“Becoming Muslim”

A Comparative Archaeological Approach to the Material Markers of Islam in the Niger Bend, Mali and Eastern Ethiopia


  • Timothy Insoll Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter




archaeology, Gao, Harlaa, Mali, Ethiopia, Islamization


Archaeology is in a unique position to offer a material culture based perspective on Islamization and conversion to Islam, particularly in regions where historical sources might be limited or absent. This is explored with reference to two archaeological areas, Gao in Mali, and Harlaa in Ethiopia to assess if similar material markers can recur archaeologically through evaluating mosques, Muslim burials and Arabic epigraphy, settlement structure and domestic architecture, animal and plant remains, ceramics, and miscellaneous artifacts potentially suggestive of Islamization in both regions, primarily for the period between the 11th–13th centuries CE. It is concluded that the evidence from Gao and Harlaa attests the variety of interpretations of Islam that exist, but, correspondingly, through the recurrence of key markers such as mosques, Muslim burials, and Arabic epigraphy, also affirms material similarity, yet without having to make course to a unitary and erroneous concept of “African Islam.”

Author Biography

  • Timothy Insoll, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter

    Timothy Insoll is Al-Qasimi Professor of African and Islamic Archaeology at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, where he is also the founding Director of the Centre for Islamic Archaeology. He has completed archaeological fieldwork in Mali, Ghana, and Eritrea and has recently completed a major ERC AdG funded project, Becoming Muslim (ERC-2015-AdG BM694254) in Ethiopia. His most recent book, as editor with Bethany Walker and Corisande Fenwick, is the Oxford Handbook of Islamic Archaeology (Oxford University Press 2020).


Azaïs, R.P. and Chambard, R. 1931. Cinq années de recherches archéologiques en Ethiopie. Paris: Paul Geuthner.

Barrett-Jolley, S. 2000. “The faunal remains from Gao Ancien.” In Urbanism, Archaeology and Trade. Further Observations on the Gao Region (Mali), edited by T. Insoll. 45–55. British Archaeological Reports S829. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports.

Bauden, F. 2011. “Inscriptions Arabes d’Éthiopie.” Annales Islamologiques 45: 285–306.

Beldados A. 2015. Paleoethnobotanical Study of Ancient Food Crops and the Environmental Context in Northeast Africa, 6000 B.C. to 200/300 AD. British Archaeological Reports S2706. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports. https://doi.org/10.30861/9781407313573

Beldados, A., E. H.Siraj, T. Insoll, E. Z. Eshetu and F. Angestrom. Submitted. “Archaeobotany, plant economy, palaeoenvironment, and religious identity in medieval eastern Ethiopia. The results of analysis from Harlaa, Dire Dawa region.” Annales d’Éthiopie.

Birchok, D. A. 2015. “Putting Habib Abdurrahim in his place: Genealogy, scale and Islamization in Seunagan, Indonesia.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 57: 497–527. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0010417515000110

Cara Barrioneuvo, L. 1990. La Almería Islamica y su Alcazaba. Almería: Editorial Cajal.

Carvajal, J. C. and P. M. Day. 2013. “Cooking Pots and Islamicization in the Early Medieval Vega of Granada.” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 32: 433–451. https://doi.org/10.1111/ojoa.12023

Chekroun, A., F-X. Fauvelle-Aymar, B. Hirsch, D. Ayenachew, H. Zeleke, O. Onezime and A. Shewangizaw. 2011. “Les Harla: Archéologie de Mémoire des Géants d’Ethiopie.” In Espaces Musulmans de la Corne de l’Afrique au Moyen Âge, edited by F-X. Fauvelle-Aymar and B. Hirsch. 75–102. Paris: De Boccard. https://doi.org/10.4000/books.cfee.698

Cissé, B. 1975. “Intervention.” In Actes du Colloque, Histoire et Tradition Orale. 1ère Année: L’Empire du Mali, edited by anon. 165–166. Paris: Copedith.

Cissé, B. and A. M. Yattara. ND. A Tradition Songhay nous dit l’Historique de Gao des Origines à l’Apparition des Dia al-Yaman. Unpublished manuscript, Timbuktu.

