A flower that once blossomed; The Bornu Empire from the lenses of the Ottoman Empire

It’s been a long while, as well it should. The past months have been studiously monotonous. Concluding my thesis and finalizing on a school for my doctorate appeared to be much more difficult than I thought, clash of interest, inherent laziness, fruitless day and sleepless nights – not only sleepless from studying but recently from the coup attempt in Turkey. I will try to keep wary of the coup issue, for obvious reasons. So as we were, by midnight, Jet fighters started flying low and firing sonic bombs, scarring every bit of calmness I possess. I cannot exactly say how the reverberations were getting to me, through the ears? Sixth sense? Who knows. I guess I was hearing the sounds of explosion not only through my ears, but also directly through my bones via bone conduction, a phenomenon I only knew theoretically before that day. Wait! We are already talking about the coup….Crap!   Finally now I have time to write in my blog again. And hopefully now I’ll be more frequent than the usual, which has been the lifespan-of-a-dragonfly.

Last time, we went to 7th century Napels, and stayed there apparently, we haven’t really returned. Let me share a small story before we leave that era, for good. It is the story of Julius Caesar, when he got kidnapped. Yes! You read it right. The Great priest of Jupiter, the General, the powerful Roman Emperor, got himself kidnapped by pirates in 75 BCE while sailing to Greece. The pirates demanded twenty Talents (ancient unit of weight) as ransom for Caesar, but he objected to that, saying he was worth more than twenty talents. He insisted they demand even more, at least fifty Talents, and graciously they accepted. While the silver coins are being prepared and sent, he managed to get close to the pirates not as a prisoner but as a colleague or even as a leader. He jokingly told them that when freed, he would hunt them down and kill them. The clueless pirates actually thought he was joking… Boy! Were they slaughtered.

Alright, enough of the dark ages, let’s come closer. I am afraid the cardinal section of this piece might not be of much interest to non-Nigerian readers; as well I apologize for that. I promise to write more universal next time. But for anyone interested in early Nigerian stories, and pre-colonial social dynamics especially that of the Borno Empire, then you are welcome aboard for a fun ride.

In light of the shaky relationship between Nigeria and the Republic of Turkey post-coup d’état attempt, I believe it will be interesting to reflect on the first Nigerian embassy established in the Balkan state about 500 years ago! Let’s pull back a bit.

The medieval sources are the oldest records we have about the history of Kanem-Bornu, the first empire to have converted to Islam in the sub-Saharan region, somewhere in the 8th century. The exact time period and who was the first Mai (king) of Kanem to have converted to Islam is a debated topic in African history, but most medieval sources hinted at Mai Hummany (c. 1075-86). Mai Hummany founded the longest Muslim dynasty in African history, and it is said that he was from the Sefuwa dynasty, the kingship that replaced the Zaghawa aristocracy somewhere in early 8th century.

Due to its proximity to Lake Chad, Bornu became a location of importance not only to Tripoli – which was an economic harbor, but also to Tunisia – which was the most influential city in the Mediterranean and North Africa at that time. Religion did not take the Sahel by storm, for although the Kanem-Bornu rulers converted early, it took centuries before majority of the populace became Muslims. Up until 1100, many of the rulers and aristocrats of the Sahel were still pagan. The early conversion of Kanem-Bornu elites, and consequent islamization of Lake Chad region brought about an important trans-Saharan trading system throughout the Sahara and Sahel region of Africa.

Camel caravan moving from western Sahara enroute to the North. (Emilie Manfuso Aebi)

At this point, you may be asking what this brief history rant have to do with Turkish Embassy and First mission in the Balkans. Well, just like I have to read through different excerpts to reach there, you also have to be patient and follow the story. Like the famous 17th century Sufi, Al-Darqawi once said; “If you want to get water in the desert, you dig one six-feet well, not six one-foot wells.” now that we have established an early account of the Borno empire, It is easy to understand other events that will come 800 years later.

