As a senior in college in 1979, I set off with a brother seven years my junior, first by rickety train and then by bush taxi, heading north from the coast and deep into the West African interior. Our point of departure was Abidjan, the gleaming modern financial capital of Ivory Coast. We had no fixed destination but a clear goal: to voyage as far north along the Niger River as our funds and my school holiday would permit. Distant Timbuktu, the most fabled town on the river and one of the sturdiest metaphors for remoteness, was a long shot, but even if we couldn’t make it there, we had other objectives that seemed attainable.
I had been reading about Africa intensively since my parents moved to Abidjan with my younger siblings a few years earlier, and I was all but obsessed with a couple of questions. The impressive new wealth of Ivory Coast, built on cocoa and coffee farming, was exciting enough to behold, but what really interested me was seeing evidence of the great empires that had made the Sahel, the broad interior region just south of the Sahara Desert, a critical but overlooked engine of early Western modernization through its control of what was then the world’s most plentiful source of gold. And beyond that, I wanted to understand what had made the civilizations of this region all come to ruin: How had those empires that spanned the third to the sixteenth centuries—Ghana, Mali, Songhay—all lost their splendor and fallen apart, leaving hardly a trace?1
The town of Bandiagara, which sits in the center of butterfly-shaped Mali, some forty-five miles from the great river on a parched plain dominated by purplish cliffs that are one of the region’s most spectacular sights, was as far as we got before I succumbed to a severe gastrointestinal illness.2 We had been drawn there by the Dogon, a small and isolated people known for their distinctive traditions of statuary: elongated sculptures of the human form that recall Giacometti, who was strongly influenced by African art; sharp-faced figures that stand erect or ride on horseback; and, most famously, wooden doors ornately carved with anthropomorphic spirits and lizards and snakes, which are immediately recognizable to anyone knowledgable about the region’s art.
But the Dogon were known for other reasons as well. Their story, first recounted to me by a crowd of teenage boys in Bandiagara, was one of refuge taken in these badlands from expanding empires to the north and south, both of which sought to forcibly convert them to Islam. Their ancestors, who were once patronizingly spoken of as animists, took up residence in hollows in the cliffs to preserve their way of life, replete with traditions of ancestor worship and a complex cosmology.
It would be another decade and a half before I again ventured northward along the Niger River. In 1995, as a correspondent for The New York Times, I strode the enormous tell, or unexcavated archaeological mound, of the lost city of Djenné-jeno with Roderick McIntosh, an American archaeologist who had been leading excavation efforts there, along with his then wife, Susan Keech McIntosh, and a team of Malian researchers. Their work helped prove that the city, located in an inland delta at the confluence of the Niger and the Bani Rivers, was the oldest site of urbanism in Africa outside of Egypt (it has since ceded that distinction to Timbuktu). There, beginning around 250 BC, an iron-making civilization built a major city by the standards of the world in that era.
This was long before the trans-Saharan caravan trade with North Africa, which has often been invoked as the spur for most medieval advances in the Sahel—things such as urbanization, social segmentation, structured religion, and long-distance trade. McIntosh at the time told me something very close to what he wrote with Mamadou Cissé, a leading Malian cultural official, in the catalog of “Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara,” an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
So seductive to the colonial mind-set was this grand thesis of stimulation that the first archaeologists to investigate the Sahel did not even look for evidence of local origins of towns, states, or organization of production.
As we toured the tell together, the ground crackled with the sound of innumerable pottery sherds underfoot as McIntosh explained the race that he and his colleagues had joined to study the secrets of this site before an army of looters could pry out the most valuable objects for sale to European and American “primitive” art dealers.
Among the most intriguing finds was a single transparent, dark-blue bead whose chemical recipe was only known in East and South Asia. It had most likely reached Djenné-jeno from China roughly within a hundred years of the start of China’s second imperial dynasty, the Han, in 206 BC. McIntosh told me recently that it had probably arrived via a route that connected the region to the Horn of Africa, far to the east. This meant that the western Sahel, once imagined as a civilizational backwater before the emergence of Mali’s subsequent great empires, was far more connected to the wide world, far earlier, than anyone had thought possible.
