3.3 Africa


Year(s) Event(s)
7500 – 2500 BCE African Origins
2000 – 900 BCE The Nubian Kingdom
731 – 663 BCE Kushite Rule of Egypt
c. 500 BCE – 330 CE Meroitic Kush
c. 500 BCE – 500 CE Nok Culture
200 – 100 BCE East African Oceanic Trade
c. 200 – 400 CE Aksumite Kingdom
c. 400 – 1180 CE Ghana
c.  500 – 600 CE Christianization
c. 900 – 1500 CE Zimbabwe Civilization
c. 1100 – 1500 CE Kanuri Empire and Islam
c. 1100 – 1897 CE Benin State
1230 -1450 CE Empire of Mali
1300s CE Kongo Kingdom Founded
1450 – 1600 CE Songhai Empire

Studying Africa

Scholars of Africa, particularly those working in the last two generations, have employed all sorts of methods to describe the ancient African past. They have necessarily been on the forefront of methodological innovation because of the limited availability of written primary sources, meaning sources recorded by ancient Africans themselves. Therefore, scholars have turned to a wide range of materials to complement the available written records. Before about 1800 CE, many African societies kept their records orally, as opposed to in written form. These societies have rich, complex histories that some past historians, relying primarily on written records, ignored when they studied the African continent.

The professionalization of the study of history in the West (meaning primarily in Europe and the United States), which entailed the transition from writing about the past out of personal interest to writing about the past as a profession with established methodologies, mainly occurred in the 1800s. European and American views of Africans during that era were generally derogatory and prejudiced. These nineteenth century professional scholars tended to portray Africans as primitive, meaning unchanged from time immemorial. Western methodologies, with their reliance on written sources, backed up European views of Africans as unchanged. Two general results of the nineteenth century scholarship in the West were the assumptions that Africa, which was commonly referred to as “the dark continent,” lacked a history prior to European arrival on the continent and that any urban developments or complex state structures in Africa were the achievements of outsiders. For example, as you will see in this chapter, there were nineteenth century European scholars who credited people from Yemen with building the Axum trading empire and attributed the archaeological findings at Great Zimbabwe to Phoenicians. Especially since the 1960s, there has been a strong movement to reclaim these (and other) developments as African. As part of this effort, scholars employ new methodologies, including the study of oral sources, archaeology, climate change, linguistics (the study of languages), and paleoarchaobotany (the study of ancient plant materials), to gain more accurate, multi-faceted information about the African past.

Perhaps most contested and also potentially the most revealing are the available oral sources. Many ancient African societies had special people tasked with orally transmitting official histories and preserved traditions. For example, griots in parts of West Africa memorized chronologies, cultural traditions, and legal precedence to advise kings and state leaders. Griots also traveled and performed theater and praise-songs throughout empires to spread cultural values and communicate news from governments. Griots held honored places in their societies, reflecting their importance to both rulers and people’s everyday lives. Locally produced proverbs and oral teachings also played vital roles in many ancient African societies. Additionally, African communities honored older generations for their knowledge of the past, leading Amadou Hampate Ba, a famous author from Mali, to write, “In Africa, when an old man dies, it’s a library burning.”[1] These examples are just some of the ways that ancient peoples used oral traditions. Since the 1960s, scholars of Africa have recognized the importance of studying these oral sources as they convey a great deal of information about the past. Using oral sources is not without its challenges, but their inclusion has broadened the scholarly understanding of African societies.

Especially due to nineteenth-century tendencies to portray Africans as inferior, current scholars of Africa have a whole host of stereotypes to correct. One of the main stereotypes they encounter is the common perception that African societies are timeless, that they have not changed in hundreds or thousands of years. Movies, television shows, and other media often show us an Africa that is rural, a landscape dominated by wild animals, and a continent isolated from the rest of the modern world. However, these images do not accurately represent the continent in either our present time or the past. In 2010, one-third of Africa’s population lived in cities, and it is likely that one-half of Africa’s population will be urban dwelling by 2030.[2] Lagos (Nigeria) is Africa’s largest city south of the Sahara Desert, with population experts estimating that it is home to 21 million people. With this estimate, Lagos is on a par size-wise with cities like Beijing, Cairo, and Mexico City. Urbanization on this scale is a fairly recent phenomena.

Even if we do not intend it to, some of the language that we use on an everyday basis can perpetuate assumptions that Africa is isolated or behind the rest of the world. One example of a potentially problematic term is “tribe.” As African historian Christopher Ehret has pointed out, the use of “tribe” in reference to Africans often carries the underlying judgement that the people who are “tribal” are exotic, wild, backwards, and potentially dangerous. In common usage, “tribesmen” are not modern citizens of nation-states, but instead remnants of the past. To highlight the discriminatory use of the term, Ehret asks us to consider why African wars are often referred to as “tribal” wars instead of as the civil wars they actually are, and, …Why is Shaka, the famous nineteenth-century ruler, called the king of the Zulu “tribe” when he was actually the king of a centralized and military powerful state? Why are Africans in “traditional” dress said to be engaging in “tribal” dancing, when Europeans garbed similarly in the clothes of an earlier time are said to be performing “folk” dances?[3]

Ehret makes the case that the way that we commonly use “tribe” perpetuates a lot of the negative stereotypes Europeans had of Africa in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, many historians question the idea that African “tribes” even existed prior to European colonization of the continent one hundred and fifty years ago. Instead, scholars discuss much more fluid, adaptive, or inclusive ethnic identities and suggest that nineteenth century Europeans tried to harden divisions and create “tribes” to suit their own administrative purposes. Dismissing Africans as “tribal” also allowed European to legitimize the  Transatlantic Slave Trade (in the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries) and colonization of the continent (in the nineteenth century). Today, people often fall back on “tribe” and “tribal” instead of trying to understand the complexities of African politics and social organization.

There are a handful of other terms that modern scholars scrutinize to show that they are based on similar prejudices. Two such terms are “stateless society” and “bushmen.” Many written sources from the nineteenth century produced by Europeans did not recognize the existence of states in Africa that had more democratic, less centralized, or less hierarchical leadership structures. These written sources assumed that all states had kings or other centralized authority figures. They denied the existence of states organized in other ways. Some African societies were centralized under the rule of monarchs, but others used, for example, councils of elders, had more decentralized, egalitarian systems, or relied on age-sets to mobilize labor and manage government affairs. These latter examples had functioning governmental structures, but nineteenth century Europeans usually did not recognize these alternative forms of state organization and claimed that Africans were incapable of ruling themselves without European intervention. The use of the phrase “stateless society” was one way that Europeans claimed to be more advanced and thus destined to colonize Africa in the nineteenth century.

According to this same nineteenth-century ideology, the “bushmen” and “pygmies” of Africa were hopelessly behind and isolated from modern times. Scholars now consider ”bushmen” and “pygmy” to be derogatory when used in reference to Africans because of the history of the terms. Over the past two hundred years, the terms have been coupled with assumptions of a lack of historical development, isolationism, and a lack of participation in modern economies. These assumptions do not reflect the reality of hunter-gathering societies. Instead, scholars have shown that hunter-gathering societies have long been in regular contact with pastoralists and people living in agriculturally-based societies in Africa. Most people, who in the past would have been labeled bushmen or pygmies, prefer to be referred to by their linguistic or ethnic identities in order to avoid the stigmas attached to these terms and to avoid being lumped in with people with whom they share very little. If we understand how words like tribe, stateless societies, and bushmen have been used in the past, then we can avoid perpetuating some of the problematic stereotypes about Africa.

Overall, keep in mind that Africa has been a continent of innovation and change since the first behaviorally modern humans emerged there between 200,000 and 100,000

Key Takeaways

  • Consider what we, as historians, can really know about ancient Africans without written documentation. How do we build the story of Africa?


Geography and Environment, Civilization’s Beginnings

Since information readily available in the U.S. tends to focus on issues like drought, famine, and war, Americans have many common misconceptions about Africa. In addition to associating Africa with extreme hardships, a plethora of western-made TV shows focus on wildlife and the rainforests. However, these popular images don’t give an accurate portrayal of the everyday experiences of most Africans or tell us much about the history of the continent.

One of the main points glossed over by these popular images is that the African continent is large and diverse. Africa is the second largest continent in the world. Today, it has over 50 independent countries. You can also find just about every imaginable environment, from savannahs, rainforests, and deserts, to glaciers and snow-capped mountains in Africa. Its over 1,000 languages (or about one-third of the world’s languages) also demonstrate the continent’s diversity.[4] Africa is home to more than a billion people, who are living, working, and raising their families.

Historically, Africans faced significant environmental challenges that limited population growth. There are exceptions, but overall, African soils are poor and rainfall has been unpredictable. Soils are comparatively unfertile, due in part to the geologic age of the continent. Also, the more temperate climates in a number of regions slows the decomposition of organic materials in the soil, meaning that the soil in many regions has few minerals and nutrients. The areas that are exceptions, such as the highlands of Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Burundi, have seen much higher population concentrations. Rainfall also tends to be concentrated in just two or three months a year, while disease has been yet another challenge.

