Before the 19th century, pilgrimage from Africa was principally associated with routes across the Sahara. Islam first came to West Africa by means of the Saharan routes through the commencement of trade with the Islamic world and it was by way of these routes that the first pilgrims made their way to Mecca on the Hajj. During the Mamluk era (1250-1517), the main gathering point for pilgrims from West Africa was Timbuktu, the great medieval city of learning. The main route from Cairo took them across the arduous terrain of the Sinai Desert to ‘Aqaba then down the Red Sea. The town of Tadmekka in northern Mali is widely recognized as one of the first important trading places of the Islamic trans-Saharan trade. The meaning of its name – ‘resemblance to Mecca’ – testifies to its importance as both a locality on the pilgrimage route and as a centre of early Islam in West Africa.
The Catalan Map (about 1525)
From about 1350, Catalan chartmakers began to create Mediterranean-centred maps that blended the coastal precision and political information of the mariner’s chart with figurative decoration and historical, ethnographical, botanical, zoological and religious inscriptions derived from medieval world maps (mappae mundi). Such maps were intended for libraries and served as prestigious gifts. The best-known, the so-called Catalan Atlas in the Bibliothèque Nationale (see next entry) may have been presented to Charles V of France in 1375. This late example in the British Library, created in a Spanish-ruled city, contains most of the characteristics. These include a stylized rendering of Mecca (Lamecha), marked by a banner with a crescent, and depictions of a succession of predominantly Muslim African rulers whose ‘capitals’ are shown as minute walled towns in the vicinity. Though all but the fictitious Christian ruler Prester John are generalized here, the Catalan Atlas identifies one of the kings as Mansa Musa of Mali (see detail).
The Catalan Atlas (1375)
This atlas is attributed to the Majorcan Jewish cartographer Abraham Cresques (1325–87), who was in the service of the king of Aragon. It is one of the few surviving examples of medieval cartography. It is richly illustrated and covers an area stretching from the Atlantic to China and from Scandinavia to the Rio Oro in Africa in six parchment-covered wooden panels. Several sovereigns are portrayed in this section, including the famous king of Mali, "Musse Melly" (Mansa Musa), who holds a sceptre ornamented with a fleur-de-lys and a golden disc. He was known to control a large part of Africa, from Gambia and Senegal to Gao on the Niger, and had access to some of its richest gold deposits.
A Hajj Journey by al-Futi (Timbuktu)
Timbuktu was an important centre of learning in medieval times. It had a university and a tradition of producing manuscripts on subjects such as science, law, medicine, history and religion. The Hajj was key to this transfer of knowledge. Returning pilgrims contributed both ideas and travel accounts, which were copied and stored in libraries. The manuscripts are unbound and copied in black and red inks in the scripts typical of West Africa.
‘Umar ibn Sa‘id al-Futi (d. 1864) was a renowned scholar, social activist and sheikh in the Tijani Sufi order, known as al-Hajj ‘Umar Tal. This is an account of his Hajj, which he undertook with his family in 1827. It is written in Sudani script and dated 1279/1863. On his return from Mecca,’ Umar ibn Sa‘id al-Futi visited Jerusalem, Syria and Egypt, earning a reputation for piety and learning. He is said to have led the prayer in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, cured the son of a sultan from madness in Syria, and astonished scholars in Cairo by his vast erudition. On his return through Fazan, his wife Maryam and brother fell ill and died. During this time’ Umar ibn Sa‘id al-Futi successfully mediated between the warring kingdoms of Bornu and Satku.
Gold mould from Tadmekka (800 –1000)
This coin mould was discovered during excavations in 2005. It is the only known evidence of the famous gold coinage of Tadmekka. Gold dust or nuggets were melted in moulds such as this to produce pellets, which were worked into coins. The highly-pure Tadmekka gold coins would have been a prized commodity for early West African pilgrims making their way across the Sahara.