Songhai Empire: Definition, Location & History

Instructor: Katie Streit

Katie has a PhD in History. She has taught middle school English and college History.

This lesson explores the history of one of the wealthiest African empires of the Middle Ages - the Songhai Empire. We will examine how it rose to power in the West African savanna and the reasons for its decline in the late 16th century.

Strategic Location

The West African savanna offered a number of ecological advantages that facilitated the formation of empires. Proximity to the Niger River enabled the domestication of crops (sorghum and millet), animal husbandry, and iron-working. These innovations encouraged the formation of large population centers and trade between them.

The Niger River
Niger River

In addition to the Niger River, the savanna is an ecotone or a transition region between two ecological communities. It lies between forests to the south and the Sahara Desert to the north. Each had something the other wanted. The West African forests had a scarce quantity of salt. Humans cannot live without sodium as it regulates our fluids and helps with the functioning of our nerves and muscles. What West Africans lacked in salt, they made up for with an abundance of gold. North Africa was the opposite - plenty of salt and not enough gold.

Trans-Saharan Trade and Gold
Gold Coins

The new states arising in North Africa after 900 C.E. wanted to mint gold coins as a sign of their sovereignty. Thus, gold and salt became the backbone of the caravan trade networks crisscrossing the Saharan Desert - or the trans-Saharan trade.

The trade routes were largely controlled by Berber-speaking traders from North Africa. Since 300 C.E., Berber traders depended upon camels to transport their goods. Ivory, textiles, copper, hides, and books also crisscrossed the desert.

Berber Traders Travelling to Timbuktu
Berber Traders

Berber traders helped to spread Islam to West Africa as well. As the meeting point between the south and north, the savanna of West Africa offered a prime location for the formation of wealthy urban centers (like Jenne and Gao) and powerful states. The three great empires of West Africa all took advantage of the Niger River and trans-Saharan trade routes to build their fortunes and power.

Songhai's Two Predecessors

In the 9th century, the Empire of Ghana arose in the savanna by using iron weapons to conquer their neighbors and gain control of the gold trade. Ghanaian rulers also profited by taxing the traders passing through their borders. The decline of Ghana in the thirteenth century created a power vacuum that Sundiata Keita eventually filled to create the Mali Empire.

West African Empires and the Trans-Saharan Trade Routes
Trade Routes

Stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to Timbuktu and Gao, Ancient Mali was one of the wealthiest empires in the world. Like the Ghana Empire, Mali profited by controlling gold fields and taxing traders. The Mali Empire was also a world-famous intellectual center. It housed the University of Timbuktu - one of the oldest universities in the world. After reaching its height under the leadership of Mansa Musa, Mali gradually declined in the 15th century.

The Rise and Rule of the Songhai Empire

Songhai began with the river city of Gao. Inhabitants of the city expanded their control to the area of the Niger River bend during the 9th century C.E. The state of Songhai was incorporated under the Mali Empire in the 14th century, but reasserted its independence as Mali weakened in the 15th century. Armed with war canoes and a cavalry, Sonni Ali led successful military campaigns that expanded Songhai's borders to include the cities of Timbuktu (1468) and Jenne (1473). Centered in present-day Mali, the Songhai Empire stretched from the Atlantic coast towards modern-day Niger and Nigeria.

The Songhai Empire

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