Celebrating the great empires of Songhay


THE Songhai Empire, also known as the Songhay Empire, was a state in West Africa from the early 15th to the late 16th century.
It was one of the largest Islamic empires in the history of Africa.
Its capital was the city of Gao, situated on the bend of the Niger River in present day Niger.
The Songhai empire existed for over a thousand years.
And yet very little has been written about this great sophisticated African empire. So how do we know about it?
Archeologists, historians, anthologists and others have examined writings by Arab traders, explores and traders who wrote about this medieval empire of West Africa and the Sahel.
The records show how these empires came to power, their means of rule and also how they fell.
The Songhai people settled at Gao as early as 800 CE and established the capital until the 11th century, during the reign of Die Kossoi.
They lived along the middle of the Niger River as agriculturists, traders and fishermen.
Under the leadership of Sonni Ali, the warriors travelled and conquered Timbuktu.  The empire grew into the largest kingdom in all of West Africa.
Sonni Ali controlled the gold mines to the south and the salt mines to the north and his empire stretched for over 2 000 miles.
There was an army in every province whose role was to ensure that economic trade existed throughout the Empire based on gold fields.
A clan system of merchants ruled the trade.
Among them were metalworkers, fishermen, and carpenters.
To reinforce their power the ruling class imposed tax on chiefdoms and they were given complete autonomy in return.
Songhay exported gold, salt, kola nuts and slaves.
The merchants imported textiles, horses and luxury goods.
Apart from trade, the king focused on developing the intellect.
Books were valued and traders brought written knowledge from faraway places.
Highly educated people including doctors, judges and priests were maintained at the king’s expense.
Sonni Ali was a formidable leader and military strategist.
He aggressively turned the kingdom of Gao into the mighty Songhay empire.
He based his military on a highly mobile fleet of ships conquering the cities of Timbuktu and Jenné in Mali and driving out the once powerful Berbers.
He ruled from 1464 to 1493.
He also conquered the Mossi in the south and the Dogon people in the north.
Some historians have noted that Sonni Ali was a ruthless tyrant responsible for starving the people of Djenne and Timbuktu to death before conquering them. Apart from his military acumen, Sonni Ali is remembered for practising both African and Islamic religion.
After Sonni Ali, the next ruler was Muhammad Touré.
He increased the Songhay power by centralising the government and developing a large and elaborate bureaucracy.
He standardised weights, measures and currency.
At the same time Muhammad Touré was a strong Muslim who went on to replace traditional Songhay administrators with Muslims, selecting Muslim judges, called qadis, to manage the legal system under Islamic legal principles.
From the 15th to the 16th century, Songhai was the largest Islamic empire.
Such methods of rule by conquest, centralisation, and standardisation were very sophisticated in Africa long before colonisation.
Then came Askia Muhammad the Great who took power from Toure by force. Unlike Sonni Ali, Askia Muhammed used alliances to conquer new cities.
He opened various religion schools, constructed mosques and promoted literature and the study of astronomy.
Askia was also known to tolerate other religions. Under Askia Mohammed, the University of Sankore in Timbuktu was restored.
He took a much recorded trip to the Hajj in Mecca, where he was appointed the Muslim head of Western Sudan and the spiritual leader of the Moslems in West Africa.
At that time, Timbuktu had the most universities in any nation.
It was also a centre for global trade and travel.
Merchants from many different locations carried out trade between Europe and present day Mali.
It was the epicentre of knowledge, and it also served strategically to facilitate global trade routes following the Niger River.
It attracted Arab, Italian and Jewish merchants.
The people engaged in massive gold trade from the south and salt from the north. Timbuktu became an important port where goods from West Africa arrived from the 11th century onwards.
The well known Malian, Abubakar II travelled from Timbuktu to the Americas several centuries before Christopher Columbus did.
In 1531, one of Askia’s sons revolted against him and Musa, another one of Askia’s sons became king.
There were several attempts to remove Musa from the throne, leading to the decline of the Songhay empire, once the largest and powerful of the medieval West African cities.
In the 16th century, when the kingdom was already weak, it was attacked by Moroccan invaders.
After 1 000 years, the powerful state of Songhay came to an end.
But today, we are inspired by the history of a past empire full of African achievements.


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