Considering the past 5,000 years of African history, malaria, yellow fever, and trypanosomiasis (also known as sleeping sickness) have made the biggest impacts on population growth and settlement patterns. Even today, all three diseases affect the continent. Both malaria and yellow fever are spread to people by mosquitos. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), despite preventative measures and great efforts to extend the availability of treatments, malaria was responsible for almost 600,000 deaths in 2013. Children in Africa account for most of the fatalities, and the WHO estimates that currently one African child dies from malaria every minute of every day.[5] Those who have suffered through malaria multiple times as adults will attest that malaria, with the exception of its most virulent strains like plasmodium falciparum, is usually more of a nuisance than an emergency for healthy adults. It causes symptoms like headaches, fever, and chills. Even though it does not usually constitute a medical emergency for adults, malaria does decrease productivity and has significant treatment costs. On the other hand, yellow fever has a high mortality rate—about 50%—even amongst healthy adult populations.[6] While malaria and yellow fever have historically taken the largest toll on human populations, one of the main effects of trypanosomiasis (or sleeping sickness) has been to limit the practicality of keeping certain types of livestock in Africa. Horses and many breeds of cattle are especially susceptible to trypanosomiasis, which is spread by the tsetse fly and can lead to either chronic illness, characterized by weight loss, fever, anemia, cardiac lesions, and other symptoms in animals, or to a more immediate death. Until the past fifty years or so, in many parts of the continent, these noteworthy challenges with disease, alongside the low fertility of the soils and the unpredictable rainfalls, were significant constraints on human population growth. Environmental challenges and disease also affected settlement patterns as, for example, people avoided more forested and wetter areas because of the prevalence of mosquitoes. Additionally, Africans continuously adapted their herding and farming techniques to overcome these challenges. From about 7500 – 2500 BCE, Africa experienced a period called the Wet Holocene period in which much of Africa, particularly the South, had quite a bit of precipitation.  This allowed for population growth as food became readily available and sustainable.  From about 2500 BCE until 1000 BCE, a drying out period turned the Sahara into a desert.  This did not cut off African peoples, but it did cause them to become adaptive.

Nubia: The Kingdoms of Kerma and Kush

“In Search of Nubia to Nubian Rulers.” Nubia. 2009. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=43764&loid=610421. 34:41.

Around 2000 BCE, a people settled and created a civilization south of Egypt along the Nile River centered at Kerma. The Egyptians called these people the Kush, though the name Nubia came into usage during the time of the Romans. Even the name Kerma is not of Nubian or Kushite origin, being a name assigned by archeologists due to the neighboring town of the same name near the archeological site. The Kushite kingdom was known to the Egyptians and others of the ancient world for their vast gold resources.

Nubia is notable for its long-term, dynamic relationship with ancient Egypt. Just as importantly, Nubia was also the site of an early civilization. The kingdoms of Kerma (c. 2400 BCE to 1500 BCE) and Kush (c. 1000 BCE to 300 CE) emerged along the Nile River. These kingdoms prospered especially due to their productive agriculture and the region’s copious natural resources. At certain points, both Kerma and Kush were strong enough to successfully invade Egypt. These kingdoms in Nubia also developed their own religious and cultural traditions, including a written script, Meroitic. While the people of this region, known collectively as Nubians, borrowed heavily from the Egyptians, Nubians also had distinctive practices that set their civilization apart from that of their northern neighbors.

Map 2.9 | A map of ancient Nubia Author: Mark Dingemanse and Corey Parson Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY 2.5

Scholars generally link the origins of ancient Kerma (in present-day Sudan) back to the desiccation of the Sahara Desert and the rise of dynastic Egypt. Similarly to ancient Egypt, the drying out of the region encouraged people to move closer to the Nile River in the years between 5,000 and 4,000 BCE. Rock paintings, showing cattle in areas that have been desert for thousands of years, attest to the environmental changes in Nubia and also the development of a cattle culture that dates back to at least the fourth millennium BCE. Just as in Egypt, the desiccation of the Sahara desert drew together people from all directions. As people settled closer to the Nile River in Nubia, they brought their cattle, their agricultural traditions, and their languages, building settlements with higher population densities. Additionally, Egyptian elites desired ivory, animal skins, incense, and other luxury goods prompting trade between Nubia and Egypt that pre-dated the unification of Egypt. With increased demand for luxury goods as social stratification grew, the Egyptians even ran military forays into Nubia. After unification, the Egyptians continued to invade Nubia to trade and raid for slaves and cattle. Likely, Nubian desires to control trade and protect themselves from Egyptian raids further compelled state formation in Nubia. Without Nubian records from the third millennium BCE, it is difficult to identify additional reasons why the state arose. However, archeological evidence does clearly indicate that by about 2400 BCE, Nubians had formed the Kingdom of Kerma between the third and fourth cataracts of the Nile River.


Kerma (c. 2400 BCE to c. 1500 BCE)

Kerma endured in Upper Nubia for almost a thousand years. The kingdom is named after its capital city at Kerma at the third cataract, but excavations at other sites (where similar pottery styles and burial sites have been found) suggest that at its height Kerma’s reach may have extended more than 200 miles southward past the fifth cataract of the Nile River. So far, archaeological evidence indicates that, with the exception of the capital and perhaps one or two other cities, most of the people in Kerma lived in smaller villages. They grew crops like barley, and kept goats, sheep, and cattle, sending tribute to their capital. The people of Kerma also developed industries, especially in mining, metalworking, and pottery. Kerma was linked inter-regionally through trade to its tributary villages, to dynastic Egypt, and to sub-Saharan Africa. Egyptian pharaohs and elites wanted the gold, copper, slaves, ivory, exotic animals, and more that they obtained from Kerma.

The people of Kerma also made use of their location on the Nile and proximity to Egypt as they imported textiles, jewelry, and other manufactured goods. Presumably, one reason that Nubian leaders built their ancient capital at Kerma was to oversee river trade. At the impassable cataract, boat owners unloaded their cargo and took it overland past the shallows and rocks before again proceeding on the water. This location at the cataract gave the leaders at Kerma the chance to tax, divert, and register goods being transported between Kerma and Egypt.

Figure 2.13 | The Western Deffufa at Kerma Author: Walter Callens Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY 2.0

Agricultural surpluses and other tributary payments supported the rulers and elites of the capital. Archaeologists have shown that the capital had defenses, including ditches, ramparts, and massive walls with towers. There were also palaces within the city and on its outskirts. However, the most famous structure is the Western Deffufa made of mud-bricks, which likely served as a temple. Two other deffufa, large mud-brick structures with spaces for rituals on top, have been at least partially excavated within the vicinity of Kerma. Another notable archaeological find is the Eastern Cemetery, which lies a couple of miles to the east of the city. It served as the burial site for Kerma’s rulers for almost a thousand years and contains over 30,000 tombs. Some of the tombs were covered with large mounds. Demonstrating the cattle culture of the region, dozens of cattle skulls encircle a number of the tombs. Tombs also contain the remains of human sacrifices and other symbols of wealth and status, like jewelry made of gold and silver. The largest tomb found to date is 300 feet in diameter and covered with black granite, white quartz pebbles, and a marble top. Its interior burial suite contains semi-precious stones, bronze weapons, and lavish furniture. In the corridor leading into the underground burial site, archaeologists unearthed the remains of horses, dogs, and about 400 human sacrificial victims. The cattle skulls, mounds, and the remains of human sacrifices have led scholars to suggest that the Kerma elite had their own styles for monumental structures like the Western Deffufa and their tombs, even though they sometimes employed Egyptian artisans to complete the construction of these grand projects.

It appears that Kerma was strongest when neighboring Egypt was weak. As a case in point, during Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period, Kerma, at the height of its power, successfully invaded parts of Upper Egypt and established diplomatic relations with the occupying Hyksos. Once reunified during the New Kingdom, Egypt retaliated by conquering Kerma to the fourth cataract. Then, Egypt occupied Kerma for the next 500 years. During the Egyptian occupation, the elite classes of Kerma adopted many elements of Egyptian culture, including Egyptian gods, styles of dress, Hieroglyphics, and the Egyptian language. However, scholars believe that the Nubian masses retained their own distinctive identity with their local language and customs.

The Meroitic Kingdom of Kush

During the Third Intermediate Period of Egypt (after the New Kingdom), Egyptian fighting over power led to the assumption of pharaonic duties by foreigners for the first time. The Kushites, who also worshipped the sun god Amun, tried to reunite the ancient domain of Amun by combining Egypt with Nubia. The Kushites ruled as Egypt’s 25th Dynasty. Unlike earlier Kushite kingdoms, we have an extensive record of the Kushite pharaohs much of which remains in temples and other monumental sites.


“Nubia and the Nile River.” Nubia and the Mysteries of Kush. 2001. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=39530&loid=59587. 2:35.


“Ancient Capital of Kush.” Nubia and the Mysteries of Kush. 2001. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=39530&loid=59593. 1:55.

The Kush king Piye conquered and ruled Egypt from Napata (in Nubia), and Thebes (in Egypt). Piye declared himself king of Egypt and of all lands and had this engraved on a stele erected in the Temple of Amun of Gebel Barkal. A monument associated with his rule reflects the god Amun handing king Piye the crown of Egypt and Kush. Assyrian invasions destabilized the Nubian rulers in Thebes, causing the last pharaoh of the Ethiopian Dynasty to flee to Napata. Then, once strengthened, the Egyptians pushed back. The Egyptian army sacked Napata in 593 BCE and, in response, the Nubian rulers moved their capital farther south to Meroe.  At this southern location, they further developed their civilization, which lasted until the fourth century CE.



With the new capital at Meroe, a location with well-watered farmland and some distance between it and Egypt, the Kingdom of Kush flourished. Meroe got more rainfall than Napata and was not as dependent on the Nile floods. Nubians were able to extend the areas under cultivation and grow a wider variety of crops, like cotton, sorghum, and millet. They were also able to easily graze their livestock and, as a result, during this period cattle became even more important as a symbol of their culture and wealth.


The 25th Dynasty reflects a renewal of New Kingdom artwork, perhaps in an effort force Egyptians to accept foreign rule. The 25th Dynasty ruled for almost a century and led to a revival of Egyptian art and religion as well. After moving the capital to Meroe, the culture of Kush showed more independence from Egypt though. Nubians developed their own writing system during the Meroitic period, but this is still not fully understood. A lot of our documentation of the period comes from Grecians and Romans with whom Kush had contact.


“Kushite Pyramid and Chapel Ruins to Culture and Language.” . 2001. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=39530&loid=610422. 13:18.



