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The Precolonial Sahara : An archipelago of societies ?

Introduction to the thematic issue
Le Sahara précolonial : des sociétés en archipel?
Chloé Capel, Elise Voguet et Cyrille Aillet
p. 31-52

Texte intégral

1The Sahara is a huge formerly Islamized region which, despite strong historical, social, artistic, and ecological singularities, has only to rarely been considered by historians as a cultural area in its own right. It has often been reduced to a position on the fringes of the Mediterranean or Sahelian worlds, an environmental, economic, political or even, more recently, academic margin. For the past fifteen years, however, in the wake of the work of anthropologists and geographers who very early on individualized the Sahara, the perception of the Great Desert in historical periods has changed significantly with the publication of works on pre-colonial worlds which question the cohesion of Saharan worlds and question the possibility of considering them as an original entity coming to be placed at the junction, and not merely at the periphery, of the Maghreb and equatorial Africa [Lydon, 2009: 1-45; Scheele & McDougall (eds), 2012: 1-92; Loimeier, 2013: 54-76; Mattingly et al. (ed), 2017-2020; Bickford-Berzock, 2019; Warscheid (ed.), Forthcoming]. This approach, however, comes up against major and persistent documentary obstacles, particularly in view of the limited availability of local sources – mainly emanating from lettered people established in the Mediterranean world. This documentary regime permanently maintains the ancient Saharan worlds in a gray area which still prevents us from thinking precisely about this space as a whole. Modern textual sources, produced by the Saharan societies themselves, constitute to date the most promising body of documents of historical studies in the Sahara (Warscheid, 2020). They do not compensate however, for the virtual absence of archeological documentation for the historical periods and remain insufficient to develop a clear and in-depth vision of the societies which remained outside the literate culture or that occupied the Great Desert in earlier times. In addition, historical studies and even more recently studies dealing with the Sahara tend to suffer, for generally material reasons, from a too often national – even nationalistic – approach which artificially compartmentalizes the investigations and locks them into narrow territorial perceptions: This is a serious obstacle to a fully “trans-Saharan” (to borrow David Mattingly's concept (2017: 4)) understanding of the region, currently divided among ten countries. These obstacles help to explain the reasons why the pre-colonial Sahara failed to generate scholarly interest. The delay is such that even a specific chronological periodization has not yet been agreed upon, references are made to the old Sahara, or the ancient Sahara, or the medieval and modern Sahara, or the historical Sahara or even of the pre-colonial Sahara or the Sahara of the Great Empires of West Africa: Of all these proposals, all borrowed from the historiography of other historical and geographical spaces, none is based – doubtless for lack of appropriate knowledge – on chrono-cultural elements specific to the Sahara. Marginal, rare, compartmentalized: studies on the ancient Sahara have not yet reached their full maturity.

2This thematic issue of the REMMM seeks to participate in a dynamic of historicization for the pre-colonial Sahara and the relatively recent context recognizing its historical individuality. In the past, issues have been devoted to all or part of the Sahara. Each of these issues in its own way, reflected the historiographical trends of the time, moving from an anthropological approach (Gast, 1981) to a geographic vision (Baduel, 1986), then to a sovereignist approach (Baduel, 1989) and finally to a political analysis of the Great Desert (Claudot-Hawad, 1990), generally dismissing questions arising from the long term and pre-colonial past issues. To go beyond the reflections initiated in these previous editions, this issue explores the related concepts of insularity and social archipelagos, a recent heuristic development whose relevance and contribution to studies remains to be confirmed. This approach follows on from a long historiographical tradition that over the centuries has changed the perception and place of the Sahara in research.

