Art, Culture, and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa
Gao is the greatest of the realms of the Sudan, the most important and most powerful. All other kingdoms obey its king.
—Al-Ya‘qubi, 9th century
Strategically positioned beside the Niger River and between the Sahara and the fertile West African Savanna, the city of Gao was an important center for trade in the Middle Ages. Abu ‘Ubayd al-Bakri (d. 1094), a medieval geographer and historian, observed that Islam was well established in Kawkaw, the Arabic name for the kingdom of Gao, in the 11th century the town consists of two towns, one being the residence of the king and the other inhabited by Muslims.
Gao Ancien was the royal capital and residence; five miles east was the Muslim town, Gao Saney. Several tombstones with Arabic inscriptions have been found in a cemetery on the outskirts of Gao Saney. This pattern of twin communities in capitals of chiefdoms or kingdoms where the king was not Muslim was replicated throughout much of West Africa, especially along routes of the caravan trade.
Iron bracelet excavated at Gao Saney, 8th century/10th century. Approximately 6 x 4.5 x 6 cm. Lev. 2, LRF 2. Direction nationale du patrimoine culturel, Mali. Photograph by Seydou Camara
Fragments of glass excavated at Gao Saney, 8th/10th century. GS1, lev. 9, LRF 19, ACGS, l1, LRF 1 and lev. 19, LRF 26. Direction nationale du patrimoine culturel, Mali. Photograph by Seydou Camara
Hardstone beads excavated at Gao Ancien, 8th/13th century. GMK/S1, L11. Direction nationale du patrimoine culturel, Mali. Photograph by Seydou Camara
Spoon or ladle excavated in 2006 from GKM 13, lev. 1 from Gao Ancien. Copper alloy, 5.5 × 4.5 × 1.3 cm. Direction nationale du patrimoine culturel, Mali. Photograph by Seydou Camara
Left: Copper-alloy bell excavated at Gao Ancien, 9th/13th century. 3 × 1.75 × 1.5 cm. Right: Copper alloy bell with chain excavated at Gao Ancien, 9th/13th century. Direction nationale du patrimoine culturel, Mali. Photograph by Seydou Camara
Crucible, excavated at Gao Saney, Mali, 8th/10th century. Terracotta, maximum width 4.8 cm. Direction nationale du patrimoine culturel, Mali. Photograph by Seydou Camara
This small crucible recovered from the site of Gao Saney was used in glass bead making. Glass beads, which were produced at many locales and exchanged across vast distances, provide a microcosm for considering the complex networks that met at Gao Saney. Approximately two-thirds of the beads are from the lower occupation levels, dated to the eighth to tenth century, and many of those were found in trenches in broken, malformed, or unfinished condition. The evidence from these trenches is especially compelling, suggesting that Gao Saney was a production site for recycling and remaking imported glass. At Gao Ancien, in contrast, most excavated beads had been finished.