sides ultimately decided that peaceful trading was more beneficial than protracted conflict. The exchange of trade goods across the Strait of Sicily became a central component of the dynasties’ relationship. Amid this commercial exchange, however, was conflict and political maneuvering that spanned the Mediterranean. The Zirids, whose lands had been much reduced in the middle of the eleventh century, sought to expand their power using the limited resources at their disposal: maritime raiding across the Mediterranean, alliances with the Almoravids and Fatimids, and campaigns against other governors in Ifriqiya. The Normans, meanwhile, looked to legitimize their nascent dynasty and to cultivate power through any means necessary: diplomacy, marriage alliances, political subterfuge, raiding, and armed conflict.
The larger Mediterranean goals of the Zirids and Normans led to numerous encounters between the two dynasties. For much of the early twelfth century, the Zirid emirs of Ifriqiya exerted pressure on a young Roger II through their military strength and alliance with the Almoravids. The ascent of George of Antioch in the mid-1120s and the substantial territorial gains that the Norman army accrued on the Italian Peninsula in the 1130s, however, tipped the balance of power in favor of the Sicilians. When a devastating drought gripped Ifriqiya in the 1140s, Roger II seized much of the Ifriqiyan littoral. Norman rule brought small but meaningful changes to the region as governors appointed by the Normans levied new taxes on non-Christians, Norman garrisons and officials patrolled the streets, and the court of Palermo sponsored building projects to aid in the recovery of the Ifriqiyan economy. As the region rebounded from the drought of the 1140s, the advantages of Norman rule ceased to outweigh the disadvantages for the Muslim majority of the region. Widespread revolts against Norman rule in the 1150s brought an end to Norman rule in most of Ifriqiya. The subsequent Almohad conquest of Mahdia in 1160 destroyed the remainder of Norman Africa and permitted the last Zirid emir, al-Hasan ibn ʿAli, to briefly reclaim his throne as co-governor of Mahdia.
No singular ideology (religious, political, or otherwise) governed relations between the Zirids and the Normans. Instead, both dynasties pursued opportunistic wars, treaties, and alliances that best benefited their circumstances. Norman policies in Ifriqiya were intimately connected to outside threats posed by the Germans and Byzantines, the opportunities presented by succession crises in the Crusader states, the possibility of conquering lands in mainland Italy, conflict between Christians and Muslims in al-Andalus, and a precarious alliance with the Fatimids. The Zirids, likewise, maintained relations with the Normans in keeping with their ability to sustain alliances with dynasties in the Maghreb and Egypt, to reap the profits of trade, to bolster their treasury through raiding, and to sustain their economy in the face of changing agricultural production and famine. The ambitions of these two dynasties spanned the Mediterranean and their exchanges had repercussions across it—whether that was an alliance between the Zirids and Almoravids created in response to Norman aggression, treaties between Roger II and the count of Barcelona to counter this alliance, jockeying from the Zirids and Normans to maintain a favorable relationship with the Fatimids, or the pleas of displaced natives of Ifriqiya to the Almohad caliph to dethrone the Normans in the region.
Although medieval sources emphasize these political and military elements of the Zirid-Norman relationship, they also hint at deeper cultural connections that are otherwise lost to us. Correspondence between members of the courts of Mahdia and Palermo indicates that these individuals engaged in dialogue across the Strait of Sicily as part of a shared intellectual network. Thematic and stylistic similarities in Arabic poetry produced in Zirid Ifriqiya and Norman Sicily further hint at literary cross-pollination that reached elite levels of society. The court of Palermo likewise emulated artistic styles and administrative structures of the Muslim world that most resemble the well-documented Fatimid court, but could very well have been drawing on the poorly documented Zirid court. Finally, when medieval accounts speak of the movement of peoples across the Strait of Sicily, we must assume that those migrations came with some level of cultural exchange. Quotidian cultural interactions between those living under Zirid and Norman rule are largely lost, however, save for the occasional mention found in the correspondence of Geniza merchants.
The historical memory of the intertwining histories of the Zirids and Normans has been uneven. While exchanges between the two dynasties were forgotten in the realm of Latin Christendom, they became part of a larger narrative told by Muslim authors about Frankish aggression against the lands of Islam, which persisted through the end of the Middle Ages. In modern discourse, however, the emphasis has shifted to a Norman-centric approach that has largely sidelined the Zirids as an object of foreign conquest. This approach has done a disservice to our understanding of both dynasties. The sustained and substantial interactions between these two dynasties shows that our understanding of one is incomplete without the other. This integrated history of the Zirids and Normans has shown the degree of connectivity between them and, moreover, the meaningful power that the Zirids wielded in the Mediterranean even after their lands were reduced in size during the mid-eleventh century. As the study of the Middle Ages emerges from centuries of Eurocentric scholarship, it is likewise fitting for the Zirids and other Ifriqiyan dynasties to emerge from the colonial shadow of the Banu Hilal and into larger conversations about their role in shaping the medieval world.