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19.11.07 Fauvelle, The Golden Rhinoceros

19.11.07 Fauvelle, The Golden Rhinoceros

Barely six inches long and weighing less than two ounces, the golden rhinoceros of Mapungubwe is a small, artful featherweight in a heavyweight division. Its fame belies its size: dating from the thirteenth century and rediscovered in 1932, there is surely no better-known icon of the African Middle Ages. Its wood core was perhaps sculpted in Asia--the rhinoceros has just one horn, instead of the dual protuberances of the African beast--but almost certainly covered in gold foil in the Limpopo valley of South Africa. Here, in the form of the golden rhinoceros, is encapsulated both the content and approach of this volume by François-Xavier Fauvelle-Aymar (writing as François-Xavier Fauvelle in this English translation). The statue represents a moment of high civilization, connection, and achievement entirely predating the European presence on the continent (perhaps a "golden age," if we continue with the rhino metaphor). But it also reflects the type of sources and approach a scholar must utilize in exposing the history of an era in which fragments and glimpses are the standard and not the exception. Like so many items and icons that Fauvelle and others have studied, the rhino is "nothing more than a recovered stolen document...[and] a stolen archaeological artifact will always remain lost--even if it is rediscovered: it will always be missing the associations its original context would have allowed us to observe" (138). The rhino represents a historical period in which more is obscure than clear, and in which rumor, likelihood, and possibility are the watchwords.

The Golden Rhinoceros is Troy Tice's translation of Fauvelle's Le rhinoceros d'or: Histoires du moyen âge Africain, published in 2013 by Alma Editeur of Paris. Tice's translation hews tightly to the French original: it consists of thirty-four short chapters that provide snapshots of African history between the eighth and fifteenth centuries. Thus chapter 5 "Does anyone live beyond you?" is subtitled: "Central Sahara, Seventh to the Ninth Century." The following chapter takes us to "Aoudaghost, Present-Day Mauritania, Middle of the Ninth Century." The chapters proceed in a roughly chronological manner, and are sometimes as short as two to three pages in length, with concluding bibliographic entries. The volume, happily, reproduces many of the beautiful color photographs of sites, artifacts, and maps from the French version. Unfortunately, a number of hand drawings of archaeological sites from the original do not appear, and the fairly limited quantity of maps remains so. But these are minor critiques: Tice deserves praise for his translation of Fauvelle's French, which replicates the flair and conversational flow of the author's attractive prose (the Muslim traveler Ibn Battûta, described by Fauvelle as "l'insatiable pique-assiette," is the "insatiable freeloader" (201)).

Fauvelle's volume is an effort to give the African continent's Middle Ages a status as a "province of the medieval world," like Europe, Asia, or anywhere else. Africans participated in a "political, religious, juridical, intellectual, aesthetic conversation," Fauvelle explains, as part of a broader global system. They engaged in trade moving across long distances like the Sahara Desert or Indian Ocean, negotiating successfully with diverse peoples to achieve status as "full partners" (11-12). Fauvelle views the sparse and fragmentary source base as in part responsible for terms often applied to African history in this era (for example, the "dark centuries"), though these sorts of naïve labels rarely feature in scholarship anymore.

In exploring Africa's contacts with the wider world, Fauvelle tends to alternate between familiar sites and those lesser known. Thus Aksum (chapter 12), the great kingdom of northern Ethiopia, of course receives close attention. Some of these chapters may provide relatively little new information to informed readers--often due to Fauvelle's reliance on traditional texts like Nehemia Levtzion and J.F.P. Hopkins's Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History--but at other times, he brings highly original insight to well-trodden territory (especially in the case of Mali, chapters 26, 28, and 29). And then there are the more historically remote episodes. Fauvelle's description of Aksum is followed by a fascinating chapter on the monastery of Debre Damo--relatively close by, but more obscure and barely accessible to researchers (chapter 13).

We might pause for a moment to consider one such historical truffle. In chapter 15, Fauvelle drops the reader into the social and economic life of bustling Aydhâb, a Red Sea port, deriving his information from an Arabic document written in Hebrew characters. A Jewish merchant named Abû Saîd Ibn Jamâhir had taken a slave concubine in the remote port of Berbera in Somaliland, and then abandoned her along with the resultant progeny of their union. He had done this wishing to avoid any disruption of his "domestic universe" in Aydhâb (107). Ibn Jamâhir's actions had angered his fellow merchants; we cannot glean precisely what upset them, for the sources do not allow us to answer that question. But they do enable us to understand Ibn Jamâhir's social world. Aydhâb was a port city, a crossroads between East and West. It was a place on the busy Cairo-India route; a place where men and women of all faiths met and bargained; and a location where rumor and news were exchanged. Even word of our merchant's quiet affair in the backwater of Somaliland made it here, where he would be held accountable. Here, then, is Fauvelle's African Middle Ages, and the key to unlocking its secrets: we must limit ourselves to asking only the questions to which our sources permit answer, or be prepared to deal only in possibilities.

The final chapter of this work--"Vasco da Gama and the 'New World'"--closes Fauvelle's African Middle Ages. The European discovery of the sea route to India by our notorious mariner heralded a new era pioneered initially by Portuguese sailors. New levels of contact between Africans and Europeans fundamentally altered the trading dynamics between them, particularly once the value of slaves to work on sugar plantations in the Americas became clear. Fauvelle thus ends The Golden Rhinoceros having set the stage for an increased European presence; indeed, one might consider this text a primer on "Africa before European contact."

Fauvelle--and Tice--have achieved a rare feat in The Golden Rhinoceros. They have produced a book that is deeply researched, and which will satisfy and invigorate even the specialist scholar. Yet it is beautifully written, and easily accessible to the non-expert or first-year undergraduate. This is a masterful synthesis of knowledge about Africa that deserves to be read widely, and moreover is generously priced, being commonly available for around $20.00 in hardcover.