West African Empires: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay
by Rit Nosotro
Change Over Time essay
These three great empires grew on a unique African area called the Sahel, grasslands stretching from the Indian ocean to the Atlantic. Across two major river basins, the Niger and Senegal, in the western portion of the Sahel and bordering the Sahara desert, these civilizations gained control of the great wealth to be obtained from trans-Saharan trade. To the south lay gold mines, to the north lay Saharan salt and, ultimately, European and Middle Eastern markets. Taking advantage of this opportunity, these civilizations became trade links between a wide variety of goods, and in the process became exceedingly wealthy. Yet in the end, their greatest source of strength would become their downfall. Venturing beyond Mediterranean waters and into the Atlantic ocean, European explorers found a direct route to African goods and gold, sidestepping the need for the intermediary empires. This eliminated the need for the long Saharan routes, and thus became the downfall of the important West African trade cities of Timbuktu and Gao. As these cities, and others like them, lost their importance and prestige, the centuries long tradition of strong West African empires deteriorated.
Following Rome's eventual pullout from Africa after the Third Punic War in the second century, an indigenous tribe of Africans, the Berbers, controlled North Africa1 to the north of the Sahara desert. By the fourth century, a group of these Berbers had migrated across the Sahara desert to the Sahel and had begun establishing the framework for the first west African empire, Ghana, where only individual chieftaincies had previously existed2. While these original white Berbers ruled over their new kingdom following its initial creation, the black3 Soninke people, from the border area of the Sahara, later dominated the empire4. This was the first of the divisive events that occurred between Ghana and the Berbers to the north.
By the eighth century Islam had rapidly spread across all of North Africa, making converts of the North African Berbers5, separating from them the Ghanaians by not only desert but also religion. Along the desert trade route, the Muslims gained control of the oases by the tenth century6. When Islam had finally found its way across the Sahara, the Ghanaian government allowed Muslims within their cities and took them as court advisors 7. Several important towns accepted Islam as their recognized religion8, yet Ghana still did not become an official Islamic state9. This lack of governmental patronage of Islam incited the religiously fervent Berbers (the Almoravids in North Africa), to declare a holy war against Ghana, bringing the already ailing empire to destruction10.Yet before this religious influence on the destruction of Ghana, Islam brought an important advancement to Ghana that ushered its development from a kingdom to an empire.
Regardless of its unique geographic placement, the young kingdom of Ghana did not originally have the capacity for extensive trade across the threatening desert. For several centuries Ghana had survived without the use of camels, instead implementing horses and donkeys for their beasts of burden11. Yet these animals could not support the requirements for trans-Saharan trade, and thus Ghana remained generally unnoticed by the rest of the world. With the rapidly expanding Islamic culture came camels that enabled caravans to traverse across the long stretches of desert between oases12. Where only a limited trade of goods had first existed, a thriving trade system became established. During the time of the Ghana empire, the city of Kumbi Saleh would become both the capital and the point of trade on the edge of the Saharan desert13, trading in such goods as “gold, salt, copper, and even human beings.”14 Yet, it was under Mali that this wealth would first draw the attention of the world.
Following the destruction of Ghana by the Berbers, the kingdom of Soso, a “rabidly” anti-Muslim state15 in the southern part of the Ghana empire, rose to power for a short time, conquering parts of the Mali empire16 and the Mandinka territory in the south17. Sundiata, born to the king of Mandinka, arose from a background of exile and a childhood crippling disability to conquer the kingdom of Soso in 123518. Within five years he had gone on to capture the last vestiges of the Ghana empire19, and began establishing the empire of Mali. This new empire controlled three regions that each played an important role in the history both before and after Mali: “the Senegal region, . . . the central Mande states occupied by Soninke and Mandinke, and the region of Gao occupied by people who spoke Songhay.”20 Under Mansa Musa, grandson of Sundiata, the empire’s great wealth and support of Islam would, for the first time, draw the attention of both Europe and the Middle East.
Under Mansa Musa, Mali entered its golden years. Through his access to abundant gold Mansa Musa became extremely wealthy and lavishly paraded this wealth before the world during his hajj to Mecca in 1324. This wealth stole the imagination of Europe and would later become a focus of the early European voyages of exploration to Africa. Upon returning to Mali, Mansa Musa began reforms that would turn his empire into a haven for the Islamic faith and Islamic centers of learning, a noticeable change from the earlier stance of the Ghana empire. Although Mansa Musa remained a devout Muslim and established Islam as the national religion, he also gave his people freedom to practice their traditional religions21. Mansa Musa also brought back a famous architect that designed lofty palaces and madrasas (Islamic schools)22, making Mali famous throughout the Islamic world. This architect further established a mud construction technique that would last until the present day23. Despite its great wealth and prestige, Mali quickly declined after the death of its golden age leader. Out of the fallen remains of Mali, the next great empire, Songhay, would arise to govern the affairs of west Africa.
Following the death of Mansa Musa, states within the Mali empire began to once again assert their independence, and from the north came the Tuareg Berbers who conquered northern sections of the declining empire24. In the east section of Mali, the kingdom of Gao once again asserted its independence. By the late fifteenth century, Sonni Ali Ber, king of Gao, had driven the Berbers northward and had begun establishing the empire of Songhay in the place of Mali25. After Sonni Ali Ber came Askia Muhammad Toure who captured the Saharan oases and completed the conquest of Mali26. During his reign, he further revised west African society, including “standardize[d] weights, measures, and currency, so culture throughout the Songhay began to homogenize”27. He also totally redesigned the governmental system, introducing Islamic authorities in support of Islamic laws. Nevertheless, like Mansa Musa, he allowed the rural Songhay people to maintain their deeply ingrained, traditional beliefs28. Yet this empire would also soon fall.
In 1590 after only a century of Songhay control, the Moroccans from the North invaded the empire in a greedy search for wealth. Bringing firearms, previously unknown to the west African empires, and hiring Spanish and Portuguese mercenaries, the Moroccans overpowered the Songhay and left the empire in ruins29. Sixty years later the Tuaregs once again returned, retaking control of Timbuktu, this time maintaining their rule for two hundred years30. Once victorious, the Moroccans realized that the Songhay gold did not come from the empire itself but from further south, and so they turned back, leaving the former empire as only a weak agrarian society unable to rebuild their gold trade31. Finally, by this time European explorers, traveling across the Atlantic, had already made direct contact with countries with African gold, circumnavigating the need for the west African empires to transfer this gold through the traditional trans-Saharan route. Thus, in this way the whole foundation upon which these empires existed, since the early introduction of camels to Ghana, was removed.
Over a period of thirteen hundred years the west African empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay flourished on the banks of the Niger and Senegal rivers. From the north came the Berbers and Moroccans at various times to destroy these empires. Yet also from the north came the camel which established the trade system, Islam which eventually spread throughout West Africa, and finally the Europeans who brought the downfall of the empire. Although all empires must eventually come to an end, during their time these empires boasted world fame and control of large amounts of the world’s gold. The modern state of Mali has now blended into the other rising African nations and its great wealth has disappeared. Nonetheless, its past and the histories of all these west African empires are full of great stories of abundant gold, world fame, and a rich culture.
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