A Medieval Boom in the North-west Sahara

Evolving Oasis Landscapes in the Wadi Draa, Morocco (c.700–1500 AD)


  • Corisande Fenwick University College London
  • Martin Sterry University of Leicester
  • David J. Mattingly University of Leicester
  • Louise Rayne Newcastle University
  • Youssef Bokbot Institut National des Sciences de l’Archéologie et du Patrimoine, Morocco




Medieval, Sahara, Islamic North Africa, Landscape archaeology, Oasis agriculture, Morocco


Modern scholarship on the medieval Sahara has focused on a handful of famous entrepôt sites that have their origins in the 8th century or later, and as a result we still understand very poorly the nature and extent of Saharan oasis settlement and agriculture in the golden age of Saharan trade. This article presents the first securely dated chronology for oasis development in the north-west Sahara based on three seasons of archaeological survey and a comprehensive radiocarbon dating programme in the Wadi Draa, Morocco. The Draa Valley contains some of the largest, most populous and most productive oases in the Sahara, as well as serving as an important travel corridor for trading caravans coming from West Africa to access the Atlas passes and reach Marrakech. Focusing on evidence from a large zone of abandoned oases on the Kasr Bounou Plain, this article demonstrates that while oasis agriculture and settlement was taking place between the 4th–8th centuries—well before the Muslim conquest of Morocco—there was a significant increase in settlement and agricultural exploitation from the 9th century. This phenomenon is marked by the appearance of substantial mudbrick settlements, along with irrigation and field systems, and is coterminous with the development of the medieval trading entrepôt of Sijilmasa. A settlement boom and significant investment in irrigated oasis agriculture occurred between the 11th and 13th centuries, contemporary with Almoravid and Almohad rule of the Draa, followed by a retraction and abandonment of much of the oasis by the 16th century. The new evidence from the Draa challenges the long-held belief that sedentarization and irrigated oasis agriculture were unique to the medieval period in the north-west Sahara.



Author Biographies

Corisande Fenwick, University College London

Corisande Fenwick is Associate Professor in Mediterranean Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. She is the author of Early Islamic North Africa and is co-I of the OasCiv Project. She is also PI of the ERC-funded EVERYDAYISLAM Project.

Martin Sterry, University of Leicester

Martin Sterry is Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester. He is the co-editor of Urbanisation and State Formation in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond and is co-I of the Middle Draa and OasCiv Projects.

David J. Mattingly, University of Leicester

David Mattingly is Professor of Roman Archaeology at the School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester. He is the series editor of the four-volume Trans-Saharan Archaeology series and is co-PI of the Middle Draa and OasCiv Projects.

Louise Rayne, Newcastle University

Louise Rayne is NUAcT Research Fellow in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Newcastle University and is currently researching water management in Saharan oases.

Youssef Bokbot, Institut National des Sciences de l’Archéologie et du Patrimoine, Morocco

Youssef Bokbot is Professor in the Department of Prehistory at the Institut National des Sciences de l’Archéologie et du Patrimoine, Morocco and the co-PI of the Middle Draa and OasCiv Projects.


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How to Cite

Fenwick, C. ., Sterry, M. ., Mattingly, D. J. ., Rayne, L. ., & Bokbot, Y. . (2022). A Medieval Boom in the North-west Sahara: Evolving Oasis Landscapes in the Wadi Draa, Morocco (c.700–1500 AD). Journal of Islamic Archaeology, 8(2), 139–165. https://doi.org/10.1558/jia.20440