Wednesday 23 January 2013

Other Africas

The Island of Meroe. The Kingdom of Kush, contemporary with the Egyptian late dynastic period, ca. 300 B.C.E. to ca. 400 C.E.
Rather poorly educated lay people have many times asked me the quintessentially racist question: "Why didn't the other [read: black] Africans produce art and culture like the Egyptians?" Quite apart from the tendency for the bile to come to my throat when I'm asked the question, the anthropologist in me wants to know the explanation for such ignorance. Simply put, I think the sheer weight of scholarship and attention lavished on the Egyptian sequence has eclipsed any accomplishments that otherwise might have caught the eye of art historians or interested members of the public. As anthropologists, we could probably argue endlessly as to whether or not the explanation lies in an inherent racism among Egyptologists, mere ethnocentrism, elitism or any of a number of other "ism"s. The fact remains---the world doesn't hear much about the other great archaeological and historically important cultures of Africa beyond the valley of the blue Nile.
This morning I was reminded of the issue when an item on the news ticker prompted me to click on a link to, an English-language Egyptian news magazine. The article is titled "A walk among Sudan's Nubian pyramids." Its author, Mohammed Elrazzaz, promises that this is the first part of a series. I think we could probably all gain from following it. He and a companion are doing a 'walkabout' of sorts in the Sudan, and alerting the rest of us to the richness of material culture beyond the reach of Egypt's dynasties. Nubia is first. More pyramids than Egypt, few heavens sake! Real pharaohs, too! More sand, but still a wealth of archaeological cultures that are virtually unknown beyond their ghostly borders. The Island of Meroe is at the heart of the Kingdom of Kush. In its material culture it was heavily influenced by the people to the north.
Wanna know where the largest university in the world was in the 12th century C.E.? Yup. Smack in the heart of the Sahel, in modern day Mali. It took its name from the city in which it grew---Timbuktu. It had its beginnings due to a late 10th century gift from a rich Mandinka woman, who wanted her country to be home to the world's greatest Islamic centre of learning. She got her wish. Comprising three schools, Sankoré Madrasah, Djinguereber Mosque and Sidi Yahya, at its height it boasted 25,000 students in the city of 100,000, and somewhere between 400,000 and 700,000 manuscripts, making it the largest library, as well. This was when Oxford was young and small, and Cambridge was just another market town.

A part of Timbuktu today.
So, next time someone confesses to you that they're ignorant of the accomplishments of non-Egyptian Africans, curb your bile and consider it a 'teachable moment.' [Gawd! I truly hate popular expressions like that. Forgive me its use.]

Gotta go take my awesome daughter to school. It's finals week in the first semester of her 12th year of schooling. A mere five months 'til graduation. Unbelievable. TTFN.

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  1. Then there's also Great Zimbabwe, the kingdoms along the West African coast (e.g. Benin), and so forth. All produced great art, architecture, and metalworking. But again, few talk about them.

  2. The ruins along the escarpment west of the sahara.

  3. Egypt is really famous for their pyramids. I've once been there before and I haven't got the chance to know if Egypt is known for any metalworking thing or not.

  4. Is there a chance that I will be seeing any kind of wooden furniture there in Egypt? Any idea?

  5. If you're asking about ancient wooden furniture, yes. As for the present day, I couldn't say. ;-)


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