The Largest Security-Cleared Career Network for Defense and Intelligence Jobs - JOIN NOW


Empire of Ghana

The Soninke people were agricultural and called their ruler ghana, or war chief. Muslim traders often passed through the region the Soninke people lived and began to use the word ghana to refer to that region. Ghana became known as Land of Gold. By the 700s, Ghana had become a kingdom and the rulers grew rich from taxing the goods traders brought into their territory. By 800 CE Ghana had become an empire. It had a large army and controlled trade in the region so it could demand taxes and tributes from surrounding lands. The ruler of Ghana was the military commander, religious leader, and chief judge.

The Republic of Ghana is named after the medieval Ghana Empire of West Africa. The actual name of the Empire was Wagadugu. Ghana was the title of the kings who ruled the kingdom. It was controlled by Sundiata in 1240 AD, and absorbed into the larger Mali Empire. (Mali Empire reached its peak of success under Mansa Musa around 1307.) Geographically, the old Ghana is 500 miles north of the present Ghana, and occupied the area between Rivers Senegal and Niger.

Some inhabitants of present Ghana had ancestors linked with the medieval Ghana. This can be traced down to the Mande and Voltaic peoeple of Northern Ghana–Mamprussi, Dagomba and the Gonja. Anecdotal evidence connected the Akans to this great Empire. The evidence lies in names like Danso shared by the Akans of present Ghana and Mandikas of Senegal/Gambia who have strong links with the Empire.

The empire of Ghana (not to be confused with modern Ghana which is some four hundred miles south east of where it was) was first referred to by an Arab scholar in the 8th century. Despite its name, the old Empire of Ghana is not geographically, ethnically, or in any other way, related to modern Ghana. It lies about four hundred miles north west of modern Ghana. Ancient Ghana encompassed what is now modern Northern Senegal and Southern Mauritania.

When the Portuguese first explored the West African coastline, the cultures of African societies were highly evolved and had been so for centuries. In the millennium preceding Portuguese exploration, three large centers of medieval African civilization developed sequentially along the west coast of sub-Saharan Africa.

The first polity that is known to have gained prominence was Ancient Ghana. Between 500 AD–1250 AD, Ancient Ghana flourished in the southern Sahel north of the middle Niger and middle Senegal Rivers. Boahen, bases his account of Ancient Ghana on Al-Bakri and Al-Idrisi, two Arabic scholars writing their descriptions in 1067 and in 1154 respectively, when Ghana was at the height of its power. He tells us that Ancient Ghana had a civil service, strong monarchy based on a matrilineal system of inheritance, a cabinet, an army, an effective justice system and a regular source of income from trade as well as tribute from vassal kings.

The Ghana Empire began when the Soninke people joined forces to resist the raids of pastoral nomads. Nomads herding animals in the fringes of the desert, the Sahel, posed a threat to the early Soninke who lived south of the Sahara as agriculturalists. During times of drought, the nomads would raid the villages to the south in search of water and pastures for their herds. To protect themselves from these raids, the communities of African farmers joined forces, possibly to form a loose federation of states that eventually became the kingdom of Ghana.

During the third century AD, it is probable that a Soninke chief succeeded in uniting the Soninke people (the northernmost Mande peoples) and possibly founded the city of Kumbi Saleh (in present-day western Mali). Kumbi Saleh was an oasis along an important north-south trade route. This chief belonged to the royal clan of Ouagadou, and the Soninke first named their kingdom after this royal family. He was known as the Kaya maghan, "king of the gold," and as Ghana, or "war chief." Over time, the land of the Ouagadou (Wagadu) became known (by the Arabs) as Ghana; they also associated it with gold. Rulers of the state kept extending their borders in order to gain control of the trade routes by conquering neighboring territories. By the fifth century, the Soninke kingdom of Ghana had been established. This kingdom lasted about six centuries before being conquered by new forces from the east.

The Ghana Empire survived and prospered because it was located on major trade routes. Ghana was well placed to take advantage of trade. It was located midway between the desert, the main source of salt, and the goldfields of the upper Senegal River in the savannah woodlands in the south. Camel caravans crossing the Sahara brought goods such as copper and dried fruit, as well as salt that was mined at Taghaza in present-day northern Mali. The caravans also brought clothing and other manufactured goods, which they exchanged for kola nuts, hides, leather goods, ivory, gold, and slaves. Taxes collected on every trade item entering the kingdom were used to pay for government, a huge army which protected the kingdom's borders and trade routes, and the upkeep of the capital city and major markets.

However, it was control of the gold fields in the southwest that was essential to Ghana's political control and economic prosperity. The location of these goldfields was kept strictly secret by the Soninke. Ghana participated in the gold-salt trade because gold was bountiful in Ghana and it lacked salt, copper, and iron. Salt, copper, and iron were more useful than gold to the people of Ghana so they traded gold for them. Royal officials made sure trade within the empire was trade and abided by the laws. They also taxed the goods making the empire wealthy. Royal guards protected merchants from bandits. The king prevented gold from inflating by keeping gold nuggets in the royal palace. No one was allowed to have gold nuggets other than the king, but gold dust was free to circulate. This limited the supply of gold and kept the price of gold from falling.

