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The Sahara Desert was never an empty wasteland but a thriving network of trade routes, some of which date back to the 5th century. Between the 8th and 15th centuries, merchants and camel caravans crisscrossed the desert as trade increased between North Africa, Egypt and Sudan and the powerful West African empires of Hausaland, Songhai, Ghana, Mali, Kanem Bomu and Ashanti. Only in the late 15th century with the advent of Atlantic trade did the pattern of Trans-Saharan trading change as the coastal trade bypassed the old desert emporia. With the exception of Timbuktu, once important centers of trade like Ife, Tadmekka, Takedda, Gao and Walata in modern Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, are all but forgotten.

Sahara Desert, Fezzan, Libya
Great Mosque of Djenne
Sankore Mosque, Timbuktu

Islam expanded to West Africa via trade and as Arabic script was used to write local languages, it soon became the lingua franca of commerce, learning and administration. Early medieval accounts record that slaves were as much a part of Saharan and West African trade as ivory, ebony and gold; Al-Ya’qubi in the 9th century and Andalusian geographer, Al Bakri, in the 11th century, both describe a trade route between Lake Chad and Zawila as being a slave route. Today there is evidence to show that slaves worked in West African gold mines.

Gold and slavery were always linked. The earliest European presence in West Africa was that of the Portuguese, who traded in slaves and gold with the Ashante in what Europeans called the Gold Coast, now Ghana. The Dutch arrived in 1621 followed by the English in 1660, when Charles II gave his brother James, a monopoly to trade for gold in West Africa. Later, slaves were added to the search for gold and in 1672 the Royal African Company was formed. Until its demise in 1752, the RAC was responsible for transporting hundreds of thousands of slaves to the New World. Part of the company’s elaborate crest was an elephant and castle, which came to be included beneath the monarch’s image on all coin minted in London from West African gold. Indeed, the word ‘guinea’ in reference to the English currency, derives from the fact that at the time a huge area of West Africa was called ‘Guinea’.

A James II guinea stamped with the elephant and castle denoting the gold was West African.

From the 13th to the 16th centuries the Mali Empire included parts of modern day Mauritania, Niger, Guinea, and Burkino Faso, as well as the Gambia, and Senegal. Mali was rich in gold and when Mansa Musa, a powerful 14th century ruler, went on pilgrimage to Mecca via Cairo in 1324, he gave away so much gold that he singlehandedly depressed the price.

Exquisite example of tiraz fabric

Being highly prized, gold found its way into many different artisanal goods. Silk embroidered linen decorated with gold thread was produced from the 10th to the 14th century. Called tiraz meaning embroidery, the fabric was often made into robes of honor and embroidered with the shahada, the Muslim profession of faith, or with the names and titles of distinguished rulers. Fatimid and Mamluk rulers often presented such robes to visiting dignitaries as gifts. (The Fatimids were originally from Ifriqiyya, or Mahdia in Tunisia. Their rise to powerful Cairo-based dynasty was enabled in part because they controlled the gold trade into North Africa.)

Tiraz textile
Textile with gold thread called tiraz

Gold was also incorporated into ceramics or lustreware, in a method first developed in Iraq in the 9th century. The shimmery finish was obtained by mixing silver sulfides and copper oxides on to the clay which was then fired twice in a special two-part process. 

Opalescent ceramic
Beautifully illustrated miniature painting

Calligraphy is one of the most revered Islamic arts. When paper replaced parchment in the 11th century, it led to folio books rather than scrolls. Calligraphers began to experiment with the Arabic alphabet by extending some letters. This innovation resulted in different scripts such as ‘thuluth’, which was used to great effect in ornately designed illuminated Qurans. Gold and blue, which came from indigo, cobalt or lapis lazuli and was considered to be a majestic color, featured prominently.

Folio with elongated letters and exaggerated lower ‘tails’

Copper was mined traded along with gold. Two outstanding copper figures dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries show that the copper came from France indicating that already, trade extended far beyond the Sahara and Sudan. The figures came from Ife in present day Nigeria which was then the political and ritual center of a multi-ethnic kingdom that was strategically located on the trade routes.

Blocks of Salt waiting to be transported on the Niger River, Mopti, 2009
Standing warrior in copper, from Ife
Archer in copper, found on Jebba Island in Niger. Probably Ife, 14th/15th century
Seated figure in copper from Ife
Magnificent Seated figure in copper probably from Ife, 13th/14th century.

Tadmekka, another important stop on the Saharan trade routes, was also a center of gold and copper mining and smithing. In the 11th century, al-Bakri wrote “their dinars are called bald because they are of pure gold without any stamp.” His contemporaries pooh-poohed this as a fiction, not least because gold was thought to be mined only north of the Sahara. But in 2005 the discovery of terracotta mold fragments in Tadmekka proved him right. 

On a simpler note, Talismanic writings and Quranic verses were written on clothing worn by warriors and hunters. One exhibit from Mali is of a mid-20th century cotton coat covered with cowrie shells, glass mirrors and the claws, skin and teeth of animals. The animal parts, like a lion’s claw or tooth, supposedly endowed the wearer with the properties of the animal, while the mirror warded off the evil eye. Cowrie shells were used as currency.

Tuareg men, Timbuktu. Here it is men who are veiled.
Talismanic vest worn by a warrior
Cotton vest with talismanic writings

The nomadic Fulanis weave narrow panels of cotton and wool, with distinctive chevroned patterns, for the inside of their goatskin tents. The weavers, who are always male, then sew the panels together to create the tent. All nomads weave on small, vertical looms which have to be dismantled and reassembled when the tribe is on the move. If the men weave the tents, the tent itself belongs to women who are gifted them by their mothers when they marry. The patterns seen here are similar to those woven by Amazigh women in Morocco.

Fulani woven textile for the inside of a tent
Distinctive patterned textiles woven by the Fulani to decorate the interior of their tents.

For those who want to learn more about the history, art and culture of West Africa and the Sahara, the exhibition will remain at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto until Feb 23, 2020. It comes to the Smithsonian in DC April 11-December 31, 2020.