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The Trans-Saharan World, 500-1700
A symposium exploring the complex institutional, cultural, and religious relationships tying the societies of sub-Saharan Africa to one another and to the "medieval"
worlds of the Mediterranean and Red Sea basins. Speakers from a variety of disciplinary and regional backgrounds will discuss the contours of the trans-Saharan region
and its pivotal cultural, religious, and economic role, and consider the value of
"Trans-Saharan Studies" as a rubric for understanding the broader African ecumene
in the pre-colonial past.
Harvard University
5-6 February 2015
Made possible through the generous support of Harvard University's Hutchins Center for
African and African American Research, the Standing Committee on Medieval Studies, the
Committee on African Studies, the Mahindra Humanities Center, the Harvard Divinity School,
and the Department of African and African American Studies
Thursday, 5 February
Sperry Room, Andover Hall, 45 Francis Avenue, 5:00 pm
Welcoming remarks:
Nicholas Watson, Chair, Harvard University Committee on Medieval Studies
Lawrence Bobo, Chair, Harvard Department of African and African American Studies
Caroline Elkins, Director of the Harvard Center for African Studies
Keynote address:
Timbuktu: The World, the Text, and the Manuscript
Shamil Jeppie (University of Cape Town), Director of the Timbouctou Manuscripts
Project and the Institute for Humanities in Africa
Reception to follow in the Braun Room of Andover Hall
Friday, 6 February
CGIS S010 (the Tsai Auditorium), 1730 Cambridge Street
Session 1 (0900-1030)
Modern Africa and its Medieval Legacy
Chair: Sean Gilsdorf (Committees on Medieval Studies and History and Literature)
Murray Last (University of London), The Privatisation of the Islamic “State” in
Hausaland Since c. 1500 AD
Eric Ross (Al Akhawayn University, Morocco), Toponymic References to the Muslim
Heartlands in Contemporary Senegambia
Coffee break (1030-1045)
Session 2 (1045-1245)
Timbuktu, Islam, and African Urbanism
Chair: Emmanuel Akyeampong (Departments of History and African and African
American Studies)
Corisande Fenwick (Leicester University), Tales of the City: Archaeology, Urbanisation, and the Muslim Conquest of North Africa
Susan McIntosh (Rice University), Before Timbuktu: Towns and Trade along the Middle Niger, 100 BCE—1200 CE
Adria LaViolette (University of Virginia), Islamic Practice and Dynamic Urban Landscapes on the Swahili Coast (Eleventh-Sixteenth Centuries)
Lunch break (1245-1400)
Session 3 (1400-1600)
Political, Religious, and Cultural Exchange in the Trans-Saharan World
Chair: Ousmane Kane (Harvard Divinity School)
Suzanne Blier (Harvard University), Worlds in a Vessel: A Richard II Ewer from Kumasi
and the Legacy of English-Gold Coast Engagement
Chouki El Hamel (Arizona State University), Wuld Kirinfil the "Slave" Rebel and
Trans-Saharan Geo-Politics
Rudolph Ware (University of Michigan), The Dawn of the West African Clerisy:
Kabara, Jagha, and the People of the West, 1000—1500 CE
Coffee break (1600-1615)
Session 4 (1615-1730)
Medieval Africa? Remarks and Reactions
Chair: Nicholas Watson (Department of English and Committee on Medieval Studies)
Michael Brett (University of London/SOAS) and Carol Symes (University of Illinois)
Session 1: Modern Africa and its Medieval Legacy
The Privatisation of the Islamic “State” in Hausaland Since ca. 1500 AD
Murray Last, University College London
A major problem in the historical analysis of the great Muslim states in west Africa is not only
when the notion of the ‘public’ developed, but also what constituted ‘public property’. Islamic law
distinguishes what belongs to the jama’a from what belongs to lineages or private persons, but
the implementation of this aspect of Islamic law varied over time and place, and varied of course
with the context in which an item changed hands. For example, in a jihad, prisoners-of-war should
be divided up among the victors according to clear-cut procedures, but all too often women – say,
a particularly beautiful girl – might be kept by whoever first captured her. Other property, such as
houses or their contents, manuscript books or even the ink used in composing or copying, were
apt to be objects of dispute or concern. This paper tries to trace the initial establishment of public
property in Hausaland (northern Nigeria) and the gradual re-privatisation of property once
deemed ‘public’, and will suggest it still remains a problem today. Might not this dimension of socalled ‘corruption’—the transfer of what’s publicly owned into the hands of individuals—have a
long history? But it raises, too, the issue of what constituted the “state” in Muslim west Africa
and the succession to high office (through inheritance or by election).