Figure 2.14 | Pyramids at Meroe Author: B. N. Chagny Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 1.0

Particularly as Egypt’s power declined, the people of Kush put more emphasis on their own deities and pushed Egyptian gods to the background. For example, temples devoted to a Nubian war god, Apedamak, “the Lion of the South,” received more support and even used live lions for rituals. Gold had long been mined in the region and remained important while the people of Kush continued to develop additional industries. The area was rich in iron ore and the hardwoods used to make charcoal, which encouraged the growth of a booming iron industry. They made iron weapons and tools that they used for defense and to increase their crop yields. They were able to trade their agricultural surpluses, iron, cattle, and exotic things like elephants from sub-Saharan Africa, with Egypt, Greece, Rome, and India, bringing great wealth and prestige to Meroe. Also, the rulers of Meroe commissioned pyramids but had them built in a local style. Their pyramids were smaller and had a unique shape. Kush burial practices were different than those used in dynastic Egypt, as corpses were not always mummified and were buried in the fetal position. Finally, a new locally-created written script, Meroitic, replaced the use of Egyptian Hieroglyphics by 300 BCE. Modern scholars have not yet translated Meroitic, and students of their culture will surely learn even more about the Kingdom of Kush once scholars have done so. As for now, we know that very productive agriculture, local rituals and burial practices, the growth of industries, social stratification facilitated by Meroe’s wealth and extensive trade networks, and the written script Meroitic, were some of the distinctive elements of the civilization at Kush.

While the Greeks and Romans occasionally sent raiding parties into Nubia, for a while, Meroe’s southern location helped isolate it from conquest. Legends also emphasize the strength of Meroe’s army and the physical prowess of its soldiers. Environmental changes, internal rivalries, and the rise of Axum (a new state to the East) likely all contributed to the fairly abrupt collapse of Meroe in the fourth century CE.

Key Questions

  • Consider the longevity of the Meroitic kingdom of Kush. What tactics did they practice that allowed their kingdom to survive for so many centuries? Who were their trading partners, what were their products, and how did this network allow them to flourish even in geographic isolation?

By 330 BCE, the Nubians had been forced to isolate themselves above the lower cataracts of the Nile by the aggressive threats of the Persians and the Assyrians. Despite the isolation, Meroe was a thriving city, built on a network of trading routes throughout Africa and beyond, and known for its iron smelting. In the fourth century CE, the empire was defeated by Nuba peoples from the upper Nile.


“Africa’s Ancient Traders.” Great Zimbabwe. 2009. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=43766&loid=114596. 1:54.

There is evidence of a prolific oceanic trade in the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. The Meroitic kingdom acted as the middleman for various goods including animal skins, ebony, ivory, gold, perfumes, oils, and slaves. The Kushites continued this trade with the Hellenistic world, Arabia and even India. Cotton also appears to be an early export. By the early centuries of the Common Era, Aksum controlled trade and exported items such as ivory, frankincense, spices, gold, slaves and other items.


“Decline of the Merotic Empire.” Sudan: Black Kingdoms of the Nile. 1997. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=10435&loid=8203. 3:33.

Aksum and Ethiopia


Figure 9.4 | The Queen of Sheba | The Queen of Sheba as illustrated by Conrad Kyeser in the early fifteenth century. Author: Conrad Kyeser Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

Around 330 CE, the kingdom of Aksum eliminated the Kushite Empire. The peoples of Aksum were made up of Africans and Yemenites from southern Arabia. This mixing occurred sometime around 500 BCE when Yemenite Arabians moved onto the Ethiopian plateau. Greek and Roman works tell us of the kingdom of Aksum as early as the first century CE. Aksum was a major provider of ivory and elephants. Due to its major port, it became an important, and thriving, center of trade.


Figure 9.5 | The Building that Allegedly Houses the Ark of the Covenant | It is part of the Church of Our Lady of Zion, built in the fifth or sixth entury CE in Aksum, Ethiopia. Author: Adam Cohn Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Aksum, which was at its most powerful in the fourth through sixth centuries CE, was located in what are today Ethiopia, Eritrea, and parts of Sudan. At its high point, Aksum extended its influence beyond Africa into parts of the southern Arabian Peninsula as shown on the map below. Aksum was a great trading empire, with its own coinage, its own language, and its own distinctive Christian church. If you are familiar with accounts of the Queen of Sheba, you know pieces of the story that Ethiopians use to explain the origins of the Ethiopian Solomonic Dynasty and their possession of the Ark of the Covenant.


“Journey to Aksum.” The Queen of Sheba. 2005. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=44319&loid=122375. 3:23.

Unlike some other regions in Africa, Ethiopia had very fertile, volcanic soils that supported large populations. Climatic variation found at the different elevations throughout Ethiopia also encouraged agricultural diversification and trade. Around 7000 BCE, there was population growth in the region that corresponded with the Agricultural Revolution. While some domesticated animals and crops were introduced from Northeast Africa and the Fertile Crescent, Ethiopians domesticated other crops themselves. Most notably, Ethiopians domesticated teff, a grass, and nsete, known as the “false banana,” that they ground to make bread and porridge. We also have Ethiopians to thank for coffee! Since the Neolithic Revolution, Ethiopia stands out for its agricultural productivity and innovation, both of which sustained large populations in the region.


“Northern Ethiopia: Aksum.” A Fresh Look at Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. 2010. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=41988&loid=92138. 2:54.

The Kebra Nagast (“The Glory of Kings”), a 700 year old text that is sacred for Ethiopian Christians and Rastafarians, traces the origins of the Ethiopian royal family back to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Jerusalem. The Kebra Nagast identifies the Queen of Sheba as an Ethiopian ruler known locally as Queen Mekeda. According to the text, in approximately 950 BCE, the newly enthroned Queen Mekeda traveled to study with Jerusalem’s well-known king, King Solomon. Queen Mekeda wanted a capable mentor for leadership advice and spiritual guidance. Charmed by her, King Solomon played these roles and Queen Mekeda, flattered by his attentions, was a hardworking tutee who eventually converted to Judaism. As their lessons continued, King Solomon planned the seduction of Queen Mekeda, which, as described in the text, occurred when Solomon tricked and cornered her. Their sexual union produced a child, Menelik I, to whom Queen Mekeda gave birth on her journey home to Ethiopia.

As time passed, King Solomon remained haunted by a dream that Menelik was his rightful successor and was delighted when his son, as an adult, returned to Jerusalem. According to the Kebra Nagast, King Solomon intended for Menelik to follow him as the next king of Jerusalem, but Menelik refused and instead returned to Ethiopia. In an unexpected twist, when leaving Jerusalem, part of Menelik’s entourage stole the Ark of the Covenant, which held the Ten Commandments. When King Solomon dis- covered the theft, he sent soldiers to recapture the Ark of the Covenant. However according to the Kebra Nagast, God helped Menelik and his men evade capture by lifting them up over the Red Sea. In the end, Menelik and the Ark of the Covenant made it safely to Ethiopia. For Ethiopian Christians, the Kebra Nagast partially explains the formation of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (the Tawahedo Church). Through today, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims possession of the Ark of the Covenant, which it says is housed in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Aksum, Ethiopia.

According to the Kebra Nagast, early Ethiopian rulers were descendants of King Solomon through Menelik I. More than two thousand years after King Solomon’s rule, a thirteenth century Ethiopian king, Yekuno Amlak (r. 1270 – 1285 CE), reclaimed this legacy by tracing his origins back to King Solomon and Queen Mekeda. He founded what became known as the Solomonic Dynasty, which ruled Ethiopia for about 500 years from 1270 to 1769 CE. Members of Ethiopia’s royal family continued to claim descent from King Solomon up through the last Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, who was overthrown in 1974. Therefore, the link back to King Solomon and Queen Mekeda is part of Ethiopian religious beliefs and has also legitimized claims to political power.

Figure 9.6 | The Temple at Yeha, Located in Northern Ethiopia | Yeha was likely the first capital of the Kingdom of Da’amat. Author: User “JialiangGao” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

From the era of the rule of Queen Mekeda in about the tenth century BCE and Yekuno Amlak’s revival of the Solomonic Dynasty in the thirteenth century CE, the largest kingdoms in Ethiopia were Da’amat and Aksum. The Kingdom of Da’amat was the first to emerge in northern Ethiopia in about the tenth century BCE. In the 1960s and 1970s, archaeologists excavating the Kingdom of Da’amat unearthed evidence of the region’s role in trade and its connections to Southern Arabia. Archeological finds show that, by the seventh century BCE, ivory, tortoiseshell, rhino horn, gold, silver, and slaves were brought from interior regions of Africa and traded through Da’amat for imported cloth, tools, metals, and jewelry. Inscriptions, imagery, architectural styles, and even overlaps in historical traditions (such as those associated with the Queen of Sheba) also suggest close connections between the Kingdom of Da’amat and Saba (Yemen) in Southern Arabia. For example, the Kingdom of Da’amat used religious symbols in its monumental architecture, including the disc and crescent, also found in Southern Arabia. The oldest standing building in Ethiopia, the Temple at Yeha (c. 700 BCE), had an altar with these symbols. Up until several decades ago, some scholars used evidence of these connections to argue that people from Saba founded the civilization at Da’amat. Now, in line with the trend to reclaim African civilizations, very vocal scholars push us to acknowledge the African origins of the Kingdom of Da’amat and view it as a precursor to the trading empire of Aksum.

The Kingdom of Da’amat weakened in the fourth century BCE as Red Sea trade became more important than some of the previous northern overland routes. It gave way to the state of Aksum, with its important cities of Adulis and Aksum. Adulis, positioned on the coast, rose in prominence and grew wealthy. It served as a safe harbor for ships traveling from Southeast Asia. The growing capital city in the interior, Aksum, was a stopover point for land-based trade routes into the Sudan and especially Sub-Saharan Africa. Ivory, slaves, tools, spices, gold, silver jewelry, copper, and iron were eventually traded through the capital city of Aksum to the coast. The state of Aksum began minting its own gold and silver coins in the third century CE, demonstrating how important long-distance trade was to its economy.

Figure 9.7 | The Church of Debre Damo | In the sixth century CE, Christians exiled due to doctrinal diputes sought refuge in Ethiopia. Once there, they founded the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Subsequently, one group of Orthodox monks built a monastery at Debre Damo. Debre Damo is located on an isolated mountain top in northern Ethiopia. To this day, it is accessible only by rope ladder and no women (or female animals) are allowed up the rope. Author: User “Giustino” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 2.0

In addition to its role in inter-regional trade, Aksum was also known for its early conversion to Christianity. Ethiopian tradition traces the establishment of Christianity in the region back to two shipwrecked Syrians. One of the Syrians, Frumentius, was particularly influential because he became the first bishop of Ethiopia in 303 CE and guided the king of Aksum, King Ezana (r. 325 – 350 CE), in his conversion to Christianity. Some of the coins minted in Aksum actually attest to King Ezana’s conversion as the coins from the first half of Ezana’s reign have the disc and crescent symbols of earlier Ethiopian rulers, while coins from the later decades of Ezana’s reign have a Christian cross. As bishop, Frumentius also encouraged Christian merchants to settle in Aksum. Later, under Alexandrian influence, the Ethiopian church adhered to the dogma that there was a single unitary nature to God, rather than the Trinitarian one of the Roman Church. In the 600s, the native Semitic language replaced Greek in religious services and this allowed the separate development of Ethiopian (Abyssinian) Christianity. Before Islam worked its way through the African continent, Christianity moved through East Africa. Ethiopia’s neighbors became the Christian states of Maqurra and Alwa; however, these states would give way to the appeal of Islam around 1300, leaving Ethiopia the sole Christian state in Africa.

About a century after its adoption, Christianity in Ethiopia grew further as the state offered refuge to Christians fleeing persecution due to doctrinal disputes within the Church. Nine priests, breaking with the Church in Jerusalem, settled in Ethiopia and founded the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. They maintained ties with the Coptic Church in Egypt and developed a distinct liturgy using Ge’ez, the local language. Members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church also incorporated local beliefs, such as the legendary connection to King Solomon, into their religious traditions.


“Christianity in Ethiopia to Rock Church.” Dark Continents: Christianity—A History. 2008. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=56188&loid=610424. 4:22.

The ruling family, coastal elites, and military leaders amassed significant wealth during the height of Aksumite power. Like the Aksumite kings before him, Ezana amassed wealth by collecting tribute from surrounding states and taxing trade. Aksum and its surrounding states were agriculturally productive with fertile soils and effective irrigation systems. Their agricultural productivity meant that the work of peasants and the wealth generated through foreign trade supported the ruling classes and elites. Building a powerful military, King Ezana expanded the empire and claimed control over most of Ethiopia, Nubia, and Saba (Yemen). He also used his assets to showcase his power with, for example, “conquest stones” that commemorated his victories. In addition to celebrating Ezana’s military strength and commitment to ruling fairly, the “conquest stones” also proclaimed that God had ordained his reign. The stones impart Ezana’s edicts and Christian beliefs. One section reads:

[…] The Lord of Heaven strengthens my dominion! And as he now has conquered my enemy, (so) May he conquer for me, where I (but) go! As he now has given me victory and has overthrown my enemies. (So will I rule) in right and justice, doing no wrong to the peoples. And I placed The throne, which I have set up, and the Earth which bears it, in the protection of the Lord of Heaven, who has made me king.[7]

Ezana is known to us because of archaeological findings, including the aforementioned conquest stones. He and other Aksumite kings also famously commissioned the construction of stelae (singular: stele). Stelae were tall rectangular pillars with rounded tops set up to mark the under- ground grave sites of Aksum’s royalty and elite. The most ornate stelae were elaborately carved into a marble-like material with faux doors at the bottom and multiple stories, as indicated by windows etched into each level. They have been described as “ancient skyscrapers,” with the largest being one hundred and eight feet tall. Most stelae have fallen in the over 1700 years since their construction, but several do remain standing. One stele even caused international uproar as the Italians took it during their occupation of Ethiopia at the onset of the Second World War and just recently returned it at great expense.

Figure 9.8 | A Stele Built during the Height of the Aksum Empire in Ethiopia Author: User “Zhiem” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The stelae demonstrate the wealth of Aksum’s ruling classes and links between the ruling generations. Unfortunately, the graves marked by the stelae have been cleared out by tomb robbers in the intervening years. However, small remnants of glass, pottery, furniture, beads, bangles, earrings, ivory carvings, and objects gilded in gold attest to the wealth buried with affluent Aksumites. These artifacts also show the availability of trade goods brought from long distances. Furthermore, the architecture of the stelae is suggestive of connections back to earlier kingdoms. For example, the rounded top of the stelae is reminiscent of the disc symbol found in the region as far back as the Kingdom of Da’amat. Ezana was the first Christian king in the region; however, the architecture that he commissioned maintained ties to Aksum’s pre-Christian past.

Aksum’s power began to wane at the end of the sixth century CE. First, the Persian Empire interrupted Aksum’s trade with parts of southern Arabia in the late sixth century. Then, Muslims increasingly dominated trade along the Red Sea coast and the most profitable trade routes shifted from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf. In response, Aksum shrank as Ethiopia’s Christian rulers turned away from coastal trade and became more dependent on the tribute they collected from agriculturally productive regions to their south.

As Muslims in coastal areas became more powerful and Christian rulers shifted their attentions away from the coast, the relationship between Ethiopian Muslims and Christians remained complex. In the seventh century CE, one king of Aksum, al-Najashi Ashama Ibn Abjar, gave sanctuary to some of the first followers of Islam before he himself converted. In subsequent years, Muslims traders and Christian elites oftentimes cooperated. For example from the tenth through fourteenth centuries, Muslims set up trading settlements in the interior that facilitated the conspicuous consumption of Christian elites who desired imported goods. However, there were also periods of conflict, especially after Muslims unified to form the Adal Sultanate in the fourteenth century. The Adal Sultanate militarily extended its influence over much of the region and for several centuries supported a thriving, multi-ethnic state. In the sixteenth century, Ethiopian Christians allied with the Portuguese to fight against the Adal Sultanate. After the fall of the Adal Sultanate, Ethiopian Christians rejected Portuguese attempts to convert them to Catholicism and forced Portuguese missionaries out of the region in 1633 CE.


The Western Sudanic States


Map 9.4 | Map of Western Sudan | The area highlighted in green is the Western Sudan. In the Middle Ages, African kings used their monopoly over west African gold to build a series of large empires in the Western Sudan. Author: User “Alatoron” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

Who comes to mind as the richest person ever? Many economists and historians propose a person who might surprise you: Mansa Musa. Mansa Musa was an emperor in the Western Sudan during the Middle Ages. He was so rich that the people of his own time could not even fathom his wealth. Unable to put a dollar amount on Mansa Musa’s bewilderingly large fortune, Rudolph Ware, a current professor at the University of Michigan, instructs us to “imagine as much gold as you think a human being could possess and double it…”[8] Other sources estimate that, adjusted for inflation, Mansa Musa was worth $400 billion.[9] How did Mansa Musa become so wealthy? Like the other Western Sudanic rulers, he controlled much of the world’s access to gold during a period when gold was in very high demand.

The map above shows the large area in West Africa commonly referred to as the Western Sudan. The Western Sudan does not correspond with a modern-day African country; instead, it is a region. Arabic-speaking travelers gave the region its name, calling it bilad-al-Sudan or the “Land of Blacks.” The Western Sudan encompasses the Sahel and some of its surrounding grasslands from the Atlantic coast in the east through Lake Chad in the west. The Sahel, which in Arabic means “the shore,” is a transition zone between the Sahara Desert to its north and the more forested regions to its south. Much of the Sahel is grassland savannah. Straddling regions with different climates, the people of the Western Sudan developed productive agriculture, trade networks, and an urban culture.

Map 9.5 | The Sahel Author: User “Munion” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Settlement and agricultural production in West Africa led to the rise of sizeable states in the area. Takrur on the Senegal River was one of these states, and Ghana was another. Takrur’s development was predicated on the ability of the people to produce gold for the Saharan trade routes. A second state in West Africa that developed largely as a result of settlement and agricultural production was Ghana, founded between the bends of the Senegal an Niger rivers. The leaders of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai came to dominate the region because they controlled access to West African gold. An increase in the demand for West African gold corresponded with the rise of these empires. The spread of Islam and rise of new states along the North African coast and in Europe gave the biggest boost to the demand for gold. Monarchs in Europe and North Africa wanted West African gold to mint coins. To meet the demand, Berber traders used newly introduced camels to carry gold north across the desert. Then, they loaded up their camels with big slabs of salt to return south. The people in many parts of West Africa considered salt a valuable commodity due to their distance from the ocean and the time required to extract salt from plant, animal, and other resources. While the demands for gold and salt drove the trade, weapons, manufactured goods, slaves, textiles, and manuscripts also passed through the desert. With the flow of all of these goods, the Western Sudanic states emerged at the nexus of the trans-Saharan trade routes.

The North African Berber traders crossing the Sahara Desert were early converts to Islam, and they introduced Islam to market towns of the Western Sudanic states. With continuing trade, the region’s connections with Northeast Africa and the Middle East grew through the Middle Ages. Growing urban areas, like Timbuktu, attracted Muslim scholars. In later centuries, the kings of Mali and Songhai deliberately fostered these connections with the larger Islamic World due to their religious beliefs and, sometimes, to enhance their status and secure their positions. For example, Askiya Muhammad, the king of Songhai from 1495 to 1528, successfully sought recognition as the “caliph of Sudan” from Egyptian rulers. The new title brought him prestige within the Islamic world and Africa. Therefore, trans-Saharan trade brought Islam to the Western Sudan, and many of the kings of Mali and Songhai cultivated their relationships with Muslims in Northeast Africa and the Middle East. As a result, Islam influenced the culture and lifestyle, particularly of urban residents, in the Western Sudan.