Marginality, nodality, insularity: the Sahara in Africanist historiography

The undefined Sahara in pre-colonial times

3The Sahara has not always been perceived in an individualized manner by the populations living around it. For a long time, an ethnic approach to Africa prevailed among the intellectuals of the Mediterranean, where the African continent started with the presence on its soil of populations with black complexions and frizzy hair, without inner distinction of landscape, society or religion. This ordering of the world, established by the Ancient Greeks, was preserved until the Islamic period (a time during which the expression, Bilād al-Sūdān was created) and predominated until the tenth century. As geographic awareness of this space became clearer, an environmental definition of Africa became current, and three major autonomous regions emerged: the Mediterranean Maghreb; the Sahara Desert (often referred to as majāba); and the rest of the continent characterized by lush nature (Ducène, 2013: §9-15). At the same time, the Islamic notion of Bilād al-Sūdān itself, significantly evolved, dissociating itself from an exclusively physiological definition to convey a more clearly politico-religious meaning, referring to the pagan African populations held outside the Dār al-Islām, regardless of social, geographic, or cultural origins. Jean-Charles Ducène demonstrates that from the 13th century, the Sahara was unambiguously linked to the Muslim world and that the ethnic question therefore became secondary to the political challenges of fully assimilating this region into the "civilized" world. The Sahara was thus considered, to its fullest geographical extent, as Berber and therefore, Mediterranean (Ducène, 2013: §20-26). Despite identification, the region was not yet seen as a space with its own identity, but, as an extension of the Maghreb, without any real political, social, linguistic or cultural specificity, recognized only for its environmental particularity as a desert. The Sahara, rarely described and for long considered empty, is in reality, little more than a vague and a spatially ill-defined border that separates Dār al-Islām from Bilād al-Sūdān.

4For lack of documentary sources, the point of view of medieval Sahelian societies on the Sahara is unfortunately not known.

The Sahara as a link between Western colonial empires

5The perception of the Sahara as a border and marginal zone weakened somewhat between the 18th and the 19th centuries with the rise of European economic and then colonial imperialism and the progressive exploration of the desert by Western geographers, military and colonial administrators. Indeed, historical, ethnological, and environmental knowledge of this space made a leap forward following publication of the first great European travel accounts (E.G., Horneman, 1802; Burckhardt, 1819; Denham, 1826; Richardson, 1848; Barth, 1857-58) followed by publication of the first Saharan monographs (such as Daumas, 1845; Duveyrier, 1864; Reclus, 1885-86). For a short time, European leaders envisioned the Sahara as a natural bridge and a link between the Mediterranean regions under their control and the territories of equatorial Africa which they then set out to conquer. The Saharan space was for them a means of homogenizing and connecting the Colonial Empires, both French and British. It was in this context that Sahara studies multiplied and that trans-Saharan railway projects proliferated, both for the French (the Algiers-Cotonou line) and for the English (the Cairo-Cape Town line). But this enthusiasm ended up shattered by reality on the ground and the difficulties in implementing such projects. At the end of the 19th century, the Sahara was a moving and complex space, in full economic and social redefinition as the caravan trade yielded its influence to maritime routes (both on the Atlantic seaboard and on the Indian Ocean seaboard through the Suez Canal) and as the political forces present in the desert (Moorish emirates, Tuareg confederations, sultanates of the Chad basin) resisted Western penetration. The region’s insecurity could not be curbed by European military force, helpless in preventing high-profile massacres such as the Flatters Expedition (1881), the Gordon contingent (1888) and then, the Coppolani delegation (1905). In the eyes of the West, the Sahara gradually lost its economic and strategic interest and fell back into a gray fog of disinterest in both political and academic circles, while at the same time acquiring a new aura, by turns dramatized, fantasized or exotic, in artistic and literary circles (the painter Etienne Dinet, the explorer and writer Isabelle Eberhardt) or even religious (priest Charles de Foucauld, Archbishop Charles Lavigerie and the White Missionary Fathers of Africa) and sportsmen (La Croisière Noire, a 1924 automobile expedition and the Saharan expeditions of the mountaineer and explorer Roger Frison-Roche).

