8th to 10th Century

Sijilmāsa & Awdaghust

[Kitāb al-buldān, KM 44:] From Sijilmāsa to the land to the Blacks is a journey of fifty stages.  In the desert the traveller will be met by the Anbiya people of the Sanhāja, who have no fixed home.  They all wrap their faces with their turbans, which is their custom.  They do not wear tunics but wrap themselves in cloth. Camels are their livelihood, as they have no food from farming.

The traveller next comes to the town of Ghus (Awdaghust), a valley full of habitations.  They have a king who has no religion or law.  He raids the land of the Blacks who have many kingdoms.

[Al-Istakhrī, Kitāb masālik al-mamālik, 34:]  Sijilmāsa is a medium-sized town on the borders of Tāhirt, yet it is cut off, and may only be reached through the desert and sands. It is near the goldmine which is located between Sijilmāsa, the land of Sūdān, and the land of Zawīla.  It is said that there is no other mine known to have as much or or as pure gold, but the way to it is difficult and to arrange a trip takes much work.  Sijilmāsa is now ruled by cUbaydallāh.

Ibn-Hawkal, Sūrat al-ard, 93:]  From Sijilmāsa to Awdaghust is a two months’ journey to the west... From Awdaghust to Ghāna takes about ten days, going alone, and from Ghāna to Kūghah is about a month... West of Awdaghust is Awlīl, which is on the sea coast at the end of civilization.  Awlīl is a salt mine in the Maghrib, a month’s journey from Awdaghust.  It is a bit more than a month’s journey from Awlīl back to Sijilmāsa in the land of Islam.

[99-102] Sijilmāsa is like Qayrawān in healthy atmosphere and nearness to the desert, together with uninterrupted trade with the land of Sūdān and other countries that brings immense profit; it is always thronged with people and is a nerve centre of activity... I came there in 951-2...

I saw in Awdaghust a cheque from a Sijilmāsa trader in Awdaghust to someone in Sijilmāsa, for 42,000 dīnārs.  I never saw or heard of any such story or anything comparable to it in the east.  When I told of it in Irāq and Khurasān they took it as a fable...

The Berbers living in the Maghrib comprise innumerable tribes, so many are their subdivisions and their being dispersed in the desert... Among the sparate Berbers living far in the desert are the Sanhāja of Awdaghust.  I heard from Abū-Isāq Ibrāhīm ibn-cAbdallāh, the holder of the cheque in Awdaghust spoken of above, that Tinbarūtān ibn-Usfayshār was king of all the Sanhāja and had ruled over them for twenty years; each year people that he does not know and never heard of or seen visit him. The tribe consists of around 300,000 tributary and member families, and the kingship of this tribe has been in this man’s family from time immemorial.  This king of Awdaghust does business with the king of Ghāna.

[Al-Bakrī, Al-masālik wa-l-mamālik, #1395:] The town of Sijilmāsa is at the beginning of the desert.  There are no settlements east or west of it... [#1396:] From the town of Sijilmāsa you enter the lands of the Sūdān and Ghāna.  Between Sijilmāsa and Ghāna is a journey of two months through desert that is uninhabited except by nomads who have no permanent dwellings. They are the Banū-Masūfa, of the Sanhāja, who have no town of their own except Wādī Darca.

[#1414:] From Tāmdult to Bi’r al-Jammālīn is one state... Then you travel for three days in the Azwar mountains.. to a water-hole called Tandafus. Then you go three days to a large well called Wīn Haylūn.   Then you go three days over a desert plain.. to a water-hole called Tāzaqqā.. [#1415:] From there you travel one state to a well dug by cAbdarramān ibn-Habīb.., then three stages to a well called Wīūnān, then four stages to a place called Awkāzant.  Then you go through a dry land where hills of sand stand in the way (this is hardest part of the road to Awdaghust), taking four days to arrive at a place called Wānzamīn, with high-water wells, some brackish and some sweet.  Above this place is a high steep mountain with many wild animals.  This watering place is the crossroad for all routes to the land of the Sūdān.  It is a dangerous place, because the Lama and the Jazūla attack caravans and use this place as an ambush, since they know that roads converge here and people need its water.  Then you go five days over the dry dunes of the land of Wārān to a large well on the boundary of the Banū-Wārith, a Sanhāja tribe.. [#1416:] Two more days brings you to a water-hole called Aghraf... and three days to a place called Aqartandī.  Then you go for a day through the hills called Azjūnān, where the Sūdān waylay caravans.  Then you go a day through a sandy wooded region to a water-hole called Bi’r Wārān with brackish water. Then you go for three days through Sanhāja territory with plenty of well water.  Then you go one stage to a high point overlooking Awdaghust.

[#1417:] Awdaghust is a large and populous town on sandy sterile ground, devoid of vegetation, overlooked by a high mountain.  It has a Friday mosque and many others, all well attended.  All of them have teachers of the Qur’ān.  Around the town are gardens with palm trees and irrigated plots of wheat.  The kings and wealthy people eat wheat; the rest eat sorghum.  Their cucumbers are very good. There are some small fig trees and vines, with gardens of henna which produce a large crop.  The wells have sweet water.

Sheep and cattle are their most plenteous possession; with one mithqāl you can buy ten or more rams.   They also have plenty of honey, brought from the land of the Sūdān.  The people many benefits and immense wealth.  Their market is always full, and a man cannot hear another sitting next to him because of the crowd and its noise.  They pay in gold and have no silver.  [#1418:] They have fine buildings and high quality houses. The people here have yellow complexions, suffering from fever and splenitis.  Hardly anyone is free from one or the other.  Wheat, dates and raisins are imported from the lands of Islam in spite of the distance...

