Sundiata and Alexander

I have been trying to read more this year, trying to get off social media and actually put a book or two in my head. So far it seems to have been working! One of the books I read this January was D. T. Niane’s Sundiata: an epic of old Mali, which I picked up in a charity shop ages ago and then just never got around to reading. It’s a fascinating read — the epic tale of West Africa’s equivalent of King Arthur. Sorcerers! Battles! Prophecies! Severed heads! It’s got everything you want from a medieval epic; I sort of want to see the movie. Sadly, this one’s out of print, and the revised edition seems really expensive, but there are other books on Sundiata you can check out.

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One thing that I thought was really interesting about the story was the historical comparisons. Sundiata is a 13th-century figure, and the stories about him are mostly later, of course. But the figure that Sundiata gets compared to most isn’t a medieval figure. In fact, it isn’t even an Islamic figure, although his dynasty does claim descent (or early association?) with one of the companions of the Prophet. No, it’s Alexander the Great.

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He also listened to the history of the kings which Balla Fasséké told him; enraptured by the story of Alexander the Great, the mighty king of gold and silver; whose shone over quite half the world.

And this isn’t just one case. Sundiata is compared to, or said to be inspired by, Alexander frequently throughout the text. Indeed, he’s compared to him more than to any other historical figure. Heck, I think it might be the only historical comparison in the story. Apparently there was a historical tradition that said there were seven conquerors in history, with Alexander being the second and Sundiata the seventh and last. This looks like it comes from the Muslim traditions about Alexander.

I don’t know what my point is here, other than that I was not expecting to see such an interest in Alexander in medieval West Africa, although in retrospect it should seem obvious that there would be, just as there was in medieval Europe and the Near East.

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Sundiata and Alexander

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