The Sahel is the ecoclimatic and biogeographic zone of transition in Africa between the Sahara to the north and the Sudanian Savanna (historically known as the Sudan region) to the south. Having a semi-arid climate, it stretches across the south-central latitudes of Northern Africa between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea.
The Arabic word sāḥil (ساحل) literally means "shore, coast", describing the appearance of the vegetation found in the Sahel as being akin to that of a coastline delimiting the sand of the Sahara. The Sahel can be divided from Lake Chad in west and east regions.
The Senegal and Niger rivers are the main water sources. They are also important navigational and trade lanes between the Sahel and the south and western tropical forests, and the territory of several Sahelian polities.
Traditionally, most of the people in the Sahel have been semi-nomads, farming and raising livestock in a system of transhumance, which is probably the most sustainable way of utilizing the Sahel. The difference between the dry North with higher levels of soil nutrients and the wetter South with more vegetation is utilized by having the herds graze on high quality feed in the North during the wet season, and trek several hundred kilometers to the South to graze on more abundant, but less nutritious feed during the dry period.
The Sahelian polities were a series of monarchies centered in the Sahel. Their wealth of the states came from controlling the trans-Saharan trade routes across the desert, especially the slave trade with the Islamic world. Their power came from having large pack animals like camels and horses that were fast enough to keep a large empire under central control and were useful in battle. All of these empires were quite decentralized with member cities having a great deal of autonomy.
The main western polities are:
|Mali Empire||Niani||Established in 1235 (632–633 AH). Conquered by the Songhai Empire in 1559 (966 AH).|
|Jolof Empire||Linguère||Former tributary of Mali Empire. Independent from 1350 (750–751 AH) to 15th century. Reconquered by Mali Empire|
|Songhai Empire||Gao||Former tributary of Mali Empire, later independent polity in 1430 (833–834 AH).|
|Hausa city-states||Kano (largest birane)||First mentioned in the 9th century. At least 14 birane (city-states) allied in a loose confederation.|
|Bornu Empire||Ngazargamu||Also called Kamen-Bornu Empire. Continuation of the Kamen Empire.|
|Asanteman||Kumasi (largest city)||Confederation of Akan kingdoms. Formed as defensive alliance due to Songhai expansion and control the Lobi goldfields.|
|Moogo (Mossi states)||Mossi speaking kingdoms of Wagadugu, Tenkodogo, Fada N'gourma, and Zondoma (later replaced by Yatenga).|
The Sahel states were hindered from expanding south into the forest zone of the Ashanti, Yoruba peoples as mounted warriors were useless in the forests and the horses, and camels could not survive the heat and diseases of the region.
The Islamization of the Sahel encompasses a prolonged period of military conquest and religious conversion spanning from the 8th century. The proliferation of Islamic influence was largely a gradual process. Sufi orders played a significant role in the spread of Islam from the 9th century, and they proselytized across trade routes between North Africa and the sub-Saharan kingdoms of Ghana and Mali. They were also responsible for setting up zawiyas on the shores of the River Niger. The rulers and governing elites converted and ascribe to Islam but the majority of the rural population practices folk versions of Islam or African traditional religions.
Sunni Islam is the sole denomination in the Sahel. The Malikī madhhab is the main schools of Fiqh or religious law in the Sahel. The introduction of Almohad orthodoxy and the Ẓāhirī madhab is small and its practice is limited to the Berber tribes and some merchant and artisan communities that have emigrate to the Sahel from Morocco.
Unlike Dar al-Islam, the Sahel has a caste system. The caste systems is a form of social stratification found in numerous ethnic groups of Sahel and Western Africa. These caste systems feature endogamy, hierarchical status, inherited occupation, membership by birth, pollution concepts and restraints on commensality. The specifics of the caste systems vary among the ethnic groups. Some societies have a rigid and strict caste system with embedded slavery, whereas others are more diffuse and complex.
