“Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time” Exhibit (Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University)

About two weeks ago, I had the privilege of visiting the wonderful “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time” exhibit at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University. It was a truly wonderful experience and the curator Dr. Kathleen Bickford Berzock should be congratulated on such a monumental achievement. As many observers have noted, this is the first major exhibition in the United States to closely consider the material culture of early trans-Saharan trade and to offer strong evidence of the central but little-recognized role Africa played in global medieval history. Among the materials on view are sculptures, jewelry, household and luxury objects, manuscripts and architectural remnants, all united by their connections to routes of exchange across the Sahara from the eighth to the 16th centuries. The exhibit includes an excellent collection of treasures and artifacts from West Africa, North Africa, the Middle East & Europe from late antiquity to the 20th century. It showcases the immense importance of trans-Saharan Africa as a pivotal part of the medieval world, and embodies the heart of the interconnected universe that many scholars are increasingly referring to as the Global Middle Ages. Weaving together art, archaeology, cartography history and literature to tell the story of an economically-vibrant and culturally-diverse medieval Africa, the exhibit has received an overwhelmingly positive reception, with one reviewer stating that

“Caravans of Gold” creates new points of reference by not only reveling in the beauty of the objects but also introducing viewers to the idea of a vibrantly interconnected global culture, including the sophisticated social, political, cultural, and economic systems of West Africa. So much of Africa’s relationship to Europe has involved defamation, appropriation, and control. Narratives highlighting the agency of West African people in the medieval period allow for a rediscovery of the continent’s rich history, cultures, and contributions to the evolution of global trade and culture. “Caravans of Gold” is an important gesture in helping people understand that Africa has always been connected to the world and can share its story on its own terms.

Another reviewer observes that the exhibit

doesn’t aim for less than decentering the idea that the medieval epoch should only be envisioned through a European lens, which are typically stories of feudalism, war, chivalry, and the Bubonic plague. These European sagas are the ones I grew up with, saw dramatized on television, and valorized in film. Caravans of Gold also seeks to put Islam at this reconstructed world’s fulcrum and regard it as a force which impelled cultural advance, rather than to associate it with iconoclastic destruction of historical patrimony — stories we know too well. Even more, it subtly raises up the entire African continent, which becomes through this retelling, a force of profound socioeconomic change at the global level.


The collection was well organized, with helpful descriptions throughout that provided important historical context (despite a few inaccuracies and typos). There were also several visual aids (including maps) that assist the visitor in navigating the exhibit and allow them to better understand the significance of the objects on display. I particularly appreciated the diversity of the objects, which ranged from pottery, manuscripts and weaponry to textiles, ornaments and coins.

The manuscripts, in particular, sought to convey the importance of Arabic (and Islam) as important cultural elements that linked West Africa with the rest of the broader Mediterranean world. For me, this was the centerpiece of the exhibit, since it highlighted the importance of learning and the transmission of knowledge (and the itinerant scholars who were the agents of this process) in Africa’s history. It illustrated the continent’s participation in broader cultural and intellectual developments in the medieval and early modern world. Manuscripts and learning, no less important than the trade of gold and ivory, were a key part of trans-Saharan history in the Middle Ages. The rich repositories of manuscripts across the region are a testament to the historical importance of book culture, literacy and the transmission of knowledge in West African history. The exhibit’s emphasis on this aspect of pre-modern West Africa complements several important studies on the subject, such as Ousmane Oumar Kane’s Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa (Harvard, 2016).



(An 18th-c. North African manuscript of al-Shifā’ bi-Ta’rīf Ḥuqūq al-Muṣṭafā, a devotional biography of the Prophet Muhammad written in the 12th century by Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ b. Mūsā (d. 1149). The manuscript eventually found its way to Timbuktu, and is one of about 40,000 manuscripts in the collection of the Ahmad Baba Institute in Mali)




(An 18th-century manuscript of the Miftāḥ li-l Tafsīr, a commentary on the Qur’an, by ‘Abd Allāh ibn Fūdī. Produced in Nigeria and preserved in the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University)


(A 16th-century manuscript of the Ghāyat al-Amal fī Tafḍīl al-Niyya ‘alā al-‘Amal by the renowned Aḥmad Bābā of Timbuktu (d. 1627) , a leading scholar who lived between Timbuktu and North Africa in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is preserved in the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University)



(A brass bowl/kuduo from Asante, Offin River in Ghana dating to the mid-19th century. As the description in the exhibit notes, it bears a strong resemblance to the style of Mamluk bowls during the 14th and 15th centuries, attesting to the strong cultural influences and contact between the two regions over the centuries. From the collection of the British Museum in London)



(A cap with striped inscribed silk from 14th-century Mamluk Egypt, resembling a skullcap gifted to the ruler of Mali, Mansa Musa, by the Mamluk Sultan when the former arrived in Cairo. From the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art)


(Various bowls, ewers and jars from Egypt and Syria, 10th-13th century)



(Qur’an folio from 9th or 10th century North Africa. From the collection of the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto)


(An early 20th-century silver alloy amulet ring from the western Anti-Atlas region of Morocco. From the collection of the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.)


