The Ark of the Covenant

The Steven Spielberg movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981, finishes with a memorable scene. Throughout the movie, Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford, has been in pursuit of the Ark of the Covenant, the gold-covered wooden chest which, according to the Hebrew Bible, contains the stone tablets with the original version of the Ten Commandments (“Though shalt not kill …” etc.) Avoiding capture by German soldiers, and outsmarting a French competitor, Indiana Jones eventually brings the Ark back to the United States. However, not realizing what they have laid their hands on, an overzealous government bureaucrat ships it off to an enormous warehouse where it, presumably, never again will be found.

Compare this story to the one Coptic Christians in Ethiopia tell. The Ark of the Covenant, they say, is not at all lost, and it is not in a warehouse in the United States. It can instead be found in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, in Axum, in the Tigray province, Ethiopia. It was brought here by Menelik I, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, after he had paid a visit to his father in Jerusalem. And the Ark of the Covenant has been here ever since. Unfortunately, since the it is associated with such otherworldly powers, only one person — a guardian monk — is allowed to see it. Our Lady Mary of Zion is nevertheless a place of pilgrimage for members of the Coptic Church, especially during Mary’s own on November 30 every year.

There are striking similarities between these two accounts. In both cases, the Ark is a source of divine power. The divine object, moreover, has been appropriated by us and brought to our empire. And this feat, moreover, has in both cases been accomplished by a young hero. At the same time, the Covenant is hidden from public view yet this does not mean that it has stopped radiating divine power. In both cases it provides support for our country and its imperial endeavors. Whether it actually exists is less important. It is the myth — conveyed by the legend and the movie — which really matters.

External links:

History of Philosophy, “Ethiopian philosophy”

Dancing kings and female warriors of Dahomey

The kingdom of Dahomey, located in today’s Benin, was a state which benefited greatly from the slave trade. In Africa slaves have been traded since ancient times but with the arrival of the Europeans in the sixteenth-century the demand increased dramatically. The kings of Dahomey captured people in raids in the interior of the continent, or made enemies into prisoners of war, and then sold them on to the Europeans.

The kings of Dahomey were absolute rulers of a militaristic state and when they received foreigners they put on an ostentatious display. A large contingent of soldiers would show up, brandishing their arms and waving flag-staves decorated with human skulls and with the jawbones of their enemies. Then the music would start and the king, accompanied with by drums and by singing soldiers, would start to dance before his visitors. After having danced a few minutes the soldiers would fire their guns in a salute and the king would approach the visitors and shake hands with with them.

The kings of Dahomey had an elite guard made up entirely of women, known as the mino. They were established in the seventeenth-century, initially as a group of elephant hunters, but later they became the king’s body guard, equipped with muskets and regular uniforms. They also participated in slave raids. The mino underwent rigorous physical exercises, learnt survival skills, how to storm defenses and execute prisoners. They were not allowed to have children or to marry. By the mid-19th century, they numbered between 1,000 and 6,000 women, about a third of the Dahomeyan army.

The mino participated in the wars against France. The French soldiers had initially found it difficult to fight women, but before long they fought back. In a battle in 1890 many of the mino were killed after an intense hand-to-hand combat with the French. The female battalion was disbanded after Dahomey became a French colony in 1894. Interviews with former female soldiers conducted in the 1930s indicated that many of them had problems adapting to civilian life.

The mino guard has recently been discovered by Hollywood and American popular culture. There is  no doubt that they provide an image of female empowerment. Whether they actually are appropriate role models for young black women today can be discussed.

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Libraries of Timbuktu

Timbuktu was established as a center of Islamic learning during the Mali empire in the thirteenth-century CE but the town continued to flourish well into the seventeenth-century. Scholars, teachers and students assembled at the madrasah — the religious school — at the Sankore mosque. We might, if we like, call it a “university.” [Read more:Nalanda, a very old university“] In addition, the city was at the center of the book trade across the Sahara. Books were bought and sold here and many of the town’s inhabitants were avid book collectors. The books were written in Arabic, but also in a number of indigenous languages, using Arabic script. It is simply not true, as it sometimes is claimed, that Africa had no written languages before the Europeans turned up.

The inhabitants of Timbuktu have remained book collectors to this day, and many of the old families in the town are proud owners of large collections. It has been estimated that Timbuktu has some 700,000 books. However, since the manuscripts are fragile and often in quite bad condition, the owners have been encouraged to deposit them in libraries where they can be better preserved but also digitalized and put on the Internet.

In April 2012, Timbuktu was captured by Tuareg rebels in collaboration with Al-Qaeda forces and declared the town a part of the independent country of Azawad. [Read more:Independence for Azawad“] They outlawed music, football, and destroyed a number of shrines dedicated to Sufi saints. They also began destroying ancient books. On January 25, 2013, the rebels entered one of Timbuktu’s libraries, swept manuscripts off the shelves and carried them into the courtyard of the building where they poured gasoline on them and set them alight. The vast majority of the books, however, had by them already been saved thanks to the heroic efforts of a few librarians who smuggled hundreds of thousands of books out of the town.

The preservation project is now proceeding apace, funded by South Africa and various international foundations. However, many families are understandably reluctant to part with their books and so far only a fraction of the texts have been digitalized. It is only when this work is completed that we can properly begin to understand the intellectual world of medieval West Africa.

External links:

In Our Time, “The Empire of Mali”

History of Philosophy without Any Gaps: “From here to Timbuktu”

Kilwa Kisiwani

Kilwa Kisiwani was the name of a city-state located on an island just off the southern coast of today’s Tanzania. Between the thirteenth- and the fifteenth-centuries CE a Muslim sultanate was established here. Kilwa was famous for its fort which served as a place of trade but also as a residence for the sultan. It had over one hundred individual rooms, reception halls, wide staircases and an octagonal swimming pool. Kilwa’s other main attraction was its mosque, constructed entirely out of coral stone.

Kilwa Kisiwani was just one of many trading ports along Africa’s east coast, but for a while it was the most powerful. In the fifteenth-century the sultanate controlled Malindi, Mombasa, Pemba, Zanzibar, Comoro and Sofala, as well as ports on the island of Madagascar. Ibn Battuta, who visited Kilwa Kisiwani in 1331, was highly impressed with the way the city was laid out and with the generosity, humility and religiosity of its ruler. [Read more:Ibn Battuta, the greatest traveler of all time“] He also describes how the sultan went on raids to capture slaves in the interior of Africa.

By the time of Ibn Battuta’s visit, Kilwa had already been engaged commerce for some thousand years. A Greek manual for merchants, the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, compiled in the first century CE, mentions the ports along the eastern coast of Africa as excellent places to buy ivory and tortoise shell. Coins minted in Kilwa have been found in Great Zimbabwe, Oman and even Australia. [Read more:Great Zimbabwe“] During excavations in the sultan’s palace, a small flask from the Yuan dynasty was discovered together with many shards of Chinese pottery. [Read more:Dividing it all up“]

Kilwa was a cosmopolitan place where African cultures mixed with the cultures of traders coming from across the sea. The people of Oman always had a strong presence. Yet the sultanate of Kilwa Kisiwani itself was founded by a group of explorers coming from the city of Shiraz in today’s Iran. They established themselves as a ruling class and imposed their own culture and values on the community. Kilwa was captured by the Portuguese in 1505, but recaptured by the Omanis in the 1690s. Today only ruins are left of the once powerful sultanate.

External links:

15 Minute History, “Indian Ocean Trade”

History of the World in 100 Objects: “Kilwa pot sherds”

Walls and bronzes of Benin

The kingdom of Benin was one of the city-states in the delta created by the Niger river in today’s Nigeria. The people of Benin grew rich from trade, not least in slaves, which they were happy to sell to the Europeans who began arriving in the sixteenth-century.

The state of Benin was surrounded by an enormous set of walls and moats, known as iya, constructed between the ninth and the fifteenth-centuries CE. The walls could be as high as ten meters and the moats just as deep. They had a combined length of some 16,000 kilometers, making it one of the largest construction projects on earth. Other city-states embarked on similar constructions. In the kingdom of Ijebu, for example, a noblewoman, Sungbo, commissioned a wall/moat construction which bears her name to this day. Archaeologists have compared the walls of Benin to the Great Wall of China and complained that the former construction has received none of the attention lavished on the latter. [Read more:The Great Wall of China does not exist“]

It is not quite clear why the walls and moats were built. A project of this scale is difficult to explain as purely a military arrangement. Perhaps it was rather a question of politics — of establishing the oba’s claims to a land and demonstrating to others the extent of his power. In the competitive environment formed by the Yoruba city-states, wall/moat constructions may have been one of the ways in which an oba establish his status.

There is a remarkable collection of bronze sculptures and plaques — altogether some one thousand objects — cast in Benin from the thirteenth century onward. The metal was actually imported from Europe but they were made by local craftsmen using local techniques. The bronzes, which used to decorate the oba’s palace, show the life of the court and the opulent lifestyle of its rulers, but they also portray European merchants. The Europeans appear as small figures in the background, wearing odd-looking hats. The bronzes were looted by the British when they occupied Benin in 1897 and were later sold to museums around the world. Many of them are now on display in the British Museum.

External links:

History of the World in 100 Objects, “Oba with Europeans”

History of the World in 100 Objects, “Ife head”

The Bantu migration

The “Bantu migration” is the name given to a massive movement of peoples which took place some time in the first millennium BCE. Leaving a region in what today is eastern Nigeria and Cameroon, people speaking Bantu languages began moving south- and eastward, eventually settling in much of central and southern Africa. This explains why many people here speak related languages today. There are some 450 Bantu languages and the Bantu speakers make up a third of Africa’s population. Because of this shared heritage, many Africans have similar myths, religious beliefs and social practices.

