History TV: Africa Remembered

Those of you who are regular readers here on Mediaeval Musings may have realised that, despite writing on topics ranging from the western fjords of Iceland to the eastern steppes of Central Asia, I rarely touch upon the continent of Africa. This is partly due to my own sense of ignorance on the subject, but is also due to the neglect of the continent’s rich archaeological and historical legacy by Western academia–the result of racist attitudes and colonial agendas.

This map of 'pre-colonial' civilisations in Africa includes many of those featured on the show.

This map of ‘pre-colonial’ civilisations in Africa includes many of those featured on the show. (Wikimedia Commons)

I am therefore very delighted to finally have the time (thanks to a nasty little cold) to introduce you to one of my favourite BBC shows of all time, Dr. Gus Casely-Hayford’s Lost Kingdoms of Africa. Now in it’s second series, the show as featured cultures and civilisations from across the breadth of the continent, filming not only great sites from Africa’s past, but also communities keeping their memory alive in the present day.

Bronzes such as these, cast in Benin for over 5 centuries, prompted the show's search for the origin of the craft in West Africa.

Bronzes such as these, cast in Benin for over 5 centuries, prompted the show’s search for the origin of the craft in West Africa. (Wikimedia Commons)

Each series has four episodes, which move easily through time as they explore the connections between a region’s kingdoms, both ancient and modern. Needless to say, though, my own favourite segments are those which celebrate ‘mediaeval’ Africa, a period when the continent was connected by trade not only to Europe and the Middle East, but to distant Asia across the Indian Ocean, and when settled, hierarchical societies in many areas became almost fabulously wealthy.

Some of the societies explored by the show seem remarkably familiar to someone from a background in European history. Christian Ethiopia, for example, possesses not only a royal castle, but also churches–some, like those at Lalibela–chiselled deep into solid rock.

The churches at Lalibela were constructed throughout the 12th and 13th centuries--an act of piety by Ethiopia's divinely supported emperors.

The churches at Lalibela were constructed throughout the 12th and 13th centuries–an act of piety by Ethiopia’s divinely supported emperors. (Wikimedia Commons)

Ethiopia’s involvement in Judeo-Christian culture, however, is far older than that of its European counterparts, dating back at least 2,500 years to an ancient connection with Saba, on the Arabian Peninsula. Through inscriptions, funerary stelae, and the distinctive features of church architecture, Casely-Hayford demonstrates the unique and continuous story of Ethiopian culture.

Islam, too, was introduced into Africa only to adapt into local forms and expressions. As the show journeys from the spectacular mud brick mosque of Djenne (Mali) to the congregational mosque of Kilwa Kisiwani–sculpted from living coral–on the Swahili coast, Islam appears guises as diverse as the landscape around it.

Everything about this structure, from the blocks to the plaster which once covered them, comes from coral. Its arches and domes are distinctively east African.

Everything about Kilwa’s mosque from the blocks to the plaster which once covered them, comes from coral. Its arches and domes are distinctively east African. (Wikimedia Commons)

Religion is only one, and hardly the most prominent, of the show’s themes. Trade in Africa’s high value resources is another major consideration. Tracing the trail of the gold trade inland from the coast, Casely-Hayford visits not only famous Great Zimbabwe, but also the less publicised Mapungubwe. Located near lucrative gold mines, both societies valued the substance as more than a simple commodity–as can be seen in the fabulous artefacts excavated from Mapungubwe graves, including a spectacular gold rhino.

Metallurgy also proved a guide through the interrelated cultures of Western Africa, where iron- and bronze-working were high status crafts linked with the preservation of historical events in art.

One of the series’ great strengths is its willingness to engage with the contemporary remembrance of these kingdoms. Although ‘lost’ to the story of civilisation written by 19th century Europeans, many of these sites are remembered with pride by their local communities.

The curving walls of Great Zimbabwe, a sprawling urban centre, were constructed without the use of mortar.

The curving walls of Great Zimbabwe, a sprawling urban centre, were constructed without the use of mortar. (Hans Hillewaert via Wikimedia)

The narrative of African history is thus not one of discovery, but of recognition–a key distinction.

Thus, although the show shares a common television tendency to present hypotheses as facts and plausibilities as certainties, its virtues far outweigh its small faults. As an introduction to the great diversity of African civilisations, it is unparalleled, and my fingers are certainly crossed for a third series.

*Note: Americans can find region 1 DVDs of the series on Amazon, as well as all 4 preliminary episodes on Netflix. Hopefully series two will follow. 

9 thoughts on “History TV: Africa Remembered

    • I was trying to fit Nubia (and your blog!) in somewhere, but it was just too ancient. Notice Aksum didn’t make it in either😦

      I did love that episode, though, particularly the early Kerma culture and Meroe! Did you find it represented the subject well? I’d be interested in your thoughts?

      • Perhaps I remember wrongly that they/he also presented the medieval kingdoms of Nubia??
        However, I do remember some inaccuracies in the historical interpretations, but this is possibly the salt in the recipe for a successful TV show, by definition a product of popular culture😉
        Allow me to challenge you🙂
        What about preparing something for the contacts between medieval Nubia and medieval Europe? Some material can already be found in our blog🙂
        Once again, great to see the attention turned to Africa too!

  1. Oh, that is quite an exciting topic – I guess i have to check that show! I am pretty much into Global Studies and postcolonialism, so I guess this is a true must-see for me. Thanks for the post!

  2. I feel so ignorant when it comes to African history. It’s not something I often see taught in schools for more than a few weeks at the beginning of the year. Don’t know what it’s like in Seattle though, especially with so many people from East Africa relocating here. I’ll have to check out this series on Netflix!

    • I know how you feel. Beyond slavery, HIV/Aids, and recent humanitarian crises, Africa never got much time in my curriculum either. Its a shame that our perspective on Africa is framed mostly as a problem to be solved (by the outsider West) rather than as a place with its own diverse heritage and histories. Thanks to recent immigration trends, though, I can see that changing.

      I currently work as an intern at a global affairs non-profit, where I help them to develop international resources for teachers. Not only are we planning a workshop for teachers on East Africa, but I’m beginning to see a lot more on the internet aimed at helping teachers to understand and engage their African students more fully. Hopefully, there will be more lesson plans, books, and (of course!) shows to help redress the balance!

  3. Oooh, thanks for posting this. Now I have 4 brand-new documentaries to watch. And just yesterday, I was moaning about what to watch! I hope Africa gets more research and acknowledgement wrt. history. I think this is a great initiative by the BBC.

    • Oh, I’m always glad to talk about the BBC! I agree that this series (which now has a second season) is a really great idea, but I’m also excited because they have started to air a “Lost Kingdoms of South America” series which also looks amazing.

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