Toponymic References to the Muslim Heartlands in Contemporary Senegambia
Eric Ross, Al Akhawayn University
References to some aspect or component of Islam dominate present-day Senegambian toponymy and thus permeate both its rural and urban landscapes. Some of these toponyms refer to
Arab cities or countries of great importance to Islamic identity generally (that of the umma), and
to the Sunni-Maliki and Sufi identity specific to this region of Africa. This paper will analyze eight
of these recurring toponyms: Makka, Madîna, Baghdâd, Shâm (Syria), Misr (Egypt), Al-Qâhira
(Cairo), Qayrawân (Tunisia) and Fâs (Morocco). The spatial distribution of places bearing these
names, the agents responsible for bestowing them, and the historical conditions under which
these toponyms diffused will be presented. Each of these toponyms refers to a sacred or blessed
"elsewhere," a place located in a "heartland" of the umma, far away from Senegambia in Arabia,
the Middle East or North Africa. Each serves to fix that distant elsewhere in a "present" place. By
bestowing such a place name, some aspect of universal truth/reality attached to the original
place at a specific historical moment is expressed and experienced anew and in the present, in the
new place. These toponyms allow Believers in Senegambia to identify with distant heartlands of
the religion in the places they live, transcending the time-and-space distance between the
historic elsewhere and the here-and-now, and contributing to construct a spiritual life in an
"eternal present".
Session 2: Timbuktu, Islam, and African Urbanism
Tales of the City:
Archaeology, Urbanization and the Muslim Conquest of North Africa
Corisande Fenwick, University of Leicester
The prevailing orthodoxy in North African archaeology argues for an urban crisis in the early
Middle Ages brought about by the collapse of Byzantine authority and the Muslim conquest of
North Africa. Recent work in northern Tunisia, Libya and Morocco suggests that this model—
rooted in colonialist discourse and based on exceptional archaeological cases—needs a complete
re-evaluation. This paper accordingly proposes a new account of the medieval city in North Africa
based on the analysis of regional patterns of urban success and failure. If the conquest of North
Africa resulted in little obvious destruction that can be linked with the Muslim armies, the
processes of conquest and consolidation did have significant long-term consequences for
urbanization. Whilst the early Muslim state was not particularly interventionist in North Africa—it
did not found lots of cities or destroy them—it was intrusive. By the ninth century the urban
landscape looked radically different from that of late antiquity: large towns dominate the
settlement hierarchy at the expense of small towns, many of which decline or disappear. Those
cities that won out have some common attributes: located on major trade routes, they were the
largest cities in late antiquity with complex urban infrastructure, administrative functions, and
substantial fortifications. The presence of garrisons of Muslim troops, however, may have been
the surest guarantee of urban success in the Middle Ages. Paid in cash, the salaried Muslim
soldiers acted as a catalyst for economic demand. This increased demand prompted a remarkable
surge in industry, agricultural output and in many cases, substantial urban growth.
Before Timbuktu:
Towns and Trade along the Middle Niger, 100 BCE – 1200 CE
Susan McIntosh, Rice University
Along the Middle Niger from the Inland Niger Delta in the west to Gao in the east, several regions
saw the development of large occupation mounds in the first millennium CE. Ranging in size from
20-80 hectares, these sites offer a privileged view into the emergence of towns in an urbanizing
landscape that is distinctive within sub-Saharan Africa. Current evidence indicates that town
growth developed earliest in the Inland Niger Delta in a context of extensive interregional trade,
but well before any significant sign of Mediterranean trade goods or influence. Along the eastern
Niger Bend at Gao, by contrast, town growth was associated with large numbers of Near Eastern
glass beads, North African copper and an extensive architectural complex built in stone. It
emerged rapidly in the eighth to ninth century. The movement of glass into the eastern Niger
Bend extends back as far as the third or fourth century CE. Considerable quantities penetrated as
far south as the Niger Delta area between the eighth and eleventh centuries CE. At Timbuktu
itself, excavation has not succeeded in penetrating deposits that date any earlier than the
eighteenth century, but massive first millennium occupation mound sites with clear links to Gao
have been documented a few kilometers away.
Islamic Practice and Dynamic Urban Landscapes on the
Swahili Coast, Eleventh-Sixteenth Centuries
Adria LaViolette, University of Virginia
Archaeologists have conducted research on the Swahili coast of eastern Africa since the midtwentieth century, with a great burst of research taking place since the 1980s. In the context of
the increasing understanding of urban life emerging from archaeology at Swahili towns, I offer
this examination of religious practice at Chwaka, an eleventh-sixteenth-century ‘stonetown’
located on the north coast of Pemba Island, Tanzania. Chwaka was a prominent town, sharing this
island heartland of the Swahili coast with several contemporary towns and hundreds of villages.
One of the contributions my collaborative research at Chwaka has made is the town's unique
architectural signature, and what it may say about its residents’ practice, priorities, and
relationship with villagers in the surrounding region: it comprised numerous hectares of earthand-thatch houses representing a range of socioeconomic statuses, a single mortared stone
house, and four stone mosques. Despite the diversity that archaeologists have revealed among
Swahili towns, in nearly all, mercantilism is attested through the presence of stone houses that
have long been tied to Swahili mercantilism, carried out with peoples elsewhere in Africa and in
the Indian Ocean. Here, I examine, through these mosques and their associated deposits, Islamic
practice and how it changed over time at Chwaka including: possible evidence for different sects,
use of ritual objects, changes in the role of women, and the relationship between a burgeoning,
urbane population and religious life. Through the particulars of Chwaka I aim to provide a window
into larger trends in Swahili archaeology and historiography.
Session 3: Political, Religious, and Cultural Exchange in the Trans-
Saharan World
Worlds in a Vessel: A Richard II Ewer from Kumasi and the Legacy
of English-Gold Coast Engagement
Suzanne Preston Blier, Harvard University
This paper addresses cross-currencies between the Gold Coast (Ghana) and England in the late
medieval era. Among the striking objects brought back by British troops after the 1896 sack of
Kumasi, the capital of the Asante (in modern Ghana), was an immense bronze ewer (pitcher, jug).
This vessel bears an array of decorative surface details, among these a royal badge, crowns,
rampant lions, and a hart (albino deer) that has enabled scholars to date the work to the last
decade of Richard II’s reign (1390-99). Like so many early arts from this period, objects such as
this have a rich historic patina. In this paper I argue that this vessel, and others associated with it,
offer vital new insight into both Akan and English history. It offers evidence of deep material and
symbolic interest, providing critical insight into both the medieval era and the ways this period
remained a part of later era cross-currencies as well.
Wuld Kirinfil the "Slave" Rebel and Trans-Saharan Geo-Politics
Chouki El Hamel, Arizona State University
After the famous violent encounter of “the Battle of the Three Kings” in which Morocco defeated
Portugal in 1578, Morocco seized this opportunity to assert itself as a powerful force in the
Atlantic world. And indeed, it was in foreign affairs that the Sa‘di Sultan al-Mansur stood out as
unique ruler. Al-Mansur was so ambitious in his foreign policy that he undertook a massive military
campaign against the Songhay Empire (present-day Mali) in 1591. This expedition which was
contested by the Moroccan `ulama (learned men), who believed it was illegal to invade an Islamic
country, was carried in the hope to open up sources of gold, salt and slaves to build and maintain
the edifice of the Sa ‘di empire. It is probably this invasion that drove Fernand Braudel to extend
the land of the Mediterranean to include the Saharan desert. Many sources attributed the
success of the conquest to the Moroccan superior weaponry but they overlooked the role of one
Songhay man, Wuld Kirinfil. Wuld Kirinfil was an enslaved person of the court of Askia Ishaq, and
because he angered the king he was exiled in the Saharan mining town of Taghaza in 1589. Wuld
Kirinfil succeeded in escaping to Marrakesh from where he wrote a letter to al-Mansur providing
him with vital intelligence on the Songhay empire and encouraging him to invade it. This paper will
investigate the crucial role of Wuld Kirinfil, the "slave" rebel, in trans-Saharan geo-politics.
The Dawn of the West African Clerisy:
Kabara, Jagha, and the People of the West, 1000-1500 CE
Rudolph Ware, University of Michigan
Since the end of the fifteenth century the historical legacies of Timbuktu have been largely
associated with the clerical and family traditions of scholars who—whatever their skin color—
often claimed bayḍān (“white”) identities and Arab pedigrees. Yet whatever “racial” logics have
permeated the Saharan fringes in the recent past, the epistemology of classical scholarship
insisted upon valorizing scholarly genealogies as much as hereditary links. In other words, chains
of knowledge transmission were as central to the construction of scholarly authority as were
chains of descent. One important, though often overlooked, consequence of this dynamic is that
remembering and honoring generations of sūdānī (black) teachers played an important, if
contradictory, role in the historical construction of scholarly authority. In the Timbuktu Tarikhs,
and in a number of other sources from the eleventh through seventeenth centuries, Kabara and
Jagha—two “sūdānī” towns in the Masina region of Mali—and the broad ‘western’ region of
Senegambia are mentioned as the points of origin of many of the most accomplished scholars of
the medieval (pre-Songhay) period.
In this paper I bring together a critical re-reading of the earliest published Arabic and European language sources to try to reconstruct the origins and early histories of the sub-Saharan
West African clerisy. Through a close reading of sources like Al-Bakrī, Ibn Battuta’s Rihla, the
Timbuktu Tarikhs, and Spanish and Portuguese travellers accounts from Senegambia, I reach
back to a time when dark-skinned West African scholars of were often seen as the primary living
exemplars of knowledge and piety from the Niger Bend to the Senegambian coast. The paper
closes with an exposition, brief history, and preliminary analysis of a work—Bustān al-fawāʾid wal-manāfiʿa fī ʿilm al-tibb wa-l-sirr—which has never been carefully studied by academics. The
Grove of Gains and Benefits in the Science of Medicine and Mysteries, authored by Moodibo
Muḥammad al-Kābarī (d. 1450 CE), is among a number of signs attesting to the importance of
scholars from the town of Kabara in the medieval period. Moreover, this 70-leaf manuscript may
well be the oldest surviving book authored by a West African in any language.