Africa and its Golden Age of Empires

The Bantu
Before the age of empires Sub-Saharan
Africa was extremely diversified.  Unlike parts of Europe , Asia , and north Africa, it was never united under a universal religion or empire/state. 

Some African societies were stateless, organized around kinship and family obligation with no centralized authority.  Government in these societies was never a full time occupation; there were no large armies, no large-scale political organization, no large building projects, nor were there conditions to conduct long-distant trade with other people.   

What similarities there were resulted from the earlier migration of the Bantu people.  Their root language created common structure and vocabularies across African languages and dialects; this allowed some mutual understanding among various tribes.   

Most African tribes also had similarities in their belief systems.  They were animistic, believing in a world controlled by spiritual forces and gods.  These forces had to be dealt with through a specialist who would proscribe rituals, sacrifices, or some other form of religious practice to affect events.  These beliefs created a view of how the universe worked and how one should ethically relate oneself to it.  Their dead ancestors, the first settlers of the land, were the true owners of the land, and had a role in harvests and fertility.  Thus land was more than just a source of agriculture; it took on religious significance.  

As far as the economies of Africa are concerned, the north was fully integrated with the Mediterranean and Arab worlds of trade.  The Sub-Saharan was a completely different.  Its economies were primarily local and regional and varied so much that it is impossible to generalize about them.


The Bantu migrations served to create a linguistic basis for much of sub-Saharan Africa.  Iron forging technology and the introduction of bananas, a food source from southeast Asia well suited to Africa's interior, are two important factors that facilitated the migration of Bantu speaking people.

The Christian Kingdoms: Nubia and Ethiopia

As Islam spread across north Africa, there remained “islands” of Christianity in the midst of its civilizations.  Christianity came to Africa before Islam.  Nubia and Ethiopia (originally known as Axum or Aksum ) had had Christian communities for several centuries before the Muslims came.  Originally tied to Byzantine Christianity, they eventually split from them and developed their own unique Christian practices (known as Coptic).  When the Muslims came, they tolerated the Coptic communities and gave them some limited rights.   

The most important Christian community in Africa was Ethiopia .  Surrounded by Muslims and pagans, they took to the highland areas and became self-sufficient.  They famously carved churches out of the mountain rock (see picture to the right).  In the 16th century, the Ethiopian Christians were threatened by a neighboring Muslim state.  The Portuguese arrived and drove the Muslims back and in return attempted to convert the Ethiopians to Roman Catholicism.  This failed and Ethiopia remained an isolated, Christian, and fiercely independent civilization.    

Church of St. George in Ethiopia is carved from a single rock.  Ethiopian Christianity (Coptic) is an example of a form of Christianity largely unaffected by Christian developments in Europe, such as Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. 

The Golden Age Empires: Ghana, Mali and Songhai


The best known of the Iron Age states is Ghana (no direct connection or geographic overlap with the modern nation of Ghana that gained its independence from Britain in 1957.  

Trans-Saharan trade was revolutionized between the 3rd-5th centuries when the Berber people introduced the camel to the region.  The traders from the Ghana area formed the link between the important resources of salt from the northern part of Africa , and the gold from the sub-Saharan region. This connection integrated them into the Mediterranean world and its trade connections with the other (now weakening) classical civilizations.  Their control of the trans-Saharan gold trade allowed them to fund a large army and rise to empire status.

After the 7th century their trading partners to the north were Muslims.  Islam was at first only tolerated but by the 11th century it seems the Ghana kings converted.  However, this did not lead to the wider acceptance of Islam by the population.  Kings seemed to have understood the economic benefits of tolerating Islam since it put them on good terms with their trading partners to the north.  

The ruling kings of Ghana were from the Soninke family whose power depended on their claim that the Soninke king personally had rights over all gold nuggets (as opposed to gold dust).  This became an automatic form of taxation which helped them stay in power.  


The Empire of Ghana (750-1036)




The Mali Empire (1235-1670)


The Great Mosque at Jenné (to the right) is a vivid reminder of the presence and role of Islam in the Golden Age Empires.  What does the construction and appearance of this Mosque tell us about the role of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa? 



In the early 1200s the chief of the Malinke people challenged the authority of the ruling Soninke family.  The king Sundiata triumphed over the Soninke people and established the most legendary West African empire of all, Mali .  The story of Sundiata, also called the Lion Prince, is the most famous epic from Africa , forming a rich literary tradition in the same way that Homer did for the Greeks and the legend of King Author did for the English. (A reference to the epic of Sundiata can be found in the opening of chapter 19 in your textbook.)  This story forms a good example for the syncretic nature of African religion: Sundiata is described as a devout Muslim but is still concerned with pleasing the traditional spirits as well.  

The empire of Mali stretched for thousands of miles from the west Atlantic coast of Africa across the sub-Saharan savanna.  The empire was more developed and oversaw much more extensive agriculture than Ghana did.   

It was ruled by kings called Mansas.  Ibn Battuta, a famous Muslim traveler, visited Mali ’s capital in 1352, and described the rule of these Mansas thus:  

The Negroes possess some admirable qualities. They are seldom unjust and have a greater abhorrence of injustice than other people. Their Mansa shows no mercy to anyone least guilty of the act of injustice.  There is complete security in their country.  Neither traveler nor inhabitant has anything to fear from robbers or men of violence.  

The most famous Mansa of the empire of Mali was Mansa Musa. In 1324-1325 he made his famous hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca ) which became very famous for the display of extravagance shown en route.  He took 100 camels just to carry gold which he gave out as gifts along the way.  He was served by 500 slaves.  In Cairo ( Egypt ) he gave away so much gold that the resulting surplus caused its devaluation there. This famous pilgrimage was significant for 2 reasons.  First of all, it put Mali “on the map” of the medieval world.  Word of his wealth and extravagance spread quickly and brought attention to Mali .  Secondly, it shows the more serious role of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa.  This display of devotion certainly denotes a more serious attitude toward Islam than the mere toleration shown by many of Ghana ’s kings. 


Songhai (This Empire falls under Unit III)

As the Mali kings eventually lost power in the late 14th and early 15 century, rule moved slightly east to the kingdom of Songhai along the Niger River .  The founder of this new empire was Sonni Ali, a self-proclaimed Muslim, although many question his devotion to Islam and it appears that he exploited the religion to centralize his own political power (think of the combined roles of military, religious, and political authority taught by Islam).  Ali was a military conqueror whose success, in part, lie in his use of war boats along the Niger River . The primary opposition to Sunni Ali's rule were the Muslim scholars at Timbuktu (see below). Ali ruthlessly persecuted them when they challenged his power. 

The Songhai ’s empire was finally destroyed in 1591 by invaders from Morocco .  These troops brought with them a new weapon that the Africans could not match: firearms.  Guns had arrived in Africa .


The Songhai Empire (1464-1591)
Timbuktu became an important trading and scholarly center in sub-Saharan Africa during the Mail and Songhai empires. It is located on the northern bend of the Niger River , the southern edge of the Sahara desert.  Here is a first hand account of Timbuktu by a Leo Africanus when he visited the city in the early 1500s.   

There are many shops of craftsmen and merchants, especially of those who weave cotton and cloth.  To this place merchants bring cloth from Europe .  All the women of this area, except maidservants, go with their faces covered and sell all necessary kinds of food.  The inhabitants of this area are very rich, so much so that the king has married both of his daughters to two rich merchants.  The rich king has many articles of gold and keeps a magnificent and well-furnished court.  When he travels anywhere he rides a camel that is lead by some of his noblemen.  He travels likewise when he goes into war, and his warriors ride upon horses.  Attending him he always has 3000 horsemen and a great number of foot soldiers armed with poisonous arrows. Here there are many doctors, judges, priests and other educated men that are well maintained at the kings cost. Many manuscripts and books can be bought here and are sold here for more money than any other merchandise.

In its heyday, Timbuktu was an important trading hub for two of Africa's most important items of commerce: salt and gold. The wealth of the city is evident from the quotation above. But Timbuktu also became an important city for Islamic scholarship. Its Mosque contained a library and a university where scholars, theologians, and Muslim jurists studied. Thus the most important trade in Timbuktu was in books. 



Yes, it's a real place. Below is an aerial view of Timbuktu today.  As you can see, it is the gateway connecting Sub-Saharan Africa to the Sahara Desert.