Who ruled Africa while Rome ruled Europe? How did they come to be forgotten?

A quick scan of online message boards will tell you that worldwide awareness of African history — aside from ancient Egypt — is seriously limited, to say the least.

A Quora commenter asks, “Why hasn’t a single prominent civilization come out of Africa?” On Reddit, someone poses (or rather, begs) the question, “Why were there so few empires in Africa?” Although responders quickly mopped the floor with those commenters’ loaded questions, millions of other people around the world have never bothered to ask in the first place.

But this knowledge gap is a fairly new phenomenon.

The Pharaohs of ancient Egypt actively exchanged goods and ideas with the southern kings of Kush, who were “proud of their black faces.” The Ethiopian kings of Aksum, who traded as far afield as India and China, were the most powerful rulers between Byzantium and Persia. Centuries later, an emperor of Mali would become —

The richest person in all world history.

Oh, but this goes back much, much further. Once you start digging into the history of Africa, you begin to encounter ages and dates that are really hard to wrap your mind around — and yet, there they are, staring you in the face.

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Let’s use ancient Egypt as a point of reference. The Great Pyramid was built about 4,500 years ago. Recognizably Egyptian culture dates back about twice that far. People were actively building and farming in Ethiopia and Eritrea long before that — at least 10,000 years ago.

If you’ve read my article, “Time’s Orphans Have Names,” you’ve seen the writing of the people of Kish and Eridu, around 4,000 BCE. Now we’ve gone back a full 5,000 years before that—

And that’s nothing. We’ve barely even gotten started.

The Afroasiatic Urheimat
The Afroasiatic Urheimat

 

At least 13,000 years ago, linguistic and genetic evidence shows, the common ancestors of the ancient Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Arabs, the Hebrews, and many other East African and Levantine peoples lived around the Red Sea, concentrated on the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula, the Sinai, and what’s now Ethiopia (and possibly further south in Africa).

These people spoke a language known today as Proto-Afroasiatic, which is so ancient that it was the common grammatical ancestor of ancient Babylonian and modern Swahili. Try getting your head around that one.

A San man
A San man

Ever heard of the San people?

(They were once known as the “Bushmen” of the Kalahari.) Not only are they and their relatives the most genetically diverse human populations in the world—their DNA also carries genetic traits so old that they likely split off before the earliest Homo sapiens migrations out of Africa, about 200,000 years ago. Their language, too, contains some of the oldest features of any surviving language on earth.

A set of stone tools essentially identical to modern San equipment have been found in a cave in South Africa, and dated to 44,000 BCE, when Europe was deep in the midst of the last Ice Age —

And Neanderthals were still alive and well.

If you ever find yourself in a conversation about living cultures with the longest continuous histories, drop in a mention of the San people (or the Australian Yidindji people, whose oral traditions clearly describe a sea level rise that happened when the Ice Age glaciers melted, 13,000 years ago).

Facts like these shift the whole scale of the discussion.

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I’m going to have to skip and condense a lot over the course of this article. We’ve already reached the length of a short news story, and I haven’t even started describing the actual empires yet!

For that reason, I’m going to focus only on four of the biggest, wealthiest and most influential African empires— which means that in this article, we won’t have time to go into smaller city-states like Opone, Mosylon, Cape Guardafui and Malao; or even relatively small empires like Bornu Empire, the Mossi Kingdoms and the Kingdom of Zimbabwe; or ancient civilizations on which there’s still a lot of work to be done, like the bronze-age Igbo-Ukwu culture, the Kingdom of D’mt, and the mysterious Kingdom of Yam and Land of Punt.

For the sake of length, I’m also going to have to restrict myself in terms of time periods; focusing on African empires from antiquity, and from the medieval period. I’m truly, genuinely sorry that I won’t have space (at least, not in this particular article) to talk about the mighty Songhai Empire, or the nineteenth-century Benin Empire, or the Zulu Kingdom — or many, many other great and powerful African states.

Each of those kingdoms and empires was populated by real people, every one of whom had favorite foods and life goals and romances every bit as heartfelt as yours and mine. Unfortunately, when covering an entire continent with at least 50,000 years of continuous cultural history, we’ve got to limit our range. Still, I highly recommend opening all those links above in new tabs, so you can check them out later.

For now, here’s Part II… and more are coming soon!

Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s talk about some of the greatest African empires in ancient history.

1.

You know that feeling when your favorite actor or musical artist makes a mass-market hit — and you realize that’s the one thing they’re going to be remembered for? From now on, no one’s going to care about all their brilliant early albums, or all the great dramatic roles they’ve played. Instead, this complex, talented artist is going to be known for a one-hit wonder, or a brief role in a historical epic.

That’s essentially what happened to the Kingdom of Kush. This civilization (not to be confused with the Kushan Empire of Asia) is remembered mainly as “the Nubian Pharaohs who conquered Egypt” — which they did, it’s true; at one particular period —

In their thousands of years of cultural history.

From the very earliest days of Egyptian civilization, the lighter-skinned people of Lower Egypt — the northern part; called “lower” because the land slopes gradually northward toward the sea — had always found themselves at odds with the black-skinned Nubian peoples who controlled the cataracts further up the Nile River (or as the Egyptians called it, simply “The River”).

Statues of Kerma Kingdom rulers
Statues of Kerma Kingdom rulers

The people of those ancient Nubian cultures — beginning with the Kerma Culture (whose own name for itself we don’t know) around 2500 BCE — were heavily influenced, in turn, by Egyptian art and government. The Kerma people built statues of themselves in Pharaonic style; and the upper class, at least, seem to have preferred Egyptian fashions.

Kushite people, as depicted in a painting from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom
Kushite people, as depicted in a painting from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom

These facts — along with the facts that Kushite kings served as vassals of Egypt for centuries, then eventually conquered it — led many well-trained Egyptologists to assume that Kush must’ve been a sort of “subsidiary company” of Egypt: different logo, same CEO.

But modern archaeologists disagree with that idea.

The more we delve into Kushite culture, the clearer it becomes that these people — while there’s no denying they were heavily influenced by Egypt in many ways — considered themselves a fully separate civilization, with their own distinct language, government, economy and religious beliefs.

The Kushite Empire at its greatest extent, circa 700 BCE
The Kushite Empire at its greatest extent, circa 700 BCE

So far, archaeologists have learned relatively little about the Kushite civilization as an entity separate from Egypt— because, for one thing, the idea of studying the Kushites in this way is fairly new. One of the first experts to suggest it was the Cambridge archaeologist David Edwards, who put forth the idea in a 1998 paper. In archaeological research time, 18 years is practically no time at all — it can take years just to organize and fund a single seasonal expedition, let alone find concrete historical evidence and publish it.

What’s more, most of the written records describing Kush come from Egypt, or date from the Kushite Egyptian dynasty. Quite a bit of the evidence we have about independent Kushite culture is archaeological, not written. This means we’re largely limited to reconstructing whatever details we can safely infer from artifacts and ruins — as with so many “lost” civilizations.

A funerary stela for Waleye son of Kadite, written in the Meroitic language
A funerary stela for Waleye son of Kadite, written in the Meroitic language

We don’t know what the Kushites called themselves. The Egyptian name for them was pronounced something like “Kulush,” and this word was also applied to the Kushite land — but that term came from the Akkadian language of the Middle East. We don’t even know, conclusively, what it originally meant.

We do know, however, that the Kushites spoke a language which we today call Meroitic. This language survives only in a few inscriptions. Those sparse texts have left us with a very limited understanding of Meroitic grammar and vocabulary; but it’s clear that this was not the same language the Egyptians spoke.

Linguists aren’t even sure which language family Meroitic belongs to. One popular theory is that it may share a common ancestor both with ancient Egyptian, and with sub-Saharan languages like Luo and Songhay. Other experts have thrown up their hands and said it’s probably not related to any known African language.

Statue of the lion-headed god Apedemak, circle 100 BCE
Statue of the lion-headed god Apedemak, circle 100 BCE

While the Kushites shared some gods with ancient Egypt (especially in later periods) they also worshipped their own distinct pantheon. The male and female heads of this pantheon, originally, were the lion-headed god Apedemak and his wife Amesemi; both of whose names come from the Meroitic language.

Temples — known as “houses of the gods” — seem to have served as the centers of the Kushite state economy. Some researchers have suggested that the economy was a redistributive system, in which everyone contributed goods to the local temple, which distributed them as necessary (this was the system the earliest Sumerian cities used). Other scholars have argued against this redistribution idea — and until we get more evidence, we’re not going to know for sure.

Kushite warriors, depicted in Egyptian Middle Kingdom style
Kushite warriors, depicted in Egyptian Middle Kingdom style

Kushite kings were responsible for maintaining the houses of the gods, and for performing sacred rituals that ensured peace and prosperity for the land. The queen, known as a candace, may have ruled in conjunction with the king. At least one source describes the candace as a fierce female warrior — though this may have been in reference to one specific candace, rather than to all of them. Below the royals, a complex administration of treasurers, seal bearers, heads of archives and chief scribes oversaw the common people, most of whom were farmers and herders.

In their earliest days, the Kushites practiced a mixture of nomadic herding on the savannah and settled farming on the banks of the Nile. As the population grew, local leaders began to accumulate wealth, and city-states like Kerma and Napata took shape — although the Kushite cities would always be surrounded by the transient settlements and camps of peoples practicing older ways of life, as many African cities are today.

Although the Egyptians to the north feared the rising power of the Nubian kings, they couldn’t resist the trade wealth. And even though Egyptian records described the trade as “tribute,” archaeological evidence makes it clear that goods and ideas flowed in both directions.

Egyptians trading with Kushites
Egyptians trading with Kushites

Kushite metalwork was highly advanced; their furnaces and smiths churned out vast quantities of bronze tools and weapons — and later, iron ones — for domestic use, as well as for export to neighboring kingdoms. Kush was so rich in gold that the Egyptian word for gold, nub, seems to be related to “Nubia.” Meanwhile, the Kushites were importing Egyptian inventions like the water wheel; along with gods from the Egyptian pantheon, and Egyptian styles of dress and architecture.

Nubian worshippers, as depicted in an Egyptian Middle Kingdom painting from the city of Luxor
Nubian worshippers, as depicted in an Egyptian Middle Kingdom painting from the city of Luxor

In the 2000s BCE, the Egyptian Pharaoh Mentuhotep II became the first recorded northerner to raid into Kushite territory. Although Egyptian sources don’t provide much detail on how events unfolded over the next few centuries, it’s clear that by the 1500s BCE, Kush had been “subdued,” and was governed by an Egyptian viceroy.

That situation held fairly steadily for about 500 more years, until the Egyptian New Kingdom disintegrated around 1070 BCE, and the Kushites set up their independent capital at Napata, in modern Sudan — where they built their own pyramids and temples in the Egyptian style. By then, centuries of Egyptian occupation had molded Kushite culture into an undeniably Egyptian cast.

But the Kushites’ adventures were only beginning.

The collapse of the Egyptian New Kingdom was just one effect of an apocalyptic Mediterranean Dark Age that lasted nearly 300 years. This power vacuum made room for an entire new world of aggressive iron-age nation-states, like the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the Kingdom of Israel, the Mycenaean ancestors of the Greeks — and the Nubian conquerors of Egypt.

Kushites battling Egyptians
Kushites battling Egyptians

In 945 BCE, the Kushite king Sheshonq I allied with a group of Libyan princes, and stormed the ancient Egyptian cities of the Nile delta. Sheshonq founded the Bubastite dynasty (named for its capital city of Bubastis), and launched a revival of ancient Egyptian culture, commissioning and restoring great works of art and architecture.

The Kushite pharaoh Piye I
The Kushite pharaoh Piye I

But as rival dynasties swarmed into the delta, the Kushite kings moved their bases of operations southward; first to Men-nefer (Memphis), then deep into the Nubian heartland, in the city of Meroë, in modern Sudan, where they built pyramids that still stand today.

Throughout all this, the Kushite kings had managed to hold onto many areas of the Nile — but in the 700s BCE, Neo-Assyrian kings swept downward into Egypt with their legendarily ruthless armies. The Kushite armies fought fiercely, and for many years the outcome was uncertain. But the Assyrians relentlessly pushed the Kushites south —until, in 591 BCE, the Kushite king Aspelta permanently moved the capital to Meroë, declaring Kush an independent kingdom, distinct from Egypt.

The Kushite pyramids of Meroë
The Kushite pyramids of Meroë

By now, the Dark Age had ended, and yet another new world was emerging.

Greece and Rome were on the rise, and the Neo-Babylonian Empire was growing far to the east. From their power base in Meroë, the Kushites built a trading state that became well-known throughout the Mediterranean. They exported gold, and smelted enormous quantities of famously strong Kushite iron; importing goods from all around the civilized world. Kushite kings began to grow rich and powerful again — and when Rome invaded Egypt in the first century BCE —

They saw their chance for another grab at power.

Led by a ferocious candance named Amanirenas, the Kushite army defeated Roman forces at Syene and Philae; but made it no further. The Roman legions pushed the Kushite forces south yet again, sacking the city of Napata and threatening Meroë itself. Amanirenas had no choice but to negotiate for peace; which the Romans granted: the Kushites would keep most of their land along the Nile, aside from a military border zone which the Roman military would hold. In return, they would pay yearly taxes to Rome.

For the most part, both sides held to the terms of the treaty. Romans and Kushites lived in relative peace for the next 100 years or so. But that war with Rome — combined with the taxes — seems to have finally drained Kush of the last of its power by the 100s CE.

After 2,000 years or more of continuous history, these proud Nubian people who’d stood tall against Egyptian armies, Assyrian warlords, rival African kingdoms, and even the Roman Empire, were finally undone by simple economics. Production couldn’t keep up with Roman taxes. People in the cities began to starve and riot, and the final generation of Kushites slipped out into the wilderness, to rejoin their neighbors in nomadic herding and sustenance farming — like drops of water falling back into an eternal ocean.

The pyramids of Meroë in modern Sudan
The pyramids of Meroë in modern Sudan

2.

In the 200s CE, the Persian prophet Mani referred to the “four great powers” of the world. The first three empires are easy to guess: Rome, Persia, and China. Mani’s fourth choice might come as a surprise. He named the Aksumite (or Axumite) Empire of East Africa —

As equal in importance to the other three.

The Aksumites never made any significant attempts to expand outside their own continent (but then again, neither did the Han Chinese). The Aksumite army wasn’t particularly formidable. The empire’s geographical extent was fairly small. Its language never became widely known in the outside world.

Yet Aksum’s wealth was the stuff of legend.

Like the Kushites before them, the Aksumites sat atop seemingly infinite gold and iron mines — and their powerful navy controlled the main sea routes between India and Rome. They also owned vast numbers of salt mines — which might not seem like a huge deal to us today; but the Aksumites reaped a fortune from table seasoning. (Salt was also a popular meat-preserving packing material in the ancient world, which made it even more in-demand.)

A king of Aksum, circa 500 CE
A king of Aksum, circa 500 CE

For all their acknowledged wealth and influence, the Aksumites left very few written records of their history — and none at all of their very earliest periods. Archaeologists disagree about where they came from; whether they were invaders or indigenous people, and how their culture related to that of the Kushites.

Some of the earliest Aksumite burial sites look strikingly similar to Kushite burial sites — leading some archaeologists to suggest that both cultures might trace their ancestry back to the Kerma culture of the 2000s BCE; or that perhaps the ancestors of the Kushites and the Aksumites were equally active participants in a “complex process of state formation in Northern Ethiopia,” throughout remote antiquity — an intricate, millennia-spanning civilizational whirlpool about which we know next to nothing.

Starting to see how under-studied ancient Africa is?

Most historians agree that the Aksumites were likely involved in the downfall of the Kingdom of Kush — or, at the very least, that they profited from the power gap created by the Kushites’ collapse. The Romans were certainly aware of Aksumites; but initially they seem to have referred to both Aksumites and Kushites as “Ethiopians,” without much distinction.

What we do know is that by about 200 CE, the Aksumites had grown powerful enough to intervene in military conflicts throughout what’s now Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan; and even in parts of southern Arabia. From their power base in the Ethiopian highlands, Aksumite armies conquered dozens of surrounding peoples, and consolidated their wealth in cities like Aksum and Adulis.

