Great African Empires

The kingdom of Ethiopia-Abyssinia

Africa is considered as the birthplace of human civilization, with the east African region of Nubia being regarded as the location of the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve were born. Ancient Egypt is the most famous African empire that dominates the religious, scientific and anthropological spheres of study as it spearheaded writing, agricultural, societal, political and military systems. It left an indelible mark on the world with its construction techniques, advanced irrigation and farming systems, its system of mathematics and medicine and its popular Pharaohs. Other kingdoms came into existence after the Egyptian era, and below are 10 of the most significant ones:

The Axum EmpireThe Axum Empire [also known as Aksum Empire] was located in modern day northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, and rose to prominence and prestige around 100 BC. The empire was an important marketplace for ivory, which it exported throughout the ancient world. It also traded in exotic animal skin and gold with other countries in the ancient world, which resulted in abundant wealth and power. It built a centralized state that tightly controlled its people. The empire’s geographical location enabled it to benefit from trade and moving goods as it took advantage of the trading system that linked the Roman Empire with India. Their Adulis port by the red sea became the main port for export, and by the third century, Axum had succeeded Meroë, the capital of Kush, in becoming the supplier of African goods to the Roman Empire.

It is also the first African empire to manufacture its own coins. This came as a result of the development of its own currency in the third century. It adopted Christianity as a religion in the third century after King Ezana converted to Christianity and declared it as the empire’s official faith, making it the first African state to do so and one of the few Christian states in the world. The official language that was established was called Geez, and a writing script was developed for it. At its height, Axum controlled northern Ethiopia, Eritrea, northern Sudan, southern Egypt, Djibouti, Western Yemen, and southern Saudi Arabia, totaling 1.25 million square kilometers, and was the meeting place of various cultures including Egyptian, Sudanic, and Arabic, Indian, Jewish, Buddhist and Nubian peoples.

It is alleged that the empire is the resting place of King Solomon’s Ark of the Covenant and home of the Queen of Sheba. It is thought that the decline of the empire occurred around the 7th century due to the spread of Islam across northeastern Africa and the subsequent exclusion of the empire from regional trade as well as isolation from the rest of the Christian world.

 

The Kingdom of Ghana-Wagadou

The Kingdom of Ghana, also known as Wagadou, existed in the period between 750 AD and 1076 AD. It was located in southeastern Mauritania, western Mali and eastern Senegal. The founders of the empire were traders who capitalized on the vibrant desert trading route known as the Sonicke. Due to its strategic location in trade routes, the kingdom became wealthy from exports in gold, ivory and salt. It was dubbed as the “Land of Gold” by its neighbours, having a monopoly over well concealed gold mines.

The Sonicke developed a monarchy, resulting in the kingdom growing in political and military might, expanding throughout the kingdom and subduing smaller kingdoms to its rule. It also had sophisticated methods of administration and taxation. The vibrant trade in the kingdom resulted in written documentation being kept, most notably documentation by the Cordoban scholar al-Bakri, who consolidated a number of collected stories from travellers to the region into a detailed description of the kingdom in 1067 AD. Islam was embraced by the kingdom during its spread across northern Africa during the 7th and 8th centuries when Saharan traders introduced their new religion to the region. The royal court, however, did not convert, opting to retain traditional religious practices throughout the city. The kingdom declined during the 11th century after a series of military attacks by the Berbers in the north and the Almoravids, resulting in the loss of power for the Sonicke. The provinces of the kingdom eventually broke up into independent states, ending the formidable power of the kingdom.

The Mali Empire

 

The Mali Empire was one of the world’s largest empires at the height of its existence in 1300 AD. It arose after the fall of the Kingdom of Ghana, and was strategically located between the West African gold mines and the agriculturally rich Niger River floodplain encompassing the modern nations of Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. Sundiata Keita, who was a leader in one of the states formed from the dissipated Kingdom of Ghana, is recognized as the founder of the Mali empire after he defeated his principal rival in the neighbouring kingdom of Susu in 1235 AD, extending the empire’s control west to the Atlantic, south into the rain forest region and east beyond the great bend of the Niger River. The famous Disney film “The Lion King” is based on the real life narrative of Mansa Sundiata Keita. The empire experienced great prosperity during the rule of Sundiata Keita’s half-brother’s grandson, Mansa (King) Musa. During this time, Mansa Musa doubled the land area of the empire and the cities became important trading areas for all of West Africa so much so that trade tripled during this time.

Timbuktu became an important cultural hub not only for the empire, but for Africa and the world. It became home to the biggest libraries and Islamic universities, and it was the cultural and educational hub for scientists, scholars and artists of African and the Middle East. The world’s oldest known constitution, the Kurukan Fuga, was adopted in the semi-democratic empire. It was created after 1235 by an assembly of nobles to create a government for the newly established empire, dividing the empire into ruling clans that were represented at a great assembly called the Gbara. The Gbara was the deliberative body of the empire and they were given a voice in the government and were a check against the emperor’s power. It was presided over by a belen-tigui (master of ceremonies) who recognized anyone who wanted to speak, including the emperor. The Gbara and the Kurukan Fuga remained in existence until 1645. The empire declined after internal strife plagued the palace and after smaller states opted for independence from the empire to break free of its rule to reap the benefits of the salt and gold trade. The Wolof group were the first to break free from the empire, creating the Jolof Empire in mid-1300 AD. This was followed by the Tuareg seizure of Timbuktu, which had detrimental commercial consequences for the wealthy city and a rebellion in Gao that led to rise of the Songhai empire after its invasion ended Malian power in the savanna.

The Songhai Empire

The Songhai Empire came into existence after its rebellion against the Mali Empire in 1375 AD. It conquered the city of Mema in 1465 followed by the seizure of the biggest and wealthiest city in the region, Timbuktu, taking it from the Tuareg who had previously occupied it. The empire was the largest and last of the three major pre-colonial empires to emerge in West Africa, located in the modern countries of Senegal, Gambia, northwestern Nigeria and central Niger, covering 1.4 million square kilometers.

Gao was established as the empire’s capital city in the 11th century, and was a vibrant trade centre. The first great ruler of the kingdom was Sunni Ali Ber, who was responsible for the empire’s expansion and the control of important Trans-Saharan trade routes. After his death in 1492, his son, Sonni Baru, took over as emperor but ruled for only a year, losing the throne to Emperor Askia Muhammad Toure. He was a devout Muslim and established Sharia law throughout the kingdom, and also strengthened political and cultural ties with the rest of the Muslim world through encouraging immigration of scholars and skilled workers from Arabia, Egypt, Morocco and Muslim Spain. He was the first West African ruler to allow the exchange of ambassadors with these and other Muslim states. The empire continued to enjoy peace and prosperity under a succession of emperors after Askia Muhammad Toure’s death in 1528, owing much of it to agriculture. The empire’s demise begin in 1591 after a Moroccan invasion led by Sultan Ahmad I al-Mansur Saadi. After conquering the empire, logistical implications of ruling the land led to the Moroccans withdrawing from the region in 1661. Various emperors attempted to restore the empire to its former glory, whoever a French colonial invasion in 1901 led to its final demise.

The kingdom of Ethiopia-Abyssinia

Also known as Abyssinia, the kingdom of Ethiopia is thought to be very ancient along with the kingdom of Kush. The kingdom came again into existence after the emigration of the elite Axumite due to the kingdom’s decline. The kingdom expanded southwards to the Shoan Plateau, resulting in the rise of the Zagew Dynasty in 1150 AD who ultimately overthrew the old Axumite elites. Economic revival was experienced during the Zagwe rule as it renewed trade with the Muslim world.

It exported gold, ivory, and frankincense. Slaves were also traded with Arabia and India. In 1270 AD, the Zagwe Dynasty was overthrown by the Solomonid who are said to be descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The group came about with a fusion of Geez and Cushitic speaking people, birthing the Amhara people, who remain culturally dominant in modern day Ethiopia. The Solomonid continued to rule Ethiopia with until 1974, when the last emperor, Haile Selassie, was deposed in 1974 by a pro-Soviet Marxist-Leninist military junta, the “Derg,” led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, signifying an end to the empire.

The Mossi Kingdoms

The Mossi Kingdoms consisted of a number of independent kingdoms located by the headwaters of the Volta River within modern Burkina Faso and Ghana. The formation of the kingdoms dates back to the 1500s, with expansion occurring at the moment of French conquest in the 1800s from the Mossi plateau of Burkina Faso. The Mossi states were well placed for trade as they were inland at the bend of the Niger River, where the empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai rose and fell. They were also in close proximity to areas where European trade was dominant. The states lasted for 500 years and survived conflicts with neighbouring Muslim empires during the spread of Islam across northern and western Africa. The states consisted on modern Burkina Faso cities of Ouahigouya, Kongoussi, Kaya, Koudougou, Ouagadougou, Manga, Tenkodogo, Koupela, and Boulsa. The empire declined after French colonization in the 1800s.

Edo Empire

According to a traditional account, the Edo Empire, better known as Benin Empire, was founded by semi-mythical kings known as the Ogisos, forming the city of Ibinu (Benin City) in 1150 AD. After years of kingship changes, Ekewa became the first Oba (King) of Benin, and in 1440, Oba Ewuare (also known as Ewuare the Great) came to power and turned the city-state into an empire, naming it Edo. Oba Ewuare is credited with turning Benin City into a military fortress and expanding the kingdom into the modern southwestern region of Nigeria and Ghana.

The empire developed advanced artistic creations made of bronze, iron and ivory that was commonly created for various royal ceremonies. Artworks included bronze wall plaques and life-sized bronze heads of the Obas of Benin, with the most common artifact being based on Queen Idia. The empire grew in wealth during the 16th century due to lave trade with Europe as they sold off their war captives. The empire built a strong mercantile relationship with Portugal in the 1400s, and the two nations traded tropical goods, slaves and European goods and weapons. Visitors and Christian missionaries came to the empire during this time. The English formed a relationship with the empire in the 1500s, trading in ivory, slaves and other goods, with visitors going back to Europe to tell tales the great empire. The empire began its decline in the 1800s after the slaying of eight British representatives in Benin territory due to diplomatic disputes. The British retaliated with a punitive expedition where British forces conquered and burned the city, destroying much of the country’s treasured art and dispersing nearly all that remained. The Oba is still in existence today, and is very much respected in Nigeria as he most revered traditional ruler. His powers are largely ceremonial and religious.

The Kingdom of Kush

The Kingdom of Kush was an ancient African Nubian kingdom that was located in modern day Northern Sudan. It was one of the earliest civilizations to exist along the Nile River valley. The kingdom existed twice, with the first era being around 2400 BC and the second era around the 11th century BC. It was a commercially vibrant kingdom that lived for centuries at peace with its neighbours primarily due to its key role in commerce and transportation of goods. The first kingdom of Kush is known as Kerma, and was at its height of prosperity between 1750 and 1500 BC. It was also at this time when Egyptian expansion into the south resumed, resulting in the region becoming an Egyptian colony under the rulership of Thutmose the first.

The second kingdom of Kush emerged due to the decline of Egyptian control over Nubia. With Napata as its capital, the kingdom grew in influence and dominance over Egypt’s southern regions. By 671 BC, Kush became an independent state again when Egypt was defeated by the Assyrians in an invasion, but internal strife between rulers of the kingdom led to the downfall of Napata. A new capital further south called Meroë was established as a result. Even though Egyptian culture and religion was deeply entrenched in Kush, Meroë developed its own language and writing script, breaking away from Egyptian hieroglyphics, and prospered due to its political stability, peaceful trading relations with neighbors and powerful military presence. The Kushites are thought to be the oldest civilization on earth, with Nubia being regarded as the location of the Garden of Eden. They are also regarded as the oldest civilization that was progressive, were female rulers were a norm.

Lebo Matshego
South African journalist based in Johannesburg. A Wits University graduate, Lebo enjoys writing lifestyle and entertainment stories.