Like Clockwork

Sub-Saharan African Empires

Posted on April 10, 2018   6 minute read

Throughout human history mankind has seen and recorded the undulation of many empires both small and large. “Oceans rise, Empires fall”, these words accurately compare the rising and falling of empires to the natural movement of the ocean and the ebb and flow of the tide. For most, empires such as the Roman Empire, British Empire, or even the Persian Empire immediately spring to mind. However, the bygone empires of Africa unfortunately remain for the most part unknown. In general, the Western Sudanese african empires rarely kept written records but preserved their history through oral tradition. From the 6th century to the 16th century CE, three important and wealthy empires developed in the region between the Sahara desert and the western coast of Africa. These Sub Saharan Empires were known as the Ghana, Songhai, and Mali Empires. Like all empires they too collapsed. Brief analyses of each empire’s socio political and economic systems, may reveal the factors which contributed to their individual downfall and demonstrate that all empires eventually end.

Thought to be founded sometime during the 6th century CE the Ghana Empire or Kingdom played an important part in ancient africa. Although the empire and modern country of Ghana share the same name they are in no way related. Ancient Ghana, also known as Wagadu in its original language, was situated between the Sahara desert and the Niger River. Koumbi Saleh was the kingdoms last capitol and the biggest city south of the Sahara desert. Ivory, slaves, kola nuts and excessive amounts of gold were traded over the trans Saharan trade route to cities along the mediterranean coast. With the cooperation of the camel riding Berbers the ruling Soninke warrior tribe ferried their goods and information to the outside world. As for politics, the empire was ruled by a King who had several advisors. Despite having a close relationship with Arabs the kingdom and its rulers never fully converted to Islam. Once a major exporter of goods and an exorbitantly wealthy empire, Ghana began to crumbled.

After enduring for almost five centuries the Ghana Empire collapsed due to a plethora of reasons. To trade goods with other people groups they needed close collaboration with nomadic groups. During the 11th and 12th centuries the Berbers became islamicized and began attacking Ghana and eventually managed to invade the empire and plunder its riches. During that time the Wagadu elites also converted to Islam while the common people kept their own systems of belief. This created a schism between the different social classes and caused many people to flee. Furthermore droughts and the loss of a gold mine named Wangara led to decline in the wealth of the empire. Additionally, as the pendulum of power lurched away, the Ghanaian Empire was supplanted by a more powerful authority after the granduncle of Mansa Musa, Soundjata Keita conquered it. Ghana’s final nail in the coffin was hammered shut sometime in 1240 when the empire was incorporated into the emerging Mali Empire.

Upon the heels of a now defunct Ghana, a new empire formed and managed to become the most wealthy and powerful kingdom in its period. In the mid 12th century CE the empire of Mali which stretched from the western coast of current day Guinea to the Niger River empire. According to Egyptian sources, Mansa Musa, the richest king of the Malian Empire and purported wealthiest man ever, devalued the price of gold while visiting the country. Due to the empires complete adherence to Islam, trade between them and the Islamic world flourished. The Malian Empire traded mostly gold and bought salt in exchange. Timbuktu was also an important city in the Mali an Empire. Over 25,000 students studied at the University of Timbuktu and in spite of keeping oral records 700,000 manuscripts were kept in a sort of generational library. Consecutive power struggles erupted at the death of Mari Jata II and his son Musa II. This incessant infighting soon led to turmoil which ticked the end to the second empire of western Sudan.

While witnessing the deterioration of the Mali Empire the Songhai people recaptured Gao which had been annexed by the previous empire. From there they expanded, swallowing most of the area previously owned by its predecessors. Doing so they greatly exceeded the territory of both the Ghana and Mali empires. For the better part of a century they conquered Malian territories even seizing the great city of Timbuktu. Nonetheless their capital Gao remained important, it had become “terminus for the western central and eastern trans Saharan trade routes”. Because they controlled the center of commerce and trade the Songhai Empire could easily charge duties on imports and cement their dominance as a major trading partner and kingdom. However, and like all empires Songhai also began to decline. After a long peaceful succession of emperors they were defeated by the Moroccan Army who could not properly manage the territory due the Sahara Desert. Even after the Moroccan Army withdrew its forces the Songhai Empire could not reform and retake its earlier territory.

Not unlike the pendulum of a clock each empire lasts for its own appropriate period of time. In the end every empire with the exception of one will eventually falter and collapse. Whether it be through competition in trade and territory, internal riots and conflicts, or foreign and religious invasion the principalities and kingdoms of this earth are doomed to fail. By contrast, Daniel 6:26 describes God and his kingdom as which, “ men are to fear and tremble before the God of Daniel; For He is the living God and enduring forever, And His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed, And His dominion will be forever”. Each of the western Sudanese empires faced destruction either from external intruders or internal clashes. In another verse from Daniel 4:34 the writer shows that “His dominion is an everlasting dominion, And His kingdom endures from generation to generation.” Contrary to how the passing of one king in the Mali Empire resulted in discord among the king’s court and potential suitors. With all of their splendors, ample amounts of gold, magnificent power, and vast territories the Western Sudanese empires ended. Leaving an important lesson behind that all things of the earth will ultimately crumble.

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Mali Empire and Djenne Figures, , accessed December 16, 2017,

Seth Kordzo Gadzepko, History of African Civilizations (Accra: Rabbi Books). “The empire of Wagadu (ancient Ghana).” African History - Histoire Africaine. August 02, 2017. .

Miranda, Lin-Manuel. You’ll be back. “Hamilton: An American Musical.” In Hamilton: The Revolution. Edited by Jeremy McCarter. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016.

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