The Kingdom of Aksum, and the vital trade routes it controlled between 300–700 CE
The Kingdom of Aksum, and the vital trade routes it controlled between 300–700 CE

These cities served as homes to multi-ethnic, multicultural populations, including Semitic-speaking people known as Habeshas, Cushitic-speaking people, and Nilo-Saharan-speaking people known as the Kunama and Nara. The tongue of the court, however, was Ge’ez — a language distantly related to Hebrew, Arabic and Babylonian. Ge’ez originated in Eritrea, and it still serves as the official language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church — in fact, most modern Ethiopian and Eritrean languages are still written using the Ge’ez script developed for Aksumite royal inscriptions.

A Yemeni soldier, an Ethiopian (Axumite) governor, and an Omani marine
A Yemeni soldier, an Ethiopian (Axumite) governor, and an Omani marine

Aksum’s culture was always closely connected with those of its close neighbors to the east. In the early centuries CE, much of southwest Arabia was ruled by the Jewish Himyarite Kingdom — and in fact, some Ethiopian sources refer to early Aksum as “a Jewish kingdom” as well.

However, in their earliest days, the Aksumites practiced a polytheistic religion, which was clearly related to religions practiced in southern Arabia in pre-Islamic times, and may have also been distantly related to pre-Jewish Canaanite religion —

And to the religions of ancient Mesopotamia.

This isn’t so strange when we remember that just a few centuries earlier, expert Phoenician seafarers had brought Canaanite gods as far west as Carthage, in modern Tunisia — and that the Assyrians of Mesopotamia had conquered Egypt a few centuries before that. The trade routes and border wars of the early centuries CE served as great mixing-bowls for deities and practices from all across the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

The head of the Aksumite pantheon was Astar — possibly a male equivalent of the Babylonian Ishtar, derived from the Sumerian Inanna, who was worshipped under the name Astarte throughout the ancient Mediterranean. In Aksumite religion, Astar was god of war, storms and floods. Astar’s son Mahrem — god of the sea, and also of war — was also of high importance; as was Bihar, another sea-god.

Some scholars believe that the early Aksumite pantheon was once much larger, and may have included other Arabian, Mesopotamian and/or Canaanite gods, as well as indigenous ones — but by the time the Aksumites began producing inscriptions, their scribes considered only Astar, Mahrem and Bihar to be worth mentioning in writing.

Within their first few centuries of active trading, however, the early Aksumites began to model many of their religious laws and observances on those of the Hebrew Torah. Before long, Jewish practices had become such a part of Aksumite life that they “were not perceived as foreign,”

But were seen as part of the core Aksumite culture.

When the Aksumite king Ezana II converted to Christianity around 324 CE, Aksum “rebranded” itself as a Christian kingdom, issuing coins stamped with the Cross, and establishing the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, with its own bishop. Although Ethiopian Orthodoxy would always maintain an identity distinct from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches — and even from the Alexandrian Orthodox Church in Egypt — Aksumite kings would often ally with Christian Byzantine emperors to attack non-Christian enemies and provide homes for Christian refugees.

Aksumite Church at the Debre Damo monastery, Ethiopia; constructed circle 600 CE
Aksumite Church at the Debre Damo monastery, Ethiopia; constructed circle 600 CE

At the head of Aksumite society sat the king, known as the nigūśa nagaśt — “King of Kings.” Though the Aksumites left few written records, archaeological evidence makes it clear that the cities were also inhabited by nobles, who lived in palaces of their own, and enjoyed food, drink, clothing and other luxuries from around the Mediterranean world.

The largeness and richness of Aksumite temples — and later, churches — suggest that priests, too, enjoyed lives of luxury. The vast majority of the Aksumite people, however, were farmers, herders, and craftspeople. The lowest rung of the Aksumite ladder was occupied by slaves — about whose lives we know extremely little.

A reconstruction of the royal palace at Aksum
A reconstruction of the royal palace at Aksum

The Kingdom or Aksum experienced its first great golden age from the 200s CE—when the Persian prophet Mani referred to it as one of the world’s “four great powers” — to the 500s. Around 520, word reached the Aksumite king Kaleb that a Jewish Himyarite king in Yemen was persecuting Christians in the region. This would prove to be a pivotal point for Aksum.

King Kaleb’s army invaded Yemen and won the day — but just five years later, in 525, an Aksumite general named Abreha took over the Himyarite kingdom, deposed King Kaleb’s appointed viceroy, and refused to pay taxes. Kaleb sent a new army to take out the rebels, but this time he lost. From that year on, Aksum started showing up a lot less in historical records.

No one expected them to recover from that punch.

Aksum surprised everyone, though, by gathering its strength and blossoming into a second golden age in the early 600s — just in time for the armies of Islam to ride out of Arabia.

While much of North Africa converted to Islam within a single century, Aksum’s kings held out and remained Christian — and, unlike many of their Christian contemporaries, they went out of their way to be nice to their Islamic neighbors; even offering shelter to some of Muhammad’s early followers in 615.

An Aksumite warrior
An Aksumite warrior

But the Islamic general Umar ibn al-Khattāb (the general who we last saw steamrolling through Sasanian Persia) had no interest in Aksum’s overtures of peace. In 640, his army attacked several Aksumite cities. The Aksumite army and navy beat Umar back, again and again; even pushing eastward and occupying parts of the western Arabian coastline, including the important city of Jeddah.

