History of Aghmat

What happened to medieval Aghmat? Our archeological team thinks that it gradually experienced urban slide southward toward the modern village of Ghmat less than one kilometer away and was gradually overshadowed by a new city, Marrakech, some thirty kilometers away. At one time, Aghmat was the most important city in southwestern Morocco. It was the predecessor of Marrakech. Today, it stands virtually buried, forgotten, on the outskirts of the tiny village that still bears its medieval name.

Before the arrival on the scene of the Almoravids and the building of their new capital at Marrakech, Aghmat was the chief commercial and cultural center in the region. At a time when Morocco was forging its Islamic identity, Aghmat played a crucial role in that process. It was first an Idrissid city, and those rulers from Fez struck coins in Aghmat, a testimony to Aghmat’s role as a regional capital. When Ibn Hawqal wrote his Kitab Surat al-Ard (“The Face of the Earth”) toward the middle of the tenth century, he described Aghmat as a regional center of importance in the very same breath that he talked about Ifriqiya (today’s Tunisia), Fez, Andalusia, and the Sus in the far southwest. A full century later, Abu Ubaid al-Bakri wrote his Kitab al-Masalik w’al-Mamalik (Book of Routes and Kings). He described Aghmat as a political and commercial center. And then along came the Almoravids who changed everything. The Almoravids established Aghmat as their principal residence and capital city for the next thirteen years. But soon after they arrived, the people complained that the city “became over crowded and people were oppressed there. A more likely scenario is that the Almoravids felt uncomfortable in the foothills of the High Atlas mountains where their opponents resided. The Almoravids were desert people, not used to fighting in the mountains. So they moved thirty kilometers away across flat plains to build a new capital city from scratch, the city of Marrakech. Still another century went by, and the writer al-Idrissi said of Aghmat that “there were none richer or in easier circumstances than they.”  But he was quick to add that “now, at the time when we are composing this book, the Masmuda have done away with most of their wealth and spoiled the bounty of God which was in their hands.” Evidently, by the late twelfth century, Aghmat was on its way out. It was being supplanted by Marrakech. We now know from archaeology that it surbvived several more centuries.

Aghmat is the city where at least two historical figures became legend. The first is Zaynab al-Nafzawiya, one of the most famous women in Moroccan history. She was the daughter of a merchant from Qayrawan who settled in Aghmat. She was a woman of such beauty, energy, intelligence, and political savoir-faire that she was highly sought after in marriage at which she said, “nobody shall marry me but the one who rules the whole Maghrib.” She did that three times. Her first husband was Laqut Ibn Yusuf, the Maghrawa ruler of Aghmat. When the Almoravids came and defeated Laqut, she married the Almoravid emir Abu Bakr. He divorced her three months later to return to his Saharan homeland. So she married Abu Bakr’s cousin and successor, Yusuf Ibn Tashfin. Once Marrakech became the new imperial capital, Aghmat remained the home of Zaynab. It was also the place where the Almoravid overlords chose to send their royal captives from Spain into exile. Al-Mu`tamid, king of Seville, wrote poetry from this royal prison. And it is here that he died. In 1970, a new mausoleum was built as his final resting place.