The rise of the Ghana Empire

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By David A. Granger

The ancient Ghana Empire was located in the vast area of West Africa now occupied by the three independent states – Senegal, Mauretania and Mali. It lay in the savannah zone, between the Sahara desert to the North and the forest zone to the South.

The name ‘Ghana’ was adopted by the former British colony called the Gold Coast when it became independent in 1957. The ancient and modern states, however, were quite distant and distinct from each other. The word Ghana (gana or kana in Malinke) initially meant ‘chief’ and referred only to the capital, that is, the place where the chief lived. The state itself was known by its Berber name – Awkar. In the course of time, however the entire Empire was called Ghana.


The Empire was established mainly by the Soninke people who belong to the great Mande (Mandingo) nation. It may have existed since c. 500 CE, but the earliest written accounts known to the West were made by various Moslem merchants, scholars and geographers. One scholar, writing in the year 772 CE, called Ghana the ‘land of gold’.

The single most significant factor in the rise of ancient Ghana was the strategic site of its capital – Kumbi Saleh – as the terminus of the trans-Saharan trade routes. Ghana played the role of middleman between the forest zone to the South and the Maghreb and Mediterranean littoral, to the North.

The main commodities of trade were gold, enslaved labour, leather, pepper and ostrich feathers which were sent northwards, and salt, horses, metal weapons and utensils which were sent southwards. Most of these goods could not be produced in Ghana itself. Gold came from Bambuk in the upper reaches of the Senegal River, and salt from Taghaza in the desert. Ghana’s wealth came largely from taxes it levied on the traders who passed through its territory.

Ruins of Kumbi Saleh, Capital of the Ghana Empire

The role of gold in the rise of Ghana cannot be over-emphasised. African gold was extracted from the days of ancient Rome and Carthage to be used mainly as personal adornment. In medieval times, however, it became important as a means of exchange, replacing silver as the most valuable coinage and as a store of wealth in the form of bullion.

Ghana had become the principal supplier to the Maghreb and Mediterranean states long before Spain’s conquest of the Americas brought an influx of Mexican and Colombian gold. Indeed, one of the most important motives for Portuguese navigation along the coast of West Africa was to find a sea route which would give them access to the gold-bearing hinterland where ancient Ghana (by that time overtaken by the Songhai Empire) was once located.

Kumbi Saleh, the capital, played the role of an important cultural and commercial metropolis. It was a large urban complex with a population of about 30,000. It was divided into two, a royal (native) city – the grove (called al ghaba) – and a Muslim (emigrant) quarter which had several large mosques and mansions.

The capital served as a meeting place for foreign merchants and local producers and the focus of trading activity and was a magnet for other peoples in the Empire. It supported a corps of craftsmen such as leather- and metal-workers and some vegetable-growers who provided food for the urban population. The evidence of recent excavations revealed numerous glass, iron, pottery and decorated stone items indicating the existence of a complex community.

The ruler of Ghana (called Magha or Mauga) maintained an elaborate court. He remained an animist as head of ancestral religious cults despite the influence of Islam. One ruler, Tunka Menin in 1607-68, had a reputation for dispensing justice personally and for being liberal both to subjects and strangers.

The influence of Islam on the rise of Ghana was an important, though not decisive, factor. Moslems seemed to be allowed to practice their religion freely and to hold high office in the capital. Their influence was felt in the fields of administration, architecture, commerce, jurisprudence and record-keeping.

Ghana thus arose as the earliest and one of the greatest West African empires. It had extensive territorial possessions, a powerful army, regular and reliable sources of taxation and tribute, thriving North-South trade and a strong tradition of kinship.

The Ghana Empire set the pattern for the rise of two successor empires – Mali and Songhai – which were to dominate the Western Sudan up to the middle of the 15th century.

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