's Ancient Civilizations of the World/The Songhay Kingdom


Songhai Empire (orthographic projection)

The Songhay or Songhai Empire, was a state located in western Africa from ca. 1341 to 1591. From the early 15th to the late 16th century, Songhai was one of the largest Islamic empires in history. At its height (ca. 1500), the Songhay Empire covered over 1.4 million square kilometers. This empire bore the same name as its leading ethnic group, the Songhay. Its capital was the city of Gao, and its base of power was on the bend of the Niger River in present day Niger and Burkina Faso.


The Songhai state has existed in one form or another for over a thousand years if one traces its rulers from the first settlement in Gao to its semi-vassal status under the Mali Empire through its continuation in Niger as the Dendi Kingdom. The Songhai are thought to have settled at Gao as early as 800 CE, but did not establish it as the capital until the 11th century, during the reign of Dia Kossoi. However, the Dia dynasty soon gave way to the Sunni, proceeding the ascension of Sulaiman-Mar, who gained independence and hegemony over the city and was a forbear of Sunni Ali. Mar is often credited with wresting power away from the Mali Empire and gaining independence for the small Songhay kingdom at the time.

Imperial SonghayEdit

In 1340, the Songhay took advantage of the Mali Empire's decline and successfully asserted its independence. Disputes over succession had weakened the Mali Empire, and many of its peripheral subjects broke away. The first emperor of Songhay was Sunni Ali, who reigning from about 1464 to 1493. Like the Mali kings before him, Ali was a Muslim. In the late 1460s, he conquered many of the Songhay's neighboring states, including what remained of the Mali Empire. His empire was the largest empire that Africa has ever seen.

Tomb of Askia.

In all, the Sunni Dynasty would count 18 kings. The Songhay Empire's most notable monarch was Askia Muhammad the Great (ca. 1443-1538). Under his rule, the Songhay Empire reached its zenith. He organized the territories that Sonni Ali had previously conquered and extended his power as far to the south and east. He was not as tactful as Ali in the means of the military, but he did find success in alliances, because of these alliances he was able to capture and conquer more vastly. Askia opened religious schools, constructed mosques, and opened up his court to scholars and poets from throughout the Muslim world. Yet he was tolerant of other religions and did not force Islam on his people.

Not only was he a patron of Islam, he also was gifted in administration and encouraging trade. He centralized the administration of the empire and established an efficient bureaucracy which was responsible for among other things tax collection and the administration of justice. He also demanded for canals to be built in order to enhance agriculture, which would eventually increase trade. More importantly than anything he did for trade was the introduction of weights and measures and appointing an inspector for each of its important trading centers. During his reign Islam became more widely entrenched, trans-Saharan trade flourished, and the Saharan salt mines of Taghaza were brought within the boundaries of the empire. Unfortunately as Askia the Great grew older his power declined. In 1528 his sons revolted against him and declared Musa, one of Askia's many sons, as king. Following Musa's overthrow in 1531, Songhay's empire went into decline. Following multiple attempts at governing the Empire by Askia's sons and grandsons there was little hope for a return to the power it once held.



Following the death of Emperor Askia Daoud, in 1583, a civil war of succession weakened the Empire, leading Sultan Ahmad I al-Mansur of the Saadi Dynasty of Morocco to dispatch an invasion force. After a march across the Sahara desert, Morocco's forces captured, plundered, and razed the salt mines at Taghaza and moved on to Gao. At the 1591 Battle of Tondibi, Songhay forces, despite vastly superior numbers, were routed by a cattle stampede triggered by the Saadi's gunpowder weapons. Moroccan troops proceeded to sack Gao, Timbuktu and Djenné, destroying the Songhay as a regional power. Governing so vast an empire proved too much for the Saadi Dynasty; however, and they soon relinquished control of the region, letting it splinter into dozens of smaller kingdoms. The Songhai people themselves established the Dendi Kingdom.

Society and EconomyEdit

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

Upper classes in society converted to Islam while lower classes often continued to follow traditional religions. Sermons emphasized obedience to the king.

Economic trade existed throughout the Empire, due to the standing army stationed in the provinces. Central to the regional economy were independent gold fields. The julla (merchants) would form partnerships, and the state would protect these merchants and the port cities of the Niger. It was a very strong trading kingdom, known for its production of practical crafts as well as religious artifacts.


"The Songhai Empire" (Wikipedia)