World History 1 240 - 15.2.1 The Ghana Empire

By the turn of the ninth century, Arab rulers in Morocco were minting gold coins called dinars on behalf of the Islamic Caliphate. The official currency of the Muslim world since the end of the seventh century, the dinar was an important link connecting the sprawling Arab empire then centered on Baghdad. The gold used to mint those coins in Morocco came from a kingdom south of the Sahara known as Ghana, a realm the Arab governor of Morocco attempted and failed to conquer (and not to be confused with the modern nation-state of Ghana).

The Ghana Empire dominated the region between western Mali and southeastern Mauritania from the sixth to the thirteenth centuries. Although ancient trade-based societies had existed in the region for some time by enriching themselves on the area’s lucrative salt and gold, the introduction of the Arabian camel by the Romans between the third and fifth centuries CE, and the consequent regularization of trade between Morocco and the Niger River, allowed larger political entities to emerge. Until then, the development of farming and ironworking technology had supported West African clan-based societies in small, simple villages. Sometime around the fifth century, however, a group of chiefdoms in the Sahel grassland south of the Sahara formed a loosely knit empire—that is, the empire or kingdom of Ghana (Figure 15.11).

A map is shown with water highlighted blue and land highlighted beige. The Mediterranean Sea is located to the north, the Strait of Gibraltar is located in the northwest, and the Red Sea is labelled in the east. The Suez Canal is labelled in the eastern portion of the Mediterranean. The Nile R., the Blue Nile R., the White Nile R., Lake Tana, Lake Chad, the Niger R., the Senegal R., and the Benue R. are labelled in Africa. Asia is labelled in the northeast, Arabia is labelled in the east, and the large land mass shown in the south of the map is labelled Africa. A western area in Africa is labelled Ghana Empire and an area to the northeast is labelled Egypt. Red dashed lines crisscross Africa connecting the following cities, labelled with black dots, from west to east: Marrakech, Sijilmasa, Zawila, Cairo, Khufra, Awdaghost, Timbuktu, Gao, Agadez, Kanem-Bornu, Bilma, Suakin, Djenne, and Zeila. The city of Zinder is labelled south of Bilma. A black dot is shown northeast of the city of Suakin in Arabia and also connected with a red dashed line.
Figure 15.11 The growth and development of Ghana, the first of the great medieval West African empires, were tied to its trade in goods and commodities across North Africa. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

Although the origins of the Ghana Empire are shrouded in mystery, one theory holds that it was founded by Soninke speakers from Senegal who referred to their kingdom as Wagadu (Ghana, the name by which it was known to outsiders, was one of the titles of its king). Soninke oral tradition tells us that the kingdom was founded by Diabe Cisse, a powerful figure whose father Dinga, a nomadic mystic, was said to have conquered a female water genie. Dinga subsequently wed the genie’s daughters. Sons resulted from the union of these women and Dinga, and their descendants established important Soninke families. Cisse’s arrival as a son of Dinga, an outsider, marked a turning point in the history of the region, then subject to the destabilizing effects of nomadic raids.

With the drying out of the Sahara, the Sanhaja people of southern Morocco pressed deeper into the Sahel in their search for water and seasonal grazing land. During drought years, their migrations took the form of violent raids on settled agricultural communities, including those of the Soninke. In response, Soninke cavalry commanders turned to Cisse; tradition holds that Cisse unified the Soninke in a loose federation to combat the raiders and to expand the kingdom.

The early growth of Ghana was a slow process of conquering independent chiefdoms and kingdoms and then absorbing them into the empire. At the empire’s core were four central provinces established by Diabe Cisse when he first unified the Soninke. Conquered vassal chiefdoms and kingdoms occupied the periphery of the kingdom. Some of these vassal states operated fairly independently of the central administration and paid only a small amount of tribute; other states were controlled to some extent by the capital. As the kingdom expanded, so too did its military. When Ghana reached the apex of its power in the early eleventh century CE, its king had some 200,000 soldiers at his command.

The Soninke response to nomadic raiders was only one factor that may have stimulated unification during the early period of Ghanaian history. Historians believe Ghana’s position with regard to trade was another. Ghana grew powerful, and its kings became wealthy on the strength of the trans-Saharan trade, which the Soninke were ideally placed to exploit. Situated in the western Sahel, they stood halfway between the desert—the principal source of salt—and the territory of Bambuk—where goldfields were located along the upper reaches of the Senegal River. Initially, the Soninke had exchanged their gold surplus for salt harvested by the Taghaza people of the Sahara, but soon cross-desert traffic by camel allowed North Africans access to West African gold. As the trans-Saharan demand for gold increased, the Soninke were able to act as intermediaries, passing Saharan salt to the gold producers of the savanna woodland to their south.