Kanuri empire of Kanem-Bornu, 1100 – 1500 CE

The Kanuri Empire of Kanem-Bornu was one of four relatively long-lasting empires in northern Africa. The others were Ghana, Mali, and the Songhai. Kanem-Bornu was located in the central Sudan and began sometime around 1100 CE. By the twelfth century a group of people known as Kanuri had settled in the area and began militarily dominating the region. The primary leader of the Kanuri people was a man by the name of Mai Dunama Dibbalemi, and he was a Muslim. As a result, Islam does appear to become entrenched in Kanem-Bornu during this period.

Islam had reached into Africa around 850 CE when the faith became the religion of the Kingdom of Tekur. With the developed trading networks, literacy and Islam spread. The Kanuri Empire of Kanem-Bornu is one of the great empires described by Arab historians and was well-known to them as the area surrounding the Senegal River was given the nickname Bilad al-Sudan (land of the Blacks).

By 1400, Kanem-Bornu included the region around Lake Chad and today this is the northern area of the Republic of Chad. Islam is first mentioned as the religion of the Kanuri under the rule of Umme-Jilmi who ruled from 1085-1097 CE, and thus it is likely that the Empire of Kanem-Bornu was Islam from its founding.


“Islam in Africa to Islam Across North Africa.” Journeys into Islamic Africa. 2004. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=36129&loid=610425. 31:03

Benin State, 1100 – 1897 CE

Not all of Africa is desert or river land. There are some states that are located in the forest regions of Coastal West and Central Africa. The Benin State is one of these forest civilizations. Settled by Edo speakers and Ibo peoples, the society of Benin is patrilineal with a focus on the village as the center of political life. Although the Benin State began around 1100, in the fourteenth century the king of Benin was an Ife one. The Ife kings created a type of absolute monarchy and the Benin State is renowned for its artistic beauty. As a result of the firm control which the Ife kings held on the Benin State, it far outlasted the other empires of the period, surviving until the late nineteenth century.


“Records of the Benin Empire to End of the Benin Empire.” West Africa. 2009. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=43767&loid=610426. 7:52.

Ghana Empire, c. 400 – 1180 CE

We associate the first powerful empire, Ghana (800 – 1070s CE), with people who spoke the Soninke language and lived in the area between the Niger and Senegal Rivers—parts of present day Mauritania and Mali. In this region, agricultural productivity supported labor specialization, urban areas, and eventually state formation. From as early as 300 BCE, the region’s farmers used iron tools to grow an abundance of crops. Archaeological evidence found at Djenne-Jeno, one of the earliest urban areas in the Western Sudan, which has been dated to approximately 250 BCE, suggests that people had access to plenty of rice, millet, and vegetables. Iron technologies also allowed craftsmen to make iron spears and swords so people could protect themselves. Probably for defense purposes, Soninke speakers began joining together to form the ancient state of Ghana around 300 CE. Then, as the populations continued to grow, the state expanded its territory.


“Medieval West Africa: The Ghana Empire.” Great Empires of the Past: Core Concepts Video Clip Library. 2010. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=41675&loid=217882 . 2:11.

Even before Ghana was a state with a clearly defined centralized administration, Soninke speakers had been involved in extensive systems of trade using the region’s complex river systems. They often acted as middlemen, trading in fish from the rivers, meat from herders, and grains from farmers. After 300 CE, Ghanian leadership began collecting tributary payments from neighboring chiefdoms. In the centuries that followed, Ghana’s leaders used their ability to tax trade to build an empire. By 800 CE, they had consolidated their control over trade, their authority over urban areas, and their reign over tributary states.

Key Questions

  • How was Ghana was able to survive for so long and be respected by others such as the Arabians?

Like Takrur, the Soninke people of Ghana depended on their ability to produce gold for the Saharan trade. Ghana did this better than anyone else, and by the eleventh century CE, they controlled the gold trade. Especially in the minds of the Arab scholars chronicling the history of this period, the gold trade defined Ghana. They heard about the large caravans with hundreds of camels passing through the Sahara Desert on their way to and from Ghana. To build their fortunes, the Ghanian kings taxed trade goods twice. They taxed gold when it was initially brought from the forested regions in the south to their market towns and again right as the Berber traders departed for the north. News of Ghana’s wealth spread to the extent that Medieval Arab scholars who had never even traveled to Africa wrote about the Ghanian kings. In one manuscript, Al-Bakri, an eleventh century geographer based in Muslim Spain, described how a Ghanian king was adorned in gold and guarded by dogs wearing gold and silver collars. According to Al-Bakri, the king demonstrated his power having his subjects “fall on their knees and sprinkle dust on their heads” upon entering his presence.[10] The kings shored up their power through their ostentatious displays of gold and their monopoly over trade. Al-Bakri recognized the centrality of gold to the finances of the Ghanian kings. According to him, the kings claimed all of the gold nuggets for themselves, leaving only gold dust for everyone else. By this time, the Ghanian kings had also used their wealth to build strong armies, with archers and cavalry, to collect tribute and carry out the empire’s expansion.

Al-Bakri’s depiction of Ghana’s capital city, Koumbi Saleh, also evidences the introduction of Islam to the region. He described two separate sites within the capital city, Koumbi-Saleh. To trade their wares, the merchants used one site, which was clearly Muslim with mosques, while the king lived in a royal palace six miles away. The separation between the sites and lack of mosques near the royal palace suggest that Islam had primarily impacted the market towns; the leadership and masses of Ghana did not convert.

The rulers of Ghana were matrilineal, meaning that power descended through the line of the mother.  The ruler was also seen as semi-divine meaning that while not worshipped as a god himself, he was believed to have descended from gods. Arabic sources from the eleventh century indicate that Ghana had a large army including cavalry and archers and elaborate, ritualistic burial practices.

The Mali Empire, 1230 – 1450 CE: A Decentralized Empire


Map 9.7 | The Mali Empire, c. 1350 CE | The empire encompassed over 400,000 miles, including territory in the Sahara Desert, through the Sahel, and into some of the coastal forest. The empire’s control over such a large area meant access to a wide range of crops, facilitating agricultural specialization and trade. Author: User “Astrokey44” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Due to attacks from the Muslim Almoravids from the North, issues with overgrazing, and internal rebellions, Ghana declined in the eleventh century, opening up an opportunity for the rise of Mali. When Ghana collapsed it left a void in the western Sudan. One of the states that emerged from this void was the Mali Empire. The empire was built on the same economic base, monopolization of the gold trade, that Ghana and Takrur had been built upon, though agriculture and cattle farming were the primary occupations of the people. The origins of the Mali Empire (see Map 9.7) are associated with the king, Sundiata Keita (c. 1217 – 1255 CE). An epic, recounted orally by griots for centuries and written down in various forms in the twentieth century, relates the story of Sundiata’s rise. One version written by Guinean D. T. Niani in 1960 follows Sundiata as he overcomes a number of challenges, like being unable to walk until he is seven years old, being banished by a cruel stepmother, and facing tests given by witches. With loyal followers and the attributes of a born leader, Sundiata overcomes these and other challenges in the epic to found the new empire. Under Sundiata, some of Mali’s leadership converted to Islam; however, even with conversion, they maintained important pre-Islamic traditions. The epic demonstrates the prevalence of syncretism or the blending of religious beliefs and practices in West Africa. For instance, the epic traces Sundiata’s background back to Bilali Bounama, one of the early followers of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, and the powerful pre-Islamic, local clans of the lion and the buffalo. According to oral tradition, Sundiata’s ability to draw from both Muslim and traditional African sources of strength allows him to overcome adversity and defeat his less worthy opponents.

Agricultural products included rice, millet, yams, and beans, and fishing was also a profitable endeavor. Craft specialization included metalworking in iron and gold and cotton weaving. Mande-speaking people who later became ruling families of the Mali converted to Islam early, around 1100 CE. Some of these rulers claimed they were descended from Muhammad. Like Sundiata, most of the subsequent kings of Mali combined Muslim and local religious traditions. For example, they often completed the “Fifth Pillar” of Islam by performing the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required of all able Muslims. In the meanwhile, they continued to use pre-Islamic amulets, maintain their animistic beliefs, and consider pre-Islamic sacred sites to be important. Similarly, when they converted, the people living within Mali’s cities and those involved in trans-Saharan trade also blended Muslim and traditional beliefs and practices.


“Medieval West Africa: The Mande People of the Mali Empire.” Great Empires of the Past: Core Concepts Video Clip Library. 2010. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=41675&loid=217883. 2:25.

Mali was a decentralized state that included provinces and tribute-paying kingdoms. In this way, the chieftain was able to keep control and claim to be supreme emperor (mansa). Under later emperors, the city of Timbuktu became a very important intellectual hub, famous for its libraries. Sundiata built the Mali Empire in the thirteenth century and the empire reached its height under Mansa Musa (c. 1280 – 1337 CE), in the early fourteenth century. Through diplomacy and military victories, Sundiata swayed surrounding leaders to relinquish their titles to him. Thus, Sundiata established a sizeable empire with tributary states and became the mansa, or emperor, of Mali. Most of the subsequent mansas of Mali maintained their control over the gold-salt trade, the basis of their wealth. Mali also developed a more diversified economy and was recognized in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East as a prosperous trading center.

