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UNESCO — General History of Africa
Volume II. Ancient civilizations of Africa

Djibril Tamsir Niane, editor, 1984, 752 pp.

Unesco General History of Africa Volume 2

Djibril Tamsir Niane
pages 1-14

The present volume covers the history of Africa from the twelfth to the sixteenth century. The more traditional method of dividing the period under consideration into smaller time units seems scarcely relevant here: how can one date or one century have the same importance for a whole continent? In fact, one is led to ask whether it is really meaningful to treat the history of Africa in terms of such a period of time.
Although the problem of subdivision remains, the proposed period does in fact present a certain unity, and from more than one point of view it constitutes a crucial phase in the historical evolution of the continent as a whole. Indeed it was a very special period, in which Africa developed its original culture and assimilated outside influences while retaining its own individuality. In the preceding volume, drawing on Arabic texts, Africa was shown to emerge from obscurity with the Muslim discovery of the rich Sudan to the south of the Sahara; this area was dominated by the Soninke, whose king, or Kaya Maghan, controlled all the western regions of the Sudan from the Niger Bend to the Senegal estuary. This vast empire, described in all its glory by al-Bakrii, was not the only large political grouping of the time. Contemporary with it were the Songhay empire and further east, as far as Lake Chad, the countries and kingdoms of Kanem-Bornu.
Written records concerning Africa south of the Sahara become more abundant after the end of the eleventh century, and especially from the end of the thirteenth to the end of the fourteenth century. From the middle of the fifteenth century we are able to fill the gap with the aid of Portuguese sources, which tell us a good deal about the thenflourishing coastal kingdoms of West Africa — further proof that the absence of written records means virtually nothing. The Gulf of Guinea and the Congo estuary were great centres of civilization. Several major themes characterize the history of this period.
First, there was the triumph of Islam over a large part of the continent, propagated both by soldiers and by merchants. The Muslims proved to be excellent traders and came to dominate the commercial world, helping to foster progress in science, philosophy and technology wherever they settled. As far as Africa is concerned, the essential fact is that Africa imparted its own stamp on Islam both in the north and in the vast Sudan region south of the Sahara. We may recall that in the eleventh century the Almoravids, setting out from the Senegal estuary with armies which included large forces of Negroes from Takruur, conquered parts of the Maghrib and of the Iberian peninsula and restored sunna, a strict Muslim orthodoxy, throughout western Islam.
Between 1050 and 1080 the Almoravids warred against the Ghana empire, which finally collapsed in 1076. There then began a sombre period of struggle for supremacy amongst the provinces of the empire. The year 1076 is an important date in the history both of the Maghrib and the Sudan, but at the time the fall of Koumbi Saaleh (the capital of Ghana) passed almost unnoticed because the trade in gold went on practically uninterrupted. In fact the gold trade probably increased, because certain vassal kingdoms of Ghana, namely Takruur and Manding, which were rich in gold, together with Gao, an ancient kingdom on the eastern branch of the Niger — all of them long ago converted to Islam — continued their active trade with the Berber Arabs.
