As it​ usually is in September, Dakar was sweltering and sticky. I’d come to examine back issues of the Bulletin de l’Institut fondamental français d’Afrique noire in the National Archives, looking for material on the Songhay empire. For some reason, BIFAN, the most important scientific journal of Francophone black Africa, isn’t available online. Songhay was one of the largest states ever established in Sub-Saharan Africa, its rise and fall coinciding roughly with the reign of the Tudors. For much of the 15th and most of the 16th century, it ruled over what is now Mali, as well as parts of Senegal, Mauritania and Niger, northern Benin and north-western Nigeria. Many inhabitants of the region still refer to themselves as ‘Songhay’: the word means ‘nobles’ or ‘royalty’, and refers to the ruling class of the empire of Gao, Songhay’s precursor.

The Great Mosque at Djenné

The Songhay empire, now forgotten by many Africans and largely unknown to Europeans, left a linguistic mark in the Niger basin. A dozen languages and dialects, spoken by roughly three million people, derive from the hybrid imperial vernacular. I was brought up in Niger and speak a dialect of Songhay. In my school textbooks I could decipher the titles given to the officers of the vast administration that ran a quarter of West Africa long before Europe’s colonial bureaucracies, titles with a concreteness their European equivalents did not have. Inspection and surveillance were performed by officers known as monyo, ‘the eye’. There was, for example, a fari monyo, ‘the eye of the fields’, who assessed harvests, calculated farmers’ taxes and dealt with land disputes; and a Timbuktu monyo, the chief police officer in Timbuktu. Finances were overseen by the kalisi farma, the ‘regent of money’, and there were also departments for payments (bana farma) and purchases (day farma). There were regents in charge of workers, and harbours, and flooding, which seems to have been carried out by an engineering department to facilitate the cultivation of rice.

The king levied taxes on trade and exacted tribute from conquered land, but much of his wealth was personal. He was the biggest landowner in the empire, with vast domains, cultivated by serfs, in the floodplains of the Niger Bend. Each year the riverside villages paid him a set tonnage of rice, which was collected by fleets of large dugouts. In turn, the king paid the tax collectors a set amount of kola nuts, salt and cotton cloth – commodities that were useful for commerce and dispensing patronage. The hi koy, ‘master of the boats’, was second only to the king – he could dispense with protocol when addressing him – and also owned great tracts of property. But most of the land in the empire was controlled by local chiefs, monitored in some cases by a resident representative of the king: a form of indirect rule avant la lettre.

I had first come across the Songhay empire in the recitals of griots, travelling storytellers. In their tales, the old kings ensured peace and prosperity by being willing to employ force. There were very few rebellions against Songhay, as far as we know, but many local disagreements that required armed intervention. The stories told by the griots praised the kings for the wells they had dug and the food they distributed after poor harvests. The 17th-century Timbuktu chronicles tell us that they encouraged markets, organised workers and backed improvements to rice cultivation introduced by Jewish farmers near Timbuktu. My textbooks claimed that the Songhay empire was Islamic, but this isn’t quite true. The griots, though Muslims themselves, filled their stories with a rowdy pantheon of deities and supernatural beings. My friends and I were keen on Marvel Comics, but we were even more impressed by these local superheroes. As a boy, I couldn’t look at the Niger river without thinking of Harakoy Dikko, the goddess who lured men and djinns into its waters. She had an array of magnificent children with Ourfama, the divine being who takes the form of a rainbow. Their eldest son was Dongo, the thunder deity, who appears in stories escorted by his red-footed eagle, Kiray (‘the Red One’), who holds a lightning bolt.

The status of Islam in Songhay was determined both by the way the empire came about and by the beliefs of the caste that ran it, a peripatetic nobility which rose to prominence by trading along the Niger river, eventually establishing a base in the city of Gao. We get an early glimpse of them in a description of 12th-century Gao by Al Idrisi, Roger II of Sicily’s geographer, who extolled their commercial skills, admired their finery, and noted that their commoners ‘covered their nakedness’ with hides.

Soon afterwards, Gao became a vassal of the empire of Mali, until its decline two hundred years later. As security began to crumble, and with it the trade on which Gao had flourished, the city’s leaders resolved to restore order to the region. In the 1460s, Sonni Ali combined the city’s forces – boats and troops on horseback – and began a rapid process of expansion. The historians who compiled the Timbuktu chronicles – the Tarikh al-Sudan (‘History of the Land of the Blacks’) and the Tarikh al-Fattash (‘History of the Inquirer’) – hadn’t forgiven Sonni Ali for the purges he carried out among the Muslim clerics of Timbuktu, but grudgingly admired his deeds. Within twenty years, according to the chroniclers, he had conquered all the peoples of the Niger Bend and the territories beside it, cutting canals and improving moorings to make it easier to use his dugout fleet.