Figure 9.9 | The Great Mosque in Djenne | The Great Mosque in Djenne demonstrates the regional architectural style of the Western Sudan. The original structure was likely built in the thirteenth century. The current mosque was rebuilt in the early twentieth century. The wooden scaffolding gives the structure support and also helps men replaster the exterior, which they do every year. The exterior of the mosque is plastered in mud (adobe). Author: User “Ruud Zwart” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0Figure 9.10 | Mansa Musa | An image from the Catalan Atlas that demonstrates Mansa Musa’s reputation as the gold-laden king of Medieval Mali. The description reads, “This Black lord is called Musa Mali, Lord of the Black people of Guinea. So abundant is the gold which is found in his country that he is the richest and most noble king in all the land.” (The British Museum. The Wealth of Africa: The Kingdom of Mali, Presentation. https://www.britishmuseum. org/pdf/KingdomOfMali_Presentation.pdf.) Author: User “Olivierkeita” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public DomainMansa Musa, who was likely Sundiata’s grandson or grandnephew, further developed the empire and made it one of the crossroads of the Medieval Islamic World. Mansa Musa used a large army of approximately 100,000 soldiers to reunify the empire after several tumultuous decades. Under Mansa Musa, Mali stretched much farther east, west, and south than had its predecessor kingdom, Ghana. With its access to very diverse environments, trade in agricultural produce became more important in Mali than it had been in Ghana. Farmers specialized in regional crops and the state operated farms where slaves grew food for the royal family and the army. Mansa Musa also developed the empire’s administration, dividing the territory into provinces and appointing competent governors. With all of these achievements, Mansa Musa is best remembered for going on the hajj from 1324 to 1325 CE. He attracted a great deal of attention traveling in a huge caravan made up of almost 100 camels, 12,000 slaves, and an estimated 30,000 pounds of gold. Local lore claims that he gave out so much gold during his three month stay in Cairo that the price of gold dropped by 25%. Likewise, reportedly after he passed through Alexandria, the value of gold in the city stayed low for a decade. Mansa Musa’s impressive display in Northeast Africa and the Middle East boosted Mali’s standing in the Islamic World. After his return to Mali, Mansa Musa further cultivated Islamic connections by building new mosques and schools. He hosted Muslim scholars and made cities, including Timbuktu, Djenne, and Gao, into centers of learning. Mansa Musa also encouraged the use of Arabic, and the libraries, especially of Timbuktu, became repositories of Islamic manuscripts. The Catalan Atlas demonstrates Mansa Musa’s preeminence. Commissioned by Charles V of France, the 1375 map shows Mansa Musa ruling his empire. He sits atop a gold throne, wearing a gold crown, carrying a gold scepter, and gauging (or perhaps admiring) a gold nugget. Awash in gold in the Catalan Atlas, Mansa Musa paid for his various projects by collecting tribute from surrounding states and taxing trans-Saharan and inter-regional trade.


“Mali Empire.” Into the Light: History of the World. 2012. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=57509&loid=258641. 4:56.

Several factors, such as weak leadership, foreign invasions, and rebellions within the tributary states, led to the decline of Mali after Mansa Musa’s death. The empire got increasingly smaller through the early fifteenth century. With the decline of Mali, leaders in one of its breakaway tributary states, Songhai (alternatively spelled Songhay), expanded militarily and encroached on Mali’s territory. By the late 1460s when he captured Timbuktu, Songhai’s leader Sunni Ali had begun to build a new empire, the Songhai Empire, through military conquest.

Map 9.8 | The Songhai (alternatively spelled Songhay) Empire, c. 1530 | Note that by the early sixteenth century, the Songhai Empire encompassed the important trading and religious centers of Timbuktu, Djenne (sometimes spelled Jenne), and Gao. Author: User “Olivierkeita” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

The Songhai Empire at Gao, 1450 – 1600 CE

The power of the Mali waned and after 1450, the new Songhai Empire centered in the city of Gao ended the empire’s pull. Evidence suggests that there was a Songhai kingdom as early as the eleventh century.
The Songhai Empire is most closely associated with the Sorko people who lived alongside the Niger River, southeast of Gao. By about 800 CE, the Sorko had created their own state, Songhai, trading along the river and building a military that used war canoes. With the growth of trans-Saharan trade and eventually the discovery of new gold fields, the Sorko and other ethnic groups in the area established market towns in Songhai. Most of the people who moved to these market towns converted to Islam by the eleventh century. In the early fourteenth century, the Mali Empire collected tribute from Gao, though other parts of the Songhai state remained in- dependent. Using his military to pick off pieces of Mali in its waning years, Sunni Ali built the Songhai state into an empire in the 1460s.

During its Golden Age, the Songhai Empire was ruled by Askia Mohammad I (r. 1493 – 1528). Referred to as Askia the Great, Askia Mohammad I was a devout Muslim, who centralized the empire’s administration, encouraged agriculture, and further expanded the state. Askia rose to power as the general-in-chief of the army of Gao. He won a military victory over Sunni Ali’s son to found a new dynasty, the Askia dynasty. As a devout Muslim, Askia went on the hajj to Mecca from 1496 – 1497. The pilgrimage brought him international recognition and reinforced his claims to power especially because the Sharif of Mecca bestowed Askia with the title “the Caliph of the Sudan.” Upon his return, Askia used Islam to validate attacks on neighboring states, like the Mossi in 1498. He also rebuilt Islamic centers. Leo Africanus, originally from Granada (Spain), traveled through Timbuktu in 1526 and wrote,

[…] There are in Timbuktu numerous judges, teachers, and priests, all properly appointed by the king. He greatly honors learning. Many hand-written books imported from Barbary [the coastal regions of North Africa] are also sold. There is more profit made from this commerce than from all other merchandise.[11]

Under Askia, Timbuktu, Djenne, and Gao, once again, beckoned scholars and people with commercial aspirations. Taxing gold remained an important source of revenue for the king, but trade expanded to incorporate items such as manuscripts, kola nuts, prisoners of war (who were sold as slaves), horses, and cowry shells (which were used as an internal currency). Additionally, to centralize his administration, Askia appointed loyal Muslim governors to new provinces, replacing hereditary rulers. After his death, Askia’s sons, particularly his last son, Askia Dawud (r. 1549 – 1582 CE) continued to generate wealth by taxing trans-Saharan trade. Like their father, they also tended to invest in Songhai’s Islamic centers. For example, during the reign of Dawud, there were approximately one hundred and fifty Islamic schools operating in Timbuktu. Askia Dawud’s death in 1582 saw the reemergence of power struggles amongst competing rulers and rebellions within tributary states, signaling the end of the Golden Age of Songhai.

Figure 9.11 | The tomb of Askia the Great built in 1495 in Gao | Note the use of mud (adobe) architecture common in the cities of the Western Sudanic states. People still use the prayer rooms and meeting space at the site. Author: User “Olivierkeita” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

Then, the biggest blow to the crumbling Songhai Empire came from the invasion by Morocco in 1591. The Moroccan army used new technology, muzzle-loading firearms, to defeat the Songhai troops. The Songhai state limped along until 1737, but after 1591, it was no longer a unified empire with control over numerous tributary states. For almost 1,000 years, large empires had dominated the Sahel. The leaders of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, each in turn, taxed trans-Saharan trade and grew powerful. They built their empires with urban centers, strong militaries, and numerous tributary states. However, the Moroccan invasion eroded their power. Furthermore, the Age of Exploration, begun by the Portuguese in their progress down the West Africa coast in the fifteenth century, redirected trade. Trans-Saharan trade diminished and was largely replaced by trade up and down the Atlantic coast of West Africa.


Zimbabwe Civilization, 900 – 1500 CE


Figure 9.12 | The Ruins of the Great Enclosure at Great Zimbabwe in the Mosvingo Province of present-day Zimbabwe Author: User “Macvivo” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Most of the languages indigenous to Africa belong to one of the major language groups shown in the map below. Over the past several decades, historians of Africa have started to pay more attention to these language groups. They use comparisons of core vocabulary words in related languages to examine the spread of ancient technologies and the interaction between peoples. Using linguistics (the study of languages), historians corroborate information found in other sources, like oral traditions of dynastic origins and archaeological findings.

Map 9.9 | Map showing the Distribution of the Six Major Language Families in Africa | While it is not marked, the Bantu homeland was in parts of Nigeria and Cameroon. From 3000 BCE to 1500 CE, Bantu (or Niger-Congo B) languages spread slowly and unevenly from the Bantu homeland through most of southern and eastern Africa. Author: Mark Dingemanse Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 2.5

Today’s scholars are not the first ones to notice linguistic similarities on the continent. During European colonization one hundred and fifty years ago, anthropologists grouped Africans into “tribes” based on presumed physical, cultural, and linguistic similarities. Involved in this classification, anthropologists and others noticed striking similarities amongst the languages spoken by about 400 different ethnic groups in the southern and eastern third of the continent. They found that people in most of Sub-Saharan Africa spoke languages that used the root –ntu to refer to person, with the prefix ba- added in the plural. Combining the root and the plural prefix, nineteenth-century colonial anthropologists referred to people in these communities as Bantu and later traced Bantu languages back to a root, a mother language spoken in parts of Cameroon and Nigeria. To explain the similarities in the languages, European scholars hypothesized that about 2,000 years ago there was a Bantu Migration, a massive departure of thousands of Bantu speakers from the Bantu homeland. As they described, Bantu-speakers imposed iron technology and traditions of agriculture on the peoples they encountered in eastern and southern Africa. Influenced by their own conceptions of colonization, nineteenth century anthropologists portrayed the Bantu Migration as a rapid conquest of Sub-Saharan hunter-gatherer societies by the technologically advanced, Iron Age Bantu speakers. The Bantu people speak a language that is closely related to Germanic and Romance languages of Europe. Around the beginning of the Common Era, these peoples began a vast migration that spread their language and peoples across the continent of Africa.

