Africa’s medieval golden age

During the Middle Ages, while Europe fought, traded, explored and evolved, Africa was a continent in darkness, 'without history' – or so the traditional western narrative runs. In fact, as François-Xavier Fauvelle reveals, it was a shining period in which great African cultures flourished

The magnificent ruins of the Great Mosque at Kilwa Kisiwani

On 27 July 2007, the then French president Nicolas Sarkozy gave a speech to 1,300 guests at Cheikh Anta Diop University in the Senegalese capital, Dakar. In his address, given during a trip to bolster relations between France and the African continent, Sarkozy remarked that: “The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history… They have never really launched themselves into the future.” He continued: “The African peasant, who for thousands of years has lived according to the seasons, whose life ideal was to be in harmony with nature, only knew the eternal renewal of time… In this imaginary world, where everything starts over and over again, there is room neither for human endeavour, nor for the idea of progress.”

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Sarkozy’s speech did not go down well. I was based in Ethiopia at the time, and witnessed the explosive reaction it provoked – in Africa, among historians of Africa, and across the African diaspora. Many of my academic colleagues decided to respond to Sarkozy’s words, to demonstrate that it was wrong to say that Africa has no history. I also wanted to do something, but wasn’t immediately sure what.

The fact that such a view of Africa could be aired was not the fault of politicians but of historians

Eventually, I realised that the problem was not with Sarkozy himself, nor even with the fact that he felt able to make that speech, but rather that there was room in wider society for it to be received. My diagnosis was that books addressing African history were absent from library shelves and bookstores – and therefore the fact that such a view of Africa could be aired was not the fault of politicians but of historians.

This view of Africa’s distant past as a dark age without history is deeply connected with the legacy of slavery. It’s part of an ideology that developed in the western world from the 16th century onwards, when Christian western European powers began to trade slaves with Africa, and between Africa and the New World. This commerce created a concept of Africans as almost non-human – as people and societies without substance and without pasts. And, though the mass commercial enslavement of Africans has ended, this ideology is in many ways still entrenched in the mentality of many people around the globe.


Listen: Historians Tom Young and Emma Dabiri explore how Africa’s past has affected its present in a discussion prompted by the themes of Tom’s new book, Neither Devil Nor Child: How Western Attitudes Are Harming Africa


The fact that African history is such a sensitive issue means that the subtitle of the book I wrote in response to Sarkozy’s speech – The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages – could attract a few criticisms. Some might come from conservative historians who suggest that, since the term Middle Ages was created to describe a period of European history, it’s only fully legitimate in reference to Christian western Europe. Another round of criticism might come from African historians objecting to the application to that continent of a term coined for Europe, rather than creating a different, distinct name to designate the time period in Africa.

Yet, despite these objections, I think it’s useful to apply the term Middle Ages to Africa. It helps us to rethink the period as something more broad and inclusive, and not merely European. This is a period of global history – with a place for the Mediterranean, for the Byzantine empire, and for the Islamic world. Indeed, the Middle Ages was a period during which all of these regions were conversing and exchanging. If we understand it in those terms, it helps us to see Christian Europe at that time as just one part of a global medieval world made up of many different provinces.

Out of the dark

Of course, researching and writing African history is challenging in many ways. There are far fewer written sources than for Christian western Europe or the Islamic world, for instance. That’s partly because many African societies didn’t feel the need to produce their own written archives, so in many regions historians have to work with written documents created outside those societies. There are a few exceptions to this lack of internal written documents – for instance, Christian Ethiopia produced thousands of manuscripts that historians can use today – but, by and large, historians who want to work with African history face a lack of written documentation.

So we are left with using other kinds of sources, mainly archaeological in nature. These include sites, many already known to us but many of which are still unknown, as well as objects from these sites. We can also work with rock art, comparative linguistics, and oral testimonies and traditions. The challenge that African historians face, working with fragmentary evidence, is very different from that confronting historians of medieval western Europe or modern societies. But this challenge is also part of what makes the subject so fascinating. It’s the signature of African history.

Despite the fragmentary nature of the evidence available to us today, it is possible to trace broader trends in the history of medieval Africa. Many of the continent’s regions, though not connected with each other, enjoyed the same pattern of relationships with the outside world. Many of these were based on Islamic trade, which was established around the seventh or eighth century AD. We can trace the journeys of travellers – i-Mazigh-en (or Berber) people, Arabs, and those from regions as diverse as Egypt, Persia and India – coming to sub-Saharan African cities and trading on a par with their commercial counterparts and local rulers.

Coral-stone ruins mark the site of Songo Mnara, another medieval trading centre on the Swahili coast of west Africa
Coral-stone ruins mark the site of Songo Mnara, another medieval trading centre on the Swahili coast of west Africa. Artefacts from China and India found here illustrate the range of its extensive trade network (Photo by Alexander J.E. Bradley / 500px / Getty Images)

These long-distance commercial relationships gave rise to changes around the continent in various aspects of life, from political ideology and judicial systems to styles of architecture. Again, many of these changes were linked to Islam, which is not only a religion but also a full legal system. Muslim kingdoms burgeoned in Senegal, Mali, Chad, Ethiopia and surrounding regions in the 10th and 11th centuries.