Sonni Ali’s relations with the clerics and their followers were tense and sometimes violent. Soon after he drowned while swimming across a river, a faction led by one of his generals, Muhammad Sylla, toppled his son and successor, Sonni Baru. Sylla, whose father was a devout Muslim from the Senegal valley, ruled for more than thirty years, consolidating the empire, expanding its commercial links with Asia and Europe, framing the regulations for trade and rationalising tax collection among imperial subjects, though he never succeeded in converting the Songhay to Islam. His dynasty lasted for roughly sixty years, but a succession dispute at the end of the 1580s degenerated into civil war. A large expeditionary force from Morocco, complete with Spanish mercenaries, put paid to the empire at the Battle of Tondibi in March 1591.

Gao has no melancholy remains where scholars could contemplate imperial decline, as Gibbon did in the ruins of ancient Rome. After the defeat of the Songhay, it shrunk to a hamlet, before returning to life in the early 1900s when the French chose it as a provincial capital. Its streets are wide and straight, arranged in the grid pattern often used in French colonial lotissements. But Djenné was the Songhay town I really wanted to visit. On my way there, I spent a night in Bamako, Mali’s capital, at a B&B called La Venise Malienne. This was a reference, it turned out, to the setting of Djenné. The owner was a man from the town, tall, lanky and good-natured, who soon took to calling me ‘grand frère’, a common term of courtesy across Francophone Africa. He and his European wife also owned a hotel in Djenné, now ‘temporarily’ closed because of the Islamist unrest in the north of Mali. I was the only customer at the guesthouse, which was intended as a staging post for tourists. But they found a car and a driver who would take me the rest of the way.

Djenné stands beside a tributary of a tributary of the Niger river. The river brought wealth: the alluvial soil was fertile; trade and transport by boat were easy; the site was easy to defend. In October, when I made the trip, Djenné was an island. The Niger and its tributaries have two seasonal floods: one from November to January; the other during the rainy months of the hivernage, July and August. In October the hivernage floods have not fully receded, while the harmattan floods have begun streaming in. When we arrived at the sandy riverbank, a ferry was approaching. The driver steered our rental car up the ramp, accompanied by a pack of donkeys loaded with firewood. The wood was swiftly stacked in big piles on one side of the deck, and we crossed. On the outskirts of the town a handful of modern houses stood in an area of scrub, one of them a mansion that might have been lifted from southern California: it was the country residence of a Djenné-born politician. We drove past the compound of an empty hotel, startling the goats that browsed the vegetation on its low walls, and swerved onto a patch of bare ground. The town gate rose in front of us. ‘Here it is,’ the driver said. Beyond the gate were tall houses and walled compounds built of adobe and coated with bluish grey plaster, the colour of the local clay. Djenné was exactly as I’d expected. For somebody like me, who grew up in the Sahel, it isn’t exotic. The mudbrick houses, the people on the streets, the heat (dry, despite the surrounding waters), the neem trees: all of this was familiar from my childhood, but the familiarity made the experience paradoxically intense.

Historians hate the use of the term ‘medieval’ to describe periods or places outside Europe, but I found it hard to avoid when I walked through the maze of lanes running between the grand patrician houses in the best part of town, most of them set near open crossroads that look like clearings in an adobe forest. The two main streets, at right angles to each other, meet at the marketplace in front of the ‘great mosque’, a vast edifice with room for more than five thousand worshippers. In 1988 Djenné became a Unesco World Heritage Site. The extraordinary mosque – said to be the biggest mudbrick building in the world – was the main draw for tourists.

Nobody is sure when the first mosque went up in the town, probably in the late 13th or early 14th century, but its present form dates from 1907. It is largely a French design, with square adobe bricks in place of the round variety that builders in the town usually use. There are nearly two thousand adobe buildings in Djenné, all of which require a new, protective layer of plaster at least once a year. This layer changes colour as it ages: the cooler shades of the older and drier patches as well as more recently applied darker areas can be seen from the high rooftop of the mosque. I found the effect of these tonal changes quite soothing. The intense green of the neem trees stood out like a rich fabric against the overcast sky.

The first written mention of Djenné is in a report sent in 1447 from the oasis of Touat – in the middle of what is now the Algerian Sahara – by Antonio Malfante, a trader who worked for the Centurione Bank in Genoa. Malfante never set foot in Djenné, but a local merchant convinced him that it was a civitate, a prosperous city-state with a fertile cantado, or rural hinterland. That seems to have been an accurate description, at least until Sonni Ali laid siege to the town about thirty years later. In the mid 15th century most of the gold traded in Europe and the Middle East came from the area south-west of Djenné, but only West African merchants were allowed to go there. A powerful class of Arab and Berber merchants purchased the gold in Timbuktu and Walata, at the southern edge of the Sahara, but these were secondary markets. The major gold exchange was in Djenné, where West African dealers traded it for rice, cattle, fish, salt and honey.

