‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Bakrī
Al-Bakrī was born in Spain, and it appears that he never left that country. However, he collected information from people he met who had traveled to the Sahara and the Sudan, and he published his findings in a work called The Book of Routes and Realms (Kitāb al-masālik wa-’l-mamālik). Al-Bakrī, who died in 1094, was famous for his curiosity about the geography, languages, and natural landscape of places he had not himself visited. The greater part of his major book is still unpublished, but the following section provides insight into the changing religious landscape in Ghana in the early eleventh century.
‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Bakrī, “Ghāna and the Customs of Its Inhabitants,” trans. J. F. P. Hopkins, in N. Levtzion and J. F. P. Hopkins, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 79–81.
In the medieval period Ethiopia became a multiethnic, multilingual, and multireligious state in which the kings limited the church’s conversion efforts. Nevertheless, the kings continued to emphasize their Christian identity, and this factor is reflected in their adoption and endorsement of the Fetha Nagast, or Law of the Kings, in the mid-fifteenth century. This legal code had originally been written in Arabic by a Coptic Christian in Egypt, probably in the mid-thirteenth century. While living under Muslim rule, the Copts were allowed to adopt portions of Justinian’s law code and the resolutions of church councils for their own governance. Translated from Greek, and with many Biblical passages added, the code connected Egyptian Christians to their Byzantine, Roman, and Judeo-Christian heritage, founding the basis of law squarely in that tradition. The Ethiopian monarchs had the Arabic source translated into Ge’ez (the state language of Ethiopia at the time), and the translator added a section on kingship, a portion of which is offered below. The Law of the Kings remained the law in Ethiopia until 1930, when Emperor Haile Selassie I issued the country’s first modern constitution.
Excerpt from The Fetha Nagast, trans. Paulos Tzadua, ed. Peter L. Strauss (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2009), 271–273.
Amda Seyon was a fourteenth century king of the Solomonid Dynasty, which ruled Ethiopia from 1270 until 1974. The name of the dynasty, Solomonid, derives from the Ethiopian belief that the kings of Aksum (whom the Solomonids believed were their ancestors) were descended from King Solomon of Israel and the Queen of Sheba. The kings of Aksum and the later Solomonids were Christian, and their king Amda Seyon, led them into warfare in 1329 against Muslims in the neighboring state of Ifat (in north-east Ethiopia). The Solomonids also fought against other neighboring states, including Christians and animists; however, the Glorious Victories of Amda Seyon portrays the war between the Solomonids and Ifat as a religious war between Christians and Muslims. The following excerpt features the king encouraging his army to fight on, paraphrasing the book of Psalms in the process.
The Glorious Victories of Amda Seyon, King of Ethiopia, trans. and ed. G. W. B. Huntingford. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), 67, 69-71.
The archaeological site of Mapungubwe, first discovered and excavated in the 1930s, spans the borders of present-day South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. It was one of the most powerful African Iron Age states, dominating southern Africa from 1070 to 1300 and establishing trade contacts with the Middle East and India. The source of its influence was the gold mined in the territory, fashioned into objects, and then exported far beyond the borders of the kingdom.
University of Pretoria Museums, South Africa, Mapungubwe Collection, copyright University of Pretoria
Beginning in the ninth century, the sahel and savannah regions of West Africa were beginning to experience a new period of prosperity and creativity that gave birth to the rise of three successive empires: Ghana (800–1070), Mali (1000–1350), and Songhay (1300–1520). Historians typically attribute the rise of these large, cosmopolitan states to the thriving trans-Saharan caravan trade in salt and gold. Prosperous market towns, such as the legendary Timbuktu, grew up on the edge of the desert to facilitate the exchange of these and other goods, and local leaders taxed the trade in exchange for providing security, law, and order. Over time, the wealth derived from commercial taxes allowed leaders to enlarge their armies, to purchase horses from North Africa to form cavalry, and to launch a series of successful conquests that created huge, tribute-paying empires. Although some leaders converted to Islam to improve their trading relations with Arabs from the north, the majority of the population continued to adhere to their traditional, ancestral religious beliefs. The wealth and prosperity of these kingdoms became well known in the Arab world, and much of our knowledge about the history of the region comes from numerous travelers’ accounts of the region.
Another kind of historical source for this region is African oral histories, which have been handed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years. The task of remembering and recounting oral traditions in West Africa is entrusted to griots, who have also served for centuries as the musicians, historians, and trusted advisors and counselors to kings. In a culture that lacked the tradition of literacy, griots served a crucial function as the official “memory” of the past. One of the most famous of these griot-related histories is the epic of Sundiata, the founder of the empire of Mali around the eleventh century. The account that follows was memorized and passed on by generations of griots.
According to the oral history, Sundiata was destined to rise to greatness, but he first had to overcome a long list of personal challenges and adversity, including a self-imposed exile from his home. In his absence, Mali fell under the rule of the evil King Soumaoro, a cruel and despotic leader who resorted to black magic to maintain his power and oppression. When news of Soumaoro’s vicious rule reached Sundiata, he returned to Mali to claim his title and to fulfill his destiny. After a prolonged series of military campaigns, Sundiata’s forces defeated Soumaoro, and a new reign of justice, peace, and prosperity was restored to Mali.
Clearly, the tale of Sundiata told in the oral history departs from what most westerners would consider “true history.” The inclusion of magic, destiny, and superhuman feats seems to suggest that this is a tale based more on fiction than fact. Nonetheless, the tale is an important historical source for what it tells us about Malian cultural history, especially notions of leadership, virtue, and the purpose of remembered history.
D. T. Niane, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali. Essex, UK: Addison Wesley Longman Limited (Longman African Writers, 1994): 2, 5–6, 23–26, 40–42, 47–48, 61–65, 81–82, 84.
Liyongo is the trickster-hero of a several East Africa tales, which were transmitted orally and eventually written down in the nineteenth century. They may have been told as early as the tenth century. They represent the intersection between the Islamicized Swahili culture along the East African coast in what is today Kenya and Tanzania, with the native animist cultures closer to the interior. The conversion of East Africans to Islam began quite early, and by the seventh century there were already Swahili trade centers and ports. However, the animists of the interior continued to practice their beliefs until the modern era.
In this excerpt, Liyongo travels to meet the Sultan of Pate, an island off the coast of Kenya. It is literally a meeting of animist traditions, represented by Liyongo, and Islam, represented by the Sultan.
Alice Werner, The Swahili Saga of Liongo Fumo (1926)
The chiefdom of Ijebu encompassed a capital and villages on a territory of 22 square miles, surrounded by a deep moat and towering rampart almost 100 miles long. The iron-saturated soil would have made the construction process very difficult, especially since the labor was achieved with nothing more than iron shovels. This line drawing illustrates what archaeologists believe to have been the arrangement of a typical cross section of this structure. It is named for Bilikisu Sungo, a mythical priestess-queen who was credited with ordering the construction of the moat and rampart.
By Nyame Akuma, 1998