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Africa’s Golden Empires

Africa’s Golden Empires

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Around the time Europeans were dying in their millions from the Great Famine and the Black Death, a triumvirate of empires in West Africa was embarking on a golden age. Their economic and military strength led to sophisticated cities like Timbuktu, replete with palaces, mosques, and one of the world’s great libraries. They would inspire the Manden Charter, the first known proclamation of human rights recognized by UNESCO as part of humanity’s cultural heritage. The splendors of the Ghana, Mali, and Songhai empires burned so brightly that they illuminated Africa—and reached the world beyond.

Before we tell one of the world’s greatest rarely-told stories, let’s examine the common denominator behind these impressive civilizations. Every empire needs revenue, and these empires were blessed with the most incredible cash generator of their age.


The Trans-Saharan Trade Network

Trans-Saharan trade has existed since prehistoric times. Gradually tracks through the desert were established as trading grew. These ancient routes allowed West Africans to trade their gold to obtain salt from North Africa and vice versa. At one time, an ounce of salt in Timbuktu was worth almost an ounce of gold. Slaves to mine the salt and Ivory were also traded, and eventually, the routes developed into a network of trading superhighways stretching as far as Morocco, Egypt, and Arabia. The Trans-Saharan Trade Network (TSTN) routes also gave the Mediterranean, Asia, and Europe access to West African and North African goods.

Map of the Trans-Saharan trade Network

Consequently, whoever controlled the TSTN enjoyed immense wealth, and many battles and wars were fought to rule the network. Ghana was the first country to succeed from 300 CE to 1224 CE.


The Ghana Empire

This Ghana differs from modern-day Ghana (in geography, culture, history, or people). The center of the empire was current-day Mali and Mauritania. The dominant group and founder of Ghana were the Soninke people, who lived along the Niger and Senegal rivers. The Soninke people – farmers and fishermen – were constantly threatened by neighboring raiders who wanted to steal their water and pastures.

To protect themselves, groups of Soninke banded together under the leadership of King Dinga Cisse. This was wise; King Cisse transformed the Soninke into a regional power. He created a military and cavalry of 200,000 men armed with superior weapons made from iron. Then he expanded their territory and influence, thus becoming West Africa’s first Empire.

With power came wealth as the Soninke accumulated riches from their control of the TSTN. Berber traders from North Africa traveled across the Sahara Desert in camel caravans that comprised a thousand and sometimes as many as two thousand camels. Considering that a single camel could comfortably carry 150kg of cargo, this was not a small-scale enterprise. They transported salt, fragrances, textiles, and spices, trading them for gold and other commodities. Along with these goods, the Berbers also exported Islam to Ghana’s people. These traders were double taxed, on both imported and exported cargo, generating handsome revenues for the imperial coffers. In return for the tolls and taxes, King Cisse’s powerful military protected the trade routes, trade centers, and traders’ caravans while they traveled through the desert.


From Strength to Strength

King Cisse’s Ghana Empire received additional revenue from tribute payments from local fiefdoms in his territory. These taxes were the price that these local domains had to pay if they wished to remain self-governing.

The accumulated wealth allowed King Cisse to build great cities: Kombi Saleh, the capital, and Audaghust sat on the trade routes. They were well-established cities. In the capital Kombi, there were resplendent palaces and twelve mosques with buildings built from stone and acacia wood. At its peak, between the 9th to 11th centuries, Ghana was renowned for its culture and opulence.

According to the New World Encyclopedia:

At that time, it was alleged by contemporary writers that Ghana could field an army of some 200,000 soldiers and cavalry. This was a formidable regional military and trading power that endured for over three hundred years. Rebecca Green points out that, “the people of the empire of Ghana are said to have enjoyed a world rich in culture and famous as a center of learning and trade during the Middle Ages, while most of the people of Europe suffered fear, ignorance and oppression.


