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Westerners tend to view the people of Africa, especially those of the past, as a set of small, disconnected tribes living in small, isolated groups with no political organization larger than a small village. Actually, they have a long history of trade, as well as military and political relations, and several national states developed at least as early as the eighth century CE.1 Most westerners will think immediately of ancient Egypt, which developed an empire several thousand years ago. However, they do not think of the black African people, such as the Nubians or the Ghanaians civilized nations with highly developed political structures, written languages, and skilled artists and craftsmen. Actually, these peoples had all of these characteristics and more. In addition, they were far from isolated in the centuries before the nations of western Europe began setting up colonies to exploit the resources of northern Africa. The great civilizations of Ghana, Nigeria and the Sudan were not isolated from each other, and they even had contact with Europe in ancient times. They also had their own great works of art. The European colonial powers often justified their subjugation of African peoples by claiming that they brought civilization and high culture to primitive peoples. However, that claim is not supported by the evidence of both ancient and modern African cultures in northern Africa. The Saharan rock paintings depict scenes from life, such as hunting, herding cattle, and dancing. These images reflect a society that was already highly organized and had developed skills in the arts and crafts. However, the realistic portrayal of people, animals and objects does not demonstrate a written language. In later cultures, such as the Akan of Ghana, the representations of objects have been stylized and are used to convey abstract ideas. The Akan people use both pictograms and ideograms. The pictograms represent objects by copying their shapes, and the ideograms represent the sounds of the spoken language. This development demonstrates a continuity of culture, not a break between one culture and another. The civilizations of northern Africa did not replace each other as much as they blended with each other. The Nubian culture was even older than the Akan culture, yet it was highly advanced. In fact, the Nubians created many of the monuments that we think of as Egyptian. Regular commercial and cultural exchange between Western Africa and the Mediterranean world 1Masonen, Pekka. (1995, June 22). “Trans-Saharan Trade and the West African Discovery of the Mediterranean World.” The third Nordic conference on Middle Eastern Studies: Ethnic encounter and culture change. Joensuu, Finland. www.nsm.com.
was not established until the eighth century CE, but the beginning of trans-Saharan trade already had a long history of occasional encounters for more than a thousand years. It is not known exactly when and how the first contacts took place, but the origins can be traced to prehistoric times. The trans-Saharan trade began with the Berber nomads who often crossed the desert with their camel flocks. These nomads lived at the southern edge of Sahara. They would travel north at the beginning of the rainy season, and return to the south by the beginning of the dry season. As they learned to know the great value of gold in Roman world, they probably began trading salt and copper to the peoples of West Africa for gold. They would then carry the gold to the north, where they probably used it as payment for dates, corn and crafts which the nomads could not produce themselves. The nomads might also have bought some luxury objects which they bartered for gold in the south. This trade could have started only after the Saharan peoples began to use dromedary camels, since horses cannot survive in the harsh conditions of the desert. The camels were used mainly as beasts of burden, to transport efficiently both the merchandise and the food and water which were needed while crossing the desert. The adoption of the dromedary in Northern Africa is commonly dated to the first century CE. “However, some camel bones have been found recently in the Senegal valley, and they are dated to the third century AD, suggesting that the dromedary was domesticated by Saharan inhabitants at least by that time, since there never lived any wild camels in Africa”.2 Thus, the transSaharan trade could have started more than two thousand years ago. The Saharan rock paintings show images of camels during the late period of Tassili art, from about 700 BCE, which is known as the Camel Period.3 Western Africa was never completely isolated from Egypt and the Mediterranean, but for long periods of time the contacts were difficult and intermittent. Between about 800 and 1500 CE, the frequency and intensity of contact with the outside world increased as part of the growing international network. The Arab traders were a part of this growing network, and they influenced many of the different peoples throughout the continent of Africa. Until about 1450 CE, Islam provided the major external contact between sub-Saharan Africa and the world, especially on the development of city-states, with 2Ibid. 3Brown, Haines. (1998, Dec. 10). “Images from World History: Archaic northern Africa” www.hp.uab.edu/image_archive/ta/tad.html.
strong merchant communities in West Africa and on the Indian Ocean coast of East Africa. By the tenth century, when they were at the high point of their power, the Akan rulers had converted to Islam.4 Akan is actually the name of a language that is spoken in many dialects by related groups of people who live in the south-central forest zone and coastal areas of Ghana and in the southeastern Ivory Coast, in western Africa. The Asante and Fante are probably the best known Akan groups of Ghana, and the Ivory Coast Akan groups include the Baule and Agni peoples. When foreign trade became important, Akan leaders founded the Asante state around 1700 as a confederacy of five smaller states, in what is now called Ghana. By 1750 the Asante confederacy developed into a strong state centered on the inland city of Kumasi and became an empire by 1800. Asante incorporated many non-Akan peoples. It was ruled by a divine king and his wealthy court. They used large quantities of gold and gold-plated regalia. They were supported by a standing army, royal spies, and diplomats. Asante grew wealthy through military conquest and control of the gold and slave-trading routes to the north and south. Like other powerful West African states of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Asante eventually threatened European gold and slave-trading facilities at the coast. A series of conflicts between the British and the Asante led to the defeat of the Asante in 1900, and it was annexed as part of Britain's Gold Coast colony. The British renamed Asante, calling it Ghana. This Gold Coast colony became the first independent post-colonial African state in 1957.5 "Just as written documents materialize history in literate communities, so in traditional societies, art forms make the intangible past more real".6 Some of the Akan art forms use pictograms and ideograms, employing a text that symbolizes ideas on several levels. Interpreting the pictograms and ideograms in the arts of the Akan can help us to decode some aspects of the history, beliefs, social organizations, social relations, and other ideas of the Akan of Ghana. Like the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt, the Akan inscriptions can be written either vertically or horizontally. They use depictions of birds, other animals, geometric shapes, and objects from everyday life to form the words of the Akan language. 4“African Civilizations And The Spread Of Islam.” (1998, May 31). World History. www.emayzine.com/lectures/africa. 5Giblin, James. (1999, March 7). “Introduction: Diffusion and other Problems in the History of African States.” In "Art and Life in Africa Online" by L. Lee McIntyre and Christopher D. Roy. www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/history/giblinstate.html. 6Fraser, Douglas and H. Cole. (1972). Editors. African art and leadership. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, p. 313.
The Akan of Ghana and the Ivory Coast (La Cote d'Ivoire) include the ideographic and pictographic writing systems in their arts, including textiles, metal casting, wood carving, and architecture. Their use of these writing systems reached the most complex forms in the regalia of the king's court. As Kyerematen (1964) says: The regalia of Ghanaian chiefs have been of special significance in that they have not been merely symbols of the kingly office but have served as the chronicles of early history and the evidence of traditional religion, cosmology and social organization ... [and] it has been customary for the regalia to be paraded whenever the chief appears in state at a national festival or durbar, so that all who see them may read, mark and inwardly digest what they stand for.7 There is a strong relationship between Akan visual arts and Akan writing. In particular, cloth is a metaphor, and reading the adinkra cloth symbols of the Akan reveals a great deal about their culture. Other art forms include gold weights, pottery and furniture with symbols engraved on them. Even today, symbols are written on the Akan houses. Museums and private collectors like to collect Akan goldweights. These artifacts have animation, humor, and freedom of expression, and they also display variety and detail. Their origins and meaning are interesting. Goldweight forms often reflect Akan history and life, including religion, politics, social behavior and responsibilities of the individual. Goldweight symbolism can be linked to Akan proverbs, so they provide a major way to understand Akan thought. The symbolism of goldweights reflects the history of the meanings attached to goldweight motifs, which evolved over time as those who made and used them were exposed to a variety of outside influences. The earlier and simpler geometric symbols probably were derived from Islamic prototypes and, perhaps, apothecary weights. Simple bar and dot forms might have been related to counting, and the swastika is an ancient protective, good luck, or solar symbol with worldwide usage. Later, more ornate and flatter geometric symbols either repeat or elaborate upon early designs. For many of the later figurative weights, European and American researchers tend to link each weight to a specific Akan or Asante proverb, but most of them were not created with a specific proverb in mind. In fact, some of these weights, including most of the direct-cast objects, have been made as novelties of technical interest and only linked to proverbs very casually. A few goldweights are tied to specific proverbs or incidents, such as the headless fish that warns 7Kyerematen, A. A. Y. (1964). Panoply of Ghana: Ornamental art in Ghanaian tradition and culture. New York: Praeger, p. 1.
against the social disorder that is caused by favoritism; and the sankofa bird that reminds everyone to learn from the past. The sankofa bird appears in weights and on cloth used by everyone, and also on a ruler's state umbrella finials and on the staff heads of his court spokesmen. Thus, the symbol of the sankofa bird inspires feelings of mutual respect and unity in a shared past for both ruler and subject.8 Akan verbal symbolism is often linked with visual symbolism. It employs cautionary tales, brilliant satire, or a display of power in royal ornaments or goldweights to carry a message of balance and continuity for the purpose of social order. Symbolism is constantly updated, and the new generations tend to confuse and then forget past meanings as they lose relevance. The new generations also create new meanings without sacrificing the essential positive messages of balance, order, and continuity. There is a unity of verbal and visual symbolism. Akan and Asante art forms thus provide an evolving insight into Akan peoples' character, values, humor and history.9 The ancient Nubians are called Ethiopians in the Bible, and at one time ancient Nubia was known as the Kingdom of Kush. They had a very high culture, and at one time they actually conquered Egypt and placed Nubian kings on the Egyptian throne. The Nubian civilization thrived from about 3100 BC to AD 400. Recently, this culture was the subject of a major exhibition called “Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa” which traveled around the US. It was shown at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, through December 15, 1995. The museum’s brochure states: Only a handful of American museums have significant Nubian collections. As a consequence, the exhibition's traveling schedule was booked immediately with a waiting list of more than 20 museums. ... “Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa” promised to be an extremely important exhibition for this generation of museum-goers and scholars interested in the history of Africa.10 Salvage projects saved a number of Nubian monuments from destruction by flooding when Egypt built the Aswan Dam on the Nile River in the 1960s. Scholars learned a great deal, but there was not a major exhibition of this aspect of African history until 1978, when The Brooklyn Museum and the Loewey 8Antubam, Kofi. (1963). Ghana's heritage of culture. Leipzig: Kehler and Amelang. 9Arthur, George F. Kojo and Robert E. Rowe. (1998). The Akan Symbols Project. mailto: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com. 10“Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa.” (1995). Brochure. www.umich.edu//~kelseydb/Exhibits/ AncientNubia/Artifacts.html. The Kelsey Museum of Archeology. Ann Arbor, MI.
Museum of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, organized a joint project. The exhibition placed the ancient Nubians and their civilization in a new historical context. According to the museum’s brochure: “recent research suggests that large kingdoms arose in Nubia much earlier than is generally thought. Over the centuries Nubians and Egyptians competed for power and advantage throughout the vast Lower Nile region, from the Mediterranean Sea south to the Sixth Cataract in the Sudan. Powerful and centrally organized early Nubians are truly Egypt's rivals in Africa," states Dr. David O'Connor, curator of the exhibition.11 The traveling exhibition displays a wide variety of artifacts, including ceramic vessels, jewelry, statuary, and funerary inscriptions. There are more than 7,000 items, and these artifacts “document the rise and fall of a series of Nubian kingdoms, the richness and variety of their indigenous cultures, and the complicated relationships they had with the pharaonic state of Egypt.”12 These artifacts represent a time span of 3,500 years and several different regions. They provide evidence of the “culturally diverse Nubian civilization, which extended over 1400 kilometers (868 miles) along the Nile Valley in what is now southern-most Egypt and the Sudan.”13 An article in Arabic News is critical of the modern study of ancient Nubia. They say that researchers are obsessed with Egyptian culture, so they neglect the Nubian culture: When Nubians were noticed at all, they were depicted as one of Egypt’s defeated enemies or, as in Hatshepsut’s shrine, as mercenaries in the service of Egypt. The influence of Egyptian culture was so great that Nubians appropriated Amun, the Egyptian god, for their own ram-headed deity. They even believed Amun’s source of divinity was located in Thebes as well as their own city of Napata. According to recent archaeological theories, people lived in Nubia and its surrounding areas, including Toshka some 12,000 years ago, centuries before the ancient Egyptian civilization emerged.14 Similar criticism can be found in a publication of the University of Texas, where they have an exhibit of ancient Nubian art: The ancient cultures of the Nubia are little known to the western world of present day. History is too occupied with the story of Egypt to give consideration to a civilization that shared much of that story. The saga of Nubia is an incredible one, which should be told to everyone around the world. So research the subject yourself and learn about another
11Ibid. 12Ibid 13Ibid. 14“Toshka's ancient civilization: Egypt, History.” (1997, June 30). Arabic News.com. www.arabicnews.com/ansub/Daily/Day/970630/02/htlm, one page.