After Sakurah the kingdom reverted to the posterity of Mari Jatah, and Mansa Musa, son of Abu Bekr, ascended the throne. He was an excellent prince, and performed the pilgrimage in 724. The number of people employed to carry his baggage and provisions amounted to 12,000, all dressed in tunics of figured cotton, or the silk called El-Yemeni. The Haji Tunis, interpreter of this nation in Kahirah (Cairo), said that Mansa Musa brought with him to Egypt no less than 80 loads of Tibar (gold dust), each weighing 300 pounds. He brought the whole on camels, though in his own kingdom camels are not used, baggage being there carried on the backs of slaves.112 Mansa Musa, on his return, conceived the idea of building himself a fine palace. Abu Ishak showed him a model, and erected the edifice, with plaster and all kinds of ornaments, for which he received 12,000 mithkals of gold. Mansa Musa maintained an intimate and friendly correspondence with Sultan Abu-l-Hasan, of Al-Maghreb, and reigned twenty-five years.

On his death the empire devolved on Mansa Magha — that is, Sultan Mohammed, for in their language Magha signifies Mohammed. He died after a reign of four years, and was succeeded by Mansa Suleiman, son of Abu Bekr, and brother of Musa, who reigned twenty-four years. After him came his son, Mansa Ibn Suleiman, who died nine months after ascending the throne. Then followed Mari Jatah, and Mansa Magha, son of Mansa Musa, and reigned fourteen years. He (Mari Jatah) was a wicked and dissolute prince. He sent an embassy to Abu Selim, son of Abu-l-Hasan, Sultan of AlMaghreb (the West), which embassy arrived in Fez in the year 762; and among other presents which came with it, were some very tall animals called Zerafah (camelopards), as high as obelisks, and strange in the land of Al-Maghreb.

It was said that Sultan Jatah was the worst king that ever existed; that he wasted the treasures, was on the point of destroying the palace erected by his ancestors; and that he even sold to certain Egyptian merchants, for a trifling sum of money, a huge mass of native gold, weighing 20 cwt, and preserved among other curiosities in the royal treasure. Providence, however, punished him; for he was afflicted with a disease very common in those countries, and the ravages of which are particularly frequent among the higher classes. It begins with a kind of lethargy or stupor, which renders the sufferer insensible during the greater part of the day. After lingering two years under this incurable malady, Jatah died in 775.

Mansa Musa died in 789, and was succeeded by his brother Mansa Magha. He being killed a year after, the vacant throne was seized by Sanadaki, who had married Musa's mother, and whose name means Wazir. But this usurper was deposed in a few months by a descendant of Mari Jatah. A prince named Mahmud, who came from the country of the Infidels in the interior, and who was descended from Mansa Ku, son of Mansa Wali, son of Mari Jatah the First, was king of Mali in 792.

"The people of Mali chose his son Musa to succeed him. He was a just prince, but was overpowered by his wazir Mari Jatah, who threw him into confinement, and usurped all the powers of sovereignty. This Wazir has made some conquests towards the east. Passing the limits of Kaukau, he arrived at the stations or fixed habitations in the land of Tekadda, which is behind the country of the Morabites; but he has since restored that territory to its own Sultan. Tekadda is seventy days from Wergelan towards the south-west; the road of the pilgrims (from Kaukau to Egypt) passes through it. Sultan Musa was on friendly terms with the rulers of Zab and Wergelan.

By the tenth century, Ghana was an immensely rich and prosperous empire, probably controlling an area the size of Texas or Nigeria in what is now eastern Senegal, southwest Mali, and southern Mauritania. The ruler was acclaimed as the "richest king in the world because of his gold" by Arab traveler Ibn Haukal, who visited the region in about 950 A.D. Demand for gold increased in the ninth and tenth centuries for minting into coins by the Islamic states of North Africa. As the trans-Saharan trade in gold expanded, so did the state of Ghana. The trans-Sahara trade also brought Islam to the empire, initially to the rulers and townspeople.

Locally obtained iron ore was used to make tools, which made agriculture easier and more efficient, and permitted the growth of larger settled communities. Iron-tipped spearheads, lances, knives, and swords gave ancient Soninke soldiers technological superiority over their neighbors who used bone and wood. The Soninke were thus able to capture more farming and grazing land from their weaker, less-organized neighbors. The Soninke were also able to obtain horses from the Saharan nomads with whom they were in contact, which enabled them to move farther and faster.