Figure 9.2 | An Example of a Terra-Cotta Statue Produced by the Nok Culture, c. 550 BCE | The Nok people lived in what is today Northern Nigeria. Author: User “Daderot” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain and Map 9.3 | Map of Nok Culture | The Nok were just one innovative community in ancient Africa. They were a sophisticated Iron-Age civilization (c. 1000 BCE) now known for their terra-cotta sculptures. Author: Locutus Borg Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain and Figure 9.3 | A lifesize bronze head found at Ife (Nigeria) | Created by a Yoruba artist in the thirteenth century CE, it may represent a member of the royal family. Author: Locutus Borg Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

Full-size image of Map 9.3 – Map of Nok Culture

Evidence seems to suggest that smelting of iron was introduced into Africa from the Near East via Egypt. This then spread throughout the continent along various established routes. Some of the most significant Iron Age sites have been found in present day Nigeria. It is here that archeologists have discovered evidence of a people they have called the Nok culture.


“Iron Technology to Importance of Camels.” Nubia. 2009. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=43764&loid=610427. 4:18.

Since the 1990s, historians of Africa have used linguistics to reject some pieces of the nineteenth-century description of the Bantu Migration. Referring instead to Bantu expansions, they generally agree that the movement of Bantu speakers was more of a slow diffusion of languages and technologies that lasted about 4500 years, from roughly 3000 BCE to 1500 CE. Bantu speakers took multiple routes, and sometimes their movement occurred on the scale of a single family, as opposed to a mass of thousands. From the linguistic evidence, historians also suspect that both Bantu speakers and those they settled amongst contributed ideas and technologies; there was mutual “teaching and learning from one another.”[12] The current view of the Bantu expansions is much more complex as it recognizes give and take between Bantu newcomers and indigenous populations. For example, some indigenous populations rejected Bantu languages, while others repackaged Bantu technologies incorporating their own innovations. There was no Bantu migratory conquest of indigenous communities. Instead, the study of linguistics seems to confirm that Bantu languages, iron-working, and agriculture slowly spread through eastern and southern Africa in the early centuries CE.

These corrections are important because they allow scholars to much more accurately discuss state formation in southern Africa. In the colonial era, European scholars sometimes jumped to misleading conclusions when they encountered evidence of early African states. For example, in 1871 when the German geographer Carl Maunch saw the ruins of an impressive civilization, Great Zimbabwe, he concluded that people from Yemen must have built the grand structures. Biased by nineteenth-century racism, Maunch assumed that Africans were incapable of statehood and the skilled masonry techniques evident at Great Zimbabwe. Subsequent Europeans reached similar conclusions upon viewing the site, attributing the civilization to Phoenicians and Arabs. Some white supremacists in southern Africa clung onto this fabricated history of Great Zimbabwe’s foreign origins until the early 1990s.


“Lost Civilization.” Great Zimbabwe. 2009. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=43766&loid=114595. 2:48.

At the same time as east-coast trade was flourishing, the civilization of Great Zimbabwe to the south was also gaining in importance. These peoples were far enough away from the coast that there is little evidence they were converted to Islam. Sometime between the tenth and eleventh centuries, Great Zimbabwe became a large, wealthy state. And then it disappeared sometime between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. We have no evidence of Great Zimbabwe’s existence except through the archeological record. Due to the existence of a great “temple” complex or acropolis, we can speculate that the state had control of the gold trade. We can also surmise that the acropolis was part of the capital city and the residence of a hierarchal ruling class. What we don’t know if why they flourished when they did or even why they disappeared.

Key Questions

  • How were the East African states of Aksum and Great Zimbabwe different from and similar to the kingdoms of West Africa?


Figure 9.13 | The Hill Complex at Great Zimbabwe Author: Jan Derk Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

A number of scholars had confirmed the African origins of Great Zimbabwe. Archaeologists showed that Great Zimbabwe had features, like stone masonry and rituals involving cattle, found in nearby African kingdoms. Historians used oral tradition and linguistics to track African state formation in the region and show that Great Zimbabwe was a Bantu civilization. Archaeologists and historians concluded that from approximately 1200 to 1450 CE, Great Zimbabwe was the thriving commercial and political center of a rich southern African state.


“Gold Artifacts/Mapungubwe.” Great Zimbabwe. 2009. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=43766&loid=114601. 2:50.

During the Middle Ages, a prosperous elite based in Great Zimbabwe ruled over about 300 settlements on the Zimbabwe Plateau. Great Zimbabwe and the linked settlements had similarly constructed walled enclosures, practiced mixed farming (they grew crops and kept livestock), and used iron, copper, and bronze. The 300 settlements paid tribute in the form of ivory, gold, cattle, and crops to the rulers in Great Zimbabwe. The wealth generated through the collection of tribute helped Great Zimbabwe become a center of trade and artistry. Great Zimbabwe exported gold and ivory to cities like Sofala and Kilwa Kisanwani, on the East African coast. From the coast, these goods were carried to the Persian Gulf, India, and China. In exchange, Great Zimbabwe’s elite imported luxury items like stoneware, colored glass beads, and cotton. Out of these imports, artisans based in Great Zimbabwe made jewelry, ornaments, and cloth for elite consumption.

The architectural evidence of Great Zimbabwe’s social hierarchies is one of the most dramatic elements of the site’s ruins. Covering three square miles, the ruins of Great Zimbabwe consists of many clusters of stone buildings. The most famous structures are the Hill Complex and the Great Enclosure. The stone buildings were constructed with local granite, and the stones were stacked without mortar. Scholars hypothesize that the ruling elite resided and performed ceremonies on the Hill Complex, symbolically demonstrating their authority with the height and separation of the complex. From about 1300 CE, more than 15,000 people lived in the valley below them in small, circular homes with thatched roofs and walls made of clay and gravel. The Hill Complex overlooked a number of other structures, including the famous Great Enclosure. With its stone walls up to thirty-five feet tall, the Great Enclosure was the largest structure in precolonial sub-Saharan Africa. The Great Enclosure was a ceremonial site, perhaps used by religious leaders or as a site for the initiation of youth. Scholars disagree about its exact function, but suggest that the Great Enclosure further demonstrated the status and wealth of the capital city and the ruling classes.

Great Zimbabwe declined in the fifteenth century and was abandoned by 1450 CE. Some scholars suggest that the site deteriorated because it was supporting up to 30,000 people and thus became too crowded, deforested, and stripped bare of resources through overuse. Surrounding gold mines may have also been depleted. In any case, trade shifted to support the rise of two new kingdoms, Batua to the west and Mutapa to the east. Both kingdoms built stone walls like those seen in Great Zimbabwe and practiced mixed agriculture, using cattle for ceremonies and as symbols of the ruling elite’s power. From the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, the kingdoms also faced the Portuguese and the influx of other African populations. The Mutapa Kingdom lasted the longest, enduring until 1760. Overall, this rewritten history of southern African statehood acknowledges the significance of the Bantu expansions that brought agriculture and iron to many regions. It also celebrates the African origins of great civilizations and demonstrates how Africans shared technologies and cultural practices across the Zimbabwean plateau.

The Swahili City-States (East Africa)


Map 9.10 | The Swahili Coast of East Africa | From 1000 to 1500 CE, numerous Swahili states emerged along this 1,000 mile stretch from Mogadishu in the north (present-day Somalia) to Sofala in the south (present-day Mozambique). Author: George McCall Theal Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

Full-size image of Map 9.10 – The Swahili Coast of East Africa

In the tenth century CE, a grand Persian sultan, Sultan Ali ibn Sulaiman al-Shirazi sailed to Kilwa Kisiwani, an island off the East African coast. When he arrived, he was generous and people liked him, which enabled him to marry the daughter of Mrimba, the local headman. The newlyweds were set up to live more or less happily ever after. However, Sultan Ali and Mrimba made a deal, brokered by Mrimba’s daughter. The deal gave Sultan Ali control of the island in exchange for enough cloth for Mrimba to “walk on it from the island to his new abode on the mainland.”[13] The deal went through and Mrimba moved to the mainland, but then Mrimba regretted relinquishing his position and plotted to militarily retake the island from his son-in-law. In response, Sultan Ali used magic from the Qur’an to stop Mrimba’s plot. By reading the Qur’an in a special way, Sultan Ali kept the sea levels high, which confined Mrimba to the mainland, where he gave up and retired. Upon Mrimba’s death, his mainland territory passed to the son of Sultan Ali who also ruled Kilwa Kisiwani. In this oral tradition, the union of Mrimba’s daughter and Sultan Ali forged a new Muslim family, with Persian and African ancestry, that ruled Kilwa Kisiwani and the mainland coast.

The above version is just one account of Kilwa Kisiwani’s origins; nevertheless, it conveys some very important elements of Swahili identity. Starting at least by the thirteenth century CE, in response to resident Arab merchants who scorned non-Muslims and some African practices, African elites in East Africa claimed descent from Shirazis (Persians) and to have been early converts to Islam. In some cases, the connections may have been exaggerated or inaccurate from a historical standpoint. However, regardless of their accuracy, these stories demonstrate some of the defining features of Swahili identity.


“Ancient Trading City.” Great Zimbabwe. 2009. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=43766&loid=114598. 4:16.

As it controlled gold coming from Great Zimbabwe, Kilwa Kisiwani became one of the most prosperous of the Swahili city-states. From 1000 to 1500 CE, Swahili city-states were wealthy urban areas connected both to the African interior and the larger Indian Ocean World. Dozens of Swahili city-states running down the East African coast from Mogadishu to Sofala, and including islands off the coast, were commercial centers, tied together by a shared identity, not an overarching political structure. In addition to Islam and claims to Persian ancestry, Swahili identity also became associated with Indian Ocean trade, an urban style, and a shared language (Swahili).

Historians of Africa trace the origins of the Swahili city-states to the Bantu expansions, ex- plaining that by the first century CE, Bantu farmers had built communities along the East African coast. They traded with southern Arabia, southeast Asia, and occasionally Greece and Rome. Although trade contracted after the fall of the Roman Empire, it rebounded several hundred years later. At that time, residents of the Swahili city-states played a pivotal role as middlemen, selling gold, timber, ivory, resins, coconut oil, and slaves from the interior regions of Africa to traders arriving from throughout the Indian Ocean World. In return, Swahili elites bought imported glass, porcelain, silk, spices, and cloth. The seasonal monsoon winds that allowed trade between the Swahili coast and southern Arabia, the Persian Gulf, and southeast Asia also facilitated cultural exchange. Blowing towards the East African coast three to four months of the year and reversing several months later, the monsoon winds stranded traders for months at a time, encouraging intermarriage and cultural exchange. Furthermore, the wealth of the Swahili coast attracted Persian and Arab immigrants. With African, Arabian, and southeast Asian influences, Swahili culture became a blended culture as, for example, the Swahili language incorporated loan words from Arabic and Hindi.

One of the quintessential features of the Swahili city-states from 1000 to 1500 CE was their urban style. A few families made up the elite, ruling classes, while most people in the cities were less wealthy, working as craftsmen, artisans, clerks, and sailors. People in villages along the coast could also identify as Swahili. Claimants of Swahili identity spoke the Swahili language and were Muslim. Archaeology shows that emerging Swahili cities had mosques and Muslim burial grounds starting in the eighth century CE. By their height, the Swahili city-states were distinctly Muslim; they had large mosques built of local coral stone. The Swahili, regardless of their economic status, drew a distinction between themselves as Muslims and the “uncultured,” non-Muslim Africans of the interior.

Figure 9.14 | The Great Mosque at Kilwa Kisawani | Sultan Suleiman ibn Muhammed (r. 1421 – 1442 CE) improved the mosque. The mosque was constructed of coral blocks, which became a defining feature of urban Swahili architecture. Author: Claude McNab Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

The elite families played a role in fashioning Swahili urban style. In addition to tracing their descent back to some of the earliest Muslim settlers from Persia, they embraced Islam, financing mosques, practicing purdah (the seclusion of women), and hosting large religious celebrations. Their Muslim identity stimulated trade, as visiting Muslim merchants felt comfortable extending credit to them and living with their Swahili host families while waiting for the winds to turn. By 1350 CE, the urban style of Swahili city-states exhibited a distinguishing architecture. Many of the cities became “stone towns” with wealthy Swahili families constructing multi-level homes out of the coarse coral. The Swahili elite used their stone houses to establish themselves as prominent, creditworthy citizens. They wore imported silk and cotton and ate off imported porcelain to further display their status. Like other Swahili, the ruling classes distinguished themselves from non-Muslims of the interior. They may have been partially moved to draw this distinction by their desire to sell as slaves people captured in the neighboring, non-Muslim communities.


“Mapungubwe Ruins to Historical Debate.” Great Zimbabwe. 2009. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=43766&loid=610428. 20:28.

Kongo Kingdom Rises, 1300s CE

The Kongo Kingdom of Central Africa was a major state when Europeans began trading with the African continent. Located on the fertile plateau of the Zaire River Valley, the Kongo Kingdom, began sometime in the fourteenth century. This kingdom was built upon tax or tribute collection with a hierarchical structure: the king at the top acted as a spiritual spokesperson for the gods and ancestor worship.  By the time the Portuguese arrived (the first Europeans to do so), the Kongo practiced specialized weaving, metal working, and pottery making.

The Portuguese offered an opportunity for goods not otherwise available, such as clothing, tobacco, and alcohol; however, the primary good that the Portuguese wanted was labor and thus the Atlantic Slave Trade began. Increasingly, to meet the demands of the Europeans for slaves, the Kongo attacked their neighbors, took prisoners, and kidnapped others to sell into slavery. Many in the Kongo Kingdom converted to Christianity, but missionaries and their practices made many people bitter and they turned their back on the religion, returning to traditional practices. Internal strife led to the breakup of the Kongo state. Slavery had drained the labor pool and other resources of the kingdom, and Portuguese attempts to control the state led to bloodshed too.

Slavery within the Indian Ocean World, the zone of contact and interaction connecting people living adjacent to the Indian Ocean, began well before the spread of Islam (or Christianity) in the seventh century CE. During the high point of the Swahili city-states, Muslim traders controlled the slave trade within the Indian Ocean World. Slaves tended to be captives of war sold to the Arabian Peninsula and regions near the Persian Gulf. Slaves were put to work as sailors, agricultural laborers, pearl divers, domestic workers, concubines, and musicians. Our information about the everyday lives of slaves in this region is very limited.

In one famous revolt, slaves from East Africa (the Zanj), who were forced to work on sugar plantations and salt flats near Basra (in present-day Iraq), seriously challenged the power of the Abbasid Caliphate. Led by Ali ibn Muhammad, the Zanj rose up in the Zanj Rebellion, a guerrilla war against the Abbasids. For fourteen years, the Zanj and their supporters, altogether an estimated 15,000 people, raided towns, seized weapons and food, and freed slaves. They captured Basra and came within seventy miles of Baghdad, the Abbasid capital. The rebels created their own state with fortresses, a navy, tax collection, and their own coinage. At enormous cost, the Abbasids finally put down the revolt in 883 CE using a large army and by offering amnesty to the rebels. Scholars have used the Zanj Rebellion to examine the scope of the Indian Ocean trade in East African slaves, the conditions of slavery in the Indian Ocean World, and the agency (the ability to exert their own will) of slaves. Some of these scholars suggest that the Zanj Rebellion led Muslims in Arabia to largely abandon the practice of using East African slaves as plantation laborers. The rebellion helps them explain why the Indian Ocean slave trade developed differently than the  Transatlantic Slave Trade.

While there were some similarities between the Transatlantic trade that brought slaves to the Americas and the slave trade within the Indian Ocean World, there were important differences. Both slave trades took Africans, contributing to an African diaspora, or a dispersal of African peoples and their descendants, all over the world. The  Transatlantic Slave Trade, which lasted approximately 300 years and reached its peak in the eighteenth century CE, forced approximately 12 million people, mostly from West Africa, into the Americas. The slave trade within the Indian Ocean lasted much longer, about 2000 years, and was generally smaller in scale. Scholars suggest that African slaves in the Indian Ocean World had more social mobility, especially since many of them were skilled soldiers. Also, according to Islamic precepts, slaves had some basic rights and could be incorporated into the households that they served. Theoretically, a freeborn Muslim could not be enslaved. Unlike slavery in the Americas, slavery within the Indian Ocean World was not racially codified, so freed slaves did not automatically face racial discrimination. And due to their reproductive capacities, women were more sought after as slaves within the Indian Ocean World, while the  Transatlantic Slave Trade had the highest demand for young men. Despite these general trends, there was great individual variation within the slave experience.

Moving up the East African coast in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the Portuguese sacked some Swahili cities and tried to tax trade. In 1498, when they happened upon the Swahili coast, the Portuguese were trying to establish a direct sea route to the riches of India and China. After using an East African guide to reach India, the Portuguese began to set up a Trading Post Empire, which intended to tax trade within the Indian Ocean. The Trading Post Empire consisted of a series of forts along the Indian Ocean coast where Portuguese administrators collected taxes and issued trade permits. In the early 1500s, the Portuguese returned to the Swahili city-states to enforce their will. As the Swahili city-states did not have a unified political structure or large armies, the Portuguese successfully looted and destroyed some Swahili cities. However, the Portuguese cultural influence and their ability to enforce tax collection was very limited north of Mozambique. The Portuguese did not move inland beyond the coastal cities and, by and large, trade within the Indian Ocean continued without a great deal of Portuguese interference. However, the Portuguese presence encouraged Swahili leaders to ally with the Omanis from southern Arabia. In 1699, the Omanis, working with some Swahili rulers, seized Mombasa from the Portuguese, and began an era of Omani dominance of the Swahili coast.


[1] Quoted in Ann Badkhen, Walking with Abel: Journeys with the Nomads of the African Savannah (New York: Riverhead Books, 2015), 20.

[2] “Growth Areas: the urbanisation of Africa,” Economist (Dec. 13, 2010), https://www.economist.com/blogs/dailychart/2010/12/urbanisation_africa&fsrc=nwl.

[3] Christopher Ehret, The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800 (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 2002), 7.

[4] African Language Program, Department of African and African American Studies, “Introduction to African Languages,” Harvard University, https://alp.fas.harvard.edu/introduction-african-languages

[5] World Health Organization Media Centre, “Malaria: Fact Sheet,” https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/malaria.

[6] World Health Organization Media Centre, “Yellow Fever: Fact Sheet,” http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs100/en.

[7] As quoted in Esperanza Brizuela-Garcia and Trevor Getz, African Histories: New Sources and New Techniques for Studying African Pasts (Boston: Prentice Hall, 2012), 33 – 36.

[8] Jacob Davidson, “The 10 Richest People of All Time,” Time , July 30, 2015, https://money.com/the-10-richest-people-of-all-time-2/.

[9] Musa’s Money,” BBC, accessed April 28, 2020, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02f9r6g.

[10] Quoted in “Kingdom of Ghana: Primary Source Documents,” African Studies Center, Boston University Pardee School of Global Studies, http://www.bu.edu/africa/outreach/k_o_ghana.

[11] “Leo Africanus: Description of Timbuktu,” From The Description of Africa , 1526,  https://brians.wsu.edu/2016/11/04/leo-africanus-description-of-timbuktu-from-the-description-of-africa-1526/.

[12] As quoted in Brizuela-Garcia, Esperanza and Trevor Getz, African Histories: New Sources and New Techniques for Studying African Pasts (Boston: Prentice Hall, 2012), 43.

[13] John Middleton, The World of the Swahili: An African Mercantile Civilization, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 31 – 32.