Religion and colonisation: Part Two


CHRISTIANITY gained its foothold in Africa in the 1st Century, at Alexandria in Egypt, then spread to north-west Africa.  

With the Edict of Milan proclaimed by Emperor Constantine, which granted religious tolerance, all of Roman North Africa became Christian by 313.  

By the beginning of the 4th Century, Christianity was a growing mystic religion attracting converts from diverse social levels in the cities of the Roman world.  

Its doctrine was enriched through the cultural interaction with the Greco-Roman world, until it was radically transformed by Constantine the Great who had seen a sign in the heavens foretelling his victory over his principal rival Maxentius, at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312. 

After his victory, Constantine became the principal patron of Christianity.  

His imperial sanction of Christianity transformed its status and nature forever when he issued the Edict of Milan in 313.

In 330, Emperor Constantine moved the seat of the empire to Constantinople — a city he founded as a second Rome on the site of Byzantium, strategically located on the trade routes between Europe and Asia and between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.  

He introduced important changes into the empire’s military, monetary, civil and religious institutions.  

By the end of the 4th Century, Christianity became the official religion of Rome.

The Church, within the Roman Empire, was organised under metropolitan Sees; five rose to prominence.

Of these, Rome was in the west (Western Roman Empire) while Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria were in the east (Eastern Roman Empire).   

Thus, Rome became Christian and Christianity took on the aura of imperial Rome.

From its foundation in the 4th Century to the early 13th Century, Constantinople was the largest and wealthiest city in Europe.  

It was instrumental in the advancement of Christianity during Roman and Byzantine times as the home of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and as the guardian of Christendom’s holiest relics, such as the Crown of Thorns and the True Cross.  

In the centuries of state-sponsored Christianity that followed, pagans and ‘heretical’ Christians were routinely persecuted by the empire well into the Middle Ages.

The fall of Constantinople, in 1453, to the Ottoman Turks, who made it their capital, was a blow to Christendom and the established commercial relations linking with the east.  

As the most powerful economic, cultural and military force in Europe, Constantinople and its empire was a magnet for the Islamic onslaught; thus leaving northern and western Europe largely untouched by Islam’s expansion. 

From mid-7th Century, following an armistice between the Rashidun Caliphate and the Kingdom of Makuria, the Arab slave trade saw Muslim Arabs enslave Africans being transported along with Asians and Europeans across the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and Sahara Desert.

The Umayyad Caliphate had conquered all of North Africa by 711 and by the 10th Century, the majority of the North African population was Muslim. 

The unity that was brought about by the Islamic conquest of North Africa and the expansion of Islamic culture came to an end by the 9th Century as conflicts arose on who should be the successor of the Prophet.

During the 8th and 9th Centuries, numerous Kharijite kingdoms, emerged and fell as they asserted their independence from Baghdad.  

In the early 10th Century, Shi’ite groups from Syria broke away from Baghdad and, claiming descent from Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah, founded the Fatimah Dynasty in the Maghreb. By 950, they had conquered all of the Maghreb and, by 969, all of Egypt. 

The Almoravid Dynasty was the result of a movement that was founded in present day Mauritania and Western Sahara in an attempt to bring about a purer form of Islam among the Sanhaja Berbers, who, like the Soninke, practised an indigenous religion alongside Islam.

By the 1040s, all of the Lamtuna Sanhaja, who were dominated by both their southern and northern neighbours, were converted to the Almoravid movement. 

The empire, created by the Almoravids, extended from the Sahel to the Mediterranean Ocean.  

In 1087, a breakdown of unity occurred in the south, as well as an increase in military dissension. 

This caused the re-expansion of the Soninke people. 

Around 1050, a large-scale movement of Arab nomads out of the Arabian Peninsula took place through to the 13th Century, when a quarter of a million Bedouins from Egypt moved into the Maghreb.  

This movement spread the use of the Arabic language and accelerated the decline of the Berber languages and the ‘Arabisation’ of North Africa.  

In 1140, a jihad was declared on the Almoravids, who were charged with decadence and corruption.  

Their overthrow resulted in the founding of the Almohad Empire. 

The northern Berbers united against the Almoravids.  

During this period, the Maghreb became Islamic and witnessed the spread of literacy, the development of algebra and the use of the number ‘zero’ and the decimals.  

By the 13th Century, the Almohad states had split into three rival states. 

Muslim states on the Iberian Peninsula were mostly overrun by the Christian kingdoms of Castile, Aragon and Portugal. 

Around 1415, Portugal engaged in a ‘reconquista’ (reconquering) of North Africa by capturing Ceuta. 

Portugal and Spain both acquired other ports on the North African coast in later centuries; namely Tangiers, Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis, which put them in direct competition with the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman Empire re-seized the ports using Turkish pirates, who used the ports for raiding Christian ships, a major source of income for the coastal towns.   

Although North Africa was under the jurisdiction of the Ottoman Empire, only the coastal towns were fully under its control.  

Its capital, Tripoli, which benefitted from trade with Borno, traded horses, firearms and armour with the sultans of the Bornu Empire for slaves. Meanwhile, Pope Nicholas V, who, like other popes, exerted immense political power, issued Papal Bull Dum Diveras of 1452, which opened continents to exploration and colonisation by European kings and missionaries, namely Portugal and Spain.  

In 1492, Spain defeated the Muslims in the Emirate of Granada, effectively ending eight centuries of Muslim domination in southern Iberia.

In the 16th Century, Morocco was conquered and united by the Saadis, an Arab nomad tribe that claimed they descended from Muhammad’s daughter.  

They effectively barred the Ottoman Empire from reaching the Atlantic and expelled Portugal from Morocco’s western coast. In 1591, Morocco invaded Songhay, to control the gold trade which had been diverted to the western coast of Africa for European ships and to Tunis in the east.  

In the 17th Century, Morocco’s hold on Songhay weakened 

In 1603, the Moroccan Kingdom split into the two sultanates of Fes and Marrakesh, but later reunited.  

The unity was strengthened by importing slaves from the Sudan to build up the military. 

The birth of Islam opposite Somalia’s Red Sea coast meant that Somali merchants and sailors living on the Arabian Peninsula gradually came under the influence of the new religion through their converted Arab Muslim trading partners. 

With the migration of Muslim families from the Islamic world to Somalia in the early centuries of Islam, and the peaceful conversion of the Somali population in the following centuries, the ancient city-states eventually transformed into Islamic states.  

The city of Mogadishu came to be known as the ‘City of Islam’, which, for several centuries, controlled the East African gold trade.

All this time, the church survived, even in the Muslim world. The challenge presented by the Muslims helped to solidify the religious identity of eastern Christians even as it gradually weakened the Eastern Roman Empire. 

Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant. She is a published author in her field.  

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