[#1418:] Most of its inhabitants are from Ifrīqiya [Tunisia],.. with a few from other cities.  There are Sūdān woman who are good cooks; one of them costs 100 mithqāls or more. They are good at preparing nice things like sugared nuts, honey doughnuts, different kinds of sweets etc. There are also good looking slave girls with white complexion, shapely figures, breasts that do not droop, slim waists, fat buttocks, wide shoulders and narrow vaginas; a user may enjoy one of them as if she were a virgin indefinitely...

[#1419:] Animals for making hide shields are very plentiful around Awdaghust. Manufactured copper goods, flowing robes died red or blue are imported to Awdaghust, while high quality ambergris, from the nearby Atlantic, is exported, along with pure gold worked into thread.  Awdaghust gold is better than any in the whole world.

[#1420:] The ruler of Awdaghust during the decade following the year 961 was Tīn Yarūtān ibn- Wīsanū ibn-Nizār, a Sanhāja man whose authority over twenty kings of the Sūdān recognized, each of them paying him jizya. He held sway over inhabited land which took two months to cross in length or breadth, and he could put 100,000 camel riders in the field.  When Ticrīn, king of Māsīn, asked his help against the king of Awghām, he supplied him with 50,000 camel riders. They invaded the land of Awghām by surprise, looting and burning the country.  When Awghām saw what happened to his country, he did not mind dying, and threw down his shield, dismounted and sat on his shield until the companions of Tīn Yarūtān killed him.   Then the woman of Awghām saw him there killed, they threw themselves into wells or killed themselves by deadly blows from grief over him or because they disdained being possessed by white men.

[#1421:] As for the road from Awdaghust to the town of Sijilmāsa, from Awdaghust to Tāmdult, along the route we described, is 40 stages; from Tāmdult to Sijilmāsa.. is 11 stages, making 51 stages.  From Awdaghust to Qayrawān is 110 stages.

[#1447:] One of the wonders of the Sahara is the salt mine two days from the Great Waste and 20 days from Sijilmāsa.  The salt is obtained by digging the earth that covers it, just as in mining other minerals and precious stones.  The salt is found two fathoms or less under the ground and it is cut like stone.  This mine is called Tātantāl. Over it is a fortress built of salt blocks. Its houses, towers and rooms are also all made of salt.  From this mine salt is supplied to Sijilmāsa, Ghāna and the rest of the Sūdān lands.  Work there goes on uninterruptedly, and merchants come continuously, because the production is great.

There is another salt mine in the Banū Juddāla country at a place called Awlīl, on the coast.   Caravans likewise carry salt from there to neighbouring lands.


[Al-Bakrī, #1449:]  The town of anghāna consists of two towns on the banks of the Nīl [Senegal River].  Its settled land extends to the ocean. The town of anghāna is close on the south-western side to the town of Takrūr, whose people are Sūdān.   They, like the rest of the Sūdān peoples practised the Magi religion and the worship of dakākīr (dakkūr is their word for an idol) until Wārjābī ibn-Rābīs became their ruler.  He established the laws of Islam and converted them to these laws, uncovering their eyes regarding them.  Wārjābī died in 1040-1 and the people of Takrūr are Muslims today.


[Al-Bakrī, #1450:] From the town of Takrūr you go to the town of Silā. This likewise consists of two towns on the banks of the Nīl [Senegal River].  Its people are Muslim, having become Muslim at the hands of Wārjābī - God have mercy on him.  From Silā to the town of Ghāna is the distance of a 20 days’ journey over land inhabited by one tribe after another.  The king of Silā makes war on his pagan [kuffār] neighbours, the nearest of whom are one day’s journey away: the people of the town of Qalanbū. The king of Silā rules over a large territory with many people and is almost a match for the king of Ghāna. The people of Silā pay for things in sorghum, salt, copper rings and fine cotton cloth...  They have many cattle, but no sheep or goats.


[Al-Yacqūbī, Ta’rīkh, 1:194:]  Then there is the kingdom of Ghāna, whose king is also powerful.  In his land are the gold mines, and he has many other kings under him, such as the kingdoms of cĀm and Sāma.  In all these lands there is gold.

[Ibn-al-Faqīh, Kitāb al-buldān KM 64-65:]  The capital of as-Sūs al-Aqsā is Tarqala...  From Tarqala to the capital of Ghāna is a journey of three months through the desert.  In the land of Ghāna gold grows in the sand like carrots, and is picked at sunrise.  Their food is sorghum and beans. Their clothes are from the skins of panthers, which are plentiful there.

[Al-Hamdānī, Kitāb al-jawharatayn, ff. 24a-b:]  Gold mines in non-Arab lands: The richest gold mine on earth is that of Ghāna in the land of the Maghrib, west of Egypt. Deserts and fear of the Blacks of the Maghrib block the way to it.  When anyone arrives there he overloads his camels because gold in veins, in sources, in the wild, on the ground and in stream beds (“tongues”?) is so much.  It is cut up and carried away.

