Baobabs in the contemporary Senegalese landscape

This baobab on Gorée’s main square stands in front of what was formerly the governor’s residence. It is accessorized with benches. Gorée is known for its ancient baobabs. (ph. Eric Ross)

Baobabs do not only mark Senegal’s historic sites (see previous post). They are a living part of its contemporary urban spaces as well. As cities across the country have expanded into farmland, mature baobabs have often been spared destruction and now have new careers as neighborhood landmarks. In some cases, such as in Gorée (above) and Santhiaba (below) they have been integrated into the design of public places such as civic squares and mosque yards.

The mosque and baobab on the pénc (public square) of Santhiaba neighborhhod, Dakar, form a pretty civic ensemble. Santhiaba’s pénc is important to the Lebu community, the original occupants of the land on which the capital was built. (ph. Eric Ross)

Baobabs in Murid shrine towns

In Murid shrine towns in particular, baobab trees serve a range of popular religious functions. Often, they stand in cemeteries, or else on streets and public squares next to mosques. They are part of the spiritual topography of the shrine space, along with built structures, blessed wells and other memorial trees. I have not been systematic in my attempt to locate sacralized baobabs, but here are some I have come across.

The Guy Siyare

A gigantic baobab in Touba’s Mbal neighborhood (Touba Mosquée ward), known as the Guy Siyare (ziyâra), the “Visitation Baobab,” has a large inner cavity oriented to the qibla. Moreover, the doorway to the cavity is just big enough for a person to enter comfortably, as if made to measure.

The cavity within the Guy Siyare, the “Visitation Baobab,” in Touba’s Mbal neighborhood is configured like a mosque, replete with a properly oriented mihrâb. (ph. Eric Ross)

A legend has grown around the Guy Siyare–grown in large part due to the efforts of those who charge pilgrims an entrance fee–according to which Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba had prayed in its chamber. Though unfounded in the shaykh’s hagiography and devoid of the support of Murid authorities, this “tradition” has established the Guy Siyare as a minor stop on the tour of Touba’s holy sites.

The legitimacy of the tradition notwithstanding, the image of a Sufi shaykh praying, or ensconced in khalwa in the trunk of a great tree speaks to the transcendent qualities of these quiet giants living among us.

Detail of a 16th century Persian miniature showing a Sufi meditating in the trunk of a çinar. (source: front cover of the paperback edition of Henry Corbin’s Histoire de la philosophie islamique, Paris: Gallimard, 1986, The image credit inside the cover does not identify the manuscript. It says only that it is the property of the Reza-ye Abbasi Museum in Tehran)

Truly, baobabs are the chinars of tropical Africa (see post on çinar trees)

The Guy Texe

The most well-known baobab in Touba was the Guy Texe, the “Baobab of Bliss,” which used to stand in the cemetery. Legend had it that this baobab was a conduit to Tûbâ, the Tree of Paradise for which the city is named. Each leaf on Tûbâ is said to represent the life and works of an individual. Though I have yet to track down the original source of this Guy Texe tradition, in the 1960s the tradition began to be cited in reference works on the Murids.

The Guy Texe used to stand amidst the mausolea of “the mothers of the Murids” in the center of Touba’s cemetery (sketch by Eric Ross based on author’s photo)

Though difficult to access through the built structures, the Guy Texe was visited by pilgrims who inscribed their names on its trunk. The trunk was serving as a writing board, as a registry of the names of those who wished to enter paradise. There are a number of such guy mbind (baobabs of writing) across the sacred Murid landscape. Pilgrims etch their names on these trees, in Arabic or Latin script, as an act of devotion, like registering a prayer.

Names are inscribed on the trunk of the new guy mbind in Touba’s Gouye Mbind neighborhood (see below) in both Arabic and Latin scripts (ph. Eric Ross)

In the Neo-platonic universe of the Sufis, actual trees, those we live with here on earth, are distant emanations from a single Universal Tree, the tree as God imagines it, an archetype readily identified as Tûbâ the Tree of Paradise. Certain trees in the material world, however, are more closely linked to the paradisaical tree than others. Of all the earthly trees available in the Senegalese landscape, baobabs are the ones elected.

The parochial Murid practice of registering one’s desire for eternal bliss in the Hereafter on the trunk of a tree is rooted in a much wider Islamic popular eschatology. In speculative Islamic literature, and in popular genres such as the Isrâ’ w-al-Mi‘râj narratives, the cosmic Sidrat al-Muntahâ (the Lote-tree of the Extremity) mentioned in Sura The Star, 53:14) is associated with the Divine registry of individuals and their acts and utterances (the Lawh al-Mahfûz). This Divine record consists of the leaves (warqa) of the Sidrat al-Muntahâ. There is even one night each year, the Night of mid-Sha’bân, the Night of Destiny, when one can appeal to Merciful God who, Alone, has the Power to erase (delete?) some of the data from the record. These same speculative and popular works invariably conflate the identities of the Sidrat al-Muntahâ and Tûbâ into a single arboreal entity.

Popular traditions which locate the Divine Registry at the Cosmic Tree are recorded in 19th century Egypt (by Edward Lane in Manners and Customs), in 18th century Morocco (the Naskhah festival for Mawlay ‘Abd al-Salâm b. Mashîsh) as well as in contemporary Swahili, Fulbe and Senegalese traditions.

In my Ph.D. thesis (“Tûbâ: An African eschatology in Islam,” McGill University, Islamic Studies 1996), I argued that these modern traditions found across Africa can be traced back to the Ancient Egyptian tradition of the cosmic Ished tree.

Ramesses II sits beneath the cosmic Ished as the gods Attum, Seshat and Thot write his names and years on its leaves. (from the Ramesseum)

Many 19th and 20th Dynasty pharaohs had themselves depicted having their names inscribed for eternity on the leaves of the Cosmic Ished tree by gods. Such larger-than-life reliefs can be seen on the pylons of major temples across Thebes. The British Egyptologist Budge (1911) was of the opinion that the ancient Ished tradition was the origin of the popular Muslim tradition relating to the leaves of Sidrah which he observed around him. In Civilisation ou barbarie (1981), Cheikh Anta Diop was the first to relate this ancient Egyptian conception of a divine arboreal register to the contemporary Murid tradition.

An aside,

February being Black History Month, I take this occasion to recall how Cheikh Anta Diop changed my life. I first read his works as a Master’s student doing field work in Senegal. That was in 1988, only a year or so after his death. Luckily, at that young age, researchers are still impressionable. I had never been comfortable with the Eurocentric perspective of most of the world history I had read up until then, and I had never accepted the marginalization of Africa in those narratives. Diop’s erudite refutation of the white supremacist underpinnings of what passed for World/Western History in the mid-20th century provided me with an alternate framework and impacted the orientation of my subsequent research.

Back to the Guy Texe…

What is known about the Guy Texe is that Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba selected the tree as the burial place of Sokhna Aminata Lo, his first wife and the first person to die in Touba. Thereafter his other wives, the “mothers of the Murids,” were buried under the baobab and mausolea were constructed over their graves. The tree fell, from age perhaps, in 2003. It nonetheless remains on the Ministry of Culture’s list of historic monuments (see list in previous post), as does the Guy Siyare despite the lack of official sanction by the Murid leadership in Touba itself.

Satellite image of part of central Touba, showing Gouye Mbind ward next to the cemetery. (source: Google Earth)

Gouye Mbind ward

Just east of Touba’s cemetery is Gouye Mind ward, home to the lineage of Serign Lamine Bara and to the current Calif General of the Murids, Cheikh Sidy Moukhtar Mbacké. The neighborhood gets its name from a baobab on which pilgrims to Touba would write their names. Under Serign Falillou (1950s) a fence went up around the cemetery. The area around the guy mbind, which stood outside the fence, was allotted. The tree continued to stand on this residential street next to the cemetery, and to attract pilgrims, until it fell in the early 1980s. In 1994 the woman who lives in the house next to the spot showed me a photo of the tree which she had kept. A few days after that visit I saw that she had cleared the spot in the street where the tree had stood and surrounded it with a low wall, sacralizing, or at least memorializing, the space. Such occasions serve to remind researchers collecting data in the field of the impact we have on the “object” of study.