The last time I traveled up the Niger, in 2011, the farthest I could penetrate into Mali’s vast interior (it is three times the size of California) was Segu, a mere 140 miles along the river-hugging national highway from the Malian capital, Bamako. Segu, which was founded in the mid-seventeenth century, was once the capital of an important kingdom of the same name that sprang up after the fall of Songhay (circa 1464–1591), the most recent of the great empires of the western Sahel. Segu briefly stood out as a prodigious source of slaves sold into the transatlantic trade and the producer of a great deal of the art on display in the Met exhibition, before it fell in 1861 to a Muslim conqueror, El Hajj ‘Umar Tall. What brought me back there in 2011 was my interest in a nearby Chinese textile factory that I visited for research on a book about Chinese migration to Africa.3 Already it wasn’t safe to travel much further north in the country, which had been wracked by Islamic terrorism.
In the years between these last two overland trips, I had finally made it to Timbuktu but could only safely reach it by prop plane, and Islamists fired rockets into the city the day after I left. The word “Sahel” comes from the Arabic word for “shore,” and as attested by its streets buried in sand and the high dunes that loom just at its edge, Timbuktu is situated on the shore, so to speak, of the Sahara. The other term traditionally used for this part of the world, long before the era of African independence began in the 1950s, was Sudan; as France’s colony, Mali was once called French Sudan. Like “Sahel,” “Sudan” also derives from Arabic, with the phrase bilād as-sūdān meaning “lands of the blacks.”
In the colonial period the French considered vast stretches of these countries to be wasteland, designating their southern, well-irrigated bands le pays utile—the useful country. Now it was terrorism more than the desert that was rendering more and more of Mali, and much of the rest of the Sahel, virtually useless economically. Just a few months after my 2011 trip to Segu, the violent, Western-sanctioned overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi left Mali and much of the Sahel awash in weapons, many of which fell into the hands of radical Islamists. The work of McIntosh and of Malian teams of archaeologists, too, has been completely halted while the country’s slide into violence continues. Chronic conflict, poverty, and a long record of scholarly neglect of the history and cultural contributions of this part of the world have left the Sahel seriously understudied. What George P. Murdock, the author of an influential textbook on Africa, wrote in 1959 remains no less true today: “The spade of archaeology…has thus far lifted perhaps an ounce of earth on the Niger for every ton carefully sifted on the Nile.”
This is the political and historical backdrop of the Met’s exhibition, which draws heavily on items in African museums, some of which have seldom been displayed, and provides a rare chance to appreciate the long history and remarkable artistic output of the civilizations that succeeded one another in the long Niger River valley. “The objective of this publication and the exhibition it accompanies is to situate these temporally distant, quasi-mythical realms within the complex cultural landscape where they emerged, flourished, and eventually faded,” writes Alisa LaGamma, the exhibition’s curator.
Even for me, much was new and surprising. Upon entering, for example, I was immediately confronted with an object that visually bore no obvious connection to the West African artistic traditions I was familiar with: a large, brown megalith, shaped like an enormous lyre or the letter V. If I had encountered this almost architectural work, with its crusty surface and brace-like bar near its top, somewhere else in the museum, I would not have guessed it was from the region at all. Little is known about the megalith, except that such objects are common to the part of Senegal just north of the Gambia River, where it was erected sometime in the eighth or ninth century.
Beyond its dramatic, even otherworldly aesthetic, the megalith is important because it informs the changing sense of how social organization evolved in this part of West Africa. It was long assumed that megaliths like this and thousands of tumuli—burial mounds—found in the region were the product of typical early kingdoms, i.e., highly hierarchical societies in which a ruler extracted taxes from a subject population in the form of payment or, in this case, the forced labor believed necessary to build large works of religious or ceremonial importance. A more recent view, based on careful archaeological work in the Senegambia region, now holds that the megalith and tumuli were created by much more egalitarian and possibly mobile societies that migrated between different locations after working the soil in one spot for several years. Specialists say the apparent modest scale and lack of stark hierarchy of the society that built these monuments recall pre-Inca Chavin-era monument-building in the Andes, as well as societies in the pre–Genghis Khan grasslands of Mongolia.
