Art, Culture, and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa
From this land they import sugar to Tunisia and the Maghrib and Andalusia and Byzantium and Western Europe. They also import indigo, alum, and brass. From this region too come the imports of the desert such as male and female slaves and abqar, which in their language means gold. [From this region] caravans enter the land of Janawa, Ghana, Ethiopia, Gao, Zafun, and Amima. They also enter from Tafilalat and Sijilmasa, and to these two places come their booty and everything that is imported in the way of male and female slaves and gold and ivory and ebony and elephant tusks and reeds and oryx-hide shields and other things.
—Mohammed ibn Abu Bakr al-Zuhri, 12th century
The medieval Sahara was at the center of an interconnected and far-reaching trade network that extended in multiple directions.
Based in Granada, Spain, the twelfth-century geographer al-Zuhri described the remarkable scope of trans-Saharan trade. The Almoravid Empire, of which Granada was a part, stretched across the Sahara Desert to embrace southern trading centers and connect to West Africa’s Ghana Empire. Al-Zuhri described contact between cities north and south of the desert, including Gao and Sijilmasa, across North Africa, and even with Eastern and Western Europe.
Intermediaries were essential to trade across the Sahara. Diverse peoples, each with their own language, perspective, systems of supply and demand, resources, and expertise, contributed to maintaining the connections that supported far-reaching networks of exchange. These included North African Muslims who spoke Arabic and followed Islamic laws governing trade. Amazigh (Berber) nomads, likewise competent in Arabic, were essential for their knowledge of the routes across the desert and for their expertise in managing the long camel caravans that were the most efficient way to traverse this challenging environment. South of the desert, they intersected with Wangara merchants who traveled among the diverse peoples of Africa’s Western Sudan region, spoke their languages, and navigated long-standing trade routes along the Niger River and its tributaries.
Astrolabe, Spain or North Africa, 1236/37. Brass. Adler Planetarium, Chicago, IL, M-35. Photograph courtesy of Adler Planetarium
Astrolabes served many functions in the Islamic world. These highly sophisticated instruments were used to wayfind, tell time, survey land, and verify the direction of Mecca, which Muslims face when praying. The astrolabe was also used to calculate the relative position of stars and planets.
Spouted vessel, possibly Egypt or western Asia, ca. 800/1099. Blown glass, height 6 cm, maximum width 9.9 cm; rim diameter 4.5 cm. Collection of the Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY, 63.1.5
The slightly arcing shapes of these small tubes of green glass, excavated at Essouk-Tadmekka, Mali, suggest they were likely part of small spouted bottles. Made in Egypt or western Asia, such bottles were used throughout the medieval Mediterranean as containers for perfume or rose water. Material remnants of the long-distance trade of luxury glassware, fragments of glass vessels, such as this example from the Corning Museum, have also been found at other medieval sites north and south of the Sahara Desert.
Canteen, Syria, 14th century. Molded earthenware, height 31.65 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, The Madina Collection of Islamic Art, gift of Camilla Chandler Frost, M.2002.1.83
Used as water vessels, canteens were functional objects in the Islamic world, especially for travelers. Many canteens were left unglazed to cool the contents through evaporation. Despite its humble appearance and practical function, this canteen is richly decorated with floral and geometric motifs encircling a central medallion.
Ewer, Egypt, 10th century. Earthenware, white engobe, underglaze painted, 24.4 x 10.2 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, gift of William Lillys in Memory of Dr. Edward L. B. Terrace, M.83.251.1
Signet ring, Iran, 15th/16th century. Silver, 3.18 cm x 2.54 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, The Nasli M. Heeramaneck Collection, gift of Joan Palevsky, M.73.5.336
Horse, Natamatao, Mopti region, Mali, 12th/14th century. Terracotta, 37.7 x 23.5 x 45 cm. Musée national du Mali, Bamako, 2002.17.16. Photograph by Seydou Camara
This terracotta figure of a horse was found at Natamatao, Mali, alongside skeletons of horses and humans. It was part of a widespread local terracotta sculpture tradition that stretched from the tenth to the fifteenth century. The Niger River’s fertile inland delta supported a thriving urbanism in the Middle Ages that included more than sixty interdependent communities. At Natamatao, excavations unearthed materials associated with trans-Saharan trade, notably a bundle of imported copper ingots. The depiction of horses points to commerce, as they were traded across the Sahara.
Horse and rider. Tongo Maaré Diabal, Mali 9th/11th century. Terracotta. Musée national du Mali, Bamako, Mali, R2003-1-11a, b. Photograph by Seydou Camara
Lying between the Niger River and the Dogon Plateau, Tongo Maaré Diabal was strategically positioned to manage local and long-distance trade. The 11th-century Moroccan chronicler Muhammad al-Idrisi recounts: “This is the country of gold, which is [often] mentioned and described as having quantities of it of good quality. . . . The king has in his palace a gold nugget weighing 30 ratqls [approximately 33 pounds]. It is entirely God’s creation, without having been melted in the fire or hammered with any tool. A hole has been pierced in it to serve for tethering the king’s horse.”