[Akhbār az-zamān, KM 1:252-253:]  Ghāna is likewise great.  It borders on the land of the gold mines, where great nations live. They have a boundary which anyone who wants to deal with them may not cross.  When traders bringing goods reach this boundary they put their goods and clothes on it and pull back.  The blacks then come with gold and leave it next to the goods and pull back.  The traders return and if they are satisfied [they take the gold], otherwise they go back.  The blacks keep returning with more gold in this manner until the sale is completed... Sometimes the traders return secretly and light fires on the ground, making the gold melt.  They steal it and then run away, since the whole land is gold and its mines are not hidden.  Sometimes the blacks discover them and follow their tracks.  If they get them they kill them...1

The king of Ghāna has many kings and kingdoms under his authority, all containing gold visible on the ground.  The people extract it and shape it like bricks.

[Yāqūt, Mucjam al-buldān, 1:832.  The following must come from al-Muhallabī or another old source:]  At-Tibr is one of the countries of the Sūdān.   Its name comes from the pure gold found there.  It is situated south of the Maghrib.  Merchants travel from Sijilmāsa to a town on the frontier of the Sūdān, called Ghāna.   Their wares are salt, bundles of pine wood (this is one of the kinds of wood from which tar is made..), blue glass beads, bracelets of red copper, bangles and signet rings of copper, and nothing else.  These are carried by numerous camels in heavy loads.  They bring water.. in water skins.. When they first drink it, their health becomes affected and they fall ill, especially those who are not used to drink it.  They reach Ghāna after enormous hardships.  They stop there to recover, and then take guides to accompany them,.. scouts and brokers...  They struggle onwards in severe hardship until they reach the place which separates them from the owners of the gold.  When they arrive, they beat great drums which they have brought with them, and which may be heard as far as the horizon in the land of this Sūdān tribe. It is said that they dwell in underground hiding places and burrows, and that they are naked, like animals, ignorant of body covering.  This is how their manners are reported though those people never allow a merchant to see them.

When the merchants know that the people have heard the drum, they bring out the merchandise they brought with them, and each merchant puts out his own, each kind separately.  Then they go one stage away from that place, and the Sūdān come with gold, putting a certain amount alongside each kind of merchandise, and withdraw.  The merchants come back and each one takes the gold which he finds beside his merchandise.  Leaving the merchandise, they beat their drums and depart.

Nothing is known about what is beyond these people, and I think that there is no living being there on account of the scorching sun.  It is three months between that country and Sijilmāsa.

[Ibn-Hawkal, Sūrat al-ard, 103:]  The king of Ghāna is the richest king on earth, with the wealth and treasure of gold nuggets collected by himself and his predecessors over a long period of time.  He exchanges presents with the ruler of Kūghah, who is nowhere near as wealthy and prosperous as he.   They both are dependent on the kings of Awdaghust for salt imports, which they cannot dispense with.   A load of salt in the territory of Sūdān can command between 200 to 300 dīnārs.

The Berbers between Sijilmāsa and Awdaghust... collect dues from those who cross their territory with trade goods bound for Sūdān and from those returning with gold.  With that they take care of their needs...

Between the Maghrib and the countries of Sūdān there are various desert stretches which have little water and do not permit grazing.  They can only be crossed in winter, and the traveller must keep on the move through them without stopping.

[Al-Bakrī, #1455:]  Ghāna is a title given to their kings; the name of the region is Awkār.  The name of their king today, in 1067-8, is Tunkāmanīn, who took over in 1063.  The name of his predecessor was Basī, who became king at the age of 85.  He led a praiseworthy life, loving justice and showing friendship to Muslims.  He became blind at the end of his life, but hid this from the people, pretending to see.  When things were placed before him he would say “This is good” or “this is bad”.  His ministers deceived the people by telling the king in coded words what he should say.  This Basī was the maternal uncle of Tunkāmanīn.  It is the custom of the people that the new king must be the son of the king’s sister, because the king has no doubt about who the mother is, but he doubts about his own son and is not sure of his relationship to him. [#1456:] This Tunkāmanīn is powerful, ruler of a large kingdom and inspires fear by his authority.

The town of Ghana consists of two towns on a plain.  one of them is where the Muslims live, and is a big town with 12 mosques, one of them a Friday mosque with imāms and mu’adhdhins, some of them appointed, as well as legal experts and learned men.  Nearby are wells with sweet water, which they drink and use to raise vegetables.  The king’s town is six miles away, and is called al-Ghāba [the grove], but dwellings cover the way between the two towns.  Their buildings are of stone and acacia wood.  The king has a palace and some domed buildings surrounded by a wall resembling a city wall.  The king’s town has one mosque, near the king’s court of justice, where the Muslims pray who come there.  Around the king’s town are domed buildings and groves and shrines where their sorcerers, who keep their religion going, live.  In these places are their dakākīr [idols] and the tombs of their kings. The groves are guarded, and no one can enter them or know what is in them.  There also is the king’s prison, and if he imprisons anyone there, no news of him is ever heard.

[#1457:] The king’s interpreters are from the Muslims, likewise the treasurer and most of his ministers.  No one who follows the king’s religion may wear sewn cloths except himself and his heir apparent, who is his sister’s son.  The rest of the people wear wrappers of cotton, silk or brocade, according to their means.   The men all shave their beards and their women shave their heads.  Their king wears necklaces and bracelets like the women, and puts on his head a high cap decorated with gold, and over that a turban of fine cotton.

