Saturday, May 9, 2009

The History of West Africa: Ancient Mali - Ancient Ghana - Songhai - Kanem Bornu

Ancient Ghana

It is generally accepted that the ancient state of Ghana emerged sometime around the 7th century AD. Its oral records however, which list over 144 kings, place its existence sometime around the 7th century BC. The actual name of this state was Wagadugu. It was the Arabs and Europeans who would mistake the word Ghana, meaning ruler, for the actual name of the state. The kingship of Ghana, as with all Sahelian monarchies to follow, was matrilineal. It was the sister of the king who provided the heir to the throne. Ghana's kingdom consisted of a monarchy quite different from those of their contemporary European counterparts. The king was assisted by a People's Council whose members were chosen from the various social strata. This social organization indicates a long evolution of political development that extends well beyond the kingdom's founding.

Fueled by its economic vitality, the kingdom of Ghana rapidly expanded into an empire. It conquered local minor states, requiring tribute from these subordinate vassals. This tribute, however, was not the main form of Ghana's wealth. Ancient Ghana boasted a mixed economy of extensive agriculture, iron smelting, stonemasonry, carpentery, pottery, goldsmithing, and cloth manufacturing. A strong trade emerged in goods that passed from western Africa east to Egypt and the Middle East. This trade primarily involved gold, salt, copper, and even war captives to be sold as slaves. Pictured above is a gold weight from the Akan people of Ghana. Evidene connects the Akan to the great Kingdom of Ghana. It is seen in names like Danso, shared by the Akans of present day Ghana and the Mandikas of Senegal and Gambia, who have strong links with the medieval kingdom. The matrilineal practice is also shared.

The kingdom of Ghana never converted to Islam, even though northern Africa had been dominated by the faith since the eighth century. The Ghanaian court, however, allowed Muslims to settle in the cities and even encouraged Muslim specialists to help the royal court administer the government and advise on legal matters. Unlike the Ghanaians however, their northern neighbors the fervently converted to Islam. In 1076, calling themselves Almoravids, they declared a holy war, or jihad, against the state of Ghana. The Almoravids destroyed the kingdom, converting a great deal of northern Ghanians. After this however Ghana ceases to be a commercial or military power. For a brief time (1180-1230), the Soso people, who were strongly anti-Muslim, controlled a kingdom making up the southern portions of the Ghanaian empire, but the Almoravid conquest effectively halted the growth of kingdoms and empires in the Sahel for almost a century. It was to be Mali who would later pick up the legacy of the Sahelien states.

Ancient Mali

Located in west Africa is the second great Sahelian kingdom: Mali. The Sahel is the savannah region south of the Sahara which, after 750 AD, became the center of culturally and politically dynamic cities and kingdoms because of the strategic importance of the Sahel for trade across north Africa. The historical founder of Mali was a mystic by the name of Sundjata Keita or Sundiata. An historic figure, was said to have begun as a royal servant and magician among the Soso peoples who then ruled the Ghanian empire. According to African oral histories the small state of Kangaba, led by Sundiata defeated the nearby kingdom of Soso at the Battle of Kirina in 1235. The Soso had been led by king Sumanguru Kante. The clans of the heartland unified under the vigorous Sundiata, now king of the vast region that was to become the Mali Empire, beginning a period of expansion. The rulers of Mali nominally converted to Islam, but held strong ties with traditional Mande religions. Sundiata was said to have ruled Mali from 1230-1255. Under Sundiata and his immediate successors, Mali expanded rapidly west to the Atlantic Ocean, south deep into the forest, east beyond the Niger River, and north to the salt and copper mines of the Sahara. The city of Niani may have been the capital. At its height, Mali was a confederation of 3 independent, freely allied states (Mali, Mema, and Wagadou) and 12 garrisoned provinces.

The most significant of the Mali kings was Mansa Musa(1312-1337) who expanded Mali influence over the large Niger city-states of Timbuctu, Gao, and Djenné. Mansa Musa was a devout Muslim who built magnificent mosques all throughout the Mali sphere of influence. In 1324 Mansa Musa made a pilgrimage to Mecca with an entourage of 60,000 people and 80 camels carrying more than two tons of gold to be distributed among the poor. Of the 12,000 servants 500 carried a staff of pure gold. It has been said that the gold markets of regions such as Egypt were ruined for months or years after Musa's visit through their respective kingdoms. Mansa Musa's fame as well as that of his state was known far and wide. This panel is of the Catalan Map of Charles V (1375). It is entitled, Mansu Musa: Lord of the Negroes of Guinea. (Photo courtesy of History of Africa)

It was under Mansa Musa that Timbuctu became one of the major cultural centers not only of Africa but of the entire world. Under Mansa Musa's patronage, vast libraries were built and "madrasas" (Islamic universities) were endowed; Timbuctu became a meeting-place of the finest poets, scholars, and artists of Africa and the Middle East. Even after the power of Mali declined, Timbuctu remained the major Islamic center of sub-Saharan Africa. Timbuctu's sister city of Djenne was also an important center of learning. Recent archaeology has placed the antiquity of Djenne at 200 to 250BC. After the death of Mansa Musa, the power of Mali began to decline. Losing its sphere of influence, its subject states began to break off and establish themselves independently. In 1430 Tuareg Berbers in the north seized much of Mali's territory, including the city of Timbuctu. A decade later the Mossi kingdom to the seized much of Mali's southern territories. Finally, the kingdom of Gao, which had been subjugated to Mali under Mansa Musa, gave rise to a Songhay kingdom that eventually eclipsed the magnificent power that was once Mali. Pictured above is the famous Mosque at Djenne. (Photo courtesy of World Heritage City)

Songhai: Africa's Largest Empire

With the decline of Mali, the kingdom of Gao reasserted itself as the major kingdom in the Sahel. The people of Songhai were farmers and fisherman who lived along the Niger River of West Africa. After centuries of trade with merchants from across the desert, they were converted to Islam around the 1200s.

A Songhai kingdom in the region of Gao had existed since the eleventh century AD, but it had come under the control of Mali in 1325. In the late fourteenth century, Gao reasserted itself with the Sunni dynasty. Songhai would not fully eclipse Mali until the reign of the Sunni king, Sonni Ali, who reigned from 1464-1492.

Sonni Ali aggressively turned the kingdom of Gao into the Songhai empire. Ali based his military on a cavalry and a highly mobile fleet of ships. With this military, he conquered the cities of Timbuctu and Djenne, the major cities of the Mali.

Great Mosque of Djenne

He also appointed qadis, Muslim judges, to run the legal system under Islamic legal principles. These programs of conquest, centralization, and standardization were the most ambitious and far-reaching in Africa at the time. However, while urban centers were dominated by Islam non-urban areas retained traditional African spiritual systems. The vast majority of the Songhai people of the time, around 97%, retained traditional African spiritual practices - even when accepting Islam. Thus within West African Islam itself, the many cultures that made up Songhai shaped various African traditional beliefs around it. This fusion of African spirituality and Islam was reflected in everything from philosophy to architecture
The Berbers, who had always played such a crucial role in the downfall of Sahelian kingdoms, were driven from the region.

Roughly around the same year Christopher Columbus reached the western hemisphere, Askia Muhammad Toure (1493-1528), established the Askia dynasty of Songhai. Muhammad Toure continued Sonni Ali's imperial expansion by seizing the important Saharan oases and conquering Mali itself. From there he went on to conquer the land of the Hausas.

The vastness of Askia Mohammed's kingdom covered most of West Africa, larger than all of the European states of the era combined. With literally several thousand cultures under its control, Songhai ranked as one of the largest empires of the time.

In order to maintain his large empire Muhammad Toure further centralized the government by creating a large and elaborate bureaucracy. He was also the first to standardize weights, measures, and currency, causing culture throughout Songhai to homogenize. Muhammad Toure, a fervent Muslim, he replaced traditional Songhai administrators with Muslims in order to "Islamicize" Songhai society.

Rendering of West African Gold Merchants Using Weights and Measurements:

He also appointed qadis, Muslim judges, to run the legal system under Islamic legal principles. These programs of conquest, centralization, and standardization were the most ambitious and far-reaching in Africa at the time. However, while urban centers were dominated by Islam non-urban areas retained traditional African spiritual systems. The vast majority of the Songhai people of the time, around 97%, retained traditional African spiritual practices - even when accepting Islam. Thus within West African Islam itself, the many cultures that made up Songhai shaped various African traditional beliefs around it. This fusion of African spirituality and Islam was reflected in everything from philosophy to architecture

The Mausoleum of Askia Muhammed, at Gao Mali

Under the leadership of Askia Mohammed, the city of Timbuctu once again became a prosperous commercial city, reaching a population of 100,000 people. Merchants and traders traveled from Asia, the Middle East and Europe to exchange their exotic wares for the gold of Songhai. Timbuctu gained fame as an intellectual center rivaling many others in the Muslim world.

Students from various parts of the world had long come to Timbuctu's famous University of Sankore to study Law and Medicine. Medieval Europe sent emissaries to the University of Sankore to witness its excellent libraries with manuscripts and to consult with mathematicians, astronomers, physicians, and jurists whose intellectual endeavors were said to be paid for out of the king's own treasury.

Unfortunately for Songhai it was to be its very size that would lead to its downfall. A vastly spread empire, it encompassed more territory than could actually be controlled. After the reign of Askia Duad, subject peoples began to revolt. Even Songhai's massive army, said to be over 35,000 soldiers, archers and chain-mailed cavalry, could not keep order. The first major region to declare independence was Hausaland; then much of the Maghreb (Morocco) rebelled and gained control over crucial gold mines.

The Moroccans defeated Songhai in 1591 and the empire quickly collapsed. Their victory was due in part to new forms of European weaponry acquired from Spain and Portugal. The Songhai rulers were forced to retreat southward to the Dendi region near the Niger River. They would retain ruler ship for a time over their own people, but the powerful military and prosperity of their empire would never recover.

Under the Moroccans the scholars at Timbuctu were arrested for treason and some even killed or taken back to Morocco. The university of Sankore destroyed. Ahmed Baba, an African university scholar of the time, is reputed to have lost over 1,500 books from his personal collection alone under the Moroccan occupation. By 1612, the remaining cities of Songhai fell into general disarray, with Morocco unable to keep the empire intact or same from attack under their rule. Numerous states broke off to form smaller independent kingdoms or federations. And one of the greatest empires of African history disappeared from the world stage. Not since then has any African nation rose to prominence and wealth as did mighty Songhai.

For more information see the following:

Adeleke, Tunde. Songhay

Hale, Thomas A. The Epic of Askia Mohommad

Hunwick, John. Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire: Al-Sa 'Di's Ta'Rikh Al-Sudan Down to 1613 and other Contemporary Documents

Koslow, Philip. Songhai: The Empire Builders

Mann, Kenny. Ghana, Mali and Songhai: The Western Sudan

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Kanem-Bornu & The Hausa States

Ghana, Mali and Songhai had come and gone on the African stage. Near central Africa another great empire called Kanem would rise around 1200AD. Kanem was originally a confederation of various ethnic groups, but by 1100AD, a people called the Kanuri settled in Kanem and in the thirteenth century the Kanuri began upon a conquest of their neighbors. They were led by Mai Dunama Dibbalemi (1221-1259), the first of the Kanuri to convert to Islam. Dibbalemi declared physical jihad (holy war) against surrounding minor states and so began one of the most dynamic periods of conquest in Africa.

At the height of their empire, the Kanuri controlled territory from Libya to Lake Chad to Hausaland. These were strategic areas, as all the commercial traffic through North Africa had to pass through Kanuri territory. As a result of the military and commercial growth of Kanem, the once nomadic Kanuri eventually turned to a more sedentary way of life.

Pictured here is a painting of the king of Bornu in royal procession arriving at one of his provincial residences around 1850AD.

Pictured here are Bornu horsemen trumpeters sounding the Frum-Frums.

In the late 1300's, civil strife within Kanuri territory began to seriously weaken the empire. By the early 1400's, Kanuri power shifted from Kanem to Bornu, a Kanuri kingdom south and west of Lake Chad.

When Songhai fell, this new Kanuri Empire of Bornu grew rapidly. The Kanuri grew powerful enough to unite the kingdom of Bornu with Kanem during the reign of Idris Alawma (1575-1610).

Idris Alawma, a fervent Muslim, set about building an Islamic state all the way west into Hausaland in northern Nigeria. This state would last for another two hundred years, but in 1846, it finally succumbed to the growing power of the Hausa states.

Bornu Horsemen

The Bornu were well known for their cavalry. These trumpeters may have served to lead the medieval African kingdom's powerful shock troops into battle.

The Hausa States

Around 1100AD hills rich in iron ore dotted the landscape of the region that would come to be known as Hausaland, between the eastern reaches of the Niger River to the west and Lake Chad in the east. Until the 1100's, Hausaland was made up of a number of decentralized agricultural and pastoral villages.

Map of Hausa Kingdoms:

There are different versions of Hausa origin myths that allude to several of these high places as sites of important hill-cults. On these sacred grounds, priests or cult-guardians exercised religious and political power within local societies active in agriculture and trade.

Scholars disagree about the precise nature of Hausa growth. Some have argued that the Hausa came from the north (southern Sahara), others from the east (Lake Chad), still others that the Hausa were the indigenous inhabitants of the region. But most generally agree that sometime around 1000AD, localized cult sites and markets began to evolve into walled towns called "birane" and ruled local rulers called "sarkis".

These rulers were no doubt intent on exploiting the agricultural and mineral wealth of the surrounding countryside and its inhabitants. This growing political power of the cities led in time to an extensive "Hausaization" of the lands between the Niger and Lake Chad. Beginning in the late twelfth century, these villages combined into several kingdoms ruled by partly divine kings. The first of these centralized kingdoms was Daura.

1959 picture of Kano, a city that traces back to one of the early Hausa kingdoms.

Being in close contact with one another, these kingdoms all shared a common language, Hausa. In the late 1300's Islam began to filter into Hausaland through traveling merchants. But the pace was relatively slow. It was not until the 1450's that a group of people from the Senegal River, known as the Fulani, began immigrating in large numbers into Hausaland that a strong Islamic presence took root.

The Fulani immigration was driven by the desertification of north and western Africa. A pastoral people, the Fulani were in search of a land that could support their herds. Devoutly Muslim, with a great deal of indigenous beliefs intermingled therein, the Fulani not only brought Islam and its teachings, but also began to set up Islamic schools and learning centers all throughout Hausaland.

The Hausa, particularly after the influence of Islam, were closely allied with Kanem-Bornu to the east. Because of the military presence of Kanem-Bornu, the Hausa kingdoms were relatively stable and peaceful.

Pictured here is the 11th century Gobirau Minaret at Katsina, Nigeria. Mosque architecture reflects a synthesis of local African and imported traditions, some of great duration.

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