The invisibility of the Sahara and the bipolarization of the African continent

6Following this first period of enthusiasm, it became clear that the Sahara had been durably pushed to the margins of knowledge, like the political, economic, and environmental margins that it represented for the societies established at its periphery. The notions of a Saharan border and the emptiness beyond once again prevailed at the expense of a broader vision advocating continuity and uniqueness for this immense, sparsely populated area. The Sahara thus found itself gradually erased from the view of intellectuals to where it engendered, often unconsciously, a form of negation of the region. Indeed, it was during the first half of the twentieth century, under the leadership of researchers and scholars of the colonial era, that the idea was heightened of a gap, discontinuity and by extension, of a hiatus between the Maghreb and Equatorial Africa, embodied by the Sahara which would oppose, in a completely artificial dichotomy, the societies, the political systems, the intellectual representations, the landscapes and, at the end of the chain, the men located at either end of a continuum. In such a binary conception, the space of the desert became undefined and therefore largely disappeared from the analysis except as the embodiment of a border. Researchers then specialized either in the Maghreb or in Sahelian and forested Africa so that each in their own discipline, relegated the Sahara to a peripheral zone, mobilizing only secondary interest and a limited part of their work. This dismemberment of the Sahara reached its climax in the popularization, especially in the French-speaking world, of the expression "Black Africa" (inspired by “Land of the Blacks” as it was used in medieval times), which was opposed categorically to the idea of “White Africa”, and excluded any possibility of an intermediate Sahara, at the junction of both worlds. Such a classification appealed to intellectuals in the fields of geography (Gautier, 1935; Despois & Capot-Rey, 1949-1953), and sociology (Maquet, 1962; Monteil, 1964), but also to historians (Diop, 1960; Cornevin, 1962; Brunschwig, 1963) and even literary critics (Genevoix, 1949), although these authors did not necessarily endorse the ideological (because racial) subtext of this expression. The latter reading was even partly assimilated by certain Saharan intellectuals who, in a sort of paradigmatic normalization effort, set out to define themselves, in an exclusive manner, either as North African white or as sub-Saharan black and in this way avoided the racial complexity and specificity of their region (Al-Shinqītī, 1989: 422-3, cited by Lydon, 2009: 7). The terms were convenient – much as the ironic title of an issue of Hérodote (The Herodotus Review): Afriques blanches – Afrique noires (White Africas – Black Africas). Nevertheless, their exclusive use led inexorably, whether consciously or not, to lexically exclude the Sahara from the debate. Revealingly, this same issue of Hérodote in 1992 betrayed the enduring sense of an invisible Sahara, a sense that was pervasive among the human and social sciences, entitling one of its introductory paragraphs "How to name the two large parts of Africa ? (Hérodote 65, 1992, no. 4). And even if at the present time in global history, we may think that we have freed ourselves from this bipolar conception of the African continent, that we have largely gone beyond the racial constructions of colonial thought, that we have developed an open-ended and connected approach to the African continent, it seems that “sub-Saharan”, a qualification prevalent in contemporary usage, serves merely as an awkward substitute for the adjective “black”. By opposition to the idea of a "Maghrebin space”, would not Sub-Saharan simply restate the notion of a geographical and cultural discontinuity? Does it not contribute to render the Sahara simply invisible, and explicitly dissociated from it by relegation to the margins? At the same time, are we sure that a broad geographical definition of the Maghreb can compensate for this exclusion by integrating spaces as far away as Tanezrouft, Tibesti or Darfur? In the calls for papers, the specializations of the research laboratories, the titles of university courses, the targets of scientific funding, the omnipresence of the expression “sub-Saharan”, implicitly, mirroring that of “Maghrebin”, do they not drastically reduce the scope of Saharan studies?

Otherness and empowerment: the Sahara in search of historicization

7Research on the Sahara does exist, however. The unfavorable situation of the first half of the twentieth century changed very significantly in the years 1960-80, which marked a prolific revival of Saharan studies. The credit goes above all to anthropologists and ethnologists who, after independence, were the first to think of the Sahara in terms of historical, social and cultural individuality, and clearly distinguished between the Maghreb and Equatorial Africa. Thus, the pioneering studies in the discipline (for example Bataillon, 1955; Chapelle, 1958; Du Puigaudeau, 2002; Gast, 1968; Eldblom, 1968; Bernus & Bernus, 1972; Holý, 1974) drew out of the shadows sub-current, contemporary societies who occupied this space before a second generation of researchers, mainly French-speaking (for example Casajus, 1987; Bonte, 2008; Baroin, 1985) managed to reinforce the visibility of the discipline and prove the specificity of this object of study. Beyond the favorable post-war academic context in which the social sciences were reborn in Europe, the movement to recognize the otherness of the Sahara must also be read in light of the political dynamic that followed independence. Indeed, within the framework of the henceforth nationalist construction of African territories, it was necessary to integrate, and therefore to recognize, all the geographical and cultural spaces attached to the new States, however “marginal” they might be. This dynamic extended rapidly to the emergence and then the multiplication of works among contemporary historians, anxious to bring out of the shadows the fate of the Saharan peoples. This trend was reinforced after 1990 against the backdrop of the rise of regional independence movements, the latter being far from foreign to the regional dynamic of historicization (for example Bjørkelo, 1989; Abdullatif, 1994; Triaud, 1995; Boilley, 1999). The desire to decolonialize the history of the Sahara — and more broadly that of the African continent — which marked the second half of the twentieth century also affected the field of ancient history with also at this time the proliferation of reflections on the pre-colonial era: certain classical antiquarians, medievalists and modernists, mainly specialists in Western or Islamic history, then contributed significantly to the writing of the region's ancient history (for example Crawford, 1951; Mauny, 1961; Arkell, 1961; Levtzion, 1973; Devisse et al., 1983; Thiry, 1995). Despite this emulation which helped to train one or two generations of historians of Africa, many of whom were by then, African, the dynamic quickly faltered because between 1990 and 2000, historical studies on the pre-colonial Saharan world virtually disappeared, a situation that has not yet been fully compensated, despite the work of a few anthropologists whose work is deliberately anchored in the long term (Caratini, 1989; Casajus, 2015; Bonte, 2016; Ould Cheikh, 2017). Thus, while the Saharan social sciences did not fare badly, the contemporary history of the region gave rise to continuous production, to the point where prehistorians have made the Sahara into an inexhaustible source of debate in which the history of the pre-colonial Sahara is maintained in a blind spot of research, on the fringes of Africanist (sub-Saharan), Islamicizing or antiquating studies, that is to say again, on the periphery or on the fringes of recognized academic fields. This fragility of Saharan studies was also accentuated at the turn of the twenty-first century due to contemporary difficulties in accessing Saharan land. This thematic issue aims to counterbalance this trend and help revitalize the field of studies on the Sahara in historical periods.

