West African Empire of Ghana

In west Africa, in what is modern day Mali and southern Mauritania, a golden age was coming into fruition. Ancient Ghana ranks as one of the most note worthy of African Kingdoms, as Dr Basil Davidson as stated;

Important archaeological discoveries late in the 1970’s have revealed a more complex and much earlier development, well before Ancient Ghana of 300 AD, of early state-like communities and even early cities. Surveys and excavations in this ‘Middle Niger’ region completed in 1984 at no fewer than forty-three sites of ancient settlement, proved that they belonged to an Iron Age culture developing there since about 250 BC, that the settlements grew into urban centres of natural size and duration’.

The city Dr Davidson alludes to is the city of old Djenne and its neighbouring lands. Large stone masonry villages have also been discovered dating as far back as 1100 BC. Their archaeological finds include roads and walls of 2 metres high very likely erect in defence of the village.

Taking the title ‘Ghana’ meaning King, figures through out history expanded upon these beginnings and the Ghanaian Empire began in earnest in 300 AD. 
The Sonninkes, the founders of the empire, who excelled in the use and manufacture of iron had the advantage of superior weapons, quickly dominated surrounding nations.

At its heart was Kumbi-Salah which acted as a hive of extensive trade and attracted caravans from a variety of regions. Famed for its gold from the Wangara region, commented upon by the Arab writer Ibn Fazari who called Ghana the land of gold, compered it in size to its northern contemporary Morocco, while salt came to the city from the Sahara. Due to their expertise with iron and other metals, ancient Ghana traded in some of the finest artefacts in the area. Along side cotton, it was also known for its leather work called ‘Moroccan Leather’ despite the fact that it indeed originated in Ghana.

Ibn Khaldun the well known Arab historian of the 14th century had this to say concerning the Ghanaian empire.

At the time of the conquest of Northern Africa by the Arabs (between the periods 639 and 708 CE), some merchants penetrated into the western regions of the blacks and found among them no king more powerful than the King of Ghana. His states extended westwards to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Ghana (Kumbi-Salah) the capital of this strong, populated cities of the world…

More wonders came from these African lands as attested too by another Arab geographer Ibn Haukal who commented in amazement on the lucrative trade that flourished in the region. His comments made in 951 CE mentions a cheque produced for the sum of 42,900 golden dinars written for a merchant in the state of Audoghast from a partner in Sidjilmassa in the north! Tales abound of one particular gold nugget weighing 30 pounds! This was truly a land of astonishing wonders and lavished wealth. A far cry from the misconception of the African languishing in barbarity and ignorance!

Ibn Khaldun again makes mention of the lifestyle of the ancient Ghanaians while quoting from a book written in 1067 by Abu Ubaid Al-Bakri. He describes the Muslim quarter which had sprung up to facilitate the trans-Saharan trade with north Africa, containing 12 mosques, buildings of stone and acacia wood, schools and centres of education. It was described further as ‘the resort of the learned, of the rich and pious of all nations’.
A truly cosmopolitan city where the finest silk and brocade were worn by the populace.

In 990 CE Audoghast to the north was captured and included into the sprawling Ghanaian Empire. It was a fine addition and boasted a dense population including many from as far away as Spain. Its streets were lined with elegant houses, public buildings and mosques. The surroundings were rich in pastoral lands including sheep and cattle, making meat plentiful. Wheat was found in the market places in abundance imported from the north, honey from the south and a variety of foodstuffs from other regions. Robes of blue and red from Morocco was a popular fashion at the time. All which exchanged hands with payments of gold dust, cowrie shells or salt.
The ruler at the time emperor Tenkamenins court was described in the following terms by Al-Bakri;

When he gives and audience to his people he sits in a pavilion around which stand his horses caparisoned in cloth and gold; behind him stand 10 pages holding shields and gold-mounted swords and on his right hand are the sons of the princes of his empire, splendidly clad and with gold plaited into their hair. The governor of the city is seated on the ground in front of the King, and all around him are his ministers in the same position. The gate of the chamber is guarded by dogs of an excellent breed, who never leave the kings seat, they wear collars of gold and silver.’

