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Is Medieval North Africa underrated in World History?

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  Quote Decebal Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Topic: Is Medieval North Africa underrated in World History?
    Posted: 13-Feb-2006 at 16:12

While reading through an article posted in reference to the "World System Theory" topic, in the Intellectual Discussion section, I noticed something interesting. As you can see from the quote below, the authors discuss the sizes of the largest cities in what they call the "Central World System". For the period that I mean to discuss (1100-1500), the "Central World System" would comprise Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Central Asia. Please note that the Far East and Indian cities are not included in these statistics for this period.

What I was surprised to notice is the fact that North African cities such as Fez and Marrakech consistently figure among the top 5 cities of the Central World System between 1100-1500. The size of cities is indicative of a strong economic activity or/and a strong central authority. In any case, relatively very large cities are a sign of a major center of civilization. So, the presence of not one but 2 North African cities in the top 5 for this period would mean that North Africa was one of the most important centres of civilization in the world.

Perhaps it is my impression, but most of the discussion on this forum for that period has been focused on the Middle East, on Byzantium and Western Europe (and the Far East). I haven't seen much discussion on North Africa on this forum, which for conversations between would-be historians, would seem to me indicative that North Africa is very much underrated during the period 1100-1500. I haven't seem much importance placed on the region in world history books either.

Why do you think this is?

http://www.irows.ucr.edu/papers/irows5/irows5.htm


In 1100 AD the city size distribution of the Central world-system was extremely flat (SPI= -1.667), but not as flat as it was to become in 1150 AD. Cordova, which had been number one in 1000 had fallen off the list to a population 60,000. This was the consequence of the fall of the Umayyad caliphate and the subjection of Cordova to Seville. In 1100 the largest city was once again Constantinople but with a population of only 200,000. The number two position was shared by Marrakesh, Baghdad, and Cairo each with 150,000. The fifth city was Fez with 125,000.

Marrakesh and Fez and Meknes in Almoravid Morocco represent a new region of large urban centers which sprang up in the twelfth century. Cordova, the first city in 1000, had lost population and moved far down the list by 1100, but Seville gained and was now in sixth place. The total urban population continued to drop, now reaching its lowest level since 430 BC. From this low point it would slowly begin to rise again in the next century. The continued drop between 1000 and 1100 is evidence against the Gills/Frank contention that 1000/1050 to 1250/1300 period was expansionary. Several of the cities did grow, but the fall of Cordova and the declining population of Constantinople outweighed these. Wilkinson (1992b:86) says, "Henry IV is Holy Roman Emperor, Alexius I Comnenus Byzantine. The Seljuk Turk empire is beginning to dissolve."

In 1150 AD we find the city size distribution at the bottom of its descent into extreme flatness. Perhaps this should be called "two-city flatness" because the two largest cities were Merv and Constantinople with 200,000 each. Merv, in central Asia, was the capital of the Seljuk Turk empire from 1118 to 1157. The third city was Cairo with 175,000 followed by Fez and Marrakesh. Baghdad was now ninth. The urban population had begun to rise, but slowly. The remarkable thing about this lowest point in the city size distribution is that it occurred centuries before the great well-known "external shocks" -- the Mongol invasion and the Black Death.

In 1200 the city size distribution was still quite flat and the urban population had fallen a bit. It was still well below the level it had in 1000. The two largest cities in 1200 were Fez and Cairo with 200,000 each, followed by Constantinople, Palermo and Marrakesh. Saladin ended the Fatimid rule of Egypt in 1171 and established the Ayyubid dynasty.

In 1250 we find the city size distribution jumping up to a hierarchy with an SPI of -0.283. The largest city was Cairo with 300,000. Second was Fez with 200,000 and then Paris with 160,000. Then there was Marrakesh and Constantinople. Constantinople had been taken by the army of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and had declined from 150,000 to 100,000. The urban population was continuing to grow but it had still not yet reached its former level in 1000 AD.