[#1458:] The king receives people or judges grievances against officials in a domed building, around which stand ten horses with gold decorated covers. Behind the king stand ten pages holding shields and swords decorated with gold.  On his right are the children of his vassal kings with fine clothes and their hair braided with gold.  The governor of the town sits on the ground before the king, and around him sit the ministers.  At the door of the building are specially bred dogs who guard the king and hardly ever leave his place. Around their necks are collars of gold and silver, with a number of golden and silver balls.  People are called to the audience by a drum called dubā, made from a long hollowed log.  When the people of his religion approach him they fall on their knees and sprinkle dust over their heads; that is their way of greeting him.  But Muslims greet him by clapping their hands.

[#1459:] Their religion is Magism and they worship idols.  When their king dies they construct a huge dome of sāj wood, putting it over the place of the grave.  Then, on a stretcher with a pillow and spread, they bring him inside that dome and place beside him his ornaments, weapons, the vessels he used for eating and drinking, full of food and drink.  Putting inside also the men who served him his food and drink, they then lock the door, cover the dome with mats and other items, gather together to cover the dome with earth until it becomes like a big mound, and dig a ditch around it, so that the mound can be reached only from one point. They slaughter animals for their dead and offer them alcoholic drinks.

[#1460:] The king gets one dīnār of gold for every donkey-load of salt coming into the country and two dīnārs when the donkey goes out.  For a load of copper he gets five mithqāls, and for a load of other goods 10 mithqāls.  The best gold in his territory comes from the town of Ghiyārū, which is an 18 days’ journey from the king’s town over land settled with the continuous dwellings of Sūdān tribes.  Any nuggets of gold found in the mines of his country belong to the king, while the gold dust is left for the people.  If not for this policy, the people would have so much gold that it would have little value.  The nuggets weigh between an ounce [ūqiyya] and a pound [ral].  It is said that the king as a nugget the size of a big stone...

[#1462:] The king of Ghāna can call up an army of 200,000 men, with over 40,000 archers.  The horses in Ghāna are very small.2

      [#1468:] The custom of trial by water exists in Ghāna territory.   If anyone is accused over money, blood or anything else, the man in charge takes a thin piece of sharp bitter wood, pours some water over it and makes the accused drink it.  If he vomits it, he is recognized as innocent and congratulated for that.  But if he does not vomit it and it says in his stomach, the accusation is validated.


[Al-Yacqūbī, Ta’rīkh, 1:193:]  There is another kingdom called Malal which is independent of (?3) the king of Kanem.  Their king is called Mayūsā.  Then there is the kingdom of the Khabsha, whose capital is called Thabīr. Their king is called Mar.  Next to these are the Qāqū, but they are a subject people and their king is the king of Thabīr.

[Al-Bakrī, #1464:]   Beyond [Daw’s kingdom] lies the land of Malal, whose king is known as al-Muslimānī.  He got that name because his land suffered from draught year after year.  The sought for rain by making offerings of cattle until they nearly wiped them out, but they only suffered the more from draught and hardship.  The king was hosting a Muslim visitor who recited the Qur’ān and knew the Sunna.4  The king complained to him about what had befallen his people, and he said to him: “O King, if you only believed in God the most high and acknowledged his oneness, and in Muhammad - on him be salāt and peace - and acknowledged his prophethood, and accepted all the laws of Islam, I could assure you of relief from what you are suffering, and that God’s mercy would cover the people of your land and that your enemies would envy you because of that.”  He talked on like that until the king accepted Islam with a pure intention.  So he taught him how to recite some simple passages of the Qur’ān and taught him the necessary and customary practices which no one should be ignorant of.  He then had him wait until the night before Friday, when he ordered him to purify himself by a complete bath.  The Muslim clothed him with a cotton garment which he had, and the two went out to a little hill where the Muslim stood and did alāt and the king, on his right, followed him.  They prayed for a good part of the night, the Muslim making intercessions and the king answering “Amen”.  When dawn came God covered the land with rain.  So the king ordered the dakākīr to be smashed and the sorcerers to be expelled from his country.  Is Islam was sincere, as that of his children and confidants, but the people of his kingdom remained polytheists.  Since then they called their kings al-muslimānī.

Towns near Ghana

[Al-Bakrī, #1460:] The town of Ghiyārū is 12 miles from the Nīl [Senegal], and has many Muslims.  The territory of Ghāna is unhealthy and not heavily populated.  A visitor can hardly escape falling ill during the time the crops are ripening.  Strangers often die during the harvest.

[#1461:] The road from Ghāna to Ghiyārū passes through Sāmaqandā, 4 days away.  The people of Sāmaqandā are the best archers among the Sūdān.

The region of Tāqa is two days further...  From there to a channel of the Nīl called Zāghū is a day’s journey. Camels go through it, but people must use boats.

From there you to Gharantal, a big town within a great kingdom.  No Muslims live there, but if they visit, the people honour them and step out of their way.  Elephants and giraffes breed there.  From Gharantal you go directly to Ghiyārū...

[#1462:] Excellent black-and-white veined ebony is found there. The people sow crops twice a year, once during the Nīl flood and the second time during the rainy season.

[#1463:] West of Giyārū, on the Nīl, is the town of Yarisnā.  Its inhabitants are Muslims, but the people round about are polytheists [mushrikūn]... From Yarisnā the Banū Naghmārata, a Sūdān trading people with a strange language, export gold to other countries.

On the other side of the Nīl is a large kingdom taking eight days to cross, the title of whose king is Daw.  The people there fight with arrows...

