Empires of Medieval West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay


“From ancient times to the middle of the 19th century, one of the biggest groups within Mande society was slaves. In a great medieval state like the Mali Empire, many slaves were captured during wars of expansion. Slaves were an extremely important part of the economy because their labor had great value. They also brought in wealth when they were sold across the trans-Saharan trade routes.”

“When soldiers returned from a successful raid or battle, roughly half the loot, including slaves, was taken by the ruler on behalf of the state. Many slaves were exported across the Sahara or traded in slaves. They would simply enter the service of their captors and continue to practice their occupations. In the case of a woman of high status, it was possible for her to become a wife of her captors.”

“If a captive who had previously been free was from a family that held the kind of special relationship, known as senankuya, with the captor’s family, he would probably be freed. A legendary example of this happened when a chief named Nynyekoro knew he was going to be attacked by the army of Segu, led by Faama Da Diarra. He also knew he had no chance against their superior strength. He told all his advisers to take off their clothes, thus reducing their social status to the level of uncircumcised boys. “

“During the period of colonial rule, Guinea was referred to as the jewel of French West Africa. It had beautiful white sand beaches, Paris-style restaurants, and luxurious hotels. Guinea exported coffee, peanuts, mangos, and pineapples. Guinea gained its independence from France on October 2, 1958, by voting against remaining in the French Community. The people who ran the government and the technicians who maintained utility services were angry at Guinea’s vote against remaining with France. They left the country almost overnight.”

“When the European powers divided up the African continent into colonies in the 19th century, they established artificial boundaries that cut right through ancient cultures and political systems. By the beginning of the 1960s, when the former French West African colonies had gained their independence, the former territories of medieval Ghana, Mali, and Songhay were located in several different nations.”

“The ruins of Ghana’s cities of Kumbi Saleh and Awdaghust are in southern Mauritania, the goldfield of Bure is in Guinea, and the rest of ancient Ghana is in Mali. The heartland of the old Mali Empire is divided between Mali and Guinea, but its outer territories extend into Senegal, Mauritania, Cote d’Ivoire, and Burkina Faso. The former territories of medieval Songhay now lie in Mali, Niger, and Mauritania. The ancient heartland of these empires, however, was located in what is now Guinea and Mali.”

Source: Empires of Medieval West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay By David C. Conrad

The Moroccan Conquest of the Songhay Empire

“Every year [prior to 1591], on the order of the king of Timbuktu [the askiya]… two hundred quintals of gold were sent to the Barbary; the war so upset everything that once could not produce four [quintals of gold], because the gold washers had fled for they did not want to work for others; and gold from the deserts of the interior came virtually no more, and this did not suffice for the price of the merchandise in the kingdom from where they came.”

“Ahmad al-Mansur’s invasion of Sudan created fresh illusions, but neither the circus of Marrakech nor even the vast curtain of the Sahara could long hide the truth. The conquistadors of the Red City destroyed everything in their path, real and otherwise–the heyday of the Saharan caravans, the glory days of Timbuktu, the empire of the Songhay, and the Island of Gold. Behind, they left only wistfulness.”

“Ghana was the first of the West African empires. A Soninke ethnic state that emerged around the fourth century, Ghana eventually came to control the area of present western Mali and southeastern Mauritania. Its power lay in the gold fields of Boure and Bambouk, and it was the first black African state to benefit from the camel-powered trans-Saharan trading system. This empire grew and flourished largely in anonymity until Berber and Arab raiders came calling.”

“By the eleventh century, the Ghanaians had been weakened by attacks from a Moroccan Berber dynasty, the Almoravids. The empire quietly disappeared a few decades later. The cause of this collapse is not known, but the Almoravids probably hastened its end. Gradually, over the next century, a successor state began to take shape from the ruins, Mali.”

“The Mandinka kingdom of Mali gradually extended its control over the gold fields through conquest and tribal alliances and by the early thirteenth century, it had crowned its first emperor, Sundiata Keita. In the decades that followed, the Malians embarked on conquest in Senegal, Guinea, and against the tribes of the eastern Niger, amassing a near monopoly on the West African gold trade.”

“By the middle of the fourteenth century, the empire reached from the Atlantic Ocean to Gao and spanned the modern-day countries of Senegal, southern Mauritania, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Mali, northern parts of Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, and western niger. The Malian Empire dominated West Africa, extending over 1,300,000 square kilometers, more than any Western European state, but it took a new religion and a larger-than-life character to make anyone outside the region take notice.”

“The religion was, of course, Islam. Mali was the first of the great West African empires to embrace Islam, though in its own distinct and limited way. Some Arab Scholars claimed it was Ghana, but the ruling class never adopted the new religion. Though the Malian nobility gradually converted to Islam, the faith was not imposed upon the populace. Islam remained confined to the capital and the desert “ports” where it had arrived centuries earlier with Berber traders. Many more years would elapse before Islam would start to dissipate from these points to the villages and towns of the savanna and the forest belt.”

“Islamic teaching and law became prestigious metiers and, and in the words of one historian, a “cult of the aristocracy. But, in the end, in West Africa, Islam was for the ruling elite and the tiny literate class, and it was a distinctly urban phenomenon. In the countryside, the majority lived as they had for centuries, with their nature gods, black magic and witch doctors.”

“The twenty-year Morocco-Songhay war seriously undermined the caravan trade networks and economic triad. Salt and gold were no longer meetings in abundance along the river. The salt mines were not secure, and that traffic slowed considerably. Gold traders began to prefer the Guinea coast, where the Portuguese coastal trading posts offered closer and more stable trading partners. However, this alternative provided only temporary relief. Line the Moroccan sugar industry, the West African gold market would soon plummet under competition from the Americas.”

Source: Conquistadors of the Red City: The Moroccan Conquest of the Songhay Empire By Comer Plummer

“When analyzing al-Mansur’s Songhay effort we are fortunate to possess the work of authors unattached to al-Mansur’s court, through which we have an opportunity to evaluate events presumably unencumbered by the flattering official portrayals that are so often the product of official dynastic secretaries and chroniclers. The work of the Arab historian and native of Timbuktu, Abd al-Rahman al-Sa’di, is one example. Al-Sa’di eventually secured employment in the Moroccan administration at Timbuktu, but his loyalties lay with the native elites of the Middle Niger. From him we gain a local perspective on the Moroccan invasion and conquest of the Songhay Empire, and well as on the Moroccan administration of the Middle Niger up until the middle of the seventeenth century”

“Early Sa’di attempts to control the salt resources of the desert date from at least 1526, when a Moroccan force temporarily occupied the Tuwat Oasis. Over the next thirty years al-Mansur’s predecessors launched additional expeditions against Tuwat, Taghaza, and into Mauritania. But the importance of salt was too great for the Songhay to consider relinquishing control. According to al-Sa’di, in the early 1540s the Songhay rulers responded to one Moroccan request by ordering a raid of two thousand Tuareg on Morocco’s Dra’a Valley.998 Later, they foiled an otherwise successful Moroccan conquest of Taghaza by simply redirecting traders to another location.999 Al-Mansur’s first effort, however, fared much better. Al-Sa’di reports that the Sultan requested of the Songhay one year’s worth of tax from the mines of Taghaza, and received instead a goodwill gift of more than ninety pounds of gold, the generosity of which allegedly led to a great friendship between the sultan and the Songhay Askiya (emperor) Dawud.1000 Some see the rivalry with the Ottoman Empire as an important factor in al-Mansur’s Songhay venture. Ottoman agents were indeed active in sub-Saharan Africa. Bornu, a central Sudanic empire in the area adjacent to Lake Chad, attracted Ottoman mercenaries and technology with a series of aggressive jihads. In the middle of the century the Ottomans themselves extended their reach into Fezzan, a territory also claimed by Bornu. The latter sent an embassy to the Ottomans, but negotiations came to naught.1001 It is unclear whether or not military conflict ensued, though the anonymous Spaniard claims that the Turks marched through Egypt to conquer Bornu, but so weakened by thirst could not defend themselves.1002 Whatever may have occurred, the Ottoman supply of arms to Bornu dried up, and in 1582-83 its leaders turned to al-Mansur to meet their needs.  Al-Sa’di identifies a Songhay slave imprisoned at Taghaza, Wuld Kirinfil, as the impetus. According to al-Sa’di it “was God’s decree and His destiny that he [the slave] should break out from that prison and flee to the Red City, Marrakesh….”1014 There he wrote a letter to al-Mansur describing the difficult circumstances under which the Songhay were living and the resulting ease with which they could be conquered.1015 The anonymous Spaniard asserts that the ostensibly same escapee claimed to be the brother of the Songhay ruler, Askiya Ishaq, that his throne had been usurped, and that in return for support in regaining his kingdom he would acknowledge al-Mansur’s suzerainty and reward him with great wealth. “Account of the Anonymous Spaniard,” in Hunwick, Timbuktu, 318-319”

