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Urbanisation and State Formation in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond

Urbanisation and State Formation in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond

Edited by Martin Sterry and David J. Mattingly (Trans-Saharan Archaeology 3). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2020. Pp. xxiv + 740. $175. ISBN 9781108494441 (cloth).

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In the third and longest of four hefty volumes of the Trans-Saharan Archaeology project, an outgrowth and expansion of the work undertaken by Mattingly and his collaborators in the Garamantian Fazzan, Sterry, Mattingly, and 25 other contributors explore the history of urbanization in the broader Saharan region. This wide-ranging collection covers not just antiquity but also reaches into the Medieval period; note especially the chapter by Chloé Capel on Sijilmasa, founded sometime in the later eighth or early ninth century, which became a major caravan center connecting the western Sudan with Morocco. Geographically, its coverage extends from the Nile and oases of the Western Desert in Egypt and Nubia in the east to the Senegal River valley and Morocco in the west, from Tunisia in the north to the Niger bend in the south. Simply put, this volume is a comprehensive survey of Saharan urbanization over a grand sweep of time and space.

Five long chapters comprising the bulk of part 2, “Oasis Origins in the Sahara: A Region-by-Region Survey,” all but one by Mattingly and Sterry alone or with coauthors, constitute a comprehensive overview of what can be said about urbanization in Saharan oases. These chapters review more than 60 oases or settlement centers within the Sahara itself that date to the pre-Islamic period. Since many of these oases have seen little or no archaeological investigation, Mattingly and his colleagues have relied heavily on satellite imaging to map urban plans, resulting in a vast expansion of our knowledge of settlement in these sometimes quite remote places. It is of course no surprise that desert urbanization was restricted to oases, where the availability of water to support agriculture enabled concentrations of population. So, for instance, remains of barley and dates from Abu Ballas in the Western Desert dating from 1429–1280 BCE to 1194–936 BCE attest to early farming in this remote region (see Frank Förster, Der Abu Ballas-Weg, Heinrich-Barth-Institut 2015). An important medieval example comes from Essouk-Tadmekka, a south Saharan urban site that served as a nexus for trade from the Middle Niger north to the Fazzan and the Mediterranean (reviewed in the chapter by Sam Nixon). The exploitation of satellite sensing to identify urban settlements is a major contribution of Urbanisation and State Formation. We can only hope that the deeply disturbed political situation in much of the Sahara will eventually abate and renewed archaeological work there will be able to follow up on the discoveries and hypotheses about dates and the extent of urban settlement laid out in this volume.

A major contribution of the essays is the demolition of the notion that the Saharan region was not urban at all or was underurbanized. Mattingly’s work in the Fazzan had already revealed an urbanized culture there; the present work, which includes a long chapter by Mattingly, Stefania Merlo, Lucia Mori, and Martin Sterry (ch. 2) resuming discussion of those discoveries, extends this revision to the rest of the region. Aside from the Garamantian Fazzan and the desert oases, much of the urbanized Sahara was actually located around the desert periphery. Part 3, “Neighbours and Comparanda,” consists of nine chapters that review the phenomenon in Numidia, Morocco, the Niger region, the Nile, and Lake Chad, among other locales. These chapters reveal variability in the character of urban settlements in the periphery. In his chapter on the Nubian Middle Nile, David N. Edwards shows that the urban foci there during the hegemony of the Egyptian New Kingdom were basically temple towns with modest populations; environmental stress due to growing aridification may have played a significant role in population decline (367). In the later Meroitic period, when “low population densities combined with relatively abundant productive land, it seems likely that the scarcity of people and a need [of Meroitic kings] to establish control of the people, was of crucial importance to Meroitic state building” (371). This is in striking contrast to the oases, with their populations squeezed onto a relatively restricted agricultural landscape. Desiccation likewise drove the movement of people into the floodplains of the Middle Niger and Middle Senegal Rivers, argues Susan Keech McIntosh in her chapter on exchange and urbanization in these regions. Trade, too, was central to the development of Jenné-Jeno and other sites, which provided to downriver populations, among other goods, foodstuffs in exchange for salt and copper. Jenné-Jeno grew rapidly, but, McIntosh emphasizes, the absence of social differentiation exhibited in burials and the absence of monumental architecture may reflect the absence of elites—a social group whose presence often seen as a sine qua non of urbanization.

The reviews of oasis urbanization support three generalizations about these islands in a sea of desert, as Mattingly and his coauthors note in their chapter on “Pre-Islamic Oasis Settlements in the Eastern Sahara.” While settlements in oases close to the Nile are no surprise, more remote cases, like the al-Jufra group (in what is today Libya), also show early urban development. Satellite imaging of that area has revealed multiple “urban-scale settlements and old irrigation systems that clearly pre-date the modern period” (132). The al-Jufra settlements also illustrate the “scale and sophisticated plans” (138) of these centers, a discovery that applies to other oases as well. Finally, many oases share a common agricultural package of dates, cereals, figs, grapes, and sometimes olives—a package remarked on long ago by Pliny the Elder (HN 18.188) on Tacapae (modern Gabès; 207).

Some important caveats are raised by Judith Scheele in her contribution on “Urbanisation, Inequality, and Political Authority in the Sahara.” Scheele has argued elsewhere (“Traders, Saints, and Irrigation: Reflections on Saharan Connectivity,” Journal of African History 51, 2010, 281–300) that oasis development depended always on infusions of external capital because the oases themselves were too small and undercapitalized to start and sustain settled life on their own; this outside capital came in part from trade relations. She insists that “fundamental subsistence problems [in oases] cannot simply be solved through political fiat or increased exploitation of local populations or neighbouring villages, as surplus can only be produced through imports—of labour and goods—mostly from areas beyond the Sahara proper, or that rely on different forms of production (such as neighbouring pastoral economies)” (671). Her expanded argument here questions the view that urbanization in the Sahara led to or was intimately connected with state formation. In Scheele’s view, the urban world of the Sahara lacks many of the features of states. She draws on examples from later periods, including the 19th century, to illustrate the nonstate aspects of Saharan urban phenomena. The remarks of scholars considering nearby areas are also relevant to this discussion. In her chapter on Egypt’s Western Desert oases, Anna Lucille Boozer speculates that perhaps trade disruptions might explain in part the post fourth-century CE collapse of these centers, though without fully articulating Scheele’s case (172). Joan Sanmartí and his coauthors argue differently that state formation and urbanization are closely linked in their chapter on Numidia. These contributions raise important questions that call for further research. Scheele’s arguments are important, but they need to be examined in a larger context; her own work has been largely in the 20th century (see her Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara: Regional Connectivity in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge University Press 2012). Multiple paths to state formation surely exist, and the features that make a polity into a state cannot be simply a laundry list. Mattingly and Sterry also offer a response to some of her points in their concluding chapter.

Many issues remain. Sanmartí and his colleagues suggest that the apparent concentration of tombs dated to the eighth to fifth centuries BCE at the Djebel Mazela cemetery in Algeria might offer “a clue, though certainly still very tenuous, of population increase” during this period (463, cf. 468). Perhaps—but these data are thin, and comparanda from elsewhere in the region would be very desirable, and since Numidia lies outside the Sahara proper, these questions have limited applicability to issues of population dynamics in actual desert settlements. (Djebel Mazela was excavated in the 1950s, when colonial access to such sites existed.) Pre-Roman remains at several sites in Morocco, reviewed by Youssef Bokbot, raise the possibility of Phoenician or Carthaginian colonization and settlements founded by “Libyans” (489; see also Andrew Wilson’s chapter on North African urbanization). Remarkable monumental structures like the Mzora tumulus in Morocco suggest also the articulation of potent hierarchies, which brings up again the matter of state formation (but hierarchies can exist without states, of course). Kevin MacDonald discusses the architecture of classic Tichitt, now in Mali, lying northwest of the Niger’s inland delta, and its emergence as an indigenous vernacular of very early date. Previous scholarship on this phenomenon has rejected seeing Tichitt as a state, instead transferring “conceptual frameworks . . . from historic Polynesia . . . of doubtful direct applicability to Africa” of chiefdoms or complex chiefdoms (499); MacDonald eschews engagement with this debate in favor of analyzing the emergence and influence of Tichitt’s architecture on other regions of the southwestern Sahara. The issue of architectural borrowing and transference—which happened in the Medieval period with Arab architectural practices—is another important piece in thinking about the process of urbanization. Nixon’s treatment of urban planning in early Islamic market towns of West Africa reveals that these settlements were at first “not designed to support the influx of very large caravans”; only later, in the 10th century, was “a more clearly planned settlement developed” characterized by “a very solid structure of linked building compounds and associated lanes weaving between them,” exemplified by Tagdaoust in Mauritania (655). Decisions about the shape of urban fabric are likely to have arisen out of multiple, sometimes conflicting, considerations, including creating zones to accommodate large caravans, answering to preexisting social expectations about what an urban fabric should look like, and the need to mitigate climatic extremes. A useful, if distant, possible parallel to think about might be the urban fabric of the Turfan oasis in Xinjiang, China, where structures look very different if built in conformity to the demands of medieval Chinese immigrants or those of local Uighurs; see the excellent study Architecture et urbanisme de Turfan: Une oasis du Turkestan chinois by Jean-Paul Loubes (L’Harmattan 1998).