Cissé, M. 2017. “The Trans-Saharan trade connection with Gao (Mali) during the first millennium AD.” In Trade in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond, edited by D. Mattingly, V. Leitch, C. Duckworth, A. Cuénod, M. Sterry and F. Cole. 101–130. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108161091.005

Cissé, M., S. Keech McIntosh, L. Dussubieux, T. Fenn, D. Gallagher and A. Chipps Smith. 2013. “Excavations at Gao-Saney: New evidence for settlement growth, trade, and interaction on the Niger Bend in the first millennium CE.” Journal of African Archaeology 11: 9–37. https://doi.org/10.3213/2191-5784-10233

D’Andrea, A. D., M. P. Richards, L. A. Pavlish, S. Wood, A. Manzo and H. S. Wolde-kiros. 2011. “Stable isotopic analysis of human and animal diets from two pre-Aksumite/Proto-Aksumite archaeological sites in northern Ethiopia.” Journal of Archaeological Science 38: 367–374. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2010.09.015

Eaton, R. M. 1993. The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204–1760. Berkeley: University of California Press. https://doi.org/10.1525/9780520917774

Fani, S. 2016. “Arabic Grammar Traditions in Gibe and Harär: Regional Continuity vs Specificity of Scholarship.” Aethiopica 19: 113–134. https://doi.org/10.15460/aethiopica.19.1.1131

Fauvelle-Aymar, F-X., B. Hirsch, R. Bernard and F. Champagne. 2011. “Le Port de Zeyla et son Arrière-pays au Moyen Âge.” In Espaces Musulmans de la Corne de l’Afrique au Moyen Âge, edited by F-X. Fauvelle-Aymar and B. Hirsch. 27–74. Paris: De Boccard. https://doi.org/10.4000/books.cfee.714

Fenwick, C. 2020. “Ifriqiya and the central Maghreb.” In The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Archaeology, edited by B. Walker, T. Insoll and C. Fenwick. 243–266. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199987870.013.9

Fisher, H. J. 1973. “Conversion reconsidered: Some historical aspects of religious conversion in black Africa.” Africa 43: 27–40. https://doi.org/10.2307/1158544

Fisher, H. J. 1985. “The juggernaut’s apologia: Conversion to Islam in black Africa.” Africa 55: 153–173. https://doi.org/10.2307/1160299

Flight, C. 1975. “Gao 1972: First interim report.” West African Journal of Archaeology 5: 81–90.

“The Medieval cemetery at Sané.” In Le Sol, La Parole et l’Ecrit, edited by anon. 91–107. Paris: Société Française d’Histoire d’Outre Mer.

Francesca, E. 2014. “Dietary law.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam. Third Edition, edited by K.G. Fleet, G. Krämer, D. Matringe, J. Nawas and E. Rowson (eds.), Leiden: Brill.

Fuller, D. 2000. “The Botanical Remains.” In Urbanism, Archaeology and Trade. Further Observations on the Gao Region (Mali), edited by T. Insoll. 28–35. BAR S829. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports.

Gaastra, J. and T. Insoll. 2020. “Animal economies and Islamic conversion in eastern Ethiopia: Zooarchaeological analyses from Harlaa, Harar and Ganda Harla.” Journal of African Archaeology 18: 1–28.

Gado, B. 1993. “Un “Village des Morts à Bura un Republique du Niger.” In Vallées du Niger edited by J. Devisse. 365–374. Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux.

Gervers, M. 1990. “Cotton and cotton weaving in Meroitic Nubia and Medieval Ethiopia.” Textile History 21: 13–30. https://doi.org/10.1179/004049690793711244

Gestrich, N. and K. C. MacDonald. 2018. “On the Margins of Ghana and Kawkaw: Four seasons of excavation at Tongo Maaré Diabal (AD 500–1150), Mali.” Journal of African Archaeology 16: 1–30.

Green, A. 2004. “Reflections from the field: Islam and the Tsetse Fly.” Sylvanet 17: 2–5.

Henley, P. 2009. The Adventure of the Real. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Hodgkin, E. 1988. Social and Political Relations on the Niger Bend in the Seventeenth Century. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Birmingham.

Hutton MacDonald, R. and K. MacDonald. 1996. “A preliminary report on the faunal remains recovered from Gao Ancien and Gao-Saney (1993 Season)” In Islam, Archaeology and History. Gao Region (Mali) Ca.AD 900–1250, edited by T. Insoll. 124–126. British Archaeological Reports S647. Oxford: Tempus Reparatum.

