Art, Culture, and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa
The inhabitants of the Western Sudan use salt for currency as gold and silver are used. They cut it into pieces and use it for their transactions.
— Ibn Battuta, 1355
Driving Desires: Gold and Salt
Gold and salt were at the heart of medieval trans-Saharan exchange; together they supported a global economy that defined the Middle Ages.
For merchants traveling southward across the Sahara, the main attraction was West African gold, which was widely admired for its purity. In addition to wealth, gold held significant symbolic value. The special qualities of gold—its rarity, its sparkle and reflectiveness, its malleability, and its resistance to tarnish, as well as the difficulty of extracting it from the earth—all contributed to its value. Empires across North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe minted gold into coins and used it to make and to embellish luxury objects. West African gold provided rulers and merchants the means to acquire goods from afar. Rock salt, mined in the heart of the Sahara, was among the most important of these. Salt, which is scarce in West Africa, is essential to human life.
The journey across the Sahara Desert was arduous and at times treacherous. A camel caravan’s pace is about three miles per hour, and caravans could travel more than 2,500 miles on a trans-Saharan trek. Such travel required tremendous motivation to risk thirst, hunger, and even death.
The Crucifixion. Naddo Ceccarelli (Italian, active mid-14th century). Siena, Italy, 1350/1359. Tempera and gold on panel. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD, bequest of Henry Walters, 1931, 37.737
Gold-ground panel paintings proliferated in the later Middle Ages across Europe, where gold was associated with the divine realm. A small amount of gold could be used to great effect when hammered into thin sheets of gold leaf. In this fashion painters were able to make a grand visual statement with a minimal amount of the precious material, which was imported across great distances. Preparing a wooden panel for gilding was a laborious process. The areas to be gilded were coated with an adhesive (typically bole, a reddish clay) to which the gold leaf was applied and then burnished. Additional decoration could then be incised or stamped into the gold leaf.
Leaf from the Blue Qur’an. Iraq, Iran, or Tunisia, 9th/10th century. Gold and silver on indigo-colored parchment. Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Canada. AKM248
The celebrated Blue Qur’an makes extravagant use of gold and silver leaf for the script, which was laboriously applied to approximately six hundred folios colored a deep, rich indigo blue. Like gold, indigo circulated widely along trans-Saharan trade networks. The origins of the Blue Qur’an are debated. Some attribute it to Abbasid artists working in Iraq in the early 9th century; however, a possible origin in Fatimid Ifriqiya (Tunisia) has also been proposed. Fatimid control of gold coming northward across the Sahara funded the caliphate’s expansion in the mid-10th century; Ifriqiya was an important terminus for these routes.
Dinar of al-Mustansir Billah (reigned 1036–1094), struck at Misr (Cairo), 1068/68. Gold, diameter 22 mm. Bank al-Maghrib, Rabat, Morocco, 521508. Photograph by Fouad Mahdaoui
In its heyday the dynasty controlled parts of the Niger River, the Sahara Desert, and the Mediterranean Sea, all major conduits of trade. Almoravid mints struck dinars in many corners of the dynasty’s territory and produced more gold currency than any other empire in the western Islamic lands. Their coinage was highly valued because it was made from West African gold, which was purer than gold from any other known source.