They turned a Saharan trade route into a world-class center of Islamic learning. Meet the first medieval empire in West African history.
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 tall, long-legged, bad-tempered 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, and helped speed up the exchange of goods and ideas throughout Northern and Western Africa.
Musical accompaniment for this story:
The Kushites (whom you met in Part 2 of this series), the Aksumites (whom you met in Part 3), and the Egyptians and Carthaginians — along with many other ancient empires — had conducted sea-based trade along the North African coastline since time immemorial.
But when the domesticated camel arrived in North Africa, traders could finally cross the forbidding Sahara Desert — which meant that at long last, they could reach Africa’s west coast by land.
As caravans began probing westward across the desert, a flood of new trade routes opened up — and the growing kingdoms of interior West Africa linked up with Mediterranean culture for the first time in history.
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 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 ancient Mande languages 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.
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.
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.
Wagadu people saw all things as having souls, and believed that to know a thing’s “true name” was to hold power over it.
For this reason, ancient Soninke people probably had one “public name,” as well as 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.
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, Islamic scholars noted that Mali’s metropolis of Koumbi Saleh was recognized as a major educational center in its heyday.
Understandably, this Wagadu expansion heightened tensions with the kingdom’s Sahara-dwelling Amazigh (“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 Imazighen who ran most of the trade caravans. When the Wagadu army captured the Amazigh city of Aoudaghost, the Imazighen decided they’d finally had enough.
By the 1000s CE — the time of the First Crusade from Europe to Jerusalem — the Imazighen 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, including the Islamic Caliphate of Al-Andalus.
In the 1070s, Almoravid armies turned directed their assault westward into Wagadu territory. This war lasted decades, and it wreaked catastrophic damage.
With myriad warriors and untold number of mercenaries 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 Almoravid conquerors grazed their flocks on Wagadu cropland — wiping out the food supply and turning the oasis back into desert.
Despite all these catastrophes, Wagadu fighters 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. But Sosso rule 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 and hitched 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 Africa’s past.
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