3.01 West African Kingdoms
Terms in this set (38)
-How has Africa's physical geography impacted its people and history? (Sahara, Sahel, Inland Delta, Niger River)
-How did trade contribute to the rise of the Sudanic States?
-What factors allowed Ghana to gain military advantages within the region?
-How do the empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai compare? (Rise, Contributions, Trade goods/natural resources, Social structure, Decline/fall)
-What were the contributions of each leader to his empire? (Sundiata Keita, Mansa Musa, Sunni Ali)
-Why was Timbuktu an important city?
In this lesson, you will learn about the great West African civilizations that flourished from about 900 CE to about 1600 CE. These were the Ghana, Mali, and Songhai empires: collectively called the Sudanic States.
the spoken relation and preservation, from one generation to the next, of a people's cultural history and ancestry
a West African word for a person who plays music and tells the legends, myths, and stories of a people
the belief in the existence of individual spirits that inhabit natural objects and phenomena
tracing decent through the mother's ancestors
the eldest son succeeds the father
(or Juula) a Mande ethnic group inhabiting West Africa
an arid area at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, which stretches from Mauritania to Chad
a member of a people of southwestern Nigeria and Benin
a country in West Africa
to melt or fuse metals
large brown nuts containing caffeine; source of cola extract
a section of coastal western Africa along the Gulf of Guinea that corresponds to present-day Ghana
a section of coastal western Africa along the Gulf of Guinea that corresponds to present-day Cote d'Ivorire; it was named for the large quantities of ivory traded there in pre-colonial times
also known as Mandinke, is a large ethnic group in West Africa that became known as the Mali Empire
Sunni Ali the Great
founder of the Songhai empire, led the Songhai in conquering the cities of Mema and Timbuktu
When we study the ancient and medieval world, we learn about these people from the documents that they left behind. But what about Africa? Why don't we hear more about the great civilizations in Africa apart from Egypt? What is the ancient history of Africa?
There are many controversial answers to these questions, and scholars are still arguing about the reasons why Africa hasn't been studied more. Although ancient African societies and civilizations did not have written records, historians are now beginning to discover just how advanced these civilizations really were. Most of their knowledge and history was passed down using oral tradition.
The main source of written information about early African civilizations comes from outside travelers and traders. Additionally, while peoples like the Maya and the Egyptians built great stone temples or huge tombs for their kings, most African societies did not. This means that there are few written histories or large monuments to reveal the great deeds of the ancient African kings.
The main reason not much was known about ancient and medieval Africa was that outsiders did not bother to look for records. Outsiders were more interested in Africa's resources than its culture or history. They simply did not value Africa's rich past, people, and its cultural achievements.
These scholars were skeptical of the stories of the oral historians, the griots; nor did they believe the records of the Arab travelers and traders who recorded their encounters. They literally failed to look beneath the surface, never thinking to excavate the remains of earlier civilizations. They did not take notice of significant cultural icons like the Great Mosque in Timbuktu.
How Has the Physical Geography of Africa Impacted Its Human Geography?
People often don't realize how huge and varied Africa really is. Africa is a vast continent, larger than Europe, the United States, and China combined. Now that is big! Sometimes we try to clump information about Africa into a general statement without recognizing the great variety of traditions, people, and customs in the various regions.
However, some geographical features do actually influence much of the entire continent: the Sahara Desert, the Sahel, and the Inland Delta.
The Sahara Desert is the largest in the world. The Sahara is also one of the hottest and driest deserts, reaching temperatures of 136 degrees Fahrenheit. The Sahara Desert receives very little rain; some years it does not receive rain at all. In these extreme conditions, very few animals and plants can survive. The area is known for having many scorpions, snakes, and rodents because they can live for long amounts of time in great heat with little water.
Because the Sahara Desert separates North Africa from the rest of the continent, it developed differently. The languages, cultures, and ethnicities of North Africa are more closely linked to Arabia and the Mediterranean than to the rest of Africa.
Despite the importance of the Sahara, the region isn't exclusively desert. The Niger, a strangely-shaped river, does not flow in a relatively straight line like the Nile or the Mississippi. Rather, it curves and changes direction. The Niger starts in present-day Guinea and flows northeast into Mali, where it bends and begins to flow southwest through Niger and Nigeria, where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean.
The area in Mali just before the Niger River bends is called the Inland Delta, an area of swamps and marshes surrounded by desert. In the past, the Niger River would flood the Inland Delta and leave behind rich silt, providing fishing, water to grow crops, and land for animals to graze, much like the Nile in Egypt. Even today, as the Sahara grows and the region becomes drier, the Inland Delta remains wet and fertile.
The Sahel, which means "shore" in Arabic, consists of desert and semi-arid land. We typically do not think of a shore as being in an area without water; however, in this case it refers to the area where the sand dunes end and vegetation begins.
Temperatures are between 77 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year. Over 50 million people live in Sahel. A major source of income for the people of Sahel is farming. Many crops can grow in the semi-arid areas of the land, including chickpeas, pharsalus beans, and green grams. Unlike the Sahara, some animals can survive here, including elephants, giraffes, and certain cattle.
The kingdom of Ghana rose from the Soninke people in the grasslands north of the Niger River.
The kingdom of the Malinke rose as the Ghana Empire declined, ultimately becoming the Mali Empire.
The largest of the three West African empires, the Songhai came to control much of what had been the Mali Empire.
How Did We Get Here?
If you look at the area of Timbuktu and the western Sahel today, you might wonder how great empires managed to arise there. Much of the land is dry and empty. Many of the people living there today struggle to survive due to environmental factors and non-peaceful political transitions. These issues often cause economic crisis.
Three thousand years ago, however, the Sahara Desert was smaller, and the Sahel region received more rainfall. In fact the Sahara desert grows larger every year! The people who settled in the Sahel were herders and farmers. It was good land, and they could grow or raise enough food to survive. By 1000 BCE, people had established settlements in the western Sahel. Starting in 400 BCE, cities began to appear. Around 500 BCE, the people of the region also learned how to forge iron, and they began making tools and weapons. At some point horses were introduced into the area. The stage was set for conquest and the growth of great civilizations.
The oldest known, highly developed civilization in Africa south of the Sahara is the Nok culture, which developed along the Niger River near where the Niger is joined by the Benue River, in what is now Nigeria. This culture existed from about 900 BCE to about 200 CE, and is known for beautiful figurines made out of clay. Some people believe the Nok culture evolved into the Yoruba civilization because the styles of art are so similar. The Yoruba are an African people of southwestern Nigeria and Benin, who still practice traditional African religions.
Another early civilization was located in the city of Djenné-Djeno (also spelled Jenne-Jeno), which was located in the Inland Delta in what is now Mali. Djenné-Djeno grew from a small settlement founded around 200 BCE, to a major city by 850 CE. It is one of the sites currently being studied in the area by archaeologists.
The early people of Djenné-Djeno traded for copper, gold, and bronze. They made pottery and iron tools and built circular mud-brick buildings. The city began to decline in 1000 CE and was abandoned by 1400 CE. Shortly after Djenné-Djeno was abandoned, a new city called Djenné was started nearby. Djenné became a center of Islamic learning, much like another great African city, Timbuktu.
This map shows the diffusion of iron technology in Africa. Traditionally, as this map shows, historians have believed that iron smelting technology came from the Hittites in Anatolia and ultimately reached the Nok people. However, some have recently disputed this. Some African historians now claim that iron smelting technology was developed independently in Africa. What do you think about this? Consider how old views of African people may have influenced the popularity of the traditional view.
The Nok are famous for the clay sculptures they left behind. These sculptures indicate that the artistic skill of the Nok was quite advanced. The sculpture pictured here is from 500 BCE to 500 CE.
How Did Trade Help Lead to the Rise of the Sudanic States?
Trade is the real reason for the development and rise of the great West African kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, and for this reason they are often referred to as the trading states, or trade kingdoms.
In about 300 CE, camels were becoming more common in the Sahara. Camels' ability to survive in the desert enabled increasing numbers of traders to travel across the dry region. They gathered in large camel caravans and traveled along established trade routes. Most of these trans-Saharan trade routes began or ended in the area that became the core of the kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai.
The caravans were able to cross the desert, but they needed food and water if they wanted to continue their journey farther south, as some did. The caravan traders bought what they wanted from the market towns in the Sahel.