In 1300 we find Cairo still in first place but with a larger population of 400,000.The Mamluks had taken over during the 1250s and successfully stopped the Mongol conquest of Syria and Palestine (Abu-Lughod, 1989:148). Paris was second and had grown to 228,000. Then we have Fez with 150,000, Tabriz with 125,000 and Venice with 110,000. The SPI (-0.04) continued its movement toward greater hierarchy, nearly reaching the rank size rule. The urban population had grown again. In 1350 the SPI had gotten just a bit less steep but was still close to the rank size rule. Cairo was still the largest city but had dropped to 350,000. The Black Death had struck in 1348. Paris was still second with 215,000, down slightly. Fez was third, then Sarai and the Tabriz. The urban population had declined a bit since 1300 but was still higher than it had been in 1250.

In 1400 the SPI had fallen a bit flatter to -0.295. Cairo was still the largest city and had grown to 360,000. Paris was still second and had grown to 280,000. Tabriz was now third with 150,000, up by 50,000 since 1350. Fourth place was held by Samarkand with 130,000, followed by Fez with 125,000. The urban population had grown. In 1450 Cairo was still first with 380,000. Tabriz was second with 200,000. Granada was third with 165,000, and Paris was now fourth with 150,000, down abruptly from 1400. The fifth was Bursa with 130,000. The SPI (-0.13) had become more hierarchical once again. The last period of contraction designated by Gills and Frank, from 1250/1300 to 1450 AD, contained two ups and two downs in total urban population and it ended with urban population being nearly what it was at the beginning.

In 1500 we find that the SPI (-0.26) has fallen a bit flatter again, but not by much. Cairo had grown to 400,000 and Tabriz to 250,000. Constantinople was third with 200,000 despite the fact that it had been depopulated when it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Paris was fourth with 185,000. Fifth place was held by Fez. Urban population had grown once again, nearly attaining the level it had in 1000 AD. In 1550 the SPI was once again nearly approximating the rank size rule at -0.026. Ottoman Constantinople was once again the largest city with a population of 660,000. Cairo was now second with 360,000, down 40,000 since 1500. Paris was growing again with 210,000. Naples was in fifth place with 209,000. Urban growth reached its highest point since 900 AD. In 1575 things had not changed much. The SPI was just a bit flatter. Constantinople had grown to 680,000 but Cairo had lost population to 275,000. Paris had grown just a bit, as had Naples. The Indic system was now united with Central and the fifth largest city was Agra (eventual home of the Taj Mahal) with 200,000. Total urban population had lost a bit since 1550.



Edited by Decebal
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  Quote Ikki Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 13-Feb-2006 at 17:08
Because is a mistake think that a country with great cities must be without doubt better than others; the city can be the result of a lot of things: is in a commercial way, is a political centre, a military centre... Can be an artificial city, without the support of a strong economy; the northern Europe was since 1000 and specially after 1200 AC more rich than the majority of the muslim world, if we think in concepts of economic development, the big cities was a question of time, as you see, France had Paris... and many others great cities around; how many cities of medium size had the north african empires? Very few and a total population skeletal, by 1250 only around 2 millions when the kingdom of France had 14 millions (19 if we count the actual frontiers of France) in a territory of half size than the Magreb.
It is a problem of many islam states, the "macrocefalia" is a spanish term that define a excesivilly great head, in history, when a capital is excesivilly great and damage to the body of the country.

The situation is that the only edge that the Magreb's empires had was the gold from Ghana and Mali, an external source, without that source this states was very weak, as you see when the portuguese take the gold in the XV century by sea. The empires of Almoravids and Almohads was powerful because the trade by Shara desert, their fanaticism and their good berbers troops, but without a strong economy they only could be local powers.

bye



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  Quote flyingzone Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 13-Feb-2006 at 21:32

Originally posted by Ikki

... as you see, France had Paris... and many others great cities around; how many cities of medium size had the north african empires? Very few and a total population skeletal, by 1250 only around 2 millions when the kingdom of France had 14 millions (19 if we count the actual frontiers of France) in a territory of half size than the Magreb.
It is a problem of many islam states, the "macrocefalia" is a spanish term that define a excesivilly great head, in history, when a capital is excesivilly great and damage to the body of the country.

