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

Article excerpt

P. F. de Moraes Parias. Arabic Medieval Inscriptions from the Republic of Mali: Epigraphy, Chronicles and Songhay-Tuareg History. New York: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2003. 616 pp. Illustrations. Tables. Maps and site plans. Appendix. Index. $185.00. Cloth.

Paolo de Moraes Farias has provided an extraordinary resource for understanding "medieval" West African history. With a concentration on the epigraphy, or inscriptions, from a small area around Gao in eastern Mali and a wide knowledge of the history and historiography of the region, he has raised new questions about the history of Songhay (Songoy in his orthography), Tuareg societies, and the patterns of Islamization before the much better known reign of the Askiyas of the sixteenth century. Moraes Farias combines familiarity with the literature compiled on the West African Sahel, Sahara, Maghrib, and Andalusia over the last one hundred and fifty years, a thorough understanding of classical and dialectical Arabic, its grammar and orthography, and an unusual knowledge of Berber languages, especially Tamasheq, the language of the Tuareg, as well as the script in which it has been written for perhaps two thousand years, usually called by the name of Tifinagh. Oxford has presented his work in a beautiful edition, combining many fonts, Arabic and Tifinagh transcriptions, together with photographs of almost all of the approximately two hundred and fifty epigraphs. It is a stunning resource for historians, art historians, and students of literacy, orality, religious studies, and Islamization.

With incredible persistence and patience, Moraes Farias has meticulously reviewed the Arabic (and a few Tamasheq) transcriptions of the inscriptions, their translation and photographs, and provided an extensive commentary on the fortunes of epigraphic and documentary materials and the construction of what he calls the "vulgate" of West African Sahelian history. The commentary is about two hundred and fifty pages, the transcription and translation take another two hundred and fifty pages, and the bibliography, index, maps, and photographs add another one hundred and fifty. The transcriptions and translations are accompanied by commentaries as well, and it is these commentaries that reveal most fully the extraordinary effort that the author has made over three decades to interview local sources, photograph the epigraphs, and discuss his findings with the networks of scholars who share his interest and expertise. All of the material is cross-referenced, allowing the reader to move back and forth between inscription, commentary, and visual image, as is necessary in a reference work of this sort. The resulting volume, a 'jewel in the crown" of the Fontes Historiae Africanae series, is very expensive, but it constitutes an invaluable work for the understanding of West African history, something that one hopes libraries and serious specialists of the subject will purchase.

The core of the volume is the transcription and translation of the two hundred and fifty inscriptions found at Bentyia, Gao-Saney, Junhan, and Essuk (Tadmekkat) in the eastern end of Mali, near the Niger and Algerian borders, and dating from the period from just after 1000 to just before 1500. For many historians and social scientists, the most fascinating part of the volume will be the introduction, organized into a historical section of three chapters and a textual examination of the epigraphic corpus. It is here that Moraes Farias demonstrates his remarkable grasp of the history of West Africa and the construction of its historiography, bringing to bear his insights from the study of the photos, transcriptions, and work in the field.

The introduction reads like a detective story. We learn of the enormous influence of Heinrich Barth, who traveled through the Sahel in the early 1850s, and his use of sections of the most extensive Timbuktu chronicle, the Ta'rikh al-Sudan, to understand the history of the Niger Bend and the Songhay Empire, as well as the great limitations of this chronicle for understanding the pre-1500 period. …