The Empire of Songhay

The Songhay empire was the largest empire in Africa at a peak of 1.4 million km. Now take a look back again at the map of Africa’s empires and kingdoms. Click here to return to the map again. You will see that the Kingdom of Songhay encompassed part of the Kingdom of Mali, as well as land beyond to the east and north. The dates for the Kingdom of Songhay partly overlap those of Mali, although the information that follows will reveal at what point Songhay gained control over certain portions of the old Kingdom of Mali. The dates for the Kingdom of Songhay are between 1350 and 1600 CE. The capital was the city of Gao. Even after its collapse it continued as the Dendi Kingdom (1591–1901) which was finally destroyed by French European colonialism.


Economic trade existed throughout the Empire, due to the standing army stationed in the provinces. Central to the regional economy were tharby but independent gold fields. The Songhai economy was based on an occupational class system. The most common were metalworkers, fishermen, and carpenters. Lower caste participants consisted of mostly non-farm working immigrants, who at times were provided special privileges and held high positions in society. At the top were noblemen and direct descendants of the original Songhai people, followed by freemen and traders. The labor system as resembling modern day unions, with the Empire possessing craft guilds that consisted of various mechanics and artisans.

Criminal Justice

Criminal justice in Songhai was based mainly, if not entirely, on Islamic principles, especially during the rule of Askia Muhammad. In addition to this was the local qadis, whose responsibility was to maintain order by following Sharia law. Results of a trial were announced by the “town crier” and punishment for most trivial crimes usually consisted of confiscation of merchandise or even imprisonment, since various prisons existed throughout the Empire.

Qadis worked at the local level and were positioned in important trading towns, such as Timbuktu and Djenné. The Assara-munidios, or “enforcers” worked along the lines of a police commissioner whose sole duty was to execute sentencing. Jurists were mainly composed of those representing the academic community; professors were often noted as taking administrative positions within the Empire and many aspired to be qadis.


The Battle of Tondibi was the decisive confrontation in Morocco’s 16th-century invasion of the Songhai Empire. Though vastly outnumbered, the Moroccan forces under Judar Pasha defeated the Songhai Askia Ishaq II, guaranteeing the Empire’s downfall. Meanwhile, to the west, the Saadi Dynasty of Morocco was at the height of its power, having just annihilated a Portuguese army at the Battle of Ksar el Kebir. In search of new resources for his kingdom, Sultan Ahmad I al-Mansur Saadi turned his attention to the gold mines of the Songhai. Judar Pasha continued onto Gao and sacked the city, but finding little in the way of riches soon moved on to the richer trading centers of Timbuktu and Djenné. The looting of the three cities marked the end of the Songhai Empire as an effective force in the region. However, Morocco proved likewise unable to assert a firm control over the area, due to the difficulties of communication and resupply across the Saharan trade routes, and a decade of sporadic fighting began. Morocco withdrew its forces by the end of the 17th century, leaving the region to splinter into a group of smaller kingdoms.

Songhay Mali Ghana

A List of the Rulers of Songhay

The Za Dynasty

The first of the rulers to govern Songhay was Za-Alayaman. He was succeeded by the following successive rulers: Za-Zaki; Za-Takay; Za-Akay; Za-Koy; Za-Ali Fay; Za-Biyai Kumay; Za-Biyai; Za-Karay; Za-Yama Karaywa; Za-Yama; Yama-Danka Kiba`u; Za-Kukuray and Za-Kinkin. These fourteen rulers all died in a state of jahiliyya and not one of them believed in Allah and His Messenger, may Allah bless him and grant him peace.

Among the first of the rulers of Songhay to accept Islam was Za-Kusay, may Allah be merciful to him. In his own language he was called Muslim-dam – which means ‘he acceptedIslam of his own free will without coercion’. That was in the year 400 from the year of thehijra of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace. He was succeeded consecutively by the following rulers: Za-Kusay Darbiya; Za-Hin Kuzwankay Dam; Za-Biyai Koy Kim; Za-Nintasanay; Za-Biyai Kayna Kimba; Za-Kayna Shanyubu; Za-Tibu; Za-Yama Dadu; Za-Fadazu; Za-Ali Kura; Za-Biru Falak (may Allah be merciful to him); Za-Yasibay;Za-Duru; Za-Zanka Bari; Za– Bisa Bari and Za-Bada.

The Sonni Dynasty

After the Za dynasty came the first of the sonnisAli Kolon, who, with the help of Allah, broke the chains of the sovereignty of the people of Mali from the necks of the people of Songhay. After him the rule was given to his brother Silman Nar. Both Silman Nar and Ali Kolon were the sons of Za-Yasibay. The rulers after them in consecutive order were: SonniIbrahim Kabay; Sonni Uthman Kanafa; Sonni Bar-Kayna Ankabi; Sonni Musa; Sonni Bokar Zanka; Sonni Bokar Dala-Buyunbu; Sonni Maru-Kuray; Sonni Muhammad Da`u; SonniMuhammad Kukiya; Sonni Muhammad Far; Sonni Karbifo; Sonni Maru-Fay Kuli-Jimu; SonniMaru Arkana; Sonni Arandan; Sonni Sulayman Daama; Sonni AliSonni Baru whose name was Bokar Da`u; and after him was Askiya al-Hajj Muhammad.

The Origin of the Kingdom of Songhay

As for the first ruler of Songhay, Za-Alayaman, his name takes its origin from the Arabic phrase: ‘ja’a min ‘l-Yemen‘ (‘he came from Yemen’). It has been related that he left Yemen, along with his brother, traveling in the earth of Allah ta`ala until they reached the boundaries of the land of Kukiya (Gao), a very ancient site on the coast of the Niger river in the country of Songhay. This occured during the time of Pharoah. It is even said that he was among the sorcerers who had contended with Musa, the One who spoke directly with Allah, upon him be peace.

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