Call for contributions : « For a history of trans-Saharan communities in medieval and modern times »

Call for papers for a thematic issue of Afriques. Historical debates, methods and fields to be published in 2021/2022.


A connected and connecting space: this seems to be the main conclusion of the recent renewal of studies on the Sahelian–Saharan area. For the past twenty years or so, a generation of historians and anthropologists have been revisiting the old case of trans-Saharan trade by exploring new trails and, most importantly, by broadening the questionnaire, leading to a more global reflection on mobility between the two Africas. The publication, in 2009, of Ghislaine Lydon’s book On Trans-Saharan Trails is undoubtedly the most emblematic illustration of this shift, notably for the echoes the book has generated outside the field of African studies. Drawing on a multitude of endogenous sources, the American historian has, on the one hand, shown the importance of Islamic law and Muslim scholarship in general for the development of institutional structures on which long-distance exchanges were based. On the other hand, she has highlighted a remarkable circulation of cultural practices which contradicts the traditional conception of the Sahara as a frontier space separating the Maghreb and the Sahel. Underlying this holistic approach, the key role played by trans-Saharan communities came to light. Such communities are united by reference to a shared geographical and/or genealogical origin, which often corresponds to one of the oasis regions of the Sahara: the Oued Noun, the Mauritanian ksour, the Touat, the Mzab or Ghadamès in Libya. Anthropologist Judith Scheele, in Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara (2012), also studied these trans-Saharan communities and their networks for the case of Central Sahara in the 20th century. Her analysis of the micro-organizational mechanisms through which the activities of groups of traders and traffickers are deployed between southern Algeria and the Sahel, suggests patterns of territorial integration in which mobility acts as a stabilizing element of relations between a plurality of socio-cultural worlds: those of the Ksourians of the Touat, those of the pastoral populations of the Azaouad and the Tuareg world, and finally those of the inhabitants of the Niger Bend.

This thematic issue seeks to extend the debates around trans-Saharan communities as a factor of territorial integration by adopting a long-term perspective. Indeed, the studies we have just referred to are situated in a chronological frame that remains roughly that of colonial history or its prelude. The richness of endogenous sources available for the period between the 16th and 18th centuries encourages us, however, to go further back in time in the study of these communities and their networks. The activities of a group of trans-Saharan merchants, such as the Zajlāwī-s from Touat studied by Judith Scheele, can be seen already, for example, in local 18th-century case law collections, while articulating significantly different stakes and forms of community solidarity. Similarly, the remarkable dynamism of recent years prompts us to ask new questions about the protagonists of the exchanges between the Maghreb and the Sahel in the Middle Ages, particularly with regard to the role of the Ibāḍī networks. In fact, communities specializing in the creation and perpetuation of connections between the different parts of the Sahara and the Sahel constitute a constant in the history of West Africa.

Our aim is to provide a first overview on the social and cultural role of these trans-Saharan communities, which cannot be reduced to the question of caravan trade alone. The contributions should therefore grasp the relationship between trans-Saharan mobility and community building in all its complexity. Examining the evolution of the traders’ various networks cannot be overlooked, of course; however, focusing on other trans-Saharan networks, in which a professional specialization is articulated with collective identity representations, will be of the essence. We are thinking, for example, of the expansion of Sharifian lineages in the Saharan West or the rise of the Kounta confederation between the 16th and 18th centuries. Finally, the history of these trans-Saharan communities is intrinsically bound to the history of the urban centers in the Sahelo-Saharan confines such as Timbuktu, Djenne, Oualata or Agadez, whose history before 1800 remains largely under-studied. New approaches on the question of the lineage factor in the social organization of Saharan societies and their Sahelian extensions could thus emerge from the study of this type of community network. It will also allow us to write a history from below on the circulations in the great desert, outside the prism of the long 19th century.


The editor of this special issue is Ismail Warscheid (IRHT/CNRS, University of Bayreuth).


Proposals should be submitted in the form of an abstract, in French, English or Arabic, 500 words long, to ismail.warscheid[@] or ismail.warscheid[@] by 30 September 2020.

Final papers are due by 1 March 2021.

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