More recently, in the past 10 years, a second guy mind has emerged, at the corner of the same street, but closer the center of Gouye Mbind neighborhood. It stands a block away from the pénc (the public square with a mosque) and the calif’s residence.

The new guy mbind in Gouye Mbind ward stands on a street corner. like many others in the neighborhood, both streets are being paved for the first time (Jan. 2012). Some of the tree’s limbs have been trimmed for a utility line. (ph. Eric Ross)

The new guy mbind is a relatively young (slender) tree. It is fenced and has a gate. I do not know how or why this tree was chosen, nor by whom, but it has clearly been integrated into Gouye Mbind’s spiritual topography.

Inscribed trunk of the new guy mbind (ph. Eric Ross)

Darou Marnane

In Darou Marnane ward, a large guy mbind has pride of place right on the public square. It stands just to the right of the entrance to the Keur Serigne Touba (a large compound where Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba had lived, see section on Darou Marnane on the Touba page).

Satellite image of Darou Marnane ward, showing location of the guy mbind on the pénc. (source: Google Earth)

Since the photo below was taken, some of the upper limbs of Darou Marnane’s guy mbind have been cut off to make way for a power line. Such is often the lot of urban public trees everywhere.

The guy mbind of Darou Marnane in full leaf, October 2000 (ph. Eric Ross)

The guy mbind of Darou Marnane in January 2012. The entrance to the Keur Serigne Touba is behind it. (ph. Eric Ross)

Names inscribed on the trunk of Darou Marnane’s guy mbind (ph. Eric Ross)

Darou Mousty

Darou Mousty, the “Second City” of the Murids, has several guy mbind. Mame Tierno Birahim Mbacké founded Darou Mousty in 1912 in a grove of mature baobabs (see section on Darou Mousty in other Murid shrines). These baobabs still tower above the shrine town today.

Satellite image of the center of Darou Mousty, locating two guy mbind. The image was taken in April, when baobabs are leafless. Their grey limbs and branches contrast with the green canopies of other types of trees around them. (source: Google Earth)

One of Darou Mousty’s guy mbind stands next to the main gate to Baïty, Mame Tierno Birahim’s large compound which also harbors his mausoleum and those of his lineage. Next to it is the Mawlid Hall, where poems in honor of the Prophet Muhammad are recited every Monday night (the night from Sunday to Monday).

A guy mbind stands next to the entrance to Baïty, Mame Tierno Birahim’s compound in Darou Mousty. The Mawlid Hall is to the right. (ph. Eric Ross)

Another of Darou Mousty’s guy mbind stands in the second court of the Baïty necropolis. This is the yard that houses two memorial “stations,” kiosks called Maqâmat Ibrâhim and Dâr al-Kâmil which locate moments of transcendence in the spiritual career of Mame Tierno Birahim Mbacké. That these moments happened in the midst of great baobabs is not lost on the observer.

A guy mbind standing next to the Dâr al-Kâmil in Baïty. The gate behind them leads to the court containing the mausolea of Mame Tierno Birahim Mbacké and members of his family. (ph. Eric Ross)

Mosquée Gouye Mouride in Dakar

The ongoing saga of the new Murid mosque in Dakar constitutes the final entry for this post on Murid baobabs. Murids have been a part of Dakar society since the 1940s, but they had never expressed their presence monumentally. About 10 years ago Murid associations in Dakar decided to lobby for the building of a new Friday Mosque able to accommodate ‘ayd worship (Korité and Tabaski). The original plan was to use a lot in Niary Tally neighborhood which had been ceded to Serigne Abdoul Ahad by the Senghor government for the use of Dakar’s Murids. The lot, which is dominated by a great baobab tree, has been used for several decades for ‘ayd prayers, and had come to be known as the Mosquée Gouye Mouride. In 2005 Serigne Saliou gave the go-ahead to build a large Friday Mosque on the site. An innovate plan, a five-pointed star with the mihrab in one of the points, was adopted for the mosque.

Since then though the project has been plagued by crises and twisted denouements of all kinds. I have not exactly been keeping up with events but, at various points, there was a rival claim by another Sufi order to ownership of the site, an attempt to transfer the mosque project to an entirely different site in order to turn the original site over for high density commercial/residential development, and the project has had multiple directors, appointed by three successive calif generals in Touba. The plans for the building have been changed many times as well. I have never been to the site. How the old baobab which originally stood there has fared through all of this, I do not know.

This downloadable Google Earth (kmz) file locates many of the trees discussed in this and the previous post.

Addendum of 30 Sept. 2018

Dionne Searcey, journalist at the New York Times, wrote this beautifully illustrated article on how Senegal’s venerable baobabs are fairing… not very well as it turns out.


Further reading

  • Azad, Ghulam Murtaza. “Isrâ’ and Mi‘râj: The Night Journey and Ascension of Allah’s Apostle Muhammad (S.A.W.S.).” Islamic Studies vol. 22 (2) (1983): 63-80.
  • Bencheikh, Jamal Eddine. Le Voyage nocturne de Mahomet. Paris: Editions de l’Imprimerie nationale, 1988.
  • Brosse, Jacques. Mythologie des arbres. Paris: Plon, 1989.
  • Budge, Ernst A. Wallis. Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection. New York: Dover Publications, 1973 (first published 1911).
  • Cissé, Ousseynou. Mame Thierno Birahim (1862-1943): Frère et disciple de Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2001.
  • Cook, Roger. The Tree of Life: Image for the Cosmos. London/New York: Thames & Hudson, 1992.
  • Corbin, Henry. L’Imagination créatrice dans le soufisme d’Ibn ‘Arabi. Paris: Flammarion, 1958.
  • Diop, Cheikh Anta. Civilisation ou barbarie : anthropologie sans complaisance. Paris: Présence africaine, 1981.
  • Hajjaj, ‘Abd Allah. The Isrâ’ and Mi‘râj: The Prophet’s Nigh Journey and Ascension into Heaven. Huda Khattab trans. London: Dar Al Taqwa Ltd., 1989.
  • James, E. O. The Tree of Life: An Archeological Study. Lieden: E. J. Brill, 1966.
  • Lane, Edward William. Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. London: East-West Publications, 1989 (first published 1836).
  • Mbacké, Ahmadou Bamba. Silk al-Jawâhir fî Akhbâr al-Sarâ’ir (Strings of Jewels in Matters of Consciences). Touba: Maktabah Shaykh al-Khadîm, 1977.
  • Pâques, Viviana. L’Arbre cosmique dans la pensée populaire et dans la vie quotidienne du nord-ouest africain. Paris: Institut d’ethnologie, 1964.
  • Zouanat, Zakia. Ibn Mashîsh : maître d’al-Shâdhilî. Casablanca: Imprimerie Najah El Jadida, 1998.

Shajarat al-Kawn, attributed to Ibn ‘Arabi. I know of two translations:

  • Gloton, Maurice. L’Arbre du Monde d’Ibn ‘Arabî. Paris: Les deux océans, 1990.
  • Jeffery, Arthur. “Ibn al-‘Arabî’s Shajarat al-Kawn.” Studia Islamica 10 (1959): 43-77, 11 (1960): 113-160.

About ericrossacademic

Professor of Geography at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco
This entry was posted in field trips, shrines, trees and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Baobabs in the contemporary Senegalese landscape

  1. Pingback: Teaching a seminar on contemporary Senegalese Sufism | Eric Ross, academic

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