Ghana’s Downfall

Mali building rising above the village market

It’s unclear whether King Cisse was succeeded by his son or his nephew. After his death, other kings ruled, and the empire flourished. A strong military was essential to its survival because the Soninke faced powerful foes in their region – West Africa – and from North Africa. The local Sosso kingdom had great hostility and jealousy towards the Soninke dominance, but they feared them more. However, by the 11th century, their hatred overcame their fear, and they began a fierce uprising against the Soninke.

Some sources say the Sosso uprising lasted for a decade. These battles weakened Ghana, making them vulnerable to attacks from the mighty Almoravid Empire. The Almoravid dynasty was an Islamic empire centered in present-day Morocco. By the 11th century, they wanted to expand their kingdom into West Africa, convert Ghana to Islam, and take over the empire’s trade routes.

The Almoravids understood that if deprived of TSNT revenues, the empire would collapse. Ghana’s army eventually repelled the Almoravids. However, the damage had been done, and Ghana never recovered. Although some historians dispute the Almoravids’ part in their decline, it is indisputable that trade route dominance shifted away from Ghana, and they could no longer sustain their empire, which fell by 1224.

As the Ghana Empire declined, the Sosso Kingdom fed on the scraps, capturing enough territory to become the dominant power in the region until the ascension of the Mali Empire. Despite the fall of Ghana, the epoch of the African Empires still had several centuries to run.


The Rise of Mali

Mali was the superstar of Africa’s Golden Age and was regarded as the wealthiest nation on earth by European and Middle Eastern countries. Mali’s wealth came from mining salt, gold deposits, copper, and elephant ivory. The Mali Empire was home to Mansa Musa: a king often called the wealthiest person in history.

At its peak, the vast Mali Empire would include parts of modern-day Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Chad, Nigeria, and Chad.


Prince Sundiata Keita, AKA the Lion King

In the beginning, Sundiata Keita was the warrior prince known as the Lion of Mali. Sundiata was the founder of Mali and the first Mansa (King). Disney’s The Lion King is very loosely based on his legend. This Disney animated feature follows the adventures of the young lion Simba (Sundiata), the heir to his father, Mufasa (Nare Maghann Konate). After Simba’s father is killed, he is exiled. The wicked kingdom (Sosso Kingdom) rises to power. Simba (Sundiata) returns as an adult and takes back his homeland (Mali).

Information about the Mali Empire comes from oral and written sources. Muhammad ibn Battuta of Morocco and Ibn Khaldun of Tunisia traveled to Mali and documented the epic rise of Sundiata. Additionally, the griots—historians, storytellers, musicians, and poets—sang the praises of Sundiata from generation to generation in songs and epic poems.

With the 11th-century fall of the Ghana Empire, the Sosso Kingdom briefly reigned supreme in West Africa. The Sosso kingdom, ruled by Sumaoro, was known for oppression and cruelty. Sundiata returned from exile and united the regional kingdoms to defeat the Sosso Kingdom in 1234 when he was proclaimed Mansa.

With his victory over the Sossos, Mansa Sundiata now had control of the TSTN, and he expanded the empire from the Atlantic coast to the Niger River. Under his leadership, Mali became known as a trading powerhouse with abundant luxury and riches. The government built elaborate mosques and founded Islamic schools.

But there was more to Sundiata’s government than prosperity; it was also known for its progressive values. Under his leadership, he commissioned the scholars of the empire to author one of the world’s earliest charters of human rights, the Manden Charter.

This was originally an oral document. Its forty-four articles addressed social justice, human rights, rights to education, food security, freedom of expression, and trade. Article 20 proclaimed, “Do not ill-treat the slaves. You should allow them to rest one day per week and to end their working day at a reasonable time.” UNESCO recognizes the Manden Charter as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.


Mansa Musa—the Wealthiest of All Time 

An illustration depicts Emperor Mansa Musa dressed in gold and silk, holding a sword, standing in front of his army, riding horses, and carrying spears.

An ‘heir and a spare’ is a succinct description of monarchic succession. The spare or second son ascends to the throne if death or sickness strikes the heir. Musa was a second son.

He became Mansa after his brother, Abu Bakr II led a daring expedition that failed. According to the official account, Musa’s Abu Bakr II personally commanded an exploratory mission of 2,000 vessels to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Musa, serving as deputy king, was crowned Mansa when his brother was never heard from again.