wonderful ancient civilization of Africa.15 Nubia was a meeting place of a variety of cultures, and in ancient times it was the only occupied strip of land that connected the Mediterranean cultures with the cultures of tropical Africa. The native peoples of this area were in close and constant contact with their neighbors for long periods of time, since Nubia was an important route for trade between sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world. Nubia was an important link between two sides of the world, that of “the cradle of western civilizations” and that of the shadowy continent out of which came many desirable and exotic commodities.”16 The archaeological record of the formation of ancient Nubia’s culture shows evidence of the traditions of central Africa in the material culture and the languages of the ancient Nubians. Also, the influence of Egyptian and other Mediterranean culture is evident in the architecture and art of ancient Nubian culture. Although the people of ancient Nubia were greatly influenced by other civilizations, it should be noted that the Nubians themselves had control and influence over surrounding cultures at certain points in their history.17 After the Assyrians pushed the Nubian rulers out of Egypt around 667BCE, the Kingdom of Kush remained powerful and “reached its culmination in the period from 300 B.C. to about the fourth century A.D.”18 (Taylor 46). The city of Meroe became the center of government and industry. Kush prospered and extended its boundaries far to the south, past Khartoum. The Egyptian influence slowly began to wear off, and the Meroitic culture built its own distinct and diverse civilization. “The Meroites developed their own method of writing, their own funerary practices, even their own gods. The rule of the Kush ended in the early fourth century A.D.”19 This marked the end of “one of Africa’s first great civilizations”20 These examples demonstrate that the northern African peoples were not small, isolated groups of primitive people living in small villages. They developed high cultures, and they had contact with one another through trade, as well as military and political activties. They did not recieve civilization and high culture from the European colonial powers, which arrived hundreds of years after the formation of states 15“The Gateway of Nubia.” (1997). University of Texas. uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rocman/index.htm, p. 5. 16Taylor, John. (1991). Egypt and Nubia. London: British Museum Press, pp 5-7. 17“The Gateway of Nubia”, p. 1. 18Taylor, p. 6. 19“Gateway of Nubia,” p. 3. 20Taylor. p. 59.
such as Akan and Kush.
References “African Civilizations And The Spread Of Islam.” (1998, May 31). World History. www.emayzine.com/lectures/africa. “Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa.” (1995). Brochure. www.umich.edu//~kelseydb/Exhibits/AncientNubia/Artifacts.html. The Kelsey Museum of Archeology. Ann Arbor, MI. Antubam, Kofi. (1963). Ghana's heritage of culture. Leipzig: Kehler and Amelang. Arthur, George F. Kojo and Robert E. Rowe. (1998). The Akan Symbols Project. mailto: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com. Brown, Haines. (1998, Dec. 10). “Images from World History: Archaic northern Africa” www.hp.uab.edu/image_archive/ta/tad.html. Fraser, Douglas and H. Cole. (1972). Editors. African art and leadership. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. Kyerematen, A. A. Y. (1964). Panoply of Ghana: Ornamental art in Ghanaian tradition and culture. New York: Praeger. “The Gateway of Nubia.” (1997). University of Texas. uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rocman/index.htm, 6 pages. Giblin, James. (1999, March 7). “Introduction: Diffusion and other Problems in the History of African States.” In "Art and Life in Africa Online" by L. Lee McIntyre and Christopher D. Roy. www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/history/giblinstate.html. Masonen, Pekka. (1995, June 22). “Trans-Saharan Trade and the West African Discovery of the Mediterranean World.” The third Nordic conference on Middle Eastern Studies: Ethnic encounter and culture change. Joensuu, Finland. www.nsm.com. Taylor, John. (1991). Egypt and Nubia. London: British Museum Press. “Toshka's ancient civilization: Egypt, History.” (1997, June 30). Arabic News.com. www.arabicnews.com/ansub/Daily/Day/970630/02/htlm, one page.
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