By the early 700s, though, this ceaseless war had left Aksum too financially drained to mint its famous gold coins, let alone field a conquering army. Islamic forces took control of the Red Sea and the Nile Delta, cutting the Aksumite cities off from the trade routes that were their empire’s life-blood.

Tradition holds that the killing blow was struck, not by an Islamic army, by a Himyarite queen named Judith (“Yodit” or “Gudit”) who swept in from the east. Many modern scholars point instead to a southern pagan queen named Bani al-Hamwiyah, possibly of the al-Damutah or Damoti (Sidama) tribe.

Either way, Aksumite sources make it clear that a foreign female usurper ruled the Kingdom of Aksum throughout the late 900s — and that by the early 1000s, the Kingdom of Aksum, as a cohesive political entity, had ceased to exist.

Nature herself struck an even deeper blow. The early centuries of Aksumite rule had been favored with an unusually warm, wet climate — a climate that was turning dramatically drier and colder from the 600s onward. Meanwhile, the huge crop yields required to feed Aksum’s urban populations drained the soil of its mineral resources — as has happened in many other areas of the world, at many points in history.

Those crop failures launched a chain reaction.

Cities could no longer sustain their populations; crafts and mining labor disintegrated; and the Aksumites lost control not only of their trade routes, but also of the goods they traded and the people who transported them.

Yet although the Aksumite state collapsed, Aksumite culture lives on. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is still alive and well; it even has a branch in Jerusalem. The Ge’ez script serves as the standard writing system of modern Ethiopia and Eritrea. Axum is still a city in Ethiopia — a UNESCO World Heritage site, where travelers walk among the churches and stelae built by Aksumite kings nearly 2,000 years ago.

The old Church of St. Mary of Zion still stands in Axum, Ethiopia.
The old Church of St. Mary of Zion still stands in Axum, Ethiopia.

3.

Some empires blossom around central seaports, or on the banks of vital rivers. But the Kingdom of Wagadu’s wealth was born — at least, in the beginning —

Thanks to a big, cranky animal.

The dromedary camel had been domesticated in Arabia around 3,000 BCE, and was used as a pack animal throughout the ancient Middle East; but it wasn’t until the Roman period that domesticated camels made their way to the Sahara Desert —

Whose name, by the way, means “the Desert Desert.”

— and helped speed up the exchange of goods and ideas throughout Northern and Western Africa.

The Kushites, Aksumites, Egyptians and Carthaginians — along with other ancient empires — had all traded widely along the North African coastline. But when the domesticated camel arrived in the Sahara, wealthy Mediterranean traders began probing westward across the desert; and the growing kingdoms of interior West Africa linked up with Mediterranean culture for the first time in history.

A Wagadu king
A Wagadu king

Around 300 CE, the most powerful of these kingdoms was that of the Soninke, descendants of Central Saharan peoples related to the modern Mauritanians. As early as 2500 BCE, these people’s ancestors had built settlements of masonry buildings throughout West Africa — many of those towns arrayed along clear street layouts, surrounded by massive fortified walls — and traded widely with people throughout the Sahara, producing distinctive copper jewelry set with rare stones from faraway lands.

Oral tradition holds that at some point in the 300s, the Soninke people migrated from somewhere in the Sahara to arrive in what’s now Mauritania, where they founded the city of Koumbi Saleh on the rim of the desert. From this base, they began to create a state that would soon become known as the Kingdom of Wagadu —referred to as “Ghana” by later Arab travelers (not to be confused with the modern Republic of Ghana).

The Kingdom of Wagadu — or Ghana — at its height
The Kingdom of Wagadu — or Ghana — at its height

The people of the Kingdom of Wagadu mainly spoke the Soninke language, along with a collection of other Mande languages related to those spoken in West Africa today — some which were probably also spoken by the Soninke ancestors —

Who built those stone towns 4,000 years ago.

Wagadu was ruled by a powerful emperor, who ostensibly sat at the peak of the social pyramid — but in reality, his power was often checked by influential nobles; not to mention the wealthy traders who financed the empire.

Almost every position in Wagadu society was hereditary: the king could only come from among the tunnkalemm, or princely class; who stood at the uppermost echelon of the hooru, or noble class — which also included the mangu, trusted advisors and confidants; the kuralemme, or warriors; and the modinu, or priests.

The Wagadu throne room
The Wagadu throne room

Next came the naxamala, who might roughly be defined as “craftsmen.” This class included the tago, or blacksmiths, who produced weapons, tools and jewelry; the sakko, or carpenters — who, interestingly, were also valued for their ability to communicate with forest spirits — the jaroo, bards and orators; and the garanko, leather-workers and cobblers.

At the very bottom, of course, were komo, slaves; who made up the bulk of the Wagadu population, and handled any task too strenuous or distasteful for their masters. We have very little information about the treatment of slaves in Wagadu society, but it’s clear that slavery was widely practiced.

Statue of a man from the Kingdom of Ghana
Statue of a man from the Kingdom of Ghana

People of each Wagadu caste were generally forbidden to marry those from any other — although there are some records of priests “marrying upward.” As in many West African societies today, courtship involved lavish gifts from the man’s family to the woman’s — along with formal promises to provide the in-laws with food on holidays and other special occasions.

In the Wagadu Kingdom’s early years, the people practiced a form of animistic spirituality closely related to ancient indigenous practices; many of which are still observed in West Africa even now. People would have perceived no sharp distinctions between the material world, the world of the dead, the world of spirits and the world of dreams. They would have seen all things as having souls, and believed that to know a thing’s “true name” was to hold power over it. For this reason, the ancient Soninke — like many peoples who practice animistic spirituality today — probably had one “public name,” and another “secret name,”

Known only to themselves and a close confidant.

