“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.

500x300-for-chicago-gallery-news Continue reading

New Exhibition: Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa (January 26 2019 – July 21 2019)

An exciting new exhibition organized by The Block Museum of Art and dedicated to the history and art of medieval Africa, has just opened in Chicago. The following is the description from its webpage:

Travel with the Block Museum along routes crossing the Sahara Desert to a time when West African gold fueled expansive trade and drove the movement of people, culture, and religious beliefs.

Caravans of Gold is the first major exhibition addressing the scope of Saharan trade and the shared history of West Africa, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe from the eighth to sixteenth centuries. Weaving stories about interconnected histories, the exhibition showcases the objects and ideas that connected at the crossroads of the medieval Sahara and celebrates West Africa’s historic and underrecognized global significance.

Caravans of Gold draws on recent archaeological discoveries, including rare fragments from major medieval African trading centers like Sijilmasa, Gao, and Tadmekka. These “fragments in time” are seen alongside works of art that invite us to imagine them as they once were. They are the starting point for a new understanding of the medieval past and for seeing the present in a new light.

Presenting more than 250 artworks spanning five centuries and a vast geographic expanse, the exhibition features unprecedented loans from partner institutions in Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria, many of which will be seen in North America for the first time.

The Block Museum exhibition will travel to The Aga Khan Museum in Toronto (Sept. 21, 2019 – Feb. 23, 2020) and then to the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institute (April 8 – Nov. 29, 2020)

It’s wonderful to see the history and culture of such an important region of the medieval world finally receiving more public attention. For those unable to attend, the exhibition’s catalog, Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa (ed, Kathleen Bickford Berzock) can be purchased here.

500x300-for-chicago-gallery-news

The Arabic Manuscripts of Manuel Bacas Merino (fl. 1800)

Here are some examples of the Arabic handwriting of the late 18th/early 19th-c. The Spanish scholar & Arabist Manuel Bacas Merino (d. after 1810) is most famous for his travels to Morocco during the late 18th century and his authorship of an Arabic grammar titled Compendio gramatical para aprender la lengua arábiga, así sabia como vulgar printed in Madrid in 1807.

3
Less well-known, however, is that Bacas Merino also copied several medieval Andalusi manuscripts located in the Library of the Royal Monastery of El Escorial. An example of his activities as a copyist is this manuscript of al-Dabbī’s “Bughyat al-Multamis,” a 12th-c. biographical dictionary of Andalusi scholars. He copied it from El Escorial MS 1676 in 1806. It is now preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, digitized here. He also transcribed a copy of Ibn al-Abbār’s al-Ḥulla al-Siyarā’, a 13th-c. biographical dictionary, from El Escorial MS 1649, also preserved in the BnF in Paris and digitized here.

4

For an overview & study of his works (and the broader context of Spanish Arabism in which he operated), see the (Spanish) article: Francisco Mocosa García, “El estudio del árabe marroquí en España durante el siglo XIX. La obra de Manuel Bacas Merino” http://digibug.ugr.es/handle/10481/2616.

1

 

Spanish Documentary on the Moriscos of Hornachos and the Rise of the Republic of Salé

Documentary in Spanish on how a group of Andalusi (“Morisco”) exiles from Spain settled on the Atlantic coast of Morocco & established a “pirate republic” in Rabat-Salé during the 17th century.

http://www.canalextremadura.es/alacarta/tv/videos/el-amor-de-la-patria-los-moriscos-de-hornachos-y-la-republica-sale

grabado-sale

(Image source: http://norbacaesarina.blogspot.com/2016/12/los-moriscos-corsarios-de-hornachos_10.html)

Portraits of Moroccan Ambassadors in Early Modern England

There have been a number of works in recent years that have highlighted the close diplomatic relations and cultural exchange between England and Morocco during the early modern period. Although the relationship between the two monarchies varied considerably between 1570 and 1800, including both periods of friendship (as in the time of Queen Elizabeth I and Aḥmad al-Manṣūr) and tensions/hostility, there was nevertheless a maintenance of commercial links and diplomacy throughout the entire period.  As a result of this political context, Islam and Muslims were interwoven into the broader cultural history of early modern England just as European Christians were an integral part of the story of early modern Morocco. Among the treasures that have survived from this period that attest to the evolving mutual perceptions and representation of these societies are portraits of five Moroccan ambassadors who were tasked with securing trade agreements or political-military alliances between the 16th and 18th centuries.  They were:

‘Abd al-Wāḥid ben Mas‘ūd ben Muḥammad al-Nūrī

‘Abd al-Wāḥid ben Mas‘ūd was sent as the ambassador of Aḥmad al-Manṣūr of Morocco (r. 1578–1603) to Elizabeth I of England (r. 1558–1603) in 1600–1601. He was formally tasked with securing a trade agreement, but it appears that he was also involved in negotiating a possible military allegiance between Morocco and England against Catholic Spain. The painting was completed around 1600 by an unknown artist and is preserved in the University of Birmingham.

Moorish_Ambassador_to_Elizabeth_I_1600-EA-009-772x1024

(Source: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/east-west-objects-between-cultures/east-west-room-1)

Continue reading

The Last Almohads? Two Descendants of the Almohad Caliphs in 14th-c. Nasrid Granada

The Almohads (r. 1121–1269) were the first (and last) Muslim dynasty to politically unify the entirety of Islamic Spain and North Africa since the Umayyad conquest of the region in the 7th and 8th centuries.[1] The Almohads, whose name (al-Muwaḥḥidūn) literally means “those who affirm the unicity of God,” were a religio-political movement rooted in the theological and legal principles preached by Ibn Tūmart (d. 1130), referred to by his followers as the Mahdi, to the Berber tribes of the High Atlas Mountains.[2]
167BE739-3B45-469B-AC3E-90E388F15A5B

(Mosque of Ibn Tūmart , High Atlas Mountains)

The founder of the Almohad dynasty was ‘Abd al-Mu’min b. ‘Alī al-Kūmī (r. 1130–1163), an early and close follower of Ibn Tūmart, who proclaimed himself caliph (amīr al-mu’minīn) in 1130, went on to conquer large swathes of North Africa and Spain, destroying the Almoravid polity, and establishing the Almohad empire, which dominated the region until the early 13th century.

Almohad_Expansion

Following the decline of Almohad power during the early 7th/13th century, between roughly 617/1220 and 669/1270, four successor states emerged in the lands formerly ruled by this dynasty: the Marinids (r. 1244–1465) in Fez, the Nasrids (r. 1232–1492) in Granada, the Zayyanids (r. 1235–1556) in Tlemcen, and the Hafsids (r. 1229–1574) in Tunis.[3] Another successor kingdom, that of the Banū Hūd, also emerged and was based in Murcia but was short-lived. Although Almohad sovereign rule was finally ended by the Marinid conquest of Marrakech in 1269, with the Hafsids of Tunis and the Hintātah tribes of the High Atlas Mountains continuing to claim the mantle of Almohad ideology, there were a large number of descendants of ‘Abd al-Mu’min who remained in North Africa, including the children and grandchildren of former Almohad caliphs.

So, what exactly happened to these princes? Continue reading