The Durbar festival is celebrated at the culmination of the two great Muslim festivals Eid al Fitr and Eid al Kabir (Eid al Adha). On the big day, in Katsina and Kano, there is a parade of ornately dressed horsemen, Emirs dressed in ceremonial robes, muscle-bound wrestlers and lute players in headdresses.
The day begins with prayers outside each town, followed by processions of horsemen to the public square in front of the Emir's palace. Here, each village group takes their assigned place before the Emir arrives last of all with his splendid retinue. Groups of horsemen then race across the square at full gallop with swords drawn, pass a few feet from the Emir and stop to salute him.
After all the action, the Emir and his chiefs retire to the palace and drumming, dancing and singing continue into the night.
The durbar is a celebration of that longstanding horse culture. Horses and camels became critical to the survival of highly developed city states, such as Kano, Katsina, and Zaria in the Hausa-speaking region as early as the 14th century. Horses, along with slaves, gold and salt, formed the backbone of the expanding trade across the Sahara with Egypt, Algeria and Morocco before Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas. Emirs based their military might on the cavalry. Powerful lieutenants, under a chief cavalry officer, the madawaki, would lead forces of horsemen, loaded down with lances, axes, shields, and chain-mail coats into battle against rival states.
The durbar is also fired by the fervour of Islam. At the height of the jihad, in 1804-1812, Usman dan Fodio, as the state's single spiritual authority, would gather troops in his capital at Sokoto during the dry season to plan out the year's war strategy. The empire lasted 100 years, and by the end it had pushed across the hot dry savannah west to the edge of the great rain-forest areas of the West African coastal region. There, where horses and camels could not long survive, the tidal wave of Islam petered out.
Yet the durbar is also in part the work of the British. The word itself comes from the Persian darbar, which means court-room or hall of audience. A special durbar had marked the proclamation of Queen Victoria as Empress of India in 1876. After Sir Frederick Lugard invaded northern Nigeria with his West African Frontier Force and conquered the Sokoto Caliphate in 1903, durbars were organised to remind their subjects and the old emirs of their subordination to the Crown. A grand durbar also saw in Nigeria's independence from Britain in 1960.
In modern Nigeria the durbar is timed to mark the end of Ramadan. It is a celebration of the day that Abraham is said to have offered his son as a sacrifice, and God said a ram would do. As a result, a ram's life is not worth much at this time of year, when the markets are full of the animals heading for slaughter.