Since I am really NOT an expert on medieval European history, I may be showing total ignorance here. If I do, please kindly explain things to me and feel free to correct me.

I am quite skeptical about the statement about France having Paris and many other cities of medium size whereas the North African empires only having one important city. I think for centuries (and to a certain extent even in modern France), Paris was France's alpha-city. Its dominance in French politics, culture, economy, and society was so complete that, while it may not or should not be likened to the "microefalia" of the Islam states, it was the very centre of the French civilization. I think if one compares the population of Paris with those of other French cities, one might be able to find the same disproportionate dominance of one alpha city at the expense of others that was in existence in the North African empires.

But I am not fundamentally arguing against Ikki's point. Unquestionably. the French kingdom appeared to be much stronger and wealthier than the North African empires whose populations were much smaller and whose economic bases appeared to be much weaker. However, the problems of "small population" and "weak economic base" were not unique to these North African empires. The Scandinavian kingdoms of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark had the same problem of a small population and a weak economy, but none of them could boast having cities that remotely resembled Fez and Marrakech in terms of population and maybe even wealth and prosperity. 

So the negligence of the importance of these North African cities in the "Medieval Central World System" may indeed be some sort of historical oversight as a result of Eurocentrism.   

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  Quote Constantine XI Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 13-Feb-2006 at 22:03
Perhaps North Africa is not really underrated. We rate civilisations as much for the cultural advances, military might, exploration and wealth as we do for their population size. Northern Africa was not the rich agricultural bread basket it was in Roman times, the old antique fertility had been sapped away by centuries of fighting by Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Bebers, Moors and Arabs. So this deprived them of a strong agricultural basis (very important in the medieval world) and left the North Africans confined to larger cities which benefitted from East-West and Sub Saharan trade. As a result their political and military influence was limited, they confined their operations to raiding the Med. and intervening in Iberia every now and then.
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  Quote Decebal Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 14-Feb-2006 at 13:12

A few points to be made:

Ikki: I can see what you're saying about the cities of the Maghreb perhaps being inflated at the expesne of the state. I think that the comparison with France is very unfair though, because France has much larger swaths of good agricultural land than the Maghreb. Also, France in medieval times was the largest state by far in terms of population. At the same time that France had 14 million people, England had about 3 million. A huge country like Poland had only about 2.5 million around 1200.
Also, Northern Europe was definitely not much richer than the muslim world. If you read Braudel's Civilization and Capitalism, you'll see that for all the impressive trade of the Hanseatic league or the Flemish cities, it was only a small fraction of the trade done by Italian cities like Venice, Genoa, Amalfi and Pisa. These cities did most of their trade with the muslim world, so the muslim world was very rich. As late as the 16th century, Portuguese merchants estimated that the trade in the Indian Ocean was many times larger than the trade done by Europeans. Northern Europe may have gotten more and more rich, but it only surpassed the Muslim world after the 16th century.  Finally, there were a lot of other medium size cities in the Maghreb that were larger than or equivalent with their European counterparts. Besides Fez and Marrakech, there was Tangier, Tlemcen, Algiers, Oran, Rabat, Tunis, Meknes... It took the North African region a long time to fall behind Europe. Just look at the disaster the Portuguese suffered in 1580 in Morocco.

Constantine: While North Africa was the breadbasket of Rome, it was specifically the region around Carthage (Tunisia) that was so, Fez and Marrakech are in Morocco, which was marginal in Roman times. Even so, you're right to point out that the agriculture basis was lacking. These cities had gotten large and rich by trade; they probably couldn't have fed their population without trade. Thus, they deserve a comparison with cities with a poor agricultural base but a strong commercial role such as Genoa, Amalfi, Lubeck or Venice. They were larger than these respective cities; perhaps because they also served as centers of large empires. But it still brings up the point that these were important centers.

