Attending a symposium on Africa in the medieval world

Memorial Hall, Harvard University, Cambridge Massachusetts

Memorial Hall and the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, Cambridge Massachusetts

I am in snowy Cambridge, Massachusetts, this week, attending a symposium on the history of Trans-Saharan relations and encounters. Medieval/Africa: The Trans-Saharan World was organized by a number of Harvard University departments and research institutes, namely: the Committee on Medieval Studies, the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, the Committee on African Studies, the Department of African and African American Studies, and Harvard Divinity School. The purpose of this academic get-together is to explore the complex relationships linking the societies of sub-Saharan Africa to one another and to the worlds of the Mediterranean and Arabian Sea basins in medieval times.

All too often the Sahara is assumed to have been some empty barrier separating “Sub-Saharan” Africa from the Classical and Medieval Mediterranean worlds. This “Saharan barrier” myth has long since been debunked by specialists of the area. Yet it persists in popular history narratives, even among historians of other areas and eras.

1490 World trade + SonghaiLike the Mediterranean and the Arabian/Red Seas, during the medieval and early modern eras (roughly 500-1700) the Sahara was a zone of continuous and established interactions. Caravans laden with goods, not the least of which were Arabic books, plied its barren wastes while travelers, merchants and pilgrims crossed it in all directions. During what Susan Noakes and Geraldine Heng have described as the Global Middle Ages, the Sahara was no more a barrier to transcontinental interactions than were the steppes and deserts of central Asia (the famed “Silk Road”). It was the imposition of rival European colonial projects in the early 20th century, followed later by the imposition of post-colonial territorial states, which cut the Sahara into distinct dead-end pieces, creating the economic backwater we witness there today.

A few years ago I contributed to this discussion with a chapter on the historical geography of trans-Saharan trade in the longue-durée (published in The Trans-Saharan Book Trade: Manuscript Culture, Arabic Literacy and Intellectual History in Muslim Africa, Brill, 2011, read more about this in this post). For this week’s conference I presented a study of how a number of Senegambian toponyms refer to important cities and countries of the Muslim heartlands of the Middle East and North Africa.

References to some aspect or component of Islam dominate present-day Senegambian toponymy. Some of these place-names refer to Arab cities or countries of great importance to Islamic identity generally (that of the umma), and to the Sunni-Maliki and Sufi identity specific to this region of Africa. My presentation analyzed the ten most important of these recurring toponyms: Makka, Madîna (and its sobriquet Tayba), Tâ’if, Baghdâd, Shâm (Syria), Misr (Egypt), Al-Qâhira (Cairo), Qayrawân and Fâs (Fez).

Recurrent place names in Senegambia

Cities or countries of the Islamic heartland whose toponyms recur in Senegal and the Gambia

Each of these toponyms refers to a sacred or blessed “elsewhere,” a place located in a “heartland” of the umma, far away from Senegambia in Arabia, the Middle East or North Africa. Each serves to fix that distant elsewhere in a “present” place. Some, like Makka and Madîna, are of course of prime importance to the entire umma. Others, such as Qayrawân, are resonant mostly for Sunnis of the Maliki school of jurisprudence. Yet others, like Baghdâd and Fâs (Fez), are the hearths of major Sufi orders.

In order to better understand the significance of these Senegambian toponyms, I began by an inventory. By consulting topographic maps of various scales, ranging from 1:200 000 to 1:50 000, I was able to locate the dozens, and in some cases hundreds of places in Senegal and the Gambia which bear them.

Frequency of recurring toponyms

    • Makka, 79 places
    • Madîna, 288 places
    • Tayba, 54 places
    • Tâ’if, 12 places
    • Baghdâd, 19 places
    • Shâm, 41 places
    • Misr, 97 places
    • Al-Qâhira, 10 places
    • Qayrawân, 25 places
    • Fâs, 65 places

The vast majority of these places are small and rural: villages, tiny hamlets, even crossroads and uninhabited hillocks. These toponyms were bestowed at some historic moment, which varies from the 16th century through to the present, usually by a local Muslim religious leader, rarely by the State. The exceptions here are urban neighborhoods (wards called Madîna and Fâs in particular), allotted during the 20th century and named by state agencies. Historic chronicles (oral “official” histories recorded during the colonial era) were also consulted, but this part of the data collection is still in progress. The two maps below present some of the data I have inventoried so far.

Places in Senegambia named for Madîna in Arabia

Places in Senegambia named for Madîna in Arabia

For perhaps obvious reasons, “Madîna” is the most popular and wide-spread of the recurring Islamic toponyms. The greatest concentration of places called “Madîna” occurs in historic Mandika areas (the Gambia, Pakao/central Casamance) and in the “new lands” opened to settlement by Senegal’s Sufi orders in the 20th century (Ferlo fringe, eastern Saloum, Wuli).

Places in Senegambia named for Fez in Morocco

Places in Senegambia named for Fez in Morocco

Fâs (Fez in Morocco) is doubly important: as a center of Maliki fiqh and as hearth of the Tijânî Sufi order. Most of the places called “Fâs” in Senegambia (Kayor, Saloum) are associated to one or another branch of the Tijâniyya.

I argue that, by bestowing toponyms such a these, some aspect of universal truth/reality attached to the original place is expressed and experienced anew and in the present, in the new place. These place-names allow Believers in Senegambia to identify with distant heartlands of the religion, transcending the time-and-space distance between the historic elsewhere and the here-and-now. They help construct the spiritual life of people in the place they actually live. This is very much work still in progress.

About ericrossacademic

Professor of Geography at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco
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One Response to Attending a symposium on Africa in the medieval world

  1. Pingback: Attending a conference on Islam and peace in New York City | Eric Ross, academic

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