The longtime assumption that classic early state-building involved powerful chiefs or kings had the perverse effect of inciting much digging in the region by amateurs seeking artistic works and treasure that could be sold to collectors. Their premise was that kings accumulate prestige objects. This activity, ironically, is the source of another of the most extraordinary pieces in this exhibition: a large golden breastplate believed to have been worn ceremonially by a young twelfth- or thirteenth-century prince in an area unrelated to the megalith in what is now modern Senegal. One of the most striking paradoxes of the history of the western Sahel—an area larger than France, the UK, and Germany combined—is that despite the enormous quantities of gold that it injected into the economies of the Middle East and Europe from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, little archaeological trace of this production has turned up in the form of artwork or jewelry. The studded breastplate’s size makes it perhaps the most stunning exception, and it stands out as well for its extraordinarily detailed filigreed finish.
During my visit to the exhibition, LaGamma said that the director of another major American museum reflexively expressed his doubt to her that the breastplate could have been produced in sub-Saharan Africa, proffering an off-the-cuff theory that it came from somewhere in the Arabo-Islamic world. LaGamma said the item was unearthed in an intact burial site replete with other grave goods and close to the goldfields in forested regions just to the south of the Sahel, making the thesis of Arab origins highly unlikely.
The areas where both the breastplate and the megalith come from lie beyond the western limits of the three great empires whose stories are in many ways central to this exhibition, and the task of bringing together two of those empires—Ghana, which initiated imperial commerce in gold across the Sahara through a caravan trade sometime before the tenth century, and Mali, which significantly expanded it—is complicated by important gaps in the archaeological record. The capital of Ghana, although amply described by eleventh-century Arab visitors like the renowned Andalusian Muslim historian and geographer al-Bakri, for example, has never been definitively located, and even though there is a possible site for it at Kumbi Saleh, in modern Mauritania, the material record there is inconclusive. The empire’s rise seems to have been strongly linked to its success in dominating a preexisting regional commerce in salt and copper late in the first millennium, followed by its cornering of the northward gold trade.
The story of Mali (circa 1230–1600) is in some ways even more frustrating. It was literally put on the map by the visit to Cairo and pilgrimage to Mecca of Mansa Musa, its tenth ruler, in 1324–1325, during which he dispensed so much gold that according to contemporaneous Egyptian accounts, prices for it were depressed for years afterward as a result of its sudden abundance.4 Already by 1339, word of Mansa Musa’s extraordinary fortune had circulated so widely in Europe that a figure representing the Malian sovereign sitting on a golden throne in the middle of the Sahel began appearing on European maps of the world.
Mansa Musa took pains to impress his hosts not just with his unheard-of wealth but also with his culture and erudition. Judging by Mali’s robust oral traditions, however, he seems to have been less appreciated back home. Other Malian emperors of that era were richly celebrated by griots, or bards, in epic, musically performed poems, a tradition that continues to this day. Strangely, not only are there no known gold regalia or other relics associated with Musa, he barely earned a mention in the empire’s oral traditions. Could it be that his people resented his profligacy or his overweening attention to foreign relations? So far, unfortunately, neither history nor archaeology has provided much clue.
One enduring legacy of Mansa Musa, however, would be wrong to overlook: the extraordinary mosques he built after his return from Mecca. Musa’s commitment to Islam was a leitmotif of his rule, and affirming that Mali was an integral part of the Muslim world seems to have been an obsession of his. This, in turn, left a deep if depersonalized mark on the culture, as the practice of Islam spread more widely throughout the realm. Musa’s grand mosques must have struck wonder among the population. The most famous of these, the Djinguereber mosque, built in Timbuktu sometime between 1325 and 1330, helped to anchor the reputation the city would enjoy for centuries as a center of Islamic scholarship.
The Met exhibition and its catalog encompass a complex set of messages about Islam, one far preferable to the racism-tinged and oversimplified ways in which the history of this region was written about for so long. For the period covering Djenné-jeno, a preimperial-era polity, as well as for the rise of Ghana and Mali, readers are asked to understand that the cultural achievements of this part of the world from the third century BC to roughly the year 1000 had little or nothing to do with diffusion or direct borrowing from North Africa, whether before or soon after the Arab conquests that swept that part of the world late in the seventh century. This is meant to correct the long-promoted notion, sometimes called the “Hamitic hypothesis,” that black Africans had little capacity for civilization or state-building.
By Mansa Musa’s time, however, there were altogether new trends. He used Mali’s extravagant wealth to recruit scholars from the Muslim world to teach in his realm. He also hired a leading Andalusian Muslim architect, Abu Ishaq al-Sahili, to assist with his mosque-building project. The result was far from slavish adoption but something new and distinctive, the product of what the art historian Labelle Prussin calls an “intertextuality of cultures.”
For my brother Jamie and me, among the deepest experiences of wonder that we felt on our 1979 trip came while visiting the great mosque at Djenné, a modern city near Djenné-jeno, which was founded sometime after the older city was abandoned around 1400. The first version of the Friday Mosque of Jenné, as this structure is known, was erected in the thirteenth century, even before Mansa Musa’s Timbuktu mosque. It has since been rebuilt twice. Outside of the Egyptian pyramids, the Friday Mosque is perhaps Africa’s most celebrated and recognizable building. It is also the world’s largest structure built in banco, a mud-based material so vulnerable to erosion that mosques constructed in this characteristic Sudanic style are studded to striking aesthetic effect with their own wooden scaffolding. This allows for their regular repair and continual modification. When Jamie and I arrived in Djenné there were no air-conditioned tour buses crowding an asphalt parking lot, as one might have expected. In fact, there were no paved roads at all, and no other tourists, just us, pacing the dusty, barren perimeter under a scorching sun. The spread of fundamentalist terrorism in Mali sadly ensures that this will remain the case for the foreseeable future.
Through its catalog, the Met exhibition articulates an important criticism of a Western habit of mind just as tenacious as the Hamitic thesis that often still attempts to sustain a dichotomy between what is Islamic and what is supposedly genuinely African. Islam is overwhelmingly the most common religion throughout the Sahel, where it has been practiced for over one thousand years. “According to some, only that which is typically ‘animist’ can be African and Black,” the Guinean historian Djibril Tamsir Niane wrote.
But we believe this is not the correct way to look at things, for ten centuries of presence in the Sudan should grant Islam citizenship in the region. Just as, in certain parts of Europe [the Nordic countries], ten centuries of Christianity’s presence have granted local citizenship to this religion from the East.
Mansa Musa’s great ambition was to have Mali considered part of the Islamic heartland. It is time to acknowledge how fully this wish has been realized.
The other major current in this exhibition, and the final narrative twist involving Islam, highlights the explosion of aesthetically impressive art from societies of the Middle Niger River valley just before many of their traditions were eclipsed by the broad spread of Islam. In some cases, as with the jihadi conquest of Segu in the mid-nineteenth century, this transition was forcible and violent; in other, much earlier instances, such as sculpture associated with Djenné-jeno, it remains a mystery but seems plausibly much gentler. One of the most visually striking pieces in the show is also one that best reflects the enigmatic nature of this transition: a confidence-exuding male terracotta figure with ample breasts and a large, herniated navel, semi-reclining with its weight resting on its left arm.
Roderick McIntosh excavated the terracotta masterpiece at Djenné-jeno during a dig in 1981. It has been dated to sometime between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, a time of strong new focus on the human form. This period coincides with devastating but unexplained demographic decline in the region, culminating in the abandonment of Djenné-jeno and other nearby towns. In addition to the magnificent workmanship, two things make this object especially interesting. The rendering of this androgynous figure suggests a member of a social elite, both by its corpulence and by its necklace, other high-value adornments, and the dagger it wears sheathed on its upper arm. Roderick sees it as perhaps a priest figure.
It is also headless. The sculpture was obviously not made this way but was decapitated; its head has not been recovered. This apparent act of iconoclasm, a theme that runs throughout the exhibition, seems to speak volumes about the religious politics of the moment. One imagines that during a violent Islamic conquest, “idols” like it would have been smashed outright. This piece, however, seems to have been carefully disposed of, possibly in an attempt to respect both the tenets of the incoming religion and the feelings of family members or neighbors who still clung to their ancestral faith.
