It’s a town in Tunisia, North Africa, where many of the desert scenes in Star Wars were actually filmed. And while it’s not home to any starships or aliens, its true story is every bit as strange.
In my first article of this “Great African Empires” series, I mentioned that people in North Africa were living in settled villages, practicing farming and animal agriculture, as early as the 11,000s BCE —
A full 7,500 years before the Great Pyramid was built.
His spending sprees were legendary. His entourage crashed whole cities’ economies. Meet the flashiest emperor in African history.
Imagine a billionaire arriving with his entourage in London, or Las Vegas, or Rome; and completely taking over an entire city block— turning a five-star restaurant into his exclusive kitchen; a skyscraper into his private office; a museum into his personal art gallery. The CEO brings along hundreds of aides and assistants, all of them clad in designer clothes, driving luxury cars. At each stop along the way, he instantly turns ordinary people into millionaires with a single swipe of his credit card.
It’s hard to imagine any modern mogul willing to flash that kind of cash —
But that doesn’t even begin to describe Musa’s pilgrimage.
They turned a Saharan trade route into a world-class center of Islamic learning. Meet the first medieval empire in West African history.
Some empires blossom around central seaports, or on the banks of vital rivers. But the Kingdom of Wagadu’s wealth was born — at least, in the beginning —
Thanks to a big, cranky animal.
The dromedary camel had been domesticated in Arabia around 3,000 BCE, and was used as a pack animal throughout the ancient Middle East; but it wasn’t until the Roman period that domesticated camels made their way to the Sahara Desert —
They traded with Egypt, Israel and Babylon. But when they turned to the Christian God, East Africa would never be the same.
In the 200s CE, the Persian prophet Mani referred to the “four great powers” of the world. The first three empires are easy to guess: Rome, Persia, and China. Mani’s fourth choice might come as a surprise. He named the Aksumite (or Axumite) Empire of East Africa —
As equal in importance to the other three.
The Aksumites never made any significant attempts to expand outside their own continent (but then again, neither did the Han Chinese). The Aksumite army wasn’t particularly formidable. The empire’s geographical extent was fairly small. Its language never became widely known in the outside world.
They conquered Egypt, battled Assyria and Rome, and ruled the Upper Nile Delta for thousands of years. Meet the pharaohs of Sudan.
You know that feeling when your favorite actor or musical artist makes a mass-market hit — and you realize that’s the one thing they’re going to be remembered for? From now on, no one’s going to care about all their brilliant early albums, or all the great dramatic roles they’ve played. Instead, this complex, talented artist is going to be known for a one-hit wonder, or a brief role in a historical epic.
That’s essentially what happened to the Kingdom of Kush. This civilization (not to be confused with the Kushan Empire of Asia) is remembered mainly as “the Nubian Pharaohs who conquered Egypt” — which they did, it’s true; at one particular period —
Who ruled Africa while Rome ruled Europe? How did they come to be forgotten?
A quick scan of online message boards will tell you that worldwide awareness of African empires — aside from ancient Egypt — is seriously limited, to say the least.
A Quora commenter asks, “Why hasn’t a single prominent civilization come out of Africa?” On Reddit, someone poses (or rather, begs) the question, “Why were there so few empires in Africa?” Although responders quickly mopped the floor with those commenters’ loaded questions, millions of other people around the world have never bothered to ask in the first place.
The estate where we live is not in the slums. It’s a nice middle-class neighborhood — about ten acres with a big stone wall around them, and a whole community of small shops and apartments and houses and cow-grazing patches inside, all connected by winding dirt trails that run through the scrub.
The long low buildings are communal houses where Swahili people live. The little shacks with signs outside are stores — butcher shops, beauty salons, convenience stores, phone top-up stands. Everything you want, you can find within the estate, sold by your neighbors.
Night can make you feel like a stranger, even when you’re home
Last night, when the power had been out for twelve hours and the sun finally set and left me in the dark, and someone knocked on my door to hand me candles, and I lit the candles and sat on the bed and listened to the shouting outside — that was when I realized how alone I was.