The project

The project called “Settlements and Exchanges Around the Alboran Sea (Al-Andalus-Maghreb, 8th-15th centuries)”  aims at studying the evolution of the settlements and exchanges between the coasts of the Alboran Sea along the medieval period (8th-15th centuries). By “settlement”, we understand all kinds of human occupation to different degrees of gathering, from villages to farmsteads, in the rural sphere, to larger cities. In regard to the exchanges, we encompass different manifestations here: the traffic of raw material and products, of people—for different reasons such as migrations, training visits or invasions—, and finally and linked to the previous, the ideological, technological and cultural transfers (technical, constructive or schools of thought).

To undertake this labour, we present a multidisciplinary work team. In the beginning, the written sources in Arabic will gain special prominence, but also the Latin and Hebrew texts, which provide important information about the maritime circulation in these centuries, as other researchers have already proved (Goitien, 1973). Secondly, we will also turn to archaeology as a source of information. In this sense, we will begin by studying closely the results from the interventions undertaken so far, and new activities in strategic spots such as prospecting, study of facings or  excavations will be scheduled to help us out to increase our knowledge about settlements on both sides of the Mediterranean.

Even though we will address general issues about all the Mediterranean area, our research will focus specifically on the space lying between the south and southeast of Andalusia—Al-Andalus back then—, in other words, on the coasts stretching from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Cabo de Gata, in the provinces of Malaga, Granada and Almeria, and the eastern littoral of Morocco, known as the Rif, from Tangier, crossing the coast, to the Kiss River in the east, what defines the frontiers between Morocco and Algeria. In short, our central field of study coincides with the surroundings of the Alboran Sea, which bathes eastern Andalusia and the eastern coast of Morocco, territory on which the two Autonomous Cities of Ceuta and Melilla are situated, keeping both strong historical ties with the Spanish history.

The Alboran Sea, measuring 180 kilometres wide and 350 kilometres long, is one of the small seas that, together with the Liguria, Balearic, Tyrrhenian, Adriatic, Ionian, Aegean, Marmara, Black and Azov Rivers, makes up the Mediterranean Sea as a whole, and it coincides with what some Arab authors denominated the “Western Sea” (Baḥr al-Magrib). Due to its proximity to the Strait of Gibraltar, it receives constant influence from the Atlantic Ocean regarding both the supply of water—what makes it less saline—, and the winds and currents. Thus, it can be pointed out that this is a transitional sea between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, as it is and was throughout the  history between Africa and Europe. This sea is surrounded by a sort of mountainous arc lying from the Strait of Gibraltar on the west, the Penibaetic System on the north and the Rif Mountains on  the south. This causes the flanges of its basin to be mountainous in a way that we hardly find natural ports or coves on any side of the sea. Another phenomenon of the Alboran Sea worth noting is the frequent emergence of deep waters, or upwellings, providing numerous biological and economic benefits for its coasts. These waters are considerably colder, but rich enough in nutrients, what stimulates the development of a marine biological chain. Therefore, the abundance of nutrients encourages the increase of phytoplankton that, at the same time, surely influences the appearance of zooplankton, food base for fish. In these terms, the benefits eventually get to the last link of the chain, the human being, through the fishing labour. Another side effect of this emergence is the fertilisation of the littoral soil, and this is mainly observed in the areas of Marbella, Malaga and Motril.


Figure 1. Location of the Penibaetic System in Andalusia.


Hence, the Alboran Sea divides our area of study into two parts: the north in Spain and the south in Africa. Regarding the northern area, we will focus on the territory located between the Penibaetic System and the Sea in the strict sense. This cordillera constitutes a mountainous barrier which separates the coast from the inland, and it lies between the Strait of Gibraltar and the Cabo de Gata, parallel to the coast line with a length of 300 kilometres and a width of 50 kilometres. In this manner, we observe how the Penibaetic covers, west to east, the coasts of Malaga, the southern half of the province of Granada, and the southwest of the province of Almeria in a way that the interior part, named as “Intrabaetic Basin” for its situation between both chains of the Baetic Mountains (see Figure 1), is only communicated with the littoral zone  through a series of natural paths and access routes. Therefore, the access to Malaga from Granada is gained through the Boquete de Zafarraya, and to Motril through the Valle de Lecrin and the Guadalfeo River. In same terms, the numerous ravines between Castell de Ferro (Granada) and Adra (Almeria), and the valleys of the rivers Guadiaro, Guadalhorce, Guadalfeo, Adra and Andarax lead the way to the sea from the Alpujarras. In this sense, the knowledge of this physical environment and the natural routes of communication, on which the first ones created by the human being will be settled later on, are not trivial issues by any means, since they start pointing out potential supply centres and goods reception arriving at the harbours, as well as they provide information on the networks woven around these centres in the interior areas. 

As for the southern area of our field of study, the Rif—from the Arabic word for brink and then, rim—,which is a traditionally Amazigh area of population, presents a very similar physiognomy to the one of the other shore. This is why we can speak about the Baetic-Rifan Complex, from the viewpoint of the paleogeology, as a homogeneous unit, formed in the same period. From the east, there starts an arc lying from the Djebala to Cabo Quilates, whose east the Cabo de Tres Forcas is located in. The oriental limit gets marked by the Muluya River, which is a sub-littoral depression, the Snassen Mountains and the beginning of the Tell Atlas that is headed for Algeria. In this case, we can also find a steep, mountainous littoral in which the capes (Negro, Mazari, Morro Nuevo, Quilates, Tres Forcas, Aguas) and the mouth of the rivers (Martin, Kert, Muluya, Kiss and Nekor) are essential for sailing.

Figure 2. Situation of the field of study of the PIMA project with regard to the Iberian Peninsula. 