My whole initial post about the large size of urban centers during that period, is that in the pre-industrial world, at least according to economic historians, a large city size is indicative of either intense commercial activity and/or the presence of a strong centralized state. This would indicate that either the North African cities were wealthier than we normally think of them, or that they were the centers of strong centralized states. Constantine, in your post, you say that: "We rate civilisations as much for the cultural advances, military might, exploration and wealth". The large city size would indicate wealth and/or military might(resulting from a strong state). You want exploration? The greatest explorer of the medieval era, Ibn Battuta, was from Tangier. If you look on a map, you'll actually find that the Almoravid and Almohad empires were very large... Anyway, in some ways I would say that Constantine  and Ikki's posts are representative of North Africa's reputation among historians and would-be historians, and in fact they strengthen my point, that perhaps North Africa's role in history may have gone unrecognized.

I would say that North Africa together with Muslim Spain constituted in medieval times a second pole of islamic civilization, rival with the one centered on Cairo and Baghdad. I think it is the very limited clout of the Maghreb countries in the world today, and the relative unappreciation of Spain for its muslim period, that makes this pole of civlization be somewhat underrated.



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  Quote Constantine XI Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 14-Feb-2006 at 17:53

I think what I was trying to say was that historians have a tendency to rate empires, cities and nations not only by their size but by what they are actually capable of achieving militarily. The North African cities enjoyed significant trade and were able to absorb advances from all around the Med. The weak agricultural basis of North Africa during the medieval period led this area to be dependent on two sources of sustainance: trade and piracy. Because of this the North African powers proved to be capable seafarers, able to raid the Med and even capture islands like Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia. However, they were not able to press expansion further inland because they did not have the large provincial population like France, Byzantium or Egypt. Even the incursion of Yusuf into Spain cannot really be considered the workings of the North African cities, it was an invasion comprised of fundamentalist Saharan desert dwellers.

North Africa is considered less important than the Eastern pole of the Islamic world simply because it lacked the resources to have as much of an impact. The Islamic states in Egypt, Iraq and Persia had access to vast wealth, large populations, a strong agricultural sector and a wealth of written resources to advance their civilization. The North Africans were further away from the main routes of trade, did not have the military manpower of the Turks of Egyptians and ultimately were not able to have the impressive and decisive impact on the Westrn world at large that their eastern contemporaries were. Ultimately Spain was conquered by the Christians, North Africa was a piracy problem, the Western sector of the Islamic world simply could not compare to the Eastern sector.

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  Quote Mila Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 14-Feb-2006 at 17:59
Something about these population numbers makes me sceptical. Sarajevo, during this era, was only a few tens of thousands shy of these numbers and you never hear of it being mentioned as a powerful city by anyone outside of the Ottoman Empire. It was the Empire's second largest city after Istanbul for a time.



Novi Pazar was supposedly larger than Sarajevo at one point, and you NEVER hear of it being mentioned. We're talking 100-160,000 in the 16/17th centuries... so surely there must've been many large cities of this size?


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  Quote Decebal Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15-Feb-2006 at 12:07

Constantine, I am aware of the normal interpretation of historians in regards to how they rate civilizations. What I am saying though, is that the large size of cities in the Maghreb may be not an actual cause but a symptom of of the importance of this area. Perhaps the orthodox interpretation of the pole of Maghreb and Muslim Spain being of secondary or even marginal importance in World history is somewhat misguided.

How much do we actually know about the impact that these regions had on European and World history? How much knowledge filtered from the muslim world to Europe via this region rather than from the Eastern region through Constantinople and the Balkans? How much impact did the Reconquista in Spain have on the beginning of the Renaissance? Many more historical studies have been done on England or the Hanseatic league during this period (1100-1500); but I am aware of very few on North Africa, even though North Africa was easily the equal of these two regions during this time. The main reason for that, I think, was because the European regions that I mentioned had the environmental resources and geographic location to play a much larger role at a later time in World history. However, North Africa was to play a marginal role after the 16th century, so it has been dismissed as marginal before that. Is it possible that the cultural and economic achievements of this region have either not been studied enough or simply not made public enough in the academia? Before viewing these statistics I had the same impression as you; but now I'm starting to question the traditional interpretation of the role of this region during that period. I think that may be especially true during the 13th century, when many regions suffered a great deal of devastation at the hands of the Mongols, while North Africa was unaffected.

