The Trans-Saharan Book Trade 


A strongly held misconception about the Sahara, both in popular culture and in academia, is that this desert constitutes a nearly impenetrable barrier and a fundamental cultural divide between northern Africa—a constituent part of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern historical realms—and “sub-Saharan” Africa. As a result of this misconception, African Studies, as a field of inquiry, has often been conducted in isolation from the northern, “white,” part of the continent while Islamic Studies and Middle Eastern Studies, of which the Maghreb is a poor cousin, take little account of links with “Black Africa.” Saharan Studies, which could bridge this epistemological divide, is still in its infancy. So far, only the “Islam in Africa” subfield within African Studies has properly situated the Sahara as a space of flows, of trade and intellectual exchange over the longue durée.

The trade in scholarly and devotional books in Arabic was one of the principal, and surely one of the least studied, aspects of trans-Saharan exchange. While there are a few works on the trans-Saharan trade in general, and a number of articles on such aspects as the gold trade or the slave trade, no comprehensive study of the production, commerce, circulation, and consumption of books and manuscripts along the main caravan routes has been published yet. To fill this gap, and to better understand the field of trans-Saharan book culture as it is approached by various scholarly perspectives and traditions, Graziano Krätli (Yale) and Ghislaine Lydon (UCLA) have decided to edit a volume, which Brill has agreed to publish. The edited volume will gather, for the first time, the wealth and diversity of knowledge produced on this topic by Africanist historians, archeologists, and anthropologists, as well as by book historians and archeologists, Arabic and Islamic paleographers and codicologists, and conservators. Individual essays by scholars will address various aspects of the trans-Saharan book trade (historical, economic, cultural, intellectual, material, technological), placing particular emphasis on the book as artifact, commodity and collectible, source of intellectual tradition, and cultural heritage. In so doing, this edited volume will lay the foundations for further and more specific studies on the trans-Saharan and Sudanic book culture, thus strengthening its position and recognition within the field of African and Islamic studies.

My contribution to this volume will consist of an introductory chapter on the historical geography of the Sahara and its trade routes. It will provide an overview of the geography of trade from the relatively wealthy Neolithic era to the closing of most international borders following decolonization. The complex network of medieval and early modern caravan routes (8th to 19th century) within which the trans-Saharan book trade flourished will be reconstructed from literary and archaeological sources. Insight will be provided into the role played by migration, pastoralism, tribal and caste structures, technologies, religious scholarship, pilgrimage, warfare and the wider world economy in the configuration of trans-Saharan trade routes.

Previous to becoming involved in this publication on the trans-Saharan book trade, I had the pleasure of contributing to the work of Labelle Prussin, Professor Emeritus, who is pursuing research on design and craftsmanship in a similarly trans-Saharan perspective. Prussin has traced commonalities in methods and motifs from the Maghreb and Andalusia to Senegambia, the Niger, Yemen and the Nile Valley. She is currently preparing two projects: African Crossroads and Judaic Threads in the African Tapestry, both of which combine scholarly publications and art exhibits.