In the closing decades of the ninth century, missionaries of
the Ismaili sect of Shia
(see Glossary) Islam converted the Kutama Berbers of what was
later known as the Petite Kabylie region and led them in battle
against the Sunni
(see Glossary) rulers of Ifriqiya. Al Qayrawan fell to them in
909. The Ismaili imam, Ubaydallah, declared himself caliph and
established Mahdia as his capital. Ubaydallah initiated the Fatimid
Dynasty, named after Fatima, daughter of Muhammad and wife of
Ali, from whom the caliph claimed descent.
The Fatimids turned westward in 911, destroying the imamate of
Tahirt and conquering Sijilmasa in Morocco. Ibadi Kharijite refugees
from Tahirt fled south to the oasis at Ouargla beyond the Atlas
Mountains, whence in the eleventh century they moved southwest
to Oued Mzab. Maintaining their cohesion and beliefs over the
centuries, Ibadi religious leaders have dominated public life
in the region to this day.
For many years, the Fatimids posed a threat to Morocco, but their
deepest ambition was to rule the East, the Mashriq, which included
Egypt and Muslim lands beyond. By 969 they had conquered Egypt.
In 972 the Fatimid ruler Al Muizz established the new city of
Cairo as his capital. The Fatimids left the rule of Ifriqiya and
most of Algeria to the Zirids (972-1148). This Berber dynasty,
which had founded the towns of Miliana, Médéa, and Algiers and
centered significant local power in Algeria for the first time,
turned over its domain west of Ifriqiya to the Banu Hammad branch
of its family. The Hammadids ruled from 1011 to 1151, during which
time Bejaïa became the most important port in the Maghrib.
This period was marked by constant conflict, political instability,
and economic decline. The Hammadids, by rejecting the Ismaili
doctrine for Sunni orthodoxy and renouncing submission to the
Fatimids, initiated chronic conflict with the Zirids. Two great
Berber confederations--the Sanhaja and the Zenata--engaged in
an epic struggle. The fiercely brave, camelborne nomads of the
western desert and steppe as well as the sedentary farmers of
the Kabylie to the east swore allegiance to the Sanhaja. Their
traditional enemies, the Zenata, were tough, resourceful horsemen
from the cold plateau of the northern interior of Morocco and
the western Tell in Algeria.
In addition, raiders from Genoa, Pisa, and Norman Sicily attacked
ports and disrupted coastal trade. Trans-Saharan trade shifted
to Fatimid Egypt and to routes in the west leading to Spanish
markets. The countryside was being overtaxed by growing cities.
Contributing to these political and economic dislocations was
a large incursion of Arab beduin from Egypt starting in the first
half of the eleventh century. Part of this movement was an invasion
by the Banu Hilal and Banu Sulaym tribes, apparently sent by the
Fatimids to weaken the Zirids. These Arab beduin overcame the
Zirids and Hammadids and in 1057 sacked Al Qayrawan. They sent
farmers fleeing from the fertile plains to the mountains and left
cities and towns in ruin.
For the first time, the extensive use of Arabic spread to the
countryside. Sedentary Berbers who sought protection from the
Hilalians were gradually arabized.
Data as of December 1993