The Rise of West African Empires - A Student Essay
By Xuan Chau
Please do not re-distribute this article without the author's consent. Thank you!
Although there were many impressive civilizations that have established in past African history, the significant empires of West Africa were prosperous due to links to a useful infrastructure as well as religious influence. Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, 300 to 1600 A.D, where the three most well known empires and each had specific things in common that helped shape them into impressive and prospering communities. Many past empires have relied on a successful economy to support their development. With the abundant gold mines and many other resources in the West African territories, Ghana and Mali dominated trade routes spreading across the Sahara. In addition, religion played an important role in the spreading of West African culture, promoting interaction, improving government, and unifying the empire. By spreading news of their flourishing empires and using Islamic standards to organize a stable system of government, Ghana, Mali, and Songhai became the most impressive of all ancient West African empires.
West African Empires Rely on Wealth and Trade
With a large territory to maintain and developing infrastructure, Ghana, Mali, and Songhai were one of the many ancient communities that depended on wealth to support their rapid growth. A good economy has often been a result of sufficient trade networks and cities specialization in commerce. Fortunately for these empires, extensive trade routes connecting North Africa and regions south of the Sahara provided more methods of efficient and safe transportation of people and goods. The trans-Saharan trade routes, the most significant of these paths, were used as means of transportation across the Sahara to other areas such as North Africa and Europe. The Sahara desert is a hot, desolate landscape to travel through that would have been a troublesome barrier between Africa, Europe, and the East. As the Ghana and Mali empire grew, these roads became increasingly important for providing accessibility to new resources and other key centres of trade in opposite sides of the Sahara. The passages led to major trading ports in the North and East including the areas of modern-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Although trans-Saharan trade was important, it was not the only method of transporting goods throughout Africa. The Ghana, Mali, and Songhai empires had full control of both the Niger and Senegal rivers, two arteries connected to other territories, including major trade markets. In addition to their control over the roads themselves, however, Ghana and Mali contributed to the trading system by running many cities that acted as trading centres for both their own and other nearby communities. These cities often thrived on a strong commercial position along the Niger and Senegal rivers. Timbuktu and Gao, for example, taxed the gold and salt trade, while minority cities such as Awdaghust minted coins for easier trade in nearby ports. Many of these previously small trading communities would eventually become empires’ seats of power, providing rulers with “direct control over the flow of goods through the Sahara” (Page 32). These contributing cities provided the empires with the power and sufficiency needed to dominate nearly all trade on the African continent. With the distribution of control over trade routes and trading centres, West African empires benefited from fast-flowing trade that supported the economy. However, with such a large dependence on infrastructure to run trade, the empires also had to be supported by resources, which provided merchandise to exchange with other civilizations.
Equally important to West African economy, specialized resources such as the famous West African gold mines formed specific trade relations between different societies. Ghana, Mali, and Songhai empires’ most famous trait is undoubtedly their abundant sources of gold. Especially at the height of Mali’s power, two-thirds of the world's gold supply is said to have come from sub-Saharan Africa (Ward). Gold from West Africa was a major export, since it was plentiful yet quite valuable, especially in other regions where gold mines had been depleted. The gold products created by West Africa attracted the attentions of traders and merchants over Africa and in a large part of Europe. On the other hand, salt, which may not seem to have much potential value, was actually a special concern to the people of West Africa due to constantly arid climatic conditions. While West Africa did not have as a large amount of salt resources, other regular traders from North Africa helped to supply West Africa with enough salt to prosper. In return, the empires exchanged for gold. This created the regular gold-for-salt trade that was equally important for both West African and North African empires. Similarly, other trading bonds between common merchandise had formed, making helpful systems of trade resulting in the satisfaction of each empire. This fortification helped run the empire while other advancements took place through religious aid.
