The Sahara by armchair

Reading the Andalusian Arab writer al-Bakri is to go on a magnificent journey through harsh deserts and lands rich in gold watched over by quixotic local rulers.

Pyramids of the ancient Kushite rulers in Sudan
Pyramids of the ancient Kushite rulers in Sudan. Credit: Eric Lafforgue / Art in All of Us/ Corbis via Getty Images.

When we think of the world’s great travellers, our attention often falls on Marco Polo whose journeys across Asia in the second half of the 13th century are a combination of fact, fiction and something in between. He is often compared with Ibn Battuta, whose epic journeys through North and East Africa, the Middle East and South Asia just a few decades later, are also widely known and admired.

Few though know the name of Abū ʿUbayd ‘Abd Allāh ibn ʿAbd al-‘Azīz ibn Muḥammad ibn Ayyūb ibn ‘Amr al-Bakrī – usually known simply as al-Bakrī – who in some ways is more interesting than either two better known travellers. Born to a princely family in southern Spain in the 11th century, al-Bakrī was a scholar rather than an explorer. Nevertheless, his curiosity and work on science (botany in particular), languages and geography make him one of the most important intellectual figures of the early middle ages.

al-Bakrī lived his whole life in al-Andalus (modern Andalusia), a part of an expansive Arab empire that expanded rapidly in the decades following the life of the prophet Muhammad. Centred on the rich capital city of Córdoba, this region had become autonomous and home first to an emir and then a caliph before descending into political fragmentation in the early part of al-Bakrī‘s life.

What makes al-Bakrī unusual was that he gathered information from multiple sources about far away regions: it seems that he never left Spain, living between Huelva, where he was born, Córdoba and the cities of Seville and Almería. Nevertheless, he was assiduous in his work, reading accounts written by others and thereby preserving – mercifully so, for it is through al-Bakrī that we know of texts like those by al-Warrāq that no longer survive.

That is ironic in itself, for only two major works of his own are known, most notably the Book of Highways and Kingdoms which describes Europe, North Africa and the Arabian peninsula during a period of upheaval and change in all three regions.

It is his material on Sudan and Ghana which is particularly valuable, especially as I am working on Trans-Saharan trade. Al-Bakrī provides an unparalleled coverage of Central and West Africa during this period and it has been fascinating reading his commentary. He writes with clarity, wit and style, and like any good historian, has a good eye for detail – and for a good story.

We learn of the best oases running across the Sahara, of places where camel herders take their flocks to revive them, of places where travellers need to beware of ambushes by local tribesmen, and of towns with majestic mosques, excellent bath houses, first rate medical care and bazaars selling a dazzling array of goods.

We are introduced to a local ruler whose lands include a pool where a rare plant grows that ‘strengthens and aids sexual prowess.’ The king reserves all supplies for himself, and warns women the day before he takes his ‘medicine.’ When asked by a neighbouring potentate for a dose, he replies that he cannot help because he fears that his fellow ruler would not be able to restrain himself.

The trans-Saharan networks were worth the obvious difficulties and dangers of crossing unforgiving terrain – and the price to pay for making the smallest error when crossing one of the world’s great deserts. Sudan and Ghana were mineral rich, most notably in precious metals. Some early Arabic writers describe the latter simply as ‘the land of gold’. Gold was so pure and so abundant that some claimed that it ‘grows in the sand as carrots do, and is picked at sunrise.’

Al-Bakrī was interested in separating fact from fiction – and distinguishing between what could be verified and what could not. He explained how important rain was in such hot conditions, and how some had chosen to convert to Islam because they had thought that this increased the chances of precipitation – a story that has echoes of similar conversion stories from the steppes of Central Asia.

It is always rather wonderful to read words that spring off the page, even though they were written a thousand years ago. Today, al-Bakrī would be described as a ‘gentleman scholar’, someone wealthy enough to spend time reading, thinking and writing – never leaving the comfort of his armchair.

It strikes me too, then, that in our age of digital connectivity which gives us all the ability to learn virtually, to travel without leaving the house and to find out about other parts of the world for the love of knowledge, that perhaps we should all be more adventurous too – and follow al-Bakrī’s lead in indulging our curiosities about other parts of the world that we don’t spend enough time think about. So there: an Andalusian Arabic writer a thousand years ago who is a model for our times.


Peter Frankopan