Post-classical history

Chapter Forty-One


Lakeshores, Highlands, and Hilltops

In Africa, between 1221 and 1290, a descendant of Solomon overthrows a descendant of Moses, a Muslim king extends his reach, and the kings of Mapungubwe move to the hilltops

IN 1221, the greatest church builder in Africa died.

Eight hundred years before, an eastern African king named Ezana had been converted to Christianity by the Roman emperor Constantine himself.* His kingdom, Axum, had remained a Christian realm until its disintegration, sometime in the middle of the tenth century. The fall of the capital city left the ghost of the empire behind: a network of monasteries and nunneries, a scattering of conquered and converted peoples who went on living, in peaceful obscurity, between the highland headwaters of the Nile river and the shores of the Red Sea.1

Sometime in the middle of the twelfth century, a local chief named Marara had managed to reclaim the title of king once held by those long-ago Christian rulers. He lived on the southern edge of the old Axumite land; his people, the Agau, had been forced to submit by the Axumites nearly nine hundred years before. But he claimed to be the rightful successor to the Axumite throne. He took the small southward town of Adafa as his capital, the descendants of the bygone Axumites as his subjects. His dynasty, the Zagwe (“of Agau”), left almost no records behind; no chronicles, no inscriptions, not even any minted coins.2

But they did leave churches, carved from single massive chunks of rock.

Marara’s great-nephew, Gebra Maskal Lalibela, was by far the most accomplished of all the Zagwe church builders. He was, by his own claim, a descendant of Moses and his Ethiopian wife.† Ancestry from a patriarch revered by Christian scripture was an efficient way to bolster his claims to be in the Axumite royal line, as was the elaborate coronation ceremony built around the Zagwe kings, observed by the Arab traveler Abu Salih. The king was crowned by a priest, beneath the portrait of the angel Michael in the church that bore the angel’s name; tonsured to represent his spiritual calling, he was clothed in priestly clothes rather than a crown.3

In the first quarter of the thirteenth century. Lalibela built nearly a dozen churches, carved out of the red volcanic rock. A narrow rocky river cut through his capital city; this river, channeled into deeper hand-cut narrows, was renamed Yordanos, the Jordan. The steep rock faces on both sides of the Yordanos were whittled away into huge standing outcrops, enormous lumps of stone on the banks; and then those blocks were chiseled, hollowed, and shaped, by skilled masons of the king, into churches with domes, pillars, and arches. The Mount of Olives church stood to the north, the Mount of Transfiguration to the south. A new holy landscape, the distant and inaccessible Israel of the Gospels, had been carved into African ground.4

There is not much more that we know about the Zagwe; only that, in 1270, a highland dweller named Yekuno Amiak married the daughter of the last Zagwe king and then usurped his father-in-law’s throne. He too had no real right to claim the Axumite mantle—he came from yet a third people, the Amhara—but he also claimed to be descended from a patriarch. In his case, the distinguished ancestor was King Solomon; a continually elaborated legend held that the queen of the western Arabic kingdom Sabea, who had visited Solomon to see his splendor, had returned from her journey pregnant; her son Menelik had then stolen the Ark of the Covenant from Solomon himself and carried it into Africa. This made Yekuno Amiak both the son of kings and the guardian of the (as yet unseen) Ark, a worthy successor to the Axumite throne.5

It also garnered him the support of the monasteries and nunneries. With their recognition of his right to rule, Amiak moved the capital to Shewa. From that city, his descendants, the Solomonid dynasty, would rule for two and a half centuries.

IN THE CENTER of the continent, the kingdom of Kanem was at its zenith.

Dunama, the first royal convert to Islam, had not managed to bring all of his people into the fold behind him. But his descendant and namesake Dunama Dibalemi, ruling from sometime in the early 1220s and staying in power until 1259, took more direct action. He first requested, and then ordered, his people to abandon their traditional practices and follow the ways of Islam; and then, to make his point, he destroyed Kanem’s most precious religious object.6

“In the possession of the Saifawa [dynasty],” an Arab account tells us, “there was a certain thing wrapped up and hidden away, whereon depended their victory in war. It was called Mune and no one dared to open it. Then the sultan Dunama . . . wished to break it open. His people warned him, but he refused to listen to them. He opened it, and whatever was inside flew away.”7


41.1 Zagwe, Kanem, and Mapungubwe

The exact nature of the mune is never made clear, but this was part of its power. The sacred object required obscurity for its power. Veiled, it was potent. Unveiled, trivial. Dibalemi ripped away its secrecy.

