Semiotician and novelist, Umberto Eco is universally known and admired, for an almost unlimited culture. Eco gave life to semiotics by fusing the logical-philosophical tradition of Peirce with the linguistics of De Saussure, wrote on philosophy and medieval aesthetics, comics and mass literature and wrote novels set in the Middle Ages, in the baroque age, as well as in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
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In recent years, after having published a history of beauty, one of ugliness, a volume on the infinity of lists Eco authored a History of Legendary Lands and Places, from biblical sites to Gotham city. The book is beautiful, interesting, erudite and with an extraordinary iconography.
The book, however, shows a lack of familiarity with the world, the history and the African tradition. There is no mention of Timbuktu described by the great Arab travelers, from Es Sadi to Leo Africanus, and much courted by European travelers who finally managed to reach it in the nineteenth century to find a city that had by then lost most of its past glory.
There is no mention of the legendary land of Wagadu where Bida, according to the reports of el Bekri, was responsible for appointing kings and for preserving the wealth of the region. There is no mention of the legendary Awdaghost which scandalized the pious Muslim travelers in the Middle Age and hid itself from the eyes of the archaeologists who were looking for its remains centuries later.
This lack of interest in the African world is quite curious for another reason. Eco discusses at great length the lands of the Bible, the dispersion of the tribes of Israel, and the fact that they have been identified in a wide range of peoples and lands. Eco also discusses, for example, the fact that in Ethiopia, which does not correspond to the country that now bears this name, rulers and kings were chosen from among the descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
Arab travelers however have left us another version of this story. The love between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba gave origin to the Songhai people who had for centuries a very strong bond with the Jews. The Jews of Sudan (a term with which in the old days was used to denote the whole Sahel) made political and military alliances with the Songhai, entered the Sudanese markets with the military support and protection of the Songhai, and belonged to the upper strata of Songhai society.
While there may be many reasons why Africa was neglected in Eco’s work, one is left with the impression that this omission reflects the Euro-centric and Western-centric worldview of the author. The discussion of non-European, non-Western lands, seems to be confined to lands — from the Eldorado sought after by the conquistadores to the Thule/Hyperborea identified by the Nazis as the cradle of the Arian race — that were at one point or another of some interest for Europeans and Westerners. One can obviously look at the world through the eyes of the European, but that is only one way of looking at it and not necessarily the most interesting.