The migrations seem to have been spontaneous movements, not invasions, but exactly why they took place is less clear. Some scholars suggest that it was due to overpopulation while others cite disease or changes in the climate. The Bantu people knew how to work iron and this allowed them to make better tools and more deadly weapons. The iron tools, in turn, made it possible to cut down trees and open up new fields. The original populations of these parts of Africa were hunters and gatherers, not farmers, and they were either assimilated into the Bantu population or forced to eke out a living in more inhospitable places. [Read more:People of the forest“]

All Bantu people share a belief in a supreme God who usually is associated with the sky. The world was not created but it is eternal. What human beings do can easily upset the order of nature and god can easily show his displeasure with humans. In Bantu cultures veneration of the dead plays a prominent role. Spirits of dead people linger on in this world and can influence the lives of the living, at least as long as the dead still are remembered. Many Bantu folktales feature speaking animals — cunning hares, sneaky hyenas, patient turtles and powerful lions. “Ubuntu” is a shared political principle which African politicians occasionally invoke in their rhetoric. It is usually translated as “humanity,” or the notion that “I am because we are.” Ubuntu implies that we all belong together; that we ourselves are diminished when others are humiliated or oppressed.

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People of the forest

Before humans beings took up agriculture, some 12,000 years ago, we gathered our food or we hunted it. There are small groups of hunters and gatherers throughout the world to this day — and many of them live in Africa. This includes some 900,000 Pygmies of the jungles of Central Africa but also groups such as the San people of the Kalahari desert and the Hadza of Tanzania.

No prejudice is as persistent as the prejudice against foragers. All farmers think they live vastly superior lives. In the case of Africa this prejudice is often strongly expressed by Bantu peoples. [Read more:The Bantu migration“] Only farming communities have states, they argue, and only societies with states are “civilized.” Since hunters and gatherers are on the move, they rarely build permanent structures and there is consequently little for historians to study. In stateless societies, we are told, there is no “progress.”

Anthropological studies of hunters and gatherers reveal quite a different picture. These are egalitarian societies with few social distinctions or divisions between men and women. They eat better and more varied food, have fewer diseases and live longer. And life is actually quite abundant. Instead of constantly working, like their Bantu neighbors, the foragers spend much of their day socializing. When they want to find something to eat they go out into the jungle to find it much as a city-dweller might look for something in a refrigerator. Hunters and gatherers are rich because they have few desires and know how to live within their means. They have no history since they have a very small carbon footprint and do little damage to their environment.

This is a romanticized picture, no doubt, but it has given rise to a brand of political activists known as “anarcho-primitivists.” Their ideal is a society organized as those of hunters and gatherers. Civilization, they argue, was a mistake, and so was the idea of the state and the very notion of history. Since a modern way of life is unsustainable, a catastrophe of some kind will one day occur. After that we must go back to the jungles of Africa and live like we did for over 95 percent of human history. The societies of hunters and gatherers who live there today are thus not remnants of some distant past as much as models of our future.

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Mancala is the oldest board game still widely played today. It is popular around the world but very much so in Africa. Mancala pieces have been found in Egyptian tombs, the Phoenicians played it in the sixth-century BCE, and so did the people of Axum in the first centuries CE. [Read more:The Ark of the Covenant“] The word itself comes from the Arabic naqala, meaning “to move.”

To be precise, there is no one game called “mancala.” Rather, it is a family of games which have been given different names in different places. Yet all mancala games consist of a board with indentations in which the players take turns placing — “planting” — small stones, beans or seeds. The object is to capture — “to harvest” — all or some of the opponents pieces. How this is done varies depending on local variations in the rules. In fact there are several hundreds of different versions of the game. Ali guli mane is commonly played in Southern India, bao is played in East Africa and congkak in Indonesia, Malaysia and southern Thailand.

One may wonder why similar games are played in such different places. One possibility is that they have originated independently of each other. This is not too difficult to imagine since the rules are pretty basic and related to a social practice — planting seeds and harvesting them — which is common to mankind. The other, more intriguing, possibility is that the game has spread from one society to the next. We can imagine that Buntu people played the game when they were not busy migrating. [Read more:The Bantu migration“] And we know that people on all sides of the Indian Ocean have traded with each other for over two thousand years. That the game is played in Central Asia can then easily be explained as a consequence of trade along the caravan routes. [Read more:Sogdian letters“] Even if people do not speak the same language they can still have fun playing mancala.

If this is the case, a map showing us the popularity of the game today would show us a map of early human interaction. It is worth noting, perhaps, that the game has not been commonly played in Europe. Today mancala is popular as a computer game and exists as apps both for Android and iPhones.

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Kingdom of Makuria

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.

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Jews of Ethiopia

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.

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