West African empires


The kingdom of Ghana developed in the region between the Sahara and the forest of southern West Africa.

People in the savanna and forests of West Africa had gold but little salt. People in North Africa had salt but wanted gold. The trans-Saharan trade developed as a result. As goods flowed through their kingdom, the people of Ghana supervised the trading. They gained wealth by taxing trade and collecting tributes.

Berber traders introduced written language (Arabic) and Islam. Some of Ghana's Kings converted to Islam, but still practiced aspects of their traditional religion.

A Muslim group called the Almoravids, who came to power in North Africa, declared war on Ghana. In 1076, they captured Ghana's capital, Koumbi Saleh.



Around 1240, the Malinke people formed the Empire of Mali in the southern area of what had been Ghana’s territory.

A great chief named Sundiata led Mali. He organized a powerful army, expanded trade in his empire, and developed Timbuktu as a center of trading culture.

Mansa Musa came to power in 1312. He was a devoted Muslim but allowed his subjects to practice other religions. Mansa Musa’s elaborate caravan on his pilgrimage to Mecca attracted merchants to Mali and increased trade.

Internal fighting after Mansa Musa’s death weakened Mali. By 1500, rebels and invaders had reduced its territory until it was no longer a strong empire.



The Songhai city of Gao declared its independence from Mali around 1365. For decades, the Songhai tried and failed to form a kingdom.

In 1468, Muslim leaders in Timbuktu asked Songhai king Sunni Ali to overthrow the Berbers who controlled the city. He captured the city, conquered nearby lands, and expanded Songhai’s Empire.

In 1493, Askia Muhammad seized the throne. He built an empire larger than Mali. His greatest achievement was organizing his vast empire’s government. Under Askia Muhammad’s rule, Islam spread. Many people in cities converted. In rural areas, Islamic beliefs mixed with traditional practices.

The rulers of Songhai after Askia Muhammad were weak. In 1591, Moroccan forces captured Timbuktu and Gao. The Empire collapsed soon after.


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