However in 1079 the land was invaded from the north by Almoravids pouring out of the newly founded Moroccan city of Marrakesh. A mass exodus insued by the people of Ghana who fled southwards to escape the conflict. This may go some way in explaining why ancient and modern day Ghana are not in the same place today.

By 1087 the Almoravids lost control of the empire to the Soninkes, but the empire disintegrated into several smaller states. Leadership was again assumed by native Ghanaian leaders but the days of glory were gone and the empire soon broke up.

Wagadou Empire (“Land of Herds”. existed c. 750-1200) The Kingdom of Ghana is generally given the dates 9th to the 13th century CE by historians. It marks the beginning of a series of empires in West Africa that were involved in extensive commercial trade. The introduction of the camel, which preceded Muslims and Islam by several centuries, brought about a gradual revolution in trade, and for the first time, the extensive gold, ivory, and salt resources of the region could be sent north and east to population centers in North Africa, the West Asia (Middle East) and Europe in exchange for manufactured goods. This all proves trade in this region was ancient. You should note by looking at the map above that the area of the Kingdom of Ghana during this time period is farther north than the present day country of Ghana, which Kwame Nkrumah names after Ancient Ghana.

Some have called the Kingdom of Ghana the “land of gold, ” an excellent description since it was abounding in gold. The gold trade was largely responsible for the development of Ghana into a powerful, centralized kingdom. The peoples of West Africa had independently developed their own gold mining techniques and began trading with people of other regions of Africa and later Europe as well. At the time of the Kingdom of Ghana, gold was traded for salt that came down from the Sahara desert.

In addition to the gold trade, historians have pointed to a second important factor in the development of these West African Kingdoms. This was the use of iron. The use of iron to make tools and weapons helped some people to expand their control over neighboring people. These changes called for new forms of social organization, contributing to the development of centralized, powerful empires. Historians also say that the use of the horse and camel, along with iron, were important factors in how rulers were able to incorporate small farmers and herders into their empires.

Rulers of Awkar

  • King Kaya Maja  : circa 350 AD
  • 21 Kings, names unknown: circa 350 AD- 622 AD
  • 21 Kings, names unknown: circa 622 AD- 750 AD

Soninke Rulers “Ghanas” of Wagadou Empire

  • Majan Dyabe Cisse: circa 750s
  • More GhanasRuler, names unknown: circa 750s- 1040
  • Bassi: 1040- 1062
  • Tunka Manin: 1062- 1076

Almoravid Occupation

  • General Abu-Bakr Ibn-Umar: 1076- 1087

Ghanas of Wagadou Kingdom

  • Kambine Diaresso: 1087- 1090s
  • Suleiman: 1090s- 1100s
  • Bannu Bubu: 1100s- 1120s
  • Majan Wagadou: 1120s- 1130s
  • Musa: 1140s- 1160s

Rulers during Kaniaga Occupation

  • Diara Kante: 1180-1202
  • Soumaba Cisse as vassal of Soumaoro: 1203-1235

Ghanas of Wagadou Tributary

  • Soumaba Cisse as ally of Sundjata Keita: 1235-1240

The Ghanaian kings controlled the gold that was mined in their kingdom and implemented a system of taxation for their people. Around 1054, the Almoravid rulers came south to conquer the Kingdom of Ghana and convert the people to Islam. The authority of the king eventually diminished, which opened the way for the Kingdom of Mali to begin to gain power. The trade that had begun, however, continued to prosper.

Two important sources that have told historians about the history of the Kingdom of Ghana are the writings of a Spanish Muslim named Al-Bakri and archaeological finds. Archaeologists have worked at excavating a site that many believe to be one of the king’s cities of the Kingdom of Ghana, Kumbi Saleh.

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