<Standard WHI.18.........................................................................................................................Standard WHI.20>

Describe the important political and economic aspects of the African empires

Ghana, Mali, and Songhai
Ghana, Mali, and Songhai

Topics on the Page

The economics of these empires (gold, salt, and slaves as commodities for trade by African kings

Leaders such as Sundiata and Mansa Musa

Timbuktu as a center for trade and learning

  • Benin City
  • Djenne-Djenno

Focus Question: What were the major political and economic aspects of the African empires?

It is important to note in which these empires came to in order to understand their political and economic aspects.

Ghana: About 300*- Mid 1200's
Mali: Mid 1200's- Late 1400's
Songhai: Late 1400's- Late 1500's

Here is an interactive map that shows the borders of the African Kingdoms throughout the years.

rotating gif.gifFor more, see World History Key Concept 3.1

To learn more about the origins of the kingdoms please refer back to Standard WHI.18

Image to the right is a depiction of Mansa Musa, ruler of the Mali Empire in the 14th century, from a 1375 Catalan Atlas of the known world

external image Mansa_Musa.jpgI. Economics of African empires

  • Gold was one of the great natural resources of the empires of the Western Sudan.
  • Salt was also extremely important because it was used to cure food as well as provide people with a necessary nutrient.
  • But these commodities would not have brought the empires huge amounts of wealth if it had not been for the introduction of the camel which allowed them to traverse the Sahara desert and trade them. Learn more about the trans-Saharan Trade here.
  • To support these greater trading networks, there were also complex local trading of more basic commodities in markets and outposts.
  • Some African kings kept slaves as a symbol of wealth, but it was not until later in African history that slaves became a valuable commodity to other cultures.
  • The capital of trade in the Ghanan empire was Kumbi Saleh.
  • Mali, unlike Ghana, controlled both the gold trade and the salt trade
  • Mali developed a system of currency using cowrie shells
  • Besides gold and salt, beads, iron ore, stone grinders, and produce were also traded
  • Under the Songhay empire, horses also became a major import

Once the Songhai leaders converted to Islam in the late 15th century, the empire developed strong economic and academic ties to the rest of the Islamic World. Learn more about these events here.

Read more about the importance of gold for each of these empires here.

Multimedia.pngClick here to explore more about African slavery from the BBC Story of Africa: Slavery

Female_Rose.pngWomen in West Africa had significant rights during this time, especially at the level of local communities, which tended to be matrifocal. Women also played an instrumental role in economic developments in the region.
  • With the introduction of feudal systems and Islam, however, many gender roles were restructured. This Article notes some of these behaviors in the Mali empire.

Female_Rose.pngAn overview on the social history of Ancient Ghana

II. Leaders

external image Essener_Feder_01.pngSundiata
Map of Mali and Songhay in 1350
Map of Mali and Songhay in 1350
Sundiata rose to power in 1235 A.D as the first king of the Mali Empire. He rose to power by asserting that he was the ruler of all rulers. In other words, he claimed power over the hundreds of local leaders that already existed in the land.
  • Seizing these lands gave Sundiata access to the gold trade, which he would use to lay the foundations of the Mali Empire. Sundiata Keita established his capital at his home village of Niani, Mali, near the present-day Malian border with Guinea.
  • Though he was influenced by Muslim beliefs, Sundiata also exploited local religion, building a reputation as a man of powerful magic. Sundiata was not an absolute monarch, despite what the title implies. Though he probably wielded popular authority, the Mali Empire was reportedly run as a federation, with each tribe having a chief representative at the court.
  • The first tribes were Mandinka clans of Traore, Kamara, Koroma, Konde, and Keita. The Gbara of Great Assembly was in charge of checking the Mansa's power, enforcing his edicts among their people, and selecting the successor. Sundiata also introduced the cultivation and weaving of cotton into the empire as an additional source of trade and income. He is known for taking claim of the city of Timbuktu and energizing it with a zeal for trade and learning.

external image Essener_Feder_01.pngMansa Musa

  • Mansa Musa was one of Mali’s most famous Kings rose to power in 1324 A.D. It was during his reign that the Mali Empire reached the apex of its territorial expanse.
    • Mansa Musa is mostly remembered for his hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca with, according to the Arab historian al-Umari, 100 camel-loads of gold, each weighing 300 lbs.; 500 slaves, each carrying a 4 lb. gold staff; thousands of his subjects; as well as his senior wife, with her 500 attendants. With his lavish spending and generosity in Cairo and Mecca, he ran out of money and had to borrow at usurious rates of interest for the return trip. Al-Umari also states that Mansa Musa and his retinue "gave out so much gold that they depressed its value in Egypt and caused its value to fall."
  • After his return from Mecca, Mansa Musa brought back with him an Arabic library, religious scholars, and the Muslim architect al-Sahili, who built the great mosques at Gao and Timbuktu and a royal palace. Mansa Musa also strengthened Islam and promoted education, trade, and commerce within the Mali Empire. Mansa Musa elevated Islamic education by establishing mosques, libraries, and universities. As a result, Timbuktu developed even further as a city of scholarship and learning. Mansa Musa reigned for 25 years, and under his rule the Mali Empire saw a period of great prosperity and stability.
  • Primary Source documenting Mansa Musa in Cairo
    • Short biography on Mansa Musa here.
Multimedia.pngClick here for a video about Mansa Musa
Multimedia.pngFind out how Rich Mansa Musa was

Mansa Musa and Islam:

III. Timbuktu: a center for trade and learning

  • Timbuktu was built in the 11th century but became a “great” city in the 14th century under the leadership of the Mali King Mansa Musa.
    • Because of its location on the Niger river, Timbuktu was a good meeting place for traders—people brought gold from the south and salt from the north, met in Timbuktu, and traded.
      • "Timbuktu became a celebrated center of Islamic learning and a commercial establishment"—it had 3 universities and 180 Quranic schools. Under Mansa Musa's reign, Sankore University had the largest collection of books and manuscripts in Africa since the Library of Alexandria

Lost Libraries of Timbuktu : Describes the origins of Timbuktu from its founding until the end of it's Golden-Age after the fall of the Songhai Empire.

Multimedia.pngClick here for a short video about Timbuktu.
Caravan approaching Timbuktu
Caravan approaching Timbuktu

Multimedia.png Here is a board game based on Timbuktu

Lesson plan on Timbuktu http://edsitement.neh.gov/lesson-plan/lesson-2-trekking-timbuktu-trade-ancient-west-africa-student-version
Here is a cool activity that can be used in a classroom when learning of Mansa Musa's Hajj

Although the Ghana, Mali, and Songhai empires encompassed much of West Africa during their heights, this did not mean that the communities living here ever belonged to one culture.
  • There were, and are, many different cultural groups and communities coexisting throughout the western Sahara.
  • A contemporary film, Timbuktu, by Abderrahmane Sissako, provides a dramatization of how these different groups interact in modern Timbuktu.
    • Read about or listen to a review of this film here.external image Location%20map%20Timbuktu%20world%20heritage%20site.jpg

external image Ancient_Benin_city.JPG

Benin City

Benin City, the Mighty Medieval Capital Now Lost Without Trace, The Guardian
  • Located in southern Nigeria
  • Its city walls were 4 times longer than the Great Wall of China
  • Its material consumed hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops
  • First visited by the Portuguese in 1485
  • Rich trade in ivory and pepper in 16th and 17th centuries


Imperiled Legacy for African Art, New York Times (August 2, 2012)


The BBC, (Date Unknown). West African Kingdoms—Ghana. Retrieved February 22, 2007, from The Story of Africa Web site: http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/storyofafrica/4chapter1.shtml

The BBC, (Date Unknown). West African Kingdoms. Retrieved February 22, 2007, from The Story of Africa Web site: http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/storyofafrica/4chapter4.shtml

The BBC, (Date Unknown). West African Kingdoms—Mali. Retrieved February 22, 2007, from The Story of Africa Web site: http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/storyofafrica/4chapter3.shtml

Rotondo-McCord, J. (1998). Mali: Introduction. Retrieved February 7, 2012, from The Kingdoms on Medieval Sudan Xavier University of Louisiana Web site: http://webusers.xula.edu/jrotondo/Kingdoms/welcome.html

Timbuktu Educational Foundation, (2002). History of Timbuktu. Retrieved February 23, 2007, from Timbuktu Educational Foundation Web site: http://www.timbuktufoundation.org/history.html