Book Review: A history of West Africa’s golden empires

“African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa” sheds new light on the golden empires that controlled the West African interior.
Updated 01 March 2018
0

Book Review: A history of West Africa’s golden empires

Two-thirds of the world’s gold once came from West Africa. But who really knew this? West Africa’s history has been largely overlooked and undervalued. It’s about ancient empires, fabulous natural resources and the trans-Saharan trade routes which were among the most lucrative in the world.
“African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa” sheds new light on the golden empires that controlled the West African interior and an astonishing patchwork of people who wrote their story against considerable odds. Drawing on a rich variety of sources including Arabic manuscripts and oral histories as well as recent archaeological findings, Michael Gomez puts early and medieval West Africa in a global context. This ground-breaking history reveals not only the wealth of these golden empires but also the important role of Islam.
Islam’s expansion, combined with the growth of commercial ties, triggered a series of unique political experiments which gave rise to empires in which the question of slavery was a major preoccupation. This encouraged a deep and original reflection resulting in the birth of new ideas and concepts long before the seeds of colonialism and the slave trade were sown.
This book invites us into West Africa’s multifaceted past at a time when the continent was both powerful and free from the scourge of slavery and the grip of imperialism. The author deplores the West’s collective silence on early and medieval Africa and the blatant lack of research despite considerable developments in the region, especially in the field of archaeology.
The discovery of hundreds of urban sites with an adjacent production of various local crafts gives the region a rightful place among world civilizations such as the Tang dynasties in China, the Vedic period in India and the Mayan civilization.
The Empire of Ghana was the first state established in West Africa in AD300 and when it reached its heyday during the 8th century, it covered much of present-day Mali and parts of eastern Senegal. Ghana was extremely wealthy and powerful, although it was the smallest of the so-called golden empires including Mali and Songhai.
Al Bakri, an Andalusian Berber historian and the greatest geographer in the Muslim West, is a major source of information thanks to his “Book of Highways and of Kingdoms,” written in 1068. It is based on literature and reports of merchants and travelers and gives crucial information on the Ghana Empire.
Al Bakri notices that “only the king and his heir apparent may wear sown clothes, other people wear robes of cotton, silk or brocade, according to their means.” The king sat in a domed pavilion in royal sessions and flanked on his right stood “the sons of the king of his country wearing splendid garments and their hair plaited with gold.” To approach the king, the people would fall on their knees and sprinkle dust on their heads, for this is their way of greeting him, “while the Muslims only clapped their hands.”
Traders introduced Islam to Ghana from the northern part of the country but it could not save the empire, which was eventually incorporated in the Empire of Mali.
Mali is probably the most legendary of West African empires. Founded in the middle of the 13th century by Sundiata Keita, leader of the Malinke people, it reached its apogee in the 14th century. Its gold mines aroused the interest of the European powers.
King Kankan Musa, grandnephew of Sundiata Keita, became one of the most extraordinary of all African kings. He ascended the throne at the age of 23 and reigned for 25 years. He is mostly remembered from the historical accounts related to his Hajj, which he performed at the age of 35 in 1324.
Ibn Kathir wrote in his book “The Beginning and the End of History” that Musa was accompanied by 20,000 people when he arrived in Cairo en route to the Pilgrimage. Other sources give different numbers, but these discrepancies can easily be explained by the fact that when Musa arrived in Egypt, he had fewer people around him than when he started.
Al-Umari, a source mentioned by Gomez, estimates that the King “left his country with 100 loads of gold,” which is equivalent to 16,000 kilograms or 16 tons. “They had so much gold with them that the rate of gold fell by two dirhams in each mithqal,” Ibn Kathir wrote humorously.
Musa’s display of wealth during his visit to Cairo impressed the Egyptians, who treated him like a powerful leader. His pilgrimage also encouraged the establishment of commercial ties between Mali and Egypt that would last for centuries. But, most of all, it would create “an indelible impression of Mali as the quintessential land of gold,” says Gomez.
Malians ruled at a time when the European powers were traveling across the oceans to discover new lands and expand their rule, but they turned away from the sea and chose the Sahara. Both the Mughal and Mongol empires showed that a naval force is not necessary if its lack of one is compensated by an exceptionally powerful and professional army. “Mali lacked this level of military proficiency; it was not spatially positioned to benefit from the generative effects of the Silk and Spice Routes, nor did it have access to such wide-ranging expertise,” writes Gomez.
As one of the greatest, if not the greatest, West African empire, imperial Mali ruled over Mali, Niger, Senegal and Gambia, Mauritania, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Chad. But its inability to extend its rule beyond its eastern and western provinces would eventually encourage breakaway states, threaten the unity of the empire and eventually lead to its dissolution.
When Mali began to disintegrate, the Songhai took control of Gao and, under the rule of Sonni Ali, the Songhai Empire even surpassed the Malian empire in area, wealth and power. This empire also distinguished itself with the creation of a professional army and a civil service, and Muslim scholars, judges and doctors were supported financially. By the mid-15th century, the Empire of Songhai reached its apogee and 50 years later, the city of Timbuktu became an important commercial center and a great seat of learning with the Sankore University housing 25,000 scholars.
Unlike the Malian Empire, where everything was controlled by the Mande, the Songhai Empire developed into an ethnically heterogeneous society in which loyalty to the state transcended allegiance to one’s clan.
The Songhai remained connected to the world via a sea of sand, the Sahara Desert. Never expecting an army to cross the desert, the Songhai were surprised by a daring attack from their unsuspected Berber neighbor. The decisive battle of Tondibi in 1591 put an end to the Songhai supremacy. Their empire soon splintered into many small kingdoms. In the mid-15th century, the arrival of the Portuguese along the Gulf of Guinea signaled the end of the golden empires in West Africa and the advent of a new period of confrontation and submission to Europe.


Egyptian novel explores Christians under controlling church

Updated 13 December 2018
0

Egyptian novel explores Christians under controlling church

  • The novel tells the story of a young Christian man in Cairo, Sherif, who has abandoned the church
  • It explores what the author says is the victimization of Egypt’s Christians by a “politically engineered harmony” between the state and their own church

CAIRO: Shady Lewis Botros says his recently published novel — “Ways of the Lord” — can be broadly viewed as an attempt to answer one question: What it’s like to be a Christian in Egypt?
The answer, given in stories narrated by the book’s chief character, is complex and often disheartening. It’s giving your children neutral names that don’t identify them as Christians in hopes they’ll have a sporting chance of progress in the mainly Muslim nation. It means facing baseless but dangerous charges of spying for Israel at time of war. It means turning off the lights at home and gathering the family in one room to escape the attention of a Muslim mob on the street.
Beyond entrenched discrimination, the Arabic-language novel explores what the author says is the victimization of Egypt’s Christians by a “politically engineered harmony” between the state and their own church, seeking to control their lives.
“Ways of the Lord” is a rare example of an Egyptian work of fiction whose primary characters are Christian. The result breaks stereotypes that many of the country’s Muslims hold about their minority compatriots. But it also turns the look inward, dispelling the secrecy surrounding the ancient Coptic Orthodox Church — the predominant denomination in Egypt — and addressing its controlling practices and its rivalries with smaller churches.
“Most Coptic literature is about the discrimination or oppression Christians endure with a dose of rights advocacy. That’s understandable but that is also about as far as it goes,” Botros told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from London, his home of 13 years. “This work introduces Egyptians to the reality of Copts as a people who are not always praying, singing hymns and waiting on every word from the church. The novel opens the world of Copts to both Copts and Muslims.”
The novel, the author’s first, takes on added relevance because the Coptic Church leadership has adhered closer than ever to the government. It’s an alliance that gives the community a measure of protection but has raised questions over its independence and has drawn the wrath of Islamic militants, who have over the past two years killed more than a 100 Christians in attacks.
The church’s unity is also being tested, partially over calls for it to modernize some of its rigid rules, like those governing marriage and divorce. The killing in July of the abbot of a monastery, for which two monks are on trial, has led to soul searching about the practices of monasticism, traditionally a cornerstone of the church’s identity.
The novel tells the story of a young Christian man in Cairo, Sherif, who has abandoned the church. He’s in a relationship with a German woman, but to marry her he must first get a church document. So he goes to his neighborhood priest each week for interviews that turn into confessionals.
Sherif relates a series of tales to explain to the priest why he never comes to church. He tells of his family’s past rebellions, like a grandfather who left the Coptic Church because the priest would not baptize his newborn child before her death.
As a young man, he says, he hopped from one Christian denomination to another to explore his identity. His father is cynical about his spiritual search, telling his son, “Generally, they are all con artists.”
The confession sessions with the priest are one of two plot tracks running through the novel. The other follows Sherif’s political activism, which lands him in trouble with the police. His one hope to escape jail time is to marry his girlfriend and go to Germany, but in the end, the girlfriend returns home. He spends a year in jail for a white-collar crime he did not commit.
“Sherif was painted as a character in crisis and that’s not just on account of being a member of a minority, but rather as someone facing an existential crisis over his problems with the church and the state,” said literary critic Ahmed Shawqy Ali.
The novel ends with Sherif surrendering to the powers that crush his rebellion. Jobless after losing his government engineering job, he survives on a small income from doing little jobs for the church, while telling his stories to whoever will listen. “The ways of the Lord are strange and tough to understand,” Sheriff says of his return to the church’s embrace.
Botros said the book’s “fatalistic” ending “shows that, in a place like Egypt, religious minorities like Christians don’t have many choices.”
The church presents itself as the protector of Egypt’s Copts, and many in the community adhere to it fervently.
“The church is a peacemaker that is in harmony with everyone, from the ruling government and civil society groups to Al-Azhar,” said a church spokesman, Boulis Halim, referring to the top Muslim institution in Egypt. “We cannot deny that there are shortcomings in some respects, especially the social field, but that will evolve going forward.”
But critics say the interests of individual Christians get lost under the church’s communal leadership.
Kamal Zakher, a Christian who is one of Egypt’s top experts on the Coptic Church, said the church has become a “hostage” to the government for safety, particularly since the rise of Islamic hard-liners starting in the 1970s.
It and the government leadership deal with each other directly, but “they have all forgotten that ordinary Christians deal on daily basis with bureaucrats who, like everyone else, have been influenced by that Islamic revival,” Zakher said.
Karoline Kamel, a researcher on church affairs from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said the novel’s main character is not typical of Coptic youth, who in large part associate closely with the church. But she said the novel gets the theme of control right.
“The church’s protection is focused on itself as an institution, as walls and buildings regardless of what happens to Christians,” she said.