The centrality and connectivity of the Sahara within the context of global history

8This thematic issue is part of a recent wave of work on the ancient Sahara driven by a dual dynamic of renewed interest on behalf of researchers and a change in the research paradigm to include the notion of Saharan insularities. The pertinence of assimilating the desert to the sea, of the oases to a configuration of islands has recently been the object of debate through a collective work entitled Mer et désert de l’Antiquité à nos jours (Sea and Desert from Antiquity to the Present Day). From the introduction, Gaëlle Tallet demonstrates the antiquity of this “omnipresent” analogy, from the writings of Herodotus to the most recent travelers' accounts (Tallet, 2018: 13 et seq.): the author compares the desert space to the sea or to an ocean which is difficult to cross and represents a barrier between the worlds established around it, considered as shores (in the singular sāḥil, the Arabic root of the westernized term Sahel); its immensity is populated with islands or islets of life that one reaches by navigating the sands, thanks to vessels constituted as camel caravans, sometimes called desert caravels. This parallel between the uninhabited immensity of the seas and the desert, between the isolation of oases and islanders, between transoceanic and trans-Saharan commerce has for long conveyed a literary image serving the general public. Beyond metaphor however, does this analogy offer any basis for "a real interpretive model"? What is the heuristic significance of such a rapprochement between the knowledge and the understanding of the ancient Sahara? This recent reflection is inspired by studies, which from the first years of the 21st century, have preferred to speak of decentralized points of view, highlighting the otherness and singularity of maritime worlds and the need to historicize these societies as cohesive groupings at the junction of the lands they separate. In a path of enquiry initiated in the early work of Braudel (1949) which highlighted the role of the seas in the cohesion of continental worlds, this awareness progressed until it finally individualized and empowered the Mediterranean maritime space (Horden & Purcell, 2000; Balard, 2006; Picard, 2015), but also that of the Indian Ocean (Beaujard, 2012) and that of the Pacific (Kirch, 2002). In line with this work and the contributions collected in Sea and Desert, it is appropriate to further explore two of the facets offered by the rapprochement between the Sahara and the oceanic world: that of the concomitance of isolated lands surrounded by uninhabited vastness and interconnected populations across multiple mobility networks.

Saharan societies in an archipelago: discussion through a new analytical tool

The concept of "archipelago" in the human and social sciences

  • 1 It should be noted that the concept is beginning to gain extra-European spaces, as evidenced by rec (...)

9The starting point of our own reflection is indeed the observation of a double tension: on the one hand between the insular character of Saharan societies and their cosmopolitan vocation; on the other hand, between the geographical discontinuity of Saharan populations and the forms of socio-cultural cohesion which can ensure their relative unity. This double quality however, seems to be shared, in the maritime world, by societies established as an archipelago. As Jean-Baptiste Arrault demonstrates, the maritime meaning of the term “archipelago” (a set of nearby islands often sharing the same geological origin), most often categorized as a matter of physical geography, has, for nearly half a century, developed a conceptual bias toward the social sciences, as a term qualifying all sorts of reticulated systems (Arrault, 2005: 317). Although the relevance of this lexical borrowing is still very hotly debated, it has imposed itself in fields as diverse as economics (for example Veltz, 1996), sociology (Viard, 1994; Fourquet; 2019) or even contemporary history (Martelli, 2009) but this conceptual tool is still little used by medieval historians, though its relevance has already been questioned regarding the Mediterranean world1 (Bresc, 2004; Etienne, 2018).

