The Great Songhai Empire Introduction

19.08.2020 in History Essay
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The Sahel region of West Africa hosted several large empires during its history. Examples are the great kingdoms, such as the Ghana Kingdom, Mali, and the Songhai Empire. The Songhai Empire was one of the biggest dynasties in African history that occupied present-day Guinea, Niger, Mauritania, Mali, and Burkina Faso. The empire survived and prospered in the medieval period creating a centralized government and improving the Trans-Sahara trade by using the religion of Islam as a unifying force.

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Historical Background

The empire was a succession of dynasties existing between the sixth and the sixteenth centuries. The Songhai Empire controlled many vassal states at the periphery which remained autonomous but had to pay taxes and contribute soldiers for the military expeditions (Davidson 73). Those vassal states did not enjoy any independence but had to report to the officers of the king. Their existence is, thus, historically reverent as they helped not only to sustain the empire but also remained on the territorial margins protecting the empire against direct attack.

The most notable aspect of this period was the importance of the Trans-Saharan trade in fostering empires in this region. The trade covered the Mali Empire and the Songhai Empire. Traders from the south met at the north of Sahara where they exchanged copper iron, gold, kola nuts, and slaves for salt, cloth, cowries, and horses (Hopkins 105). Woolen cloth and linen from North Africa were unraveled and rewoven to meet local tastes. This interaction was an important part in the empire-building processes. Furthermore, the wealth made through the trade resulted in the larger kingdoms.

Such kingdoms as Songhai had huge armies to control a large part of the trade. The Trans-Saharan trade brought advantages to the local market where the traveling merchants would stop to buy food for the journey across the Sahara Desert. Apart from the commodities, the Songhai Empire also benefited from the lucrative slave trade (Davidson 54). The kingdom under Askia Mohammad used slaves as soldiers. The social standing of the slaves ensured that they would not be a threat to the government.

Moreover, historically, the importance of the spread of Islam in those regions in the preceding centuries cannot be overstated. Islam provided a common creed to many people who were historically different, spoke various languages, and had disparate cultures (Davidson 86, 151). The annual Hajj to Mecca also enabled people in that region to observe the governance systems of other regions which they successfully employed upon their return.

Causes of the Rise of the Songhai Empire

The Songhai had existed around Gao since the 11th century. As the Mali Empire began to disintegrate the Songhai took control over Gao (Soares 27). Under the leadership of Sonni Ali, the Songhai kingdom defeated the Mali Empire by wealth, power and, later, absorbed it. The Sorko, the Gow, and the powerful Songhai, who settled together to speak the same language, eventually became the Songhai people (Souag 190). This was an important factor in the rise of the empire.

Sonni Ali expanded the small kingdom to the enormous Songhai empire and became its first king under the Sonni dynasty. He was both a shrewd ruler and a formidable military strategist. During his rule, the size of the empire doubled as he had conquered the nearby states and took over the territory that the Mali Empire had occupied before (Soares 27). Askia Mohammad not having the same military credentials as Sonni also maintained the rise of the kingdom as he opened schools and constructed mosques to unite people with the Muslim culture. Askia encouraged the use of sharia law to administer the kingdom.

The Trans-Saharan trade, especially the control over the Taghaza salt mines on the boundaries of the Songhai kingdom, also contribute to the rise of the empire. During Askia Mohammads reign, both the Trans-Saharan trade and local agricultural business flourished. The gold trade also arose during this era (Diarra 5). However, after his reign, one of his sons who did not resemble his strict father and led to the decline of the empire became the king.

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Effects of the Rise of the Empire

Firstly, the citizens were affected by the empire greatly in religious, cultural, and economic spheres. Similar to Mali, the people of Songhai were influenced by Islam; many people converted to Muslims after the government made Islam the official religion of the kingdom. Many people have remained Muslims even today. Besides, the rise of the Songhai Empire led to the collapse of other kingdoms, such as the Mali kingdom.

Secondly, new cultural items of trade were brought to the region with the rise of the Trans-Saharan trade. Thus, both cultural exchange and trade increased (Hopkins 105). For example, the cloth from the people of West Sudan (Sahel) was customized to make robes and clothes according to the culture of Songhai. Thus, their culture was influenced by the Sudanese.

Thirdly, during the Askia Muhammad reign the empire acquired fortunes and enjoyed peace and stability. However, many people lost their lives during the fight for trade resources and conquests of neighboring communities (Hopkins 57). Soon, the empire began disintegrating. Eventually, it was captured by the Moroccan army in 1590 leading to its decline.


The Songhai Empire was successful due to its centralized government, effective development of the Trans-Sahara trade, and a common religion. After the fall of the Mali Empire, the Songhai Empire expanded. Islam was a unifying force in the region. Trans-Saharan trade brought prosperity and taxes that enabled the state to run statecraft. The lasting impact of the empire is the dominance of Islam in the Sahel region, the change of culture, and stability.

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