The whole of Ubanisation and State Formation is framed by three overarching chapters, the first two and the last, in which Mattingly and Sterry (sometimes with additional co-authors) set out the goals of the volume and the conclusions that can be drawn from the detailed studies it contains. The final chapter, “State Formation in the Sahara and Beyond,” lays out a “case for a dynamic Saharan history with frequent episodes of urbanisation and state formation in the past” with the caveat of “the ephemeral nature of these polities, which challenges more evolutionary models of the rise of towns and states” (695). They review the evidence of the preceding case studies, with emphasis on both the differences and similarities over time and space. They come down firmly on the view that states did indeed exist in the Sahara both in the pre-Islamic and Medieval periods, some as territorial states, others as trade-dependent city-states (for want of a better term). They return to the Garamantes with whom they began in chapter 1 and argue that the Garamantes “were a close amalgam of sedentary and pastoral groups” (715), exhibiting, they say, the interplay of nomadic and settled populations to birth a state, adapted from W. Honeychurch’s third model of nomadic state formation (“Alternative Complexities: The Archaeology of Pastoral Nomadic States,” Journal of Archaeological Research 22.4, 2014, 277–326).

Finally, Mattingly and Sterry identify the major themes of the volume. The Saharan environment, arid and hot, played a central role in setting limits on how states could emerge, especially given interannual variation in water availability and secular desiccation. Resilience emerges as crucial, since the ability and willingness to adjust basic features of a state system—for example trade routes—to change could spell the survival or, failing resilience, collapse of an urbanized state. Trade and networks were without doubt fundamental—a view that coheres with Scheele’s case about the centrality of external capital. Sedentary and nomadic population interaction forms a fourth theme, and the whole comes together in the “chronological complexity that emerges from recent studies” (717).

It has been impossible, even in a relatively capacious review, to treat all the evidence and arguments encompassed in this book. I would be remiss if I did not add that it is abundantly illustrated with plans, photographs, and satellite imagery, all nicely linked to the text and reproduced at a scale that makes it possible to study them carefully and compare them to the claims they support. With its three companions—Trade in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond (D.J. Mattingly et al., eds., Cambridge University Press 2017), Burials, Migration and Identity in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond (M.C. Gatto et al., eds., Cambridge University Press 2019), and Mobile Technologies in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond (C.N. Duckworth et al., eds., Cambridge University Press 2021)—Urbanisation and State Formation represents a qualitative leap in our understanding of the Saharan world. Mattingly, Sterry, and their numerous co-contributors deserve thanks for bringing to a wider scholarly audience this desert space, raising new questions, and challenging long-held stereotypes about desert peoples and desert societies. The book deserves a wide readership and a place on your shelf.

Gary Reger
Trinity College

Book Review of Urbanisation and State Formation in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond, edited by Martin Sterry and David J. Mattingly
Reviewed by Gary Reger
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 4 (October 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1254.Reger

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