Writing in 1068, the Andalusian geographer al-Bakri (d. 1054) was able to gather precious information about Islam in three contemporary African kingdoms: Gao, Ghana, and Takrur (in lower Senegal). In Ghana, Muslims lived under the auspices of a non-Muslim king, who invited Muslim traders to the capital and employed literate Muslims in his court. According to the geographer Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr al-Zuhri (fl.1137–54) writing in 1137, the people of Ghana converted to Islam in 1076. This must have happened under the influence of the Almoravids, a militant Islamic movement in the southwestern Sahara.

Ghanah merged in the empire of the Morabites, an event which may be assigned, with much probability, to the year of the Hijra 469 [AD 1051], when the Mohammedan faith was forcibly imposed on the pagan nations of Negroland contiguous to the Western Desert.16 But the Morabites, bred up in a wild life, and under a loose patriarchal authority, cannot be supposed to have thought much of social or political organization. It is likely that they extended their dominions without propagating a form of government, and that the kingdom of Ghanah remained little changed by the loss of its independence. According to the geographer al-Sharif al-Idrisi (1100–65), Ghana was a Muslim state in 1154 and was still among the most powerful in western Sudan. By the middle of the thirteenth century, however, Ghana's power had declined and the political center of gravity shifted southward, where Mali, on the upper reaches of the Niger River, emerged as the dominant power. Al-Bakri's writings imply that there were also local Muslims in Ghana, traders who were part of a commercial network that extended from the towns of the Sahel to the sources of gold in the south. Muslims established trading centers that by the end of the fifteenth century reached the fringes of the forest. They created a commercial diaspora with a common religion, language, and legal system, the Shariah, a personal and extraterritorial divinely ordained law, which added to the mutual trust among merchants. Conversion to Islam thus became necessary for those who wished to join the commercial network.

In the time of El Idrisi, or a little before the year of the Hijra 548 [AD 1170], it was ruled by a descendant of Abu Taleb—that is, by a Zenagah — and this state of things continued probably half a century longer. But towards the interior, or south from Ghanah, were the following nations, viz.:—the Susu, Mali, Kaukau or Kagho, and Tekrur. In arranging these nations all eastward from Ghanah, Ibn Khaldun showed a very imperfect conception of the geography of Negroland, and particularly of its comparative geography. Though the name Tekrur may have belonged in his time to a country beyond Kagho, or southeastwards from Ghanah, yet it certainly designated a kingdom south-westwards from that capital in the period anterior to the rise of Mali. The Susu occupied a maritime district comprising the basin of the river Scarcies, wherein they had been established at least three centuries.

But what were the revolutions, it may be asked, which caused Ghanah to disappear? The catastrophe which caused the disappearance of Ghanah from the political horizon was not distinctly described by any of the Arab historians. Nevertheless, so much light is thrown on the circumstances attending the extinction of that kingdom, in Ibn Khaldun's sketch of the history of Mali, as may enable tracinh the course of those early events with tolerable precision. The statements of that valuable author shall be here given in his own words: —

"When the conquest of the West (by the Arabs) was completed, and merchants began to penetrate into the interior, they saw no nation of the Blacks so mighty as Ghanah, the dominions of which extended westward as far as the Ocean. The King's court was kept in the city of Ghanah, which, according to the author of the Book of Roger (El Idrisi), and the author of the Book of Roads and Realms (El Bekri), is divided into two parts, standing on both banks of the Nile, and ranks among the largest and most populous cities of the world.

"The people of Ghanah had for neighbours, on the east, a nation, which, according to historians, was called Susu; after which came another named Mali; and after that another known by the name of Kaukau; although some people prefer a different orthography, and write this name Kagho. The last-named nation was followed by a people called Tekrur."

The Ghana Empire collapsed under the onslaught of invaders from the north and west and because of economic pulls to the east and south. In the eleventh century, shortly after Ghana reached its zenith, the city of Kumbi Saleh fell to the Berber Almoravids (1076), who swept across the desert from present-day Mauritania in an effort to control the gold trade and to purify Islam, as it was practiced in Ghana. The invaders subsequently withdrew, but the kingdom of Ghana was weakened. Later invasions by the Takrur people from the west (the Senegal valley) and others, together with secessionist movements from many rebellious sub-kingdoms which had previously paid regular tribute to the Ghanaian king, gradually made the trade routes through Ghana too dangerous.

As a result, the Muslim merchants moved eastward, and with the loss of trade, the kingdom of Ghana began to crumble. In addition, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Bure goldfields were opened up to the south, also drawing traders further east. A terrible drought further compounded the suffering and accelerated the deterioration of the environment - degradation that was probably accentuated also by overgrazing. Food production couldn’t keep up with the growing population and weakened Ghana for the Muslim conquest.

In 1076, the Muslim Almoravids of North Africa conquered Ghana. The Almoravids eventually left, but it had disrupted the gold-salt trade in Ghana and it never recovered. By 1100, Ghana was no longer a military or commercial power and it broke up into many tribal groups. Some of these groups would later come together to create the Mali Empire. By the mid-thirteenth century, the once great empire of Ghana had disintegrated.

Join the mailing list

Page last modified: 04-12-2016 19:28:03 ZULU