Art, Culture, and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa
Then the Niger River descends from Dia to Timbuktu and then to Gao…then to Ife. Ife is one of the largest countries of the Sudan, and their sultan is one of the greatest sultans.”
— Ibn Battuta, 1355
The Long Reach of the Sahara
The Sahara Desert sits between the Mediterranean Sea and the Niger River, extending the reach of the great desert’s routes of exchange across three continents.
Ibn Battuta, the intrepid fourteenth-century Moroccan diplomat, traveler, and writer, who traversed the Sahara Desert on his last extended journey, observed the importance of the Niger River as a major thoroughfare that led to distant lands of wealth and influence, including the famed Kingdom of Ife, in West Africa’s dense rainforest. Like the trading cities and empires of Africa’s Western Sudan, the medieval empires of the forest and of the Central Sudan were deeply entwined in a global economy.
Archaeological excavations at West African sites beyond the Western Sudan, including those associated with the Ife Kingdom, as well as with the earlier polity of Igbo Ukwu to its southeast, and Durbi Takusheyi to its Northeast, reveal the prominence of glass beads, ivory, and copper among the materials that circulated through the Sahara Desert in multiple directions. Tracing their movement provides a compelling image of the wide scope of medieval trade.
Diptych leaf with scenes from the Passion of the Christ, Paris, France, 1250/70. Ivory with traces of paint and gilding, 32.6 x 13 x .8 cm. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD, bequest of Henry Walters, 1931, 71.157
This is the left leaf of one of the earliest known Gothic ivory diptychs; the fragmentary remains of the right leaf are in the Musée de Cluny, Paris. The size of the panel, with a width that far exceeds 4.33 inches, indicates that it was taken from a Savanna elephant tusk. The artisan compensated for the natural curvature of the tusk by inserting a crescent-shaped piece of ivory to achieve a rectilinear shape. On the reverse, this “operation” is emphasized by a puncture-and-suture decoration, as if the pieces of ivory were sewn together.
Casket, Sicily, 12th century. Ivory, brass, tempera, and gold leaf, 9.5 x 15.9 x 9.7 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Samuel P. Avery Endowment, 1926.389. Photograph courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago/Art Resource, NY
This ivory box, or casket, was made in Sicily, where the Arabic-speaking Muslim population contributed significantly to a unique visual culture. It is economically fashioned from thinly cut pieces of elephant ivory held together with ivory pegs. The presence of a lock and lock plate made of gilded brass, a copper alloy, indicates that the casket’s contents were precious. The delicate ornamental motifs, rendered in tempera and applied gold leaf, are complemented by an inscription in Arabic, “May glory endure.” With its combination of ivory, copper and gold, the box speaks to the circulation of precious materials important to trans-Saharan trade.
Earrings, pendant, and ring. Probably manufactured in the Western Sudan, excavated at Durbi Takusheyi, Nigeria, Tumulus 7, 13th /15th century, Gold, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abuja, Nigeria, KT2014.1.69a,b, KT2014.1.70, KT2014.1.71. Photograph by René Müller
These four pieces of solid gold jewelry were found among the valuable grave goods of a high-status individual buried at Durbi Takusheyi in north-central Nigeria. They were deposited along with strung cowrie shells in the large Mamluk brass bowl also in this case. These extremely rare treasures were acquired through trade in multiple directions. The gold jewelry was likely made in Senegal or southern Mauretania, while the cowrie shells originated in the Indian Ocean and would have traveled along the same routes as the brass bowl.
Seated figure, possibly from Ile-Ife, found at Tada, Nigeria, late 13th/14th century. Copper with traces of arsenic, lead, and tin, height 54 cm. National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abuja, Nigeria, 79.R18. Photograph by Museum for African Art and The Fundación Marcelino Botín/ Karin L. Wilis
The style and the extraordinarily thin casting of this naturalistic figure point to its likely creation at Ife, the royal capital of a powerful kingdom. In the early 20th century the figure was part of the ritual life of Tada, a small village on the banks of the Niger River 120 miles north of Ife. During the medieval period, Tada’s location would have been of strategic importance to Ife, connecting it with long-distance trade. Analysis of the raw copper from which the statue is made suggests that it might have originated in France, traveling along these very trade routes to Ife, where it was cast.
Heads of an elephant and of a hippopotamus. Ife, Nigeria, excavated at Lafogido, 12th/15th century. Terracotta. National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abuja, Nigeria, 63/24a, 72/18a
These stylized terracotta heads of an elephant and a hippopotamus are portrayed in the splendid regalia of the ruling elite of Ife, including headdresses and necklaces embellished with beads of different sizes. The association of these powerful animals with political leaders is almost certainly a statement of authority. Elephant and hippopotamus tusks were valuable commodities in the interregional trade that followed the Niger River and connected with trans-Saharan routes of exchange.
Horse and rider finial, Igbo Ukwu, excavated from Igbo Richard (burial), 8th/early 11th century. Bronze, 14 x 5 cm. National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abuja, Nigeria, IR.350. Photograph by Uche James Iroha
This ornament, which would have crowned a staff or pole, is the earliest known representation of a horse and rider from Africa’s central forest region. How the object came to be made is an open question. Horses cannot survive in the forest for long due to fly-borne disease. It is possible that horses were imported, at great expense, along routes of exchange with the Western Sudan and North Africa. Another possibility is that another object representing a horse and rider was imported, inspiring an artist to make this ornament. The rider and the pendant of a man’s head depict beaded regalia as well as facial scarifications associated today with elite titleholders.
Armlets, 9th/10th century, excavated at Igbo Richard, Igbo Ukwu, eastern Nigeria. Beads and copper wire, height 14.9 cm. National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abuja, Nigeria, IR.416 and IR.417. Photograph by Uche James Iroha
Glass beads mass-produced in Albania, Egypt, and Venice were in high demand across Africa’s Western Sudan and forest regions during the medieval period. It had been assumed that glass was manufactured on only a limited scale in West Africa; however, new archaeological research shows extensive glass making and glass bead production beginning in at least the 11th century at Igbo Olokun, in the city of Ife (Nigeria). Blue glass beads are the most abundant, but brown, green, yellow, clear, striped, and dichroic beads, which display different colors under certain lighting conditions, were also produced. Beads from Igbo Olokun have been excavated at Gao (Mali), proof that they circulated widely.
Large-scale Virgin and Child statuettes represent the apex of ivory carving in the Gothic period in France, and this sculpture is among the largest. Measuring 6.5 inches in diameter at its widest point, the solid statuette could only have been made from the tusk of a Savanna elephant. The artist has maximized the size of the figures of the Virgin and Child obtained from the large tusk and has added separate ivory pieces for the throne. This statuette was finished with fine details in paint and gold, another valuable commodity obtained from across the Sahara.
Box with scenes of courtly life, France, 1300/1350. Ivory; silver (later fittings, hinges and lock), 6.4 cm x 14 cm x 8.7 cm. Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH, purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, 1950.303. Image courtesy of Toledo Museum of Art
By the turn of the 14th century, the increasing supply of ivory from Africa made it a medium of fashion while also gradually lowering the price, so much so that personal toiletry articles, such as combs, mirrors, and caskets, could be made out of the precious material that was once reserved almost solely for use by the church in Europe. These luxury domestic objects often featured secular scenes of romance and courtly life. The scenes on the front of this box include a youth holding a hawk on his wrist, a couple holding the box’s lock, a man crouching, and a lady holding a garland.