On the other side, merchants from Arabia and the Persian Gulf opened up the eastern coasts of Africa, from the Horn to Madagascar, to intercontinental trade. The rich trading settlements of Sofala, Kilwa and Mogadishu became Africa's outlets to the Indian Ocean. From Egypt, Islam advanced towards Nubia, the eastern Sudan. But here it came up against strong resistance from the old Coptic Christian kingdoms, where the stubborn determination of the Nubians temporarily halted the march of Islam along the Nile. However, from the direction of the Red Sea, and chiefly from the Horn of Africa, Islam penetrated into the interior and fostered the establishment of Muslim states encircling the Christians. The struggle between the two religions was bitter in this region, with Ethiopia embodying the resistance to Islam from the twelfth to the fifteenth century. At the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century the Neguses profited from a new Christian force represented by the Portuguese.
In Chapter 17 below, Professor Tamrat emphasizes the particularly African form of Christianity which then prevailed in Ethiopia, with its no less original art and the characteristic style of its churches. King Lalibela (c. 1181—c. 1221), known as “Saint Louis of Ethiopia”, founded a new capital which he called “New Jerusalem”; the pious ruler intended it as a place of pilgrimage for his subjects, since Ethiopia was cut off from the patriarchate of Alexandria and the cradle of Christianity. Monasteries sprang up all over the high plateaux of Ethiopia, and in the silence of these lofty and almost impregnable fastnesses the monks wrote the history of the kings and planned reform. In the middle of the fifteenth century Ethiopian Christianity was at its height, preserving and giving Christian form to early, pre-Christian, African religious practices. The ancient Cushitic influence survived in festivals, dances, songs and animal sacrifices. Here, again, the African personality asserted itself, for the Christianity of Nubia and Ethiopia, like African Islam, took a completely African form.
Along the coast, from the Horn to Madagascar, an original Muslim African civilization developed around the Muslim trading settlements: the Swahili civilization. It found expression in a language of the same name, which retained the Bantu structure with many Arabic loan-words, and it was to spread all over East Africa from the coast to the great lakes, and thence gradually to the River Congo. Thus did the influence of Islam make itself felt, directly or indirectly, throughout the region.
People have often wanted to know the reasons for Islam's rapid success, not only in Africa but also elsewhere. It has to be remembered that the way of life of the nomads of Arabia was not very different from that of the Berbers and fallaahin of North Africa. In the Sudan, apart from the warlike episode of the Almoravids, Islam spread slowly and peacefully in the interior. There were no established clergy or missionaries as in the Christian West. Islam, a religion of cities and courts, did not destroy the traditional structures. Neither the kings of the Sudan nor the sultans of East Africa went to war with the purpose of converting their people. Trade was the main consideration and Islam showed enough flexibility to ask no more of the conquered peoples than that they pay taxes; thus each was able to preserve its own personality.
The second main theme of this period is closely linked to Islam and its spread. It is the amazing extension of trade relations, cultural exchanges and human contacts. From the Indus to Gibraltar, from the Red Sea to Madagascar, from North Africa to the sub-Saharan regions, men and goods circulated so freely that Robert Cornevin, writing of the economic'unity of the Muslim world and African Islam's political independence of Baghdad, has said:

In the modern world, tormented by frontiers, where one needs a passport and a visa every time one moves, it is hard to imagine this unity. Throughout the Middle Ages the Muslim pilgrim or merchant, wherever he went, from the Indus to Spain or the Sudan, found everywhere the same language, the same way of life and also the same religion, for the Kharijite and Shii'ite heresies seem to have been political rather than specifically religious.

From the twelfth to the sixteenth century, Africa became a crossroads of international trade, exercising an extraordinary attraction on the rest of the world. In Chapter 26 below, J. Devisse demonstrates eloquently that it was the Indian Ocean rather than the Mediterranean which became a kind of mare islamicum, until China's predominance began, based on navigation by dhows.
Inter-regional relations were equally developed. Immense caravans, some numbering as many as 6ooo or even 12 000 camels, crossed the Sahara from north to south, carrying provisions and goods of all kinds. Between the savannahs of the Sudan and the forest regions farther south, from Casamance to the Gulf of Guinea, there grew a busy traffic almost unknown to the Arabs, for whom, outside the area of Gao and Mali which they knew, there was nothing but desert. Nowadays archaeology, toponymy and linguistics help us to a better understanding of the age-old relations between the savannah and the forest. South of the Equator there was no Muslim influence, but inter-regional exchanges took place on a considerable scale, owing to movements of population and to frequent contacts that occurred at markets and fairs.
The fundamental cultural unity of the African continent may be explained by the exchanges that took place between regions during this period. New food crops were introduced, mainly from the Indian Ocean, and techniques were transmitted from one region to another. In order to bring out the originality of Africa south of the Sudan, a region less well known to the Arabs and all other foreigners, the authors of Chapters 19-23 below have stressed the economic, social and political life of the areas from the great lakes to the rivers Congo, Zambezi and Limpopo, vast stretches almost uninfluenced by Islam. After the upper Nile valley, from Aswan to the sources of the river, the southern part of Africa comes in for special mention, and we shall return to this. In addition to gold, Africa exported worked and unworked ivory across the Indian Ocean to Arabia and India. The flourishing crafts of the Sudan and the rich agriculture of the Niger valley also contributed to trade across the Sahara: cereals, slippers, skins and cotton goods were exported to the north; and the royal courts at Niani and Gao, towns like Timbuktu, and the Hausa cities of Kano and Katsina imported mainly luxury goods such as silks, brocades and richly ornamented weapons.
The Sudan also exported slaves for use in the courts of the Maghrib and Egypt — women for the harems and men for the sultan's ceremonial guard. It should be noted that Sudanese pilgrims also purchased slaves in Cairo, especially those skilled in the arts, including musicians. Some authors have given exaggeratedly high figures for the number of slaves exported to Arab countries from the Sudan and the east coast. But however many black slaves there were in Iraq, Morocco or the Maghrib in general, it must be emphasized that there is no comparison between the slave trade in the period with which we are concerned and that trade which was set up by Europeans on the Atlantic coasts of Africa, after the discovery of the New World, to supply labour for the American sugar and cotton plantations. Volumes V and VI will concentrate on this “haemorrhage” called the slave trade.
Finally, a third theme to emphasize is the development throughout Africa of kingdoms and empires between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries. For many years, colonial historians and researchers sought to give credence to the idea that states developed south of the Sahara as a result of Arab influence. Although such influence is unquestioned in the Sudan-Sahel area — but even there several kingdoms emerged before Islam was introduced into the region — it must be acknowledged that states such as the kingdom of the Kongo, Zimbabwe and Monomotapa owed little or nothing to the influence of Islam. Obviously, the urban life of the Maghrib and Sudan-Sahel is better known, thanks to written Arab accounts.
Trading towns bordered both sides of the Sahara, and a dynamic class of merchants and men of letters created a lively economic and cultural life in Jenne, Niani, Gao, Timbuktu and Walata in the western Sudan. North of the Sahara were Sijilmasa, Tuat, Wargla, Marrakesh, Fez and Cairo. In the central Sudan, in Kanem-Bornu and the Hausa cities such as Zaria, Katsina and Kano, there was a cultural and economic life no less intense. This was influenced by the Wangara, people who, like the Hausa, specialized in trade. On the east coast of Africa, Arab-Persian colonies which had settled in the ports during the ninth and tenth centuries made Mombasa, and especially Sofala and Madagascar, active trade centres in constant communication with India and China.
At the same time, on the political level, the Sudan had its own institutions and social structures which the superficial Islam of the courts left untouched. The Berbers adopted Arab ways very slowly. Arabic was a means of communication among men of letters close to the mosques and among some wealthy merchants in the towns of the Sudan, but there was no Arabization. Even in the Maghrib, where Arabization followed on the heels of the imposition of Islam, the Berber substratum remained very much alive and the Berber language is still used even today in the mountainous areas. Egypt became the cultural centre of the Muslim world, displacing Baghdad, Damascus and the towns of Arabia, which could no longer claim the prestige of the pilgrimage. Since the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Maghrib and western Andalusia had been important centres for the diffusion of science and philosophy to Europe. They played a large part in preparing Europe for a scientific and cultural renaissance.

Al-Idrisi map of the world 12th century
Plate 1. 1 . Al-Idriisii's map of the world (12th century of the Christian era). The map
includes Egypt, Arabia andIran; the east coast of Africa can be seen at the bottom
right-hand corner of the map. Al-Idriisii's map is based on the cartographic conception
put forward earlier by Ptolemy.
(The orkinal is kept in the manuscript room housing the map collections of the Royal
Library, under referenceN° BN/GE -AA 2004.)

