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July 2020

Vol. 162 / No. 1408

Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa

Reviewed by Mariam Rosser-Owen

Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington

8th April–29th November

In 1324, Mansā Mūsā, the Muslim ruler of the empire of Māli and the richest man in the history of the world, set out on a pilgrimage to Mecca. His route took him along the central trans-Saharan caravan route to Cairo, where he joined the Hajj caravan to Mecca. He travelled with a retinue of eight thousand men and one hundred camels, each carrying three hundred pounds of gold. As reported by Mamluk eyewitness historians, Mansā Mūsā’s ‘openhanded generosity’ and the liberality of his retinue’s expenditure in Cairo’s markets depressed the value of gold in Egypt for some years.(1) His wealth was so legendary that Mansā Mūsā was depicted on a map of the world known as the ‘Catalan Atlas’, produced in 1375 by the Jewish cartographer Abraham Cresques for the king of Aragon (cat. fig.1.1; Fig.6). He sits on a throne wearing royal robes and a crown and holding a sceptre; in his right hand he offers a huge nugget of gold to a veiled man on a camel, one of the Tuareg merchants who plied the trans-Saharan trade routes. As the curator of this exhibition and editor of the accompanying book, Kathleen Bickford Berzock, notes, ‘No single object more clearly illustrates the prominence of West Africa within the medieval world’ (p.25).(2) The Catalan Atlas was too precious and fragile to be lent to the exhibition. Nevertheless, reproductions of Mansā Mūsā and the Tuareg merchant provide the lead image for both exhibition and book, and Mansā Mūsā was the focus of a (somewhat lacklustre) case study in the exhibition.

Mansā Mūsā’s wealth stemmed from his access to the Bambuk and Bure goldfields in Western Sudan, the main sources of gold until the development of the Akan goldfields, which were exploited by the Asante Empire from the late fifteenth century. The early modern period – with its shift away from trans- Saharan routes to the Atlantic coast, the rise of European involvement in trade, especially of slaves and the beginnings of colonialism – mark the endpoint for both book and exhibition, although both engage with later ‘reverberations’. Indeed, the book professes to shift ‘the popular narrative of Africa’s history away from the slave trade’ (p.24). Instead, the chronological focus is the explosion of trans-Saharan trade that arose in the ninth century with the development of Islamic states in North Africa. The competition between the rival caliphates of the Umayyads in al-Andalus and the Fatimids in present-day Tunisia drove a demand for gold in the midtenth century. This demand was fed by a complex network of caravan routes and trading entrepôts, which flourished during the medieval period and which have been the sites of remarkable archaeological finds in recent decades.

At the heart of the exhibition was an installation of fragments from Sijilmasa in Morocco and Tadmekka and Gao, both in modern-day Mali (loans have been made possible through institutional partnerships with Morocco, Mali and Nigeria). In the iteration of the exhibition at the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto (closed 23rd February), seen by this reviewer, these fragments were frustratingly decontextualised.(3) Because of the fragmentary nature of the finds, displays of complete medieval glass and ceramic objects were provided to visualise the original appearance, but – at least in the case of the ceramics – the objects chosen were rather too generic. It is very unlikely that any Abbasid lustreware found its way to these entrepôts, as suggested by this display, because the trade routes were not fully developed at this period. And although Fatimid lustreware has indeed been found, so have lustre ceramics produced in al-Andalus under the Almoravid and Almohad rule. The two regimes dominated these trade routes in their day, but apart from coins, their artistic output was underrepresented in the exhibition and, in one significant example, unidentified. A near-complete moulded jar (fig.7.10; Fig.5), discovered near the mosque at Sijilmasa, was clearly produced at Murcia or Almeria during the second half of the twelfth century; although this is a known type within Andalusi ceramic production, it was neither recognised as such in the exhibition nor identified in the book.(4) 

Sadly, there was no correlation between the historical importance of a find and its impact in the exhibition. For example, much was made of a fragment of a Qingbai porcelain bowl (Institut des sciences humaines, Mali; fig.1.7A), found at Tadmekka, illustrating that Chinese porcelain objects from the Song Dynasty (tenth–twelfth centuries) reached across the world through global trade routes.(5) But at no more than a centimetre, this fragment is almost comically small. The curator was aware of this and the wall text invited viewers to deploy their ‘archaeological imagination’ (hence the exhibition subtitle ‘Fragments in Time’). But even object types that could have had a more dramatic presence in the exhibition – such as Andalusi textiles woven with goldwrapped thread – were represented by small fragments, although larger and more splendid examples exist.

The exhibition used modern ethnographic material as ‘analogue[s]’ (p.33) to objects that have not survived in the archaeological record or that are too fragmentary to fully understand. This was helpful in the case of copper fittings found at Gao, which would once have been attached to leather objects. A twentieth-century shield made from oryx skin (Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Cambridge; fig.1.10) shows how such fittings might have been used. Such shields were considered marvels in the medieval period and were highly prized. In other cases, the use of this modern material risks giving a misleading impression that the art and cultures of African societies was static and unchanging across a thousand years of history.

The most magnificent section of the exhibition was ‘The Long Reach of the Sahara’, equivalent to the section ‘Matter in Motion’ in the book. Highlights were masterpieces of sculpture made from copper-alloys, from modern-day Nigeria, including a regal, seated figure found at Tada (fig.12.13; Fig.7), probably made at Ife in the fourteenth century, and a rope pot (National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abuja; g.12.12) made from an indigenous development of the lost-wax casting technique at Igbo Ukwu in the ninth or tenth century. The exhibition (and the relevant essays, especially the chapter by Sarah M. Guérin) was at pains to stress the strength of inter-regional trade in the sub-Saharan region and the importance of locally produced glass beads within this trade. Given that such beads have been found archaeologically in their thousands across this region, it was a shame that there were so few of them in the exhibition. Attention was also given to the tumuli of Durbi Takusheyi, where burial goods have revealed fascinating evidence of both far-flung and inter-regional trade. Lead isotope analysis of some of the finds suggests possible sources of copper ore in France, Iberia and the Middle East, while finds at Gao indicate that ores came from northern Tunisia. As the exhibition and book highlight, the trade in precious materials was by no means one way, as it has frequently been portrayed (ivory to the Mediterranean and Europe, for example). Sophisticated art-producing cultures within the continent of Africa exploited these trade routes for their own advantage.

The last section of the exhibition, ‘Saharan Echoes’, with its focus on Gnawa material culture (also covered in chapter 18 by Cynthia Becker), did not provide a powerful enough finale. It would, perhaps, have had more impact to end with the section ‘Shifting Away from the Sahara’, which included some of the most surprising objects: a sixteenth- to eighteenth-century copy (kuduo; British Museum, London; fig.17.4) of one of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Mamluk inlaid metal basins, recovered in southern Ghana; and two of three surviving fourteenth-century English bronze jugs – one of them embossed with the royal badges of Richard II (Fig.8), allowing the jug to be dated between 1390 and 1400 – found in royal contexts at Kumasi and looted by the British during the Anglo-Asante wars. But this ending would have become a European story, which the curator no doubt wanted to avoid. Another option would have been to close with contemporary migration across the Sahara today, as in the book’s last essay, or with a section about threats to cultural heritage, such as the recent destruction and salvage of Timbuktu’s precious libraries.

The accompanying book – which received an Association of Art Museum Curators 2020 Curatorial Award For Excellence – comprises nineteen essays written by twenty-one authors. They vary in length and tone (some essays would have benefited from further editing), and overall the book is an excellent contribution to scholarship. Together with the publications accompanying the exhibitions Maroc Médiéval at the Louvre in 2014 and Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara, currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, there is now a welcome wealth of scholarly literature dedicated to the art and cultures of North and West Africa during the medieval and early modern periods.(6)

The book is structured in four parts, of which sections two, ‘Sites’, and three, ‘Matter in Motion’, contain the most significant contributions, largely equivalent to the exhibition sections outlined above. This core is bookended by a series of scene-setting essays in section one, ‘Groundwork’, including Robert Launay on Arabic historical accounts and Ralph A. Austen on the sources of gold, which provides an intriguing analysis of medieval gold mining processes based on modern ethnographic studies. Section four, ‘Reverberations’, forms an epilogue. It includes essays by Ray Silverman on imported metalwork from the Mamluk world and England, which have been accorded ritual status in Ghana, by Cynthia Becker on Gnawa material culture as a distinct ‘Saharan’ visual vocabulary, born from centuries of contact in and around the desert, and by Galya Ben-Arieh on contemporary migration across Africa. Islam is highlighted as an important connecting factor, and Arabic, the lingua franca, is described as ‘the Latin of Africa’ (p.242). Words such as ‘recentering’, ‘resituating’ and ‘revising’ are used repeatedly, and the project is consciously placed within the context of the ‘global turn’ in medieval art history. The tagline on the exhibition’s website invites the visitor to ‘journey to a medieval world with Africa at its center’.(7)

Section two, ‘Sites’, introduces some of the key nodes along these trade routes, proceeding from north to south, through Sijilmasa, Tadmekka (where moulds for coin blanks have been found) and Gao, to the Inland Niger Delta and the central Sahel. Not every site could be included here and such other significant emporia as Timbuktu are discussed in more thematic studies, in this case in Mauro Nobili’s essay on Islamic scholarship and literacy. These detailed summary accounts of recent archaeology are useful, but the importance of Arabic historical sources and the information about trade routes, which is recounted each time, becomes repetitive. Launay’s essay could have been more regularly cross-referenced, and a historical overview, synthesising all this material, is missing.

This project is an unprecedented achievement, and is especially important at a time when a better understanding of Africa’s contribution to global history is necessary. Undoubtedly, the curatorial logistics were complex and unwelcome compromises had to be made along the way. It may be too ambitious in its geographical and temporal scope, especially when so many of the key objects are so small and, occasionally, fragmentary. Each of its rather small sections could make a whole exhibition in itself; the many stories introduced only scraped the surface. Nevertheless, together with the book, it will stand as a landmark in the historiography of medieval Africa.

1. N. Levtzion and J. Spaulding, eds.: Medieval West Africa: Views from Arab Scholars and Merchants, Princeton 2003, p.62.

2. Accompanying publication: Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa. Edited by Kathleen Bickford Berzock. 312 pp. incl. 192 col. ills. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2019), $65. ISBN 978–0–691–18268–1.

3. The exhibition was previously shown at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Evanston IL (26th January–21st July 2019).

4. On this type of ware, see for example, I. Flores Escobosa: ‘La fabricación de cerámica islámica en Almería: la loza dorada’, Tudmir 2 (2011), pp.9–28.

5. For the easterly trade routes, see also S. Whitfield, ed.: Silk Roads: Peoples, Cultures, Landscapes, London 2019.

6. Y. Lintz, C. Déléry and B. Tuil-Leonetti: exh. cat. Le Maroc médiéval: Un empire de l’Afrique à l’Espagne, Paris (Musée du Louvre) 2014; the exhibition was reviewed by the present author in this Magazine, 157 (2015), p.855; and A. LaGamma, ed.: exh. cat. Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara, New York (Metropolitan Museum of Art) 2020. The exhibition, originally scheduled until May, appears to have been extended until August 2020.

7. The Block Museum’s microsite is available at, accessed 11th June 2020, while an excellent virtual tour of the exhibition at the Aga Khan Museum, containing all the label text and exhibition films, is available at, accessed 11th June 2020.