Scholar-Griot: Rebecca Allyson Schnabel, M.S.

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While knights rode approximately medieval Europe, the three an excellent empires of West Africa flourished through unimaginable wealth. Ghana, Mali and Songhai controlled an ext gold and conducted more worldwide trade than any type of European power right now in history.

Three beforehand West afri Empires

(Note: these historic realms are no the countries bearing the very same names today. Also note: "CE" stands for "Common Era" and, favor "AD," actions the years as counted by Christian scholar from the birth of Jesus.)

Ghana (Wagadu) – 300 CE -1235 CE

Traditionally known as Wagadu, the empire of Ghana was the very first of the good Western afri Empires. Situated additional north 보다 the contemporary Republic that Ghana, this to be the smallest but longest making it through of this three historical domains. Located in between two major rivers, the Niger and the Senegal, and also bordered through the Sahara come the east, Ghana came to be the facility of trade in between the Arabs and also Berbers in the north regions and other African cultures to the south. Bringing under salt from north Africa, the Arabs and Berbers traded in Ghana because that gold and also ivory.

Empire the Ghana (Wagadu)

Ghana’s wealth thrived through a double taxation system put on your most valuable commodity, gold. Human being were taxed as soon as bringing yellow in and again as soon as taking it out of the empire. Ghana likewise profited indigenous the exportation that gold. Yellow dust to be the main currency of the time. Salt, however, is important for person survival and also rare the additional south persons travels. Together the desire and also need for more trade grew, the nomadic Berbers produced the western trans-Saharan caravan road. Many thanks to this elaborate highway system, Mediterranean traders can travel south to afri strongholds choose Ghana to exchange your salt for ivory and also gold.

This 1985 Azalai salt caravan continues the heritage of trans-Saharan trade.

Leaders in Ghana, the Soninke, regulated to keep their main source of gold, the Bambuk mines, a mystery from the foreign traders. The Soninke retained the main point of pure steel for themselves, accumulating an excellent wealth, and also left the unworked native gold to it is in marketed by the usual people. Historians think this global trade path mobilized thousands of thousands the Africans, v the yellow of Ghana reaching far away European and also Asian countries.

The degeneration of this empires arisen due to political turmoil from within and also invaders that penetrated Ghana’s boarders and sacked their good cities. Scholars tell us there were invasions from the north by teams like the Almoravids, and by the quick lived Sosso Kingdom. Sundiata Keita, founder that the Mali empire, likewise took advantage of the weakness of Ghana. An altering trading routes played a major role in its decrease as well, as did civil wars due to religious differences. Many human being in Ghana rubbish Islam, preferring their traditional id systems.

For additional readings top top the political solution and major leaders of Ghana see chronicler Phillip Curtin’s occupational titled African History, the Cambridge history of Africa, and the UNESCO collection on the General background of Africa (GHA).

Mali – 1230 CE – 1460 CE

Out of the ashes of Ghana came the next good civilization of its time –– and the richest kingdom ever before to exist in world background — the Mali Empire. The roots of Mali start within old Ghana and the Malinke inhabitants of Kangaba, who served as middlemen trading gold to foreigners. Sundiata Keita climbed up native his little kingdom the Kangaba, won the people’s support, conquered the critical stronghold of old Ghana, and also began the reign of the Mali Empire. His successors expanded the empire to envelope the trading towns of Timbuktu and Gao and also northern regions such together Taghaza, comprise the highly an important salt deposits. Mali swallowed up the wide range of Ghana and also expanded top top their practices with good success.

In 1312 CE, Musa the first or Mansa (meaning King or Emperor) Musa take it the throne that Mali. He had an military of over 100,000 including a cavalry of more than 10,000 men. This army was a formidable fighting force, which permitted Mansa Musa to twin the size of his kingdom. That is remembered many notably as the richest male who ever before lived.

Mansa Musa, the richest man in history.

Ruling the gold center of the world, Mansa Musa’s wealth is incomprehensible. Being a dedicate Muslim, Mansa Musa traveled throughout the continent and brought back scholars and architects. These professionals would create universities and also mosques. His 4,000 mile expedition to Mecca offered him the possibility to show his sacrament to the usual people. Mansa Musa’s presents of gold to common human being throughout his hajj destabilized the entire Egyptian economy. His good generosity literally placed him on the map. In 1375 Mansa Musa was depicted on the Catalan Atlas, among the many important people maps of middle ages Europe. That was shown with a golden scepter and also crown, sit upon a golden throne.

The Catalan Atlas was one of the most important civilization maps that its day. Mansa Musa of Mali, as among the world"s most crucial leaders, was pictured top top it offering some that his gold.

However, Mansa Musa added far an ext to the world than gold. In one early form of globalization, Mansa Musa sent ambassadors across the continent that Africa. In Mali he grew "a place of splendor, wealth, and sophistication," attracting European and Middle east travelers alike. Mansa Musa also modernized the an excellent city of Timbuktu, structure public schools, universities, and also mosques. These encompass the legend Djinguereber, the oldest mosque in Timbuktu, constructed in 1327, which quiet stands today. The holds among the world’s oldest universities tho in existence.

Unfortunately, emperors who adhered to would lose control of several smaller says within Mali, resulting in disunity, revolt, and the erosion of main power. Together Mali climbed from the loss of Ghana, for this reason Songhai would assert that is independent strength over the region, arising as the next an excellent Western african Empire.


Songhai (also assignment Songhay) – 1460 CE – 1600 CE

While Mali quickly fell apart due to rampant disunity, a brand-new king reigned. Sonni Ali rule Songhai native 1464 come 1492. The Songhai kingdom to be a small contemporary state of Ghana however later climbed to loss its Malian conquerers. The Songhai controlled the profession on the Niger river at the moment of the Mali Empire. With endless campaigns for expansion, Songhai came to be the largest of the three good empires of western Africa –– and also larger than every one of continental Europe. The Songhai kingdom under Ali had actually the just naval fleet in West Africa. Ali was a army tyrant, additionally referred to together Sunni the Merciless, intolerant of any kind of resistance to his rule. That is well-known for having starved the citizens of famous trading city of Djenné right into submission. These brutal tactics describe how the realm grew so big in together a short amount of time, additionally suggesting why the realm would last just as briefly. Sonni Ali is also known, however, for his wise economic decisions, reviving the ancient trade courses of empires past. Under his reign, substantial commercial cities choose Djenné, Gao, and also Timbuktu became good centers the learning and scholarship.

King Sonni Ali (as portrayed by the afri Heritage Foundation)

Another proficient ruler of the Songhai realm was Askia the Great. Known for encouraging global trade in between Songhai and also both Europe and also Asia, Askia was also known because that his spiritual tolerance. Choose the rulers prior to him that both Songhai and also Mali, Askia the an excellent was a devout Muslim. The opened religious schools and mosques throughout the empire. Oral histories relate the he go not force Islam on his human being or punish those who chose to think otherwise. Simultaneously orchestrating a strategy that expansion and consolidation, Askia the an excellent did not kind his domain along classic Islamic lines. He instead instituted a system of governmental government unparalleled right now in west Africa. The Songhai empire possessed some of Africa’s earliest arranged taxation systems and also trade regulations, proceeding the ancestral trade routes of gold, ivory, and also salt. Amongst Askia’s well-known economic and military achievements is his less well-known interest in and also influence ~ above the development of the field of astronomy.

By the 17th century satellite kingdoms follow me the borders started to rebel, and also civil wars developed across the empire. The central power of the emperor likewise fell into consistent strife as decedents fought over the right to rule. V the empire splintering except within, the neighboring an ar of Morocco determined to take advantage and launched an invasion. Despite having a tenth that the manpower, the Moroccan muskets far outperformed the traditional spears and also arrows the the Songhai military. Moroccan leader Ahmad al-Mansur al-Dhahabi, recognized as ‘the golden Conqueror,’ seized the Songhai treasure. The eventually took in all the the empire into a Moroccan province, dissolve the last of the an excellent Western african Empires.

In Conclusion

Like countless historic empires, Ghana, Mali, and also Songhai, go not survive into modern-day times. However, castle were fundamental in shaping the civilization we live in today. Countless European, center Eastern, and also Asian strongholds would certainly not have prospered there is no the trade from this African Empires. This African societies not only influenced the global economy, they additionally shaped the world"s art, culture, and religion through global trade. These empires listed protection and also resources to many good African and Muslim scholars, thereby supporting the development of science, philosophy, and also other forms of knowledge throughout the globe.


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Rebecca Schnabel is a graduate the UW-Milwaukee’s master of Public history and Museum researches Certificate programs. She strives come cultivate a sense of neighborhood through engaging endeavors that connect history with the present, an especially through empowering the general public to use their own agency while exploring exhibitions on society justice. Rebecca’s enthusiasm does not reside in one certain historical era or geographic location, but instead in illuminating underrepresented histories. Her specialties encompass interpretation, collection management, and exhibit design. To learn more, you re welcome visit her virtual portfolio: