Posts Tagged ‘Aminatta Forna’

New Series Next Tuesday on African Civilisations

May 23, 2018

Next Tuesday, 29th May 2018, at 10.00 pm there’s a new series beginning on BBC4 entitled Africa’s Great Civilisations. It’s a six part series, with the first part on ‘origins’. The blurb for it on page 77 of the Radio Times reads

Henry Louis Gates jnr. takes a new look at the history of Africa, from the birth of humankind to the dawn of the 20th century. he takes in the city of Great Zimbabwe, the pyramids of Meroe and the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia.

The little piece about it on page 75 by Gill Crawford also gives the following description of the show:

Celebrated African-American literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr presents this wide-ranging, grand-scale six-part history of the African continent, originally shown by the PBS network in the US.

In this first episode, we start in the heart of Ethiopia, where the story of humanity began. And while we now that many African peoples migrated away from the continent to create other societies, others stayed to form great civilisations in Egypt, Sudan and Nigeria, culminating in the Queen of Meroe who stood up to the might of the Roman Empire.

It’s a fest of splendours, and Gates is an eloquent guide.

There have been a number of series on African history over the years. Back in the 1980s the Black African historian, Dr. Ali Mazrui, and the White Afro-centrist historian, Basil Davidson, both presented series on Africa. Eight years ago in 2010 the Black art historian, Gus Casely-Hayford also presented a splendid four-part series on BBC 4, The Lost Kingdoms of Africa, on the continent’s pre-colonial civilisations. I also seem to recall a BBC4 programme, which I thought was presented by Aminatta Forna, but I might be wrong, on the great Islamic civilisation of medieval Timbuktu.

Africa has been the centre of some very advanced civilisations, such as Benin and its superb bronzes, Nubia and the Swahili of what is now Tanganyika. The Swahilis built their cities from coral, and covered them with a limewash made by burning the same material.

Ancient Meroe, however, remains a mystery. It was a literate civilisation, using Egyptian hieroglyphs, and they left inscriptions on their monuments, like their pyramids. However, their language is unrelated to any spoken today, and no parallel texts in known languages, like the Rosetta Stone for ancient Egyptian, have been found. So although we can read their tests, we’ve no idea what they mean. Who knows what wealth of information is in there? It’s all very frustrating. Grrr!

ISIS’ Destruction of Muslim Cultural Treasures in Timbuktu

March 17, 2015

Yesterday I put up a number of pieces on ISIS’ destruction of irreplaceable cultural treasures, seen in the smashing of ancient Assyrian artefacts in a museum in Mosul and the destruction of an Islamic shrine of Adam’s son Seth, revered in Islam as the prophet Sheth. The Islamist terror group hasn’t confined its destruction of items and monuments of immense cultural heritage to Iraq.

This is a report from Euronews from 29th January 2013, reporting how, when they were expelled from Timbuktu, they smashed one of the important local graves, and set fire to the local library, in the hope of destroying the priceless books and manuscripts within.

ISIS’ Attack on the Graves of the Sufi Saints

This was a calculated attempted to destroy Mali’s peculiar Islamic culture, and its rich intellectual heritage that is only just beginning to be discovered and truly appreciated by Western scholars. And it shows clearly what ISIS would like to do to other Muslim nations and their cultures, including those in the West, simply for not following what they consider to be the correct interpretation of Islam.

The desecration of the ancient grave looks to me like an attempt to destroy an aspect of Sufi worship, which is strongly rejected in Wahhabi Islam. Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism, in which the practitioner attempts to achieve union with the Almighty through a series of spiritual exercises. These can include singing and dancing. There are a number of different Sufi orders, some of whom may differ widely from orthodox Islam. The famous whirling dervishes of Turkey are one Sufi order. These orders are under the guidance of a sheikh, the term given to their spiritual head. The orders’ founders are revered as saints, their graves are frequently the sites of veneration and special ceremonies.

I was taught at College that most Muslims in fact belong to a Sufi order. Sufi mysticism was practised not only in the Near East, but also amongst European Muslim communities in the former Ottoman Empire. Many of these communities were converted to Islam through their preaching, and in particular that of the Bektashi order, who served as the chaplains to the Ottoman forces. Unfortunately, this aspect of the traditional Islamic heritage of the Balkan nations has been under attack, not only from Non-Muslim nationalists, but also from Islamic fundamentalists from elsewhere in the Dar al-Islam. I can remember reading years ago in the Independent how graves in Muslim cemeteries in some of the Balkan countries had been destroyed as part of a fundamentalist attack on monuments and practices they considered non-Muslim.

There are British Muslims, who perform religious rites to venerate the graves of religious leaders in this country. If ISIS had their way, the worshippers and mystics at these shrines, who follow the traditions of their orders, would find their beliefs and practices banned and suppressed. Just as ISIS would kill and maim their non-Muslim friends and fellow citizens.

Timbuktu’s Ancient Heritage of Learning

As for the destruction of the library, Timbuktu was one of the richest towns in West Africa during the Middle Ages because of its position on the major gold trading route. So rich was the country, that when the ruler of Mali went on the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, in the 12th century, he took so much gold with him that it sent Egypt into recession.

Mali was not only rich, but cultured. Timbuktu was a university town, where the Islamic texts and doctrines were studied and copied. Not only that, but its scholars were also interest in the secular sciences that were pursued by Muslim scientists during the Middle Ages. One of the books shown to the Beeb’s Aminatta Forna in her programme on Timbuktu’s lost library was a scientific text arguing for a heliocentric model of the solar system. That’s the same model as proposed independently in Europe by Copernicus, in which the Earth goes round the Sun, rather than the usual medieval notion of the Sun and the planets going round the Earth.

Forna’s programme was a fascinating documentary on the sheer wealth of the city’s and Mali’s medieval culture and learning. It’s also on Youtube. Here it is below. It’s nearly an hour, so not short, but well worth watching.

The modern Arabic word for literature is adabiyyat, which I understand is derived from adab, meaning manners, but also ‘culture’. ISIS in their destruction of the world’s cultural heritage and learning have shown themselves to be its enemies, both those of Muslims and non-Muslims. And if they continue, the world will be a much poorer place.