The merchants in the western Sahel could sell the traders the goods, food, and water that the travelers needed to continue. These things were taxed by the kings in the area. The people of the western Sahel were the middlemen who controlled the trade. Trade provided goods from south of the Sahara to the people of North Africa, the Mediterranean, and, later, Europe. These goods from the south included gold, ivory, kola nuts and slaves. For this reason, modern Ghana was formerly known as the Gold Coast, while the modern country of Côte d'Ivoire preserves its heritage as the Ivory Coast. The people of the south traded for salt, silk, spices, coffee, and other goods from the north. The more people on both sides of the trade were introduced to new goods, the more they wanted. And the middlemen certainly profited.
It was only to be expected that a king in this situation would take advantage of the opportunity to expand his territory as much as possible. The larger an empire became, the more land and resources a king controlled. More land would also provide more slaves, more people available to serve in the army, more admiration from conquered kings, and more trade routes to tax. Even in Africa, human domination would become a theme from ancient times into the modern era. Islam eventually dominated the region amid the constant threat of other empires attempting to grab hold of the vast resources of the region.
But why didn't the kingdoms conquer and control the areas to the south? One reason was the lush forests in the south. The armies of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai were successful because they rode horses into battle, but armies of horses would not be successful in a forest.
How Did the Ghana Empire Develop?
The kingdom of Ghana started in the grasslands north of the Niger River. The Soninke people, who founded Ghana, were able to conquer their neighbors because they had iron and horses. They used the iron to make weapons (as well as tools and art), and used the horses for military purposes.
The legend of the origin of the Soninke people starts with a man named Dinga who came from the Middle East. He had many sons as he traveled but finally settled down near the Niger River and married the daughters of the chief genie in the area. Dinga wanted to hand over power to his oldest son Khine, but his younger son, Diabe Cisse, tricked his father and attained the power to rule instead. Diabe Cisse chose Kumbi Saleh to be the capitol of his kingdom.
Not much is known about early Soninkan society, except that they were animists, as were most others in the region. They were divided into clans, and the king's clan was the most powerful. The rules of succession in the kingdom of Ghana were matrilineal, meaning the new king was the son of the old king's sister.
The Ghana Empire relied heavily on trade of gold and salt. They traded their large amounts of gold in return for salt with Muslim traders. At the center of the trans-Saharan trade routes, Ghana also grew rich by taxing the traders, who then introduced Ghana to Islam.
The prosperity of ancient Ghana was explained by a myth that has survived in different forms throughout the Sahel region. The story tells of Bida, a serpent to whom the people sacrificed a virgin each year. As long as Bida received his sacrifices, the country flowed with gold. One year, the girl scheduled for sacrifice was rescued by the hero Mamadou Sarolle, who slew the serpent. With the death of Bida, gold mining became less successful. He also exacted revenge by bringing a drought, and the fortunes of the kingdom declined.
Climate change and struggles with Berber groups in the Sahara led to the downfall of the Ghanaian kingdom. The Sahara was moving southward, and Kumbi Saleh was no longer a good endpoint for the trans-Saharan trade. Smaller kingdoms to the south, where the land was greener and more productive, became more powerful.
What Led to the Greatness of Timbuktu and the Mali Empire?
After Ghana declined, one kingdom rose above all the others; this was the kingdom of the Malinke (or Mandinke). This kingdom became the Mali Empire, and it ultimately included the old Ghana Empire and more.
The kingdom of Mali started farther east and farther south than the kingdom of Ghana, closer to the border between present-day Mali and Guinea. The Mali kingdom soon grew by conquering areas to the west and north. Ultimately, the Mali Empire controlled 400 cities, towns, villages, and an estimated 20 million people, which today would equate to the population in all of Australia.
The founder of the Mali Empire was a man named Sundiata Keita. Sundiata organized many of the Mandé chiefs to fight a rival, the Soso kingdom. Sundiata won, and the Mali Empire began. Sundiata recaptured the gold-producing areas of West Africa and reestablished the gold and salt trade that had declined after the fall of Ghana. The capital of the Mali Empire was Niani, which was near the Buré gold fields, on the present-day border between Mali and Guinea.
Important members of the empire were the Dyula (or Juula). The Dyula were a local merchant class who were all Muslims. There were Dyula merchants during the Ghana Empire, but they rose to their height during the Mali Empire. The Dyula spread throughout the region of West Sudan. They established their own trading settlements and helped spread Islam, as well as trade, throughout the region.
Most of the kings of Mali were also Muslims, and few are known to have gone on pilgrimage to Mecca. The most famous of those was a king named Mansa Musa. In 1324, he left on his pilgrimage, bringing thousands of officials, slaves, and more than 80 camels with sacks of gold with him. By the time Mansa Musa completed his pilgrimage, the wealth of his empire was well known, boosting trade, bringing even more wealth to its cities, and cementing Musa's power in the region. Mansa Musa brought back an Arab architect, Abu Ishaq al-Sahili, who changed the way the people of Mali built their homes. Al-Sahili built Mansa Musa a rectangular home, which had a domed roof. Instead of mud brick, the palace was covered in plaster and painted with beautiful designs. Today, many homes in the region are still built and decorated this way! Historians think that al-Sahili might also have built the Great Mosque in Timbuktu.
One of the great cities in the Mali Empire was Timbuktu. The name has come to mean "the ends of the earth" or "the farthest away a person could ever get." A city with an amazing history, Timbuktu was a market city and important in the trans-Saharan trade. But even more importantly, it was a center of learning.
After the Great Mosque was built in Timbuktu, many schools that taught the Quran opened, and the city became a center for learning. Ultimately, scholars from all over the Muslim world came to Timbuktu to study. Their studies were not limited to Islam, as they are also credited with advancements in medicine and mathematics. Later, great histories of the Songhai people were written by the scholars at Timbuktu.
Like the Ghana kingdom, succession among the early Malinke also seems to have gone to the son of a sister of a king, at least some of the time. At other times, it seems an outsider gained the throne. We know this because one of Mali's greatest kings, Sakura, was not a member of the royal family when he rose to power. Rather, he was a military leader. Sakura expanded the empire into the land of the Songhai and their kingdom of Gao.
Later kings followed the patrilineal tradition, where the eldest son succeeds the father. Since there seems to have been no strict tradition, there were many fights over succession. This led to civil wars and was a large part of the reason why the Mali Empire declined.
What Led to the Rise and Fall of the Songhai Empire?
The Songhai came to control much of what had been the Mali Empire, but not all of it. In the end, though, the Songhai Empire was the largest of the three West African empires that even controlled the salt mines at Taghaza in the Sahara Desert.
The founder of the Songhai Empire is often considered to be Sunni Ali the Great. Ninety years after the successful rebellion against Mali, Sunni Ali led the Songhai in conquering the cities of Mema and Timbuktu. Later he added more territory to the empire. The Songhai Empire lasted from 1450 to 1591 CE. His successor, Askia Muhammad, expanded the kingdom into much of Mali and made Songhai the largest kingdom ever to exist in Africa until that time.
Many of the Songhai people, even at the height of the empire, practiced both Islam and traditional spiritual beliefs. The kings, however, were Muslims.
Songhai society was male dominated and patrilineal. It was also a hierarchical society.
Like the Mali Empire, the Songhai Empire also suffered from many battles over succession. In Songhai, the brothers of the king often tried to depose him; in turn, some kings tried to protect themselves by killing all their brothers. The last great battle for succession occurred when a great army general challenged a new king. Many men were killed in the battle for control of the country and the Songhai army was weakened. When troops from Morocco invaded to seize control of and revive the trans-Saharan trade in gold, the Songhai Empire could not win and was conquered, making this the last of the great West African empires.
Class Structure in the Songhai Empire
Kings and Nobility
At the top were the king and his family, who ran the country, followed by a lower level of nobles. They were comprised of the local nobility, who held lesser positions in the government.
Below the nobility were the freemen, the citizens of the empire. The freemen could be Muslim clerics, craftspeople, griots, and artists.
Slaves and War Captives
Slavery in Songhai was different from the institution that developed later in the Americas. In Songhai, a slave might have a very high position in society or a very low one. As the Songhai armies captured more land, entire towns were considered slaves, but they remained on their land and farmed it because that was how they could best serve the kingdom.
-Traded gold for salt
-Traded gold for salt
-The Great Mosque of Timbuktu
-Sunni Ali the Great
-Traded gold for salt
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