Crossing the Sahara in the Fourteenth Century

How to make the expedition from Sijilmasa to Oualata, circa 1352.

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ByFrançois-Xavier Fauvelle

Tuesday, November 13, 2018


A shopkeeper’s mind-collection was essential in the caravan. You would certainly buy your camels at Sijilmasa, then let them fatten for four months, as Ibn Battuta did, so that they might manage the crossing. Some huge merchants had actually numerous the beasts, others only a couple of. One can never depart with just one camel; at leastern two were needed: one for you, one for the baggage. If you rode a steed, you had actually to bring water for it to drink. Before departure, each merchant made arrangements for his merchandise as well as for his saddlery and provides. At the last moment, the members of the caravan filled their guerba, water containers made of goatskins. It was also vital to gain referrals around where to continue to be when one reached one’s destination—someone required to book a house or room. En route, whatever has its price; nothing is held in widespread. The nomads provided only their understanding of the route and also the protection of the column. At the hottest time of the day, all pitch their tents. The travelers necessary to be able to count on their servants for the menial jobs. The guards had actually to be bribed to watch your items or to refrain from stealing them themselves. On the rerevolve trip, you’d be well advised to save an eye on your gold and servants. But also if you preserved a watchful eye, this business still came via troubles. The following anecdote, which dates from the early on thirteenth century, has the value of a parable: “My maternal uncle,” a vendor claims, “carried out a voyage to the south to trade gold. He bought a camel to gain there. While traveling, he uncovered himself in the firm of a city-dweller…The city-dweller had started his slave company. Both of them took the caravan back home. My uncle felt comfortable and totally free from worry: if the caravan left, he installed his camel; if the caravan stopped, he pitched his tent and rested. But our city-dweller was tired and overwhelmed via concerns about his slaves: one was wasting away, another was hungry, this one escaped, that one gained lost in the erg . When the caravan quit, each attended to his very own affairs. Our city-dweller was entirely worn out. During this time, he looked at , that was seated peacecompletely in the shade with his fortune.” How many kind of stories circulated around old seasoned travelers taking advantage of city-dwellers as ambitious as they were inexperienced?

And then there were the little, yet countless and also in the finish obnoxious, day-to-day inconveniences: the omniexisting fleas, which you would certainly try to drive amethod by wearing cords soaked in mercury roughly your neck; the countless flies almost everywhere there was a rotting carcass (i.e., precisely around the wells and the camps); the snakes. In the caravan of February 1352—Ibn Battuta’s caravan—a certain al-Hajj Zayyan, a vendor of Tlemcen in present-day Algeria that loved to catch snakes and play through them, was bitten on his index finger. The injury was cauterized with a red-warm iron; then, as a remedy, he cut the throat of a camel and also put his hand also into the animal’s stomach and left it tbelow the entirety night. Was it really useful? He assumed so. In any situation, it wasn’t enough: he had actually to reduced it off at the joint. The Masufa should have laughed a lot at these city-dweller pastimes. Either pretending to be experts or eager to paint a bleak image of the dangers, they shelp that the bite would have actually been fatal if the serpent hadn’t drunk water prior to biting him. Finally, tright here are the demons, which Ibn Battuta states are numerous in the desert. These imperceptible deities favor to toy via isolated travelers. Mischievous, they seduce you so that you end up losing your method.


The caravan tempers these harsh problems through strict discipline; it diminishes them via distractions. You will certainly put distance in between yourself and the column just at your very own hazard, the Berber leader must have said. The camels, indeed, walk as if to the beat of a metronome. They will certainly sheight once they receive the order to perform so, that is to say, at the planned halt on a beeline course. And while the camels transferring the loads were underway at a continuous pace, under the guidance of the impassive Masufa, those who passist for the crossing would certainly amuse themselves hunting addax, letting their dogs run cost-free, and also riding a little bit ahead of the caravan to let their equines graze and also to reap the invigorating wait. But the games, the intemperance of the city-dwellers, can cost them dbeforehand. Even though caravans might be consisted of of hundreds, periodically also thousands, of camels, one can easily lose sight of them behind a curtain of dunes. Two cousins, Ibn Ziri and also Ibn Adi, were members of our Moroccan traveler’s caravan. The 2 argued, and Ibn Ziri let himself pull earlier from the rest of the caravan to display his annoyance. That was the initially mistake! “When the people encamped tright here was no news of him,” writes Ibn Battuta. “I advised his cousin to hire one of the Masufa to follow his track in the hope of finding him, yet he refsupplied.” 2nd mistake! “Next off day among the Masufa took on, without pay, to look for him. He found his trace, which occasionally adhered to the bconsumed track and sometimes left it, however could obtain no news of him.” Should he have sent out this guard unpaid? This was possibly the third mistake. We will never understand which one of these mistakes was fatal. A few centuries later, on the very same stretch of desert, yet from the oppowebsite direction, a caravan of pilgrims lost two of its members in a row and also yet noticed just a day and also a night after they disappeared. The writer of the story concludes philosophically: “But our conscience was clear because we had warned them of the threats they were running by not abiding by the rules of the caravan.”

