Makuria was a kingdom located along the Nile, in today’s northern Sudan and southern Egypt. It is sometimes known as “Dongola,” which was the name of its capital. The Makurians converted to Christianity in the sixth-century CE and followed the Coptic ritual. It was a literate society which wrote in the Nubian language by means of a modified version of the Greek script. Remarkably, some writings still survive. The Makurians grew barley, millet and dates in the well irrigated Nile valley, and they made pottery, worked metals and leather, and made mats and sandals from palm fiber. They imported luxury goods from Egypt and exported slaves which they captured west and south of their kingdom. They had no currency and trade took place by means of barter.

When the Arabs conquered Egypt in the seventh-century, Makuria was cut off from the rest of the Christian world. [Read more:The Muslim caliphates“] The Rashidun caliphate launched an attack on Dongola in 651 CE, but the Makurians defended themselves. Unusually, the Arabs sued for peace and a treaty was concluded. The Makurians gave Arab merchants access to their trade, not least in slaves, and they promised to make sure that the southern border of the caliphate stayed peaceful. Each year 360 slaves were sent to Egypt. In return, the caliphate promised to supply the Makurians with wheat and lentils and to respect its borders. Nowhere else did the Arabs voluntarily agree to restricts their expansion.

The agreement was honored by later caliphs too and in 835 CE, the king of Makuria sent his son to the Abbasid capital of Baghdad to renegotiate the terms. Makuria was gradually islamicized in the thirteenth-century and Bedouins from the desert began to invade. It was no longer possible for the Makurians to protected themselves and to serve as a buffer state. The Mamluk caliphate in Egypt did not consider itself bound by the previous agreement. In 1317, the cathedral in Dongola was turned into a mosque. In the sixteenth-century Makuria was incorporated into Egypt itself.

The Aswan Dam, a prestige project begun by the Egyptian government in 1964, threatened many Makurian archaeological sites and teams of international experts were flown in to carry out emergency excavations. Today much of Makuria is under water.

External links:

Beta Israel, the “House of Israel,” is the name of the community of Jews which existed in some 500 separate villages scattered throughout the former kingdom of Aksum, in today’s Ethiopia. This community, also known as “falashas,” are Africans yet they have been Jewish since biblical times. Today next to all of them have immigrated to Israel.

Before the Common Era — before Christianity and Islam came to be established — much of the Arabian peninsula was Jewish. There were, for example, a strong Jewish community in Yemen. They, in turn, traded with people on the other side of the Red Sea and this is how Jewish culture came to spread here. [Read more:Coffee and croissants“] The Jews of Ethiopia themselves insist that they descend from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

After the rise of Christianity and Islam, the Jews in Ethiopia were cut off culturally from other Jews, but they survived as an independent community, following their own religious rituals and celebrating their own holiday. They were farmers, and visitors were amazed at the way women had they same status as men in the community. They made a sharp distinction between things they considered “pure” and “unpure.”

After the establishment of Israel in 1948, they obtained the right to immigrate there — a right which some took advantage of during the famines, wars and military dictatorship in Ethiopia in the 1980s. The Israeli government, with American support, organized two elaborate rescue operations, “Operation Moses” in 1984 and “Operation Solomon” in 1991, in which tens of thousands of people clandestinely were airlifted to Israel. At the time, some Israelis questioned their Jewishness, and the very notion of a “black Jew,” while others identified them as one of the “lost tribes of Israel.”

Today there are 120,000 thousand people in Israel who claim Ethiopian descent. Some complain that Israeli society is racist, others are nostalgic for their old way of life, and many in the older generation have little education and find life in Israel difficult. A majority cannot read and write Hebrew and unemployment rates are high. But not many have decided to return to Ethiopia. It is estimated that there still are some 8,000 people of Jewish descent living in Ethiopia. They Israeli government is committed to bringing them to Israel.

