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

The Almoravids’s empire included ancient Ghana



“During the period of Ghana’s greatest power in the late 10th and early 11th centuries, one of the most important commercial cities under its control was Awadaghust, about 125 miles northwest of Kumbi Saleh. Abu Ubayd al Bakri (d. 1094), an Arab scholar living in Islamic Spain, described it as a large, populous town with well-built, handsome houses.”

“The buildings sat on the sandy ground below a big mountain that was completely barren of any vegetation. The bulk of the population consisted of Muslim traders from Ifriqiya (the North African region between Maghrib and Egypt.). The crops al-Bakri mentioned include wheat, sorghum, date palms, fig trees, and henna shrubs (the leaves of which produce a reddish brown dye). The vegetable gardens were watered with buckets, which was the usual method in Sahel towns and Sahara oases.”

“Awdaghust sat astride a trade route for gold shipped northward to the city of Sijilmasa in southern Morocco, where it was minted into coins. The overland caravan journey between Awdaghust and Sijilmasa took two months. The Arab geographer Ibn Hawqal visited Sijilmasa took two months. The Arab geographer Ibn Hawqal visited Sijilmasa in 951 and reported witnessing a steady volume of trade with lands below the Sahara, with “abundant profits and the constant coming and going of caravans” (quoted in Levtzion and Hopkins).”

“The main traders of Awdaghust were Berbers of the Zanata clan from the Atlas mountain region in Morocco. In the 10th century, city-dwelling Zanata traders began to dominate trans-Saharan commerce between Awdaghust in south and Sijilmasa in the north. But it was the Sanhaja nomads of the desert who really held power over the urban markets.”

“The Sanhaja are sometimes called the “the people of the veil” because the men cover their faces (not the women, as is the case in many Muslim societies). The Sanhaja avoided living in the city because they preferred living in tents and wandering the wide open spaces on their camels.”

“From out in the desert they exerted great authority over all avenues leading to the cities. The Sanhaja derived their income from the control of the trade routes. They were the guides and protectors for some caravans, but they demanded tolls from others, or simply raided and plundered them. The Sanhaja were also the real power in control of trade revenues in Awadagust. But they lost that revenue around the middle of the 11th century when the Soninke of Ghana took control of Awdaghust.”

“The Zanata traders of the city accepted their authority, which caused the Sanhaja people of the desert to lose an important source of income. The Sanhaja never eventually get their revenge on the Soninke through the Almoravids, Muslim Berber rulers from Morocco who took control of the Islamic Empire around 1085. The Almoravids’s empire eventually reached from Senegal through the Maghrib to Spain. They competed with the Soninke for control of trade and had a great impact on 11th-century Ghana.” 

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

Islam in the African-American Experience

“Mervyn Hiskett describes the Islamic lands of West Africa as the area commonly referred to as “the west and central Sudan”…extending from the desert scrub in the “north” to the southern edge of savanna in the south. From west to east it extends across this scrub and savanna belt, from the Atlantic coast to the eastern shore of Lake Chad.”

“Arab and Berber Muslims from Egypt and North Africa first established contact with this area in the eighth century through the caravan trade across the Sahara, which was inhabited by Berber nomads and black town dwellers. The merchants initially involved in this trade were interested mostly in gold, ivory, and slaves, not in proselytizing.”

“By 990, however, the Arabic geographer al Muhallabi reported that the West African city of Gao had a mosque and a Muslim ruler. In the tenth century, the desert trading city of Tadmakatt was also an important source of Islamic ideas for West Africa. During the same period, the empire of Ghana, which was the center of the gold trade, already had a separate Muslim district and employed Muslims in governmental affairs, even though its ruler was a Soninke polytheist.”

“A-Bakri’s account of Ghana in the eleventh century indicates that the racial and cultural separatism characteristic of West African Islam was already evident in the capital city of this empire: The city of Ghana consists of two towns in a plain. One of these towns is inhabited by Muslims.”

“It is large with a dozen mosques in one of which they assemble for the Friday prayer. There are salaried imams and muezzins, as well as jurist and scholars… In the eleventh century, Islam first became a major factor in West African history when the orthodox “Muslim militants”-the Almoravids, led by Abu Bakr, organized the Sanhaja Berbers in a holy war against the non-Muslims in western Sudan.”

“The motivation for this jihad was economic as well as religious, for the Almoravids wanted to control the northern end of the desert caravan routes. Eventually, they succeeded in making Islam the official religion of the empire of Ghana and Islamicized some of the black kingdoms and towns in Sudan. Although historians dispute whether the Almoravids came to power in Ghana by military force or peaceful means, it is certain that they quickly lost their military and political advantages over the Soninke people and eventually became wandering scholars and preachers of Islam in Sudan.”

“Indeed, black Muslims in West Africa were not seriously affected by the military power of the Muslims world again until the Moroccan invasion of Songhay in the sixteenth century. The Arab and Berber advance in West African societies often occurred in subtle stages over a long period of time.”

“First, Muslims established contact with Sudan as visiting merchants and craftspeople to obtain slaves and precious minerals. Eventually, some of these merchants would settle in a permanent trading outpost in West African towns and villas as African leaders began to  perceive the advantages of economic ties with North Africa and the Middle East. These immigrant merchants and craftspeople were the first representatives of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa.”