[#1465:] Among the provinces attached to Ghāna is Sāma, 4 days away from Ghāna, whose people are known as the Bukm.  They go about naked, except for the women who cover their sexual parts with braids hanging from a belt.  They leave their pubic hair, but shave their heads.  Abū-cAbdallāh al-Makkī relates that he saw one of these women stop before an Arab with a long beard and she said something he did not understand.  He asked his translator, who told him that she wished she had the hair of his beard on her pubis.  The Arab burst with anger and covered her with insults.  The Bukm are very good archers, and use poisoned arrows.  Among them the eldest son inherits all the wealth of his father.

[#1466:] West of the town of Ghāna is the town of Anbāra.  Tārim, its king, is a rebel against the king of Ghāna.

Nine stages from Anbāra and fifteen from Ghāna is the town of Kūgha. Its people are Muslims, but round about are polytheists.  Their imports are mostly salt, cowries, copper and euphorbium.  Euphorbium and cowries are what is most in demand. >Nearby are many gold mines, and this region is the richest of all the Sūdān countries in gold.

There is also the town of Wakan, whose king is Qanmar ibn-Basī. It is said that he is a Muslim, but hides his religion.

[#1467:] In the territory of Ghāna is a people called Hunayhīn, descendants of the army sent by the Umayyads to Ghāna at the beginning of Islam. They follow the religion of the people of Ghāna, except that they do not take wives from the Sūdān or give them their daughters in marriage.  They are white in colour and fine looking.  Also in Silā there is a group of them, called the Fāmān.

[#1470:] If you travel east from Ghāna, you go through territory settled by the Sūdān until you come to a place called Awghām.  The people there cultivate sorghum, which is their staple.

From there you travel four days to a place called Ra’s al-Mā’. There you meet the Nīl [the Niger] coming out of the land of the Sūdān.  On one side there are Muslim Berber tribes called Madāsa.  On the other side of the river are the polytheist Sūdān.

Six stages down the Nīl is the town of Tīraqqā, in whose market the people of Ghāna and the people of Tādmakka gather...

[#1471:] From Tīraqqā the Nīl turns south through the land of the Sūdān. Three stages down you come to the land of the Saghmāra.  These are Berbers of the province of Tādmakka.  On the opposite side of the river is the town of Kawkaw [Gao], belonging to the Sūdān, which we will talk about later.


[Al-Bakrī, #1472:]   From Ghāna to Tādmakka on the highway is a 50 days’ journey.  From Ghāna to Safanqū is 3 stages.  This place, on the Nīl, is the last province of Ghāna.  Then you follow the Nīl to Būghrāt, where a Sanhāja tribe called Madāsa lives...  From Būghrāt you go to Tīraqqā, then through the Sahara to Tādmakka.  Tādmakka is more like Mecca than all the towns in the world.  The name means “like Mecca”. It is a large town, with mountains and valleys around it, and is better constructed than Ghāna or Kawkaw.  The people of Tādmakka are Muslim Berbers, and veil themselves like the Berbers of the Sahara.  Their staple is meat, milk and a grain that grows without cultivation. They import sorghum and other grains from the Sūdān lands, and wear garments made of cotton, nūlī and other materials died red.   Their king wears a red turban, a yellow shirt and blue trousers.  Their dīnārs are called “bald”, because they are of pure gold and not stamped.   Their women are exquisitely beautiful, unequalled anywhere, but the men allow adultery.  The women rush to any merchant that comes to them, each one trying to take him to her house.  If you want to go from Tādmakka to Qayrawān, you must travel 50 days in the Sahara to Wārgalān.  This place consists of seven fortresses belonging to the Berbers.

[Al-Yacqūbī, Ta’rīkh, 1:193:]  Next is the kingdom of the Kawkaw (= Gao), the largest, mightiest and most powerful kingdom of the Blacks.  All the kingdoms pay allegiance to their king.  Kawkaw is the name of its capital.  Many other kingdoms pay allegiance to its king and acknowledge his authority, even though they are kings in their own territory.  Among these are the kingdom of al-Marw, a vast kingdom whose capital is called al-Hayā.  Others are the kingdoms of al-Harbar, Sanhāja, Tadhkarīr, az-Ziyānīr, Arūr and Baqārūt.  All of these are affiliated to the kingdom of the Kawkaw.

[Akhbār az-zamān, KM 1:252:]  Among the children of the blacks are the Kawkaw (Gao), after whom is named the greatest and most powerful kingdom of the Sūdān.  All their kings respect the king of Kawkaw’s right to their obedience; so many kingdoms are affiliated to Kawkaw.

[Yāqūt/Muhallabī, Mucjam al-buldān, 4:329:]  Kawkaw is the name of a nation and a country of the Sūdān. Al-Muhallabī says that Kawkaw is in the First Clime, being at a latitude of 10o.  Their king pretends before his people to be a Muslim, and most of them make the same pretension.  He has a town called Sarnāh on the eastern side of the Nīl [Niger] where there are markets and trading establishments to which continuous traffic comes from all over.  He has another town on the west side of the Nīl where he and his confidants reside. There also is a mosque where he worships, while the public praying ground is located between the two towns. In his town he has a castle where he lives alone, and only a eunuch slave may enter.

All the people are Muslims.  The clothing of the king and his chief companions consists of shirts and turbans.  They ride horses barebacked. The kingdom is more settled than that of Zaghāwa, although the land of Zaghāwa is more extensive.  The wealth of the people consists of both goods and livestock.  The king’s treasure houses are spacious, containing mostly salt.

[Al-Bakrī, #1477:]   When a traveller goes from the land of Kawkaw westward along the bank of the river he ends up in a kingdom called Damdam, whose people eat anyone who falls into their hands.  They have a great king who holds other kings under his sway.  In their town they have a huge fortress with an idol on top in the shape of a woman which they worship as a god and visit on pilgrimages.

[#1478:] Between Tādmakka and the town of Kawkaw are 9 stages. The Arabs call the Kawkaw people Barzakānīs.  Their capital consists of two towns: the town of the king and the town of the Muslims.  Their king is called Qandā.  The people’s dress is like that of the Sūdān, wrappers or skins or anything else according to each one’s means.  Like the Sūdān, they worship dakākīr.  When the king sits down [to eat] they beat drums and the Sūdān women dance, with their thick hair hanging loose, and no one leaves the town until the king finishes eating; what he does not eat is thrown into the Nīl. People shout and scream when this happens, so that everyone knows that the king has finished eating.

If anyone is made king, he is consigned a seal, a sword and a Qur’ān, which they maintain the Commander of the Faithful sent to them.  Their king is Muslim, and no one but a Muslim may rule them.

They maintain that they are called Kawkaw because that is what can be heard from the sound of their drums...  The people of Kawkaw trade with salt, and that is their currency. Salt is imported from an underground mine in a Berber locality called Tūtak.  It is taken to Tādmakka, and from there to Kawkaw.  There are 6 stages between Tūtak and Tādmakka.

Zawīla are all Muslims of the Ibāite sect.. They export black slaves from the Mīriyy, Zaghāwa, Marwiyy and other black peoples because these are nearby; so they capture them.  I have heard that the kings of the Blacks sell the Blacks without any pretext such as war.

[Al-Istakhrī, p. 33-34:]  Zawīla is on the frontier of the Maghrib, of moderate size with wide surroundings, bordering on the land of the Sūdān.  The countries of the Sūdān are extensive, but very barren and miserable.  But they have in their mountains nearly all the fruits found in the lands of Islam, although they do not eat them, since they eat other fruits and vegetables unknown in the lands of Islam.   The black slaves which they sell in the lands of Islam are from there.  They are not Nubians or Zanj, Ethiopians or Buja, but a race apart, blacker and purer than all others...

[36:] Most of these black slaves converge on Zawīla.  In the eastern Maghrib, along the Mediterranean coast, the people are mostly brown.  The further they live towards the south and east the darker they are, until finally in the Sūdān the people are the blackest of all nations...

[37:] Between the Maghrib and the land of the Sūdān are stretches of isolated desert, crossable only from certain known points...

[37:] From the Maghrib there come black slaves from the land of the Sūdān, and white slaves from al-Andalus and high priced slave girls.  An slave girl or man who knows no trade will fetch, according to his or her appearance, 1,000 dīnārs or more.

[Al-Bakrī, #1097:]  Zawīla is a town without walls in the middle of the Sahara.  It is at the outer edge of the land of the Sūdān.  It has a Friday mosque, a public bath and markets where caravans from every direction congregate and then set out on their diverse ways.  It has palm trees and agricultural plots irrigated by means of camels.  When cAmr conquered Barqa, he sent cUqba ibn-Nāfic as far as Zawīla, and thus the land between Barqa and Zawīla became a Muslim possession...

[#1099:] From Tripoli, Zawīla lies between the Maghrib and the qibla.  From Zawīla slaves are taken to Ifrīqiya [Tunisia] and nearby places.  They are bought for short pieces of red cloth.


[Al-Yacqūbī, Ta’rīkh, KM 1:193:]  The Blacks who went to the west traversed many lands and founded many kingdoms.  The first of these is of the Zaghāwa who settled in a place called Kanem.  Their houses are made of reeds, and they have no cities.  Their king is called Kākira.  One group of Zaghāwa is called the awīn (or awīn = Hausa?), who have a king from the Zaghāwa.

[Yāqūt/Muhallabī, Mucjam al-buldān, 2:2, 932-394:]  Al-Muhallabī says that the Zaghāwa (in Kanem) have two towns, one of them called Mānān and the other Tarāzkī, located in the first clime at the 21st longitude. The kingdom of the Zaghāwa is one of the great kingdoms of the Sūdān.  In the east it borders on the kingdom of the Nūba, who dwell in the uppermost part of Upper Egypt, it being ten days’ away. Many tribes live in this land, which is fifteen stages in length and the same in width, continuously inhabited. Their houses are all made of stalks, including the palace of their king, whom they exalt and worship instead of Allāh. They imagine that he does not eat any food. There are people in charge of this food who bring it secretly to his house.  It is not known where it is brought from and if one of his subjects happens to meet the camels carrying his provisions, he is killed instantly on the spot.  He drinks in the presence of his select companions.  Their drink is made of millet fortified with honey.  His dress consists of trousers of thin wool, over which he drapes himself in expensive cloths of wool, silk of Sūsa and fine brocade.  He has unlimited authority over his subjects and enslaves any of them he wishes.  His wealth consists of livestock such as sheep, cattle, camels and horses.  The crops of their country are mostly sorghum, cowpeas and wheat.  Most of his subjects go naked, except for skin loincloths.  Their livelihood is crops and the ownership of livestock. Their religion is the worship of their kings, for they believe that they bring life and death, sickness and health.

