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. 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 insist, 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. Since it is associated with such awesome powers, however, 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 the festivities commemorating Mary on November 30 every year.

There are striking similarities between the Hollywood version of this tale and the Coptic version. In both cases, the Ark is a source of divine power. The divine object, moreover, has been appropriated by an imperial power and brought to the very center of the empire. This feat, moreover, has in both cases been accomplished by a young hero. At the same time, the Covenant is hidden from public view. This does not mean, however, that it has stopped radiating its power. In both cases it continues to provide divine support for the empire and its rulers. Whether the Ark in question actually exists is a far less important matter. It is the myth, conveyed by the legend and the movie, which provides legitimacy to the empire.

External links:

History of Philosophy, “Ethiopian philosophy”

Dancing kings and female warriors of Dahomey

The kings of Dahomey were absolute rulers of a militaristic state which grew rich from the slave trade. When they received visitors they would always put on ostentatious displays. A large contingent of soldiers would show up, brandishing their weapons and waving flag-staves decorated with human skulls and with the jawbones of their enemies. But in addition, the kings of Dahomey would dance before the visitors, accompanied by drums and by singing soldiers. Afterwards 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 CE, 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, learned survival skills, how to storm defenses and execute prisoners. They were not allowed to have children or to marry. By the mid-19th century, there was between 1,000 and 6,000 of these female warriors, making up 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 female adversaries, but before long they learned how to fight 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 severe 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 really 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, Timbuktu 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 lovers to this day. 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 a 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, poured gasoline on them and set them alight. By then, however, the vast majority of the books had already been saved thanks to the heroic efforts of a few librarians who had smuggled hundreds of thousands of books out of the town.

The preservation and digitalization project is now proceeding apace, funded by South Africa and various international foundations. However, many families are understandably reluctant to part with their treasures. So far only a fraction of the texts have been put on the internet. It is only when the digitalization 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, just off the southern coast of today’s Tanzania, was one of many trading ports along Africa’s east coast, but for a while it was the most powerful. Between the thirteenth- and the fifteenth-centuries CE, a Muslim sultanate was established here, 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. In the fifteenth-century the sultanate controlled Malindi, Mombasa, Pemba, Zanzibar, Comoro and Sofala, as well as ports on the island of Madagascar. Kilwa Kisiwani was famous for its fort which served as a residence for the sultan but also as a place of trade. The residence 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. Ibn Battuta, who came here in 1331, was highly impressed with the way the city was laid out and with the generosity 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. Already the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a Greek manual for merchants 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 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 here 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, 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 their power. In the competitive environment formed by the Yoruba city-states, wall/moat constructions may have been one of the ways in which the 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. 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 origin of writing

In order to learn about the past we need to find primary sources that can tell us about it. Many of these are texts. In the case of Africa, however, there are relatively few texts available from the time before colonization. Instead historians are forced to rely on archaeological evidence or on oral traditions. The lack of writing systems has been presented as evidence of how “primitive” people in Africa are. Yet, as so often, it is all a matter of politics. Systems of writing first developed in agricultural societies with powerful states. In fact, writing was independently invented in three separate locations – Mesoamerica, China and Mesopotamia. [Read more: Cracking the Maya code”] The Mesopotamian case is the best documented. Here writing, known as the cuneiform script, developed about 3,200 BCE.

The state needs writing in order to keep track of tax revenue, in order to communicate with its officials and to lay down the law. Besides, kings like their achievements to be remembered – how much land they have conquered and how many enemies they have slewed. From this perspective, writing is a means for the state to exercise power. People are subject to writing much as they are subject to other coercive institutions. It is consequently not surprising to find written records in parts of Africa where there have been powerful, agriculturally-based, states – in Egypt and Ethiopia. The Malian empire did not have writing, but they came close – they had official “recorders of speech,” djeli, charged with memorizing laws and the deeds of the king.

For people who do not live in agricultural societies, and who are not subject to states, oral traditions often serve better. After all, what we need to know in order to live successful lives is above all what people like ourselves have done who have found themselves in situations similar to our own. This information does not have to be written down. Ordinary people do not need a written history as much as they need myths. Myths are taught by the elders and kept alive by the community itself. To live subject to a myth is to live subject to a shared memory of which each member is the custodian.

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People of the forest

Before humans beings took up agriculture, we all 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. The people of the forest are the remnants of the original inhabitants of central Africa who were displaced when the Bantu people arrived. [Read more:The Bantu migration“] There is still a lot of tension between the two groups. The Bantu people are farmers who live sedentary lives and the people of the forest rely on them for everything that nature does not provide. The Pygmies of Congo often live in the proximity of a village of farmers but as soon as new sources of food supply become available they disappear into the forest. The Bantu often think of them as unreliable. The Pygmies, for their part, often think of the Bantu farmers as overbearing and rather gullible.

Sedentary people always look down on people who move around in order to make a living, but they also romanticize their lives. The hunters and gatherers of Africa are no exception. One expression are the “paleolithic diets” which recently have become fashionable in Europe and North America. People who follow a paleolithic diet shun agricultural products like cereal and milk and eat only the kind of food that can be hunted or gathered. The presumption is that our bodies are better adjusted to the kind of food that we consumed during the 95 percent of human history. “Paleolithic diet” is one of Google’s most searched-for weight-loss methods.

Another expression is 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 state and the very notion of history. Many anarcho-primitivists predict that a catastrophe of some kind one day will occur – perhaps as the result of a cataclysmic war or an environmental collapse. After that the humans who survive will have to return to Africa and to the only form of life which is sustainable in the long term. The societies of hunters and gatherers who live there today are thus not the remnants of some distant past but 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 not 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. 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 such 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 and harvesting – which is common to all of mankind. The other, more intriguing, possibility is that the game has spread from one society to the next. We can imagine that Bantu people played the game when they were not busy migrating. 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 be explained as a consequence of trade along the caravan routes. [Read more:Sogdian letters“] Even if people did not speak the same language they could still have had fun playing mancala together. 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, except in parts of eastern Europe. Today mancala is popular as a computer game and it 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; 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 CE, 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, but the Makurians successfully defended themselves. Unusually, the Arabs sued for peace and a treaty was concluded. The Makurians promised to trade with Arab merchants and to make sure that the southern border of the caliphate stayed peaceful. Each year 360 slaves were sent to Egypt as a tribute. 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. Eventually it was no longer possible for the Makurians to protected themselves and to serve as a buffer state for the caliphate. Moreover, the Mamluk rulers did not consider themselves bound by the previous agreements. 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. Teams of international experts were flown in to carry out emergency excavations. Today much of ancient 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 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 to Africa [Read more:Coffee and croissants“] The Jews of Ethiopia insist that they are the descendants of 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 holidays.

After the establishment of Israel in 1948, the Jews of Ethiopia obtained the right to immigrate there – a right which some took advantage of during the famines and wars of the 1980s. The Israeli government, with American support, organized two 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; 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 officially committed to bringing them to Israel.

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