In the closing decades of the ninth century, missionaries of the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam converted the Kutama Berbers of what was later known as the Petite Kabylie region and led them in battle against the Sunni 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.
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