Despite stories that celebrate Ghana as a “land of gold,” its kings’ control over the Bambuk goldfields was tenuous. Located far to the south, the goldfields were beyond Ghiyaru, the kingdom’s southernmost trading post. The chief of the nearest village had local authority over the mining area, and while Ghanaian rulers were able to enforce a strict monopoly on gold nuggets above an ounce in weight, the difficulties of digging mine shafts up to sixty feet deep and transporting the gold to the capital at Koumbi Saleh (southern Mauritania today), which could take upward of eighteen days, made Ghanaian dominance precarious. Yet the empire’s wealth was legendary, and its reputation spread throughout North Africa and into Europe and reached Muslim scholars as far away as Baghdad.

In Their Own Words

Eleventh-Century Islamic Eyewitnesses to the Ghana Empire

Arab writers and Soninke oral tradition emphasize that the Ghana Empire derived much of its power and wealth from gold. Al-Hamdani, a tenth-century Arab scholar, described Ghana as having the richest goldmines on earth. al-Bakri, his near-contemporary who spent most of his life in Cordova and Almeria in Islamic Spain, wrote about Ghana after gathering information from merchants and visitors. In the following excerpt from the Book of Roads and Kingdoms (1067–1068), al-Bakri describes Koumbi Saleh and the appearance and customs of the king and the court.

Ghana consists of two cities situated on a plain. One of these, which is inhabited by Muslims, is large and possesses twelve mosques, in which they assemble for the Friday prayer. There are salaried imams [prayer leaders] and muezzins [prayer callers], as well as jurists and scholars. In the environs are wells with fresh water, from which they drink and with which they grow vegetables. The king’s town is six miles distant from this one [. . .] In the king’s town, and not far from his court of justice, is a mosque where the Muslims who arrive at his court pray. Around the king’s town are domed buildings and groves and thickets where the sorcerers of these people, men in charge of the religious cult, live. In them too are their idols and the tombs of their kings. [. . .]

The king’s interpreters, the official in charge of his treasury, and the majority of his ministers are Muslims. Among the people who follow the king’s religion, only he and his heir apparent (who is the son of his sister) may wear sewn clothes. All other people wear robes of cotton, silk, or brocade, according to their means. All of them shave their beards, and women shave their heads. The king adorns himself like a woman, wearing necklaces and bracelets, and he puts on a high cap decorated with gold and wrapped in a turban of fine cotton. [. . .] When the people who profess the same religion as the king approach him they fall on their knees and sprinkle dust on their head, for this is their way of greeting him. As for the Muslims, they greet him only by clapping their hands . . . .

—al-Bakri, Book of Roads and Kingdoms

  • What does this reading suggest about the expansion of Islam into this area by this time?
  • What aspects of this excerpt suggest that the king of Ghana was both wealthy and powerful?

Ghanaian wealth derived from other commodities as well, including copper (on which the king levied a hefty custom duty) and captives. Many captives were often prisoners of war. Others had been seized in enslavement raids. In the twelfth century, the Moroccan geographer al-Idrisi, recounted a Ghanaian slave raid on a region named Lamlam: “The people of . . . Ghana make excursion in Lamlam bringing natives into captivity, transporting them to their own country and selling them to merchants.” Al-Idrisi’s observations were confirmed by his contemporary, al-Zuhri. Scholars have estimated that during the height of the Ghana Empire, some five thousand captives were transported across the Sahara to slave markets in North Africa every year.

During the eleventh century, the Ghanaians’ tolerance was sorely tested, however. The people welcomed Muslim traders, but radical reformist Islamic sects in Morocco threatened their peace and prosperity. Early in the century, the kingdom had expanded to take over the Islamic town of Awdaghost, an oasis north of the capital. At about the same time, a militant Islamic Almoravid movement emerged among the Sanhaja people of the southern Sahara, who soon established an empire centered on Morocco. In 1055, they captured Awdaghost, and in the ensuing religious strife and sectarian warfare, the Soninke Ghanaians converted to Islam. The wider destruction caused by violence had so weakened Ghana’s trading links that by the end of the twelfth century, it had lost its dominant position over the region’s trade. Having been thoroughly Islamized, Ghana began to produce Muslim scholars, lawyers, and Quran readers of some repute, many traveling to Islamic Spain to study or going on pilgrimage to Mecca.

The eleventh and twelfth centuries were a transitional time in the history of the kingdoms of West Africa. As Ghana expanded and was in turn conquered, new goldfields were opened at Bure in the woodland savanna south of Bambuk, well beyond Ghana’s commercial reach. Itinerant Soninke traders transported the gold from Bure to the Middle Niger region on new trans-Saharan trade routes east of Awdaghost that bypassed the Ghanaian capital and shifted the caravans of North Africa to Oualata (Walata). These changes provided the southern Soninke and Malinke chiefdoms the chance to assert their independence. In the early 1200s, the southern Soninke chiefdom of Sosso took over most of former Ghana as well as the Malinke people. This set the stage for a struggle for Malinke independence against the Sosso, which ultimately led to the creation of the Sudanese kingdom of Mali.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax