Life in Walata in 1352: an Ancient City of the Ghana Empire

Map of the Ghana Empire ca 300 -1200

In the past, we have talked about the great Ghana Empire of West Africa whose main center of trade was Koumbi Saleh, and whose economy was based around gold, salt, copper, and other goods. The imports included textiles, ornaments, and other materials. Many of the handcrafted leather goods found in old Morocco also had their origins in the Ghana Empire. Several strong cities of the Ghana Empire are today on the UNESCO World Heritage List, such as Koumbi Saleh, OuadaneChinguetti,or Oualata. The historian and scholar Ibn Battuta visited Oualata in 1352, and gives an amazing report of the people of Oualata (Walata). Enjoy! These can be found in the Travels of Ibn Battuta called A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling, better known as the Rihla (or “travels”). In Oualata, Ibn Battuta mentions his amazement that the society is matrilineal which he had not seen before anywhere in the world except among Indians of Malabar, and notices the importance of women in the society, and how they are well-treated, and mutual respect between men and women. A lot of these traditions are still be observed throughout Africa today.


Ghana Empire_Oualata old town and new ruins can be seen
Aerial view of Oualata which was north west of Koumbi Saleh, and part of the Ghana empire. Ruins of the ancient city can be seen (Wikipedia)

My stay at Iwalatan [Walata] lasted about fifty days; and I was shown honour and entertained by its inhabitants. It is an excessively hot place, and boasts a few small date-palms, in the shade of which they sow watermelons. Its water comes from underground waterbeds at that point, and there is plenty of mutton to be had. The garments of its inhabitants, most of whom belong to the Massufa tribe, are of fine Egyptian fabrics.

Their women are of surpassing beauty, and are shown more respect than the men. The state of affairs amongst these people is indeed extraordinary. Their men show no signs of jealousy whatever; no one claims descent from his father, but on the contrary from his mother’s brother. A person’s heirs are his sister’s sons, not his own sons. This is a thing which I have seen nowhere in the world except among the Indians of Malabar. But those are heathens; these people are Muslims, punctilious in observing the hours of prayer, studying books of law, and memorizing the Koran. Yet their women show no bashfulness before men and do not veil themselves, though they are assiduous in attending the prayers. Any man who wishes to marry one of them may do so, but they do not travel with their husbands, and even if one desired to do so her family would not allow her to go.

Ghana Empire_Trans-Saharan routes early
Ghana Empire and its Trans-Saharan trade routes (Wikipedia)

The women there have “friends” and “companions” amongst the men outside their own families, and the men in the same way have “companions” amongst the women of other families. A man may go into his house and find his wife entertaining her “companion” but he takes no objection to it. One day at Iwalatan I went into the qadi’s house, after asking his permission to enter, and found with him a young woman of remarkable beauty. When I saw her I was shocked and turned to go out, but she laughed at me, instead of being overcome by shame, and the qadi said to me “Why are you going out? She is my companion.” I was amazed at their conduct, for he was a theologian and a pilgrim [to Mecca] to boot. I was told that he had asked the sultan’s permission to make the pilgrimage that year with his “companion”–whether this one or not I cannot say–but the sultan would not grant it.

A Day in the Court of the Emperor of Mali

Ibn Battuta_1
An illustration from Jules Verne’s book “Découverte de la terre” (“Discovery of the Earth”) drawn by Léon Benett. Ibn Battuta (1304-68/69) was a Moroccan Berber scholar and traveler

The Berber scholar and historian Abu Abdullah Ibn Battuta (commonly known in English as Ibn Battuta) is known as the most prolific and famous traveler of the middle ages. Born in Morocco in 1304, descending from a family of Islamic legal scholars (qadis) in Tangier, Ibn Battuta covered over 73,000 miles in 3 decades spanning 3 continents, Africa, Europe, and Asia. On one such travel, he visited the great Empire of Mali, and through his notes, we know what an audience with the Emperor Mansa Sulayman of Mali looked like. Travel to 1351 and enjoy a day in the court of the Emperor of one of the greatest empires in Africa, the Mali Empire, through the eyes of Ibn Battuta!


Mali Empire (Wikipedia)

On certain days the sultan holds audiences in the palace yard, where there is a platform under a tree, with three steps; this they call the “pempi.” It is carpeted with silk and has cushions placed on it. [Over it] is raised the umbrella, which is a sort of pavilion made of silk, surmounted by a bird in gold, about the size of a falcon. The sultan comes out of a door in a corner of the palace, carrying a bow in his hand and a quiver on his back. On his head he has a golden skull-cap, bound with a gold band which has narrow ends shaped like knives, more than a span in length. His usual dress is a velvety red tunic, made of the European fabrics called “mut’anfas.” The sultan is preceded by his musicians, who carry gold and silver guimbris [two-stringed guitars], and behind him come three hundred armed slaves [possibly servants]. He walks in a leisurely fashion, affecting a very slow movement, and even stops from time to time. On reaching the pempi he stops and looks round the assembly, then ascends it in the sedate manner of a preacher ascending a mosque-pulpit. As he takes his seat the drums, trumpets, and bugles are sounded. Three slaves go out at a run to summon the sovereign’s deputy and the military commanders, who enter and sit down. Two saddled and bridled horses are brought, along with two goats, which they hold to serve as a protection against the evil eye. Dugha stands at the gate and the rest of the people remain in the street, under the trees.

Sometimes one of them stands up before him and recalls his deeds in the sultan’s service, saying, “I did so-and-so on such a day,” or, “I killed so-and-so on such a day.” Those who have knowledge of this confirm his words, which they do by plucking the cord of the bow and releasing it [with a twang], just as an archer does when shooting an arrow. If the sultan says, “Truly spoken,” or thanks him, he removes his clothes and “dusts.” That is their idea of good manners.

Why the name: Mombasa?

Mombasa in 1572

Have you ever wondered about the origin of the name of Kenya‘s oldest and biggest port city? Why? I am talking about Mombasa of course, the coastal and beautiful city of Mombasa; the city visited by the famous Moroccan scholar and traveller Ibn Battuta in 1331, as well as the great Chinese navigator Zheng He in the 1413.

Mombasa_Moi avenue1
Moi Avenue with its tusks, Mombasa today

The earliest recorded mention of Mombasa is in the works of Diogenes, a Greek merchant in the First Century (supported by  Ptolemy). Diogenes reported that he had been blown off course from his usual route to India, ending up in a port town he called Rhapta. Rhapta has never been conclusively identified, but Roman coins have been found on several islands that were part of, or near, what became the Sultanate of Zanzibar, of which Mombasa was a core town. In 1151, the Arab geographer Al Idrisi described it as prosperous trading town. Other pioneers of maritime exploration also visited Mombasa, including the Portuguese Vasco da Gama (1498), Pedro Álvares Cabral (1500) João da Nova (1505) and Afonso de Albuquerque (1507). 16th-century Portuguese voyager Duarte Barbosa claimed, “[Mombasa] is a place of great traffic and has a good harbor in which there are always moored small craft of many kinds and also great ships,

View of Old Town Mombasa (Wikipedia)

The island was first referred to as Manbaça or Manbasa in 1502, when the Sultanate became autonomous from Kilwa Kisiwani. Manbasa is the Arabic form of the Kiswahili name, Mvita, derived from Shehe Mvita, the founding father of the island city (not sure how Mvita made it into Manbasa – another case of a foreigner playing with phonetics, i.e. not hearing well). It is also known as the “Island of Mvita.” Some sources claim that Mvita is actually derived from Mombasa’s violent history over the centuries. The history supposedly earned the city the Kiswahili nickname “Kisiwa Cha Mvita”, or the “Island of War”.

Map of Kenya with Nairobi and Mombasa

Most European travelers referred to it as Mombaz or close forms of the word. While it was a British Protectorate for 2 years between 1824 and 1826, Mombasa was turned over fully to the British Imperial East African Company in 1898. The Sultan of Zanzibar officially leased the town to the British government in 1895 as a follow-up to an 1885 agreement. Mombasa became the capital of the Protectorate of Kenya sometimes between 1887 and around 1906 until Kenya’s capital was moved to Nairobi around 1906. Technically, and legally, the coastal strip that is today the Kenyan coastline remained part of Zanzibar until it was ceded to independent Kenya in 1963.

Nyali beach in Mombasa (Wikipedia)

The town of Mombasa is centered on Mombasa Island, but extends to the mainland via two creeks, Port Reitz in the south, and Tudor Creek in the north. Today as always, Mombasa is a major trade center, and home to Kenya’s only large seaport. Because of its proximity to Zanzibar, Nairobi and the Indian subcontinent, Mombasa is a melting pot of diverse cultures and people. It is the center of the coastal tourism in Kenya. Enjoy this great video on Mombasa, the city of Mvita, named after its great leader and founding father.