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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.