After a two-month journey, you will arrive at the end of the crossing. In the fourteenth century, the point of arrival was Oualata, in what is currently southeastern Mauritania. You are already in another civilization. A few days previously, a messenger hurried ahead to announce the caravan’s arrival. He brought letters from the travelers to the city’s merchants. At the news, the people of Oualata sent out tons of water, which of course were sold to the travelers, but which would help the guys and equines to cross the final segment of the route, with a sweltering, sterile desert—so sweltering, in truth, that the caravan could travel just at night.

Ibn Battuta arrived in Oualata at the start of the initially month of Rabi in the year 753 of the Muslim calendar (i.e., in the days complying with April 17, 1352). The heat there was torrid. “There are,” he writes, “a couple of little bit palm trees tbelow in the shade of which they sow water melons. Their water comes from ahsa’ tbelow. Mutton is abundant there and the people’s clothing are of Egyptian towel, of great quality… woguys are of surpassing beauty and also have actually a higher standing than the males.” These are the impressions of a tourist, a little short on detail for someone who continued to be in the city for fifty days. The populace was Masufa Berber. North Afrideserve to sellers had actually established a residence there; it was with a male from Salé, an additional Moroccan, that our traveler uncovered a residence to rent. But the order that reigned tbelow emanated from Mali, the powerful babsence kingdom that had currently made Oualata one of its possessions, the “first district of the Sudan,” at a distance of twenty-four days from the resources to the southern. You check out the governor of the city, the farba, a Manding title. “He was sitting on a carpet…with his assistants in front of him via lances and bows in their hands and the chief men of the Masufa behind him. The merchants stood before him while he addressed them, in spite of their proximity to him, through an interpreter, out of contempt for them.” The plan was as exact as the rules of the protocol: the armed guards stood prior to the governor, the local dignitaries behind him.

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The camels had badepend collection foot in the city, Ibn Battuta tells us, once “the sellers placed their belongings in an open area, wright here the Sudan took over the guard of them” while the sellers checked out pay tribute to the governor. This haste and also the marks of respect that the vendors made to the farba shocked our author: “At this I repented at having actually concerned their country because of their ill manners and their contempt for white men.” Invited later on by the mushrif, an Arabic term for taxation collector, to a light meal to welcome the caravan, he stiffened again; it was as if he barely glanced at the dish of cruburned millet mixed via honey and also yogurt served to the guests in a gourd. “Was it to this that the babsence man invited us?” he asked his companions with, one guesses, an impacted frown. “They said: ‘Yes, for them this is a good banquet.’ ”

Such haughtiness prevented Ibn Battuta from seeing what was at stake roughly him. The rules of etiquette, the self-control, the attacks of politeness to which each surrendered with diligence are testament to a civilization of subtler codes than the severity of the caravan chauffeurs. The vendors, who had dbeforehand longed for the moment they might at last escape from the regulate of the caravanners, gone into this brand-new world right ameans, yet not the tourist, that traveled bringing his own civilization through him. At Oualata, the vendor gotten in Mali. It was a frontier article, then a personalizeds post. If the merchants immediately unloaded the camels on the open up area and also left whatever under guard, it was bereason this was crucial for calculating the appropriate tax to be passist based upon the weight of the merchandise. When the scouts were sent out ahead of the caravan, it was possibly likewise to protect against venturing onto a smuggler’s route. You have actually left the mafia; you have actually entered the state.