Art, Culture, and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa
The caravans, in order to cross these arid deserts, take supplies of water in water-skins carried on camels’ backs. In the land of the Sudan there are many arid deserts like this. Most of its terrain is sand that is swept by the winds, and carried from place to place, and no water is found. The land is very hot and scorching.
— Al-Idrisi, 1154
Medieval accounts of the Sahara offer only tantalizing bits of information about daily life in the region, and material fragments from archaeological sites add little to this picture. In this situation more recent material and cultural practices can provide the seeds for imagining the past. In the Sahara and its hinterlands, the origins of forms and decorative patterns on jewelry, leatherwork, and textiles can often be traced back to the medieval period.
Drawing of a guinbri. Reproduced from Georg Hjersing Høst, Efterretninger om Marokos og Fes: Samlede der i Landene fra ao. 1760 til 1768 (Copenhagen: N. Möller, 1779). Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, DT308.H83 1779
From at least the 19th century, the word “Gnawa” has been used in Morocco to refer to the descendants of enslaved people from the Western Sudan. The term is now associated with “black” Moroccans who entertain in public squares and on concert stages. The guinbri is the most prestigious of all Gnawa musical instruments. This 18th-century account by Georg Høst of his travels in Morocco is the first known mention of a guinbri in European literature. The instrument may derive from one that the 14th-century Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta described as being played at the court of the Mali Empire, which he called the gunburi.
Camel saddle (tarik or tamzak). Tuareg, Algerian Sahara, early 20th century. Leather, rawhide, wood, parchment or vellum, wool, silk, tin-plated metal, brass-plated metal, iron, copper alloy. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, gift of the Estate of Dr. Lloyd Cabot Briggs, 1975, 975-32-50/11927
Tuareg artisans make camel saddles by covering the wood core with red- and green-dyed leather and decorating the pommel and other parts of the saddle with metal embellishments filled with geometric patterns similar to those found in Tuareg jewelry. Historians believe that trans-Saharan commerce during antiquity was irregular until the widespread adoption of the camel in the early centuries of the Common Era, which facilitated trade across and within the Sahara. Since the decline of trans-Saharan commerce and the settlement of nomads in the 20th century, the region has developed into a dynamic tourist center; camel riders are seen as part of the allure.
Tent poles. Mali or Niger, mid-20th century. Wood. Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, IL, 279194.1–2
Over the course of the 20th century, environmental and societal changes led the Sahara’s nomadic populations to adopt more sedentary lifestyles. Men of the artisan class made wooden beds, spoons, and tent poles, adorning them with intricate symmetrical designs. The tent itself was considered a woman’s property and was given to a new bride by her mother, who collected goatskins throughout her daughter’s childhood that she pieced together into a tent. Thus, a married woman owned her own tent, demonstrating the independence enjoyed by nomadic women.