“Al-Mansur adopted the Ottoman practice of incorporating non-Turkish and non-Muslim elements into the army. Among the most prominent were European Christian renegados and Muslim Andalusians. Unlike the tribal corps these two groups often carried firearms, often filled senior posts in the army, guarded the sultan when he led campaigns, and received their pay before all others.1032 Neither group, as their names imply, were fully integrated into Maghribi society, and thus their allegiance to the ruler could be more readily ensured since it was through him alone that they enjoyed special status. The comparatively sizeable contingent of renegados and Andalusians in the Sa’di expedition is open to several possible interpretations. They were certainly among the best of the sharīf’s troops, and in this sense it is no surprise to see them in the invasion force. At the same time, dispatching some of his most loyal forces on an uncertain mission across nearly a thousand miles of desert also held special risks for al-Mansur’s domestic position. Revolts had under his predecessors been commonplace in sixteenth-century Morocco. In fact, al-Mansur was returning from the suppression of a rebellion in Fez when Wuld Kirinfil arrived and spurred renewed consideration of a Saharan venture.1033 Consequently, the extended absence and potential loss of loyal, effective troops was not a light matter.”

Source: MOROCCO IN THE EARLY ATLANTIC WORLD, 1415-1603 A Dissertation submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of Georgetown University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in History By Earnest W. Porta, Jr., J.D

In 990 a.d. the empire of Ghana annexed the Saharan city of Awdaghust

“In 990 The empire of Ghana annexes the Saharan city of Awdaghust. In 1077-1078 Almoravids take over Tanger, fight the empire of Ghana, and control the trans-Saharan caravan trade; birth of Ibn Tumart, the Almohad Mahdi; Bijaia becomes the captial of the Hammadid dynasty.”

“Sijilmassa is known for its historical role in the trans-Saharan gold trade with ancient Ghana. From the 11th to the 14th centuries, trans-Saharan trade was regulated an attraced Arab, Muslim, and Jewish merchants from the East and Muslim Spain. Gold was transported north to Sijilmassa and then west to Fes, and during this period Sijilmassa had a mint which issued its first coins in 947.”

“Almoravids (1061-1147). The name “Almoravids,” by which the movement is known in Western scholarship, is a Spanish corruption of the Arabic Al-Murabitun and designates a Sanhaja Berber dynasty that ruled over Morocco, western Algeria and al-Andalus. The Almoravids were brought to power by the theologian ‘Abd Allah Ibn Yasin and his reformist holy warriors (al-murabitun).”

“They conquered the Soninke kingdom of Ghana and laid siege to Sijilmasa in 1055-1056. Fes was taken in 1069, and Algiers was brought under their control in 1082 after taking Tlemecen and Oran. The Almoravids also controlled parts of Spain after a solid victory against Alphonso VI in 1086. A relative of the first disciples, Yusuf Ibn Tashafin (1061-1107), who built Marrakech in 1060, became the first founder of the dynasty, which despite its short life left tremendous political and cultural impacts of the historical map of North Africa, Spain, and the Sahara Desert.

“The Almoravids reached their zenith under Ibn Tasafin’s rule. As a result of the establishment of the Almoravids in Spain, North Africa recieved a cultural infusion from Andalusia. The Malikite shcool of law also entrenched itself in North Africa. Opposition to Islamic practices which were limited to the literal and anthromorphic conception of the word of the Qur’an fell into rigidity, and this state of affairs triggered religous and political opposition.”

“In Andalusia, it led to a new disintegration into numerous city-states, and in the Atlas Mountains to a revolt of the Masmuda tribes, inspired by the teachings of the religous reformer Mahdi Ibn Tumart. In addition to constant Chrisitan assaults, the Almoravids would finally succumb to the overwhelimg campaings of the warrairo-monks, the Almohads, as Marrakech was taken in 1147.”

Source: Historical Dictionary of the Berbers (Imazighen) By Hsain Ilahiane


In 1042 the Berbers who had also converted to Islam conquered Ghana.

“The Ghanaian people were mostly animist, but Islam filtered into the Empire and some of them became Muslim. The people were all living in peace and harmony when Mudu Ture became Muslim. Others who had also converted to Islam encouraged him to take the power from the traditional ruling Cise clan.”