A while ago, I read a biography of Ibn Battuta, the great explorer of the early 14th century. Apparently at the end of his life, when asked about who he thought were the greatest monarchs in the world, he responded the Emperor of China, the Sultan of Delhi, the Khan of the Golden Horde, the Emperor of Byzantium, the Sultan of Egypt, the Il-Khan of Persia and the Marinid Sultan which controlled his native Morocco. Incidentally he had met all of them, and the sultan of Mali to boot. I always took the inclusion of the Marinid sultan alongside the other great monarchs as simply patriotism or flattery, but now I'm starting to wonder whether there wasn't a grain of truth in it.


Mila, we're talking about the period 1100-1500. After 1500, there were many cities that were very large. As you can see in the quote below, in the 16th century we're talking about cities greater than 210,000 and in the 17th century, about cities greater than 350,000. In this period, a city of 60,000 like Sarajevo would not have been unusual. In 1100, however, such a city would have been considered quite large.


In 1500 we find that the SPI (-0.26) has fallen a bit flatter again, but not by much. Cairo had grown to 400,000 and Tabriz to 250,000. Constantinople was third with 200,000 despite the fact that it had been depopulated when it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Paris was fourth with 185,000. Fifth place was held by Fez. Urban population had grown once again, nearly attaining the level it had in 1000 AD. In 1550 the SPI was once again nearly approximating the rank size rule at -0.026. Ottoman Constantinople was once again the largest city with a population of 660,000. Cairo was now second with 360,000, down 40,000 since 1500. Paris was growing again with 210,000. Naples was in fifth place with 209,000. Urban growth reached its highest point since 900 AD. In 1575 things had not changed much. The SPI was just a bit flatter. Constantinople had grown to 680,000 but Cairo had lost population to 275,000. Paris had grown just a bit, as had Naples. The Indic system was now united with Central and the fifth largest city was Agra (eventual home of the Taj Mahal) with 200,000. Total urban population had lost a bit since 1550.

In 1600 Constantinople was at 700,000. The second largest city was Agra with 500,000. Paris was still third with 245,000. Naples was fourth with 224,000. And Cairo had dropped to fifth with 200,000. The SPI had become a bit more flat and was headed toward even more flatness. The urban population had grown rapidly and was now into its permanent geometric ascent. In 1650 Constantinople was still first but it had not grown since 1600. Agra was gone. Paris was second with 455,000, up abruptly in fifty years. London was third with 410,000. In 1600 it had a population of 187,000. Fourth place was held by Lahore with 360,000 and fifth was Isfahan with 350,000. The SPI (-0.6150) had dropped toward flatness, but was on its way to much greater flatness.


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  Quote Kalevipoeg Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15-Feb-2006 at 13:18
After reading this topic and combining it with my overall opinion of the area of the time i support the idea that Northern-African cities had more indirect impact on world history than the usual intellectual allows himself to think. They were large economical centers that affected all of the known world in that manner, especially the Eastern part of the msulim world and EUrope of the time.
But still the pure number of a town population means little. You have thousands of people coming to Rio Dejaneiro for example but most of them end up living in ghettos without any economical support that the city would be capable to offer them. A city could have basically been, and still be a place where the poor dwindle on in mass, showing not the economical potential of a city.

