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