Hunwick, J.O. 1980. “Gao and the Almoravids: A hypothesis.” In West African Culture Dynamics: Archaeological and Historical Perspectives, edited by B. Swartz and R. Dumett. 413–430. The Hague: Mouton. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110800685.413

Hunwick, J.O. 1985. Shari'a in Songhay. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hussein, S.M-S. 2021. “Ruined Towns in Nugaal.” Azania 56: 1–22.

Insoll, T. 1994. “The external creation of the Western Sahel’s past: The use and abuse of the Arabic sources.” Archaeological Review from Cambridge 13: 39–49.

“A cache of hippopotamus ivory at Gao, Mali; and a hypothesis about its use.” Antiquity 69: 327–336. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003598X00064723

Islam, Archaeology and History. Gao Region (Mali) Ca.AD 900–1250. British Archaeological Reports S647. Oxford: Tempus Reparatum. https://doi.org/10.30861/9780860548324

“Iron Age Gao: An archaeological contribution.” Journal of African History 38: 1–30. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0021853796006822

“Islamic glass from Gao, Mali.” Journal of Glass Studies 40: 77–88.

Urbanism, Archaeology and Trade. Further Observations on the Gao Region (Mali). The 1996 Fieldseason Results. British Archaeological Reports S829. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports. https://doi.org/10.30861/9781841711232

The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Material Explorations in African Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

a. “West Africa.” In Oxford Handbook of Prehistoric Figurines, edited by T. Insoll. 151–177. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199675616.001.0001

b. “The archaeology of Islamization in Sub-Saharan Africa: A comparative study.” In Islamization: Comparative Perspectives from History edited by A.C.S. Peacock. 244-273. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. https://doi.org/10.3366/edinburgh/9781474417129.003.0013

c. “First footsteps in the archaeology of Harar.” Journal of Islamic Archaeology 4: 189–215. https://doi.org/10.1558/jia.35273

“Marine shell working at Harlaa, Ethiopia, and the implications for Red Sea trade.” Journal of African Archaeology 19: 1–24. https://doi.org/10.1163/21915784-20210001

“Archaeological perspectives on contacts between Cairo and eastern Ethiopia in the 12th to 15th centuries.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 66: 154–205

Insoll, T., N. Khalaf, R. MacLean, H. Parsons-Morgan, N. Tait, J. Gaastra, A. Beldados, A.J.E. Pryor, L. Evis and L. Dussubieux. https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2020.169

“Material Cosmopolitanism: The Entrepot of Harlaa as Islamic Gateway to Eastern Ethiopia.” Antiquity 95: 487–507.

Insoll, T., R. MacLean and B. Engda. 2016. “Archaeological survey and test excavations, Harlaa, Dire Dawa, and Sofi, Harari Regional State, Ethiopia: A preliminary fieldwork report.” Nyame Akuma 85: 23–32.

Insoll, T., D. Polya, K. Bhan, D. Irving and K. Jarvis. 2004. “Towards an Understanding of the Carnelian Bead Trade from Western India to sub-Saharan Africa: The Application of UV-LA-ICP-MS to Carnelian from Gujarat, India, and West Africa.” Journal of Archaeological Science 31: 1161–1173. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2004.02.007

Insoll, T. and A. Zekaria. 2019. “The mosques of Harar: An archaeological and historical study.” Journal of Islamic Archaeology 6: 81–107. https://doi.org/10.1558/jia.39522

Joussaume, H. and R. Joussaume. 1972. “Anciennes villes dans le Tchercher (Harrar).” Annales d’Ethiopie 9: 21–44.

Joussaume, R. 1974. Le Mégalithisme en Ethiopie. Monuments Funéraires Protohistoriques du Harar. Paris: Museum Nationale d’Histoire Naturelle.

Mégalithisme dans le Chercher en Éthiopie. Addis Ababa: Centre Français des Études Éthiopiennes. https://doi.org/10.3406/ethio.1972.891

Kapteijns, L. 2000. “Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.” In The History of Islam in Africa, edited by N. Levtzion and R. L. Pouwels, 227–250. Oxford: James Currey.

Keech McIntosh, S., M. Wood, L. Dussubieux, P. Robertshaw, T. Insoll and M. Cissé. 2020. “Glass beads from Medieval Gao (Mali): New analytical data on chronology, sources, and trade.” Journal of African Archaeology 18: 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1163/21915784-20200009

Khalaf, N. and T. Insoll. 2019. “Monitoring Islamic archaeological landscapes in Ethiopia using open source satellite imagery.” Journal of Field Archaeology 44: 401–419. https://doi.org/10.1080/00934690.2019.1629256

Khan, A. 2018. “Pious masculinity, ethical reflexivity, and moral order in an Islamic piety movement in Pakistan.” Anthropological Quarterly 91: 53–77. https://doi.org/10.1353/anq.2018.0002

Lape, P. V. 2000. “Political dynamics and religious change in the late Pre-Colonial Banda Islands, Eastern Indonesia.” World Archaeology 32: 138–155. https://doi.org/10.1080/004382400409934

Latruffe, J. 1953. “Au sujet d’une piece d’or millénaire trouvée à Gao.” Notes Africaines 60: 102–103.

Levtzion, N. and J.F.P. Hopkins. 2000. Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener.

Lewicki, T. 1971. “The Ibadites in Arabia and Africa.” Cahiers d’Histoire Mondiale 13: 3–130.

Lewis, I. M. 1994. Peoples of the Horn of Africa. Asmara: Red Sea Press.

Loiseau, J. 2020. Retour à Bilet. “Un cimetière musulman médiéval du Tigray oriental.” Bulletin des Etudes Orientales 67: 59–96. https://doi.org/10.4000/beo.7202

Lücking, M. and E. Eliyanah. 2017. “Images of authentic Muslim selves: Gendered moralities and constructions of Arab others in contemporary Indonesia.” Social Sciences 6(3) 103.. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci6030103

MacLean, R. 2000. “Chapter 5. The locally manufactured pottery.” In Urbanism, Archaeology and Trade: Further Observations on the Gao Region (Mali). The 1996 Fieldseason Results, edited by T. Insoll. 62–97. British Archaeological Reports S829. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports.

MacLean, R. and T. Insoll. 1999. “The social context of food technology in Iron Age Gao, Mali.” World Archaeology 31: 78–92. https://doi.org/10.1080/00438243.1999.9980433

Magnavita, S. 2008. “The oldest textiles from Sub-Saharan West Africa: Woollen facts from Kissi, Burkina Faso.” Journal of African Archaeology 6: 243–257. https://doi.org/10.3213/1612-1651-10118

Mandel, R., N. Meer, P.A. Silverstein, J. Robbins and E. Özyürek. 2015. “Islamophobia, religious conversion, and belonging in Europe.” History and Anthropology 26: 362–379. https://doi.org/10.1080/02757206.2015.1044988

Mauny, R. 1951. “Notes d’archéologie au Sujet de Gao.” Bulletin de l’Institut Français de l’Afrique Noire (B) 13: 837–852.

“Découverte a Gao d’un fragment de poterie émaillée du Moyen Age Musulman.” Hésperis 39: 514–516.

McIntosh, R. J. and S. K. McIntosh. 1988. “From Siècles Obscurs to revolutionary centuries in the middle Niger.” World Archaeology 20: 141–165. https://doi.org/10.1080/00438243.1988.9980062

Milner, N. 2000. “The marine and freshwater molluscs.” In Urbanism, Archaeology and Trade. Further Observations on the Gao Region (Mali). The 1996 Fieldseason Results, edited by T. Insoll, 36–38. British Archaeological Reports S829. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports.

Moraes Farias, P. F. de. 2003. Arabic Medieval Inscriptions from the Republic of Mali. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Özyürek, E. 2015. Being German, Becoming Muslim. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. https://doi.org/10.23943/princeton/9780691162782.001.0001

Patassini, D. 2006. “A Museum for Haräla.” Iuav 41: 6–8.