Once these geographical clarifications are established, it results convenient to set the chronological limits of our project. Grosso modo, these boundaries coincide with the existence of Al-Andalus, from 711 to 1492, year of the taking of Granada by the Catholic Monarchs. Hence, it is a period in which both sides of the Alboran Sea were occupied by the same civilisation, the Arab-Islamic, although not necessarily under the same political body, or within the same stage of socioeconomic development. In these circumstances, the periods of war and peace will be alternating successively. So, if the Arab-Berber invasion of the Peninsula means the integration of both coasts to a common state, the Omeya, and to the same culture in the long term, the Arab-Islamic, the coming of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān al-Dājil and the subsequent foundation of the emirate of Cordoba are going to open a long period of rupture of such political unity between Al-Andalus and the Maghreb, which is only recovered subsequently, during the periods of the Almoravids (1085-1147) and Almohads (1148-1232). Shortly after, the Nasrid period (1236-1492) represents a new phase of political division. Nevertheless, neither the political differences nor the religious orientations can completely stop the exchange of products, or the traffic of people and ideas, as we intend to prove  in our project.


Figure 3. Cartographic map (1:1.000.000) of the subject area (IGN)

Furthermore, it is convenient to specify that the intended project, “Settlements and Exchanges Around the Alboran Sea (Al-Andalus-Maghreb, 8th-15th centuries)”, lacks of close precedents within the panorama of the Spanish and European research. Heretofore, the effected  studies concentrated uniquely on the coastal territories on both sides, addressing each city and spot in isolation, and, worst of all, with no analysis of the settlement and exchange networks woven around the main ports and cities. Although there are excellent monographic studies on big cities like Almeria, Malaga or Salobreña, we consider that they failed to deal with issues related to the exchange networks, the supply routes, or the comparison with the opposite side probably on account of reasons of historical perspective, or simply because they were not part of their main objectives. On the other hand, the works on the north of Africa have traditionally focused on that geography ignoring a deeper analysis of the connections with the other bank of the Alboran Sea. For this reason, the intended analysis constitutes a first attempt to study the areas of the Riff in Morocco, and the southwest of Al-Andalus jointly, from a comparative and evolutionary point of view. The comparative method has been widely developed in other sciences like anthropology, linguistics, or even theology, in recent times. However, it has not been so relevant in archaeology, or the history of Al-Andalus, taking into account that this history cannot be explained ignoring the events and situations of northern Africa. By “evolutionary”, we refer to the evolution of the ways of settlement throughout the medieval centuries (8th-15th), the development of the cities on both sides, the dynamics establishing their evolution, or the importance of commerce.

In this sense, our work raises a two-stage analysis: a diachronic phase, since we will try to undertake a reconstruction of the evolution of the medinas, their communication and exchange  networks, as previously stated, during the medieval period. Also a synchronic stage, as the different urban elements of the cities (dockyards, harbours, fortifications, irrigation canals, reservoirs, mosques, etc) will be analysed and identified, as well as the different ways of settlement, in an attempt to set typologies depending on the stage. At this point, it is appropriate to remember that these areas are probably the most urbanised of the Islamic West. Since ancient times, all this area occupied an important geostrategic place within the limits of the Mediterranean, and this relevance will grow stronger in the medieval period. The African ports receive products coming from the North and, at the same time, provide gold and African slaves, connecting Sub-Saharan Africa (known as Bilād al-Sūdān in the Arabic sources) to Europe. Thus, we witness a commercial integration with a series of routes and cities in stages that progressively mark the way from the south of Mali and Senegal to the very heart of the Holy Roman Empire. Not by accident, the Maghrebi ports become the destination of numerous communities of traders, with a special mention for those coming from the Italian republics, later in the Middle Ages. 

Undoubtedly, the arrival of the Fatimids in the 9th century means a decisive boost for  commerce, as they completely control the gold routes. This is why their coining in the shape of dinars is so remarkably pure. Their main advance will be the control over the Awdaghost-Siŷlmāsa route. It is precisely because of this that the Andalusian Omeyas, their principal foes, getting their access to gold blocked, turn to conquer the north of Africa both indirectly—supporting the zanāta magrāwa against the Fatimids, and the ṣinhāŷas that take hold of Siŷilmāsa (980)—, and directly, through the occupation of Melilla (927), Ceuta (931) and Tangier. This, and not religious differences such as the Sunnis versus the Shiites, is the main subject of contention between both caliphates fighting for the supremacy of the Muslim West.

The big change commences with the Almoravids. These ṣinhāŷa Berbers destroy Awdaghost, controlled by the zanātas (1055), and occupy Siŷilmāsa. Their power over the Sub-Saharan territory is direct, and they contribute to advance the Islamisation of Sub-Saharan Africa. Later with the Almohads, there is a big leap forward with the control of the routes, from beginning to end, to send gold and other secondary goods to Europe, passing through the hands of the Italian traders settled in the African coasts. Not only trading occurs in this period, but also control over the exchange points. There is a substantial change in the situation which have an impact on the results and benefits obtained. Here are the foundations of the initial economic power of the Almohads. 

There is no doubt about the north of Africa and southeast of the Iberian Peninsula being one of the most urbanised areas. Cities such as Malaga, Almuñecar, Salobreña, or Pechina/Almeria, in the peninsula, and Ceuta, Bâdis, Alhucemas, Melilla, al-Mazamma, or Nakûr, in the north of Africa, placed at the edge of their countries and facing the other lands across the sea, evince that the sea and the exchanges on both sides are essential for the understanding of the urban development. In the same terms, we cannot forget that the power of such medinas is based on their connection with the inland zones, which provide them with products and, at the same time, are the main destination of the arriving merchandise. In this sense, our work aims at reconstructing these networks.


Translated into English by Luis F. Bravo Morales, luisbravomorales[arroba]