He had no need for talismans to give him victory in war. Dibalemi was good at war. He spent the early years of his reign building up his cavalry units, until he could put forty thousand mounted soldiers on the field at one time. He established a sizable arsenal on the northern shore of Lake Chad; from there, says the Arab geographer Ibn Sa’id, he often launched a fleet to make sea raids “on the lands of the pagans, on the shores of this lake . . . [he] attacks their ships and kills and takes prisoners.”8

During his thirty years on the throne, Dibalemi used his ships and cavalry to stretch his reach across the entire basin of Lake Chad. This gave him control of the southern part of the Eastern Trade Route, and a guaranteed path to trade in the north.

It also limited, somewhat, his enthusiasm for the spread of Islam. His refusal to abide by the secret of the mune speaks to his deep conviction of the truth of Islam. He lived by the pillars of Islam; he went on hajj not once but twice; he gave alms to the poor; he was known, says Ibn Sa’id, “for his religious warfare and charitable acts.”9

But like his predecessors, he used captive non-Muslim slaves as his primary currency, trading them north for horses and goods in short supply in central Africa. And so the lands south of Lake Chad remained non-Islamic, profitable hunting grounds for slaves that did not fall under Islamic prohibition.10

The quick and massive assimilation of nearby tribes and kinglets did not make Kanem a peaceful empire. By the end of his reign, Dibalemi was facing a serious undercurrent of rebellion. Some accounts chalk the unrest up to the clan of the Bulala, African traditionalists who resisted Islam and were aghast by Dibalemi’s desecration of the mune. Others suggest that, as the empire expanded, Dibalemi placed his sons as lieutenant governors in the outer reaches and then was forced to deal with their growing independence: “The sons of the ruler,” the Kanem king list remarks, tersely, “became separated in different regions.”11

Whatever the cause, Dibalemi died with his empire still intact, firmly Muslim, heavily armed, the strongest kingdom in central Africa; but with seeds of unrest just beginning to sprout.

SOUTH OF BOTH Kanem and Kagwe, on the Limpopo river, lay a kingdom that was neither Christian nor Muslim. Lacking the tradition of written chronicles that Islamic scholars and Christian monks carried with them, the kingdom of Mapungubwe left no king lists behind: just gold and ivory, glass beads and Chinese celadon, marks of an impressive trade network that stretched far to the east.

Mapungubwe had originally been no more than a band of traveling farmers, searching for fertile fields, who had come into the Limpopo river valley some two centuries earlier. Their settlement had grown to several thousand, their farms into multifield operations of millet, beans, pumpkins and melons, sheepfolds and cattle herds. They had begun to hunt elephants and to trade ivory down the Limpopo to Arab traders on the coast. Between the fertile fields and the ivory trade, they grew increasingly wealthy.12

Apparently the wealth was also unevenly distributed. Around 1220, a new complex suddenly appeared on the top of a nearby hill: a steep-sided, flat-topped hill with only four easily guarded paths to the top. A new palace and new spacious homes now stood on top of the hill; thirty years or so after, massive stone walls rose to enclose them. The smaller huts of nearly five thousand people now clustered around the the hill’s base.13

This was not for security. There is no sign of war or attack at Mapungubwe; and the government officials, the judges and tax collectors, apparently lived at the bottom of the hill. So did the cattle, goats, and sheep that fed the royal court. Prospering beyond his wildest expectations, the king seems to have removed himself from the hoi polloi, leaving them physically behind.

The strict segregation of rich from poor, royal from commoner, was a new thing in Africa. But Mapungubwe seems to have flourished for a time in its drastically two-level form. Traces of Mapungubwe settlement stretch over nearly twelve thousand square miles and are scattered with the remnants of trade with Egypt, with China, with India. At the top of the hill, royal graves were filled with gold beads, royal corpses dressed in rich robes and gold bangles and buried sitting straight up. A carved staircase replaced one of the paths, walled and corniced and intended for the king and his court alone.14

And then the Limpopo became unreliable. It dried to a thread, and then savagely flooded. The temperature dropped; rainfall dwindled. The people at the bottom of the hill began to trickle away. A good many of Mapungubwe’s residents seem to have moved northeast, to the city of Great Zimbabwe; in the next century, the trade routes too would shift to Zimbabwe.15

Without the commoners below, the king lost his tribute bringers, his taxpayers, his farmers, his place of pride. By 1290, he too had vanished, leaving his palace abandoned on the top of the hill.


*See Bauer, History of the Medieval World, pp. 193ff.

†Numbers 12:1.

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