Peacock, A.C.S. 2017. “Introduction: Comparative perspectives on Islamization.” In Islamization: Comparative Perspectives from History, edited by A.C.S. Peacock. 1–18. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. https://doi.org/10.3366/edinburgh/9781474417129.003.0001

Pedersen, J. and T. A. Benjaminsen. 2008. “One leg or two? Food security and pastoralism in the northern Sahel.” Human Ecology 36: 43–57. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-007-9136-3

Petersen, A. 2013. “The archaeology of death and burial in the Islamic World.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial, edited by L. Nilsson Stutz and S. Tarlow. 241–258. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199569069.013.0014

Peterson, B. J. 2011. Islamization from Below. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Pradines, S. 2009. “L’Île de Sanjé ya Kati (Kilwa, Tanzanie): un mythe Shirâzi bien reel.” Azania 44: 49–73. https://doi.org/10.1080/00671990902795814

Pryor, A., T. Insoll and L. Evis. 2020. “Laser ablation strontium isotope analysis of human remains from Harlaa and Sofi, eastern Ethiopia, and the implications for Islamization and mobility.” STAR - Science and Technology of Archaeological Research 6: 113–136. https://doi.org/10.1080/20548923.2020.1843266

Robinson, D. 2000. Revolutions in the western Sudan. In The History of Islam in Africa, edited by N. Levtzion and R. L. Pouwels. 131–152. Oxford: James Currey.

Rouch, J. 1953. Contribution à l’Histoire des Songhay. Dakar: Institut Français d’Afrique Noire.

Les Songhay. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

La Religion et la Magie Songhay. Brussels: Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles.

Les Hommes et les Dieux de Fleuve. Paris: Editions Artcom.

Roy, B. 2000. “The beads.” In Urbanism, Archaeology and Trade. Further Observations on the Gao Region (Mali), edited by T. Insoll. 98–126. British Archaeological Reports S829. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports.

Saad, E. N. 1983. Social History of Timbuktu. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sauvaget, J. 1950. “Les épitaphes royales de Gao.” Bulletin de l’Institut Français de l’Afrique Noire (B) 12: 418–440.

Schneider, M. 1969. “Stèles Funéraires de la Région de Harar et Dahlak (Éthiopie).” Revue des Études Islamiques 37: 339–343.

Schneider, M. 1983. Stèles Funéraires Musulmanes des Îles Dahlak. Cairo: Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale.

Stangroome, C. 2000. “The faunal remains from Gadei..” In Urbanism, Archaeology and Trade. Further Observations on the Gao Region (Mali), edited by T. Insoll. 56–61. British Archaeological Reports S829. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports.

Stenhouse, P., trans. 2003. Futuh al-Habasa. Hollywood, CA: Tsehai.

Stoller, P. 1992. The Cinematic Griot. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Tait, N. and T. Insoll. 2021. “Local ceramics from the Islamic trade centre of Harlaa, eastern Ethiopia: Markers of chronology and contacts.” African Archaeological Review 38: 419–442. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10437-021-09435-9

Takezawa, S. and M. Cissé, eds. 2017. Sur les Traces des Grands Empires. Paris: Harmattan.

Tamrat, T. 1972. Church and State in Ethiopia 1270–1527. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/1594763

Toure, M. E. 1992. Report on the Antiquities and History of the Gao Region. Unpublished manuscript, Gao.

Trimingham, J. S. 1959. Islam in West Africa. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

The Influence of Islam upon Africa. London: Longman.

Vallet, É. 2010. L’Arabie marchande. Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne.

Vantini, G. 1975. Oriental Sources Concerning Nubia. Warsaw: Polish Academy of Sciences.

Vire, M. M. 1958. “Notes sur trois épitaphes royales de Gao.” Bulletin de l’Institut Français de l’Afrique Noire (B) 20: 368–376.

Wilding, R. 1980. “The desert trade of eastern Ethiopia.” In Proceedings of the Eighth Pan-African Congress for Prehistory, edited by R. E. Leakey and B. A. Ogot, 379–380. Nairobi: Louis Leakey Memorial Institute for African Prehistory.

Zellelew, T. B. 2015. “The semiotics of the “Christian/Muslim Knife’.” Signs and Society 3: 44–70. https://doi.org/10.1086/678981



How to Cite

Insoll, T. (2023). “Becoming Muslim”: A Comparative Archaeological Approach to the Material Markers of Islam in the Niger Bend, Mali and Eastern Ethiopia. Journal of Islamic Archaeology, 9(2), 135–171. https://doi.org/10.1558/jia.25864