A History of African Civilizations

Old Lime kiln in Simplon Namibia / Photo by Hp.Baumeler, Wikimedia Commons

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

1 – Early Africa

1.1 – The Bantu Migration

1.1.1 – Overview

The Bantu expansion, or a postulated millennia-long series of migrations of speakers of the original proto-Bantu language group, originated from the adjoining regions of Cameroon and Nigeria about 3,000 years ago, eventually reaching South Africa around 300 CE.

1.1.2 – Background

The Bantu expansion is the name for a postulated millennia-long series of migrations of speakers of the original proto- Bantu language group. The primary evidence for this expansion has been linguistic, namely that the languages spoken in sub-Equatorial Africa are remarkably similar to each other. Attempts to trace the exact route of the expansion, to correlate it with archaeological evidence and genetic evidence, have not been conclusive. Many aspects of the expansion remain in doubt or are highly contested. The linguistic core of the Bantu family of languages, a branch of the Niger-Congo language family, was located in the adjoining region of Cameroon and Nigeria. From this core, expansion began about 3,000 years ago, with one stream going into East Africa, and other streams going south along the African coast of Gabon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Angola, or inland along the many south-to-north flowing rivers of the Congo River system. The expansion eventually reached South Africa as early as 300 CE.

1.1.3 – The Expansion

The Bantu expansion Map legend: 1 = 2000–1500 BC origin; 2 = ca.1500 BCE first migrations; 2.a = Eastern African,  2.b = Western African; 3 = 1000–500 BCE Urewe nucleus of Eastern African; 4–7 = southward advance; 9= 500 BCE–0 Congo nucleus; 10 = CE 0–1000 last phase.

It seems likely that the expansion of the Bantu-speaking people from their core region in West Africa began around 1000 BCE. Although early models posited that the early speakers were both iron-using and agricultural, archaeology has shown that they did not use iron until as late as 400 BCE, though they were agricultural. The western branch, not necessarily linguistically distinct, according to Christopher Ehret, followed the coast and the major rivers of the Congo system southward, reaching central Angola by around 500 BCE. Further east, Bantu-speaking communities had reached the great Central African rainforest, and by 500 BCE, pioneering groups had emerged into the savannas to the south, in what are now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, and Zambia.

Another stream of migration, moving east by 1000 BCE, was creating a major new population center near the Great Lakes of East Africa, where a rich environment supported a dense population. Movements by small groups to the southeast from the Great Lakes region were more rapid, with initial settlements widely dispersed near the coast and near rivers due to comparatively harsh farming conditions in areas further from water. Pioneering groups had reached modern KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa by 300 CE along the coast, and the modern Limpopo Province (formerly Northern Transvaal) by 500 CE.

1.1.4 – Effects of the Bantu Migration

Archaeological, linguistic, genetic, and environmental evidence all support the conclusion that the Bantu expansion was a long process of multiple human migrations. Before the expansion of farming and pastoralist African peoples, Southern Africa was populated by hunter-gatherers and earlier pastoralists. The Bantu expansion first introduced Bantu peoples to Central, Southern, and Southeast Africa, regions they had previously been absent from. The proto-Bantu migrants in the process assimilated and/or displaced a number of earlier inhabitants that they came across, including Pygmy and Khoisan populations in the center and south, respectively. They also encountered some Afro-Asiatic outlier groups in the southeast, who had migrated down from Northeast Africa.

In Eastern and Southern Africa, Bantu speakers may have adopted livestock husbandry from other unrelated Cushitic- and Nilotic-speaking peoples they encountered. Herding practices reached the far south several centuries before Bantu-speaking migrants did.

Between the 13th and 15th centuries, the relatively powerful Bantu-speaking states on a scale larger than local chiefdoms began to emerge in the Great Lakes region, in the savanna south of the Central African rainforest, and on the Zambezi river where the Monomatapa kings built the famous Great Zimbabwe  complex. Such processes of state-formation occurred with increasing frequency from the 16th century onward. This was probably due to denser populations, which led to more specialized divisions of labor, including military power, while making outmigration more difficult. Other factors included increased trade among African communities and with European and Arab traders on the coasts, technological developments in economic activity, and new techniques in the political-spiritual ritualization of royalty as the source of national strength and health.

By the time Great Zimbabwe had ceased being the capital of a large trading empire, speakers of Bantu languages were present throughout much of Southern Africa. Two main groups developed—the Nguni (Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi), who occupied the eastern coastal plains, and the Sotho-Tswana, who lived on the interior plateau.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, two major events occurred. The Trekboers were colonizing new areas of Southern Africa, moving northeast from the Cape Colony, and they came into contact with the Xhosa, the Southern Nguni. At the same time the area in modern-day KwaZulu-Natal was populated by dozens of small clans, one of which was the Zulu, then a particularly small clan of no local distinction whatsoever. In 1816, Shaka,
one of the most influential monarchs of the Zulu Kingdom, acceded to the Zulu throne. Within a year he had conquered the neighboring clans and had made the Zulu into the most important ally of the large Mtetwa clan, which was in competition with the Ndwandwe clan for domination of the northern part of modern-day KwaZulu-Natal.

Currently, 300-600 ethnic groups in Africa speak Bantu languages and are categorized as Bantu peoples. It is not known how many Bantu language exist today, but Ethnologue counts 535. They are spoken mostly east and south of present-day Cameroon, that is, in the regions commonly known as Central Africa, Southeast Africa, and Southern Africa. Parts of the Bantu area include languages from other language families.

2 – Northern Africa

2.1 – Post-Byzantine Egypt

The Muslim conquest of Egypt took place shortly after Muhammad’s death, but it was three centuries later, under the Fatimid Caliphate, that the region became the center of the Islamic world.

2.1.1 – Egypt in the Byzantine Empire

At the onset of the Muslim conquest of North Africa, Egypt was part of the Byzantine/Eastern Roman Empire, with the capital in Constantinople.

The province held strategic importance for its grain production and naval yards, and as a base for further conquests in Africa. Shortly before the Muslim conquest, Egypt had been conquered by the Persian Empire (619–629). However, Emperor Heraclius re-captured it after a series of campaigns against the Sassanid Persians, only to lose it to the Muslim Rashidun army ten years later. Before the Muslim conquest of Egypt began, the Byzantines had already lost the Levant  and their Arab ally, the Ghassanid Kingdom, to the Muslims. All of this left the Byzantine Empire dangerously exposed and vulnerable.

2.1.2 – Rashidun Conquest

The Rashidun Caliphate was the Islamic caliphate in the earliest period of Islam, comprising the first four caliphs. It was founded after Muhammad ‘s death in 632 (year 11 AH in the Islamic calendar). At its height, the caliphate controlled an empire from the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant to the Caucasus in the north, North Africa from Egypt to present-day Tunisia in the west, and the Iranian plateau to Central Asia in the east. Caliph Umar conquered more than 2,200,000 km² area in less than ten years and is known as the most powerful caliph in the history of Islam.

In 639, some 4,000 Rashidun troops led by Amr ibn al-As were sent by Umar to conquer the land of the ancient pharaohs. The Rashidun army crossed into Egypt from Palestine and advanced rapidly into the Nile Delta. The imperial garrisons retreated into the walled towns, where they successfully held out for a year or more. But the Muslims sent for reinforcements and the invading army, joined by another 12,000 men in 640, defeated a Byzantine army at the Battle of Heliopolis. Amr next proceeded in the direction of Alexandria, which was surrendered to him by a treaty signed in November 641. The Thebaid seems to have surrendered with scarcely any opposition.

Empire of the Rashidun Caliphate at its peak

The Rashidun Caliphate expanded gradually. Within the span of twenty-four years of conquest, a vast territory was conquered comprising Mesopotamia, the Levant, parts of Anatolia, and most of the Sasanian Empire. Unlike the Sasanian Persians, the Byzantines, after losing Syria, retreated back to Anatolia. As a result, they also lost Egypt to the invading Rashidun army.

2.1.3 – Early Islamic Egypt

Following the first surrender of Alexandria, Amr chose a new site to settle his men, near the location of the Byzantine fortress of Babylon. The new settlement was called Fustat. Fustat quickly became the focal point of Islamic Egypt and—with the exception of the brief relocation to Hulwan during a plague in 689, and the period of 750–763, when the seat of the governor moved to Askar—the capital and residence of the administration. After the conquest, the country was initially divided in two provinces, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt with the Nile Delta. In 643/4, however, Caliph Uthman appointed a single governor, resident at Fustat, with jurisdiction over all of Egypt. The governor would in turn nominate deputies for Upper and Lower Egypt. Alexandria remained a distinct district, reflecting both its role as the country’s shield against Byzantine attacks and as the major naval base.

The main pillar of the early Muslim rule and control in the country was the military force, or jund, provided by the Arab settlers. These were initially the men who had followed Amr and participated in the conquest. The followers of Amr were mostly drawn from the Yamani. Although limited in number, they held many privileges and a protected status of prestige.

In return for a tribute of money and food for the occupying troops, the Christian inhabitants of Egypt were excused from military service and left free in the observance of their religion and the administration of their affairs. Conversions of Copts to Islam were at first rare, and the old system of taxation was maintained for the greater part of the first Islamic century.

2.1.4 – Egypt under the Fatimid Caliphate

The Fatimid Caliphate  was an Ismaili Shia Islamic caliphate that spanned a large area of North Africa, from the Red Sea in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west. The dynasty ruled across the Mediterranean coast of Africa and it was under its rule that Egypt became the center of the caliphate. At its height the caliphate included, in addition to Egypt, varying areas of the Maghreb, Sudan, Sicily, the Levant, and Hijaz.

The Fatimid general Jawhar conquered Egypt in 969 and built a new palace city there, near Fusṭat, founding a new capital in Cairo in 969. Cairo was intended as a royal enclosure for the Fatimid caliph and his army, though the actual administrative and economic capital of Egypt was in Fustat until 1169. Egypt flourished and the Fatimids developed an extensive trade network in both the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Their trade and diplomatic ties extended all the way to China and its Song dynasty, which eventually determined the economic course of Egypt during the High Middle Ages. The Fatimid focus on long-distance trade was accompanied by a lack of interest in agriculture and a neglect of the Nile irrigation system.

Unlike western European governments in the era, advancement in Fatimid state offices was based more on merit than on heredity. Members of other branches of Islam, like the Sunnis, were just as likely to be appointed to government posts as Shiites. Tolerance was extended to non-Muslims such as Christians and Jews, who occupied high levels in government based on ability. Religious tolerance was set into place also to ensure the flow of money from all those who were non-Muslims in order to finance the caliphs’ large army of mamluks (an Arabic designation for slaves) brought in from Circassia by Genoese merchants.

Over time, mamluks became a powerful military knightly caste, not only in Egypt. In some cases, they attained the rank of sultan, while in others they held regional power.

An Egyptian Mamluk warrior in full armor and armed with lance, shield, sabre, and pistols; Georg Moritz Ebers (1837-1898), Picturesque Egypt, Vol. II (1878).

In the Middle Ages, soon after the mamluks took up the practice of chivalry, or furusiyya in Arabic, they came to be known as knights (or faris in Arabic), though un-free until after their service. The faris were trained in the use of various weapons and in wrestling. Their martial art skills were to be honed first on foot and then perfected when mounted. They were popularly used as heavy knightly cavalry by a number of different Islamic kingdoms and empires.

Intellectual life in Egypt during the Fatimid period advanced greatly, with many scholars living in or visiting Egypt and having easy access to sophisticated libraries. Fatimid caliphs gave prominent positions to scholars in their courts, encouraged scholarship, and established libraries in their palaces. Perhaps the most significant feature of Fatimid rule was the freedom of thought, provided that no one infringed on the rights of others. The Fatimids reserved separate pulpits for different Islamic sects, where the scholars expressed their various ideas. They offered patronage to scholars and invited them from all over the world, even when their beliefs conflicted with their own. From the perspective of these developments, the history of the Fatimids is the history of knowledge, literature, and philosophy. The period is also known for producing exquisite art and architecture.

During the late 11th century and the twelfth century, the Fatimid Caliphate declined rapidly, and in 1171 Saladin invaded their territory. He founded the Ayyubid dynasty and incorporated the Fatimid state into the Abbasid Caliphate.

2.2 – Islamic Conquest of the Maghreb

The Islamic conquest of the Maghreb region took place largely under the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750), which at the peak of its influence ruled one of the vastest empires ever to exist.

2.2.1 – The Maghreb and Islam

The Maghreb is usually defined as much or most of the region of western North Africa or Northwest Africa, west of today’s Egypt. It is important to keep in mind, however, that because of the constantly changing borders of the first caliphates in the region, the history of the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb is intertwined with the history of the territories east of the border of the region that is today defined as the Maghreb. Consequently, the history of the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb and the history of the Muslim conquest of a greater North African region (reaching far into the Middle East) cannot be sharply distinguished.

The Muslim conquest of North Africa continued the century of rapid Arab Muslim military expansion following the death of Muhammad in 632 CE. By 642, the Arabs controlled Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Syria, had invaded Armenia, and were concluding their conquest of the Persian Empire. It was at this point that Arab military expeditions into North African regions west of Egypt were first launched, continuing for years and furthering the spread of Islam. The conquest of the Maghreb region (more or less west of Egypt) took place largely under the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750), which was the second of the four major Arab caliphates established after the death of Muhammad.

2.2.2 – The Umayyad Caliphate

The Umayyad family had first come to power under the third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan (644–656), but the Umayyad regime was founded by Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan, long-time governor of Syria, after the end of the First Muslim Civil War in 661 CE/41 AH. Syria remained the Umayyads’ main power base thereafter, and Damascus was their capital. The Umayyads continued the Muslim conquests, incorporating the Caucasus, Transoxiana, Sindh, the Maghreb, and the Iberian Peninsula (Al-Andalus) into the Muslim world. At its greatest extent, the Umayyad Caliphate covered 15 million square kilometers (5.79 million square miles) and 62 million people (29% of the world’s population), making it the fifth largest empire in history in both area and proportion of the world’s population.

2.2.3 – The Conquest

Age of the Caliphs: [dark purple] Expansion under the Prophet Mohammad, 622-632; [dark pink] Expansion during the Patriarchal Caliphate, 632-661; [dark orange] Expansion during the Umayyad Caliphate, 661-750.

The Arabs reached the Maghreb in early Umayyad times.

The years 665–689 saw another Arab invasion of North Africa. It began with an army of more than 40,000 Muslims advancing through the desert to Barca and marching to the neighborhood of Carthage (today’s Tunisia). Next came a force of 10,000 led by the Arab general Uqba ibn Nafi and enlarged by thousands of others. Departing from Damascus, the army marched into North Africa and in 670 the city of Kairouan (south of modern Tunis) was established as a refuge and base for further operations. This would become the capital of the Islamic province of Ifriqiya, which would cover the coastal regions of today’s western Libya, Tunisia, and eastern Algeria. After this, Uqba ibn Nafi moved forward until reaching the Atlantic coast. In his conquest of the Maghreb, he besieged the coastal city of Bugia as well as Tingi or Tangier, overwhelming what had once been the traditional Roman province of Mauretania Tingitana. However, he was stopped and partially repulsed here. Unable to occupy Tangier, he was recalled from the coast. On his return, a Berber -Byzantine coalition ambushed and crushed his forces near Biskra, killing Uqba and wiping out his troops.

Meanwhile, a new civil war among rivals for the monarchy raged in Arabia and Syria. It resulted in a series of four caliphs between the death of Muawiya in 680 and the accession of Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (Abdalmalek) in 685. Strife ended only in 692, which brought about a return of domestic order that allowed the caliph to resume the Islamic conquest of North Africa. It began with the renewed invasion of Ifriqiya, but the Byzantine Empire responded with troops from Constantinople, joined by soldiers and ships from Sicily and a powerful contingent of Visigoths from Hispania. This forced the invading Arab army to run back to Kairouan (today’s Tunisia). The following spring, however, the Arabs launched a new assault by sea and land, forcing the Byzantines and their allies to evacuate Carthage. The Arabs slaughtered the civilians, totally destroyed the city, and burned it to the ground, leaving the area desolate for the next two centuries. After the departure of the main force of the Byzantines and their allies, another battle was fought near Utica and the Arabs were again victorious, forcing the Byzantines to leave that part of North Africa for good.

By 698, the Arabs had taken most of North Africa from the Byzantines. The area was divided into three provinces: Egypt with its governor at al-Fustat, Ifriqiya with its governor at Kairouan, and the Maghreb (modern Morocco) with its governor at Tangiers.

Arab forces were able to capture Carthage in 698 and Tangiers by 708. After the fall of Tangiers, many Berbers joined the Muslim army. In 740, Umayyad rule in the region was shaken by a major Berber revolt. After a series of defeats, the caliphate was finally able to crush the rebellion in 742, although local Berber dynasties continued to drift away from imperial control from that time on.

2.2.4 – Effects of the Arab Conquest on the Maghreb

Arab expansion and the spread of Islam into the Maghreb pushed the development of trans-Saharan trade. Though restricted due to the cost and dangers, the trade was highly profitable. Commodities traded included such goods as salt, gold, and ivory. Slaves were also transferred. Arab control over the Maghreb was quite weak. Various Islamic variations, such as the Ibadis and the Shia, were adopted by some Berbers, often leading to scorning of caliph control in favor of other interpretations of Islam. The Arabic language became widespread only later.

The conventional historical view is that the conquest of North Africa by the Umayyad Caliphate effectively ended Christianity in Africa for several centuries. The prevailing view is that the church at that time lacked the backbone of a monastic tradition and was still suffering from the aftermath of heresies, and that this contributed to the early obliteration of the church in the present day Maghreb. However, new scholarship has appeared that disputes these claims. There are reports that Christianity persisted in the region from Tripolitania (present-day western Libya) to present-day Morocco for several centuries after the completion of the Arab conquest by 700.

2.3 – Nubia

Nubia, known also as the Kingdom of Kush, was one of the earliest civilizations of ancient Northeastern Africa and home to one of the African empires that, because of its proximity to and relations with Egypt, remains a lesser known chapter of ancient history.

2.3.1 – Introduction

Nubia is a region along the Nile river located in what is today northern Sudan and southern Egypt. It was one of the earliest civilizations of ancient Northeastern Africa, with a history that can be traced from at least 2000 BCE, and home to one of the African empires. There were a number of large Nubian kingdoms throughout the Postclassical Era, the last of which collapsed in 1504 CE, when Nubia became divided between Egypt and the Sennar sultanate, resulting in the Arabization of much of the Nubian population. Nubia was again united within Ottoman Egypt in the 19th century, and within the Kingdom of Egypt from 1899 to 1956.

2.3.2 – Kush

Before the 4th century, and throughout classical antiquity, Nubia was known as Kush, or, in Classical Greek usage, included under the name Ethiopia (Aithiopia). Mentuhotep II (21st century BCE founder of the Middle Kingdom) is recorded to have undertaken campaigns against Kush in the 29th and 31st years of his reign. This is the earliest Egyptian reference to Kush. The Nubian region had gone by other names in the Old Kingdom. During the New Kingdom of Egypt, Nubia (Kush) was an Egyptian colony, from the 16th century BCE. With the disintegration of the New Kingdom around 1070 BCE, Kush became an independent kingdom centered at Napata in modern central Sudan.

2.3.3 – Control of Egypt

Alara, a King of Kush who is the first recorded prince of Nubia, founded the Napatan, or Twenty-fifth, Kushite dynasty at Napata in Nubia, now the Sudan. Alara’s successor Kashta extended Kushite control north to Elephantine and Thebesin Upper Egypt. Kashta’s successor, Piye, seized control of Lower Egypt around 727 BCE, creating the Twenty-fifth dynasty of Egypt.

Piye was defeated by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser V and then his successor Sargon II in the 720s BCE. The power of the Twenty-fifth dynasty reached a climax under Piye’s son, Taharqa. The Nile valley empire was as large as it had been since the New Kingdom. New prosperity revived Egyptian culture. Religion, the arts, and architecture were restored to their glorious Old, Middle, and New Kingdom forms. The Nubian pharaohs built or restored temples and monuments throughout the Nile valley, including Memphis, Karnak, Kawa, and Jebel Barkal. It was during the 25th dynasty that the Nile valley saw the first widespread construction of pyramids (many in modern Sudan) since the Middle Kingdom. Writing was introduced to Kush in the form of the Egyptian-influenced Meroitic script circa 700–600 BCE, although it appears to have been wholly confined to the royal court and major temples.

The Kushite Empire: A map showing the full extent of the Kushite Empire in 700 BCE.

Between 674 and 671 BCE the Assyrians began their invasion of Egypt under King Esarhaddon. Assyrian armies had been the best in the world since the 14th century BCE, and they conquered this vast territory with surprising speed. Taharqa was driven from power by Esarhaddon and fled to his Nubian homeland. However, the native Egyptian vassal rulers installed by Esarhaddon as puppets were unable to effectively retain full control for long without Assyrian aid. Two years later, Taharqa returned from Nubia and seized control of a section of southern Egypt as far north as Memphis from Esarhaddon’s local vassals. Esarhaddon’s successor, Ashurbanipal, sent a Turtanu (general) with a small but well-trained army that once more defeated Taharqa and ejected him from Egypt, and he was forced to flee back to his homeland in Nubia, where he died two years later.

Taharqa’s successor, Tanutamun, attempted to regain Egypt. He successfully defeated Necho, the subject ruler installed by Ashurbanipal, taking Thebes in the process. The Assyrians, who had a military presence in the north, then sent a large army southwards. Tantamani was routed, and the Assyrian army sacked Thebes to such an extent that it never truly recovered. Tantamani was chased back to Nubia, and never threatened the Assyrian Empire again. A native Egyptian ruler, Psammetichus I, was placed on the throne as a vassal of Ashurbanipal.

2.3.4 – Move to Meroë

Nubia: The Forgotten Kingdom, Julie Anderson and Salah Ahmed (2003), Dicovery Channel

Aspelta, a ruler of the kingdom of Kush from c. 600 to c. 580 BCE, moved the capital to Meroë, considerably farther south than Napata, possibly in 591 BCE. It is also possible that Meroë had always been the Kushite capital. Historians believe that the Kushite rulers may have chosen Meroë as their home because, unlike Napata, the region around Meroë had enough woodlands to provide fuel for iron working. In addition, Kush was no longer dependent on the Nile to trade with the outside world. They could instead transport goods from Meroë to the Red Sea coast, where Greek merchants were now traveling extensively.

In about 300 BCE the move to Meroë was made more complete when the monarchs began to be buried there, instead of at Napata. One theory is that this represents the monarchs breaking away from the power of the priests at Napata. Kushite civilization continued for several centuries. In the Napatan period, Egyptian hieroglyphs were used; at this time writing seems to have been restricted to the court and temples. From the 2nd century BCE there was a separate Meroitic writing system. This was an alphabetic script with twenty-three signs used in a hieroglyphic form (mainly on monumental art) and in a cursive form. The latter was widely used. So far, some 1278 texts using this version are known. The script was deciphered, but the language behind it is still a problem, with only a few words understood by modern scholars.

Kush began to fade as a power by the 1st or 2nd century CE, sapped by the war with the Roman province of Egypt and the decline of its traditional industries. Christianity began to gain over the old pharaonic religion, and by the mid-6th century CE the Kingdom of Kush was dissolved.

The Nubian region today: With the end of colonialism and the establishment of the Republic of Egypt (1953) and the secession of the Republic of Sudan from unity with Egypt (1956), Nubia was divided between Egypt and Sudan. During the early-1970s, many Egyptian Nubians were forcibly resettled to make room for Lake Nasser after the construction of the dams at Aswan. Nubian villages can now be found north of Aswan on the west bank of the Nile and on Elephantine Island, and many Nubians now live in large cities, such as Cairo.

Various pharaohs of Nubian origin are held by some Egyptologists to have played an important part towards the area in different eras of Egyptian history, particularly the Twelfth dynasty. These rulers handled matters in typical Egyptian fashion, reflecting the close cultural influences between the two regions.

The eventual influx of Arabs and Nubians to Egypt and Sudan had contributed to the suppression of the Nubian identity following the collapse of the last Nubian kingdom around 1504. A major part of the modern Nubian population became totally Arabized, and some claimed to be Arabs. A vast majority of the Nubian population is currently Muslim, and the Arabic language is their main medium of communication in addition to their indigenous old Nubian language.

On account of the Kingdom of Kush’s proximity to Ancient Egypt—the first cataract at Elephantine usually being considered the traditional border between the two polities—and because the Twenty-fifth dynasty ruled over both states in the 8th century BCE, from the Rift Valley to the Taurus mountains, historians have closely associated the study of Kush with Egyptology. This is in keeping with the general assumption that the complex sociopolitical development of Egypt’s neighbors can be understood in terms of Egyptian models. As a result, the political structure and organization of Kush as an independent ancient state has not received as thorough attention from scholars, and there remains much ambiguity, especially surrounding the earliest periods of the state.

3 – Central African Empires

3.1 – Bornu Empire

he Kanem-Bornu Empire was an empire that existed in modern Chad and Nigeria from the 14th to 19th centuries.

3.1.1 – The Kanem Empire

The Kanem Empire (c. 700–1376) at its height encompassed an area covering Chad, parts of southern Libya (Fezzan) and eastern Niger, northeastern Nigeria, and northern Cameroon. The history of the empire is mainly known from the Royal Chronicle, or Girgam, discovered in 1851 by the German traveller Heinrich Barth.

The empire of Kanem began forming around CE 300 under the nomadic Tebu-speaking Kanembu. The Kanembu eventually abandoned their nomadic lifestyle and founded a capital around 700 CE under the first documented Kanembu king (mai), known as Sef of Saif. The capital of Njimi grew in power and influence under Sef’s son, Dugu. This transition marked the beginning of the Duguwa dynasty. The mais of the Duguwa were regarded as divine kings and belonged to the ruling establishment known as the magumi. Despite changes in dynastic power, the magumi and the title of mai would persevere for over a thousand years.

The major factor that later influenced the history of the state of Kanem was the early penetration of Islam that came with North African traders, Berbers, and Arabs. In 1085, a Muslim noble by the name of Hummay removed the last Duguwa king, Selma, from power and thus established the new dynasty of the Sefuwa. The introduction of the Sefuwa dynasty meant radical changes for the Kanem Empire. First, it meant the Islamization of the court and state policies. Second, the identification of founders had to be revised. Islam offered the Sayfawa rulers the advantage of new ideas from Arabia and the Mediterranean world, as well as literacy in administration. But many people resisted the new religion, favoring traditional beliefs and practices.

Kanem’s expansion peaked during the long and energetic reign of Mai Dunama Dabbalemi (ca. 1221–1259), also of the Sayfawa dynasty. Dabbalemi initiated diplomatic exchanges with sultans in North Africa and apparently arranged for the establishment of a special hostel in Cairo to facilitate pilgrimages to Mecca. During his reign, he declared jihad against the surrounding tribes and initiated an extended period of conquest. However, he also destroyed the national Mune cult and thus precipitated widespread revolt culminating in the uprise of the Tubu and the Bulala. The former was quenched, but the latter continued to linger on, leading finally to the retreat of the Sayfuwa from Kanem to Bornu c. 1380.

3.1.2 – The Bornu Empire

By the end of the 14th century, internal struggles and external attacks had torn Kanem apart. Between 1359 and 1383, seven mais reigned, but Bulala invaders (from the area around Lake Fitri to the east) killed five of them. This proliferation of mais resulted in numerous claimants to the throne and a series of destructive wars. Finally, around 1380, the Bulala forced Mai Umar Idrismi to abandon Njimi and move the Kanembu people to Bornu on the western edge of Lake Chad. Over time, the intermarriage of the Kanembu and Bornu peoples created a new people and language, the Kanuri.

But even in Bornu, the Sayfawa dynasty’s troubles persisted. During the first three-quarters of the 15th century, for example, fifteen mais occupied the throne. Around 1460, Mai Ali Dunamami defeated his rivals and began the consolidation of Bornu. He built a fortified capital at Ngazargamu, to the west of Lake Chad (in present-day Niger), the first permanent home a Sayfawa mai had enjoyed in a century. The Sayfawa rejuvenation was so successful that by the early 16th century, Mai Idris Katakarmabe (1487–1509) was able to defeat the Bulala and retake Njimi, the former capital. The empire’s leaders, however, remained at Ngazargamu because its lands were more agriculturally productive and better suited to the raising of cattle.

3.1.3 – The Kanem-Bornu Period

With control over both capitals, the Sayfawa dynasty became more powerful than ever. The two states were merged, but political authority still rested in Bornu. Kanem-Bornu peaked during the reign of the statesman Mai Idris Alwma (also spelled Alooma or Alawma; the last decades  of the 16th/the beginning of the 17th century). Alwma introduced a number of legal and administrative reforms based on his religious beliefs and Islamic law (sharia). He sponsored the construction of numerous mosques and made a pilgrimage to Mecca, where he arranged for the establishment of a hostel to be used by pilgrims from his empire. Alwma’s reformist goals led him to seek loyal and competent advisers and allies, and he frequently relied on slaves who had been educated in noble homes. He required major political figures to live at the court, and he reinforced political alliances through appropriate marriages.

Kanem-Bornu under Alwma was strong and wealthy. Government revenue came from tribute (or booty, if the recalcitrant people had to be conquered), sales of slaves, and duties on and participation in trans-Saharan trade. Unlike West Africa, the Chadian region did not have gold. Still, it was central to one of the most convenient trans-Saharan routes. Between Lake Chad and Fezzan lay a sequence of well-spaced wells and oases, and from Fezzan there were easy connections to North Africa and the Mediterranean Sea. Many products were sent north, including natron (sodium carbonate), cotton, kola nuts, ivory, ostrich feathers, perfume, wax, and hides. However, the most significant export of all were slaves. Imports included salt, horses, silks, glass, muskets, and copper.

3.1.4 – Decline

The administrative reforms and military brilliance of Alwma sustained the empire until the mid-17th century, when its power began to fade. By the late 18th century, Bornu rule extended only westward, into the land of the Hausa. Around that time, Fulani people, invading from the west, were able to make major inroads into Bornu. By the early 19th century, Kanem-Bornu was clearly an empire in decline, and in 1808 Fulani warriors conquered Ngazargamu. Usman dan Fodio led the Fulani thrust and proclaimed a jihad (holy war) on the irreligious Muslims of the area. His campaign eventually affected Kanem-Bornu and inspired a trend toward Islamic orthodoxy. But Muhammad al-Kanem contested the Fulani advance. Kanem was a Muslim scholar and non-Sayfawa warlord who had put together an alliance of Shuwa Arabs, Kanembu, and other semi-nomadic peoples. He eventually built a capital at Kukawa (in present-day Nigeria) in 1814. Sayfawa mais remained titular monarchs until 1846. In that year, the last mai, in league with Ouaddai tribesmen, precipitated a civil war. It was at that point that Kanem’s son, Umar, became king, thus ending one of the longest dynastic reigns in regional history.

Bornu in the 18th century: The extent of the Bornu Empire in 1750.

Although the dynasty ended, the kingdom of Kanem-Bornu survived. Umar could not match his father’s vitality,and gradually allowed the kingdom to be ruled by advisers. Bornu began a further decline as a result of administrative disorganization, regional particularism, and attacks by the militant Ouaddai Empire to the east. The decline continued under Umar’s sons. In 1893, Rabih az-Zubayr led an invading army from eastern Sudan and conquered Bornu. Following his expulsion shortly thereafter, the state was absorbed by the British-ruled entity that eventually became known as Nigeria. From that point on, a remnant of the old kingdom was (and still is) allowed to continue to exist in subjection to the various governments of the country as the Borno Emirate.

4 – West African Empires

4.1 – The Ghana Empire

The Ghana Empire was located in what is now southeastern Mauritania, western Mali, and eastern Senegal, and derived its power from the control of trans-Saharan trade, particularly gold trade.

4.1.1 – Disputed Origins of the Ghana Empire

The Ghana Empire, called the Wagadou (or Wagadu) Empire by its rulers,  was located in what is now southeastern Mauritania, western Mali, and eastern Senegal. There is no consensus on when precisely it originated, but its development is linked to the changes in trade that emerged throughout the centuries after the introduction of the camel to the western Sahara (3rd century). By the time of the Muslim conquest of North Africa in the 7th century, the camel had changed the earlier, more irregular trade routes into a trade network running from Morocco to the Niger River. This regular and intensified trans-Saharan trade in gold, salt, and ivory allowed for the development of larger urban centers and encouraged territorial expansion to gain control over different trade routes.

The Ghana ruling dynasty was first mentioned in written records in 830, and thus the 9th century is sometimes identified as the empire’s beginning.

In the medieval Arabic sources the word “Ghana” can refer to a royal title, the name of a capital city, or a kingdom. The earliest reference to Ghana as a town is by al-Khuwarizmi, who died around 846. Research on the site of Koumbi Saleh (or Kumbi Saleh), a ruined medieval town in southeast Mauritania that may have been the capital of the Ghana Empire, suggests earlier beginnings. The earliest author to mention Ghana is the Persian astronomer Ibrahim al-Fazari, who, writing at the end of the eighth century, refers to “the territory of Ghana, the land of gold.” From the 9th century, Arab authors mention the Ghana Empire in connection with the trans-Saharan gold trade. Al-Bakri, who wrote in the 11th century, described the capital of Ghana as consisting of two towns six miles apart, one inhabited by Muslim merchants and the other by the king of Ghana. According to the tradition of the Soninke people, they migrated to southeastern Mauritania in the 1st century, and as early as around 100 CE created a settlement that would eventually develop into the Ghana Empire. Other sources identify the beginnings of the empire some time between the 4th century and the mid-8th century.

The Ghana Empire at its greatest extent

When the Gold Coast in 1957 became the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to regain its independence from colonial rule, it was renamed in honor of the long-gone empire from which the ancestors to the Akan people of modern-day Ghana are thought to have migrated.

4.1.2 – The Capital City: Koumbi Saleh

The empire’s capital is believed to have been at Koumbi Saleh on the rim of the Sahara desert. According to the description of the town left by Al-Bakri in 1067/1068, the capital was actually two cities, but “between these two towns are continuous habitations,” so they might have merged into one. 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. There was also one mosque for visiting Muslim officials. 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 had 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.

4.1.3 – Economy and Government

Most of our information about the economy of Ghana comes from al-Bakri. He noted that merchants had to pay a one gold dinar tax on imports of salt and two on exports of salt. Al-Bakri mentioned also copper and “other goods.” Imports probably included products such as textiles and ornaments. Many of the hand-crafted leather goods found in old Morocco also had their origins in the Ghana Empire. Tribute was also received from various tributary states and chiefdoms at the empire’s periphery. The Ghana Empire lay in the Sahel region to the north of the West African gold fields, and was able to profit from controlling the trans-Saharan gold trade. The early history of Ghana is unknown, but there is evidence that North Africa had begun importing gold from West Africa before the Arab conquest in the middle of the 7th century.

Much testimony on ancient Ghana comes from the recorded visits of foreign travelers, who, by definition, could provide only a fragmentary picture. Islamic writers often commented on the social-political stability of the Empire based on the seemingly just actions and grandeur of the king. Al-Bakri questioned merchants who visited the empire in the 11th century and wrote of the king hearing grievances against officials and being surrounded by great wealth. Ghana appears to have had a central core region and was surrounded by vassal states. One of the earliest sources, al-Ya’qubi, writing in 889/890 (276 AH), noted that “under the king’s authority are a number of kings.” These “kings” were presumably the rulers of the territorial units often called kafu in Mandinka. 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.”

4.1.4 – Decline

Given scarce Arabic sources and the ambiguity of the existing archaeological record, it is difficult to determine when and how Ghana declined and fell. According to Arab tradition, Ghana fell when it was sacked by the Almoravid movement in 1076–1077, but this interpretation has been questioned. Conrad and Fisher (1982) argued that the notion of any Almoravid military conquest is merely perpetuated folklore, derived from a misinterpretation of or limited reliance on Arabic sources. Dierke Lange agreed with the original military incursion theory but argued that this does not preclude Almoravid political agitation, claiming that Ghana’s demise owed much to the latter. Sheryl L. Burkhalter argued that while the idea of the conquest was unclear, the influence and success of the Almoravid movement in securing West African gold and circulating it widely necessitated a high degree of political control. Furthermore, the archaeology of ancient Ghana does not show signs of the rapid change and destruction that would be associated with any Almoravid-era military conquests.

It is assumed that the ensuing war pushed Ghana over the edge, ending the kingdom’s position as a commercial and military power by 1100. It collapsed into tribal groups and chieftaincies, some of which later assimilated into the Almoravids, while others founded the Mali Empire. Despite ambiguous evidence, it is clear that Ghana was incorporated into the Mali Empire around 1240.

4.2 – Mali

The Mali Empire was an empire in West Africa that lasted from 1230 to 1600 and profoundly influenced the culture of the region through the spread of its language, laws, and customs along lands adjacent to the Niger River, as well as other areas consisting of numerous vassal kingdoms and provinces.

4.2.1 – Introduction

The Mali Empire, also historically referred to as the Manden Kurufaba, was an empire in West Africa that lasted from c. 1230 to 1600. The empire was founded by Sundiata Keita and became renowned for the wealth of its rulers. It was the largest empire in West Africa and profoundly influenced the culture of the region through the spread of its language, laws, and customs along lands adjacent to the Niger River, as well as other areas consisting of numerous vassal kingdoms and provinces.

4.2.2 – Pre-Imperial Mali

Modern oral traditions recorded that the Mandinka kingdoms of Mali or Manden had already existed several centuries before unification by Sundiata, a Malian mansa also known as Mari Djata I, as a small state just to the south of the Soninké empire of Wagadou (the Ghana Empire). This area was composed of mountains, savanna, and forest providing ideal protection and resources for the population of hunters. Those not living in the mountains formed small city-states such as Toron, Ka-Ba, and Niani.

In approximately 1140, the Sosso kingdom of Kaniaga, a former vassal of Wagadou, began conquering the lands of its old masters. By 1180, it had even subjugated Wagadou, forcing the Soninké to pay tribute. In 1203, the Sosso king Soumaoro of the Kanté clan came to power and reportedly terrorized much of Manden, stealing women and goods from both Dodougou and Kri.

After many years in exile, first at the court of Wagadou and then at Mema, Sundiata,  a prince who eventually became founder of the Mali Empire, was sought out by a Niani delegation and begged to combat the Sosso and free the kingdoms of Manden. Returning with the combined armies of Mema, Wagadou, and all the rebellious Mandinka city-states, Maghan Sundiata, or Sumanguru, led a revolt against the Kaniaga Kingdom around 1234. The combined forces of northern and southern Manden defeated the Sosso army at the Battle of Kirina (then known as Krina) in approximately 1235. This victory resulted in the fall of the Kaniaga kingdom and the rise of the Mali Empire. After the victory, King Soumaoro disappeared and the Mandinka stormed the last of the Sosso cities. Maghan Sundiata was declared “faama of faamas” and received the title “mansa,” which translates roughly to emperor. At the age of eighteen, he gained authority over all the twelve kingdoms in an alliance known as the Manden Kurufaba. He was crowned under the throne name Sunidata Keita, becoming the first Mandinka emperor. And so the name Keita became a clan/family and began its reign.

4.2.3 – Imperial Mali (1250-1559)

Extent of the Mali Empire (c. 1350): The Mali Empire was the largest in West Africa, and profoundly influenced the culture of the region through the spread of its language, laws, and customs along lands adjacent to the Niger River, as well as other areas consisting of numerous vassal kingdoms and provinces.

The Mali Empire covered a larger area for a longer period of time than any other West African state before or since. What made this possible was the decentralized nature of administration throughout the state; yet the mansa managed to keep tax money and nominal control over the area without agitating his subjects into revolt. Officials at the village, town, city, and county levels were elected locally, and only at the state or provincial level was there any palpable interference from the central authority in Niani. Provinces picked their own governors via their own custom (election, inheritance, etc.), but governors had to be approved by the mansa and were subject to his oversight.

The Mali Empire flourished because of trade above all else. It contained three immense gold mines within its borders, and the empire taxed every ounce of gold or salt that entered its borders. By the beginning of the 14th century, Mali was the source of almost half the Old World’s gold, exported from mines in Bambuk, Boure, and Galam. There was no standard currency throughout the realm, but several forms were prominent by region. The Sahelian and Saharan towns of the Mali Empire were organized as both staging posts in the long-distance caravan trade and trading centers for the various West African products (e.g., salt, copper). Ibn Battuta, a Medieval Moroccan Muslim traveler and scholar, observed the employment of slave labor. During most of his journey, Ibn Battuta traveled with a retinue that included slaves, most of whom carried goods for trade but would also be traded themselves. On the return from Takedda to Morocco, his caravan transported 600 female slaves, which suggests that slavery was a substantial part of the commercial activity of the empire.

The number and frequency of conquests in the late 13th century and throughout the 14th century indicate that the Kolonkan mansas (who ruled at the time) inherited and/or developed a capable military. However, it went through radical changes before reaching the legendary proportions proclaimed by its subjects. Thanks to steady tax revenue and a stable government beginning in the last quarter of the 13th century, the Mali Empire was able to project its power throughout its own extensive domain and beyond. The empire maintained a semi-professional full-time army in order to defend its borders. The entire nation was mobilized, with each clan obligated to provide a quota of fighting-age men. Historians who lived during the height and decline of the Mali Empire consistently recorded its army at 100,000, with 10,000 of that number being made up of cavalry.

The Mali Empire reached its largest size under the Laye Keita mansas (1312–1389). The empire’s total area included nearly all the land between the Sahara Desert and the coastal forests. It spanned modern-day Senegal, southern Mauritania, Mali, northern Burkina Faso, western Niger, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, the Ivory Coast, and northern Ghana.
The first ruler from the Laye lineage was Kankan Musa Keita (or Moussa), also known as Mansa Musa. He embarked on a large building program, raising mosques and madrasas in Timbuktu and Gao.

He also transformed Sankore from an informal madrasah into an Islamic university.
By the end of Mansa Musa’s reign, the Sankoré University had been converted into a fully staffed university, with the largest collections of books in Africa since the Library of Alexandria. During this period, there was an advanced level of urban living in the major centers of the Mali. Sergio Domian, an Italian art and architecture scholar, wrote the following about this period: “Thus was laid the foundation of an urban civilization. At the height of its power, Mali had at least 400 cities, and the interior of the Niger Delta was very densely populated.”

4.2.4 – Collapse

Timbuktu manuscripts, c. 14th century: Timbuktu became a permanent settlement early in the 12th century. After a shift in trading routes, Timbuktu flourished from the trade in salt, gold, ivory, and slaves. It became part of the Mali Empire early in the 14th century. In its Golden Age, the town’s numerous Islamic scholars and extensive trading network made possible an important book trade. Together with the campuses of the Sankore Madrasah, an Islamic university, this established Timbuktu as a scholarly center in Africa.

Mansa Mahmud Keita IV was the last emperor of Manden, according to the Tarikh al-Sudan. He launched an attack on the city of Djenné in 1599 with Fulani allies, hoping to take advantage of Songhai’s defeat. Eventually, the army inside Djenné intervened, forcing Mansa Mahmud Keita IV and his army to retreat to Kangaba. The battle marked the effective end of the great Mali Empire and set the stage for a plethora of smaller West African states to emerge. Around 1610, Mahmud Keita IV died. Oral tradition states that he had three sons who fought over Manden’s remains. No single Keita ever ruled Manden after Mahmud Keita IV’s death, thus the end of the Mali Empire.

The old core of the empire was divided into three spheres of influence. Kangaba, the de facto capital of Manden since the time of the last emperor, became the capital of the northern sphere. The Joma area, governed from Siguiri, controlled the central region, which encompassed Niani. Hamana (or Amana), southwest of Joma, became the southern sphere, with its capital at Kouroussa in modern Guinea. Each ruler used the title of mansa, but their authority only extended as far as their own sphere of influence. Despite this disunity in the realm, the realm remained under Mandinka control into the mid-17th century. The three states warred on each other as much if not more than they did against outsiders, but rivalries generally stopped when faced with invasion. This trend would continue into colonial times against Tukulor enemies from the west.

4.3 – Songhai

4.3.1 – Introduction

The Songhai Empire (also transliterated as Songhay) was a state that dominated the western Sahel in the 15th and 16th centuries. At its peak, it was one of the largest states in African history. The state is known by its historiographical name, derived from its leading ethnic group and ruling elite, the Songhai. Sonni Ali established Gao as the capital of the empire, although a Songhai state had existed in and around Gao since the 11th century. Other important cities in the empire were Timbuktu and Djenné, conquered in 1468 and 1475 respectively, where urban-centered trade flourished. Initially, the empire was ruled by the Sonni dynasty (c. 1464–1493), but it was later replaced by the Askiya dynasty (1493–1591).

During the second half of the 13th century, Gao and the surrounding region had grown into an important trading center and attracted the interest of the expanding Mali Empire. Mali conquered Gao towards the end of the 13th century and the town would remain under Malian hegemony until the late 14th century. But as the Mali Empire started to disintegrate, the Songhai reasserted control of Gao. Songhai rulers subsequently took advantage of the weakened Mali Empire to expand Songhai rule.

4.3.2 – Imperial Songhai

In the second half of the 14th century, disputes over succession weakened the Mali Empire and in the 1430s, Songhai, previously a Mali dependency, gained independence under the Sonni Dynasty. Around thirty years later, Sonni Sulayman Dama attacked Mema, the Mali province west of Timbuktu, paving the way for his successor, Sonni Ali, to turn his country into one of the greatest empires sub-Saharan Africa has ever seen.

Sonni Ali reigned from 1464 to 1492. Like Songhai kings before him, he was a Muslim. In the late 1460s, he conquered many of the Songhai’s neighboring states, including what remained of the Mali Empire. He was arguably the empire’s most formidable military strategist and conqueror. Under his rule, Songhai reached a size of over 1,400,000 square kilometers. During his campaigns for expansion, Ali conquered many lands, repelling attacks from the Mossi to the south and overcoming the Dogon people to the north. He annexed Timbuktu in 1468, after Islamic leaders of the town requested his assistance in overthrowing marauding Tuaregs (Berber people with a traditionally nomadic pastoralist lifestyle) who had taken the city following the decline of Mali. However, Ali met stark resistance after setting his sights on the wealthy and renowned trading town of Djenné (also known as Jenne). After a persistent seven-year siege, he was able to forcefully incorporate it into his vast empire in 1473, but only after having starved its citizens into surrender

Oral traditions present a conflicted image of Sonni Ali. On the one hand, the invasion of Timbuktu destroyed the city; Ali was described as an intolerant tyrant who conducted a repressive policy against the scholars of Timbuktu, especially those of the Sankore region who were associated with the Tuareg. On the other hand, his control of critical trade routes and cities brought great wealth. He is thus often presented as a powerful politician and great military commander and under his reign, Djenné and Timbuktu became great centers of learning.

Songhai Empire in 1500: Songhai rulers took advantage of the weakened Mali Empire to expanded Songhai rule. Under the rule of Sonni Ali, the Songhai surpassed the Malian Empire in area, wealth, and power, absorbing vast areas of the Mali Empire and reaching its greatest extent.

Following Ali’s reign, Askia the Great strengthened the Songhai Empire and made it the largest empire in West Africa’s history. At its peak under his reign, the Songhai Empire encompassed the Hausa states as far as Kano (in present-day Nigeria) and much of the territory that had belonged to the Songhai empire in the west. His policies resulted in a rapid expansion of trade with Europe and Asia, the creation of many schools, and the establishment of Islam as an integral part of the empire. Askia opened religious schools, constructed mosques, and opened up his court to scholars and poets from throughout the Muslim world, but he was also tolerant of other religions and did not force Islam on his people. Among his great accomplishments was an interest in astronomical knowledge, which led to the development of astronomy and observatories in the capital.

Not only was he a patron of Islam but he was also gifted in administration and encouraging trade. He centralized the administration of the empire and established an efficient bureaucracy that was responsible for, among other things, tax collection and the administration of justice. He also demanded that canals be built in order to enhance agriculture, which would eventually increase trade. More importantly than anything he did for trade was the introduction of weights and measures and the appointment of an inspector for each of Songhai’s important trading centers. During his reign Islam became more widely entrenched, trans-Saharan trade flourished, and the Saharan salt mines of Taghaza were brought within the boundaries of the empire.

However, as Askia the Great grew older, his power declined. In 1528, his sons revolted against him and declared Musa, one of Askia’s many sons, as king. Following Musa’s overthrow in 1531, Songhai’s empire went into decline. Multiple attempts at governing the empire by Askia’s sons and grandsons failed and between the political chaos and multiple civil wars within the empire, Morocco invaded Songhai. The main reason for the Moroccan invasion of Songhai was to seize control and revive the trans-Saharan trade in salt and gold. The Songhai military, during Askia’s reign, consisted of full-time soliders, but the king never modernized his army. The Empire fell to the Moroccans and their firearms in 1591.

4.3.3 – The Organization of Songhai

At its peak, the Songhai city of Timbuktu became a thriving cultural and commercial center where Arab, Italian, and Jewish merchants all gathered for trade. Economic trade existed throughout the empire due to the standing army stationed in the provinces. Central to the regional economy were independent gold fields. The Julla (merchants) would form partnerships, and the state would protect these merchants and the port cities of the Niger.

The Songhai economy was based on a clan system. The clan a person belonged to ultimately decided one’s occupation. The most common were metalworkers, fishermen, and carpenters. Lower caste participants consisted of mostly non-farm working immigrants, who at times were provided special privileges and held high positions in society. At the top were noblemen and direct descendants of the original Songhai people, followed by freemen and traders. At the bottom were war captives and European slaves obligated to labor, especially in farming.  Historian James Olson describes the labor system as resembling modern day unions, with the empire possessing craft guilds that consisted of various mechanics and artisans

Criminal justice in Songhai was based mainly, if not entirely, on Islamic principles, especially during the rule of Askia the Great. Upper classes in society converted to Islam while lower classes often continued to follow traditional religions. Sermons emphasized obedience to the king. Sonni Ali established a system of government under the royal court, later to be expanded by Askia, which appointed governors and mayors to preside over local tributary states situated around the Niger valley. Local chiefs were still granted authority over their respective domains as long as they did not undermine Songhai policy.

Tax was imposed onto peripheral chiefdoms and provinces to ensure the dominance of Songhai, and in return these provinces were given almost complete autonomy. Songhai rulers only intervened in the affairs of these neighboring states when a situation became volatile, usually an isolated incident. Each town was represented by government officials, holding positions and responsibilities similar to today’s central bureaucrats.

4.4 – The Yoruba States

While Ile-Ife is considered to be the spiritual homeland of the Yoruba people, numerous Yoruba states were eventually centralized within the modern Oyo Empire, which grew to become one of the largest African states.

4.4.1 – Yorubaland: Introduction

Yorubaland is the cultural region of the Yoruba people in West Africa. It spans the modern-day countries of Nigeria, Togo, and Benin. Its pre-modern history is based largely on oral traditions and legends. According to Yoruba religion, Olodumare, the Supreme God, ordered Obatala to create the earth, but on Obatala’s way he found palm wine, which he drank and became intoxicated. Therefore, his younger brother, Oduduwa, took the three items of creation from him, climbed down from the heavens on a chain, and threw a handful of earth on the primordial ocean, then put a cockerel on it so that it would scatter the earth, thus creating the land on which Ile-Ife would be built. On account of his creation of the world, Oduduwa became the ancestor of the first divine king of the Yoruba, while Obatala is believed to have created the first Yoruba people out of clay. The meaning of the word “ife” in Yoruba is “expansion.” “Ile-Ife” is therefore in reference to the myth of origin, “The Land of Expansion.”

4.4.2 – Ile-Ife

Evidence suggests that as of the 7th century BCE, the African peoples who lived in Yorubaland were not initially known as the Yoruba, though they shared a common ethnicity and language group. By the 8th century CE, Ile-Ife was already a powerful Yoruba kingdom, one of the earliest in Africa south of the Sahara-Sahel. Almost every Yoruba settlement traces its origin to princes of Ile-Ife. As such, Ife can be regarded as the cultural and spiritual homeland of the Yoruba nation. Archaeologically, the settlement at Ife can be dated to the 4th century BC, with urban structures appearing in the 12th century CE.

Until today, the Oòni (or king) of Ife claims direct descent from Oduduwa.

The city was a settlement of substantial size between the 12th and 14th centuries, with houses featuring potsherd pavements. Ile-Ife is known worldwide for its ancient and naturalistic bronze as well as stone and terracotta sculptures, which reached their peak of artistic expression between 1200 and 1400. In the period around 1300 the artists at Ife developed a refined and naturalistic sculptural tradition in terracotta, stone, and copper alloy—copper, brass, and bronze—many of which appear to have been created under the patronage of King Obalufon II, the man who today is identified as the Yoruba patron deity of brass casting, weaving, and regalia. After this period, production declined as political and economic power shifted to the nearby kingdom of Benin, which, like the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo, developed into a major empire.

Bronze head from Ife, probably a king, dated around 1300

Ile-Ife is known worldwide for its ancient and naturalistic bronze, stone, and terracotta sculptures, which reached their peak of artistic expression between 1200 and 1400.

4.4.3 – The Rise of the Oyo Empire

The mythical origins of the Oyo Empire lie with Oranyan (also known as Oranmiyan), the second prince of Ile-Ife, who made Oyo his new kingdom and became the first oba  with the title of Alaafin of Oyo (Alaafin means “owner of the palace” in Yoruba). The oral tradition holds that he left all his treasures in Ife and allowed another king, named Adimu, to rule there.

Oranyan was succeeded by Oba Ajaka, but he was deposed because he allowed his sub-chiefs too much independence. Leadership was then conferred upon Ajaka’s brother, Shango, who was later deified as the deity of thunder and lightning. Ajaka was restored after Shango’s death. His successor, Kori, managed to conquer the rest of what later historians would refer to as metropolitan Oyo. The heart of metropolitan Oyo was its capital at Oyo-Ile.

Oyo had grown into a formidable inland power by the end of the 14th century, but it suffered military defeats at the hands of the Nupe led by Tsoede. Sometime around 1535, the Nupe occupied Oyo and forced its ruling dynasty to take refuge in the kingdom of Borgu.
The Yoruba of Oyo went through an interregnum of eighty years as an exiled dynasty. However, they re-established Oyo to be more centralized and expansive than ever. During the 17th century, Oyo began a long stretch of growth, becoming a major empire. It never encompassed all Yoruba-speaking people, but it was the most populous kingdom in Yoruba history.

Oyo Empire and surrounding states c. 1700

The Oyo Empire rose through the outstanding organizational skills of the Yoruba, gaining wealth from trade and its powerful cavalry. It was the most politically important state in the region from the mid-17th century to the late 18th century, holding sway not only over most of the other kingdoms in Yorubaland, but also over nearby African states, notably the Fon Kingdom of Dahomey in the modern Republic of Benin to the west.

4.4.4 – The Power of Oyo

The key to Yoruba rebuilding Oyo was a stronger military and a more centralized government. Oba Ofinran succeeded in regaining Oyo’s original territory from the Nupe. A new capital, Oyo-Igboho, was constructed, and the original became known as Old Oyo. The next oba, Eguguojo, conquered nearly all of Yorubaland. Despite a failed attempt to conquer the Benin Empire sometime between 1578 and 1608, Oyo continued to expand. The Yoruba allowed autonomy to the southeast of metropolitan Oyo, where the non-Yoruba areas could act as a buffer between Oyo and Imperial Benin. By the end of the 16th century, the Ewe and Aja states of modern Benin were paying tribute to Oyo.

The reinvigorated Oyo Empire began raiding southward as early as 1682. By the end of its military expansion, its borders would reach to the coast some 200 miles southwest of its capital. At the beginning, the people were concentrated in metropolitan Oyo. With imperial expansion, Oyo reorganized to better manage its vast holdings within and outside Yorubaland. It was divided into four layers defined by relation to the core of the empire. These layers were Metropolitan Oyo, southern Yorubaland, the Egbado Corridor, and Ajaland.

The Oyo Empire developed a highly sophisticated political structure to govern its territorial domains. Scholars have not determined how much of this structure existed prior to the Nupe invasion. Some of Oyo’s institutions are clearly derivative of early accomplishments in Ife.

The Oyo Empire was not a hereditary monarchy, nor an absolute one.

While the Alaafin of Oyo was supreme overlord of the people, he was not without checks on his power. The Oyo Mesi (seven councilors of the states) and the Yoruba Earth cult known as Ogboni kept the Oba’s power in check. The Oyo Mesi spoke for the politicians while the Ogboni spoke for the people, backed by the power of religion. The power of the Alaafin of Oyo in relation to the Oyo Mesi and Ogboni depended on his personal character and political shrewdness.

Oyo became the southern emporium of the trans-Saharan trade. Exchanges were made in salt, leather, horses, kola nuts, ivory, cloth, and slaves. The Yoruba of metropolitan Oyo were also highly skilled in craft making and iron work. Aside from taxes on trade products coming in and out of the empire, Oyo also became wealthy off the taxes imposed on its tributaries. Oyo’s imperial success made Yoruba a lingua franca almost to the shores of the Volta. Toward the end of the 18th century, the empire acted as a go-between for both the trans-Saharan and trans-Atlantic slave trade. By 1680, the Oyo Empire spanned over 150,000 square kilometers.

4.4.5 – Decline

In the second half of the 18th century, dynastic intrigues, palace coups, and failed military campaigns began to weaken the Oyo Empire. Recurrent power struggles and resulting periods of interregnum created a vacuum, in which the power of regional commanders rose.
As Oyo tore itself apart via political intrigue, its vassals began taking advantage of the situation to press for independence. Some of them succeeded, and Oyo never regained its prominence in the region. It became a protectorate of Great Britain in 1888 before further fragmenting into warring factions. The Oyo state ceased to exist as any sort of power in 1896.

5 – East African Empires

5.1 – Kingdom of Aksum

5.1.1 – Introduction

The Kingdom of Aksum (or Axum; also known as the Aksumite Empire) was a trading nation in the area of northern Ethiopia and Eritrea that existed from  approximately 100 to 940 CE. It grew from the proto-Aksumite Iron Age period around the 4th century BCE to achieve prominence by the 1st century CE, and was a major agent in the commercial route between the Roman Empire and Ancient India. The Aksumite rulers facilitated trade by minting their own Aksumite currency. The state established its hegemony over the declining Kingdom of Kush and regularly entered the politics of the kingdoms on the Arabian Peninsula, eventually extending its rule over the region with the conquest of the Himyarite Kingdom. The Persian Prophet Mani regarded Axum as the third of the four greatest powers of his time after Rome and Persia, with China being the fourth.

5.1.2 – Origins

Aksum was previously thought to have been founded by Sabaeans, an ancient people speaking an Old South Arabian language who lived in what is today Yemen, in the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula. However, most scholars now agree that prior to the arrival of Sabaeans, an African settlement by the Agaw people and other Ethiopian groups had already existed in the territory. Sabaean influence is now thought to have been minor, limited to a few localities, and disappearing after a few decades or a century, perhaps representing a trading or military colony.

5.1.3 – Empire

The Aksumite Empire at its height extended across most of present-day Eritrea, northern Ethiopia, western Yemen, southern Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. The capital city of the empire was Aksum, now in northern Ethiopia. Today a smaller community, the city of Aksum was once a bustling metropolis and cultural and economic center. By the reign of Endubis in the late 3rd century, the empire had begun minting its own currency. It converted to Christianity in 325 or 328 under King Ezana, and was the first state ever to use the image of the cross on its coins. The kingdom used the name “Ethiopia” as early as the 4th century.

By 350, Aksum conquered the Kingdom of Kush. Around 520, King Kaleb sent an expedition to Yemen against the Jewish Himyarite King Dhu Nuwas, who was persecuting the Christian/Aksumite community in his kingdom. After several years of military and political struggles, Yemen fell under the rule of Aksumite general Abreha, who continued to promote the Christian faith until his death, not long after which Yemen was conquered by the Persians. According to Munro-Hay these wars may have been Aksum’s swan-song as a great power, with an overall weakening of Aksumite authority and over-expenditure in money and manpower. It is also possible that Ethiopia was affected by the Plague of Justinian around this time, a disease thought to be the first recorded instance of bubonic plague.

5.1.4 – Trading and Culture

Covering parts of what is now northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, Aksum was deeply involved in the trade network between India and the Mediterranean (Rome, later Byzantium), exporting ivory, tortoise shell, gold, and emeralds, and importing silk and spices. Aksum’s access to both the Red Sea and the Upper Nile enabled its strong navy to profit in trade between various African (Nubia), Arabian (Yemen), and Indian states.

The empire traded with Roman traders as well as with Egyptian and Persian merchants.

Extent of Silk Route/Silk Road: The economically important northern Silk Road and southern Spice (Eastern) trade routes. The sea routes around the horn of Arabia and the Indian sub-continent were Aksum’s specialty for nearly a millennium.

The main exports of Aksum were agricultural products. The land was fertile during the time of the Aksumites, and the principal crops were grains such as wheat and barley. The people of Aksum also raised cattle, sheep, and camels. Wild animals were hunted for ivory and rhinoceros horns.

The empire was rich with gold and iron deposits, and salt was an abundant and widely traded mineral.

Aksum benefited from a major transformation of the maritime trading system that linked the Roman Empire and India. Starting around 100 BCE, a route from Egypt to India was established, making use of the Red Sea and using monsoon winds to cross the Arabian Sea directly to southern India. Aksum was ideally located to take advantage of the new trading situation. Adulis soon became the main port for the export of African goods, such as ivory, incense, gold, and exotic animals. Slaves were also traded along the same routes. During the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the Kingdom of Aksum continued to expand their control of the southern Red Sea basin. A caravan route to Egypt, which bypassed the Nile corridor entirely, was established. Aksum succeeded in becoming the principal supplier of African goods to the Roman Empire.

A gold coin of the Aksumite king Ousas, specifically a one third solidus, diameter 17 mm, weight 1.50 gm.

The Aksumite Empire was one of the first African polities economically and politically ambitious enough to issue its own coins, which bore legends in Ge’ez and Greek.

The Aksumite Empire is notable for a number of achievements, such as its own alphabet, the Ge’ez alphabet, which was eventually modified to include vowels. Furthermore, in the early times of the empire, giant obelisks to mark emperors’ (and nobles’) tombs (underground grave chambers) were constructed, the most famous of which is the Obelisk of Aksum.

Under Emperor Ezana, Aksum adopted Christianity in place of its former polytheistic and Judaic religions. This gave rise to the present day Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (only granted autonomy from the Coptic Church in 1953), and Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church (granted autonomy from the Ethiopian Orthodox church in 1993). Since the schism with orthodoxy following the Council of Chalcedon (451), it has been an important Miaphysite church, and its scriptures and liturgy continue to be in Ge’ez.

The Rome Stele (known also as the Aksum Obelisk) in Aksum (Tigray Region, Ethiopia)

The Stelae (hawilt/hawilti in local languages) are perhaps the most identifiable part of the Aksumite legacy. These stone towers served to mark graves and represent a magnificent multi-storied palace. They are decorated with false doors and windows in typical Aksumite design. The Stelae have most of their mass out of the ground, but are stabilized by massive underground counter-weights. The stone was often engraved with a pattern or emblem denoting the king’s or the noble’s rank.

5.1.5 – Decline

Eventually, the Islamic Empire took control of the Red Sea and most of the Nile, forcing Aksum into economic isolation. Northwest of Aksum, in modern-day Sudan, the Christian states of Makuria and Alodia lasted until the 13th century before becoming Islamic. Aksum, isolated, nonetheless still remained Christian.

After a second golden age in the early 6th century, the empire began to decline, eventually ceasing its production of coins in the early 7th century. Around the same time, the Aksumite population was forced to go farther inland to the highlands for protection, abandoning Aksum as the capital. Arab writers of the time continued to describe Ethiopia (no longer referred to as Aksum) as an extensive and powerful state, although it had lost control of most of the coast and its tributaries. While land was lost in the north, it was gained in the south, and Ethiopia still attracted Arab merchants. The capital was moved to a new location, currently unknown, though it may have been called Ku’bar or Jarmi.

There exist different hypotheses as to why the empire collapsed, but historians agree that climate changes must have greatly contributed to the end of Aksum. As international profits from the exchange network declined, Aksum lost its ability to control its own raw material sources, and that network collapsed. The already persistent environmental pressure of a large population to maintain a high level of regional food production had to be intensified. The result was a wave of soil erosion that began on a local scale circa 650 and attained catastrophic proportions after 700. Presumably, complex socio-economic inputs compounded the problem. These are traditionally reflected in declining maintenance, deterioration and partial abandonment of marginal crop land, shifts to destructive pastoral exploitation, and eventual wholesale and irreversible land degradation. This syndrome was possibly accelerated by an apparent decline in rainfall reliability beginning in 730–760, with the presumed result that an abbreviated modern growing season was reestablished during the 9th century.

5.2 – The Sultanates of Somalia

From the Middle Ages until when Europeans colonized the territory of today’s Somalia, the region was never dominated by a centralized empire, and instead witnessed the development and decline of several powerful trading sultanates whose cultures were deeply rooted in Islam.

5.2.1 – Somalia Sultanates and Islam

During the Middle Ages, Somalia’s territory witnessed the emergence and decline of several powerful sultanates that dominated the regional trade. At no point was the region centralized as one state, and the development of all the sultanates was linked to the central role that Islam played in the area since the 7th century. Islam was introduced to the northern Somali coast from the Arabian Peninsula early on, shortly after the hijra (also hegira), or the journey of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Yathrib, later renamed Medina, in 622 CE.

The oldest mosque in the city of Zeila, a major port/trading center, dates to the 7th century. In the late 9th century, Muslims were living along the northern Somali seaboard, and evidence suggests that Zeila was already the headquarters of a Muslim sultanate in the 9th or 10th century. According to I.M. Lewis, the polity was governed by local dynasties consisting of Somalized Arabs or Arabized Somalis, who also ruled over the Sultanate of Mogadishu in the Benadir region to the south.

5.2.2 – Mogadishu

The Sultanate of Mogadishu was an important trading empire that lasted from the 10th century to the 16th century. It rose as one of the pre-eminent powers in the Horn of Africa over the course of the 12th to 14th centuries, before becoming part of the expanding Ajuran Empire. The Mogadishu Sultanate maintained a vast trading network, dominated the regional gold trade, minted its own Mogadishu currency, and left an extensive architectural legacy in present-day southern Somalia. Its first dynasty was established by Sultan Fakr ad-Din. This ruling house was succeeded by the Muzaffar dynasty, and the kingdom subsequently became closely linked with the Ajuran Sultanate. For many years, Mogadishu stood as the pre-eminent city in what is known as the Land of the Berbers, which was the medieval Arab term for the Somali coast. Contemporary historians suggest that the Berbers were ancestors of the modern Somalis.

Location of Mogadishu Sultanate according to 15th-century Italian cartographer Fra Mauro

During his travels, Ibn Sa’id al-Maghribi (1213–1286) noted that the city had already become the leading Islamic center in the region. By the time of the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta’s appearance on the Somali coast in 1331, the city was at the zenith of its prosperity. He described Mogadishu as “an exceedingly large city” with many rich merchants that was famous for its high quality fabric that it exported to Egypt, among other places.

5.2.3 – Ajuran

The Ajuran Sultanate ruled over large parts of the Horn of Africa between the 13th and late 17th centuries. Through a strong centralized administration and an aggressive military stance toward invaders, it successfully resisted an Oromo invasion (a series of expansions in the 16th and 17th centuries by the Oromo people from parts of Kenya and Somalia to Ethiopia) from the west and a Portuguese incursion from the east during the Gaal Madow and the Ajuran-Portuguese wars. Trading routes dating from the ancient and early medieval periods of Somali maritime enterprise were strengthened or re-established, and foreign trade and commerce in the coastal provinces flourished, with ships sailing to and coming from many kingdoms and empires in East Asia, South Asia, Europe, the Near East, North Africa, and East Africa.

The Ajuran Sultanate left an extensive architectural legacy, being one of the major medieval Somali powers engaged in castle and fortress building. Many of the ruined fortifications dotting the landscapes of southern Somalia today are attributed to the Ajuran Sultanate’s engineers. During the Ajuran period, many regions and people in the southern part of the Horn of Africa converted to Islam because of the theocratic nature of the government. The royal family, the House of Garen, expanded its territories and established its hegemonic rule through a skillful combination of warfare, trade linkages, and alliances.

As a hydraulic empire, the Ajuran monopolized the water resources of the Shebelle and Jubba rivers. It also constructed many of the limestone wells and cisterns of the state that are still in use today. The rulers developed new systems for agriculture and taxation, which continued to be used in parts of the Horn of Africa as late as the 19th century. The tyrannical rule of the later Ajuran rulers caused multiple rebellions to break out in the sultanate, and at the end of the 17th century the Ajuran state disintegrated into several successor kingdoms and states, the most prominent being the Geledi Sultanate.

5.2.4 – Warsangali

The Warsangali Sultanate was a kingdom centered in northeastern and in some parts of southeastern Somalia. It was one of the largest sultanates ever established in the territory, and, at the height of its power, included the Sanaag region and parts of the northeastern Bari region of the country, an area historically known as Maakhir or the Maakhir Coast. The Sultanate was founded in the late 13th century in northern Somalia by a group of Somalis from the Warsangali branch of the Darod clan. It survived until the British colonization of the region in the 19th century.

The Ajuuraan, Adal, and Warsangali Sultanates in the 15th century

Already in the classical (ancient) period, the Somali city-states of Mosylon, Opone, Malao, Sarapion, Mundus, Essina, and Tabae developed a lucrative trade network connecting with merchants from Phoenicia, Ptolemic Egypt, Greece, Parthian Persia, Sheba, Nabataea, and the Roman Empire. They used the ancient Somali maritime vessel known as the beden to transport their cargo.

5.2.5 – Ifat

The Sultanate of Ifat was a medieval Muslim Sultanate in the Horn of Africa. Led by the Walashma dynasty, it was centered in the ancient cities of Zeila and Shewa. The sultanate ruled over parts of what are now eastern Ethiopia, Djibouti, and northern Somalia.
Ifat first emerged in the 13th century, when Sultan Umar Walashma (or his son Ali, according to another source) is recorded as having conquered the Sultanate of Showa in 1285. Historian Taddesse Tamrat explains Sultan Umar’s military acts as an effort to consolidate the Muslim territories in the Horn of Africa in much the same way as Emperor Yekuno Amlak was attempting to consolidate the Christian territories in the highlands during the same period. These two states inevitably came into conflict over Shewa and territories further south. A lengthy war ensued, but the Muslim sultanates of the time were not strongly unified. Ifat was finally defeated by Emperor Amda Seyon I of Ethiopia in 1332.

Despite this setback, the Muslim rulers of Ifat continued their campaign. The Ethiopian emperor branded the Muslims of the surrounding area “enemies of the Lord” and invaded Ifat in the early 15th century. After much struggle, Ifat’s troops were defeated. Ifat eventually disappeared as a distinct polity following the Conquest of Abyssinia led by Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi and the subsequent Oromo migrations into the area. Its name is preserved in the modern-day Ethiopian district of Yifat, situated in Shewa.

5.2.6 – Adal

The Adal Sultanate or Kingdom of Adal was founded after the fall of the Sultanate of Ifat. It flourished from around 1415 to 1577. The sultanate was established predominately by local Somali tribes, as well as Afars, Arabs, and Hararis. At its height, the polity controlled large parts of Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Eritrea.

During its existence, Adal had relations and engaged in trade with other polities in northeast Africa, the Near East, Europe, and South Asia. Many of the historic cities in the Horn of Africa, such as Abasa and Berbera, flourished under its reign, with courtyard houses, mosques, shrines, walled enclosures, and cisterns. Adal attained its peak in the 14th century, trading in slaves, ivory, and other commodities with Abyssinia and kingdoms in Arabia through its chief port of Zeila.

5.2.7 – Modern Sultanates

Following the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, Arab sultanates continued to dominate the region, until it fell under the colonial control of Europeans in the 19th century. The Sultanate of the Geledi ruled parts of the Horn of Africa during the late 17th century and 19th century. The Sultanate was governed by the Gobroon Dynasty. It was eventually incorporated into Italian Somaliland in 1908, and ended with the death of Osman Ahmed in 1910.

The Majeerteen Sultanate was a Somali Sultanate centered in the Horn of Africa. Ruled by Boqor Osman Mahamuud during its golden age, it controlled much of northern and central Somalia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The polity had all of the organs of an integrated modern state and maintained a robust trading network. It also entered into treaties with foreign powers and exerted strong centralized authority on the domestic front.

In late 1889, Boqor Osman entered into a treaty with Italy, making his kingdom a protectorate known as Italian Somaliland.

Finally, the Sultanate of Hobyo, in present-day northeastern and central Somalia and eastern Ethiopia, was established in the 1870s by Yusuf Ali Kenadid, cousin of Boqor Osman Mahamuud.

As with the Majeerteen Sultanate, the Sultanate of Hobyo exerted a strong centralized authority during its existence, and possessed all of the organs and trappings of an integrated modern state: a functioning bureaucracy, a hereditary nobility, titled aristocrats, a state flag, and a professional army.

In late 1888, Sultan Kenadid entered into a treaty with the Italians, making his realm an Italian protectorate, but the sultanate eventually dissolved in 1926.

5.3 – Ethiopia and Eritrea

Following the ancient kingdom of D’mt and the medieval empire of Aksum, some of current Ethiopia’s territory was dominated by the Christian Ethiopian Empire established by the Zagwe dynasty in the 12th century, and later ruled by the Solomonic dynasty until the 20th century.

5.3.1 – Ancient and Medieval Ethiopia

The first kingdom thought to have existed in today’s Ethiopia was the kingdom of D’mt, with its capital at Yeha, where a Sabaean-style temple was built around 700 BCE. It rose to power around the 10th century BCE, but little is certain about its development and decline. It is not known whether D’mt ended as a civilization before Aksum’s (its one possible successor) early stages, evolved into the Aksumite state, or was one of the smaller states united in the Aksumite kingdom possibly around the beginning of the 1st century.

Aksum is the first verifiable kingdom of great power to rise in the region. It was a trading empire in the area of northern Ethiopia and Eritrea that existed approximately from 100 to 940 CE, and was a major agent in the commercial route between the Roman Empire and Ancient India.

About 1000 (presumably c. 960, though the date is uncertain), a non-Christian female ruler conquered the area. Little is known about this episode, but the later Solomonic Dynasty used the legend of a princess named Yodit to legitimize its rule.

At one point during the next century, the last of Yodit’s successors were overthrown by an Agaw lord named Mara Takla Haymanot, who founded the Zagwe dynasty in 1137—the year that marks the beginning of the Ethiopian Empire, known also as Abyssinia. The new Zagwe dynasty established its capital at Roha (also called Lalibela), where they built a series of monolithic churches. The architecture of the Zagwe shows a continuation of earlier Aksumite traditions. The Zagwe dynasty controlled a smaller area than the Aksumites, with its core in the Lasta region. The Zagwe seem to have ruled over a mostly peaceful state with a flourishing urban culture.

Unlike the Aksumites, they were very isolated from the other Christian nations, although they did maintain a degree of contact through Jerusalem and Cairo. Later, as the Crusades were dying out in the early 14th century, the Ethiopian King Wedem Ar’ad dispatched a thirty-man mission to Europe, where they traveled to Rome to meet the Pope and then, since the Medieval Papacy was in schism, they traveled to Avignon to meet the Antipope. During this trip, the Ethiopian mission also traveled to France, Spain, and Portugal in the hopes of building an alliance against the Muslim states that threatened Ethiopia’s existence.

5.3.2 – The Solomonic Dynasty

Around 1270, a new dynasty was established in the Abyssinian highlands under Yekuno Amlak, who deposed the last of the Zagwe kings and married one of his daughters. According to legends, the new dynasty were male-line descendants of Aksumite monarchs. The 14th century legend was created to legitimize the Solomonic dynasty, under which the chief provinces became Tigray (northern), what is now Amhara (central), and Shewa (southern). The seat of government, or rather of overlordship, was usually in Amhara or Shewa, and the ruler exacted tribute, when he could, from the other provinces. At the time, Ethiopia engaged in military reforms and imperial expansion that left it dominating the Horn of Africa, especially under the rule of Amda Seyon I (1314–44). Artistic and literary advancement of the period came together with a decline in urbanization, as the Solomonic emperors did not have a fixed capital but rather moved around the empire in mobile camps.

Towards the close of the 15th century, the Portuguese missions into Ethiopia began. A belief had long prevailed in Europe of the existence of a Christian kingdom in the far east whose monarch was known as Prester John, and various expeditions had been sent to find it. Among others engaged in this search was Pêro da Covilhã, who arrived in Ethiopia in 1490. Da Covilhã remained in the country, but in 1507 an Armenian named Matthew was sent by the emperor to the king of Portugal to request his aid against the Muslims. In 1520, a Portuguese fleet, with Matthew on board, entered the Red Sea in compliance with this request, and an embassy from the fleet visited the emperor, Lebna Dengel, and remained in Ethiopia for about six years. One of this embassy was Father Francisco Álvares, who wrote one of the earliest accounts of the country.

Lebna Dengel, nəgusä nägäst (emperor) of Ethiopia and a member of the Solomonic dynasty. Portrait by Cristofano dell’Altissimo, c. 1552-1568, Uffizi, Florence.

The Solomonic dynasty was a bastion of Judaism and later of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. It is considered to have ruled Ethiopia in the 10th century BCE. Records of the dynasty’s history were reported to have been maintained by the Ethiopian Orthodox monasteries to near antiquity. However, if such records existed, most were lost as a result of the destruction of Orthodox monasteries. The Dynasty re-established itself in 1270 CE, when when Yekuno Amlak overthrew the last ruler of the Zagwe dynasty.

5.3.3 – Wars with Somali Sultanates

Between 1528 and 1540, armies of Muslims, under the Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi, entered Ethiopia from the low country to the southeast and overran the Abyssinian Kingdom, obliging the Emperor to take refuge in the mountains. The ruler turned to the Portuguese again. João Bermudes, a subordinate member of the mission of 1520, was sent to Lisbon, although it is not know what his specific role was. In response to Bermudes’s message, a Portuguese fleet under the command of Estêvão da Gama was sent from India and arrived at Massawa in 1541. Under the command of Cristóvão da Gama, younger brother of the admiral, the Portuguese and local troops were initially successful against the enemy. However, they were subsequently defeated at the Battle of Wofla (1542), and their commander was captured and executed. Nonetheless, in 1543, Al-Ghazi was shot and killed in the Battle of Wayna Daga, and his forces were totally routed. Following the victory, quarrels arose between the emperor and Bermudes, who now urged the emperor to publicly profess his obedience to Rome. The emperor refused, and Bermudes was obliged to leave.

5.3.4 – Gondar and Zemene Mesafint

Upon the death of Emperor Susenyos and the accession of his son Fasilides in 1633, the Jesuits, who had accompanied or followed the Gama expedition, were expelled and the native religion restored to official status. Fasilides made Gondar his capital in 1636 and built a castle there, which would grow into the castle complex known as the Fasil Ghebbi, or Royal Enclosure. During this time, Ethiopian philosophy flourished, with philosophers Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat leading the way. Yaqob is known for his treatise on religion, morality, and reason, known as Hatata.

The Royal Enclosure (Fasil Ghebbi) and Gondar: Emperor Fasilides made Gondar his capital and built a castle there, which would grow into the castle complex known as the Fasil Ghebbi, or Royal Enclosure. Fasilides also constructed several churches in Gondar, many bridges across the country, and expanded the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Aksum.

In the 18th century, the so-called Zemene Mesafint (Era of the Princes) began. It was a period in Ethiopian history when the country was divided into several regions with no effective central authority. The emperors were reduced to little more than figureheads confined to the capital city of Gondar. Historians debate what triggered Zemene Mesafint, pointing to various events ranging from 1706 to 1769 as the beginning of the era. A religious conflict between settling Muslims and traditional Christians, between nationalities they represented, and between feudal lords dominated the region at the time. The power lay ever more openly in the hands of the great nobles and military commanders.

Bitter religious conflicts contributed to hostility toward foreign Christians and Europeans; they persisted into the 20th century and were a factor in Ethiopia’s isolation until the mid-19th century, when the first British mission was sent in 1805 to conclude an alliance with Ethiopia and obtain a port on the Red Sea in case France conquered Egypt. This isolation was pierced by very few European travelers.

The first years of the 19th century were disturbed by fierce campaigns between Ras Gugsa of Begemder and Ras Wolde Selassie of Tigray, who fought over control of the figurehead emperor Egwale Seyon. Wolde Selassie was eventually the victor and practically ruled the whole country until his death in 1816 at the age of eighty. Dejazmach Sabagadis of Agame succeeded Wolde Selassie in 1817, through force of arms, to become warlord of Tigre.

Under the emperors Tewodros II (1855–1868), Yohannes IV (1872–1889), and Menelek II (1889–1913), the empire began to emerge from its isolation. Under Emperor Tewodros II, Zemene Mesafint was brought to an end.

Ethiopia was never colonized by a European power, but was occupied by Italians in 1936. However, several colonial powers had interests in and designs on Ethiopia in the context of the 19th century colonization of Africa.

6 – Southern African States

6.1 – Namibia

Today’s Namibia did not witness the emergence of ancient or medieval kingdoms and empires that would largely dominate its territory, but evidence suggests that a number of diverse peoples settled there as a result of ancient, medieval, and modern migrations.

6.1.1 – The Peoples of Pre-Colonial Namibia

Unlike in other territories in Africa, no powerful ancient or medieval kingdoms and empires served as predecessors of the Namibian state today. Not much is known about pre-colonial Namibia, but evidence suggests that a number of diverse peoples settled there as a result of ancient, medieval, and modern migrations. The San (also called Bushmen) are generally assumed to have been the earliest inhabitants of the region comprising today’s Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa. The San were hunters and gatherers with a nomadic lifestyle. The most important part of their diet consisted of fruits, nuts, and roots, but they also hunted different kinds of antelopes.

Until about 2,000 years ago, the original hunters and gatherers of the San people were the only inhabitants in Namibia, but around that time, the Nama (also known as Namaqua), the Khoikhoi, and the Hottentots settled around the Orange River in the south, on the border between Namibia and South Africa, where they kept herds of sheep and goats. Both the San and the Nama were Khoisan peoples, and spoke languages from the Khoisan language group.

In the 9th century, the Damara entered Namibia. The Damara do not relate to the other Khoisan peoples, although they share a similar language. It is believed that they separated themselves early on from their Bantu brothers of Southern and Central Africa and moved to Southwest Africa. It is unclear where they came from, but they settled in the grasslands in central Namibia, known as Damaraland.

The Ovambo, and the smaller and closely related group Kavango, lived in northern Namibia and southern Angola. The Kavango also lived in western Zambia. They migrated south from the upper regions of Zambezi around the 14th century. Their economy was based on farming, cattle, and fishing, but they also produced metal goods. Both groups belonged to the Bantu nation. They rarely ventured south to the central parts of the country, where the conditions did not suit their farming way of life. However, they extensively traded their knives and agricultural implements. The Ovambo constitute the largest ethnic group and a majority of the population in today’s Namibia.

During the 17th century, the Herero, a pastoral, nomadic people keeping cattle, moved into Namibia. They came from the east African lakes and entered Namibia from the northwest. First they resided in Kaokoland, but in the middle of the 19th century some tribes moved farther south and into Damaraland. A number of tribes remained in Kaokoland. During German occupation of this region, about one third of the population was wiped out in a genocide that continues to provoke historical and political debates. Known as the Herero and Namaqua genocide, it was a campaign of racial extermination and collective punishment. It is considered one of the first genocides of the 20th century, taking place between 1904 and 1907 during the Herero Wars.

Herero, c. 1910: During the 17th century the Herero, a pastoral, nomadic people keeping cattle, moved into Namibia. They came from the east African lakes and entered Namibia from the northwest.

In the 19th century white farmers, mostly Boers, moved farther north, pushing the indigenous Khoisan peoples, who put up a fierce resistance, across the Orange River. Known as Oorlams, these Khoisans adopted Boer customs and spoke a language similar to Afrikaans. Armed with guns, the Oorlams caused instability as more and more came to settle in Namaqualand, and eventually conflict arose between them and the Nama. Under the leadership of Jonker Afrikaner, the Oorlams used their superior weapons to take control of the best grazing land. In the 1830s, Jonker Afrikaner concluded an agreement with the Nama chief Oaseb whereby the Oorlams would protect the central grasslands of Namibia from the Herero who were then pushing south. Eventually, warfare over land control between the Herero and the Oorlams, as well as between the two of them and the Damara, who were the original inhabitants of the area, broke out. The Damara were displaced by the fighting and many were killed.

6.1.2 – Europeans in Namibia

The first European to set foot on Namibian soil was the Portuguese Diogo Cão, in 1485 during an exploratory mission along the west coast of Africa. The next European to visit Namibia was also a Portuguese, Bartholomeu Dias, who stopped there on his way to round the Cape of Good Hope. However, as the inhospitable Namib Desert constituted a formidable barrier, neither of the Portuguese explorers went far inland.

In 1793, the Dutch authority in the Cape decided to take control of Walvis Bay, since it was the only good deep-water harbor along the Skeleton Coast. When the United Kingdom took control of the Cape Colony in 1797, they also took over Walvis Bay. But white settlement in the area was limited, and neither the Dutch nor the British penetrated far into the country. One of the first European groups to show interest in Namibia were the missionaries. In 1805 the London Missionary Society began working in Namibia, moving north from the Cape Colony. In 1811 they founded the town Bethanie in southern Namibia, where they built a church, which today is Namibia’s oldest building.

In the 1840s the German Rhenish Mission Society started working in Namibia and cooperating with the London Missionary Society. It was not until the 19th century, when European powers sought to carve up the African continent between them in the so-called Scramble for Africa, that Europeans—predominately Germany and Great Britain— became interested in Namibia. The first territorial claim on a part of Namibia came when Britain occupied Walvis Bay, confirming the settlement of 1797, and permitted the Cape Colony to annex it in 1878. The annexation was an attempt to forestall German ambitions in the area, and it also guaranteed control of the good deep water harbor on the way to the Cape Colony and other British colonies on Africa’s east coast. Believing that Britain was soon about to declare the whole area a protectorate, the German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck claimed it in 1884, thereby establishing German South-West Africa as a colony.

6.2 – Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe was the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe (13th–15th c.); it flourished as an international gold and ivory trade center and its architecturally unique ruins remain among the oldest and largest structures in Southern Africa.

6.2.1 – Introduction

Great Zimbabwe is a ruined city in the southeastern hills of today’s Zimbabwe. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe during the country’s Late Iron Age. Construction on the monument began in the 11th century and continued until the 15th century. The exact identity of the Great Zimbabwe builders is at present unknown. Local traditions recorded in the 18th and 19th centuries assert that the stoneworks were constructed by the early Lemba. However, the most popular modern archaeological theory is that the edifices were erected by the ancestral Shona.

6.2.2 – Origins and Growth

Construction of the stone buildings started in the 11th century and continued for over 300 years. The ruins at Great Zimbabwe are some of the oldest and largest structures in Southern Africa; they are the second oldest after nearby Mapungubwe in South Africa. The most formidable edifice, commonly referred to as the Great Enclosure, makes it the largest ancient structure south of the Sahara Desert. David Beach believes that the city and its state, the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, flourished from 1200 to 1500, although a somewhat earlier date for its demise is implied by a description transmitted in the early 1500s to João de Barros. Its growth has been linked to the decline of Mapungubwe from around 1300, due to climatic change or the greater availability of gold in the hinterland of Great Zimbabwe. At its peak, estimates are that Great Zimbabwe had as many as 18,000 inhabitants. The ruins that survive are built entirely of stone, and they span 730 ha (1,800 acres).

6.2.3 – Economy

A tower of Great Zimbabwe: Great Zimbabwe is notable for its advanced masonry techniques. The ruins form three distinct architectural groups. They are known as the Hill Complex, the Valley Complex and the Great Enclosure. The Hill Complex is the oldest, and was occupied from the 9th to 13th centuries. The Great Enclosure was occupied from the 13th to 15th centuries, and the Valley Complex from the 14th to 16th centuries.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Great Zimbabwe became a center for trading, with a trade network linked to Kilwa Kisiwani (the historic center of the Kilwa Sultanate; off the southern coast of present-day Tanzania in eastern Africa) and extending as far as China. This international trade was mainly in gold and ivory. Some estimates indicate that more than 20 million ounces of gold were extracted from the ground. That international commerce was in addition to the local agricultural trade, in which cattle were especially important. The large cattle herd that supplied the city moved seasonally and was managed by the court. Archaeological evidence also suggests a high degree of social stratification, with poorer residents living outside of the city. Chinese pottery shards, coins from Arabia, glass beads, and other non-local items have been excavated. Despite these strong international trade links, there is no evidence to suggest exchange of architectural concepts between Great Zimbabwe and other centers such as Kilwa Kisiwani.

6.2.4 – Kingdom of Zimbabwe

The Kingdom of Zimbabwe, of which Great Zimbabwe was the capital, existed between circa 1220 and 1450 in modern-day Zimbabwe.
Although it was formally established during the medieval period, archaeological excavations suggest that state formation here was considerably more ancient. In the early 11th century, people from the Kingdom of Mapungubwe in Southern Africa are believed to have settled on the Zimbabwe plateau. There, they would establish the Kingdom of Zimbabwe around 1220. Sixteenth-century records left by the explorer João de Barros indicate that Great Zimbabwe appears to have still been inhabited as recently as the early 1500s.

The rulers of Zimbabwe brought artistic and stone masonry traditions from Mapungubwe. The construction of elaborate stone buildings and walls reached its apex in the kingdom. The kingdom taxed other rulers throughout the region. It was composed of over 150 tributaries headquartered in their own minor zimbabwes (stone structures). The Kingdom controlled the ivory and gold trade from the interior to the southeastern coast of Africa. Asian and Arabic goods could be found in abundance. The Great Zimbabwe people mined minerals like gold, copper, and iron. They also kept livestock.

6.2.5 – Decline of the State and the City

Causes suggested for the decline and ultimate abandonment of the city of Great Zimbabwe have included a decline in trade compared to sites further north, the exhaustion of the gold mines, political instability, and famine and water shortages induced by climatic change. Around 1430, prince Nyatsimba Mutota from Great Zimbabwe traveled north in search of salt among the Shona-Tavara. He defeated the Tonga and Tavara with his army and established his dynasty at Chitakochangonya Hill. The land he conquered would become the Kingdom of Mutapa. Within a generation, Mutapa eclipsed Great Zimbabwe as the economic and political power in Zimbabwe. By 1450, the capital and most of the kingdom had been abandoned.

The end of the kingdom resulted in a fragmentation of proto-Shona power. Two bases emerged along a north-south axis. In the north, the Kingdom of Mutapa carried on and even improved upon Zimbabwe’s administrative structure. It did not carry on the stone masonry tradition to the extent of its predecessor. In the south, the Kingdom of Butua was established as a smaller but nearly identical version of Zimbabwe. Both states were eventually absorbed into the largest and most powerful of the Kalanga states, the Rozwi Empire.

6.3 – The Swahili Culture

Swahili culture originated on the Swahili Coast from the mixture of Perso-Arab and Bantu cultures that is credited for creating Swahili as a distinctive East African culture and language.

6.3.1 – Bantu and Swahili Culture

Swahili culture is the culture of the Swahili people inhabiting the Swahili Coast, encompassing today’s Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and Mozambique, as well as the adjacent islands of Zanzibar and Comoros and some parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Malawi. They speak Swahili as their native language, which belongs to the Niger-Congo family. Swahili culture is the product of the history of the coastal part of the African Great Lakes region.

As with the Swahili language, Swahili culture has a Bantu core and has also borrowed from foreign influences. Around 3,000 years ago, speakers of the proto-Bantu language group began a millennia-long series of migrations eastward from their homeland between West Africa and Central Africa, at the border of eastern Nigeria and Cameroon. This Bantu expansion first introduced Bantu peoples to central, southern, and southeastern Africa, regions they had previously been absent from. The Swahili people are mainly united under the mother tongue of Kiswahili, a Bantu language. This also extends to Arab, Persian, and other migrants who reached the coast around the 7th and 8th centuries, providing considerable cultural infusion and numerous loan words from Arabic and Persian. However, archaeologist Felix Chami notes the presence of Bantu settlements straddling the Southeast African coast as early as the beginning of the 1st millennium. They evolved gradually from the 6th century onward to accommodate for an increase in trade (mainly with Arab merchants), population growth, and further centralized urbanization, developing into what would later become known as the Swahili city-states.

Swahili Arabic script on a carved wooden door (open) at Lamu in Kenya

British archaeologists assumed during the colonial period that Arab or Persian colonizers brought stone architecture and urban civilization to the Swahili Coast. Today we know that it was local populations that developed the Swahili coast. Swahili architecture exhibits a range of influences and innovations, and diverse forms and histories interlock and overlap to create densely layered structures that cannot be broken down into distinct stylistic parts.

6.3.2 – Swahili City-States

Around the 8th century, the Swahili people began trading with the Arab, Persian, Indian, Chinese, and Southeast Asian peoples—a process known as the Indian Ocean trade. As a consequence of long-distance trading routes crossing the Indian Ocean, the Swahili were influenced by Arabic, Persian, Indian, and Chinese cultures. During the 10th century, several city-states flourished along the Swahili Coast and adjacent islands, including Kilwa, Malindi, Gedi, Pate, Comoros, and Zanzibar. These early Swahili city-states were Muslim, cosmopolitan, and politically independent of one another. They grew in wealth as the Bantu Swahili people served as intermediaries and facilitators to local, Arab, Persian, Indonesian, Malaysian, Indian, and Chinese merchants. They all competed against one another for the best of the Great Lakes region’s trade business, and their chief exports were salt, ebony, gold, ivory, and sandalwood. They were also involved in the slave trade. These city-states began to decline towards the 16th century, mainly as a consequence of the Portuguese advent. Eventually, Swahili trading centers went out of business, and commerce between Africa and Asia on the Indian Ocean collapsed.

6.3.3 – Kilwa Sultanate

The Kilwa Sultanate was a medieval sultanate, centered at Kilwa (an island off modern-day Tanzania), whose authority, at its height, stretched over the entire length of the Swahili Coast. It was founded in the 10th century by Ali ibn al-Hassan Shirazi, a Persian prince of Shiraz. His family ruled the Sultanate until 1277, when it was replaced by the Arab family of Abu Moaheb. The latter was overthrown by a Portuguese invasion in 1505. By 1513, the sultanate was already fragmented into smaller states, many of which became protectorates of the Sultanate of Oman.

Despite its origin as a Persian colony, extensive inter-marriage and conversion of local Bantu inhabitants and later Arab immigration turned the Kilwa Sultanate into a diverse state not ethnically differentiable from the mainland. It is the mixture of Perso-Arab and Bantu cultures in Kilwa that is credited for creating Swahili as a distinctive East African culture and language. Nonetheless, the Muslims of Kilwa (whatever their ethnicity) would often refer to themselves generally as Shirazi or Arabs, and to the unconverted Bantu peoples of the mainland as Zanj or Khaffirs (infidels).

The Kilwa Sultanate was almost wholly dependent on external commerce. Effectively, it was a confederation of urban settlements, and there was little or no agriculture carried on in within the boundaries of the sultanate. Grains (principally millet and rice), meats (cattle and poultry), and other supplies necessary to feed the large city populations had to be purchased from the Bantu peoples of the interior. Kilwan traders from the coast encouraged the development of market towns in the Bantu-dominated highlands of what are now Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. The Kilwan mode of living was as middlemen traders, importing manufactured goods (cloth, etc.) from Arabia and India, which were then swapped in the highland market towns for Bantu-produced agricultural commodities (grain, meats, etc.) for their own subsistence, and precious raw materials (gold, ivory, etc.) that they would export back to Asia. The exception was the coconut palm tree.

6.3.4 – Arts

The diverse history of the Swahili Coast has also resulted in multicultural influences on Swahili arts, including furniture and architecture. The Swahili do not often use designs with images of living beings due to their Muslim heritage. Instead, Swahili designs are primarily geometric. The most typical musical genre of Swahili culture is taarab (or tarabu), sung in the Swahili language. Its melodies and orchestration have Arab and Indian influences, although Western instruments, such as guitars, are sometimes used. Swahili architecture, a term used to designate a whole range of diverse building traditions practiced or once practiced along the eastern and southeastern coasts of Africa, is in many ways an extension of mainland African traditions, although structural elements, such as domes and barrel vaulting, clearly connect to Persian Gulf area and South Asian building traditions as well. Exotic ornament and design elements also connected the architecture of the Swahili coast to other Islamic port cities. In fact, many of the classic mansions and palaces of the Swahili Coast belonged to wealthy merchants and landowners, who played a key role in the mercantile economy of the region.

6.4 – The Kingdoms of Madagascar

Among many fragmented communities that populated Madagascar, the Sakalava, Merina, and Betsimisaraka seized the opportunity to unite disparate groups and establish powerful kingdoms under their rule.

6.4.1 – Diverse Populations and the Rise of Great Kingdoms

Over the past 2,000 years, Madagascar has received waves of settlers of diverse origins, including Austronesian, Bantu, Arab, South Asian, Chinese, and European populations. Centuries of intermarriages created the Malagasy people, who primarily speak Malagasy, an Austronesian language with Bantu, Malay, Arabic, French, and English influences. Most of the genetic makeup of the average Malagasy, however, reflects an almost equal blend of Austronesian and Bantu influences, especially in coastal regions. Other populations often intermixed with the existent population to a more limited degree or have sought to preserve a separate community from the majority Malagasy.

By the European Middle Ages, over a dozen predominant ethnic identities had emerged on the island, typified by rule under a local chieftain. Leaders of some communities, such as the Sakalava, Merina, and Betsimisaraka, seized the opportunity to unite these disparate groups and establish powerful kingdoms under their rule. The kingdoms increased their wealth and power through exchanges with European, Arab, and other seafaring traders, whether they were legitimate vessels or pirates.

6.4.2 – Sakalava

The island’s west clan chiefs began to extend their power through trade with their Indian Ocean neighbors, first with Arab, Persian, and Somali traders who connected Madagascar with East Africa, the Middle East, and India, and later with European slave traders. The wealth created in Madagascar through trade produced a state system ruled by powerful regional monarchs known as the Maroserana. These monarchs adopted the cultural traditions of subjects in their territories and expanded their kingdoms. They took on divine status, and new nobility and artisan classes were created. Madagascar functioned as a contact port for the other Swahili seaport city-states, such as Sofala, Kilwa, Mombasa, and Zanzibar. By the Middle Ages, large chiefdoms began to dominate considerable areas of the island. Among these were the Betsimisaraka alliance of the eastern coast and the Sakalava chiefdoms of the Menabe (centered in what is now the town of Morondava) and of Boina (centered in what is now the provincial capital of Mahajanga). The influence of the Sakalava extended across the area that is now the provinces of Antsiranana, Mahajanga, and Toliara.

According to local tradition, the founders of the Sakalava kingdom were Maroseraña (or Maroseranana, “those who owned many ports”) princes from the Fiherenana (now Toliara). They quickly subdued the neighboring princes, starting with the southern ones, in the Mahafaly area. The true founder of Sakalava dominance was Andriamisara. His son Andriandahifotsy (c. 1610–1658) extended his authority northwards, past the Mangoky River. His two sons, Andriamanetiarivo and Andriamandisoarivo, extended gains further up to the Tsongay region (now Mahajanga). At about that time, the empire started to split, resulting in a southern kingdom (Menabe) and a northern kingdom (Boina). Further splits followed, despite continued extension of the Boina princes’ reach into the extreme north, in Antankarana country.

6.4.3 – Betsmiraka

Like the Sakalava to the west, today’s Betsimisaraka are composed of numerous ethnic sub-groups that formed a confederation in the early 18th century. Through the late 17th century, the various clans of the eastern seaboard were governed by chieftains who typically ruled over one or two villages. Around 1700, the Tsikoa clans began uniting around a series of powerful leaders. Ramanano, the chief of Vatomandry, was elected in 1710 as the leader of the Tsikoa (“those who are steadfast”) and initiated invasions of the northern ports. A northern Betsimisaraka zana-malata (a person of mixed native and European origin) named Ratsimilaho led a resistance to these invasions and successfully united his compatriots around this cause. In 1712, he forced the Tsikoa to flee, and was elected king of all the Betsimisaraka and given a new name, Ramaromanompo (“Lord Served by Many”) at his capital at Foulpointe. He established alliances with the southern Betsimisaraka and the neighboring Bezanozano, extending his authority over these areas by allowing local chiefs to maintain their power while offering tributes of rice, cattle, and slaves. By 1730, he was one of the most powerful kings of Madagascar. By the time of his death in 1754, his moderate and stabilizing rule had provided nearly forty years of unity among the diverse clans within the Betsimisaraka political union. He also allied the Betsimisaraka with the other most powerful kingdom of the time, the Sakalava of the west coast, through marriage with Matave, the only daughter of Iboina king Andrianbaba.

Ratsimilaho’s successors gradually weakened the union, leaving it vulnerable to the growing influence and presence of European and particularly French settlers, slave traders, missionaries, and merchants. The fractured Betsimisaraka kingdom was easily colonized in 1817 by Radama I, king of Merina. The subjugation of the Betsimisaraka in the 19th century left the population relatively impoverished. Under colonization by the French (1896–1960), a focused effort was made to increase access to education and paid employment on French plantations.

Map of Madagascar and surrounding areas, c. 1702–1707

Over the 19th century, a series of Merina monarchs engaged in the process of modernization through close diplomatic ties to Britain that led to the establishment of European-style schools, government institutions, and infrastructure. Christianity, introduced by members of the London Missionary Society, was made the state religion under Queen Ranavalona II and her prime minister, highly influential statesman Rainilaiarivony.

6.4.4 – Merina

The Merina emerged as the politically dominant group in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. Oral history traces the emergence of a united kingdom in the central highlands of Madagascar—a region called Imerina—back to early 16th century king Andriamanelo. By 1824, sovereigns in his line had conquered nearly all of Madagascar, particularly through the military strategy and ambitious political policies of Andrianampoinimerina (c. 1785–1810) and his son Radama I (1792–1828). The kingdom’s contact with British and later French powers led local leaders to build schools and a modern army based on European models.

The Merina oral histories mention several attacks by Sakalava raiders against their villages as early as the 17th century and during the entire 18th century. However, it seems that the term was used generically to design all the nomadic peoples in the sparsely settled territories between the Merina country and the western coast of the island. The Merina king Radama I’s wars with the western coast of the island ended in a fragile peace sealed through his marriage with the daughter of a king of Menabe. Though the Merina were never to annex the two last Sakalava strongholds of Menabe and Boina (Mahajanga), the Sakalava never again posed a threat to the central plateau, which remained under Merina control until the French colonization of the island in 1896.

The Merina kingdom reached the peak of its power in the early 19th century. In a number of military expeditions, large numbers of non-Merina were captured and used for slave labor. By the 1850s, these slaves were replaced by imported slaves from East Africa, mostly of Makoa ethnicity. Until the 1820s, the imported slave labor benefited all classes of Merina society, but in the period of 1825 to 1861, a general impoverishment of small farmers led to the concentration of slave ownership in the hands of the ruling elite. The slave-based economy led to a constant danger of a slave revolt, and for a period in the 1820s all non-Merina males captured in military expeditions were killed rather than enslaved for fear of an armed uprising. There was a brief period of increased prosperity in the late 1870s, as slave import began to pick up again, but it was cut short with the abolishment of slavery under French administration in 1896. Due to the influence of British missionaries, the Merina upper classes converted entirely to Protestantism in the mid-19th century, following the example of their queen, Ranavalona II.

The absolute dominance of the Merina kingdom over all of Madagascar came to an end with the first Franco-Hova War of 1883 to 1885, when a French flying column marched to the capital, Antananarivo, taking the city’s defenders by surprise. In 1896, the French Parliament voted to annex Madagascar, forming the colony of French Madagascar in 1897.

Provided by Boundless, published by Lumen Learning under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.



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