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Musicians of the Emir of Zazzau playing instruments, similar to those played in 11th century Kanem
Kanem


Kanem was situated north east of Lake Chad. Its early origins are thought to lie in the 7th century with the settlement of the Zaghawa people. In the early 11th century, the Kanuri-speaking Sefawa dynasty was established, displacing the Zaghawa.

There appears to have been a corresponding shift in lifestyle from being entirely nomadic to combining a pastoralist way of life with agricultural cultivation. The state became more centralised; a place called Njimi was thought to be its capital. Nobody knows its exact location.

ISLAM AND TRADE
Kanem converted to Islam under the ruler Hu or Hawwa (1067-71). There is some speculation that this ruler might have been a woman. But the faith was not widely embraced until the 13th century. Certainly, Muslim traders would have played a role in bringing Islam to Kanem.
Ostriches valued for their feathers
The wealth of Kanem derived from the ability of its rulers to control trade in the region. Their main exports were ostrich feathers, slaves and ivory. Their exports were crucial to their power and ability to dominate their neighbour. They rode horses, which they imported from the north.

GIFTS
In addition to trade, there seems to have been a good deal of formal exchanges of presents between the kings of Kanem and the sultans of the north. Most memorably, a giraffe was presented by the king of Kanem and Bornu to the Hafsid Sultan al-Mustansir of Tunis in the 13th century.

HEIGHT OF POWER
Kanem reached the height of its power under the long rule of Mai Dunama Dibalami (1210-1248). His cavalry numbered over 40,000. But over the next hundred years, a combination of overgrazing, dynastic uncertainties and attacks from neighbours led the rulers of Kanem to move to Borno, which had previously paid tribute to Kanem. At this point, the state is sometimes referred to as Kanem-Borno.

KANEM-BORNO
The move to Borno brought new trading partners in the form of the Hausas, (based in what is now northern Nigeria) and closer contact with the Muslim world. Borno became a centre of learning and scholarship.

In the latter part of the sixteenth century, the army of Borno was modernised and expanded. Firearms (still relatively new in Europe) were imported from North Africa and Turkish mercenaries were recruited. The decline of Borno in the 18th century is not at all well documented. However, it appears to have been gradual and in the main peaceful.

There are a number of descriptions of Kanem-Borno by Arab writers. Several allude, confusingly, to it being near the Nile. In fact, the Nile is over 1,000 miles east of Lake Chad where Kanem was situated.

Listen hereClick here to listen to the Emir of Zazzau in Zaria, northern Nigeria, talking about his office. Followed by a song, performed by court musicians, reminding the Emir of his distinguished ancestry


KANEM: THROUGH THE EYES OF VARIOUS ARAB AND GREEK WRITERS
IDOLATRY
"The inhabitants of Kanem are idolatrous Sudan. It is said that there exists in those parts a clan descended from the Umayyads, who took refuge there when they were persecuted by Abbasids. They dress in the fashion of the Arabs and follow their customs."
The Spanish muslim scholar Al-Bakri.

BEDOUIN KING
"The King is a wandering Bedouin. When he sits on his throne, his subjects make obeisance to him and fall on their faces. His armies, including cavalry, infantry, and porters, number 100,000. Between Aljama and Yalamlam there dwell a great many unbelievers…the king of Kanem has five minor kings under his sway. His horses are small. Kanem is a vast region through which the blessed Nile flows."
14th century Egyptian historian Al-Maqrizi.

POET FROM AFAR
"Kanem …is part of the land of the Berbers in the farthest west in the land of the Sudan. Some say that the Kanem are a people of the Sudan. At the present day there is a poet at Marrakesh in Maghrib known as al-Kanimi (the one from Kanem) whose excellent work is attested to, but I have never heard any of his poetry nor learnt his proper name."
12th century Greek bookseller and scholar Yaqut. Born in Greece, he was sold into slavery to a Syrian merchant. He was later freed and travelled widely.

GARDEN CITY
"Njimi is the capital of the land of Kanem. There resides the sultan of Kanem, well known for his religious warfare. He is a descendant of Sayf b. Dhi Yazan. On a level with Njimi, he possesses a town with gardens and a pleasure ground. It is on the west bank of the Nile which comes to Egypt and is 40 miles from Njimi. There are fruits there which do not resemble our fruits, as well as pomegranates, peaches and sugar cane."
13th century Syrian politician and scholar Abu 'l-Fida, quoting Ibn Sa'id.

ARROGANT AND FEEBLE
"Their soldiers wear the mouth muffler. Their king despite the feebleness of his authority and the poverty of his soul, who has an inconceivable arrogance; despite the weakness of his troops and the small resources of this country, he touches with his banner the clouds in the sky. He is veiled from his people. None sees him save at the two festivals, when he is seen at dawn and in the afternoon. During the rest of the year nobody, not even the commander-in-chief speaks to him, except from behind a screen."
14th century Syrian scholar Al-Umari, a specialist on Mali.