The Songhay Empire (1468-1591), also written as Songhai, was an empire in West Africa centred on the Niger River. It was one of the largest and most advanced states of its time. Timbuktu, then in its golden age, was larger than London.
The three main empires of West Africa and when they reached their height:
- 1000s: Ghana
- 1300s: Mali
- 1500s: Songhay
The Songhay Empire was the largest. It ruled two-thirds of all West Africans. In terms of present-day countries, it extended across Gambia, southern Senegal, almost all of Mali, western Niger and north-western Nigeria.
The backbone was the Niger River and its cities that traded among themselves and with the caravans that came across the Sahara – a pattern that goes back to -500. The river lay between the Sahara to the north and the forests to the south – a perfect place to create an empire using armed men on horseback. Think Genghis Khan. By the late 1400s, Songhay’s cavalry was the toughest and fastest of West Africa.
Cities: Its three main cities, from west to east along the Niger River, were
- Jenne (or Djenne),
- Timbuktu – the richest,
- Gao – the capital.
Trade: The empire stood at the meeting point of several trade routes, coming south across the Sahara, west across the Sahel, all the way from the Nile, and north from the forests and its gold fields. It traded gold, ivory, spices, kola nuts, slaves and cotton goods for salt, cloth, arms, horses, copper, glassware, sugar and North African crafts.
Education: Its scholars went to top universities like al-Azhar in Cairo and al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco, but soon Timbuktu’s own Sankore University was itself a top university. It had scholars from as far away as North Africa and West Asia. It taught religion, law, grammar, rhetoric, logic, astrology, astronomy, history and geography. It was heavy on Islamic law: it and other universities turned out the judges who pretty much ran many of the cities and towns.
Language: Arabic was the language of scholarship, much as Latin was in the West. The top people in Jenne, Timbuktu and Gao spoke the imperial tongue, Songhay. In the east people spoke Hausa.
Religion: Islam was common among the upper crust. The masses, though, did not become largely Muslim till the 1800s, long after the empire fell. While the empire did fight a jihad against the Mossi to the south, it generally did not force Islam on its own people. Unlike Arabs, it sold both Muslims and non-Muslims as slaves.
Class structure: in rough terms:
- nobles – served in government and the military, fought in the cavalry;
- freemen – independent farmers, fought in the infantry;
- guild members – craftsmen;
- slaves – worked especially on royal estates.
Military: In addition to its cavalry, it had a navy on the Niger River. But there was one thing it did not have: guns. Already weakened by civil war, it was destroyed at the Battle of Tondibi in 1591 by Morocco – armed by Queen Elizabeth I.
– Abagond, 2015.
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- Genghis Khan
- Arabs and slavery
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