“Although the impression of these different Muslims influenced the West African black ruling elite and merchants to convert to Islam, they had little impact on the traditional religous praxis of West African peoples in rural areas before modernity. The racial seperatism of West African Islam resulted from the signfiication of black Muslim identiies by rich and poowerful black rulers who attempted to reconcile their new religion with African traditional religous cultural praxis.

“Thus, as we shall see, North African and Middle Eastern Muslims and blacks were deliberarely segregated from each other in seperate residential areas in West African cities and towns, to ensure that Islam would be used to the economic, political and cultural advantage of black ruling elites. In the Muslim state of Takur (inhabited by the Tukolor people), the Jolof empire of the Wolof, the Senegambian villages and towns established by Mande traders, Mali, Songhay, the issues of signification and seperatism were played out in the context of West African Islam.”

“In these locations West African Muslims attempted to defined their identities both as Muslims and as ethnic people in light of the competition between their allegienace to the religions and cultures of their ethnic groups and the beliefs and practices of orthodox Islam from North Africa and the Middle East.”

Forty years later, Mansa Musa’s fame had spread to Europe as map-makers put Mali on the Catalan map of West Africa and referred to its ruler as “Lord of the Negroes of Guinea.” They described his country’s gold as “so abundant…that he is the richest and most noble king in all the land. Mansa Musa had inherited the mantale of leadership from a long line of black Muslim kings from the Kieta clan of the Mandinka cheifdoms. This line included Sundita (c.1230-1255), a Mandinka Muslim convert who had bult the vast empire of Mali on the ruins of Ghana, thus unifiying the Mandinka people; Mans Uli, the son of Sundiata, wo was the first in his Askiya Benkan was abruptly replaced by Askiya Ismail in 1537.”

“Political stability returned to Songhay from 1539 to 1591 under the ruler of Askiya Iskaq I and Askiya Daud. Some of the political tensions in sixteenth-century Songhay resulted from different rulers efforts to reconcile Islam, the relgion of the urban ruling elite, with the African cultural particularism of the traditional religions which were also practiced by the rulers and the peasants.”

“This tension between orthodox Islam and African cultural particularism was at the heart of what made West African Islam a vibrant and distincitive religous tradition in the world of Islam. Although West African Muslims had signifiedi themselves as the people they wanted to be through their embrace of Islam and seperarated themselves from the judgments of non-black Muslims from North Africa, they could not united politiclaly and militarily to sustain their powerful Isslamic empires in the modern era. On the even of modernity, Islam in Wet Africa was destined for radical changes, although its themes of radical cultural particularism, singification, and jihad were destined to live on as a paradigm endemic to global Islam, and would later be utilized by black Muslims in America.” 

“In 1591, the Songhay empire fell when it supposed ally, Morocco, invaded the country to seize its salt mines. Although Songhay had carefull developed diplomatic and cultural ties with North Africa, the Moroccan sultan wanted complete control over the salt mines, gold, and slaves of the Sudan, which legally belonged, in part, to Songhay. This was a watershed event in West African history for several reasons.”

“First, it signaled the end of the mighty economic and political power of the empires that had sustained West African Islam.”

“Second, Timbuktu, the great West African city, declined as black Muslim intellectual center.”

“Third, the focus of West African Islam changed radically as Islam centered a period of decline which lasted until the nineteenth century.”

“Fourth, the fall of Songhay signaled the beginning of modernity, during which cataclysmic changes in the instittion of slavery wre destined to change the fortunes of African peoples in the world. By the beginnnig of the sixteenth century, it became clear to informed observers that Arab Muslims had a seperate and radical agenda for black Muslims in West Africa.”

“They were enslaving them in record numbers under the banner of jihad and taking control of the rich mineral resourcs of their lands. This was clearly against the laws of Islam. The issue of the enslavement of West African Muslims by their Arab co-religionist had still not been resolved in 1614 when Ahmad Baba, a Muslim scholar from Timbuktu, wrote a legal interpreation of the issue: Whoever is captured in a condition of non belief, it is legal to own him, whosoever he maby be, but not he was converted to Islam voluntarily from the start, to any nation he belongs, whether it is Bornu, Kano, Songhai, Katsinsa, Gobir, Mali and some of Zakzak. These are free Muslims, whose enslavement is not allowed in nay way.” 


Source: Islam in the African-American Experience By Richard Brent Turner

1468 Songhai invaded Timbuktu and conquered Berbers

The Songhai Empire was the largest empire and became the last of the three major empires in West Africa. The empire existed from circa 1375 to 1591. It was one of the largest Muslim-populated empires in history.

The rise of Songhai was due to the decline of the Mali Empire after the death of its last and strongest king, Mansa Musa, in 1337.

The decline was traced to the period when Emperor Mansa Musa embarked on an extravagant pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. The king also failed to stop the invasion of Berber conquerors, who ruled Timbuktu for some time.

Subsequently, Sunni Ali in 1468 became the leader of Songhai, invaded Timbuktu, and conquered the Berbers.

He began a campaign of conquest and established the capital of the empire at Gao on the Niger River.

The Tomb of Askia the Great and evidently the most important of all emperors of the West African ancient empires was built in Songhai. The mosque in Gao is one of the most notable in West Africa.

The empire gained more recognition and importance through the control of the trade routes and the trade in slaves. Songhai eventually took control of Timbuktu and Jenne (Kabir Abdlkareem)

Citing African Kingdoms: An Encyclopedia of Empires and Civilizations