Empires of Medieval West Africa

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The final chapter of Part 2 analyses the intrigue of the Imperial Malian court.

Griot B - Medieval West Africa (Black History Rap)

The Songhay Empire forms the bulk of Parts 3 and 4. Part 3 traces the development of Imperial Songhay from its origins in the declining Mali Empire. Gender is a more prominent issue in this and the next section of the book, owing to the power of queens and concubines in the Songhay court.

This is an image of Mansa Musa on a Spanish atlas from Note the nugget of gold in his hand. Part 4 analyses the eventual demise of the Songhay Empire because of a Moroccan invasion from across the Sahara Desert. Included in this section is a chapter devoted to the last great emperor of the Songhay, Askia Dawud. This is something not often seen in pre-colonial African histories. Gomez portrays the shift of power in West Africa in tandem with global developments, as well as how these empires affected other centres of power such as European and the Islamic civilizations.

In other words, African empires were affected by global trade and politics just as much as Europe or Asia, and these influences shaped the West African empires. Gomez makes use of a variety of sources for this work. Most importantly is his use of the oral tradition in conjunction with Arabic documentary evidence.


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The Arabic documentary evidence are traditional primary sources: many were written in these West African empires. Askia Muhammed is a prominent figure in African Dominion. It also illustrates the style of building in the region during that period. One possible obstacle that might trip up non-specialist readers is the dual dating system employed by Gomez. Excepting this minor critique, African Dominion is an excellent, readable book on a region often forgotten by medieval historians. Apart from his most obvious and important contributions to gender and global history in the African context, Gomez blazes a path for future pre-colonial historians.

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Interested parties will learn much from Gomez about how to go about their research. Reporting from:.


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Book Review: A history of West Africa’s golden empires

Toggle navigation Menu. Name of resource. Problem URL. Describe the connection issue. At the height of its power, Mali had at least cities, and the interior of the Niger Delta was very densely populated. Extent of the Mali Empire c. The battle marked the effective end of the great Mali Empire and set the stage for a plethora of smaller West African states to emerge. Around , Mahmud Keita IV died. The old core of the empire was divided into three spheres of influence. Kangaba, the de facto capital of Manden since the time of the last emperor, became the capital of the northern sphere.

The Joma area, governed from Siguiri, controlled the central region, which encompassed Niani. Hamana or Amana , southwest of Joma, became the southern sphere, with its capital at Kouroussa in modern Guinea. Each ruler used the title of mansa, but their authority only extended as far as their own sphere of influence. Despite this disunity in the realm, the realm remained under Mandinka control into the midth century.

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

The three states warred on each other as much if not more than they did against outsiders, but rivalries generally stopped when faced with invasion. This trend would continue into colonial times against Tukulor enemies from the west. Timbuktu manuscripts, c. After a shift in trading routes, Timbuktu flourished from the trade in salt, gold, ivory, and slaves. Together with the campuses of the Sankore Madrasah, an Islamic university, this established Timbuktu as a scholarly center in Africa. The Songhai Empire dominated the western Sahel in the 15th and 16th centuries; at its peak, it was one of the largest states in Africa.

At its peak, it was one of the largest states in African history. The state is known by its historiographical name, derived from its leading ethnic group and ruling elite, the Songhai. During the second half of the 13th century, Gao and the surrounding region had grown into an important trading center and attracted the interest of the expanding Mali Empire. Mali conquered Gao towards the end of the 13th century and the town would remain under Malian hegemony until the late 14th century.

But as the Mali Empire started to disintegrate, the Songhai reasserted control of Gao. Songhai rulers subsequently took advantage of the weakened Mali Empire to expand Songhai rule. In the second half of the 14th century, disputes over succession weakened the Mali Empire and in the s, Songhai, previously a Mali dependency, gained independence under the Sonni Dynasty.

Around thirty years later, Sonni Sulayman Dama attacked Mema, the Mali province west of Timbuktu, paving the way for his successor, Sonni Ali, to turn his country into one of the greatest empires sub-Saharan Africa has ever seen. Sonni Ali reigned from to Like Songhai kings before him, he was a Muslim.

Under his rule, Songhai reached a size of over 1,, square kilometers. During his campaigns for expansion, Ali conquered many lands, repelling attacks from the Mossi to the south and overcoming the Dogon people to the north. After a persistent seven-year siege, he was able to forcefully incorporate it into his vast empire in , but only after having starved its citizens into surrender. Oral traditions present a conflicted image of Sonni Ali.

On the other hand, his control of critical trade routes and cities brought great wealth.

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Songhai Empire in Songhai rulers took advantage of the weakened Mali Empire to expanded Songhai rule. Under the rule of Sonni Ali, the Songhai surpassed the Malian Empire in area, wealth, and power, absorbing vast areas of the Mali Empire and reaching its greatest extent. Askia opened religious schools, constructed mosques, and opened up his court to scholars and poets from throughout the Muslim world, but he was also tolerant of other religions and did not force Islam on his people. Among his great accomplishments was an interest in astronomical knowledge, which led to the development of astronomy and observatories in the capital.

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Empires of Medieval West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay

Not only was he a patron of Islam but he was also gifted in administration and encouraging trade. He centralized the administration of the empire and established an efficient bureaucracy that was responsible for, among other things, tax collection and the administration of justice.

He also demanded that canals be built in order to enhance agriculture, which would eventually increase trade. During his reign Islam became more widely entrenched, trans-Saharan trade flourished, and the Saharan salt mines of Taghaza were brought within the boundaries of the empire. However, as Askia the Great grew older, his power declined. The main reason for the Moroccan invasion of Songhai was to seize control and revive the trans-Saharan trade in salt and gold. The Empire fell to the Moroccans and their firearms in At its peak, the Songhai city of Timbuktu became a thriving cultural and commercial center where Arab, Italian, and Jewish merchants all gathered for trade.

Economic trade existed throughout the empire due to the standing army stationed in the provinces. Central to the regional economy were independent gold fields. The Songhai economy was based on a clan system. The most common were metalworkers, fishermen, and carpenters. Lower caste participants consisted of mostly non-farm working immigrants, who at times were provided special privileges and held high positions in society. At the top were noblemen and direct descendants of the original Songhai people, followed by freemen and traders.

At the bottom were war captives and European slaves obligated to labor, especially in farming. Historian James Olson describes the labor system as resembling modern day unions, with the empire possessing craft guilds that consisted of various mechanics and artisans. Criminal justice in Songhai was based mainly, if not entirely, on Islamic principles, especially during the rule of Askia the Great. Upper classes in society converted to Islam while lower classes often continued to follow traditional religions. Sermons emphasized obedience to the king. Sonni Ali established a system of government under the royal court, later to be expanded by Askia, which appointed governors and mayors to preside over local tributary states situated around the Niger valley.

Local chiefs were still granted authority over their respective domains as long as they did not undermine Songhai policy. Tax was imposed onto peripheral chiefdoms and provinces to ensure the dominance of Songhai, and in return these provinces were given almost complete autonomy. Songhai rulers only intervened in the affairs of these neighboring states when a situation became volatile, usually an isolated incident. While Ile-Ife is considered to be the spiritual homeland of the Yoruba people, numerous Yoruba states were eventually centralized within the modern Oyo Empire, which grew to become one of the largest African states.

It spans the modern-day countries of Nigeria, Togo, and Benin. Its pre-modern history is based largely on oral traditions and legends. On account of his creation of the world, Oduduwa became the ancestor of the first divine king of the Yoruba, while Obatala is believed to have created the first Yoruba people out of clay. Almost every Yoruba settlement traces its origin to princes of Ile-Ife. As such, Ife can be regarded as the cultural and spiritual homeland of the Yoruba nation. Archaeologically, the settlement at Ife can be dated to the 4th century BC, with urban structures appearing in the 12th century CE.

The city was a settlement of substantial size between the 12th and 14th centuries, with houses featuring potsherd pavements. Ile-Ife is known worldwide for its ancient and naturalistic bronze as well as stone and terracotta sculptures, which reached their peak of artistic expression between and In the period around the artists at Ife developed a refined and naturalistic sculptural tradition in terracotta, stone, and copper alloy—copper, brass, and bronze—many of which appear to have been created under the patronage of King Obalufon II, the man who today is identified as the Yoruba patron deity of brass casting, weaving, and regalia.

After this period, production declined as political and economic power shifted to the nearby kingdom of Benin, which, like the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo, developed into a major empire.