Decline of the Hafsid Dynasty Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

After enjoying several centuries of autonomy, the Ḥafṣid state of Tunis found itself drawn unavoidably into the conflict between Christian Europe and the Islamic forces of the Ottomans and the Barbary corsairs. Caught between the two sides, Tunis changed hands and allegiances and was eventually conquered by the Ottoman Empire.

Summary of Event

The name taken by the Ḥafṣid Dynasty derives not from the founder of the independent Barbary state of Tunis Tunis , but from a Tunisian governor’s father, Abū Ḥafṣ ՙUmar. In fact, this area of the Barbary Coast had enjoyed many periods of autonomy from the presumed central Islamic authority of the Caliph. During the period of the ՙAbbasīd Caliphate in Baghdad, several very important semi-independent dynasties, including the Aghlabids (800-909) and the Fāṭimids (909-1171), had left their mark on the region. These dynasties did not govern from the northern city of Tunis but either remained in the traditional inland Islamic capital of al-Qayrawān (Kairouan) or, in the case of the Fāṭimids, founded a new coastal capital, Mahdia. The rise of the city of Tunis began when the entire region of Tunis came under the control of the Islamic reformist Almohad Dynasty of Morocco in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Religion;Africa Ḥafṣid Dynasty[Hafsid Dynasty] Süleyman the Magnificent Charles V (1500-1558) Barbarossa Selim I Barbarossa ՙArūj Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor) Selim II

Just as control of Ifriqiya from the Middle East had proved unworkable, control from the Almohad capital at Marrakech was ineffective. Therefore, in the first years of the thirteenth century, the Almohads appointed Abdul Wahid, son of Abū Ḥafṣ ՙUmar, a member of the Almohad inner circle, to serve as governor of Ifriqiya. Upon his death in 1221, local supporters of Abdul Wahid tried to designate his son as successor. After a period of confusion, another appointee arrived from Marrakech in 1228. During his long reign (1228-1249), Abū Zakarīyyā՚ Yaḥyā laid the foundations of an autonomous state. His choice of the name Ḥafṣid shows that he recognized at least the symbolic importance of ties to his Almohad origins.

In this early period, there still were a number of Muslim entities in Spain struggling against the advancing Reconquista. Reconquista The Muslim Naṣrid Dynasty Naṣrid Dynasty[Nasrid Dynasty] in Granada turned to Abū Zakarīyyā՚ for possible military support against Christian advances. He did help the Muslim enclave of Valencia by sending ships, but when Aragon’s Christians took the coastal city, Ḥafṣid aid was removed.

During the reign of Abū Zakarīyyā՚’s son Al Mustanṣir (r. 1249-1277), a number of trade agreements were signed with the Italian city-states of Venice, Pisa, and Genoa, and an increasingly contradictory situation began to take form. Even while subjects of the Christian city-states were taking advantage of good trade relations with the Ḥafṣids, Pope Innocent I was urging Christian forces to mount a formal crusade in North Africa. To complicate matters further, Rome discovered that the Ḥafṣid state had recruited a number of Catalonian and Aragonese soldiers to serve Tunis’s Muslim ruler.

It is difficult to say just when Ḥafṣid success in managing the administration of Ifriqiya’s traditional hinterland and coastal provinces (including rich oasis areas like Gafsa and Gabès, both important as termini for trans-Saharan caravan trade) combined with Mediterranean trade to enable the Ḥafṣids to claim material and cultural leadership of the central coast area of North Africa. One accomplishment that raised Ifriqiya’s stature in the eyes of less developed areas was the regime’s maintenance of regional communication systems. Roads between the capital and key towns like Sousse, Monastir, and Sfax were more secure than they had been for many generations.

In stages, Tunis began to supplant al-Qayrawān as the center of Islamic learning in Ifriqiya, especially in matters connected with the Malikite branch of Islamic law. One factor contributing to Tunis’s importance as a cosmopolitan center was the arrival, after the fall of Naṣrid Granada in 1492, of Andalusian immigrants from key areas of Spain. In particular, the growth of the Zaytuna mosque and madrasa (Islamic school) complex drew scholars from throughout the Islamic world to what was quickly becoming a rich cultural forum under Ḥafṣid sponsorship. Not only religious scholars but also charitable social institutions, including a major hospital complex, found fertile ground offered to them by the Ḥafṣid rulers. Although some of the Ḥafṣids’ main accomplishments in the material sphere would not survive into the post-Ḥafṣid period of the late sixteenth century, these social and scholarly symbols of the cultural ascendancy of Tunis did survive into the modern era.

The Ḥafṣids came to play a pronounced role as political intermediaries between the expanding Islamic Ottoman Empire and Christian Europe in the sixteenth century. The Ottomans’ 1517 expansion into the new Arabic-speaking provinces of Syria, Egypt, and the Hijaz under Sultan Selim I was mainly the result of Selim’s eastern campaign against his Islamic rivals, such as the Mamlūk sultanate in Cairo. Selim did not emphasize either the need to defeat Christianity or the political and economic desirability of expansion into the western basin of the Mediterranean. It was Selim’s successor, Süleyman the Magnificent, who embraced both those goals.

Even before Süleyman mounted the Ottoman throne in 1520, the activities of renegade Muslim privateers, known among Westerners as Barbary corsairs, were having an impact on North Africa’s coasts and on the Ḥafṣid area in particular. Step by step, major corsairs like Barbarossa and his brother ՙArūj gained military strength and even territory along the Barbary coast. Privateers;Barbary Barbarossa first approached the Ḥafṣids around 1504, successfully negotiating permission to use Tunis’s port of La Goulette as a base of operations. It was arguably this agreement that signaled the beginning of the Ḥafṣids’ decline, since it led both Christian Spain and the Muslim Turks to take notice of the vital strategic importance of Ifriqiya. The corsairs’ success eventually attracted Süleyman’s attention and caused Istanbul to focus on the Ḥafṣid realm as a potential key to rich acquisitions in southern Italy and even further to the west, along the coasts of France and Spain.

The Ḥafṣids could not predict the Ottoman reaction to their agreement with Barbarossa and ՙArūj. However, the Ḥafṣid sultan soon came to fear the European repercussions of corsair attacks being launched from a Ḥafṣid port. Tunis stood not only to suffer militarily from Christian counterstrikes on its ports, but also to lose the valued European trade relations it had built up over many generations. Perhaps it was these possible consequences that prompted Sultan Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan in 1510 to grant a different safe haven to Barbarossa on the island of Jerba, much farther south, in the direction of Tripolitania. The corsairs only redoubled their anti-Christian activities, however, menacing Spanish enclaves as far away as the port of Bejaïa in 1513.

After ascending the thrones of Spain (1516) and the Holy Roman Empire (1519), Charles V began to respond to these attacks by the Barbary corsairs. The Ḥafṣids became even more concerned at the seeming inevitability with which they saw themselves being dragged into a war with Spain, and they took drastic measures to prevent such a war. The Muslim Ḥafṣid Dynasty not only gave up its tacit support of the corsairs’ activities but also entered into an alliance with the Christian forces of the Holy Roman Emperor.

It was this politically expedient but ideologically indefensible alliance that brought about the final stages of Ḥafṣid rule in Tunis. As Süleyman’s Ottoman forces advanced toward the western basin of the Mediterranean, the presence of what was essentially a Muslim protégé of the Christian enemy at the narrowest point between Africa and Europe was bound to become intolerable. Süleyman formalized the alliance between himself and Barbarossa, making the latter an admiral, absorbing his corsair fleet into the Ottoman navy, and giving Barbarossa joint command of the Ottoman and corsair ships. In 1534, Barbarossa led a successful attack against the Ḥafṣids, driving them from power and taking control of Tunis. Charles struck back the following year, however: He retook Tunis and restored the Ḥafṣid sultan to power.

Just at the end of Süleyman’s rule, in 1565, the Turks made a bid to occupy the strategic island of Malta but failed, arguably because no help was forthcoming from Tunis. Thus, after Süleyman’s death in 1566, his successor, Selim II (who lost the Battle of Lepanto in 1571), determined that the Ḥafṣids would have to be dethroned. This was accomplished without any significant struggle, perhaps because the Christian powers of the time realized that their Ḥafṣid alliance had become more of a liability than an advantage.


The Ḥafṣid phenomenon illustrates the particular role played throughout Islamic history by the relatively rich agricultural region and culturally active subzone of North Africa known as Ifriqiya. Less than 100 miles (160 kilometers) from Sicily, the region controlled by the Ḥafṣids was seen by Europe and the Ottomans alike as too important to leave in the hands of a self-interested and unpredictable dynasty.

Although its strategic location ultimately made it the target of much larger imperial rivals in the sixteenth century, the dynasty is remembered less for its political or military importance than for the flourishing of architecture, arts, and letters under local dynastic sponsorship.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abun-Nasr, Jamil. A History of the Maghrib. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. This general history places the Ḥafṣids in the larger framework of North African events well before the sixteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clancy-Smith, Julia. North Africa, Islam, and the Mediterranean. London: Cass, 2001. This study covers not only North African political history but also broader cultural issues in the entire Mediterranean region.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodwin, Jason. Lords of the Horizons: The Ottomans. New York: Holt, 1999. Deals with the growth of Ottoman power and formation of Balkan Christian, Middle Eastern, and North African Islamic provinces.

1463-1479: Ottoman-Venetian War

May, 1485-Apr. 13, 1517: Mamlūk-Ottoman Wars

16th century: Trans-Saharan Trade Enriches Akan Kingdoms

1512-1520: Reign of Selim I

Jan. 23, 1516: Charles I Ascends the Throne of Spain

June 28, 1519: Charles V Is Elected Holy Roman Emperor

1520-1566: Reign of Süleyman

June 28, 1522-Dec. 27, 1522: Siege and Fall of Rhodes

1529-1574: North Africa Recognizes Ottoman Suzerainty

Sept. 27-28, 1538: Battle of Préveza

Oct. 20-27, 1541: Holy Roman Empire Attacks Ottomans in Algiers

1566-1574: Reign of Selim II

Oct. 7, 1571: Battle of Lepanto

Categories: History