“According to the oral tradition, the Diane clan and the Koma clan supported Mudu Ture, but the rest remained faithful to the descendants of the Dinga family, who represented the established traditional power at that time. Nevertheless, after some time, Mudu Ture succeeded and he became emperor. Because he had challenged the traditional established power, however, he could not have the Kaya Maga title (which was the highest title of kingship).”

“Therefore, he governed under his own name. In 1042 the Berbers who had also converted to Islam conquered Ghana. Their chief, Yaya Ibn Omar, took the city of Aoudaghost in 1054. His successor, Aboubakar, fought more than fifteen years against Bessi Tunkara, who was the ruling Emperor then. Finally, in 1076 Ghana was totally destroyed by the Almoravid Berbers. Internal divisions among Ghana’s people facilitated this conquest.”

“However, in 1087 the Berber chief was killed. Once againGhana recovered its freedom but the Empire had been broken down and weakened by internal decay. The Berber occupation created a great deal of trouble throughout the Empire. Because Islam had become the religion of the ruling elite, it was imposed on all citizens. Consequently, the vassal kingdoms like Diara, Kingui, Kaniaga, and Mail, which were animist, broke away from Ghana.”

“That is how Ghana became a small kingdom once again. Many people who were hostile to Islam migrated further south or towards the east. They bandoned their commercial trade, agriculture, and raising cattle activities, and consequently, the country became poor. The Empire was thus largley depopulatied and its military power also declined. One the other hand, the animist areast, where people remained in place, prospered and developed. This waws precisely the isutation of the Soso poeple, who were animists led by Sumanguru Kante, who took over Ghana early in the 8th century.” 

“Ghana, after the invasion of 1076, was no longer the same kingdom. The cradle of future Kingdom of Mali, which later was to become the Empire of Mali, was then called Mande. The Mande Kingdom was under Soso domination spearheaded by Sumanguru Kante.”

“The Mande Kings at that time were: Djigui Bilali, Musa or Allakan, as he was known by his nickname, and Nare Famakan Keita. It would be Sundiata, son of Nare Famakan Keita, who would fight the Soso and establsihed the Mali Kingdom, once and for all.”

Source: Balancing Written History with Oral Traditions: The Legacy of the Songhoy People By Hassimi Oumarou Maiga

Discovering the Empire of Ghana



“Tuareg men are famous for the custom of wearing deep blue turbans and veils that cover their faces. The name for themselves is Kel Tagelmust, or “people of the veil.” The veil provides protection from the Sahara sand and dust and is removed only in the company of close family. The veil is made blue by pounding indigo dye into the cloth, which often stains their skin blue as well, which earned them the label “blue men of the desert.”

“Based on his conversations with eyewitnesses who traveled and traded with the Ghana Empire, al-Bakri described a large city of thirty thousand people, which he called “Al-Ghaba.” Today, we know this city as Kumbi Saleh. Unfortunately, al-Bakri left no information as to where the city was located, and for centuries it was truly a lost city.”

“As was common in Africa, “the city” was actually two separate cities, located about 6 miles apart. The Soninke lived in one city, and foreign traders lived in the other. The city inhabited by foreigners (mostly Muslim merchants and scholars) had large, rectangular stone houses–a North African influence. Like homes in the Soninke city, houses in the Muslim city were built along narrow streets that led to a wide avenue, where the outdoor market was located.”

“The foreigners’ city also had twelve mosques, where the Muslims worshipped. In fact, the Empire of Ghana became wealthy because of its contacts with and acceptance of Muslim traders and scholars. The Wagadou emperor lived in the Soninke city. Al-Bakri described this part of Al-Ghaba as a walled fortress. The cicular houses had clay walls and large, wooden beams that supported thatched, dome-shaped roofs. The homes of wealthy people were made of stone and wood. The largest and most elaborate house was the emperor’s palace.”

“The Wagadou emperor held court in this impressive palace, which was luxuriously decorated with paintings, sculptures, and gold. The king himself was splendidly dressed. At the height of the Ghana Empire’s power, he was the only Soninke allowed to wear imported and tailored clothing. Everyone else living in Al-Ghaba wore simpler cotton, silk, or brocade cloth draped around their bodies.”

Source: Discovering the Empire of Ghana By Robert Z. Cohen