Al-Bakri, Roads and Kingdoms (1067 CE)

The author Al-Bakri is in many ways analogous to Strabo. He was born (to elite Arab-speaking parents) in southern Iberia while it was ruled by Muslims, and became a scholar who produced a geography called Roads and Kingdoms (or, alternately translated: Routes and Realms). Al-Bakri never traveled to Africa. The kingdom of Ghana that he reports on below has no relation to the present day country called Ghana.

Remember that this is all hearsay re-reported from the perspective of a devout Muslim, and the biases that might follow from those circumstances.

Ghana is a title given to their kings… and their king today [1067] is Tunka Manin. He ascended the throne in [1063]. The name of his predecessor was Basi and he became their ruler at the age of 85. He led a praiseworthy life on account of his love of justice and friendship for the Muslims. At the end of his life he became blind, but he concealed this from his subjects and pretended that he could see. When something was put before him he said: “This is good” or “This is bad.” His ministers deceived the people by indicating to the king in cryptic words what he should say, so that the commoners could not understand. Basi was a maternal uncle of Tunka Manin. This is their custom and their habit, that the kingship is inherited only by the son of the king’s sister. He has no doubt that his successor is a son of his sister, while he is not certain that his son is in fact his own, and he is not convinced of the genuineness of his relationship to him. This Tunka Manin is powerful, rules an enormous kingdom, and possesses great authority.

The city of Ghana [called Koumbi-Saleh, now] consists of two [walled] towns situated on a plain. One of these towns, which is inhabited by Muslims, is large [10,000 people?] and possesses twelve mosques, in one of which they assemble for the Friday prayer. There are salaried imams and muezzins[prayer leaders], as well as jurists and scholars. In the environs are wells with sweet water, from which they drink and with which they grow vegetables. The king’s town is six miles distant from this one and bears the name of Al-Ghaba [“The Forest”]. Between these two towns there are continuous habitations. The houses of the inhabitants are of stone and acacia wood. The king has a palace and a number of domed dwellings all surrounded with an enclosure like a city wall. In the king’s town, and not far from his court of justice, is a mosque where the Muslims who arrive at his court pray. Around the king’s town are domed buildings and groves and thickets where the sorcerers of these people, men in charge of the religious cult, live. In them too are their idols and the tombs of their kings. These woods are guarded and none may enter them and know what is there. In them also are the king’s prisons. If somebody is imprisoned there no news of him is ever heard. The king’s interpreters, the official in charge of his treasury and the majority of his ministers are Muslims.

Among the people who follow the king’s [Soninke] religion only he and his heir apparent (who is the son of his sister) may wear sewn clothes. All other people wear robes of cotton, silk, or brocade, according to their means. All of them shave their beards, and women shave their heads. The king adorns himself like a woman, wearing necklaces round his neck and bracelets on his forearms, and he puts on a high cap decorated with gold and wrapped in a turban of fine cotton. He sits in audience or to hear grievances against officials in a domed pavilion around which stand ten horses covered with gold-embroidered materials. Behind the king stand ten pages holding shields and swords decorated with gold, and on his right are the sons of the [subordinate rulers] of his country wearing splendid garments and their hair plaited with gold. The governor of the city sits on the ground before the king and around him are ministers seated likewise. At the door of the pavilion are dogs, of excellent pedigree which, guarding the king, hardly ever leave the place where he is. Round their necks they wear collars of gold and silver …. When people who profess the same religion as the king approach him they fall on their knees and sprinkle dust on their heads, for this is their way of greeting him. As for the Muslims, they greet him only by clapping their hands.

Their religion is paganism and the worship of idols. When their king dies they construct over the place where his tomb will be an enormous dome of wood. Then they bring him on a bed covered with a few carpets and cushions and place him beside the dome. At his side they place his ornaments, his weapons, and the vessels from which he used to eat and drink, filled with various kinds of food and beverages. They place there too the men who used to serve his meals. They close the door of the dome and cover it with mats and furnishings. Then the people assemble, who heap earth upon it until it becomes like a big hillock and dig a ditch around it until the mound can be reached at only one place. They make sacrifices to their dead and make offerings of intoxicating drinks.