Other work from the Middle Niger region from roughly the same time seems hauntingly plaintive, with figures appearing to beseech the heavens for relief from environmental or other forms of calamity. A series of these terracottas shows human figures kneeling, singly or in pairs, their heads elevated skyward, as if in prayer. This gesture is amplified yet further by the way some of them place their crossed arms upon their chests.
The region presently inhabited by the Dogon people was previously settled by a little-understood people known as the Tellem, a name that means “we found them here” in the Dogon language. Some specialists think that the Tellem migrated to the cliffs where the Dogon now live from an area to the southwest that had been controlled by the Ghana Empire until the late eleventh century. The Tellem sculptures on display in the exhibition, mostly dating from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries, exhibit another distinctive form of what one might imagine as plaintiveness. These wooden sculptures, gnarled and crusty from deliberate slathering with organic materials like chicken blood and gruel, stand erect with their arms high above their heads, perhaps to petition, but as if in some kind of cosmic stop-and-frisk.
When the Dogon moved into the cliffs near Bandiagara, they adopted many of the artistic and religious traditions of the Tellem, even incorporating votive offerings from Tellem collective burial sites in their own altars. They did this even as the Tellem mysteriously disappeared. Today, certain sculptural traditions of the Dogon are indistinguishable from those of the earlier Tellem styles. This is particularly true of Dogon figures included in the exhibition that hold their hands aloft. Other Dogon sculpture, though, is utterly distinctive, with profound meditations on the relationship between mother and infant or on mourning. The most powerful example of the former is a late-eighteenth-century wooden figure of a stoic mother who fixes the gaze of the viewer head on, her long nose stylized in the form of an arrow, a characteristic common to much Dogon sculpture, while a child sits sideways on her left thigh as he feeds from her hand. The most moving example of a mourning figure is more abstractly stylized and feels distinctly modern. It is a thin human form with a large, smooth, round head and slot-like mouth. It sits as one would sit on the ground, clasping its raised knees.
Many people will leave “Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara” so dazzled by examples of the region’s clothing and textiles that hang in the final room that they will miss one of its most powerful, albeit quiet pieces. It is also one of the most recent sculptural creations on view, and a final example of the transition to Islam from some of the traditions that it gradually supplanted. This dark, brooding, encrusted object, all rounded shapes whose style falls just shy of abstract, is suggestive of a hornless black bull with enormous shoulders or a hippopotamus-like beast (see illustration on page 31). The Bamana people of Segu revered sculptures like these as repositories of enormous protective spiritual power; so much so that they were kept in the houses of priests, out of the view of the uninitiated. Such objects were built up slowly through an accretion of material that the catalog says could include “animal bones, vegetal matter, honey, metal, and human remains” coated with “chicken and goat blood, expectorated kola nuts, alcoholic beverages, and millet.”
‘Umar Tall, the jihadist who led his forces eastward into the Sahelian interior after the French colonial incursions in Senegal, sacked Segu in 1861 and executed its leader, Bina Ali, after he refused conversion to Islam. The repression of local religious traditions and the destruction of objects like these, which was an obsession of the jihadists, fostered intense resentment, and the catalog notes that “for the next thirty years, the Bamana maintained an active opposition to the Umarian regime”—a testament to the strength of local “idols.” Considered against the broader sweep of time, however, the capture of Segu by jihadists was a mere blip. With its fall to the French in 1890, the entire millennial history of empire in the Sahel was brought to a close.
In an earlier version of this article, Chavin-era monument-building should have been described as pre-Inca, not pre-Aztec. The text above has been amended.
Imperial Ghana (circa 300–1200) was largely situated in modern Mali and Mauritania. The former British colony known as the Gold Coast adopted its present name, Ghana, from the early, inland empire of that name, but bears no geographic or direct historical relation to it. ↩
This voyage to Mali was the subject of my first book, A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa (Knopf, 2004). ↩
China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa (Knopf, 2014). ↩
See François-Xavier Fauvelle, The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages, translated by Troy Tice (Princeton University Press, 2018), which I reviewed in these pages, June 27, 2019. It quotes al-Umari, the secretary of the chancery of Mamluk Egypt, to this effect (p. 196). ↩