The Kanem Kingdom continued to grow in power and influence and by the 16th century, it had already reached far north to Fezzan, a deserted land with many oases, in modern Libya. During this course, there were many developments in the kingdom itself, with lots of migrations, rehabilitation and eventual transition from Kanem to Bornu. Also, it was during this time that the Kanembu and Kanuri ethnicities became the predominant tribes in the region and through intermarriages, the Kanuri tribe eventually dominated the region: in contrast to some 300 years earlier when the pastoral Bulala people were more dominant. It was about the same time in 16th century that the Bornu Empire had a ruler named Mai Idris Alooma, whose reign was referred to as the “golden era” of the kingdom. Idris Alooma was the first to appoint a person to a position called the court historian, who not only being his chief imam, also would record historic accounts of events. This made it much easier for subsequent historians to have a chronology of the reign of Idris Alooma. His then court Historian, Imam Ahmed Fartua, wrote a book History of the Twelve Years of the Reign of Mai Idris Alooma of Bornu in late 1500s. From the records of this historian, we have primal information about the relationship between the Ottoman Empire and Borno. As part of the militaristic powers of Mai Alooma, he was the first ruler to bring guns to sub-Saharan Africa. I guess this clears the famous false notion that colonial masters brought guns to the region about 4 centuries later.

As of 1574, when Ottoman Empire conquered Fezzan, an important city we mentioned earlier. Tension began to grow between Mai Idris and Murad III (the Ottoman Sultan at the time). King Alooma demanded that the Ottomans gave him back his castles and land. However, these were sources of revenue for the ottomans because fortresses under their control – or eyelet as they called it, are able to levy lots of tax. The records show that the ottomans were in Africa even before the reign of Murad III. Sultan Selim I, conquered Egypt much earlier. But the reasons for conquering Egypt differ from those for North Africa. While the motivation for the Ottoman invasion of Egypt was primarily to out-power their rivals- the Mamluks (sometimes written as Mamelukes)-, the invasion of North Africa was not out of rivalry, rather, in support of the North African local forces in order to contain invading Spaniards.

Mai Alooma was not ready for bifurcation of power, and needed repatriation. But he decided to use diplomacy. He sent a six-man delegation including scribes to Sultan Murad in Istanbul. This would be a welcome development for Sultan Murad as well, because, although, Ottomans had sovereignty of Fezzan, Bornu was one of the biggest powers in the region they did not have control over and it was sine qua non to have an alliance with the kingdom.

The books did not tell us how long it took to get the scribes across, but one can guesstimate to be about 300 camel days, especially seeing the shortest route, i.e. via Libya, was most probably hostile due to the Spanish invasion going on. I tried as much to get a picture of the real scribes used in the correspondence and thanks to Mühimmi defterleri, below is an image of the letters between Sultan Murad and Mai Alooma in 16th century.



A part of correspondence from Sultan Murad to Mai Alooma in 23th May, 1577 reads as follows: “We have promulgated and dispatched it (the letter)……a unique salutation the fragrance of which spreads over the lands….greetings…to the most noble, the most illustrious, the most magnificent, the rightly guided, the one aided by God, the helper of the warriors among the believers, the supporter of the great men among the adherents of the unity of God…..the possessor of the sovereignty and sanctity, the ruler of the state of Borno at present King Idris may God prolong his prosperity and make his aims successful.”

The influence of Bornu in the region could not be overemphasized. Apart from its military strength, a trans-Saharan trade cannot be possible without Bornu. This led to a mutual relationship between the Ottoman Empire and Kanem-Bornu in late 1500s, and Bornu established an embassy in Istanbul. Although some records seem to show that Bornu was taken by the Ottomans as an obedient vassal, the diplomatic procedure between the two states however, was just like any other small foreign state and most of the requests from Bornuans were granted with proper decorum.


4 thoughts on “A flower that once blossomed; The Bornu Empire from the lenses of the Ottoman Empire

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s