Spread of Social and Religious Influence
Because Muslim Arabs were plentiful in a mostly Islamic society back in the Ghana, Mali, and Songhai empires, they had a great influence on the African society. As it was a powerful universal religion, with its own motives and standards, these were incorporated into government, society, and encouraged interaction between regions. As these empires developed, so did Islamic influence within and outside its boundaries. Islamic leaders, such as the famous emperor Mansa Musa of the Mali empire, and the religious teacher Muhammad, had the most influence on the empires. When Mansa Musa made his pilgrimage to Mecca, a necessary act for most Muslims, he travelled with an abundance of wealth while passing by large communities such as Egypt. While passing this powerful civilization, Mansa Musa distributed news of Mali’s wealth and culture. By presenting one of Mali’s most valuable trade items; gold, to Egypt’s king, their merchants became regular visitors to the Mali empire, enriching its trade further. Mansa Musa’s spread of Mali’s culture shows an example of how practices of Islam helped support the empire by interacting socially with other communities. However, the pilgrimage is not the only act capable of doing this. The Berbers, who were an indigenous ethnic group west of the Nile Valley, were influenced by the spread of religion through other Muslim travelers. Islam was an appealing religion that became widespread quickly. As the Sanhaja, a group of Berbers, became Muslims themselves, their religious conversions gave them a larger commercial connection with the Islamic world (Conrad). The scale of their trade increased as did the widespread quality of their trade. Their conversions not only helped them prosper, but affected the West African empires as well. Religion continued to help Ghana, Mali, and Songhai prosper within their empire’s boundaries.
Religion helps Unify Empires
Although Islam was useful by being widespread, its customs served a purpose within the empire’s government as well. Literature, sprouted from the Muslim need for medicine, astronomy, math, and geography, became increasingly important in a growing Muslim community. The Arabic language is also crucial for all Muslims to read and interpret the original Qur’an, the Muslim holy book. With the same knowledge, reading and writing could be extremely useful in the organization of government. When Muslim holy men and teachers returned with Mansa Musa after the emperor’s pilgrimage, for example, they helped to establish law courts and Muslim schools. This was possible through newly acquired knowledge gained through the subjects of reading and writing, essential parts of the Muslim faith, and through important figures. "As a patron and friend of literature Musa helped lay the foundation of the Arabic literature... which was to bear its first fruit in the cities of Jenne and Timbuktu” (Koslow). While Muslim literature made ancient government run smoothly, the empires were ruled in an organized way. Nonetheless, religious fundamentals had even more direct impact on the empire’s society. The major religion, Islam, was attractive in many ways. It did not favor race, ethnicity, tribe, or nationality. The organization of the Five Pillars promised a fair distribution of wealth, and a sense of connection between them and other Muslims. With the favorable nature of the Muslim faith, religion acted like a binding force in a diverse society in a large empire (Koslow). Diversity was a defining aspect of ancient African culture. Even leaders such as Mansa Musa took advantage of the binding power of religion, and doing so made ruling the empire and keeping unity much easier. Clearly, the Islamic religion helped government and stabilized control over the people, creating a substantial rulership for all three empires.
A Book to Read
Evidently, the effect both religion and infrastructure had on the West African empires majorly aided their development, and kept them powerful and prospering at their full height. While the subjects of military and political success contributed as well, it is important to consider the necessity of a flourishing economy, especially in the progressing stages of all ancient empires. While all three empires were separate and developed in different time periods, their achievements improved as each improved off of what the previous empire had left behind. Mali’s infrastructure, trade routes and extensive territory was much larger than that of its precedent, Ghana. Songhai was believed to be “last and greatest of the three West African or merchant empires”(Hunwick). As religion spread throughout the reign of the three empires, news of their wealth and culture also spread, exposing West Africa to other civilizations. The West African empires were made great through these major factors, shaping them into the famous African empires we know of today through infrastructure and religion.
More by this Author
This essay was done for a National History Day project (NHD), under the topic "Rights and Responsibilities". This essay reflects the failed responsibilities of UNAMIR due to limited rights. (Collab)
A short final essay analyzing characters of William Golding's novel, "The Lord of the Flies".