Ghana: An Empire Built on Trade
The Beginnings of Ghana
In the 400s, a group of primarily nomadic people named the Berbers formed a kingdom just south of the Sahara desert; they called their kingdom Ghana. They began to use camels to carry goods across the Sahara Desert. From the north came salt; from the west came the rich resources of gold, ivory, and other goods. Ghana was located in the middle of the salt and gold trade routes.
nomadic – without a permanent home
The Empire of Ghana
Although founded by Berbers, Ghana eventually was controlled by the Soninke, a group of people living in the region. They built their capital city, Kumbi Saleh, right on the edge of the Sahara and the city quickly became the most important southern trade center of the Saharan trade routes. The kingdom was ruled by a king called the ghana. In addition to holding military power, the king was the supreme judge of the kingdom.
Gradually, Ghana grew very rich, due in large part to the trans- Saharan trade. The ghana required traders to give him a percentage of the products they were trading. If a trader was trading in gold, he was required to pay the ghana part of his gold. The ghana also placed a tax on the local goldmines. As Ghana grew richer, the kingdom expanded into an empire, requiring neighboring groups of people to pay tribute. This increased Ghana’s wealth and power even more.
trans-Saharan trade – across the Sahara Desert
tribute – tax
Kumbi Saleh was the capital of Ghana. It actually two cities six miles apart, separated by a road. Most of the houses were built of wood and clay, but wealthy and important residents lived in homes of wood and stone. About 30,000 people lived in Kumbi Saleh. The most important part of the city was protected by a stone wall and served as the royal and spiritual capital of the empire. Here is where the king lived, his palace being the grandest structure in the city. It also contained a sacred grove of trees used for religious ceremonies. The other part of the city was the center of trade and served as a business district of the capital. It was inhabited almost entirely by Arab and Berber merchants, and contained more than a dozen mosques.
inhabited – lived in
The End of Ghana
In the year 1062 CE, however, the empire of Ghana came under attack. Berbers, calling themselves Almoravids, sought to gain control of the Saharan trade routes, and launched a war against Ghana. In 1076 the Almoravids captured Kumbi Saleh, ending rule of the ghanas and converting many to Islam.
Mali: West Africa's Golden Empire
The Beginnings of Mali
With the demise of Ghana, another great empire arose in West Africa. Mali, located in the Sahel, a grassland region on the southern border of the Sahara Desert, became powerful by controlling the rich trans-Saharan trade routes between northern and western Africa, especially the gold trade. Mali was located in an agriculturally rich area along the upper Niger River. Most of the gold for trade came up the Niger River, which gave Mali a chance to control that trade. Control of the Niger River helped Mali grow as an empire.
demise – end
trans-Saharan trade – across the Sahara Desert
agriculturally – ability to farm, grow crops
Mali’s First King
Sundiata, the historical founder of Mali (whose name meant “Hungering Lion”), ruled Mali from 1230-1255 CE. As a king, he was said to have worn hunter’s garments instead of royal robes. At the time of Sundiata’s rule, the empire of Mali extended over 1,000 miles from east to west and Mali took control of the gold and salt trade. Sundiata is also said to have introduced the cultivation and weaving of cotton into the area.
cultivation – growing
The Golden Age of Mali
The rulers of Mali came to be called mansa, meaning “emperor” or “master.” Mansa Musa was Mali’s greatest king, ruling from 1312 to 1337 CE. He was the grandson of Sundiata’s half brother, and ruled Mali at a time of great prosperity, during which trade tripled. During his rule, he doubled the land area of Mali; it became a larger kingdom than any in Europe at the time. The cities of Mali 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 major cultural centers not only of Africa but of the entire world. Vast libraries and Islamic universities were built. These became meeting places of the finest poets, scholars, and artists of Africa and the Middle East. Mansa Musa, who was Muslim, was perhaps best known outside of Mali for his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 C.E. According to some accounts, 60,000 people accompanied him, along with 200 camels laden with gold, food, clothing, and other goods. This pilgrimage displayed Mansa Musa’s enormous wealth and generosity.
prosperity – wealth
vast – very large
The End of Mali
After the death of Mansa Musa, the power of Mali began to decline. Mansa Musa’s sons could not hold the empire together. In 1430 C.E., the Berbers in the north took much of Mali’s territory, including the city of Timbuktu, and gradually Mali lost its hold on trade until the empire crumbled.