As a young man, Musa, the great-great-nephew of Sundiata, became the 10th Mansa of Mali. Musa immediately embarked on a mission to elevate Mali to levels of wealth and power never seen in Africa. Or anywhere in the world. Musa is purported to have been the wealthiest person in history.

He conquered more than 24 cities acquiring even greater trade access to Egypt and North Africa. His conquests included new goldfields, increasing his monopoly of this precious resource. His empire may have controlled as much as 50% of the world’s gold exports. Mali’s prosperity was unparalleled, and the cities of Gao and Timbuktu became cultural, commercial, educational, and Islamic learning centers.


An Epic Pilgrimage 1324-1325

As the Mali Empire reached the pinnacle of great wealth, power, and stability, Mansa Musa, a devout Muslim, began his plan for his hajj to Mecca. The Hajj is a pilgrimage made by devout Muslims to the holy city. The organization for this 4,000-mile and two-year expedition took several years of planning (see route above).

Mansa’s hajj was his and Mali’s international coming out party. Never, in the annals of history, had the world seen as a grand, impressive, and illustrious journey.

According to Britannica:

Mansa Musa was accompanied by an impressive caravan consisting of 60,000 men, including a personal retinue of 12,000 enslaved persons, all clad in brocade and Persian silk. The emperor himself rode on horseback and was directly preceded by 500 enslaved persons, each carrying a gold-adorned staff. In addition, Mansa Musa had a baggage train of 80 camels, each carrying 300 pounds of gold.

Musa and his entourage’s spending and charitable donations were on such a vast scale that they triggered a massive gold market crisis in Cairo. The market was flooded with so much gold that the price was depressed for twelve years. This lavish display placed Mali on the map (literally) in Europe and the Middle East, as can be seen by Mali’s inclusion in the Catalan Atlas of 1375. This was commissioned by Charles V of France and was a tour de force of medieval mapmaking.

A caption from the atlas says:

This Moorish ruler is named Mansa Musa, lord of Guinea. This king is the richest and most distinguished ruler of this whole region on account of the great quantity of gold that is found in his lands.

The publicity would have repercussions. Before too long, European and Middle Eastern countries would send expeditions and later armies to West Africa to get a slice of this fabulous wealth.

On his journey home from Mecca, Mansa recruited Arab Imams, scholars, historians, and architects to accompany him back to Mali. He used their expertise to revitalize and rebuild the cities of Gao and Timbuktu, annexed in his journey to Mecca, into world-class Islamic, cultural, economic, and education centers. At its peak, Sankore University in Timbuktu had over 25,000 students and the most extensive library in Africa.


Rise of the Songhai

By the 15th century, the Songhai, led by the military mastermind Sunni Ali, recaptured and re-established Gao as their capital on the Niger River. Gao, an epicenter for trade, had been ruled by the Songhai for centuries until Musa annexed the urban port city in 1325 during his Mecca pilgrimage.

With their victory, the Songhai gained independence from Mali. The victorious King Sunni Ali had a formidable military which included 20,000 calvary, 10,000 land infantry, and naval forces of 400 vessels on the Niger River.

By 1473, Sunni Ali, a shrewd strategist, conquered what was left of Mali’s Empire and many of its neighboring states. He captured vital TSTN hubs such as Timbuktu (1468) and Djenne (1473). Now it was the Songhai’s turn to become wealthy as their empire rapidly expanded. Sunni was accused of using brutal tactics to maintain his empire. It was alleged that he beheaded many enemies, enslaving many others. In his 28 years in power, he is reputed to have fought and won 32 battles.

As the Islamic historian Al-Sa’di noted:

Sunni Ali entered Timbuktu, committed gross iniquity, burned, and destroyed the town, and brutally tortured many people there. When Akilu heard of the coming of Sunni Ali, he brought a thousand camels to carry the fuqaha of Sankore and went with them to Walata….. The Godless tyrant was engaged in slaughtering those who remained in Timbuktu and humiliated them.