External links:

The Berbers are an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa who lives in and around the Sahara desert. The Tuaregs, the “blue men of the desert” – named after the color of their headgear, which sometimes rubs off on their skin – are Berbers too. The Berbers are semi-nomadic, combining the tending of goats and sheep with some farming and trade. For hundreds of years the Tuaregs were in charge of the caravans that traded with Timbuktu in the kingdom of Mali and beyond. Two of the kingdoms that ruled Spain were run by Berbers, and the last of the four original caliphates, the Fatimid caliphate, 909–1171 CE, was at least initially heavily dominated by Berbers. [Read more:The Muslim caliphates“]

Today there are between 25 and 30 million people who speak the Berber language, most are Muslims, but some are Christian and a small minority are Jews. For the past couple of decades, there has been a strong revival of Berber culture. Berber arts and crafts are taught to younger generations, the language is preserved, and festivals such as equestrian horse shows attract large audiences. Berber music, with musicians such as Bombino and Tinariwen, has received world-wide attention.

There are also demands for political rights. Some Berber want independence for their homeland which they regard as occupied, and mismanaged, by Arabs in the north and by black Africans in the south. The political instability of countries such as Algeria and Libya has provided opportunities to realize these aims. The overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya in the fall of 2011 allowed some Tuaregs to escape with their weapons to Mali where they began a guerrilla war against the government. In April 2012, once the president was overthrown in a military coup, the guerrilla movement, the MNLA, declared independence for a country they called “Azawad,” with Gao and Timbuktu as its main towns [Read more:The libraries of Timbuktu“]

In order to achieve its goal, the MNLA cooperated with Ansar Dine, a guerilla movements with links to Al-Qaeda. For about ninth months Ansar Dine established a fundamentalist dictatorship in Azawad, destroying religious monuments and ancient books. Timbuktu was recaptured by the Malian government in 2013. The dream of an independent Azawad is once again postponed.

External links:

In Our Time, “The Almoravid Empire”

Great Zimbabwe is called “great” in order to distinguish it from the many smaller zimbabwes, over two hundred of them, which are scattered in an area from today’s Zimbabwe to Mozambique. A “zimbabwe” is a fortress, built of stone, which served as protection against military attacks but also as a residence for the ruling class. The zimbabwes were connected to each other as nodes in a network and it was trade which tied the network together. But it was the Great Zimbabwe that was the greatest of them all. It was the center of an international trading system which connected the inner of Africa, from Congo in the west to Africa’s eastern coast, and then to trading communities all around the Indian Ocean. They even traded with China. They were selling all kinds of things of course, but mainly ivory and gold. [Read more:The great mosque at Kilwa Kisiwani“]

What is most striking about Great Zimbabwe today are its stone walls. Great Zimbabwe was a strongly hierarchical society with a rigid separation between ordinary people and the ruling elite. The king lived in the fortress, and in the city at its feet lived an estimated 25,000 inhabitants. Yet we actually know quite little about the people who once lived here and how the buildings were used. It seems the construction began in the eleventh-century CE, but that it was abandoned at the end of the fourteenth-century. We do not know why. Perhaps the land could not sustain such a large population; perhaps the mines no longer yielded as much gold.

When Europeans in the nineteenth-century first came across the Great Zimbabwe they failed to accept that it could have been constructed by Africans. The Phoenicians must have done it, they argued, the Egyptians or perhaps the Arabs. Between 1965 and 1980, when Zimbabwe was run by a small group of renegade white farmers, they even commissioned archaeological research designed to prove that no Africans were involved. Not surprisingly, when Zimbabwe became democratic in 1980, the Great Zimbabwe quickly became a symbol of the achievements of its people. The country itself was named after the monument and it was depicted on stamps and banknotes. The Zimbabwean flag shows a so called “soapstone bird,” copied from a statuette discovered in an archaeological dig.

External links:

The Golden Stool of the Asante is the throne of the ruler of the Asante kingdom and the ultimate symbol of power in Asante society. As legend has it, a high-priest late in the seventeenth-century caused the stool to descend from the sky and land on the lap of Osei Tutu, the first king of the Asante Confederacy. Thrones are symbols of rulership in many societies; they allow the ruler to sit while his subjects are forced to kneel or bow. Yet the Golden Stool of the Asante has particular powers. It embodies the spirit of the Asante people — both the living, the dead and the yet to be born. As a sacred object it may never touch the ground and must always be placed on a blanket, and it can only be handled by the ruler himself. On particularly solemn occasions the throne is itself seated on a throne.

