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Call: Pre-Colonial Sahara: Societies in Archipelagos. Proposal for a thematic edition

Directed by Cyrille Aillet (Lumiere Lyon 2 University), Chloe Capel (UMR 8167) and Elise Voguet (CNRS, IRHT)

About the project

Over the past twenty years, research on the history of Saharan societies has undergone noteworthy renewal. The traditional concept of the pre-modern Sahara as a buffer zone between North Africa and the Sahel largely has been abandoned in favour of the concept of the Great Desert as an autonomous zone linking the two Africas (Loimeier, 2013, 54-76). Our call for papers seeks to explore this dynamic by inviting historians, archaeologists and specialists from other disciplines to examine the coherence of such a Saharan cultural space, between the Early Middle Ages – when Islam emerged in these regions – and the 19th century, on the eve of modern colonial upsurges. The starting point for our reflection is the observation of a tension between the insular nature of these societies and their cosmopolitan vocation, between the geographical discontinuity of the Saharan populations and the socio-cultural cohesions that ensure their relative unity, much as a marine archipelago would. Indeed, if areas such as Tafilalt in Morocco (Capel, 2016a), Touat (Voguet, 2017 and 2018) or Ouargla Basin (Aillet, Gilotte, Cressier, 2017) in Algeria, Fezzan in Libya (among others Mattingly, Sterry, Edwards, 2015) or Kaouar oases in Niger (Vikør, 1999) can be considered as focal points within a vast network of trans-regional exchanges and gatherings, they are nevertheless home to vernacular cultures of remarkable diversity and richness. Similarly, the high mobility of their inhabitants – particularly traders or scholars – has led to the development of a real trans-Saharan diaspora, marked by a collective consciousness and a group memory that can be very strong (Lydon, 2009, 340-400).

By questioning the relevance of the notion of archipelago applied to the Saharan worlds – as it has also been used to describe the current globalized economy (Dolfus, 1996, 25-30) – papers should explore three research axes.

The first axis deals with the phenomenon of mobility among oasis inhabitants in the long term and with the attractiveness of these Saharan population centres. We are particularly interested in long and medium-distance trade practices (Lydon, 2009; Mattingly & al., 2017), and the economic or social migrations of nomadic groups into the oasis regions (Cleaveland, 2002) as well as movements of religious or intellectual nature, such as pilgrimages or trips by Muslim scholars seeking to “acquire science" (fī ṭalb al-ʻilm) (Warscheid, 2017).

The second axis concerns the political and social organization of oasis societies. The aim is, on the one hand, to think about settlement organizations and practices of power, in particular through the creation of local institutional structures (Warscheid, 2017). On the other hand, the aim is to explore the relations between oasis regions but also between the oasis and external political protagonists – mainly Mediterranean and Sub-Saharan – whether states or tribal confederations (Cleaveland, 2002; Hassen, 1999; Amara, 2003). This topic will offer additional opportunity to question the weight of these external partners in the political and economic structuring of Saharan archipelagos and the emergence of major Saharan political formations (Grémont, 2010) such as the Almoravid Empire, the kingdom of Ghāna or the sultanates of Mālī, Kānem or Borno.

Finally, the third focus is on the history of cultural production in oasis context, alternately seen as a process of creative appropriation of alien forms and models by local populations, or as the development of indigenous patterns. The aim is to question the emergence of literary traditions (Rebstock, 2001; Hunwick, 2011; Steward, 2016) and the genesis of Muslim scholarly and religious culture (Osswald, 1993; Krätli & Lydon, 2011). The aim is also to historicize oasis material culture, from arts and crafts to architecture (Vallat, 2014; Chekhab-Abudaya, 2016; Aillet, Gilotte, Cressier, 2017), such as the field of Saharan know-how and skills, particularly in the agricultural, technical, symbolic and artistic domains (Capel, 2016b). In this context, we will be concerned specifically with approaches that explore the interaction between orality and writing.

Submission schedule

Article proposals of no more than 4000 characters may be submitted in French or in English and should be sent to cyrilleaillet@yahoo.fr before September 1st 2019.

Authors will be notified as to article acceptance within the month following receipt by the editors.

Articles may be written in French or in English and should not exceed 45,000 characters. Final articles must be received prior to April 30th 2020. For more information about the editorial process and guidelines, see here.

Further information