10The recent revival of Saharan studies is an opportunity to seize upon this analytical tool, to use it in service to a centralizing and no longer peripheral vision of the Sahara. Some exploratory reflections (Battesti, 2018; Morris, 2018) have already been carried out in this direction and provide a list of the challenges raised by such an approach: does the notion of archipelago make it possible to express the fragmentation and physical discontinuity of such oases (anthropogenic spaces) within the constraining Saharan immensity? As a result, may we characterize the links they make possible, the passages they facilitate, the political, cultural and social cohesion that they perpetuate, as the expression of a powerful network of connectivity (commercial, and also religious, linguistic, familial), both at the local level but also at the level of the Afro-Mediterranean space? In fact, the oases, considered geographically as islands of greenery in the middle of an ocean of sand, are not isolated from each other: on a regional scale, they do indeed form cohesive sets, often indicated by regional names, as is the case for Tafilalt in Morocco (identified by Capel, 2016), Touat (identified by Voguet, 2017 and 2018) or Mzab in Algeria (identified by Aillet, Gilotte, Cressier, 2017), the Fezzan in Libya (identified, among others, by Mattingly, Sterry, Edwards, 2015) or the Kaouar oases in Niger (identified by Vikør, 1999). On a more local scale, these population poles, irregularly grouped where water is present, are integrated into a specific desert environment with which they strike a unique balance by harboring vernacular cultures and often regional know-how, where the resources of the sedentary lifestyle and the surrounding pastoral economy combine, with a diversity and richness remarkable on the scale of the Great Desert. At the same time, these anthropized spaces can be considered hotspots within a vast network of transregional exchanges and meetings which go beyond the local economic, political, cultural, and social systems. The great mobility of their inhabitants, especially merchants and scholars, has moreover given rise to the formation of a veritable trans-Saharan diaspora, marked by consciousness and a group memory that can be very strong (Lydon, 2009, 340 -400).

11It is within such archipelagic organization that one of the peculiarities of the pre-colonial Saharan world could reside. This analogy indeed leads to the establishment of new grids for interpreting the history of this region and to consideration of the Sahara, not as a margin, a border, or a hiatus, but as an autonomous and coherent cultural space, linked to the Mediterranean and sub-Saharan worlds by commercial, intellectual, and technical dynamics, which place it in the position of a historical entity in its own right. Following from the first reflections on the individuation of the ancient Sahara, wouldn’t it be reasonable instead, to think of this space as an area of cohesion and centrality that the Saharans themselves might have qualified as Desertum Nostrum, to use Vincent Battesti’s expression (2018, 109)?

Figure 1: Map of the main localities and regions (adapted into French) mentioned in this issue

© Chloé Capel

Articulation and cohesion at the Saharan poles: a fragmented but unified space?

12In a first contribution on the recurring theme of trans-Saharan trade, Ingrid Houssaye-Michienzi and Hadrien Collet bring new elements of understanding. By exploiting mainly European archival documentation, they explore the trade of c. 1400, of copper ore extracted in the kingdom of Hungary and shipped to northern Africa via Mallorca, then to sub-Saharan Africa via the Touat. Their analysis, in an extremely precise case study, sheds light in detail, as was rarely the case, on the mechanisms of exchange at work in these market dynamics. It underlines on the one hand the obvious role of trade routes in structuring the Saharan territories, but also, and especially, the weight of the actors of this trade, in particular those of Touat, who proved to be, more than any political or religious authority, the cement of Saharan connections. The intrinsic reticular organization of the Touat, however, worked only by working within the constraints of the natural environment and then, thanks to a polycentric social organization which ensured security and logistics for commercial caravans. The numerous qṣūr [fortified village] of the Touat were scattered throughout the desert, as so many elements of a functioning whole, and thus of a local entity, both human and geographical, for which the archipelago metaphor, as employed by Ingrid Houssaye-Michienzi and Hadrien Collet, can easily be applied as highlighting both the unity and the continuity of the oasis space and the articulation of this territory to the trade networks between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.