Southern Italy was touched by this Muslim influence, for it was at the court of the Christian king, Roger of Sicily, that al-Idriisii produced his famous Geography in 1154, bringing together all the knowledge then available on the countries of the world. Al-Idriisii's book was a great step forward; thanks to his work, Italy discovered Africa and their businessmen thenceforward took an interest in this eldorado. But Europe's hour had not yet come.
On the political level, after the Almoravid episode, which brought gold from the Sudan to Spain, the Muslims rapidly lost their momentum and their empire declined from the beginning of the twelfth century. King Alfonso VI of Castile recaptured the rich city of Toledo from the Muslims. In 1086 Ibn Taashfiin briefly rekindled the torch of the Almoravids, and led a Muslim army, which included a large body of men from Takruur, to a dazzling victory over the Christians at Zallaca, where the black warriors of the Almoravids distinguished themselves. In Africa itself, in the Sudan and the Maghrib, the eleventh century ended with the disintegration of Almoravid power. The rivalries between the kaba'il 1 of the Maghrib and the Sahara, and the resistance of the Ghana provinces after the death of Abuu Bakr in Tagant in 1o87, put an end to the efforts of the Almoravids in sub-Saharan Africa.
So for northern Africa the twelfth century opened with the Almoravids in retreat on several fronts. King Roger II of the “Two Sicilies” ventured as far as the African coast and imposed tribute on certain ports which harboured the Barbary pirates. But such temerity was cut short by the Muslim revival under the Almohads in the twelfth century. Further east, in Egypt, the revival came about under the Ayyubids, and more particularly under the Mamluks in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The Christians were at this time intensifying their crusading movement in the Middle East, but Egypt under the Mamluk dynasty put a stop to the European drive; the Crusaders were obliged to take refuge in “kraks” or fortresses and they lost control of Jerusalem. While Egypt was thus containing the Christian peril in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, its schools were flourishing and giving a special brilliance to Muslim civilization. This was also the era of expansion and the apogee of the kingdoms and empires of the Sudan, to which we must now turn our attention.
In Chapters 6-10 below, black African experts have studied the rise of the states of Mali, Songhay and Kanem-Bornu and the kingdoms of Mossi and Dagomba within the Niger Bend. The study of the institutions of Mali and the kingdom of Mossi, for example, reveals their common basis in African tradition. Islam, the state religion of Mali and Gao, fostered the rise of a literate class. Ever since the Ghana empire, the Wangara (Soninke and Malinke), specialists in trade, had stimulated the economic life of the area, organizing caravans bound for the southern forests, from which they brought back kola nuts, gold, palm oil, ivory and valuable timber in exchange for smoked fish, cotton goods and articles made of copper.
The Muslim emperors of Mali developed their relations with Egypt at the expense of the Maghrib. In the fourteenth century the empire was at its height, but little is known of the twelfth century. Fortunately al-Idriisii, partly relying on information supplied by al-Bakrii, tells us of the existence of the kingdoms of Takruur, Do, Mali and Gao. The traditions of Manding, Wagadu and Takruur still show us today how bitter the struggle for supremacy was between the successor provinces after the breakup of the Ghana empire.
We now know, through the study of oral traditions, that between the fall of Ghana and the rise of Mali there was an interlude under the domination of the Soso, a Soninke-Mandingo splinter group who had rebelled against Islam and who for a time imposed unity on the provinces once governed by the Kaya Maghan. With the thirteenth century the rise of the kingdom of Mali began. The great conqueror Sundiata Keita defeated Sumaguru, king of the Soso, at the famous battle of Kirina in 1235, and founded the new Mandingo empire. Sundiata, faithful to the traditions of his ancestors who had been converted to Islam in 105o, restored relations with black and Arab traders and men of letters. From 1230 to 1255 he established institutions which for hundreds of years were to influence the empires and kingdoms which followed one another in the western Sudan. The Sahara was once more crossed by pilgrims; the great traffic across the desert resumed.
Merchants and black pilgrims met in the streets of Cairo. Black embassies were set up in the cities of the Maghrib. Cultural and economic relations with the Muslim world were particularly strengthened in the fourteenth century, in the reigns of the flamboyant Mansa Muusaa I and Mansa Sulaymaan. In central Sudan, Kanem and Bornu maintained still closer relations with Egypt and Libya. Arab sources, local written records and oral traditions combine once more to throw light on the fourteenth century in the Sudan. This is an appropriate place to mention certain Arab writers — historians, geographers, travellers and court secretaries — who have left us an excellent body of documentation on Africa, particularly concerning the fourteenth century.

1. kabiila (pl. kaba'il): “a large agnatic group, the members of which claim to be descended from one common ancestor”, and who may “jointly own an area of grazing land”. Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., Vol. 4, pp. 334-5. In this volume the plural is given as kabilas.

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