(Early 20th-century silver and copper alloy anklets from Guelmim in southern Morocco. From the collection of The Art Institute of Chicago)


(A 13th-century jar from Syria. According to the description at the exhibit, this is “an example of fritware, a type of pottery in which frit, ground glass, is added to clay to reduce its fusion temperature. The result is a bright white background that resembles porcelain.” From the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art)


(An early 20th-century large Tuareg shield made from Oryx skin, leather, wool, cotton and copper alloy. From the collection of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University in Cambridge, MA)


(A terracotta head produced by the Nok culture in Nigeria, dating to the 1st century BCE. From the collection of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Abuja, Nigeria)



(Early 20th-century sword and scabbard from Niger. From the collection of the Field Museum in Chicago)



(Early 11th-century leaded bronze roped pot excavated from Igbo Isaiah, shrine storehouse. From the collection of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Abuja, Nigeria)


(Late 19th or early 20th-century Tuareg knife and sheath from Algeria. The knife is made of wood, iron and brass, and the sheath is leather. From the collection of the Field Museum in Chicago)


(Ten-dinar coin of Almohad caliph Abū Ḥafṣ ‘Umar al-Murtaḍā, r. 1248-1266)


The array of materials from Europe, West Africa and the Middle East were laid out in such a way so as to draw attention to the importance of trade in influencing the styles and material of objects, some of which most people would otherwise fail to connect with Africa. This was particularly the case for the gold and ivory objects from medieval Europe, which indicate the increasingly importance of trans-Saharan trade and Mediterranean economic exchange. As one reviewer notes

The juxtaposition of the artifacts, coupled with videos of archaeologists in Mali, Morocco and Nigeria explaining how they connect the fragments to the artwork, provides concrete evidence of the role West Africa played in the development of the early modern era. This approach allows museum-goers to note the presence of African gold in pages of a Christian Bible, Jewish prayer book and Islamic Qur’an, or to compare a piece of glazed ceramic found in Mali to a 12th-century Chinese bowl.



(Late 13th-century diptych leaf with scenes from the Passion of Christ from Paris, France. Ivory, with traces of paint and gilding. From the collection of The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD)


(Late 14th-century diptych with the Passion of Christ from Paris, France. Ivory. From the collection of the Loyola University Museum of Art)


(Late 13th-century Virgin and Child from France. Ivory with paint and gold. From the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City)



(Late 15th-century Coronation of the Virgin from England. Gold and silk thread on linen. From the collection of the Loyola University Museum of Art)


(Early 20th-century serpentine stone inscribed bracelets/ahbeg from Algeria. From the collection of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology)


(Fragment of an early 11th-century marble gravestone from Almería, Spain. From the collection of the Hispanic Society of America in New York)


(~13th-century terracotta kneeling figure from Natamatao, Mali. From the Collection of the National Museum of Mali in Bamako)



(Late 10th or early 11th-century jewelry fittings from Córdoba, Spain. Gold, gemstones and traces of enamel. From the collection of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD)


(Early 14th-century ivory box with scenes of courtly life from France. From the collection of the Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH)


(Late 15th-century Siddur/prayer book from Lisbon, Portugal. Illuminated with gold on parchment. From the collection of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York)





(Tiraz textile fragments from 11th and 12th-century Fatimid Egypt)


(13th-century fragment from the San Valero Dalmatic. From the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago)


(Late 19th or early 20th-century talismanic textile from Senegal. From the collection of The Art Institute of Chicago)

One object that I found particularly intriguing was the Asante Jug or the Richard II Ewer. The description at the exhibit explains that “this ewer, which was manufactured in England in the late 14th century, is embellished with heraldic motifs and inscriptions. The royal arms of England on the front of the jug are is a reference to the reigns of both Edward III and Richard II, although the badges on the lid depicting a stag indicate that it was produced during Richard’s reign, at some point between 1390 and 1400.” At some point between its manufacture and 1896 (when it was taken by the British from the Manhiya Palace in Kumase, the capital of the Asante kingdom), it found its way to West Africa, indicating the manner in which trans-Saharan trade was an important two-way conduit for the transfer of objects between West Africa, North Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and northern Europe (as well as further afield).

(Asante Jug or the Richard II Ewer. Copper Alloy. From the collection of The British Museum, London)


These are only a few of the treasures on display at this excellent exhibit. As a historian of the medieval Mediterranean world, I was impressed by the scope and breadth of the material on display, and appreciated the attempt to complicate traditional narratives about the medieval world. While I found the exhibit to be immensely informative and a key contribution to public knowledge about both Africa and the Middle Ages, there were certain aspects that could be improved. There were several basic errors and typos in some of the descriptions which need to be rectified. The coins were not displayed in such a way that those interested in numismatics and inscriptions (such as myself) could properly read and fully appreciate their significance; some of these were also described inaccurately. Although I appreciated the quotes by travelers such as Abū ʿUbayd al-Bakri (d. 1094) and Ibn Baṭṭūṭa (d. 1369), or authors such as Ibn Faḍl Allāh al-‘Umarī (d. 1349), the emphasis on their perspectives often led to an (unintentional) obscuring of the voices of pre-modern West Africans themselves in the descriptions. While no exhibit can be expected to cover everything, I found the relative absence of detailed discussions and descriptions of the trans-Saharan slave trade to be a major omission. Since this traffic in human beings, which occurred on a massive scale and took a catastrophic toll on sub-Saharan Africa, was as important as the trade of material objects, gold, and salt, it is important for the visitor to understand how slavery was an integral part of the broader story of medieval Africa (and the Middle Ages as a whole). I hope this will be addressed in future iterations of this exhibit.

These quibbles aside, I cannot recommend this exhibit highly enough. It will run until July 21 2019, so please visit if you’re in the area. For all those in the historical and/or teaching professions in Chicago, I strongly suggest trying to organize a class or two around this exhibit and encouraging your students to visit! Admission is free, and the exhibit is designed with pedagogical goals in mind. For those unable to visit, consider purchasing the exhibit’s excellent catalog for yourself or local library.


Detail of The Catalan Atlas

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s