From the 300s to the early 800s, Soninke generals and builders expanded outward throughout what’s now Mali and Mauritania, taking control of more trans-Saharan trade routes — specializing in gold, salt, copper, kola nuts and ivory.

The Wagadu cities grew richer, their territory grew broader, and soon their kings were living in great walled palace complexes built in the distinctive Sudano-Sahelian architectural style, surrounded by gardens watered by deep freshwater wells. Other areas of the cities were filled with large “domed buildings” and smaller houses — desert oases where vegetable gardens drew their water from wells of their own.

A street in Oualata, Mauritania today
A street in Oualata, Mauritania today

Meanwhile, from the 600s onward, the resistance of Wagadu’s North African neighbors was rapidly collapsing before the armies of Islam. Although no contemporary sources describe the exact sequence of events, it’s clear that by the 800s, Wagadu had firmly converted to Islam, too. In Koumbi Saleh, architects built at least twelve mosques, and trained many Islamic scholars, scribes and jurists. In fact, Muslim sources report that Koumbi Saleh was —

Recognized as a major educational center in its heyday.

Understandably, this Wagadu expansion heightened tensions with the kingdom’s Sahara-dwelling Berber neighbors (also Muslim by this point), who had always felt cheated out of their share of the trade-route wealth — probably a valid sentiment, since it was Berbers who ran most of the trade caravans. When the Wagadu army captured the Berber city of Aoudaghost, the Berbers decided they’d finally had enough.

Wagadu people battling Berbers
Wagadu people battling Berbers

By the 1000s CE — the time of the First Crusade from Europe to Jerusalem — the Berbers had grown powerful enough to fight back against the Wagadu. Many of them had been incorporated into the powerful Almoravid dynasty of Morocco, which had already conquered large chunks of Spain, where they’d founded the Islamic kingdom of Al-Andalus. In the 1070s —

The Almoravids turned their attention west to “Ghana.”

The war lasted decades, and it wreaked catastrophic damage. With armies criss-crossing the land, trans-Saharan trade largely ceased flowing — cutting the Wagadu off from their primary source of wealth and influence. Cities like Audaghost fell into ruin and dropped off the map. Perhaps most devastatingly of all, the Berbers grazed their flocks on Wagadu cropland — wiping out the food supply and turning the oasis back into desert.

A modern Mauritanian man waters his camels at a desert well. Photo copyright Mitchell Kanashkevich.
A modern Mauritanian man waters his camels at a desert well. Photo copyright Mitchell Kanashkevich.

Despite all this, the Wagadu armies actually managed to expel the invaders — but their lands and trade routes had taken more damage than they could rebuild. In the early 1200s, a dynasty of the Sosso people, another Mande group, took advantage of the opportunity to capture the city of Koumbi Saleh, along with a few other Wagadu cities.

Sosso rule, however, lasted less than 40 years.

Slowly but surely, the majority of Wagadu’s people — like the last imperial Kushites and Aksumites before them — were drifting back out into the desert, returning to the nomadic pastoralist ways of life practiced by their ancestors, and by many people in North and West Africa today.

But others stayed put — to hitch their fortunes to a new rising empire that was sweeping through West Africa. It’s with this empire that we enter our next chapter — and one of the most glorious ages of African history.

The ruins of ancient Koumbi Saleh today
The ruins of ancient Koumbi Saleh today

4.

Imagine a billionaire arriving with his entourage in London, or Las Vegas, or Rome; and completely taking over an entire city block— turning a five-star restaurant into his exclusive kitchen; a skyscraper into his private office; a museum into his personal art gallery. The CEO brings along hundreds of aides and assistants, all of them clad in designer clothes, driving luxury cars. At each stop along the way, he instantly turns ordinary people into millionaires with a single swipe of his credit card.

It’s hard to imagine any modern mogul willing to flash that kind of cash —

But that doesn’t even begin to describe Musa’s pilgrimage.

In the year 1327, the mansa (emperor) Musa Keita I of Mali decided to set off on hajj (pilgrimage) for Mecca. Adjusted for inflation, Musa’s personal fortune amounted to $400 billion — more than the GDP of Austria — making him the richest human being in all history.

According to eyewitnesses, Musa’s traveling entourage consisted of no less than 60,000 people — the population of a mid-sized town — including a “personal retinue” of 12,000 slaves, all clad in the finest Persian silk. The emperor himself rode on horseback; and in front of him walked 500 slaves, each of them carrying a staff adorned with gold. His baggage train of 80 camels carried 50 to 300 pounds of gold apiece.

Mansa Musa I
Mansa Musa I

All this wealth wasn’t just for show. Along the journey — from his capital of Timbuktu, close to the heart of the old Wagadu (Ghana) empire, through Cairo, across the Red Sea and into Arabia, Musa and his entourage spent gold lavishly at every stop, paying for the construction of at least 12 mosques. Legend had it that Musa commissioned a new mosque every single week — and although this is almost certainly an exaggeration, sources make it clear that he and his people did make enormous donations to the poor.

Musa’s spending attracted so much attention in Cairo that the sultan himself (Al-Malik al-Nāṣir) became annoyed — although that may have been for more practical reasons: Musa threw around so much gold in Cairo that the local currency dropped in value —

Creating a 12-year recession in Cairo’s economy.

