History is blessed with stories of ancient African empires and kingdoms that were powerful during their time. Although most of these kingdoms collapsed with the coming of the Europeans, it is worth mentioning that during their heyday, they held sway and was the epitome of civilization.
During the sixth to the thirteenth century, Europe was experiencing its Dark Ages. This was one period of cultural, intellectual and economic regression. On the other hand, entire Africa was experiencing a renaissance.
Africa would later experience its civilization and rebirth with the rise of the Axum Empire, the Mossi kingdom, the Ethiopian empire, the Kingdom of Ghana, the Songhai Empire, the Benin Empire, and the Mali Empire.
Below is a list of these empires and why everyone should be talking about them.
Historians believe the empire was founded by the Sabaeans, a Semitic-speaking people, who crossed the Red Sea from modern-day Yemen on the basis of Conti Rossini’s theories. However, most scholars would now agree that when it was founded it was an indigenous African development.
The Axum Empire was one of the only major international superpowers of its day together with Persia, Rome, and China. The Axum Empire controlled several territories including southern Egypt, northern Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea, northern Sudan, southern Saudi Arabia, and Western Yemen, totaling about 1.25 million square kilometers, almost half the size of India. Trades from Axum expanded further afield into India and China with coins minted in Axum later discovered in 1990.
The Mossi Kingdom
The Mossi Kingdom in present-day Burkina Faso dominated the region of the Upper Volta River for about hundreds of years. The Mossi kingdom was powerful but later got into larger conflicts with regional powers. In 1328 and 1477 respectively, the Kingdom of Yatenga became a key power attacking the Songhai Empire. They took over Timbuktu and pillaged the important trading post of Macina.
In 1497, when Askia Mohammad has crowned the leader of the Songhai Empire with the desire to spread Islam, he waged a Holy War against the Mossi kingdom. Though the Mossi forces were defeated in this effort, they resisted attempts to have Islam imposed on them. There were a number of jihadi states in the region trying to forcibly spread
Islam, including Massina Empire and the Sokoto Caliphate, but the Mossi kingdom largely retained its traditional religious and ritual practices.
The Mossi kingdom developed a mixed religious system recognizing some authority for Islam while retaining earlier African spiritual belief systems since it was located near many of the main Islamic states of West Africa.
The Ethiopian Empire
Fondly called “Abyssinia”, the Ethiopian Empire covered a geographical area that is in the present-day northern half of Ethiopia. The Zagwe Kingdom was overthrown in 1270 by a king claiming a descendant of one of the Aksumite emperors named Solomon. The Solomonic Dynasty was founded and ruled by the Habesha, from whom Abyssinia derived its name. It began from about 1137 and lasted until 1975 when the monarchy was overthrown in a coup.
Through 1270 until the late 20th century, the reign of Habesha was in full sway and had only a few interruptions. It was under this dynasty that most of Ethiopia’s modern history took place. Within this period, the empire conquered and incorporated virtually all the peoples within modern Ethiopia. They successfully fought off Italian, Arab and Turkish armies and made fruitful connections with some European powers, especially the Portuguese, with whom they allied in the battle against the latter two occupiers.
Kingdom of Ghana
Unarguably one of the biggest and perhaps powerful of the seven listed here, the kingdom of Ghana dominated West Africa from 750 and 1078 A.D. popularly known to North Africans as the “Land of Gold,” Ghana was known to possess highly sophisticated methods of administration and taxation, a large army, and control over notoriously well-concealed gold mines. This was completely centered in present-day Senegal and Mauritania.
The preeminence of Islam in this kingdom was actually slim as the king of the Soninke people who founded Ghana never really embraced Islam. However, good relations with Muslim traders were nurtured and maintained.
Ghana’s power and wealth were derived from gold. Camel and horses were the main transportation system in ancient times.
One of the greatest military powers in Africa then was Ghana. King then had at his powers over 200,000 warriors with additional 40,000 archers.
The Songhai Empire
Also known as the Songhai Empire, the Songhai Empire was the largest state in African history and the most powerful of the West African states. The Songhai Empire expanded swiftly beginning with King Sonni Ali in the 1460s. By the 1500s, the entire empire had grown to stretch from Cameroon to the Maghreb in northern Africa.
However, the Songhai Empire got weakened in 1360 over disputes on succession. In the 1430s, Songhai, previously a Mali protectorate, gained independence under the Sonni Dynasty. Sonni Sulayman Dama attacked Mema thirty years later in the Mali province west of Timbuktu, paving the way for his successor, Sonni Ali, to turn his country into one of the greatest empires in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Kingdon of Benin occupied an area that is now located in present-day south-central Nigeria.
The King of Benin was so effective that in a single day, he could mobilize 20,000 men and get them ready for war if need be. Because of this, he had great influence among all the surrounding peoples. The king’s powers and authority covered many cities, towns, and villages.
The founding of the present-day “oba” of Benin dynasty traces its roots back to A.D. 1300. Then a pre-colonial Edo state, until the late 19th century, Benin was one of the major powers in West Africa. Olfert Dapper was quoted in his report saying, “When European merchant ships began to visit West Africa from the 15th century onwards, Benin came to control the trade between the inland peoples and the Europeans on the coast. When the British tried to expand their own trade in the 19th century, the Benin warriors killed their envoys”.
The Mali Empire
Founded by Mansa (King) Sundiata Keita, the Kurukan Fuga of the Mali Empire was established after 1235 by an assembly of nobles to create a government for the newly established empire. Sundiata Keita then became famous for the wealth of its rulers, mostly Mansa Musa. Mansa was the grandson of Sundiata’s half-brother. He led Mali at a time of great prosperity, during which trade tripled. Mansa Musa, during his rule, doubled the land area of Mali making it became a larger kingdom than any in Europe at the time.
The Kurukan Fouga divided the new empire into ruling clans that were represented at a great assembly called the Gbara. The Gbara was the deliberative body of the Mali Empire and was composed of 32 members from around 29 clans. They were given a voice in the government and served a check against the emperor’s (Mansa’s) power. It was presided over by a belen-tigui (master of ceremonies) who recognized anyone who wanted to speak including the Mansa. The Gbara and the Kurukan Fuga remained effectively in place for over 400 years until 1645.
Malian cities became important trading centers for all of West Africa, as well as famous centers of wealth, culture and learning. Timbuktu, an important city in Mali, became one of the outstanding cultural centers not only within Africa but of the entire world. Enormous libraries and Islamic universities were built for research purposes. These became meeting places of the finest poets, scholars, and artists from Africa and the rest of the Middle East.