World History 2 35 - 3.2.1 The Rise of Imperial Songhai

The earliest dynasty of kings of the Songhai state was the Za , which tradition and later historical records suggest ruled the kingdom during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Tradition also holds that the first fourteen rulers of the Songhai state, which was initially centered on Kukiya, approximately eighty miles southeast of Gao, were jahiliyyah (“ignorant of God”); jahiliyyah is a word used by Muslims to describe the ignorance of people before gaining knowledge of Islam. Sometime in the 1000s, the dynasty converted to Islam, possibly under Za Kusay. It was also at some point during this period that the political focus of the kingdom shifted from Kukiya to Gao.

As kola nuts, dates, ivory, salt, leather, enslaved people, and gold passed through the capital, traders and merchants prospered. While a boon locally, the prosperity of Gao drew the attention of the new and expansionistic West African kingdom of Mali, which annexed Gao around 1325. This was the heyday of imperial Mali, and for the next century, its rulers profited from Gao’s trade and collected taxes from its kings.

Link to Learning

To learn more about the Songhai Empire, watch The Songhai Empire: Africa’s Age of Gold and consider why it is called a cosmopolitan empire. What was unique about Timbuktu?

The annexation of Gao greatly expanded the Malian Empire, but it did not last. Periodic rebellions by the peoples of Timbuktu, Takedda, and Gao, coupled with invasions from the north, civil war, and a struggling economy, caused Gao’s Malian rulers to withdraw from the region in the 1430s. The leader of the Songhai rebels at Gao, Sunni Ali, became the first king of the new Songhai Empire. From his capital at Gao, Sunni Ali engaged in a war of conquest against his Muslim neighbors. Marshalling his massive cavalry and fleet of war canoes, the king extended his empire into the desert in the north and as far as Djenné in the southwest. In the late fifteenth century, his army pushed southward beyond the Niger and raided deep into the Volta River Basin, encroaching on the territory of the Mossi, multiple linguistic groups whose cultures differed but who were loosely connected politically.

In 1468, Sunni Ali sacked Timbuktu. He drove its Amazigh governor from the city, killed many of its scholars, and forced others into exile. Sunni Ali’s conquest of Timbuktu earned him a reputation as a butcher and a tyrant. “He perpetuated terrible wickedness in the city, putting it to flame, sacking it, and killing large numbers of people,” one chronicler from Timbuktu recorded. Sunni Ali’s assault on the scholarly community at Timbuktu prompted the survivors’ exodus to Oualata, leading to a significant decline in Islamic scholarship at Timbuktu. Many of the merchants who had thrived under the city’s Tuareg overlords also fled. As a result, the city slipped into a period of economic decline and did not recover until after Sunni Ali’s death.

It was not enough for Sunni Ali to capture Timbuktu. Securing the vital corridor of trade along the growing Songhai Empire’s western frontier also required capturing the southern trading center of Djenné, a long-standing point of exchange for caravans carrying salt, gold, and enslaved Africans bound for the Atlantic or trans-Saharan slave trades. Sunni Ali attempted to capture Djenné for several years, but the fact that the city was surrounded by water during the annual flooding of the Bani River made the task impossible. Only after a seven-month siege was he finally able to subdue the city, which surrendered in 1473.

In contrast to his harsh actions at Timbuktu, Sunni Ali accommodated the community of Muslim scholars at Djenné, where they remained great preservers of Islamic learning and continued to produce work on Islamic philosophy and the sciences through the seventeenth century. The mosque and university had thousands of teachers and students who mastered a wide range of subjects, including Islamic law, astronomy, math, and philosophy (Figure 3.10).

A photograph shows a large, brown structure with many points along the top. Three portions are shown jutting out. Stairs in the front lead to a wooden door. A sign stands at the bottom of the stairs. There is a row of openings at the top of the walls and many projections coming out of the walls in organized rows. A person is walking in front of the stairs on a sandy stretch of land.
Figure 3.10 The earliest version of the Great Mosque at Djenné was built in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Founded as a center of religious learning and scholarship, the Great Mosque continues to serve these functions today, although it is now at least the third version of the structure. (credit: “Great Mosque of Djenné” by JM/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)
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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax