3.01 West African Kingdoms

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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.

Mawi Asgedom
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.
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.
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.
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.