Arabic Medieval Inscriptions from the Republic of Mali: Epigraphy, Chronicles, and Songhay-Tuareg History

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Arabic Medieval Inscriptions from the Republic of Mali: Epigraphy, Chronicles, and Songhay-Tuareg History. By P. F. de Moraes Parias. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2003. Pp. ccxlvi, 280; maps and site plans 14; b & w photos 247 (69 plates). $185.00/£99.00.

Given the relative scarcity of reliable sources for the history of medieval1 polities of the Western Sudan, it is ironic that the only evidence literally "writ large" in stone has languished like an unloved stepchild, barely noticed in the company of its more privileged siblings the Arabic chronicles, archaeology, and oral tradition. The inscribed tombstones, cemetery stelae, and miscellaneous but impressively carved graffiti studied in this book originate in five Malian epigraphic sites including Saney, Gao, Essuk (medieval Tadmakkat), Junhan, and Bentyia (medieval Kukyia),2 with inscriptions dating from 1013-14 C.E. (#106 from Essuk, p. 89) to 1489 C.E. (#233 from Bentyia, p. 198).

One is immediately struck by the author's ingenuity in the formatting of this complex tome, which he presented to the publisher in nearly flawless cameraready copy. The first of the book's two major sections includes three chapters on historical background and another devoted to textual characteristics of the epigraphic corpus. The unusually extended use of Roman numerals for the first ccxlvi pages suggests that the publisher who required them sees the first half of the book as comprising the mother of all introductions. Perhaps rightly so, because in addition to the wealth of path-breaking revelations contained therein, the first half does play a supporting role to the actual inscriptions, which the unusual numerical division seems to launch on a symbolic ascent to the evidential high ground so long denied. Approximately 400 inscriptions were examined, and 250 of these, most of which have never before been published, are included in the latter half of the book (four chapters on transcription and translation of inscriptions, pp. 1-218). Preliminary remarks on each epigraphic site describe the layout and unusual features of individual necropolises. Each of the original Arabic or Tifanay (Berber/Tuareg) inscriptions has its English translation and commentary providing measurements, provenance, and interpretive details. At the back of the volume is a complete set of black and white photographs of each of the tombstones and stelae, with accompanying line drawings for some badly eroded inscriptions.

To the detriment of objective historical inquiry, the epigraphic sources have often been treated, as the author expresses it, "as antiquarian curiosities rather than compelling historical evidence" (p. xxxvii). If, as Paulo Moraes Farias observes, the inscriptions form a unique body of evidence and are "the internal source par excellence" for the medieval history of the eastern arc of the Niger Bend and the neighboring Sahelian region of Aday, it seems extraordinary that they have been so undervalued. If this is "the only extant body of dateable medieval texts written in medieval West Africa," and if it "precedes all the surviving chronicles and other works known to have been written in the region" (pp. xxxiv-v), how could evidence-starved historians be so ill-advised as to have (at best) marginalized it or (at worst) ignored it altogether since the first examples began being published in 1910?

Moraes Farias explains that during the twentieth century as the epigraphic evidence gradually emerged from an extended period of oblivion, the reactions ranged from "bursts of enthusiasm" to "paralyzing uncertainty" about how the inscriptions related to the other sources. It was by pure chance, observes the author, that the seventeenth-century Timbuktu chronicles happened to be the first sources consulted for history of the Songhay empire.3 A dearth of available archaeological evidence reinforced the chronicles' impact while depriving the inscriptions of material context. …