Jar, Natamatao, Mali, 12th/14th century. Terracotta, 40 x 26 cm. Musée national du Mali, Bamako, Mali, 2004.05.11. Photograph by Seydou Camara
Pottery fragments make up the majority of finds at archaeological sites across Africa’s Western Sudan; complete vessels are rarer. The patterns that embellish this large footed bowl from Gao Ancien resemble those on Tuareg leatherwork and textiles. The Tuareg were actively involved in Saharan caravan trade, and this type of shallow bowl is found on both sides of the Sahara. Pottery from the Inland Niger Delta, such as the jar from Natamatao, was also traded up the Niger River and across the Sahara. Fragments of similar ceramics have been found at Middle Niger sites including Gao, at Tadmekka to its north, and at Sijilmasa on the Sahara’s northern fringe.
Talismanic textile, probably Senegal, late 19th or early 20th century. Cotton, plain woven panels (4) joined and painted, with amulets of animal hide and felt attached by knotted leather strips, 255.2 x 178.8 cm. Art Institute of Chicago, African and Amerindian Purchase Endowment, 2000.326. Photograph courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago/Art Resource, NY
The Qur’anic passages written across this textile and contained in the amulets attached to it have therapeutic intent. Leather-encased amulets are also worn on the body in the form of necklaces and other items of adornment. The activation of the words of the Qur’an for protection and healing is a widespread Islamic practice.
Cap with striped inscribed silk, Egypt or Syria, Mamluk period, probably sultanate of al-Nasir al-Din Muhammad (reigned 1293–1341, with two interruptions), 14th century. Lampas fabric, silk and gold, 14 x 15.5 x 10.5 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH, purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund, 1985.5. Photograph courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art
During his sojourn in Cairo, Mansa Musa was received by the sultan al-Nasir al-Din Muhammad, who showered him with gifts including a skullcap with caliphal emblems. The cap undoubtedly resembled this luxurious example, which is inscribed “Glory to our lord sultan al-Malik al-Nasir.”
Al-qadi ‘Iyad, The Remedy by the Recognition of the Rights of the Chosen One (Al-Shifta’ bi-ta’rif huquq al-Mustafa), North Africa, unknown date. Colored ink and gold on paper, 30.5 x 58 cm. Institut des hautes études et de recherches islamiques Ahmed Baba, Timbuktu, 165. Photograph by Seydou Camara
Born in Cueta, on the northernmost coast of Morocco across from Gibraltar, the scholar al-qadi ‘Iyad wrote a biography of the Prophet Mohammad with devotional instructions in the 12th century. This is likely a later copy produced in North Africa. It was imported across the Sahara at an unknown time and is one of about 40,000 manuscripts in the collection of Mali’s Ahmed Baba Institute, most acquired from private family libraries in centers of Islamic learning across Mali.
The wealthy and powerful Fatimid Caliphate (909–1171), which ruled across North Africa, Egypt, and Syria, was active in Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and trans-Saharan trade networks. They vied with the Umayyads of Spain for access to West African gold and for control of major trading cities like Sijilmasa. This large and elaborate Fatimid bead is composed of two filigree cones that are joined along a central seam, a distinctive bead shape that has its origins in antiquity. During the medieval period, Jewish metalsmiths dominated gold working for Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clients across the Mediterranean.
Tiraz textile fragment. Egypt, 12th century. Linen and silk. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada, Abemayor Collection given in memory of Dr. Veronika Gervers, Associate Curator, Textile Department (1968-1979) by Albert and Federico Friedberg, 978.76.504.A
Extremely fine silk and linen tiraz textiles, occasionally embellished with gold-wrapped silk threads, were produced in private and state-run factories during the Fatimid and Mamluk periods, from the 10th to the 14th century. Many tiraz textiles bear inscriptions recording the names, titles, and dates of rulers, as well as declarations of faith. The “robes of honor” reportedly given to Mansa Musa were almost certainly tiraz, as they were among the high-value gifts presented to visiting dignitaries by rulers.
Kneeling Figure, Natamatao, Mopti region, Mali, 12th/14th century. Terracotta, 46 x 22.4 x 21.5 cm. Musée national du Mali, Bamako, 90.25.10. Photograph by Seydou Camara
This terracotta figure of a seated man was found at Natamatao, Mali, alongside skeletons of horses and humans. It was part of a widespread local terracotta sculpture tradition that stretched from the tenth to the fifteenth century. The Niger River’s fertile inland delta supported a thriving urbanism in the Middle Ages that included more than sixty interdependent communities. At Natamatao, excavations unearthed materials associated with trans-Saharan trade, notably a bundle of imported copper ingots. Bracelets and pendants, like those depicted on the kneeling figure, might well have been made of brass, a copper alloy.
Gravestone, Almería, Spain, first half of the 11th century. Marble, 50 x 37 cm. The Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY, D258. Image courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New York