Introduction

In 1324 Mansa Musa, the king of the vast West African empire of Mali, made a pilgrimage to Mecca. Accounts of the period describe his journey, which reportedly included 8,000 courtiers, 12,000 slaves, and 100 camels each carrying up to 300 pounds of pure gold. By contemporary measures, Musa may have been the richest person in the history of the world.

Mansa Musa’s story is among the most celebrated of many that can be told about West Africa’s prominence in an interconnected medieval world. At this time gold from West Africa was the engine that drove the movement of things, people, and ideas across Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Seen from the perspective of Africa, the medieval period opens with the spread of Islam in the eighth century and recedes with the arrival of Europeans along the continent’s Atlantic Coast at the end of the fifteenth century. During this era, the Sahara Desert was the center of a global network of exchange. Gold, salt, and enslaved people were this economy’s primary commodities. They moved across Saharan trade routes along with ceramics, copper, glass beads, ivory, leather, and textiles. These goods were often destined for markets at astonishing distances from their places of origin. As networks of exchange spread, so too did cultural practices, fostering the broad circulation of a distinctive visual culture related to Islam.

The reach of trans-Saharan exchange is revealed in the fragments excavated from now uninhabited archaeological sites that were once vibrant communities. In this exhibition, these “fragments in time” are placed alongside works of art and other materials that allow us to imagine them as they once were. They are the starting point for reimagining the medieval past and for seeing the present in a new light.