As one would expect, the Golden Stool has been the cause of conflicts and wars. When the English colonial governor insisted that he be allowed to sit on it, it mysteriously disappeared. It was later recovered and has been used in royal ceremonies after independence. This despite the fact that the Akan, descendants of the Asante, now constitute only one, albeit the largest, of several ethnic groups in Ghana. The power of the Stool is intact and no one but the current king and his closest family and advisers, know its location. Copies of the stool are made and used for ritual occasions. Tourist can even buy cheap replicas in the market of Kumasi, the Asante capital. It makes for a nice souvenir.

External links:

History of the World in 100 Objects: “Akan drum”

Delta blues is one of the earliest-known styles of blues music. It originated in the Mississippi Delta, a region of the United States stretching from Memphis, Tennessee, in the north to Vicksburg, Mississippi, in the south and from Helena, Arkansas, in the west to the Yazoo River in the east. The Mississippi Delta is famous for its fertile soil and for its poverty. Delta blues is regarded as a regional variant of country blues. Guitar and harmonica are its dominant instruments; slide guitar (usually played on a steel guitar) is a hallmark of the style. Vocal styles in Delta blues range from introspective and soulful to passionate and fiery.

Although Delta blues certainly existed in some form or another at the turn of the 20th century, it was first recorded in the late 1920s, when record companies realized the potential African-American market for “race records“. The major labels produced the earliest recordings, consisting mostly of one person singing and playing an instrument. Live performances, however, more commonly involved a group of musicians. Current belief is that Freddie Spruell is the first Delta blues artist to have been recorded; his “Milk Cow Blues” was recorded in Chicago in June 1926.[1] Record company talent scouts made some of the early recordings on field trips to the South, and some performers were invited to travel to northern cities to record. According to Dixon and Godrich (1981), Tommy Johnson and Ishmon Bracey were recorded by Victor on that company’s second field trip to Memphis, in 1928. Robert Wilkins was first recorded by Victor in Memphis in 1928, and Big Joe Williams and Garfield Akers by Brunswick/Vocalion, also in Memphis, in 1929.

Son House first recorded in Grafton, Wisconsin, in 1930 for Paramount Records. Charley Patton also recorded for Paramount in Grafton, in June 1929 and May 1930. He also traveled to New York City for recording sessions in January and February 1934. Robert Johnson recorded his only sessions, for ARC, in San Antonio in 1936 and Dallas in 1937.

Subsequently, the early Delta blues (as well as other genres) were extensively recorded by John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax, who crisscrossed the southern United States recording music played and sung by ordinary people, helping establish the canon of genres we know today as American folk music. Their recordings, numbering in the thousands, now reside in the Smithsonian Institution. According to Dixon and Godrich (1981) and Leadbitter and Slaven (1968), Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress researchers did not record any Delta bluesmen or women prior to 1941, when he recorded Son House and Willie Brown near Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, and Muddy Waters at Stovall, Mississippi. However, this claim has been disputed, as John and Alan Lomax had recorded Bukka White in 1939, Lead Belly in 1933 and most likely others.

Scholars disagree as to whether there is a substantial musicological difference between blues that originated in the Mississippi Delta and blues from other parts of the country. The defining characteristics of Delta blues are instrumentation and an emphasis on rhythm and “bottleneck” slide guitar;[citation needed] the basic harmonic structure is not substantially different from that of blues performed elsewhere. Delta blues is a style as much as a geographical form: Skip James and Elmore James, who were not born in the Delta, are considered Delta blues musicians. Performers traveled throughout the Mississippi Delta, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Tennessee. Eventually, Delta blues spread out across the country, giving rise to a host of regional variations, including Chicago blues and Detroit blues.

Delta blues songs are typically expressed in the first person and often concern love, sex, the traveling lifestyle and its tribulations, sin, salvation and death. Several blues musicians were imprisoned in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman Farm, which is referred to in songs such as Bukka White‘s “Parchman Farm Blues” and the folk song “Midnight Special“.