It’s not hard to recognize this journey for what it truly was: an advertising campaign, broadcasting to the wider Muslim world — and to Europe — that a bold new power had risen in West Africa.

It worked. In Mecca, Musa rubbed shoulders with the royal elite of Islamic kingdoms throughout Europe and Asia, which — quite literally — stamped Mansa Musa on the map.

Musa was lucky his gamble paid off — on the way back, he had to borrow “all the gold he could carry.”

The court of Mansa Musa
The court of Mansa Musa

Who was this man — and who were his people? How did the Mali Empire amass such outrageous wealth, yet still find themselves so ignored that they had to stage a cripplingly expensive publicity stunt in order to get noticed?

The story begins with the fall of the Kingdom of Wagadu.

Remember, when we last left our Wagadu friends in the mid-1200s, they’d been worn down to exhaustion by years of all-out war against the Moroccan Almoravids and their Berber allies. Their empire was rapidly falling apart; they were losing control of cities and trade routes every year, under constant attack by invading dynasties like the Sosso.

Deep within the Wagadu Kingdom was a province known as Manden. All the way back to the 1000s, Manden had been ruled by loyal kings known as faamas, who came from the Mandinka people (also known as the Malinke).

According to the Epic of Sundiata, the national epic of the Mandinka people, Manden’s real trouble started when Wagadu power began to crumble, and the Sosso dynasty invaded — levying impossible taxes on the Mandinka, kidnapping their women, and creating an atmosphere of terror in the land.

But in the early 1200s — just as the Kingdom of Wagadu was suffering its final collapse —

A great Mandinka hero was born.

Prince Sundiata gathered all 12 Manden kingdoms into an alliance, along with the core of the Wagadu army, as well as the army of a city-state called Mema. This alliance launched a fierce rebellion against the Sosso, scored a decisive victory at the Battle of Kirina, and expelled their enemies from the land. Sundiata was declared faama of faamas — and also mansa, emperor of all 12 kingdoms of the Manden alliance, including Mema and the remnants of Wagadu — at the age of 18.

The triumph of Sundiata
The triumph of Sundiata

By the mid-1300s, Sundiata’s descendants, known as the Keita dynasty, had expanded their Mali Empire to encompass large parts of what’s now Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bassau, Ivory Coast, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal.

This would prove to be the largest and longest-lived empire

— and certainly the wealthiest, ever seen in West Africa, before or since. The name of the Keitas has become synonymous with Mali in African history. In fact, even the current president of Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, has the same surname taken by Sundiata.

The Mali Empire at its peak, circa 1337 CE
The Mali Empire at its peak, circa 1337 CE

The mansas of Mali held their empire together using a very clever administrative approach (which also worked well for the Achaemenids and Sasanians in Persia): they trusted local rulers to run things at the village level, according to their own customs and laws.

Village elders reported to county administrators, who reported in turn to province governors, chosen by election. As long as the tax money kept flowing to Timbuktu, no problem. If a governor got a bit too greedy, though, the mansa himself might step in —

And install a more trustworthy administrator.

Like the Kushites, Aksumites and Wagadu before them, the Mali Empire drew most of its wealth from trade. Since the Mali people were occupying many of the same lands as the Wagadu, it’s no surprise that they also mined enormous amounts of gold — and traded heavily in salt and copper, across the Sahara and along the West African coast.

The mansas put their vast wealth to practical use, imitating the Sahalo-Sudanese architectural style of their Wagadu predecessors — but carrying it to greater heights than ever before. Their sprawling palaces and mosques remain among the world’s largest surviving mud-brick buildings.

The Royal Palace of Timbuktu
The Royal Palace of Timbuktu

This empire’s people spoke several distantly related languages, including Mandinka, Malinke, Fulani and Bozo. Although the state religion was unquestionably Islam, it’s unclear how much of the indigenous animistic religion survived among the common people, as it had survived under the Wagadu — and still survives in many areas of West Africa today.

Daily life in Timbuktu
Daily life in Timbuktu

Since the days of Sundiata, the Mali Empire’s military had been organized into 16 clans, each reporting to a ton-tigi or “quiver-master” — a feudal landowner rich enough to own a horse and armor. Beneath the ton-tigi, men known as kèlè-koun, “war-heads,” commanded the infantry, who may have numbered as many as 90,000 men at the empire’s peak.

They were famous for their javelins and fire-arrows.

By the 1400s, the military had grown into a tightly organized force led by land-owning knights called farariya, who led an entire hierarchy of warriors, each distinguished according to his rank by the cut of his trousers and the gold bracelets on his ankles. Infantry units were led by local clan chiefs, and individual fame clearly played a major part in military morale. In fact, Mali infantrymen prided themselves on carrying their own personalized weapons into battle, and relished opportunities to grapple with enemies face-to-face.

People in modern Mali still reenact the empire’s battles.
People in modern Mali still reenact the empire’s battles.

The imperial line of the Keitas reigned in splendor for about 300 years — but by the late 1500s, the cracks were starting to show. Every great empire collapses due to a wide range of interlocking causes, and the Mali Empire was no exception. The Kingdom of Songhai was rising in the north, swallowing up Mali territory, including the city of Mema. The Kaabu Empire appeared on the coast —

And began devouring the western provinces.

Perhaps not even a great mansa could have saved Mali from its fate — but Mansa Mahmud Keita III, who came to power in 1496, was far from great. He tried to forge an alliance with Portuguese traders — who, perhaps sensing that his empire was unravelling, chose not to partner with him. He lost numerous battles against the Songhai — spearheading a few successful counterattacks, but mostly getting pushed back toward Timbuktu.