13Another active caravan port, the city of Tagāwuṣt in the current province of Guelmim in Morocco, was also formally structured by its commercial vocation. Yassir Benhima examines this role through the study of a rare and unpublished archive piece, a letter from two dignitaries of the city addressed to the Iberian king Manuel I — dated by Y. Benhima as 1501 and presented in the original version with a French translation. In a poor and somewhat spotty documentary context, this letter unexpectedly completes the little-known context of the region's 1499 submission to the Castilians. The socio-political organization of the territory of Tagāwuṣt, terminus for about forty different routes connecting the Maghreb to Bilād al-Sudān at the beginning of the 16th century, consisted of five groups, each comprised of a central city commanding several surrounding localities, much as the networking organization of the Touat route described by Ingrid Houssaye-Michienzi and Hadrien Collet. While Yassir Benhima does not invoke the notion of archipelago to describe Tagāwuṣt, it nevertheless turns out to be effective in defining the region which perfectly fits Arrault's definition of "a set of places forming a system, but which are separated from each other in extent” and are characterized by a “strong reticular structure”(Arrault, 2005: 323). This network structure, which goes far beyond the sole territory of Oued Noun to integrate areas as distant as the Mauritanian Adrar into Tagāwuṣt's sphere of influence, is above all of a commercial nature. However, the work of Yassir Benhima also demonstrates the political dimension of this organization. The article concludes by emphasizing the close interdependence of the Atlantic networks controlled by the kings of Spain and Portugal and of the Saharan networks which featured the “agency” of local political actors in promoting Iberian imperialism in African lands.

14Aurélien Montel's contribution takes us back in time to consider the origins of Saharan-Iberian relations from the outside angle of al-Andalus in the Umayyad period and its representation of the distant but nevertheless indispensable desert. The mobilization of many textual sources from the High Middle Ages, already known but never really read until now in the light of Saharan issues, reveals that the Sahara was considered as "the backyard of an imperial space", articulated "around several large Saharan ports" used as relays for Andalusian power. This extension of Umayyad views to African lands was obviously motivated by the need for the caliphate to supply its economy with gold and other precious goods. The reading of these texts however, shows that effective control of the Sahara remained weak and that the Iberian authority never quite succeeded in appropriating a dense network of itineraries entirely devoted to supply al-Andalus trade, al-Andalus having itself become simply one of "the terminals” for the trans-Saharan traffic despite its relative importance. Thus, despite this essential power of attraction, al-Andalus remained outside of the specifically Saharan dynamics, a reflection on its approximate knowledge of the region and Iberian economic mechanisms for whom the Sahara constituted a sort of fuzzy border symbolic of their authority. Despite a marked religious influence and an increasingly central role in the support of Saharan urban poles for Sunnism, al-Andalus, though it fully participated in the structuring and cohesion of Saharan networks, failed to dominate these or control their socio-political identities.

15Agnès Charpentier and Younès Khalloufi then bring another nuance to the analysis of these Saharan networks by studying the Algerian-Moroccan border region, Figuig, through exogenous sources: the French colonial archives of the second half of the 19th century. The descriptions provided by the officers of the various colonial era Arab Bureaus, dependent though they may have been on classical historical sources, on local informants and French politico-military objectives, focus on the population of the oases, their social organization, and the role of trade routes in structuring these territories. There emerges from these observations a distorted, even caricatural image of a society divided into two almost hermetic groups, the nomads, and sedentary residents. We see them however, interacting with each other in the context of relationships of an economic nature in which a certain complementarity of different modes of subsistence is expressed, particularly in the space of qṣūr, considered as meeting places. Such economic balance and connection – which betray true family interdependence despite a colonial vision advocating a strict division of oasis societies among nomad and sedentary populations - can be observed elsewhere, beyond Figuig, in the Touat or Tagāwuṣt regions and place themselves at the crux of exchanges over a much longer period, in particular toward the east and the south, offering links to the worlds of trans-Saharan trade and to the circulation of scholars and pilgrims. Despite its biases, the French colonial vision contributes a fairly clear picture of the influence of the murābiṭūn and shurafā’ religious brotherhoods on the social fabric of these populations and of their respective political and spiritual social links uniting the different Figuig population groups up until the final years of the 19th century, despite the emergence, at that time, of alternative forms of political authority. During those times of marked decline in trans-Saharan trade, the brotherhoods seemed to have become vectors of long-distance exchanges, henceforth relating more to lettered and spiritual mobilities than to commercial mobility.

16Using a different methodological approach, based on a compilation of modern texts and elements of oral memory and epigraphy, Mourad Araar examines the same economic and social sources in order to characterize long term relations between the Saharan regions of the Souf and the Djérid to the rest of Ifrīqiya. In a region where the documentation is perhaps even more incomplete, Mourad Araar manages to free himself from a uniquely Tunisian and coastal vision of Ifrīqiya to integrate the entire desert hinterland into his analysis of a regional economy whose weight he tries to demonstrate by underlining the reciprocity of commercial and other links that connected the southern and northern areas. As in the previous contribution, this article also questions the weight of the zāwiya-s in the organization of the population and territories by going beyond the Saharan perspective to outline a reflection on the role of scholarship and religious currents arising in the desert as part of the contemporary spiritual and political renewal of Ifrīqiya. This bridge launched between two worlds would underline the cohesion of Saharan spaces as much as the singularity of their history, and especially of their intellectual history.

Otherness and singularity of the Sahara: an individualized space?

17It is with a view toward the socio-political singularity of the Sahara that Cyrille Aillet launches his reflection on the originality of Saharan settlements and the question of a group conscience within this territory. By writing the detailed history of the Ibadi movement in the Sahara and by establishing the precise terms and temporalities of its spatial and political development, he highlights the archipelagic character of the majority Ibadi regions of the Sahara, made up of autonomous entities “adapted to the fragmentation of the world of the oasis “ which are ”conditioned by the commercial and intellectual currents that pervade the Mediterranean world” and form a coherent intellectual universe united by the mobility of its scholars. This work also demonstrates the scope of the Saharan influence which, beyond inter-oasis connections, affects Ifrīqiya, Tripolitania and Egypt, regions which in turn covet the oasis space for its role in trade and its connection with sub-Saharan Africa, valuable factors for political and economic development. This contribution, like that of Aurélien Montel, reveals the alterity of the Sahara, which will remain a region difficult to dominate for the political powers established around it. While Ibadism survives, even if only as a residual influence, the hegemonic attempts by Sahara residents, the introduction of Malikism usually associated with the exercise of centralized state authority, has failed to destroy the robustness and independence of the vernacular Saharan collegialities, which remain firmly anchored in a strong family and social conscience. Moreover, the rise of Malikite Sufism, even if it supplants Ibadi practices, strengthens, in a new form, the religious cohesion of the region which will henceforth be embodied — as announced by the contribution of Mourad Aarar — in a sanctification of its scholars and a renewal of the old forms of mobilities and religious reticulations which are binding in the construction of Saharan unity.

18Elise Voguet offers another rare perspective on the Sahara since she also bases her contribution on the analysis of local textual sources, such as the medieval Sahara has only rarely produced, making it possible to assert an endogenous point of view especially, to connect with the intellectual and reflective environments of the Saharan populations. An examination of the position of an oasis cadi from Sijilmāsa on the question of the murder of the Jews of Tuat at the end of the 15th century, this contribution explores the nature of the scholarly contacts that united the oasis archipelagos of Touat and Tafilalt, linking these places of Saharan erudition to the Maghrebin capitals. The oases, interconnected by the circulation of people and knowledge, are at the root of a jurisprudence which is integrated into the development process of Maghrebin Malikism. Despite this common intellectual framework, and perfect illustration of the "academic" career of this Sijilmāsa jurist, the Saharan spaces remained politically on the margins of dār al-Islām. At any rate, this is what is suggested by the scholarly opinion presented, an original position clearly distinguishable from his Maghrebin counterpart, the work of an independent thinker placing himself at the service of Saharan interests and the singularity of his settlement’s organization. Not always placed under the authority of an efficient Islamic power, such Saharan regions have sometimes been rejected, by the legal authorities, on the side of corruption (bilād fasād), thus underlining the singularity — and no doubt, incomprehension — of these marginal points-of-view.

19In her article on the Western M’Zāb, Samira Haoui focuses on the ways and means of the territorial organization of oases through the question of the location of population centers and their means of access to water. In an explicitly traditional approach that mobilizes environmental and historical data, this contribution offers a hybrid analysis akin to social hydrology while borrowing some of its tools from hydraulic archeology. Thus, from a resolutely historical perspective, attempting to shed light on the long-term reasons for the establishment of the M’Zāb population centers, Samira Haoui highlights the importance of water and its collective management within spatial organization, allowing her to explore beyond the economic, political, or even tribal issues to forge a new perspective and understanding to the reasons pushing the oasis agglomerations of the region to function as networks. The polycentric, but nevertheless complementary nature of such organization, here justified by hydrological and collegial constraints, echoes what Hadrien Collet and Ingrid Houssaye describe for the Touat while considerably enriching the analytic framework for oasis dispersions. While the notion of archipelago is not explicitly mentioned in this text, the system described, made up of fragmentary units forming a coherent whole that could be described here as hydrosocial, meets its definition very well.