On the other hand, many West African historians regard Sunni Ali as one of the greatest African warriors in history. They believe contemporary Islamic writers tarnished his legacy because Sunni Ali, unlike many of the West African elite of his day, was not a Muslim. Ruthless or not, even his critics acknowledge his military genius. Much of Sunni’s success is attributed to naval dominance; his Niger River fleet allowed him to transport troops rapidly and control riverport trade cities.

Sunni’s accomplishments went beyond war and brutality. He improved the infrastructure of Songhai with projects that included building mosques, schools, and Islamic cultural centers. He built dykes to improve agricultural irrigation, which dramatically increased food production.

When Sunni died in 1492, some say he was killed by his son Sunni Baru, who ascended to the throne. However, Baru didn’t hang on to power for long. His father’s most prominent general, Askia Mohammad, launched a coup d’état against him in 1493.


Askia the Great

Askia Mohammad wasn’t born into the royal family, but this didn’t stop him from overthrowing Ali’s son Sunni Baru, who was king.  Askia opposed Baru because he believed Baru was incompetent and not a devout Muslim. Although Baru’s troops outnumbered Askia, he was defeated, and Askia took the throne. Askia was one of the most consequential leaders of West Africa’s halcyon era, and his accomplishments delivered a golden age within the golden age for Songhai.

As emperor, Askia used diplomacy to broaden his power and stability, making alliances with neighboring kingdoms. He used his nieces’ and daughters’ marriages to various rulers to strategically create family ties with potential rivals. Regional enclaves were permitted self-rule as long as they paid tribute and allowed Askia’s appointed regents to oversee their affairs.

In 1497 Askia traveled to Mecca for the Hajj. His expedition, like Mansa Musa’s, was legendary for its extravagance and pomp. The journey, while spiritual, had practical objectives; Askia wanted Mecca to recognize him as the Islamic head of West Africa. He also hoped his alliance with Mecca would protect the empire against attacks from North African and Middle Eastern rivals.

Askia proved to be an able administrator, and his government was known for its efficiency. They made trade agreements with Asia and Europe, standardized measurements, and regulated fishing and agriculture.

However, Askia’s real passion was for education. As a proponent of learning and literacy, he encouraged Songhai’s universities to produce many distinguished scholars. At the internationally renowned University of Timbuktu, he recruited students from the entire Islamic world, launching a golden age for scientific and Islamic scholarship. For example, one scholar Ahmed Baba wrote books on Islamic law that are still in use today.


Askia’s Fall

Conventional wisdom states: What goes up comes down. As Askia aged, he lost his sight. Initially, he succeeded in hiding his blindness except for close family members and trusted servants.

He is said to have had 471 children by various wives and concubines. One of them, Faria Mousa, forcibly removed his father from the throne seizing power for himself. Now 80 years old, Askia was banished to a remote island by his usurper. Faria’s reign was short-lived; he was deposed and killed by one of his brothers after three years.


The End of an Era

When Askia the Great died in 1538, the sun was setting on Africa’s Golden Age. There were fifty more years of prosperity and relative peace until they were shattered by an invasion from Morocco in 1591. Al-Mansur, the Shariff of Morocco, sent his best fighters to invade Songhai, capture their gold and take control of the TSTN.  His army of 5,000 men was much smaller than Songhai’s 30,000 men. However, his Spanish mercenaries had a secret weapon—gunpowder!

Songhai’s spears and arrows were no match against Moroccan cannons and muskets. The Moroccan army continued advancing, capturing the important trade centers of Gao, Timbuktu, and Djenne. Al-Mansur defeated the Songhai army, but controlling the vast territory was difficult. The Songhai waged an effective guerilla campaign, and by 1620, the Moroccans withdrew.

But the damage was already done; the Songhai Empire region disintegrated into tiny fiefdoms, which were often at war with each other, and ripe for European colonization. The Golden Age of West Africa ended with the roar of cannon fire and the smell of black powder. It was an explosion that shifted the balance of power from Africa to Europe, leaving West Africa haunted by the fall of empires and the end of the Golden Age.


Edited by Michael Moss


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