Post-Classical African Civilizations

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

While Europe worked to crawl out of the chaos of the Dark Ages in the wake of Rome's collapse, a number of states arose in Africa that left a lasting impact upon the region and the world. In this lesson, we look at three of these empires.

Post-Classical Africa

While Europe struggled through the Middle Ages, and the Caliphate came to dominate the Middle East and North Africa, a series of Empires rose throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is that part of Africa that is south of the Saharan Desert. These Empires usually rose along important trade routes that connected Africa to the Middle East, Europe, and even Asia. Important African trade goods, such as ivory or gold, would travel north in exchange for others goods. Often, ideas traveled along these trade routes as well, leading Christianity to take hold in Ethiopia, and Islam to become rooted amongst the peoples of Mali. Often times, these Empires, and the Emperors that ruled them, would grow fabulously wealthy and become the stuff of legends; this was the era of cities such as Timbuktu, and rulers like Mansa Musa. In this lesson we will examine three of these great states, examine how each was ruled and the impacts they had upon the world.

The Empire of Mali

The first Empire that we will investigate is the Empire of Mali, which rose in the 13th century and lasted until the 17th. Mali was located in West Africa, in a region that roughly corresponds to the modern day nations of Guinea and Southern Mali.

Much of what we know about the founding of the Empire comes from the Epic of Sundiata, a mythologized account of the life of Sundiata Keita. The Empire began as a tribal federation of the Bambara peoples. The founder of the Empire was Sundiata Keita who, according to legend, overthrew his brother and the Kaniaga kingdom that had supported him. Sundiata Keita was the first ruler to take the title Mansa, which means Emperor.

Under he and his successors, the new Empire of Mali became the most powerful Empire in West Africa. It was connected to the Trans-Saharan Trade Network that linked West Africa to the Arabic world. These links also brought Islam, which the rulers converted to. The Empire was organized with the Mansa as the head of the state. Below him were the Farbas who were nobles and local rulers who swore a pledge of loyalty to the Mansa. The Empire also contained an Assembly known as the Gbana, which represented the different Mali clans and also advised the Mansa.

Mali was largely decentralized, with the Mansa holding the most power in the capital, Niani, but local lords holding more power in the countryside. The most famous ruler of Mali was Mansa Musa, who ruled from 1312 through 1337 CE. Under his reign, the city of Timbuktu became a center of wealth and learning, trade revenue increased, and Mali was able to conquer many of its rivals. However, by the 17th century, Mali's power and wealth and begun to decay, and it became the victim of raids as well as the ambitions of neighboring Morocco.

Map depicting the Trans-Saharan trade routes
Map depicting the Trans-Saharan trade routes

The Empire of Songhay

Mali's great rival in West Africa was the Empire of Songhay, centered on the capital city of Gao. Songhay was located to the north of Mali in the Niger Valley and, from 1464 through 1591, it was one of the most powerful states in the region, even eclipsing Mali at the time. Much like the other West African state, the source of its wealth was due to its location on the Trans-Saharan trade lines, as well as the mining of gold and salt.

Although the Songhay state had existed for centuries, it first truly became an Empire under the reign of Sonni Ali. It was Sonni Ali who first took advantage of Mali's weakness to expand into their former realm, conquering Timbuktu and many other neighbors.

However, it was under the upstart Askia the Great. Askia had been one of Sonni Ali's generals and was not of the royal blood line, but took power after Sonni Ali's son refused to convert to Islam. Askia was a devout Muslim and built many mosques and schools to help the faith spread. He organized much of Sonni Ali's conquests. Under his rule, local chiefs were allowed to remain in power as long as they swore loyalty to the Empire. Askia also appointed governors and military commanders to help administer the conquered lands. Unfortunately, after Askia's death, civil wars and raids weakened the Empire, and it was eventually conquered by Morocco.

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