In big-city blues, women singers such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith dominated the recordings of the 1920s.[2] However, women rarely recorded Delta blues and other rural or folk-style blues. In Delta blues female performers often had some romantic connection to more notable male performers: Geeshie Wiley was reportedly linked with Papa Charlie McCoy, whose brother Kansas Joe McCoy was married to Memphis Minnie, and the seminal Charlie Patton sometimes played and recorded with his wife, Bertha Lee. It was not until late in the 1960s that women began to be heard in recorded performances at the level they had previously enjoyed. It was then that Janis Joplin arrived as the first female performer to achieve both accolades from her peers as a blues performer and crossover commercial success, reaching diverse audiences with a powerful and emotive vocal delivery. Other women influenced by Delta blues, who learned from some of the most notable of the original artists still living, include Bonnie Raitt, Rory Block, and Susan Tedeschi.

External links:

 

Bunyoro and Buganda are two ancient kingdom in the region of the Great Lakes in eastern Africa. The two were rivals from the thirteenth- well into the nineteenth-century. The kings of Bunyoro and Buganda always surrounded themselves with a lot of pomp and circumstance, and they do so to this day.

The traditional economy in this part of Africa revolved around the hunting of big game — elephants, lions, rhinos and crocodiles — the various parts of which were exported, first to the East African coast and then across the Indian Ocean. Salt was another key commodity, produced at Kibiro, on the banks of Lake Albert, controlled by Bunyoro. As for the people of Buganda, they were mainly farmers, but their blacksmiths were famous for producing high-quality tools and lethal weapons. Buganda eclipsed Bunyoro in the eighteenth-century when it gained control of the salt trade. Nineteenth-century visitors to Buganda were amazed at the wealth of the country and the elaborate ceremonies conducted at its court where foreign ambassadors and royal officials mingled in large assembly halls. Today Bunyoro and Buganda are constituent parts of Uganda.

Bunyoro’s present ruler is Rukirabasaija Agutamba Solomon Gafagusa Igure I. The kingdom has 800,000 inhabitants, some three-fourth of whom are subsistence farmers. Yet only about half of the population in literate. A majority of the land is virgin forest and there are still plenty of large animals. The king of Buganda is Kabaka Muwenda Mutebi II, who is the 36th kabaka of Buganda. During the period of dictatorship in Uganda — prior to 1993 — he was in exile in England where he studied at Cambridge, joined the executive committee of the ANC, the African National Congress, and worked as a double-glazing salesman. The king of Bunyoro maintains an active Facebook account and you can follow the kingdom of Buganda on Twitter.

However, since today’s Uganda is a republic, neither monarch has formal powers. Their mandate, according to the country’s constitution, is restricted to “cultural and development advocacy matters.” Yet they also engage in various projects aimed at promoting information technology and sustainable development. Both royal houses are still greatly admired by their respective subjects.

External links:

Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization is the name of a book, in three volumes, by the historian Martin Bernal, which gave rise to a major controversy when it first appeared in 1987. Bernal’s thesis was that much of Greek culture had been imported from Greece’s African and Asian neighbors, especially the Phoenicians and Pharaonic Egypt. His interpretation was controversial since ancient Greece often has been identified as the origin of everything we think of as European. If it turns out that the Greeks had borrowed most, or much, of their culture from Africa and the Middle East, Europeans would no longer be who they think they are.

Bernal himself was a scholar of contemporary China, not Greece, and it was easy for specialists to point out mistakes in his analysis. For that reason, the Black Athena thesis has often been rejected. However, there is no disputing the fact that Greece borrowed heavily from Egypt in particular. In fact, the ancient Greeks themselves readily admitted as much. More generally, it might be a mistake to think of “Greece” as a discrete civilization which easily can be distinguished from the societies that surrounded it. For one thing, the people we think of as Greeks were seafarers who  interacted closely with everyone else around the eastern Mediterranean. Greek and non-Greek societies were not as distinct as we often believe.

It was only in the nineteenth-century that German scholars in particular started thinking of Greece as the origin of their own society. And the choice of Greece was, at least in part, a consequence of the fact that the French — Germany’s enemies in a series of wars — often retraced their own history to the Romans. In fact, the Black Athena debate may say more about us than it does about the ancients. The 1980s and 90s was a time when various “culture wars” were fought at American universities in particular. Members of minority groups often complained that the academic cannon contained too many “dead, white, males.” Calling Athena “black” was a way to turn the tables on the academic establishment.