Mahmud III’s successor, Mahmud Keita IV, handled the army much better. He equipped his troops with firearms for the first time in Mali’s history, and inflicted a string of serious defeats on the Songhai — and for a while, it looked like Mali and Songhai might share West Africa as rough equals.

In the end, though, the Mali Empire was undone not by external enemies, but by internal rivalries. Mahmud IV’s three sons — each claiming the title of mansa — fought for control of the empire, and tore it into three separate kingdoms. In 1630, a people known as the Bamana tore through those kingdoms, gutting the Manden cities and seizing control of the Niger River. The last generation of mansas fled their cities —

And the Kingdom of Manden was no more.

But the cities, the trade routes and the cultural core of Mali remained in place. Even as governments came and went, the cities, architectural styles, food, clothing and religion all remained firmly in place. Timbuktu is still an inhabited city in Mali, where people still speak the Mandinka, Maninke, Fulani and Bozo languages spoken in the days of the empire.

The Great Mosque of Djenné, in modern-day Mali — a reconstruction of the original, which was built in the 1200s
The Great Mosque of Djenné, in modern-day Mali — a reconstruction of the original, which was built in the 1200s

5.

Across thousands of years, Africa was recognized throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean as one of the great global centers; a cultural anvil that hammered out powerful militaries, influential technologies, and wealth by the boatload.

But by the 1800s, the rest of the world seemed to have forgotten all about Aksum, Wagadu and Mali.

Such a massive loss of prestige demands explanation.

Thus, I’d be shortchanging you here if I didn’t explain that Africa’s loss of historical renown occurred due to deliberate, calculated effort by European writers.

While slavery and slave-trading had been practiced in some African cultures since time immemorial, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw an explosion of aggressive colonial expansion by European powers like France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, England, Holland and Spain. This “Scramble for Africa” was justified by the myth of the sub-Saharan “savage,” who had never created any “real civilization” of his own.

The "Scramble for Africa"
The “Scramble for Africa”

At least some nineteenth-century Europeans must have known this myth of savagery was false. Invaders would have seen the Nubian Pyramids and the ruins of Aksum as they pressed westward and southward into the continent. What’s more, literate Europeans surely encountered Roman, medieval and Arabic mentions of their powerful African contemporaries, whose rulers traveled to meet as equals with their fellow kings.

All the same, European writers from the 1870s to the 1930s churned out “tendentious and Eurocentric” accounts of African culture, spreading the idea of Africa as a “dark continent.” Many Europeans celebrated colonialism as a “civilizing mission.” Still more atrocious was the philosophy of “Social Darwinism” (never endorsed by Charles Darwin himself) which claimed that African peoples had always been “culturally inferior” because they were “genetically inferior” to Europeans.

I wonder what the San people have to say about that!

However, as more African peoples threw off their colonial chains, especially from the 1950s onward, African and international scholars began to fight back against this smear campaign.

Experts churned out thousands of books and papers that not only debunked European colonialist dogma, but also argued for an active “rehabilitation” of African historiography, energized by people of African descent.

Timeline of African empires
Timeline of African empires

Today, African archaeologists, geneticists, linguists and historians partner with teams from all over the world — and a new generation of curious travelers are coming to see the wonders of Mali and the natural beauty of Ethiopia for themselves (I spent a few days in Addis Ababa just this summer, and I highly recommend it).

Africa’s road to cultural recognition has been a long, hard one — and even now, the continent’s history is nowhere near fully rehabilitated from the damage done by colonialist writers. Many archaeological sites are astonishingly under-studied, the scholarly literature remains notably undersized, and many ancient African cultures are still very poorly understood in comparison to their European and Asian contemporaries.

But despite all this, one thing remains abundantly clear:

Africa has never been a “dark” continent.

All the way back to the earliest days of humankind, it’s always been a center of light and life; a forge of innovation and creativity; a stage for breathtaking pageantry and drama.

The kingdoms of gold deserve to be remembered for their brilliance.

Bibliography

  1. The Antiquity of Man by Mike Brass
  2. Ethiopia, the Unknown Land by Stuart Munro-Hay
  3. Ancient African Civilizations: Kush and Axum by Stanley Mayer Burstein
  4. Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity by Stuart Munro-Hay
  5. The Empire of Ghana by Rebecca L. Green
  6. Ghana by by Rodrigo Quijada Plubins, Ancient History Encyclopedia
  7. Ghana: A West African Trading Empire by Teachers’ Curriculum Institute
  8. The Empire of Mali by Carol Thompson
  9. Mansa Musa and the Empire of Mali by P. James Oliver

3 thoughts on “Four Great African Empires That Astonished the World

  1. Hi Mr Thomas,

    My name is Sam Dresser and I’m an editor at Aeon Magazine (aeon.co). I’ve very much enjoyed your writing and was wondering if you would like to write for us? If so, do send me an email at sam.dresser@aeon.co. (Apologies leaving a comment – couldn’t find your email address elsewhere!)

    All best,

    Sam

  2. Thank you so much for this article! I have to confess, I didn’t know much about the history of Africa (having had the wool pulled over my eyes by the European smear campaign you mentioned) but I am consciously trying to rectify that. And your writing is a great jumping off point. Thank you! Please keep it up.

  3. Thank you so much for this awesome article. This means a lot to me and my people. I am very interested in learning more about my African heritage and history. I am very intrigued by your writing and it has captivated my creativity. I look forward to reading more of your writings concerning this very special topic. God bless you in all of your endeavors.

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