On every donkey-load of salt when it is brought into the country their king levies one golden dinar, [a coin probably worth about two-weeks' work for a North African laborer in the eleventh century] and two dinars when it is sent out. From a load of copper the king’s due is five mithqals, [i.e., the weight of five dinars] and from a load of other goods ten mithqals. The best gold found in his land comes from the town of Ghiyaru, which is eighteen days’ traveling distant from the king’s town over a country inhabited by tribes of the Soudan whose dwellings are continuous.

The nuggets found in all the mines of his country are reserved for the king, only this gold dust being left for the people. But for this the people would accumulate gold until it lost its value. The nuggets may weigh from an ounce to a pound. It is related that the king owns a nugget as large as a big stone. The town of Ghiyaru is twelve miles from the [Niger River] and contains many Muslims.

The countryside of Ghana is unhealthy and not populous, and it is almost impossible to avoid falling ill there at the season when their crops are growing. The mortality among strangers is highest at the time of the harvest. …

The king of Ghana, when he calls up his army, can put 200,000 men into the field, more than 40,000 of them archers [no doubt an exaggeration]. The horses in Ghana are very small. The inhabitants sow their crops twice yearly, the first time in the moist earth during the season of the [Niger] flood, and later in the Earth [that has preserved its humidity]….

Among the provinces of Ghana is a region called Sama, the inhabitants of which are known as al-Bukm. From that region to Ghana is four days' traveling. The people there go naked; only the woman cover their sexual parts with strips of leather which they plait. They leave the hair on the pubis and only shave their heads. Abu'Abd Allah al-Makki related that he saw one of these women stop in front of an Arab, who had a long beard, and say something that he could not understand. He asked the interpreter about the meaning of her words. He replied that she wished that she had hair like that of his beard on her pubis. The Arab filled with anger, called down curses upon her…

From Bughrat you go to Tiraqqa and from there across the desert plain to Tadmakka, which of all the towns of the world is the one that resembles Mecca the most. Its name means "the Mecca-like". It is a large town amidst mountains and ravines and is better built than Ghana or Kawkaw [Gaogao]. The inhabitants of Tadmakka are Muslim Berbers who veil themselves as the Berbers of the desert do. They live on meat and milk as well as on grain which the earth produces without being tilled. Sorghum and other grains are imported for them from the land of the Sudan. They wear clothes of cotton, muli, and other robes dyed red. Their kings wears a red till ban, yellow shirt, and blue trousers. Their dinars are called "bald" because they are of pure gold without any stamp. Their women are of perfect beauty, unequalled among people of any other country, but adultery is allowed among them. They fall upon any merchant [disputing as to] which of them shall take him to her house....

On the opposite bank of the [Niger] is another great kingdom, stretching a distance of more than eight days’ marching, the king of which has the title of Daw. The inhabitants of this region use arrows when fighting. Beyond this country lies another called Malal,[probably Mali, where Sundiata originated] the king of which is known as al-musulmani [“The Muslim”]. He is thus called because his country became afflicted with drought one year following another; the inhabitants prayed for rain, sacrificing cattle till they had exterminated almost all of them, but the drought and the misery only increased. The king had as his guest a Muslim who used to read the Quran and was acquainted with the Sunna [Islamic tradition]. To this man the king complained of the calamities that assailed him and his people. The man said: “O King, if you believed in God (who is exalted) and testified that He is One, and testified as to the prophetic mission of Muhammad (God bless him and give him peace) and if you accepted all the religious laws of Islam, I would pray for your deliverance from your plight and that God’s mercy would envelop all the people of your country and that your enemies and adversaries might envy you on that account.” Thus he continued to press the king until the latter accepted Islam and became a sincere Muslim. The man made him recite from the Quran some easy passages and taught him religious obligations and practices which no one may be excused from knowing. Then the Muslim made him wait till the eve of the following Friday, when he ordered him to purify himself by a complete ablution, and clothed him in a cotton garment which he had. The two of them came out towards a mound of earth, and there the Muslim stood praying while the king, standing at his right side, imitated him. Thus they prayed for a part of the night, the Muslim reciting invocations and the king saying “Amen.” The dawn had just started to break when God caused abundant rain to descend upon them. So the king ordered the idols to be broken and expelled the sorcerers from his country. He and his descendants after him as well as his nobles were sincerely attached to Islam, while the common people of his kingdom remained polytheists. Since then their rulers have been given the title of al-musulmani.