External links:

The Khazars were a semi-nomadic Turkic people who created a powerful kingdom, Khazaria, 618-1048 CE, on the steppes of southern Russia, extending from the Crimean peninsula to Caucasus and northward to the foothills of the Urals. During the seventh- and eighth-centuries the Khazars allied themselves with Byzantium and fought a series of wars with the Umayyads and the Abbasids, but they always managed to maintain their independence. Nicely positioned at the crossroads of several important trade routes, Khazaria was one of greatest trading emporia of the medieval world. Many Khazars were pastoralists while others made good use of the abundance of fish in the Volga river or traded in sable skins, squirrel pelt, swords and honey. Another important commodity were slaves who were exported to the Arab caliphates. The Khazars had a centralized administration, a standing army, and exacted tribute from some thirty different tribes. The king was recruited from among the nobility in a ceremony in which he was asked how many years he wished to reign while simultaneously being throttled almost to death. At the end of his requested reign the king was killed.

Beginning in the eighth-century CE, the Khazar kings converted to Judaism while a majority of the population remained Tengrist, Christian or Muslims.[Read more: Tengrism] Some Jews who suffered from persecution elsewhere took their refuge in Khazaria and the kings saw themselves as defenders of Jews living outside of their own borders too. It could be that conversion to Judaism was a way to retain Khazar independence both from the Muslim caliphates and the Christians in Byzantium.

In the nineteenth-century, a few European scholars began arguing that the Jewish population of Europe are descendants of Khazarian Jews who had emigrated after the fall of their kingdom rather than descendants of Jews who originated in Palestine itself. The thesis which became widely known through Arthur Koestler’s book The Thirteenth Tribe, 1976, has been used in antisemitic propaganda and in order to undermine Israel’s claim to statehood. Yet the theory cannot possibly be true since not a sufficiently large portion of the Khazar population converted to Judaism and since not that many Khazars proceeded to emigrate to Europe.

External links:

Video clips:

 

Kalmykia is a republic in the Russian Federation, located between the Black and the Caspian Sea. The Kalmykian republic, with some 300,000 inhabitants, is the only place in Europe where a majority of the population are Buddhists. The Kalmyks were nomads who originally arrived here from today’s Xinjiang, in the seventeenth-century, most probably in search of better pasture for their animals. [Read more: “Khotan to the Khotanese!“] In their new location the Kalmyks became nominally the subjects of the czar, and they were supposed to protect Russia’s southern borders, but in practice Kalmykia constituted its own independent khanate. The Kalmyks kept in close contact with their kinsmen in Xinjiang and also with the Dalai Lama in Tibet.

In the eighteenth-century the Russian empire asserted itself in Central Asia — settling Russian farmers here and trying to control the Kalmyks politically. In a desperate move, a large portion of the population decided to return to Xinjaing, but many were killed on the way. In the civil war which followed the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Kalmyks sided with the White armies, and this too turned out to be a terrible mistake. After the Bolshevik victory, many were forced to flee. Some Kalmyks went to the United States, others to Belgrade in Serbia where they established Europe’s first Buddhist temple in 1929.

In the 1930s the Kalmyks were forced to join collective farms, Buddhist monasteries were closed, and those who owned the largest herds of animals were labeled “enemies of the people” and deported to Siberia. In 1932 and 1933 alone some 60,000 Kalmyks died. During the Second World War, Kalmykia was invaded by the Germans. In 1943 Stalin declared the Kalmyk people collectively guilty of cooperation with the enemy and they were all deported to various locations in Siberia and Central Asia. In 1957, after the death of Stalin they were allowed to return home but often only to find that their land had been taken over by Russians. Badly planned and badly executed attempts by the Soviet authorities to irrigate the steppe turned grazing land into desert.

Today some 60 percent of the population are ethnic Kalmyks, while 30 percent are Russian. The proportion of Russians has been going down since the fall of Communism, above all since the Kalmyks have higher birthrates. Although very few Kalmyks live as nomads on the steppe, they are still practicing their religion. In 1991 the Dalai Lama visited the republic.

External links: