Medieval Africa: History & Culture

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  • 0:04 The Mystery of Africa
  • 0:43 500 to 750 CE
  • 2:15 751 to 979 CE
  • 2:57 980 to 1250 CE
  • 3:37 1251 to 1500 CE
  • 4:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elisha Madison

Elisha is a writer, editor, and aspiring novelist. She has a Master's degree in Ancient Celtic History & Mythology and another Masters in Museum Studies.

Medieval Africa was an evolving world. From 500 to 1500 CE, Africa opened trading routes, was exposed to new religions, increased literacy, and experienced one of the continent's richest periods.

The Mystery of Africa

Before computers and social media, everything was written in books and journals to document our past. During the medieval period, Africa experienced a similar evolution as it moved from oral history to written documentation. The African people do not have a lot of documentation on their history, because in ancient times they passed down their stories orally. However, with the information that we have, we do know that Africa changed immensely in speech, religion, and technology during the medieval era.

The medieval period in Africa spans over a thousand years, from 500 CE to 1500 CE. This lesson will cover these thousand years in small chunks, so there's a synopsis of each era for the African people.

500 to 750 CE

Around 500 CE, Africa was in the Early Middle Age of the medieval era. Egypt, which used to be the land of the pharaohs, is one of the largest provinces of Roman rule. For the Romans, Egypt offered large amounts of grain, salt, and gold, and an easily accessible port. Rome, which had invaded in 30 BCE, also brought the Christian religion to Africa. Africa had been a solely pagan continent until the Romans brought Christianity and exposed the local people to this new religion, creating new believers.

By the end of this period, the Romans had lost to invading Arab armies, changing the rule of Egypt and surrounding provinces in Africa. From 619 to 646 CE, the Romans and Persians fought for control of Egypt, but both lost Egypt to the Arab invasion of 646. This was when Islam started to come to the shores of Africa.

During this period, trade started up along the coasts of Egypt and the newly created Ghana, located in West Africa. It became easier for traders to travel the Indian Ocean, opening trade between the Middle East, India, and Africa. Trading was mainly for gold, salt, ivory, and slaves.

One of the largest successes at this time was the trade that was happening through the Sahara desert. Until this point, the harsh climate had made it too challenging for any trade routes to be created and traveled consistently. However, the desire for gold and salt had created such a need for successful trade routes that new kingdoms, such as Kanem and Timbuktu, were created in 700 CE. These areas allowed for civilization along the Sahara trade route, making travel easier, and led to even more trade for Africa.

751 to 979 CE

By the 8th century, Islamic scholars had infiltrated all of North Africa. Their emphasis on learning, reading, writing, and education started to rub off on the African people. Schools were erected, as well as mosques to perpetuate the Islamic religion. Nubia, south of Egypt, was one of the few North African areas to still practice Christianity and paganism.

The Swahili people also originated in this time period. The Swahilis, which resulted from the progeny of African and Middle Eastern peoples, were a coastal race in the area now known as Kenya and Tanzania. Swahili means ''the coast'' or ''coast island.'' The Swahili people were Muslim in belief, and their language became one of the most spoken languages in all of Africa.

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