20Finally, Chloé Capel explores endogenous documentary sources and oasis materiality to question the field of symbolic connections and the possible existence of artistic universes shared across the medieval Sahara. To shed light on the cultural environment of the 11th-12th centuries around Koumbi Saleh (Mauritania), a major settlement pole of the southern Sahara, this contribution proposes an architectural and stylistic study of the Columns Tomb, a funerary complex until recently very little studied despite its notoriety. Compiled from the archives of older excavations, this contribution highlights the formal and technical bridges existing between this monument and other archaeological structures found throughout the Sahara, in its surroundings and well beyond (as far as Central Asia). As never done before, the cultural and religious affiliation of this cemetery to the Islamic world of the Almoravid caliphate, is here fully affirmed through the establishment of a common symbolic frame of reference. At the same time, this monument reveals the solid insertion of Koumbi Saleh into the local material and ritual landscape, in this way demonstrating a very clear break with the rest of Dār al-Islām.

Connectivity and polarities of the pre-colonial Sahara: an attempt to place this thematic issue into perspective

21The contributions published in this issue have highlighted, if proof is still needed, that the ancient societies of the Sahara were shaped by mobility, a mobility of goods, ideas, and oasis inhabitants, a characteristic of the regional mode of organization which is not a recent discovery but confirms none-the-less the originality of this space. More surprisingly, the case studies collected here underscore that if mobility networks cannot exist without a certain number of forces and actors fully external to the Sahara (economic imperialisms, religious proselytizing, colonial pushes, market reciprocities), Saharans themselves were not content to be the passive instruments of such reticular structuring. The animation of these connections is possible only if one acknowledges the dynamics specific to landscape planning, social structuring, political collegiality, and economic complementarity among population centers dispersed across the desert. The oasis societies studied are characterized by strong local singularities while maintaining between them, as with external actors, polarizing and structuring relations which participate in the individualization of the Sahara. This particularity is also illustrated by cultural productions which seem to be both the result of a process of creative appropriation of alien forms and models by local populations, and the development of indigenous models.

22Reflection on the archipelagic character of Saharan societies, however, is limited as a result of the current, incomplete state of knowledge about the past. This can only result in a very incomplete view of the region. In addition, the contributions collected in this issue testify to the under-representation of studies on the southern Sahara and on the eastern half of the Great Desert. This imbalance precludes consideration of the Sahel and English-speaking regions of the Sahara for inclusion in this modeling attempt. In addition to being dispersed, Saharan societies are diverse, whether considered from a cultural and social perspective, or from political, religious, or linguistic points-of-view. Thus, it may reasonably be asked whether a reflection carried out, and seemingly validated, on the scale of individual strings of oases (the Touat, the Zāb, the Wadi Nūl) or regions of connectivity (the central Ibadi Sahara, the western Almoravid Sahara) should apply equally to the whole of the Sahara at its greatest extent, from the Banc d'Arguin to the Kharga oasis? Is the pre-colonial Sahara made up of multiple archipelagic societies, with territorialities and singularities that vary in time and space, or does it form a whole, a unified and permanent archipelagic system? Even if we cannot rely exclusively on the contributions collected in this issue for a sure answer to this question, the collective reflection presented in this volume constitutes a promising point of departure for further discussion. Furthermore, it should be noted that the mobilization of new sources presented in this volume, whether previously unpublished or here presented in a new light, underscores how much, despite recurring documentary difficulties in this field, research on the pre-colonial Sahara still holds great discoveries.

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1 It should be noted that the concept is beginning to gain extra-European spaces, as evidenced by recent and still unpublished work by Eric Vallet, on the subject of medieval Arabia (The Archipelago of the Arabs. Milestones for a connected history of Arabia 7th-13th century, memory of Habilitation to Direct Research, 2017) and those of Cyrille Aillet on the Ibadite world, of which the present delivery of the REMMM echoes (The Ibadite archipelago in the medieval Maghreb, memory of Habilitation to Direct Research, 2018).

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Chloé Capel, Elise Voguet et Cyrille Aillet, « The Precolonial Sahara : An archipelago of societies ? », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée, 149 | 2021, 31-52.

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Chloé Capel, Elise Voguet et Cyrille Aillet, « The Precolonial Sahara : An archipelago of societies ? », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 149 | septembre 2021, mis en ligne le 03 septembre 2021, consulté le 28 septembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Elise Voguet

IRHT (Institut de Recherche et d'Histoire des Textes), Aubervilliers, France ; elise.voguet[at]

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Cyrille Aillet

Université Lumière Lyon 2, Cnrs, CIHAM UMR 5648, Lyon, France ; cyrille.aillet[at]

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Chloé Capel

CNRS, UMR 8167 Orient et Méditerranée - Équipe Islam Médiéval, Ivry-sur-Seine, France ; chloe.capel[at]

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