[Al-Bakrī, #1099:] Between Zawīla and the land of Kanem is 40 stages. The Kanem people live beyond the Sahara of Zawīla country, and hardly anyone has any contact with them.  They are black polytheists [mushrikūn]. Some say that some of the Umayyads emigrated there when they were persecuted by the cAbbāsids. They still keep Arab dress and customs.

The trade routes under Ibādī control

Of the early North African states, the Ibādite Khārijite state of Tāhirt controlled all the early trade across the Sahara.  This is because it controlled the towns at the northern end of the trade routes.   From Tāhirt a western route originated at Sijilmāsa, a town founded in 757, passed through the salt-mining desert town of Taghāza, went on to Awdaghust, a Muslim settlement on the southern edge of the desert, and 15 days further to the capital of Ghāna.  Another route led from Wargla to Tadmakka, another Muslims settlement on the edge of the desert, and 9 days further to Gao.  An eastern route led from Tripoli, for a time under the control of Tāhirt, through the new town of Zawīla and on to Kanem on the edge of Lake Chad.

The amount of control Tāhirt had over Tripoli is disputed.  Yet even when Tripoli was under Tunisian Aghlabid control, and after 909 when the Fāimids took over the north of Africa, Ibāism prevailed in Tripoli.  The same holds for the other desert towns which sometimes were conquered by non-Khārijite Muslim rulers.  Ibādite Khārijism prevailed along all the routes to sub-Saharan Africa until the coming of the Murābis in the mid-11th century.

Branching from Sijilmāsa and Wargla, there were lateral routes across North Africa which served as feeders and outlets to the north-south trans-Saharan routes.  The lateral routes frequently shifted according to the political climate of the Maghrib, without seriously disrupting the trans-Saharan trade.  The gold trade received an added boost in the early 10th century from the rivalry between the Fātimids of the Maghrib and the Umayyads of Spain, both of whom minted their own gold currency as a mark of caliphal sovereignty; both had access to gold coming across the Sahara.  This rivalry died down when the Fātimids established themselves in Egypt in 972 and thereafter obtained most of their gold from East Africa.

The various Berber tribes of the desert quickly became Muslim as a result of contact with the Arabs and integration in the trans-Saharan trade. The Zanāta were one group that very early became partners with the Arabs in this trade.  Sijilmāsa was predominantly a Zanāta town.  Another grouping was the Sanhāja, who controlled Awdaghust except for a period in the early 11th century when Ghāna took it over. The Sanhāja were still pagan at the end of the 9th century, according to al-Yacqūbī, but they became Muslim in the mid-10th century, according to al-Muhallabī (quoted by Yāqūt), as a result of the influence of the Fāimid rule al-Mahdī.  The Sanhāja became the allies of the Fātimids, whereas the Zanāta were allied to the Spanish Umayyads.  The withdrawal of the Fātimids to Egypt left the S`āja exposed to pressure from the Zanāta in the north and Ghāna in the south.  The recovery of their lost political stature and their participation in the prophets of the trans-Saharan trade was a human motive for their adoption of Murābit ideology in the mid-11th century.

The stage of Muslim separatism

An interesting characteristic of the early Muslim outposts in the desert and the Sahel was their separate Muslim identity. Awdaghust and Tadmakka served as exclusively Muslim jumping-off points in close reach of Ghāna and Gao respectively. Moreover, as we will see in al-Bakrī, Ghāna and Gao each consisted of two separate towns, one for the indigenous people and their king, and the other for the Muslim foreign population.  This situation corresponds to what Humphry Fisher describes as the “quarantine” state of Islam, when there are few or no converts and the religion is kept pure from influences of the traditional religion.5

From the 9th to the 11th centuries there were foreign Muslim settlements in many towns of West Africa.  None are mentioned for Kanem, but there must have been Muslim outposts in Kawār or thereabouts in order to buy slaves and forward them to Zawīla, since the slave traffic from Zawīla to Tripoli is well attested.  None of the Sūdān states were headed by Muslims before the 11th century except Gao.  Yet al-Muhallabī makes it clear that the king’s Islam was not very deep and could be merely a show of good will to the foreign Muslim settlement in the second town mentioned by al-Bakrī.

As for Mālikī Muslim attitudes to trading or mixing with the people of West Africa, we have the advice of al-Qayrawānī [Risāla, n. 43.150:] “Trading in hostile countries or in the land of the Blacks is disapproved.”  Al-Qayrawānī also said [n. 29.06]: “It is disapproved to make use of the tusks of an elephant,” one of the important imports from West Africa.

Al-Mālikī relates the following stories [Riyād an-nufūs, 1:479]: Abū-l-Fadl (Ahmad ibn-cAlī, a follower of Sahnūn (786-854)) left from his inheritance from his father more than 1,000 dīnārs that he did not claim. He was asked “What prevents you from taking it?”  And he answered, “That was from his trading in ivory, and I was unwilling to be involved in something that the learned people consider disapproved.”  So he left it our of piety and asceticism.

[I, 182]I was making chains of copper and plating them with gold, as is done with bridles, and sending them for sale in the land of Sūdān.  Then I had doubts in my conscience about this and asked al-Bahūl ibn-Rāshid, who told me, “I cannot answer that question, but go to Ibn-Farūkh al-Fāsī [767-792]; when you get his answer, tell me.”  So I went to Ibn-Farūkh and asked him.  He asked, “Are those people to whom you are sending the chains in treaty relationship with us?”  I told him, “Yes,” and he proceeded to give me his advice and told me to live by it.

The stage of Muslim mixing

The detailed description of al-Bakrī in 1067 show a definite shift from the former “quarantine” state of Islam to a much deeper penetration of Islam in the local life, even in places where the kings did not become Muslim. This new phase of Islam could be called, in Fisher’s terminology, the “mixing stage”, corresponding to the Arabic technical term takhlītTakhlīt is not necessarily syncretism, or the fusing of two religions, but an eclectic practice of elements of both religions side by side.  At this stage, whether they adhered to Islam or not, West African kings or their followers were not completely converted to Islam, but merely attracted to some aspects of it which they adopted while at the same time preserving many of their traditional beliefs and practices.

The Sūdān kings desired the presence of Muslim traders and clerics and found Islam attractive for several reasons:

  1. The Muslims brought the economic advantages of long-distance trade; these advantages would be greater or surer if the king accepted Islam himself, since it gave him citizenship in the Muslim umma with equality and brotherhood with his trading partners far away.  He could then expect respect and trust from them in his dealings, putting to rest al-Qayrawānī’s warning about trading in the land of the Sūdān. As Islam gained ground, large scale marketing and transport became a Muslim monopoly and this put pressure on traders to join Islam to become part of the club.
  2. The presence of Muslim scholars was welcome also because they provided an important element in the infrastructure of long-distance trade, namely, written communication in Arabic, the only international language of West Africa until the introduction of Portuguese on the coast in the 15th century and French and English in the 19th century.  This made it possible to order goods from a distance and maintain a system of banking or credit.  At the same time, Muslims provided the civil service in the expanding Sūdān kingdoms, because their literacy made them the only ones capable of administration.  As Muslims literate in Arabic spread throughout the Sahel with the traders, there were few places of importance where a traveller might not find an interpreter and an introduction to the local society, thus eliminating the necessity of the “silent trade” between peoples of different languages.
  3. Complementing or competing with the traditional religion, Muslim clerics had a wide selection of religious medicine to offer, with specific prescriptions for every conceivable disease or any other problem of life, in the form of drink (with ink washed from a slate with Qur’ānic writing), talismans to wear, prayers to say, or other things to do.  The Arabic text of the Qur’ān was looked upon as something powerful and beautiful itself, whose secrets could be mastered with patient study and initiation, as could the secrets of the traditional religion. Islamic rites of worship were also attractive for Africans because they were done in common and had an atmosphere of both dramatic festivity and seriousness.
  4. Muslims tolerated, temporarily, a king accepting Islam and at the same time continuing to practice the traditional religion.  The king would want to straddle the fence this way because he was expected to be the father and high-priest for all his people. If a significant number of them or even a few prominent citizens adopted a particular religion that did not threaten his power, he would be expected to lead them in their religious practice, thus providing religious leadership to all groups, and not allowing it to go into political opposition.
  5. The kings found Islam a convenient support to their imperial authority, since it was a unifying ideology bridging the many tribes and presenting them with a wider brotherhood, citizenship or nationality.  This produced the phenomenon of “state Islam”, whereby Islam was controlled and used to promote the interests of the rulers.
  6. A psychological factor disposing people to convert to Islam is the international experience of those involved in long-distance trade. Traditional religion was bound to a village political system and culture with its local deities, spirits and ancestors, whereas inter-tribal economic and cultural interaction required a corresponding universalist social, political and religious structure.  The Islamic view of the universe as governed by one God who is to be worshipped in one way by one world-wide community of believers explains why its champions were primarily the merchant class and the clerics who accompanied them.  The farmers did not opt for Islam at all, and their rulers straddled the fence, since their interests were balanced between the traditional local society and the wider world that commerce and empire exposed them to.  Pastoral peoples, like the Fulani, were as ambivalent as the kings, because of their attachment to the kinship bonds of their clans on the one hand, and on the other their exposure to a wider society which their migrations put them in contact with.6
  7. Accepting Islam would also give the king legal immunity from attack by other Muslims. Since raids by desert nomads upon the settled farmers were very frequent anyway,7 and raids by Muslims upon unbelievers was encouraged by religion, according to the common belief of Muslims, a Sūdān king would have strong motivation to become a Muslim as a pre-emptory defence against attack.

«— Chapter 6

The Spread of Islam
Through North to West Africa

Chapter 8 —»

1P.F. Farias de Moraes, in “Silent trade: myth and historical evidence”, History in Africa, 1 (1974), 9-24, challenges the real existence of such silent trade as described by al-Mascūdī and Yāqūt (See later on).

2This paragraph was misplaced later in the section about towns around Ghāna.

3A conjectural reading of the meaningless Arabic “byādūn” as yastabiddūn.

4Ash-Shammākhī gives his name as cAlī ibn-Yakhlaf, including him in his biography of Ibāī Khārijites (Kitāb as-siyar, LH 368).

5H. Fisher, “Conversion reconsidered: some historical aspects of religious conversion in Black Africa”, Africa, 43:1 (1973).

6Cf. Robin Horton, “On the rationality of conversion”, Africa, 45 (1975), 219-235, 373-399.

7Ibn-Khaldūn makes this nomadic habit almost a law of history; cf. The Muqaddimah, tr. F. Rosenthal, ed. N.J. Dawood (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967), pp. 91-122.