Africa: 500-1750 CE

African History:  An Introduction to Sources and Historical Problems

A noteworthy introductory survey on African history is the UNESCO General History of Africa.  This series was distinguished by the editorial inclusion of African historians who produced new paradigms for the study of African historiography.  Recommended as supplemental reading to the Chapters 9-10 in Tignor, are  Hrbek, ed., General History of Africa:  Volume III.  Africa from the Seventh to the Eleventh Century. (James Currey / UNESCO, 1992);  J. Ki-Zerbo and D.T. Niane, eds., General History of Africa:  Volume IV.  Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century. (James Currey / UNESCO, 1992).  For later periods see  J.F. Ade Ajayi, ed. of Vol. VI, Africa in the Nineteenth Century until the 1880s;  and A. Adu Boahen, editor of Vol. VII, Africa under Foreign Domination 1880-1935.  This series set forth new paradigms that differed with the approach found by a collection of British historians in the Cambridge History of Africa series.  

The Iron Age Confederations of South Central Africa
The spectacular and important confederation of town and village complexes that arose in Southern Africa from around the end of the 10th century CE are remarkable for the development of their agricultural, architectural and artistic production. Some of these sites variously lasted into the 14th and a few into the 17th century before they were abandoned for complex reasons and disruptions caused by the advent and arrival of the Portuguese on the East African coast.   The best preserved of these palace urban complexes with evidence of extensive agricultural, animal husbandry and mining and metalworking is at the complex of the Great Zimbabwe.  As we are mostly reliant upon archaeology for our knowledge of this civilization we'll explore the Global Heritage Network site, the UNESCO World Heritage guide and the guide.  There were other important sites in the region including the sites of  the ruins of Khami, Zimbabwe near the Bulawayo that was built during the Torwa Dynasty.  For a survey of some of the material art and culture of these civilizations, use the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  

The Mande and the Great Mali Empires in West Africa
After the rise of Islam Networks of trade  reached the great  Malian states and kingdoms  in the Sahel region south of the Sahara desert.  These included the Ghana, Mali, and Songhai empires. High advances in metallurgy and and richly mined deposits of salt, gold, copper and other metals led to the rich development of arts and commodities for trade across the Sahara  to the markets of the Arab cities on the Mediterranean. Commercial contact with Islamic cities to the north influenced conversion of these regions to Islam and a created a syncretetism of African and Islamic traditions. The most famous rulers of the Malian kingdoms was Sundiata (the Lion King) and a later ruler Mansa Musa, whose rich caravan and pilgrimage to Cairo and Mecca circa 1324-25 revealed the unprecedented wealth and status of the Mali empire. Upon his return to Mali he financed and authorized the building of the enormous adobe mosques at Jenne and Timbuktu. These spectacular mosques reflect the use of local materials and decorations that also reflected the extensive support and importance of these institutions in their communities.  We'll use the Archnet internet databases to study these mosques and read reports.  

The Spread of Islam in Africa 900-1500 C.E.
The diffusion of Islam into Africa occurred through several separate phases of development.  The initial spread of Islam into Egypt and across North Africa occurred between the late 7th century and early 8th century.  Egypt was conquered and converted to Islam between 639 and 642.  Fustat or Cairo fell to Muslim pressure by about 641.  Muslim armies and merchant based missionaries migrated swiftly across North Africa and captured or gained support for Islam across the entirety of North Africa between 685 to 715.

The spread of Islam across the Sahara to the Sahel, the West African states and to East Africa developed through merchant contacts and long-distance caravan routes of traders with the Arab Muslim cities of northern Africa.  By the 11th century the Senegalese coastal region had converted to Islam as had large areas of the Sahel across to the Sudan.  By the late 13th and 14th centuries large well established cities in the Sahel and Mali had large Muslim institutions.  The building of large prominent mosques at Timbuktu and other cities in Mali reflect this development.  These cities flourished as West African cities and kingdoms flourished from the prosperous trade in gold, salt, and various metal wares produced by the region.  It also marks the rise of an overland slave trade to northern markets.  

Ibn Battuta 1325-1354 CE

Ibn Battuta was born in Tangier (Morocco) in 1304 and was possibly the most widely traveled individual until the era of modern exploration or the age of the steam locomotive.  As a trained legal scholar, Ibn Battuta managed to work his way as a judge (qadi) around the main core cities and to the periphery of the expansive Muslim world of the 14th century.  His travel account the Rihla (Travel) is one of the most famous travel accounts ever written and rivals Marco Polo's Travels as a seminal text for understanding the late Middle Age system of trade and travel.  After nearly thirty years of travels across Africa, into Russia, Yemen, India, Southeast Asia, the Philippines and China, Ibn Battuta returned to Tangier where he completed his book and finished his career as a judge. 

Along with Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah  (Introduction to History) and his longer sets of historical writing, Ibn Battuta provides us with as complete a historical survey of the system of interchange and cooperation that existed across Islamic civilization during through the 14th century.  As a survivor of the Black Plague, Ibn Battuta leaves us with comparative material on the status and level of various cities and regions of this period.

Doubts about whether Ibn Battuta actually traveled to all of the locations described in his Rihla (Travels) have been raised by a number of historians.  These historians particularly doubt his descriptions or ability to have traveled to the Volga River in Russia, or to parts of Yemen or the Pacific ocean islands of Southeastern Asia. 

For summary excerpts from his Rihla go to

An interactive map of Ibn Battuta's travels from his home in Morocco to China and back is available at:
Secondary Sources:  
Ross E. Dunn, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century (London: Croom Helm, 1986)

Ibn Khaldun writes a History of the World

Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) was a Tunisian scholar who traveled widely across the Muslim world and wrote one of the most famous of all historical works, the Kitab al-Ibar, of which the Introduction has been translated into English as The Muqaddimah.  

Khaldun received an excellent education but was orphaned at the age of 16 when his parents and much of his family succumbed to the Black Death.  He worked as an administrator and consultant in government at courts in Fez in Morocco and Granada in Spain.  After a series of political intrigues that landed him into prison he withdrew from political life and began to study the social conditions of Berber and semi-nomadic peoples in the neighboring regions of the Sahara. He compiled regional histories and set out to develop a type of comparative history that also drew upon his own personal experience. Ibn Khaldun developed a theory about the rise and fall of dynasties and the importance ofasabiya or group feeling or solidarity as a factor in sociology and history of power dynamics. Like Ibn Battuta he worked as a judge (qadi) in Cairo and famously met the conqueror Tamurlane as part of negotiations with the Mongol ruler and the Mamluks. 

Exhibition website on Ibn Khaldun
The BBC has an audio podcast on Ibn Khaldun's importance at
An electronic version of Al-Muqaddimah  or the Introduction to the Kitab Al-Ibar is at

Bantu regions and development in Southern Africa.
The Bantu languages stretch across the southern third of the African continent.  The term Bantu is a derivative of the prefix ba- and the root -ntu, and in a number of Bantu languages it means 'people.' (Hrbek, Vol. III General History of Africa, p. 75).  The dispersion and connections of common root words suggests a common linguistic origin and patterns of movement.  Linguistic evidence suggests that the Western Bantu region in present day Nigeria and Cameroon was the original base region and that Bantu speaking groups moved out and dispersed through much of the southern half of the continent.  

Other recommended general survey texts for a discussion of Africa in this period include: 

I. Hrbek, ed., General History of Africa:  Volume III.  Africa from the Seventh to the Eleventh Century. (James Currey / UNESCO, 1992)
J. Ki-Zerbo and D.T. Niane, eds., General History of Africa:  Volume IV.  Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century. (James Currey / UNESCO, 1992)

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