This was a completely new development in Africa. Yet this story is not just about African people adopting outside novelties such as Islam or a Muslim legal system. It’s also about them adapting it, a process we can see clearly in the very distinctive local forms of Muslim architecture in different parts of the continent – for instance, the Swahili architecture that developed along the east African coast, with its mosques and palaces made of coral block. So this long-distance relationship between African countries and the rest of the world is a story both of adoption and adaptation of outside ideas and products.

Majesty and mystery

This really was a golden era of great civilisations. For instance, during the Middle Ages, Mogadishu (now capital of the modern state of Somalia) was far removed from the complicated, war-ravaged city it is today; instead it was a peaceful settlement of trade, characterised by relationships between people of different religions and ethnic backgrounds.

I’m fascinated, too, by the kingdom of Mali, which appeared around the 13th century and declined around the 15th century. Though the beginning and end of that period are not very well documented, we know a fair amount about the middle because we’re lucky enough to have a number of formidable testimonies from travellers and Arab historians. In 1324, Mali’s sultan Musa I passed through Egypt on a pilgrimage to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, stopping in Cairo for several weeks. We know much about him because, around 25 years later, Arab historian Shihab al-Umari interviewed people who had met Musa during his stay. Thanks to his work, we are able to read a very sensitive account of the sultan’s personality and actions as a ruler, as well as rare documentation about him and his kingdom. One thing that remains a mystery, though, is the location of the capital of medieval Mali. I’d love to discover the answer to that particular riddle.

Another fascinating place to visit would have been the medieval port of ‘Aydhab, which today is in the contested Hala’ib Triangle region on the Red Sea coast claimed by both Egypt and Sudan. It’s so contested, in fact, that almost nobody can go there now, and no researchers have been able to carry out any work there in the recent past. In the Middle Ages, though, it was both in the middle of nowhere and a busy crossroads between various trading routes. It was thus a place where different communities met: Arabs, Jews, Indians and Ethiopians. The few academics who have visited in recent decades have been able to make out the ruins of small stone houses, ground studded with pieces of Chinese porcelain, and thousands of Muslim tombs made from large rectangular blocks of limestone – the final resting places of pilgrims who either never made it to Mecca or never returned home.

New dimensions

These are just a few of the stories of medieval Africa; there are many more that I could have introduced, both here and in my book. My aim is to explore the many dimensions of African history, the different sources and approaches, and to invite other historians to write other stories – and also for readers to read more about them. Even now, with African history and archaeology considered legitimate in the academic world, there are still many areas to explore and many things that must be done to recover Africa’s past. The process of researching its history hasn’t always been as active as it should have been, and academic institutions – both in Africa and elsewhere – should invest much more in uncovering that past than they do now.

People like to think of Africans as more rooted in nature than culture. But history teaches a different lesson: of kings, diplomats, merchants

It’s a history that should be of interest to everyone. It’s useful, of course, for African societies and nations, in order for them to have something to say about their own past. But it’s also useful outside the continent, because Africa is often perceived as a region of many calamities – pandemics, droughts, famines, wars, corrupt governments – where people are viewed as victims.

Of course, this view has been changing for the better in recent decades. But what I find striking is that many people outside the continent, even those who are well educated and well intentioned, like to think of Africans as people more rooted in nature than in culture. It’s pertinent to observe the western taste for African wildlife documentary movies, from which African characters are almost completely absent, or our romantic approach to wildlife conservation, work that is most commonly led by westerners. History teaches a different lesson: it shows Africans who were kings, diplomats, merchants, clerics, and builders of religious or civil monuments that can still be visited today. These people interacted with each other across the continent as well as with merchants and diplomats from the wider world.

African people were, of course, sold as slaves. There were poor peasants who mined a few grams of gold dust per day when there was no other way to make a living because locusts had ravaged their fields. But when we read about a 14th-century Muslim cleric addressing King Sulayman of Mali, telling him that he had heard the locusts say they had devastated the country because it was ill-governed, it is like feeling a refreshing breath of air through a tiny window: you get a sense of African people’s strategies in the face of a variety of natural and social problems.

We also need to change the conversation about global history. We need to understand not only that today’s African societies go back far in time, but also that they were always an active part of the world. They were always economic partners, rivals and allies of other societies with which we are perhaps now more familiar. African societies of the Middle Ages were already participants in a vibrant political, economic and intellectual conversation – one that we can still hear today, if only we listen well.

François-Xavier Fauvelle was talking to Matt Elton

François-Xavier Fauvelle is a historian, archaeologist and author. His book The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages is published in December by Princeton University Press

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This article was taken from issue 13 of BBC World Histories magazine