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Volume 54, Number 1January/February 2003

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Sultanate of the Sahara

Written by Louis Werner
Photographed by Kevin Bubriski

The mud-walled city of Agadez lies in the far upper reach of the Republic of Niger, below the foothills of the Aïr Massif and west of the Tenere Sand Sea. Here caravan routes cross that link places whose names long preceded the coming of nation-states to the Sahara: Northward lie the Hoggar, Tassili and Fezzan; the southward routes lead to Hausaland, Benin and Bornu. For more than 500 years Agadez has been a crossroads for Berbers and sub-Saharan Africans, Arab traders and European explorers, a place of Ghanaian gold and Makkan pilgrims, Barbary horses and Ottoman brocades.

What once made Agadez a thriving entrepôt is now a thing of the past. Herodotus remarked on the once bountiful salt mines, located near springs that watered the thousand-camel caravans that set out each February. "At the distance of 10 days' journey from one another," he wrote in about 440 BC, "heaps of salt lie upon the hills. At the top of every hill gushes forth a stream of water cold and sweet." Now the mines stand mostly idle, and the springs are dry.

Today what brings outsiders to Agadez are the goods and services of a new millennium—high-grade uranium and high-end tourism. The French-owned mine at Arlit, 250 kilometers (150 mi) to the north along the so-called "Uranium Highway" that connects the Aïr to Niamey, Niger's capital, fuels France's nuclear power plants. On a roughly parallel course are pont d'Afrique charter flights—nonstop airbridge flights from Paris—bearing tourists in search of what many regard as the Sahara's most beautiful dunes.

But one thing that Agadez has maintained, and that continues to survive even the assault of modern technology and new money, is the office of the sultan. The Sultanate of Aïr is still a living institution, a body of men and women whose functions in the city and surrounding region are both very much of the moment and deeply embedded in the past.

An Islamic sultanate was usually created, by custom if not by law, on the order of the ruling caliph. The fact that, throughout the lands of Islam, sultanates nonetheless exist today that were never so decreed shows the power of customary rights.

The origin of the Aïr sultanate is found in the oral histories of certain Tuareg tribes: the Kel Owi, Kel Ferwan and Itesen. According to their traditions, the tribes had been embroiled in internecine strife for so long that they finally sent an emissary to Istanbul seeking the appointment of a common ruler. The obvious flaw in this history is that, at the time they say this occurred, Istanbul was still Constantinople and still a Byzantine city.

The Rihla of the great Tangier-born geographer Ibn Battuta, who came this way in 1352 at the end of his world travels, is a standard reference for West African place names. The fact that he passed through the nearby copper-mining and trading center of Tiggida, but nowhere mentions Agadez, probably signifies that at that time Agadez was not a place of importance.

The sultanate's early history is also obscure and complicated by instability and rapid change of rulers. Fragmentary 16th-century Arab chronicles archived at the University of Niamey indicate that the first sultan was named Yunus, and he commenced his rule in 1404. The names of his mother and aunt are recorded, unlike those of his father and grandfather, which hints that Yunus was of a matriarchal lineage, and thus probably a Tuareg. The sultanate's initial seat of power was Tadaliza, now an archeological site in the Aïr uplands.

By about 1510, when Leo Africanus—the Arab traveler and scholar Hassan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan—claims to have visited Agadez, the sultanate had been based in that city for fewer than 50 years, having been moved there by Yusuf bin Aishata, who ruled from 1461 to 1477. In the Tamasheq language of the Tuareg, the sultan's palace in Agadez is still called Gidan Isuf, or "House of Yusuf."

Although modern scholars doubt that Leo indeed saw Agadez himself, his description was surely based on someone's eyewitness account: "Agadez is a walled city built by the modern sultans near Libya," he wrote. "It is the city of Blacks that is the closest to the cities of Whites, excepting Oualet [Oualata, in modern day Mauritania]. Its houses are well constructed in the style of Barbary because their inhabitants are almost all foreign merchants."

What Leo wrote next rings true even today: "It has very few indigenous people and they are almost all artisans or soldiers of the sultan." Artisans, soldiers, traders, courtiers and townsmen speaking any or all of Tamasheq, Hausa, Arabic, Songhai and French, Niger's official language—there is still today a rich mix of cultures, skin tones and tongues in Agadez.

Djibo Hamani, a professor at the University of Niamey and author of The Tuareg Sultanate of Aïr: Crossroads of Blacks and Berbers, guesses that Agadez was first settled by Hausa immigrants from the south, a population that has grown in recent years. As the 500-year-old seat of a Tuareg sultanate, the city naturally attracted its fair share of Tamasheq speakers too.

With caravan routes secured by the sultan, Arab merchants were quick to make their way down from the north. For most of the 16th century, Agadez was the easternmost outpost of the Songhai, a Niger River-based empire centered in present-day Mali. Riverine Songhai is still spoken near Agadez in the town of Ingall.

More recently, it was the French who sent soldiers. Their force of arms pressed hard on Agadez—and throughout Tuareg lands generally—following a rebellion in 1916 which threatened to break apart colonial holdings throughout French West Africa. The rebellion was led locally by a warrior named Kawsoun, and the Hotel de l'Aïr, currently housing French tourists, was said to have been his headquarters.

Today, Ibrahim Oumarou is the 126th Sultan of the Aïr, and his 40-year reign has been exceeded in length only by that of his father. "It has not been easy, but I am still here," he says. "As sultan I have dealt with drought, tribal rebellion, a mining boom, and now, a drop in uranium prices."

Matters brought before his court touch on marriages, inheritances, intertribal complaints and tax grievances. The sultan hears disputations with the qadi (judge) and imam (prayer leader) sitting on his right, and the massou oun-goriwa, the chiefs of Agadez's 16 governmental districts, sitting on his left. Decisions are final.

"But these are nowadays small things," the sultan continues, "compared to what my father Oumarou Sofo faced. He was sultan during World War II, and the Italians had taken the town of Ghat, not far from the Libyan border. The French said it was his duty to protect the northern frontier, so he personally patrolled the lines by camel. Every stranger entering Agadez was brought before him for close questioning."

An audience with the sultan and his senior officers today is convened in a congenial manner. He sits in an armchair in the formal hall next to the palace. His seconds gather cross-legged at his feet. Photographs of him greeting foreign dignitaries rim the room. Closely attending are his secretary, Al-Qasim Chibba, and his dangaladima, or second-in-command, Al-Bachir Ibrahim. After a brief tête-à-tête, they agree on the current list of titles and functions in his extensive court. First in importance, if not precedence, is the sarkin kofa, or Chief Doorkeeper, and the sarkin doggarai, or Chief Bodyguard. "It is much quieter nowadays," says the gray-headed doorkeeper Jibou Wakata. "I remember having to throw some people out headfirst when they did not respect the decorum of the room."

Among the other titles, some apparently less relevant today than others, are the manzo and the wakili, Envoy to the South and Envoy to the North, respectively; the zargui and the sarkin tamboura, Horseman and Chief Drummer; the sarkin fawa and the sarkin kassoua, Chief of the Butchers and Chief of the Merchants; the touratva and the madha, Chief of Defense and Keeper of [lslamic] Texts; and the agarabe and the agastan, Envoy to Itinerant Marabouts and Envoy to Tuareg Tribes.

There is also the magajia, or Women's Representative, who is the Sultan's elder sister Hajjiya Zeynaba. She presides over a parallel court consisting of the tambari, or female delegates from the city's districts. "My job is to quiet the gossipmongers," she says. "When a dispute arises, I bring the two parties together face-to-face. If one refuses to come, I have her brought by force, and keep her here for 24 hours without food. Most likely after that she will listen to reason."

The magajia's other function is to welcome new Tuareg brides when they present themselves for blessing. On the occasion of the wedding of Hawa Turawa, women had been dancing exuberantly outside her house, accompanied by wailing from a double-reed, oboe-like ghaita and the pounding of Hausa-style cloth-covered tom-toms and a kettle drum. It was some time before the bride was able to drift away unnoticed to the palace door, a head scarf covering her complex wedding braid, the atapa. She carried a ceremonial knife to ward off evil in her first week of married life.

The dancing itself recalled a similar moonlit entertainment seen in the city by the German explorer Henry Barth, who resided in Agadez for the month of October 1850 "under the Auspices of Her Britannic Majesty's Government" and whose five-volume Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa. ...1849-55 is a classic of 19th-century expeditionary literature. "Four young men, placed opposite each other in pairs," he wrote, "were dancing with warlike motions and stamping the ground violently with the left foot, turned round in a circle, the motions being accompanied by the energetic clapping of hands of a numerous ring of spectators."

Before the arrival of the French, the custom had been for the tribes who originated the sultanate to select and depose their leaders by popular vote. As Leo Africanus wrote in the 16th century, "sometimes his people replace him with a relative, but they do not kill him. He who gives the greatest satisfaction to the people of the desert is named sultan." Sultans commonly took the throne two and even three times.

But historian Djibo Hamani is perhaps more accurate when he writes that "the role of the Sultan, as governor and Imam, was essentially that of a conciliator between tribes and federations, a caller-to-arms in case of conflict with outsiders, and a guarantor of caravan routes. Mostly, however, each tribe managed its own affairs and completely ignored this centralizing institution."

As a means of tightening control, the French imposed a system of hereditary rule upon the office, based on the approval of five electing tribes: the Kel Owi, Kel Ferwan, Kel Fade, Imakkitan and Ikaskazan.

Barth, whose house in Agadez, furnished in a traditional manner and secured with a wooden lock and key, can still be visited, first saw the city from the south. Like any traveler arriving across the interminable laterite plateaus, he was struck by the 30-meter (90') square-sided minaret, skewered by 14 courses of protruding timbers, which towers over the squat-arched Grand Mosque. "My companions," wrote Barth, "with a certain amount of pride, showed me in the distance the high minaret, the glory of Agadez." Its form recalls the dovecotes of the Nile Valley almost as much as the mud-brick minarets and mosques of Mali to the west. A mosque first rose on that site in 1515 by order of the Songhai emperor Muhammad Askia, following his conquest of Agadez. But today's minaret, said to be the tallest mud-brick minaret in Africa, dates from just before Barth's arrival. Still evident today is what Barth also first noted—the minaret's elegant entasis, or midpoint swell, as in a Greek column. Today, it is slightly asymmetrical, due to prevailing easterly winds that bring the heaviest rain to that side, thus requiring heavier annual replastering on that side, from top to bottom.

As muezzin, or caller to prayer, of the Grand Mosque, it falls on Muhammad Suleiman to climb the minaret's winding stairs, their mud-brick treads worn smooth from a century and a half of weekly trips to the crow's nest-like parapet wall at the top, from which he seems to aim his Friday call to prayer to the summits of the distant Aïr. "No, I have never left Agadez," Muhammad says with a sheepish grin. "I graduated from Qur'an school here and here I have stayed."

The interior of the mosque is a low-ceilinged maze of side rows and forward sight lines, checkerboarded by head-bumping arches at three-meter (10') intervals. When the space fills with the faithful, it resonates with an intimacy impossible under loftier vaults.

The city's other historical sites suffer from relative neglect. The austere Tande Mosque in the Amdit district, where the sultan and his marabouts, or religious scholars, gather once a year, is kept locked the rest of the time. New buildings encroach on the Cherifian cemeteries, testimony to Agadez's noble past. The ruins of a second palace, built by the twin brothers and co-sultans Muhammad Humad and Muhammad al-Adil, who ruled in alternating weeks and who jointly bear the ignominy of having delivered the city to Songhai invaders, are trodden underfoot in the livestock market.

Ghubayd Ag al-Awjeli, a 1958 Cairo University graduate and a 35-year employee of Radio Agadez, has a historian's perspective on changes now under way in his city. "Times are changing fast here for the Tuareg," he says, "and that changes people even faster. When you can't read and write, it's hard to preserve the past. That is especially true today, as the city is now over 50 percent Hausa or Hausa-speaking."

Doing his part to preserve Tuareg culture, Ghubayd broadcasts three times a week in Tamasheq on subjects ranging from animal husbandry to Saharan pre-history. He is a co-editor of the first French-Tamasheq dictionary compiled since the landmark work of the Catholic priest and Berber linguist Charles de Foucauld at the turn of the last century, and he helped collect the oral history of the Kel Denneg tribe.

Ghubayd is saddened when bright Tuareg youths are "lost" to Hausa and French schooling, and he finds it ironic that Tifinak, the indigenous alphabet of the Sahara first used for etching messages on rocky outcrops, is now mostly written by uneducated migrant workers in letters home to their families.

Another tack among efforts to uplift Tuareg life in Agadez is that of Zahra Mohamed Attayeb. She has recently started a microcredit organization for women; it is called Tidawt, the Tamasheq word for "together." She hopes to strengthen even further her people's high valuation of women's social roles by putting the economic means of production directly into their hands. Zahra knows the benefits of this from personal experience: Her Jeep-repair business thrives only because she keeps a steady grip on the operation.

Yet another face of Tuareg culture is reflected in the life story of a 70-year-old semiliterate oral poet with a French name, Abdurrahman Francois Kusu. Kusu is the Tamasheq word for mouse, "because I was born so small," he says.

Kusu is of mixed parentage. His father was a French lieutenant; his mother was of the Imezouren lineage in the Kel Ferwan tribe. "My father did not stay in Africa long enough to see my birth," he says, "so he left me a herd of animals and sent money back through a fellow officer. But some of the animals disappeared, so I challenged the officer and he threatened my life. After that, my mother moved me out onto the bush."

There he was mocked unmercifully by other children for having a French father, and an absent one at that. Kusu learned to console himself in verse. "I composed acts of defiance," he says. "They gave me strength." With difficulty, because the Tamasheq vocabulary is so tightly compressed, a translator tries to paraphrase a short poem: "I'm proud to be a white man's son / So now I need not please you. / Whites do one thing and you another. / My father bought animals for me, / So now I need not beg anything from you."

"If I had found my father, I wouldn't be this way now," says Kusu. "I'd be somebody else. Those who knew him said he was a very good man. What a loss that I never met him!"

Al-Qasim Chibba, secretary to the sultan, has heard of Kusu's fame. He has been told that Kusu brings credit to his Tuareg kinsmen because he stood to defend his honor and that of his mother. "There is already a Chief Drummer in the sultan's court," says Chibba, "but maybe there is room for a Chief Poet." This because the sultan too, through his office and his loyal Tuareg courtiers, stands in a kind of defiance of all who say he is out of step with the times.

Louis Werner ([email protected]) is a free-lance writer and contributing editor to Americas magazine. He lives in New York.

Free-lance photographer Kevin Bubriski ([email protected]) recently published Pilgrimage: Looking at Ground Zero (PowerHouse, 2002), portraits of visitors to the site of the World Trade Center. His photographs are in numerous museum collections worldwide.

This article appeared on pages 34-41 of the January/February 2003 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 2003 images.