But still i faovur the fact of the greater effect on world history by North-African centers of power. The only thing is that it is difficult to speculate on how important they were in reality. It might remain to be one of these facts where you really can't bring out solid facts.
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  Quote Decebal Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15-Feb-2006 at 14:07

I think it is a mistake to compare the large cities of today to those before the technological revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. The very large cities in the developing world have formed largely as a result of the inability of the small farmers to compete with the large-scale industrial farms; thus there is a very strong "push" factor in the emigration from rural to urban areas. Also, in modern times, such cities have large amount of manufacturing (and also commercial) industries, which demand lots of labor and provide a "pull" factor for the peasants to abandon their farms. Such a situation did not exist in medieval times. The agricultural techniques remained steady through this period, and the primary economic activities in cities were commercial and in some instances governmental. Sure, any medieval city had its underclass of beggars, thieves and prostitutes, but they were not comparable as a proportion of the city's population to the proportion that poor displaced farmers (and their descendants) have in modern developing cities such as Rio de Janeiro or Bombay. In medieval times, a city was not large unless there was enough commercial activity, or a government employing lots of people. A "pull" factor existed, that's for sure, but in the absence of the "push" factor, medieval cities did not baloon like Bombay or Rio has in the present day. 

This is evidenced by the fact that even in very large empires such as the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, Han and Tang China or Gupta India, cities did not pass 1 million, and very seldom 500 thousand. Note that those empires I mentioned did have populations comparable with many countries today (50 million).  City population sizes over a million would have been entirely possible in ancient times, even given the agricultural techniques of the time. According to Fernand Braudel, in medieval France, a town of 3000 would need a rural area of 170 square kilometers to sustain it (including farms, pastures and forests). Thus, a city of 3 million would need 170,000; which corresponds roughly to an area with a radius of 210 km, or less than a week travel by foot (and much less by water). And yet, we don't have any example of such a city before the 19th century. Why? at least partly because of the absence of the push factors to get the farmers to move off the land and in the cities.



Edited by Decebal
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  Quote Kalevipoeg Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15-Feb-2006 at 16:37
Yes, i might have brought a wrong parallel here.

So one could say that Medieval cities were much more functional units of production then modern ones, with less unemployed class who just "dwindled" there, as i put it before?
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  Quote Mila Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15-Feb-2006 at 16:40
Decebal - Wow, I don't usually completely misread things. Thanks!
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  Quote Constantine XI Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15-Feb-2006 at 21:52

Having given some more thought to this, it would seem wise to question why the cities in North Africa always featured as being among the most populous in medieval times. Firstly, they were well buffered against most attacks. They had little to fear from enemies in the east, while their Christian foes were normally kept too occupied in Spain to pose much of a threat to them. Consequently, the cities would not have endured sack and their population would remain more stable and be encouraged to grow. This was also the case with Constantinople apart from two occasions, while I don't recall Cairo being sacked during this period. The presence of buffers would have helped North African cities develop.

These cities were much more dependent upon trade and piracy, as I mentioned. Nations more dependent on the sea can be expected to form into larger cities rather than spreading out to practice intensive agriculture. Nations dependent on the sea such as Venice and Genoa had a particularly urban focus as to how their society was organised. Perhaps the cities of North Africa were likewise organised.

North Africa certainly acted as a route via which the West gained access to technology from the East. Byzantium enjoyed much friendlier relations with the Western Islamic world than the Eastern one on their doorstep, although contact between Western Islamic civilisation and Byzantium was obviously a good deal more sporadic. But when Western Christendom did intercept technology from the east it was often in Spain that it was found. North Africa played a role in transmitting technology and intellectual works to Muslim Spain, but it was in the mixed and competitive environment of Iberia itself that the West actually encountered and made use of such resources. They did not directly gain it from North Africa anymore than they directly had access to it from Egypt. North Africa was a stepping stone of knowledge from east to west. Intellectually they were a source for transmission of information rather than production of it, though certainly they did make intellectual contributions.

I see North Africa as an area made rich from trade and piracy, whose cities enjoyed peace thanks to the presence of friendly buffers in Spain and the Sahara and who would have had about the same intellectual exposure as Spain. North Africa seems to have enjoyed the safety, wealth and cultural exposure needed to grow large cities, but even in its own time was only capable of quite limited political and military power.

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