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Keywords:

  • gold trade;
  • Morocco;
  • Sahara;
  • Sijilmassa;
  • urban development;
  • water resources

Abstract

Sijilmassa (A.D. 757–1393) was the North African head of the gold trade across the Sahara in medieval times. A synthesis of fieldwork undertaken by geographers, historians, and archaeologists suggests the environmental and social structure of the ancient city and its surrounding oasis. Collaboration demonstrates geography's role in solving regional problems originating in history and archaeology. In reconstructing the geography of past place and the demise of place, we knit together the oasis landscape and environment; local water resources, agricultural production, and social organization were key to the development of Islamic Sijilmassa. Drawing upon methodologies of oral tradition, field reconnaissance, remote sensing, historical documentation, and archaeological fieldwork, medieval Sijilmassa emerges as a Saharan entrepôt founded in Islamic heresy; a landscape developed through diversion of a desert stream; and a city that walled its oasis to protect against bedouin incursions. The process of urban growth and decline were driven by socio-political forces and the allure of new hydraulic technologies; the demise of Sijilmassa was a result of discordant social forces contending for the region. Sijilmassa remains an icon of sacred space in the landscape of contemporary morocco.