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By David A. Granger
The Songhai Empire was one of the largest medieval states in West African history. It covered an area of 1,398,593 km² (about 540,000 square miles) at its greatest extent, dominating the western Sahel in the 15th and 16th centuries CE. The name of the state (also known as Songhay) was derived from the Songhai – its leading and largest ethnic group.
The Empire was ruled, initially, by the Sonni dynasty (c. 1464–1493) but it was replaced later by the Askia dynasty (1493–1591).
A Songhai state had existed in and around the town of Gao which had grown into an important terminus for trans-Saharan trade during the second half of the 13th century. Trade goods had already included dates, gold, ivory, kola nuts, leather, salt and enslaved labour by the 10th century.
The Mali Empire conquered Gao towards the end of the 13th century and it remained under Malian hegemony until the late 14th century. As the Mali Empire disintegrated, the Songhai reasserted control of Gao.
Sonni Ali was considered the Empire’s most formidable military strategist and expanded the small kingdom of Gao into an enormous empire that was larger than the earlier Ghana and Mali Empires. He became the first ruler of the Songhai Empire from 1464 to 1492 and conquered many neighboring states, including the remnants of the Mali Empire, in the late 1460s and annexed Timbuktu in 1468 and Djenné in 1473.
Askia Mohammad organized the territories conquered by Sonni Ali and extended his power far to the south and east. Askia was a remarkable ruler. He constructed mosques and religious schools and opened his court to scholars and poets from throughout the Muslim world. He recruited Muslim scholars from Egypt and Morocco to teach at the Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu and to establish other learning centers throughout the Empire.
Askia was also a gifted administrator. He centralized the administration of the Empire, establishing an efficient bureaucracy which, among other things, was responsible for tax collection and justice; introducing a system of weights and measures and appointing an inspector for each important trading centre. He instructed that canals be built in order to improve agriculture, which eventually would increase trade.
The Songhai city of Timbuktu, at its peak, became a thriving cultural and commercial centre. Arab, Italian, and Jewish merchants gathered for trade.
The Empire’s economy was sustained primarily by external overland trade in the Sahel and internal riverine trade along the Niger River. Overland trade was fostered by its favourable location; transportation was provided by camels; and security along the trade routes by Berber tribesmen. The salt mines of Taghaza were brought within the Empire’s boundaries.
The Niger River was an essential artery for trade. Goods would be offloaded from camels onto either donkeys or boats at Timbuktu from where they would move along an 800-kilometre corridor upstream to Djenné or downstream to Gao.
The Empire’s economic dominance was sustained by taxes imposed on peripheral provinces and, in return, these provinces were afforded almost complete administrative autonomy. Songhai rulers intervened only in the affairs of these neighboring states when a situation endangered the Empire’s stability.
The Islamic religion provided some internal cohesion and an ideological link with other people in the Sahel. Islamic scholarship was revived at the university in Timbuktu which acquired a reputation for learning and scholarship throughout the medieval Muslim world.
A civil war of succession which followes the death of Askia Daoud weakened the Empire, prompting Sultan Ahmad I al-Mansur of the Saadi Dynasty of Morocco to invade Songhai.
The Moroccans captured, plundered, and razed the salt mines at Taghaza and moved on to Gao. Askia Ishaq II who ruled from 1588 to1591 was routed at the Battle of Tondibi in 1591. Gao, Timbuktu and Djenné were sacked, and the Songhai Empire was destroyed as a regional power.