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.
Naddo Ceccarelli (Italian, active mid-14th century), The Crucifixion, Siena, Italy, 1350/59. Tempera and gold on panel, 76 x 31.6 x 2.5 cm. 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, 28.4 x 38.1 cm. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Beatrice Riese, 1995.51a-b. Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Museum
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.
Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot), siddur (prayer book), Lisbon, late 15th century. Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on parchment. The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, NY, Ms. 8235. Photograph courtesy of The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America
This siddur, a Jewish prayer book, reflects a taste for delicate tracery penwork. Key pages are also embellished with gold leaf and watercolor. Gold—much of it coming from West Africa—was an important artistic material across the three of the major Mediterranean faiths of the medieval period: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Jewish artisans, who often worked with gold, made significant contributions to art and culture during the Middle Ages, creating works for Jewish, Muslim, and Christian clients.
Florin, with the emblem of Florence (obverse), Florence, 1252/1303. Gold, diameter 1.23 cm. American Numismatic Society, New York, 1954.237.214. Photograph courtesy of the American Numismatic Society
Coronation of the Virgin, Italy, 15th century. Tempera and gold on panel, 76.2 x 55.9 cm. Loyola University Museum of Art, Chicago, IL, the Martin D’Arcy, S.J., Collection, gift of Eileen O’Shaughnessy, 1985, 1985:03. Photograph by Clare Britt
Medieval Christian artworks were often embellished with gold leaf. In this panel painting from Italy, Christ places a crown on the head of his mother Mary, symbolizing her role as Queen of Heaven. Angels and other holy figures fill the heavenly space that is conveyed by the golden background. Much of the gold used in Italy came from West Africa through trans-Saharan trade routes. Beginning in the thirteenth century, Italian city-states such as Florence and Venice began minting gold coins largely made from West African gold. These coins were beaten into thin sheets of foil, which were then used as gold leaf. From one coin, craftsmen could make more than one hundred leaves.
Coronation of the Virgin, English, ca. 1480. Gold and silk thread on linen, 29.5 x 32.4 cm. Loyola University Museum of Art, Chicago, IL, the Martin D’Arcy, S.J., Collection, gift of D.F. Rowe, S.J., in memory of Mrs. Mary Flannery, 1976:01. Photograph by Clare Britt
This densely embroidered textile fragment depicting the Coronation of the Virgin, a popular Christian story of the period, was likely once part of a vestment, or ceremonial robe. While documents of the period suggest that luxurious embroidered garments were worn by the elite, the majority of surviving embroideries were made for use in the church. Generous amounts of gold thread are incorporated into the scene. Despite the discovery of gold deposits in Europe in the later Middle Ages, West African gold continued to be highly prized for its quality and purity. A mid-seventeenth-century shipwreck offers compelling evidence for the export of West African gold to England. The ship sank off the coast of Devon, England, carrying scraps of gold jewelry, ingots, and more than 400 gold coins, most of them minted in Morocco between the eleventh and seventeenth century.
Jewelry fittings, Hispano-Moresque, Córdoba, Spain, late 10th/early 11th century. Gold, gemstones, and traces of enamel. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD, bequest of Henry Walters, 1931, 57.1596.9–43