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Ghana Empire

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Ghana Empire

Ghana Empire

c. 300–c. 1200  

Ghana Empire at its Greatest Extent
Capital Koumbi Saleh
Languages Soninke, Mande
Religion African Traditional Religion, Islam
Government Monarchy
 -  790s Majan Dyabe Cisse
 -  1040–1069 Ghana Bassi
 -  1203–1235 Soumaba Cisse
Historical era Middle Ages
 -  Established circa 350 A.D c. 300
 -  Conquered by the Sosso /
Submitted to Mali Empire
c. 1200
 -  1067 est. 1,600 km² (618 sq mi)
Today part of  Mali

The Ghana Empire (before c. 830 until c. 1235) was located in what is now southeastern Mauritania and western Mali. Complex societies had existed in the region since about 1500 BC, and around Ghana's core region since about 300 AD.[1] When Ghana's ruling dynasty began is uncertain; it is first mentioned in documentary sources around 830 AD by Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī.[2] The domestication of the camel, which preceded Muslims and Islam by several centuries, brought about a gradual change in trade, and, for the first time, the extensive gold, ivory trade, and salt resources of the region could be sent north and east to population centers in North Africa, the Middle East and Europe in exchange for manufactured goods.

The empire grew rich from the trans-Saharan trade in gold and salt. This trade produced an increasing surplus, allowing for larger urban centers. It also encouraged territorial expansion to gain control over the lucrative trade routes.

The first written mention of the kingdom comes from Arabic language sources some time after the conquest of North Africa by Muslims, when geographers began compiling comprehensive accounts of the world known to Islam around 800. The sources for the earlier periods are very strange as to its society, government or culture, though they do describe its location and note its commercial relations. The Cordoban scholar Abu Ubayd al-Bakri collected stories from a number of travelers to the region, and gave a detailed description of the kingdom in 1067/1068 (460 AH). He claimed that the Ghana could "put 200,000 men into the field, more than 40,000 of them archers" and noted they had cavalry forces as well.[3]


Trade routes of the Western Sahara c. 1000–1500. Goldfields are indicated by light brown shading.

Written records: foreign state founders

The origins of Ghana have often been obscured by fights between ethno-historic accounts and interpretations and archaeology. The earliest discussions of its origins are found in the Sudanese chronicles of MahumdKati and Abd al-Rahman as-Sadi. According to Kati's Tarikh al-Fettash in a section probably composed by the author around 1580, but citing the authority of the chief judge of Massina, Ida al-Massini who lived somewhat earlier, twenty kings ruled Ghana before the advent of the Prophet, and the empire extended until the century after the prophet (i.e. c. 822 AD).[4] In addressing the rulers' origin, the Tarikh al-Fettash provides three different opinions, one that they were Blake (i.e. Soninke), another that they were Wangara (i.e. Mande). Al-Kati favored this interpretation in view of the fact that their genealogies linked them to this group, adding "What is certain is that they were not blacks" (min al-sawadin).[5] While the sixteenth-century versions of genealogies might have linked Ghana to the Sanhaja, earlier versions, for example as reported by the eleventh-century writer al-Idrisi and the thirteenth-century writer ibn Said, noted that rulers of Ghana in those days traced their descent from the clan of the Prophet Muhammad either through his protector abi Talib, or through his son-in-law Ali.[6] Al-Sadi, who wrote in the 1660s, for his part, only notes that they were "white" (bidan, which referred to the culture rather than the skin-colour) and did not know their exact origin. He says that 22 kings ruled before the Hijra and 22 after.[7] While these early views lead to many exotic interpretations of a foreign origin of Wagadu, these views are generally disregarded by scholars. Levtzion and Spaulding for example, argue that al-Idrisi's testimony should be looked at very critically due to demonstrably gross miscalculations in geography and historical chronology, while they themselves associate Ghana with the local Soninke.[8] In addition, the archaeologist and historian Raymond Mauny argues that al-Kati's and al-Sadi's view of a foreign origin cannot be regarded as reliable. He argues that the interpretations were based on the later presence (after Ghana's demise) of nomadic interlopers on the assumption that they were the historic ruling caste, and that the writers did not adequately consider contemporary accounts such as those of al-Yakqubi (872 A.D.) al-Masudi (c. 944 A.D.), Ibn Hawqal (c. 977 A.D.), al-Biruni (c. 1036 A.D.), as well as al-Bakri, all of whom describe the population and rulers of Ghana as "negroes".[9]

History of Islam in the Ghana Empire

Modern scholars, particularly African Muslim scholars, have argued about the extension of the Ghana Empire and tenure of its reign. The African Arabist, Abu-Abdullah Adelabu has claimed that some non-Muslim historians played down the territorial expansion of the Ghana Empire in what he called an attempt to undermine the influence of Islam in Old Ghana. In his work The Ghana World: A Pride For The Continent, Adelabu maintained that works of such Muslim historians and geographers in Europe as the Cordoban scholar Abu-Ubayd al-Bakri had been subjugated to accommodate contrary views of non-Muslim Europeans.[10] He compared Al-Bakri (c. 1014–1094) to the Moroccan theologian and founder of the Almoravid dynasty, Abdallah Ibn Yasin (died 7 July 1059 AD) and pointed at them among the early Muslim scholars whose scholastic works had been compromised on history of the Ghana Empire. Adelabu claimed constant cold-shouldering of Ibn Yasin's Geography of School Of Imam Malik in which he gave a comprehensive account of social and religious activities in the Ghana Empire have well-attested compositional bias of Ghana history documentation, especially by the European historians on topics related to Islam and the ancient Muslim societies. Adelabu said: "...the early Muslim documentaries including Ibn Yasin's revelations on ancient African major centers of Muslim culture crossing the Maghreb and the Sahel to Timbuktu and downward to Ashanti regions had not just presented researchers in the field of African History with solutions to the scarcity of written sources in large parts of sub-Saharan Africa, it consolidated confidence in techniques of oral history, historical linguistics and archaeology for authentic Islamic traditions in Africa".[11]

Oral traditions: local foundation by foreign immigrants

See also History of the Soninke people

In the late nineteenth century, as French forces occupied the region in which ancient Ghana lay, colonial officials began collecting traditional accounts, including some manuscripts written in Arabic somewhat earlier in the century. Several such traditions were recorded and published. While there are variants, these traditions called the most ancient polity they knew of Wagadu, or the "place of the Wago" the term current in the nineteenth century for the local nobility. The traditions described the kingdom as having been founded by a man named Dinga, who came "from the east", after which he migrated to a variety of locations in the Western Sudan, in each place leaving children by different wives. In order to achieve power in his final location he had to kill a goblin, and then marry his daughters, who became the ancestors of the clans that were dominant in the region at the time of the recording of the tradition. Upon Dinga's death, his two sons Khine and Dyabe contested the kingship, and Dyabe was victorious, founding the kingdom.[12]

Theories concerning the foundation of Ghana

French colonial officials, notably Maurice Delafosse, concluded that Ghana had been founded by the Berbers, a nomadic group origination from the Benu River, from Middle Africa, and linked them to North African and Middle Eastern origins. While Delafosse produced a convoluted theory of an invasion by "Judeo-Syrians", which he linked to the Fulbe, others took the tradition at face value and accepted simply that nomads had ruled first.[13] Raymond Mauny, synthesizing early archaeology, various traditions, and the Arabic materials in 1961 concluded that foreign trade was vital to the empire's foundation.[14] More recent work, for example by Nehemiah Levtzion, in his classic work published in 1973, sought to harmonize archaeology, descriptive geographical sources written between 830 and 1400, the older traditions of the Tarikhs, from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and finally the traditions collected by French administrators. Levtzion concluded that local developments, stimulated by trade from North Africa were crucial in the development of the state, and tended to favor the more recently collected traditions over the other traditions in compiling his work.[15] While there has not been much further study of either traditions or documents, archaeologists have added considerable nuance to the ultimate play of forces.

Contribution of archaeological research

Archaeological research was slow to enter the picture. While French archaeologists believed they had located the capital, Koumbi-Saleh in the 1920s, when they located extensive stone ruins in the general area given in most sources for the capital, and others argued that elaborate burials in the Niger Bend area may have been linked to the empire, it was not until 1969, when Patrick Munson excavated at Dhar Tichitt in modern-day Mauretania that the probability of an entirely local origin was raised.[16] The Dar Tichitt site had clearly become a complex civilization by 1600 BCE and had architectural and material culture elements that seemed to match the site at Koumbi-Saleh. In more recent work in Dar Tichitt, and then in Dhar Nema and Dhar Walata, it has become more and more clear that as the desert advanced, the Dhar Tichitt culture (which had abandoned its earliest site around 300 BC, possibly because of pressure from desert nomads, but also because of increasing aridity) and moved southward into the still well watered areas of northern Mali.[17] This now seems the likely history of the complex society that can be documented at Koumbi-Saleh.

Koumbi Saleh

The empire's capital is believed to have been at Koumbi Saleh on the rim of the Sahara desert.[18] According to the description of the town left by Al-Bakri in 1067/1068, the capital was actually two cities six miles apart but "between these two towns are continuous habitations", so that they might be said to have merged into one.[19]

El Ghaba Section

According to al-Bakri, the major part of the city was called El-Ghaba and was the residence of the king. It was protected by a stone wall and functioned as the royal and spiritual capital of the Empire. It contained a sacred grove of trees used for Soninke religious rites in which priests lived. It also contained the king's palace, the grandest structure in the city, surrounded by other "domed buildings". There was also one mosque for visiting Muslim officials.[19] (El-Ghaba, coincidentally or not, means "The Forest" in Arabic.)

Muslim Section

The name of the other section of the city is not recorded. It was surrounded by wells with fresh water, where vegetables were grown. It was inhabited almost entirely by Arab and Amazighy Muslims along with twelve mosques, one of which was designated for Friday prayers, and had a full group of scholars, scribes and Islamic jurists. Because the majority of these Muslims were merchants, this part of the city was probably its primary business district.[20]


The Western Nile according to al-Bakri (1068)
The Western Nile according to Muhammad al-Idrisi (1154)

A seventeenth-century chronicle written in Timbuktu, the Tarikh al-fattash, gives the name of the capital as "Koumbi".[4] Beginning in the 1920s, French archaeologists began excavating the site of Koumbi-Saleh, although there have always been controversies about the location of Ghana's capital and whether Koumbi-Saleh is the same town as the one described by al-Bakri. The site was excavated in 1949–50 by Thomassey and Mauny[21] and by another French team in 1975–81.[22] However, the remains of Koumbi Saleh are impressive, even if the remains of the royal town, with its large palace and burial mounds has not been located. Another problem for archaeology is that al-Idrisi, a twelfth-century writer, described Ghana's royal city as lying on a riverbank, a river he called the "Nile" following the geographic custom of his day of confusing the Niger and Senegal, which do not meet, as forming a single river often called the "Nile of the Blacks". Whether al-Idrisi was referring to a new and later capital located elsewhere, or whether there was confusion or corruption in his text is unclear, however he does state that the royal palace he knew of was built in 510 AH (1116–1117 AD), suggesting that it was a newer town, rebuilt closer to the Niger than Koumbi Saleh.[23]


Most of our information about the economy of Ghana comes from al-Bakri. Al-Bakri noted that merchants had to pay a one gold dinar tax on imports of salt, and two on exports of salt. Other products paid fixed dues, al-Bakri mentioned both copper and "other goods." Imports probably included products such as textiles, ornaments and other materials. Many of the hand-crafted leather goods found in old Morocco may also had their origins in the empire.[24] The main centre of trade was Koumbi Saleh. The king claimed as his own all nuggets of gold, and allowed other people to have only gold dust.[25] In addition to the exerted influence of the king onto local regions, tribute was also received from various tributary states and chiefdoms to the empire's periphery.[26] The introduction of the camel played a key role in Soninke success as well, allowing products and goods to be transported much more efficiently across the Sahara. These contributing factors all helped the empire remain powerful for some time, providing a rich and stable economy that was to last over several centuries. The empire was also known to be a major education hub.


Much testimony on ancient Ghana depended on how well disposed the king was to foreign travellers, from which the majority of information on the empire comes. Islamic writers often commented on the social-political stability of the empire based on the seemingly just actions and grandeur of the king. A Moorish nobleman living in Spain by the name of Al-Bakri questioned merchants who visited the empire in the 11th century and wrote that the king:

Ghana appears to have had a central core region and was surrounded by vassal states. One of the earliest sources to describe Ghana, al-Ya'qubi, writing in 889/90 (276 AH) says that "under his authority are a number of kings" which included Sama and 'Am (?) and so extended at least to the Niger valley.[27] These "kings" were presumably the rulers of the territorial units often called kafu in Mandinka.

The Arabic sources, the only ones to give us any information are sufficiently vague as to how the country was governed, that we can say very little. Al-Bakri, far and away the most detailed on, does mention that the king had officials (mazalim) who surrounded his throne when he gave justice, and these included the sons of the "kings of his country" which we must assume are the same kings that al-Ya'qubi mentioned in his account of nearly two hundred years earlier. Al-Bakri's detailed geography of the region shows that in his day, or 1067/1068, Ghana was surrounded by independent kingdoms, and Sila, one of them located on the Senegal River was "almost a match for the king of Ghana." Sama is the only such entity mentioned as a province, as it was in al-Ya'qubi's day.[28]

In al-Bakri's time, the rulers of Ghana had begun to incorporate more Muslims into government, including the treasurer, his interpreter and "the majority of his officials."[19]


Given the scattered nature of the Arabic sources and the ambiguity of the existing archaeological record, it is difficult to determine when and how Ghana declined and fell. The earliest descriptions of the Empire are vague as to its maximum extent, though according to al-Bakri, Ghana had forced Awdaghast in the desert to accept its rule sometime between 970 and 1054.[29] By al-Bakri's own time, however, it was surrounded by powerful kingdoms, such as Sila. Ghana was combined in the kingdom of Mali in 1240 marking the end of the Ghana Empire

A tradition in historiography maintains that Ghana fell when it was sacked by the Almoravid movement in 1076–77, although Ghanaians resisted attack for a decade.[30] but this interpretation has been questioned. Conrad and Fisher (1982) argued that the notion of any Almoravid military conquest at its core is merely perpetuated folklore, derived from a misinterpretation or naive reliance on Arabic sources.[31] Dierke Lange agrees but argues that this doesn't preclude Almoravid political agitation, claiming that Ghana's demise owed much to the latter.[32] Furthermore, the archaeology of ancient Ghana simply does not show the signs of rapid change and destruction that would be associated with any Almoravid-era military conquests.[33]

While there is no clear cut account of a sack of Ghana in the contemporary sources, the country certainly did convert to Islam, for al-Idrisi, whose account was written in 1154, has the country fully Muslim by that date. Ibn Khaldun, a fourteenth-century North African historian who read and cited both al-Bakri and al-Idrisi, does report an ambiguous account of the country's history as related to him by 'Uthman, a faqih of Ghana who took a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1394, that the power of Ghana waned as that of the "veiled people" grew, through the Almoravid movement.[34] Al-Idrisi's report does not give any reason in particular to cause us to believe that the Empire was any smaller or weaker than it had been in the days of al-Bakri, seventy five years earlier, and in fact he describes its capital as "the greatest of all towns of the Sudan with respect to area, the most populous, and with the most extensive trade."[23] It is clear, however, that Ghana was incorporated into the Mali Empire, according to a detailed account of al-'Umari, written around 1340, but based on testimony given to him by the "truthful and trustworthy shaykh Abu Uthman Sa'id al-Dukkali, a long term resident. In al-'Umari/al-Dukkali's version, Ghana still retained its functions as a sort of kingdom within the empire, its ruler being the only one allowed to bear the title malik and "who is like a deputy unto him."[35]

Aftermath and Sosso Occupation

According to Ibn Khaldun, following Ghana's conversion, "the authority of the rulers of Ghana dwindled away and they were overcome by the Sosso...who subjugated and subdued them."[34] Some modern traditions identify the Susu as the Sosso, inhabitants of Kaniaga. According to much later traditions, from the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Diara Kante took control of Koumbi Saleh and established the Diarisso Dynasty. His son, Soumaoro Kante, succeeded him and forced the people to pay him tribute. The Sosso also managed to annex the neighboring Mandinka state of Kangaba to the south, where the important goldfield of Bure were located.

Malinke Rule

In his brief overview of Sudanese history, ibn Khaldun related that "the people of Mali outnumber the peoples of the Sudan in their neighborhood and dominated the whole region." He went on to relate that they "vanquished the Susu and acquired all their possessions, both their ancient kingdom and that of Ghana."[36] According to a modern tradition, this resurgence of Mali was led by Sundiata Keita, the founder of Mali and ruler of its core area of Kangaba. Delafosse assigned an arbitrary but widely accepted date of 1230 to the event.[37] This tradition states that Ghana Soumaba Cisse, at the time a vassal of the Sosso, rebelled with Kangaba and became part of a loose federation of Mande speaking states. After Soumaoro's defeat at the Battle of Kirina in 1235 (a date again assigned arbitrarily by Delafosse), the new rulers of Koumbi Saleh became permanent allies of the Mali Empire. As Mali became more powerful, Koumbi Saleh's role as an ally declined to that of a submissive state, and it became the client described in al-'Umari/al-Dukkali's account of 1340.


The word Ghana means "warrior king" and was the title given to the rulers of the original kingdom whose Soninke name was Ouagadou. Kaya Maghan (lord of the gold) was another title for these kings.[38] The extraordinary renown of the Ghana empire induced Kwame Nkrumah, the political leader of the Gold Coast, to name his country Ghana when it attained independence in 1957.[39]


  • King Kaya Magha (or : Kaya Magan) : circa 350 AD[40]
  • 21 Kings, names unknown: circa 350 AD–622 AD
  • 21 Kings, names unknown: circa 622 AD–790 AD
  • King Reidja Akba: 1400–1415 (in Awkar)

Soninke Rulers "Ghanas" of the Cisse dynasty

  • Mayan Dyabe Cisse: circa 790s
  • Bassi: 1040–1078

Rulers during Kaniaga Occupation

  • Soumaba Cisse as vassal of Soumaoro: 1203–1235

Ghanas of Wagadou Tributary

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

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ al-Kuwarizmi in Levtzion and Hopkins, Corpus, p. 7.
  3. ^ al-Bakri in Levtzion and Hopkins, Corpus, p. 81.
  4. ^ a b Houdas & Delafosse 1913, p. 76.
  5. ^ Houdas & Delafosse 1913, p. 78, translation from Levtzion 1973, p. 19
  6. ^ al-Idrisi in Levtzion and Hopkins, Corpus, p. 109, and ibn Sa'id, p. 186.
  7. ^ Hunwick 2003, p. 13 and note 5.
  8. ^ Levtzion and Spaulding. Medieval West Africa: Views From Arab Scholars and Merchants (2003), p. 27.
  9. ^ Mauny 1954, p. 204.
  10. ^ Al-Bakri Siffah Iftiqiyyah Wal-Maghrib (Description Of Africa and The Maghreb), D. Slan, Algeria, 1857, p. 158.
  11. ^ Dr. Hussein Mouanes Atlas Taarikh Al-Islam (Atlas of Islamic History), p. 372.
  12. ^ Levtzion 1973, pp. 16–17.
  13. ^ Delafosse 1912, pp. 215–226 Vol. 1.
  14. ^ Mauny 1961, pp. 72–74, 508–511.
  15. ^ Levtzion 1973, pp. 8–17.
  16. ^ Munson 1980.
  17. ^ Kevin McDonald, Robert Vernet, Dorian Fuller and James Woodhouse, "New Light on the Tichitt Tradition" A Preliminary Report on Survey and Excavation at Dhar Nema," pp. 78–80.
  18. ^ Levtzion 1973, pp. 22–26.
  19. ^ a b c d al-Bakri (1067) in Levtzion and Hopkins, Corpus, p. 80.
  20. ^ al-Bakri, 1067 in Levtzion and Hopkins, Corpus, pp. 79–80.
  21. ^ Thomassey & Mauny 1951.
  22. ^ Berthier 1997.
  23. ^ a b al-Idrisi in Levtzion and Hopkins, Corpus, pp. 109–110.
  24. ^ Chu, Daniel and Skinner, Elliot. A Glorious Age in Africa, 1st ed. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965.
  25. ^ al-Bakri in Levtzion and Hopkins, eds. and trans. Corpus, p. 81.
  26. ^ Ancient Ghana.
  27. ^ al-Ya'qubi in Levtzion and Hopkins, eds. and trans. Corpus, p. 21.
  28. ^ al-Bakri in Levtzion and Hopkins, eds. and trans., Corpus, pp. 77–83.
  29. ^ al-Bakri in Levtzion and Hopkins, eds. and trans. Corpus, p. 73.
  30. ^ For example, Levtzion, Ghana and Mali, pp. 44–48.
  31. ^ Masonen & Fisher 1996.
  32. ^ Lange 1996, pp. 122–59.
  33. ^ Insoll 2003, p. 230.
  34. ^ a b ibn Khaldun in Levtzion and Hopkins, eds. and trans. Corpus, p. 333.
  35. ^ al-'Umari in Levtzion and Hopkins, eds. and trans. Corpus, p. 262.
  36. ^ ibn Khaldun in Levtzion and Hopkins, Corpus, p. 333.
  37. ^ Delafosse 1912, p. 291 Vol. 1.
  38. ^ Willie F. Page; R. Hunt Davis, Jr., eds. (2005), "Ghana Empire", Encyclopedia of African History and Culture 2 (revised ed.), Facts on File, pp. 85–87 
  39. ^ R. Cornevin (1991), "GHĀNA",  
  40. ^ Gravrand, Henry, "La civilisation Sereer, Cosaan : les origines", Nouvelles Editions Africaines, 1983, pp. 75–76. ISBN 2-7236-0877-8


Further reading

External links

  • African Kingdoms | Ghana
  • Empires of west Sudan
  • Kingdom of Ghana, Primary Source Documents
  • Ancient Ghana — BBC World Service

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