Contrary to Islam that considers the community of believers as equals to the eyes of God, the caste system established a hierarchical division of society. In the Sahel this social division is even practices by Islamic rulers. This discrepancy between Islam and the caste system gave rise in time to short lived rebellions and was one of the instigation for jihad wars from the Berbers and Tuareg against Sahel polities. The caste system also had to awkwardly acknowledge the status of Arab and Berbers merchants, artisans, scholars and others that were outside the boundaries and mores of the caste system.
This social institution drew great interest and curiosity for Islamic scholars. Islamic natives dealt its first reports with unbelief until further and more documented reports and traveling scholars attested early accounts. The first scholarly description of the caste system was written by Ahmed bin-Rayḥān during his residence at the House of Knowledge of Toledo. Later superseded by Boutros Al-Andalusi's Analytics of the Peoples of Sahel. This monumental work written during his stay at Timbuktu provide a rich first account rich material that besides describing each caste system also ventures in a theory of its role and function in the Sahel and a possible origin.
According to Al-Andalusi it is is unclear when and how the caste systems developed, they are not ancient and likely developed sometime between the 9th century and 15th century in various ethnic groups, and possibly simultaneously or copied. Al-Andalusi and bin-Rayḥān debate whatever it develop in conjunction with the institution of slavery.
Kings and warriors come and go but Timbuktu stands as the sands of the desert an old saying states.
Timbuktu is the major learning and cultural center of the Sahel. In its beginnings, Timbuktu flourished from the trade in salt, gold, ivory and slaves. Later the town's numerous Islamic scholars and extensive trading network made possible an important book trade: together with the campuses of its mosques and madrasas established Timbuktu as a scholarly center in Africa. The main mandrasas are Sankoré, Djinguereber and Sidi Yahya. There are also several libraries, scriptural and printing workshops, and smaller madrases were each as more specific classes in either medicine, mathematics, science or jurisprudence.
Almohad orthodoxy and the Ẓāhirī madhab gained entrance in Timbuktu in 658 AH (1260 AC) thanks to a generous waqf provided by the Moroccan merchants. It allowed the purchase of books, building and maintenance of a mosque and mandrasa, and enlist lecturers and teachers.
Trade and economy
There are integrated kingdoms and empires, with substantial cities and significant towns; and less organized territories with large scattered populations.
People practice agriculture, stock-rearing, hunting, fishing, and crafts (metalworking, textiles, ceramics). They navigated along rivers and across lakes, trading over short and long distances, using their own currencies. In the agricultural zones near the rivers, sorghum and African rice are cultivated.
The major trade of the Sahel is slaves, salt, copper, gold, gum arabic and ivory.
The main Sahelian Muslim polities (Mali and Songhai Empires) had long established commercial ties with the Maghreb, and also diplomatic contacts exchanging scholars and learning. However the Almohad Caliphate did not have a crucial influence nor did it engaged in territorial conquests until the 14th century.
An important event that marked further involvement of the Almohad in the trade and politics of the Sahel polities was the establishment of trade factories in Ndar (1242, 640 AH) and Takrur (1244, 642 AH) on the Senegal river. From these trading posts that the jihad against the Jolof was promoted and its victory celebrated.
The Sudano-Sahelian (معماری سودانی-ساحلی) architecture describes a range of similar indigenous architectural styles common to the African peoples of the Sahel and Sudanian grassland regions of West Africa, south of the Sahara, but north of the fertile forest regions of the coast.
The term was first mentioned in the 16th century by scholars of Timbuktu in describing the architecture and history of the mosques of the Sahel. The Book of Holy Places of the Sahel employed the term to distinguish it from the Arab-Berber style of the Almohad temples, Sufi tombs and trade houses built in the Western Coast of the Songhai Empire.
This style is characterized by the use of mud bricks and adobe plaster, with large wooden-log support beams that jut out from the wall face for large buildings such as mosques or palaces. These beams also act as scaffolding for reworking, which is done at regular intervals, and involves the local community.