Strangely, the Arab records say nothing about Djenné, reporting merely that the lands south of Timbuktu and Gao were inhabited by hostile pagans who were the only people capable of tolerating the heat. The Italians, however, were trying to find a land route that would make it easier for them to acquire gold, while the Portuguese plied the West African coast with the same end in mind. About twenty years after Malfante wrote his report, Benedetto Dei, a trader with links to the Florentine banking houses of the Medici and the Portinari, succeeded in reaching Timbuktu. The Portuguese also sent envoys overland from their trading post at Arguin, off the Mauritanian coast, who arrived at Timbuktu in 1495. Like Malfante, they soon realised that Africa’s main gold exchange actually lay further south, in Djenné. By this time, however, Columbus had returned from the New World and announced that it was rich in gold. As a result, European enthusiasm for difficult expeditions into the interior of West Africa began to dwindle.

Djenné continued to prosper after the defeat of the Songhay empire, but it was an exception. Morocco soon abandoned its trans-Saharan conquests to their fate. The proconsular capital, Timbuktu, went into steep decline, with Moroccan officials paying ransom to Tuareg warlords for the privilege of maintaining a presence in the town (this was the condition in which the French explorer René Caillié found it in the 1820s). Armed adventurers – Fulani, Tuareg, Bambara – set up rival protection rackets across the region.

Morocco’s defeat of the Songhay empire is often portrayed as an attack on Islam. An anonymous contemporary writer said the Moroccans were ‘barbarous invaders’ and ‘bloodthirsty criminals’ who had no feeling for ‘the community of faith’. Sultan Ahmad Al Mansur, who ordered the expedition from his seat in Marrakesh, was said to rejoice at ‘the massacre of Muslims’. But, like his counterparts in Spain and Portugal, he was chiefly interested in finding gold. The obsequious Moroccan historian Mohammed al Ifrani described Al Mansur’s ‘great joy’ after his victory at receiving forty consignments of gold dust, along with a quantity of objects worked in gold, which enabled him to pay his officers ‘in pure metal and with full-weighted dinars’. Courtiers and poets, showered with gold, updated his sobriquet from Al Mansur (‘The Victorious’) to Al Dehebi (‘The Golden One’). Even so, there is some truth in the accusation that he waged a war on Islam. Islamic scholars in Timbuktu were packed off to Marrakesh (many died en route) and their libraries were plundered. One of them, Ahmad Baba, wrote that ‘of all my friends, I was the one who owned the fewest books, and yet they relieved me of 1600 volumes.’ Not only had the Songhay state’s protection of a religious minority come to an end, but Islamic scholarship and jurisprudence ceased to flourish.

One of the most successful jihads in the long Songhay aftermath was led by Seku Ahmadou Lobbo, who grew up in Djenné and was a follower of Uthman Dan Fodio, the warrior intellectual who in the early 19th century founded a caliphate in what is now northern Nigeria. Lobbo took control of Djenné and built a new town called Hamdallaye – ‘praise to God’ – nearby. Hamdallaye was an early African example of programmed urbanisation, somewhere that could be watched for signs of apostasy, superstition and other errors: a precursor of the nouvelles villes built across West Africa and the Maghreb by the French a hundred years later, quite the opposite of Djenné with its organic, premodern topography.

In 2015, before my visit to Djenné, a jihadist named Amadou Koufa led the Macina Liberation Front in an attack on Hamdallaye, destroying Lobbo’s tomb. Paradoxically, Koufa sometimes presented his own rebellion – affiliated to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb – as inspired by Lobbo’s jihad. But he was also a Salafi, an enemy of anything that smacked of idolatry, such as a reverence for shrines and sacred tombs. If Koufa was prepared to demolish Lobbo’s tomb, he was quite likely to want to vandalise the mosque in Djenné, which is said to be surrounded by 313 saints’ tombs. So word of his death in November 2018, in a clash between armed Islamists and the joint French-Malian forces taking part in Operation Barkhane against Islamist groups in the Sahel, came as a relief to the people of Djenné. However, none of the armed Islamist groups operating in the region confirmed his death, and a few months later a video surfaced in which a man claiming to be Koufa announced that he was alive and well. Djenné is now part of a huge swathe of Mali which appears on the maps of Western foreign ministries as a no-go area. Not long ago thousands of visitors would attend the annual ‘day of the rendering’, or ‘jour du crépissage’, when thousands of townspeople apply a fresh layer of plaster to the mosque. Nowadays, an official guide in Djenné told me, there are only a handful of tourists. When I visited the town, in the restaurant where I ate, I was the only customer; in the hotel where I stayed, I was the only guest.

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